It is always said that it was Winston Churchill’s rasping upper-class tones that rallied the British people in their darkest hour after the evacuation from Dunkirk. Just as likely, it was the warm, down-to-earth Yorkshire timbre of the novelist and playwright JB Priestley.
It was Priestley, in one of his immensely popular Sunday night radio talks for the BBC, who invented the myth of Dunkirk itself, reconfiguring a desperate retreat as a triumph of the English spirit. And it was Priestley who, much better than anyone else at the time, explained what would happen if Britain gave in to the Nazis.
He put his finger on something that remains all too relevant to the threat of the far right today: the way it gives power to the most obnoxious little gits. People who cheer the great leader will soon find themselves under the thumb of the neighbours and workmates they most despise in day-to-day life.
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Speaking to his embattled compatriots in 1940, Priestley said that any country that submitted to the Nazis would “not only find the German Gestapo crawling everywhere”. It would also “find itself in the power of all its own most unpleasant types”.
These types are “the very people who for years have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power. Let the Nazis in and you will find that the laziest loudmouth in the workshop has suddenly been given power to kick you up and down the street and that if you try to make any appeal you have to do it to the one man in the district whose every word and look you’d always distrusted.”
Not long afterwards, Priestley was taken off the air on the orders of Churchill’s ministry of information. There may have been an element of jealousy in this decision – no one should be allowed to rival the great man’s ability to communicate with the masses. But presumably, too, Priestley’s implication that the Nazis would find no shortage of petty collaborators in Britain was too close to the bone.
'It is always said that it was Winston Churchill’s upper-class tones that rallied the British people after the evacuation from Dunkirk. Just as likely, it was the warm timbre of novelist JB Priestley.' Photograph: PA
Yet Priestley was dead right – not just about Britain, but about any society. And not just about the 1940s, but about now.
The people who are drawn to protests in Ireland against asylum seekers and refugees are mostly those who feel powerless and frustrated in their own lives and communities. I get that: if you don’t feel powerless and frustrated in Ireland at the moment, it’s either because you’re rich or because you haven’t been paying attention.
The far right simultaneously degrades and elevates its followers. In return for their self-abasement before the great leader, they get to bully other people
But if you want to know what it really feels like to be powerless, try living under the kind of authoritarian regime that those who are exploiting the crisis in refugee accommodation long to create. If you think it’s bad having to cope with an inadequate democratic state, imagine being under the heel of the kind of inadequates that Priestley was taking about.
When we think about the rise of the far right, we tend to focus (for good reasons) on the charismatic leaders who present themselves as the unique and indispensable saviour of the nation. (“I alone can fix it,” says Donald Trump, speaking for all the authoritarian populists. “I am the chosen one.”)
The Irish far right currently has no “chosen one”. There are plenty of fantasists who see themselves that way, but so far none of them has persuaded more than a handful of acolytes to share that perception.
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Most of these duces-in-waiting make the Boring Priest in Father Ted look like Elvis in his prime. But this very deficit of charisma should give us some reason for caution: what would Irish politics really look like if a clever and magnetic leader were to emerge from the far right?
A successful quasi-fascist movement has to generate a paradox of power. Most people who are drawn into reactionary authoritarian movements have a complex and contradictory relationship with the idea of empowerment. They seek power through abjection.
The paradoxical bargain offered by the far right is that on the one hand you must slavishly follow the leader, but on the other hand, if you do so loyally enough, you too can become a mini-tyrant.
The burnt remains of an encampment used by asylum seekers at Sandwith Street, Dublin, May 2023. Photograph: Conor Ó Mearáin/Collins
Thus, the far right simultaneously degrades and elevates its followers. In return for their self-abasement before the great leader, they get to bully other people.
Most of that bullying is, of course, directed at Them – Jews, Catholics, blacks, asylum seekers, immigrants, sexual “deviants”, nomads: whatever out-group is closest to hand. The movement gives its followers the opportunity to assuage their own powerlessness by exercising power over groups that cannot hit back.
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But there is also a secondary outlet for those “rotten with unsatisfied vanity”. If and when they take power, these movements also turn inwards, creating structures of authority in which the very nation that was supposed to be made great again actually “finds itself in the power of all its own most unpleasant types”.
Authoritarian movements fuse utter mediocrity with untrammeled abuse of power. You have to be a mediocrity to surrender your independence of thought and morality to the great leader. But you lord it over other people in order to compensate yourself for that loss of autonomy.
People are drawn into these crusades because they think they will gain some sense of control over their own lives. They end up, not taking back control, but being controlled
You can see this tendency even in political movements that, while drifting towards the far right, remain democratic. The Tory Party in Britain is a prime example. As the party’s centre of gravity has shifted ever rightwards, its level of real political talent has sunk, giving it three successive prime ministers so incompetent that they blew up their own governments.
Protesters against asylum seekers being housed at the former ESB office in East Wall stopping traffic as they protested at the Five Lamps on Amiens Street, Dublin, last December. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Yet the vacuum where talent should be is filled by bullying. The epidemic of insulting and intimidatory actions towards civil servants by ministers such as Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel shows how the most talentless people are the ones most likely to behave obnoxiously towards those over whom they have authority.
The most important reason to stay well away from the intimidation of immigrants and asylum seekers is that it’s wrong. But a very good secondary reason is that the ultimate destination of these movements is the tyranny of twisted little nobodies.
People are drawn into these crusades because they think they will gain some sense of control over their own lives. They end up not taking back control, but being controlled.
Controlled by the very people they would ordinarily cross the street to avoid: the loudmouths, the swaggerers, the goons drunk on their own grandiosity.
If you’re tempted to join in with the vilification of Them, think of all the people you would most dread being stuck with in a railway carriage on a long journey. Those are the ones who will end up having the power to kick you up and down the street.