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Beyond the Pale

Martin McGarry writes: News that a Tory MP was to address a conference in Rome on “National Conservatism” in early February, alongside many stars of Europe’s far right, attracted some attention. The line-up included Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega, Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, MEP Hermann Tertsch of Spain’s Vox, and Marion Maréchal Le Pen, a rival to her better-known relative from a more traditional far-right perspective. Sponsors included the Bow Group (many prominent Tories are members).

The conference cast seems to fit a pattern in parts of the European right. (The bizarre, short-sighted alliance between the Israeli right and ethnic nationalists in Europe and elsewhere was also visible at the conference, but I don’t propose to address that here.) In several countries, elements of the respectable right are trying to make the far right fréquentable (respectable, or the kind of people one doesn’t mind being seen with), as the French say, or salonfähig (socially acceptable, the kind of people you might let into your home), as the Germans put it.

There’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum here: is the right of the respectable right just responding to electoral trends by concluding that it will need far-right allies in the future? Or is this an attempt to move the mainstream right further right and win respectability for opinions, attitudes, and policies formerly considered to be beyond the pale? No matter what is causing the rapprochement, consequences could include electoral alliances facilitating the implementation of some far-right policies and a broader political-cultural phenomenon of extremist attitudes no longer being seen as beyond the pale.

The situations in different countries are far from identical. Some of the far-right parties in question have roots in fascism (the Fratelli in Italy) or in a mix of collaborationist and fascist groups (as in Flanders). Others, like Vox, are led mainly by people who came from the respectable right (one, however, with roots in a dictatorship in the case of Spain). And while race and immigration are factors everywhere, nationalism has also played a part: Flemish separatism, for example, or Spanish anti-separatist nationalism.

In Spain, Vox, led by a Spanish nationalist from the Basque country, is less than a decade old. Its founders were authoritarian-minded and traditionalist (they still campaign against abortion, an issue many European far-right groups have now abandoned), but were motivated above all by what they saw as a soft Spanish government response to Catalan demands for more autonomy – a concern shared by the right of the then governing Partido Popular, including former PM José María Aznar. As Catalan leaders moved towards separatism (arguably the last refuge of a scoundrel in the case of the bourgeois nationalists, whose leaders were found to have had their hands in the public purse for decades), reaction in the rest of Spain was hostile and often hysterical.

Vox started life (with an unsuccessful European election campaign in 2014, led by a former MEP for the PP and funded mainly by the US’s favourite Iranian exiles, the MEK) with nothing to say about race and immigration. Then it realised it was missing a trick. When it made its first breakthroughs (in regional Andalusian elections in December 2018 and in national elections in April 2019), however, it was against the background of the Catalan crisis. It did especially well in rich urban districts and areas with lots of military or police, but also in parts of the country with many immigrants. Exit polls suggest that its growth, then and since, was almost entirely at the expense of right-of-centre parties.

Vox has tried to develop a more social profile since, but race and Catalonia have been its big issues. Following its regional breakthrough in Andalusia, the two respectable right-wing parties rushed to do a deal with it. The Partido Popular (led by a new, Aznar-anointed leader) negotiated and publicly signed a deal with Vox, before forming a regional coalition with Ciudadanos (Citizens), a supposedly centrist-liberal party, which thus kept its hands formally clean. C’s (as the Spanish abbreviate it) emerged partly in response to Catalan nationalism, but took off nationwide because of a perceived need for a right-of-centre party free of the corruption associated with the PP and less inclined to clericalism and nostalgia for Franco’s days. It took off like a rocket in the polls; as did Podemos at the same time, as a left-wing rival to the socialist party (PSOE), also blamed for corruption (if not on the PP scale) and for the economic bust.

Although C’s (unlike the PP) was reluctant to admit it, it went into both general elections in 2019 as part of a de-facto coalition with Vox and the PP, declaring the left to be beyond the pale. The three right-of-centre parties vied with each other in virulent and intransigent opposition to Catalan nationalism (a great deal of flag-waving, accompanied by denunciations of “nationalism”). As the first election campaign of 2019 got under way, the three right-wing parties were polling way ahead of the two left-wing parties. The Economist, rightly in this writer’s opinion, was spooked by the right-wing coalition and declared that its victory would surely lead to Spain losing Catalonia. In both the 2019 elections, however, it seems that many Spaniards who might otherwise have voted for C’s were repelled by the alliance with Vox and either stayed at home or even switched to the Socialists. In November, the right, which had been polling badly, and Vox in particular, benefited when the Catalan issue again hit the headlines with court judgements against separatist leaders. There is little sympathy for the Catalans in most of Spain, but the shrill, uncompromising tone of the C’s leadership once again put liberal-minded voters off: the party’s vote collapsed, while Vox got a further boost.

In Belgium, nationalism has affected things in a different way. The far right is strong only in Dutch-speaking Flanders (and not in Brussels, for example, which has a huge immigrant population). It is separatist and can draw on a tradition of Flemish nationalist movements throughout the 20th century (I outlined this background in a drb article a few years ago ‑ https://drb.ie/essays/can-t-go-on). Race and immigration had nothing to do with the founding of the Vlaams Blok (now known as the Vlaams Belang): it was a (right-wing) nationalist breakaway, decades ago, from the main Flemish nationalist party, when it showed willingness to compromise on constitutional change. But it was race and immigration that led to its electoral breakthrough in the early 1990s.

What was left of the (previously) main Flemish nationalist party eventually splintered and its more right-wing (Thatcherist) and separatist wing set up the N-VA (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie) in 2001. That seemed to be going nowhere until the Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V) opportunistically formed an electoral alliance with it and made much of the polarising (and ultimately trivial) issue of splitting the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral area. The tail wagged the dog, because it was better led and because the main Flemish parties helped raise the heat on a purely symbolic issue pitting French-speakers against Dutch-speakers. Many voters took the message: the N-VA are right, plus they’re now respectable, and the VB are perpetual outsiders, so why not vote N-VA? They became the largest party in Flanders, taking votes from nearly everybody, but especially the VB.

The N-VA went on to take votes from the right of the CD&V (traditionally a broad church) and from the liberal VLD (traditionally associated with business and the liberal professions), which had adopted a more social-liberal approach under Guy Verhofstadt. The N-VA dominated the last Belgian government and provided its minister of finance, a disciple of Milton Friedman. The cynically minded wondered when it would jump ship and how it might engineer a crisis, at a time when interest in its core “constitutional” issues seemed to be low. Well, it decided to play the race card: a few months ahead of the next federal election, it left the government over the UN Global Compact for Migration, which had been brewing for years. It came as no surprise to the present writer when the Vlaams Belang vote grew in the May 2019 federal election. The N-VA (still the largest party in Belgium) then spent months negotiating with the VB about forming a government. Everyone knew this would not succeed (all other parties have maintained the cordon sanitaire, viewing the VB as a racist party and beyond the pale). The N-VA knew that: the exercise was presumably about making the VB respectable, with an eye to the future.

Some tentative thoughts are suggested by the above.

First, if you state that the far right’s core issues are the main issues of the day and, furthermore, hint that they are right, don’t be surprised if you lose votes to them. In fact, that seems to be true regardless of where two parties are on the spectrum.

Second, if you push the same buttons as the far right, as the N-VA’s Theo Francken (an inveterate Tweeter) and Jan Jambon (now head of the regional government in Flanders) in particular have done, you lower the bar as to what is respectable or acceptable.

Third, while denouncing the entire right as fascist is inaccurate and stupid, it is legitimate to be vigilant about attempts to make racism and extreme nationalism respectable. Calling such attempts out is a moral imperative, but is probably hampered by left/liberal hectoring of those who are simply slightly behind the times or haven’t mastered the latest refinement of politically correct speech. And declaring the democratic right as a whole to be beyond the pale hardly helps those on the right who wish to keep the far right beyond the pale.

14/2/2020