We need to talk about what is driving the Radical Right

Protesters in Bristol knelt on the neck of the bronze statue of Edward Colston (PA Media)

Over the last two months we have seen an increase in the scale and frequency of street protests across Britain. Those that have taken place under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement have focussed not only on placing a spotlight on the relationship between the police service (and indeed the wider Criminal Justice System) and black communities, but have also drawn out anarchist and anti-capitalist groups. At times, the latter have used the protests as an opportunity to assault police officers and damage public property. We have seen the development of a particularly divisive anti-police narrative which started in the US. and has now become a regular feature in domestic protests, spawning slogans such as #DefundThePolice.

In the first weekend of June we saw a step change in the level of risk associated with these protests. First were acts of criminal damage and assaults on police officers, who had been ill-prepared for the transition between what was largely a peaceful protest, and the emergence of a violent undercurrent. This led to Ken Marsh, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation (representing rank-and-file police officers), very publicly criticising the Met’s leadership. He asserted, in fact, that the policing response should be more robust, and that officers should have the correct public order gear to deal with the threat of violence with which they are confronted.

Next, in Bristol, public order commanders made the tactical decision not to intervene as the statue of Edward Colston was torn down and cast into Bristol Harbour. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the statue’s presence – ultimately a matter for the people of Bristol to decide through due process – the fact that these criminal acts were allowed to take place without challenge led to widespread condemnation of an ineffectual police response.

Rather predictably, the radical right was then galvanised to respond. Groups were mobilised using social media and the weekend after the toppling of the Colston statue saw widespread disorder and assaults on police by those claiming they were supporting the many veterans’ groups and others who sought to protect national monuments from further damage.

Over this period, three things followed a very similar pattern to the street-based protests associated with the radical right since the emergence of the EDL in spring 2009:

(1) The expansive framing of “the far-right” in media and commentator coverage. This entails a conflation of veterans’ groups and concerned members of the public opposing what they saw as the wanton destruction of national monuments with radical right groups or known activists bent upon responding even more violently than their diametric opponents. Even the Metropolitan Police waded into these terminological difficulties, referring to “right-wing and associated groups” in its official Public Order Events Twitter account.

(2). A skewed media narrative that largely ignored how the Black Lives Matter protest was at least partly co-opted by anarchist and anti-capitalist groups, and instead solely focussed upon how the radical right were hijacking the Black Lives Matter protests.

(3). The radical right seizing upon an opportunity to frame themselves as the defenders of British culture in the face of a police service cowed by political correctness, while leading British figures pander to the progressive left at the expense of British values more generally.

My research has focussed on how the state responds to radical right groups. Within this context my view is that we need to seriously start looking at how perceptions and realities of anarchist or anti-capitalist groups (which, like their “far-right” counterparts, are often expansively framed as “the far-left”) are driving and providing sustenance for the contemporary radical right.

From 2009 onwards the terms “reciprocal radicalisation” and “cumulative extremism” gained purchase in describing the way in which Islamist groups such as Al Muhajiroun and the English Defence League (EDL) fed one another’s narratives, and were entwined in a reciprocal relationship manifested through violent street protests. No form of extremism exists in a vacuum. But now, as Al Muhajiroun are in the rear-view mirror, what is driving the radical right to come out onto the streets? It is clear to me that while the Islamist extremists initially drew the radical right onto the streets, from the online discourse and what we are seeing during these street protests, it is “radical left” groups that are keeping them there.

There are obvious parallels between the police response to the BLM protests in early June and Bedfordshire Police Service’s response to the Royal Anglian Homecoming March in Luton in March 2009, which have collectively fed radical right narratives. The first gave rise to the EDL; yet what impact the most recent protests will have upon the evolution of the radical right remains to be seen. During both these protests we saw much the same narrative playing out in 2009 and 2020: the idea that we have a police service cowed by political correctness, and it is up to communities to mobilise themselves against threats to our culture.

Britain’s radical right is not strategic; instead, it is reactionary and opportunistic. The constituency of individuals who turned out for the EDL for all those years did not simply disappear when their leader, ‘Tommy Robinson’, left the movement. Indeed, we have seen flashpoints such as the 15,000 strong “Free Tommy Robinson” movement that arose in June 2018. This demonstrates how this base of protestors is not just alive but potentially still relevant in framing themselves as a necessary check against the same kinds of social issues that fed into EDL narratives a decade ago.

In understanding the nature and co-dependency of street mobilisations, in addition to how they are framed by the media, we can formulate effective responses. We should not look at the activities on the “radical left” of the equation purely to strike some sense of parity. This is not about fairness, but about risk. But the parity argument is a curious one since, let us not forget, this was the central reason that “right wing extremism” was incorporated into the Prevent Strategy. It certainly was not based upon risk. In my book I explore why the EDL have never been assessed as posing a terrorist risk, but rather as a risk to public order and community cohesion. If we are being risk-based, there are entirely legitimate questions to be asked about responses to the public order disturbances and community cohesion risks posed by those groups at the fringe of BLM protests. If we fail to do this, we will continue to cede territory to the radical right.

Ultimately, we cannot hope to respond to the radical right without understanding its connectivity with other forms of extremism. With planned activities by anarchist and anti-capitalist groups over the summer we must seriously consider how responses, framing and narratives associated with protest activity will have direct implications for others. In being seen to act without fear or favour –  to respond effectively to acts of criminality carried out during protests, in short – the police service can go some way to reducing the salience of extremist narratives currently energising the radical right. Will this prevent hardcore elements from turning out? No. But it will further deny them the legitimacy they seek through appealing to mainstream sentiment on the actions of those groups who pose every bit as much of a threat to public order and community cohesion as they do.

If we are serious about responses to the radical right, finally, we must develop our understanding of the threats, both perceived and real, that underpin their narratives. If we fail to learn the lessons of the uncertain summer to come in Britain – not least due to threats posed by groups on all sides of the street protest scene – we will have again handed another public relations victory to those who seize upon discord and division to drive individuals to the extremes and further polarise communities.

Dr Craig McCann is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Director at S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. Universal Ltd. See full profile here.

© Craig McCann. 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).