News from Nowhere: Britain’s Worst
The far-right in the UK has already succeeded in shifting the shared centre-ground of British politics towards a position which allows for the open expression of suspicions of immigration.
In the first weeks of October, the British media was full of stories about the revelations hidden within the Pandora Papers – that cache of nearly 12 million documents which have exposed the secret movements and transactions of the riches of world leaders and billionaires. It was, for example, reported that offshore funds valued at exceeding £4 billion have allowed international tycoons and politicians to purchase more than 1,500 properties in the UK with minimal tax liabilities and often with monies gained from disreputable dealings. This is a context in which a resurgence of strong antagonisms towards foreign wealth – and to foreignness more generally – may once more find a public voice and thereby threaten to emerge once more to blight the UK’s political landscape. (The British tend to dislike rich foreigners buying up vast swathes of their country, except, of course, when it comes to Saudi money buying English football clubs, which, for some reason, the locals seem to think is totally okay.)
At the same time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has continued to stress he is “not worried” by the ongoing economic, inflationary, income, logistical and fuel crises the country has been facing, in a show of bravado described by the BBC’s political editor as running the risk of looking like he doesn’t understand the “everyday concerns” of ordinary people. This, then, is also a situation in which those ordinary people may find themselves increasingly disaffected by mainstream politics, and therefore motivated to shift their support to the extremes of the political spectrum.
On 6 October, in his keynote address to his Conservative Party’s annual conference, Mr. Johnson again stressed his government’s opposition to immigration: “we must not use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people” – meaning, of course, British people. Fourteen years ago, at his own Labour Party conference, Britain’s then Prime Minister Gordon Brown had declared his desire to create “British jobs for British people” – although it was soon pointed out to him that this would clearly contravene European Union law, which does not permit the discrimination in employment between EU citizens on the grounds of nationality. Now, however, that Britain has left the world’s largest trading bloc, the UK government is free to shift further in favour of such patriotic populism in its plans to restrict immigration in ways perhaps reminiscent of Donald Trump’s campaign to put ‘America First’.
We may observe that on the very same day as Boris Johnson’s speech at his party conference, a middle-aged Englishman was convicted of posting racist comments about footballers on social media. In court, the man had clearly expressed his nationalist sympathies: “I am standing up and saying what I said for the weak ones. England till I die.”
On 27 September, it had been announced that a far-right group called ‘Britain First’ (an organisation which pre-empted Trump’s use of the phrase ‘America First’ by a couple of years) had successfully registered with the UK’s Electoral Commission as an official political party. Four years ago, it had lost its party status after failing to renew its registration on time. Although the Electoral Commission’s decision is merely a matter of administrative process – and it in no way suggests an endorsement of the party’s goals or beliefs – this news will still be disappointing for many.
Britain First is known for its hostility towards immigration and for its generally xenophobic – and specifically Islamophobic – messaging. It is particularly notorious for posting inflammatory and often misleading anti-Islamic videos on social media, some of which were famously reposted by Donald Trump in 2017. In 2018, Facebook removed its pages, saying it had repeatedly breached the platform’s standards. In 2016, its leader Paul Golding was sent to prison for breaching a court order banning him from entering a mosque; in 2018, he was jailed for hate crimes against Muslims; and last year he was convicted for wilfully refusing to comply with a legal duty under the Terrorism Act.
In 2008, Mr. Golding had been reported as having been (apparently briefly) expelled from the British National Party, another group of anti-immigration extremists, after attacking a half-Turkish member of that organisation. The following year he was however elected as a BNP candidate to a district council in the South-East of England. In 2014, he stood for election to the European Parliament on behalf of Britain First, receiving less than one percent of the vote.
Since Boris Johnson became the UK’s Prime Minister in 2019, the Tory leader’s policies have repeatedly been praised by Britain First, who have urged their members to join Johnson’s Conservative Party in a bid to reinforce what they have called his “stance on radical Islam”. (Mr. Johnson has in the past been known for making a number of highly controversial and ill-considered remarks on the subject of British Muslims.) The danger is not, of course, that Britain First or the British National Party have any realistic chance of immediately getting elected to any significant form of political power. The problem is that, as they build their profiles in the traditional media and in social media, their presence and rhetoric begin to seem a normal and therefore legitimate part of political discourse: they are, in short, thereby mainstreamed or naturalized. In a similar way, former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage was once considered a ridiculous fringe figure; but, after many years of exposure in the British media, he finally succeeded in his long campaign to remove the country from the European Union, through the incremental spread of his views into the public and political consciousness. (Of course, sometimes these absurd figures do achieve direct political power. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson represent the two most obvious examples.)
The far-right in the UK has already succeeded in shifting the shared centre-ground of British politics towards a position which allows for the open expression of suspicions of immigration. As early as February 2011, then Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “state multiculturalism” had failed. He did so on the same day as another extremist anti-Islamic group, the English Defence League, held what they had billed as a major rally in the emphatically multi-ethnic English town of Luton. The EDL had predicted tens of thousands of supporters would join them for their demonstration that day. In the event, only about 1,500 had turned up. On the TV news that evening, one of their supporters had been asked what he thought of the Prime Minister’s declaration of the end of multiculturalism. He replied that he thought that it was probably going a bit too far.
But mainstream public discourse has continued to go so far, and indeed rather further. In April 2015, one of the high-profile columnists on the country’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, had compared refugees seeking sanctuary in England to “norovirus on a cruise ship” and had added that “these migrants are like cockroaches” – a comment which had provoked censure from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Three months later, David Cameron himself had picked up on this same language when he had controversially described groups of asylum-seekers fleeing across the English Channel as a “swarm”. The following June – at the height of the Brexit referendum campaign – the UK Independence Party published a poster which depicted lines of asylum-seekers in imagery which was emphatically condemned as reminiscent of Nazi propaganda by voices as diverse as the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, the leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament and the UK’s Conservative Chancellor.
One may recall in this context Frantz Fanon’s depiction of the discourse of the western imperialist in his classic anti-colonial polemic The Wretched of the Earth: “The terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of breeding swarms.” Or, as Primo Levi had put it in his account of surviving “Auschwitz”, “Hitler had spoken clearly: the Jews must be eliminated as noxious insects are eliminated”. In this context, the potentially dire consequences of normalizing extremist discourse – a rhetoric which seeks to dehumanize others on the grounds of their racial, religious, cultural or other characteristics – may seem painfully clear.
Yet – and this is where things get particularly difficult – if we are to overcome the hatred, we must at the same time strive to avoid dehumanizing the haters themselves. That dehumanization would only escalate the hatred. We shouldn’t of course have to show sympathy for views we may perceive as morally outrageous, but we might usefully try to feel empathy with those who appear to perpetuate positions so inimical to our own beliefs. You can’t counter extremism with extremism; strategies which seek to silence difference can only be overturned by dialogue, and it is only by recognising even our most bitter opponents as being as human as ourselves (however fundamentally different their perspectives may seem) that we might ever hope to break through these relentlessly vicious cycles.
I myself used to live in the town of Luton, the place the English Defence League like to claim as their own. Yet the days on which the EDL held their little rallies in fact proved surprisingly positive for the local community. Strangers of different ethnicities would stop and say hello to each other on the streets, hold shop doors open for each other, and even help each other with their shopping: all to show that they wanted to have nothing to do with the hate-fuelled extremism which had overtaken certain minority elements in the town.
Years later, I was sitting on a train late one Saturday evening, when a group of drunken EDL supporters got on board. They were loud and appeared quite aggressive; a few passengers moved away to different seats. I considered doing so myself, but instead, I chose to confront them. I pointed out that their behaviours seemed quite threatening, and that many people (including myself) found their organisation’s explicit prejudices offensive. We ended up speaking for nearly an hour.
We didn’t of course reach any resolution of our differences. But perhaps we shared one valuable thing: an acknowledgment of each other as people, as individuals with the right to hold radically polarized perspectives upon the world, and the right to be profoundly offended by each other’s views. Five years on from the Brexit vote which so divided the United Kingdom, that’s something that the British still urgently need to learn; and it’s of course something that’s hardly unique to the UK.
In 2009, the BBC caused outrage when it invited a man called Nick Griffin, who was at the time the leader of the British National Party, to appear on its flagship current affairs show Question Time. Many felt that by placing him on a panel alongside mainstream politicians, the programme would naturalize and legitimize his views. They had a point, but what also transpired was how well this dialogue challenged and undermined Mr. Griffin’s position. It demonstrated that there is a crucial difference between, on the one hand, giving a platform to an extremist movement and, on the other, creating an arena in which to hold that movement’s arguments to account. In permitting freedom of political expression, liberal democracies must also promote the rigour of political debate. This is why, if Britain First is trying to inveigle its way back onto Britain’s political map, that’s something we all really need to talk about – before we find that, like those ludicrous National Socialists in Weimar Germany, they’ve somehow snuck unseen into positions of devastatingly real political influence.
Britain’s political culture is tragically again, then, in danger of veering towards the toxic and the deadly. On 15 October, an elected member of the UK parliament called David Amess was assassinated. He was a Conservative politician but had friends across the political spectrum. It appears that his killer was motivated by ideological extremism. The family of the murdered man asked that people ‘set aside hatred and work towards togetherness’.
Five years ago, Jo Cox, another British MP, had also been assassinated by an ideological extremist. Following her death, the words of her first speech in parliament received a great deal of public attention: ‘We are far more united and have much more in common than that which divides us.’ It remains keenly urgent that we always remember that. Speaking to the BBC in the wake of Mr. Amess’s death, Jo Cox's widowed husband once again emphasized the best response to the actions of such extremists: ‘They want division, so let’s give them togetherness.’ It will take an almost superhuman effort of tolerance and patience, but it’s the only strategy which might eventually make any difference.