Beware the rise of authoritarians abroad and at home
One hundred years ago today, on October 26, 1922, the Italian government resigned under pressure from Benito Mussolini, who was planning an insurrection and a “march on Rome” with his blackshirt army.
Prime Minister Luigi Facta begged the petty and irresolute King Victor Emmanuel III to declare a state of siege, but the king refused and, in a desperate attempt to avoid armed conflict, appointed Mussolini prime minister.
This was the beginning of the rise of modern fascism in Europe, which quickly spread to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party) under Hitler and then to 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 the Falange Española of General Francisco Franco and the National Union in Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar. Fascist movements also erupted for a time in Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece.
Despite the horrors of World War II, the legacy of far-right neo-fascist ideological authoritarianism reverberated through the following decades and is evident in many countries today. The emergence of Giorgia Meloni, president of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, as Italy’s first female prime minister is a centuries-old irony. The Italian Brothers are a far-right populist political party that split from Silvio Berlusconi’s People’s 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 electoral victory as representing “the unequivocal will of the Russian people”. however, changed his mind about Putin after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called on the EU to continue supplying weapons to Volodymyr Zalensky.
Meloni is Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia and anti-same-sex marriage. She describes herself as a Catholic and conservative Christian and says she represents “God, country and family”. Meloni’s popularity has grown during the pandemic, in his role as leader of the only effective party opposed to Mario Draghi’s government of national unity. In a strategy that should be familiar to British voters, she proposes a sweeping policy of tax cuts 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 has provided the ideal platform for nationalist governments to consolidate their authority, rushing through a series of emergency measures, leading inexorably to an erosion of freedom.
The worst example is Hungary, whose autocratic and neo-fascist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán systematically intimidated the Hungarian judiciary, emasculated the free press and manipulated electoral law to the specific advantage of his own ruling party, Fidesz. He was the first to place armed guards at the Hungarian border to prevent an influx of refugees, in direct violation of EU humanitarian conventions. Orbán seized on the coronavirus pandemic as a way to effectively kill democracy. He is also a fan of Vladimir Putin.
Orbán found a willing apprentice in the authoritarian Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose SNP government became increasingly centrist and intolerant, tolerating no criticism or opposition, even from its own members. The Prime Minister’s obsession with holding a second independence referendum, instead of dealing with our failing education system, the crumbling NHS, the sky-high drug-related deaths, the ferry fiasco, the skyrocketing inflation and soaring energy costs, is a sure sign of the narrow-minded xenophobia of its toxic synthesis of nationalism and socialism.
None of these abject failures were mentioned in Ms Sturgeon’s ‘UN candidacy speech’ at the SNP party conference, or even in her economics piece Building a New Scotland published last week. The SNP Government’s command economy approach to wasting public money was best exemplified by its intervention at the struggling Lochaber steel smelter when it guaranteed £586million of taxpayers’ money to the billionaire Sanjeev Gupta. With Gupta’s steel empire now facing serious financial problems, Scottish taxpayers could find themselves facing a bill of more than half a billion pounds.
But economic incompetence is only the tip of a huge nationalist iceberg. Ms Sturgeon betrayed the true and deeply sinister instincts of her government when she tried to introduce a law that would have mandated an appointed person or “state guardian” for every child in the country. This chilling macho principle that “government always knows best” can be seen on a broader level in world leaders like Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Khamenei and Kim Jong-un. They share the same qualities, values and characters, despite differences in geographical locations and political systems.
Nationalism can encompass both right-wing and left-wing political ideologies. The kind of nationalism that these leaders promote convinces their followers that their nation is superior to other nations. They believe that their culture, values and way of life are worth more than those of other countries and therefore they find themselves and their country more valuable than those of other countries. It’s a dangerous illusion, but it can easily be seen here in Scotland, when crowds of chanting, flag-waving SNP supporters gather in our streets.
George Orwell, in his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” identified three key traits with which SNP supporters will be familiar. First, he listed the “obsession”, writing that a nationalist’s “special mission is to prove that the nation he has chosen is in every way better than its rivals”. Second, Orwell listed “instability”, which he described as “the relentless, reductive, uncompromising fervor” of a nationalist’s mindset. And third, he listed “indifference to reality”, explaining that “every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is aware of serving something greater than himself – unshakably sure to be right”.
Benito Mussolini said, “It’s good to trust others, but not to do so is much better.” One hundred years after the dawn of modern fascism in Europe, this motto may soon be engraved on the door of Bute House.
Struan Stevenson was a Conservative Member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014).
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