Britain can’t be compared to Germany in the 1930s
And this is not a time for fear mongering and panic
It’s been a tumultuous year politically, and there are many people who are scared, frustrated and sad. In the wake of Brexit we were flooded with stories of abuse and violence. In the days after Trump’s election it appears that the US has reacted very similarly, and I found many conversations I had about the American election echoed exactly what was being said in Britain after Brexit. The most awful thing that has happen in either country, to my mind, was to hear that trans children in America had been committing suicide. Snopes.com, the fact checking website, has not yet been able to either confirm or deny if these reports, widely circulated on social media, are true.
Whether true or not the story is sobering. Sobering because if true, child suicide can only be a sign of a very sick society and a profound depth of failure by the adults in it. Sobering because if they are not true someone somewhere decided to start a rumour about child suicide, either because of their own fear or a desire to spread fear in others.
It is known that suicide can spread like a disease among young people. Once one person in a social group commits suicide it signals a “permission” to others in the group that this is acceptable recourse. Suicide is something that should be discussed with children at the right time, in a considerate and reflective way by the adults around them — if these are indeed false rumours they are dangerous.
This encapsulated what really defines 2016 as a political year: fear. Not fascism, intolerance, or elites, but fear. Very little good comes from decisions that are made from a place of fear, but for several months it has coursed through the left in a way that distorts the reality that we are dealing with. This kind of distortion makes it difficult to discern what can or could be done to move things forward positively, and deviates public debate into aberration.
In essence what we are dealing with here is a moral panic. Moral panics were defined by Cohen in his 1972 study Folk Devils and Moral Panics which specifically looked at the subcultures of Mods and Rockers and the reporting of violence between them in 1964. Cohen defines a moral panic as “(a) condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to be defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Further sociological work on moral panics listed their characters as concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility.
Over time, moral panics have been created around all sorts of scenarios. There are some more common than others, popular music ruining young people is a reccurring theme. Whoever your teenage icon was at one time, whether it was Elvis or Nirvana, you are bound to at some point in your youth to have heard heard adults worrying about how this music effected young people.
Moral panics don’t just take part in culture, but also in politics. McCarthyisim is one example of a political moral panic. The result of which was imprisonment, loss of employment or career as well as social ostrasisation for thousands in America accused of being communist or communist sympathisers. Political moral panics can hurt people’s lives.
The recent claim in the left that Britain is turning into Germany in the 1930s is the left’s own version of a moral panic. There is a legitimate concern about rising fascism. With Trump’s election, we have to admit that this is no longer a few isolated incidents, but a trend through the west starting with the rise in popularity of Golden Dawn in the naughties and which may see National Front gaining at the French election next year. Although there is genuine concern, this has been amplified to the level of Britain being akin to Nazi Germany, causing political and personal hostility which is disproportionate to the actual likelihood of Britain turning into Germany in the 1930s.
The lure of a moral panic is understandable. After the Brexit vote and Trump’s win I found myself afraid. Like many others, I made the same comparison. Now sobered by the news that the froth and fury of adult fear may have driven children to kill themselves, or the knowledge that rumour mongers may inspire a vulnerable child to harm themselves, I’ve taken some time to reassess my opinion. While I have found that there is much to be concerned about and a real cause for the left to work together for change, I’ve realised my comparisons to Nazi Germany are unhelpful.
We are not in a dictatorship. The Nazi rule of Germany was a dictatorship. We still exist in a state which has an elected parliament, in fact more than one elected parliament. To be sure, Westminster has its flaws, the first-past-the-post system, the unelected second chamber, the appalling performance of the official opposition when it was needed most, etc. But the fact remains no one is proposing a one party state, and we may get to vote-in a new Government sooner than we think.
Devolution in the context of the rise of fascism makes those who wish to oppose it stronger. It means that more than just the official voice of Westminster can be heard. Devolution makes it harder for Westminster to drag us into something against our will. For those in non-devolved England, examples set in devolved legislatures can be powerful lobbying and advocacy tools. If there is failure around devolution, it is that it has not been used as a tool by the left to add leverage to its agenda in Westminster and rUK. Instead, devolution was at best ignored as a perplexing thing they chose not to understand, and at worst treated as a threat.
The liklihood that Brexit will repeal all our rights has been overstated. The system of rights in the UK and EU is complex, and has developed over hundreds of years. Because we are not a dictatorship, and will not be anytime soon, these cannot be overturned overnight. Leaving the EU, as a political and trade organisation, is not the same as leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
Leavers will be surprised at how difficult it will be to overturn or ignore the legal rulings that they felt undermined British sovereignty.
Remainers will be surprised that their rights are not overturned as easily as they were lead to believe.
Both sides in the referendum overstated what could be done with individual rights, and both have a responsibility for the moral panic and violence which resulted.
We also need to remember that since WW2 we have developed some highly competent and skilled human rights and constitutional lawyers and experts in Britain. We need to put our faith in the process of national and international law, while making our voices calmly and resolutely heard.
Political parties test out policy ideas, it does not mean they will happen. New Labour were famous for testing all their policies out by focus group. It was less well known that policy ideas would often be “leaked” to the popular press. The leaks were essentially a way for the government to test the water and see the public’s reaction to policies, before formally taking them to consultation.
Sometimes when we read stories in the paper about extreme policy or ideas are floated at conference, they’re just testing the ground. This does not mean that some of the recent ideas we’ve seen are not abhorrent. It just means that there are effective ways that voices can be heard on these issue.
As far as I can see, the collective voices which shouted down the idea of companies listing foreign workers were heard, and the idea has been dropped. The fact it came up in the first place is disturbing, but it won’t happen.
After this kind of informal testing there is a political process. It’s a process which is needfully slow. Unfortunately, while that process takes place people suffer, but there are processes and ways to express your points of view around those process already in place. These processes will not be overturned overnight either.
Not everyone in our ruling party is a closet fascist. On the left, people love to look at the whole of Conservatives as if they are only just able to hold themselves back from dressing up like SS Guards and goose stepping to the cornershop to buy a pint of milk.
Of course, there are some people whose views are racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic or ableist, and the legitimising of these views by the government and popular press before Brexit definitely continues to have a negative effect. But we need to remember that not everyone in the party thinks this way, and the party is more than just its elected representatives.
Many party members are on the right specifically because they believe in personal freedom. Just as there are people in the Tory party who are unhappy with their lurch to UKIP-light version, there are people in the Republican party who will resist the worst excesses of Trump. If the left is going to seriously tackle fascism it will need to find those on the right who are also appalled at the direction of travel and work with them, rather than alienating them.
It is often said those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I think many people have learned. If you need proof, the policy of companies listing foreign workers — which does directly relate to Nazi policy — faced a serious backlash, not just from the left but from business leaders, tory peers and MPs. We don’t have the type of politics in this country that means these voices, stronger because they come from all sides, won’t be heard. It was precisely because these voices know their history that they were swift and resolute. If they are ignored there are many avenues which those who protest can go down to challenge the rules, at many stages.
There are also some amazing organisations working with children such as the Anne Frank Trust, who work in schools to help pupils think around ideas of discrimination using the life of Anne Frank as a model. Peace Jam, an international organisation bringing Nobel Laureates into schools. Veterans for Peace also have a strong and credible voice when resisting the continued militarization of our society. Many have learned and continue their learning, so we won’t repeat the same mistakes. The danger is making new mistakes, or evolving the old ones. If the left remain alert only to the repetition the mistakes of 1930s Germany it may blind us to the evolution of the expression of fascism before it is too late.
Fear is understandable, it is a very human emotion, and there are many people and groups out there who have every right to be afraid. There has been name-calling, spitting, and aggressive shouting, graffiti, physical assaults and deaths that people of colour, immigrants and LGBTIQ+ people have been subjected to. We can all play a part in stopping this, but for those of us who are not in direct danger, running around like headless chickens could ultimately harm our cause and diminish the credibility we need to build movements.
For those of us who are in a position to do so we need to calm down; put ego and personal like and dislike aside and start organising; start talking to those who are not our natural allies under other circumstances; start seeking to understand before being understood; and plan positive focused action.
A lot of organisations will be working towards directly countering this trend and the Anti Fascist Network and Network for Peace are great places to find out what is in your area. Your trade union, political party, mosque, synagogue, church, temple or other faith gathering will also know what is happening in your community and can guide you to what may suit your personal philosophy and inclination best. I’d also recommend checking out the Peace Education Network, because this is work that needs to be done with every generation, not just on the protest lines. The left can no longer rest on its laurels, it needs to roll up its sleeves. As people are created new each day, so countries can be too.
“The world is a dark enough place still for too many. It can ill spare even the poorest rushlight candle of cheerfulness or the smallest fire of fellowship. We must not put out the glimmer of light which shines for so many still today through the tavern windows, unless we can put a better in its place. We need the light of a brighter cheerfulness, and the glow of a warmer fellowship.”
—T Edmund Harvey (Quaker and MP), 1931