Is Britain’s far right preparing for armed conflict? And could a catastrophe of the kind that struck Norway last summer be on its way here? An academic survey of more than 2,000 BNP, EDL and Ukip supporters suggests that a hardcore of far-right supporters in this country believe violent conflict between ethnic, religious and racial groups is inevitable. Even more alarmingly, two-fifths of BNP supporters appear to consider armed conflict “always or sometimes” justifiable.
This militancy is not entirely new. Beneath the “respectable” public image crafted by its leader Nick Griffin in order to win elections, the BNP always remained a home for violent racists. In 2004, an undercover BBC journalist filmed members bragging about beating up Asians during the Bradford riots and fantasising about “shooting Pakis”.
In 2007, at the height of its progress through local politics, when anti-fascist campaigners feared the party could take control of several English councils, a former BNP candidate named Robert Cottage was convicted of stockpiling explosives at his Lancashire home. Cottage believed race war was imminent – which is no surprise, since the fear of such a catastrophe is crucial to fascist ideology. In the words of Nick Griffin: “The only thing which can save everything we hold dear is total change at all levels of society; in a word, a revolution … Nothing less can save our race and nation.”
As electoral success has melted away since the BNP’s collapse at the 2010 general election, the hardcore is now left exposed. At the same time, a younger generation has been attracted to the adrenaline-pumping street politics of the English Defence League, which adapts its language to better suit the realities of multicultural modern Britain. It claims merely to oppose “militant Islam”, but its supporters have carried out numerous violent attacks on Asian Britons, on their shops, homes and places of worship. Shut out from mainstream politics, some far-right supporters may well turn to violence, seeing it as the only way to achieve their goals. Indeed, it has happened in this country before — most recently in 1999, when David Copeland, a neo-Nazi who had drifted through the BNP, set off a series of nail bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, killing three people and maiming 129.
Yet shocking as such incidents might be – and although they are undoubtedly a tragedy for those involved – they are a sign of weakness, not of strength. The far right is not backed by big business or bankrolled by foreign governments. Violent actions have no public support beyond the hardcore identified in the study by Matthew Goodwin and Jocelyn Evans.
The greater danger remains where it always has done: in the elements of far-right propaganda that overlap with mainstream political sentiment. Few people in Britain would agree that race war is on its way, but how many would agree that immigration has gone “too far”; that multiculturalism has failed or that the west is locked in a “clash of civilisations” with Islam?
By his murderous actions in Norway last summer, Anders Breivik has become the new face of far-right terror. Yet he did not tear Norway’s society apart in the way that, say, the rhetoric of Geert Wilders threatens to do in Holland. There, his nonviolent Freedom party has been able to extract reactionary anti-Muslim concessions from the Dutch coalition government in return for support on economic policies. In France, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen has made halal meat a major issue in the presidential election, and encouraged Nicolas Sarkozy to compete with her furiously in the immigrant-bashing stakes.
In Britain, the BNP may have been smashed as an electoral force, but it is only a matter of time before its more competent activists regroup under a different name. Meanwhile, Ukip is on hand to offer anti-immigrant populism while the coalition government and their allies in the rightwing press have shown themselves willing to heap opprobrium on any target which helps deflect criticism of their austerity programme – immigrants who don’t speak English, the disabled, the unemployed, Muslims who “refuse” to integrate.
That tiny, violent hardcore of far-right supporters are never likely to change their views. The real question is: what about the rest of us?