It looks like the government is gearing up to ban Hitler-loving neo-Nazis National Action (NA). The revelation, made in the Sunday Times, comes in the wake of the conviction of neo-Nazi Thomas Mair for the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, with the paper speculating that the groups set to be banned could be the neo-Nazi crew, NA, or EDL splinter group, North West Infidels (NWI).
Banning one of these groups would make it a crime to be a member, to invite support for the group or to help organise meetings connected to the group. The maximum sentences for those offences are ten years in prison and/or a fine. Wearing clothing or carrying or displaying articles which suggest support for the group would get you up to six months in prison and a fine of up to £5,000. Hundreds of people would have to change their act to avoid a conviction.
Proscribing NA or NWI (or both) would allow the state to unleash a wave of repression that the far-right has never experienced before in the UK. And while you might have limited sympathies for the legal status of people who pose with banners saying "Hitler was right", I'm sceptical that banning groups is a good way to oppose neo-Nazis.
First off, it's highly unlikely we'll see every member and supporter of these far-right groups in jail. If a ban is introduced, the individuals and groups on the far-right will adapt and develop the tactics they're already using.
Pressure from anti-fascists and the media has already forced National Action to go underground, to a certain extent. The group uses encrypted email service Tutanota to communicate with each other. Their meetings are organised in secret and the only evidence they've taken place are the recordings the group chooses to put up on YouTube afterwards. In other words, if they've previously managed to meet up without the state knowing about it, they shouldn't find it too hard to refine their security.
The majority of NA members have stopped using Facebook, which co-operates with British law enforcement and removes accounts which publish anti-Semitic material. They use Russian social media platform VKontakte instead. NA's website is hosted in the United States, so the group would need to be listed as a "Foreign Terrorist Organisation" there before that could be taken offline. Although, they could just move their site to an area that doesn't comply with UK or US law – and there are plenty of those in the world.
Where the ban would make a difference would be in their street activity. Anything resembling the white-only homeless charity that VICE exposed in September would have to stop. Ditto their recent appearances on "counter-jihad" marches in the north-east. But crucially, they wouldn't have to stop. All NA would really have to do to comply with the law would be to stop calling themselves NA and to ditch all the branded gear they tend to show up in.
Legislation does account for proscribed groups just dissolving and re-launching with a new name; if it can be shown that a new group is "for all practical purposes, the same as the proscribed organisation listed", they're still in trouble. However, NA should be able to get around that fairly easily, and it would be naive to think they haven't already been preparing for something like this.
Last spring, a delegation from NA travelled to Germany to participate in an autonomous neo-Nazi May Day event (it was on this trip that the group hit the headlines for making Hitler salutes at Buchenwald concentration camp). NA had been invited by a group called Anti-Kapitalist Kollective (AKK), an extreme-right group that has copied counter-repression tactics from the German left in response to state bans. AKK is a network of autonomous neo-Nazis; they are deliberately not a classic, centralised fascist organisation. They have no single Führer, no membership list and no written structures. They have nothing that the state could ban, other than the name they use to promote themselves.
A lengthy interview with an AKK member that discusses how various neo-Nazi groups in Germany have responded to state bans was posted on the NA website after the trip – so it's fair to assume the group would look to adopt many of the strategies used by its German kameraden if it is banned.
The way NA are currently organised would make it relatively easy for them to move towards a more autonomous style of organising. They don't have a single leader; they have regional groups which communicate through encrypted channels. All they need to do to continue organising is to ditch the name and their branded tat, drop the limited organisational structure they currently use and start an autonomous network like AKK.
Banning neo-Nazi groups is not just ineffective, it's also counterproductive. Encouraging them to adopt stronger and more effective counter-repression tactics means they will become harder to oppose. Plus, getting banned by the state is the stuff of neo-Nazi wet dreams. NA activists imagine themselves as the only genuinely revolutionary alternative to the status quo – or "the system", as they like to call it (adopted from the terrorist-inspiring racist fiction book The Turner Diaries). Being banned by that status quo totally fits this self-delusion. It also allows them to present themselves as a group so badass that the state treats them like it treats the more radical Islamic extremists. That could make them pretty attractive to potential racist extremists looking for a home.
There are a number of ways to oppose neo-Nazis and fascist groups which have been shown to work. State bans are not one of them. From the mid-1980s to the late-90s, the British far-right was gradually beaten off the streets by anti-fascists who set out to oppose the far-right physically and ideologically.
By using direct action against fascist rallies and meetings, and putting pressure on key organisers, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was able to force the British National Party (BNP) to abandon the classic fascist strategy of "march and grow", which groups like NA and NWI seek to emulate. This forced the BNP to don a suit and tie, pretend to be respectable and try to win elections. When this eventually failed (after, admittedly, winning a million votes in the 2009 European Parliament elections), the party collapsed. In the meantime, the fascist threat on the streets had been eliminated.
The most serious blow dealt to NA since they started organising was when thousands of anti-fascists and locals penned them into a corner of Liverpool Lime Street station, humiliating them by throwing bottles, eggs and bananas at them and stopping them from demonstrating. NA responded to that by using encrypted communications to organise a surprise return to Liverpool alongside NWI and other EDL splinter groups – when they were prevented from marching by anti-fascists again.
If NA and NWI are banned, these neo-Nazi street manifestations will not stop. It's likely an autonomous neo-Nazi network will emerge, which will include members of both these groups and potentially a number of people currently on their fringes. If groups like this get outlawed, that doesn't mean they go away – but it looks like that might be about to happen. So if you're not a big fan of Nazis romping around British towns, get organised and prepare to take action against them.
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