Poll reveals huge potential support for the far right. Why?

What <em>Searchlight</em>’s new survey tells us about race, class and immigration in Britain.

Could half of Britain's population vote for the far right? An alarming story in today's Observer suggests so:

A Populus poll found that 48 per cent of the population would consider supporting a new anti-immigration party committed to challenging Islamist extremism, and would support policies to make it statutory for all public buildings to fly the flag of St George or the Union flag.

The poll, which was commissioned by the anti-racist charity Searchlight Educational Trust, found that voters would be willing to support such a party if it distanced itself from fascist imagery and violence. The results won't be published in full until tomorrow, but here are a few initial thoughts, based on the Observer's story and Searchlight's executive summary:

Britain is no different from the rest of Europe. The past decade has seen a rise in popular anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment across the continent; if Britain has not seen a rise in support for far right parties comparable to France, Sweden or the Netherlands, it is not because Britons are exceptionally tolerant people. Rather, as the Searchlight report says, it is "simply because their views have not found a political articulation".

There is much to celebrate about what has been achieved in the past 30 years in terms of race relations: but this has been fought for and won largely by the communities at the sharp end of racism, not because of any exceptional aspect of the national character.

Today's prejudices are expressed in terms of culture, not race. Under Nick Griffin, the British National Party has made great efforts to adopt the language of identity politics; it has recently been outstripped in this by the English Defence League, which touts itself as a multiracial coalition of people opposed to Islamic extremism. English nationalism is on the rise, with 39 per cent of poll respondents identifying themselves as English, rather than British.

On the face of it, this can appear more inclusive, compared to the imperialist connotations of the Union Jack. But it's still nationalism, with all the hazards that entails, and the way the EDL has used it to rally large, indimidating demonstrations that target poor Asian communities in Luton, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford and elsewhere reinforces Gary Younge's claim that we are living in an age where old views have been grafted "on to new scapegoats". Racism by any other name?

– "Tough" talk from mainstream politicians doesn't help. We've seen over a decade of senior politicians, from Blunkett to Hodge to Brown to Cameron, making provocative statements about immigration, culture and national identity. This may draw praise from our country's right-wing press, but it has done nothing to halt the rise of popular prejudice. In fact, it's most likely fuelled it.

– Class still matters. Searchlight identifies "social and economic insecurity" as being a driver for anti-immigration sentiment. It'll be interesting to see how fully this is explored in the full report, but to me this seems to be a euphemism for class. Working-class communities around Britain were left out of the New Labour boom, and they're now the hardest hit by the coalition's cuts. Fears about job security, or housing, may well be expressed in terms of opposition to immigration (which includes a significant minority of black and Asian respondents to the poll), but this doesn't mean it's the cause.

Under Tony Blair, Labour exorcised the spectre of class from mainstream politics. This has inadvertently given racist and anti immigrant propaganda (whether from the BNP, or from more "respectable" sources) greater traction, because people no longer have a progressive framework through which to address their discontent.

– We can't rely solely on anti-racist campaigning. This is not to disparage the vital work done by both Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism, particularly in the run-up to last year's general election. It is crucial that racist and fascist politics remain firmly outside the mainstream, and that people be given the confidence to oppose them within their own communities. However, all this can do is create breathing space for the left to build a popular alternative to the causes of support for the far right.

Searchlight concludes from the poll that people are receptive to "messages of openness, acceptance and pluralism", but politics is also about conflict – about the assertion of one group's interests over another.

Support for the far right was on the rise well before the global financial crisis; in the aftermath, as a programme of cuts is being pushed through by a government that has placed itself unashamedly on the side of the wealthy, we need a political movement that can stand up for the whole of the working class more urgently than ever.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.