It Can’t Happen Here
Geert Wilders’s victory in the Dutch election seems to have shocked the establishment in Brussels and London. With 23.5 percent of the vote, the right-wing populist People’s Party (PVV) more than doubled its parliamentary representation and became the Netherlands’ largest party. The day after the result, a Times editorial warned that ‘mainstream parties across Europe should take note.’ Clearly they didn’t have a pen and paper handy when Marine Le Pen came within 10 per cent of the French presidency in 2022, or when Giorgia Meloni became prime minister of Italy, or when the Sweden Democrats were ushered into a confidence and supply arrangement, or when Vox almost entered government in Spain.
‘Will Britain soon get its own Geert Wilders?’ Allison Pearson asked in the Telegraph. Britain already has several, and they have been running the government for years. We already have a de facto asylum ban in the form of the Illegal Immigration Act. European free movement ended with Brexit in 2020. Rishi Sunak now plans to bar anyone earning less than £38,700, including British citizens, from bringing their partners and dependants to the country. While they cannot match Wilders’s aggressive anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Conservative Party’s immigration policy differs from the PVV’s only in the sense that it is more ambitious and easier to implement.
The day after Wilders was elected, Newsnight reported its astonishment that, in a founding member of the EU, a ‘far-right leader’ had won first place on an anti-immigration ticket. Meanwhile, the UK government intends to press ahead with deporting refugees to Rwanda in an act of symbolic cruelty, despite a Supreme Court ruling on 15 November that doing so would be contrary to the UN Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In response to the ruling, Rishi Sunak announced that he would have Parliament simply declare Rwanda a ‘safe country’. Reporting on Sunak’s plan, Newsnight framed the issue as one of political intrigue and hurdles to implementation. It sought input from multiple politicians who advocated Britain’s withdrawal from the ECHR, but no one who wanted to challenge the policy on a moral level. Robert Jenrick resigned as immigration minister because he thinks the proposed legislation ‘does not go far enough’.
While the far right advances across Europe, the British cling to exceptionalism. Larry Elliot in the Guardian reassures readers that ‘the UK has not witnessed the rise of the nasty nationalism seen across the channel.’ Keir Starmer speaks of ‘fair play, respect for difference, the rule of law’. Suella Braverman last year lauded Britons as ‘fair-minded, tolerant and generous in spirit’. Three months later, she introduced the legislation that imposes lifetime bans on migrants who arrive irregularly, effectively withdrawing the UK from international refugee conventions. A clear majority of the public backed the policy. Yet the obsolete vision of Britain as a moderating influence against continental excess endures.
One of the arguments for Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system is that it supposedly locks out extremism. It’s true that proportional representation has made it easier for the PVV, and other European far-right parties, to gain an electoral foothold. But in order to govern they will need the support of the centre and centre-right, which should moderate much of their platform.
In the UK, this alliance is hardwired in the Conservative Party. David Cameron was the self-proclaimed ‘compassionate Conservative’ leader who, while imposing a brutal regime of austerity, legalised gay marriage and said that his proudest achievement was increasing the UK’s foreign aid budget. His return to the cabinet as foreign secretary last month was sold as a sop to the party’s liberal wing. But it also shows that, having tipped the Conservatives in the direction of border-building and authoritarianism, the leadership can expect the disciplined support of almost every ‘wet’, including Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. As Braverman’s sacking and Jenrick’s resignation make clear, the fault lines are on the party’s right.
Most British liberals have confidence in our institutions to withstand the onward march of the far right. This is a sign of complacency, not inoculation. Now that right-wing nationalism has entered the mainstream, our political system acts to promote and normalise it. It is the captive of a mass media driven by the agendas of three billionaire families – the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – who between them own 70 per cent of our newspapers. Next year, the many British versions of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen will be swept from office. But their policies and influence will linger. Short-term catharsis is no guarantee of long-term safety.