Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

07 December 2016

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, wrote George Santayana the Spanish born philosopher, in 1905. Churchill too saw the danger of forgetting the past, “… lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

As a politician I am wary of hyperbole but for the first time since I watched The War Game as teenager, a depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, I am genuinely concerned about the future.

Last week I had a conversation with one of my socialist colleagues in the European Parliament, Eugen Freund MEP, from Austria. He had just met with a delegation of young people from his home country who were visiting the European Parliament in Brussels and the dominant theme of the interchange was, ‘Is there going to be war in Europe?’  

The tectonic plates of politics are shifting.  Right-wing populism has re-emerged with a vengeance, fuelled by concerns over immigration, job losses as a result of globalisation, and terrorism. 

Last Sunday Austria came close to electing a neo-fascist president.  On the same day Italy voted in a referendum to reject a set of constitutional reforms put forward by socialist prime minister Matteo Renzi, another populist kick in the teeth for an establishment party.

As we know only too well the UK voted to leave the EU earlier this year and in the USA Donald Trump was elected President, much to the delight of UKIP’s Nigel Farage.

There should be no doubt that we live in a moment of great political flux. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Will Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist Front National, win next year’s Presidential election in France? Will Angel Merkel hold on to the Chancellorship of Germany or will the neo-fascist Alternative for Deutschland see a surge in support? Will Russia make a move for one or more of the Baltic States?

As right-wing populist movements increasingly challenge the political establishment in the USA and across Europe, and insurgent populist parties now control parliamentary majorities in seven countries and share power in three others, it’s inevitable that the question is asked, are we experiencing parallels with the rise of fascism during the 1920s and 1930s?

“Fascist” has served as a generic term of political abuse for decades but for the first time in many years political commentators are using it to describe major European politicians and parties.

Are we about to repeat the past?

Let’s be clear, populism as espoused by UKIP and Trump is not fascism but the worry has to be that it could be a harbinger.

History tells us that fascism only succeeded in Europe when democracy failed to deliver employment, prosperity and stability. Fascism exploited the crisis of the 1930s Depression; it did not create it.  We are not in a similar situation but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent.  In eastern and southern Europe, democratic norms and institutions are younger and possibly weaker, while civil society and independent trade unions are in their infancy.  Here, political movements like Golden Dawn in Greece and Jabbik in Hungary do look more like traditional fascism. 

Yet all is not well in western Europe. Here, citizens, as in the USA, have not only grown more critical of their political leaders, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system and are hence more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.

In 2011, 13 percent of European youth (aged 16 to 24) expressed the view that democracy was a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. This was up from 8 percent among the same age group in the mid-1990s. Evidence suggests this percentage is continuing to grow.  

As we head towards 2017, we should note the alarm bells of populism are ringing and that this is a clear signal that democracy is in trouble. If democracy shifts from trouble to crisis then the road to fascism will be wide open - again. In 2017 the task is clear, we must restore faith in democracy. We must not repeat the past.

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