“I’ve never met my dad,” 21-year-old Josh says as we sit in drizzle in Manchester’s Vimto Park next to the cartoon-like sculpture of a giant bottle of the city’s native Ribena rival. “My mum works part-time and her current partner suffers with chronic back pains so he can only work part-time too, we’re trying to find him work but there just aren’t that many jobs in our area.”
Growing up in a mostly-white Derbyshire town with little cash and unable to afford tickets to see his football team – Sheffield Wednesday – play, he felt like an outsider at home.
Unassuming and gently spoken, you wouldn’t suspect that he was only 14 when he became involved in the far-right through the political portal that is Facebook. By 17, he was deeply embedded within its racist and xenophobic community. By 19 he’d been through the government’s (not entirely uncontroversial) counter-terrorist deradicalisation programme Prevent after giving a xenophobic speech in college that caused someone so much concern they decided to refer him. By 20 he’d started working for Small Steps, a group of mentors who help people leave extremist far-right groups.
The far-right itself can be difficult to pin down because it isn’t exactly a coherent global movement or political party with a concrete set of ideas. It largely exists online, in Facebook groups, as Twitter accounts, on YouTube and anonymous message boards such as 8Chan. In Britain it consists of groups like Britain First, the English Defence League and the Football Lads Alliance.
Conversations about race in Britain are front of our shared national psyche right now following the Black Lives Matter marches and subsequent groundswell of support for the movement and growing awareness for the need to implement actively anti-racist strategies to bring about long-term structural change.
But, as macabre statues venerating the white men who profited from Britain’s colonial history – Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford – were taken down by the sheer force of public opinion, the far-right made themselves known – they staged so-called “counter protests”, “patriotic unity” events and appointed themselves as defenders of history, emerging by the bus load to guard statues of other problematic historical figures such as Churchill.
The anti-extremist campaign group Hope Not Hate, which was set up following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, warned that the police needed to take the far-right threat seriously this time. Coaches, they said, had been booked to bring members to London from as far afield as the north-east of England and Portsmouth.
Getting people to take the threat of these groups seriously hasn’t always been easy. This is despite the fact that in recent years, the number of far-right referrals to Prevent has hit a record high. In 2018-19 a total of 1,389 people were referred by concerned neighbours, friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances who had concerns about their extreme views. That was up six per cent on the previous year. Last year, counter-terror police named far-right terrorism as the fastest-growing threat to the UK.
Josh, having been radicalised and coming out the other side, fears that, despite the mounting evidence to give us all cause for concern, nobody takes the threat that Britain’s far-right poses seriously.
“It’s extremist,” he says. “People don’t think of it that way but it is. And then they’re surprised when an attack like the Finsbury Park mosque attack happens. It never surprises me, though. The far-right are constantly threatening violence but people think ‘oh they’re just stupid lads, they’re all talk…they’ll never do it.”
He shifts on the bench we’re sitting on and rubs his hands together. “I think people think these guys are stupid because they’re white and working class, they just dismiss them as people from the bottom of society and don’t think they have the ability or ambition to commit a serious crime but I wish our society would take it more seriously and look at the reasons why people are getting into this dangerous area.”
Social media, Josh says, has made it easier than ever for far-right groups to peddle their racist propaganda in secret groups that give the illusion of exclusivity and get the attention of young men who, like him, perhaps didn’t feel that they belonged anywhere else. There is, he says clearly “no excuse for racism” but, when you have nothing, and someone in a position of perceived authority shows an interest in you for the first time, it doesn’t require too much mental gymnastics to see how people get sucked in.
Josh’s story is one of feeling marginalised and so, retaliating by attacking other marginalised groups. “I was about 15 when Andrew Edge (the former English Defence League leader who is described by Hope Not Hate as a “crackpot”) messaged me directly and told me he liked what I was posting,” he reflects. “He said ‘You ever need me, just give us a call. I’m always here for you. No matter what happens, I’ll help you’. Nobody had ever said that to me before.”
Last week the Home Office counter-terrorism chief Sara Khan who leads the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism warned that the Black Lives Matter movement was being aggressively exploited by the far-right which was using it to recruit and radicalise new members.
Speaking to The Observer she said: “They’ve been promoting racist extremist narratives, encouraging and inciting hate. Certain far-right actors have been claiming that the Black Lives Matter movement is a war against all white people.”
Too often, we diminish the significance of things which happen online. We do this as though the internet isn’t real. As though what takes place in cyberspace is, somehow, not perpetuated by actual humans physically sitting somewhere and typing with their fingertips. But in truth, these are very real human behaviours and because we spend so much time on the internet, what takes place there is as real as any other interaction we have in our day-to-day lives. Inevitably, it eventually spills over into the physical world and that’s what we’ve seen with the far-right clapback in recent weeks.
And so, while we need to be careful not to give too much air time to these dangerous rants because the oxygen of attention only fuels them, equally, we ought to give them enough attention to understand the threat they pose and understand how to counter it.
That said, there are huge question marks hanging over Prevent (which is currently undergoing its first comprehensive review) as a strategy for deradicalisation and dealing with those drawn to terrorism. Prevent is not compulsory and those referred can decline to be involved in the programme which leaves them free to operate until they commit an actual crime. Indeed, there is a very valid argument that racism is just racism and should be treated as such. As we move forward and think collectively about how we address racism and combat white nationalism as a society, is the very idea of “Preventing” extremism a fool’s errand? Should the authorities just be concentrating on catching and prosecuting those who attempt and commit crimes?
Josh thinks we need to do both. He is now devoting his time and energy to doing just that. “I’m going to keep telling my story,” he says. “I speak in sixth forms and go to counter-terrorism meetings. I think if I can relate to people then I might be able to show them that there’s another way. I went from being drawn in by posts about football and being proud to be English to consuming racist propaganda and I’d say I fully believed it for a good three years. We have to expose that stuff for what it is: hatred and extremism.”
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