PR won’t help the far right, but it will help Britain

You can’t breathe these days without the words “despite Brexit” jumping out at you. The conventional wisdom before the referendum that a vote to leave would immediately usher in economic calamity has so far failed to materialise. We’re in the midst of one of the largest political stalemates in British history, yet the fallout from the referendum hasn’t made much of a dent in the economy.

I imagine it would be much the same if we switched our voting system. The popular line among the “duopolists” is that first past the post is the final bulwark against letting far-right extremism into the UK. They say that proportional representation will give undue influence to the views of a small minority who could hold the balance of power in future elections. I’ve got a feeling that much of the media and general political elite would be parroting a similar “despite PR” line as it slowly emerged that the UK wasn’t approaching a period of neo-Nazi governance.

Indeed, the general hysteria arises despite the overwhelming evidence that proportional voting systems don’t usher in extremists. According to the Fragile States Index (2017), the five most stable states in the world elect governments under proportional representation. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland are even held up by progressives as shining beacons to follow. Even in Sweden, which has struggled to form a government after the right-wing Swedish Democrats won 17 per cent of the vote in 2018 elections, has managed to avoid accepting help from so-called “extremists”.

Even so, we can’t accurately compare Sweden with the UK. In Britain, the issues for the far right – and the reasons they’ll never have a legislative influence – run far deeper than our voting system. In countries such as Sweden and France, where Marine Le Pen and her family have been rallying points for the “left behinds” over the span of a few decades, charismatic leadership has been integral.

Le Pen’s Presidential campaigns have been focussed around her as a candidate for the masses, rather than explicitly on policy. Jimmie Akesson of the Swedish Democrats is on the airwaves frequently espousing his party’s (toned-down) policies in softly spoken tones.

Contrast that with British figures such as Nick Griffin, who explicitly yearns for the British Empire, broke Question Time etiquette by personally attacking Labour’s Jack Straw, and has been described by interviewees as “distinctly unremarkable”. Take a look, too, at the failed revival of Ukip, a party now obsessed with Muslims and gaining the approval of Tommy Robinson. In reality, the far right in the UK has suffered from a real dearth of competent and charismatic leadership.

But, in all honestly, that’s fixable. All it takes is for a British Le Pen and British gilets jaunes. A trickier path to navigate is the British media’s natural aversion to the extremes of political discourse. Despite the BNP making relatively noticeable waves in the north of England – particularly in former Labour heartlands such as Burnley – there was a major backlash to Nick Griffin being invited onto Question Time. Indeed, there’s a noticeable lull in mainstream literature when it comes to the major print press giving column inches to extreme right-wing figures.

As much of the press looks over its shoulder at left-wing outlets, such as Skwawkbox and the Tribune, cultivating a serious following, there’s no reason they couldn’t look the other way and see a good wedge of alt-right platforms doing the same.

Nonetheless, I’m still not worried about the supposed rise of the far right in the UK, and I’ll continue to raise an eyebrow at the notion that PR will get rid of any “political stability” in the UK – though I wouldn’t be against giving the major parties a kick up the backside, or, more dramatically, breaking them up altogether. My lack of worry comes not only because PR has neglected to help extremists in a majority of countries in Europe, but because it’s undeniable that British civil society is staunchly set against the far right and their ideas.

Indeed, I’d go as far as to argue that not only has the far right failed to penetrate into British political culture – despite a number of movements over the years – but for much of its history it has been actively at odds with it. Britain is the motherland of liberalism, home to JS Mill, John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Adam Smith.

Conversely, the extreme right doesn’t really believe in much other than nostalgia for imperial times. They are offering ethno-nationalism at a time when more and more Britons have favourable attitudes to immigration – despite what Brexit may suggest. The radical right has an aversion to democracy and institutions – and rides awkwardly against a Britain which historically stood alone against the spectre of fascism.

According to scholars of the far right such as David Renton, disproportional attention is awarded to the extreme right in the UK – people “who have never come close to seizing a modicum of power”. The truth is, the British people have historically developed deep-rooted civility for others and respect for institutions, despite how it may sometimes appear.

So, stop worrying about what the media likes to present as a crushing wave of alt-righters riding into Westminster. Yes, perhaps our politics is nastier than ever at the moment, but there’s very little chance of a far-right candidate rising to prominence in Britain. In which case, I think it’s time to break the tiresome political stalemate and crumbling broadchurch party system by advocating a change to PR.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is the co-founder of 1828 and research associate of the Adam Smith Institute.