Opinion: A Year In Lockdown Has Transformed Britain’s Far Right

A year after being enforced, lockdown has accelerated changes that were already underway. 

Struggling high street brands eventually went into administration, and the full possibilities of remote working were explored at light speed rather than as a slow dawning realisation, as business closed offices, some now permanently, and staff dispersed across the UK. 

But profound change has also been happening across the darker corners of our society too. 

Traditional far-right organisations such as the BNP were already on the decline as a mixture of ageing activists and decades of failure took their toll, but lockdown exacerbated their inactivity and irrelevance. At HOPE not hate, we have been witnessing and warning that this didn’t mean the far-right was disappearing – but that the threat was transforming and growing more dangerous than it had been for some time. 

The British far-right is now digitally led and reflective of online culture. Traditional structures have given way to social media platforms, influencers and “citizen journalists” creating peer-to-peer radicalisation and a global community willing to crowdsource “micro-donations” of time and effort. The new organisations and collectives that are emerging understand how to operate in this decentralised, self-directed environment.

But make no mistake. Just as the liberating digital activism of the Arab Spring or the Hong Kong democracy movement manifested on the streets, the same is true of its malign counterparts. We have seen a slew of far-right terror convictions over the last year, and half of these have been teenagers, often radicalised and mobilised online.

Far-right terror today is plotted in a leaderless, peer-to-peer bubble, with like-minded individuals sharing materials, plans and hate material, eventually acting independently.

While some of these have been through now banned neo-nazi groups such as National Action and Feuerkrieg Division, far-right terror today is plotted in a leaderless, peer-to-peer bubble, with like-minded individuals sharing materials, plans and hate material, eventually acting independently. 

Lockdown itself has been a confusing time for the British far-right. In the initial stages they enthusiastically embraced the xenophobic opportunities afforded by a foreign origin pandemic and the “China virus” rhetoric of Donald Trump as well as trying to blame minorities for the spread of the virus, spreading false footage purporting to show Muslims gathering in breach of lockdown rules. 

But as time progressed, their own sense of toxic victimhood and belief that they are persecuted by established society, led them to anti-lockdown activism and Covid conspiracies. Though they had switched track into now disbelieving in the danger of coronavirus, it didn’t stop them trying to whip up resentment against ethnic minorities hesitant about taking the vaccine, accusing them of putting their countrymen at risk. 

While the pandemic catalysed the transformation of the far-right, it also saw the revival of an outright racial nationalism, that for the last two decades has been cloaked under the guise of “cultural” concerns and purported anti-Islamism. 

The summer’s Black Lives Matter protests sparked a “whitelash” that saw a “White Lives Matter” banner flown over a Premiership game, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson talk about “white rights” and a viral campaign by the emerging far-right group Patriotic Alternative which saw a handful of young fascists unveil the slogan on country walks and outside mosques. 

However, today’s white nationalist movement is far less ambitious than in the past. Led by a former BNP official, Patriotic Alternative is a recognition that after Nick Griffin’s brief moment in the sun and then spectacular failure there is no real political route for hate. Instead the group aims to live in an isolationist, parallel white supremacist society, and its relatively younger leadership have adapted to lockdown by recruiting and inculcating via online gaming tournaments, livestreams and home schooling. 

Michael Regan via Getty Images

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 22: A plane flies over the stadium with a banner reading ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley FC at Etihad Stadium on June 22, 2020 in Manchester, England. Football stadiums around Europe remain empty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venus resulting in all fixtures being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

United by the issue of migrant channel crossings – stoked into populist xenophobia by Nigel Farage, and recklessly leveraged by mainstream politicians such as Priti Patel and Natalie Elphicke – looser “street” groups were provoked to port and barrack protests, faltering traditional group Britain First “invaded” hotels housing migrants, self-organised vigilantes and citizen journalists patrolled the coast and harassed people arriving in the county.

So where do we go from here? 

The authorities have at last acknowledged the seriousness of the far-right terror threat. Responsibility for investigating far-right political violence moved from the police to the security services and Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, warned that 30% of the late stage terror plots his service disrupted were by far-right extremists and the danger was growing. 

Though slow to acknowledge their responsibility, American tech platforms have been stung into action after the insurrection on the US Capitol that, though insipid, left five people dead. It is now Instagram that is fast becoming a go to platform for very young far-right extremists, enabled by inadequate moderation and its promotional algorithms.

Russian-based Telegram continues to be the most important platform tying the violent elements of the British far-right closer together, refusing to take serious action against the nazi terror content circulating freely. British site Bitchute actively courts a far-right user base from behind a free speech shield.

Hope must lie at the heart of any strategy: the promise and vision that hate can be replaced with something better.

The immediate picture for post-pandemic Britain is still unknown. A struggling economy, high unemployment and stunted prospects could create the despair and resentment that the extreme right feed off. Politicians must take personal responsibility to avoid pandering to and exploiting anger. Recent inflammatory language over the migrant Channel crossings for example has emboldened far-right activists and we believe create an atmosphere that has led to physical attacks and intimidation. 

Hope must lie at the heart of any strategy: the promise and vision that hate can be replaced with something better. It is, after all, the absence of hope that makes many people so susceptible to hate.

There is no one way to create a hopeful future. Research, education, policy, sports and culture, antifascist and antiracist activism and reaching out in our communities are all ways to stand up to divisive voices or build a shared future. All of us have a valuable contribution to make, no matter whether big or small. 

As we come out of the pandemic, now will be the time for us to make it. 

Nick Lowles is CEO of HOPE not hate, and Jemma Levene is deputy director of HOPE Not Hate. Read State of Hate 2021, the group’s annual report on the far-right in the UK, here.

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