27 February 2011

Image Is Everything

According to the Guardian newspaper, "Huge numbers of Britons would support an anti-immigration English nationalist party if it was not associated with violence and fascist imagery." The poll found that 48% would favor the party if only it did not remind them of the bad old days of National Socialism.

The article makes interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:

    The poll suggests that the level of backing for a far-right party could equal or even outstrip that in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Austria. France's National Front party hopes to secure 20% in the first round of the presidential vote next year. The Dutch anti-Islam party led by Geert Wilders attracted 15.5% of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections.

    Anti-fascist groups said the poll's findings challenged the belief that Britons were more tolerant than other Europeans. "This is not because British people are more moderate, but simply because their views have not found a political articulation," said a report by the Searchlight Educational Trust, the anti-fascist charity that commissioned the poll.

    According to the survey, 39% of Asian Britons, 34% of white Britons and 21% of black Britons wanted all immigration into the UK to be stopped permanently, or at least until the economy improved. And 43% of Asian Britons, 63% of white Britons and 17% of black Britons agreed with the statement that "immigration into Britain has been a bad thing for the country". Just over half of respondents – 52% – agreed with the proposition that "Muslims create problems in the UK".

In some ways these results are not terribly shocking. Reportage about Islam is usually one sided and misleading. Most non-Muslims probably believe that Islamism is the same thing as Islam. [In reality, of course, they are not the same and are only vaguely related as this excellent documentary makes clear. In point of fact, Islamism is a political ideology (much like communism or fascism) that makes a mockery of the central tenants of Islam.] Given the misconception, it is hardly surprising that Britons would be fearful. It is easier to misunderstand and hate than it is to seek comprehension, empathy, and solutions to difficult challenges.

Likewise, the notion that so many Brits are anxious that their countrymen unfurl flags (both literally and figuratively) is also not surprising. One need only look to Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism to understand why.

What strikes me, however, is the reason that so many give for not throwing their support behind the British National Party (BNP) or its ilk: the perceived relationship between these parties and fascism.

One might posit the following hypothesis. The story of postwar British history is often presented as a narrative of malaise. The empire fell. The industrial economy vanished. Britain ceased to be a major superpower. Everything that made Britain "great" appeared on the wane.

Under such circumstances, what did the country have? The war. People were united then. Good and evil were obvious. The importance of class diminished. It was truly, as Churchill put it, the country's "finest hour." To forget that the great struggle was against fascism and to invite that ideology in with open arms is unthinkable, even though most Britons know only the nostalgic memory of the war.

Nationalist parties across Britain must contend with this reality. During the Watch Group incident in Scotland during the early 1990s when two small groups campaigned against English "white settlers," at least one media outlet equated Settler Watch with the Nazis. The Scottish National Party, which did not support the Watch Groups, responded by announcing that it was not a fascist party and was in no way similar to Hitler's NSDAP. To anybody paying attention, this was obvious. The catch is that much of the success or failure of nationalist groups is tied to perception, memory, and nostalgia.

Nationalism gains its strength by forwarding an imagined past and invented traditions. Yet this fact is a catch-22. Just as strength comes from the past, so too does weakness. What version of the past is a party tied to?

Voters (increasingly?) identify themselves through the lens of their party, just as they do through the consumer items that they purchase. Many of us believe that we are a product of the past, almost as if our personalities, skills, and interests are a result of genetics rather than our own efforts and hard work. Many genealogists seem to think, for example, that we are who we are because Uncle Cleo was a mason and Auntie Jean a secretary. Surely our ability to build things or to keep track of appointments must be related! If one comes from a long line of freedom fighters, then surely fighting for freedom is in the bones. It is nature. It is inescapable.

If a political group is imagined in connection with unpleasant memories, voters will seldom willingly equate themselves with that past. If Great Uncle Abner flew in the Battle of Britain or Grandmother Adele kept things organized in a shelter during the Blitz, few can fathom turning aside that legacy to support anyone or anything associated with the enemy their relatives so bravely faced down more than seventy years ago.

Memory, especially nostalgic memory, matters. A lot.

So, it is striking that so many more people than in other European countries would support the BNP than would support similar parties elsewhere in Europe, but they do not do so given the association with fascism.