Europe at the extremes? Public concerns and the generational divide

Across Europe, the financial crisis has revived fears over the lingering appeal of extremists, with many tracing the rise of radical right and also radical left parties to economic turmoil.

The argument has long roots, with numerous studies associating prejudice, and by extension support for extremists, with financial crises, or tensions over scarce resources such as jobs or housing.

The eurozone crisis has revived this argument, which has been adapted to explain the rise of groups like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, enduring support for the Le Pen brand in France, and support for the radical left. But to what extent do citizens associate support for far right and far left parties with the crisis, and to what extent is the public concerned about support for such groups?

To probe these questions the Extremis Project worked with the polling agency YouGov to survey 1,725 British adults online. The poll sought to explore whether citizens associate the rise of extremists in Europe with the crisis, whether citizens feel worried about these parties, and whether -despite such concerns- citizens remain receptive to a party that promised to curb immigration, prioritise native values over other cultures and curb the presence of Islam.

When asked whether the crisis will lead to an increase or decrease in support for the far right/far left, almost half (46%) thought the crisis will lead to an increase in support for these parties. In contrast, slightly over one quarter (27%) said the crisis will make no difference to support for extremists, while 23% said they did not know whether the crisis would have an impact, whether positive or negative. This suggests that while many assume the crisis will fuel support for parties at the extremes, significant numbers of citizens are either unsure, or do not think the crisis will make that much difference to the electoral fortunes of extremists.

Respondents were asked whether they would feel worried or not about an increase in support for far right/far left parties in Europe. Over half of those polled (55%) said they would feel worried about an increase in support. Of these, 16% would feel ‘very worried’ and 39% ‘fairly worried’. In contrast, exactly one quarter said they would not be concerned about an increase in support for the far right/far left. Of these, 18% would feel ‘not very worried’, and 7% would be ‘not at all worried’. Meanwhile, 20% did not know whether or not they would feel worried by an increase in public support for extremists. This suggests that while most citizens would feel anxious about a rise in support for parties at the extremes, significant numbers are either unsure, or claim they would not feel worried about this development.

Interestingly, however, and despite these concerns, the findings also suggest that large numbers of citizens in the UK remain open and receptive to the core policies advocated by radical and extreme parties, though particularly those on the far right-wing. These parties tend to offer voters a potent combination of populist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies, claiming that governments should prioritise native values, halt all further immigration, reduce the number of Muslims and stand up to business and political elites.

To probe the receptiveness of voters to these ideas, respondents were asked whether they would be more or less likely to support a party that promised to stand up to political and business elites, stop all further immigration into the country, prioritise traditional British values over other cultures, and reduce the number of Muslims/presence of Islam in British society, or whether these policies would make no difference to their decision at the ballot box. Results suggest that – consistently – large portions of the electorate would be receptive to these policies, for example: 66% would be more likely to support a political party that pledged to stand up to political and business elites; 41% would be more likely to back a party that promised to halt all immigration; a striking 37% would be more likely to support a party that promised to reduce the numbers of Muslims in the country; and 55% said they would be more likely to back a party that promised to stand up for traditional British values over other cultures.

Importantly, however, while there remain significant levels of public support for these core radical right policies, there is clear evidence of a significant and sharp generational divide in public attitudes toward these issues.

On the whole, more recent cohorts of British voters are significantly less likely than older generations to respond to parties that propose these policies, suggesting that the fortunes of far right parties may well diminish over the longer-term. For example, only 23% of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to back an explicitly anti-immigrant party, compared to 54% of those aged 60 and above; only 32% of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to back a party that pledged to prioritise British values over other cultures, compared to 68% of those aged 60 and above; and only 27% of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to back an explicitly anti-Muslim party, compared to 49% of those aged 60 and above.

Clearly, then, while there remains significant public sympathy for the core agenda of the radical right, and concerns that extend well beyond a narrow focus on economics, there is also clear evidence of an emerging generation that is both more tolerant and accepting. Whether this represents an ‘outlier generation’, or we may find that this trend is curbed by the ongoing effects of economic deprivation, remain open questions. But going forward, a key challenge for both mainstream political parties and also policy-makers will be to explore ways of ensuring that these younger cohorts are protected from the effects of austerity, that their prospects are not threatened by continuing immigration and rising ethnic and cultural diversity, and they are channelled into the conventional and mainstream political process.

This post originally appeared on the Chatham House blog.

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