20% Of Young White Britons Hold Radical Right Views, Research Shows

New research from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change finds 5 key ways far-right narratives resonate with young white people in the UK.
Generation Identity, a white supremacist movement in the UK (GI)

Generation Identity, a white supremacist movement in the UK (GI)

Cristina Ariza is a policy and practitioner fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and an analyst at the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. She is also the research lead for extreme right-wing terrorism at the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies.

New research from myself for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) has found that around 1 in 5 young white people in the UK agree with extreme radical right views, such as: “there is an unresolvable conflict between the West and Islam”, “British culture is under threat of invasion”, and “democracy is broken, and we should replace it”.

The quantitative survey this research is based on was carried out by Savanta ComRes with 2,000 young Muslims and white non-Muslims aged 18-30 in May 2019, as well as two qualitative online focus groups with 57 young people.

Here are five takeaways of how extreme radical right narratives are resonating with people in the UK:

1. Extreme radical right narratives about culture have more cut-through than those about race

Negative statements about Islam resonated very strongly with young white Britons in the TBI study, making it the most prevalent narrative tested out of all the extremist statements. Thirty-one percent of young white people agreed with statements saying that Islam promotes violence and/or that there are no-go zones in the UK where sharia law dominates. 19 percent believed there is an unresolvable conflict between Islam and the West.

Meanwhile, only 6 percent thought that you are not truly British unless you are white, and 7 percent agreed that Britain should strive to ensure our country is white. Prevalence of anti-Semitism in this cohort was particularly strong, with 26 to 29 percent of young white Britons who think that Jewish people have used the Holocaust to their advantage also agreeing with the two aforementioned statements about wanting for the UK to be a whites-only country.

But again, extreme statements that did not directly allude to racial identities had more resonance, with 18 percent of young white Britons agreeing that multiculturalism has made Britain a worse place to live and that cultures should live separately, which can be linked to the French Nouvelle Droits’ concept of ‘ethnopluralism’.

These results are reflective of the wider global shift that has taken place in the radical right, with newer manifestations framing the conflict in terms of “culture” to distance themselves from any semblance of white supremacy ideology. Over recent years this has been notably evident in the UK, as its more influential figures (e.g. Tommy Robinson) and groups (e.g. the Identitarian Movement) have emerged from this branch of thinking.

To name a few, and as a word of context, the British National Party (BNP) already was jumping on the anti-Muslim bandwagon in 1999, when its leader Nick Griffin started painting Muslims as the primary enemy of the radical right instead of Jews. Indeed, in 2006, he faced trial for saying that Islam was a “wicked, vicious faith”. Griffin’s legacy would set the scene for more anti-Muslim rhetoric that was to overtake the radical right in the years following the BNP’s demise, notably by the hand of groups like the English Defence League and Britain First.

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2. Conspiracy theories about invasion and replacement have increased amongst young white people in the UK

17 percent of young white Britons thought that British culture was under threat of invasion, while 12 percent think that white people are a minority in Britain.

These statements encompass feelings of ‘victimization’, that is, the argument that a group of people (“in-group”) are being systematically persecuted and singled out wherever they go, by the state, the media, and other societal forces. Radical right groups often resort to crying censorship and restrictions on freedoms of speech to portray themselves as victims of a ‘police state’.

Mentions of ‘invasion’ could be likened to the Great Replacement theory, a conspiracy claiming that immigrants and Muslims are replacing the European population. This conspiracy has been espoused by far-right activist groups like Generation Identity but also by several terrorists like the Christchurch shooter of the perpetrator of the El Paso attack.

3. Anti-establishment sentiment is strong among young white Britons

25 percent thought that democracy is broken and/or that the government should be boycotted, while 23 percent of young white Britons think that there is little value in engaging with the political system.

The TBI online focus groups showed that many young white Brits thought the system as it is was confusing and hard to engage with. Political challenges such as Brexit, which was the main political topic of debate in Parliament at the time the focus groups took place, were also cited as deterrents.

Yet these underlying feelings of distrust in democracy and the government are worrying, particularly as there is a very strong current of anti-establishment sentiment within the radical right that continues to increase. In the same way that anti-Muslim activists sought to distance themselves from associations with neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial, ‘new’ variations of radical right extremism focused on anti-establishment views might follow in their footsteps.

This is already very much at play in the radical right’s response to Covid-19, often framing it as a complot by globalist forces to gain control over the population, although anti-establishment conspiracy theories have also blended in with old anti-Semitic tropes.

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4. Feeling a lack of agency over one’s future, feeling discriminated against or a lack of social mixing are key factors correlated with holding extreme views

A regression analysis of the data found that there are three main factors correlated with holding extreme views: feelings of lack of agency, being discriminated against, and a lack of social mixing.

47 percent of young white Britons who agree that multiculturalism has made Britain a worse place to live, and/or that cultures should live separately, also agree with the sentiment of boycotting and replacing democracy and they also believe that British culture is under threat from invasion.

39 and 33 percent of young white Britons who feel they have no control over their future and who do not think that their future will be positive respectively agreed with the idea that Islam promotes violence and that there are so-called ‘no-go zones’ in the UK where sharia law dominates.

While naturally, it is not possible to isolate the drivers that cause extremism, as it is a complex phenomenon, the TBI research points at these three issues as priority areas for policymakers to focus on. It is worth noting, nevertheless, that to address some of these factors, such as improving social mixing in communities, policymakers are already facing an uphill battle, as some of the respondents in our survey who agree with extreme statements already think the government is spending too much money on social integration.

5. It’s concerning that these messages are resonating with young people

While the majority of respondents of the TBI-Savanta ComRes survey did not agree with extremist statements, a significant minority did. It’s worth noting the age range of the respondents, from 18 to 30.

For reference, when the English Defence League was formed, arguably one of the largest street-based of anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK over the past ten years, the survey respondents would have been between 8 and 20 years old. It takes time, even decades, for ideas espoused by extremists to percolate, more so if they intend to have a mainstream appeal beyond their direct supporters.

Policymakers cannot ignore the challenges lying ahead, particularly as Covid-19 and the ensuing economic challenges therein continue to provide a fertile environment for radicalization and recruitment to extremist movements. How accessible these narratives are, their appeal, and whether they will continue to resonate with Millennials and Generation Z will continue to be a key challenge going forward.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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