By Marley Morris
Islamic terrorism is decreasing; extreme right terrorism is on its way up. This is one of the messages of last week’s Home Affairs Committee report on violent radicalisation. Yet whilst the danger of far right terror should not be dismissed, there are reasons to think again about the degree of threat that exists.
Is there a threat of right wing extremism in the UK?
No-one wants to take lightly the threat of any kind of violent extremism, and for good reason. The Home Affairs Committee report should be commended for highlighting an area that has been overlooked in the past. As Mehdi Hasan commented last week, extreme right violence is just as serious as violence carried out by Islamic extremists. And there is no doubt it has the potential for devastating consequences, as Norway saw last year. But when dealing with serious threats it is essential to take an evidence-based approach.
The evidence set out by the Home Affairs Committee does little to support the conclusion that extreme right terrorism poses an increasing risk. At one point or another, the report makes the points that: far right terrorism is less organised and widespread in the UK than al-Qaeda-related violence; the last major extreme right terrorist attack in the UK took place over a decade ago; and, despite there currently being 17 people in prison for terrorism offences with extreme right connections, the number of terrorism-related convictions overall has fallen year on year since 2006.
Yet the report insists that the threat of right-wing violent extremism is growing. It justifies this in a number of ways. Firstly, it says that non-violent right-wing extremism is on the rise. But as Sunder Katwala and Matthew Collins pointed out late last year, in the UK there are signs that the far right is in trouble. In the 2011 local elections the BNP suffered a net loss of 11 council seats. The number of online fans of the main EDL Facebook page before the Norway attacks was over 80,000; now the number of ‘likes’ for the biggest EDL page stands at just under 11,000.
Secondly, the report warns that Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism may feed off each other, creating a “spiral of violence”. But as the report itself notes, violent Islamic extremism appears to be on the decrease. It seems sensible to conclude that a “spiral of violence” is now less likely than it was in previous years.
Thirdly, when giving evidence to the committee Dr Matthew Goodwin described seeing “a noticeable shift in far right blogs over the last five years, a shift towards more confrontation, more provocation…” It is understandable that Goodwin relies on anecdotal evidence given the limited information available on extreme right terrorism. But it would be unwise to rely too much upon it. We need a far better sense of how the nature of online activity has recently developed before drawing strong conclusions.
The limited scope of research
Of course, as the report rightly points out, the fact that there is very limited research available on the subject of extreme right terrorism does not mean that we should not take the possibility of an attack seriously. But neither does it mean we should exaggerate the threat.
The spate of recent extreme right attacks in continental Europe has rightfully raised the alarm in the UK. But we need to be careful when examining the evidence available. Over-emphasising the far right threat has damaging consequences too. It can lead to a stereotyping of supporters of right-wing populist parties as young male violent lunatics. It can play into the hands of right-wing populist parties that decry the elite for failing to understand their supporters.
Our ‘Reluctant Radicals’ project takes a pan-European look at the large number of right-wing populist sympathisers who do not make up the small extremist core. These people vote for right-wing populist parties but do not identify with them.
These people pose a threat too – a political one – just because there’s so many of them.
Our analysis using the European Social Survey shows that in nearly all Western European countries with a strong populist right, it is these supporters that make up the majority of the party’s support, in some cases more than 75 per cent.
These people pose a threat too – a political one – just because there’s so many of them. It is crucial when discussing the far right that we do not forget about the reluctant radicals, since – when compared to the violent extremists – it is they who have the greater power to truly rock our political system.
ESS Round 5: European Social Survey Round 5 Data (2010). Data file edition 1.0. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.