Two years ago, a fringe neo-Nazi group called National Action became the first far-right organization to be banned in Britain since World War II. But that didn’t make the group go away. It only drove its members underground.
On Wednesday, two men were convicted for membership in the group after a former associate sensationally turned against them, alerting the public to a far-right plot to murder an MP. A third man, who admitted to the court that he planned to kill the politician, is facing a retrial on the charge of belonging to the group.
The case came about after one of the group’s members, 25-year-old Robbie Mullen, became disenchanted with National Action, describing it as a “cult” he couldn’t escape. Last July, he fed information about a plan to murder the Labour MP Rosie Cooper with a machete to the British anti-racist group Hope not Hate, who in turn passed it to police.
The plot had strong echoes of the case of British Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right extremist in 2015. (National Action was banned after its members expressed support for her killing.)
Now the police investigation into the murder plot has led to the jailing of three far-right extremists.
Jack Renshaw, 23, admitted to preparing an act of terrorism by buying a 19-inch machete which he intended to use to kill Cooper, and to threatening to kill a police officer. Police said he was in the “advanced stages” of preparations for his attack, in which he also hoped to take hostages at a local pub when he killed Cooper, demanding that a local detective who was investigating him be handed over for their release.
Renshaw faces a retrial over his alleged membership in National Action, which he denies, after the jury failed to reach a verdict on the charge.
The group’s alleged leader Christopher Lythgoe, a 32-year-old from Warrington, was jailed for eight years for belonging to National Action, while another prominent member, 24-year-old Matthew Hankinson, 24, was jailed for six.
Cooper, the 67-year-old MP for West Lancashire, expressed her thanks to the far-right whistleblower. “I’d like to thank Robbie Mullen, whose information saved my life,” she said.
Hope not Hate’s deputy director, Jemma Levene said Mullen deserved society’s gratitude for the risks he had taken in exposing the group “at great sacrifice to himself.”
“He had to walk out of his job, go into hiding and now has to spend the rest of his life knowing that there's a target on his back,” she said. “He knew the risks he was taking by stepping forward to give evidence, but he knew he had to save Rosie's life.”
Experts say the case highlights the threat posed by Britain’s violence-oriented extreme right, and the challenges authorities face in combating them.
While membership in far-right groups is down, and their formal organization is fragmented, extremists are becoming increasingly violence-oriented. Mark Rowley, the former head of counter-terrorism policing in the UK, said in February that police had foiled four far-right terror plots last year, including Renshaw’s assassination plan.
Formed in 2013, National Action was an explicitly neo-Nazi group with the goal of preparing for, and working to foment, a race war. It sought to target ethnic minorities and those, such as left-wing politicians, whom it viewed as “race traitors.” With a membership of about 100 people at its peak, it organized social media campaigns, rallies, and training camps.
Analysts say the British government’s move to outlaw the group in December 2016 failed to put a stop to their activities. Lythgoe’s branch in northwest England carried on much as before, meeting at its makeshift headquarters on a secluded industrial estate, while other branches simply rebranded to skirt the ban.
Julia Ebner, a far-right specialist at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News that while her organization welcomed the banning of National Action as an important symbolic gesture that Britain was committed to fighting all forms of extremism, the case shows that simply outlawing groups isn’t enough.
“Assuming the job is done by simply banning an organization is not sufficient,” she said. “We also need to look at the whole spectrum of ways of tackling the spread of extremist ideology.”
In National Action’s case, members of the group had simply begun operating under different names. Two of these successor groups, Scottish Dawn and NS131, were also subsequently outlawed by the government.
Ebner said that this follows the pattern of banned Islamist groups like Britain’s al-Muhajiroun, which has operated under various other guises – including Sharia4UK and Need4Khilafah – since it was slapped with a government ban.
Hope not Hate’s Levene said the National Action case “should remind everyone of the ongoing threat posed by the British far right.”
“While numerically small and splintered, the British far-right is growing in violence,” she said. “With such confrontational and violent rhetoric, much of it around an impending civil war, we can sadly expect others on the British far-right to move towards terrorism.”
Cover image: Police officers contain a group of far-right demonstrators causing a disturbance beside the annual pro-Palestine/anti-Israel Al Quds Day demonstration in central London. Photo by David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.