Infection of the far right? How extremism went mainstream in UK politics

PUBLISHED: 17:00 15 October 2017

Clockwise from top-left: Sir Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, Michael Howard, Nigel Farage, BNP supporters, and Nick Griffin. Photos: PA / Getty

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The process by which the far-right has infected the mainstream of British politics has been a gradual one, says author PAUL STOCKER. Those responsible are not just the usual suspects.

A prominent British politician addressing a far-right rally in Germany may have, in simpler times, reflected an act of political suicide.

Not in Brexit Britain. In the final weeks of the country’s election campaign, Nigel Farage’s address to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, saw him lambast the leaders of Germany’s two largest parties. Describing Social Democrat challenger Martin Schultz as a “fanatic” and calling rival, and ultimate victor, Angela Merkel’s decision to provide shelter to refugees fleeing war and desperation, “the worst decision by any leader in modern political history”, it was very “do as I say, not as I do” from the man who described the “creature” Barack Obama’s intervention in the EU referendum “disgraceful”.

There was notable lack of outrage in Britain at Farage addressing a group whose chairwoman at the time had suggested German border police should shoot refugees and whose Thuringian regional leader called for Germany to stop beating itself up about Nazi crimes during the Second World War (describing Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame”).

It is a searing indictment of a country where far-right ideas aren’t just tolerated as an ugly consequence of liberal democracy, but have become a normalised part of the national debate.

Similarly, it is reflective of the historic failure of politicians to confront intolerant, xenophobic ideas since the turn of the 21st century which facilitated the rise of nationalism on our shores and ultimately, the Brexit vote in June 2016, explored in my book English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right.

How have the far-right, and their ideas which stigmatise immigrants as disease-ridden scroungers or refugees as a grave threat to British identity been allowed to enter the mainstream? It is important to note that xenophobic ideas have always been present in British political culture over the centuries.

Migrants from Ireland escaping famine in the mid-19th century were met with hostility and, at times, violence.

Jews escaping persecution in the Russian Empire, who arrived in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, were met with a similarly callous reception. Extreme anti-immigrant political movements, such as the British Brothers League were formed in response to Jewish immigration and pressured the government into tight immigration control.

The fascist and right-wing extremist movements which menaced between the First and Second World Wars similarly attacked migrants – mostly Jews – verbally and physically. Whilst these were marginal organisations, many of the prejudices towards foreigners were held by the wider public.

Yet, ever since the genocidal crimes of Nazism during the Second World War were revealed, far-right politics and xenophobia remained, at least in Britain, on the fringes as a discredited and taboo movement. It was a collection of eccentric traditionalists, conspiracy theorists and Hitler worshippers.

Mainstream politicians, like Enoch Powell, who fed into their narrative that white Britain was being besieged by ‘coloured’ immigrants, were banished to the wilderness by elites. The politics of nationalism, ultimately, stank of exactly what Britain had fought against at a great cost during the Second World War, still fresh in the minds of those who had been there.

Yet something changed at the turn of the 21st century, particularly following the election of New Labour. There was distinct opposition to a party who promised to usher in a new era of tolerance and a Britain at ease with itself as a multicultural nation.

Many white Britons were simply not as relaxed about it. The right-wing press began to pump out anti-immigration scare stories on an industrial scale. Politicians on the right began to use immigration as a stick to beat the other party with, ending a decades-old consensus which left immigration and racial issues off the table.

Opposition leader William Hague, egged on by hard-right journalists, colleagues and advisors, claimed in a 2001 speech: “Talk about asylum and they call you racist. Talk about your nation and they call you little Englanders. This government thinks Britain would be alright if only we had a different people.” Indignation was directed at Hague from liberals and the left, yet they were sometimes complicit. Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett would claim a year later that asylum seekers were “swamping” Britain’s schools.

Despite Britain enjoying an extended period of economic growth under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s stewardship, the world was beginning to seem a more dangerous and unstable place. First 9/11 and then 7/7 installed within Britons an anxiety over ‘foreign’ terrorists, be actually they asylum seekers, economic migrants or British citizens.

The enlargement of the European Union, which enabled migrants from behind the former Iron Curtain to travel to Britain en masse, increased fears over thinly-spread employment opportunities in large parts of the country being spread even thinner.

Politicians hardly bothered to quell the suspicions held by an increasing number of Britons that they were losing their country. In fact, they encouraged them. Tory Leader Michael Howard, himself of immigrant stock, blew a dog whistle at a straw man when he proclaimed on a 2005 billboard ‘it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’.

Gordon Brown similarly pledged ‘British jobs for British workers’ – a promise that could hardly be kept in a modern economy plugged into an increasingly globalised world.

It was no coincidence that this period would also see the unprecedented rise of the far-right, whose eyes gleamed at a new era of intolerance. The help the BNP received from the mainstream media’s daily immigration scare stories was not lost on their activists, with one stating “newspapers have become obsessed with the asylum issue. I have not been able to believe the Daily Express. Issue after issue, day after day, asylum this, asylum that. So we now have the luxury of banging on people’s doors with the mainstream issue of the day... It has legitimised us. We are mainstream now”.

It helped that the party, under its ‘reformist’ leader Nick Griffin, had finally recognised that Britain’s largely anti-fascist voters did not want Hitler apologetics or obscure racial theories, but simple, jingoistic solutions to asylum and immigration.

They swapped their skinheads for suits and rosettes. The far-right rebranded themselves as populists, fighting against a corrupt elite, despite never really moving away from anti-Semitism and sinister plans to deport non-whites, which would only be discussed behind closed doors.

Their extremism was so latent however, not even the vicious right-wing press could stomach them. Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, taking a merciful break from his quotidian rants against asylum seekers and multiculturalism claimed it was “nauseating to discover that decent people would even consider voting for this loathsome bunch of sociopaths”.

Littlejohn and his colleagues in the gutter press, in their desire to turn the floundering Conservative Party into a hard-right one, may well have been genuinely outraged at the rise of a party whose origins lay in 1930s fascism. Yet they had contributed to a climate within which far right ideas could thrive and gain votes for extremists.

It soon became obvious however that the public were voting for the BNP with their fingers clenched firmly over their noses. When just shy of one million voted for them in 2009, their support appeared to have peaked, then plummeted, following national exposure and infighting which has bedevilled similar organisations since their inception. Yet, following their collapse, James Forsyth prophetically wrote in the Telegraph “someone else, more plausible and with less baggage, will come along and seriously advance the BNP’s vile agenda”.

The collapse of the BNP, the alienation of conservatives over David ‘call me Dave’ Cameron’s fluffy makeover of the Tories, as well as the disenchantment of traditional Labour voters feeling isolated by the party’s cosmopolitanism left a gaping hole in the political landscape. A party with less baggage than the BNP and a leader with more charisma than Nick Griffin always stood a good chance of making an impact.

The benefactor of the votes of disenchanted, blue collar traditionalists was an odd one – the tweed-jacketed, salmon-trousered alumnus of Dulwich College Nigel Farage and his merry band of Ukippers.

The party had learned much from the BNP’s populist rebrand, and actively sought the extremist party’s voters. Speaking in 2014, Farage claimed he was “proud” to have won over a third of BNP voters. They ditched their single-minded approach to Euroscepticism which dealt almost solely with the question of sovereignty. They started talking more about identity, multiculturalism and most importantly – immigration – linking all to Britain’s membership of the EU. They tapped into a far larger pool of voters than the BNP ever could. An increasingly pessimistic electorate who, following the financial crisis, had grave doubts that their children and grandchildren could look forward to the same future they had, were prepared to listen.

The response from mainstream politicians to UKIP after they began to perform well in elections from 2012 was panicked. The Conservative Party in particular sought to demonstrate a hawkish approach to immigration and EU issues. A referendum was offered on British membership of the EU. The party sought to demonstrate that they could cut migration by the tens of thousands whilst still a member of the EU by tackling non-existent ‘health tourism’, restricting migrants access to benefits and draconian visa regulations for non-EU citizens in the 2014 Immigration Bill.

At times, they even made thoroughly undignified attempts to copy the populist, anti-establishment rhetoric of UKIP. Immigration Minister James Brokenshire stated in a 2014 speech: “For too long, the benefits of immigration went to employers who wanted an easy supply of cheap labour; or to the wealthy metropolitan elite who wanted cheap tradesmen and services – but not to the ordinary, hard-working people of this country.”

The cumulative impact of the Conservative Party’s co-option of UKIP ideas and language was to normalise the politics of xenophobia. When transitional controls were removed in early 2014 on immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, the response was utterly hysterical.

Politicians and the media spoke of the genuine possibility of a wave of crime and disease which would follow. After being on the receiving end of a particularly tough grilling by radio host James O’Brien, Nigel Farage claimed: “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”

The politics of ‘if you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour’ was back – dressed in the language of respectability. A matter of weeks after the comments, Farage’s party would go on to win the European elections.

2015 would send an already feverish anti-immigrant climate into overdrive. The year began with the terror attack at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was framed by the radical right across Europe as the inevitable consequence of multiculturalism. The summer would see Europe’s refugee crisis come under the spotlight and many saw it is an opportunity to stoke fears of a continent under invasion.

Letting migrants in would ‘alter the cultural balance of the country for ever’. “The Arab and Muslim world is disintegrating into chaos, war and terror. The ascendancy of radical Islam is producing untold barbarism. The West-imposed model of the nation-state is collapsing into tribal warfare. A dying culture has turned murderously upon itself whilst trying simultaneously to conquer the wider world” – not words taken out of a National Front pamphlet, but Melanie Phillips writing in centre-right broadsheet the Times. Further terror attacks in Paris in November, conflated questions of Islam, multiculturalism and security – all to feature as the EU referendum loomed.

The referendum campaign was always likely to be a charged affair, but one should not mistake the anti-immigrant tone of the debate as growing influence of the far-right.

Centre-right politicians – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith – all pitched in with comments straight out of the far-right playbook. The latter claimed before the campaign that staying in the EU made Britain more vulnerable to Paris-style terror attacks. Michael Gove aped the anti-establishment rhetoric of UKIP, which created a mythical battle between a rotten establishment and ‘ordinary people’, by arguing people have had enough of ‘experts’.

Boris Johnson referred to the US President as “half Kenyan” and claimed he had an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire”. Lurid campaign literature spoke of Turkey’s imminent EU membership, implying waves of Muslim immigration to Britain. Another pamphlet from the official Leave campaign claimed that if Britain were to stay in the EU, its border would be with Iraq and Syria.

Since the narrow vote to leave, Brexiteers have been keen to rewrite the history of Britain’s vote to leave the EU as having nothing to do with bigotry or xenophobia. The argument holds that Britain voted to be more globalist and outward-looking, to reconnect with Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh; to free ourselves from the humiliating shackles of Brussels to reassume our rightful place in the world.

It goes without saying, that there is precious evidence to back this up. Immigration was the most important issue, according to IPSOS Mori, guiding the vote to leave a week before the vote. Of Leave voters polled by Lord Ashcroft, more than three-quarters believed immigration and multiculturalism to be a ‘force for ill’.

The mainstreaming of the far-right which enabled Brexit has not slowed down since the referendum vote. In her first Tory conference speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May, rather than seeking to unite a bitterly divided country, decided to attack a mythical pro-EU establishment, claiming that “they find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient”. Home Secretary Amber Rudd proposed a raft of anti-immigrant measures.

The government’s insistence on a Hard Brexit, in order to end freedom of movement, as well as their crackdown on non-EU student visas suggests one seeking to pull up the drawbridge, despite their claims of merely ‘taking back control’. The descent of Britain’s political culture from one which learned the lessons of the past and was militant towards the consequences of nationalism has been a rapid one. Worryingly, it shows no sign of slowing down as Britain hurtles out of the European Union and into the unknown.

  • Dr Paul Stocker is a historian of the far-right in Britain and a Research Associate at Teesside University’s Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies. He is the author of English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right published by Melville House UK

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