Imagine, for a minute, time-travelling Nazisstumble blinking into a 21st-century internet café and log on to read the news. Days ago, Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right leader of the Brothers of Italy party, became prime minister. In California, as Kanye West’s anti-semitic tirades were picked up online around the world, protesters on a freeway were photographed giving Nazi salutes with banners referencing those comments.
They might google Donald Trump and Brazil’s gone-but-probably-not-for-long Jair Bolsonaro. Or the Sweden Democrats, who swept into power this autumn despite wellknown neo-Nazi roots. Or Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigrant National Rally — formerly its Front National — who in the summer scooped a staggering 41.5 per cent of the vote in a run-off with lofty centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Paul Mason, author of How to Stop Fascism, thinks our time-travelling Nazis would find ‘plenty to smile about in the 21st century’. But in Britain? I’m not convinced. Our first British-Asian prime minister has just walked into No10. We might worry about America, where ‘Stop the Steal’ Republicans reject Donald Trump’s election defeat outright, but most sensible people in Britain firmly reject the idea that democratic norms in Britain are fundamentally collapsing. And yet there it is again, that funny feeling. Suella Braverman — still Home Secretary — was bashing asylum seekers at the October Conservative Party Conference and even Nadine Dorries tweeted that the Tories had ‘lurched to the right’.
‘With respect, “What are the chances the extreme right in Britain ever make it into power?” is yesterday’s question,’ the writer Ferdinand Mount, who ran Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in the 1980s, tells me. ‘To which the answer is, “They’re here.”’
Is the UK really lurching to the right? In the past decade, British society has become more socially liberal, not less. In 2011, just under half the population felt immigration had been good for the country (40 per cent) while now, according to the charity Hope Not Hate, a majority agree (56 per cent). And while just 29 per cent said that the different ethnic groups that make up this country get along well in 2011, a decade later this stands at 41 per cent. But as a society, we are more likely to feel disappointed with our own lives (32 per cent) than we were in 2011 (25 per cent) and less in control of our successes (35 per cent compared with 25 per cent in 2011). Years of austerity and Brexit uncertainty have created a generation of authoritarian younger voters who are more interested in strong leadership than they are in democracy. In 2019, a study found that two thirds of younger voters were in favour of ‘strongman leaders’ prepared to defy Parliament.
The answer to whether the extreme right will make it into power is: ‘they’re here’
‘Just as in Italy and Sweden, we saw a surge in support for the far right from young voters, and we have seen a worrying growth of reactionary identity issues among young people, in particular young men,’ says Rosie Carter, Hope Not Hate’s director of policy. ‘While for a long time young people have generally been seen as more socially liberal, the changing nature of the political right, the rise of reactionary identity politics, and the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on young people has opened space for a new party on the right to gain ground with young voters.’
There is so much noise, hyperbole and online discourse that a whole internet adage — Godwin’s law, short for Godwin’s law (or rule) of Nazi analogies, asserting that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic), the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches — exists to tell us that we are quick to get carried away. Yesterday’s definitions are hardly fit for purpose. ‘Modern fascism morphs so quickly’, says Mason. ‘But if somebody believes that the white race is being replaced, if they are determined to wage a global ethnic civil war, if they think liberals, human rights lawyers and feminists are really plotting to overthrow their ethnicity, then you don’t need to hit anybody on the streets to meet that basic definition.’ Social historian David Kynaston defines the far right as ‘utterly hostile towards immigrants who get defined as the other’ and promoting ‘disregard for, or the supplanting of, democracy and pluralism’.
Owen Jones, the journalist, has been mobbed, spat at, called homophobic slurs by right-wing thugs and beaten up by a man whose house ‘was full of SS flags, Nazi death skulls, Combat 18 material’, he tells me. He’s in no doubt about the virility of the far right in Britain. ‘I’ve got pinned on my fridge a load of things I have to do to take safety precautions,’ he says. ‘The Democratic Football Lads Association tried to storm The Guardian demanding to see me, a farm gate was graffitied with “Hang Owen Jones The Guardian paper writer”, to make sure that you’d get the right Owen Jones. A guy got a suspended sentence for sending me a message saying the far right was on the rise and that me and my family were going to be peppered with bullets.’ From Tommy Robinson supporters to Pegida, he knows the far right.
For all the Tweets about ‘Tory fascism’ that go around, though, he agrees that the Tories’ recent rightward-lurching political cocktail — Rwanda exports and tax cuts for the elite — ‘isn’t fascism’. ‘People conflate fascism with various unpleasant right-wing phenomena. All fascism is an unpleasant right wing phenomenon, but not all right wing phenomena that are unpleasant are fascism.’
And indeed, democracy in Britain ‘looks healthy to me, compared to the United States’, says John R Macarthur, president of Harper’s magazine. ‘In Europe, it looks to me like a reaction to long-term suppression of popular will. If you’re a French person who voted against the European Constitution of 2005, what do you do? You vote National Front. I think it’s the best argument I can think of for Brexit. Because people need to feel like they have some control.’
That strikes a chord with Labour MP Margaret Hodge. At the tail end of New Labour, she beat the BNP in the electoral ‘Battle of Barking’ in 2010, one of the ugliest episodes of modern politics. ‘It’s a protest vote,’ she says. ‘That’s why I don’t call them racist. The leaders are racist bully boys, but it’s a protest, because people’s politics start at the local level.’ Yet while bully boys persist, they don’t prevail. It is not that there are tens of thousands of these people, says Mason. ‘It’s that the ideology is beginning to shape the ideologies of right-wing populist conservatives’, from Narendra Modi’s India to Bolsonaro’s Brazil to — who knows — Donald Trump’s once and future America.
Others think Britain has a much bigger problem — that we are sleepwalking into a crisis, and indeed already have. Adam Wagner, human rights lawyer and author of Emergency State: How We Lost Our Freedoms in the Pandemic and Why it Matters, argues that British law and our unwritten constitution is much flimsier than we think it is.
In lockdown, 109 emergency laws were passed — and only eight were looked at by Parliament. The pandemic pushed us into a semi-police state and we just… let it. Of course, that’s understandable. We were fighting a virus. But you move fast, you break things. Two-hundred thousand people were locked up in hotel quarantine, watched over by G4S guards, and in some cases treated quite badly — a number larger than Britain’s 80,000 prison population. ‘We really should think carefully about what else can happen in a different kind of emergency and in those circumstances, can we protect ourselves from our worst instincts?’ says Wagner.
It only takes a little nudge, a little emergency, and fear kicks in. ‘States of emergency leave us particularly vulnerable to that kind of thing happening — we just had a very serious state of emergency and some things happened that shouldn’t have happened in terms of our democracy. If we don’t face up to that then we leave ourselves vulnerable if we don’t plan for the next pandemic, or climate crisis, or economic shock.’
We are a little country, downwind of a broiling world. But we have the power to stop democratic backsliding, Mason says, if we are vigilant. If you’re like me, you can stuff your fingers in your ears and say everything’s normal or talk about time-travelling Nazis. It could never happen here, right?