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Review of books

November 2012
spiked review of books
Lonely leftists vs fantasy fascists

Patrick Hayes

Lonely leftists vs fantasy fascists

Why, when the far right is falling apart, do leftists keep on scaremongering about these ‘bloody nasty people’?

In the conclusion to his book Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right, Daniel Trilling lists ‘10 myths about Britain’s far right’, and begins first and foremost with the ‘myth’ that ‘the threat has passed’. His attempt to puncture this myth is lame – the British National Party (BNP), he acknowledges, is now a ‘failed project’. It has been all but wiped out in elections and is riddled with internal divisions. All he can do is point to the English Defence League’s (EDL’s) declaration of support for the recently formed British Freedom Party (BFP) in April this year as evidence of a ‘new vehicle’ for the far right.

Unfortunately for Trilling, EDL leader Tommy Robinson has already quit the BFP and currently languishes in jail, accused of entering the US under a false identity. The EDL itself is now having problems mobilising more than a couple of hundred people for a demo and its central Facebook page, with its 79,000 ‘supporters’ that Trilling cites as evidence of its ascendancy, has shut down.

A reader of Trilling’s book may then be puzzled. Why is a left-wing journalist dedicating his time to writing a book subtitled ‘the rise of the far right’ at a time when the far right in Britain is in no way on the rise? The only way Trilling’s subtitle is accurate is if you see it as giving a historical account of the rise of the BNP following the collapse of the National Front. But Trilling is no historian. A far more interesting phenomenon to discuss at the moment would be the decline of far-right groups in the UK at present and their failure to gain significant purchase with the public.

But this is not the story Trilling wants to tell. It seems only too important to him that the spectre of the far right remains. Indeed, his use of the word ‘vehicle’ to describe the need for the emergence of the EDL after the collapse of the BNP is telling. Often in the book, he makes it sound like an evil fascist entity plagues Britain through the ages, continually changing form, looking for new host bodies through which to infect cultural and political life. ‘The EDL’, he says, in one revealing sentence, ‘is further evidence of how the far right has had to accommodate to the reality of modern Britain’. He writes repeatedly about how the EDL has strategic and tactical advantages over the BNP, as if its emergence was a manoeuvre by a great Lord of the Rings Sauron-like figure who has commanded the dark forces of Britain’s right-wing extremes since time immemorial. 

From the outset of the book, however, Trilling fails to define his terms. He is nervous about using the term ‘fascism’ and opts instead for what he calls the more neutral catch-all term the ‘far right’. Where he does attempt to define fascism, he chooses a quote from US historian Robert Paxton, who said ‘fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline’.

According to this definition, then, the possibility of fascism lurks among any communities that are critical of liberal democracy. Wary of the idea of multiculturalism? Concerned about the intolerance of Tony Blair’s rallying call to ‘liberate Britain from the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and doing things that will not do in this world of change’? According to Trilling - who comes across as a great cheerleader for a New Labour-esque vision of multicultural Britain - to have such concerns is seemingly to be on the path towards fascism. 

Despite noting that the EDL’s Tommy Robinson became disillusioned with the BNP because his black friends weren’t able to join, and that the EDL is a big supporter of Israel and had Asian spokespeople, Trilling is keen to highlight common threads between the two groups. He cites the findings of a survey of EDL sympathisers that reveals what he believes to be the tell-tale ‘familiar factors’ of far-right thinking. These sympathisers share ‘pessimism about the UK’s future, worries about immigration and joblessness… mixed by a proactive pride in Britain, British history and British values’.

The extent to which, during a double-dip recession, concerns about the future of the UK or joblessness might be perfectly legitimate isn’t explored. And any questioning of immigration policy is portrayed as sign of wrongheadedness. It seems that Trilling would have been right alongside Gordon Brown when, in the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election, he generated a furore by branding Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’ for raising issues of immigration and joblessness. If we accept Trilling’s understanding of far-right thinking, Duffy must have been infected by fascism. Certainly he is keen to bash historian David Starkey for ‘willingly repeating’ on the BBC’s Newsnight the BNP’s ‘mainline of propaganda – that Britain was being undermined from within by racial mixing and an undeserving poor’.

Trilling’s tilting at ‘fascist’ windmills reeks of a certain desperation that is shared by many on the traditional left

For someone adept at making the most tenuous links to fascism, however, Trilling seems blind to the more authoritarian tendencies of left-wing activists and the state. He has no words of criticism for the erosion of free speech that comes with ‘no platform’ policies, or the censorious nature of campaigners who tried to prevent the BBC from airing an edition of its topical debate programme Question Time featuring BNP leader Nick Griffin in 2009 - despite the fact that Griffin was an elected member of the European Parliament (MEP).

In a bizarre, Orwellian moment, Trilling attempts to rewrite history to suggest that the EDL was prevented from protesting outside a mosque in Tower Hamlets last year due to the actions of Unite Against Fascism activists ‘blocking the road, joined by several thousand local residents’. More importantly, the UK Home Office had slapped a ban on the EDL marching in the borough, enforced by an almost-unprecedented mobilisation of police officers from across the country who significantly outnumbered the EDL’s marchers (see The Battle of Cable Street it wasn’t). No matter how you spin it, these ‘jubilant’ anti-fascist protesters were in reality cheering the actions of the state clamping down on the freedom to assemble – the only way they were responsible for preventing the EDL march was to the extent that they lobbied the state to ban the demonstration beforehand.

Trilling’s blinkered account of the triumph of the anti-fascist left over the far right, coupled with his continual refrain - against all the evidence - that the far right is still in the ascendancy, reveals far more about his own outlook than about reality. Trilling’s tilting at ‘fascist’ windmills reeks of a certain desperation that is shared by many on the traditional left. Devoid of any sense of what they are for, left-wing campaigners seek to gain a sense of purpose by saying what they are against: cuts, naturally, but more than anything, fascists.

After the resounding electoral defeats of the BNP, the emergence of the EDL was a wet dream for directionless lefties. Now the EDL is on the wane, all left-wing activists can cling to is the idea of the persistence of an amorphous blob of ‘bloody nasty people’, who will flock to the dark forces of fascism should the correct ‘vehicle’ appear. You would have to be a Bloody Naive Person to believe such baseless scaremongering.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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