A tiny British anti-Muslim party called “Britain First” benefitted from worldwide publicity at the end of 2017 when President Trump retweeted three videos purporting to show examples of Islamist violence. Closer scrutiny later proved that none of the videos was quite what had been claimed, but by then the damage had been done: the group claimed Trump as a fellow traveller in the fight against “Islamism.” Parties across the political spectrum lined up to attack the President for appearing to endorse the views of the controversial organisation—if “organisation” isn’t too complimentary a term for this bunch of misfits, Nazis and thugs.
So who is Britain First? Formed in 2011 by Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, the group appears to have a huge following, with 1.9 million Facebook “likes” and 27,000 Twitter followers (at least before being banned from Twitter in December). Its core membership is under 1,000, mostly extremists who, like Golding, had formerly been members of the racist British National Party (BNP).
Growing concern about Islamist terrorism and rising Muslim populations across Europe has led to a rise in organisations claiming to defend European values—as well as racists attempting to conceal their true motives beneath a respectable veneer. In Germany, the Pegida movement has drawn huge crowds, and in the UK, the English Defence League (EDL) and Football Lads Alliance (FLA) have proved popular mostly among the white working classes, though these groups also attract support from ethnic minorities and totally reject accusations that they are racist. In fact, EDL founder, Tommy Robinson, often described in the media as “far right”, has repeatedly stated his opposition to racism and attacks on ordinary Muslims, at one point joining forces with moderate Muslim organisation the Quilliam Foundation to explain his position on—and opposition to—Islamism. Robinson could be lying, of course, but why bother when the so-called “Alt-Right” is gaining prominence on both sides of the Atlantic?
Accusations of racism are much easier to make about Britain First. The group specialises in provocative stunts, likely to provoke a reaction: invading mosques and halal butchers, arranging so-called “Christian patrols” through neighbourhoods with large Muslim populations, and using social media to stir up hatred. When Far Right fanatic, Thomas Mair, stabbed and shot Labour MP, Jo Cox, to death days before the referendum on Europe in 2016, it is claimed by some eye-witnesses that he shouted, “Britain First.” The group condemned his action but at the same time defended “direct action”.
In December 2017, Golding and Fransen were arrested in Belfast for statements made about Islam in the Protestant-majority Shankill Road a few months earlier. Both were bailed, but the arrests played straight into their hands and were soon used as Britain First propaganda, with claims the police were trying to clamp down on “free speech”. The police claimed to be concerned that comments made by the group could lead to attacks on Muslims.
In fact, what has been striking about the UK, in recent times, has been the lack of a backlash following terror attacks by Islamists. There were a number of attacks in 2017, including the suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in May, in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed, and a further nine major attacks were foiled, according to counter-terrorism officials. Yet, with the exception of a van attack on worshippers in Finsbury Park in June, in which one man died, there have been few retaliatory attacks—though there has been a spike in low-level violence, such as fire-bombing of mosques, following each attack.
Far Right groups, such as Britain First, and the remains of the “Left”—along with much of the mainstream media—have one thing in common: a belief that a “backlash” is coming after every terrorist atrocity carried out by Islamists. For the cosmopolitan elite, it’s a fear of the mob, a mistrust of the old working class they believe to be waiting for an excuse to turn on migrants. This is not only insulting, it is delusory and ignores the fact that, on the whole, the white working classes mingle far more with ethnic minorities (in relationships, social housing, the education system, lower-income work) than the middle classes.
However, Britain First also misunderstands the British public, most of whom understand that Islamists do not represent Muslims any more than the self-appointed “community leaders”, who wheeled out following every atrocity to issue mealy-mouthed condemnation, almost always wrapped up in justification due to the actions of “The West” in the Middle East. Furthermore, most Britons, whatever their misgivings about militant Islam, have equally strong misgivings about Nazis and quasi-fascists like Britain First, and the even more extreme National Action, which was prescribed by the UK government in 2016: there can’t be many Britons whose family didn’t suffer losses in World War II, so there is little tolerance here for groups claiming to be inspired by Hitler.
Overall, the British have always distrusted extremists of all persuasions; both the Far Left and Far Right perform dismally when it comes to the ballot box (Fransen secured just 56 votes at a 2014 by-election), which is perhaps why extremists from both ends of the spectrum dislike democracy so much.
In fact, the mainstream media and politicians are probably equally guilty of underplaying the threat from Islamist fanatics, including the hundreds who went to fight for the Islamic State, and are now returning home, and are over-hyping the perceived threat of groups like Britain First. Rather than banning such groups from social media, preventing them from speaking, or investing them with glamour by arresting them on spurious grounds, it is far better, surely, simply to ignore them or do what the British do best: make jokes about them.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore gangs of thugs when they start demonstrating outside your mosque, which was why the response of one Muslim community was so wonderfully British: when the EDL protested outside a mosque in York, Imam Abid Salik and his fellow worshippers invited them inside for tea, biscuits and a game of football.
Political Journalist (London)