A Case for Making Students Resilient to the Far-Right?

A protester at a far right rally in Glasgow in 2016 ( PA )

The UK education system has, since the statutorisation of Prevent, been legally obliged to both nurture ‘resilient’ students and refer those whose resilience has been or is at risk of being eroded. Resilience being understood as the ability to ‘bounce back from adversity’, or in other words, being able to both reject and remove oneself from extremist ideologies. However, the extent to which the far-right is incorporated within this must be questioned. In this blog post, I explore discussions of the far-right and counter-terrorism amongst staff and students within further educational institutions, and the challenges which occur along the way.

Discussions of the far-right have long existed within academic spheres, and have recently been placed to the forefront of political and media dialogue, largely in response to a growing number of public cases such as the murder of MP Jo Cox, the attempted murder of MP Rosie Cunningham, the Finsbury Mosque attack and indeed the proscription of National Action, amongst others. Neil Basu, the Senior National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, has highlighted that the far-right is the ‘fastest growing UK terrorist threat’ and appears to have been receiving an increasing number of headlines as a result.  Further, the rise in Prevent referrals related to the far-right are argued to provide evidence that the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy which seeks to tackle such threats no longer primarily focuses on Islamist-inspired ideologies, and is instead encompassing ‘all forms’ of extremism and terrorism within its agenda, with an increasing focus on the far-right.

In my PhD research, I observed a significant number of trainings and classes, and was told about from further education staff, that the far-right were being used as a key example for demonstrating the processes and risks of radicalisation. These engagements highlighted the presence of the far-right within educational institutions’ discussions of the threats which Prevent, through their duty, sought to counter. For the educational staff I engaged with, the far-right was a real concern and one which many felt their students might be vulnerable to becoming engaged with.

However, discussions with and observations of students presented a more complex understanding of how the far-right fitted in with their need to be aware of and resilient against extremism and terrorism. For some, the far-right was something which could and should be engaged with, yet its visibility within these discussions was lacking in the perception that there remained an a priori focus on Muslims. This largely, for them, came as a result of disproportionate representations of Islamist terrorism within media portrayals of threats. For others, the topic of the far-right sparked discussions around Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League where students talked about images and ‘meme’s that their friends posted to social media as ‘jokes’, whether deflecting their responsibility to engage with it, using humour to avoid engaging with it, or simply not viewing it as something which required serious consideration. Yet, it was also evident that, for a minority, the far-right was a relatively unknown entity with whom they could not associate any particular threat or act of terrorism.

Whilst it is vital to explore the implications of these engagements, here I focus on whether or not students should be made aware of the far-right within educational responsibilities to build student resilience against terrorism and extremism. Given the environment of a rising threat and awareness of far-right organisations, and indeed the notion that it was something many educationalists felt needed to be taken more seriously, it would be logical to argue that students should have greater knowledge and understanding of the far-right in order to heighten their resilience against such ideologies. There are, however, some important considerations:

Who and what is it we are referring to?

 A key element which emerged from my fieldwork, and too many of my discussions with fellow academics and students in my classes, was the difficulty with which to define the ‘far-right’. Moreover, not only did it emerge that there were questions about who the far-right were, but also what acts or events could be viewed as far-right extremism and/or terrorism. Though these debates encircle academia frequently, knowledge of what or who the organisation(s) or ideology(ies) that one needs to be resilient against is not so familiar for educators.

The blurring of lines between hate speech, hate crime, and white supremacy, between individuals like Tommy Robinson and groups like National Action, and between ethno-nationalist discourse and ethno-nationalist inspired attacks, translate to the inability to define the far-right. Whether this results from the mainstreaming of far-right language, ideas and popularity, or the mainstreaming of racism, nationalism and anti-Other which the far-right have utilised, it has ultimately resulted in a complex environment in which far-right ideologies are viewed as (un)acceptable. The point at which hatred or indeed problematic conceptualisations of Others becomes extremism, and perhaps extremism becomes violent extremism or indeed terrorism, then becomes even more difficult to determine when the ideology behind these actions are also visible within wider public discourses.

Is this actually a way of countering a disproportionate focus on Muslims?

 A second consideration is whether the far-right are being brought in as a means of looking like there is no longer a disproportionate focus on Islamist inspired ideologies, rather than a genuine belief in the far-right as posing a significant threat. Where educators are charged with the front line operations of Prevent, there must be consideration for the criticisms which have surrounded the agenda, and as many of my participants noted, this results in an active desire to minimise such claims through responsive enactment. However, where the far-right is only referenced, there runs a risk of disingenuous engagement with efforts being seen simply as lip service. In other words, the far-right becomes utilised as a trope to counter criticism around the agenda, rather than something which poses a serious threat. Ultimately, whilst this might provide a band aid over the immediate impacts on minority communities, Prevent, where engaging with the far-right primarily for appearances, retains the negative consequence for certain communities over others.

Does greater knowledge really mean greater resilience?

 Introducing discussions of the far-right in order to promote student resilience to such ideologies infers that greater knowledge leads to greater resilience. However, even as government guidance claims, Prevent within the classroom is not about teaching on terrorism and extremism, but encouraging critical thinkers who would reject such ideologies in their antithesis to British values of democracy, rule of law, liberty and respect and tolerance. Greater knowledge of the far-right, therefore, would not be necessary. Though I find this line of thought problematic, given that a rejection of ideology must involve some knowledge of said ideology, being an expert in the far-right would not necessarily mean an individual could never become a far-right extremist. Thus, might it not be about greater knowledge of the far-right, but greater knowledge around difference which might build resilience?

There also runs the risk of further promulgating far-right ideologies where there lacks critical engagement and a deconstruction of such narratives due to lack of time, resources, or knowledge. Attempting to fill a knowledge gap of the far-right insufficiently might well lead to new gaps emerging which do not sufficiently counter the narratives being pushed by such groups. In other words, greater knowledge might not be the right knowledge. Yet, a lack of knowledge can bring with it problems for resilience and so there is an important balance to be had in providing students with sufficient knowledge; how that is and should be determined, however, remains open to debate.

Whilst the public and legislative focus on far-right ideologies has been sharpened over the last few years, so too has an awareness of the need for the far-right to be not just mentioned, but directly engaged with in Prevent. As Prevent seeks to address ‘all forms’ of extremism and terrorism, it remains critical that through its enactment there is a direct engagement with a threat that does not appear to be going away any time soon. I suggest that, where the Prevent duty’s statutorisation of educationalists in shaping resilient students remains, there is a need to actively counter the far-right alongside the perceived dominant concern of Islamist-related ideologies. Yet, I issue such claim with caution. Where the far-right are brought into such discussions, let it not be as a result of instruction over importance, nor in a vain attempt to quash a stigmatisation of Muslims by “adding in” the far-right. And finally, let it be meaningful and effective, enabling students to identify where free speech becomes hatred.

Ms Natalie James is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. See her profile here.

© Natalie James. 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).