Black Lives Matter saw a predictable backlash from the far right, but an explicitly white nationalist, youth-oriented movement has been absent in recent times. Will a new group be able to bring unity to this scene or is it doomed to collapse?
At HOPE not hate we have seen a move towards more explicitly racial rhetoric from the British far right in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Prominent figures and groups such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) and Britain First, known primarily for their Islamophobia, switched their focus to race as part of broader plans to ‘defend’ various statues and memorials, in response to protests about their links to slavery and colonialism.
When a Burnley FC supporter was condemned for organising a plane to fly the ‘White Lives Matter’ slogan popularised by the far right over Manchester City stadium, Lennon likewise lent his support. While the likes of Lennon and Britain First were far from moderate in their view prior to this, such a move is clearly worrying to the extent it can normalise more extreme far-right ideas in such a socially divided time.
More recently, we saw an effort to do exactly this. On 9 August, International Indigenous People’s Day, images were uploaded to social media of activists displaying the same phrase from across the UK and some from abroad. The campaign was organised by Patriotic Alternative (PA), a white nationalist group created in 2019 by Mark Collett, former Head of Publicity for the British National Party (BNP). Designed to bait opposition into covering the actions in outrage so to gain free publicity, PA hoped to get the phrase trending on social media and have their images picked-up by the mainstream press. Though achieving neither of these aims, the group managed to exaggerate their size and support to the wider fascist scene, boosting morale and partially unifying this extreme faction of the British far right by drawing in support from the BNP, fascist football hooligans and long-running fascist publications.
We have very closely watched PA grow on the fringes of the British far right, and their burgeoning efforts to garner attention and recruit a young crop of British fascists to their cause. We believe in the current political climate – one in which extreme groups can be given a respectable media gloss, and in which the dismal quality of so many of our public discussions around race be so painfully highlighted – we cannot allow PA, or an unchallenging press, to frame them as anything other than what they are: fascist, white nationalist antisemites.
In our new report, we examine their recent day of action and wider extremism, but we also highlight just how fragile an offering they are to the British far right. They are a group which is in many ways an oddity, bringing together a coterie of young bedroom fascists taking their fledgling steps away from the keyboard, seasoned nazis finding a new lease of life, and even a former activist of the since proscribed nazi group National Action, who’s gained more recent notoriety as the man behind the ‘Hundred Handers’ stickering network. Combining the inexperienced with those who have made a career out of being unappealing to the mainstream, PA seems bound to collapse.
Yet, what fragile unity it offers to Britain’s fascists is nonetheless emboldening them, and we ought to be deeply concerned that there is any new blood to inject into this scene at all. That new, younger activists exist and have a group to provide them with leadership in our current circumstances should be concerning regardless of the longevity of this particular fascist outfit. Given the acute social tensions that have arisen as noted above and all the more so given COVID-19, we can hardly afford to dismiss PA outright.
Admittedly, you would be forgiven for doing so. Splintered, ageing and ailing, the traditional fascist far right in Britain was judged by many to be on its last legs. This year saw the death of veteran fascist activist Eddy Morrisson, the halting and potential folding of long standing publication Candour, and continuing inactivity and irrelevance of once heavyweight organisations like the BNP and National Front. Yet alongside this downward trajectory, our research at HOPE not hate has shown a worrying increase in the embrace of extreme, fascist ideas by a cohort of Britain’s young far right. Nonetheless, the fascist old guard in Britain was attracting few new activists, unable to speak to this younger audience themselves and out of touch with the elements of the online far right who were.
What there was room for was an explicitly racial nationalist, antisemitic organisation that was also well-versed in engaging with potential young recruits. PA, an organisation aspiring to enter party politics but presently focusing on community building and actions, recognised this gap. Speaking at their inaugural conference (itself an important development given the gap left by the demise of the far-right London Forum events), Collett told the audience that they are “here to start packaging what we do in a way that will make it saleable”. He knows only too well the acute difficulties the fascist far right faces in selling anything approaching a plan for success to supporters. Caught numerous times engaging in praise of the Nazis, extreme racism and homophobia in the documentary Young, Nazi and Proud when still working for the BNP, Collett’s lack of media savvy deeply embarrassed the party.
In recent years he has reinvented himself as a social media personality, pedalling the same ideas but attempting to reach out to the young, online fascist community in Britain which throughout the late 2010s was mobilising, to some extent, around the broader, international ‘alt-right’ movement. Followers of this typified what we have called the ‘post-organisational’ far right: uninterested in conventional party or movement politics, they instead drift, engaging in their (largely online) activism in a looser way with microdonations of time and money, and only occasionally coalescing around leaders. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has been the leading such figure in Britain for some time, yet with deplatformings and legal woes, he has fallen from his pedestal. More fundamentally, just as for Britain’s older fascist scene, for many in the young far right Lennon’s focus on Muslims and Islam stops short of the harder-edged, racial nationalist ideology they’ve imbibed online.
With the alt-right now out of steam, frustration has returned for this young cohort regarding the rudderless state of the UK fascist scene. They share a disillusionment with, and rejection of, what they frequently decry as the ‘civnat’ (civic nationalist) leadership in Britain from figures such as Lennon or Nigel Farage. Likewise, the remaining elements of the Islamophobic ‘counter-jihad’ movement, such as Britain First and Anne Marie Waters’ For Britain Movement, have also been found wanting. The more recent ‘Identitarian’ group, Generation Identity UK – a now dissolved branch of the Europe-wide street movement focused on Islam and immigrants – similarly fell short. While more extreme, GI shied away from the actual embrace, or at least explicit promotion of, racial nationalism and antisemitism.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, PA has a waiting audience. Yet, interestingly, they have also attracted some figures previously associated with more ‘moderate’ areas of the far right listed above; multiple members were previously prominent supporters of Lennon and activists within For Britain, for example. This indicates that, to some extent, support for extreme racial nationalist, antisemitic and fascist ideas has in fact grown within Britain’s far right. This is a boon for the until recently flagging fascist scene described above, but the unity PA may be providing is fragile. Infighting continues within the online community that PA is still largely reliant on, but which it cannot afford to cut off. At the same time, it will increasingly have to negotiate its relationship with the older, traditional fascist far right who will not simply tow PA’s line despite getting behind their recent campaign. Though Collett admitted recently that activists in PA include “former BNP members and people we’ve known for a long time”, it is unlikely they will let his troubled past with the party just be swept under the rug.
While the threat from PA should not be exaggerated, their seeming ability to unite elements of the disparate and decentralised online fascist scene with traditional far-right activists into a more orthodox organisation makes the group one to watch. Despite grossly exaggerating their size and influence, PA could be the group that unites the fractured, ageing fascist UK far right, injecting it with young activists who will engage with it long after PA has imploded. These young recruits could present a real threat given their extreme views and frustrations with the options available from the wider far right, and will be eager to act and in many cases, do so on the ground for the first time and not just behind a computer screen.
Yet PA faces a peculiar challenge noted above, being an organisation formed out of a post-organisational online community, but working with the traditional, organised fascist world. How much PA can organise from between these two very different activist communities and ensure the unity they offer is not once again splintered, is yet to be seen.