Golden Dawn fascists are not just Greece's problem

Europe will turn to angry nationalisms unless an alternative to austerity is found.

It was an unwelcome echo of Europe’s past: as black-clad henchmen barked instructions at journalists, ejecting those who refused to show “respect” by standing up, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the greying leader of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, hailed his party’s unprecedented entry into parliament. Waving his fists like a practiced demagogue, he threatened retribution “for those who betray this homeland”. Then came a promise: “The Europe of the nations returns. Greece is only the beginning.”

The sudden emergence of Golden Dawn – an obscure fringe party only a year ago but which won 21 seats in Sunday's general election – is the latest symptom of political turmoil to hit Greece as it struggles to cope with EU-imposed austerity. Mainstream parties have fallen like dominoes as Greek voters, angry at being punished by a fiscal compact that protects northern Europe’s wealthier economies, look for politicians that have not been tarnished by compromise with the Brussels elite. Many have turned left, but 7 per cent of voters chose Golden Dawn, which promises to “clean” Greece of immigrants and boasts a swastika-like emblem on its flag. In the words of one Greek Jewish leader, “They don’t deny the Holocaust – they desire it.”

The spectacle has made outside observers shudder, while the millions of Greeks who did not vote for Golden Dawn are justifiably revolted. Greece has not suddenly turned to fascism – and although Michaloliakos was a supporter of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974, there is no special darkness within the Greek psyche that lends itself to extremist politics. Golden Dawn’s gains, which can be reversed, were achieved with techniques employed by the far right in other countries. It stood “ordinary” candidates – members of the public who had been drawn to the party in recent months – for election, and it won some support  by imposing vigilante patrols in urban neighbourhoods. As in other countries, they have been challenged every step of the way by Greek anti-racists.

Golden Dawn's scapegoating of immigrants is widely shared, too. Across Europe, the financial crisis has inflamed tensions between a global market, a multinational EU, and nation states that still count on patriotism as a social glue. Migrants have thus become a lightning rod for all manner of anxieties. The difference is that Greece feels these more acutely, battered by five continuous years of recession and sitting on the EU’s porous border with Turkey. Frequently, migrants are sent back to Greece from other EU countries to rot in poorly maintained detention centres or left destitute in a country where one in five is unemployed. The fate of 200 African migrants left to drown in the Mediterranean last year by Nato forces – possibly including a British helicopter – suggests we are all capable of such callousness. This is not Greece’s dirty secret: it is all of ours.

The success of Golden Dawn is a tragedy for migrants and a painful dead end for their voters who will find them a quack cure for their country’s ills. There’s a grain of truth in Golden Dawn’s call for Greece to be freed from “the slavery of the bailout agreement” and voters will continue to seize on it until a viable alternative is found.

Left-wing parties are now struggling to find enough common ground to form a government and fresh elections may have to be held next month. The challenge is to find a solution that brings stability while fulfilling the egalitarian principles the EU project aspires to. Otherwise, the future is one of angry, reactionary nationalisms – and, perhaps, if groups like Golden Dawn are allowed to keep a foothold in democratic politics, something even more vicious.

Members of the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party celebrate out of their office in Thessaloniki on 6 May, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496