EUROPE’S AUTHORITARIAN LEGACY
One hundred years ago today, on 26 October 1922, the Italian government resigned under pressure from Benito Mussolini, who planned an insurrection and a ‘march on Rome’ with his army of Blackshirts. Prime Minister Luigi Facta pled with the diminutive and irresolute King Victor Emmanuel III, to declare a state of siege, but the king refused and in a desperate bid to avoid armed conflict, appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister. It was the beginning of the rise of modern fascism in Europe, which spread quickly to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) under Hitler, then the Fatherland Front in Austria under Kurt Von Schuschnigg. Schuschnigg was bullied into accepting Austria’s absorption into the Third Reich following a terrifying encounter with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in February 1938. The spread of fascism also embraced the Iberian Peninsula, with the formation of General Francisco Franco’s Falange Española and the National Union in Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar. Fascist movements also flared for a time in Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece.
Despite the horrors of the Second World War, the legacy of far-right, neo-fascist ideological authoritarianism has trickled down through the succeeding decades and is evident today in many countries. The emergence of Giorgia Meloni, president of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, as Italy’s first female prime minister, is a centennial irony. The Brothers of Italy are an extreme right, populist political party who split from Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party in 2012. Meloni has praised Mussolini in the past saying: “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy”. In 2018, she even celebrated Vladimir Putin’s election victory as representing “the unequivocal will of the Russian people.” She has, however, changed her tune on Putin following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for the EU to continue to supply arms to Volodymyr Zalensky.
Meloni is Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia and anti-same-sex marriage. She describes herself as a Catholic Christian and a conservative and says she stands for “God, fatherland and family.” Meloni’s popularity grew during the pandemic, in her role as leader of the only effective party opposing Mario Draghi’s national unity government. In a strategy that should be familiar to British voters, she proposes a radical tax cutting policy and massive increases in Italy’s national debt to fund relief from soaring energy bills.
Meloni’s populist rise to power from the ashes of the pandemic is by no means unique. The Coronavirus crisis provided the perfect platform for nationalist governments to consolidate their authority, by rushing through a swathe of emergency measures, leading inexorably to an erosion of freedom. The worst example was Hungary, whose autocratic, neo-fascist prime minister Viktor Orbán, has systematically intimidated Hungary’s judiciary, emasculated the free press and manipulated electoral law to the specific advantage of his own ruling Fidesz party. He was the first to put armed guards on the Hungarian border to prevent an influx of refugees, in direct breach of EU humanitarian conventions. Orbán seized upon the coronavirus pandemic as a way of effectively killing off democracy. He is also a fan of Vladimir Putin.
Viktor Orbán has found a willing apprentice in Scotland’s authoritarian First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose SNP government has become increasingly centrist and intolerant, brooking no criticism or opposition, even from its own members. The First Minister’s obsession with holding a second independence referendum, instead of dealing with our failing education system, the crumpling NHS, sky-high drug deaths, the ferries fiasco, spiralling inflation and rocketing energy costs, is a sure sign of the narrow-minded xenophobia of her toxic synthesis of nationalism and socialism. None of these abject failings were mentioned in Ms Sturgeon’s ‘UN job-application speech’ at the SNP’s party conference, or indeed, in her ‘Building a New Scotland’ economic paper published last week. The SNP government’s command economy approach to squandering public money was best illuminated by their intervention over the struggling steel smelter in Lochaber when they guaranteed £586 million of taxpayers’ cash to billionaire Sanjeev Gupta. With Gupta’s steel empire now facing serious financial problems, Scotland’s taxpayers could find themselves confronting a bill running into more than half a billion pounds.
But economic incompetence is only the tip of a huge, nationalist iceberg. Nicola Sturgeon betrayed her government’s true, deeply sinister instincts, when she tried to introduce a law which would have mandated a named person or ‘state guardian’ for every child in the country. This frightening macho principle that “the government always knows best”, can be seen at a wider level in global leaders like Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Khamenei and Kim Jong-un. They share the same qualities, values and character, despite differences of geographic locations and political systems. Nationalism can embrace both right and left political ideologies. The kind of nationalism these leaders promote convinces their followers that their nation is superior to other nations. They believe their culture, values and way of life is worth more than that of other countries and they therefore find themselves and their country more valuable than those from other countries. It is a dangerous delusion but can be readily seen here in Scotland, when mobs of chanting, flag-waving, SNP supporters gather on our streets.
George Orwell, in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, identified three key traits with which supporters of the SNP will be familiar. Firstly, he listed ‘obsession’, writing that a nationalist’s “special mission is to prove that his chosen nation is in all respects better than its rivals.” Secondly, Orwell listed ‘instability’, which he described as “the relentless, reductive, uncompromising fervour” of a nationalist’s state of mind. And thirdly, he listed ‘indifference to reality’, explaining that “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakably certain of being in the right.”
Benito Mussolini famously said: “It is good to trust others, but not to do so is much better.” One hundred years after the dawn of modern fascism in Europe, that motto may soon be carved over the door of Bute House.