The tragic events of last Friday in Oslo have prompted a stream of soul-searching across the continent. For the past few months, the electoral inroads made by the True Finns, the court proceedings against Geert Wilders, the reaction in southern Europe to a wave of North African immigration and suggestions of Marine Le Pen becoming a credible presidential candidate next year in France, have all been poignant instances of how the political discourse in Europe has shifted over the past decade. Themes such as multicultural identity and integration, immigration and extremism, previously not electoral priorities, have since emerged as decisive in forming significant portions of the electorate’s opinions and hence entered mainstream politics. But few, if any, envisioned that against this backdrop an escalation to an atrocity of this scale were possible on European soil by a native European. Britain is often portrayed as an anomaly in this specific context, a haven where extremists have no political platform from which to perform nor a sizeable or significant far-right following. But the revelations of Anders Breivik’s contacts with groupings such as the English Defence League, coupled with the National Security Council’s decision to explore security concerns raised last Friday, have served to highlight an emerging debate in Britain regarding the role of the far-right and attitudes to multiculturalism. Can we still consider its influence to be as negligible as was once commonly assumed, and does it have the potential to adopt a political and social legitimacy, comparable to that it enjoys on the continent?
The history of the modern British far-right has been a decidedly chequered one. Spanning from the black shirts of Oswald Mosley to the rallies of the National Front in the 1970′s, to the British National Party and the English Defence League, it has always captured the attention it desperately craves, but never quite translated it into electoral success or recognition across the breadth of society. No member of its political parties has earned the right to sit in Parliament, and perhaps most damningly, at the general election last year, where given the socio-economic context key gains would have been expected of the likes of the BNP, the far-right accounted for just under 2% of the general vote. The motives for this are many and varied, several through their own undertaking. Fragmented and diverse, the array of far-right groupings that have sprung up in Britain since the 1930′s have largely been seen as single-issue outfits, often violent, the public strongly disagreeing with their most pressing goals. Their associations with fascism, anti-Semitism, compulsory repatriation of the non-white population, and most recently Islamophobia, have overwhelmingly been rejected as un-British values. On the continent, counterparts such as the National Front in France and Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, to mention a few, have reinvented themselves to the extent of electoral respectability, having largely shrugged off the racial tag and are also known for policies other than core ones such as immigration. In Britain, however, few are aware of what else the BNP could stand for, other than perceiving them to be antipathetic to immigrants, sympathetic to Nazism and capable of Holocaust denialism. Until the far right in Britain is able to reform its image and be seen as a credible political force, it will remain as unelectable as it has been for the last seven decades.
It would though be grossly unfair to entirely blame the far right’s stagnation on its own failings. Were the multicultural experiment that they stand against as deeply unpopular and unsuccessful as they claim, why has there been no popular clamour for its reversal since it was begun? Most Britons recognise, albeit to varying degrees, that the influx of foreign nationals since the end of the Second World War has enriched the country in many beneficial ways. As in many other parts of Western Europe, multiculturalism has enabled all Britons to work, live and become educated, despite outstanding issues in this latter respect, side by side for over half a century. Perhaps a significant indicator of its success is the fact that Britain, with a population merely the 22nd largest in the world, boasts the highest number of interracial relationships in the world. But what I find so particularly striking about British multiculturalism on a European level, is the extent to which those originating from abroad truly feel a sense of attachment to their country of residence. Immigrants to Britain appear to be more willing or adept to describe themselves as British than others in Western Europe. For instance, a Gallup poll in 2009 found that 77% of all British Muslims identified “very strongly” or “strongly” with Britain, whilst in France it was 49% and in Germany 23%. Furthermore, perhaps telling though a little simplistic, if one were to examine the demographics of both Paris and London, probably the two most diverse places in Western Europe, the latter has been held up as a place relatively unsegregated in comparison to the former. It is difficult to precisely adjudge the motives for these phenomena, researchers claiming among other factors that Britain has had a longer experience of modern immigration than Germany and lacks much of the colonial baggage that France is still coming to terms with. This is not to say that the multicultural experiment has been a flawless one, only 25% of British Muslims for example claiming to feel entirely integrated into society. But multiculturalism can be qualified as a process that has found acceptance across all of British society, perhaps more so than in other parts of Europe, and consequently this has made it difficult for its sceptics to challenge.
The political and social discourse in Britain, however, has evolved over the last few years, beginning to somewhat mirror that developing on the continent. Much as in the rest of the Western world, in a decade since 9/11 that has included the 7/7 bombings, the spotlight on the Muslim community and wariness of it have been maximised like never before, raising questions across society of their ability to truly integrate. A more recent danger though has been the economic downturn and renewed hostility to immigration in certain quarters of society, particularly the white working class. The BNP were able to capitalise on this situation the European elections in 2009, for the first time winning two seats. It is unlikely though that the political far right in Britain, as it is structured now, can make any future ground beyond this. The limitations of the BNP, its main political representative, were rapidly shown at last year’s general election added to recent revelations of its near bankruptcy and the fratricidal divisions threatening its existence. It is also difficult for a far-right entity to cement its place in such end of the political spectrum, given how dominant the Eurosceptic lobby there is rather than an anti-immigrant one. So instead the issue of multiculturalism has been one that has in the last two years made it all the way to the top end of British politics, as the public begins to express its worry at present levels of immigration and the success of integration. David Cameron has already declared that “state multicultarism” has failed and hopes to limit non-EU immigration to “tens of thousands a year.” Even some in the opposition Labour party, now criticised by the Conservatives for taking a hands-off approach to integration during their thirteen years in government, have wildly attributed their defeat in the general election to disregarding the issue of integration and warmed to the idea of capping immigration.
But the fact that leading politicians are speaking about the issues does not mean they are yet quite in tune with the British public, and it is here where the potential of the far-right still lies. According to a recent poll by Populus, 48% of the population would support an anti-immigrant party standing against Islamist extremism, and with policies such as flying the Union Jack or St. George’s Cross over all public buildings. The survey also found that 63% of white Britons agreed with the statement “immigration into Britain has been a bad thing for the country” and 52% of all respondents saying “Muslims create problems in the UK.” The pollsters concluded that, based on their findings, Britons cannot be considered as more tolerant than Europeans. In fact, it appears more of them would be willing to support a far-right party than in the Netherlands or France, but that there was simply no party through which to articulate their frustrations, and not tinged by suggestions of fascism or violence. So in this vacuum, civic groupings such as the street-protest movement English Defence League, vehemently opposed to Islamism and Islamic extremism, have recently emerged and may yet grow further.
It is difficult to predict with precision the future trajectory of the far right in Britain, especially given its previous unspectacular past. But what is becoming increasingly apparent, is that Britain is no longer isolated from a growing European trend of increased scepticism of the merits of multiculturalism and immigration. Politicians have begun responding to public opinion with statements of their own on the matter, but voters continue to feel they are out of touch and acting too slowly. It is here where the opportunities for the far right are, and if there were adequate political representatives available the reality might be more worrying. To strengthen that multicultural society fewer previously questioned, and to make a convincing case for it once more, the discussion must highlight how the experiment has made Britain more pluralistic, tolerant, liberal and democratic than ever before, whilst taking into account the concerns of those sceptical of it. Immigration is fundamentally an economic phenomenon, and hence often opportunistically attacked in times such as these, so prosperity and recovery from the recession are necessary. Britain is fortunate enough to have not been seriously ravaged by the dangers of the far right, but the warning signs are there to be seen. Before the political means are available, or others such as last Friday’s ever considered, much more work must go into convincing Britain of the worthiness of the multicultarism that has served it so well, while learning to listen to the new hopes and frustrations of its people.