The Counter-Extremism Response to the Radical Right: The Need for New Thinking

As recently published Prevent data shows, radical right extremism presents a very real threat to the UK’s domestic security. That to date, Prevent – the UK Government’s counter-extremism strategy – has been almost exclusively deployed in response to Islamist-inspired extremism, ensuring it is effective and appropriate for the newly emergent radical right threat presents a number of challenges to state, institutional and grassroots stakeholders alike. Having engaged in the Prevent strategy and associated counter-extremism measures for more than a decade, set out below are a number of issues that might require additional thinking if existing approaches are to be effective and appropriate.

The first relates to the historical emphasis on and the deep embeddedness of notions of ‘communities’ in the existing counter-extremism and counter-terrorism approaches. As Arshad Isakjee rightly notes, while the notion of ‘communities’ is perceivably authentic and credible when applied to ethnic and religious minorities, the same is far from true when applied to majority and ‘white’ populations. Consequently, the notion of ‘communities’ must be acknowledged as having limitations. So while Muslim ‘communities’ have been engaged as a conduit to tackle Islamist extremism, to what extent do analogous ‘communities’ exist that provide a similar conduit to tackling radical right extremism? While many align the radical right with the ‘white working class’ this is a perception that is rightly being contested. Nonetheless, the widespread adoption of such crude and simplistic notions has the very real potential to be extremely detrimental. A more meaningful understanding is therefore urgently required.

Overlapping with this is the second issue and the need for better and more meaningful descriptors. This was evident at a recent counter-extremism workshop I attended. When we were asked about who were vulnerable to radical right extremism, one counter-extremism stakeholder announced that their preferred descriptor was the “poorly educated, ill informed”. Aside from being wholly insulting, the use of such descriptors in a more public setting are likely to alienate and marginalise the very people who need support. That there is an argument to suggest that the historical design and delivery of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies alienated and marginalised some Muslims and their communities it is imperative the same mistakes are not made again as regards the radical right.

Another issue can be seen in the need for equity and consistency in response to different manifestations of extremism. Such is not to naïvely suggest that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is necessary: far from it. Instead, more thinking is required in order to understand, explain and justify when different approaches are appropriate and/or necessary. Take for example the categorisation of different extremist groups. Anecdotally, a more nuanced approach would appear to be used when identifying and demarcating groups within the radical right spectrum. Accordingly, those that do not openly advocate the use of violence – for example Britain First – do not tend to be categorised as ‘extremist’. Instead, it seems to be a descriptor restricted to those that advocate or use violence, for instance National Action.

While there is merit in using different categories for different gradations of extremism, not all types or manifestations of extremism would seem to be being treated equitably.   Take, for instance, the categorisation of Islamist-inspired groups, for example Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun. That both are routinely referred to as ‘extremist’ highlights the difference between Islamist and radical right forms. While the latter was proscribed – like National Action – by the UK Government using terrorism legislation, so it would seem that some consistency has been applied. That neither Hizb ut-Tahrir nor Britain First have been proscribed or known to have used violence in the UK should suggest that both were not referred to as extremists. As before, that is only the case with Britain First and the radical right. Responding to Islamist and radical right extremism differently would make it easy to argue that ‘Muslim’ and ‘white’ communities are responded to differently. That similar arguments have already been posited in the decision to strip Shamima Begum of her British citizenship should be enough to ensure such concerns are given more thought and not merely dismissed out of hand.

The final issue requiring additional thinking relates to sites where extremists are known to be active. In the past, sites where Islamist extremists were active (for example gyms and cafes) have been duly targeted and subsequently shut down by local authorities. The same would not seem to be true of equivalent radical right sites. From engaging counter-extremism stakeholders, a number of pubs and labour clubs in certain areas of the West Midlands have been identified as sites where radical right extremists are active. While so, many are reluctant to work towards shutting them down. Anecdotally, this would seem to be because of a fear that shutting down a public house would attract unwanted attention; potentially even becoming a cause célèbre for certain radical right actors and groups. While this would not seem unreasonable, that a different approach is preferred – or even necessary – would need to be explained and understood. More thinking is needed about this as also what the circumstances might be when different approaches and measures might be necessary. Again, this will help avoid lazy claims that ‘Muslim’ and ‘white’ communities are treated differently.

These issues are far from exhaustive, merely constituting a number of preliminary thoughts from engaging and researching those tasked with designing and delivering counter-extremism strategies and approaches. Nonetheless, they highlight the need for new thinking now as opposed sometime in the future. If we are to avoid the pitfalls encountered and failings evident in the early years of Prevent, it is imperative that the new thinking that is needed is urgent and immediate. That discussions and debates about Prevent have – over the years – been dominated by blind advocates and irrational critics, now is the time for these discussions and debates to be more inclusive and less polarised. Critical thinking and more open engagement are key to this; the issues raised here affording an appropriate start point.

Dr Chris Allen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Associate Professor in the Centre for Hate Studies at the University of Leicester. See his profile here:

© Chris Allen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).