White terrorism: Brexit, Popular Racism and Human Rights


The terror attack upon worshippers outside the Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury park last week was the third terror attack in London in recent months. It also came just one year after the murder of Jo Cox MP, and a week after the Grenfell Tower fire. Perhaps these events were playing on people’s minds since, this time, we saw much more compassion for the victims and the wider Muslim community. This compassion followed the same formulaic response as previous terror attacks, though if you listened to Facebook and Twitter there was much criticism of the weak response by politicians and the media around white terror.

However, rather than simply wishing the narrative on white terrorism was as strong as it for Muslim terrorism, surely this is the time to think critically about the Prevent strategy, and develop a different vision based on our own history, perspective and vision of the future.

It is perfectly understandable why people think we need a more robust approach on Prevent to white terrorism. After the London Bridge attacks the Prime Minister announced that ”there is far too much tolerance of extremism is our society”, and outlined a series of measures, including an integration strategy to help women into the workplace, teach people English and “help people in more isolated communities to engage with the wider world”.

This statement, in response to yet another terrorist attack in London, shows how the state simplifies the issue to argue that extremism comes from cultural differences, and isolation by the community themselves. This is wrong and simply widens the gulf between white and Muslim communities.

Ever since the Cantle report was published in 2001, the Government has overplayed the relevance of cultural practices of BME communities, and the Muslim community in particular, for a range of issues. Whether the issue is extremism, housing segregation, language, academic achievement, misogyny, or sexual abuse, Islam, and cultural differences are blamed, all with just a slither of evidence. Yet one doesn’t have to dig too deep to reveal how political ideology, structural racism, class, gender, and race also important factors. Research centres such as the Institute of Race Relations have written widely about how the community cohesion agenda has been used to undermine anti-racism (see link). Our failure has been to let the state lazily explain away its failures in tackling issues of race, class and gender with arguments of cultural difference. I say lazy because the research methodology used in various reports to support this viewpoint is so bad.

During the 1970’s, we saw a shift in radical thinking from this issue of exploitation to that of human happiness. Clearly, for a lot of white workers’ things were improving, and for them the issue of alienation was probably as important as exploitation. Alongside this we see a shift in theoretic research from structural politics to cultural politics. Influential institutions such as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies produced work which examined how issues around race were socially constructed. Its early work it examined the ‘systems of meaning, and categories of representation which make sense of the world’ (Hall, 1980). For example, in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, they examined how racist policing of mugging related to Britain’s economic and cultural crisis, a piece of academic work which remains relevant today, when we consider the fear of Islam. However, over time this analytical link between cultural process and structural inequalities disappeared in Government sponsored research, so much that the Cantle report could explain away segregation in the housing market based on cultural reasons. Susan Smith in her study of post-war residential segregation in Britain wrote “national policy legislation has been influential in determining the location and quality of black people’s housing opportunities, and that this has built the foundations on which racial segregation is erected” (Susan J Smith, 1989) It has been interesting that in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, there has been much more interest in the longstanding structural class issues in Kensington and Chelsea, than cultural factors.

Research needs examine both cultural and structural factors. It’s an obvious point, ask any BAME youth in any city and they will recount stories of their encounters with newly recruit police officers, mostly from suburban or rural Britain. Then ask yourself, why is suburban and rural Britain full of white people, why are they more likely to vote for Brexit, what images of BAME will they grow up with, and what will happen when these youths go through police college and get sent to our inner cities. Institutional racism and structural and cultural injustices work together.

One of the worst examples of this lazy research was last years Casey Review. In a report about ‘integration’, it focused overwhelmingly on denouncing Muslims, past approaches on race were simply dismissed as being too politically correct. It pushed a singular notion of integration, one that is ‘British’.  However, to support its claims it didn’t define integration, Britishness, nor did it make any mention of the contribution of migrants, nor provide any real analysis of what has worked well. Instead, the report simply attacked Muslims, with 294 statements commenting on the cultural and religious practices in communities that “were holding some of our citizens back contrary to British values and sometimes our laws.

Twenty years ago, we would expect scores of academics and community activists to tear about the methodology of this report, yet this did not happen. Some writers such as Hirsch have compared the fear mongering in the Casey report, to Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. She also commented that the issues facing the white communities and working class come together, but BME people are increasingly excluded from the term working class. “As The Telegraph puts it, the White working class are now ‘Britain’s betrayed tribe’, used as symbol for the failures of multiculturalism policy.”

It’s an important point, and one which is designed to play to racist prejudices of the white working class. A strategy deliberately used by all political parties seeking power since the days of Empire. As Virdee pointed in a recent Runnymede publication, it’s not just the Tories but the Labour party who, “attempted to make a hitherto uninterested, unskilled working class more conscious of ‘its’ Empire and the role it needs to play in its defence’.  The notion of Britishness we are being asked to support as part of the Prevent program has its roots in the Empire, and the continuing belief within the British state, that its Empire days were honourable. As the Washington Post recently pointed out, this is not an idea supported or recognised across the globe, and indeed hinders British business.

This conflict between the notion of British values being rooted in fairness and justice, and its actual history, in slavery, empire building, and present day imperialism is all around us, yet strangely absent from the discourse used by the public and state institutions. For example, our schools can study the Civil Rights movement in the USA but not Britain’s history on anti racism. The curriculum is not fit for purpose, that’s why so many working-class kids, both black and white fail.

Last year, the UN criticised the Prevent agenda by saying “the current Prevent strategy suffers from multiple, mutually reinforcing structural flaws, the foreseeable consequence of which is a serious risk of human rights violations. These violations include, most obviously, violations of the right against discrimination, as well the right to freedom of expression, among other rights. Prevent’s structural flaws include the targeting of ‘pre-criminality’, ‘non-violent extremism’, and opposition to ‘British values’. This leads the government to interfere in everyday lawful discourse”. Additionally, teachers have voted overwhelmingly to reject the government’s Prevent strategy, designed to tackle extremism, over concerns that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”. Neither the UN nor the Teachers Union are radical bodies.

Its obvious that if we can’t openly talk about politics and history in schools, colleges and universities, then how can we tackle extremism. Yet, we are happy to glorify war in the classrooms, and our streets. We spend so much time celebrate Britain’s involvement in the two World Wars, and its military past, through events in schools, and in town parades, yet we disconnect this from the violence and genocide which occurred in parts of Europe during the early twentieth century. For example, even the during the period between the two World war, Europe is engrossed in a whirlwind of ethnic and political violence, with Britain playing its role. Violence in Europe did not arrive with the recent arrival of Muslims.

We are led to believe that Muslim’s have recently arrived in Europe, and this has caused conflicts. Yet historically, this is factually untrue. The history of Islam in Europe is not solely one of conflict. The spread of land which now encompasses Spain and Portugal was ruled by Muslim rulers for 700 years, under which religions of all faiths practiced their faith openly, Muslim, Jews and Christians. This changed with the Christian conquest in 1492, first the Jews were expelled, and then the Muslims, even those who converted to Christianity. This desire to make Europe ‘pure’, was taken up by Martin Luther in Germany and Thomas More in Britain.

By then, Britain had already shown its tolerant side for centuries earlier. There were huge massacres of Jews during the crusades, with entire communities killed in York, Lincoln and London, and by 1290 Britain’s Jewish community had either been killed or expelled. Between 1290 and 1655 there are no records of Jews in Britain.  Therefore, the slogan of ‘taking back control, bears some faint echoes of these earlier intolerance times, and when we say ‘British values’ we need to remember Britain has history of intolerance to foreigners, or rather ‘blaming foreigners’.

One of the reasons we see fewer massacres in Europe is due to the framework around human rights and equality, yet this is something Prevent increasingly undermines. The European Convention on Human Rights – a treatise of fairness, compassion and accountability – is designed to keep us safe and free. After the horrific attack in Manchester, the prime minister stood outside No 10 and said: “Let us remember those who died and let us celebrate those who helped, safe in the knowledge that the terrorists will never win – and our values, our country and our way of life will always prevail.” Then she said this: “If our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change the laws so we can do it.” Human Rights legislation helps protect victims, and provide some leverage of accountability from the government.

There is no evidence to show that it impacts on the levels of terrorism in a country. So, if Prevent promotes a false notion of British, undermines human rights legislation which protects us, promotes war mongering, disconnects the increasing racism and Islamophobia we see in the press and politics, then why do we think white terrorism can be resolved by Prevent, since surely Prevent narrative fosters white racism and Islamophobia. If you don’t accept this, then just look to America.

In the USA, white terrorism is much more accepted, and its hate laws developed over the 1970’s was designed to counter the influence of its white terrorists such as the Klu Klux Klan. The Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people died, and 680 people were injured remains one of the largest terrorist attack on US soil. The far right continue to be a threat. One study found that between 2008 and 2016, there were 115 plots and attacks by right wing extremists, and 63 by Islamist extremists. Few plots by right wing extremists were stopped, and police operations were four time higher in Islamist groups. We have a much less diverse population in Britain than the US, if the far right and white terrorist are less likely to be under police investigations, than the likelihood of increasing hate crime and violence is more likely, one reason for the increase in hate crime in recent days. The recent announcement that the number of suspect far right extremists flagged up has risen by the Channel program soared by 30% in 2016/17, however this is not necessarily just ‘Prevent’ , as some referrals will come after incidents, and more likely to be as part of a restorative justice package.

The hate crime agenda in the UK was imported from the US in the aftermath of the Lawrence report. The US had been implementing a hate crime agenda for over a decade, and focusing its attention to its far right groups. However, the hate crime agenda in the US during the 1970’s ultimately undermined the demands from the anti-racism and civil rights movements during the 1960’s.  In effect, the anti racist and civil rights agenda was dropped, and this was replaced with white institutions implementing a hate crime agenda, anti racism was replaced with victim support.  We see the same story in this country, as local anti racist projects, monitoring groups and other BME groups replaced with a hate crime agenda implemented by victim support, local authorities or other agencies in partnership with the criminal justice system.  Whereas anti racism would examine the broader institutional racism which caused local racism to foster, hate crime simply supports individual victims. Although this is important, it has meant that for two decades we have allowed the media, politicians, and others to foster racism and Islamophobia with impunity, because there is a strategy to tackle hate crime, but not racism.

The absence of Race Equality Councils, monitoring groups and law centres across the country, has meant that the broad waves of racism BME people face is not challenged. You only have to look on the website of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and there are no projects to tackle racism. Yet ironically on newly commissioned video on hate crime George the Poet repeats, “The defining characteristic of hate crime is not actually hate its prejudice…the prejudice is born in a hateful climate”.

Last week a Muslim man in Huddersfield was beaten in a race attack on his home, and the on one wall the graffiti was sprayed reading “P***s out. We need a final solution #Manchester.” These same words had been tweeted by Katie Hopkins just days before the attack. The hateful climate feeds on the racism already present in our society, and the press and politicians simply feed this to reach a popular audience. There are many research reports which show this link. One report in Staffordshire examined the motivations of people convicted of race crimes and found, “few people, including those convicted of racially aggravated crimes, see themselves as ‘racists’. The vast majority of people do not condone racist attacks. Yet many people associate immigration and the descendants of immigrants with everything that is wrong with their lives. The presence of migrant and minority ethnic populations is widely seen in North Staffordshire as an emblem of decline, and an uncomfortable reminder of local white people’s inability to secure decent lives for themselves and their families

Even those who are convicted of racism do not think they are racist, The Brexit campaign feed on this fear and insecurity, it did this through three simply words, ‘Take Back Control’, and the consequences was a spike in hate crimes. Between 18 March and 30 June, 2016, 4,123,705 tweets were sent around the world containing a word that can be used in an Islamophobic way, and of these, 28,034 were judged to be from the UK and were classified as explicitly anti-Islamic and derogatory.  When the Prime Minister starts talking about taking back control of the human rights legislation, she will not be preventing further acts of white terrorism, it will be simply feed the fear of immigrants.

One of the first major terrorist attacks of white racism in this country was perpetrated by Stuart Copeland, the London Bomber. Copeland was a former member of two far right political groups, the British National Party (BNP) and the National Socialist Movement. Copeland told police, “My aim was political. It was to cause a racial war in this country. There’d be a backlash from the ethnic minorities, then all the white people will go out and vote BNP.”

The BNP vote went from the BNP to UKIP, and along the way the racism of the BNP became mainstream. However loud the voices condemning white terrorism, our politicians and the press can’t help appealing to popular racism, yet there is no strategy to tackle racism in our society.  Katie Hopkins tweets are written on the houses of victims, yet she will not be charged with public order offences for incitement of racial violence. Rather than working to improve the Prevent narrative, we need to tackle the everyday racism and Islamophobia. Grenfell shows us the disparity between the good will in our communities to help each other, compared the inaction of the state. We need to harness this to fight the prejudice which feeds the hate, and the institutions which feed the prejudice.



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