Anti-fascists need to look at how the far-right has organised in the past and is currently organising if they are to halt the rise of a potentially resurgent far-right.
Fascism was imported to Britain from Italy, much like the Stone Island jackets popular with football casuals in the UK. But rather than being the genuine article, the way it has manifested in the UK has been more like the cheap knock-offs. The first British fascist organisation was the British Fascisti, founded in 1923 after Mussolini’s march on Rome. While fascism itself was imported, it found fertile ground in a country rife with nationalism and imperialism.
The British far-right has experienced highs and lows over the past decade. While the British National Party (BNP) once seemed to be on the brink of breaking into mainstream politics, winning dozens of councillors and attracting nearly a million votes, electoral prospects for the far-right now appear to be in ruins and the prospect of them seizing power is remote.
The emergence of the now largely defunct English Defence League (EDL) opened up the streets to a new wave of far-right street activism, but bloody clashes with anti-fascists and brutal state repression seem to have put that genie back in the bottle for now.
But the internet has given the far-right ways to organise which mean a return to the streets in numbers, or the possibility of a new political party emerging, is never far away. Anti-fascists need to look at how the far-right has organised in the past and is currently organising if they are to halt the rise of a potentially resurgent far-right.
The most successful far-right political party in British history was the BNP when it was led by former National Front (NF) activist Nick Griffin. In the early 1990s the BNP was involved in a violent struggle with anti-fascists. Griffin led the party off the streets and onto housing estates.
In 1993 the BNP, then under the leadership of veteran Nazi John Tyndall, had its first ever electoral success when Derek Beacon was elected to be a councillor for the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets. But it wasn’t until 2002 that the party was to taste electoral success again. Under Griffin’s leadership the party pursued a strategy of organising in local communities before standing in council elections. This strategy saw them stand hundreds of council candidates across the country over the following decade, at one point having 55 elected councillors. Their showing in these votes acted as a platform for further electoral battles. In 2009 the party had two MEPs elected after winning 943,598 votes in elections for the European Parliament – the highest ever number of votes won by an openly fascist political party in Britain.
But the BNP imploded after this election. Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s popular current affairs panel show Question Time was widely panned and is seen by many as a trigger for the party’s collapse. But internally the party had to deal with allegations of financial corruption while discontent among grassroots members led to a number of splits. A leaked 2007 membership list for the party revealed it had around 12,000 members. By 2015 it was estimated to only have 500. An attempt by Griffin to return to the streets and cash in on the murder of Lee Rigby was met by hundreds of anti-fascists who took over the party’s rallying point, jumping party members as they attempted to pass through the crowd. Griffin was replaced as leader the next year.
Today the party seems to exist purely to collect the money bequeathed to it in the wills of dying supporters. But its legacy is significant. Nearly a million people have shown they will vote for a fascist political party, thousands of people were members of the BNP at one point in their lives and many of the leading activists in the British far-right were in the party at some point. The BNP under Griffin set a standard for British fascists to follow which many others are keen to emulate, but nobody has come anywhere near achieving that level of success. There are now a handful of far-right political parties which either have direct links to the BNP or are attempting to follow a similar strategy.
The English Democrats have been one beneficiary of the collapse of the BNP. The party was founded in 2002 and is not as far-right as the BNP was, it has claimed it wants to be an English version of the Scottish National Party, the chairman describes it as a “moderate, sensible English nationalist party” and members are expected to disavow racism. But in 2013 the leader of the party revealed one in ten members of the party had been in the BNP. That same year saw Andrew Brons, who had been elected MEP for the BNP and was still sitting in the European Parliament, launch a new political party with a number of other former BNP activists. This was the British Democratic Party (BDP). Brons had attempted to replace Griffin as BNP leader two years earlier and many of his supporters felt the BNP had been watering down their racist, far-right message. The BDP is still active within the British far-right, Brons speaks at far-right gatherings, but has never stood more than a handful of candidates in any election or won more than 1,000 votes.
The main beneficiary of the collapse of the BNP in electoral terms has been the UK Independence Party (UKIP). While not a fascist party itself, UKIP appeals to many voters who the BNP once attracted. UKIP has probably done more than any party in UK political history to distance itself from the far-right, but it also maintains links to far-right parties in Europe through its group in the European Parliament. In recent years leading figures in the party have been accused of using rhetoric which inflames racial tensions and the party regularly has to expel members for racism. In August 2017, the party was nearly taken over by counter-jihad street activists grouped around Anne Marie Waters who came second in the party leadership contest.
Waters’ campaign was organised by former BNP member Jack Buckby. Buckby had been a member of Liberty GB, a party led by counter-jihad activist Paul Weston. Weston had once stood for UKIP in a general election but left to join the British Freedom Party (BFP), a short-lived split from the BNP which formed a pact with the EDL before folding. Weston is a close associate of Waters and it would not be a surprise to see the small number of Liberty GB supporters folding en masse into Waters’ new party, ‘For Britain’. One of the highest profile supporters of Waters is former BNP activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, who was the founder and leader of the EDL. Waters’ ‘For Britain’ party is likely to see the most growth of a far-right political party over the next year. Waters is a former Labour activist and trade unionist who has been involved in anti-Muslim street activism for a number of years. While her party will adopt far-right positions on law and order, immigration and Muslims, early signs suggest it will be taking social democratic positions on a number of social and cultural issues. Waters’ tendency is civic nationalist rather than white nationalist. White nationalists argue for nationality to be defined in racial terms, in Britain that only white people can be British. Civic nationalists, on the other hand, argue that nationality is defined by citizenship. So Waters’ tendency does not appear to encourage discrimination against individuals based on their “race” per se, but instead argues for increasing what amounts to structural racism, such as stripping all Islamist terror suspects of their human rights or ending immigration from predominantly Muslim societies. Sometimes the line between white nationalism and civic nationalism can be blurry, particularly in the realm of rhetoric.
The main political party for the white nationalist part of the British far-right is what is left of the NF. Through the 1970s the NF became the leading group on the UK far-right. Led by neo-Nazis, the party engaged in political violence against opponents and minorities as well as standing candidates in elections. In the 70s the party became the fourth largest political party in the UK. The 1978 World in Action documentary on the NF titled ’The Nazi Party’ revealed the shocking level of violence the party was involved in. Attacks by NF members were occurring across the country on a weekly basis. In the 1979 general election the party won more votes than it has ever won before or since, 191,719, after standing 303 candidates. But the party did not get a single deposit back and began to decline. The party’s failure to keep a deposit is widely attributed to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives winning back their voters by appearing to adopt their policies. (Under Theresa May the Conservatives seem to have followed a similar course, with it being revealed there are striking similarities between several policies from the BNP’s 2005 manifesto and current government policy.) The NF has gone through several splits since its 70s heyday. The most recent taking place a couple of years ago. But it has started to regroup, drawing in some former BNP activists and picking up some people from the collapse of the EDL.
When the BNP led the majority of the UK far-right off the streets in the 90s, the NF didn’t follow. Through most of the early noughties the NF were the leading far-right street organisation in the UK. But with the BNP making waves in electoral politics, turnouts for the NF were generally poor and were rarely in triple figures. Hours after an NF march in Bermondsey south London in 2001, an Asian man was attacked by a mob of ten white men, believed to be NF supporters. Racist attacks and violence being linked to the party were common but on a small scale. Several other far-right groups attempted to keep the far-right on the streets but every attempt failed, partly due to pressure from militant anti-fascists. A meeting organised by the Nationalist Alliance, which had absorbed members of the White Nationalist Party, Combat 18, NF and BNP, in West Yorkshire was attacked by militant anti-fascist group Antifa in 2005. This was one of numerous run ins anti-fascists had with far-right groupuscules.
It wasn’t until the launch of the EDL in 2009 that the UK far-right reappeared on the streets in numbers. Founded by former BNP members Yaxley-Lennon and his cousin Kevin Carroll, the EDL quickly started holding protests against Islam that attracted thousands of people. The EDL emerged as the BNP was imploding and quickly picked up a number of key party activists. The EDL is part of the counter-jihad tendency of the far-right. While not always explicitly racist, counter-jihad activists claim European culture is under threat from Islam and frequently single out migrants from countries where Islam is the dominant religion. This approach was also used by the BNP, particularly in Northern former industrial towns with large Muslim populations. By taking this strategy into street activity, the EDL acted as an entry point to far-right politics for many. Neo-Nazis recruited from this anti-Muslim tendency by claiming Muslim migration to Europe was a Jewish plot. But many in the counter-jihad movement openly support Israel and this has created a fissure within the UK far-right over whether Israel should be supported.
As the EDL grew it started to splinter. Around its peak, a think tank claimed that the EDL had 25,000-35,000 members, meaning a significant number of people were introduced to far-right street politics. Veteran far-right activists flocked to the EDL where young members started to become exposed to more extreme political ideas. Some groups broke off from the EDL such as the ‘Infidels’ network because they didn’t feel it was far-right enough. The first two Infidels groups to leave were the North West Infidels (NWI) and North East Infidels (NEI), both quickly had members jailed for political violence against the Left. The broader network expanded to include new regional Infidels groups, such as the South West Infidels (SWI) and other EDL splinter groups like the South East Alliance (SEA). This network had no problems working with the neo-Nazi part of the extreme right which was invigorated by the emergence of the EDL. Among the far-right groups to return to the streets post-EDL is the British Movement (BM). Once one of the most violent far-right groups in the UK, BM is now little more than a small club of dedicated neo-Nazis who exchange newsletters and hold an annual “festival” on a campsite with their kids.
At the same time as the EDL was splintering, other far-right groups were increasing their street activity, particularly in the north of England where the NF were able to boost its protests with former EDL activists. Following the state repression of the Antifa UK group in 2009 there was little militant anti-fascist response to this wave of far-right street activity beyond a handful of incidents in major Northern cities. The absence of an effective militant anti-fascist group meant the streets were relatively open for far-right groups to mobilise and organise without opposition. The north is where a large amount of far-right street activity has happened in recent years, particularly in Rotherham which was at the centre of a child sexual abuse scandal by gangs of British-Asian men. Whenever there is a case of what the far-right describe as “Muslim grooming gangs” operating in an area there is a distinct possibility the area will become a target for far-right activity.
As neo-Nazi street activity was increasing a new neo-Nazi group emerged – National Action (NA). Now banned under the government’s anti-terror legislation, NA helped organise the largest openly neo-Nazi protests in the UK for a generation. The group was founded by one individual with a background in UKIP and online neo-Nazism and another who was once in the youth wing of the BNP. NA brought together a number of former BNP youth members and recruited new members from imageboards, the image-based forums (like 4chan and 8chan) which helped to give birth to the “alt-right”. NA also borrowed heavily from the aesthetics and strategy of the radical left, along similar lines to the way autonomous nationalists in Germany have copied the “black bloc” aesthetic and now organise horizontally.
NA encountered a group of militant anti-fascists on their first public outing in 2013 and were forced to abandon their plans to join a Golden Dawn solidarity protest. They decided to hold unannounced flash mobs across the UK as they tried to establish themselves as a street-based group. It wasn’t until March 2015 that they held a protest which was preannounced. This was the White Man March in Newcastle, organised by Castleford-based neo-Nazi Wayne Bell. Militant anti-fascists from across the UK mobilised to oppose the event and three NA members were hospitalised, including the lead singer of NA’s hardcore punk band which disbanded shortly after. The White Man March was attended by a range of neo-Nazi groups, alongside the local NF whose leader was arrested for trying to attack anti-fascists with a heavy duty flagpole.
Other groups present included the Creativity Alliance (CA), a tiny neo-Nazi cult which worships Hitler; the aforementioned BM, on one of their rare public outings; National Rebirth of Poland (NOP), a UK wing of a Polish neo-Nazi group; and Misanthropic Division (MD), an international neo-Nazi network which was set up to send volunteers to fight with the then neo-Nazi Ukrainian paramilitary group Azov Division. Despite taking several arrests and having a number of members hospitalised, NA viewed the event as a success and attempted a repeat in Liverpool the following August. The White Man March in Liverpool was a complete disaster for NA as thousands of anti-fascists occupied Lime Street station in what has been dubbed the “Battle of Lime Street”. Around thirty members of NA were forced to take cover in the lost luggage office before being escorted out of the city under police protection. Nazis unable to make it to lost luggage were attacked on the station concourse and in the surrounding streets, with at least one being knocked unconscious.
August 2015 saw a sharp increase in political violence between the far-right and the far-left. Earlier in the month a group of far-right football hooligans attacked the Clapton Ultras, anti-fascist football supporters of Clapton FC, at a pre-season friendly in Thamesmead. Around 60 Clapton supporters were prevented from entering the ground by a mob of Millwall and Charlton hooligans. Clashes between the two groups saw numerous people hospitalised. This network of football hooligans was brought together through the EDL. In August 2011 they met in Eltham and attempted to head to Lewisham to attack rioters. When Lee Rigby was murdered in Woolwich in 2013 (which led to a brief resurgence of EDL activity) this network was strengthened. Their attack at Thamesmead was motivated by the Clapton Ultras’ success at preventing a far-right campaign to shut them down. This campaign was launched by the Pie & Mash Squad, a group of self-styled football hooligans with a Facebook page who had shut down another anti-fascist ultras group near Bristol.
The Pie & Mash campaign was supported by the SEA, the south east EDL splinter group with strong ties to the Infidels network. In December 2014 SEA leader Paul Prodromou was nearly killed by anti-fascists after leading an attack on Clapton Ultras in Southend. Prodromou was kicked out of the EDL in 2012 and made uniting the far-right on the streets his goal. Prodromou’s unity project saw little success until the start of the migrant crisis. Under the guise of supporting truckers being fined for migrants hiding in their vehicles, Prodromou worked with the Kent NF to organise a series of protests in Dover against immigration. These were supported by nearly every far-right group involved in street activity in the UK and peaked on 30 January 2016, when five hours of street fighting between anti-fascists and the far-right brought chaos to the coastal town. Around 60 far-right activists were jailed as a result of these clashes and far-right street activity is yet to recover. NA returned to Liverpool the following month alongside Polish football hooligans, NWI and SEA activists. Around 40 of them were arrested and several have been jailed as a result. Combined with the repression after Dover, the Infidels network was broken.
The government’s proscription of NA, which has subsequently been applied to two groups they launched after the ban – Scottish Dawn and NS131, has meant their core organisers are now nearly all tied up with legal problems. Neo-Nazi street activity is unlikely to return to 2015 levels for some time though the impetus for that to happen is still there. The far-right have not left the streets, there have been two new groups organising large protests which have attracted a considerable contingent of far-right activists. These are Yaxley-Lennon’s UK Against Hate (UAH), launched after the Manchester Arena bombing and the Football Lads Alliance (FLA). While the FLA is not a far-right group itself (yet), its marches have reminded many observers of the EDL and many of the same faces are back on the streets.
Online & the “Alt-Right”
Yaxley-Lennon is at the forefront of far-right online publishing in the UK. While he claims not to be part of the far-right, his followers are regularly responsible for acts of far-right violence and on some occasions terrorism. Yaxley-Lennon is now one of the leading correspondents for Canadian alt-right YouTube channel Rebel Media and has a huge following on social media. Rebel Media backed the UAH protest in Manchester, advertising it on the huge UK mailing list the channel has built up. This enabled Yaxley-Lennon to draw thousands onto the streets with less than a week of promotion. Rebel was set up by a Canadian conservative broadcaster, has had dalliances with the “alt-right” and has found an enthusiastic audience in the UK’s counter-jihad movement.
The only figure on the UK “alt-right” with a larger online following than Yaxley-Lennon is Paul Joseph Watson, the Battersea-based InfoWars editor who has melded conspiracy theories with anti-establishment conservatism. Watson broadcasts on YouTube where he has over a million subscribers, on Twitter Watson has nearly 750,000 followers and he has replaced Milo Yiannopoulos as the leading “alt-right” figure on the platform. Just as with Yiannopoulos, when Watson includes the account of a political enemy in a tweet, their mentions will fill up with abusive messages. Watson and Yaxley-Lennon are two of the most successful right-wing online publishers in the UK but they are far from the only ones.
The last decade has seen the UK far-right move online at an alarming rate. Prior to the professionalisation of the BNP, far-right digital publishing in the UK was in a tawdry state. A handful of servers, usually based in the US, were responsible for hosting poorly designed websites for the obsessives who kept neo-Nazi thought alive on the web. But the BNP developed a sophisticated web presence and set a new standard for far-right publishing. Then social media arrived and a host of Web 2.0 services with commitments to free speech opened up. The British far-right is now using Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Archive.org, Discord among a wide range of other services. These platforms will occasionally make moves to clamp down on hate speech or far-right organising but generally it goes unhindered.
Another trend which is shaping far-right online activity is the wave of digital natives entering the far-right, from the teens being recruited to neo-Nazi groups on imageboards through to the young counter-jihad activists who know how to shoot and edit video. One of the drivers for far-right use of the internet has been the ability for anti-fascists to disrupt and hinder far-right organising in real life. Even today, far-right meetings are still disrupted, cancelled and occasionally attacked. Holding regular street stalls is very difficult for far-right groups because anti-fascists move against them, so online activity acts as a surrogate for the far-right’s inability to organise in public. Successful far-right figures online are also setting an example many smaller players in far-right politics are seeking to emulate.
Below the major players in the UK “alt-right” (who are often considered “alt-lite” by those to their right) are a host of other activists who are generally more politically extreme than the figures closest to becoming mainstream figures. One example is Colin Robertson who broadcasts as “Millenial Woes”. Robertson has ties with Richard Spencer in the US, having addressed the notorious “Heil Trump” rally in Washington. Today Robertson is knocking around with the London Forum, the regular neo-Nazi meetings that are now happening across the UK. Another UK fascist with a growing online presence is former BNP youth leader Mark Collett. According to some, Collett is being groomed to be the leader of a future far-right party by leading neo-Nazis. Collett hosts a weekly “alt-right” news show on YouTube with Tara McCarthy, a British “alt-right” activist based in the US. He also regularly appears on the YouTube show of former KKK leader David Duke.
Many of these figures are linked in some way to the two key UK “alt-right” events: the London Forum and the Traditional Britain Group (TBG). Both hold regular events at upmarket central London venues where neo-Nazis mix with a range of right-wing figures. The London Forum is organised by Jeremy Bedford-Turner and is a split from the New Right series of meetings which were organised in London by Troy Southgate, a veteran British fascist who is now the key figure behind the national anarchist tendency, which combines neo-Nazism and anarchism. Southgate has denounced Bedford-Turner as a possible state asset but the London Forum has become far more popular than the New Right meetings ever were. The TBG is similar to London Forum but has closer links to the Conservative right. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg addressed a TBG dinner in 2013 and attendees include people with connections to leading members of the government. TBG is led by Gregory Lauder-Frost who also heads up the UK wing of Arktos Media, the major “alt-right” publisher run by Swedish industrialist Daniel Friberg. A recent academic analysis of “alt-right” social media accounts revealed that Arktos is at the centre of the UK and European “alt-right”.
Withdrawing Britain from the European Union (EU) has long been a goal of the UK far-right. When campaigning began for the EU referendum a large number of far-right activists threw their energy into the Leave campaign. For example, one Leave stall in Leeds was regularly manned by Wayne Bell from NA and Mark Collett. One of the organisers of the Thamesmead attack on the Clapton Ultras distributed Leave literature at Millwall games and was photographed alongside the then UKIP leader Nigel Farage. As a result of the referendum, overt far-right activity decreased and when the result was revealed the far-right was jubilant. Ensuring Article 50 was activated became a key issue for the far-right.
The SEA held a poorly attended protest in central London a month after the referendum demanding the immediate activation of Article 50, but this came at a time when the far-right was still reeling from the mass arrests in Dover and Liverpool. The SEA has not held a public march in the capital since. Some far-right activists targeted protests organised by Remain supporters. Polish neo-Nazi David Czerwonko was filmed snatching a beret from the head of comedian Eddie Izzard. Czerwonko was later involved in attack on a squat in Belgravia by the Pie & Mash Squad and was subsequently banned from the UK. On another occasion a far-right activist linked to the SEA attacked an anti-Brexit protest outside the Supreme Court. But in general the organised far-right has not been able to capitalise on Brexit, despite their gloating.
When Britain does eventually leave the EU it is likely to lead to a surge of far-right activity. A large proportion of voters who backed Brexit did so because of immigration. There is a feeling among many far-right supporters that non-white immigration is “changing Britain’s culture” and “attacking their way of life”. Yet Brexit is likely to see internal EU migration (where the majority of those migrating are considered white) decrease and non-EU migration increase to plug the labour shortages which Brexit will create. Instead of Poles coming to the UK to do fruit-picking work, employers will look outside the EU for cheap labour. If there is an increase in non-EU migration to the UK after Brexit many of the racist Leave voters will feel betrayed.
Hate Crime & Terrorism
The immediate aftermath of the EU referendum saw a spike in hate crime.The far-right have long been responsible for a large chunk of racist attacks in the UK, but there have been few proven links between the individuals currently carrying out racist attacks and the organised far-right. Individuals with links to the BNP, EDL and other far-right groups are regularly jailed for racist violence, yet more often than not the perpetrators of far-right violence are inspired by these groups and a pliant media, rather than being active on the far-right. When individuals join far-right groups they start to experience scrutiny from the state, anti-fascists and the press. While far-right individuals have the motivation to commit hate crimes and encourage others, many are unwilling to risk the punishment they would receive if caught.
That said, far-right violence is still an issue in the UK. Attacks on minorities or violence targeting the Left by organised far-right groups have increased significantly since the EDL took to the streets. But the level of far-right violence is well below historical highs reached at various points before the millennium. The attack on a Sikh dentist by a supporter of NA, the murder of Jo Cox MP and the Finsbury Park Mosque attack show that as long as there are social antagonisms over “race” and religion, there is a risk individuals will take matters into their own hands. There are several other cases where neo-Nazis and far-right individuals have been prevented from carrying out planned attacks, such as the NA supporter who was arrested for snapchatting pictures of pipe bombs he had made. Neo-Nazis are still training and preparing themselves for a “race war” which they think is coming. But they’re not yet the threat they’d like to be – the British state will continue to be more of a threat to migrant communities than Nazis.
By James Poulter @jdpoulter