IN THE UPSTAIRS room of the Friar Penketh pub in Warrington on July 1st 2017, Jack Renshaw outlined his plan to murder an MP with a 19-inch machete. The then 22-year-old told the gathered members of National Action, a banned far-right group, that he had slaughtered a pig in preparation for killing Rosie Cooper, the MP for West Lancashire. After that he would murder a policewoman, DC Victoria Henderson, as part of a campaign of “white jihad”, he explained.
The far right is on the march. One way it manifests itself is through violence. Mr Renshaw’s foiled plot, which can be reported in full following the end of a trial earlier this month, would have meant the second murder of an MP in barely a year. Jo Cox, another Labour MP, was killed in 2016 by Thomas Mair, a far-right terrorist who gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” when he appeared in the dock. Darren Osborne, who drove a van into worshippers outside a mosque in 2017, killing one person, had hoped to kill Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, too. Death threats are now common for MPs.
Extremist positions have also come to the fore in a more insidious manner, which is proving harder to combat. The distinction between far-right and mainstream discourse has been blurred, according to Nick Lowles, who runs Hope Not Hate, an anti-racism campaign group. Narratives embraced by extremists have been normalised over the past decade. MPs are casually labelled “traitors” over how they vote on Brexit. Taboos have shifted. “We used to be more sensitive,” says William Baldét, a co-ordinator of Prevent, the government’s counter-radicalisation unit.
British attitudes towards the far right have historically been complacent. Although National Action had been banned by the government, it was Hope Not Hate that saved Ms Cooper’s life, not the British state. A whistleblower from National Action warned the group that the MP’s life was in danger. Since then the authorities have woken up. On April 9th Sajid Javid, the home secretary, widened the remit of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which is led by the spies of MI5, to include “extreme right-wing terrorism”. Referrals to Prevent regarding the far right rose by 36%, to 1,312, in 2018—a fifth of its case load.
The political class, meanwhile, seems unperturbed. Unlike in many other European countries, no far-right party has achieved mainstream success in Britain. The British National Party (BNP) has fizzled out. Support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) plummeted after the Brexit referendum in 2016. But far-right activists do not disappear when their parties shatter. Indeed, their shards can be more dangerous. Mr Renshaw is a former member of the BNP’s youth wing. UKIP has returned in a nastier guise, with a baldly anti-Islam message. It still polls at 7% or so.
Under Britain’s first-past-the-post system this is not enough to gain representation. But elections to the European Parliament, due to be held on May 23rd, use proportional representation. Fringe parties scent an opportunity.
Even mainstream parties, meanwhile, have struggled to stay clean of extremism. Labour has failed to root out anti-Semitism among its members, some of whom harass Jewish MPs as agents of Israel. The Conservatives are struggling to confront Islamophobia in their ranks. Half of Tory voters think Islam is incompatible with the British way of life—a view shared by a third of the population at large.
Other tenets of far-right thought have wide support. After months of chaos in Westminster, just over half of voters would like a strong leader who is “willing to break the rules”, according to a survey this week by the Hansard Society, a research organisation. A narrative of the people versus the elites has taken over. Although Theresa May was sensitive enough to write to MPs who have faced death threats, she recently gave an ill-judged speech blaming Parliament for thwarting the people’s will on Brexit. Despite one murder of an MP and a near-miss involving another, the ideas that fuelled those crimes march on.