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Mythbusting Britain First - 5 things you need to know

Since Donald Trump retweeted three videos from Britain First last week, the far right organisation has received a lot of attention - but some has been highly speculative. Here we sort the myths from the facts.

Image: Twitter.com.

1. Britain First have a huge presence on social media....

On Facebook Britain First has a whopping 1.95 million Likes and 1.75 million followers. That’s more 'likes' than the Conservatives and Labour combined, Their Facebook wall is full of high-quality videos, interviews, seemingly innocuous patriotic memes and some incredibly long comment threads. However despite the large number of followers, commentators have noticed that many of them are people from outside of the UK (somewhat surprisingly for a nationalist group), many might not realise Britain First is a far right party and the group is heavily reliant on paid advertising. As such, it’s pretty hard to make sense of the political significance of this 1.7 million – but nonetheless the potential audience for their content is clearly huge.

Interestingly, the group has a considerably smaller presence on other platforms – on Twitter they have less than 30,000 followers and only around 60,000 subscribers on YouTube (we are unable to find a Britain First Instagram page ….). Usually, controversial political figures (think Trump, Farage, Rees-Mogg) have more followers on Twitter than Facebook. Even though it has fewer users, Twitter is seen as less ‘personal’ and more anonymous, so people are willing to follow figures they disagree with or are embarrassed about liking. Potentially, Britain First’s huge Facebook presence is more an indication of how effectively they have manipulated Facebook’s algorithmic biases rather than a true index of their support base.

2. ...but their social media followers haven’t been out voting for them

Britain First has no elected representatives at any level in the UK, having performed poorly not only in national elections but also at the local and EU level. Some of its results are truly embarrassing. In the 2016 London Mayoral Election Britain First leader Paul Golding won only 1% of the vote (~31,000 votes) – and had to release a cringeworthy apology video to his few supporters. Still, this is an improvement on their previous showings – in a 2014 by-election deputy leader Jayda Fransen received just 56 votes. Britain’s archaic first past the post system and two-party dominance is often blamed for the failure of minor parties to breakthrough (from the Greens to the SWP). But these results cannot be blamed on external factors; they speak to a real failure of Britain First itself.

For all its social media posturing, Britain First is a long way off the electoral success of a previous British far right party, the British National Party (the BNP). Only ten years ago the BNP had 50 local councillors, 2 MEPs and won half a million votes in the 2010 general election. This suggests there remains an appetite for the far right at the ballot box that Britain First have failed to mobilise. It also raises some real questions about their longevity and appeal beyond a base of online clicktivists – but, somewhat worryingly, it also indicates that if they can get it together, Britain First has the potential to be a serious electoral force.

3. They aren't fascists…

Many people have been quick to associate Britain First with fascism. The Daily Mail has described them outright as fasciststhe Times have linked them to fascism and most newspapers describe their opponents as ‘anti-fascists’. But there’s actually little evidence for this. Nowhere in their policies can be found anything which is opposed to democracy, and (despite their lack of success) they are more than willing to engage in democratic politics like standing for election. They are also not closely associated with older fascist groups, and so cannot even be considered to have a ‘post-fascist legacy’. At none of their marches does anti-democracy feature as a talking point.

Britain First also lack some of the key features of actual fascist parties, such as having a strong and charismatic leader who is portrayed as the only one capable of saving the Nation, and the Party, from degeneracy. Golding and Fransen, whilst doing their best to appear respectable in tailored suits rather than trackies, can hardly be called charismatic. They certainly have a strong grip over their party – but in this sense they’re no different to UKIP or, indeed, the Greens. Perhaps the reason Britain First has been labelled fascist is that they have a penchant for matching green bomber jackets, a fashion choice of dubious legality. But a green bomber does not a fascist make, and to label them as such takes some ideological gymnastics.

4. …but they are Islamophobes and xenophobes

Whilst Britain First aren’t fascists, they certainly are xenophobes and Islamophobes. Xenophobia can be understood as prejudice against foreigners (including immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers) and Islamophobia as prejudice against Muslims. Often, these prejudices overlap with each other and with racism; the brunt of Britain First’s Islamophobia is typically borne by non-White first or second generation immigrants. And Britain First aren’t messing around – they’re regularly in court for threatening and abusive behaviour.

Britain First are best known for their Islamophobia. They openly advocate a comprehensive ban on the religion of “Islam” within the United Kingdom’ and can be seen ‘invading’ Mosques and Halal butchers in their videos. They’re also strongly opposed to immigration and foreigners, wanting to Offer generous grants to those of foreign descent resident [in the UK] who wish to leave permanently’ . Their target of their hate really seems to be just anyone who is different; anyone who is not white and Christian (like them). They, of course, deny this accusation, claiming that they’re only trying to defend ‘British Values’ and the British people from extremism and instability. The tragic irony is that their opposition to so-called Islamic extremism is so extreme that they’ve actually transgressed the values they claim to defend; there is nothing British about prejudice.

Put simply, if you need to explain that you’re not racist then you probably need a re-think.

5. Britain First is currently Britain’s most successful far right group - but...

Britain First is currently Britain’s most successful far right group. This is not as much of an accolade as it might seem – Britain is widely seen by academics as a case of ‘far right failure’, with reams of paper dedicated to understanding why no far right group has had lasting success in Britain. Britain First may be the biggest fish around, but they’re swimming in a tiny pond.

Britain First are a mixed bag; terrible election results combined with a truly exceptional social media presence but also surprisingly low attendance at marches. They’re a long way off from the 3,000 supporters who attended EDL marches or the tens of thousands who recently attended the Football Lads Association march against extremism (a group which some have suggested are also part of the new far right). But as Hope Not Hate reported in 2016, the far right is now smaller and more fragmented than ever before. The BNP’s vote collapsed after 2010, the EDL was destroyed by in-fighting, the National Front remains a niche regionalist player, and new groups like Pegida UK have failed to take off. Surrounded by so much failure, Britain First can’t help but seem like a successful outfit.

Finally …

Britain First have had an unusual and unexpected boost by being retweeted by Donald Trump. Widely condemned by everyone from charities to Piers Morgan to the Prime Minister, only time will tell if this small act from the Donald increases their following and impact. 

About the author

Bertie Vidgen is a PhD student at the University of Oxford and Alan Turing Institute. He researches the drivers and patterns of xenophobic behaviour on social media, and far right extremism online.


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