The Creep of Fascism
How far-right rhetoric is becoming the new normal.
Pier(Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo)
British political discourse has become scarily infatuated with a murderous creed. The commentariat might think it's edgy to toy with deadly ideologies, but really it's not cool and it's not clever.
I'm not talking about communism being so hot right now, courtesy of Ash Sarkar of Novara Media going viral for telling Piers Morgan, "I'm literally a communist, you idiot." No – Sarkar's subsequent appearance in Teen Vogue has sent right-wing pundits into pearl-clutching meltdown. Faced with a generation of young people who think Marx is daddy, they are making sure we'll be hearing about what a jerk he actually was until Christmas.
In the Times, Melanie Phillips said that "communism is in shocking vogue" and called it "frightening". In the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan MEP called it "a form of moral idiocy".
Many are responding hypothetically with comparisons to that other 20th Century bogeyman, fascism. In the Spectator, Douglas Murray asks: "Would the Twittersphere have gone so moist with excitement if Morgan's interlocutor had, by way of rider, finished their argument with the explanation, 'I'm literally a fascist, you idiot.'" Perhaps not, but had she said that she'd be nailed on for a sympathetic column in the Spectator. "But you can't imagine it, can you?" says Hannan, making exactly the same point in the Telegraph. "Even the politicians who might plausibly be called heirs to the fascist tradition – Marine Le Pen, say, who was roughly as sassy, edgy and pretty as Sarkar when she started out – would never accept such a label."
Well of course not. Why would they bother? It's perfectly possible to be on the political right and argue for turning the world into a nightmarish prison without going to the trouble of evoking some historical monster. And you don't need an interview in Teen Vogue: instead, how about the biggest media organs in the country? More and more, authoritarian, right-wing ideas are not some historical aberration, but just what passes for normal public discourse.
Let's do a quick recap of the last week's British politics and media since that GMB interview.
US President Donald Trump visited the UK and was feted by the government in a bells-and-whistles state visit in all but name. While he was here, Trump gave an interview to the Sun, in which he said that "Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame," claiming that London is "losing its culture" thanks to immigration. Generally speaking, objections to Trump were the collective dropping of champagne flutes as the old duffer broke diplomatic convention, rather than horror at his far-right rhetoric. The Prime Minister fawned.
Having shouted over Sarkar, the next day Morgan invited Steve Bannon – Trump's ex-Chief Strategist, formerly of far-right news site Breitbart – onto GMB and let him run his mouth. The simpering dweeb then interviewed Trump himself, apparently more interested in Air Force One than asking any difficult questions ("I asked Trump, a man used to flying on big private planes, what he thought was the coolest thing about this one.")
That same weekend, there was a several-thousand strong protest for Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, the former leader of racist street gang the EDL, who is currently serving 13 months for endangering the trial of a rape gang. Steve Bannon then went on Nigel Farage's LBC radio show, called Robinson "the backbone of this country" and near-as-dammit advocated civil war: "You're going to have to fight to take your country back, every day."
"That sounds like a call to arms."
"Absolutely. This is war."
The following Wednesday, it emerged that Bannon had been having discussions with Boris Johnson, tipped for the Tory leadership and much admired by Trump. All of this is happening as a Brexit betrayal narrative is taking shape. This was best expressed by David Campbell Bannerman, a Tory MEP, who tweeted that treason laws should be updated to "apply to those seeking to destroy or undermine the British state. That means extreme jihadis. It also means those in future actively working undemocratically against UK through extreme EU loyalty."
On Monday this week, Clare Foges – formerly David Cameron's speech writer – wrote a column in the Times hailing the world's strongman demagogues with just enough caveats to let you know she doesn't actually want to live in a dictatorship. "Few in Britain would welcome an autocrat with a penchant for throwing journalists in prison, but many of us hunger for more decisive leadership – not the glacial politics of compromise that fails to change much," writes Foges. Thanks for clearing up your position on whether or not to imprison journalists, Clare!
For all the far-right views and apologia being aired, only Foges felt it necessary to try to deal with the historical legacies she was conjuring up, albeit with a jokey disclaimer: "Just as the old chestnut about Mussolini making the trains run on time hardly excuses fascism, so bold leadership does not excuse brutality."
Writing about Trump's separation of migrant children from their parents in the Irish Times last month, Fintan O'Toole pointed out: "Fascism doesn't arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that… get people used to something they may initially recoil from."
The British media and political class is doing something similar. They're not all secret fascists, but they are acting to inoculate us to frightening inhumanity. Through stupidity, callousness and unthinking ideology, they are testing the waters and making far-right rhetoric normal: apologia for authoritarianism here, a poorly handled interview with a racist there.
Fascism has always been a reaction to an emboldened left-wing, and in this context the red-scare is not simply unrelated fretting about a violent ideology becoming fashionable. It is concomitant to the rise of the right.
Anyone calling themselves a communist is knowingly opening themselves up to all the questions about historical carnage, gulags, famine, Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and the rest. Rightly, they are challenged to reconcile this horror with visions of utopia. Seriously, though, is Cuba good? Or is it, actually, quite shit? How do you make sure that doesn't happen again? (More realistically for Corbynites, how do you avoid a pale imitation of a failed 70s social democracy?)
For the right, there's no pressure to have this discussion or to reckon with a messy past. The crimes are current, but the horror is normalised.
Making the equivalence between communism and fascism, and arguing for the unacceptability of both, Murray says, "If someone were to say, 'I'm literally a fascist,' we hear the cattle-truck door shut. We see the train tracks narrowing. The piles of shoes and human hair. We see the destruction of a people."
But what happens when we reverse the equation? Today – not in our mind's eye, but right before our eyes – we see refugees drowning and the right calls for stronger borders. We see Muslims vilified and the right dismissing Islamophobia as a "fiction". We see crying, terrified children, and clueless journalists give sycophantic interviews to the person who split them up from their parents. We see tragedy and they demand more.