This article originally appeared on CNN
The deep social and political divisions exposed by the UK’s Brexit vote present both an opportunity for the British far right — as well as being a challenge to it. Indeed, only this week, Neil Basu the head of London’s Metropolitan Police’s counterterrorism operations, said that Brexit had the “potential to divide communities and set communities against each other,” and that amid this “febrile” atmosphere there was the possibility of a “far-right drift into extreme right-wing terrorism.”
While Basu makes an important point, it’s worth putting the state of the UK’s far right under the microscope.
The political parties and organizations that once dominated the landscape of the far right have been in a state of disintegration and collapse for some time. Although new extremist organizations have arisen to take their place, they have been quickly suppressed or have collapsed. Yet, paradoxically, the prospects for political extremism of all types are favorable. In 2019, it is not uncommon to see conspiracy theories and sentiments of betrayal in mainstream political debate. The national wrangling over Brexit has encouraged that perspective. It is not, however, its primary cause.
First, the good news. For the past few decades, the landscape of the far right has been dominated by the British National Party: an organization which at its peak had two Members of the European Parliament and over fifty councilors. In 2018, its last councilor retired from politics, and was not replaced. For a while, it looked as if the English Defence League – a street politics movement which organized threatening demonstrations in neighborhoods with large Muslim populations – might fill the void. But by 2013, the EDL fractured and lost its leadership. Its place was taken by a largely online political movement calling itself “Britain First”, that focused on circulating memes and misinformation and staged the occasional frightening mosque invasion. In turn, Britain First fell apart when its leaders were convicted of public order offenses and banned from Twitter. An attempt to import the European “Generation Identity” movement into the UK also failed when it became clear that its members included neo-Nazis, and its leader resigned.
Of greater concern are the small, violent neo-Nazi groups, including National Action, that have formed in recent years. Though they were quickly suppressed under anti-terrorism legislation, we should be deeply concerned by their existence. Remember: it only takes a single, radicalized individual to commit a murder or perpetrate an atrocity. But, despite Basu’s warning, it is difficult to draw a straight line from Brexit to the rise of these small and violent groups.
Yet, if we shift our focus from the failure of the organized far-right groups to the widespread sense of disappointment across the UK as a whole, a less optimistic picture emerges.
Read the comments in popular political Facebook groups, on Twitter, or in comments on newspaper articles. Listen to the concerns of friends and family members. You will be struck by the profound sense of uncertainty and unhappiness. Politicians are all crooks, they say. Public figures are cynical liars. We are being cheated and manipulated by shadowy forces wielding unlimited power. Brexit has a role in fueling such beliefs. The rhetoric surrounding the negotiations, combined with the high expectations of both the ease of the process and the outcome, fed into the narrative that the public that voted Brexit are being stabbed in the back.
However, Brexit did not cause the rise of similar amorphous, conspiracy-theory-loving movements. Brexit does not explain the rise of the Gilets Jaunes in France or the Five Star movement in Italy: both of them organizations which defy classification as far right or far left. Indeed, the claim that we are being manipulated by “globalists,” Soros, or the Rothschild family, can be found at both poles of the political spectrum.
Far-right groups are an opportunistic infection, feeding on a weakened body politic. Extremists are adept at exploiting grievances for the purposes of recruitment. Their failure to establish a cohesive and powerful mass movement, led by the far right, indicates that they are yet to reap the political dividend from Brexit. However, the far right remains emboldened. Brexit itself is better understood as an issue that has focused an independent feeling of mistrust, rather than as its generator. It is the political polarization that has resulted from the breakdown of what we used to regard as “normal politics”, of confidence in the values of liberal democracy, that represents the most significant threat to cohesion. That polarization may find its expression in movements that are far right, far left or radical Islamist in nature.
This, in itself, should be our greater concern.