The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon visits Peterborough in Britain and Styria, Austria to find that a dislike of the other and a desire to return to an imagined version of the past and avoid a fervidly imagined future are driving citizens in both places towards populist, right-wing politics.
From the Globe and Mail (“‘People want to go backward’“):
The down-at-heel backstreets of Peterborough would seem to have little in common with the small and neatly maintained villages of Styria. But the people of middle England and lower Austria agree on two major points these days: Things aren’t going well where they live – and people from other places are to blame.
That irritation, seized on and moulded by populist politicians offering questionable salves, is on the verge of redrawing the political map of Europe.
Middle England is the heartland of the Vote Leave campaign as the United Kingdom hurtles toward Thursday’s referendum on whether the country should quit the European Union. The pro-EU Remain campaign has accused those pushing for a “Brexit” of being motivated by xenophobia.
The bitter argument seemed to tip into violence this week when Jo Cox, a Labour MP and outspoken Remain supporter, was shot and killed by a gunman who reportedly shouted “Britain first” before the attack. It was an event that some attributed to the increasingly sour and divided atmosphere that the referendum has created.
“When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word,” wrote Alex Massie, of The Spectator magazine, taking aim at the Leave campaign’s tactic of whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment. “I cannot recall ever feeling worse about this country and its politics than is the case right now.”
Still, a series of recent opinion polls have shown the Leave campaign pulling ahead in the last days before the crucial ballot, as voters apparently coalesce around its easy-to-understand message of “taking back control” of the U.K.’s borders.
“It’s a popular movement,” Lisa Duffy, an organizer for Vote Leave in Peterborough, says with a smile. She thinks her side will win Thursday’s referendum.
Ms. Duffy, who is also a veteran activist in the U.K. Independence Party, a radical right-wing movement better known as UKIP, says a desire to control immigration – something that’s near-impossible while Britain is a member of the EU, which considers the free movement of citizens a core principle – is what’s driving Vote Leave’s surge in the polls. “We want to know who’s here, why they’re here, and when they’re going back, if necessary.”
Styria, meanwhile, was an electoral fortress for Norbert Hofer as the Freedom Party candidate came within 31,000 votes last month of becoming Europe’s first far-right head of state since the end of the Second World War. Mr. Hofer, who warned against a “Muslim invasion” while campaigning with a Glock pistol on his belt, capitalized on concerns that many of the 90,000 people who arrived and applied for asylum in the country last year aren’t integrating well into Austrian society.