Phil Hearse analyses the far-right in Britain today with its anti-establishment and nationalist narratives. It faces serious obstacles with the workers movement and Corbyn’s Labour Party. But there are few reasons to be complacent.
The far right in Britain has the wind in its sails in a way that it hasn’t since the 1930s (1). The 15,000-strong ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ demonstration in May was a coup for the extreme right, 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 just ‘against extremism’ of all kinds. Their hostility to extremism didn’t extend to the thugs, including probably hangovers from the English Defence League, who gave stiff arm fascist salutes outside Downing Street. At that demonstration a range of far-right organisations was 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, said Trotsky, 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 develop on the back of the shift of the whole of pro-capitalist politics to the right.
For the Tory Brexiteer right, the referendum result is a gift that keeps on giving. It was self-evident that if the Leave camp won the referendum, the Tory right and UKIP would immediately start campaigning 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 standards and an attack on workers rights such as the working time directive, and other regulations that are remnants left over from the ‘social Europe’ phase of the European Union.
For Rees-Mogg and Johnson, being ‘able to do our own trade deals’, means the acceptance of 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 have to sign up, like Norway, to free movement of labour. But hostility to free movement immigration was at the core of the Brexit referendum result.
In the aftermath of the referendum, the outcome narrowed the political space for UKIP. With Brexit apparently won and the Rees-Mogg 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 round the country of UKIP members re-joining the Conservatives.
UKIP’s right turn
Following the resignation of Farage as leader in 2016, UKIP’s political confusion was expressed in having five different leaders in succession, culminating 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 salesman from Harold Hill via Canvey Island, amongst the most reactionary areas in Britain (2).
Batten immediately latched on to what could save UKIP – a further turn to the right and open Islamophobia, and a direct appeal to the fascist and neofascist rabble to join his party. UKIP’s ‘interim manifesto’ proposed Muslim-only prisons, special security screening for Muslim would-be immigrants and a repeal of equalities laws.
Batten attended the DFLA May ‘Fee 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 around 700 strong and which had distinct echoes of previous EDL anti-Muslim marches. Batten was attacked by Nigel Farage for attending the march; Farage supported Henry Bolton in the leadership struggle that Batten won.
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 United States, 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, they do not appear to have any significant presence in the street demonstrations or other actions of the DFLA or UKIP. Apart from the danger of periodic acts of violence, it seems unlikely they will be the main focus of far-right activism.
Brexit Max: xenophobic, anti-immigrant narrative
It seems very 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 petit bourgeoisie 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 (3). The political narrative generated 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 of course that was the Tories under David Cameron and the Blairite Labour leadership, by 2009 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 7 October. In Britain the essential backdrop is the failure of the massive austerity launched by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010 to do anything to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalised in Britain. Self-evidently 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 and that is often on display among people who demand that the politicians should ‘get on with it’ and ‘just leave;’ the EU. Brexit Max.
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 Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. 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 this summer’s smear campaign against Corbyn and Labour has been all about. If Theresa May’s premiership crashes, a hard-right Boris Johnson government is not impossible.
There is one statistic which 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. There may be regional differences, but you get the picture. In that same period MPs’ pay has gone up from £60,000 to £77,000 – an increase 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 2007-8 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. Italy, the United States 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 maximise the chances of a Labour government.
- Oswald Moseley attempted a post war-comeback between 1959, when he got 7.8% of the votes in North Kensington in the general election, and 1961. His attempts to replicate 1930s-style rallies – in Trafalgar Square and on a march from Islington to Ridley Road Market is Dalston – resulted in his movement being driven off the streets by anti-fascists. The biggest post-war surge in the far right was the National Front in the 1970s, politically defeated by the Anti-Nazi League and marginalised by the election of the Thatcher government in 1979.
- Essex was the only part of the country where there was a shift to the Tories in the 2002 election.
- In Scotland the SNP blocked the road to the far right, and in any case the hard right’s nationalism is fundamentally English. See also: Right Wing Englandhttp://www.redflag.org.uk/frontline/14/14ukip.html