Last week, Security Minister James Brokenshire delivered a major speech on far-right extremism in the UK. The Minister's speech centred on the English Defence League (EDL), highlighting the challenges posed by the grey zone between threats to public order and the counter-terrorism space. The speech came in parallel with a new report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation on how the EDL is exporting its tactics across Europe and could constitute a major threat. It signposted the potential for serious incidents similar to the 22 July 2012 attack by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik in Norway. Brokenshire cited some worrying statistics about how 1 in 10 referrals to the Government's intervention programme (Channel) were people motivated by far-right extremism.
Neither the statistics nor the response measures set out in Brokenshire's speech are new. The strategies he described were set in motion in July 2011 with the publication of the new CONTEST strategy. Since February 2012, when the Home Affairs Committee declared that the UK's Prevent strategy only paid "lip service" to the threat from far-right extremism rather than actually delivering on action to prevent it, considerable attention has been devoted to the far right. Through serious consultations with experts and European partners, and by funding a number of major initiatives (such as the £200,000 funding allocated to the Tell MAMA project, an anti-Muslim attacks monitoring initiative, or support for a National Special Interest Group led by Luton and Blackburn), the Government has clearly stepped up its game when it comes to assessing and countering the far right.
The timing of Brokenshire's speech is strange though, given that the EDL has largely imploded and fragmented over the last six months. Since 2011, the movement has been fraught with leadership crises, internal disputes and has seen a massive drop in numbers of activists willing to turn up on the streets for demos. Recent marches in Cambridge and Manchester paled in comparison to the mass mobilisations the movement was able to muster two years ago. These circumstances beg the question, is it still sensible to claim that the EDL itself is the number one far-right threat to Britain, and to worry about the EDL mass exporting its tactics abroad?
Instead, perhaps we need to set our sights on what the disintegration of the EDL means for the future of the far right in Britain. The problem of tangential violence associated with far-right groups has existed for decades in Britain - first with the National Front, then the British National Party, then the EDL. Members or loose affiliates of these movements have been arrested and convicted of attempts or actual acts of violence and terrorism. Though these represent three distinct expressions of the extreme right, the link to violence is no new trend. The EDL has been uniquely alarming due to its unpredictability, volatility, and capacity for street-level intimidation and violence - all of which have garnered well-deserved media attention. Earlier this month, Tell MAMA published findings for its first year of operations, including the statistic that 54% of all anti-Muslim attack perpetrators were associated with far-right groups like the BNP and EDL. Compared to trends across Europe, where most victims identify perpetrators as someone they know personally or recognise, rather than members of a far-right group, this is certainly alarming. However, we must remember that this problem has been a perennial one, and the EDL's influence may be waning.
Most of the EDL's attempts to export their tactics have flopped. In December 2012, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a volume of reports assessing the scope of far-right movements in 10 European countries. Our reports from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all emphatically state that the Defence League models are made up of less than 100 people in most countries, when they appear in the streets (interestingly, it is Facebook where these groups do seem to exist in large numbers). Nor is 'boots on the ground' as a form of far-right protest anything new in other parts of Europe - various far-right street movements have come and gone over the last decade in countries like Belgium and Germany. In fact, the most successful and threatening far-right street movements, for example the Immortals in Germany, have probably not been inspired by the EDL. Let's not give the EDL credit they don't deserve.
Instead, we should focus on what new forms of far-right activism may emerge in the coming months, and pay greater attention to how counter-Jihad trends abroad might resonate at home. For example, the startling numbers of hate crime recorded against Muslims in the UK raises questions about the possibility of sustained violent campaigns by far-right cells or individuals against Muslims. The fragmentation of the EDL itself could also pose new threats to community safety and national security. Multiple splinter groups departing from the EDL's tactics could become more challenging for law enforcement to monitor, and could potentially be more violent. Government attention on this issue is warranted, but we need to ensure we are not behind the game. Warnings about the EDL are welcome, but they should have come three years ago, so our measures could have been preventative rather than reactive. And now that the EDL has come and soon may go, we need to ask the question, what's next?