Did you click “like” when you saw that Facebook picture denouncing cruelty to dogs, or share that touching message exhorting us to honour our veterans on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings? Did you also notice the little lion and union flag logo tucked away somewhere deep within the post? You didn’t?
Well congratulations. You probably unwittingly played into the hands of the British far-right’s latest viral social media strategy. You are officially on the same level as the caricatured bumbling, resentful, low-information UKIP voter. Hang your head in shame.
But don’t worry, you were not the only one taken in. So many of the commentariat’s dire warnings from the 2014 local and European election campaign are now coming true. “Well, they make a show of being patriotic and decent,” they said, “but it’s all just a mask concealing their despicable racist views”. Or sometimes it was proclaimed that “people support them without really thinking through what they actually stand for; if only they really knew, they wouldn’t like them”.
Wise words – only they were not so descriptive of UKIP (the establishment’s principal target at the time) as they are of Britain’s real-life far right parties, who are alive and well, take themselves very seriously and who charted a course through election season almost entirely undetected and unengaged by the forces of left-wing and popular outrage.
For those who were too busy throwing eggs at Nigel Farage or dismissively equating euroscepticism with little-England xenophobia to notice, there’s a new kid on the block of British far-right organisations. They call themselves Britain First, and describe themselves as a “patriotic political party and street defence organisation” – because a heady mix of strong political views, mob psychology and unapologetic vigilantism couldn’t possibly lead to anything unpleasant.
As the British National Party faced electoral annihilation in the local and European elections, haemorrhaging supporters and losing the two MEPs they gained in 2009, Nick Griffin’s dying organisation seems to have breathed its hate-filled spirit into a new host, Britain First – itself comprised of disgraced and disgruntled former BNP members.
Britain First is prospering where the BNP failed because they grasp the fact that the old foaming-at-the-mouth racist with a grudge to bear approach to political argument has a naturally low ceiling of support, whereas appeals on behalf of animal welfare or generically patriotic feel-good posts on social media are virtually guaranteed positive click-bait.
Vowing to end dog-fighting or encouraging people to “like” a picture of Prince William may not do much to directly further the party’s core goals, but it does allow them to now truthfully claim that theirs is the most popular political party on Facebook.
But as always with political parties, the carefully polished façade presented to the public and the real sentiments and motivations of Britain First’s activists are two very different things. On Facebook, Britain First may be all LOLcats and union flag bunting, but their activists are generally much less cuddly.
Many videos shown on YouTube and the party’s own website give an idea of what Britain First mean when they call themselves a “street defence organisation”. The following video should be all the introduction needed:
The footage shows a representative sample of the organisation’s work, which largely consists of hitting the streets in a large group, wearing identical quasi-military jackets and berets and holding aloft many union flags, often trailed by one or more decommissioned ex-Army Land Rovers.
Once assembled and decked out in their regalia, the Britain First squads may do one of several things. One of their favourite stunts is the “mosque invasion” whereby a number of squad members (almost all men) burst into a mosque, disregarding the notices to remove their shoes or observe other courtesies, and then start aggressively asking for the imam.
While the imam is being found, Britain First team members berate the bemused-looking worshippers for not acting more decisively to root out what they call “Muslim grooming gangs” or for promoting extremism. They then hand out Britain First literature on the same topic, together with a number of British Army-issue Bibles (this is the visible extent of their piety), exhorting the Muslim worshippers to abandon their “false prophet” and convert to Christianity. Message and literature thus delivered, they depart as rudely as they arrived.
When not invading mosques, Britain First like to assemble to protest in front of the homes of prominent Muslims such as the mayor of Bradford, arriving and standing outside in large numbers (in full uniform, of course) while the leader, Paul Golding either knocks on the door or telephones the victim from the doorstep demanding an audience. When the targets fail to make an appearance, intimidated by the tactics of the Britain First street team, the protesters begin their various chants and make a racket until the police arrive.
Popular chants include “Muslim pedos off our streets!”, “Benefit scroungers off our streets!”, exhortations for various other bogeymen of the paranoid to vacate our streets, and the inevitable battle cry of “Onward, Christian soldiers!”. For you see, theirs is a crusade.
Whatever the activity, the protesters typically film their actions from start to finish and upload them to the Britain First website where they are viewable by members of the public. The production quality is somewhat overwrought, with apocalyptic “Independence Day” style soundtracks suggesting the climax of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie rather than a ragtag group of far-right activists going out on “Christian Patrol” in Bradford.
When interviewed for these in-house videos, activists insist that the British people are “sick to death” of the Muslim grooming gangs that “we’ve all seen in the news”, a preoccupation that eats away at them and which they are convinced is being ignored by communities and local authorities, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. One “defence force” activist added: “English girls are suffering all across the north of England”.
And it’s not just Britain First – there are many other splinter organisations vying for a slice of the far-right nationalist pie. This coming Saturday, the equally unpleasant South East Alliance will be holding a demonstration in Cricklewood, north west London, going up against the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters have a presence there – extremism coming face to face with extremism.
There is clearly a real, ever-present and ever-threatening far right element lurking in Britain. Filled with hatred and fuelled by ignorance, these groups acknowledge Britishness only according the narrow criterion of ethnicity, viewing all other races and cultures in Britain with automatic suspicion and fear. Anger and violence are never far from the surface in this xenophobic, nationalistic powder-keg.
The far right was neither dealt a mortal blow by the setbacks of the BNP or invigorated by the rise of UKIP (not a far right party), but it is on the move in Britain once again, only this time aided by a combination of particularly low scruples, social media savvy and viral appeal that the regular political parties can only dream of.
Whose fault is this? The media, the main political parties and those who make it a mission to fight against racism all share a portion of the blame.
Because the establishment – political parties and media alike – expended such huge efforts in their efforts to smear UKIP and halt their advance in the local and European elections, Britain’s actual far right parties have enjoyed a virtual free pass this year. All guns were trained on UKIP, a legitimate party with well-publicised racist bad apples, while the parties that are profoundly and unapologetically racist to the core were scarcely challenged.
When organisations such as Unite Against Fascism temporarily forget their purpose and start actively campaigning against eurosceptics or conflate an opposition to immigration (wrongheaded though it may be) with outright xenophobia and prejudice, they don’t have much left in the tank to take on other groups with really toxic viewpoints when they start to come out of the woodwork.
That’s the problem with crying “racism” every time you encounter a viewpoint that you don’t like or agree with – when you do eventually stumble upon a real life case of racism in action – like Paul Golding’s Britain First organisation – you have already used up all of the warnings and counterarguments in your rhetorical canon, making it impossible to be heard above the noise or to draw attention to the serious cases that we need to tackle.
In one sense, the fact that we collectively took our eye off the ball is not the end of the world – the BNP performed appallingly in the recent election, polling barely above 1% (which was five points down from 2009), while the repackaged Britain First managed just 20,272 votes nationwide, a less than awe-inspiring 0.13% of the national vote.
But to dismiss the far right because of these paltry election results is to miss the point. The fact that BNP and Britain First voters together make up less than the population of Northampton is irrelevant, because they don’t need to win elections to succeed in their goals.
Britain First will never achieve its ultimate aim of turning back the clock and reverting to a bygone time when spotting a non-white face walking around in town is an unusual event worth telling your friends about at the pub, but they don’t have to.
Their ‘street defence volunteers’ are quite happy walking up and down Brick Lane in their quasi-military uniforms with their armoured Land Rover escorts, ‘raiding’ mosques, spreading misinformation, sowing fear, talking apocalyptically about the end of the British people and generally making life miserable for the rest of us. And with their wide range of Britain First branded merchandise available for sale, some of their leaders will likely become quite rich in the process.
This is the type of far-right activism that we can work together to thwart if we are properly focused on eliminating racism and promoting tolerance and respect – not by squashing Britain First’s democratic right to free speech, but through a concerted campaign to inform people that when they share the organisation’s viral Facebook or Twitter messages they are inadvertently helping to spread the word about this BNP offshoot.
Such a “Let’s Unfriend Britain First” campaign could starve the party of the resources and reach needed in order to continue its worrying growth trajectory. The blog Another Angry Voice also lays out good suggestions for fighting back against the group’s manipulative tactics.
The time has also come for some people (they know who they are) to finally take a break from calling UKIP a racist party, desist from the public wailing and rending of garments at the fact that they share a country with such ignorant, backward hillbillies as UKIP supporters, and to admit that there is in fact a vast difference between the radical right and the far right.
Though some may be loathe to give up one of their favourite rhetorical weapons against the political right, they should remember that the marginal wavering UKIP / BNP / Britain First voter has little incentive to select anything other than the most extreme option if even voting UKIP will bring scorn and charges of racism upon them.
(Yes, it is concerning that there are marginal UKIP-BNP voters, but it should be remembered that there are marginal Conservative-BNP and Labour-BNP voters too. All political parties draw some support from the far-right’s natural territory).
In the wake of the local and European elections, the three main political parties are all busy devising strategies to halt the rise of UKIP and stop the erosion of their own support leading up to the 2015 general election. Whatever they ultimately decide to do, it would be encouraging to see passionate anti-racism rhetoric and anti-fascist efforts being launched against the correct targets from now on.
The enemies of fascism and racial hatred – which should be all of us – need to stop using unfounded accusations of racism as a political weapon, get together and identify the real far-right threats in Britain.
Hint: It’s not UKIP.
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