Immigrants are not a threat to European democracy—but the extreme right-wing reaction to them could be

As far-right ideas enter the political mainstream, three new books can help us confront them—and stop extremists setting the terms of the debate
February 22, 2018

Donald Trump’s retweeting of Britain First videos in November last year illustrated in miniature the relationship between mainstream politics, the media and the far right. A racist political group built up a following far larger than its tiny group of real activists by using social media to broadcast anti-immigrant propaganda. The social media company in question makes money from audience “engagement”—people producing content; sharing, praising, condemning—and has been reluctant to take an editorial role in policing what appears on its site.

The group’s claims were then co-opted by a populist politician in order to boost his claims about the nature of the world. In the row that followed, traditional media outlets offered hurried interviews with a spokesperson for Britain First. The result? Britain First gaining yet more attention.

Does it matter? Trump is the most powerful politician in the world, whereas Britain First has no more than a thousand active supporters, receives a derisory vote in elections and holds poorly-attended rallies. The group is fundamentally parasitical; its widely-shared memes and videos recycle fears about Muslims and immigration that, however exaggerated, can also be found in major newspapers.

But there are two principal reasons why we should be paying attention.

The first is that groups like this do pose a threat in their own right. Britain First has its roots in the UK’s fascist tradition—its leader Paul Golding is a former long-term member of the British National Party (BNP), which itself was founded by veteran neo-Nazis—and also Christian fundamentalism. It encourages extreme nationalism not only through online propaganda but by staging provocative rallies and “direct action,” often at mosques.

Unlike National Action, a neo-Nazi organisation that was recently banned by the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the group does not appear to have been directly involved in violent attacks. But like all extreme right-wing groups, it provides a supply of ideas and slogans for those who are.

A notorious example of this is Thomas Mair, who shouted “Britain first” as he murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016. Darren Osborne, convicted in February of driving a van into worshippers at the Muslim Welfare House in north London, was radicalised by Britain First material. (Golding and his deputy Jayda Fransen are currently on trial for religiously aggravated harassment.)

The second reason, one that has even wider implications, is set out clearly by the historian Paul Stocker in his book English Uprising. Stocker argues that while far-right movements have met with relatively little political success in the UK—through a combination of an unfavourable electoral system and Britain’s role in the Second World War—their ideas have entered the political mainstream, particularly in the last decade.

Stocker shows how a taboo on openly xenophobic views was worn away—first by the right-wing press, which campaigned against asylum-seekers from the late 1990s onwards, and then by a series of interventions by previously marginal figures. One important moment, he suggests, was the appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009, a few months after the party won more than 900,000 votes in the European elections. This spectacle, in which Griffin was condemned by other panellists and most of the audience, is now regarded as a lesson in how to deal with fascists: give them enough airtime and they will be undermined by their own extremism. In the marketplace of ideas, good overcomes bad.

Yet, as Stocker shows, this isn’t necessarily the case. The party’s membership may not have grown significantly, but Griffin’s prime-time spot hardly drove supporters away: in 2010, the BNP received its highest-ever vote in a general election. And although the party later collapsed owing to infighting, it opened up space for watered-down versions of its positions to flourish. Ukip—in Stocker’s terminology “radical right,” not extreme right, which is to say xenophobic but not fascist—was able to pick up where the BNP left off. Helped by favourable media coverage, and some politicians from the centre-left as well as the centre-right, who wanted to co-opt its message rather than to challenge it head-on, Ukip mobilised anti-immigration sentiment in order to win the Brexit referendum.

“The man who drove a van into a mosque was radicalised by Britain First material”
Stocker places the current debate in the historical context of 200 years of hostile reaction to different peoples arriving in Britain: from the Irish in the 19th century to Jews in the early 20th and post-colonial immigrants after the Second World War. He charts the progress of successive far-right movements and shows how, although they remained for the most part marginal, they were occasionally able to wield influence on wider politics. This is important because it tells us that racism is located within wider society rather than fomented by fringe extremists—and that although hostility might flare up in reaction to one particular group of immigrants, it can’t entirely be explained by their arrival. “Britain did not need many immigrants for there to be a noteworthy nationalist backlash,” Stocker notes, describing the emergence of fascist groups in the 1920s and 1930s. “To blame Brexit on unprecedentedly high levels of migration is to miss the point entirely.”

Some readers might recoil at this. People who voted to leave the European Union did so for many different reasons: to regain what they believed was lost sovereignty; as a protest at feeling “left behind” by a political and cultural establishment that doesn’t reflect their worldview; because of their views on trade; in desperation at the running-down of public services; their genuine problems with the democratic structures of the EU.

But nationalism draws people together with different, even conflicting, interests via simple stories. In the case of Brexit, the unifying narrative was “immigration.” I put the word in quotation marks because this is not simply a reaction to specific local conditions—recent demographic change, say, or pressure on wages in particular occupations—but a more general sense that the country is being undermined by too many foreigners. “Leave” campaigners understood this. Nigel Farage has been open about his use of immigration. In a December interview with the New Statesman, he lamented that although he won the vote, the murder of Jo Cox “did kill the momentum” for a wider nationalist movement.

Britain is not unique in this, of course. Anti-immigration politics has come to bear on many wealthy countries in recent years, a phenomenon that Sasha Polakow-Suransky explores in Go Back to Where You Came From. Polakow-Suransky, a former New York Times journalist, blends on-the-ground reportage and interviews with genuine intellectual inquiry to consider how anti-immigrant political movements have come to wield influence in a range of places, chiefly in northwest Europe.

Crucially, he argues that while immigration—specifically, immigration from majority-Muslim countries—offers challenges for those in Europe, the real danger lies in the backlash. Far-right movements in France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and elsewhere have broadened their appeal by trying to shed the historical baggage that linked them to Nazism or anti-Semitism, and by appealing to “fear, nostalgia and resentment of elites,” often espousing progressive causes such as gay rights and feminism in order to attack outsiders who allegedly do not “share the same values.”

But although such movements now employ the rhetoric of liberal democracy, Polakow-Suransky warns, they threaten to undermine it. The populist claim to speak directly on behalf of the people against a corrupt elite shows a worrying disregard for the institutional checks and balances—an independent judiciary, a constitution—that exist to prevent one group of people taking its aggression out on another by sheer force of numbers. Right-wing populists “are democrats only insofar as they believe in majoritarianism,” the author writes.

Polakow-Suransky guides us through the key flashpoints and debates of recent history: the arrival of “guest workers” in post-war Europe from former colonies; disputes over who should have access to welfare; reactions to Islamic fundamentalism; the refugee crisis of 2015. In doing so, he traces the intellectual current back to far-right French intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s such as Jean Raspail and Alain de Benoist, who believed that the west needed to defend its culture, identity and security from migrants threatening to overwhelm white populations.

Its modern adherents have found allies among some self-styled progressives, who have come to see Islam as a threat to European values. The great strength of this book is that Polakow-Suransky makes space to draw out the poisonous paradoxes in his subjects’ arguments—showing, for instance, how a relentless focus on migrants’ supposed lack of integration serves only to alienate migrants and their children further, or how rigidly applied secularism, supposed to level the playing field, can be blind to the way it privileges the majority.

Boldly, Polakow-Suransky invokes the treatment of Jews in 1930s Europe. In clumsier hands this analogy could backfire, but he makes a subtle comparison with the reaction to recent terrorist attacks by jihadists and the assassination of a German official by a Jewish teenager in Paris that provided the pretext for Kristallnacht in 1938.

Although there is “no moral comparison” between the assassination and today’s terrorist attacks, he writes, “there are parallels between the reactions that followed… both incidents were used to mobilise support for ostracising, expelling or stripping rights from an entire group due to the acts of a few of its members, or even to justify outright violence against them.”

In his introduction, Polakow-Suransky admits to having been somewhat overtaken by events. Trump, far from seeking to co-opt the far right in order to neutralise it in time-honoured conservative fashion, made it a key part of his electoral coalition. In western Europe, similar movements have continued to prosper—although they are by no means unstoppable—while in Poland and Hungary, right-wing populist governments are undermining the judiciary and civil society.

Although Polakow-Suransky and Stocker both illuminate a great deal, they have their limitations. Go Back to Where You Came From characterises the far-right backlash as resulting from specifically Muslim immigration to western Europe. Muslims are undoubtedly the primary targets of today’s xenophobia.

Yet this framing does not help us understand why similar processes are at work in countries with a very different social mix. The drift to the right in Poland and Hungary, for instance, was well underway before the refugee crisis; and although Polakow-Suransky includes a fascinating chapter on South Africa, where economic migrants from Zimbabwe are the target of xenophobia, the implications of this aren’t fully explored. If the targets of hostility can shift, perhaps the problem rests in the way a society is organised, rather than with the culture or behaviour of newcomers.
“The democratic and anti-racist traditions are deeply rooted in European culture”
In the case of English Uprising, Stocker’s exploration of Brexit rests too heavily on the characterisation of “Leave” voters as overwhelmingly from the abandoned white working class. While it’s true that many parts of England and Wales which have suffered prolonged economic decline registered high “Leave” votes, this isn’t the whole story. What about the many middle-class people, not least in England’s wealthy southeast, who voted to get out of the EU?

A recent essay by the sociologist Gurminder K Bhambra argues that the rhetorical use of the term “working-class whites” has been a way of legitimising claims about who the nation belongs to that would be seen as racist if they applied to white people in general. “The white working class has been left behind by multiculturalism” is regarded as a more acceptable claim, for instance, than “whites have been left behind by multiculturalism.”

Liz Fekete’s Europe’s Fault Lines covers similar ground but employs a different analysis. Much of the existing scholarship, she contends, “divorces the study of the far right from a simultaneous study of the state.” Fekete is director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a left-wing think tank that for the last 30 years has been guided by the work of the anti-racist activist and theorist Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who died in January.

Although its politics have fallen out of fashion, the IRR has persisted in cataloguing some uncomfortable truths: the steady stream of racist attacks; black deaths in police custody; the growth of immigration detention; failures to prevent neo-Nazi violence. Some of these issues are now reaching wider attention—a spike in hate crimes after the Brexit vote, for instance, or the abusive nature of immigration detention—but they point to a consistent problem in how the liberal state dispenses justice and polices its borders.

For Fekete, European states have helped entrench divisions—by, for example, pursuing “war on terror” policies that cast Muslims as enemies within, or accepting the demand that there should be “national preference” in welfare systems. Market values and austerity policies, meanwhile, have eroded social solidarity and contributed to white fears of decline. This is a relatively brief book, but it makes important points that are often left out of the discussion.

Adopting Sivanandan’s observation that “racism never stands still,” Fekete argues that although it may change in form—shifting from “race” to religion, or between economic and cultural fears—its presence and its effects are consistent. Yet she also points to another perennial feature, rather more heartening: the determination to challenge racism. Democratic traditions, she argues, “are far more deeply rooted in European culture than is authoritarianism,” listing a range of grassroots groups she has encountered.

This last point is crucial. Anti-immigration politics is often treated as a zero-sum game. Either the far-right is a mortal threat, or it’s insignificant. Voters either all move one way, or another. But there is always a choice—and the strongest challenges to xenophobic politics often come when people are willing to face them head-on.

There is currently a tendency among liberals to look at what’s happened over the last two years and assume that everyone except them has lost their heads. Myth and bluster have replaced facts and calm deliberation. Yet although it is important to challenge lies and distortion, it’s equally important to recognise the power of narrative: stories that explain why the world is like it is, and how it should be different. If you don’t like the stories on offer, you need to tell better ones.

“When people talk about populism it starts with the presumption that it is irrational,” the Dutch sociologist Paul Scheffer says to Polakow-Suransky. Instead, he argues we should recognise that “there is fear on all sides and that there is irrationality on all sides. And then we start arguing.” Just don’t let fascists set the terms of debate.

English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right by Paul Stocker is published by Melville House, £14.99

Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy by Sasha Polakow-Suransky is published by Hurst, £17.99

Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right by Liz Fekete is published by Verso, £14.99

Daniel Trilling is editor of New Humanist and the author of "Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain's Far Right" (Verso). His new book, out in May, is "Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe" (Picador).