By Praveen Swami
June 22, 2016
“No Popery”, the mob was shouting, as it tore down the house of the Earl of Mansfield, in London’s posh Queen’s Square. Richard Ingram, a local resident, told of how he watched “some furniture flying out, particularly a remarkable table, which struck my eye; it was thrown out of the two-pair-of-stairs room”. Then, books were set on fire, starting a giant blaze. Ingram tried reasoning with the mob as the building was set on fire, only to find it was a dangerous business: “Spies, spies”, the mob cried, spying the black cockade on Ingram’s hat, which identified him as an honorary captain of His Majesty’s Royal Dragoons.
In that summer of 1780, with Britain mired in wars with France, Spain and the US, the English working class had been hit by falling wages, rising prices and unemployment. Two years earlier, Parliament had eased official discrimination against Catholics, partly in the hope of raising more Irish soldiers. The issue was used to whip up working class anger by the Protestant politician Lord George Gordon — leading to attacks on wealthy Catholics, embassies of Catholic countries, and Catholic churches.
The idea of a Britain torn apart by ethnic-religious violence might seem implausible today. This week’s referendum on the country’s future in the European Union makes it imperative, though, to consider just that possibility. Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, English nationalism has now established itself as a major force, giving xenophobia unprecedented visibility in British political life. The assassination of Member of Parliament Jo Cox demonstrated the violent potential of this nationalism.
English nationalism isn’t an outlier, though. Leaving aside well-established far right-wing tendencies like France’s National Front or Austria’s neo-Nazi Freedom Party, xenophobic forces are resurgent even in Scandinavia’s socialist utopias.
For the European post-World War II ideals of pluralism and democracy, these xenophobic forces are a major challenge. In essence, the post-1945 order sought to build a liberal system based on human rights and democracy, in which questions of ethnic-religious identity would become irrelevant. Europe, it seems, might be beginning the unmaking of this order.
Ever since the autumn of 1980, the lethal potential of the European far-right has been well known. In August that year, 84 were killed when a bomb ripped through the Bologna railway station. Eleven were killed when the Munich Oktoberfest was targeted on September 26; four persons died when a bomb went off in front of a synagogue in Paris on October 2. Though the violence of the right has surfaced periodically — most spectacularly in the form of Anders Breivik’s killing of 77 people in 2011 — it has never acquired the political legitimacy it has today.
How has this come about? It’s no coincidence that xenophobic nationalisms have grown in the three decades during which the European welfare states built after 1945, the product of a century of working-class struggle, were systematically dismantled. In large parts of Europe, this process left working class communities economically disempowered and politically disenfranchised.
In a prophetic 1991 essay, the historian Eric Hobsbawm noted that this economic dislocation came at the end of decades of immigration into Europe — in the main, of workers brought in to work in factories that were now shutting down. He noted that “the massive population movements of the past 40 years — within and between countries and continents — have made xenophobia into a major political phenomenon”. There’s nothing resembling evidence to show immigration is responsible for white poverty, but they are an easy scapegoat for intractable frustrations, just as Catholics were in 1780.
Even though the UK is one of the 10 richest countries in the world, David Darton and Jason Strelitz noted in a study conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year, its growing prosperity over the last two decades has excluded large swathes of the population. “Many people — and in some cases whole neighbourhoods — have fallen further and further behind”, they wrote. “Many millions of people are unable to afford goods and services that the majority deem necessary”.
The Open Society Foundation’s granular 2015 study of white poverty in Manchester pointed to the fact that Higher Blackey, a largely white neighbourhood, had never recovered from the loss of industrial jobs a generation ago. That, coupled with educational under-attainment among poor white males, had resulted in “a marked and steady decline in democratic engagement and participation over the last 40 years with an increased sense of isolation from mainstream politics”.
Frustration is most marked among the young: One in three of the UK’s 9 million 14-24 year olds live in poverty, surveys have shown. Though black and Asian youth are over-represented in this cohort, over two in three are white.
In a thoughtful analysis of the nationalisms which rose across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian Miroslav Hroch noted that “where an old regime disintegrates, where old social relations have become unstable, amid the rise of general insecurity, belonging to a common language and culture may become the only certainty in society, the only value beyond ambiguity and doubt”. This disintegration of the old order — and the failure of traditional politics to offer transformative possibilities — has enabled the rise of the new, xenophobic politics.
Europe’s economic and institutional resources sometimes lead to sanguine assessments of its vulnerability to crisis. The German journalist Sebastian Haffner, watching events in the 1920s as Fascism began its inexorable rise, left the world with a contemporary insight which cautions against ignoring the new xenophobia.
“Hundreds of saviours were running around Berlin”, he wrote, “people with long hair, wearing hair-shirts, claiming that they had been sent by God to save the world”. “The most successful of them was a certain Haeusser, who advertised on advertising pillars and staged mass gatherings and had many followers. According to the newspapers, his Munich counterpart was a certain Hitler. Whereas Hitler wanted to bring about the thousand-year Reich by the mass murder of all Jews, in Thuringia a certain Lamberty wanted to bring it about by having everyone do folk dancing, singing, and leaping about”.
European liberalism might well be proved to have enough cultural and institutional capital to withstand a similar onslaught. But no one, Haffner’s account should remind us, should dismiss the prospect that such a challenge might lie ahead, in the not too distant future.