What’s Next For Street-Based Manifestations Of The Radical Right In The UK?
Dr. Craig McCann is a former senior counter-terrorism police officer with extensive experience in preventative counterterrorism tactics. Based on his Ph.D. research he has authored a book exploring how the Prevent Strategy has been applied to right-wing extremism. He is a Policy & Practitioner Fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
We know the threat profile of the Radical Right is increasing and you only have to follow the announcements from senior security actors to see that this form of terrorism poses a major and evolving threat. While it must be acknowledged that the overriding threat in the UK continues to emanate from Islamist terrorism, groups such as the proscribed National Action remind us of the need to cater for “all forms of terrorism” in our suite of responses to this national security issue.
However, if we turn to the street-based manifestations of the Radical Right, principally those actors who have traditionally operated at the fringes of English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First demonstrations, and who use these events as an opportunity to talent spot individuals for their cause, it is here, more so that the high-profile counter-terrorism investigations, that we find the most challenging and comparatively neglected area of operational activity to counter the Radical Right.
Back in 2018 I wrote for CARR about how, although the street-based activities of the EDL had dwindled to a ragtag bunch of local activists with the departure of Tommy Robinson as their leader, the constituency of supporters who turned out in their tens of thousands between 2009 – 2013 were still very much alive and had only that year mustered a 15,000 strong “Free Tommy Robinson” demonstration in response to his arrest for contempt of Court proceedings. I pondered at the time; “What if an individual untainted by membership or affiliation with a Radical Right group were to enter the scene and could galvanise broad public support and was able to articulate their opposition to Islamist extremism whilst also not being anti-Islamic?”
Zoom forward to present day and I find myself wondering what the future holds for street based Radical Right movements. The principal challenge they face is the critical absence of a leader who has mainstream appeal. As a charismatic and media-savvy figure, Tommy Robinson was adept at galvanizing mainstream opinion but as he moved from his position of opposing Islamist extremism to adopting a broader anti-Islamic stance in which he focused on the inherent incompatibility between Islam and “The West”, it was the beginning of the end for the glory days of the EDL. Robinson, like his counterparts in Britain First, now has a string of criminal convictions which prevent them from garnering broader support than their immediate circles. They are a spent force, so what does the next chapter of leadership look like?
My prediction is that this leadership will be less characterized by its position on Islamist extremism, which while an important aspect of the narrative, will likely be relegated to a secondary and reactionary position in favor of a strong opposition to the cultural threat posed by extreme left-wing groups which have been increasing their activities in the U.K. The stream of videos capturing Antifa’s activities in the U.S. City of Portland for instance are circulating within social media circles and precipitate a very clear narrative that this cannot be allowed to happen here. This, coupled with the perception that our Police Service is cowed by political correctness, leads to the same sense of urgency we saw in response to the Al-Muhajiroun protests at the Royal Anglian Homecoming March in Luton in 2009 which ultimately gave rise to the EDL.
While I am not suggesting that anyone opposing the activities of the extreme left should be framed as the extreme right (which would be nonsensical), we cannot ignore that demonstrations and counter demonstrations can and have acted as recruitment grounds for the Radical Right (and the same is no doubt true of their ideological counterparts). These flashpoints or “times of stress” for local communities (which is a reference to the submission of a Local Authority representative I interviewed in support of my PhD and subsequent book on the EDL) present opportunities for extremist groups to capitalize on the polarized nature of our discourse and have been used to recruit to and garner support for more extreme positions.
There is a real opportunity for an individual (or a group) to draw upon and weaponize the social discord we see in the wake of protest activities aligned with the extreme left-wing narratives playing out in the street protest scene and to breathe life into the latent constituency of EDL and Britain First supporters. This direct action “anti-woke” manifestation of the Radical Right will be able to articulate the cultural threat, real or perceived, being posed by the creep of political correctness, illiberal liberalism and the rise of left-wing extremists and will be more adept at articulating implicit and explicit linkages between widely peddled Radical Right tropes, such as stitching together the “Great Replacement” theory with the sheer scale of the demographic shifts that we’re seeing in 2021 Britain into a compelling narrative which reinforces the perception of threat being faced by less economically mobile white communities left behind by social change.
I do not present this prediction based upon a desire to strike parity in the way we respond to different types of terrorism. There is no “fairness” in a risk-based approach, there is only risk. I see the collective failure to even discuss the spectrum of threats being presented across the street protest scene and based upon our very recent experience conclude that where there is action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, its physics.
Any security actor knows that the end of lockdown measures in the U.K. marks the start of protest season and the pent-up rage across a host of social issues will be unleashed over the coming months.
The environment created by the limited protests that took place last summer in London provide us with a disturbing insight into the forces at play on the street protest scene and present a deeply polarised and increasingly violent set of actors. Over the last ten years the Radical Right has demonstrated how disparate groups who often vehemently disagree (often along the lines of clashes between leaders) are willing to mobilize against what is perceived as a clear and imminent cultural threat. The soil is fertile for new leadership. Who will it be?
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. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.