Senior police officers have warned of an increase in far-right extremism in the UK in light of Brexit. A2 Global analyses the growth in far-right extremism, and how it may be affected by various Brexit scenarios.
- On 23 January, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, warned that far-right extremists could exploit the ‘febrile atmosphere’ surrounding the public debate over Brexit.
- While the UK is scheduled to leave the EU in late March, members of parliament (MPs) recently rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal with Brussels. This heightens the risk of a so-called ‘no deal’ Brexit, in which the UK departs the union with no agreed future relationship; or of Brexit being delayed, postponed or cancelled entirely. Both scenarios heighten the security risk posed by far-right extremists.
- Far-right groups increasingly rely on disinformation campaigns on social media and alternative news sources to spread their message, such as those prompted by the anti-EU Vote Leave campaign group during the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU. These have been successful in part because of growing distrust towards mainstream media – the result of repeated accusations from high-profile figures both domestically and overseas, including former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and US President Donald Trump, who accuse some news agencies of publishing ‘fake news’. In July 2018, the chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Damian Collins warned that ‘sophisticated’ fake news is causing a ‘crisis for democracy’.
- The threat posed by far-right extremists has increased in the aftermath of the June 2016 referendum in which the UK voted to leave the EU. This has manifested in increased hate crime attacks, particularly against minority groups, such as migrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Religious groups, including Muslims and Jews, are also frequent targets for harassment and attack.
- On 11 January, transport minister Chris Grayling warned that any delay to the UK’s planned departure from the EU on 29 March would leave those who voted to leave feeling ‘cheated’ and could prompt a ‘surge’ in far-right extremism.
- A remain supporting Labour MP, Cat Smith, announced on 24 January that she had cancelled a public meeting on Brexit in her Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency over reports that far-right groups were planning unspecified ‘action’ around the meeting.
- The warnings of far-right extremism in relation to Brexit are illustrative of the increased nationwide threat posed by the far-right. In October 2018, it was revealed that MI5 – the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency – would take over responsibility for monitoring the threat of far-right extremism from the police. This move saw the far-right designated as posing a major threat to national security.
- On 17 January 2019, West Midlands police’s counter terrorism unit revealed that approximately 20 per cent of the group’s workload is dedicated to tackling far-right extremism, which it described as ‘the fastest growing’ part of officers’ jobs.
- According to Home Office figures released in December 2018, there were 1,312 individuals referred to the Prevent counter-extremism programme over suspected far-right extremism in the year ending March 2018. This represented an increase of 36 per cent on the previous 12 months. Furthermore, the number of individuals held in prison on far-right offences has risen almost 500 percent from 2016 to 2018.
- The British far-right comprises a range of political parties and organisations with divergent modi operandi and political objectives.
- Far-right groups have effectively used social media to create and promote political campaigns. Through producing online content in the form of internet memes and hashtags, they can effectively grab the attention of internet users. The content is usually polarising in nature – causing people to either express their support or condemn a particular post – which then reproduces the content, reaching larger audiences.
- In recent years, far-right extremists in democracies ranging from Sweden to India have been galvanised by growing support for right-wing and far-right political parties and movements. In the United States, for example, far-right and white supremacist groups have become increasingly active since the election of Trump, regularly holding street demonstrations in cities including Washington, D.C., Portland and Seattle.
- Individuals with no clear links to terrorist groups, who are susceptible to extremist views pose a significant security risk. This is especially the case for young people and vulnerable individuals. An example was the vehicle-ramming attack in London’s Finsbury Park in June 2017, in which Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd near the Finsbury Park Mosque, resulting in one fatality. Osborne, whose family claimed he had mental health problems, was initially radicalised after viewing a television report on child grooming gangs in the UK and developed more extremist views after reading far-right material online.
- Far-right extremism will continue to pose a key security risk in the UK, which will be compounded through prolonged political uncertainty over the outcome of Brexit.
- While multiple Brexit scenarios remain plausible, a delay to the UK’s exit date or the announcement of a second EU referendum – increasingly probable scenarios – would likely prompt an increased number of demonstrations. Another, highly divisive referendum campaign, for example, will increase the risk of hate crime attacks. Far-right groups are likely to welcome the unlikely but increasingly possible prospect of a no-deal Brexit, however inflation, transport disruption and food shortages would likely prompt large-scale civil unrest, including from Brexit-supporting groups.
- Disinformation campaigns targeting minority groups and left-leaning politicians will remain the main tool used by far-right groups to spread their message. Other targets will potentially include multinational corporations that take stances on political issues. This can be in the form of public relations campaigns celebrating diversity or multiculturalism, which will increase the possibility that they will be targeted by far-right groups.