Joe Mulhall's latest report on how the British far-right modernised itself and became mainstream
On a sweltering May Sunday in 2018 Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) addressed a crowd of thousands gathered in Westminster, saying:
We couldn’t have done this 3 years ago. We couldn’t have done this 4 years ago. We’re now mainstream. The public support us.
While an exaggeration and a simplification, Lennon was addressing a crowd much bigger than anything the English Defence League ever managed to muster. Whether it was the ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ event in July, the Day For Freedom event in May or the ‘Brexit Betrayal’ demonstration in December, the far right descended on the capital in numbers not seen in decades, perhaps not since the interwar period of the 1930s.2 Last year’s unprecedented demonstrations came off the back of several huge demonstrations by the Football Lads Alliance street movement at the end of 2017, one of which attracted 50,000 people.3 With such large numbers hitting the streets many have asked whether the far right has now become acceptable and perhaps entered the mainstream in the UK.
The truth is of course more complex and as this article will show, the growing acceptance of the far right is less the result of traditional far-right politics – namely explicit racism, broad anti-immigrant politics and vitriolic homophobia – becoming widely accepted and more the result of the far right itself adopting a more mainstream platform that allows them to circumvent the traditional cordon sanitaire that has marginalised them for decades. By analysing the rhetoric espoused at a series of major far-right events across 2018 and comparing it to societal polling it becomes evident that large parts of the contemporary far- right’s platform – namely anti-Muslim politics, co-option of the free speech debate and an anti-elite populism – has widespread public support.
This article will thus show how the far right has undergone a long process of modernisation and moderation that has played an important role in the movement’s journey towards the mainstream. However, this is one, albeit important, cause amongst many. The drivers of the rise of the domestic far right are complex and multifaceted and any monocausal explanation would be unhelpfully simplistic. In addition to what is discussed within this article are long term factors such as the decline of the societal anti-fascist consensus, the negative effects of deindustrialisation and globalisation coupled with cultural concerns and disaffection with multiculturalism. Especially important has been the emergence of the internet and more recently social media which has revolutionised the way in which the far right, both domestic and international, operates. The modern far right can reach international audiences online that would have been almost inconceivable to the traditional postwar far right and as such, while this article explores the changing message of the British far right it is worth remembering that this has coincided with a change in the medium by which it is delivered.
For the purpose of this article the far right is being defined as an umbrella term that encompasses those individuals and organisations whose political outlook is more extreme or hardline than those of the centre-right of the political spectrum, primarily on issues such as race, culture, immigration, or identity. In practice, this usually means a belief in exceptionalist nationalism of either a race or country rather than mere patriotism. Coupled with this is a belief that the nation (either geographic or racial) is in decay or crisis and radical action is required to halt or reverse it. The ‘nation’, however defined, usually includes an in-group that is under threat and an out-group/enemy, usually now identified as Islam and Muslims though this can be any minority community. As an umbrella term, it encompasses people and movements ranging from the democratic, populist, radical right through to the extreme authoritarian far right. By virtue of ‘far right’ being a broad umbrella term it is worth stating from the outset that the majority of this article is about the people and organisations that are currently gathered around Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, which more precisely might be described as the Islamophobic, populist radical right. Thus, when talking about the current actions of, or narratives used by the modern British far right, it is this broad, often decentralised and sometimes ideologically diverse conglomeration that has gathered around Lennon in recent years that is being referred to. These people are best understood as an angry collective, united by a deep distrust of politicians and the political system more generally, who believe that there is a devious and sinister ‘elite’ – sometimes domestic, sometimes international – who oppress and control them, often with the ‘tool’ of political correctness. They feel angry, ignored and oppressed.
For the avoidance of doubt, while there are large numbers of far-right activists in the aforementioned Football Lads Alliance and its splinter group, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, the organisations themselves are not uniformly far right and are not being labelled so in this article. Finally, there are of course more extreme elements to the British far right, such as racial nationalists and neo-nazis but they are not the focus of the article.