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Saturday 5th May 2012 | 12:06
The smugness of the British political class as they look at the rise of the hard right in Europe needs to be wiped away. Our first-past-the-post electoral system protects us from the arrival of a block of extreme MPs in the Commons but in the European Parliament Conservatives sit with extremists who endorse Waffen SS commemorations in Latvia and still downplay the wartime murder of Jews in Poland.
In truth, continental Europe has always had a solid block of voters willing to support extreme parties. For nearly four decades, the French communist party won up to 25 per cent of votes on platforms of denunciation of Europe, calls for a ban on immigrants coming into France and populist claims about keeping France French.
Three developments have brought the new right alive. First, the wealth gap has widened so that the white working class, without qualifications or well-paid jobs, feels bitter, and ignored by elite politicians. Second, the European Union has lost its hold as a necessary project for France and other European nations, most notably here in Britain. Third, the volume and visibility of foreign workers from East Europe as well as asylum seekers, family members and economic migrants from Muslim and black African nations have increased sharply.
For the elites of Europe of both right and left, Europe is seen as a good thing, and cheap immigrant labour provides the nannies, cleaners, prostituted young women, and unseen workers that hold down prices and keep the 7/24 service economy alive.
In France, Marine Le Pen sought to detoxify her party by rejecting the more vulgar anti-Semitism of her papa. But that is on a par with the right elsewhere in Europe, where Holocaust denial has been replaced by Holocaust devaluation - the argument that what Hitler did was bad, but no worse than Stalin's crimes, and that Auschwitz, like the Armenian massacres, was just another of Europe's many genocides.
Today the target of choice is East European workers. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has brought down the liberal-conservative coalition in opposition to its open-door policy on Europe. Wilders called on the Dutch to “shop a Pole” – to denounce any East European worker who was living in a house or had a job that might go to a Dutchman. The Swiss have followed suit with a ban on workers from East Europe coming to work in Switzerland. The fact that the Dutch and Swiss, like the British, export hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens to live and work elsewhere in Europe cuts little ice.
In Britain, this populist identity politics is best voiced by Nigel Farage. Almost monthly on BBC’s Question Time, the UKIP leader is allowed to attack European citizens who work here. UKIP is now the militant wing of the Conservative Party. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron spent 1997-2010 alternating between a denunciation of Europe and a denunciation of foreigners, aka immigrants, in Britain.
In power they can neither leave the EU nor expel foreigners from Britain and stop new incomers arriving. So voters who believed the mythical future promised by Hague and Cameron in opposition turn to the party, UKIP, that still proclaims leaving the EU and creating a national homeland for the indigenous English (much as Alex Salmond offers the vision of a national homeland for the true-born Scots) will provide miracle solution to the problems citizens face.
So in ward after ward in council elections UKIP, which is largely supplanting the BNP as the depository for populist identity votes, scored better than Conservative candidates. UKIP is now running equal with the Liberal Democrats . Before May 2010 the LibDems had the main franchise as our anti-system party. They won votes by being outside national power structures and able to be purer than thou by denouncing Labour and Tories. Now they have agreed to be valets to their Tory masters, voters want an authentic anti-system party. So UKIP steps forward as the new party outside the system offering easy solutions to genuine problems and fears.
The desire to just say, "No" - to foreigners, to any external source of authority like the ECHR or the UN, and to social solidarity expressed via the tax system- now dominates Western politics from the Tea Party in America to the biggest party in Switzerland, the Swiss People's Party, with its referendum on minarets, as if religious architecture was the most pressing 21st century political issue.
The parties of the populist right will not win power but they can change European politics in the direction of darker themes and times. The classic 20th century political parties have no answer to identity populist politics. As with austerity economics, populist politics are here to stay.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a Former Europe Minister
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