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Britain: Evolving far right worries critics

Barry NeildGlobalPost.com

LONDON, UK — These are strange times for the British far right. As painful austerity fans surges in nationalism that are lifting their European counterparts' political fortunes, the UK's right-wing hardliners seem to be in disarray, fragmented by infighting and crackdowns by the authorities.

That doesn't mean anti-fascist campaigners are celebrating. They warn that the murky world of the far right — home to a spectrum of beliefs ranging from fervent racism to mainstream views about exiting the European Union — is evolving into a new and ideologically dangerous force.

It's tempting to dismiss the UK's far-right movement as a lost cause. The British National Party, the most prominent anti-immigration political group, has fallen on hard times. Membership has slumped and one of its two European Parliament members has gone rogue.

BNP leader Nick Griffin has faced repeated criticism for public outbursts his opponents say have exposed the unpleasant side of a politician who's tried to court respectability while advocating the deportation of at least two million migrants.

Last month, Griffin — who rejects allegations that his party is racist or populated by neo-Nazis — was subjected to a police investigation after inciting followers on Twitter to target a gay couple that had recently won an anti-discrimination case.

Another group, the English Defence League, a street protest movement that has mobilized hundreds of nationalists to take part in aggressive demonstrations, is hemorrhaging support.

A police crackdown on the group has resulted in scores of arrests. One of its leaders, Tommy Robinson, is currently behind bars for allegedly trying to enter the United States using a fake passport.

A recent EDL rally intended as a show of strength in the east London borough of Walthamstow was relocated by the authorities to a small enclosure outside parliament, where it attracted fewer than 100 members and considerable derision from its opponents. "The EDL is slowly dying inside its Union Jack gimp mask," one headline read.

Beset by schisms and rivalries, other less prominent groups that advocate anti-immigration and isolationist policies have struggled to attract enough members to be significant political players.

Despite the apparent implosion, mainstream parties apparently fear that the far right, boosted by newspaper headlines about immigrants "stealing" jobs and "sponging" off the welfare system, is hijacking the political agenda. Both the ruling Conservatives and opposition Labour Party have backed curbs on immigration, probably aimed at keeping voters from moving further to the right.

The picture in Britain appears to be at odds with other parts of Europe, where the debt crisis has helped far-right groups such as Greece's Golden Dawn move from the margins into the spotlight. Golden Dawn secured about 7 percent of the popular vote during two elections last summer.

In France’s presidential elections earlier this year, the resurgent far-right National Front Party drew support away from center-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, allowing Socialist Francois Hollande to steal victory. Although more recent votes in the Netherlands and Finland helped marginalize far-right parties there, they continue to wield influence.

But even as the UK's traditional nationalist groups appear to be in decline, new groups are emerging. Critics say they will try to exploit the turbulent political and social situation to attack popular liberal values.

Among the newcomers is a party led by a former BNP leading light, according to the anti-racist Searchlight magazine, which tracks British far-right politics.

Andrew Brons, who was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 alongside BNP leader Nick Griffin, quit the party last month. Searchlight, which relies a network of informants embedded in right-wing groups, says Brons is now launching a new outfit called the British Democratic Party.

"The BNP is finished," Searchlight editor Gerry Gable said. "It's got very few members and nowhere to go. It may stand for a few by-elections, but it's well past its expiration date as a political movement."

He says the new outfit headed by Brons — who has yet to make a formal announcement about his intentions and did not respond to a GlobalPost interview request — is already attracting as many members as the BNP enjoyed in its heyday.

If the old party nearly bankrupted itself by throwing money at elections that ended in defeat, Gable believes Brons will use his party simply as a lobbying tool to influence parliament by leveraging the sympathies of mainstream right-wing politicians to promote its interests.

Gable calls the development "dangerous," particularly when Prime Minister David Cameron is struggling to exert control over his lawmakers on issues such as Britain’s financial commitments to the European Union.

"We should be alert to the danger of having a very, very weak Conservative leadership," he said.

Although BNP officials admit their support has waned considerably since 2009, when the party claimed more than a million voters, they deny the possibility their new rival will emerge as the far right's main player.

BNP media officer Simon Darby played down the significance of Brons's departure, insisting his party was poised for a comeback after being rescued from financial oblivion by a few well-timed bequests. He said the BNP would benefit from more political rivalry.

"It is becoming a very crowded field, but we are the people with the name, so it's good for us," he said. "There are lots of dissatisfied groups out there who think it's an easy process to run a political party like ours, but when they try to do something, they find it's not easy at all."

Darby blamed the downswing in support for the BNP on "establishment totalitarianism" he said is harming free speech and dissuading backers from stepping forward. "It's becoming very, very hostile," he said. But he predicted attitudes will change.

"Politically when you look at the landscape, everything we have said has come true. Multiculturalism has failed, the consolidation of power by the European Union has emerged as a threat and the Muslim population are trying to turn this country into an Islamic republic."

Gable, who has advised police and intelligence agencies on far-right activities, there warns of problems that go deeper than the slightly secretive but still relatively visible world of far-right politics. He points to risks from undercover racist groups trying to gain footholds at universities or recruit disillusioned military veterans made redundant after serving in Afghanistan.

Political complacency triggered by the perceived failings of the current coalition government could also help to drive the far right forward, he says.

"I think now there are inherent dangers to democracy," he said. "I'm not a doom and gloom merchant or a conspiracy theorist but watching what's been going on with the development of these new groups is very worrying."