David Leask: Why we need to remain vigilant over the far right’s ‘Fourth Wave’

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni being sworn in last month (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)
Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni being sworn in last month (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

SOME call it the “Fourth Wave”. The Far Right is – once again – surging across Europe.

Radical nativism has revived three times before since its violent defeat in the Second World War.

This time it is making some headway. The shaved heads, tattoos and Basil Fawlty salutes are still to be seen. But the extremists who are doing best do not live up to the old stereotypes.

Take Italy’s new premier, Giorgia Meloni of the supposedly “post-fascist” Fratelli d’Italia. She looks more Doris Day than Benito Mussolini. Some of us, it seems, are ready to tolerate Girl Next Door national-chauvinism. We need to start understanding why this is. Fast.

Scholars around the continent are trying to get their heads around the Fourth Wave. It is not easy. For starters, it is hard to differentiate between the populist right and the far right – the former channelling anger against “elites” and the latter against ethnic “others”.

These two toxic threads of radical right-wing thought can be tangled together, like wired stereo headphones left in a pocket. We all know the dog-whistles that result from the resulting hybrid right: that ruling cabals are siding with foreigners or minorities against the common people, against, well, YOU.

This is a familiar ugly and stupid tune. But some people are willing to hum along to it. And radicals and extremists are getting skilled at riffing on the melody to appeal to different electorates.

In other words, populist and far-right actors fine-tune their messaging to exploit subtly varying anxieties across Europe.

They do best when the find a way to use an existing wedge topic or grievance. Which is why we see them trying to latch on to existing angst, legit or otherwise, about everything from trans rights to immigration. And why the far right targets areas seen as “left behind”.

Some scholars have spotted another issue which, at least in some places, fuels the far right: a nationalist backlash against independence movements.

Let us look at Spain.This week an academic named Beatriz Jambrina Canseco, at the London School of Economics, published a paper on the rise of Vox.

This far-right party made its breakthrough in 2019 on a platform that, at face value, looks much like that of, say, Ms Meloni’s. Indeed the Fratelli d’Italia leader - who speaks Spanish - this year riled up Vox activists about trans rights at a rally. But Vox has its own preoccupation too.

Ms Jambrina Canseco has done some work which demonstrates what those are. She looked at the prevalent news narratives in those parts of Spain where Vox did best. How? Well, she searched social media using an algorithm to find out what local mainstream media outlets were tweeting about ahead of the 2019 elections. This is a measure of perceived issues rather than actual ones. But her findings tell a story worth hearing.

“The empirical evidence supports the notion that narratives about economic anxiety and regional gaps matter, but also shows that narratives about separatism played a key role in the rise of the radical right in Spain,” she concluded.

This makes sense. Especially given Vox’s rhetoric about national Spanish unity. The party’s leadership is not simply opposed to Catalan or Basque independence (which is a pretty mainstream view). It is far more “staunch” than that. Vox leaders can sound hostile to almost any manifestation of cultural or linguistic distinctiveness. For example, they have recently been campaigning against Catalan signage in Mallorca.

Vox, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not do well in elections in places like Catalonia or the Basque Country. But its politics do resonate with a minority view in parts of what it is sometimes helpful to think of as “Spanish-speaking Spain”.

Here you can find angst about the potential break-up of Spain, intolerance of linguistic or national diversity and resentment about regional wealth distribution. That is an anxiety ripe for exploitation by the far right.

Does this sound familiar? Could a backlash against independence movements in the UK fire up a Vox-style backlash? Let us hope not. We have seen what some commentators have called “muscular unionism” or, more straightforwardly, British nationalism grow in response to the rise of the SNP. But is this as toxic as Vox? Not yet, nothing like it.

Take minority languages, one of the issues that really gets the far right fired up across Europe. Scottish Twitter brims with frothing extremists who, if anything, sound more unhinged than Vox. There are very online British nationalists who – and this will sound bizarre to anybody without the blue bird app on their phone – insist that the long-catalogued, documented and recognised Scots language does not exist.

But there is good news: this Flat Earth-level trolling does not have any real political impact.

This week, for example, Scotland’s mainstream unionists made their commitment to respecting linguistic diversity absolutely clear in a Holyrood debate.

Indeed, it has been Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour politicians who have so far done most to protect Scottish indigenous languages and cultures.

Could a more radical, more populist right-wing anti-independence party outflank them? So far, that looks unlikely. There just are not enough Union Jack Zoomer votes out there.

Remember, last year George Galloway, then a Kremlin TV personality, fronted a ragtag alliance of crank “anti-separatists” at the Holyrood elections. He flopped.

How about in England? Could the far-right or even Brexiteer populists re-focus on independence for Scotland or Wales or Irish re-unification, or on resentment about fiscal transfers? Well, maybe.

But English voters – at least polls suggest – are just not that animated about the other three nations of the UK. And those of the right tend to be more preoccupied with the EU or immigration than with the Celtic fringe.

We cannot be complacent about the far-right jumping on an “anti-separatist” bandwagon, here or in England.

There are vulnerabilities to extremist narratives, including footballing and sectarianist social media networks. Let us stay vigilant. That Fourth Wave has not crested yet.