Last weekend I found myself in a pitch-black forest outside London, taking photos of some men in balaclavas burning a cross. Working my way through the thicket, I’d been greeted by a group of white British nationalists flying the White Dragon banner—a symbol of English resistance—and holding an Anglo-Saxon sword to represent Excalibur. A two-meter wooden cross had been erected, doused in fuel and set alight.
I’d met and spoken to some of these guys before at various far-right demonstrations across London, including a pro-Golden Dawn rally, over a two-year period. I asked where their allegiances lie, but they made it clear this new faction represents “no specific political group, but rather the downtrodden white working class of England.”
“At the moment, this is just a rallying point to try and attract more people from other groups, as well as newcomers,” said one of the men. These groups include underground fire-right movements such as Englisc Resistance (that's the right spelling, don't worry), the New Dawn—an organization inspired by the Greek fascist group the Golden Da—and a “plethora of other small but likeminded ethnic English groups.”
Cross burnings tend to be associated with the Ku Klux Klan—which is understandable, as setting bits of wood on fire and wearing shitty ghost costumes is how they made their name in the States. However, this group were adamant that their cross burning was not directly linked to the KKK.
“We don’t burn the cross here—we ‘light it,’” said one of the assembled nationalists. “We’re not a Christian group, but the symbolism of a lighted cross in Britain goes back centuries, originating in Scotland, where it was used as a declaration of war. Of course, it is always associated with the Ku Klux Klan in America, but they took it from these isles.”
So who was this lighting of the cross aimed at? The government? England’s white working class? “Both,” said the man. “We feel we are standing up to defend our very existence as a race and nation. No one is battling for the white working class in this country—we have been left out to dry and have been put in a position where our backs are against the wall, leaving us no alternative.
“The lighting of the cross is a very emotive symbol that will either be applauded or fill the viewer with disdain and revulsion. Show a picture of it to anyone and there will be no middle ground or apathy.”
Professor Matthew Feldman—co-director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies at Teesside University, and an expert on the radical far right—agreed that the burning of a cross is unmistakably a symbol of hate and violence. But, I asked, is there a future for small groups like these in the UK, where it’s been hard for “official” right-wing parties such as the British National Party (BNP) and other, more radical, groups to band together and create one united movement, such as the Golden Dawn did in Greece?
“Dismissing these sorts of groups would be a mistake, as they are a serious force and they should be taken seriously,” Feldman explained. “There may be new faces and new parties, but the ideological demand of right-wing extremism is there, and it’s not going to go away.”
According to the cross-burning nationalists, for their cause to be a success—the ultimate goal being a “white Britain”—all the UK needs is for the “inevitable economic downslide” to roll around, just like it did in Greece, bolstering support for the Golden Dawn. However, Feldman isn’t convinced that economic insecurity would immediately lead to a rise of far-right extremism.
“It’s not a simple equation of economic crisis equals rise of the far right, and there are other dynamics that play in as well,” he explained. “Certainly the kind of hostility towards the European project, for example, would make this rise in the far right a much more ‘acceptable’ one.”
Feldman also spoke about trigger events, which, in a way, “license” the far right to take to the streets and publicly promote their views. Events like the 2005 London bombings, the murder of Lee Rigby—which sparked a sharp rise in BNP and English Defence League–led demonstrations across the country—and the recent case in Rotherham, where several “anti-Muslim pedo gangs” demonstrations were held by the BNP and Britain First.
Paul Sillet of Unite Against Fascism believes that these types of groups “feed off the atmosphere of extremist Islamophobia in the mainstream press, and try to capitalize on the horrors of situations such as Rotherham.”
“For us, this is an example of fragmentation of the far right in Britain,” Sillet explained. “Now that parties like the BNP are being demoralized, the hard-core fascists and smaller disenchanted groups are resorting to these kinds of tactics, which should be taken extremely seriously.”
So where does the future lie for this group? Are we about to be inundated with reports of burned-out crosses in the backwoods of Rutland and Hertfordshire? Or will the group fulfil their objective of recruiting vast swathes of white British nationalists and doing… something? It’s difficult to say at such an early stage, and considering the troop I met in the woods didn’t outline any real plan of action, I’m not sure how they’ll go about bringing people to their side.
As Feldman mentioned, the ideology of the extreme far right will always be present in the UK, but its current status is more akin to a subculture than a direct threat. With parties like the BNP losing support, more and more of these small groups continue to pop up that lack cohesion, direction, or—like the cross burners I met—even a name. But, as Feldman also pointed out, that's not to say we shouldn't take them seriously.
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