With the rise of the far right in recent German elections, the British press has been able to once again indulge its fascination with the far right. They are, simply put, better villains than mainstream politicians, a lunatic fringe who make infinitely better copy than Germany’s traditionally bland, technocratic Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. However, the media ought to show a little more restraint, lest they inadvertently embolden the extremists they cover by rewarding them with unwarranted publicity.
Firstly, the specifics of the German election. Angela Merkel has recently announced plans to step down as Chancellor before the next federal elections, following a particularly bruising result for her Conservative party’s Bavarian heartland, the region being a hitherto impregnable bastion of the German centre-right. Many votes, it is true, were lost to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) which has prospered in particular following Mrs. Merkel’s controversial decision to admit hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015. However, we ought to remember that Merkel has been German Chancellor since 2005, making her by a distance the longest-serving EU leader, with a stay in power longer than Britain’s recent era-defining Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Such a stay in office is near certain to end in unpopularity; people simply become ready for a change. The maxim that all political careers end in failure is one that few politicians can escape.
Furthermore, Germany’s system of grand coalitions may have contributed more than any particular love for the AFD. The centre-left, rather than being a government in waiting as they would be in the British system, has spent much of the last decade and a half in coalition with Merkel’s Conservatives. Such a system might be superficially attractive to many who consider themselves centrists, but ask yourself who provides the scrutiny vital to a democracy in such circumstances? The natural party of opposition to Merkel is thus the far right rather than the centre-left for many voters.
Finally, British media outlets have been surprisingly quiet on the other phenomenon in German politics, one that is numerically the equal of the AFD. The Green party has thrown off the shackles of being a fringe single issue group to provide a genuine challenge to the established centre left Social Democrats. They have done so by making inroads with the young and those in big cities, repackaging old-fashioned state socialist thinking in a way that can appeal to middle-class social liberals rather than the traditional working- class constituency that sustained Europe’s centre-left in the 20th century. That story too is hardly as gripping as the rise of a new far-right, despite possibly being more significant to Germany’s long-term political future.
In addition, is there an element of British media outlets patting their readers on the back here? The underlying notion that moderate old Britain would never be so silly as to vote for such a motley collection of neo-fascists. For one thing, the lack of an electorally viable extreme right in Britain owes more to the entrenched nature of our two party system (which if anything reasserted itself in the last election) due to our binary electoral system than to the British public being inherently savvier than their European counterparts.
Indeed we would do well to recall the number of fascist sympathisers in 1930s Britain. Located mainly in the more reactionary fringes of the aristocracy, who feared Communism above all else and thus saw virtue in Hitler’s National Socialist message. They included, at least to some degree, short-lived monarch Edward VIII, though his views had more public sympathy than many would admit (even the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George had warm words to say about Hitler at one stage). Perhaps a mixture of our collective wartime experience and the electoral system makes a British AFD unlikely. Nevertheless, the press would do well to avoid fanning the flames of the far right abroad and at home.