May 05, 2007

The Far Right in Western Europe.

The Far Right in Europe

A few weeks ago we staged the ever-obligatory student house-party. It was a fairly generic affair: cider by the gallon, ear-drum-breakingly loud music and stains on the carpet that we’re still unable to destroy. Yet in amongst the usual predictable shenanigans something happened which really shocked me. No, I’m not talking about the eye-brow shaving, deposit-losing destruction which usually characterises such events. At around 4am, whilst everyone was sitting bleary eyed on the sofa having various drunk-fuelled conversations about metaphysics or the best wine gum flavour, a friend of my housemate (who’d lived most of his life in Amsterdam), decided to share his political views with us. Nothing strange there you might think. Well there wasn’t, until he started outlining his views on race that is; and, no, these views could not be mitigated by his inebriation. He wasn’t parading the regular ‘asylum seekers are stealing our jobs’ style bigotry which I’ve become aclimatised to; rather, he shared his worries that Indians might some day rule the world economy. He, personally, could never subjugate himself to an Indian – it just wouldn’t be right to subvert the racial hierarchy like that. He actually used those words. What’s more, he added, (and to his credit he recognised this as a problem) the far right was gaining prominence in the Netherlands.

And the most worrying thing is that he was absolutely correct in this assertion. In the 2006 elections the P.v.d.V (Party for Freedom) gained 9 seats in the 100 strong main chamber, racking up just under 580,000 votes. The party rejects dual citizenship arguing that it ‘masks where one’s loyalties lie.’ One wouldn’t normally associate such views with the Netherlands, a country perenially associated with Liberalism and tolerance in the popular mindset. Bubbling under such an artifice, however, are some very serious social issues. Following the murder of controversial film-maker Theo Van Gogh in 2006 by a radical muslim these fears were brought to the surface. Some islamic fundamentalists attempted to justify the death, branding Gogh a, ‘free-speech fundamentalist’ who sought to ‘silence his islamic critcs.’ In contrast, many far right figure such as Geert Wilders demanded a five-year halt on non-Western immigration to the Netherlands. In such a polarised and indeed highly politicised climate, therefore, it is hardly suprising that extremist groups gain prominence.

This isn’t a problem confined to the Netherlands either. Indeed, in France the much maligned Jean Marie Le Pen (leader of the Front National) polled over 20 percent of the popular vote in the last French Presidential election. Thankfully Le Pen only gained 11.5 % of the vote in last week’s French Presidential election, but his continued powerful share of the vote is certainly something to be concerned about. To put this into perspective, the B.N.P gained only 0.7% of the popular vote in the 2005 General Election. It was only after a frantic national campaign last time that the French public rallied behind Jacques Chirac, the current incumbent. Amongst Le Pen’s catalogue of reprehensible remarks was the comment, ’”If you take a 1,000-page book on World War II, the concentration camps take up only two pages and the gas chambers 10 to 15 lines.’

Many of these parties don’t just confine themselves to racial bigotry. Amongst Le Pen’s bright ideas for ‘modern’ France is ‘censorship of the arts’, something Hitler keenly purused with the notion of ‘social realism’ (basically painting lots of bland pictures depicting disturbing Teutonic stereotypes.) At the last election the B.N.P suggested that compulsory military service be re-introduced, with those who refused having their right to vote removed. Those ‘fortunate’ enough to complete the military service, however, would be given a standard miltary issue assault rifle- possibly, like present B.N.P member Tony Martin did- to take the law into their own hands (Martin shot dead gypsy intruder Fred Barras at his Norfolk home in 1999.)

It’s important, however, to get the problem into perspective. These parties are not simply one and the same: many of them would probably be horrified to be tarred with the same brush as some of the others The Dutch Freedom Party participates in Dutch parliamentary democracy, and pales in comparison to the B.N.P (who, an investiagtive journalist has revealed, do not seek parliamentary representation, but rather seek to convert britain to a dictatorship.) However, that such parties (to group them together in crude generalisation) are gaining popular support with bile-filled electoral programmes is reason alone be worried.

Nor can we watch comfortably from a moderate paradise in Britain either. At present the B.N.P (British National Party) has 53 councillors and recently came in second at the Bedworth byelection (for those of you with a geographical age of 5 like myself Bedworth is just 6 miles north of Coventry.) They hold 12 seats on the Barking council in East London. In the forthcoming Local Council Elections on 3rd May the B.N.P will field 750 candidates (one in all but two of the Coventry wards and one in Kenilworth.) The B.N.P are no longer staffed by the vacous skin-headed thug stereotype one might associate with this brand of politics. Rather, taking a leaf from the Blair book of P.R they are fronted by professional looking men in suits- something which perhaps explained the optimism inherent in fielding a candidate in middle-class Kenilworth. Cambridge educated Nick Griffin fronts the group, articulating their hate in a fairly eloquent manner. Indeed, In 2006 Guardian journalist Ian Cobain infiltrated the B.N.P, discovering a party far from the skin-head image. Instead Cobain saw a party peopled by company directors and even some teachers. Yet as the attached story shows there remains a tendency for violence among some of their supporters.

The success of these parties in itself is perhaps not something to be majorly concerned about (we are protected, to a certain extent by the moderate implications of ‘First Past the Post’ voting; other European nations, such as Germany have a 5% minimum buffer zone which ensures that these parties rarely get a parliamentary platform) though we certainly shouldn’t be complacent. Instead we should probably be more concerned about what the rise of these parties signifies. Many people have argued as did Boar opinion writer Adam Alston that it is better for these parties to be visible: perhaps based on the ‘better the devil you know’ maxim. They’re probably right, but ‘knowing your enemy’ can only be the start of addressing such a problem.

But what is the solution to the problem? How can these fears be adequately assuaged? Prominent anti-racism campaigner and ex-Superintendent of Lewisham Police David Michael thinks that dialogue is the answer. For Michael, though there is a hard-core of evil at the centre of many of these organisations, many of the people who vote for them, ‘have genuine grievances [...] we shouldn’t fight hate with hate.’ Ex Cabinet Minister and Labour M.P Denis McShane concurs, arguing sternly that, ‘we’re not building enough social housing,’ something which will have dangerous effects. Obviously the government will need to do more to address some of the issues which aggrieve the people the B.N.P manipulate, whilst not pandering to their bigotry. The most worrying discovery of Cobain’s report was the clandestine and complex manner in which the B.N.P recruits and campaigns: the most important thing, then is not to underestimate them, or, indeed, to colour ones vision with skin-head stereotypes.

Students, comfortingly, seem to be at the vanguard of the opposition to these parties. The N.U.S has a Anti-Racism/Fascism convenor, and is a stalwart of the Rise Against Racism campaign. Warwick itself has a powerful anti-B.N.P campaign, headed by Student Union President Brian Duggan. As part if the Unite Against Fascism campaign in Coventry the group has been leafleting the local area, persuading people not to vote for the B.N.P. But all is not rosy on British campuses: there has been widespread press suggestion that the B.N.P has begun to infiltrate certain British univiersities, notably Oxbridge. Clearly then, we must not be complacent: the B.N.P seems to have learnt subtlty- and academic institutions should never see themselves as moderate paradises.

Such parties exploit turbulent times. Hitler came to power as the tremors of the Great Depression were being felt; Pinochet’s emerged at a time of great poverty in Chile. And now is as turbulent a time as any. With continued violence in Iraq, a polarised middle east and social tension in certain parts of Europe, as well as an increasing cluft between the rich and poor, conditions are ripe for the proliferation of such parties. It is the duty of governments and citizens a like to help solve these problems and thereby starve these denizens of hate of any oxygen the can grasp at.

The far right is in some ways much less of a powerful force nowadays than it used to be. In 1974, for example, the National Front- the B.N.P’s predecessor- polled 44% in the Deptford constituency, only narrowly losing to the Labour incumbent. Some of their policies gained eloquent (and consequently popular) support from the senior Conservative M.P Enoch Powell who predicted that blood would run in the streets if the Labour government’s anti-discrimination laws were passed. Thankfully this kind of sentiment is widely considered to be beyond the pale in most of Europe; the resurgence of these parties, then, should provide us with a wake-up call that all is not quite as well as it seems. The Dutch gentleman might not be as much of an anomaly as I first thought.

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  1. I think you are overestimating – and I’ll be underestimating – the pull of the far right in the Netherlands. As you state, the Freedom Party are merely the most right wing party in the Netherlands, and still far from far right, though far right enough for other parties not wanting to invite them into a coalition. Also, the party gains from having a somewhat charismatic leader, Geert Wilders, who gets a lot of attention with shocking statements like Pim Fortuyn did in a more appropriate way about 5 years ago.

    Then, the Dutch parliament has 150 seats, and whilst the Freedom Party gained 8 seats, on the other side the old communist Socialist Party gained 16 seats to end on 25. Moreover, rather than people actually being interested in their politics, they seem to move away from theold-fashioned and traditional right (“Liberal”, VVD) and left (“Labour”, PvdA) and look for the louder people further on on the spectrum.

    On your comment about the liberal Dutch, maybe they want to stay liberal, and in order for it to stay that way, have to keep everyone that might be “unliberal” out? Hence, being less liberal themselves in a way.

    06 May 2007, 00:00

  2. Sam Hancock

    ‘On your comment about the liberal Dutch, maybe they want to stay liberal, and in order for it to stay that way, have to keep everyone that might be “unliberal” out? Hence, being less liberal themselves in a way.’

    I’m not sure that it’s ‘unliberal’ to want the far right not to have a say in parliament- given that there they have some (however tiny) influence over the laws of the country. That isn’t illiberal; not recognising their right to exist would be.

    My point there was that the Netherlands is noramlly regarded as a bastion of liberalism, whereas countries such as Britain might be considered slightly more conservative (with a small c) in terms of social attitudes. But such a conception is no longer incontrovertibly true.

    06 May 2007, 18:01

  3. I’m sorry, I took you on the wrong train of thought, so let me rephrase:

    I think the Freedom Party actually see themselves as liberal. They also see the Netherlands as a liberal country, and wish to keep it that way. As such, they want to block any “unliberal” thought from entering the country, or having any influence over the population. This results in their own “unliberal” ideas of proposing a delay on building any more mosques for 5 years, or a stop on immigrants from islamic countries.

    I think the idea would be: We’re liberal. If you’d like to join us in being liberal, you’re more than welcome. If not, then stay out.

    Please understand that I’m trying to help shine light on the issue, not that I actually have any similar ideas myself.

    07 May 2007, 00:21

  4. Ah right I see. If that is the case then what you’ve said and what seems to be the case means that they are massive hypocrites. Just out of interest – do you think those kind of views are quite prevalent in the Netherlands?

    07 May 2007, 09:41

  5. I think their succes is mainly due to the current islamophobia, which is not restricted to the Netherlands. I had a quick look at the party’s programme, and most points concern restricting islamic influences. Combine that with a leader who says what he thinks, as opposed to wishy-washy statements from the established parties, you get a successful populist party.

    I’m not sure what kind of views you are referring to. I think Dutch liberalism has always been hypocritical, it’s just that only recently it has become more obvious to the outside world.

    07 May 2007, 10:19

  6. Britain has undercurrents of islamophobia; however, none of the mainstream parties subscribe to it and it has no representation in parliament. Surely, therefore, you must see it as slightly concerning that nearly 10 percent of the Dutch parliament is cashing in on this – and thus propounding these sorts of views in the place where the laws of your country are made?

    09 May 2007, 13:51

  7. Yes and no.

    I think the fact that such parties enter parliament is a result of democracy, and the way parliament is elected in the Netherlands (I think it’s called proportional, not per district). The success of radical parties keeps the mainstream, established ones on edge, and they’re forced to show their colours on tough issues. I find this a more attractive situation than here in Britain, where I don’t know anymore if Labour is left or right wing, and where every politician sounds the same to me. People here don’t seem to be interested in ideals anymore, but rather vote based on the performance of the current governing party.

    It is indeed worrying but unfortunate that that’s the way democracy works – all tactical voting. On the other hand, after the debacle (twice) with the Fortuyn party, the mainstream are apprehensive of governing with the radical parties, and without being in a coalition, the radical parties don’t have too much to say. They can stir, and indeed suggest new laws, but still need a majority vote which they cannot get without support from the established parties.

    09 May 2007, 17:52

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