On the evening of 10 February about 400 people gathered outside the Suites hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside, to protest against refugees who the government had placed there. Some marchers came armed with sledgehammers, and the protest descended into a riot.
Worryingly, the Knowsley riot, though a gift to the far right, was not organised by them. Members of the neo-Nazi Patriotic Alternative were present. In the weeks beforehand, activists from Patriotic Alternative and the fascist Britain First had been agitating at the hotel. But the liberal anti-racist charity Hope Not Hate said the riot was “locally-driven”, after the circulation of footage allegedly showing a young man, presumed to be an asylum seeker, trying to chat up a 15-year-old girl.
This was not the first outburst against asylum seekers in recent years. The far right has staged repeated marches on Dover. In November last year a “lone wolf” racist firebombed asylum seekers waiting at the port in Dover before driving to a nearby petrol station and killing himself. His goal, he tweeted, was to “obliterate Muslim children” and “there [sic] disgusting women”.
The British government has started cramming asylum seekers into emergency hotel accommodation rather than normal housing. These hotels have become targets for fascists. In August 2020 Britain First activists went into a hotel in Bromsgrove. Similar confrontations were staged in London, Essex, Birmingham, Warrington and Wigan.
Between March 2020 and September 2022 the number of asylum seekers placed in hotels rose from 2,577 to 37,142. Local authorities have begged the government to stop doing this, claiming it is straining local services, to no avail. Even the disappearance from these hotels of about 200 Albanian children, some of whom the Observer reported had been abducted by criminal gangs, has yet to stop the policy. So, while Patriotic Alternative activists leafleted Knowsley claiming “5 Star Hotels for Migrants While Brits Freeze!”, asylum seekers were being dumped in emergency accommodation in deprived areas, and children were disappearing. No one rioted for those children.
According to our inane commentariat, the fact that the Knowsley protest was “locally-driven” must mean that the rioters have been maligned. They are just, says Allison Pearson in the Telegraph, “ordinary, decent people”. This is odd: usually, the spectacle of men swinging sledgehammers at police vehicles would provoke right-wing columnists into gyrations of outrage – not sympathetic admonitions that violence “is not the British way”. The only kind of rioters who receive this kind of tenderness from the national media are race rioters.
The claim that the Knowsley rioters were merely concerned about the safety of children is absurd. Sexual assaults on children are a regular occurrence in the UK, the majority of them perpetrated by white British males: it doesn’t provoke riots. As the remainder of Pearson’s dreary eristic vividly illustrates, with its demonisation of drag queens, Pakistanis and migrants, this latest claim is yet another instance of the ignoble tradition of racialising sex crime: from stereotypes about “black rapists”, to national broadsheets disseminating discredited claims about Muslim “grooming gangs”, to racist street gangs chanting “Allah is a paedo”. When, weeks before the riot and the alleged incident provoking it, Britain First leaflets referred to the Suites hotel being “full of male illegal immigrants”, they were tapping into this racist panic.
Nor is the disorganised nature of the riot that surprising. Most racist violence in the UK is disorganised, and yet it is growing. In every year since 2013 the number of recorded hate crimes has risen in the UK, most of them racially motivated. In the last year of recorded data alone, the number of offences increased by 26 per cent. In schools the number of racist incidents has increased by 50 per cent in the last year according to the Department for Education. And far-right “migrant hunts” doubled in 2022, Hope Not Hate reported. If this is a social contagion then we are firmly on the upward slant of the s-curve.
Yet if far-right parties didn’t organise the riot, what is their role, and how do they fit into modern rightist street politics? Consider the range of recent activities in which fascist activists have been present amid a wider milieu: anti-vaxx protests, QAnon rallies, mobs targeting Drag Queen Story Hour, and protests against the 15-minute city (a banal urban planning idea turned into evidence of a globalist or socialist conspiracy to permanently lock down the city). Many of these protests attract participants well beyond the extant far-right. Like the German “Querdenken” movement – an anti-lockdown, anti-vaxx coalition – they embody what Quinn Slobodian and William Callison call the “diagonal style” in politics. The diagonal points firmly to the right, but draws along many people who would previously have voted left.
And while there is some organisation behind these activities, it involves a cluster of digitally-organised networks rather than traditional parties. Parties matter because they provide disciplined, committed, ideologically homogeneous cadres. In the fractal scene of UK politics, with its innumerable single-issue campaigns, lobbies, parties, party factions, Telegram and YouTube channels, and would-be combat groups, even groupuscules can wield influence well beyond their size. But for the moment, fascist parties don’t have significant organisational clout. They are violent agitators, awaiting the sanguinary opportunity of “race war”, and work in the medium of wider rightist currents, exploiting openings made by others.
[See also: The strange death of the centre right]
One way to think about how these openings are made is to look again at the concept of social contagions. Many ideas and behaviours, from consumer products to social movements, spread in a contagious fashion. As the sociologist Damon Centola argues, the speed of their diffusion partly depends on the thresholds for uptake. In “simple” contagions, such as the spread of a meme, the thresholds are low. The idea spreads fastest through “weak ties” of the sort we see on the internet. In “complex” contagions, the thresholds are higher. Potential participants tend to need persuasion or validation from people they know before joining in. This is why traditional movements, for example campaigns for civil rights, have spread in geographic waves, through closely knit communities. The same is true of racist radicalisation, which in the UK has proliferated in waves through regions such as West Yorkshire. But in the UK the thresholds for participation in racist ideology and street action have been systematically lowered over the years by a combination of government and media publicity.
Among the banners at a far-right Rotherham protest was one declaring: “End the invasion.” This echoed language used by Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, to describe migrants arriving on the coast of southern England. She, in turn, was no doubt aware of its lineage in American rightist discourse, and in the campaigning language of Leave.EU in the run up to Brexit, which made conspicuous use of such imagery. Nor is the mainstreaming of far-right obsessions particularly novel.
It was not a fringe far-right party that treated a forged letter, purportedly written by Islamists, as evidence of a jihadist plot to take over Birmingham Schools. That was the Tory government. It was not a febrile website that promoted the conspiracy theory that Pizza Express was secretly feeding halal meat to its customers, thus piping Islam into the national metabolism. That was the Sun. Myths about Romanian “criminal gangs” were the work of the press and the police officials who supplied them with “intelligence”. And the idea that “grooming gangs” were ignored by metropolitan liberals for fear of being called racist was not an innovation of fascist agitators, but the work of the Times and a claque of edgelord columnists.
Most of this began long before Brexit, which in liberal post-lapsarian discourse is the scapegoat for most modern ills. However, Brexit catalysed these trends in the UK. This, and the institutional defeat of the left, puts us in a situation in which anti-immigrant racism is competitively bipartisan. The official opposition speaks of tagging asylum seekers and weaning British business off migrant labour. The government has floated plans to use the Navy to repel refugee boats in the English Channel, as though it were indeed an “invasion” and the government was putting us on a race war footing. And Remainers are mistaken to assume that rejoining the European Union would civilise this frightening trend: the EU pursues its own bloody border policies, including illegal pushbacks, in contravention of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting “collective expulsion of aliens”. Just days after the earthquake in Turkey this month it approved harsher rules on “irregular migration”. The combined result of the EU’s restrictions is that over 8,400 people have died trying to reach Europe by boat since 2019. There are few places in Europe where elements of far-right race war aren’t being mainstreamed.
Nor is it just on racism that the far-right has been mainstreamed. The intersecting drives of racism, transphobia, sex panic and millenarian conspiracy theory have been aided and abetted by a combination of policy, national media, and the statements of ministers and backbench politicians. Much of this is cynical, and it demonstrates the vacuity of the political establishment. For example, the Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson – whose reaction to the Knowsley riot was to blame a “multi-million pound industry” of refugee charities, lefty lawyers and people traffickers for driving migration into the UK – has explained that without Brexit as a rallying issue the Tories need “culture wars” to stoke politically useful hatreds and win the next election. No doubt Keir Starmer says what he does about asylum seekers because he can think of no better way to win over Red Wall voters. As for the commentariat, they are not paid to think but to write the same thing each week, with minor adaptations: when Albert Camus said “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”, he could have been describing the complacency of the British broadsheet columnist. But the total effect is to bind the political system to a minoritarian consensus, while legitimising even more marginal ideas.
This is a dangerous combination, given the prevailing context of deepening social crisis. Living standards have been falling for over a decade, the government is suppressing wages, the Bank of England is restricting consumption through interest rate rises, and the poorest in the UK would be better off if they lived in “poor” countries in Eastern Europe. The public sector has yet to recover from the austerian hatchet job. Public squalor and private squalor are merging. People are angry, depressed and terribly bored. These flashpoints of violence offer a form of excitement, not just for those wielding the sledgehammers but also for those helping to drive the furore through online networks.
This excitement oscillates between the drive to social breakdown and the drive towards a fascist restoration of authority. Consider the aggression shown to the police on the riot, and the fact that the sledgehammers were wielded against a police van. For good reasons, the police are losing public authority, just as political and media institutions have been for years. From Wayne Couzens to David Carrick, from deaths in custody to the mishandling of the Stephen Port murders, the police are seen as institutionally sexist, racist and corrupt. But since this deserved collapse in authority coincides with the circulation of violent, authoritarian energies, it presents opportunities for those who want to engage in DIY policing. Isn’t that, in effect, what a lynch mob is?
The danger is that, as these trends converge, the right may be approaching what the sociologist Ruud Koopmans refers to as an “opportunity cascade”. The street right is simulating multiple front lines, crises in which followers can appear to be doing something about their loss of agency and well-being, and even briefly enjoy camaraderie. This emboldens the mainstream right, while the dismal centre compromises and softens the ground. That makes it easier for further outbreaks to happen.
This is a dangerous moment in British politics, and there is as yet no effective counterpoint to the delusional excitement offered by the emerging right. The left, in electoral defeat, has been demoralised and reactive. The unions’ rediscovery of militancy offers hope. Unions represent durable institutional power, not online frenzies. But the strikes could be defeated. And struggles over pay are not enough by themselves to counter the apocalyptic allure of reaction. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that people need more than bread: they need something to desire and fight for. And since the political class is in no hurry to offer that, the left must.