Anglosphere: Non-barking English dogs

By JAMES C. BENNETT   |   May 4, 2002 at 2:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 4 (UPI) -- Like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark in the night, the British electorate deserved attention for not barking in this past week's local elections. While all over the continent of Europe, and not just in France, significant vote totals are being gained by what are being termed parties of the far right, Britain, which would seem to have some of the same supposed "root causes" of such behavior, passed on the opportunity. It's worth asking why.

Although the Continental far-right parties (which might better be termed "radical nationalist") share some characteristics, each of these parties is in fact somewhat different in origins, affiliations and tone. These differences are significant.

France's Le Pen was a resistance fighter in World War II, and at heart a traditional French nationalist. His views seem shocking today because elements of that ideology are so far out of alignment with the current received wisdom of Europe; throughout most of the preceding two centuries most of them would have been mainstream beliefs in French politics.

In some countries the remnants of the fascist parties of the 1930s and 1940s are still in business, some more cleansed of their origins than others. With the new eruption of anti-Semitism in Europe, partly disguised as sympathy for Palestinians, all manner of old Vichyites, Quislingites, and other ex-fascists and collaborators emerged for one last reprise of the old act. Some were still in parties of fascist origin; others were in surprisingly respectable niches of their national establishments.

Still elsewhere, entirely new parties with no specific historical antecedents appeal to voters using some or all of the same themes. Even the Netherlands has seen the rise of a party expressing concern over the lack of assimilation of immigrants and the ineffectiveness of the Dutch approach to crime control. Headed by a gay sociologist, it has no visible fascist affiliations but appeals to the same sectors of the electorate as do other European radical nationalists.

Such parties have been doing well on the Continent in recent years. Le Pen's approximately 17 percent in the recent French elections is not noticeably different from the 15 percent he has been gaining in recent years. This is well within the range of other radical nationalist parties, most noticeably Haider's in Austria. In Germany, resurgent radical nationalist parties have pulled lower votes, usually failing the 5 percent test needed to gain representation, but often polling near that line, particularly in the depressed eastern region.

The one big exception is Britain. This would seem odd at first sight. Britain has depressed regions with large, poorly assimilated immigrant populations, particularly in the Midlands and Northern England. Although British unemployment is half that of the Continent, and closer to American levels, some depressed regions run to near-Continental levels of joblessness.

Decades of multiculturalist educational policies have left large immigrant populations educated in their native languages and ignorant of British history, civic traditions and anything else needed to help them become part of civil society. Once again, the deliberate abandonment of assimilation reinforces the lesson that of democracy, immigration and multiculturalism, we must pick from any two. It is only in these areas, impacted by unassimilated immigration, that radical nationalism has shown any appeal at all in the United Kingdom.

It is in these areas that one finds there is a British racial-nationalist movement preaching a politics of resentment, racial antagonism and economic protectionism. Although British fascism was originally strongly supportive of European integration, as reflected in the Euro-nationalist rhetoric of its leader, Oswald Mosley, current groups such as the British National Party have tried to appeal to popular skepticism of the European Union.

Yet with both tinder and spark aplenty, the nationalist fire has failed to ignite. British commentators had widely feared a British echo to the Le Pen triumphs across the Channel in yesterday's local government elections. Yet the British National Party did poorly even in the tinderbox regions wracked by race riots last summer. Rather than garner 15 percent of the national vote, the BNP took three local council seats of the nearly 6,000 at stake, not dissimilar to performances in other times.

Why is Britain such an exception? Two reasons stand out. One is the lack of a nationalist tradition of the Continental type, in which adulation of the nation-state becomes a pseudo-religion justifying the submersion of the individual in a greater cause. Absent this, patriotism becomes merely a statement of sentiment, a love of community, place and history drawing on elemental emotions.

In Anglosphere patriotism, a distinction is made between the country, its ideals, and the constitutional traditions that on the one hand form the focus of patriotic sentiment, and the State and political leadership on the other. Orwell's wartime diaries offer an example of such patriotism.

In Continental nationalism, nation, state, administration, and leaders are fused together into a secular deity. Not having that fusion, Anglosphere native patriotism cannot by itself serve as the basis for a state that becomes the object of worship.

The other reason gets to the heart of the Euro-nationalists' dilemma. They cannot imagine that there are well-founded, well-researched and well-documented objections to their program for European unification. In a way, people like Le Pen are a boon to such Europhiles, for their existence reinforces their prejudices, and allows them to dismiss opposition to their program as xenophobia or worse.

Yet Britain stands out in contrast to the Continent precisely because it possesses an movement against further centralization of Europe based on precisely such research and reasoning. The existence of Euroskeptics, particularly in the Conservative Party, now controlled by that school of thought, but also as a non-trivial minority current in Labor, offer a liberal, tolerant, and reasoned outlet for the strong suspicions of, and frustrations against Brussels that exist among ordinary Britons.

Europhiles exhibit a strong tendency to act as if ends justify the means. If they can exclude inconvenient points of view from the public arena, they will. However, the end result of this exclusion is to drive expression of frustrations into nastier channels. If the Europhiles in the British Conservative Party had been able to maintain control of their leadership, and to delegitimize the Euroskeptic voices within the party, it would only have driven the activists into harder-core organizations.

It is significant that event the great bulk of Euroskeptic activists who found the Tories insufficiently anti-Brussels over the past years have not sought a Le Pen-like organization. The two principal minor parties founded to express Euroskepticism, the Referendum Party and, later, the U.K. Independence Party, have been for the most part well within a liberal and democratic consensus, and have worked hard to combat infiltration by the BNP and similar organizations.

Given what is happening on the European Continent, one would think that the makers of opinion in Britain would thank their lucky stars that they have avoided the birth of a significant neo-fascist movement. They should have realized that it is a testament to the temperament of the British people, and a triumph of its democratic institutions that an important element of the national political spectrum so closely expresses the opinions of a substantial part (probably a majority, in fact) of the people. But of course many would prefer to try to tar the Euroskeptic Tories with the Le Penist brush, whether of out self-righteous ignorance, political opportunism, or both.

One might even venture to say that Continentals upset about the increasing percentage of their compatriots voting for Le Pen and his even less attractive counterparts might consider trying to offer their voters an electoral alternative that addresses valid concerns about European centralization, crime, failures of assimilation and other grave problems in a non-hysterical, non-exploitive manner. But I won't hold my breath waiting for that.

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