I’m writing this on my return flight from Stockholm, where we held the last workshop in our Chatham House project on Understanding and Dealing with the Spread of Populist Extremism. The project explores the rise of populist extremist parties across Europe, and considers how various actors – from mainstream parties to the media – might respond. To this end, representatives from the Swedish Parliament, Proventus, Open Society, the Smith Institute and universities of Amsterdam and Stockholm gathered around a table to talk about the Swedish experience. The discussion was timely: at the most recent set of elections the extreme right Swedish Democrats (SD) entered Parliament with 20 seats, after polling over 5% of the vote.
Even before sitting down, there quickly emerged some interesting comparisons between the Brits and Swedes. Their ruthlessly efficient Ikea-style hotels, for instance, contrast sharply with my usual jaunts at Premier Inn (I was even offered a comprehensive ‘pillow menu’). And then there was the effortlessly cool dress-code of Swedish academics, which puts the traditional attire evident at the annual conference of the Political Studies Association (PSA) to shame. But there also emerged more substantive points, particularly in terms of Sweden’s experience with populist extremism (these observations, by the way, owe much to a presentation by Professor Jens Rydgren).
The first relates to electoral history. Like the Brits, until recently the Swedes never really had to worry about extremism. The Swedish equivalents to the BNP long struggled to mobilise and sustain a challenge. This failure was shaped by several trends. One was the way in which socio-economic issues long dominated the agenda, while the salience of the extreme right’s core social and cultural issues (for example immigration and national identity) remained low. Another was the way in which there remained substantial policy differences between the main parties, which ensured choice for Swedes at elections and reduced space available to extremist ‘entrepreneurs’. The last was the way in which, for many years, extreme right-wing parties themselves failed to present themselves as a legitimate and credible alternative. Like the Brits, these trends fostered a dismissive view of extremists and their potential.
The second point, however, concerns how this landscape has changed. As in Britain, Swedes are now much more anxious about those socio-cultural issues which favour the extreme right. At the same time, much like Labour and the Conservatives the main parties have converged on the centre ground, thereby reducing political choice, fuelling a sense among voters that ‘they are all the same’ and opening space for populist ‘outsiders’. And lastly, similar to the BNP the SD responded by investing more seriously in their organization, ideology and strategy. So much so, in fact, that some sections of the Swedish media began softening their position toward the SD (for example by referring to them as ‘populist’ rather than ‘extremist’). The SD have clearly been more successful than their British cousins, but both parties have strong links and the lesson from Sweden is not lost on activists looking toward a possible post-Griffin era.
This brings me to my final point, which concerns electoral potential. The consensus around the table at the Stockholm workshop was that, due to the above trends, there remains considerable potential for the SD to keep growing. Drawing on evidence in my new book, I have similarly argued that despite the recent implosion of the BNP there remains considerable scope for a populist, anti-immigrant party in Britain. Perhaps one of the main differences between Britain and Sweden is that the extreme right in the former has not yet found a credible formula.
The failure of the BNP at recent elections in England and Wales will lead many to return to a dismissive view of the movement and its prospects. But as the experience of Sweden demonstrates, it is possible for a movement that was once derided as an extremist farce to revitalize its fortunes and become a significant electoral force.