What are we to make of the English Defence League, a new far-right white nationalist group in the UK?
Obviously its opponents are concerned to produce a response to the EDL that can protect and defend pluralism in the UK. Indeed, around the western world there are similar movements and corresponding responses, but sometimes the responses can go off track – and it is important to get these things right.
It would be a mistake to think of the EDL as a radical, fringe, crazed group of people with no relationship to wider British society. As mainstream rhetoric has become more tolerant of frightful intolerance, it has became more acceptable for a group such as the EDL to form.
This is not to say that British society as a whole, or even the British right wing as a whole, is responsible for the EDL. The point is that the EDL might never have existed if the race relations discourse in the UK had not come to this point of blurring the lines between what is acceptable and what is not.
The emergence of the EDL and the resurgence of the far right in other European countries is not something we can understand by just looking at 2009. The roots of this are far older – and perhaps a key event was the failed victory of the multiculturalist movement in the 1990s. Yes, that’s right, a “failed victory”: something we need to understand as we respond to, and I hope overcome, the next phase of the far right in Europe.
We have to remember where this began. As European countries began to experience wide-scale immigration in the 1950s onwards, their societies changed for ever. Decades later it became clear that the immigrants, their children and increasingly their grandchildren were going nowhere. They were there to stay – and Europe had to figure out what to do.
But to begin with, Europe did not want to admit how much had to change. People tend to remember this period with less sympathy than it is due. No, huge numbers of Europeans did not wake up suddenly and welcome all the changes that they had endured in such a short time. And quite frankly, no one should have expected them to. What society has reacted to such change in such a short time with exemplary behaviour? Actually, we can’t compare it to any other time: there was more widespread population change in the 20th century than at any time in human history.
Yet in the second half of the 20th century, perhaps because of its failure to protect its own citizens in the first half, Europe did response positively. Multiculturalism was that response – and in the 1990s it seemed to have won the battle. Multiculturalists across the world spoke of how narrow notions of national identity in the 20th century were finally opened up. From that point on it seemed that pluralism and respect for diversity would be the default, and narrower versions of what it meant to be European/British/French/German/etc. would have to prove their worth in light of the multiculturalist movement.
Obviously, the far right (and certain portions of the right) did not take this lying down, but their time had passed. The left was regaining ground across Europe, and the centre and centre-right also had a great deal of sympathy for the claims of minority groups, especially as some of those groups slowly moved up the socio-economic ladder. Huge majorities of European populations accepted that what might have constituted European identity 50 years before was no longer sufficient. Multiculturalism had scored a great victory.
The biggest problem was a failure of multiculturalism – not “the” failure, which is what the far-right would have us believe. But “a” failure: having destroyed a narrow version of national identity, multiculturalists did not provide a replacement that gained sufficient ground across Europe. At the time, fortunately, European societies had no need of replacement.
Then 9/11 happened. The far right had a new target. Race became less relevant, but religion became more so. Looking back on the material of groups such the British National Party in the past 10 years, race has been given less emphasis and religion is increasingly the fault line: in particular, Islam. With the Madrid bombings and the attacks in London in July 2005, that was sealed.
Years later, history has shown that partly because of the absence of a sustainable notion of national identity, the far right has managed to deliver some of its ideas far beyond its small natural constituency. It’s not just a few radical nuts who believe that Islam and the West are on a cultural collision course on the streets of European cities; significant portions of all sectors of the political spectrum are sympathetic to that idea.
In that sense, the far right has achieved a victory. They could incite a much more significant one: a redesignation of national identity that would put Muslims, Asians, Turks, Arabs, blacks and many other groups outside the definition of British/French/German/etc. Such a definition would be wrong, but it would be attractive because of its simplicity and because of the fears that many in Europe harbour about Muslim Europeans.
But this is not a foregone conclusion, because the truths of multiculturalism remain. They deserve to be defended.
Dr H A Hellyer is Fellow of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick in the UK, and author of Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans (Edinburgh University Press)