The politcal challenges thrown up to the status quo in Europe in the aftermath of global recession and the Eurozone crisis has prompted a surge of media and think-tank interest in the concept of populism.
Although a notoriously slippery term – and one often used in a loose, disparaging sense to describe demagogic promise-making by unsavoury extremist outsiders – most academic researchers concur with the definition of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: an ideological construction that sees politics as dominated by immoral and collusive elites who do down a homogeneous and unsullied People – sometimes by promoting the interests of undeserving minorities. Populists thus offer themselves to electorates as truth tellers, tribunes of the People and righters of wrongs.
However, as populism is famously a ‘thin ideology’ whose basic construct needs to filled in and filled out with political ballast from elsewhere. For this reasons populism seems chameleon-like. It can assume many political colourations: from the (much studied) extreme right through regionalism, free marketry and radical left populism.
The academic study of comparative populism and the sense that populist movements have been the main beneficiaries of the politics of austerity triggered by the global recession of 2008-9 are brought together in a new collection edited by Takis S. Pappas and Hanspeter Kriesi European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015).
The book assesses the political impact of the Recession by examining pre- and post-crisis fortunes of 25 populist parties in 17 European countries, which are grouped in five regional clusters: Nordic (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland); North European (France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland); Southern Europe (Italy and Greece); and Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia); and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ pairing of the UK and Ireland.
In Nordic and Northern Europe countries and – with the rise of UKIP – the UK the main populist challengers are radical right or anti-immigrant parties, in Southern and Eastern Europe populism is a more mixed bag comprising conservative-nationalism, radical leftists, technocratic market reformers and hard-to-categorize anti-corruption movements. Read More…
What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small northern European country with a strong, broadly social-democratic political culture?
For the Scottish Conservatives, whose secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.
That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.
But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.
We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?
Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?
Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?) alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess, still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.
After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.
Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration. Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia) but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.
Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.
Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties. Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.
Perhaps Central and East European politics then? After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist) parties there.
However, as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit, we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.
So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965 and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)
Unless, like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making. Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.
Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.
Don’t worry though, readers, I haven’t taken up crack cocaine or blown the house on internet poker. Just belatedly discovered hit Danish crimi The Killing (Forbrydelsen), now being re-run on BBC4, and splashed out on the boxed DVD set to find out whodunnit.
We Brits, it seems, just can’t get enough of Inspector Norse (see BBC4’s excellent documentary Nordic Noir ) who inthis case is austere, self-sufficient, jumper-wearing obsessive DI Sarah Lund.
There’s a very strong political sub-plot in the series as Lund’s investigation of the brtual murder of 19 year old women Nanna Birk Larsen leads ever closer to Copenhagen City Hall and the closely contested mayoral election between Liberal candidate Troels Hartmann and incumbent (Social Democrat?) mayor Bremer. Hartmann is most closely implicated as one of his campaign cars is used to dump the body of the victim,.
I won’t give the plot away, but what’s interesting from a political science point of view is how well the Danish political system comes out. Although clearly a political pro accustomed to wheeling and dealing, Hartmann is (with some key exceptions) basically a rather principled reformer. He refuses some of the dirtier strategems proposed by his advisors and the pressures to comprise his core beliefs for the sake tactical conveneince or because of pressure from his national party.
The police are subject – and for a while amenable – to political pressure to protect powerful figures from investigation, but in the end they are prove independent enough to go for them.
The municipal public administration perhaps comes out worse, although personal failings rather than institutional failure seem to lie at the heart of the what the ‘tecs uncover.
Power corrupts then, but not that much maybe.
A big contrast then with some of the older more established works of Scandi-crime writing, especially that of left-wing Swedish writers like Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and more distantly Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö . Here, behind the facade of a well-governed welfare society something is rotten in the state of Sweden with big businesspeople (sometimes pervvy or psychopathic), right-wing extremists, sinister spooks, blowback from the exploitation of the Third world and (post-1989/91) collusion with East European mafias being some of the favourite themes.
Personal crimes and misdemenours peel back to reveal inner social and political malaise.
The Killing has it the other way round.
Despite shockingly delivered plot twists, very dark subject matter and lashings of human tragegy and personal destruction wreaked on all characters, its underlying image of Denmark’s social and political institutions is, realistically, a rather positive one. Although individuals crumble and collapse – and issues such integration of migrants, while constantly mentioned, by Hartmann et al are basically rather glossed over – the country’s institutions work tolerably fairly and tolerably well.
I don’t know if Francis Fukuyama reads crime fiction – I would guess not – but I think he would like it. I do.
David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of differing opportunity structures (types of electoral system, party system format and so on) and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.
Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success – is dependent partly on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide. Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.
Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics. An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant right – is needed if they are to stick around. Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).
Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.
As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy, while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix: historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency. (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).
The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.
An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.
For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe. Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent, Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS). Poland represents, as so often, interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.
The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.
The question of cordons sanitaires in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually represented in government in Slovakia and Poland, although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s perhaps comes closest. Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable. In the end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.
When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.