Whilst it’s Europe and America that we tend to think about when it comes to far-right extremists, Britain First has long been the UK’s fastest growing political party, on Facebook. This was not originally a cause for alarm: a large part of that early success was down to an almost genius campaign of using highly emotive, apolitical images (often to do with animal cruelty) to get users to sign up, artificially inflating their numbers.
That’s a whole different board game to being retweeted by the President of the United States, across three separate Islamophobic videos. That’s more publicity than a thousand pictures of abused dog can get you. For a splinter group from the British National Party – itself a splinter from the National Front, which dominated the British fascist scene in the 70s – it’s perhaps a high point.
That Trump chose to not only use content from them – but then to double-down, attack Theresa May, and have Sarah Huckabee Sanders go out and say that even if the content was essentially a series of lies, the ‘threat’ was real – is galling and horrifying and almost farcical.
But the risk presented by Britain First – and similar ‘organised political movements’ – should be kept in proportion. Their actions are those of street thugs with a religious veneer, leading Christian patrols and rushing into mosques, claiming all along that they’re not racist and they’re not Islamophobic (they just don’t like mass immigration).
Although they claim to have received hundreds of new members thanks to Trump’s retweets, rallies of the far-right in Britain remain paltry things. In Chelmsford, Essex, the EDL march this September saw a massive turn up of two members. In 2015, National Action (the now proscribed Neo-Nazi group) were forced to hide in a Liverpudlian train station because they were massively outnumbered by counter protesters. In Bromley, South London, the “persecuted patriots” of Britain First rallied in full force of less than 50 – fewer than the number of policemen there to protect them.
Even with whatever membership boost this gives them, the danger of fascists marching in the streets, in Britain, is easy to exaggerate. There are no indications yet that the limited numbers are an organised effort to drain police resources and wear out opponents – they just don’t seem to be as popular.
The greater threat, as seems to increasingly be the case, does not come from the most obvious and vocal figures in the movements, but those on the fringes. Thomas Mair had been a long time fascist, radicalised even before the internet began. He was not an outstanding member of any far-right society, secret or otherwise – he seems largely to have kept to himself. Dylann Roof, who found his way to writing his manifesto as ‘The Last Rhodesian’ through the Council of Conservative Citizens (a now defunct white supremacist site), was a recluse. Even Anders Breivik proved to be a fabulist, with his claims that he was a member of a Knights Templar group and his mammoth manifesto, 2038: A European Declaration of Independence little more than a cobbled together mix of his own half-baked ideas and other authors.
The idea of ‘leaderless resistance’ is one well embedded amongst white nationalists, taken from their seminal work, William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries. Traditional, hierarchical command structures like that used by the BNP and other similar groups render them highly fragile, and prone to infighting. But that their message is getting in the endorsement of the president of the United States should leave us all wary. It is the hangers-on, the lone-wolves at the fringes of these groups who offer the greatest threats. Often outside of the support of these groups, and so often beyond law enforcement’s purview, it is not hard to see how the President’s retweets may well have devastating consequences.