The right is on the ascendant in Europe. After Sarkozy’s resounding victory in last year’s French presidential elections and Berlusconi’s recent return to power in Italy, the conservatives in Britain have celebrated their largest electoral win for years in what most see as the beginning of the road back to power.
One after another, governments are falling into the hands of the right: in Austria, Sweden, and Denmark, as in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. The new rightwing wave sweeping across the continent has also seen the far right not only win more supporters and sympathisers on its margins, but penetrate into the mainstream itself.
In December last year, Switzerland’s far right Swiss People’s Party registered the best election showing of any single party in the country for nearly a century after a campaign targeting immigrants, with a poster featuring a black sheep being kicked out by white ones under the slogan “Security Now”. And last month Berlusconi swept back to power with the help of the neo-fascist National Alliance and the xenophobic Northern League, while one of his key allies, the far right Gianni Alemanno, was elected mayor of Rome.
In London, Boris Johnson, the populist and Eurosceptic conservative candidate, succeeded in unseating Ken Livingstone, while the far right British National Party won its first seat on the London Assembly. It is worth recalling that in the run-up to the elections the BNP had instructed its supporters to give Johnson their second preference votes.
The Conservative list for the London Assembly got 34.05%, while between them the British National Party (5.33%), Christian Voice (2.86%), and Ukip (1.90%) won 10% of the votes. And given that Johnson had a mere 5.5% lead over Livingstone it may be reasonable to conclude that the far right has played a decisive role in his victory.
But the far right’s greatest gains have not been made in direct electoral contests. Its most significant achievements have been silent and invisible, won on the battleground of discourse, with its slogans and demands gradually infiltrating mainstream political discourse. From immigration and asylum, to national identity, and national pride, the far right’s populist rhetoric has moved to the centre stage of politics. In the run-up to the French elections last year, Sarkozy was able to shatter the electoral base of the racist National Front leader Jean Marie le Pen by adopting much of his repertoire, prompting Le Pen’s complaint that Nicolas Sarkozy had “stolen” his clothes.
Here in the UK, the Tories, tormented by Labour’s resurrection during the 1990s, and keen to wipe out the stain of “nastiness”, have had to introduce a number of adjustments to their discourse and leadership style. Iain Duncan-Smith was forced to apologetically concede that “We do believe there is such a thing as society”, in an attempt to distance his party from Thatcher’s damaging legacy and rebrand the Conservatives as “the party of society and the vulnerable”. And when the party was defeated once again in the 2005 general election after a virulent anti-immigration and anti-EU campaign, it ditched its grey aging leader for young stylish David Cameron. The latter proceeded to reorder the party’s priorities, shifting focus from immigration, asylum, and the EU, to terrorism, multiculturalism, and security.
Today, with the rise of the far right, and the decline of the left, the pressure on the Conservative party, like other centre-right European parties, no longer comes from the left as it did in the last decade, but from the right. The likelihood, therefore, is that the party will follow in the footsteps of its sister parties across Europe, moving further to the right – while remaining faithful to the Blairite magical recipe of informal style, youthful appearance, charm, and sound bites.
In its different shades and tones, the right has been the greatest beneficiary from the climate of fear reigning in Europe today: fear of terrorism, fear of Islam, fear of immigration, fear of foreigners, and the latest fear: economic recession and loss of livelihood. The post-9/11 world of tension, insecurity, and suspicion has created the ideal environment for the resurrection and flourishing of the right in all its different manifestations, from the mainstream to the extreme, often blurring the boundaries between the two.
What is undeniable is that Europe is moving to the right. The question is whether this shift is unavoidable and irreversible. Must we all accept this new reality as Europe’s inescapable destiny? Or can a mobilisation and broad coalition of the left in its different variants – ethnic and religious minorities, civil rights groups, and all those opposed to the right’s narrow and exclusionist political vision – bring the right’s march to a halt?
First Published in The Guardian, Wednesday 7 May 2008