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.