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.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.