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Why is the Right doing so well in the UK?

05/11/2009

I have been traveling around the UK the last few weeks. Two things appear to be atop everyone’s concerns, the “rise of the right” and the fact that the British government may be using the “Prevent” counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism program to spy on Muslim communities. I plan on dealing with each in separate posts, but first on the “rise of the right”.

For those who have missed it, the United Kingdom is finding it has an increasingly belligerent and noisy right-wing which is not only managing to make unpleasant speeches and protests, but are also able to win votes in elections. The far rightBritish National Party has won a growing number of seats in first local elections, and most stunningly in the 2009 European Parliament elections it was able to secure two seats and a total of just under 1 million votes nationally.

This seeming acceptance of an openly xenophobic party into the mainstream of British politics received its crowning moment recently when BNP leader (andholocaust denier) Nick Griffin made an appearance on the BBC’s flagship politics program Question Time.

In parallel to this seeming legitimization of racists by the ballot box, the UK has also recently seen the emergence of the English Defence League (EDL), a group claiming to be “demonstrating against the spread of radical Islam” for whom theinfamous Luton protests against returning British soldiers in March of this year were the “final straw”.

Their response was to stage a series parades up and down England in which overwhelmingly caucasian crowds of well-lubricated shaven-headed chaps protest against extreme Islamists (a full list of their demos shows a fixation with the latest incarnation of Omar Bakri Mohammed’s extremist group Al Muhajiroun). At core a blend of skin-heads and football hooligans (something most clearly borne out during the violence in Birmingham), the group is nevertheless able to rally a few hundred protesters at a go under the banner of “taking back England” from “jihadists”.

Disturbingly, there has also been an increase in armed far-right terrorists, including one group who apparently had some 300 weapons, 80 bombs and links around the world, the two right-wing extremists who were convicted for “inciting racial hatred”, and separate “lone wolves” Martyn Gilleard and Neil Lewington (who was picked up with incendiary devices in his bag after he got pissed on a train and took a leak in public while on his way to a date. Lucky girl).

Responding to this growing threat, one police commander said, “I fear that they will have a spectacular“, suggesting that extremists might attempt some major action in order to stir up inter-ethnic hatred.

This last group can be addressed as a clear counter-terrorism issue, but what of the others and their impact which might be said to provide the ideological backdrop for the violent extremists?

The BNP may have managed to secure the veneer of respectability, but they have not found many friends in the European Parliament (something no doubt helped by Mr. Griffin’s charming comments about sinking boat-loads of migrants) – this is significant as it dilutes their power.

Furthermore, while they may have mustered just under a million votes, this should be seen against a backdrop of falling support nationally for the main parties, who cannot shake pay scandals and a bad economy. The BNP specialize in going into economically depressed parts of the country, where they capitalize on local grievances and a sense of abandonment from Westminster with a localized narrative which dresses up anger in anti-immigrant and “national identity” language.

This is enough to rally a core group of voters who actually show up on Election Day and give the BNP its success (it is worth highlighting that it was with a less-than-impressive 9.8% and 8% of the vote that they won in each EP seat).

Similarly, while the EDL appear able to get crowds after football matches, they are almost always matched by a larger counter-protest uniting a wide array of factions. BBC’s Newsnight (part 1part 2) called them a “drinking club with a website,” estimating their numbers at some 300-500 members nationally.

One concern they have voiced, about the focus of current counter-extremismfunding towards Muslim communities appears to also have some parallels amongst other communities, but they do not seem to have much of a plan of action beyond running around the streets and ejecting people like Anjem Choudhary from the country. This may win them some more drinking buddies, but is hardly the basis of an election manifesto.

For Muslims in the UK, it is the terrorist group that is most bothersome – if there is this growing menace of potential right-wing terrorism, then why isn’t there the same fixation on them that one sees with terrorists who instead choose an Islamist garb?

The answer is relatively simple (the right-wingers tend to be local nutters bereft of serious external connections, and their inability to carry out effective attacks reduces their news value) – but the bigger problem does exist of how these far-right groups (violent and non-) might be impacting cohesion between communities in the UK.

More radicalization amongst Britain’s right means more protests on the streets, and likely more violence. Maybe even to the level of the famous 2001 Northern City riots, in which localized social problems provided kindling which was set alight by a growing far-right presence. None of this is to exaggerate the threat (the numbers are still quite small in contrast to continental Europe which appears to have institutionalized racist parties long ago), but it would be dangerous to simply ignore the groups all together.

What does seem clear, however, is that there is a growing well-spring of disaffection amongst Britain’s communities which is finding solace in extreme rhetoric – what is positive is that we are seeing a substantial grass-roots reaction against it, and the main political parties appear willing to stand up against it.