It Can’t Happen Here

Michael Chessum

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.


  • 9 December 2023 at 8:40am
    Ken Edwards says:
    Brilliant article - stating what seems to me the obvious, but is clearly not obvious to many. The myth that far-right politics is anathema to "British values" persists, even when the evidence to the contrary is staring us in the face.

  • 9 December 2023 at 9:21pm
    steve kay says:
    But with Sheikh Mansour bin Zahedan Al-Nahyan taking over the remains of the Spectator and Torygraph, we can look forward to honest, informed and liberal journalism, surely?

  • 11 December 2023 at 4:34pm
    Ted Eames says:
    An excellent summary. A Braverman-led Conservative Party will certainly re-energise the UKIP, Brexit Party, nationalistic constituency after the next election. Things are in such a mess that Labour will struggle to make significant improvements within a single term in office, leaving plenty of scope for a populist reaction. And, by this time next year, the far right around the world might well be further boosted by the return of the Republicans in the USA, Trump or no Trump.

  • 13 December 2023 at 7:26pm
    John P brennan says:
    Hear, Hear!

  • 13 December 2023 at 7:28pm
    gary morgan says:
    Terrific piece and I am glad that Elliot's remarkable pro-Brexit Guardian piece got a mention.
    As the fiance of a Kenyan who wishes to live here, I am already hard-put to explain our unrepentant attitude to The (Kenyan) Emergency in which, as a maumau cadre, her Dad fought; this is going to make our life together more difficult.
    He, remarkably, has always seen the British as fair-minded; her respects us and has always admired us as "very wise."
    He will soon be disappointed by our increased nastiness and chauvinism.
    It's worth repeating that Patel, Braverman and Sunak himself have African roots. I cannot say that I expected better. Goudging would-be immigrant Britons is remarkably short-sighted...but those "small boats" must be lept out and dog-whistle politics must be kept up. The first shot in the General Election, perhaps?
    Gary Morgan

  • 14 December 2023 at 2:39pm
    Rory Allen says:
    '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.’

    I lost any faith in the judgement of Larry Elliot after reading his recent article defending Brexit, on the grounds that it 'wasn't a disaster'. It's a pity that the leave campaign did not make clear that we should vote for Brexit because it would not be so bad, all things considered, at the end of the day, chin up, mustn't grumble.

    Meanwhile those of us who have studied any history remember the Blackshirt movement under Oswald Mosley, and the Daily Mail articles such as 'Hurrah for the blackshirts!' (Viscount Rothermere, 1934), 'Give the blackshirts a helping hand' (ditto), and 'The blackshirts have what the Conservatives need', R Moore, 1934. And so on and so on.

    Mosley has passed on; the Daily Mail remains.

  • 16 December 2023 at 10:49pm
    Andy White says:
    I beg to differ. Michael Chessum was one of the key players in ‘Another Europe Is Possible’, the organisation which managed to persuade the Labour Party to adopt its policy of re-running the Brexit referendum. That policy caused mass defections from Labour in the 2019 General Election and we have been living with the consequences ever since - the great moving right show. It was a policy that achieved the exact opposite of what it aimed to prevent.

    And why was it so important that the referendum be re-run and Brexit be reversed? Because to Chessum and co. the Brexit project was an entirely racist, ethno-nationalist, far-right phenomenon. Far too few people spotted then that blanket dismissals of one’s opponents as “fascists” is playground politics, (or for those of a certain age, the politics of Rick in The Young Ones). No further analysis of the Leave vote or why large numbers of working-class people might not trust the EU to act in their interests was thought necessary.

    From this article one can only conclude that unfortunately, Michael Chessum has not moved on from the simplistic, generalising analysis that proved so disastrous in 2019. But we should.

    • 17 December 2023 at 1:57pm
      XopherO says: @ Andy White
      I agree with much of this, the idea of rerunning the referendum was always toxic, and combined with 'Get Brexit Done' was the main reason Labour lost. The attacks on Corbyn from his own party were the icing on the cake for the Blairites. Corbyn's relative success in 2017 brought the Establishment down on him. But of course, 'Corbyn' is a convenient excuse for failure from those supposedly on his own side who were determined to make him a loser! The Forde Report and Wynstanley's 'Weaponising Antisemitism' show the deep hypocrisy and betrayal within the Parliamentary Labour Party and its officials and employees, as well as undercover activity from the Israeli Embassy - the latest revelations from the Ambassador should not surprise us. Corbyn was no charismatic leader (nor is the shape-shifter Starmer) but his proposed policies were hardly to the left of Attlee or Wilson (let's not talk about Blair and his supposed 'successes' like PFI crippling hospitals and schools, never mind the illegal war he promoted with deaths which make the Gaza war look like a skirmish) Of course Starmer could not mention Wilson (who kept the UK out of Vietnam as well as getting major reforms) when he praised the Thatcher who began the rot of neoliberalism with Reagan.

  • 20 December 2023 at 6:07pm
    enfieldian says:
    British governments - Tory, Labour, both the same - have been nasty to immigrants at least since the 1919 Immigration Act. I think the point this blog missed is that our constipated politics has not yet thrown up a new party, which would mobilize people both on the issue of race and immigration and on the traditionally more “left wing” issues, such as housing, wages, services, etc. UKIP, or whatever it currently calls itself, would not fit the bill: its voters are overwhelmingly old, sedentary people, not the angry street fighting young. No, Britain is not exceptional, but what was true in the 1930’s is still - so far - true of Britain today: a country which is too stupid to develop a radical left-wing tradition, will, thankfully, be too unfocused to produce a Nazi or fascist movement.

  • 22 December 2023 at 4:18am
    Graucho says:
    It isn't that we have too many immigrants, it's that we don't have enough homes, haven't trained enough doctors, haven't made teaching attractive enough to get enough teachers. When will people start protesting and voting about the issues that do matter and fill the rest of the glass instead of emptying it.

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