360° Analysis

The Far Right in Britain: Challenging Complacency


November 02, 2012 18:57 EDT

While it is true that the far right does not have the same political presence in Britain compared toother countries in Europe, we should recognize far right policies are often radicalised forms of mainstream concerns and these need to be challenged.

There is a complacent narrative in the United Kingdom that likes to think that the British public are immune from far right ideologies and perspectives. It stresses that the UK’s “first past the post” voting system keeps out any such extremists, who are too disorganised to pose any real political threat anyway. The few “native” far right politicians the country has – such as the British National Party’s Nick Griffin or the English Defence League’s Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – are experienced as occasional curios. They are demonised in the press, and encountered infrequently, perhaps near election time; or after recent atrocities such as the Anders Breivik case; or as the topic of occasional, edgy, documentaries exploring how racism still affects parts of the country. As such, the far right is mostly seen in an arms-length, mediated manner: it is something that exists on the margins in the UK, but it is also presented as an “other”, occurring elsewhere. It is almost always framed as a profoundly negative force. Hostile experts will condemn far right views, but ultimately audiences are not encouraged to register a connection between the far right and mainstream attitudes in Britain.

What’s wrong with this view? After all, the country does not host any far right MPs, and never has done. Nor does Britain have a history of generating mass far right organisations on the scale of the interwar fascist movements that emerged in Europe. More recently, the efforts of Britain’s National Front in the 1970s or the British National Party in the 2000s look insignificant when compared to the achievements of Europe’s postwar far right organisations – such as the Italian Social Movement or the French National Front. What’s to be concerned about?

The Far Right and the Mainstream

What is intriguing about this tendency to see far right cultures as, somehow, “other”is that, concurrently, many of the themes such far right populists regularly engage with via their electoral agendas, and expansive online worlds, are given a lot of mainstream coverage too. Far from being “other”, the arguments of the British far right merely radicalise many “mainstream”concerns. Far right politicians and organisations may be condemned, but its successful messages are grounded in themes regularly rehearsed by sections of Britain’s mainstream too.

The conveniently baggy issue of “immigration” tends to offer mainstream media and politicians a space for engagement with populist, ultra-patriotic issues. Discussion of immigration-related topics regularly offer coded messages implying, among other things, that there is an erosion of an “authentic” British culture, an unfair allocation of state resources in favour of non-white migrants, and that ethnic minorities tend to be a more threatening presence – in recent times this latter theme has been elaborated via sustained Islamophobia. Indeed, the populist discursive field critiquing immigration also implies an alternate, “perfect” Britain: one where minority races and cultures are not part of the social community.

To give some examples of the more hyperbolic stories that generate this milieu, aside from regular implications that Muslims are somehow “closer” to terrorism, one often finds suggestions that nursery rhymes, piggy banks, or even Christmas, have been banned by politically correct local councils, in fear such practices may offend Muslims and other minorities. At its height, the EDL capitalised on the latter urban myth and threatened local councils with demonstrations if they were to “ban Christmas”. Moreover, in stories where Muslim men have genuinely become sexual threats to British women, the media framing tends to veer into deeply uncomfortable generalisations about all Muslim men being closet rapists or paedophiles. As Nick Griffin once put the connection between Islamophobia and the far right: “With millions of our people desperately and very reasonably worried by the spread of Islam and its adherents, and with the mass media…playing “Islamophobic” messages like a scratched CD, the proper choice of enemy needn’t be left to rocket scientists.”

Needless to say, mainstream debates on such “immigration” issues are regularly left ambiguous, and are not politicised to the extent that they are clearly “far right” in nature. Yet the media creates a space that allows the far right to present its ideas as “common sense” responses to a growing crisis. There is a clear synergy between a populist mainstream media and the radicalised and politicised views of far right politicians. Britain’s news media, as well as some of its less responsible mainstream politicians, have a sustained ability to normalise the baggy “immigration = bad” messages that the far right then radicalises further.

The Licence to Hate

Historian of fascism and the postwar far right, Aristotle Kallis, has written about this phenomenon of “mainstreaming” the far right’s extremist messages under the umbrella of immigration debates. Across Europe, he argues, media discourses have promoted a “cognitive dissonance” between a myth and a reality. The myth suggests an idealised and imagined version of the national community, one where a host of immigration-related issues are resolved by there – somehow – being no immigrants. The contrasting reality is presented as politicians’ inability to offer any real solution to the regularly hyped “problems” raised by all the themes that get discussed in relation to “immigration” (housing, jobs, national identity, political correctness, integration, Islamophobia, terrorism, and so forth). In the interwar years, such tensions between idealised myth and a seemingly crisis-ridden sense of reality eventually fed into a culture that “licenced” extreme violence and even genocide – a very extreme way to resolve such cultures of “cognitive dissonance”. Though we are not close to this scenario now, contemporary immigration debates are drenched in a tenor that implicitly point to the desirability of a mythic monoculture. The heterogeneity of our present circumstance is regularly styled as a crisis, a poor, and frustrating, second – and is a tension that far right politics tries to resolve.

Thus, debates on immigration promote an unsettling cultural framework that endorses hatred, confusion and distrust: what Kallis calls a “licence to fear”. When alarming structural crises hit, such as the economic stresses found in Greece at the moment, one can see a swift radicalisation, developing from an already existent, largely latent, culture “licensing” fearful thoughts and attitudes. So we see breakthroughs of marginal extremists like Golden Dawn becoming all too possible. Indeed, the contemporary Greek case offers a cautionary tale to people elsewhere in Europe who see marginalised, extremist groups as always being doomed to occupy such a position in a nation’s political culture.

Supply” and Demand

Yet we can overhype the threat. To be clear, there is no danger that Britain’s current crop of far right parties is likely to make an immediate breakthrough. In a few years, there may be a different picture – especially if any party improves its capacity to “supply” a far right agenda. The recent dip in far right support is essentially a “supply” issue, not “demand” one. Get the “supply" of far right politics sorted out, as the BNP started to in the mid-2000s, and one would likely find there is a notable “demand” for, in particular, radical Islamophobia. Telling of this dynamic, though the BNP has been in crisis since 2009, the 2010 General Election saw over half a million voters willing to vote for its brand of populist, extreme nationalism. Moreover, despite Nick Griffin’s errors the party retains a latent threat to reflexive liberal values in the UK, while its former activists, including now Andrew Brons, develop new forms for the British far right political party.

Moreover, for those working and developing policy in this area, I argue that we should not wait for a new breakthrough before responding the already latent threat of the far right. Rather than dismissing the far right as marginal and “other”, civil and political society needs to employ a cautionary approach, and be acutely aware that the cultures that generate a “demand” for far right politics are alive and well in Britain.

Indeed, the past ten years has seen the rise of the British far right’s most electorally successful party, the BNP, and also one of Britain’s largest far right street marching movements, the EDL – at its height in 2010 able to muster gatherings into the low thousands. In its extreme right-wing mode, the far right has produced aspirant terrorist organisations, such as the Aryan Strike Force, while older groups such as Combat 18 maintain an online culture promoting extremism. Its White Power Music scene continues to connect British neo-Nazism with an international milieu of extreme-nationalist and biologically racial activism. Finally, the new media revolution has made these worlds of hate all too accessible to the young and the vulnerable – people inherently seeking out clear certainties in a confusing world and for whom the far right can be very appealing.

Preventing” the Far Right

What to do? It is worth noting that policy thinking is not blind to such issues – at least in principle. The British government launched its Prevent Agenda after the 7/7 attacks, a policy designed to operate in pre-criminal space to tackle all forms of violent extremism. In practice, its focus was very much on tackling Islamism, and Prevent was often rather clumsily implemented, causing much resentment. It was re-launched in 2011, just ahead of the atrocity by Anders Breivik, yet even in its reconfigured format the new Prevent strategy only gave limited scope to tackle the far right.

Prevent was also quite conservative in defining far right activity. The UK’s police have stressed that the EDL is a “right of centre social movement”, limiting the action it can take. Contrastingly, many working on the front line see the EDL as a typically far right organisation – as do many hate crime workers in local councils, not to mention primary and secondary teachers who see EDL themes used as an excuse for Islamophobic bullying in schools. Needless to say, the academic consensus point to the EDL as a far right movement too.

So British policy in regard to tackling the far right remains confused, and often disconnected from the advice of many front line practitioners. It does not seem clear exactly which branches of the state feel it is their responsibility to robustly tackle far right issues that, by definition, threaten a liberal, inclusive and free society. In sum, the far right falls into the gap that exists between “community cohesion” and “counter-terrorism”.

Aside from direct policy interventions, there are a number of non-state organisations working to address racism and far right tendencies in British society too. To highlight just one organisation, the educational charity Show Racism the Red Card provides workshops for young people, and training for adult practitioners such as teachers. Using football as an effective hub to attract young Brits who are becoming vulnerable to the strong pull of the far right, this anti-racism organisation achieves excellent results in shifting British attitudes towards greater inclusivity, especially in the school environment.

This is one among many potential initiatives to shift cultures and promote a more accepting attitude within civil society. By radically enhancing the capacity of such educational charities, as well as improving awareness of far right issues among a wide range of state professionals – from social workers, to probation officers, to those employed to deliver Prevent projects – Britain could foster a much more critically aware culture, one capable of tackling a latent “demand” for the far right. While eradicating clichéd prejudices in the mass media may take longer, building capacity to challenge racism in a robust and pragmatic way offers one strategy to reduce support for far right agendas – especially among an emerging generation coming of age in a new media environment that has itself become infested with populist, far right views.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All rights reserved.


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