A dangerous road
Sat, 10 Dec 2016 | By Christian von Arnim, Editor
EDITORIAL | Xenophobia, demagoguery and lies have been rife in recent referendum and election campaigns. Particularly in UK and the US this has had a profoundly damaging impact on society in both countries.
NNA, as a news agency for and about civil society, seeks to report on events impartially and without taking sides. This means that within its remit it does not have an editorial line other than to support civil society and seek to reflect all shades of opinion fairly to enable our readers to reach their own conclusions on any given issue, irrespective of what the editor might think.
But sometimes events happen which have such serious implications that we have a duty to speak out loudly and clearly, and this is one of those occasions. Because since the referendum in the UK to leave the European Union and the presidential election campaign in the United States, which has brought Donald Trump to power, the political culture in Britain and the US has deteriorated into xenophobic demagoguery of a kind which is deeply damaging to the fabric of society. The fear is that far-right populism is spreading elsewhere too.
There is therefore some comfort in the fact that the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was defeated for the second time in the Austrian presidential elections at the weekend in favour of the former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen. The post may largely be ceremonial but it sends an important signal that right-wing populism is not in the ascendancy everywhere, that a person who credibly embodies real values can still win the argument.
It remains to be seen how right-wing populist parties will fare in the elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands next year.
The No vote against constitutional reform in Italy last Sunday is more complex and reflects a wider political spectrum. It is true that the Northern League is a far-right populist, anti-immigrant party, but the Five Star Movement (M5S) is more difficult to pin down. It is certainly populist but does not fit into a traditional left-right spectrum. It espouses direct democracy but, perhaps in the nature of the movement, its supporters are split on a whole range of issue from the EU to immigration.
Alongside the anti-establishment vote, it seems that many Italians were genuinely concerned about and opposed to the proposed constitutional reforms which would have given much more power to the office of prime minister; they were also voting against domestic government policy. This should not automatically be seen as a nationalistic vote against the European Union.
These developments notwithstanding, things look bleak in the US and UK. In Britain, right-wing extremism took its most severe form in the murder of the pro-remain British member of parliament Jo Cox whose killer, Thomas Mair, was recently sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. Mair shouted “Britain first” as he killed her and police found Nazi-related material in his house.
There could not be a clearer indication of the demons which have been released. Attacks on immigrants or anyone who is not like “us” have been on the rise. In America, neo-Nazis salute the election of Donald Trump with arms raised in the Hitler salute. The Ku Klux Klan welcomed his election. That is not business as usual. Of course these things existed before, what has changed is the growing sense that such views and actions are increasingly seen as acceptable.
Two weeks ago the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission in a letter to all political parties expressed its concern about hate attacks since the Brexit vote, calling for "accurate information and respectful debate" from politicians. In the context of another murder, that of Arkadiusz Jozwick from Poland, the Commission condemned racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks on the streets, and reports of hijabs being pulled off as “stains on our society”.
It is right-wing populism, some call it fascism, of the worst kind. We need only look at who welcomed Brexit and the election of Trump to see why these developments are of such concern: UKIP in the UK whose leader Nigel Farage has close links with Trump, Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France, Gert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, to name but some.
It is true that there are large sections of society, whole towns and communities, which have suffered greatly as a result of the neo-liberal economic policies which became the orthodoxy many decades ago, particularly in the Anglo-American world. This was followed by the sustained austerity policies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis caused by bankers who thought they were the masters of the universe until they crashed and had to be bailed out by the state. Once again it was not the top but the bottom of society which suffered and continues to suffer.
Combine this with the lack of transparency in some EU institutions and there is the perfect toxic mix which right-wing populist parties can exploit to stir up the popular anger for their own ends. One can argue about the merits of the EU – and it does have merits, the most fundamental of which was the goal of its founding fathers to stop devastating wars ever starting in Europe again. But this was not such an argument: it was an appeal, based on lies, to the worst prejudices of people who wanted to lash out at a ruling elite and the consequences of globalisation.
Where these elites carry a heavy burden of responsibility is in failing to address these concerns.
Globalisation is here to stay. We live in a changed world in which the certainty of a job for life with a secure pension has gone. The question is, how can globalisation be given a form which benefits all sections of society, not just multinational corporations.
Now that xenophobic prejudices are becoming acceptable, we are faced with the consequences: deeply divided societies in which immigration and immigrants are a convenient excuse for everything that is wrong with society. Whether that is true or not has become irrelevant. In Britain it fits into the right-wing populist narrative that the only way for this country to be “great” again is Brexit. Nuanced argument has become very difficult. Nationalism in the very worst sense of the word is spreading its tentacles.
As far as Britain’s departure from the EU is concerned, the vehemence with which anyone questioning hardline Brexit is attacked as seeking to thwart the will of the people reflects the underlying insecurity of the Brexit position; the endlessly repeated mantra of the “clear” win of the leavers is built on very shaky foundations. But if it is repeated often enough, people will believe it.
After all, a four percent margin of victory (52 to 48 percent) concentrated in England and Wales is anything but overwhelming. For the 17 million who voted for leaving the EU, 16 million voted against doing so. Of all eligible voters, only 37 percent wanted to go. Hardly “Britain” voting to leave the EU. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted by much more significant majorities to stay in. In those nations and the multi-ethnic capital immigration and close links with Europe are seen as a benefit not a threat.
The attempt to close down debate about Brexit and what form it should take is profoundly undemocratic. When the High Court ruled that the British parliament should have a say about Britain leaving the EU rather than simply allowing the government to declare the country’s exit, the language in parts of the press was reminiscent of totalitarian regimes past and present.
“Enemies of the people” screamed the Daily Mail under a picture of the three judges. It is a very short step from “Enemies of the people” to “String ‘em up”. What next – sack or arrest the judges, lawyers, civil servants, teachers and journalists who won’t toe the Brexit line and throw them in jail? Turkey is a good example of a country which is already well advanced down that particular authoritarian road.
We should not be surprised at such outbursts from papers like the Daily Mail, but what is much more concerning, indeed shocking, is the response – or lack of it – of the British government. Liz Truss, whose role as justice minister is to defend the independence of the judiciary, took a very long time before eventually managing a luke-warm defence of the judges after a lot of urging; and prime minister Theresa May was hardly more forthcoming in defending the judges against accustations that their ruling was based not on the law but their politics.
Ironically, the central argument of most Brexiteers has been that sovereignty needed to be returned from Brussels to the British parliament and the British courts. But – it seems – only as long as parliament and the courts do as they’re told. In what is actually a complex argument as to where sovereignty resides at many different levels, no doubt the judiciary will be attacked even more viciously if the Supreme Court rules against the government in the appeal which has just been heard.
“Post-truth” was recently chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as their word of the year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Objective facts are clearly a very old-fashioned concept when a good lie and an appeal to people’s basest instincts is much more likely to produce the desired result.
The trouble is, once you let that particular genie out of the bottle it is very hard to get it back in again.
Item: 161210-01EN Date: 10 December 2016
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