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Rise of the nationalist far right in Europe and the lessons for Scotland

It was the best of nationalism; it was the worst of nationalism.

Nicola Sturgeon, in Paris yesterday for climate change talks, offered no congratulations to the leader of the French nationalist Front Nationale (FN), Marine le Pen. The FN won a sensational victory in the regional elections and Ms le Pen is now a serious contender for the presidency of France in 2017.

The Scottish National Party may also be called nationalist, but it wants nothing to do with the Ms Le Pen’s National Front, which seeks to halt immigration and leave Europe. Mind you, the NF is changing fast under “Marine” who has devoted the last decade to “de-demonisation” of her party.

She is attempting to turn it into a respectable civic nationalist party using anti-capitalist and even environmental rhetoric that is alien the old far right; so alien indeed, that her own father, the founder of the FN Jean Marie Le Pen, has been expelled from the party. He continues to fulminate in anti-Semitic obscurity.

Marine le Pen is all for gender equality and rejects the old “family values” homophobia of her father. She opposes the privatisation of public utilities such as the French postal service; she wants banks to be selectively nationalised; and she supports redistribution through the taxation system.
But is this socialism only skin deep? Is she still just “fascism with an pretty face”, as members of the Parisian intelligentsia believe?

Well, in truth, it is becoming difficult to tell. France is in a pretty ugly mood following the Paris attacks and it is hard to distinguish the rhetoric being used by conservative politicians, and even the socialist president, Francois Hollande, from the speeches of Ms Le Pen.

France is busy restoring borders, halting immigration and even sending home asylum seekers, all former policies of the untouchable FN. Indeed, Marine Le Pen has deliberately avoided overtly capitalising on the Paris atrocities, allowing the establishment parties to speak for her.

This is all very confusing. The French socialists are talking like the far right on immigration and defending French culture, while the FN is talking like the old left about creating jobs and state intervention in industry.

Indeed, the SNP remains the odd one out in the rise of the nationalist parties across Europe in still supporting open borders and EU membership. The success of the Norwegian Progress Party, now part of the governing coalition in Norway, has turned Nordic immigration policy on its head.

The Norwegian government is trying to negotiate repatriation of asylum seekers to Eritrea. The True Finns have changed their spots and now also talk the language of national welfare while opposing immigration.

The far right is going mainstream too in Denmark, where the formerly far-right Peoples Party is now the second largest; a scenario the makers of the political drama Borgen would have rejected as far fetched only a few years ago.

Sweden’s centre-left government, shocked by the influx of 200,000 refugees, is even talking about closing the Oresund bridge to Denmark. This has provided the backdrop to the hit TV series, The Bridge.

So where does all this leave the First Minister, with her apparently anachronistic defence of immigration and her quixotic support for the EU? Well, in a difficult place is the answer.

With Schengen in tatters and the establishment parties of Europe are talking like the far right, you wonder how long the SNP can remain committed to open borders and European internationalism; not that you will hear a hint of this from Ms Sturgeon, who has no thoughts of moving her party in the direction of the new euro-nationalism.

The SNP has occupied a space to the left of the political spectrum for the last 30 years. However, it is not a socialist party. Its organising principle, its moral lodestone, is putting Scotland first; that is, nationalism.

There is no logical reason why the SNP should be immune to the politics of fear and xenophobia, even if its leader is confident that Scottish political culture is inimical to these passions. Scots have welcomed immigrants from Syria and there has been none of the nastiness we have seen in Eastern Europe.

This is a tribute to the tolerance and good sense of the Scottish people but we should not be complacent. Scots have not been immune to sectarianism in the recent past. The price of avoiding the ugly Janus face of ethnic nationalism, as the nationalist writer Tom Nairn put it, is eternal vigilance.


From Herald – 7/12/15

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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