Both in its timing, and the message delivered, the annual report on the state of Britain’s far right could not be more welcome. It paints a picture of a movement that has run into the gutter. The “tinpot führers and sawdust Caesars” that lead such groups, to quote the historian Richard Thurlow, have failed to rally the support of all but a tiny sliver of the UK population. The British National Party (BNP) is down and out; the English Defence League (EDL) is petering out into irrelevance. Far-right groups, says Hope Not Hate, which compiles the report, are at their weakest for 20 years. Amid the turmoil and anxiety unleashed by the Paris attacks, it is no little solace to be reminded that Britain remains, in many ways, an island of calm.
That is not to be complacent. But set against an economic background of stagnant wages and falling living standards, the opposite – the growth of hate – might have taken hold. The example of Europe makes that clear: in Italy, France and even Germany, where Pegida anti-Islam demonstrations have attracted up to 25,000, anti-immigrant sentiment has morphed into a visible and virulent strain of nationalism. When in 2009 the BNP held a seat on the London Assembly and took two seats in the European Parliament, the far right looked likely to form a permanent feature of Britain’s political life. Evidently, it has not. We owe some of the thanks for this to the personal failings of the movement’s great hopes: Nick Griffin has gone bankrupt and been dismissed from the party he once led; Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the EDL, was imprisoned last year for mortgage fraud.
Yet a broader explanation can be found in the aversion to hatred that has long formed part of the British character. When native-born Brits live among migrants, they tend to believe that migration “enriches” the cultural life of the nation. Even the leaders of far-right parties seem perturbed by the nature of the groups for which they end up as figureheads: Jim Dowson, the leader of Britain First, an anti-Muslim group that flourished online, departed the organisation in disgust at mosque invasions carried out by some members; Mr Robinson himself quit the EDL in 2013, apparently worried by the “dangers of far-right extremism”.
The rise of Ukip has drawn the sting – and the support – from groups that fall towards the extreme of the political spectrum. Yet the public face of the party abjures racism, aware of how toxically it plays among the electorate. Even if Nigel Farage peddles a base form of Islamophobia – as with his recent, despicable attack on a “fifth column” among Muslim citizens – the party’s success owes in part to its censorship of the “loonies and racists” who periodically rise to prominence through its ranks.
The picture is not an entirely rosy one, however. Across Europe, the rise of anti-Semitism has led to an exodus of Jewish citizens. Double the number of French Jews left for Israel in 2014 than in the year before, and the massacre in the kosher grocery store last week will convince more that France no longer offers a safe home. Britain typically ranks among the nations which display the least anti-Semitism, with 8 per cent of the population holding anti-Semitic views, according to the Anti-Defamation League, compared with 37 per cent in France. But a Campaign Against Anti-Semitism survey released today makes for worrying reading nonetheless: 2014 saw the most anti-Semitic incidents since records began, and nearly two-thirds of British Jews feel that there is no long-term future for Jews in Europe.
It would be too much to say Britain’s spirit of openness and tolerance is under threat, yet this serves as a reminder that both old and new forms of prejudice must be actively kept at bay.