At the age of 72, I begin to wonder, for the first time in my life, if there might be a future for a fascist party in Britain. The thought has been provoked by the riots, or rather the response of many to them.
The riots themselves were horrible, an outburst of callous criminality, doubtless enjoyable for those who took part in it. Yet they were comparatively unimportant. To say this is not to pretend that they weren’t frightening, that people weren’t killed, or that other victims did not suffer injury or damage to their property. Nevertheless, disturbances of this kind have happened before, and will happen again. Sometimes a fuse is lit, in this case by the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, and then the tinder-box explodes. Happily the rioting subsided quite quickly, as was predictable. Such things normally fizzle out, though they may well flare up again.
Some of the reaction was at least as worrying . A Conservative MEP, Roger Helmer, sent out a tweet: ‘Time to get tough. Bring in the army. Shoot rioters and looters.’ Given that we are engaged in military action in Libya to prevent Colonel Gaddafi from using violence on his own people, as the Foreign Secretary and others have put it, this call to shoot our people in the streets of London was both intemperate and hypocritical. It was also remarkably stupid. A riot set off by the police shooting of one man was more likely to be enflamed than quelled by shooting a few more, especially if the victims were teenagers.
Daniel Knowles, assistant comment editor on the Daily Telegraph, pointed this out in a well-reasoned blogpost, and wrote that someone who thought like Helmer had, in his opinion, no place in a modern Conservative party. This stirred things up.
One contributor wrote: ‘Three cheers for Roger Helmer — finally some proper Conservative thinking.’ Shooting young criminals without trial — is this ‘proper Conservative thinking’? Another declared Helmer should be prime minister. Another wrote that it was because of people like Knowles that ‘the Conservative party did not win an outright majority at the last election’. Yet another said that Helmer had at least been elected, while nobody had elected Knowles to express his views. Actually, of course, he is employed as a journalist to do just this on the Telegraph’s comment pages and blogs; but hatred of a free press is characteristic of fascism.
The rioters were mostly young people whose actions deserve condemnation, but whose situation should inspire pity and sympathy from those of us in more fortunate circumstances. They got neither from Knowles’s critics — Helmer’s admirers . They were denounced as ‘feral scum’, ‘vermin’ , ‘feckless wasters’, ‘little shits’. ‘If the police were allowed to shoot these scum, there would be a lot less about.’ One writer , deciding — sadly? — that the rioters wouldn’t be shot, suggested they should be flogged. Another recommended 20 years’ ‘hard labour’.
Now let us admit that the writers were afraid and indignant, and that some of them may be stupid. Unfortunately, fascism has always appealed to the fearful, the indignant, and the stupid. Fascism feeds on resentment and rancour. It sets up ‘the other’ as an object of hatred — Jews or blacks or ‘feral scum’: ‘vermin’ is a word the Nazis applied to the Jews. Here we see a comparable hatred directed at the young — whether the ill-educated ‘feral scum’ or overeducated liberal Oxbridge graduates, ignorant of ‘real life’: a charge directed in insulting language at Daniel Knowles.
The contempt for politicians — Cameron, Clegg, May, Miliband, Brown, Blair — recalls the way the Nazis inveighed against the democratic parties of the Weimar republic. Fascism appeals to a sense of betrayal: our country has been taken away from us by liberal-socialists — the two terms seem to interchangeable — and given over to ‘vermin’, many of them immigrants. While proclaiming its desire to restore law and order, fascism calls for summary ‘justice’: shoot the little shits and feral scum. There is a genuine widespread feeling, among the white working and lower-middle classes, that the politicians, the police and the legal system have failed them, This was reflected in the close to a million votes given to the BNP in the last European election.
Now the fear of disorder and violence gives the BNP and the EDL an opportunity. The EDL offers to act as stewards for vigilante groups: the foot-in-the-door technique. BNP activists have been out in the streets of Ealing and Croydon spelling out what they call ‘a message of hope’: ‘We can restore order.’ They plan a ‘Day of Action’ for Saturday, and ‘expect that the Leftist thugs will be out to cause as many problems as possible for the BNP’. This is a classic fascist strategy. Stir up the opposition, provoke street-fighting and present yourselves as the party of order and discipline. Mussolini’s ‘Arditi’ or ‘Squadristi’ played this role; so did the SA — Röhm’s Brownshirts.
Inter-war fascism established itself in countries where there was no long tradition of parliamentary government and where the politicians were seen as weak, corrupt, out-of touch with social and economic realities, and unpatriotic. Fascism promised a radical cleansing and national renewal: to create a strong and ‘healthy’ state, the existing order had to be discredited and then penetrated.
There is of course a difference between then and there and now and here. Inter-war Germany and Italy were immature polities. In contrast, our parliamentary tradition is old. Yet it is fraying, and may be seen as rotten, in need of a similar cleansing and renewal. The political class is neither respected nor trusted; indeed it is despised and resented as never before. On questions such as social policies, law and order, Europe and immigration, there is a gulf between the elite and a substantial part of the nation. So, while there is no fascist party of any significance in Britain, there is a fascist mood in some parts of the country. The question is how it should be addressed. To my mind this is a far more important, even urgent, question than seeking explanations for these few days of rioting.
It is easy to dismiss the extravagant language provoked by Knowles’s article as ‘the raving of a bunch of nutters on the internet’. Fair enough, but remember: the Nazi movement started with the raving of a bunch of nutters in Munich beer-cellars. You think fascism couldn’t happen here? Early in 1932 the writer Klaus Mann, watching Hitler stuff his face with strawberry tarts in the Carlton Tea Rooms in Munich, thought, ‘He is not to be our dictator. You have no chance, silly little moustache… You are a washout.’ A year later, Hitler was in power, and the Nazi revolution under way.