In responding to the threat of the far-right, the actions of Conservative and Eurosceptic organisations – such as the Conservative Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party – are often overlooked. The term ‘far-right’ is increasingly an insult hurled against people that other people dislike, but should be understood in its correct context: the far-right includes those parties supportive of classic fascist or Nazi currents, advocates of biological theories of racism, and/or those seeking (or who have sought) a racially exclusive Britain.
There may be the odd grey area to emerge from this working definition – the question of where to situate the anti-immigration Conservative pressure group the Monday Club at its peak – but there is a political and philosophical distinction between the three parties, and organisations such as the National Front, British National Party or the Indentitarian Movement.
The traditional response from conservative and anti-European Union (EU) parties to the far-right has been to erect, in structural and organisational terms, a cordon sanitaire around themselves, which attempts to keep out organised supporters of racial separatism. Whilst this does not necessarily lead to the taking on and defeating of far-right ideals, it goes some way to differentiating them from the conservative and Eurosceptic mainstream. It has therefore aided the Conservative and anti-EU parties, whilst at the same time harming far-right organisations by placing them outside existing parameters. It is arguably a reason why, even now, there has been little or no Brexit bounce for the far-right in Britain.
The Conservative Party, UKIP, and the Brexit Party
After 1945, the Conservative Party could claim to have in their ranks the Nazis’ greatest ever opponent, Winston Churchill, but having also had representatives who either doubted the practicalities of opposing Hitler, or never wished to do so in the first place. To this backdrop, the party from at least 1945 was monitoring external organisations, and from 1948 had a Voluntary Organisations Section, which kept a watchful eye on groups and organisations that interacted with the party. Mark Pitchford’s excellent book The Conservative Party and the extreme right 1945-75 demonstrates that perhaps the Conservative Party’s greatest asset – its sense of self-preservation – ensured it sought to keep out those whose values differed to its own. In his words:
Central Office saved its strongest counter-measures for those individuals or groups that it believed had fascist antecedents, or advocated policies that the Conservative’s opponents could portray as characteristics of fascism or Nazism.
That strategy has continued, for example with the closure of the Federation of Conservative Students in 1986, or the backing away from the Traditional Britain Group, an organisation often seen as the latest in a series of attempts to build a bridge between the Conservative Party and the far-right.
In 1993 the Anti-Federalist League was formed to oppose the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, and fight the 1994 European elections. In eventually choosing the name UKIP, it did so at least in part because of the unattractive nature of political organisations with the name British or Britain in the title. From its early days, therefore, UKIP sought to avoid presenting an overly ripe target to those from fascist traditions. Paragraph 1.6 of the UKIP constitution proscribes membership in the following manner: ‘Membership is not available to anyone who is or has previously been a member of the British National Party [BNP], the National Front, the UK First Party, the English Defence League [EDL], the British Freedom Party [BFP] and the Britain First Party.’
If almost anyone can be categorised as ‘far-right’, the term will become entirely meaningless – and the ‘far right’ may then filter into the mainstream by default.
UKIP had good reason to avoid such associations. The splits and political reversal of fortunes which bedevil it post 2016, demonstrate another factor limiting interaction between Eurosceptic parties and the far right – punishment at the polls if the tag of extremism is successfully applied. When Gerard Batten, UKIP’s then leader, sought to bring Tommy Robinson, the founder of the EDL, into the party, he faced a significant hurdle – Mr Robinson had been involved in three organisations proscribed by UKIP – very briefly, the BNP, more substantially the EDL, and he had also been a member of the BFP (a group led by his cousin, Kevin Carroll). UKIP’s constitution thus proscribed him from being either a member or candidate for the party.
Mr Batten sought to evade this by making Mr Robinson a ‘special advisor’ on grooming gangs, a process which started a haemorrhage of senior members and supporters. Its best-known figure, Nigel Farage, resigned in December 2018, forming the Brexit Party. The price at the ballot box was distinct. Having been the largest British party in the 2014 European parliament elections, UKIP did not win a single seat in 2019 – gaining just 3.2% of the popular vote.
The Brexit Party has developed a very distinct political structure. It is not in the traditional sense of the term a political party, with members and internal voting structures that set policy for the national body. Instead, it has registered supporters who sign-up for £25, and from this pool, after a vetting process, political candidates are selected. Having been formed by Mr Farage in opposition to the direction Mr Batten was taking UKIP, it perhaps not surprisingly repeated the UKIP approach of declaring certain organisations persona non grata – banning the same groups from the far-right, but also adding one from the far-left, Antifa.
Two scenes of contestation
The far-right has at times seen in the Conservatives and UKIP organisations they could potentially influence, or even, take over particular branches, factions or youth wings. Secondly, there are those who seek political advantage in establishing common cause or ideological similarity between the Conservative and anti-EU parties, and the far-right. Both those aspects often lead to the ‘black arts’, where those largely undeclared aspects of no-holds barred political fighting, may be deployed.
In 1997 and 1999 there appear to have been attempts by the BNP to send members into UKIP, not least at the time of the 1997 general election, leading to a televised hit piece by the investigative researcher Roger Cook. Electoral competition between the two organisations, and disparaging language from one to the other, became common. The decline of the BNP however, in the period from roughly 2010-2014, handed victory in this contest to UKIP.
There have been notable attempts to pin the tag of far-right extremism, and to send infiltrators into, the Conservatives and the anti-EU parties. Perhaps the most notorious was the 1984 BBC Panorama documentary ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendency’ which crashed and burned with the BBC capitulating in a libel case. In 1996 Nick Lowles, then of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, now of ‘Hope not Hate’, wrote to the European Movement offering his organisation’s services in the media war against anti-EU groups. This included running sources inside their political rivals:
Utilising sources inside these organisations, the European Movement will be furnished with information not otherwise easily accessible. The report and the drip flow of information will provide your organisation with invaluable ammunition to add to your cause.
Going forward: Two problems
In the social media era, the concept of keeping particular ideas out of established organisations, even if you can keep certain groups and their leaders away, is less likely to succeed. In times of rapid political and demographic change, with many searching for answers to complicated questions, it is all too easy to find ready, if simplistic, answers on Twitter and similar platforms. This particularly applies to some of the information age friendly, youth orientated identitarian currents who for example were seeking to recruit from UKIP’s youth wing in 2017. The tactic of a cordon sanitaire may have kept bad people out, but does it work, today, with bad ideas?
Equally, in recent years, the target area of those seeking to condemn the right as racist or fascist, has greatly expanded. In 2018, there was an attempt to ‘no-platform’ Jacob Rees-Mogg MP at the University of the West of England. The next month similar scenes occurred at the King’s College Libertarian Society, where social media controversialist Carl Benjamin was interviewing Yaron Brook, a visiting speaker from the Ayn Rand Institute in the United States.
This reveals wider changes evident on the political left and centre left, accelerated by the sense of loss and political disorientation some have felt since the double whammy of 2016 – the UK’s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the US. But it does not help to explain the far-right by expanding the definition of it to social conservatives like Mr Rees-Mogg, individualists like Carl Benjamin, or followers of Ayn Rand such as Yaron Brook.
In sum, although conservative and Eurosceptic parties have developed a viable structure for keeping out fifth columnists, it is not clear how long they can uphold their approach. In the era of social media, new methods to combat the far-right’s ideas are required. Equally, political distinctions matter. If almost anyone can be categorised as ‘far-right’, the term will become entirely meaningless – and the ‘far right’ may then filter into the mainstream by default.