About ten years ago, when I was in France, I wrote a short piece for Crikey offering one explanation for why there was a strong far-right party in France but not in Britain: namely, that in Britain the mainstream centre-right party was more welcoming towards Euroscepticism and other nationalistic positions. In France, on the other hand, the centre-right was much more integrationist, leaving a gap to be filled by the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front.
I don’t think there was anything terribly original about this idea, and I don’t think it’s the whole story. Nonetheless, it was borne out by subsequent events: the National Front declined for a time when the centre-right, taking power under Nicolas Sarkozy, shifted rightwards. And in Britain, David Cameron’s success in moving the Conservative Party towards the centre resulted, just as I had suggested, in big gains for the far right. (At the time I and others had been more worried about the British National Party, but it turned out to be UKIP that filled the role.)
The idea, then, is that a significant far-right party, while worrying in itself, acts as a sort of safety valve. By drawing extremists away from the main centre-right party, it allows that party to be more responsible than would otherwise be the case.
The same thing can happen on the left, too. Britain’s Labour Party is now facing an existential crisis due to the division between its leftist and social-democratic wings. If the two had separate parties to go to, as would usually be the case on the continent, they wouldn’t have to spend as much time fighting each other and could probably do a more effective job of representing their different constituencies.
But the most dramatic example, of course, is the United States. With a rather different political system, it’s all but impossible for an extremist third party to establish itself with any meaningful presence. So the extremists are left to the major parties, where most of the time they’ll be swamped by more mainstream elements. At least that’s the theory.
The lesson we’re now learning is that when that falls down, it falls down in a big way. If extremists can take control of a major party, then suddenly it’s the moderates who have nowhere else to go.
So imagine the last couple of years in Britain, but played with a rigid party system of the American type. The hard right, instead of defecting to UKIP, would have stayed in the Conservative Party and fought with Cameron for control. And given what we’ve learned recently about their strength, it seems pretty certain that they would have won.
The Conservatives would have come to resemble the Trumpian Republican Party. At best Boris Johnson would be leader; at worst someone more like Nigel Farage.
So it really does look as if the ’kippers have been performing a public service. They are a nasty lot, but the system may nonetheless be better off with them than without them.