As more Britons admit racism, far right draws strength from mainstream party pandering

I gotta be me. Gareth Fuller/PA

Data from the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey shows that since 2000, the percentage of Britons who admit some level of racial prejudice has clearly increased. Nationally, it now hovers around the 30% mark – and it has coincided with a decade of gains for parties and groups on the British far right.

One mark of this uptick in extreme-right feeling is the increasingly harsh temperature of the political climate. Immigration is clearly a major issue, with some suggesting it may prove the single biggest issue for voters at the ballot box in next year’s General Election. Not long ago, it was asylum seekers who were seen as the main problem; it appears that EU migrants are now the biggest concern.

Of all the major UK parties, UKIP is obviously the most vocal in its opposition to immigration – but David Cameron is steadily trying to claw back their anti-migrant vote with rhetoric and legislation. Meanwhile, both Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband have openly stated that multiculturalism doesn’t work or has failed.

This rhetorical surge reflects a growing acceptance that opposition to immigration is not necessarily racist in itself – but for all that that acceptance might seem pragmatic and even rational, the normalisation of strong anti-immigration feeling may in fact be the very thing to creates an atmosphere in which prejudice can thrive.

Rising temperature

As far as Islamophobia goes, the far right’s current renaissance owes much to 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings. Framed as they were in the rhetoric of the “War on Terror”, the attacks and the response to them put British Muslims in the crosshairs of a newly reactionary and angry politics. While there has been some attempt in mainstream rhetoric to exempt typical Muslims from the terrorist/extremist label, it has not gone far enough.

As Chris Allen at the University of Birmingham has shown, Muslims continue to be presented as “different” and as a threat to Britain. The result, as I’ve seen in my own research, is that issues around asylum, immigration and terrorism have become inappropriately and inextricably mixed. Immigration is presented as a negative and as being problematic because those coming into Britain can be presented as potential terrorists.

By capitalising on these anti-asylum, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism and anti-Muslim sentiments, the far right have gone from strength to strength in recent years.

First, the BNP became the most successful British far-right party ever, winning two MEPs in the 2009 European elections. The party fell apart and its support has now largely collapsed – it lost both its MEPs in the European elections.

But as the BNP declined, the English Defence League sprang up; meanwhile, the extreme “Britain First”, which managed to tag itself with Lee Rigby’s name on the EU ballot, is rapidly growing in popularity on Facebook.

Don’t feed the trolls

What we have seen fits a clearly established pattern. Once the arguments presented by the far right become established – and, perhaps more importantly, start to affect election results as they have – the mainstream soon fail to challenge the extreme right head on. Instead, rather than opposing what they are saying, major parties pander to their supporters and make rhetorical concessions to their views.

This cycle oxygenates far-right organisations and keeps them alive. It also makes deeply problematic ideas seem moderate and reasonable by comparison to their purer far-right versions – and so they end up entrenched in the mainstream.

As the BSA’s alarming findings demonstrate, the results are all around us today. Many things that were once considered at least arguably racist – suspicion of asylum seekers, anger at immigrants, disdain at multiculturalism, and fear of Muslims and “Islamification” – are now widely seen as reasonable. And while being deemed racist would have once ended a parliamentary career, it is now those making accusations of racism who are running into trouble for “stifling debate” and opposing freedom of speech.

Unless the rhetoric around immigration, multiculturalism and asylum seekers changes radically, and unless mainstream politicians are brave enough to tackle the issues head on, I fear that the popularity of the farright, and the increase in public racism in Britain, will only continue to rise.