Down a slippery rope… is Britain joining the global trends towards right-wing populism?

Reflecting on the election results, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a delegate at a marketing conference after I presented my work on the discourse of the Vlaams Belang, an extreme right wing party from Belgium, titled Marketing ‘ethically questionable’ politics: the case of a xenophobic political party. To my dismay, he was boasting about the lack of such a party in the UK, which he extrapolated as being evidence for a lack of demand for xenophobic right-wing populist parties. Admittedly, the BNP and NF were a marginal presence in the British political landscape and this conversation took place before the breakthrough of UKIP. Beyond the blind naivety of the statement, what astonished me was his self-congratulatory assurance that the country was somewhat immune to the appeal of prejudice and bigoted rhetoric. This discussion took place almost 10 years ago. Haven’t we come a long way since?

Extra-parliamentary organisations such as the EDL, Britain First, and the anti-Muslim Pegida UK have since emerged, and their theses been granted undue visibility in the media. Unfortunately, some tropes popular with the aforementioned far-right and Islamophobic groups have been steadily seeping through to the mainstream media and political discourse. The 2019 General Election campaign is unfortunately no exception, as it has seen a number of negative narratives focusing on immigrants and ethnic/religious minorities in the UK. Accusations of antisemitism within the Labour party have resurfaced with a vengeance, with a significant number of Jewish voters stating that it would be a deciding factor for their vote. Further, the lack of willingness to engage with endemic Islamophobia within its rank, has tarnished the Conservative brand and significantly reduced its potential appeal to British Muslim voters. In response, various organisations have mobilised against Tory candidates, such as the ‘Operation Muslim Vote’ asking donors to “help […] unseat 14 Islamophobic MPs/Ministers & Boris Johnson” and stating, “[w]e have unseated 8 Islamophobic MPs in 3 general elections. Help us unseat 14 more in this one”.

MEND (Muslim Engagement & Development), a British NGO, has encouraged Muslims to participate in general elections. Providing a list of all the incidents of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, MEND published a scorecard of various parties’ policies against of issues of relevance for Muslim citizens, such as Racial and Religious Equality, Minority rights. The Muslim Council of Britain, a non-partisan organisation also encouraged Muslims to strategically vote. They produced a detailed report of the main expectations of the Muslim community, highlighting how ‘British Muslim votes matter’, and included a whole section on Islamophobia and hate crime. The report states the organisation’s “serious concerns of the resurgence of the far-right together with growing islamophobia from the governing party to sections of the media, which have shaped social attitudes about Muslims”. Relatedly, MCB have repeatedly demanded an investigation in Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and have directly called out Boris Johnson for his “blind spot for this type of racism”.

Whether one agrees or not with the qualifications of the Conservative Party, it is certainly unsettling to see the leader of the country’s current ruling party and some of its members seamlessly embrace right-wing populist rhetoric. For example, Boris Johnson faced backlash after his comments about European immigrants treating the UK as their own. Racist slurs, xenophobic and Islamophobic tweets and ‘jokes’ from elected politicians are now common, alongside swift condemnation and promises of ‘investigations’, followed by quiet reinstatements. Rinse and Repeat.

While it is worrying that the Conservative Party has dragged the UK in the increasingly growing global movement towards the extreme of the political spectrum, it is difficult to predict if these are indications of more deep-seated trends in the party, and in the nation by extension. Will the party reap any real benefit from adopting such problematic and divisive language? Mainstream right-wing political parties in France and Belgium for example, that have borrowed inflammatory far-right rhetoric (if not policies) on national identity, xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments for quick electoral gains, have typically seen their rewards to be short-lived. Voters who are indeed receptive to these themes tend to go back to the ‘original’ far-right parties, seen as more authentic and uncompromised by power and political games; the most serious implication is arguably how their rhetoric is now infecting the mainstream, lending legitimacy to far-right thesis, and gaining traction amongst broader segments of the population.

The biggest loss of the General Election may have come to the Labour Party, but ultimately the ruling party may have contributed to a long-term shift of British politics further towards the most unsavoury kind of right-wing populism.