The BNP's bid to march in Woolwich shows its desperation

Having once implored BNP members to avoid marches, Griffin is losing a race to the bottom.

A quarter of an hour before the Metropolitan Police announced they were “preventing” the British National Party's (BNP) proposed march through Woolwich, south east London, tomorrow, Nick Griffin bullishly told his Twitter followers that he was “taking over negotiations with them [the police] directly.”

Griffin’s proposed six mile march across south east London from Woolwich to Lewisham is now, instead, a proposed 170 yard shuffle in Westminster, fourteen miles away from the scene of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.

This is not what Griffin wanted. BNP insiders say he was forced into a corner during the week. He’s developed a habit for rash statements, no more rash than the initial statement of intent to march in Woolwich. It’s been a long time since the BNP marched anywhere in London. Marching was one of the very things that Griffin implored the membership, when he campaigned for the leadership, to eschew. It was always unsightly and marches always ended in violence.

Griffin however, has little choice. The English Defence League (EDL) are proving more effective in filling the streets with far-right revenge and rage over Drummer Rigby’s awful murder. Griffin had originally hoped that the numerically superior weight of the EDL would support and bulk up the march. When it became apparent that the EDL would not support Griffin’s march, the party’s rumour mill began talking of a secret climb-down. London BNP members, what few there are left of them, secretly called it a “Death march”, while in the north of the country the party kept telling their activists that the march was definitely on and that white Londoners would flock to Woolwich to support the BNP’s call to deport “hate preachers”.

It’s most unlikely, given the tensions in the area, that the BNP was ever going to be allowed to march in Woolwich. Certainly not all of the way to Lewisham. Still, Griffin was made to sweat on the Met’s decision until late on Thursday afternoon. Being moved to Whitehall is a slap in the face for the BNP. The EDL were there themselves only a week before, and even the National Front has managed to march in Woolwich twice in the last ten years.

Some BNP members in London had been suggesting that they actually be able to negotiate a move of the march to the “white corridors” of south east London, places like Eltham in south east London, or either Bromley or Bexley on the Kent borders. Whether Griffin ever put those suggestions to the police, we will probably never know. Once the EDL decided to not join him on his march, he’s had no choice but to sweat it out and present himself as some kind of free speech martyr instead.

Feeling more than a bit rejuvenated, the EDL leadership has been keen to make Griffin suffer for a year of his continual attacks on them. Instead of backing the BNP’s march, EDL wreath-layings will take place around the country. Over 50 are planned at the last count.

Griffin was insisting last night that the march will still go ahead in Woolwich, not in Whitehall. Demanding that people ignore the police, Griffin’s facing another of his world famous self-inflicted great tests of his leadership. Claiming that the police were threatening to arrest him if he pursued his “determination to draw attention to mosque knife terror training”, he was still demanding, begging, for people to now break the law and join him in Woolwich.

Nick Lowles, chief executive of anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate described Griffin as both “desperate and foolish”. “He’s talked himself into this position out of hatred and egotism. He’s losing a race to the bottom.”

Last night, in sheer desperation, Griffin called upon the EDL’s leader Stephen Lennon to join him in getting arrested on Saturday. It’s unlikely that Lennon will bother.

Matthew Collins is a researcher for Hope Not Hate and author of Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (Biteback Books)

BNP leader Nick Griffin arrives to lay flowers close to the scene where Drummer Lee Rigby was killed in Woolwich, London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matthew Collins is a researcher for Hope Not Hate and author of Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (Biteback Books).

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.