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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2019 > A populist in Number 10?

A populist in Number 10?

The forces of nationalism are on the rise around the world, and they could soon carry a demagogue to Downing Street

On the day that Britain was supposed to leave the European Union, the far-right gathered in Westminster. From a stage overlooking the Houses of Parliament, the Islamophobic campaigner Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—better known as Tommy Robinson—ranted about betrayal and humiliation, dismissed as traitors those MPs who opposed Brexit, and issued a warning that there would be trouble if “the will of people” was not respected. As night fell, the mood turned ugly. Some in the crowd of several thousand turned on journalists, while others went on a minor rampage through town. Several arrests were made.

The far-right is on the rise. In the past three years, one MP has been murdered by a far-right activist and a plot to murder another was uncovered, while a man radicalised online launched a murderous attack on Muslims in London, killing one and injuring many more. Robinson has gained notoriety, helped by parts of a media that has covered his rise with barely disguised fascination. Standing as an independent in the European elections he is also an adviser to the leader of Ukip, Gerard Batten, helping to turn what is now Nigel Farage’s former party into an unambiguously far-right force.

We are living in a dangerous moment. We have a white nationalist president in the US; a deputy prime minister in Italy who promises a census of people of Roma descent and stirs up hatred towards immigrants; anti-semitic leaders in Poland and Hungary; a deputy leader in Austria warning about migration by using the far-right term “population replacement;” ministers in Estonia flashing a “white power” sign while being sworn in; a fascist senator in Australia talking about a “final solution” for Muslims; and success for prominent far-right politicians in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France and most recently Spain.

Britain is not immune. More than a decade of scandals and crises, from the Iraq war to the financial crash and the expenses scandal, have destroyed trust in our institutions, ensuring that politics in the paranoid style has no shortage of potential targets. From a referendum that whipped up fear of foreigners and immigrants to the messy failure of the Conservative Party to deliver on the vote, Brexit has created a ready-to-use stab-in-the-back myth. Nine in 10 respondents tell Sky Data that Britain has been “humiliated,” while trust in politicians has become so low that in a recent survey by the Hansard Society, more than half of voters said that Britain now “needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules.”

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