THE BLOG

Across Europe Nationalism Is on the Rise

27/05/2014 13:18 | Updated 26 July 2014

Not since the 1930s has nationalism enjoyed the influence and traction in Europe it does today.

Across the continent we are witnessing nationalist parties and movements - extreme and not so extreme - having the kind of impact they could only ever have in a time of economic recession and convulsion. The EU election results have seen the Front National in France, the Danish People's Party in Denmark, and UKIP in Britain record significant electoral success, though encouragingly in Greece the radical alternative of choice has been the Left, where Syriza recorded 26.4% of the vote on an avowedly anti-austerity platform.

Regardless of Syriza's success, however, nationalism in the second decade of the 21st century has emerged throughout Europe as a dangerously divisive and reductive reaction to the deleterious impact of global economic factors, feeding on the fear produced by the economic insecurity being suffered by millions of people as a consequence. It is evidence that economic upheaval produces political upheaval, providing the opportunity for radical solutions to seemingly intractable crises.

This was the terrain out of which fascism grew 80 years ago. The Great Depression had delivered millions into the arms of destitution and unemployment across a European continent that was yet to fully recover from the catastrophe of the First World War. As with the economic shock to engulf the world in 2008, the Great Depression of the 1930s started in the United States with the stock market crash of 1929, arriving on the back of a boom that had been fueled by an unsustainable level of consumer debt, reckless lending in poorly regulated markets, and lack of long-term investment. The result was a global slump which proved a godsend to hitherto marginal political figures such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, along with the movements they led.

In their modern incarnation, nationalist movements and parties throughout the continent, with the exception of Scotland, have succeeded in legitimizing racist views and the revulsion of multiculturalism and immigration. In its most extreme form this has manifested in organized violence against people deemed 'untermenschen'.

The growth in support for Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, for example, is indisputably a product of the collapse of the Greek economy and the tsunami of mass anger and rage it produced in the country. In 1996 Golden Dawn received a total of 4,537 votes in Greek parliamentary elections. In 2012 they received 440,000 in the country's May elections. The difference between 1996 and 2012 was not Golden Dawn or its toxic politics, but the change in the country's economic and social conditions. With three Golden Dawn candidates having just won election to the European Parliament, receiving around ten percent of the vote, this trend continues.

In Britain Nigel Farage, whom to judge by the favourable coverage he receives by the BBC in particular might lead us to believe that he's paying them for it, and UKIP have made massive gains, embarrassing the mainstream parties on the way to being the first party outside the Tories or Labour to win a national UK election in modern history. It comes as an astonishing endorsement of a party whose political program would not look out of place in the England of the 18th century - that mythical green and pleasant land immortalized by William Blake in his popular poem Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, north of the border in Scotland, the Scottish National Party approaches the referendum in September to determine whether Scotland separates from the UK more confident than it is entitled to be given the vacuous political vision it offers. As with UKIP in England, the SNP has seen its fortunes improve on the back of the economic crisis which engulfed the country six years ago and the Tory led coalition government's austerity program of draconian spending cuts in response. Making the resulting pain even harder to take is that with just one elected MP the Tories have no electoral base in Scotland. This has served to expose a democratic deficit, sharpening a sense of collective grievance on the part of a growing number of Scots, benefiting the SNP.

Underpinning both UKIP's and the SNP's political programs is the belief that erecting a border equates to progress. Within those parameters, however, the policies of both are distinct. The SNP and its supporters have embraced what they describe as 'civic nationalism', wherein it is people living in Scotland not Scottish people per se who are the determining factor in their priorities. The SNP maintain that their vision for Scotland is modern, forward-thinking, and progressive. That said, as with every nationalist project or movement, the SNP's politics obscures rather than illuminates the key divide in society - economic and social class.

Across the rest of Europe nationalist parties have seen their fortunes improve over the past five years of an economic recession caused by the failures of neoliberalism and the failure of the political mainstream to relegate this extreme variant of capitalism to history. Whether it is the Catalan separatist movement in Spain, Front National in France, Italy's Northern League. Allianz fur Deutschland in Germany, nationalism is not just enjoying a renewal in its fortunes, it is succeeding in influencing the mainstream political discourse.

Some have compared the SNP to Ireland's Sinn Fein. It is a false comparison, however. Sinn Fein has a distinct history and development compared to the SNP's. The Irish people suffered the kind of oppression commensurate with its centuries-long status as a British colony, while Scotland was a colonial partner of England's and played a key role in forging the British Empire. This difference is reflected in the constitutional stance of both parties today - specifically Sinn Fein's refusal to swear an oath to the Queen and take up seats in the British Parliament and the SNP's desire to retain the British monarchy as head of state should Scotland vote for independence.

Scottish trade union leader Jimmy Reid, himself a convert to nationalism in later life, famously compared nationalism to electricity - capable of keeping a baby alive in an incubator or frying a man in an electric chair. The determining factor in both cases comes down to the specific ends nationalism serves.

In the 1930s nationalism emerged as a reaction to blind economic forces that had sown chaos and despair. That same chaos and despair has been largely responsible for its recrudescence in 2014. The collapse of neoliberalism, and the response across Europe in the form of austerity, has planted the seeds out of which nationalism in its various shades has grown and is growing.

The EU and immigration are not the cause of the hardship being suffered by millions of people throughout the continent - austerity is. The lack of a serious and progressive alternative within the mainstream to this malign and ideologically driven fixation with making the poor pay for the greed of the rich is manna from heaven for those who preach the politics of separation and despair.

Learning the lessons of history in this regard has never been more urgent.