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Dr Matthew Goodwin Interview: 'British Politics Is Entering a Pessimistic Phase'

04/06/2013 16:56 BST | Updated 31/07/2013 10:12 BST

Economies are in free-fall, unemployment is high, and extremist parties are gaining support by using viscous anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The similarities are obvious. But for Dr Matthew Goodwin, Britain's leading expert on the far-right, comparing the Europe of the early 1930s with the Europe of today is simplistic.

"Our natural instinct is to assume that the crisis is the key mechanism to explain increased support for extremism, but the reality is far more complex," he argues.

"Firstly, many of these parties began their rise long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Secondly, if this is simply a 1930s style descent into extremism, then why is it that these parties have emerged in Greece, but not in Spain or Portugal? In Austria, but not Germany? And in France, but not in other areas of northern Europe?

"Thirdly, when we ask voters 'why are you supporting these parties?' they tend to be employed and more concerned about the cultural consequences of immigration, rather than its economic impact. The see immigration as a threat to national identity, a threat to traditional values; and I would argue that they're more concerned about those factors than they are about scarce resources like jobs and housing. That feeling of cultural threat takes us a long to explaining why these parties emerged before the financial crisis, and in reasonably affluent areas of the world."

But while far-right organisations enjoyed significant support before the financial crisis, interest in the movements has spiked in recent years.

In Greece, where youth unemployment currently stands at over 60 percent, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has gone from being a fringe movement with little support, to having 18 seats in the parliament; their rise to prominence matched by a sharp increase in the number of racist attacks being reported to police - more than 150 in 2012 alone.

Further east, in Hungary the far-right Jobbik party, which holds 47 seats in the country's parliament, gained international attention earlier this month as hundreds of its supporters protested against the hosting of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Budapest. While closer to home, the French Presidential election in 2012 was dominated by an impressive showing by Front National (FN) led by Marine Le Pen; daughter of former FN leader and holocaust denier Jean Marie.

Dr Goodwin says that despite immigration being consistently ranked amongst the top concerns of British voters since 2001, far-right organisations have so far failed to make a telling impression on either public opinion or government policy. He argues that unlike their more successful cousins on the continent, the British far-right have been too "fragmented" and "toxic" to make a telling impact on our country's political system.

He does concede, however, that the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, and the subsequent series of demonstrations and concerted social media campaigns by far-right groups has led to an increased interest in far-right organisations in this country.

The English Defence League (EDL) - which has gained notoriety in recent years for launching a series of street protests in British towns and cities against what it sees as 'militant Islam' - last week 'celebrated' surging past 100,000 Facebook 'likes'. Before the Woolwich atttack they only had 20,000. Meanwhile according to the anti-extremist organisation Faith Matters anti-Muslim attacks have increased since the murder of Drummer Rigby.

"Far-right groups have definitely attempted to exploit the Woolwich attack," says Goodwin.

"And we've seen a significant increase in the number of people interested in these groups. Though that's not to say it's been an effective exploitation. Because when we surveyed public opinion two days after the attack, only 6 percent of the electorate said they would consider joining the EDL; which was actually down from the 9 percent which we recorded in November.

"I would say is that the far-right has deepened its support amongst those people who already hold those views, but that it has failed to widen its support amongst the broader mass of British voters."

But what motivates those that get involved with the EDL? An all-consuming fear of radical Islam? Concerns over the rate of migration? Their economic situation?

Having embarked on a project 'examining what drives anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain' for Chatham House , Dr Goodwin discovered that, somewhat counter-intuitively, those involved with the movement do not list radical Islam as their top political concern. In fact, it ranks at number three, behind fears over immigration and the economy.

So while the EDL leadership offers a fairly coherent set of messages about the threat posed by radical Islam; their supporters feel threatened by immigration and diversity more generally.

Dr Goodwin explains: "the English Defence League is rallying support from those who believe that their national identity, their national community as they see it, is under threat from a broad array of things in society; including Islam, but extending to immigration and rising ethnic and cultural diversity.

They do not like this social change. They find it destabilising. And they do not like the direction British society is heading in and they want it to stop."

Given the increased interest in the movement and the apparent ineffectiveness of the British National Party, I ask Dr Goodwin whether he thinks that the EDL, which has hitherto branded itself as a social movement more concerned with street protests than elections, could ever become electorally viable? He offers a simple answer.

"No," he replies. "I think the vast majority of voters have a negative view of the English Defence League, and I don't think they have the capabilities to turn themselves into a serious electoral force."

As if to underline this point, last weekend's demonstrations across the UK by the EDL and other far-right organisations saw protesters outnumbered by the police and journalists; with one group of demonstrators chased through London by a group of women dressed as badgers.

For a man who's made the study of the far-right his life's work these are certainly interesting times for Dr Goodwin. But for someone who openly desires a more liberal, harmonious society, I wonder how he reconciles his academic interests with his own political beliefs. I ask whether he's worried, or fascinated by politics at the moment.

"I think British politics is entering into a very difficult and pessimistic phase for those of us who want to see a more harmonious Britain which is at ease with diversity," he says.

"I think the emergence of the English Defence League, combined with the activities of the traditional far-right, the populist insurgency of UKIP, falling levels of public trust in institutions, and the continued salience of terrorism and security issues does not provide the best landscape for a harmonious, pluralist form of liberal democratic politics."

Dr Matthew Goodwin is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham and an associate fellow at Chatham House. He is the author of 'The New British Fascism: Rise of the BNP', published by Routledge.