Home: Opinion

Far-right conspiracy theories are now embedded in the UK mainstream

And no wonder, when British journalists promote conspiracy theories and government politicians embrace extremist rhetoric

Sam Fowles
24 May 2022, 10.30am

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel

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Giannis Alexopoulos / NurPhoto / PA Images | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The threat of far-right terrorism is overstated, according to Sir William Shawcross, who is leading an independent review of the UK government’s anti-extremism strategy Prevent. The leaked excerpts from Shawcross’s draft review instead recommend a renewed focus on Islamic extremism (which is already the primary focus of the programme).

This is no surprise. Shawcross, former head of the Charity Commission, has previously called Islam “one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”. His controversial appointment prompted a mass boycott of the much-delayed review by both human rights groups and Muslim communities.

Even from such an obviously problematic reviewer, Shawcross’s conclusions are a startling denial of reality. The UK has experienced more far-right terror attacks and plots than any state in Europe. Around a third of domestic terror threats now come from the far Right, according to the head of MI5, who also said that children as young as 13 are being recruited by far-right extremists.

Recent incidents include a teenage neo-Nazi caught plotting attacks on synagogues; a four-person cell using a 3D printer to make firearm components; and a man who rampaged through Stanwell, Surrey, attacking cars and shouting “white supremacists rule. I’m going to murder a Muslim”, before stabbing a Bulgarian teenager.

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Domestic terrorism inspired by global propaganda

Our domestic terrorists are inspired by a global proliferation of far-right propaganda. The so-called manifestos of far-right extremists such as Patrick Crusius (who murdered 23 people in El Paso, Texas in 2019), Brenton Tarrant (51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, also in 2019) and Anders Breivik (77 people in Oslo and Utoya, Norway in 2011) circulate freely online.

All three were motivated by a shared belief that the ‘Western’ (meaning white) world is being deliberately subsumed by other races, and this “white genocide” is being masterminded by a global conspiracy of Jews. Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old terrorist who killed ten people on 15 May at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, claimed (in another online manifesto) that Jews are behind Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and critical race theory.

The “great replacement theory” is well established in the US media. Fox News host Tucker Carlson regularly bemoans the mass replacement of Americans and the alleged machinations of the (Jewish) philanthropist George Soros. Christopher Rufo, an influential Republican thinker, claims American education has been infected by critical race theory, allegedly a conspiracy created by Jewish Marxist intellectuals.

Conspiracy theories now mainstream

The popularisation of far-right conspiracy theories is not confined to the US. Shawcross’s criticism of Prevent – for branding “mainstream right-wing-leaning commentary” as “far Right” – has a certain perverse logic: far-right tropes are indeed increasingly mainstream in the UK.

The essence of these various conspiracy theories is that the West is being overwhelmed by foreigners, somehow facilitated by shadowy metropolitan elites. This idea will be familiar to anyone in the UK who has read a tabloid, listened to a politician or watched TV. Barely a day goes by without accusations that the country is being ‘overrun’ by migrants, facilitated by ‘lefty lawyers’ and the ‘north London liberal elite’ (is it a coincidence that north London has long been a centre of the UK Jewish community?).

Even the more extreme proponents of great replacement-type theories have regular platforms in the mainstream media. Douglas Murray, who complains that decadent Europe has committed “suicide” by inviting in too many immigrants, has enjoyed TV spots, a column in The Spectator magazine and a position at the government-linked think tank the Henry Jackson Society (Shawcross is, coincidentally, a former director of the same think tank).

Melanie Phillips’s work promoting the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theory (a predecessor to the great replacement) was cited in Anders Breivik’s manifesto. Phillips certainly can’t be accused of antisemitism. Instead, she blames a host of other far-right targets: homosexuals, Guardian readers, intellectuals and trans people. Over the years, Phillips has been given columns in The Guardian itself, The Spectator and the Daily Mail from which to advance her views.

Last week, Nigel Farage, record holder of the most appearances on the BBC’s flagship political TV programme Question Time, joined far-right Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán and Fox’s Tucker Carlson at a high-profile conservative conference in Hungary where speakers expounded the great replacement theory. Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students (responsible for monitoring UK universities’ compliance with their Prevent duties) also attended, making a speech praising Orbán’s politics.

British politicians seem increasingly happy to embrace the rhetoric of the far Right

British politicians seem increasingly happy to embrace the rhetoric of the far Right. The attorney general, Suella Braverman, has spoken of “cultural Marxism” (a contemporary revival of a Nazi conspiracy theory, suggesting that Jewish intellectuals are attacking the West). Nadine Dorries has shared a far-right fiction that Muslims are allowed to claim benefits for “several wives”. Jacob Rees-Mogg quoted the leader of the extremist German political party Alternative für Deutschland.

In 2020, the Metropolitan Police warned the home secretary, Priti Patel, that her complaints about “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” had been repeated by a far-right terrorist when he attacked an immigration law firm in London. She subsequently repeated them at the Conservative Party conference. Recently, both Patel and Boris Johnson, while trumpeting proposals to ship immigrants to camps in Rwanda, have blamed “specialist lawyers” and “politically motivated lawyers” for their failure to do so. MI5 has reported that racist tropesm – such as those promoted by the prime minister – are fuelling far-right terror.

This is not to suggest that the cabinet is full of secret fascists. But politicians are happy to adopt far-right tropes if it helps them create wedge issues to win votes. Just as the media are happy to platform the far Right to stir controversy and drive hits. The far Right doesn’t become safe just because it puts on a nice suit or describes itself as ‘anti-woke’ rather than ‘fascist’.

If we want to truly address the threat of far-right terrorism, we need to ask why its ideological tropes are so embedded in our mainstream discourse.

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