Rethinking ‘nativism’: the racist discourse of Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni and the increasingly blurred lines between the mainstream and the far-right
Blog post by George Newth, University of Bath
In late December 2023, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak gifted his Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, an early Christmas present: his speech at the so-called Atreju rally organized by Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, contributed to a further legitimization and mainstreaming of far-right politics in Europe. By focusing predominantly on migration, Sunak employed a racist, xenophobic and nationalist discourse. When used by mainstream politicians, such narratives hold the power to euphemize, legitimize and normalize the politics of fear and hatred promoted by the far-right.
Sunak’s appearance came barely a year after Meloni’s victory in the 2022 snap elections in Italy. The results of this poll marked a watershed moment in what has been a gradual but steady normalization, mainstreaming and rehabilitation of the far-right following the end of the Second World War. Meloni is Italy’s first far-right prime minister since 1945, and Fratelli d’Italia – the leading party in Italy’s current governing majority - has roots in Italy’s fascist past. In the weeks leading up to the 2022 elections, one of Meloni’s key discursive strategies was to depict her party as ‘centre-right’ and ‘conservative’. Since then, Meloni’s self-representation as a ‘moderate’ has been helped considerably by mainstream voices; Sunak’s speech in Rome was the latest step in this disturbing process.
The fact that Sunak began his speech referring to Meloni as ‘centre-right’ and ‘conservative’ – thus chiming with Meloni’s own self-characterization – should serve as a wake up call to anybody who still has faith in the liberal mainstream’s ability to stand up to fascist and reactionary politics. These terms framed a speech littered with tropes emanating from the far-right ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory; perhaps the most explicit of these was Sunak claiming that that ‘our enemies will […] use migration as a weapon, deliberately driving people to our shores to destabilise our societies’. Such phrases could just as easily be attributed to far-right politicians such as Meloni, and previous guests at the Atreju rally, such as Victor Orbán and Steve Bannon.
Such words being uttered by a purportedly mainstream politician might shock some people, but they should not surprise us. After all, a cursory glance at the discourse and policies of Meloni’s (far-right) and Sunak’s (centre-right) governments reveals more similarities than differences and this is part of a much longer term trend in British politics. A carefully co-ordinated and stage-managed partnership has developed between Sunak and Meloni over the past year. Both leaders co-authored an op-ed in the Murdoch controlled mainstream-right UK publication The Times in which they pledged to stop the ‘thousands of migrants’ who ‘cross the Mediterranean to Italy, entering Europe illegally’, under the specious guise of ‘stopping criminal people smugglers’. Sunak’s flagship policy of ‘Stop the Boats’ acts as the main pillar of this close alliance and imitates Meloni’s promise to impose a ‘naval blockade’ to prevent migration from North Africa to Italy.
Meanwhile, Sunak has not only pursued his predecessors’ racist scheme of sending thousands of asylum seekers and migrants to the East African nation of Rwanda under the ‘Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership’ but – following the UK’s highest court declaring this deportation plan illegal – doubled down on this policy via ‘the safety of Rwanda asylum and immigration bill’. This has acted as inspiration for Meloni’s own similarly illegal and racist ‘Italy-Albania’ deal which proposes the outsourcing of Italy’s asylum responsibilities to a Balkan state with a highly dubious track-record on human rights. Further to framing these racist ideas and policies as ‘centre-right’ and ‘conservative’, both Meloni and Sunak have deliberately depicted their exclusionary politics as ‘common sense’. Research illustrates how this key feature of populist discourse aims to normalise far-right ideas, depicting them as ‘self-evident, natural, just, and proper’.
Meanwhile, the role of the media in aiding this process of mainstreaming should not be under-estimated, with commentators stating that Meloni ‘just says what we all think’ and that she is ‘not far-right but a conservative’. The fact that the BBC – which has itself platformed and normalized reactionary politics – was attacked by Conservative MPs for describing the Atreju rally as far-right is indicative of the severe right-ward shift of the mainstream in the UK. Furthermore, the media trend of dubbing Sunak and Meloni’s relationship in romantic terms such as a ‘political romance’, a ‘love-burst’ and ‘the power couple that could save Europe’, serves to gloss over and euphemize what is an alliance built on the politics of fear and hatred.
This mainstreaming of the far-right started long before Sunak, but his close relationship with Meloni is a symptom of the much wider malaise affecting our public and political discourse: the increasingly blurred lines between the far-right and the mainstream. While the content of Sunak’s speech in Rome was largely focused on racist narratives, this should not be considered separate from the other exclusionary ideologies and discourses that he promotes and shares with Meloni such as transphobia, and gender and sexual essentialism. Such hate speech from politicians such as Sunak and Meloni can and must be resisted, challenged and countered for what it is: deeply reactionary, regressive, and, for those at the sharp end, potentially deadly. While Meloni’s statement in the weeks leading up to the 2022 elections that her party was ‘similar to the British Tories’ was broadly correct, this is more a reflection of just how far-right the mainstream has become in the UK and Italy, not of Meloni's party or her politics being in any way moderate.
Newth, George. (2023). ‘Rethinking “Nativism”: beyond the ideational approach’. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. 30 (2). DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.1969161. OPEN ACCESS
Newth, George. 2023. Fathers of the Lega: Populist Regionalism and Populist Nationalism in Historical Perspective. Abingdon: Routledge.
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The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.