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The global right rears its head in more than one location

By George Sumner - posted Thursday, 15 February 2001

Over here in Britain we have read about the recent successes of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation with much concern. Yet there is a temptation for the British to be smug about the absence of any parallel in the UK. It is easy to talk of an apparent liberal tradition in the UK that ensures any hard right movement remains on the outer fringes of the political landscape. The National Front in the UK would never have had the same electoral success as the One Nation Party – their visibility in the 1970s and 1980s was due to an aggressive and sometimes violent reputation rather than performance at the polls. Those praising British tolerance in this way also get the chance to sneer at our European neighbours for being stirred by the crude messages of the hard right – like Le Penn in France. Such complacency is misplaced. The sentiments of Hanson’s party can be found in the UK. But what is more disturbing is that such ideas are to be found in a mainstream political party.

Pauline Hanson has sought to gain political advantage by looking to an external threat to explain and blame for the problems faced by society, and has done so with a success previously unseen in Australia in recent years. Yet in Britain some people in the Conservative Party also try to gain political mileage by whipping up fears that the very essence of Britishness is under siege from foreign forces. The nationalistic sentiments came to the surface just over a month ago when Conservative Party leader William Hague launched his bid for government at the Party’s spring conference with what has been dubbed the ‘foreign land’ speech. In this speech Hague told the Party faithful, "Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land – to Britain after a second term of Tony Blair". He then went on to paint a nightmare vision of Britain that included, "The Royal Mint melting down pound coins as the Euro notes start to circulate. Our currency gone forever. The chancellor returning from Brussels carrying instructions to raise taxes still further". Hague then told his audience, "It’s your last chance to vote for a Britain that still controls its own destiny". Under Mr. Hague, Britain’s destiny may be isolated and struggling, but at least we’ll be the architects of our own decline. The more I think about Hague as a Prime Minister, the more appealing I find his opening promise to take me on a journey to foreign land.

But Hague didn’t stop at bashing the supposedly demonic forces of European integration, he turned to asylum seekers. He promised that a Conservative government would lock up all asylum seekers while processing their claims. This process would take – Hague claims – just weeks after which, if their asylum application were deemed invalid, they would be promptly booted out of the country. Hague seemed to turn a blind eye to the brutality of locking up all asylum seekers, the costs of this measure, and the sheer impracticality. Those of you reading in Australia may not think these proposals are that controversial, as I understand lock-up practices are still used. However in the UK the speech was viewed as an appeal to people’s most base and crude prejudices. In recent years the asylum seeker has taken on a mythological status, like the welfare queen in Reagan’s USA. The phrases ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘bogus asylum seeker’ are used interchangeably as if there were little difference between the two. Those talking of a threat from abroad tend to refer to asylum seekers as ‘they’ who lie to the authorities to live in Britain in order to use ‘our’ health services or take ‘our’ jobs. The debate does not go back to why we need to protect genuine asylum seekers and the persecution that some people need to escape. Instead Hague’s speech represents a simplistic appeal to find a scapegoat for the country’s problems to those who cannot be bothered to understand the issues in any depth.


The speech has proven to be a political disaster. What on earth was Hague thinking? At a time when he needs to appeal to the centre ground, he has made a speech that marginalises his party even further to the right. Some leading members of the Conservative Party have expressed alarm. Michael Heseltine, a former contender for the Party leadership, has even said that he is uncertain whether he will vote Conservative this time round. The tough talking on asylum, with its disregard for civil liberties, gave the speech the crude tone normally associated with extremists on the periphery of politics. At the same time the reference to the European Union brought one of his Party’s most divisive issues to the forefront. If the speech was unpalatable to members of his own Party, then how could it ever persuade the rest of the country. Hague has not learned from the more subtle (though dishonest) messages used by George W. Bush – even if your instincts are hard right, talk like a moderate to get votes.

Not only have Hague’s remarks sent out the wrong message, but they have also given the green light to other Conservatives to speak out on similar themes. At the end of March Tory MP John Townend made a speech to his local Party claiming, "Our homogeneous Anglo-Saxon society has been undermined by the massive immigration, particularly coloured immigration, that has taken place since the war". Having set the tone, Mr. Townend then moved on to fuel the stereotype mentioned above, "Illegal immigrants now have a new ploy. They call themselves asylum seekers. In my view the only way to deal with the problem is to send them back quickly". That an elected representative could make such a remark is seriously worrying and should be a wake up call to anyone who thinks that views like Pauline Hanson’s lack representation in the UK. I also wonder just how many other right-wing MPs agree with these views but have the good sense to keep their mouths shut? Are there members out there who think that to stop short of producing a burning cross and white hood is a wishy-washy concession to political correctness? Although William Hague has made clear that Mr. Townend’s remarks were unacceptable, he must take some of the blame for opening up this discourse with his ‘foreign land’ speech.

Worse still the Conservative Party in Dagenham produced a campaign leaflet that claims the Blair Government "is now importing foreign Nurses with HIV", and then asks, "Is this Labour’s way of cutting hospital waiting lists, by scaring people not to go to hospital". Well if you really want to stir up hate, why not throw the fear of HIV infection into the equation? Like the previous remarks, these are not statements from an extreme minority party, but are taking place within the mainstream Conservative Party. In some ways it is more like the USA where such extremism has existed within the ranks of the Republican Party – with campaigns to restrict immigration, to deny welfare benefits to immigrants, and to make English the official national language. At least when a minor party expresses such views the influence on national politics is transparent and contained. When such views exist within a major political party, who knows what role it will play in a potential government. At the moment many people are expressing shock at just how influential the hard right has been in President Bush’s first months in office. That is why if William Hague genuinely wants to distance himself from extremists that have emerged since his ill judged speech, he should be willing to expel those people from his own Party and remove them from any position of influence.

Of course expulsion is a double-edged sword. The danger is that former party members will simply form their own political group and receive greater prominence – as well as dividing the main party’s vote. Pauline Hanson is not the only example, in the US former Reagan speech writer Pat Buchanan defected from the Republicans to join the Reform Party. Despite this risk, the Conservatives would gain greater political advantage by softening their image for the centre ground rather than appeasing a right wing core. The expulsion of those stirring up racial tensions would also send a clear signal that would discourage Conservative Party members from jumping on a right wing bandwagon. For William Hague to take charge of the Party in this way would be the responsible course of action, and the only way to prove that the views expressed by Mr. Townend or in the Dagenham leaflet are unacceptable in his Party.

At the heart of the remarks mentioned above is a concern about a change in Britain’s identity. It assumes that there is an essential British quality that should remain static. John Major summarised a romanticised version of British identity when he talked of a country of warm beer and cricket. When hearing such views it seems like British identity was fixed during the 1930s in the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse novel – of untroubled villages where serious crime meant a local prankster hiding a policeman’s helmet. The picture of the old Britain – the stiff upper lip, fair play and tidy lawns- forgets shorter life expectancy, disease or back breaking stints in factories or mines. Instead of attempting to protect a fictional stereotype of Britishness from a mythologised threat from abroad, Britain’s (or any country’s) identity should be viewed as something that develops over time. National identity is shaped by all the different races, groups and cultures within.

When thinking about the impact of Hanson’s movement, it is important not to see Australia in isolation. Wherever there is a hint of instability or insecurity in economic or social life, people will always look for someone to blame. Usually the target will be those that cannot easily defend themselves from criticism, like those living on welfare, or those with whom it is easiest to identify a difference, like recent immigrants. Such sentiments can be vented either with minor parties like the One Nation Party or in the mainstream such as the Conservative Party. Both ways pose dangers to society, and if the threatened global recession does arrive there is potential for these dangers to get bigger.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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