In 2003, I was a member of an anti-racist campaign based in North East England. I worked with a journalist from the BBC as he reported on the story of the British National Party and its growing electoral support in Sunderland.
As the journalist left the city, I remember him saying, “I wish I could come back in a few years when their vote falls. But you and I both know that’s never the story.”
I’ve been thinking about that line over the past few months. Because the mainstream media are continuing to report that the far right is booming even though every sign is that they’re in crisis.
Tommy Robinson has been quoted telling his supporters that he has joined the Conservatives. Britain First claimed that 5,000 of its members have done the same. Even Nigel Farage has cooled his previous criticisms of the Conservatives, and is now is in the press for his support of that party. Apparently Boris Johnson is “singing the right tune” and “saying all the right things“.
For four years we have been seeing a realignment of the global right, in a political space which is more authoritarian and nationalistic even than the generation of Reagan or Thatcher but yet does not go as far as the far right of the 1920s or 1930s.
The new far-right leaders have drawn on the assistance of outliers further to their right: Donald Trump’s first Chief Strategist was Steve Bannon, Vladimir Putin can has the backing of the neo-fascist court philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.
But what is striking about the likes of Nigel Farage or the former supporters of the Brexit Party is actually how little institutional power they have acquired under Boris Johnson’s government.
In 2016, after the referendum result, UKIP supporters called for Nigel Farage to be granted a peerage. The idea was to give him a permanent formal role in British politics. But the peerage never came.
In the run-up to the 2019 election, there was widespread speculation that the Brexit Party was to be offered some formal pact with the Conservatives, where in return for backing Boris Johnson, the Brexit Party would be guaranteed a certain minimum number of uncontested seats in the new Parliament.
But what actually happened was that no such deal ever materialised; and Farage had to construct a one-sided pactof his own – in which his party agreed not to contest Conservative-held seats with no guarantee of anything from Johnson in return.
The arrangement was of enormous benefit to the Conservatives. It ensured that the “leave” side of our post-referendum election system was united behind a single party, while (depending on where you voted) Remainers had the choice of either three or four different parties that could plausibly aim to represent them.
Farage’s one-sided offer guaranteed the present Conservative majority. And yet his reward has been nothing: no seat in the Lords, no supporters in the Commons.
In so far as there was any price of this arrangement it was that the Conservatives would move – for a lengthy period of time – onto the political terrain previously occupied by the Brexit, UKIP and before them other parties of the extreme right.
It was that move which makes the Conservatives interesting to such contemporary types as Dominic Cummings, Andrew Sabisky or Joshua Spencer. The people who in America are called the “alt-lite,” in Britain join the Conservatives.
They are not a faction within that party. They depend on its leaders to support their policies. The far-right has no guarantee that they’ll oblige.
If you see the balance of power in the perspective of the last few years, what is striking is how the right is realigning within a Conservative Party rather than against a previously-dominant mainstream right.
Compare France in 2017, where in the last Presidential election the leading candidate came from the far right rather than a newly-militant centre right. Or Austria, where the same dynamics of convergence on the right led to a centre-and-far-right coalition between 2017 and 2019.
The weakness of the far right is even clearer the further you look away from the mainstream. Tommy Robinson has been chastened by a spell in prison and stripped of his means of communication with his previous mass support.
Far from commanding a secret army of 5,000 people the leaders of Britain First are struggling to avoid following Robinson to jail.
“Breakthrough” populism was all about the centre-right moving on to territory occupied by the far right. The populism of the last few months has been much more like standard conservatism. The historical purpose of Claire Fox turns out to be only to win Boris Johnson a slightly larger majority.
So while socialists, radical democrats and anti-fascists have been in no great state after the last election, we can at least take comfort from the reality that – for a key group of our enemies – the immediate prospect is even worse.