Just a few weeks away from the elections to the European parliament, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) is expected to poll up to 30% of the votes cast in Britain. If this prediction is accurate it would make the anti-EU, anti-immigration party more popular than any other far right party in Europe. In six other EU member counties such parties are likely to poll more than 20% and in seven others between 4.4% and 18%. Such predictions need to be treated with some caution as turnout in EU elections has steadily declined over the years, falling from an average of 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. In 2009 turnout in the U.K., at 34.7% was lower than anywhere else except the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, since 2009 the harsh austerity measures adopted to deal with the financial collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession throughout much of the EU, including Britain, have resulted in profound disenchantment with establishment political parties and the governments they lead. In much of Western Europe, particularly in countries of the “southern rim”, such measures have resulted in a collapse of living standards and welfare provision unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Social inequality has increased dramatically and social unrest on a scale not seen since the 1930s has swept through countries such as Greece and Spain. However, only in Greece where social breakdown has been catastrophic, has the crisis resulted in the emergence as an electoral force of a significant political party of the radical left. Syriza, which is expected to poll 24% of the vote has shown itself capable of mobilizing mass support for sustained resistance, presenting a clear alternative to the dominant neo-liberalism of the EU bureaucracy and governments of the centre-right committed to it. The openly fascist and thuggish Golden Dawn, by contrast, is expected to poll no more than 6.5%. Elsewhere, including in Britain, the main beneficiaries of the crisis are parties of the extreme nationalistic right.
It is not good enough for liberals and those on the left simply to bemoan the fact that this is so and to deplore the racism, opportunism and irrationality of the anti-immigrant, anti EU parties. The question that needs addressing is why such parties are gaining so much electoral support and why, in most cases, there has been no comparable movement on the left. References to the rise of European fascism in the 1930s and 40s and attempts to find parallels are of limited value. Although there are some obvious similarities between the right-wing nationalist parties today and their fascist predecessors, both the 21st century nationalist parties and the circumstances that account for their success are very different. Italian and German fascism in the inter-war years arose initially as a petit-bourgeois reaction against Bolshevism and the post-war peace settlement s. These new phenomena were revisionist, revanchist, nationalist and racist. In most of its manifestations (Italy, Germany and Spain) fascism came to power during periods of intense class struggle in which economically and politically dominant elites faced strong, well organised left wing movements. The inter-war years saw the growth of an international communist movement which, for good or ill, was closely associated with the Soviet Union. Italian and German fascism were populist movements serving the interests of capital, masquerading as supra-class “people’s” movements committed to “national revolution”. Today’s anti-EU nationalist-racist parties do not face strong left-wing parties and powerful labour movements.
The similarity between the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Recession that resulted from the financial crash of 2008 is obvious. In Germany, which was hit hardest during the early 1930s, electoral support in 1933 was pretty evenly divided between the Nazis and German Nationalists on the right and the Communists and Social Democrats on the left. The Nazi party successfully tapped into the mood of widespread disenchantment with the “establishment” parties of the Weimar Republic, presenting itself as a new broom that would sweep clean the Augean stables. In Britain, Sir Oswald Mosley, a renegade from Labour, set up a “New Party” that would break decisively with tired and bankrupt parties of the Westminster establishment and restore Britain to its former greatness. This soon morphed into the British Union of Fascists. Fascism appeared on the European political scene as a supposedly new force, fresh and uncorrupted. A large part of its popular appeal was that it did not appear like a political party in the old sense at all. It presented itself as a “movement” to which everyone except non-national “aliens” could belong, that would defend traditional values, harking back to an imagined “golden age” free from the corroding influences of “modernism”. Fascism also claimed to be the sword and shield defending the people against myriad alien forces bent on tearing apart the national fabric and overturning all that had been decent in society.
Such movements were not new. They had predecessors in, for example, the early nineteenth century romantic movement in Germany and “Young England” in Britain. Both reflected nostalgia for a supposedly idyllic past destroyed by the industrial revolution. The anti-EU, anti-immigration, racist-nationalist movements in Western Europe today have arisen for similar reasons. In less austere times their appeal was more limited and in most countries they remained on the fringes of electoral politics. Their recent breakthrough can only be understood in the context of what has happened since the financial crash of 2008. Several factors, some that have been gestating for decades, others of very recent origin, help to account for the emergence and growth of these forces. Although many of the factors involved are evident throughout Europe, within and outside the EU, the main focus here will be on Britain and the emergence and growth of UKIP, to the point where it looks very likely to gain more support than any of the mainstream parties in the forthcoming EU elections.
Amongst the longer-term historic factors are: (i) the collapse in the early 1990s of the Soviet bloc, with the consequent migration westwards of ever-increasing numbers of East European workers as one country after another joined the EU. (ii) acceleration of neo-liberal economic policies everywhere in Europe resulting in deregulation, weakening the bargaining power of labour and depressing wages and living standards through destruction of trade unions. (iii) accelerating globalization, facilitating the free movement of capital and imposing supra-national trade agreements serving the interests of corporate power, beyond the reach of national parliaments. (iv) introduction of the euro throughout most of the EU despite serious imbalances in the economies of member states and failure to harmonize fiscal policy.
The financial crash of 2008 and the consequent Great Recession which was made worse by the coalition government’s punitive austerity programme, occurred as the result of a seriously dysfunctional form of capitalism (finance monopoly capitalism) which itself is symptomatic of the long-term stagnation of the real economy. Since the 1970s every bubble has grown bigger; every bust has been more devastating than the last, and the interludes between them have been shorter. And so it will continue.
During the last ten years or so, but particularly since the financial crash, public cynicism about parliamentary politics and contempt for politicians has reached a nadir only surpassed by the contempt in which bankers are held. Westminster politicians, like bankers, are widely regarded as self-serving, duplicitous careerists interested only in feathering their own nests. The ongoing scandal over MP’s expenses seems to provide ample proof that this assessment is correct. The steady decline in voter turnout in national elections provides further evidence of the public mood. But, it seems, UKIP has escaped this censure. It seems that a large and growing number of people, largely but not solely representative of the white lower middle class, are impervious to any negative publicity however well-substantiated it may be.
UKIP is really a one man band. It leader, Nigel Farage, is a public school educated ex-banker who manages to project himself as a jocular “hail-fellow-well-met” man of the people. Against the respectable image most public figures like to project, he is happy to be photographed, cigarette in one hand and a pint of beer in the other. Actually his party is misnamed. It should be the English Independence Party as it has almost no support in Scotland and little in Wales. Farage is most at home in the home counties of southern England. UKIP is a very nasty party indeed and it is almost certain that without Farage it would enjoy far less support than it has now. Those of its election candidates who find themselves in the public eye usually do so because of outrageously racist and xenophobic statements. Typical is a member who recently opined that the black actor and comedian Lenny Henry, who criticised the television industry for its unrepresentative employment of black people, “should go and live in a black country”. This sort of thing, and worse, occurs regularly. When such statements attract public attention the “offenders” are sometimes expelled or reprimanded. But the fact is that such racist bigotry is widespread amongst UKIP members. More worrying is that none of this has dented the party’s popularity. Apart from withdrawal from the EU and stopping further immigration, it has no coherent policies. It functions as a protest group, which, like its overtly fascist predecessors harks back to a supposed golden age when traditional values prevailed and Britain was white and great. Its policy deficit and crude racism do not seem to matter to those who have decided to vote for it.
Amongst those who will vote for it there will be quite a few who either share its racist views or at least do not see them as an obstacle to supporting the party. But there will be many more who are not racists. They will vote for UKIP because they have lost all respect for the mainstream parties. And it must be said – and should be said by UKIP’s critics on the left - that hostility to the EU and support for Britain’s withdrawal is not necessarily motivated by a “little Englander” xenophobia. The experience of recent years has seriously dented the EU’s democratic credentials. The fiats imposed by the troika on Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal and particularly Greece, have over-ridden their national sovereignty with the acquiescence of supine governments unprepared to stand up to the EU bureaucracy. As there is no coherent voice on the left in Britain prepared to take a stand in support of national sovereignty against the EU, we can expect to see more support going to UKIP. Also, in the absence of a clear left perspective on migration, UKIP’s alarmist racist scare-mongering will continue to gain support.
As well as consequences that are entirely foreseeable if UKP tops the poll in the EU elections, there may also be some unexpected and unintended consequences. At the moment the party does not have a single MP at Westminster. An impressive win in the EU elections is likely to be followed by a breakthrough at Westminster in 2015. If this happens it will almost certainly hit the Tories harder than Labour and could result in a majority Labour government, or at least in a Labour-led coalition.
But there is another possible consequence that has hardly flickered across the vision of most commentators. If UKIP does as well as is forecast in the May elections it could well give a great boost to the “yes” campaign for the referendum on Scottish independence later this year. Scotland is the one part of the U.K. where affection for UKIP is in very short supply. The prospect of Farage’s star rising in London may provide the final nail for the coffin of the United Kingdom. Not only would UKIP have to change its name, but nothing would be the same again thereafter.