One of Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism police officers has warned that the continued battle over Brexit could be exploited by far-right extremists.
Neil Basu, an assistant commissioner at London’s Metropolitan Police and head of counter-terrorism, said that the continued divisive rhetoric could spill over from far-right groups, who operate within the law, to individuals and groups more willing to carry out violent action.
“My concern is the polarization, and I fear the far-right politicking and rhetoric leads to a rise in hate crime and a rise in disorder,” Basu told The Guardian. “I am concerned about a small number of individuals trying to make a name for themselves such as Tommy Robinson.”
“It generates a permissive atmosphere to people who want to take their argument to more extreme levels,” Basu added. “There is a difference between being offensive and criminally offensive behavior and that is a line we have to monitor.”
While the vast majority of Brexit protests, both for Leave and Remain, are peaceful (if passionate), there are signs of increasing extremism from some quarters — particularly on the Leave side. In December for instance, pro-Remain Conservative MP Anna Soubry was surrounded outside Parliament by pro-Brexit protesters and called a “traitor” and “on the side of Adolf Hitler.”
One of the agitators, James Goddard, was eventually arrested on suspicion of a public order offence. Just a few days before the incident, Soubry submitted a dossier of documented threats against her to Parliament, including calls for her to be hanged, which had been partially sparked by a front page on the Daily Telegraph referring to her, and 14 other pro-Remain Conservative MPs, as “mutineers.”
The threats made against Soubry are particularly worrying bearing in mind the murder of Jo Cox, a pro-Remain Labour Party MP who was stabbed and shot to death a week before the Brexit vote in 2016. The attacker, 53-year-old Thomas Mair, had a history of far-right beliefs and shouted “Britain First” when he attacked her. During his first court appearance shortly after he said his name was “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Mair was eventually sentenced to life imprison.
There was also a worrying spike in religiously orientated hate crimes in the U.K. in 2018, with the British Home Office recording a 40 percent increase. One particularly vile example occurred in November, when a group of schoolchildren were filmed attempting to waterboard a 15-year-old Syrian refugee. After outrage about the incident grew, British far-right provocateur Tommy Robinson joined the debate to claim that the the refugee was part of a “gang” attacking English schoolchildren — using a picture from an entirely different news article to back up his claim.
OH DEAR. 'Tommy Robinson' just posted screencaps of a message claiming that Asian gangs were beating up kids at Almondbury Community School. Only problem is, the pics were nicked from a Mirror article about a kid in Surrey last year.
Stupid, or malicious? (via @LukeCol98) pic.twitter.com/swZmeUAHYc
— Mike Stuchbery💀🍷 (@MikeStuchbery_) November 29, 2018
British police have also been increasingly vocal in their concerns over far-right extremist groups. Last February, Mark Rowley, a former assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, warned that the threat from the far-right was “more significant and more challenging then perhaps the public debate gives it credit for.” Later that year, he specifically cited National Action, a neo-Nazi terrorist group whose members included serving members of the British Army, as one of those threats.
As if to further highlight the seriousness with which the British security services are regarding the far-right, The Guardian reported in October that MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, whose work normally includes major terrorist threats like ISIS and Northern Irish paramilitaries, would now take the lead on far-right investigations.
“It is hoped that MI5’s approach, techniques and greater powers will allow it to discover more about the violent intentions of the extreme right than the police can,” the outlet wrote.