DJ Taylor: Scratch a neo-fascist and find despair

Support for the far right in the French presidential election – and here in Britain – is more about disillusion than dogma

As the psephologists racked up the votes cast for Marine Le Pen's Front Nationale in last Sunday's presidential election in France and wondered exactly where they might go in seven days' time, it was remarkable how often the word "shame" predominated. The fact that seven million electors had thrown their weight behind a candidate of the extreme right (many of whose policies seemed to have been filched from the extreme left) was evidently a disgrace and the result sufficient to constitute one of the most shameful moments in French history. I can think of one or two moments far more shameful than this, but never mind.

The reaction of the bien pensant commentator to fascism at the ballot box is one of the dreariest sights in contemporary politics, if only because it generally takes no account of the real reasons why people cast their votes. There was a pattern demonstration of this tendency on the morning after the UK general election of 2001, when it became apparent that more than 11,000 voters had plumped for the BNP candidate in the adjoining seats of Oldham East and West. This was a shocking result, local Labour figures insisted, and some kind of inquiry should immediately be set in train.

It was a shocking result – one in which the ghastly Nick Griffin very nearly overhauled the Conservative for runner-up in Oldham West – and yet the inquiry, had it taken place, would ideally have considered a much more wide-ranging topic: why was it that more than 11,000 people in a single English town were so disillusioned with the democratic process that they had to vote for people whose commitment to the idea of democracy might charitably be described as a little shaky. Scratch a neo-fascist and in nine cases out of 10 you find not a racist but someone whom the contemporary world has passed by, and whose only solace lies in voting for demagogues.

Longer-term observers may remember City Close-Up, Jeremy Seabrook's meticulous study of social attitudes in early 1970s Blackburn. For all their bracing opinions about immigration and living next to "niggers", the Blackburn housewives, he deduced, were at heart ashamed of their racism and knew it was ultimately a symbol of their own powerlessness. Forty years later, far too few Labour politicians – a notable exception is Jon Cruddas – have got round to making this link. It is so much easier – as with the supporters of Mlle Le Pen – to write them all off as fascists.

As to what the Front Nationale's baying hordes were protesting about, the general conclusion seemed to be that this was a stand against globalisation. Indeed, several rather smug newspaper articles used this as a prompt to remind us that international finance was the grease that made the world's wheels turn, and look what happened when President Mitterrand took his eye off the money supply. It seems far more likely, on the other hand, that their real complaint was against oligarchy, the feeling – common throughout Europe – that whoever the electorate votes in, the same kind of fixers remain in charge, finessing the same kind of anti-democratic deals with their influential friends.

The beauty of the British version of oligarchy lies in its stealth: the wires that operate it are all but invisible to the casual observer. By chance, this week sees the publication of Ferdinand Mount's penetrating study of modern oligarchy, The New Few or a Very British Oligarchy. As an Old Etonian and disclaiming baronet, and the Prime Minister's cousin, Mr Mount has clearly been able to study oligarchs in their natural habitat.

His solutions to this concentration of power include breaking up capitalist monopolies, granting local government fiscal independence and instituting what he calls a "real living wage" for the poor. Given that Mount is a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit, the remarkable thing about this manifesto is how radical it all sounds. But then, as Nadine Dorries' recent remarks about the Prime Minister and the Chancellor remind us, one of the Government's most settled habits is its ability to alienate its natural supporters.

You might think it difficult to forge a connection between the townships of Depression-era Georgia and the leafy thoroughfares of 1970s Norwich, but Toni Morrison's new novel, Home, makes the link between them abundantly clear. It lies in the presence in both communities of a kind of alternative police force made up of vigilant adults all busily telling children how to behave. Thus Morrison's heroine, remembers her childhood as a series of peremptory summonses: "Come here girl, didn't nobody tell you how to sew? Is that lipstick on your mouth? Come down from that tree, you hear me?"

If not quite as constrained as this, my own childhood ran it surprisingly close. Should one be sitting on a crowded bus and an elderly lady step on board, a chorus of adult voices would instantly insist that you gave up your seat. The slightest scuffle among friends at the roadside would encourage passing vigilantes to wade in. Later, when I read the novels of Charles Dickens, I greeted the paranoia of his juvenile leads with a knowing smile, for it proceeded from an understandable wish not to be interfered with by adults with nothing better to do. Amid a riot of what Matthew Arnold would call regrettable modern tendencies, the dispersal of this adult security militia is surely progress of a sort.

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