Where now for the British far-right?
By Nick Lowles and Matthew Collins | Wednesday, 12 September 2012
The British far-right should be having a ball. With the economy faltering, austerity biting and economic pessimism growing, the conditions for racism and racist scapegoating could hardly be better. But, as Nick Lowles and Matthew Collins report, racist groups are contracting and morale is dropping. Will it always be like this?
In May, the British National Party (BNP) suffered what must have felt like their final electoral humiliation. A shrunken and shattered shell of its former self, the party lost their remaining seats in Amber Valley, Rotherham, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Burnley and Pendle. Across the country, what few other candidates the BNP had scraped together – with one or two notable exceptions – barely even registered a murmur.
“Hammered by Labour – same as everyone. No surprise, no disgrace,” tweeted the BNP’s leader Nick Griffin, desperate to put a positive spin on the defeat. Unable to turn government cuts and mass recession into racist gains, as so many had feared, column inches previously dedicated to the party’s gradual rise have now been charting the party’s decline for two years since the BNP’s disastrous 2010 general and local election results.
The BNP now only has two borough councillors and one county councillor left; down from a high of 56 only 30 months ago. Its membership has plummeted from 14,000 to about 3,500 today and most of its key activists and organisers have left in demoralisation or in opposition to Griffin.
The BNP’s demise had been mirrored by a rise in the English Defence League (EDL). Formed in June 2009 it quickly attracted supporters and media attention through its strategy of provocative demonstrations and aggressive anti-Muslim rhetoric. Thousands joined their marches and over 90,000 backed them on Facebook.
By 2010 it appeared that the EDL was replacing the BNP, but no more. While it can still mobilise considerably more people than the BNP, the fortunes of the EDL have also declined. Attendance at demonstrations have plummeted and now once loyal ‘divisions’ are openly calling for its leader Stephen Lennon to stand down.
The rot began with Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway, as a once intrigued media turned on the anti-Muslim group highlighting its extremism and violence. Also, the group’s strategy of endless demonstrations without any obvious and clear goals began to bore members. Hundreds of arrests coupled with tighter police restrictions, public revulsion and the introduction of kettling aimed at curtailing the wild excesses of EDL demonstrations has curtailed somewhat its long term viability. As a product, the EDL still remains toxic and dangerous, but more localised, spontaneous and autonomous.
Late last year EDL leader Stephen Lennon began an alliance with the British Freedom Party, a split off from the BNP, which culminated in him and his cousin joining them this April, but so far this has not reaped any political dividends. In fact it only exacerbated opposition within the EDL.
The end result is that the British far right is fragmented, demoralised and shrinking. Will it always be like this and if not, who will emerge dominant?
The conditions which gave rise to the electoral success of the BNP remain and are getting considerably worse. The economy has quite obviously deteriorated, living costs are rising and austerity cuts are decimating public services. The predictions are that things are only going to get worse.
The BNP did well between 2001 and 2009 in what are widely perceived as relatively benign economic conditions. While the headline figures such as unemployment and inflation were low and wages rose for most, not everyone felt this economic benefit and those who voted for the BNP felt anything but secure.
In 2009 YouGov polled 1,000 BNP voters in the European Elections as part of a massive survey of attitudes of 32,000 people. Only 19% of BNP voters were confident that their “family will have the opportunities to prosper in the years ahead.” This compared to 59% of Labour voters, 47% of Lib Dem voters and 42% of Conservative voters.
More recently, last year’s Fear and HOPE study, by Searchlight Educational Trust, found that economic pessimism was the key driver in racism and hostility to ‘newcomers’.
With the economic outlook worsening, and no upturn likely for several years, economic pessimism is growing. Ipsos MORI reported in June that 50% of British adults now think the economy will get worse in the next 12 months compared to just 18% who think it will improve.
There are other factors which have contributed to the rise of the far right in recent years and many of these too remain. The level of immigration into Britain has been a major concern to many voters, especially those who have voted for the BNP. While economic concerns have replaced immigration as a major concern for some voters it is never too far away from the minds of many.
The Government is shortly to announce a new wave of asylum dispersals around the country and this is likely to trigger local opposition, anger and possibly violence.
The enlargement of the EU over the next few years to incorporate several Balkan countries, such as Croatia, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina is likely to reignite the debate over the free movement of people, something that will benefit the far-right.
But there are other factors which contributed to the rise of the far-right and many of these have not changed. The BNP benefited enormously from general voter disillusionment with politicians and disengagement with the main political parties. While this was personified by the ‘expenses’ scandal, the break between voters and the political parties was something much more profound and it was most acutely felt by BNP voters.
According to the 2009 YouGov poll, 70% of BNP supporters thought there was “no real difference between Britain’s three main parties” and 59% of BNP voters thought Labour “used to care about concerns of people like me but doesn’t nowadays”.
While the expenses scandal will fade from most people’s memory, the disengagement with the political system will remain. Of course some disillusioned voters will return to Labour now the party is not in power, but these are unlikely to include the majority of those who once backed the BNP. There is plenty of evidence to show that the majority of BNP voters had either not voted before or had not voted in recent elections and therefore could potentially be re-engaged by a rejuvenated far right.
The cry of the English
Finally, at some point in 2014, there will be a vote for Independence in Scotland. Whatever the outcome, a likely winner will be a rise in English nationalism. This will partly be in direct response to the Scottish vote but a continuation of a trend that has been emerging over the past 15 years. A recent IPPR report, The Dog that Finally Barked, found that the number of people who identified themselves as English, rather than British, had doubled in recent years. It also found that the concept of ‘Englishness’ had become politicised.
Englishness is far more exclusive than Britishness, and as our own Fear and HOPE report concluded last year those who identified themselves as English were much more likely to oppose immigration and multiculturalism than those who identified themselves as British.
Those who identified themselves as ‘English’ are also amongst the most pessimistic about their economic future and opposed to current political structures. The IPPR report found the English increasingly believed that they were getting a raw deal from the devolved settlement and 23% said that there was not a political party that represented the interested of the English.
That the politicisation of Englishness is growing without any formal political mobilisation and so many do not believe that there is a political party standing up for the English should be a major cause for concern. As Englishness grows, sparked in reaction to a Scottish vote, there is a danger that antagonism towards those not viewed as ‘English’ – principally non-whites and non-Christians – will also grow.
So, if the conditions remain fertile then we have to believe that at some stage the far-right will benefit, the question then is, which organisations?
Despite the many problems the BNP has faced in recent years it is still around and it is a ‘brand’ name for racism. Nick Griffin might be their biggest liability, because of his factionalism, mad schemes and political incompetence, but he is also a household name.
This will mean a lot, especially when the party approaches the 2014 European Elections, which are contested under Proportional Representation, and in which Griffin will be fighting to keep his North West seat. It should be remembered that the BNP polled 6.4% across the country in the 2009 European Elections, including votes of over 10% across towns where there was no BNP activism.
Next May it will be seeking to defend its one County Council seat, in Burnley, and perhaps even recapture a seat or two in Leicestershire.
While the BNP has lost a lot of its members, key organisers and funders over the past two years, it appears to have staved off bankruptcy due to a large inheritance. This was first revealed by HOPE not hate earlier this year and it will obviously hope to attract new members and funders if its fortunes improve.
Of course it will have to solve a fundamental problem of being a party committed to racial nationalism in a country which is increasingly accepting of people of all races and faiths. Even a lot of those people who oppose new immigration would balk at the BNP’s hardline racist agenda. While the BNP has publicly moderated its public position, for the BNP to lose its racial nationalism totally would mean it loses its true identity. It is not going to happen.
The decline in the BNP has seen a number of small groups and political parties form, including the likes of Britain First and the Democratic Nationalists, while other disillusioned former BNP members have switched allegiances to the National Front and the English Democrats. While there have been tentative discussions between them about uniting there is little prospect of this, both while the BNP still exists and while the divisions between them all remain quite large.
Yorkshire & Humber MEP Andrew Brons has been touted as a possible leader of a new unified organisation, but Brons appears to lack the political will to lead, having already backed down from several planned splits from the BNP.
The BNP’s prospects might be helped by the apparent disintegration of the English Defence League. What only recently appeared to be the obvious successors to the BNP, the EDL has struggled over the past 12 months as its supporters have become weary of seemingly pointless marches, no clear political objectives, growing public opposition and increasing police restrictions. The political tie-up with the British Freedom Party appears to have come to nothing, partly because the BFP leader Paul Weston is clearly incompetent. This lethargy has led to prominent EDL activists now openly calling for leader Stephen Lennon to resign.
Over the past few months Griffin has been actively courting Lennon’s enemies within the EDL splinter group the ‘Infidels’, which is a far more hardline and extreme group than the EDL. Last month Griffin produced a 46-page booklet attacking the EDL, entitled: What Lies Behind the English Defence League? Neo-Cons, Ultra-Zionists and Their Useful Idiots.
However, this strategy by Griffin is also fraught with political risk. While Griffin might ingratiate himself with some of the most violent and extreme people in the EDL’s orbit, he pushes himself more to the right and associates his party with more violence, so say nothing of mad conspiracy theories. This might go down well with BNP activists who were attracted to the EDL’s more confrontational approach but it does not work well with voters. Study after study has shown that most Britons are appalled by political violence and a link with violence and thuggery has been one of the major barriers to BNP growth over the last ten years.
While political violence damages any far right party seeking electoral support it does attract support among the low level rank and file members as well as causing huge damage to local communities. One of the consequences of the decline of the BNP and the growth of the EDL has been the rise in political violence and we are likely to see this increase further over the coming few years. The EDL has politically radicalised a generation of young men, many of whom are now desperately looking towards more radical and violent long-term alternatives such as the Infidels and Combined Ex-Forces, two more militant groups which grew out of the EDL through frustration.
We are also seeing more violent racist incidents from people who identify with the EDL, even if they have had no real contact with them. The EDL has become a ‘brand’ in its own right and it produces an imagery and temperament similar to the racist and violent image of the 1970s National Front.
While the short-term future of the EDL looks bleak, it has galvanised, politicised and even ‘franchised’ tens of thousands of young men who, given a particular incident, such as a terrorist attack or some other outrage, could quickly reactivate their networks. This might not be under the direction of the EDL leadership but more about taking its name and aggressive message.
The emergence of the Internet has transformed extremist politics and terrorism. In quite a departure from the past, people can be inspired and directed by images and statements on the Internet without ever having to coming into contact with other like-minded people. Likewise, the Internet can re-confirm one’s worldview and with it their prejudices and hatred. We only need to look at Anders Breivik to see how the Internet can self-radicalise and promote terrorist acts.
None of this is being lost on terrorist groups and they are harnessing this new media effectively. While Al Qaeda is being dismantled militarily its virtual reality, via the Internet, is becoming its main political organising tool. Its online magazine, Inspire, says it all.
In this Al Qaeda are simply replicating the practice of their far-right counterparts who have long used the Internet to spread their racist and violent ideas beyond immediate activist circles.
On a more organised level we are beginning to see a re-emergence of smaller, more aggressive fascist groups, such as the Racial Volunteer Force and some other old Combat 18-type networks. While these will probably remain talking shops, they too radicalise supporters, some of whom have been linked to various terrorist-related incidents in recent years.
That leaves two other possible groups to fill the political vacuum on the Right, the English Democrats and UKIP. The English Democrats had hoped to exploit the decline in the BNP, especially when it attracted some of the BNP’s more able organisers. However, the party remains marginalised and without the profile to attract a wider audience.
This leaves UKIP. While UKIP is regarded as a single-issue party focused on opposition to membership of the European Union it now has the opportunity to do to the Conservatives what the BNP did to Labour and in the process it could, just could, eclipse the BNP.
Research by Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford have found that the political views of UKIP and BNP supporters differ little on questions of immigration and multiculturalism. While the BNP has generally attracted more working class support, compared to UKIP’s strength in more traditionally Conservative areas, this could be beginning to change.
As Rob Ford eludes, UKIP benefit from not being associated with extremism and violence – unlike the BNP – and the increasing convergence of immigration, culture, economic issues and the European Union might help it overcome the perception that it is a single issue party.
It should also be remembered that UKIP could well win the next European Elections and the publicity and support that this generates could sweep the BNP, and any other far-right party striving for electoral success, out of the picture.
The British far right is fragmented and bitterly divided and in the short term this will continue. While we might enjoy the short-term respite there is no room for complacency. Sooner or later the traditional far-right, in the guise of the BNP or EDL, or the Radical Right, in the guise of UKIP, will re-emerge as a major political threat. In the meantime, we should brace ourselves for an upsurge in organised and unorganised racist and political violence.
Where now for the British far-right?
Over the next couple of weeks HOPE not hate will be opening up this website to a debate on the future direction of the British far right. We are encouraging people to add their thoughts and opinions. Is the British far right finished? Will Nick Griffin re-emerge dominant or is the future UKIP?
Let us know your views. Please send comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
* HOPE not hate has the right to refuse comments that are libellous or abusive
Just read your piece on the current status of the far-right in Britain. It's heartening to think that UK fascists are failing to capitalise on the conditions which might be expected to fuel their cause, and I appreciated your comprehensive overview of English groups. Writing from Scotland, however, I feel you could strongly make the point that the mainstream Scottish nationalist movement is neither far-right nor overtly racist and does not stand as a northern parallel for the likes of the EDF. Tragically we have our own fascists, notably the SDF, but they are condemned outright by the SNP and all other Scottish parties and multiculturalism is very much seen as a vital part of Scotland's future, independent or otherwise.
Just felt that point should be made - good luck with the campaign, and I hope that a positive English nationalism which embraces England's great diversity will emerge confidently, vocally, and soon.
I read your article which I thought was very good and with 40 years of grassroots community experience, I offer some comments which will hopefully will contribute to the debate.
Where now for the British (and European) far Right? Hopefully the dustbin of history! Racists it could be argued are insular human beings and can come from m class and w class backgrounds - they cannot seem to accept difference and in fact may feel threatened by it.
They can also see 'others' as reference groups and with their narrow view of Englishness/Britishness etc they may feel superior and may see 'others' as being less worthy human beings and thus it could be argued they de-humanise themselves in the process.
The challenge I would argue is to promote genuine multi-culturalism but for example in many areas we do to an extent have segregated living and a lot of multi-culturalism in the past was mainly white middle class liberals going to multi-cultural events and i.e watching Asian women dance; this was rarely a sharing of cultures i.e. rock and roll, fish and chips, Bangra and curry!
The 'Litle Englanders' don't seem to realise that they are missing out on the richness that comes from celebrating humanity in all its difference.
In short to destroy the far right I would argue that we need to bring people together, to talk, to get to understand and respect each other; and to probably realise that as human beings we all have much in common.
We need to encourage people to take the brave step of actually talking to someone who is different.
A voluntary group I worked with several years ago took a group of white w class people and a group of asylum seekers on a weekend school together and by the end of it they were friends. I would argue that we need more and genuine multi-cultural social interactions but of course we need to be aware that racism sadly is not only in some of the w class but sadly is also in some of the m class and well.
I am afraid it could also be argued that certain sections of the right wing media have also played a negative role and we should perhaps be campaigning for more positive stories and more responsible journalism!
The recent Olympics has probably played a recent positive role, with role models like Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrar, Nicola Adams and of course the wonderful Paralympics.
From my political perspective I also believe that Labour needs to re-engage with w class communities (neglected under New Labour) which left a vacuum for the far right to fill. Labour also needs to politically educate the general m class to try to win them to the progressive m class.
A friend of mine - a Labour Councillor, canvassed an area with strong BNP support several years ago and sadly found their support to be on the local council estate and on the local private estate and we do have to ask where does the far right get its money?
Re UKIP - we could probably finish them by for calling for grassroots consultations on how people think Europe should be run and then building a People's EC from below.
It would of course help if the far left stood as a broad alliance in the EC elections (with the Greens?) and this could beat the far right for the 6th place and seat.
Re Scottish possible independence - it is up to them but we could be calling for a Northern Parliament (if South, East, West want one is up to them) and with more decentralised power MPs could say spend one week in Regional Parliaments and then one week in Westminster and this could bring power closer to people.
The far right could as you suggest re-emerge re the particular issues you identified but I would argue the way to smash them is by genuine multi-culturalism and by bringing people together - we should unite working people; we should unite human beings whilst they want to divide human beings.
The old left wing adage (I think from the Spanish Civil War) still applies - "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
I hope that these comments may prove helpful and I wish you all the best re your initiatives! With best wishes,
Labour Party Member/grassroots community campaigner
As requested some responses. I have been active in the anti-fascist movement since the 1970s and have often rejoiced in the extremists propensity for fragmentation. Often this is because they are based around a few individuals with very fragile egos (the psychopathology of these people would also be informative I imagine).
However, I agree that the threat has not gone away and if anything is more nuanced. This is in part because the fare right has changed. The old movements such as the National Front and BNP broadly drew a provenance from national socialism with figures such as John Tyndale carrying that torch. But today the movements draw on populist sentiment as English nationalism, UKIP and the on-going state of the economy all contribute to an on-going threat. This is more dangerous especially in the absence of a coherent critique from the centre left and left.
There are the signs of hope from an Olympic legacy, with Team GB reflecting a diversity which must make racists spit, and mobilisations such as that at Walthamstow which keep the EDL off the streets. But its is a country divided by inequality and real entrenched problems which may outlast any feel good factor.
We need an alternative, on the economy Labour needs to keep making the case for an alternative course. The left is split on the Scottish vote there is a clear unionist case to be made on the left. On Europe arguments for democracy and against the current corporate capitalist club need to be heard. Finally, I applaud Hope not hate’s use of non-violence.
Yours in Friendship
In response to your email, here are my views:
- It is a very well written and researched essay.
- What you do is highly commendable.
- Be careful not to get too obsessed with the far-right. They have always existed in some shape or form, and probably always will.
- Every day in every way Britain becomes more multi-cultural. The more that happens the more people see how futile and preposterous far right views are. The success of 'Team GB' at the Olympics, made up largely of 'other than white' British athletes will do more to diminish far right views than any strategy, law or movement. Highlight that - that multi-cultural Britain has more chance of success on the sports field than all white Britain. All white is not all right.
- Be careful not to act as a motivator to the far right. Your essay gives them a coherent, extensive and detailed analysis of their demise. If they have/had the intelligence, they could use your work to galvanise themselves, see where they are going wrong and learn from their mistakes.
- Do more to show the far right up for the ignorant thugs that they are: start a campaign to have all far right activist's DNA taken to ascertain their genetic make-up, etc, etc.
- Educate the young about extremist views. If a child is exposed to racist, far right extremist views from birth they have little option but to think and feel the same as the adults around them. If they are introduced to a broader perspective at a young age they have more chance of thinking differently and challenging what they are exposed to.