NS Essay - Fighting the spectre of the far right

Populist politicians who hold government in contempt and raise the alarm about "outsiders" can be st

A spectre haunts Europe. Today, it is not the ghost of communism, but the ghost of fascism. So now, when the far right wins a shocking victory, whether it be in Austria or Italy, in the first round of the French presidential elections or in local elections in Lancashire, the numbing fear that lies just under the surface of discussion is always the fear of Hitler.

The rise of the right in our times is ugly and dangerous. However, it is not a revival of the classic fascism of the 1930s. Its causes and its context are different. What it threatens is bad enough: that demagogues of the right, mixing fake populism with crude xenophobia to play on fears of immigrants, make more genteel forms of racism respectable, and tempt politicians to flirt with them. What is at stake is nothing less than social democracy itself. The damage the right can do is nothing compared with what it can scare respectable politicians into doing to head it off. Worst of all, it has already succeeded in weakening the most powerful instrument we have for tackling society's evils, which is government.

Twenty years ago, Margaret Thatcher headed off the skinheads of the National Front by using the word "swamp" about a modest degree of immigration to the UK. Now, David Blunkett, the Labour Home Secretary, is using the same term, apparently to outdo the British National Party, at a time when legal immigration is little more than a trickle. New Labour has apparently adopted uncritically the Daily Mail's view that asylum-seekers pose a danger to our society. And in France, the left found themselves in the humiliating position of having to vote for Jacques Chirac as the lesser of two evils last month.

Analysis of the American experience over the past 40 years shows just how much damage can be done, not by fascism or extremism directly, but by the corruption of the discourse of mainstream politics. A backlash against black migration to the northern cities set off a chain reaction that has frightened even liberals into deriding government, and into looking to corporate business to undertake many of the proper functions of government. In Britain, new Labour is imitating this mistaken strategy.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American political landscape was transformed by a wave of immigrants. The political failure to handle the fierce resentments set off by that migration has affected not just civil society, but public philosophy as well.

I do not have in mind the 30 million or so immigrants, more than half of them from Latin America, who have settled in the United States as a result of the Kennedy administration's reform of the previously racist immigration law. The migrants I mean are the more than four million black men and women who poured out of the rural south into the slums of northern cities. The reaction to that mass migration has largely (and unjustifiably) discredited the liberal consensus that did so much to civilise American society from the time of the New Deal to that of the Great Society.

In the middle 1960s, spurred on by the civil rights revolution in the south, the Johnson administration set itself the goal of achieving equality. Lyndon B Johnson proposed to reach that goal by the intervention of government.

Within a very few years, the attempt had been abandoned. The liberal consensus was replaced by a conservative public philosophy that has permeated every corner of society. American conservatism has its roots deep in slavery, in racism, in the doctrine of states' rights, and in a resentment of the federal government that goes back to the civil war. But what has been even worse than the effect of the new conservatism is that former liberals, and the Democratic Party, have tamely joined in the Republican/conservative crusade against government.

The immediate burden of coping with black migration fell on the northern white working class - just as what is left of the working class feels the impact of immigration most directly in Britain. The most reliable soldiers of the liberal army in the United States were union members, often the children and grandchildren of immigrants, staunch Democrats. As migration destabilised their jobs and neighbourhoods, they were led in the wrong direction by demagogues. Even in the Kennedy family's home base, Boston, working-class whites rioted, terrified that their children would be bused into black neighbourhoods.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations assumed that they could make the south just like the rest of the country. Instead, in many respects, the north has become more like the south. Its neighbourhoods and big-city schools are now almost as segregated as the south's. In 1964, George Wallace, a bullying demagogue from Alabama with a slick way of disguising his fundamentally racist message as populism, campaigned in the presidential primaries in three of the most working-class states in the north. He won 34 per cent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 per cent in Indiana on the back of an improvised campaign run by two members of the Ku Klux Klan out of a phone booth, and a phenomenal 43 per cent in Maryland - a cab ride away from the Capitol.

Wallace did not make it to the White House. A madman shot and paralysed him before he could repeat his feat in 1968. What he did was to open the door to all those politicians who wanted to exploit racism for their own agendas. It was a coded racism that made it possible for Ronald Reagan to convert millions of working-class voters to his cause, by convincing them that government was not the solution, but the problem. Before long, even Bill Clinton was echoing such attacks on government.

Wallace alone was not responsible for the retreat from liberalism. The new American conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s had many roots, some economic, others religious or chauvinistic. But as the historian Dan T Carter writes: "No one who knew Wallace's history or listened to his slashing attacks on the Kennedy/Johnson civil rights proposals ever doubted the centrality of race in his appeal to voters."

Starting with resistance to desegregation, affirmative action and broadening to oppose taxation that made possible spending that was seen as privileging black people, racial and economic conservatism flowed together to form the new public philosophy of America. At first, a thousand euphemisms veiled crude racial fears and dislikes. Over time, conservative politicians and intellectuals began to take ever less trouble to hide what they meant. So Charles Murray, in The Bell Curve, could reheat a stale stew of racial eugenics and be hailed as a social scientist. And Patrick Buchanan, Richard Nixon's former speechwriter, could openly denounce immigrants on the grounds that "they are not English-speaking white people from western Europe . . . they are Spanish-speaking brown and black people".

The new conservative atmosphere offered an opportunity for those whose agenda was not primarily, or even at all, racial. This was the context for a successful assault on the trade unions, for the systematic derision of government and idolising of business, for the withering of the public education system and the welfare state, and for a substantial increase in economic and social inequality that has revived sharp class divisions.

This new political environment elected Ronald Reagan and made Newt Gingrich, for a while, the most powerful politician in the land. (You might say that it elected George W Bush, too, except it is not clear that he was elected.)

There are lessons in this story for new Labour. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were deeply impressed by the New Democrats in America such as Bill Clinton's guru Al From, whose mantra was that the Democrats could not win unless they jettisoned the traditional baggage of liberalism. Blair's Third Way borrowed those ideas without understanding their context and motive: the Democrats' desperation, caused by their discovery that, for essentially racial reasons, they had lost the loyalty of the south and of many northern working-class voters.

Democratic politics depend on a minimum of shared assumptions. Once a significant proportion of the electorate no longer shares the assumption that its concerns, and its fears, can be addressed by government, the democratic system itself is at risk. In the United States, a conservative public philosophy, whose origins lie in a half-acknowledged fear of the dark-skinned Other, has discredited government as the agent of social reform. But at least in the US the democratic system has other defenders: the sheer power of the American political religion, and the economic and political triumphalism that has persuaded many Americans that capitalism will see them right. In Europe, even in Britain, decades of decline and defeat have discredited national myths and the governments that were once clothed in them.

For 30 glorious years after 1945, social democracy worked. Voters shared, or pretended to share, progressive assumptions. A minority - admittedly, disproportionately recruited from among the old, the undereducated and the marginal - always voted against the system and its democratic creed: the parties of the far right in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, respectively. But it rarely broke through the 10 per cent barrier that shut it out from serious politics. Now, in most European countries, the far right is likely to have the same corrupting effect that was Wallace's legacy in America. It does not have to win to be damaging: it only has to frighten the respectable politicians, and shake their faith in government.

On the surface, the new right is able to challenge the system by exploiting genuine popular anger about real issues: in particular, about crime and punishment, law and order. Its successes are also rooted in a pervasive feeling that democratic politics is not working, that politicians are crooks who share a liberal philosophy that many see as elitist and alien.

In its mild form, this attitude takes the form of "market populism". This is the idea that liberalism is an elite creed, and that business is more on the side of the little man than government is. It is an absurd idea. We have virtually no chance of influencing the decisions of corporate boards of directors, now that the trade unions have been so weakened, but we do have some chance of influencing the government through our votes. However, the idea is alluring to the frustrated and the angry.

In its virulent form, the new populism sees government and all politicians as part of a conspiracy to rob the people of cherished ways of life - especially of community and national identity. This resentment focuses on immigrants, or on those - even if their families have lived here for generations - who are seen as outsiders.

Not all the issues that attract support to the new right are simply code language for racial resentments. Even demagogues are most effective when they talk about real problems. All violent crime, for example, is not committed by immigrants; but violent crime is more likely to be committed by young men, and there are plenty of alienated young men among immigrants in the inner cities. Again, all politicians are not crooks, but it is true that political parties everywhere (in Italy, France, Germany, Britain and the United States, for a start) have to raise the huge sums of money needed for modern political organising and campaigning. So there have been grave financial scandals, and there is a sense that only the tip of corruption has been revealed.

A society where successful business executives are a privileged class abandons great tracts of the cities and countryside in arrogant indifference. A minority of the victims blame global capitalism; far more blame the politicians. After all, unlike the investment bankers and developers, the politicians keep saying that they care. The victims are not stupid. They observe the world around them, and they infer that the politicians are simply lying.

The problem is worse for politicians of the left. It is their natural constituency that the new right is taking away. Faced with a George Wallace, a Jean-Marie Le Pen or a Ronald Schill (the German far-right interior minister of Hamburg), who threaten to steal the once safe votes of what was once the white working class, what strategy should democratic politicians adopt?

They can say and do nothing, and hope that the economic cycle, or a good showing in the World Cup, will send the far right back into its cage. Or they can try to do what Margaret Thatcher did with some success, when she marginalised the National Front by sending more or less subliminal signals that she shared its concerns about immigrants, crime and a multicultural society. This seems to be the option that David Blunkett has chosen.

There is another option: for the liberal left to have the courage to restate its faith in the curative power of democratic governance. This does not mean a return to Clause Four. It does not mean more bureaucracy, or intrusive legislation, or affirmative action. Still less should it mean panicked responses to tabloid journalism. It may mean more taxation.

Our leaders must boldly affirm that our society believes in fairness and equality, and that democratic governance is the only instrument capable of enhancing them. They must, above all, not be bounced or seduced into borrowing a public philosophy that triumphed in a very different society, for reasons they do not seem to understand, and which has in any case not worked very well there. It certainly means second thoughts about the Third Way.

If we are to have faith in our governors, they must have faith in government.