Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Sleepwalking Towards Fascism

By Christopher HannaPublished November 9, 2014

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A far-right political movement threatens to engulf the United Kingdom in an unprecedented era of ultra-right nationalism. Its rising influence has sparked a fierce struggle for the soul and future of the British people.
By Christopher Hanna, 11/09/14

The United Kingdom's ruling, center-right Conservative Party, known colloquially as the Tory Party, is no friend of the European Union. It campaigned against the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which constitutionally strengthened the European Union, and promises to hold a popular referendum on the U.K.'s EU membership if elected with an outright majority in the 2015 General Election. Recently, the Tories have come under fire from right-wing critics who demand further government action "against" the European Union, expressing a disdain for supranational political institutions that is prevalent among members of the British Right and closely tied to anti-immigration sentiment; EU membership entails accepting liberal intra-EU immigration policies, which individual member states are largely helpless to shape. In the past months, this sentiment has mutated into a high-profile political movement that threatens to permanently alter the face of British governance.

This movement is spearheaded by the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a two decade-old party that has just recently emerged as a force to be reckoned with in British politics. UKIP, a right-wing party that has been likened to the American Tea Party, may be seen as the British manifestation of the twin forces of reactionary ethnic nationalism and anti-internationalism that have gripped Europe since the onset of the financial crisis. Patriotic "average-Joe" voters, reeling from the financial crisis and deeply suspicious of job-seeking foreigners and the mainstream political establishment, constitute its base.

In a recent controversial move, the increasingly popular UKIP entered into an alliance with an anti-Semitic, far-right Polish party in the European Parliament. A prominent Labour politician branded the move "absolutely vile," echoing other voices on the Left who fear that the UKIP is a dangerous, proto-fascist political entity. Writer Robert Webb chillingly declared in an opinion piece that UKIP supporters were "sleep-walking towards fascism."

Such concerns and claims are not unfounded; UKIP's demagogic leader, Nigel Farage, infamously said in an interview that he would feel uncomfortable living next door to Romanian migrants. Further, a majority of his supporters believe that immigrants should leave Britain. There would be little cause for concern if the ultra-right ideology of UKIP merely dwelled on the fringes of the British political spectrum, as it has in the past, but recent polling suggests that the party now has the backing of nearly 25% of the electorate. If the party's success in the next General Election matches its current support, history will be made; for the first time ever, the extreme right will play a significant role in the governance of the U.K.

As some observers have argued, it is quite clear that UKIP exploits legitimate working class distress for electoral gain by redirecting popular anger over the fallout of the global financial crisis away from the unprosecuted guilty party (i.e. the financial elite and its allies, the major parties in Parliament) and towards desperate migrants seeking employment and safety in their country. In doing so, it fails to truly combat the politico-economic elites against which it posits itself, fostering an unproductive, quasi-populist culture of fear and xenophobic nationalism where a productive culture of popular action and unity should exist.

UKIP should not be framed as the unitary force of opposition to the existing British political order; this imposes an unnecessary dichotomy on the existential question of Britain's future as a nation, offering British voters a choice between options that run counter to their interests. Rather, both the entrenched political elite and the emerging, exclusionary nationalist opposition should be seen as agents of inequity and adversaries of just and inclusive populism, which the British populace must rediscover and reassert. If it fails to do so, the U.K. will surely be condemned to permanent decay; only the values of openness and inclusiveness that enabled its past success can guarantee its future welfare.