What lies behind the spectacular collapse of the British far-right?

In the form of UKIP, the toxic extreme right has been sidelined by a more competent radical right force.

Less than four months from now, voters across Europe will head to the polls to choose their representatives in the European Parliament. Amidst the financial crisis and falling public trust in political institutions, there is an expectation in Brussels, Paris and Berlin that the elections will deliver record success for parties that subscribe to right-wing extremist or Eurosceptic beliefs, and which are often crudely lumped together under the far-right umbrella. Much of this concern has been driven by the latest polls, which suggest that the "usual suspects" will continue their march from the margins to the mainstream.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National looks on course to treble its level of support in 2009, possibly finishing first with over 20 per cent of the vote. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ radical right Party for Freedom may also finish in the top spot, while in Austria the Freedom Party will also take over 20 per cent. Yet Greece and Hungary elicit most concern. In the latter, support for the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik is holding steady at around 14 per cent, while Golden Dawn is likely to attract at least 9 per cent, introducing the real prospect of neo-Nazi MEPs sitting in Brussels. Even if the neo-Nazi party is forcibly disbanded, they have pledged to form a new party in time for the elections (the imaginatively titled "National Dawn").

If the polls are correct, the results will inevitably dominate headlines and fuel anxiety among progressives over the enduring appeal of exclusionary campaigns in Europe. But it is not quite as worrying as the media would have us believe. Behind the pictures of Le Pen and Wilders are countries in southern Europe, which, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, have grappled with the conditions that many predicted would usher in political armageddon: rampant deprivation; a generation of unemployed youth; harsh austerity; striking inequality; and only recently entrenched democratic traditions. Yet few journalists bother to ponder why, since the crisis, the far-right has retreated or simply failed to arrive in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain, or why it has flourished in Austria and the Netherlands, which have "enjoyed" some of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. In this sense, the puzzle is not why some far-right populists have prospered amidst the crisis, but why Europe has not turned en masse to the political extremes.

This is especially true in Britain, where, despite the crisis, recession and austerity, the far-right has completely collapsed. Cast your mind back five years to February 2009. Nick Griffin and the BNP were still in the afterglow of winning a seat on the Greater London Assembly. They had dozens of councillors and a grassroots membership on its way to over 14,000. And with a parliamentary expenses scandal about to explode, they would go on to poll over 6 per cent at the European elections and capture two seats. Shortly afterwards, a small protest in Luton would spiral into the English Defence League (EDL), which for a brief moment looked set to mobilise a street army of young, disillusioned and angry working class Britons. 

But since then the far-right has haemorrhaged support. The EDL spectacularly collapsed after their leader resigned and was then imprisoned. Meanwhile, the long-awaited crisis that Griffin promised would bring his followers victory, has brought them misery. Such is the disarray that their MEP Andrew Brons has resigned the BNP whip and launched a new, anti-Griffin party. Thousands of members have walked away, leaving Griffin not only bankrupt but appearing as a lonely and increasingly comical figure whose only route into the headlines today is to express solidarity with neo-Nazis in Greece. The BNP which has dominated Britain’s far-right for some thirty years is polling just 1 per cent, and so the prospect of saving its seats is nothing more than a distant dream. For the first time since 2001, Britain may well find its elected office "BNP free".

So why – despite the crisis - has the far-right collapsed? There are three schools of thought, which each point to a different ingredient. The first is that since 2009, British public demand for ideas associated with the far-right has withered. But even a cursory glance at the data undermines this view. If anything, British voters are now even more concerned about immigration, less trusting of the political class, and more receptive to populist appeals. Even as the crisis subsides, public concerns over immigration today are stronger than at any point since 2007. In fact, immigration now shares the top spot with the economy as the most important issue in the minds of voters, and by the time we get to May it may well occupy the top spot in its own right.

A second argument is that the British far-right simply failed to capitalise on the crisis, offering a toxic brand that was "beyond the pale' for most Britons. One of my favourite opinion polls of all time (run by YouGov) asked Britons to rank the most important markers of Britishness. The most popular answer was freedom of speech. But a close second was the country’s victory over Nazi ideology, which goes some way to explaining the power of the anti-fascist norm in Britain. Unlike, say, Marine Le Pen who grasps the necessity of detoxification, the extremist amateurism of the fascist BNP and the street thuggery of the EDL alienated voters who might otherwise be receptive to the radical right agenda. There was a window of opportunity where both groups could have connected with a disillusioned, working class and left behind generation of Britons, but instead they remained dominated by figures who the historian Richard Thurlow once described as "tinpot fuhrers and sawdust caesars".

While much of this rings true, it also complements a third argument; that since 2010 the toxic extreme right in British politics has been easily outflanked by a more competent radical right force, which not only targets the same cluster of concerns over immigration, Europe, the responsiveness of elites and perceived threats to national identity, but does so in the shadow of legitimacy. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has presented the BNP with an insurmountable challenge. As Griffin's party has sought to frame Ukippers as "plastic nationalists" and "posh boys" who like the bankers, the reality (as we show in a new book) is that the more legitimate and sophisticated UKIP brand is connecting far more successfully with the same social groups who only offered the extreme right some localised and ephemeral success. UKIP is not a right-wing extremist party. Neither Farage nor his party advocate an ethnic conception of nationalism, the overthrow of liberal democracy or conspiratorial anti-Semitism (the three features that are commonly thought to define right-wing extremism). To put UKIP in the same camp as the BNP misunderstands its revolt. 

But that is not to say that this revolt is not drawing support from the same sections of British society who have been left behind by the country’s economic transformation over recent decades, were then hit hardest by the financial crisis, and today feel completely adrift from an established political class that is increasingly focused on more secure, educated and professional middle-class voters who not only share a markedly different outlook but also determine the outcome of elections. This is one (but by no means the only) reason why the rise of UKIP carries as many important questions for the left as it does the right. Under any other circumstances, these disadvantaged, left behind voters should be expected to be rallying behind Labour. So while this May we should welcome the demise of the traditional extreme right in Britain, we will again be given good reason to ask why a growing number of Britons are turning their backs on mainstream political life.

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Nottingham and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is co-author, with Robert Ford, of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, which is published in March. Readers of the New Statesman can receive 20% off pre-orders here, using the code RTR14. He tweets @GoodwinMJ

Nick Griffin takes part in a protest outside the Old Bailey in central London, on November 18, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.