Paul Stott of the University of East Anglia summarizes Northampton University’s recent conference: “The Far Right In Transition”.
Friday 28 June saw a conference at Northampton University entitled “The Far Right in Transition”. This brought together approximately 100 people to hear speakers discuss the contemporary and historical far right, its activities and some of the responses to it. The conference had one slightly different tack – me – as I was invited at the last minute to discuss the Woolwich terrorist attack and to put it in some historical context.
Northampton University runs the Radicalism and the New Media research centre and the first part of the morning was devoted to its centre-piece – the launch of the archive of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. Searchlight has been a controversial presence in the British anti-racist movement for over 50 years – Anti-Fascist Action (of which I was a supporter) and Antifa (of which I was a founder) both proscribed their members from working with Searchlight, because of its relationship with the police and security services. Such history was not on the agenda in Northampton – indeed much of the day was about the legacy of Searchlight and its now elderly editor Gerry Gable, as he gifts Searchlight’s vast archive to the University of Northampton for future research.
For all the past bitterness, this may well prove to be Gable’s legacy – the opportunity to view the hundreds of boxes of far-right material that includes books from as far back as the 1880s, magazines from the 1930s, and thousands of fascist leaflets. Some 200 boxes of material have been catalogued by curator Dan Jones, with some 300 to follow. There are complete runs of some material – for example Searchlight itself, and Spearhead, the magazine John Tyndall ran for much of his political life.
Conferences like this tend to bring together a slightly curious mix of participants – academics, past and current political activists, community leaders, the police and in this case a sizeable contingent of counter terrorism officers, something that perhaps reflects the concern about events post-Woolwich. Podcasts of all eleven presentations are available, although not the Q and A’s which followed. Of the talks if you only have time to listen to a handful I would firstly pick out Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens who examined the EDL in terms of the international counter jihad movement. It is often stated that the EDL has kick-started a whole series of like minded groups across Europe, but this does not appear to be the case, indeed the EDL actually rather trails in behind groups abroad. Hitchens travelled to Defence League demonstrations in Aarhus and Stockholm, and found that activists there tended to be more middle class than their English counterparts, older and sometimes with political backgrounds on the left, rather than the right. My instinct is that there may be very different local reasons that bring people into such movements in different countries – and even different cities within those nations. It may be that further research across a greater number of countries will answer my hypothesis in time.
Fiyaz Mughal of Tell Mama spoke of his organisation’s work monitoring anti-Muslim hatred on Twitter. Interestingly, whilst recent media articles have seen Tell Mama referred to as an organisation monitoring both anti-Muslim hatred and intra-Muslim tensions,the latter role was not mentioned. Tell Mama has the software to pick out key words in abusive texts, and grooming cases now appears to be a bigger issue in such material than terrorism.
There was some discomfort about where this work can lead – a 15 year old girl ‘Nicole’ was cautioned by the police after she had made 8 months’ worth of tweets that Tell Mama had monitored, and it seems this police route is the most likely response to such material. Mughal stressed Twitter believe firmly in the First Amendment, and have heard and ignored Tell Mama’s concerns about the platform they provide.
The third talk of interest was Will Baldet of the St Philip’s Centre in Leicester, who has responsibility for the government’s anti-extremism platform Prevent, in Leicestershire and Rutland. Here it was obvious how keenly broader ‘anti-extremist’ narratives are running in police and government circles. Anti-fascist demonstrations were identified as a drain on public resources, counter-productive and unwise, as they do not achieve anything. I kept expecting someone in the audience to shout out Cable Street but no one did. More seriously, I suspect Will Baldet does understood how much anti-fascists mythologise their history, and see themselves in a life and death struggle against an enemy. To the government and police though, they are just a public order problem.
Baldet identified some key elements in the makeup of far-right ‘extremists’: anger management issues; anti-authoritarianism; identification as the underdog; defiance; recklessness; a failure to handle inner conflict; attention seeking and an intolerance of ambiguity. Whilst this type of psychological approach is always interesting, where it gets us is another matter. I asked if a similar chart could be drawn up of Islamist actors, and was told that this typology was in fact an amalgam of the characteristics of neo-Nazi and Al Qaeda members, plus would be suicide bombers in Iraq. Fascinating stuff, but reading through it again, much of it could equally apply to any 18 year old in a street gang or football firm, and arguably to a much wider number of 18-year-olds full stop.
On this evidence at least, the answers to assessing the far right and the ground it stands on do not lie in cod psychology.
Paul Stott is an academic in the field of Terrorism Studies, based at the University of East Anglia. He tweets @MrPaulStott