In 2011, a group of activists splintered from the BNP amidst the infighting which had erupted under Nick Griffin. They soon registered a new party. First it was called the National People’s Party, but it was to be renamed Britain First. Not immediately pursuant of electoral gains, Britain First contented itself as a street pressure group.
Much like the English Defence League, the organization seemed to be opting for the favourite strategy of the far right, what we might call, ‘march and grow’. In the same way that the BNP and the EDL have jumped on the chance to take advantage of rising anti-Muslim sentiment – normalised, supported, disseminated by the media – Britain First sets itself as an opponent of Islamism. Even anti-Jewish hatred has taken a back seat, as Islamophobia has become increasingly acceptable in British society.
The Britain Firsters have been successful in spreading themselves across social media, particularly on Facebook, and have garnered the attention of the press. The inroads Britain First has made into social networking has amassed hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’, giving the group access to the newsfeeds across the country. It’s all been accomplished by common-sense appeals around such issues as animal rights and paedophilia. Thousands of people share and like their posts without looking into their agenda. Images of emaciated dogs prompt the sympathy of like-minded people. The memes draw people in only to open them to the tropes of nationalist populism. The focus is on Muslims, who are accused of trying to take-over the country, through Sharia courts, grooming ‘our’ children, introducing halal meat, preaching terrorism.
Like much of the far right these days, the Firsters imagine a Left-Islamist alliance flodding the UK with immigrants and promoteing multiculturalism to undermine the nation-state and its cultural stock. Culture here stands in the place of race. The group asserts a brand of British nationalism blended with Christian conservatism to shift the emphasis away from race but to culture and national sovereignty. The primary target is now the British Muslim community, who they subject to ‘Christian patrols’ in reaction to the so-called ‘Muslim patrols’ in Tower Hamlets. The Firsters have been known to force their way into mosques, filming the place, not taking off their shoes, asking people to become Christians. It amounts to an organised campaign of harassment and intimidation.
Points of Convergence
At the helm we find a double-act Paul Golding and Jim Dowson. Golding leads the Christian patrols, which consists of a campaign of intimidation against the Asian British community. He was a BNP councillor from 2009 to 2011 and left amidst the infighting around Nick Griffin. Dowson is a much more mercurial figure. He ran the BNP call centre in Northern Ireland and pumped £4 million into the Party’s coffers to provide fuel for a public relations campaign. As he was in the Six Counties, Dowson found natural allies in the Ulster Loyalist movement, and has been organising Union flag protests. Before all of this, the Scottish friend of British nationalism was a Calvinist minister and a pro-life campaigner, with ties to the American Religious Right.
Never a member of the BNP, Dowson now says he would prefer to see UKIP go from strength to strength. He has been explicit that the aim of providing support to the BNP was to “push everyone over to the right” and that has resulted in the “success” of UKIP. As Britain First put up candidates for the EU elections of 2014, the group recommended to its supporters to vote for UKIP, or the English Democrats, in areas where they could not put up a candidate. The only other recommendation was to not vote British National Party. Dowson has said that he foresees a Holy War, and that he agrees with Islamists who call it jihad. He only stipulates that it’s really a crusade.
It’s not the first time that the British far right has moved to appropriate religious sensibilities. It’s not surprising, as fascism is a ‘scavenger ideology’, to quote Robert Paxton, which constitutes itself by plucking up whatever may propel it forward. After the National Front was humiliated at the ballot box in 1979, its members moved on to experiment with a kind of fascist Christian mysticism. This was led by Derek Holland, a devout Catholic, who declared himself a ‘political soldier’, advocating an austere and disciplined life committed to the purity of nationalist ideals. The drift into esotericism was no doubt furthered by the infighting which ultimately led to the Front splitting up.
The ‘crusade’ Dowson envisions has international dimensions. The Christian infused nationalism has obvious allies in those parts of the world where religion still plays a serious role as an identity-marker in political conflicts. On the Britain First Facebook page, you can find pictures which demonise Bosnian Muslims, while others celebrate the Lebanese Phalange. No doubt this is to align Britain First with Serbian ultra-nationalists and a Maronite Christian organisation founded out of admiration for Adolf Hitler. This is just what you can find out if you canvas their Facebook page with scrutiny in one’s eyes. As we have already seen this wouldn’t be the first time that the far right has forged unexpected alliances.
Going too far
When the National Front broke into two factions in 1986, Nick Griffin led the Official National Front with Patrick Harrington and Derek Holland. The opposing faction was led by Andrew Brons and known as the Flag group, to distinguish it from the ONF. Griffin traveled to Libya at one point, in order to procure funding from the Gaddafi regime. By this point, the ONF had pledged solidarity to revolutionary nationalist movements seeking self-determination for their people. (This even applied to Arab and African nationalists, as well as Black nationalist and separatist groups in the West.) The journey to Libya was a complete failure, though they did bring back thousands of copies of Gaddafi’s Green Book.
At one point, Griffin put Colonel Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini and Louis Farrakhan on the front page of their magazine. Branches of the Official National Front began to breakaway and the organisation hemorrhaged members. Eventually the group dwindled into insignificance, from hundreds to tens of members in a couple of years. The last straw came in 1989, when Patrick Harrington contacted journalists at The Jewish Chronicle. He told them that the Front had abandoned its past anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. It was a move to normalise the organisation and its agenda. Harrington hadn’t run the idea past the rest of the leadership, and they were furious. The group was dissolved, and Griffin took around sixty members with him. Harrington took little more than ten.
Nick Griffin took time out from politics after he was injured from shotgun cartridges he accidentally flung into a bonfire. Derek Holland drifted further and further into the depths of mysticism and set out to found a nationalist commune in France. In the meantime, Patrick Harrington set out to build an acceptable nationalist party – which he called the Third Way – staking out a nationalism which he characterised as liberal, democratic, and cultural. He now runs the Solidarity trade union, known for its BNP ties, and demanding “British jobs for British workers”. Without this baggage, Nick Griffin made a name for himself as a Holocaust denier, positioning himself to the right of David Irving. He would make it his mission to take-over the denial industry, the neo-Nazi music scene, and the British National Party. He would only accomplish one of these goals.
The Prospects for Containment
After 15 years of Griffin’s leadership, the BNP is in tatters. He dethroned John Tyndall in 1999 with a campaign to modernise the Party and transform it into a ‘new nationalist party’. He made his agenda clear in 2000 at a meeting of Klansmen and like-minded sorts organised by David Duke. Griffin argued the case for a more sophisticated approach. It was identity politics par excellence deploying saleable words like ‘freedom’, ‘security’, ‘identity’, and, of course, ‘democracy’. The new proposal was to change the key policy from repatriation to a voluntary repatriation scheme in which people are paid to leave the country. It took time, but the campaign began to pay off. Seats were won in local government and Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons were elected to the European Parliament they so loathe. It was to be short lived.
The gains were not capitalised on. The Party was wracked with financial problems and newfound conflicts, after Griffin began to insulate himself from party members. Around this time, the English Defence League burst onto the scene. Initially, this development could not have been seen as a threat by Griffin. It wasn’t until Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. Tommy Robinson) came to the forefront and set out to publicly define the EDL as a non-racist grassroots movement. The EDL took on an agency of its own, while the BNP became increasingly unstable. Eventually a leadership challenge arose in 2011 from Andrew Brons. Griffin changed the constitution to hasten the contest, and retained his position by just nine votes.
Jim Dowson broke away from Griffin in 2010, and set out to exploit the disaffection within the Party. He first targeted Brons, but this was unsuccessful. Then Dowson became acquainted with Paul Golding. Britain First was launched to absorb the fallout from the BNP’s infighting, but it has gone on to suck in disillusioned EDL supporters. Even still, it can’t be said often enough that the Firsters have the presence in numbers on the streets that they have online. It has this in common with the EDL. At its peak, the Fascist movement led by Oswald Mosley could muster 20,000 people in 1939 and had claimed it had 50,000 members. It mobilised around 8,000 votes in the East End elections, but never made any breakthrough.
Today, the centrepiece of the British far right seems to be in terminal decline, and has lost 10,000 members. Britain First is just one of a few new organisations looking to fill the void opening up. Andrew Brons founded the British Democratic Party in 2013. The English Democrats have been spurred on, and we’ve even seen the National Front crawl out from the darkness. Out of the failed attempt by the EDL to form its own party came Liberty GB. In the meantime, UKIP seems to have capitalised hugely on this disarray, mixing fascist votes with conservative and libertarian votes. Just how this will end is unclear, but we should perceive the Firsters – not as harbingers of a Fourth Reich exactly – as a serious threat to the Asian community.
Photographs courtesy of Andy Armstrong and Tom Mulrooney. Published under a Creative Commons license.