Sinister or silly, protest politicians are united in grievance

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There are moments at which one is embarrassed to be British. In 2009, members of the European Parliament from the UK Independence party attempted to upstage a children’s choir singing Europe’s anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. They stood up to bellow instead a tuneless version of “God Save the Queen”. But last week Ukip gathered about a quarter of the votes across a variety of local elections: enough to claim to be taken seriously as a political force, if not to be taken seriously.

The financial crisis of 2008 was a failure of both an economic system and a political system. The inability of democratic politics to handle its aftermath has threatened to undermine the apparent consensus on liberal democracy and lightly regulated capitalism that emerged following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Europe’s experience in the 1930s illustrates the potentially devastating political consequences of economic failure. Fragmented and polarised assemblies may render effective government impossible, as in France. Authoritarian leaders achieve power on the promise of firm government – they may come from the extremist fringe, as in Germany, or the military, as in Spain. The domestic instability created by economic crisis led either to weak governments or to authoritarian ones, and became global instability when one confronted the other. France’s nine premiers and more governments in six years left it politically and economically unprepared for the German onslaught.

America’s Tea Party is a rising of the socially conservative poor, funded by the rich. The comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement argues that the only way to cope with Italian politics is to laugh at it. The Scottish National party, with roots in a romantic view of Scotland’s history and culture, reinvented itself around the potent but decidedly unromantic cry of: “It’s Scotland’s oil.” Alternative für Deutschland is an intellectual movement of professors; and Greece’s New Dawn, a fascist revival.

These and the many other new anti-political movements – some thoughtful, some sinister, some silly – could hardly appear more disparate. Yet they share a resentment of others supposedly responsible for our problems – a media and a political class that supposedly fails to acknowledge popular concerns, and foreigners who do not share our culture or our heritage. United only in grievance, they are so varied because by their nature they can only be national.

Contrary to many expectations, the most traditionally international of political groupings – the left – derived no benefit from the crisis. Socialist movements, which had waited a century for capitalism to collapse from its own global contradictions, were so horrified by the prospect that this might occur on their watch that their only thought was to avert it by shovelling public money at the capitalists. In the few countries in which parties of the left have gained power since the crisis, this is not the result of any shift in the centre of political gravity but a byproduct of voters’ near universal rejection of whatever government was in power at the time. The “change you could believe in” that US President Barack Obama and François Hollande of France brought was principally that they were not their predecessors.

That intellectual failure has made room for the new groupings and their destabilising influence. Republican legislators must protect their flank against the Tea Party, and their resulting intransigence leads to gridlock. The impossible legislative arithmetic that followed the success of the Five Star Movement destroyed the fragile cohesion of Italy’s only credible political force – the centre-left – and has paved the way for an improbable return by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Greece struggles to maintain a majority for any coalition able and willing to acknowledge the country’s problems.

Not all the lessons of the 1930s are depressing. The leadership of Franklin Roosevelt in the US enabled democracy and capitalism to survive the effects of the Great Depression. British voters responded by turning out in large numbers for the spectacularly uncharismatic Stanley Baldwin – who campaigned on the slogan “safety first”, found a strong man in Winston Churchill when one was needed, then dumped him without ceremony when one was not. Spain and Germany, traumatised by historic experience, today appear bastions of stability. For how long?

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