THE liberal Left hasn’t had much to celebrate recently, what with Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right. So there was understandable jubilation over the defeat of the far-right candidate in the Austrian presidential elections, Norbert Hofer, by the former Green party leader, Alexander van der Bellen.
There was rejoicing too over the crushing referendum defeat of Matteo Renzi in Italy, a Tony Blair figure who wanted to diminish the powers of Italy’s upper house and liberalise the moribund Italian economy; but not so fast, guys.
The rightist genie isn’t back in the bottle quite yet. Mr Hofer won 47 per cent of the vote. A politician who boasts about carrying a gun to use against migrants came perilously close to becoming head of state in the country of Adolf Hitler’s birth.
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A win may be a win, but it is still a disturbing result that demonstrates that immigration, even more than economics (since Austria is in fairly good economic health) has divided countries at the heart of the EU.
As for Italy, the former BBC Newsnight journalist, Paul Mason, loudly celebrated the defeat of Matteo Renzi as a blow against “neoliberalism and the establishment” But he wasn’t alone. The leader of the hard-right Northern League, Matteo Salvini, proclaimed the referendum result as “a victory for the people against globalisation”.
The French far-right leader, Marine le Pen, also hailed the Italian referendum as another blow against the EU and corporate capitalism. “We must listen to the thirst for freedom”, she said.
The No campaign in Italy was led by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, who is a kind of green version of Donald Trump. Mr Grillo may be a self-styled environmentalist but he wants to scrap income tax, end trade treaties and hold a referendum on Italian membership of the euro.In the forthcoming Italian general elections, this mercurial character’s party could conceivably become the government of the fourth largest country in the eurozone.
Italy is in a dire state, with its banks toppling under the weight of bad loans and the economy having shrunk by 12 per cent since 2008. In fact, there has been no net growth in Italy for 20 years. With debt running at 135 per cent of GDP and unemployment at 20 per cent, Italy is roughly where Greece was just before the Grexit crisis. Not surprisingly, there are fears for the future of democracy itself here.
So at the very least this has been a qualified victory for the liberal Left. What this mainly confirms is that the old centre-right and centre-left parties that have dominated European politics since the Second World War are well past their sell-by dates. It is populism of the neither-left-nor-right variety that is the driving force in Europe.
The insurgency is a vote against capitalism, at least global corporatism, but it isn’t “Left” as we understand it. It is a movement of the dispossessed who, like Trump supporters in America, reject what they see as the multicultural values of the “politically correct” liberal Left.
Far-right figures like Hofer and le Pen have exploited the weakness and division in the orthodox Left by repositioning their ethnic nationalism on the Left’s traditional territory.
In Scotland, nationalism has not taken the xenophobic form we see elsewhere in Europe, even in the Nordic countries where far-right parties have participated in government recently.
Nicola Sturgeon has been able to harness respect for diversity and social democratic values to an open-minded civic nationalism. Indeed, as we see in its arguments against Brexit in the Supreme Court, the Scottish Government has made internationalism one of the defining features of Scottish nationalism.
This puzzles many on the British Left who assume that the SNP is a right-wing party in disguise. It is not a cause for naive self-congratulation but at least there’s an alternative on offer. The SNP is able to speak to working class white voters in a way that the conventional liberal Left no longer has the ability. Given Bexit, the horror-show throughout Europe and the disarray on the liberal Left, we should be grateful for small mercies.