Why did you choose this particular country?
Like many, I have been concerned about the boldness of the extreme right and the increase in hate crimes across North America and Europe. I chose England specifically as a study because of its long history of waxing and waning right wing activity- from an active fascist movement preceding the Second World War to the rise of the racist skinhead youth culture exemplified by the aggressive Combat-18 organization, and finally the election of far right British National Party members to the European Parliament in the early years of the 21st century. The central focus of these investigations has been the potential for violence among splinter groups as attendance at right wing protests has steadily declined in recent months. With the murder of MP Jo Cox last year, and the listing of the group National Action as the first far-right organization designated a terrorist group, the question of whether groups might abandon electoral processes for violence seems a particularly relevant one.
What are two interesting things about the country that the average person does not know?
I think most people would be surprised by the sheer power of London in relation to the rest of the country. The city dominates the United Kingdom’s economics and politics. Not only is the seat of government and the most visible recipient of the UK’s international trading connections, but it is also responsible for about a third of the UK’s tax revenue alone. Over the course of my research, I have come to understand this division between London and other communities as a serious grievance being capitalized on by the far right. Many in other cities and smaller towns, particularly those hit hardest by de-industrialization and a downgrade in their quality of life express frustration with “that lot in Westminster” who they see as having little interest in spreading London’s wealth. When discussing immigration, the EDL frequently argues that London policymakers accept newcomers without ever feeling the impact of new residents, striking a chord with those who see immigrants as competitors for jobs, and a common refrain during the Brexit campaign.
The far right’s success in entering the mainstream has been the most surprising thing to me. Many I encountered spoke about the challenges of “integration” into British society as unique to Muslim immigrants, expressing a sentiment common among the far right that British Muslim is a contradiction in terms. The focus on immigration control during Brexit negotiations, in which the Conservative government has tried to assuage the concerns that produced the Brexit vote has left far right parties like the UK Independence Party in the unusual predicament of having met its goal. Likewise, the relatively common perception of British Muslims as Other supports the EDL’s sentiments without needing to participate in its rallies.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
The biggest lesson for me has been really learning how to adapt my plan quickly to respond to changing circumstances. Between a snap election producing a hung parliament and two attacks just weeks apart, it has been a fascinating and heartbreaking time to be here. While I had planned several interviews, the Borough Market attack disrupted my ability to speak in person with some of my contacts. However, I was still able to conduct a couple of interviews which proved particularly enlightening. A result, I quickly needed to reconsider my research structure to ensure I was making the most of my time here. Relying less on in-person interviews with officials, researchers, and reporters who were proving (understandably) unavailable, I could focus more on the cities and people around me. Graffiti, local newspapers, informal pub chats, and trips to the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries to access books that haven’t made it to the United States helped to fill those gaps. Being able to consistently access local newspaper opinion columns and compare them across cities over many days was supremely eye-opening, as people wrote about local issues difficult to access from afar, but seem so pervasive in person while exploring these cities on foot, putting de-industrialization and demographic changes into context in Leeds, Bristol, and Manchester.