Culture War Over Black Lives Matters and Statues Fuelling Britain’s Far-Right

Far-right groups in Britain have seen a resurgence in recent weeks in response to the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Sara Khan, Britain’s first counter-extremism commissioner, has said that far-right activists have spread white supremacist narratives and incited hate online by taking advantage of the BLM protests.  In June, there were hundreds of far-right demonstrators and football hooligans converge in London, who injured 23 police officers in violent confrontations while defending statues.

A furore around statues has emerged in the U.K, mirroring demands in the U.S. to take down statues of Confederate generals and figures who supported racism and slavery. Beginning with the toppling of a statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol, public discussion and press coverage became increasingly centred around the rights and wrongs of honouring racist figures with statues, exacerbating the situation with the rumour that a statue of Winston Churchill was under threat. This backdrop provided an opportunity for far-right groups to stir anger, claiming that the destruction of statues was an affront to British national identity.

Conservative politicians also get involved in this hot-button issue. The Conservative MP for Romford states in MailOnline that the statue situation was being driven by “a politically-correct gang of anarchists who hate everything about this country.” Author Daniel Trilling writes in the Guardian that “a rootless liberal elite that works to sabotage the interests of the nation; hordes of criminal migrants undermining the UK’s borders; moral panics about Muslims or multi-ethnic urban Britain: these are all themes you’re far more likely to come across in ‘respectable’ television and radio debates, or in the pages of rightwing newspapers, than from far-right street activists,” reflecting the normalisation of formerly fringe far-right discourse in mainstream politics.

When ruling party politicians and the right-wing press willingly indulge in a culture war over the BLM movement, which they deem as an attempt to “erase British history and culture’ and cause ‘mob rule on the streets,” it should be no surprise when they are joined by the far-right, who amplify these fears to fuel hate and violence. Of course, it is far easier to wade into a culture war over inanimate objects than to seriously address the systemic injustices faced by black and ethnic minority people with regard to policing and the justice system. For example, research from The Sentencing Council has found that Black and Asian people were 1.5 times more likely to go to prison for drug offences than white people, and Asian people are given sentences on average 4% longer than white people.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised yet another review into racism, telling reporters that he wanted the review to “change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination,” and appointed Munira Mirza, who doesn’t believe in institutional racism, to lead the commission. Labour MP David Lammy said on the Today programme that “it feels that yet again in the UK, we want figures and data, but we don’t want action,” referring to the multiple reviews into racism since 1999 but little done to act on their findings.

Britain must see systemic changes that address the inequalities present in society, which can start with implementing the recommendations of various reviews into the justice system. The growing number of far-right extremist prisoners, as reported by the Guardian, and the recent events in London are signs of the resurgence of the far-right wing. Sara Khan notes in an Observer interview that the far-right has exploited the coronavirus pandemic to spread antisemitic and Islamophobic conspiracy theories, and warns that the economic downturn caused by the pandemic may increase the number of people vulnerable to extremist narratives. She urges for an overhaul of the government’s current counter-extremist strategy, particularly for the spread of toxic material online to be removed. Far-right extremism is a grave problem, but it is hard to see how it can be solved when British press and ruling politicians’ views seem to align more with the far-right than with the BLM movements.