If you write a book about the end of the liberal system in the country where liberalism was borne, you are definitely likely to sell books. If you write a book about the end of social order in a time besieged by independentist violence, rising nationalism and fast-growing socialism, you are likely to sell books. If your surname is ‘Dangerfield’, then you definitely have all the qualities of a best-seller. This was the case of George Dangerfield’s classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England, a strange title, indeed, when it first appeared in 1935. But, even more striking is the fact that, although 1935 had witnessed all the turmoil of Hitler’s rise to power, the agitation of Charles Maurras’ Action Française, the communist revolution in Asturias in 1934, Mussonlini’s Italy, and the birth of British pseudo-fascism with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Dangerfield wasn’t writing about the 1930s. He was writing about the period of 1910 to 1914 in England.
Why was this so? Why were the early 1910s more likely to be identified with the death of Liberalism than the 1930s? The answer is simple; crisis. England went through a series of crisis that provoked un-paralleled changes. The constitutional crisis led to an unprecedented reform of the House of Lords by the House of Commons (considered to be of same status by the Constitution, therefore unable to exert power on each other) with the Parliamentary Act of 1911; the Irish crisis provoked the adoption of Home Rule, and the beginning of the Irish civil war when protestant unionist sir Edward Carson, with the support of the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law, armed his militias; the Suffragettes were even using bombs and smashing windows in order to get the vote for women, and trade unionism rose alarmingly for both Liberals and Conservatives, going from two seats in Parliament in 1900 to forty-two just ten years later. This definitely seemed as a big issue, but it wouldn’t have been such if the two big parties at the time, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, wouldn’t have declared war on Liberalism too. The first allying with the growing Labour pressure. The second, returning to old Tory values.
To some extent, the situation today resembles that of Edwardian England, in which Liberalism died. The last electoral results in France and Greece, as everyone agrees in saying, suppose the failure of the German “fiskalpakt” on austerity that reigned in the European Union. Markets have reflected this situation immediately: the Paris stock market dropped 1.52 points, while Italy did by 2.2, Spain in 1.76 and Germany slipped 2.02. The worst day was for Athens, that lost 7.6 points in a single day. What is now obvious is not just that Greece is impossible to rule, but that Europe itself has gone into a chaotic situation, and that the majority of the people do reject austerity plans.
Both in Greece and France, the major parties have shrunk. The rise of the radical option is just too clear: in Greece, the parties supporting austerity were only able to reach a top of 32% of the vote. 68% of the Greek vote went to radicals, from the leftist Syriza to the neo-nazi party of Golden Dawn. In the French first round, all the electoral analysts agreed that the real winner of the election was Marie Le Pen, who took a decaying party up to a 18% share of the vote. The fourth party was the Communist Party, led by Melenchton. The centrist Bayrou, who in the last election obtained a third position, was left fifth. Overall, Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s votes counted for a bit more than 50%. The radical option is not just appealing, but to some extent triumphant.
France and Greece are not the only examples. The 23rd of April, just a day after the first round took place in France and Le Pen obtained her stunning results, the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, announced that he was to end his support of the coalition he held with the Liberal Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. The Netherlands, thus, were drawn into the middle of the crisis that is waving Europe. Geert Wilders said that he was not supporting austerity measures imposed by a foreign country any further. It’s obvious that he understood the immense electoral appeal that supposes rejecting austerity.
In Britain’s local elections this past Thursday, the Conservative and Liberal coalition lost an overall of 18 councils, while Labour won up to 450 seats. Such a drain is even more alarming knowing that, all the parties, Labour included, lost votes. Labour won because they literally lost less votes than the coalition did. The electoral results in Asturias and Andalucía, in Spain, are also revealing. The Conservative PP was unable to obtain a majority in any of this provinces, while the Socialist PSOE lost votes again. The surprise was the sharp rise of the communist IU, the real winner of the elections.
Step by step, the canvas of Europe today resembles the one that Dangerfield analyses in his book, The Strange Death of Liberal England.
The rise of the radical option is not unexpected. And itself is not a real cause for the Death of Liberal Europe. Just as it wasn’t the real cause for the Death of Liberal England. The major parties have also learned the lesson. They are not going to stand their ground just to be punished. After the local elections in England, Prime Minister declared that the Conservative Party should return to the ‘tory values’. Alarmed by this, Liberal leader and vice-president Nick Clegg urged him to ‘keep calm in the coming battle with the right-wing tories’, and to ignore the ‘siren voices’ of the backbenchers. It is a crude reality that, within the Conservative Party, the idea that a government in minority would be better that a coalition with the Lib-Dems is quite spread.
Politicians are still politicians, and they have to win their elections. Sarkozy had to surrender to Le Pen and promise harder measures against immigration just after the results in the first round, a useless tactic. Hollande did his part in trying to seduce Le Pen’s voters in a more subtle way, calling for a punishment to Sarkozy. No one knows what is going to happen in Greece or the Netherlands, but the only true thing is that, whatever government wants to rule, will have to seduce the radical option, and become, to some extent, radicals themselves. The lack of support and the drain of votes are forcing the big liberal parties to radicalize their discourse if they want to govern. The death of Liberalism starts in the polls, and consummates in the post-electoral negotiations. Radical parties cannot win, and they don’t intend to win. Government wastes their images, that’s the reason why Geert Wilders renounced to enter coalition in 2009. They just want to have enough weight to force the big parties give them concessions. And it is working. Germany is not left behind, with CDU unable to win any major victory, the Liberals thrown out of Parliament and the SPD still doing bad in elections and leaderless. The rise of the Greens and the post-communist Die Linke are the patterns for a serious situation in the whole European scene. Is not just that Sarkozy hasn’t been reelected. It is that Merkel may not be reelected. Not without the support of the radical option at least, who are not expected to tend their hands to her.
Juan José Rivas