The stereotype of the “young violent male” on the right

The received view does not quite match the reality of these crucial "reluctant radicals".

Young, male and dangerous. Thugs driven by hatred; teenagers driven by a toxic mix of boredom and testosterone; young men dominated by hostility towards "difference". These are some of the stereotypes that exist today about right-wing populism in Europe. Stories of violent attacks, pictures of young men shouting at demonstrations, and articles by commentators concerned about youth unemployment fuelling a rise in right-wing populism across Europe have all encouraged such a picture to emerge.

The image isn’t entirely inaccurate. Online supporters (as a Demos report last year indicated) of populist right parties and movements are largely young and male, while academic research has at times supported the view that young men are more likely to vote for such parties. But this is far from the whole story—in fact, it’s only a minor part of the story and needs two serious qualifications.

Recognising the reluctant radicals

First, as we argue in Counterpoint’s new report on right-wing populism launched today, the received view does not quite match the crucial "reluctant radicals" – those uncertain, uncommitted supporters of right-wing populist parties, who, we find, make up a large proportion of those who vote for the populist right (at least 50 per cent for most countries in our pan-European comparison). These are the voters we need to understand: they are numerically important as a group and are possibly those who can most easily be pried away from the populist right.

For the reluctant radicals, the gender gap is often very small – using the European Social Survey, for instance, we find that 56 and 49 per cent of Norwegian reluctant radicals and Dutch reluctant radicals respectively are male. As for age, while for some parties we find that younger people are more likely to be reluctant radicals, for other parties – the True Finns, for instance – middle-aged people tend to fall into the category.

These features are not just confined to the reluctant radicals. Other research has – to some degree – a similar story to tell. Nonna Mayer has pointed out that, with the success of Marine Le Pen in France, the traditional Front National gender gap is narrowing. In the UK, academic research has demonstrated that BNP supporters tend to be older than average. The findings are not consistent and the picture is complex; but this research seriously undermines the ‘young men’ stereotype. And, even more to the point, highlights that this is a diverse group that needs to be understood in context and in depth.

Attitudes, not action

Second, a clear distinction needs to be made between right-wing populist attitudes (on crime, immigration, security, Europe) and the action of voting for a right-wing populist party. Even where young men are more likely to vote for the populist right, this is not necessarily down to younger people having more radical attitudes than older people, nor men having more radical attitudes than women.

Take a commonly used example of right-wing populist attitudes: antipathy to immigration. Our study analyses those people who have views in line with the populist right on immigration but who did not vote for a right-wing populist party (the ‘potential radicals’). We find that, in general, older people tend to be potential radicals, while men are not more likely than women (in fact, in some cases are less likely) to fall into the potential category. This suggests that, where there are differences in voting patterns between younger men and others, this cannot be reduced to just differences in attitudes to immigration.

Again, other research points to a similar disparity between attitudes and action – as summarised by Cas Mudde in his review of gender differences with respect to right-wing populist attitudes in his influential Populist Right Radical Parties in Europe. Indeed, our results are also reflected in the recent YouGov poll for the Extremis project on whether Britons would vote for a party that advocated typical right-wing populist views – they find that 36 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women would be more likely to vote for a party that aimed to reduce the numbers of Muslim/presence of Islam in society.

Potential radicals: what holds them back?

Given these findings, there appears to be particularly large numbers of women and older people who have attitudes in line with the populist right but do not vote for populist right parties despite these attitudes. What holds them back? For older people, it is likely to be a longstanding attachment to the traditional mainstream parties; for women, the reasons are more mysterious. But finding an explanation may well hold the key to dissuading people from turning to the populist right.

Right-wing populism would be easier to confront if men were the fundamental problem – it would allow us to diagnose the issue as distant and alien, a policy problem to be solved alongside disturbances such as the 2011 summer riots in England. Yet the stereotype of “young violent male” does not do justice to the political as well as the security threat these movements pose. They are not just a security issue – they go to the heart of our political institutions.

Marine Le Pen. Photograph: Getty Images
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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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