Throughout the post-war period, the British far right’s ability to exert influence beyond the confines of the political fringe depended on its cohesiveness and size.
While it is unwise to measure the importance or danger of the far right purely in terms of electoral strength or number of feet on the street – it only takes one right-wing extremist to bomb a pub or murder an MP – its ability to influence mainstream political debate, especially on issues like immigration and integration has generally been tied to the relative importance and scale of political parties and street movements.
However, just as it has reshaped our social, economic and cultural lives, the internet and the explosion of social media in the past decade has also created momentous shifts in the political world.
This is especially true for the far right with social media and an array of emerging technologies and platforms offering new ways for it to engage in activism outside the confines of traditional, organisational structures.
While the currently fragmented UK far right scene is likely to “unite” again at some point, we should no longer measure the strength or likely influence of the movement solely by how cohesive it is. The link between unity and impact is no longer as clear as it once was.
Since 1945, there have been cycles of unity and division that correspond to periods of relative influence, decline and obscurity.
In 1948, fifty-one far right and fascist organisations merged at a meeting at Farringdon Hall, London, forming the Union Movement (UM) under the leadership of the notorious pre-war British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Though officially lasting into the 1990s the UM, which encountered fierce opposition, remained noteworthy for just a few years before fading back into obscurity.
1967 saw a second period of coalescence, with the formation of National Front (NF) following the merger of the League of Empire Loyalists with the then-British National Party and elements of both the Greater Britain Movement and the Racial Preservation Society. Though never achieving mainstream support, the NF became a household name during the 1970s and was a fixture on the political landscape, peaking in 1979 when it stood 303 candidates at the General Election, only to have the rug pulled from under it by Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “swamped” comments and the intensity of campaigning by the Anti-Nazi League. A period of splintering and decline in the 1980s followed as a result.
Next came the emergence of John Tyndall’s British National Party (BNP) under Nick Griffin which, in the first decade of this century, dominated the far right of the political spectrum, leaving little space for all but the most extreme and violent alternatives. However, despite becoming the most electorally successful far right party in British history – racking up representation on the London Assembly in 2008 and nearly 1 million votes and two MEPs in 2009 – it, too, went into rapid decline following its failed attempt at a parliamentary breakthrough in 2010.
The past seven years have been typified by infighting and splintering, leaving an extremely divided far right scene composed of dozens of small and generally insignificant grouplets. Attempts to reunify the nationalist movement have been stultified and unsuccessful and unity looks as distant as ever since the BNP’s decline.
Be they parties – such as the BNP, a pale shadow of its former self – or street movements from the nazi extremes of the banned National Action to now marginal anti-Muslim street protest groups like the English Defence League (EDL), conventional organisations can no longer fill the streets or be considered an electoral challenge. Indeed, even the populist radical right, in the shape of UKIP, has lost its impetus.
It is hard to think of a time when the UK scene lacked any party or organisation of note. All of this is, of course, good news but it is certainly not the whole picture of the state of hate in the UK and beyond.
In recent years, we have seen the rise of far right social media personalities who, despite not being part of traditional activist organisations or parties, now have the ability to reach unprecedented numbers of people.
A right-wing alternative media has emerged, stretching from the edges of the mainstream (such as former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News Network), to scores of YouTube vloggers, Twitter accounts and professional media outlets like Rebel Media and InfoWars. This framework allows activists to propagate their views without the need for traditional structures such as a party.
In November, appearing on an episode of InfoWars’ The Alex Jones Show, former English Defence League (EDL) leader Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) – who now works as a contributor to the far right Canadian outlet Rebel Media – claimed that in a four week period his tweets reached 193 million people and his Facebook videos were viewed 49 million times. Similarly, Paul Joseph Watson of InfoWars has claimed over 1.1 million subscribers to his YouTube channel with each of his videos receiving hundreds of thousands of views and some well into the millions.
It has to be recognised that these players are reaching a global audience so much of their viewership will be outside the UK. The alt-right vlogger Colin Robertson (aka Millennial Woes), for example, claims that just 20% of his audience resides in the UK.
However, estimates of the UK web traffic to extreme far right sites (albeit an inexact science provided by websites such as SimilarWeb and Alexa) suggests that there are thousands of people actively engaged in far right politics, just semi-autonomously, outside formalised organisational structures and sitting behind computer screens and keyboards.
While there have been numerous attempts to organise explicitly “alt-right” gatherings in the UK, none have managed to attract more than a few dozen people. After the US, the UK provides the most traffic to almost every major alt-right website in the world. Counter-Currents. com, the website of American white nationalist Greg Johnson, received 206,887 unique visitors in November 2017 with 6.41% (13,000) of the traffic coming from the UK.
When it comes to one of the largest white supremacist websites in the world, Stormfront, Similarweb estimates visitor numbers at 1 million before the domain was terminated, with 11% of that coming from the UK.
That means there have been 110,000 visits from the UK to an explicitly nazi website. “Stormfront Britain” is the site’s second largest section after “Newslinks and Articles” with over 111,746 threads as of December 2017. This is before one even considers the Daily Stormer which is superseding Stormfront to become the most prominent nazi bolthole on the web.
For most of the post-war period, “getting active” required finding a party, joining, canvassing, knocking on doors, dishing out leaflets and attending meetings.
Now, from the comfort and safety of their own homes, these keyboard warriors can engage in far right politics by watching YouTube videos, visiting far right websites, networking on forums, speaking on voice chat services like Discord and trying to convert “normies” on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
The fact that this can all be done anonymously hugely lowers the social cost of activism. There is now a veritable online army of far right activists acting completely anonymously without the danger and risk of being ostracised for doing so. It is why the dread of “doxing” (having one’s identity revealed) is so acute for much of this “fearless” movement.
It is perhaps no surprise then that the most recent major far right movement to emerge, the alt-right, has taken the form it has.
While it contains traditional organisations such as Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, generally speaking it remains a decentralised collective of anonymous people working in broadly the same direction and towards similar goals. This relatively new means of engaging in political activism also facilitates a more international outlook.
This many-headed hydra approach makes it harder to combat in a traditional sense as it cannot be decapitated like a political party or traditional far right organisation. If one prominent activist or leader falls from grace, it is no longer a fatal hammer blow. Others will simply emerge and the besmirched are discarded.
Perhaps most significant, though, is the diminished ability to cause dramatic social change outside the confines of traditional organisational structures. The BNP’s short-lived ability to shift the centre ground of political debate to the right during the 2010 election or Farage and UKIP’s effect during Brexit were much more direct and detectable than the much-exaggerated effect of the altright on the rise of Donald Trump.
The tangible existence of a party of voters to the far right of the centre scares the mainstream more than a collective of anonymous online activists.
However, Society does not necessarily have to change with seismic jolts but rather can be shaped slowly and in tiny increments as political agendas are radicalised. In fact, this is very nature of the approach employed by this new online far right army.
We would be foolish to be complacent despite facing what appears, in terms of the traditional far right, to be a fractured and splintered movement.
If we wait for a period of far right unity so that we can once again mobilise en masse against this enemy, we risk society being changed by thousands of people gnawing away at it and propagating the whole package of far right ideas in the meantime.