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Divided We Fall

The successful nations in the twenty-first century will be those that come to terms quickest with the implications of globalization--of unprecedented flows of people, money, information and ideas. As a minister in the British government, representing a London constituency that is the most diverse in Europe, I have long been convinced of this. So when I attended the inauguration of President Obama in January this year, I couldn’t help feeling that America had stolen a march on Britain. Before my eyes, America was coming to terms with its multi-ethnic heritage. E pluribus unum.

This week a sense of foreboding--that Britain and Europe cannot be complacent--was confirmed, as xenophobic and racist political parties made gains in elections to the European Parliament. In Britain, this populist threat and comes from the far-right British National Party (BNP). Formed in 1982 out of the old National Front, the party’s current leader, Nick Griffin, believes that “without the White race, nothing matters,” arguing that “non-Whites have no place here at all and will not rest until every last one has left our land.” Griffin has attempted to portray the BNP as a mainstream party, yet the manuals he has been studying in order to do so show the party’s true colours. “The chapter I most enjoyed was the one on propaganda and organization--there were some really useful ideas there,” he once said of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He is now a British representative to the European Parliament--with a seat at Brussels, and all the public funding that comes with it.

What is particularly grim, however, is that this is not solely a British phenomenon: The far right has made gains across Europe, including in longstanding EU member states. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League and post-fascist National Alliance are part of the political establishment, serving in Berlusconi’s government. In Austria, the political spirit of Jorg Haider lives on as two extreme-right, anti-immigrant parties took an unprecedented 17.7 percent of the vote. In the Netherlands, the anti-Muslim immigrant far-right party of Geert Wilders came in second place, again with 17 percent of the vote, while in Denmark the far-right Danish People's Party won two seats in the European Parliament.

But the most worrying developments are in the “new” Europe, where the heady days of rapid growth enjoyed in the post-Communist era have been brought to an abrupt halt. With national economies in a tailspin, ultranationalists and neo-fascists have tapped into the hardship felt by many voters, turning their ire on immigrants, Gypsies and other “outsiders.” In Slovakia, only 19.4 per cent of people turned out to vote--allowing ultra-nationalists parties, complete with their chilling anti-Roma rhetoric, to triumph. In Hungary, the Jobbik party, with its anti-Roma propaganda and Hungarian Guard paramilitary wing, won three seats for the first time.

Many of these parties are sceptical about the very nature of the European project, like the fiercely isolationist United Kingdom Independence Party. Europe has a major influence on the lives of hundreds of millions of people, with EU institutions helping to protect consumers, establish common standards, keep markets fair by stamping out monopolistic abuse, and provide international co-ordination on issues such as climate change that nation states alone cannot tackle. These partnerships are threatened by the rise of ultra-nationalism and the rejection of cross-border cooperation.

The rise of fringe parties and extremist groups reflects a wider malaise in our political culture, and a determined movement against the political class. Countering this trend requires a re-examination of the way we do politics. The recent scandal surrounding British MPs--claiming publicly funded expenses to furnish and improve second homes in London (in some cases on things like cleaning moats and repairing tennis courts, in stark contrast to the lives of ordinary recession-hit Britons)--has ignited popular disenchantment with a political class that people perceive as out of touch, and a political process that fails to address the things that matter to people. This has led to drastically low voter turnout, as well as a decreased share of the vote for all three mainstream parties in the United Kingdom (Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats), which allows these fringe parties to benefit. Turnout in Britain this time was a mere third of the vote, and was at an all-time low across Europe with only 43.4 percent of the 388 million people eligible casting a vote, down from 62.1 percent in the first election of 1979.

In order to curb this disillusionment, the United Kingdom must implement wide-ranging constitutional reforms that borrow heavily from the United States--whose founding fathers knew, over 200 years ago, that political reform and an active citizenry go hand-in-hand. The United States has a political culture in which people vote for everything from the county sheriff to local justices--a culture of getting involved. In Britain, political parties should experiment with open primaries to select candidates, rather than the tight cabals of party members that currently make that important decision, giving people a greater voice in their communities. The party membership card--now in the possession of just 1 in 88 of the British electorate (less than two percent), down from 1 in 11 in the 1950s--should no longer be a prerequisite of meaningful political participation. Reform is long overdue.

Similarly, powers to recall individual MPs are being discussed by senior politicians, particularly given the fury that the expenses scandal has generated. While some fear the instability that this may cause, the case for greater accountability might just win out--and I hope it will. But perhaps most significantly, there is growing momentum behind the idea that Britain should have a written constitution. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has no founding documents to refer back to in moments of crisis. Britain may yet dispense with its ancient belief in gradual evolution and “muddling through,” opting instead for the clarity that a formal constitution offers.

While domestic reforms are important and necessary, a wider challenge--and a much longer, harder struggle--awaits progressive politicians: to inject new vigour and ambition into the European project. These latest elections were not just a defeat for the political establishment, but for the very idea that European nations can and should come together to achieve great things. The European project started 52 years ago as an attempt to stop the continent from sliding ever again into war. The founding fathers of European Economic Community (as it was then) believed that if nation states could be tied together in common endeavour, then conflict on the scale seen in two world wars that started in Europe could be avoided.

In the twenty-first century, this is no longer enough. A fresh case needs to be made for cooperation at the European level that offers more than simply the absence of war. We cannot regulate global markets, manage migration, tackle climate change, protect the rights of workers and children, or cooperate against terrorism without working in meaningful partnership with others round the world. Many of the traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign policy are collapsing. The great challenges of this century do not observe the neatness of national borders and can only be dealt with through an open, internationalist approach that is completely alien to some of the far-right parties who now claim to represent us. President Obama has recognized this in the fresh approach to diplomacy the United States is taking. I hope European politics can find the strength to follow.

David Lammy is member of parliament for Tottenham (London), and minister of state for higher education, intellectual property and digital Britain in the United Kingdom government.

By David Lammy