Jo Cox’s Murder Sheds Light on Britain's Tradition of Far-right Extremism

While Islamic radicalism wins most headlines, the U.K.'s counter-extremism strategy deals with a significant number of far-right referrals.

Flowers and messages left in remembrance of slain Labour MP Jo Cox are pictured in Parliament Square, London, U.K., June 19, 2016.
Ben Stansall, AFP

In 1990, British teacher Arthur Neslen was beaten so badly by far-right thugs that he was hospitalized and left scarred for life. 

While travelling through a London tube station, he saw some British National Party stickers on the wall and ripped them off. But he was followed by a group including BNP national organizer Tony Lecomber, a man with numerous convictions for violent offences.

After he pressed charges, Neslen had a swastika carved onto the front door of his house and his parents received anti-Semitic death threats. 

Lecomber was eventually jailed for three years, but “the most frightening thing in retrospect was the feeling of isolation,” Neslen, now a journalist living in Brussels, told Haaretz. “We were clearly being targeted by highly motivated racists, with the means and intent to carry out violence.”

Much has changed in the intervening years, he continued, including how seriously police reacted to such threats. However he stressed that although anti-Semitism remained “a core ideological lodestar and mobilizing tool” for the far-right, their aims had expanded.

The murder of British MP Jo Cox last week has once again shone light on the country’s small but persistent tradition of far-right extremism.

Britain seems to actively shy away from the more populist right-wing movements that have sprung up elsewhere in post-austerity Europe, but experts warn of a small but sinister hardcore of violent activists.

Although Islamic radicalism wins most headlines, the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy deals with a significant number of far-right referrals. 

The imminent EU referendum has led to heightened tensions and xenophobic rhetoric.

The man charged with Cox’s murder, Tommy Mair, was a long time neo-Nazi sympathizer as well as apparently having suffered from mental illness.

Mair, in his 50s, had bought hundreds of dollars worth of books from a neo-Nazi publishers in the United States including manuals explaining how to make explosives and construct a handgun. 

One of the groups Mair was thought to be associated with, Britain First, held a march in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire – part of Cox’s constituency for Batley and Spen – in January of this year.

She responded with a tweet expressing her pride at how locals had met the  “hatred and racism of the extreme right with calm unity.”

“Mair had clearly been interested in the far-right for the last 20 years, but it’s hard to say how active he was,” said Dave Rich, a spokesman for the Community Security Trust which monitors threats to the UK’s Jews. “He certainly didn’t have a big footprint on the British far-right.”

Such violence remains rare but not unknown. 

Daniel Trilling, author of Author of Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain's Far Right, noted that far-right political groupings “are usually confined to the fringes, but break through into the mainstream at certain points when the wider political conditions allow. 

“In the 1970s the National Front exploited racism against Commonwealth immigrants and social turmoil to gain support; in the 2000s the BNP targeted disaffected white-working class communities who felt they had been abandoned by the New Labour government. Beneath this, there is a strain of violent street activity which at times breaks out into larger movements like the anti-Muslim English Defence League, or organised criminal networks like Combat 18 in the 1990s.” 

These groups often appear to have significant traction on social media, although the numbers of committed activists remain small and fluid.

“Many people hover on the periphery, soaking up anti-Semitic or Islamophobic conspiracy theories, violent rhetoric and paranoid fears about "race war" or threats to the nation,” Trilling continued. “The threat of extreme violence mainly comes from individuals on this periphery.”

Indeed, far-right attacks are almost invariably carried out by so-called “lone wolves”.

The most recent serious incident was in 2014, when 26-year old Zack Davies tried to behead an Asian man with a machete in a supermarket in Wales.

Davies, who claimed the attack was in revenge for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by Islamic extremists in 2013, had connections to National Action, a particularly violent neo-Nazi group whose whole narrative is about calls to action. But he told police he had acted alone.

Britain’s bloodiest neo-Nazi attack was in 1999, when David Copeland staged three attacks over a two-week period on the black, Asian and LGBT communities.

More than 100 people were injured in the attacks. The final bomb, set in the Admiral Duncan gay pub in central London, killed three people including a pregnant woman.

“I would have bombed the Jews as well if I'd got a chance,” Copeland said after his arrest.

Although he was a former member of far-right groups including the British National Party, Rich noted that Copeland too acted alone. 

“You don’t get coherent networks [carrying out far-right violence], just one or two people acting alone and not connected to each other,” he said. 

The BNP tried to rebrand itself as a far more mainstream force in the 2000s and by 2009 it had 58 local council seats, and it stood 330 candidates in the 2010 general election. 

But as with all populist far-right movements in the U.K. their success was short-lived. In the most recent 2015 elections, they put forward eight candidates and got fewer than 2,000 votes – less than the party that campaigned on a platform of legalizing cannabis.

Another grouping, English Defence League, founded in 2009, had its roots in football hooliganism and its public demonstrations often descended into street brawls.

It tried to assume a thin veneer of respectability by claiming to oppose only Islamic extremism and toyed with presenting itself as a force defending Jews from Muslims. It even brought Israel flags to their marches. “But that was just to wind up Muslims,” said Rich. 

Other clumsy attempts to court Jewish support fell flat, he continued, adding, “[Former EDL leader] Tommy Robinson thought that if they took that stance they would get money from the Jews.” 

Needless to say, this did not happen, and experts stress that hatred of Jews remained a core belief for such entities.

“Many far-right activists will be comfortable attending an anti-Muslim demonstration where Israel flags are displayed, then going home to share anti-Semitic conspiracy theories,” added Trilling. “Israel is viewed as a convenient prop in a supposed global conflict with Muslims; far right groups may also support the idea of Israel as a home for Jews because they believe Jews don't belong anywhere else.”

But ultimately, more organised groups such as the EDL and the BNP end up falling apart.

This is partly due to the intrinsically splintered nature of the U.K.’s far-right – Former BNP leader Nick Griffin once claimed that the EDL was run by “Zionist terrorists” – but also down to a very British sense of embarrassment at extremism.

“British voters have an inherent suspicion of fascism, although I wouldn’t want to be too complacent,” said Rich.

Matthew Collins, head of research at Hope Not Hate, a lobby group that campaigns against racism and fascism, also warned against complacency. 

He too noted that the extremist groups most visible five or ten years ago had largely disintegrated, with “only the bottom-feeders of society still active on the far-right”.

But that was, he continued, because the wider society had become increasingly intolerant.

“Some of the views the BNP used to propagate have become extraordinarily mainstream,” he said.

These weakened far-right groups who had won support away from disenfranchised Labour voters seem to have in turn lost out to the U.K. Independence Party, a right-wing, populist, anti-immigration party. 

Trilling warned that impossible to discount the impact of a “wider climate of xenophobia” in violent attacks.

“You do not need to spend time on far-right web forums to learn that Muslims are taking over the country; this is a message frequently pushed on the front pages of several tabloid newspapers,” Trilling said. 

Collins agreed, noting that “nine times out of ten” complaints to his office over material seen on far-right social media actually involved stories posted from tabloid newspapers.

Anti-Muslim feeling and xenophobia had reached troubling heights, exacerbated by the imminent vote on whether to leave the EU, he continued.

“The referendum debate has descended into a competition over who hates immigrants more,” Collins said. “The atmosphere in Britain right now is really quite toxic.”