There was widespread shock and revulsion at the abuse Anna Soubry received outside her place of work, which happens to be the Houses of Parliament. The irony is that it was the far-right thugs shouting “Nazi’” at her who received less attention. But the bigger picture behind this week’s abhorrent events is far more alarming and should command our attention. Because the UK is witnessing creeping fascism and a revival of destructive nationalism in the wake of the Brexit vote.
Back in 1995, Italian historian and novelist Umberto Eco carried out a study into fascism in his country in the 1930s, coming up with 14 signs typical of a far-right regime. What sent a shiver down my back was to see how many of these can already be found in post-referendum Britain.
One of Eco’s signs of fascism is the “fear of difference” – a fear whipped up by Nigel Farage with his “breaking point” poster and other xenophobic rhetoric. We have now reached a point where members of our community, some who have lived among us for decades but were born elsewhere in Europe, face abuse in our streets. Another is the “cult of tradition” – exemplified by the yearning for recapturing the notion of the British Empire, dressed up as “Global Britain”. Then there’s the idea that “disagreement is treason” – best exemplified by the notorious Daily Mail front page calling judges “enemies of the people”.
Meanwhile, Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay cited the intimidation of Soubry as a good reason not to have a democratic People’s Vote. By doing so he played straight into the hands of those who use the “will of the people” as cover for sidelining genuine public debate, something Eco might describe as “action for action’s sake” without reflection or thought.
As with 1930s Germany, Eco notes how Italian fascism fed off an “appeal to social frustration”. Ten years of Tory austerity has made our society a fertile ground for that. So we see underfunding of public services blamed on “immigrants pushing their way to the front of the queue” for hospital treatment and housing, while unemployment or low pay is blamed on migrants queue jumping or “taking our jobs”.
Then there is the gender dimension. The targets of the disturbing intimidation we have seen are most often women and the perpetrators predominantly men. The award-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has bravely and tirelessly exposed the dodgy individuals and corporations behind the Leave campaign, has had to endure an endless tirade of abuse and bully-boy tactics. Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Leave campaign and is under investigation for multiple criminal offences, has repeatedly intimidated Carole on social media including a spoof video showing her beaten up and threatened with a gun. We know that this intimidation can result in real physical harm and are reminded of the brutal murder of Jo Cox and the plot to murder another Labour MP, Rosie Cooper.
Whether we think of Trump’s America or Brexit Britain, it has been noted that, given men have had considerably more power in society for centuries, moving into a position of equal power with women feels like a great loss to many men. I am hugely blessed to be in the Green Party, where men have frequently told me how pleased they are that we have so many prominent women to help redress the gender imbalance.
But men who feel vulnerable or disempowered are much more likely to respond to women’s empowerment with oppression and violence. This sense of loss of strength has been further reinforced by loss of dignity in work, social dislocation, a breakdown in trust in institutions after the financial crisis, and the rapid changes caused by globalisation. All this creates fertile soil for the dangerous ideology of nationalism and fascism, a sign identified by Eco as “machismo”.
Propaganda is of course also a key weapon of the far right and was invented by the Italian fascists in the 1930s. This is now labelled as “fake news” and has been turbocharged by social media and facilitated by the speed and reach of digital communications. An analysis of posts on Twitter by three million people between 2006 and 2017 discovered that lies and disinformation travel more quickly than truth.
While these are worrying times, I am convinced that the good sense and tolerant nature of the British people will prevail. This is why I am organising a number of public meetings with journalists, experts, and cross-party politicians to explore some of the conceptual ideas behind fascism; how we can spot the signs of it, defend ourselves from it and help reinforce our democratic values. Cherishing diversity, championing peace, seeking out evidence, standing out from the crowd, enjoying and taking part in community life, joining a trade union and valuing empowered women are just some of the ways in which we can challenge nationalism and fascism and defend democracy.
Eternal vigilance is still the price of freedom. We need to work together to build our communities, to enhance our understanding and to champion the British values and culture that has always made our democracy the envy of the world.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England