The Rise of the European Right

The results of last week’s European election, when combined with the ongoing slide of Gordon Brown’s Labour government, add up to odd to a puzzle. In America this feels like a progressive moment, as Simon outlined in his new presentation. Just as the injuries of industrialisation boosted social reform in the early part of the 20th century, so two decades of over-confidence in the power of markets in the era of globalisation seemed decisively rejected by the 2008 election, and the economic crisis which followed. With the Republicans in a mess, and Obama boldly making the case for universal health care yesterday, the progressive post-crisis bounce seems almost natural. But in Europe—where the recession is, if anything, worse than in America—the right are doing just fine.

Judging by results it would really be fairer to say the right was booming. Silvio Berlusconi won handily in Italy, despite his marital problems. Incumbent conservative government’s in France and Germany more than held their own. While the mainstream centre-left parties tanked in third place or worse, the extreme right made gains too, from the neo-fascist British National Party to the Dutch Party of Freedom. And no one seems to better encompass all this than Britain’s battered Brown, leading a once impregnable Labour party into poll ratings in the teens. Just as capitalism is questioned more deeply than at any time in a generation, Britain will almost certainly elect a conservative Government next year.

So what’s going on? If, as Simon wrote this morning we’re in a hole dug “by years of reckless, ideological and impractical conservative government”, why vote them back in? This week Paul Krugman dubbed Brown Gordon the Unlucky: it was just his bad fortune to be caught standing when the financial music stopped. Just as Bush is blamed in America, so progressives are in Britain. But that doesn’t explain why Brown has suffered while incumbent European conservatives prosper. One might, instead, make the case that 90s-style centre-leftism of the Clinton / Blair mould was too enamoured of the failed market system to deserve credit now. Certainly this was anti-Clintonite case underlay much of the crowing this week over the defeat of Terry Mcaullife in Virginia.

But better, I think, to focus on three points. First, European voters are angry, confused about the cause of their current predicament, and unwilling to believe that the traditional remedies of the left will fix it. Second, they haven’t made much connection between the crisis, the ideology that caused it, and the parties which most closely reflect that ideology in government. For this one should blame the parties of the centre-left themselves, for failing to make the case clearly. Third, in tough time, outsiders are feared: Europe just voted for a range of parties whose central policy is protecting insiders against immigrants.

It’s a combustible mix, with warnings for America. Economic recovery has pushed other priorities down the list, but these European elections certainly warn of the dangers of letting immigration worries fester. The dismal Bush inheritance, meanwhile, has allowed Obama to make a clear link between the recession and his predecessor. But it’s not a memory that will hold forever. European voters, normally more left wing than in the US, didn’t seem inclined to give any post-crisis electoral gift to tired progressives. Nor might American voters in 2010, or 2012. In this, Krugman was right. Obama was partly lucky to pick up the batton at the right time. The lesson of last week is he’ll have to fight doggedly to keep it.