Analysis: As Farage dumps Ukip, where next for the British far right?

Ben Wray

Farage has quit a racist mess he is largely responsible for creating, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the British far-right is in decline, David Jamieson finds

NIGEL FARAGE has finally quit Ukip, the party he helped mould into a force over decades, pointing to it’s rightward shift and increasing obsession with Islamophobia.

He’s got some brass neck, of course. Farage largely built Ukip with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim slogans and imagery. And now the party’s new leader Gerard Batten has taken on former SDL leader Tommy Robinson as an advisor, in a clear pitch to overtly racist sentiments.

On the one hand, this is just taking Farage’s demagoguery to its logical conclusion. On the other hand, it is a genuine mutation to the right, with Ukip shifting from an electoral party to a more street fighting outfit. But is this just an instance of common far right in-fighting, or is this new mutation dangerous?

A history of failure 

Britain has one of the weakest far right political lineages of any European society. Various small groups united to form the British Union of Fascists in 1932, but a combination of effective resistance by the left and the British ruling class’ belated rivalry with the fascist Axis (many in the ruling class wanted to appease fascism or were even sympathetic) in WW2 put paid to this version of far right politics that would dominate so much of Europe in the 30s and 40s.

The National Front (NF) emerged in the 70s in a period of early revival for the European far right. But again facing significant pressure from anti-fascist movements and the minority communities they subjected to violent attack, the NF fragmented. The BNP emerged from the same milieu in the 90s and 00s, seeking respectability and electoral success and despite securing a number of local councillors and 2 MEPs, these attempts also floundered.

In this entire history, and unlike their European contemporaries, the British fascist right simply failed to make any serious breakthrough (with the only partial exception being Loyalism in Northern Ireland, a highly particular phenomenon).

Latterly, a new form of racism, Islamophobia, was being developed by large parts of the media and political establishment as justification for a series of wars in Arab and Muslim majority countries. Just as the BNP started to decline from public view and splinter after the failure to take Barking in the 2010 General Election, Robinson launched a broader anti-Muslim street movement which often deployed violent attacks against Muslims and others in the form of the English Defence League. Ukip, still a fringe party struggling to make headway in its demand for Britain to leave the EU, also shifted more focus to xenophobia.

Brexit vs Islamophobia?

The vote to leave the EU in 2016 opened a new era for UK politics. The Leave vote had come about for a range of reasons, centring on public discontent and alienation from political leaderships. But both campaigns and particularly rightwing Leave campaigners used anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Chief among them, Farage.

But the new Brexit era has been a confusing time for the far right in the UK. After the Leave vote Ukip entered a spiral of decline, with a succession of useless leaders, internal disputes which even descended into violence. Public concern over immigration has dissipated. 

Brexit has not performed the role some on the hard and far right had envisioned for it. Rather than unite the country and marginalise the left, the left grew substantially, with the most leftwing leader of the Labour party ever winning almost 13 million votes in the 2017 snap General Election. The country became deeply divided over a growing number of areas, and the Conservative party and mainstream right descended into their worst infighting in living memory.

It was in the middle of this crisis that Robinson re-emerged this summer amid a series of violent far right marches and a contrived campaign against his arrest for contempt of court. Robinson’s hope is that a new campaign of vicious Islamophobia can rally the confused forces of the far right, and clearly, Batten wants to tie Robinson’s notoriety to the Brexit cause with a planned joint rally on Sunday 9 December. 

An era of far right mutation

Meanwhile Farage worries that a broader and more coherent message around Brexit is being lost. He believes that a huge ground for anti-EU politics will open up in the UK if the leadership of the Tory party manage to bury Brexit, as they are currently trying to do. And it is at precisely this moment that he is finally losing his organisational resource, having traded it in for a media career. His basic criticism, that aligning the Brexit vote with mobilisations by far right street thugs will alienate many Leave supporters, is true.

But perhaps figures like Batten and Robinson (and the far right money that now invariably supports these enterprises) are looking to Germany, where the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) began with a more Ukip-like political leadership before it was seized by more radically conservative, authoritarian and racist tendencies. The new AfD, now under the control of proto-fascist factions, is still riding high in the polls and exerting significant pressure on the traditional parties of the German right. Though this, of course, is partly the product of an electoral system more plural than Britain’s first past the post, which has helped to hobble the far right over the last century.

Whether the far right can revive itself as a serious organisational and political force post-Brexit is up in the air. Evidence internationally would suggest its naive to think its recent decline will be permanent. One thing we do know from the history of the far right is that unifying resistance to racism and fascism can play a major role in preventing its growth.

Picture: Gage Skidmore