The Labour MP David Lammy previously sparked outrage among Britain’s right-wing circles when he compared the Tory ERG group to the Nazis at a “People’s Vote” rally. Yesterday, when asked on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show if the comparison had been an over-exaggeration, Lammy replied “it was not strong enough”.
Within hours, a full cast of xenophobes had mobilised on social media. Conservative MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan urged the police to investigate. Right-wing student group TurningPoint UK accused Lammy of “belittling the genuine evils of the Nazi Holocaust”. Spiked Online, a libertarian website, accused him of “foul Holocaust relativism”. It will continue.
But Lammy is right. If you listen carefully, he perfectly described the liberal establishment’s failure to deal with the rise of racist violence, hate speech, misogyny and the co-ordination of physical threats against left-wing journalists. He said:
“British soldiers in this country died fighting this thuggery and extremism and here we are in 2019 with people bringing it into the mainstream for their political advantage.”
The facts are evident. The ERG’s figurehead Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted support for a speech by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland’s parliamentary chair Alice Weidel. Boris Johnson has courted Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former adviser, who simultaneously praised Johnson as a future “great prime minister” and called far-right activist Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) “the best of Britain”.
Meanwhile, under the impact of Theresa May’s Brexit fiasco, the organisational landscape of the right in Britain is rapidly shifting.
First, former Ukip activists inundated local Conservative associations in order to deselect pro-Remain and liberal Tories. Next, Ukip, largely denuded of its “respectable” racists, morphed into a classic far-right formation, staging street rallies with violent football hooligans and recruiting vloggers like Carl Benjamin, who, after issuing an implicit threat to rape a Labour MP, is now standing as a candidate for the European elections.
And in the past week Nigel Farage has launched his Brexit Party. Together the Brexit Party and Ukip are now polling at around 25 per cent, courting potential voters with the politics of overt racism and xenophobia.
These forces synergise, mutate and overlap online. TurningPoint tweets a video of the Taxpayers Alliance mouthpiece Chloe Westley attacking socialism. Tommy Robinson, who is not a Ukip member but advises its leader, remains the most followed political figure on Facebook in Britain.
As the journalism website Tortoise reports, the raw mix of paranoia, Islamophobia and deep social conservatism is swirling through closed Facebook groups; in Merthyr Tydfil, 40 per cent of the local authority electorate are members of Facebook group Merthyr Council Truths, which helped overthrow the town’s Labour council.
For years, the academic debate over what causes far-right extremism and how to prevent it has revolved around a binary: “economics vs culture”. Researchers have asked: is it social deprivation, or a threat to white cultural homogeneity in small, poverty stricken towns that pushes people to reject democratic values, human rights and an open society? In general, they concluded it was the latter.
But there is now a third clear driver: fascist-sympathising politicians have taken high office. Donald Trump is not a fascist, but his legitimisation of real fascists after the Charlottesville march, his incitement of violence against Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar and his continuous dehumanisation of migrants and flouting of constitutional norms all aid the growth of fascism.
Donald Trump in America, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Viktor Orban in Hungary form a tangible international alliance that aids the rise of the far right. Billionaire-owned media groups helped create these politicians and now act as a two-way echo chamber, amplifying and normalising racism and misogyny in the grassroots, and spurting the bile of the authoritarian leaders into the public discourse.
While we shouldn’t compare our current moment to the Holocaust or the militarised end-stage of fascist regimes in the 1940s, there is valid comparison to be made with the conditions that put fascist parties into power.
In On Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes how Nazism created tier upon tier of organisations to spread its message beyond fanatical members. She recounts how respectable members of the political class echoed Hitler’s and Goebbels’s arguments and brought their ideas into the political mainstream.
Fascists spread their lies and propaganda in “more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognisable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions”, she wrote.
That’s what is going on in Britain and throughout Western democracies today. On programmes like Question Time, Good Morning Britain and the new breed of overtly partisan talk radio stations, totalitarian ideas are being normalised. When Mogg retweets the AfD he directs his followers to a channel whose recommended titles include “Why is the BBC blackwashing British history?” and “Europe is facing a genuine invasion”.
There is a division of labour among political groups. Ukip’s job is to normalise the street violence and threatening behaviour of Tommy Robinson and his supporters. The Brexit Party’s job is to destroy the Tory Party as a vehicle for liberal and democratic values. The ERG’s job is to draw the Conservative Party further to the right, expressing political ideas with sniggering half-seriousness, while preparing for the moment that these forces unite into a single right-wing movement if Brexit is defeated or diluted.
This, to be clear, will not be a fascist movement. But the elite does not need or want fascism.
In the 1930s, a significant segment of the business class and the state bureaucracy turned to fascism because it could not go on ruling in the face of a large and militant labour movement. Mussolini stormed to power by encouraging his followers to beat up socialist councillors and trade union leaders, dispersing labour-movement meetings in every town and village.
Goebbels took Berlin by staging street fights with the Communists. The Spanish elite needed Franco because the working class and the peasantry had mobilised behind anarchism and far-left communism. There is no parallel challenge to the business class and state bureaucracy today.
Nevertheless, one feature of the prelude to fascism in the 1930s can be seen in our situation. Arendt wrote that, when the Nazis said the old order was finished and could no longer guarantee justice and security for ordinary people, they were simply “lying the truth”. You only have to walk down the high street of a once prosperous city like Newport, or a town like Wigan, to see the modern version of such a breakdown.
Brexit happened, in part, because too many of the liberal intelligentsia insisted “no, this is the best it gets”, and because the Labour Party, Corbyn included, could never bring itself to listen to concerns on the doorstep about migration with anything other than a cloth ear.
But if Brexit is the worst thing that happens in Britain it will be a relief. Unless the left and liberal centre gets their act together, those 25 per cent of British voters prepared to back Farage or Ukip now will only grow angrier, seeking new scapegoats and falling prey to new anti-democratic mythologies.
It’s clear what we on the left have to do. First, reject an idea gaining traction on the fringes of the Lexit movement that the people on Tommy Robinson demos “have a point” – and that the main enemy is the “liberal left”. Second, start talking about the things that wind up ordinary people but that metropolitan liberals feel queasy about.
From here to the day Labour defeats this far-right melange, the party’s doorstep agenda should centre on fighting crime, increasing personal security, cracking down demonstrably on the gangmasters who exploit migrant labour, on the rip-off landlords and the slave driving bosses – and building cross-community solidarity in real space.
Its MPs need to communicate in emotive language that is as powerful as that used by YouTubers and the right-wing insurgents. That’s what Lammy was doing, but too few of his colleagues even know how to, including many on Labour’s frontbench. Labour needs to oppose fascism in person on the streets, in universities and on the airwaves.
But the real challenge is for the centre. Liberalism is in crisis because the economic system it moulded no longer works. In the 1930s it reformed itself around an alliance with the left – for a project of state directed economic recovery, welfare provision and the defence of democracy against fascism. But scan the opinion pages of the Murdoch-owned Times and ask: how many of those picture-bylined stars of liberal conservatism really see the right as a bigger enemy than the left?
This, of course, is not the 1930s. Levels of personal wellbeing and security are far higher than in our grandparents’ days; the rule of law is ensconced in written constitutions and human rights guaranteed by a 70-year-old UN treaty. But that’s what makes today’s far-right threat all the more terrifying. Every single one of these practices and institutions is now under threat.