If they are to avoid denunciation and prove themselves heirs to a kinder, more inclusive tradition, conservative parties must do all they can to distance themselves from the far right
The disappearing sense of shame once felt at consorting with extremists is worrying
Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon appeared at the party conference of France’s Front National (FN) over the weekend – and even for a confirmed bomb-thrower, his words were inflammatory. “Let them call you racists,” he told the crowd. “Let them call you xenophobes. Wear it as a badge of pride.” The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, was most appreciative, tweeting that it was “a true pleasure and an honour to listen to the man who inspired the Trump campaign in 2016”.
Some might say that Mr Bannon is a wildcard who helped give a platform to the alt-right at Breitbart News. It’s no surprise, then, that he should happily associate himself with a party most in Europe consider to be beyond the pale.
But Mr Bannon and the section of the American public that he represents are part of the US Republican Party mainstream now. Any who doubt that should see the rapturous welcome given to Ms Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland last month.
Anyone who aspires to hold high office as a Republican wants to speak at CPAC, the conference at which the then California governor Ronald Reagan first outlined his vision of America as a “city on a hill” in 1974. And there, this year, was Ms Marechal-Le Pen, alongside the US president and vice president, three cabinet secretaries, Republican stars such as Ted Cruz and John Bolton, Fox anchors Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre. In short, the Republican Party is normalising extremists.
And not just at CPAC. For on Mr Bannon’s European tour, he spoke not just to the FN; he has given advice to Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, a party that campaigns on anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He also expressed his delight at the success in Italy’s recent elections of the Lega – a party whose leader, Matteo Salvini, is a close ally of Ms Le Pen and Holland’s Geert Wilders.
These are, frankly, repulsive bedfellows and ones which parties of the orthodox right went out of their way to avoid in the past. When they didn’t, the reaction was of horror – and consequences, such as the sanctions the EU imposed on Austria in 2000 when the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) entered into a governing pact with the conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP). As a European Parliament resolution at the time put it: “The admission of the FPO into a coalition government legitimises the extreme right in Europe.”
There appears, however, to have been dangerous backsliding both in Europe and in America. Last December, just such a pact was forged again in Austria, with the FPO claiming the vice chancellorship and key ministries including foreign, interior and defence. The outrage was muted – until the new interior minister appeared to hint at his true colours by saying that asylum seekers should be “concentrated” in one place, language which many felt came too close to alluding to Nazi concentration camps. But while the FPO’s leaders continue to cause controversy (and not just because of the embarrassing Nazi links that keep surfacing), their place in government has been unquestioned.
What is going on with major parties of the right? The European left by and large distanced itself from Communist parties long ago. In some cases, such as Britain’s Labour Party, there was never any suggestion that they would cosy up to “the Reds” in government; indeed, Ernest Bevin, Labour’s post-war foreign secretary, played a key role in setting up the main anti-Soviet defence bloc Nato. And for decades, the right was clear that extremists to their far flank were also unacceptable.
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In the 1960s and 1970s, prominent American conservatives such as the National Review editor William Buckley successfully marginalised the ultra-right conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society (who thought, for instance, that president Dwight Eisenhower was “a Communist tool”). In Europe, so great was the taint of fascism after the war that any party with even faint links was excluded from conventional political debate.
People had the right to vote for them, of course – and they did. The odious British National Party had nearly one million voters in the 2009 European Parliament elections while the FN first made the second round of the French presidential race in 2002 under Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.
But there was a strong sense that these parties were to be deplored, for they had crossed the boundaries of civilised politics. Whatever one thinks of some conservative parties – like Hungary’s ruling Fidesz, which is criticised for cracking down on civil liberties, among other things – there is still a distinct line between them and the far right (such as the nationalistic Jobbik party, in Hungary’s case).
No one should countenance the weakening or erasing of that line, for that would be to remove an important bulwark against racism, Islamophobia and the ugly nationalism of exclusion and hatred.
So Ms Marechal-Le Pen had no place at CPAC. Mr Bannon should not be helping Europe’s far right. And other countries should not shy from expressing their distaste at the FPO’s position in Austria’s government.
The Canadian philosopher Ted Honderich once condemned parties of the right as standing “without the support, the legitimation, of any recognisably moral principle. The conclusion to which we come is not that conservatives are selfish. It is that they are nothing else.”
If they are to avoid such a denunciation and prove themselves heirs to a kinder, more inclusive tradition, conservative parties must do all they can to maintain that line. Some appear to have misplaced the sense of shame they once would have felt at being seen consorting with extremists. For the sake of us all, it is sincerely to be hoped that they rediscover it.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia