The myth of the academic "anti-fascist industry"

Contrary to Daniel Hannan, the study of why some people continue to support the far-right is not driven by a leftist conspiratorial agenda.

It’s been an interesting week for those who share an interest in the British far-right. The resignation of the two most prominent leaders of the English Defence League, Stephen Lennon and Kevin Carroll, has once again thrown the movement into flux. A group that enjoyed a second wind following the murder of Lee Rigby, when the EDL’s Facebook following increased ten-fold to over 120,000, is now fighting to survive, and seems destined to be replaced by a collection of small offshoots and provide recruits to the British National Party, which last week appealed to the EDL’s disillusioned foot soldiers to help with its campaign next May to save at least one of its two seats in the European Parliament.

Yet the most striking aspect of these events was not Lennon’s resignation, which had clearly been on the cards for some time, but the involvement of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank which brokered the move and wants to take the partnership further. For reasons outlined in the Guardian, I found the event uncomfortable viewing. It wasn’t really clear what we were watching: the conversion of a man who clearly held the same views; a think-tank which was avoiding tough but fair questions; or a public relations campaign that was only interested in promoting the new alliance. But then things became even stranger.

First, Quilliam began hurling insults at those who wanted to know more about the process. Despite openly conceding he had first met Lennon on the morning of the press conference, this did not stop Quilliam’s Head of Outreach taking to social media to brand those asking questions as "trendy wine bar types" and "armchair warriors" who "don’t live in the real world". Between pushing his book, Quilliam’s Chairman, Maajid Nawaz, also spent much of last week dismissing "regressive leftists". This was an odd response from a man who is standing for a centre-left party at the next general election, but also from the head of a self-defined research institute that would like the world to take it seriously. In the world of research we expect to be asked tough questions and to have to defend our projects in front of our peers, not through insults but by showing openly what we have done, with what data, and how we got from A to B to C. Some (but not all) think tanks simply don't bother to uphold these standards.

Then, Quilliam were joined by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who also attacked a left-wing "anti-fascist industry", which he contends is full of people like me: who apparently have a vested interest in inflating the "far right threat", are forced to "throw their definition wider and wider" (presumably to include the EDL which is not far-right?), and "predictably complained that Robinson’s conversion is not genuine". Hannan’s response is unsurprising. This is the man who thought a British Tea Party would be a good idea, and who views the BNP as a far-left group. The latter is a common mistake by right-wingers who overlook the fact that while far right groups often advocate left-wing economic policies, they only do so to protect the native racial group, not a social class. Race and ancestry are paramount; everything else is secondary.

But it is also a deliberate ploy by some on the centre-right to distance themselves from their more extreme ideological cousins who live two doors down, on the same street. In this respect, Hannan follows the likes of Charles Moore who claimed the EDL is non-violent, and Andrew Gilligan who, after Woolwich, tried to dismiss a documented rise in attacks against Muslims following the attack. Both were proved wrong. Moore’s view of the EDL as "the instinctive reaction of elements of an indigenous working class" now sits uneasily alongside its founder’s admission this week that – as we suspected all along - his creation is overrun by neo-Nazis and extremists, while both police and academic reports confirm that there was a significant spike in anti-Muslim attacks. The beliefs that underpin these right-wing commentaries on the EDL and Islamophobia are unsavoury – but they are also bankrupt.

Yet these responses also reflect a deeper view of research on extremism, which is troubling. The likes of Hannan, Quilliam and far-right extremists who troll my Twitter share a view of a world where there is a global conspiracy at hand; an army of Marx-loving professors who only live to scare people about the far right so as to silence their criticisms of immigration and multicultural society, or raise difficult questions about their research. This is all nonsense, of course. My own entry in the far-right’s equivalent of Wikipedia states that I am "a globalist cultural Marxist political agitator". Some days I wish my life really was that exciting, but the reality is quite different. The ivory towers are far more boring these days. I’ve also never even joined an anti-fascist group, or even Labour for that matter. Moreover, fanatical anti-fascists would find it difficult if not impossible to survive in higher education, where our papers and grant applications are routinely reviewed by other academics and research councils, all of whom have little time for anything other than objective, independent and rigorous research. In short, if I were a raving anti-fascist who penned dubious studies about threatening groups that were actually not all that important, I would be out of a job very quickly. Indeed, I sent Hannan a list of my own peer-reviewed publications and asked which ones he would like to discuss. I received no response.

True, most academics are guided by only a few core research questions, which means that we tend to remain within the same areas for years at a time. One question that guides some of my research is why, despite European history, do some people continue to support the far-right, which is particularly puzzling in Britain where citizens often list opposition to fascism as a defining characteristic of their national identity. This was sparked not by some ideological influence but my grandfather’s accounts of watching Mosley’s Blackshirts in the east end, then my experience of witnessing the curious rise of the BNP and a sense that, despite attracting considerable interest, we still lacked an adequate explanation of why millions of citizens in Europe continue to support openly racist or anti-Muslim groups. None of this is dependent on whether or not these things are in the news, and nor is it driven by some leftist conspiratorial agenda, however hard that may be for some to believe. 

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He tweets @GoodwinMJ
English Defence League supporters march down Whitehall towards Downing Street on May 27, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories