New Times,
New Thinking.

Restive Labour voters, post-Brexit border controls and the ferocity of the Russian Ultras

The editor's note.

By Jason Cowley

On a recent visit to Stockholm I had coffee with the veteran left-wing journalist Bengt Lindroth, whose latest book is The Revenge of the Voters: Populism and Nationalism. From the hotel lobby where we met you could see the magnificent neoclassical Swedish parliament building, the Riksdag, on its island setting. He ordered a double espresso and settled wearily into his chair. We talked about Brexit (“Could this be the shock the EU really needs to bring about necessary change?” he asked) and about the rise of anti-EU, nativist parties across the Nordic countries. He was interesting on Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats, the Eurosceptic populists whose social conservatism and anti-migrant rhetoric have won considerable support among the working classes who feel alienated by the cosmopolitanism of the Swedish elite.

Swedish folk tales

In their earliest incarnation the Sweden Democrats were neo-Nazis. But since the emergence of the so-called Gang of Four (the group of students from Lund University led by Åkesson who took control over a decade ago) the party has finessed its message and embraced more mainstream populist positions, combining the politics of both left (welfare chauvinism) and right (xenophobia). In particular, Åkesson has successfully revived the expression “Folkhem” (“home for the people”), which was a benign slogan of the once-hegemonic Social Democrats in the 1930s and beyond. Today it resonates with a country queasy with anxiety about immigration.

Sweden occupies a huge land mass, with a remote, densely forested far north, but has a relatively small population of 9.8 million – 16 per cent of whom were born outside the country. The celebrated model of redistributive capitalism – the “Nordic system” – is fracturing because of the strain created by big inflows of migrants and refugees. “The social contract that once existed is coming apart,” Lindroth told me, in good, idiomatic English. “Year by year, step by step, the feeling grows that our politicians are not addressing the questions that most concern ordinary Swedes – law and order, immigration.” The Sweden Democrats have been demonised, Lindroth said: “This makes it more difficult to have an open discussion about immigration. The cultural liberals have controlled the debate. But which of the mainstream bourgeois parties represents the social conservatism of many working-class Swedes? Who speaks for them?”

Labour’s lost voters

In a different context, this is a question familiar to Labour MPs, especially those representing constituencies in northern England, where many socially conservative, working-class Labour voters favour Brexit. I’ve been told that some Labour MPs are ­reluctant to campaign for Remain in the north because the response from constituents has been so hostile.

Labour is an increasingly unhappy coalition of the metropolitan liberal left, public-sector workers, minority groups and the white working class. The London liberal left that swept Sadiq Khan to power in the mayoral election pulls the party in one direction, the often Ukip-sympathising, disaffected working class in another. And nationalism in Scotland has devastated Labour in its former heartland.

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This week, Tom Watson, the deputy leader, spoke of the need to impose controls on freedom of movement within the EU. The polls have spooked Labour MPs: they don’t know what to do for the best. But how late it is, to paraphrase James Kelman, how late.

Marred performance

David Cameron’s uncharacteristically lacklustre performance on the Marr show last weekend contrasted with the supreme confidence of Nigel Farage. Cameron spoke like a man preparing for defeat: he delivered his rehearsed warnings with all the conviction of a fatigued actor reciting lines he’s come to despise. Farage is a self-styled radical – he once told me his hero was John Wilkes, the pamphleteer and parliamentary agitator – and no matter what you think of his politics, surely he has done more than most to bring Britain to the brink of Brexit. The Prime Minister is culpable for the mess in which he and his allies find themselves, scrambling to prevent the Brexiteers pulling off an astounding coup, which could well set in motion a chain of events that culminates in the break-up of the British state.

Need for Tweed

Here’s a question, though: if Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom and join the European Union, how would a post-Brexit England control its border with the new independent state to its north? Scotland has a population of 5.3 million and needs immigrants to support an ageing population and power economic growth; Nicola Sturgeon makes the positive case for immigration and free movement. EU migrants would be welcome to live and work in Scotland, as they are at present in the UK, but not in our new utopian Little England.

Yet how would England prevent migrants moving from north to south across a porous border? Would we have security checkpoints and watchtowers? Passport controls? Would we see the desperate swimming across the River Tweed?

Ultra nasty

The ferocity of the Russian Ultras who attacked English football supporters in Marseilles seems to have surprised many. They should not have been surprised. Football hooliganism is rife in Russia and eastern Europe, with many gangs linked to far-right paramilitary groups. The Russian Ultras wore distinctive black T-shirts, gumshields and martial arts fighting gloves. They were sober, unlike the English, and knew exactly what they wanted and how to achieve it. Brice Robin, chief prosecutor of Marseilles, said that they were “extreme and well-trained”, “hyper-violent and hyper-fast”. Should we forget: the 2018 World Cup is to be held in Russia. 

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink