Whisper it, but the election shows that Britain is fast turning French

A ballot paper for French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party
A ballot paper for French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party

Britain, the Brexiteers claimed in 2016, is fundamentally different from the Continent – above all in its political culture, but also economically and constitutionally.

At first sight, the 2024 election would seem to confirm that judgment. France appears likely to elect Marine Le Pen’s radical-Right National Rally as the leading party in the National Assembly, and similar parties are making headway in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Britain, by contrast, has just seen power pass seamlessly from a party of the moderate Right to a party of the moderate Left.

Our electoral system distorts rather than reflects reality. One in seven British voters supported Reform UK, though the party has been rewarded with just five seats.

In the last two nationwide elections fought in Britain under proportional representation – the European Parliament elections of 2014 and 2019 – Reform UK’s predecessor parties, Ukip and the Brexit Party, came first with 26 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote respectively.

Indeed, Nigel Farage is the most underestimated politician in Britain. Without him Brexit would probably not have occurred.

And he has destroyed three Conservative prime ministers – David Cameron, following the 2016 Brexit referendum; Theresa May, after the debacle of the 2019 European Parliament elections when the Conservatives secured just 9 per cent of the vote; and now Rishi Sunak. Reform UK has turned a Conservative defeat into a rout.

Perhaps, then, Britain is not so different from the Continent after all. In truth, both are being affected by trends that are present in many advanced democracies, not excluding the United States.

These trends are long-term consequences of the economic recession that began in 2008 and which was a prime cause of Brexit. Both in Britain and in France, support for the radical Right comes mainly from those who have suffered most from the consequences of recession – those left behind by economic change, those living in former mining areas or decaying seaside towns – who feel that the political system is not working for them.

The vote for Reform, as for that of the National Rally, seems drawn primarily from left-behind areas with a high proportion of elderly, white and less well-off voters with few educational qualifications, although by contrast with Britain, the National Rally has now begun to attract the young and the better-off.

Many on the progressive side of politics had believed that the recession, which highlighted the weaknesses of the market economy, would help not the Right but the Left.

Yet, both in Britain and France, where the socialists suffered a collapse after the presidency of François Hollande in 2017, parties of the moderate Left now represent less the underprivileged than the interests of public-sector trade unionists and graduates. Indeed, in Britain in 2019, if it had been only university graduates who had been able to vote, Jeremy Corbyn would have won with a 14 per cent lead.

In many advanced democracies there has been a movement not to the Left but to the Right, yet a Right that is very far from being conservative. Instead of a social-democratic moment, the recession gave rise to a nationalist moment. As in the 1930s after the Wall Street Crash, recession strengthened national solidarity, a mood exploited by Nigel Farage as by Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Giorgia Meloni, and the AfD in Germany.

Nationalism, often with a dash of anti-Semitism, has also been exploited by the radical Left. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a French Jeremy Corbyn, is, like Corbyn, a Eurosceptic, as is George Galloway, the leader of the Workers Party and a Brexiteer. And the radical Left shares with the radical Right an eagerness to find excuses for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But neither in Britain nor France is it as strong as the radical Right.

One indication of the revival of nationalism is the return of identity politics. Marine Le Pen’s complaint against Macron is not that he is too Left-wing or too Right-wing, but that he is insufficiently French. Nigel Farage complains that the Conservatives have not put Britain’s interests first, while the SNP complain that Keir Starmer is not Scottish enough.

In France as in Britain, the cry is heard – all the (non-insurgent) politicians are the same. The insurgents, sometimes labelled populists, claim that the fundamental political cleavage is not between Left and Right, but between the elite – the political class – and the “people”. For the radical Right, immigration symbolises that cleavage.

“I accept,” Nigel Farage has declared, “that open-door immigration and mass cheap labour is good for rich people... And it is good for very big businesses. But it has been a disaster for millions of ordinary decent families in this country, and surely it is the primary duty of a British government to put the interests of our own people first.” Immigration has created a gulf between a meritocratic elite, the exam-passing classes, more at home in Brussels and Biarritz than in Bolton or Burnley, and Farage’s “ordinary decent families”.

For the moment, then, Britain’s electoral system makes it appear politically an outlier, enabling us to look condescendingly at the Continent. But for how long?

Sir Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College, London. His book Making the Weather: Six Politicians Who Changed Modern Britain will be published in September