It's often claimed that staying in Europe would cause unmanageable anger and resentment, particularly among the British right. The reality is more complexby Emma-Lee Moss / July 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
It is no surprise that for its hardline cheerleaders, the 52-48 vote for Brexit was immediately claimed as the settled “will of the people.” What’s been remarkable, however, is how other political leaders and the wider media acquiesced in a very close vote on a moving question calcifying into “democratic case closed.” But—like it or not—that is the point of departure. And by those terms, a non-Brexit would mean that the people’s will is being disdained.
Enter the British far-right, which has already been showing signs of growing strength on the streets, as was seen with a large recent march on Whitehall. It is today a very different beast from single organisations such as the BNP. The modern far-right is a disparate set of groups and media-savvy individuals whose ideologies may not always overlap, but who have in common opportunism and a willingness to exploit public anger. Should Brexit fail, they could manage a brief moment of unity, taking to the streets and using online networks to spin a narrative of a nation betrayed by its elite.
For lone figures like Tommy Robinson or Paul Joseph Watson, whose appeal is linked to online conspiracy theories and mistrust of the mainstream media, a non-Brexit would be a gift, says Julia Ebner, researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and author of The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism, a book on the chauvinist political fringe. “It would allow them to mainstream some of the existing conspiracy theories,” about the way the powerful stitch things up against the people.
The “grief” of Brexit voters who felt democracy had failed them might, Ebner says, even result in “military”-style movements trying to “hijack” all the resentment, peddling solutions of force, as an express alternative to democratic argument.
Neo-fascist organisations such as Britain First could also gain followers, or at least attract new interest from those disenfranchised voters who briefly felt empowered by the referendum result. They would be newly inclined to close their ears to established politicians and a supposedly “fake news” mainstream media. And in that frame of mind, they could easily be coaxed into wild anti-semitic or anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
Then there’s Generation Identity, the youth-focused “identitarian” movement with links to the alt-right who emerged in Europe, and now have their sights on the UK and Ireland. Their key message—that “the indigenous European population is being replaced” by migrants – is naturally pan-European. For them, it may be harder to capitalise on a Brexit narrative. However, should the EU prove too big a machine for the UK to exit, this will support their position that localised identities have been compromised in favour of global power structures and a leftist hegemony.
The narrative of “an enemy within” is already developing across the hard-right spectrum, and not only on the fringes, as though in preparation for a failure in Brexit negotiations. An infamous Daily Mail headline—which referred to judges who ruled to uphold parliament’s role in Brexit as “Enemies of the People”—is an example of the type of language that could create a 21st-century version of the “stab-in-the-back” myth. The original—about German politicians and generals betraying the efforts of ordinary soldier in the First World War—was the myth that brought Hitler to power.
That comparison may be melodramatic. Unlike interwar Germany, Britain today has not been convulsed by hyperinflation or mass unemployment, and nor is it saddled with a whole cohort of young men who have been traumitised by the butchery of the trenches.
“A fascist populism in the interwar period was also steeped in the sense that we need to completely destroy a political constitutional system and replace it with a one party system,” says Paul Jackson, author of Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement.
“I don’t see the kind of populisms that we have today as anything like that, but the broad populist narrative—that the elites are in it for themselves, we are controlled one way or another by financial forces, sinister forces—that’s articulated in loads of different ways.”
Essentially, any message that rings of populism is likely to be amplified if Brexit is abandoned, but with so many to choose from, disappointed Leave voters may still prove discerning. A fringe figure like Tommy Robinson is likely to remain the extreme choice, in favour of someone who rides the line between respectability and mistrust of the system. It may well be that the radical right rather than the outright violent far-right would clean up—a sort of souped-up Farageism.
And against all this, we should not forget there could be another avenue in which the far-right could thrive: should Brexit go ahead, with the dire economic consequences predicted, that could breed the desperation and anxiety that has often played into far-right hands.