Last month, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) published Pedlars of hate: the violent impact of the European far Right. Analysing over a hundred cases, its author Liz Fekete draws attention to a pattern of far-right violence which moves from the peddling of hate online, to violence and deaths in the streets, to the stockpiling of weapons in preparation for ‘race war’. From within these cases emerges a picture of a rapidly changing European scene, with certain towns, cities and villages more open to far-right penetration than others.
Of the cities where the far right have penetrated, Rome (where Gianni Alemanno, the former youth leader of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, MSI, was elected mayor in 2008) and Athens (where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn made their first significant electoral breakthrough in November 2010) feature prominently. But perhaps the most rapid changes are occurring in the depopulated rural villages of Germany where the National Democratic Party of Germany has become so firmly ensconced in local politics that it is staffing local fire departments, running leisure activities for young people, and even providing citizens’ advice for those claiming welfare. The conservative rural vote is also a factor in the electoral success of both the Swiss People’s Party, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, where the vast majority of attacks on mosques have happened not in the largest cities but in smaller towns and municipalities. As the IRR concludes, the cases documented in Pedlars of Hate suggest that we have most to fear from the far Right at a local, or even regional, rather than the national level.
What is clear is that whilst most mainstream political parties condemn the violent actions of far-right groups, the messages which they promote – against ‘Islamification’, for the promotion of ‘core values’, protecting the population against the ‘threat’ of immigration, for example – are drawing from similar political sentiments to those many politicians electioneer on. As a consequence, the gap between mainstream and far-right politics is narrowing, with the far-right as the beneficiaries. Obviously, the specific histories of and conditions within different countries inform the extent, as well as the manner, in which far-right ideologies take root. But as the report exposes, specific patterns of ‘hate’ are emerging and the far right is frequently garnering support by mobilising and making inroads in smaller towns and cities. These places are rural, once-industrial, experiencing marked inequalities and going through relatively recent demographic change.
‘Reverse racism’ and UK geographies of hate
In the UK, the IRR is currently undertaking an investigation into new ‘geographies’ of racism – by which is meant areas which have seen intensification of racial violence and the backdrop against which attacks, abuse and harassment have taken hold. Many of the areas experiencing such attacks show certain parallels with those above: smaller towns and cities, ravaged by the destruction of industry and experiencing population change tied to globalisation. And whilst the focus of these investigations is not on the far right per se, these are often also areas where far-right groups have invested considerable levels of energy attempting to whip up support. In Stoke-on-Trent, for example, in Staffordshire, a city devastated by the collapse of its pottery industry, the British National Party (BNP) made unprecedented gains a few years ago. Stoke was described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ by the BNP, and the party launched its manifesto from the city on several occasions, as well as using it as a base to begin a national ‘anti-Muslim campaign’. By 2008, such was its influence that it was the second largest political party in the city with nine councillors, and there was a credible possibility that Stoke would be the first place in the UK to be controlled by the far right. And although last year the party suffered huge setbacks in the city, it is currently planning to re-establish its support.
It is cities like Stoke where the far right has been able to exploit and play on the genuine grievances of working-class communities – such as increasing unemployment and the devastation of industry – and distort these injustices, presenting them as issues wherein white communities are the ‘real’ victims. Buttressed by wildly conspiratorial theories of a state attempting to force multiculturalism on white people against their will, backed up by fantasies that successive governments prioritise the needs of black and minority ethnic (BME) communities over white communities, and reinforced by the cynical exploitation of incidents where white people have been harmed, far-right groups are busily reinvigorating a narrative of ‘reverse racism’ in the UK. In Peterborough, one of the areas which the IRR is investigating, the National Front attempted to stage a resurgence at the beginning of the twenty-first century – marching in remembrance of a white teenager murdered by a gang of Asian youths, despite the deceased’s parents disgust that their loss was being used for fascist political gain. In Stoke, meanwhile, when a few years ago a Muslim man stabbed to death his white neighbour – a BNP member who had subjected him to racist abuse over a period of four years – the BNP set out to make the deceased man a ‘white martyr’, carrying his coffin at his funeral, portraying the eight-year sentence that his killer received as too light (therefore evidence of a state conspiracy against white people) and urging people to join the organisation.
The far right’s penetration of smaller towns and cities in the UK may not look exactly the same as its counterparts in many other European countries. In Germany, for example, we see ‘liberated zones’, ‘where families are free to indoctrinate their children into Nazi culture and establish their own ethnically pure villages...’. But the outcomes, at least in one respect, show certain similarities: whilst presenting themselves as organisations protecting the interests of white communities who they claim are ignored by a state either uninterested or paralysed by ‘political correctness’ on the one hand, far-right groups have intimidated, if not terrorised minority populations in some UK towns and cities on the other. To take a few relatively recent examples: in Stoke, in 2010, prior to a march by the English Defence League (EDL), Asian taxi-drivers reportedly received death threats over the phone, and on the advice of police suspended their services. Immediately following the march, EDL members roamed through predominantly Asian areas of the city, attacking properties, and months later two men (one a former soldier, BNP member and EDL supporter) attempted to blow up a mosque. In the coastal city of Plymouth, last year, EDL members terrorised a Kurdish family working in a takeaway, forcing them to barricade in their business. Earlier this month, an EDL supporter was jailed for smashing through the front door of his Asian neighbour’s house in Dewsbury, screaming racist abuse and threatening the occupants with a knife. And last month, a group of EDL supporters were jailed for their part in a string of demonstrations across towns in Lancashire which culminated in an Asian man being run over and a Muslim man attacked. These are far from isolated incidents.
What is emerging in the UK is a pattern of far-right activity targeting towns and cities where local concerns can be exploited and where there is little or no history of anti-racist or anti-fascist campaigning as a form of resistance. That these are frequently areas well below the radar of mainstream political parties’ interests, marred by vast inequalities and with some sections of the population condemned to poverty, makes it unsurprising such rallying calls of organisations asserting claims of white victimhood and reverse racism can gain purchase. Of course, the claims that far-right groups serve the interests of all white communities are absurd at best (far-right supporters recently head-butted a white pensioner handing out anti-fascist leaflets recently, for example). But what is clear is that whilst mainstream political parties cede ideological ground to far-right groups, whilst effectively abandoning those communities which the far right targets for support, this self-appointed role as protectors of the same will continue to gather support. Far right organisations are neither marginal not disorganised in the UK, and it is the towns and cities that fall well beyond the concerns of mainstream political parties where their influence may be most keenly felt.