The Re-Emergence of ‘Race’ Among the British Far-Right

By Prof Chris Allen

Around the turn of the 21st century, an ideological turn was evident within the British far-right milieu. Breaking with tradition, far-right groups turned away from their focus on ‘race’, Judaism and Jewish people in preference of Islam and Muslims. Spearheaded by the British National Party (BNP), those such as the English Defence League (EDL), Britain First and Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) have followed suit, normalising Islamophobic discourses and agendas as a far-right norm. Over the past year or so however, a handful of albeit tentative signs have been apparent to suggest that this might be beginning to change with ‘race’ coming back under the far-right spotlight as this blog will go on to identify.

Prior to Nick Griffin becoming leader in 1999, the BNP was firmly placed in the British fascist tradition, largely upholding the view that only white people could be British citizens, that all non-white migration must cease and that repatriation must be an option. This changed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Switching his focus onto the perceived threat posed by Islam and Muslims per se – including campaigns such as ‘I.S.L.A.M. Out of Britain’ and ‘Islam Referendum Day’ – Griffin’s BNP achieved unprecedented success. As he went on to explain, this was due to the BNP “…positioning [itself] to take advantage for [its] own political ends of the growing wave of public hostility to Islam”.

While the BNP’s success was short-lived – most of the political gains won in the early 2000s being lost by the end of the decade  newly emergent far-right groups were also keen to take advantage of that same ‘public hostility’. First of these was the EDL. While similar in its views about Islam and Muslims as the BNP, the EDL went to even greater lengths to distance itself from historical traditions. Refuting charges of racism, the EDL issued a rallying cry for “black and white [to] unite” against the threat perceived to be posed by Islam and Muslims. Unprecedentedly, the EDL also established among others, Jewish, disabled, LGBT and Sikh divisions and encouraged supportersat its demonstrations to carry Israeli flags: another attempt to distance the group from fascist traditions while simultaneoulsy antagonising Muslims by positioning allegiance in the Israel-Palestine conflict. While Britain First and the DFLA adopted different tactics and activities, each unequivocally focused on Islam and Muslims thereby rendering ‘race’ obfuscated in discussions about the far-right.

The first sign of change however came in the aftermath of the BLM protests in May and June 2020. Two incidents in particular drew the attention of the far-right: in Bristol where a statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into the harbour; and in Westminster, London where a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was vandalised. In response, far-right groups including Britain First and the DFLA along with certain key individuals – including former leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson – mobilised to ‘defend our statues’ and stage a counter-BLM protest in Westminster. Despite spending two decades denying being racist and alleging to embrace racial and ethinc diversity, those justifying the counter-protest did so using notions of ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’.

The second sign is evident in newly emergent far-right groups such as Patriotic Alternative. Formed in 2019 by Mark Collett, former chair of the Young BNP, the group courted controversy in August 2020 when supporters climbed Ben Nevis to unfurl a banner emblazoned with ‘White Lives Matter’.  Prior to this however, notions of race had been evident in the discourses of Patriotic Alternative not least in its stated aim to defend the ‘indigenous peoples’ of the British Isles. Making scant reference to Islam and Muslims, the group’s manifesto harks back to a more traditional far-right calling for an end to all immigration and the need to offer ‘generous financial incentives’ to those of ‘immigrant descent’ to return to their ‘ancestral homelands’.

The last sign of  the re-emergence of race is evident among the extreme right-wing, those willing to espouse or enact violence in pursuit of their goals. Given their adherence to a ‘purer’ or more ‘authentic’ nationalist ideology, ‘race’ will always feature hence National Action’s desire to establish a ‘white homeland’ in Britain and Sonnenkreig Division threatening to kill ‘race traitor’ Prince Harry after marrying Meghan Markle. Most striking about these and other extreme right-wing groups such as Feuerkrieg Division and Order of the Nine Angles is the young age demographic of those attracted to it. That this demographic is markedly younger than that of those drawn to the EDL and DFLA, might this be evidence that for this new generation ‘race’ is being afforded greater importance.

While it may be premature to suggest that the British far-right has done a volte face on its approach to Islam and Muslims, some changes do appear to be afoot. Having been consigned to the extreme fringes for two decades ‘race’ seemingly being back on the agenda of the far-right has to be a worrying development. While it is unlikely Islam and Muslims will be completely ignored by all occupying far-right spaces, if the signs are correct it is possible they might be reframed through the lens of ‘race’ thereby continuing to be perceived as posing a threat to ‘indigenous peoples’.

Of course, only time will tell. But given the news that the number of hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales on the basis of religion has dropped by a not insignificant 18% in the past year and that those recorded on the basis of ‘race’ increased by 12%. It would therefore be wise to consider the potential wider social impact any ideological turn of the far-right might have on an increasingly divided and fractious nation.

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