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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Technician (2nd Line / Server Support) - Bedford

£24000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: 2nd line IT Support Techn...

Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Science Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Are you a qualified science t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments