the swedish challenge

expressen, 22 september 2010

I can understand the shock and despair in Sweden following the electoral breakthrough of the Sweden Democats. There was similar shock in Britain last year when the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European elections. Britain, like Sweden, had thought of itself as different from other European nations, as open, tolerant and progressive. It was a country in which fascists had never won mass support, nor tasted electoral success. The BNP’s electoral breakthrough at a national level – and the almost one million votes it won – seemed therefore all the more distressing, and led to a bout of national soul searching similar to that now gripping Sweden.

It is, however, in this very view of Britain and Sweden as exceptional that much of the problem lies. The question being asked in Sweden, as it was in Britain, is ‘How can we stop the far right?’. The question that Swedes should be asking is ‘How can we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment?’ The two questions might seem necessaily to lead to the same answers. They don’t always. The danger is that in being obsessed by the first question to the detriment of the second, politicians may help strengthen, not weaken, xenophobic attitudes.

Take Britain. In the wake of the BNP’s electoral success last year, there were two broad responses. Some dismissed BNP voters as racists and fascists. Others insisted that the only way to stop the BNP was by mainstream politicians taking a tougher line on immigration. Both strategies are flawed.

The roots of the BNP, like that of the SD, lie in the fascist swamp. In recent years, just like the SD, it has attempted to rebrand itself as a more respectable political party. This rebrading has not changed the fundamental nature of the organization. But it has helped transform the character of its support.

A core of hardline racist bigots continues to support the BNP. But the bigots have been joined by a swathe of new supporters whose hostility towards immigrants, minorities and Muslims is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity. Many are traditional Labour Party members who now feel abandoned by an organization that has cut links with its working class constituency. Even more than the rest of the population, they appear dissatisfied with their lives, anxious about the future, distrustful of any figure of authority.

Much the same seems to be true in Sweden. The crisis of social democracy has opened up new political space. SD supporters appear largely young, male, working class, unemployed or trade union members, drawn to the party by disenchantment with social democracy, fear of austerity, and a sense of being politically disenfranchised. In Sweden, as in Britain, such fear and insecurity often expresses itself through anti-immigrant sentiment.

The hardline racists that support the SD or the BNP are likely to remain hardline racists. Neither fact nor reason will change their minds. The wider support that now surrounds such organizations is different. We need to engage with them and their concerns and not simply dismiss them as racists. Taking the concerns of such voters seriously does not, however, mean pandering to their prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging them openly and robustly. Challenging the idea, for instance, that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Western societies are becoming ‘Islamized’.

Most mainstream politicians have, however, taken the opposite approach. Politicians of both right and left have responded to the advance of the far right not by challenging its prejudices but by appropriating its arguments. They have come to believe that the only way to stem support for groups such as the SD or the BNP is by promising to further cut back on immigration, to step up deportation of asylum seekers, and to curtail civil liberties. They have even appropriated the language. The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown talked proudly of ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan first popularized in the 1980s by the National Front, one of the fascist forerunners of the BNP.

The pressure on the next Swedish government to pursue a similar strategy will be immense. In the short term it may boost the electoral fortunes of mainstream politicians. In the long term it can only deepen the belief that all Sweden’s social problems stem from too much immigration and so strengthen the hand of reactionary figures such as SD leader Jimmie Akesson.

What makes worse the promotion of anti-immigrant sentiment by mainstream politicians is that it has all too often been combined with a knee-jerk reaction to close down debate and deny far-right supporters basic democratic rights. From legislation against hate speech to attempts to ban far-right members from public sector jobs, the aim has been to exclude obnoxious ideas – and people – from the public sphere. The decision in Sweden not to broadcast a controversial SD election video, that contrasted the supposed treatment of white pensioners with that of burqa-clad immigrants, because it might promote ‘hatred’, follows in this pattern.

It is a strategy that is illiberal, illogical and counter-productive. Censoring ugly ideas will not make them go away, especially when the mainstream assiduously sponsors milder versions of those very same ideas. The bigotry will simply fester underground, feeding belief in a malign liberal conspiracy against the indigenous population, and allowing the likes of Jimmie Akesson to portray themselves as victims of an establishment lynch mob.

Just as fear and insecurity is driving many towards organizations such as the SD and the BNP, it is also shaping much of the mainstream reaction to those organizations, creating an incoherent response that vacillates between demonising the far right and pandering to its prejudices. ‘We know we need to target immigrants’, seems to be the argument, ‘but only respectable politicians should be allowed to do that, not those who belong to far-right organizations.’

That is not a judicious way of tackling the problem. In Britain, the BNP has suffered an electoral collapse. But anti-immigrant sentiment is probably stronger now than it was when the BNP tasted electoral success last year. The challenge in Sweden is to encourage a frank and honest public debate about immigration, multiculturalism and Islam while at the same promoting a robust defence of mass immigration, diversity and an open society.