When Is an Extremist Not an Extremist?
The alignment of the mainstream right with the alt- or far-right has been taking place incrementally over the past decade.
Defenders of Great Britain, even after the psychodrama of the past seven years, fall back on several tropes. One is that the United Kingdom’s role in the world remains as strong as ever, a theme copiously analyzed. Another trope that receives less scrutiny is the assertion that, unlike continental Europeans, Brits do not embrace extremes.
This argument, an ever-present one, has been used with increasing regularity over the past year or so, as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland marches onwards in Germany, as Italy is governed by the ”post-fascists,” as Marine Le Pen believes her time will come in France. The alarm will be sounded ever more loudly in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June 2024, with the prospect of parties once considered fringe emerging top or a close second in several European Union member states.
Not Britain. No Way. Surely Not.
Since Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, neo-Nazi and far-right parties have come and gone. The National Front and the British National Party were a visible presence from the 1960s onwards, not just on the streets but also in certain local council chambers. The BNP even gained two seats in the European Parliament in 2009. Then came National Action, banned in 2016 after praising the murder of a Labour MP, Jo Cox.
Groups such as these are both menacing and, one might assume given their lack of representation, politically irrelevant—which is where the complications begin.
Democracy and the “Street”
The most recent group to grab the headlines, if momentarily, is the English Defense League. Several hundreds of its thugs went on the rampage in London a few weeks ago, to “defend” the Cenotaph war memorial on the day of a pro-Palestinian march. The vast majority of arrests were of this group rather than those protesting in support of Gaza.
Yet it was an elected Conservative Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who denounced the pro-Palestinian marchers as a “mob,” and who could not bring herself to comment on those who had caused the violence. Indeed, she stood accused of inciting the far-right protesters.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may have sacked Braverman immediately after, but the lines between parliament, democracy, extremism, and “the street” are more blurred than at any time in the UK’s modern history. When the Supreme Court on November 15 ruled against the government on its key pledge to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda, one of Braverman’s most vocal supporters, the Tory MP Lee Anderson, declared that the UK should simply ignore the law. Anderson, a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, was not sacked. Sunak said his views reflected the “impassioned” nature of the debate.
In the UK, because of its majoritarian voting system, extremists are not shunted out to fringe parties. They are hiding in plain sight, in the mainstream. Whereas countries that adopt proportional representation have at least the benefit of greater transparency. You can see the danger before your eyes.
Struggling for Answers
One of the difficulties in determining this danger lies around definition. When is a Conservative-oriented party center-right, right, alt-right, radical right or far right? Other terms are variously used, such as authoritarian, nativist, populist, or a hybrid of any of the above.
More codified systems such as Germany’s have at least a codified constitution to fall back on, but even then, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution struggles to produce definitive answers.
Neo-Nazi groups are regularly proscribed. The AfD is under investigation in certain states. As a party it straddles quasi-respectable parliamentary activity, in Berlin and in the other federal states, alongside politics of the more menacing “street” variety.
Cue Sahra Wagenknecht. The woman of the moment, who has fled the far-left Die Linke to form a new grouping in her own name, sees herself as a bridgehead to supposed respectability. Once a self-discribed “communist,” she has been a darling of talk shows for years; her ubiquity may make the “firewall” harder to sustain. The main parties may shun the AfD, but she could pose a different challenge.
Around Europe, governments are talking tougher on immigration and other issues that have been highlighted and exploited by the far-right. In Germany, the three-party “traffic ligh” coalition recently struck an outline deal with the heads of the federal states to tighten controls. The main opposition party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), have been tacking rightwards under Friedrich Merz, who has even mooted the idea of deals with the AfD, but backtracked after an outcry. The approach of the CDU’s previous leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who allowed in more than a million of the world’s most destitute in 2015, is a distant memory.
As for Wagenknecht, any study of her pronouncements and they are hard to differentiate from, say, the British Conservatives. Her “reason and justice” mantra includes denunciation of “unchecked migration,” tougher law and order, anti-“woke,” and an increase in the minimum wage. “Many people rightly feel that they no longer live in the country that the Federal Republic once was,” she declares. Insert the UK into that sentence and which British Conservative would disagree with any of it? Braverman and others in the Tory right are happy to talk of an “invasion” of asylum-seekers.
The lines, everywhere, are more porous than they have ever been. This is not a sudden development. The alignment of the mainstream right with the alt-right has been taking places incrementally over the past decade.
On the Council of Europe, a body that Winston Churchill helped create to defend democracy and of which the UK is still a member, the European Conservatives Group consists of Italy’s Lega, Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ), Hungary’s Fidesz, Spain’s Vox, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), the AfD —and Britain’s Conservative Party.
In May 2021 the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to No. 10 Downing Street, not just as a fellow head of government, but on very friendly terms as a like-minded soul. Meanwhile, Sunak has developed a strong bond with Italy’s Giorgia Meloni.
Meloni appears, in media and political terms, to have made a deft transition from the political extreme to the mainstream. The greatest concern of the EU and NATO at the prospect of her leadership was her previous defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She once praised Putin for “defending European values and Christian identity.”
She appears to have jettisoned that in return for what seems like a free pass from Brussels when it comes to her domestic agenda. Adopting the standard populist playbook, she is undertaking (albeit slowly and gradually) the classic assault on the independence of the judiciary and most recently the press. Several figures in media and cultural institutions have been replaced by loyalists.
The new managing director of the state broadcaster RAI, Giampaolo Rossi, has praised Putin, Orbán, and former US President Donald Trump, and blamed the Biden administration for the war in Ukraine. He has called the philanthropist and financier George Soros “a globalist speculator with a habit of destabilizing elected governments.”
“At War With Itself”?
Soros at the heart of the “deep state” is nothing new. Nadine Dorries, a former UK Culture Secretary, and close ally of Johnson, based a recently published memoir on the notion of a Davos-style conspiracy to oust her hero from power. At a conference of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, one of international groups doing the rounds, the talk was of Sunak being manipulated by a global government run by elites linked to the World Economic Forum.
In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Dallas in August, Orbán spoke of the European Parliament elections and US elections as different fronts in a single war, a war of values. “The West is at war with itself,” Orbán declared. “We must find friends and allies in one another.”
For the moment, open support for Russia is confined to the likes of Orbán, Le Pen, and a few others, but is considered beyond the pale for other members of these groupings. But, as the war in Ukraine grinds to a standstill and with public opinion appearing to tire, and with the prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House, will this last?
Put that one issue, albeit vital one, to one side for the moment, however, and in most other areas of identity and policy how different are many of these protagonists who occupy both the notional extreme and notional mainstream. What really separates the likes of Meloni, Braverman, and Wagenknecht?
John Kampfner is a regular contributor to The Guardian and DIE ZEIT. His new book, “In Search of Berlin,” was published in October.