Inside The Violent Rise Of British Nationalism

By Emma Yeomans

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a referendum today, The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, undermining 43 years of regional cooperation. What’s ensued is effectively chaos — global markets lost $2 trillion in value and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation. The move has been resoundingly condemned by the likes of Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and has caused caused shock and confusion stateside, as the U.S. readies for its own presidential elections in November.

Most fearfully, it has legitimized the toxic rhetoric of U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who has repeatedly linked the refugee crisis to an “E.U. failing,” called June 23 the country’s “independence day,” and said on live TV today that the leave campaign won “without a single bullet being fired.”

His words highlight the shocking outcome’s connection to xenophobia and growing white supremacy within the UK, dangerous ideologies that have been propelled in no small part by a group called Britain First. When MP Jo Cox was recently murdered by a far-right supporter who yelled “Britain First” as he killed her, the group landed in the news; today, their influence feels even more devastatingly potent.

In 2011, a political party called Britain First was founded in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The group got off to a rocky start, with leadership squabbles, name changes, and clashes with other parties, including the notorious British National Party (BNP). But for all their troubles, they got one thing right: their social media strategy.

They quickly gained popularity on Facebook, mixing viral shareable images with far-right “memes.” They attracted criticism for their Islamophobic and xenophobic messages, but were largely ignored outside of Facebook. The likes went up, their reach increased.

When they began “Christian patrols” — marching around areas with large Muslim populations and attempting to invade mosques — the outrage at their activities grew.

But so, too, did their online following.

Today they have 1.4 million Facebook likes, and their posts regularly attract thousands of shares. They advocate leaving the European Union, stopping immigration, abolishing the Human Rights Act, and a complete ban on Islam. Their followers can join activist training camps, where they learn knife-fighting and survival skills. The group is extreme, yet in terms of Facebook reach, they are the most popular party in the country — with more likes than the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties combined.

Then last week, a Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed in her constituency. Her attacker, a far-right supporter with links to neo-Nazi groups, reportedly yelled “Britain First” as he killed her.

As disbelief turns to grief among her local community and Westminster colleagues, and the country comes to terms with the first murder of an MP in 26 years, Britain First and other far-right groups find themselves in the spotlight. Fifty-two-year-old Thomas Mair was arrested and charged with her murder; in court he gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

Britain First has denied any link to the attack and, in a statement issued shortly before Cox passed away in hospital, leader Paul Golding said:

“The media are acting grossly irresponsible [sic] to incriminate Britain First in this heinous crime. We wouldn’t do something like that, we have protests, we stand in elections . . . That’s the political activity we carry out. Yes, we take direct action sometimes, we invade Halal slaughterhouses because we disagree with Halal slaughter, but this is an outrage.”

He also denied that Mair was linked to Britain First, adding: “We’re in the middle of a referendum campaign. Was he referring to a slogan? I’ve heard loads of people say that we must put Britain first, that’s just the language being utilized during this campaign.”

In that last respect, he is right. Britain’s debate about whether or not to remain a member of the European Union has been marred by nationalist and anti-refugee rhetoric.

Hope Not Hate is the UK’s largest anti-racism advocacy group, working within marginalized or divided communities to build safe spaces and encourage voter registration. They monitor the far-right and have revealed and recorded Britain First’s growth. The referendum campaign, they say, has taken Britain down a “darker, more divisive path.”

Said a Hope Not Hate representative:

“These are trying times when certain segments of our society — in Europe, and in the USA — are fearful, angry, resentful of what they feel are elite and out-of-touch politicians. It’s true that established politicians for too-long ignored the white working class, ignored areas experiencing de-industrialization, ignored the tensions emerging. Right-wing and far-right populist parties have been rising across the continent based on this message and that, by closing borders and turning back the clock, we can somehow return to a mythical ‘good old days.’
“Here in the UK, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been using increasingly far-right imagery and rhetoric as it campaigns to leave the EU, creating posters showing Syrian refugees and claiming we’re at ‘Breaking Point.’ Some of this imagery is not far removed from 1930s Nazi propaganda, although UKIP is not a ‘Nazi party,’ nor are its voters necessarily all racist.”

The poster in question, revealed last week, shows a long line of refugees at the border of Croatia and Slovakia. They appear weary, hurt, desperate. It has been condemned by both sides, but still demonstrates just how common anti-immigration, anti-refugee, anti-Islam rhetoric has become.

Rhetoric and images that once belonged to the far-right are becoming increasingly normalized in British politics. As the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has unfolded, right-wing newspapers initially reacted with horror at the potential influx of people. One now-infamous article called people fleeing conflict “a plague of feral humans,” turning British towns into “festering sores plagued by swarms of migrants.” Even Prime Minister David Cameron described those crossing the Mediterranean as a “swarm.”

Fiyaz Mughal is director of Tell MAMA, short for Measuring Anti Muslim Attacks. They record Islamophobic hate crimes and provide support to victims, and have witnessed the adoption of anti-Muslim rhetoric into mainstream politics.

He explained:

“Memes and graphics that far right groups circulate have some common themes. They promote dehumanization and a ‘them and us’ view when highlighting Muslims in the graphics. For example, graphics might play on fears that Muslims will assault young girls and bring up the grooming scandals in Rotherham [where a gang of men groomed and assaulted more than 1400 girls]. They also draft up graphics suggesting that the culture of Britain will change and highlight Niqab-wearing women who are in the very tiny minority within British Muslim women.
The aim is to play on fears and insecurities, as though Britain, its culture and its people are under threat. Add to this the political validation of some of these messages through other groups like UKIP, who are not a far right group, and you have legitimization of such toxic material.”

These are not empty slogans. London Metropolitan Police records show that hate crimes against Muslims have nearly doubled in the last two years, a trend backed up by Tell MAMA. Among recent reports submitted to them are vandalism of mosques, women having their scarves yanked off, and violent assaults, including an elderly man beaten unconscious in the street.

Hope Not Hate has records of Islamophobic violence in far-right groups dating back to the ’90s. While many organized far-right groups, such as the British National Party and English Defense League, have collapsed, violent and extreme fringe groups have taken their place. Hope Not Hate explained:

“Britain First, which is led by ex-BNP people and claims to represent a Christian faith, spends most of its time harassing Muslims, then carefully films reactions in order to present Muslims in the worst possible light. Then you have the Infidels movements, specifically the North West Infidels, which is a violent splinter group from the EDL’s breakup and has been involved in targeting pro-immigration activists and anti-racism campaigners.
“While these groups have very few members, the power of social media extends their reach. And there will always be someone that they hope will take up their message of hate and extend it to its logical extreme.”

However, Hope Not Hate has observed another trend. Polling data shows that young people are more positive about inclusivity and diversity than any previous generation. The result, they say, is that British society is “polarizing around different identity tribes” — some positive about the country, some negative, and many vacillating between the two. “The old two-party system can no longer adapt to those changing identities,” they said, “so we’re entering a turbulent period where demagogues and populists from all sides may seek to exploit these tensions.”

A generation of tolerance and inclusivity: It’s a ray of hope for those marginalized and hurt in the fight over the nature of British identity, and a dream that will provide comfort in the wake of violence. But as the war of words rages on, advocacy groups like Hope Not Hate and Tell MAMA certainly have their work cut out for them.

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Lead image: flickr/wisegie

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