Those of us living in Britain today, whether we originally hail from these shores or not, are only too aware that we are living through a major historical moment. Those of us involved in analysing the radical rights are also very conscious of the fact that, whatever deal is (or isn’t) reached between Britain and the EU, this is a dangerous time. Radical right groups, already emboldened by Brexit, will undoubtedly continue to promote their narratives of division and betrayal over the coming months and years. Even more alarmingly, it is increasingly obvious that the British government (and figures around it, especially within the Conservative Party) are validating many of the more dangerously nationalist elements of the Brexit narrative, particularly its implicit focus on national (and, by extension, racial) identity.
In a statement posted to Twitter on the 8th February, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke – known for his advocacy of environmental politics, in particular – offered his views on the situation:
It is hard to disagree with the basic thrust of Yorke’s statement. The determination of Theresa May’s government to proceed with Brexit despite the mounting evidence that it is simply undeliverable in the form most of its advocates (let alone leave voters) intended is, for want of a better expression, akin to driving a bus over a cliff edge. Equally, the way in which the government has handled the issue of EU migrants in Britain is shameful, and is undoubtedly causing a huge amount of distress. What should be even clearer, however, is that (for all its unpleasantness) this situation is nothing like ‘the early days of the Third Reich’. Whilst what came after was bloodshed on a different scale, the months after the Nazis first came to power in 1933 featured widespread political violence and intimidation, continuing a pattern that had been well established over the previous few years.
Of course, in drawing this analogy, Yorke is continuing a well-established pattern within the British left’s opposition to various forms of radical right politics. The Anti-Nazi League famously geared its opposition to the National Front in the 1970s around exposing the Nazi beliefs of the Front’s leaders, but similar rhetorical tactics have also been applied to various figures in the Conservative Party over the years. In June 1970 Tony Benn, the ever-celebrated hero of the Labour radical left, responded to Enoch Powell’s latest speech by declaring that ‘The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen’. Far more recently the more centrist figure of Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable made headlines for claiming that one part of Theresa May’s 2017 Conservative Party conference speech (specifically the oft-quoted line of ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’) ‘could’ve been taken from Mein Kampf’.
One might say that there is a kernel of truth even in the more hyperbolic of these examples, and that exaggeration can promote awareness of the danger present in less extreme expressions of ostensibly radical right ideas. This is true, to an extent, but it ignores the fact that such exaggerated use of historical analogy may be equally likely to prompt ridicule and thus undermine such attempts to spread awareness. It shouldn’t need spelling out that, in a country that has (however narrowly) voted for Brexit in recent times, one is not going to be able to persuade even a sizeable minority of voters that the Prime Minister’s words or actions are akin to those of a genocidal dictator like Hitler. Even more problematically we must recognise that the “Nazi” epithet may not be constructive even when applied to today’s iterations of the non-mainstream radical right. In Britain “Tommy Robinson” (or Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, to give his real name) is widely derided by opponents as a fascist or a Nazi, but his appeal to his supporters is based largely on his ability to associate himself with a vision of working-class Englishness that, in the popular imagination, stood against Hitler in the Second World War. “Robinson” even has a quote from Winston Churchill, unassailably (if somewhat problematically) positioned in that same popular imagination as the man who led the fight against fascism in the 1940s, tattooed on his arm. Once again, then, a reliance on this particular form of historical analogy may not prove beneficial, and in fact might only make it easier for “Robinson” and his supporters to dismiss their opponents.
Equally, progressives who look to oppose radical right agendas must be aware that when we reference the inter-war years we cannot simply pick and choose which bits of the history we want to refer to (something that, incidentally, we criticise the radical right for all the time). In some cases, analogies with this period could easily work to undermine progressive aims. To give an example, many on the left in contemporary Britain (including, for the record, this author) believe in the adoption of some form of proportional representation as a means to resolving some of the democratic impasses in our current political system. Can this argument really be made in the same breath as drawing comparisons between our current situation and that of inter-war Germany? Proportional representation did not cause the demise of Weimar democracy but it did, in combination with various long-term fractures in the German political system, contribute to the political instability of the period, in which twenty different governments were formed in a little under fourteen years. If our current historical moment can be said to be reminiscent of that which led to the foundation of the Third Reich in 1933, then it would be more logical to call for some form of emergency national government (i.e. for further transfer of power to existing political elites) than to argue for a more democratic political process.
If referring to the demise of democracy in inter-war Germany is off the table then what history should we centre our opposition to radical right ideals on? The answer should, surely, be the long history of anti-racism. In Britain there is a long tradition of resistance to racism that, whilst it has often employed the same analogies with the 1930s, has also been – at its most effective – rooted in a more general opposition to the racial prejudice imbued not just in the politics of the radical right but also (frequently) in the policies pursued by the British state. In our current historical moment, with a potentially disastrous Brexit on the horizon, we must recognise that racism is the breeding ground for forms of radical right politics that – largely, if not exclusively – threaten our democracy not through the possibility of launching a fascist dictatorship but by influencing those in government to use the powers of the state to further divide our society. In this sense, we need to turn our attention closer to home and resist the temptation to continuously conjure the spectre of Nazi extremism.
Mr Benjamin Bland is an Early Career Researcher Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London. His profile can be found here.
© Benjamin Bland. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
 The Times, 4 Jun 1970, 1.