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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.