In early May 1937, ten months into the Spanish Civil War, thousands of Basque children arrived in UK and the Low Countries, sent by their parents for safe-keeping after Spanish, German and Italian fascist forces bombed the towns of Durango and Guernica, Spain, killing scores of innocent civilians, taking internecine strife to a new level. 20 of them made their home just up the road from where I live in East Sussex. In the preceding months, there had been a flow of thousands of adults in the opposite direction, as volunteers poured into Spain to bolster republican opposition to fascism.
Now, 84 years on, the word ‘fascism’ is increasingly appearing in this country’s social media and political comment – and with good reason.
It would be easy for those not versed in the history of that time to say, “Oh, there is no danger of that here. No mass arrests or street violence like in pre-war Italy or Germany.” But the history of fascism pre-dated Britain’s eventual stance against it by 20 years and was built on political process as well as violence. In UK, the governing Conservatives and even the Royal Family were inclined towards appeasement by the lies and glib charisma of the dictators, despite politicians, intellectuals and working people throughout Europe and the wider world being alive to the realities of fascism. The latter was reflected such that even before the World War started, at least 35,000 people from 52 countries voluntarily travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades to resist the evil of fascism, with 20 per cent paying the ultimate price in the failed attempt. The rest is history. We must never follow suit, but we seem to be doing so.
Also by Tom Serpell
- Is democracy in Sussex really too much to ask for?
- War is over, time for Britain to put down its arms
We have a government exclusively formed of true believers in a national myth of British exceptionalism, demanding credibility for a foreign policy pretending to defend democracies but which rides roughshod over democratic norms at home. Johnson has already removed from his party those who most opposed him. He won power by pretending to be a champion of democracy then quickly adopted executive powers so that he no longer has to answer to the very parliament he claimed to want to lead. His investment in overtly nationalistic imagery is frighteningly redolent of fascism as he harks back to a fake narrative of past glory. The recent Bill proposing suppression of protest is only a step away from removal of opposition. He has tested the strength of the opposition by a catalogue of corruption, mismanagement, crony appointments and lies; and found it wanting. His way forward looks clear of hurdles. Almost.
We do not – yet – have a fascist state but must avoid allowing this risk to gain ground. We must avoid both accepting the realities and failing to prevent these going further. Commentators have been quick to spot and attribute fascistic tendencies to behaviours of the Johnson cabinet, but too many political journalists seem afraid to challenge those they seek to report. They should. Spotting the risk may be a good start but is not enough. Johnson will not like the ‘f-word’ tag both because it shows he is being found out and because key to his myth-making, so important to fascism, is the figure of Churchill as embodiment of the Great Britain he imagines. But Churchill was one of very few who stood against fascism in the 1930s.
We must all take a leaf from science’s book and isolate the virus of fascism, challenge its transmitters and make democracy the vaccine against it before it becomes an epidemic. This means using the levers of a functioning democracy, even as they are under threat: the ballot box, the courts, independent media and peaceful protest. Johnson must be challenged at every rightward step and on every palpable dishonesty, constantly exposed for what he is, taken to court, shunned by those with standards of decency. If this country is to avoid falling into fascism, with our children this time seeking refuge in a strange land, we must not see it but do or say nothing. Appeasement is no answer to the ruthlessness of fascists.