The right must stop explaining away the crimes of Thomas Mair

This wasn't the result of a broken home or worries over housing. It was an act of terror and cowardice. 

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When I was a teenager, and prone to overlapping love affairs as teenagers often are, I found myself abandoned by one girl in favour of a white boy, and found another at the expense of a Muslim. I didn’t join the Black Panthers, and, as far as I can glean from his profile page, he didn’t join Isis either.

Apparently, however, we’d have been within our rights to do so, at least according to an article in today’s Sun about Thomas Mair, the white supremacist who was this week imprisoned for life for his assassination of Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen. “Jo Cox murderer Thomas Mair became Nazi obsessed white supremacist after his mum left the family for black boyfriend” is the headline.

They’re not alone, either. Yesterday, the Mail ran an article asking “Did Neo-Nazi murder Jo over fear he'd lose council house he grew up in?” Mair, the paper claimed, suspected that the three-bedroom council house he’d lived alone in following the death of his parents “would be given to foreigners moving into his West Yorkshire town and believed the Labour MP would not help him”.

Again, the fear that the council house they grew up in will be taken away from them is not a novel one in my part of the world, and yet, at time of writing, no-one I went to school with has assassinated an MP. It’s worth noting, too, that the Mail’s pages have not exactly oozed sympathy for people facing eviction from council houses that are now too large for them – quite the opposite, in fact.

The Mail even goes so far as to suggest that Mair’s housing woes “may offer some clue as to what was behind the obsessive recluse’s decision to commit such an appalling crime”.  Just a small problem here: we’ve just come to the end of a two-week long trial which offered us “some clue” as to what was behind Mair’s act of terrorism.

And I don’t use words like “terrorism” or “white supremacist” lightly. Mair was tried and convicted as a terrorist, which is why the trial took place in London and not Yorkshire. During the trial, jurors heard that he perused white supremacist websites and magazines, and had an prolonged interest in “collaborators”, that is white people who defended the interests of minorities, particularly in the ending of apartheid in South Africa.

It is now clear that, contrary to the early excuses offered by right-wing commentators like Tim Montgomerie and Julia Hartley-Brewer, Mair’s crimes were not the result of his “mental health problems”.  He suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, not a condition that an overture to acts of politically-motivated violence. It was the result of a near-two-decade long flirtation with and consumption of far-right materials and propaganda, both over the Internet and via postal order.

But as Maria Norris notes, there has not been a clamour for the government to tackle the rising problem of far-right extremism, despite a 74 per cent increase in the number of referrals relating to far-right activity to the Prevent strategy. Instead, we’ve seen a concentrated attempt to explain away Mair’s crimes, and even to excuse them as the natural expressions of discontent with family breakdown and worries over his housing.

Mair wasn’t endlessly glued to the Sun and Mail websites. He was occupying a place significantly to the right. But his two-decade long journey of radicalisation occurred against a backdrop of stories in which immigration was a problem, and its defenders in the “political elite” held up as an enemy within. When politicians act as if the £270m spent on foreign patients is the reason for the cash crisis in the NHS, when the Prime Minister talks about “citizens of nowhere”, when the Home Secretary says that foreign workers are allowing businesses to keep British ones unskilled and low-paid, that contributes to a political climate in which the opinions which Mair mainlined for two decades become more acceptable. When, after his sentencing, the right-wing press suggests his crime was the fault not of himself and his fellow white supremacists, but a reaction to his circumstances, that, too, encourages and mainstreams the hatred behind his crime.

As Douglas Murray, a columnist for the Spectator and the Express has perceptively written on the problem of extremism, anyone who seeks “to apportion blame where it is not due while refusing to condemn those actually responsible, is not just a willing dupe. They are part of the problem.”

Of course, he was talking about Islamic terrorism, not far-right terrorism. It’s for the right to answer why they find that so much easier to condemn. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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