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Britain is Europe’s haven from the hard right

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I am looking at a map of Europe from a recent edition of The Economist. Each country is rendered in a shade of red according to its level of public support for the hard right: the higher, the darker. Populist-governed Italy is Ferrari-red. So are Poland and Hungary. France, where the Rassemblement National might win the next presidential election, and Germany, where the Alternative for Germany is polling second, are a sort of trout-fillet colour. Spain, Portugal and most of Scandinavia are one shade lighter.

Britain? Barely as pink as this newspaper. Only Ireland, Iceland, Lithuania and Malta (combined population 9mn) are paler still. If we define the hard right as a force outside, and more extreme than, a nation’s traditional centre-right party, then Britain hasn’t got a hard right to reckon with. One MP out of the 650 represents a movement of that description, and he is a Conservative defector who has never won election under his new banner. In the local elections of 2022 and 2023, extremists got almost nowhere. Make fun of the UK’s unbuilt train lines. Despair of its featherweight politicians. Just give the country its due as Europe’s haven of moderation.

I can anticipate the response: that whatever their establishment branding, the Tories are themselves hard right. Please. This administration imposed lockdowns of world-leading severity during the Covid-19 pandemic. It enshrined in statute, and continues to chase, a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It supported, in word and in deed, Ukraine against Russia from the start of the invasion, with little or no internal dissent. Boris Johnson is still batting for Kyiv more than a year after he quit Downing Street, in what seems unnervingly like a display of conscience and principle.

In all these ways, the Tories have committed what the alt-right would regard as heresies. This might be the worst UK government of my lifetime. (Since 2016, there is no “might” about it.) But conflating it with Viktor Orbán, or Giorgia Meloni, is whataboutery at its sour and desperate worst. Which hard-right party in Europe would fill three of the great offices of state with non-white descendants of immigrants? In which would two heroines of the base, such as Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, be one generation removed from east Africa and west Africa respectively?

It shouldn’t be a liberal taboo to say that Britain outdoes the continent at some things, including, for now, the containment of extremists. Or to ask how the country has done it.

One answer is the first-past-the-post voting model, which favours established parties over challengers. Those in the UK who campaign for proportional representation should view contemporary Europe as a warning, not a template. There is a wider, if somewhat drab, lesson here: political outcomes are often the result not of grand ideas or historical forces, but procedural rules. If the US didn’t have term limits, Barack Obama, who left office with a positive approval rating, might have sought and won a third election, sparing the republic Donald Trump.

The other reason for the UK’s inoculation against the hard right is Brexit. Here, supporters and enemies of that project can agree, sort of. The first group can say, “The people were heard, at last. Imagine the resentment out there had Brexit never happened.” The second can say, “We, ‘the people’, now see a populist idea in action. Never again, thanks.” Both sides are right. Whether as a release valve or as a salutary flop, Brexit has neutered the forces that led to it. June 23 2016 was a victory from which British nationalism hasn’t recovered.

We could go into the yet deeper past to explain the failure of the UK’s hard right. The nation has for centuries had a relatively weak church. (French, Italian and Polish populists are often tied up with a certain kind of Catholicism.) Then there is the capacious nature of Britishness itself. Because of the creation in 1707 of that single state, from the kingdoms of England and Scotland, the country had early exposure to the idea that nationhood needn’t be grounded on common ethnic stock. Throw in sheer geographic distance from the “east”, and Britain is unpromising soil for a faith-and-flag, Russia-smitten, Orbán-style movement.

That isn’t so true elsewhere. There was always a kind of British liberal whose critical powers failed them when it came to Europe, as though cycle lanes and subsidised childcare excused everything. Well, the spread of plausible outcomes at the next UK election is a centre-right government or a centre-left one. It shouldn’t feel as transgressive as it does to say that Europe’s other democracies should be so lucky.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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