Everyone makes stupid mistakes when they’re a teenager. It just so happens that mine was posing for a photograph with Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP.
I should clarify: this wasn’t some poorly-judged ‘celebrity’ snap. At the time of the picture, I was a fully paid-up member of the BNP. As an 18-year-old, I was being put forward as a ‘rising star’ of the party and a potential bridge to the younger generation. I’d even spoken at their EU grouping’s conference.
It wasn’t long after that when I realised my serious error of judgement. It had gradually become clear to me that much of the BNP leadership was precisely what the media portrayed it to be; racist and anti-Semitic. I was even the focus of anti-Semitic abuse in the party (I’m not Jewish), and activists in Liverpool threatened to stab me for being a ‘spy’. Charming.
So how did I get involved in the BNP in the first place? Well it was pretty easy. I was a young, angry, white lad from Lancashire who felt left behind by the politicians. I’d seen how our working-class communities had changed, and how anybody who questioned it was silenced by mobs of far-left activists. I saw the BNP, and I saw the only political party that shared my concerns.
After quickly being adopted by the inner circle of the party, it became pretty clear that the ‘modernisation’ efforts I’d supported in the party weren’t all that serious. Members took it seriously, but key figures inside the party peddled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and wanted to establish a white ethnostate.
Not for me.
Until you’ve spent time with people like Griffin and seen how easy it is to attract desperate voters to what is clearly an anti-Semitic, race-obsessed political party, it’s hard to offer any kind of meaningful insight into the far right. It’s easy to point a finger at anyone who says they’re concerned about immigration in a less-than-articulate way and call them far right. But there’s a serious issue here, behind the nuance.
There is a very real far right presence in the UK. It’s small, but it is growing again, and it is drawing in young people. I got out, but not everyone does.
I’ve been disturbed to see other young men who’d been in my situation – some of whom I’d known personally – getting gradually sucked in to the most dangerous fringes of politics. Some have even planned terrorist attacks.
I think about an old acquaintance from back then, Jack Renshaw. Like me he was a working-class boy, concerned about immigration, and figuring out what to do with his life. We were even from the same town. But unlike me, he was susceptible to the BNP’s conspiratorial anti-Semitism. He went from being obsessed with Zionism to joining National Action, an openly neo-Nazi youth group. In December, he was convicted of plotting to murder our MP, Rosie Cooper.
This isn’t an isolated case: far-right extremism exists, and it’s getting bigger. In one year, we’ve seen a threefold rise of the number of white extremists imprisoned for terrorism offences. Last year, the assistant commissioner of the metropolitan police revealed that four far-right terrorist plots had been foiled in a year.
Brushing aside the far-right issue is be akin to the ‘whataboutism’ that the left is regularly accused of executing in political arguments. “Sure, there are far right terrorists, but what about the Islamic terrorists?”. It should not be ignored, because it exists – and it should be dealt with as robustly as Islamic terror is.
So how do we stop white terrorism? How do we defeat the far right? The first step is taking the power away from the genuinely race-obsessed groups who take advantage of vulnerable and angry young white men. Most importantly that means dealing with the issues that are exploited so ruthlessly by groups like National Action. Address genuine issues like grooming gangs, mass immigration and Islamic extremism and the narrative of the real far-right reverts back to pure conspiracy theory.
It’s also essential that terms like ‘far right’ are no longer thrown round quite as carelessly as the press has a tendency to.
Constantly labelling young, white working-class men as fascists and racists becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the politicians ignore them, the press brands them racist, and the far-left mobs attack them in the street, you can bet those kids become racists. You can bet they look for a conspiracy theory that explains what is happening to them. They find a target.
Needless to say I regret having my photo taken with Nick Griffin, but not for the obvious reasons. I’m not trying to beg for forgiveness. The fact that the picture ended up being used so widely in the press means I have been regularly dismissed as far-right. My very real concerns have been unfairly branded extreme when in reality, I know I can offer a valuable insight into the resurgence of a far-right presence that doesn’t have to exist.
I don’t deny I’ve made mistakes, but they shouldn’t disqualify me from discussing radicalisation: if anything, I’d say they give me a better perspective than most to talk about it. I understand how young white men end up on a path like Jack Renshaw’s, and I know how it can be stopped.
I’d gladly sit down with any MP, or one of the multitudes of government organisations and campaign groups who are seeking to understand this slow rise of Neo Nazi and racist extremism. But I won’t be holding my breath.