Britain: How serious is the far-right threat?

Supporters of Tommy Robinson at Downing Street in June.

The far right in Britain has the wind in its sails in a way that it hasn’t since the 1930s.

The 15,000-strong “Free Tommy Robinson” demonstration in London in May was a coup for the extreme right in England, which is in a complex state of reorganisation and renewal.

Key in the May demonstration was the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), which claims to be “non-political” and “against extremism” of all kinds. Their hostility to extremism didn’t extend to the thugs, including those who gave stiff arm fascist salutes outside Downing Street.

At that demonstration, a range of far-right groups were present.

The extreme right surge comes in the wake of the right-wing victories in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. On a world scale, the snarling face of extreme right and fascist aggression is widely on show, not least in the Brazilian presidential election and the confirmation hearings for Trump’s nomination to the US Supreme Court.

Each country is a unique combination of the elements of the world situation, so Britain has its own unique troupe of fascist and semi-fascist groupings. For the moment, they pose a limited threat. But they are able to organise and grow on the back of the shift of pro-capitalist politics to the right.

Brexit

For the Tory Brexiteer right, the 2016 referendum result is a gift that keeps giving. It was self-evident that if the Leave camp won the referendum, the Tory right and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) would immediately campaign for a “real” Brexit, against “betrayal” of the alleged people’s will, in favour of what is now called a “hard” Brexit.

Their version of Brexit has a specific social content — a wholesale destruction of environmental and other regulations, and an attack on workers’ rights that are remnants left over from the “social Europe” phase of the European Union.

For the Tory Brexiteers, being “able to do our own trade deals” means accepting US environmental and business standards; so welcome to chlorinated chicken, US health companies running parts of the NHS, widespread fracking and cereal grains infested with maggots.

In the right-wing Brexiteer view, Britain must become a centre of cheap and ever-more “flexible” labour, with further restrictions on union rights, more zero hours contracts and a slashing of the public sector and social services. Hard luck if you are a pensioner, disabled, young, an immigrant or just a poorly paid worker.

This is a recipe for even more mass poverty and economic inequality.

At the core of the negotiations with the EU is a simple problem: free trade comes as part of the single market and customs union. Countries that want it must sign up, like Norway, to free movement of labour. But hostility to immigration was at the core of the Brexit referendum result.

In the aftermath of the referendum, the outcome narrowed UKIP’s political space. With Brexit apparently won and the Brexiteer faction of the Tory party espousing near-identical policies, what future could there be for UKIP itself?

One aspect of that dilemma was the reports from around the country of UKIP members re-joining the Conservatives.

UKIP’s right turn

Following the resignation of Nigel Farage as leader in 2016, UKIP’s political confusion was expressed in having five different leaders in succession. This culminated in the comic-opera five-month incumbency of Henry Bolton, whose partner’s open racism created a further shambles.

Order has been restored by Gerard Batten, a retired BT salesperson. Batten immediately latched on to what could save UKIP — a further turn to the right and open Islamophobia. This includes a direct appeal to the fascist rabble to join his party. UKIP’s “interim manifesto” proposed Muslim-only prisons, special security screenings for Muslim would-be immigrants and a repeal of equalities laws.

Batten attended the May “Free Tommy Robinson” demo, where he ranted against supposed Muslim paedophile gangs and called on DFLA supporters to join UKIP. He also attended September’s Sunderland DFLA demo, which was only about 700 strong and had distinct echoes of previous English Defence league anti-Muslim marches.

There are other unsavoury reptiles in the far-right swamp. Generation Identity, a fascist group that started with the Bloc Identitaire in France, appeared on the July “Free Tommy” march with their distinctive Nazi-style flags.

Their selling point is their call for a Europe of “ethnopluralism”, which means essentially separate white, European nationalisms — the opposite of multiculturalism. Spokesperson Martin Sellner explains that culture “has a biological basis”, and that white European culture goes back 30,000 years.

This is a rehash of Nazi “Aryan” mysticism. The group seems to have a lot of funding from the US, but there is little evidence of any significant membership — so far.

National Action, a tiny Nazi group with terrorist leanings, was the inspirer of Thomas Mair, who murdered Labour MP Jo Cox during the referendum campaign in 2016. Since 2016, the group has been banned, and although reported to be organising in secret, it does not appear to have any significant presence in the street demonstrations or other actions of the DFLA or UKIP.

Anti-immigrant narrative

It seems unlikely, at least for the moment, that more-or-less openly fascist groups like Generation Identity and National Action could garner significant support. But the forces around the DFLA and UKIP are benefitting from the same discourse that is the stock-in-trade of the Tory right, and that revolves around immigration.

Prefiguring developments in the 2016 US election, UKIP forged a powerful electoral alliance in the 2009 European elections between sections of the Home Counties reactionary middle class and the “left behind” post-industrial working class in the north of England, the Midlands, Wales, poorer rural areas like Cornwall and many seaside towns.

(In Scotland the Scottish National Party blocked the road to the far right, and in any case the hard right’s nationalism is fundamentally English.)

This political narrative combines anti-immigrant racism (along with the false tropes that immigrants are taking “our” jobs or lowering wages) and a hostility to the established parliamentary leaderships. In 2009, that was the Tories under David Cameron and the Blairite Labour leadership under Gordon Brown.

This reactionary bloc coalesced again behind a Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum. The power of anti-establishment and nationalist narratives has been seen in the election of Trump and the catastrophic result of the first round of the Brazilian presidential election on October 7.

In Britain, the essential backdrop is the failure of the huge austerity launched by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 to do anything to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalised in Britain. The reverse has been the case.

Poorer working-class people whose anger boiled over in the result of the 2016 referendum are no less angry now. That is often on display among people who demand that the politicians should “get on with it” and “just leave” the EU.

Of course, the far right — including the hard-Brexit Tories, UKIP and all points rightwards — face serious obstacles, not least the residual strength of the workers’ movement and a Labour Party led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn. But there are few reasons to be complacent.

The political representatives of the ruling class, which includes a big majority of the print and broadcast media, are hell-bent on preventing a Corbyn government. That, of course, is exactly what the recent “anti-Semitic” smear campaign against Corbyn and Labour has been all about. If Theresa May’s prime ministership crashes, a hard-right Boris Johnson-led government is not impossible.

Austerity Britain

There is one statistic that sums up eight years of austerity Britain, a time when prices have gone up sharply. In 2010, the starting pay for a police constable was £22,000. Now it is £21,000. The starting pay for a nurse was £22,000 and now it is £22,000. For a teacher it was £22,000 and is now £23,000.

In that same period MPs’ pay has gone up from £60,000 to £77,000 — a rise of 28%, above the 22% official rate of inflation and grotesquely more than the pay rates of most people. It is easy to see what fuels anti-establishment rhetoric.

For many of those in the “left behind” areas of Britain — or those trapped in the gig economy, disabled people and single mothers – the kind of incomes discussed above are way out of reach. So politics is still dominated by the fallout from the 2007-08 economic crash and the ensuing post-2010 austerity that has wrecked so many lives.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the common sense of political discussion was that poverty just led to former Labour voters not voting and vast amounts of apathy. We are past that now, into a period of sharp turns and sudden eruptions of bigoted anger. Developments in Italy, the US and Brazil — among others — are warnings.

An account of the growth of the far right and its economic and ideological underpinnings automatically generates the key themes to fight it: champion multiculturalism, combat austerity, wage war against the far right on the streets and wherever they raise their heads, and do everything to win a left-wing Labour government.

[Slightly abridged from Socialist Resistance.]

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