Naturally, attending a Britain First conference is a strange experience. The gathering is more like a Wetherspoon's on a Monday morning than a political conference; a collection of politically incorrect, slightly inebriated, military fetishizing people giving disconnected speeches whenever their fear or anger reaches its peak, to no real avail.
Britain First is the biggest political party you've probably never heard of. The far-right political organisation has over 1 million likes on Facebook, 500,000 more than the Labour party or the Conservatives, and it produces viral videos with the sorts of all-caps titles your internet illiterate relative might identify with such as: "BRITAIN FIRST ACTIVISTS VISIT CALAIS TO DETER MIGRANTS FROM COMING TO BRITAIN!"
In another one of their videos entitled "Keep London British! Vote AGAINST a Muslim London Mayor", Britain First cuts a video of the mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan with a slideshow containing extremist preacher Anjem Choudary and some clearly photoshopped pictures of people in Burkas and head coverings holding signs saying "British police go to hell" and "Shariah the future for UK".
Britain First argues on their website section "racism" that "the word "racism" was invented by a communist mass murderer, Leon Trotsky, to silence European opposition to "multi-culturalism", so we do not recognise the validity of this made-up word." Unsurprisingly this isn't true, as the Oxford English Dictionary finds the first instance of the word to be from Richard Henry Pratt in 1902, instead this is myth purported by former BNP leader Nick Griffin in a 2007 interview, using nearly identical language to explain why he also isn't a racist.
What would prove to be a difficult day for a liberal leftist student began at the Days Inn Hotel, in a service station on the M1 outside of Sheffield. An auspicious starting location. Unsure of what to expect, I decided to bring along my friend Jim, a well-spoken mate from my school days who was just about to join the armed forces. There to steel my nerves and make me seem less suspicious.
The first hurdle was identifying the Britain First members. What does a Britain First member look like? Would it be the stereotypical bald, old, white men that you associate with the far-right? Or would the truly modern party's core be the internet savvy youth who un-ironically share racist memes amongst themselves in a kind of fascist youth revolution?
My hopes for greater youth participation in politics were soon cut short as a stumpy hairless man, in a football shirt with Britain First's logo on it, walks out of the service station's Costa. With this breakthrough we quickly begin to spot the rest of their crew, largely middle-aged men in faux military jackets or their favourite team's strip standing in close circles smoking and looking around themselves shiftily. The exact same crowd that you might have seen at a BNP rally five years ago, not quite the political revolution that their Facebook page would suggest.
Scared off by glares from the elder fascists, we approach a younger man in a polo shirt, who more resembled a scout leader than an Islamophobe. He directed us to a smaller car park in the service station. Here a group of tense ex-military types congregated waiting to give the real location of the conference to people who can prove their Britain First credentials, like a more racist version of the Sphinx and Oedipus. As he begins to interrogate us and my nerves mount, I realise that it is just Jim, me and about 10 guys whose job is to weed out lefties and journalists.
In an attempt to save myself I stutter something about there being no room in the country for immigrants but the interrogator appeared unconvinced.
"Let me look at your phones" asks the beefy security, though there's little choice in it. He looks unconvinced when I tell him that I don't have Facebook, considering Britain First's presence is largely online.
I was reaching for my car keys when Jim saved us, his Facebook revealing his military involvement.
The atmosphere changes so quickly that it feels like a trap. "Why didn't you say earlier!" says the now oddly jovial security guy who goes on to shake his hand and thank him, immediately giving us the piece of paper with the next address.
Renishaw Miners Welfare Social Club seemed an odd location for a gathering of the far-right but any place that wasn't the car park of a Days Inn Hotel was a lot more inviting at that point.
As we roll out of the service station, another person in all black seems to watch us leave. It might be paranoia, but whether it's real or not I get the feeling that all of this cloak and dagger stuff is meant to create this feeling of persecution.
It turns out that the social club is just another relocation point, as more men dressed in black give us the real address, the Sitwell Arms further down the road.
As we walk in we're immediately directed up a set of stairs where a tall, burly man in a three-piece suit frisks us intensely, takes our picture with a lapel camera, and continues the questioning we had received earlier. Now well practiced, we lie fluently about our shared passion for their videos and listed a few of their policies that we had read in the car.
"You're better dressed and spoken than our regular crowd" remarks the security, shattering my belief that my Adidas jacket was Chav chic. I nervously blurt something about a grammar school education and walk in.
We help ourselves to the free hot drinks, draining their funds one cup at a time, and find somewhere to sit. Whilst searching for as inconspicuous a place as possible we meet another first timer, from Stockport, who seems just as nervous as us and sits near us after a brief chat. We aren't seated long before the man with the earpiece is back.
He asks which one of us is in the armed forces and takes Jim off for a conversation. During the ten minutes that he's gone I begin to weigh up my chances at making a dash for the exit, but the number of angry looking men between me and freedom made the odds seem slim.
I'm mentally prepared to be kicked out when Jim returns smiling. Apparently he had just wanted to talk about the military and what branch he was joining, before shaking his hand and thanking him for his service. This happened multiple times over the course of the conference from people who invariably knew that he was in the military, though the only person we had told was a man in a Days Inn hotel car park.
As the half empty hall began to fill, leader Paul Goodall took the stand to say "there is going be a thirty minute wait, so help yourselves to tea and coffee", showing clear potential as a bingo announcer. During the ensuing interval the "Shire theme" from Lord of the Rings was played multiple times, exacerbating the already weird atmosphere that the 1970s floral drapes and actual disco ball were creating.
After the odd musical interlude Jayda Fransen, deputy-leader of the party, takes the stage. She cuts a strange figure in her ill-fitting suit, contrasting with the loose Britain First polo shirts sported by the male majority. In many ways she is the face of the movement, starring in most of its videos as someone who isn't old, male or bald. Truly her people's princess.
"Give yourself a round of applause for coming out today" instructs Fransen, causing the room of adults to congratulate their ability to attend. The circlejerk continued as the flag bearers marched in, labouring the militant theme of the group somewhat before arranging themselves behind Fransen to stand patriotically as she led the Lord's Prayer.
This is one of the more bizarre aspects of the anti-Islamic group, their extreme nationalism extends towards a strange form of Christianity, where "love thy neighbour" is trumped by a fear of the other. Exemplified when a man in a "Jesus" baseball cap began to spit hatred about migrants, despite wearing the name of a man who sought asylum in a foreign land following murder and persecution.
After a minute silence for fallen soldiers, we're allowed to sit. The woman from Stockport moves closer to us, saying she didn't want to be near the man on the end as she suspected he might be a journalist. "They'll do anything for a story" I say, suddenly glad I had left my notepad in the car.
Following a lengthy montage of watermarked footage from a show on Sky about soldiers and an attempt to hijack the tragic murder of 129 people in Paris for political gain, Goodall asked if all signed up members had their little Union Jacks to wave so that they could vote on their constitution.
They actually voted by waving diminutive British Flags.
Not that it really mattered, as all the constitutional changes were passed with no dissent at all. Including a ban on the word "racist" to ensure freedom of speech and changing their branch roles to Commanding Officer and Deputy Commanding Officer, as if they weren't paramilitary enough already. In fact the only contributions made by the audience were when they felt the need to stand up and talk about Islam, regardless of the topic, including the woman from Stockport who forgot her nerves and rambled about a time she harassed an ethnic minority shop keeper as she feared they would turn a street in Stockport to "Halal Street".
They also voted to ban the religion of Islam and then voted to ban the wearing of burkas/niqabs. Clearly making them double banned.
Technically speaking Britain First is not a racist organisation, as they merely hate the 1.57 billion followers of the religion of Islam, making them Islamophobic rather than racist. However, the conference showed this not to be true of the motives behind the movement, as they are overtly racist. One audience member shouted from the back during the discussion on banning the word "racist" that "we are a human race, why can't we be racist?" And the word "foreigner" seemed interchangeable with "Muslim" in many of the "contributions" given by the audience members. Indeed, whilst talking about the BBC documentary that had portrayed them as bigots, one of their member's gave a comment about the director Miles Blayden-Ryall that was just "and his wife's a Muslim" which received heavy applause.
Yet the worst, and most chilling, part of this exercise in shouting into a far-right echo chamber was when Paul Goodall dismissed their chances of getting elected into parliament, saying that they will only come to power through a "bloody civil war".
An extreme nationalist and patriot who believes the only way he can achieve his goals is by going to war with his own countrymen and destroying the country.
At this point I realised exactly what Britain First are: a joke. A collection of scared, angry, weirdos who show a reckless disregard for logic and humanity so that they can have an enemy to fear, an opponent to fight and someone to blame for their own misfortunes. Despite their million Facebook followers, the conference was only attended by about fifty people, as the national support for Britain First and its policies fails to reach beyond the sort of people whose only act of political engagement is sharing xenophobic memes and videos on Facebook.
Having had our fill of clapping along to small-minded and ignorant thinking, Jim and I made hasty our escape during the lunch interval, fighting our way through the people who hoped shaking his hand would rub off some small glory into their sad, angry lives.
We left feeling the solace that this movement, whilst dark and hate-filled, would forever be confined to the top floors of outdated quiet pubs in the middle of who cares, where their spite and malice can only be heard by the spiteful and malicious.