The British far right is leaderless – and all the more dangerous for it

Over the past year there have been a number of far-right demonstrations in London, some of which have attracted as many as 10,000 people. Whether it was the Free Tommy Robinson event in July or the “Brexit betrayal” demonstration in December, the far right descended on the capital in numbers not seen in decades, perhaps not since the interwar period of the 1930s.

The primary focus of this string of demonstrations has ranged from the imprisonment of anti-Muslim activist Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), to the supposed suppression of free speech (especially in regards to speaking about Muslims), and the perceived betrayal of the Brexit vote by politicians and elites. Similarly, 2019 has kicked off with a number of small “yellow vest” demonstrations, also focusing on Brexit.

Despite the divergent range of issues, the demonstrations have, on the whole, been attended by the same group of people. Analysis by Hope Not Hate of the events found activists from across the far right, ranging from former English Defence League (EDL), Britain First and BNP activists to supporters of Generation Identity and Ukip and “alt-right” figureheads – all happy to march shoulder to shoulder to protest about these various issues. In other words, something approaching a far-right popular front.

However, those who held formal membership of traditional far-right organisations were outnumbered by those who had little or no formal affiliation, but who turned out regardless. This raises the question of why demonstrations in 2018, on a range of different issues, were attended by roughly the same group of non-aligned protesters. What were the common mobilising factors?

Despite the eagerness of some to describe these demonstrations as fascist, they fit much more comfortably within political scientist Cas Mudde’s definition of populism: “an ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

This current movement’s binary distinction between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite” is why the accusation of “traitor” is so readily thrown at any authority figure they disagree with, be they remain politicians or the judges who sentenced Robinson to prison. Those who disagree with their take on any issue are understood to be disagreeing with the will of the people.

Though there were fascists in the crowds, the majority of the organisers and participants cannot accurately be described as fascists. On the whole, this angry mass of protestors lack a structured ideology and are driven much more by visceral emotions such as anger and betrayal.

This is not to say that what starts as an emotional mobilisation cannot be increasingly politicised towards fascism. We saw this with the EDL, with many individuals starting out as single-issue activists then expanding their ideological outlook to a much more traditionally fascist platform over time.

The fact that these demonstrators self-identify as “the people” and have great antipathy towards supposed elites, could explain their reticence to have formal structures which necessitate hierarchies. Generally speaking, this is a movement with organisers, spokespeople and “martyrs” rather than traditional leaders. While Robinson is an important figurehead for this movement, he has not sought to launch a formal vehicle, or adopt a formalised leadership position within it, as he did with the EDL and Pegida UK in the past.

Similarly, in the wake of the yellow vests’ harassment of Anna Soubry MP and others outside parliament in January, the press labelled James Goddard as the network’s leader. Yet Goddard responded: “The #YellowVestsUK has no leader or political affiliation. They can’t silence us all!”

The lack of formal leaders, however, does not mean they are directionless – merely that the rank and file looks to a range of far-right social-media influencers and the alternative media for direction rather than a formal leadership team.

In recent years, we have seen the rise of disparate far-right social-media personalities who now have the ability to reach unprecedented numbers of people online.

Together, the collection of post-organisational far-right influencers provide a veritable pick’n’mix of grievances for demonstrators to choose from – each mutually reinforcing the overarching sense that the system is rigged against them.

How long this movement can continue as a shapeless and leaderless mass of angry people is difficult to say. It is of course possible that it could solidify into a more formalised movement under the leadership of Lennon, or within Ukip, which has embraced the far right under Gerard Batten.

With trust in politicians and our political system at a low point, there is a ready pool of people who could be attracted to this type of messaging. Whatever happens with Brexit there is bound to be a narrative of betrayal being advanced by the far right that will likely speak to large numbers of people in the UK and reinforce existing disillusionment.

Regardless, we cannot wait for a traditional, united, far-right umbrella organisation to emerge before we act. We need to start connecting the dots now and to realise that what we’ve seen over the last year is various incarnations of the same threat.

The modern British far right is a hydra, making it harder to combat in a traditional sense. If one prominent activist or leader falls from grace, it is no longer the fatal blow it once was, as others rapidly emerge to fill the void. The hate might be the same as before, as are their targets, but the nature of the far right is changing, and we need to understand that. Shouting Nazi and fascist at them won’t be enough.

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