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The UK’s Far Right Is Fractured and Dangerous

Has the EU debate incubated a wider politics of hate?

Far-right protesters in Dover. Photo by Chris Bethell

Sitting in a gray jumper and tracksuit bottoms behind reinforced glass, Thomas Mair gave his name as "death to traitors, freedom for Britain" when he appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court on Saturday morning. He is charged with the murder of Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen who campaigned for the rights of refugees and for Britain to remain in the European Union.

Though often under-reported, violent attacks by members of the far right aren't uncommon. Last September, 26-year-old Zack Davies was sentenced to life in prison for attacking a Sikh man in a supermarket in North Wales. Three years earlier, 20-year-old Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn was also sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham, just a month before the death of British Army soldier Lee Rigby. Other cases include Ryan McGee, an English Defence League (EDL) supporter who made a nail bomb loaded with shrapnel, Robert Cottage, a former candidate for the British National Party (BNP) who was found in possession of the largest armory of explosive chemical weapons ever discovered in someone's home in England, and David Copeland, the neo-Nazi nail bomber who received six life sentences in 1999.


Acts of extreme violence are often carried out in isolation, but what about the organized far right in 2016? Many believe it's weaker than at any stage in the past 20 years. It's "isolated and in retreat," "splintered and fractured," and "leaderless and rudderless," according to Hope Not Hate's annual State of Hate report. Back in 2009, this couldn't have been further from the truth. The BNP had just become the most successful far-right group in British history with 940,000 votes in the European elections, and the founding of the EDL meant that a new anti-Muslim street movement was able to mobilize thousands of activists from across the country.

Today, the BNP is all but finished after a sustained campaign from anti-fascists, party infighting, and a drift to UK Independence Party. The EDL is in terminal decline following pressure from anti-fascists and the very public resignation of its leader Stephen Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, back in 2013.

So far, no group has managed to fill the vacuum left behind, despite the seemingly favorable conditions for it. "The extreme right at the moment is groupuscule," says Paul Jackson, a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Northampton and an expert in far-right politics. "It's full of little, tiny groups meshed together. There are various infidel groups that came from the English Defence League, there's the British Movement, National Action, the Iona London Forum, the Traditional Britain Group. It's a long list, well over one hundred organizations if you try to identify them all. They're often financially strained, appeal to a small core of supporters, and it's not very well coordinated between them."


Despite this process of fragmentation, anti-fascists have become increasingly concerned about a process of ideological radicalization taking place within fascist circles. Without the electoral ambition of the BNP or the supposedly multiethnic, multi-religious EDL, the small veneer of respectability the far right once aspired to have had has been shorn in favor of more explicit neo-Nazi rhetoric and a growing appetite for violence.

"There is a sense that when the far right has bigger organizations that are actually doing something, that stops people thinking about violence," Jackson says. "When the big groups run out of momentum, there is frustration that this route doesn't work. And so you start to think more seriously about other methods."

Back in January, some of the most violent and ideologically extreme groups from across the country including National Action, the National Front, North West Infidels, and members of much older groups including British Movement, Combat 18, and the Chelsea Headhunters, took to the streets of Dover as part of a series of demonstrations led by the South East Alliance—a hardline group that split from the EDL. Seasoned anti-fascists described it as the most violent far-right protest in a generation. But with up to 60 fascists arrested in the aftermath and many given hefty prison sentences, they say the movement has been beaten back.

"Dover was the most violence we have seen since the 1990s," says a spokesperson from London Antifascists, which monitors and organizes against the far right. "You had nearly every ideologically committed fascist in the country, many coming out of retirement, all going down to Dover to smash the opposition. Unfortunately, for them, it had the opposite effect and has ended in the worst defeat for the far right in decades. If there had been anything other than a victory [for anti-fascists], we would have allowed a core, ideologically committed group to coalesce and become a major force in the UK that could definitely have grown out of the EU referendum."

Outside this extreme milieu, the far right clearly remains at a crossroads. Britain First—the name of the group Mair allegedly referenced—is arguably the most successful and impactful organization on the far right. But its membership, street presence, and financial resources are limited. Tommy Robinson—the man most likely to revive Britain's network of Islamophobes—made a comeback in 2015 with Pegida UK, the British offshoot of an anti-Muslim, street-based protest movement in Dresden, where it has attracted considerable support from the middle classes. But numbers on a recent march in Birmingham were low—the group appears to be too dull for the old EDL foot soldiers and too close to its predecessor to attract a broader demographic.

As the referendum approaches, there is, however, a feeling that the discourse around migration has benefited the far right, which thrives on the idea that control has been lost to faceless European bureaucrats. On the same day that Jo Cox was gunned down in Birstall, Nigel Farage revealed a new campaign poster featuring the words "breaking point" next to a picture of refugees traveling across Slovenia last year, arguably the lowest point in a campaign driven by fear and xenophobia. Whichever way the result swings, the far right has, Jackson says, "definitely been empowered." Undoing that damage may not be easy.

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