Like many, I’ve always been a bit baffled by the story of the rise of Nazism. The Germans I’ve met have appeared to be human beings like any other: in no signal way a different breed from my own countrymen.
Yet these are the great-grandchildren, grandchildren and children of a generation that was taken in by Adolf Hitler; or, worse, carried him forward; who supported (many of them) the Nazis; who knew or guessed what was happening to Jews, homosexuals and other minorities; who must either have turned a blind eye or positively encouraged what was happening.
How could they have? I’ve tried to insert myself into that era, imagine how it must have felt, picture a society in economic turmoil and gripped by personal insecurity, and think myself into a 1930s German frame of mind. I’ve rehearsed all the allowances that can be made: ignorance, despair, excitement at a leadership that seemed to offer hope and glory. I’ve even asked myself whether there could have been a scintilla of justification for believing at the time that one’s country was being debauched by international Jewry. Pushing my imagination as hard as I can, I’ve tried to feel how this madness might arise among a people such as my own.
But I’ve always failed. Clinging to the belief that the Germans cannot be very different, I’ve nevertheless been unable to suspend the here and now: to feel how it must have felt to them at the time.
Until now. In what I’m going to say there’s a very great danger of overstatement — or of being read in that way. So let me be absolutely clear at the outset. I am not saying that the new populist right in Britain are proto-fascists, neo-fascists, or anything like the European fascists of the past century. I don’t believe that in the end my fellow–Britons could ever be led on to the madness that was 1930s Germany. I retain a faith in the essential decency of most of my countrymen — and, more important, their ingrained restraint and sense of proportion.
So let me say it again: I see not a glimmer of the dawn of fascism in modern Britain, and to say otherwise would be scare-mongering; I know of no significant political figures today who would even dream of going that way; and, yes, for the record, that does include the leadership of Ukip.
But I’ve had recently a glimpse into the psyche of populism in our era and country; and this has helped me understand how things might have felt in another. I’ve experienced a month’s immersion in a strange and disturbing world: the online readers’ internet posts in my own newspaper, the Times; in the Daily Telegraph; on Conservative Home; and on the website run by ‘Guido Fawkes’.
There’s a reason for my adventure. I have been writing scornfully in the Times about Ukip and its supporters and about some (not most) of the Tory right; and I’ve painted a disobliging picture of the places and cultures — such as Clacton — where these tendencies thrive.
Let’s not beat about the bush. I’ve been rude about these people. Urging the Conservative party not to take the colour of its opinions from theirs, I’ve characterised their culture as being marked by failure. Though not quite as rude as Boris Johnson’s or Kenneth Clarke’s, my remarks have been insulting. I must therefore expect — and did expect — to be insulted back. I dish it out and (unlike many of them) I can take it. So I have not been surprised and must not feel traduced to be called a snob, an arrogant little squirt, a pinko and proto-Marxoid, and (on the Fawkes website) a puss-filled queer — or words to that effect: I forbear to recheck the reference. And worse. And that’s fine.
So leave me out of it. It’s these voters’ opinions about their fellow countrymen, about foreigners, about immigrants, about Muslims, about MPs (all MPs), about the rich, about London, about culture, about business people, and about anyone of a liberal disposition, that have offered me the dismaying glimpse I describe. It’s a dark, bilious and resentful world down there among the readers’ posts.
You’ll remind me that these commentators are no more representative than the loudmouths who call in to shock-jock radio phone-ins; that I’m looking at a grotesquely skewed sample; that such individuals have always existed and may signify little. Well, I remind myself of that too, when depressed in the small hours, in the dark, ploughing through and responding as our editors enjoin us to do, and temporarily plunged into a kind of Hieronymus Bosch netherworld. So yes, they aren’t typical, may not be numerous, and may not signify….
And yet. I hear echoes of their craziness from the real world of real politics among the right. The worst of it — the nub of it — is, first, the paranoia; second, the blind hatred that follows the paranoia; and third (and relatedly) the blanking of their minds, the glazing over of their eyes, the blocking of their ears, whenever confounded by a counter-example or incontrovertible correction to a false claim.
If you set out with sufficient determination from the founding premise that we’re all going to the dogs, and foreigners, Brussels, rich people and a massive conspiracy led by corrupt Westminster politicians and European ringmasters are driving us there, and anyone who argues otherwise must be part of the conspiracy, then there is almost no counter-argument, no fact, that cannot be navigated round. When stymied in their argument, they simply change the subject. I am coming miserably to the conclusion that a kind of collective mental illness can whip large numbers of people into a Gadarene rush — and reason is helpless in its path.
So no, these people aren’t Nazis and I’m sure never will be. But I have begun to understand the mass psychosis we call populism and, rather late in my life, almost to despair.