Thu 28 January 2021

Ben van der Merwe, who spent five months infiltrating Generation Identity, the international far-right group linked to the Christchurch terror attacks, looks at the future of the UK branch after its split from Europe.

Few far-right groups have received such outsized media coverage as Generation Identity. With fewer than 70 active members, the group is dwarfed by the ‘Tommy Robinson’ movement. Even the British National Party’s decaying remnants – a few hundred supporters down from more than 10,000 a few years ago – makes Generation Identity (GI) look like a tribute act.

But, many other small and extreme groups don’t get prime-time slots on the BBC to explain their beliefs, and certainly not immediately after a terrorist attack in which their ideology was implicated. What makes GI different?

I spent five months undercover in GI for anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, mostly through encrypted Telegram chatrooms, but also by acting as the official photographer at its conference. The narrative which endears GI to the media is that it’s something new – young, media-savvy and ideologically distinct from the traditional far-right. What I found told a different story.

It has been several decades since a far-right group has attracted a significant number of young people. This has allowed GI to renew the far-right movement, rather than just recycle the same old faces. 

At its conference, a number of young people congregated in one corner. Although GI UK’s support group, the Identitarian Foundation, is led by men aged between 35 and 70, the organisation’s key activists are all in their teens or twenties. They stood out markedly from the much older For Britain crowd which was also in attendance. One person I spoke to wanted advice on moving out of student halls as he had just finished his first year of university.

However, this is more a sign of the times than the product of any novel strategy by GI. Across Europe and America, far-right and fascist movements have swelled with young white men. It is this shift in supply that birthed GI in Europe, the alt-right in the US and an international internet ecosystem of far-right content creators.

In this context, what is remarkable is GI’s failure to capitalise on the huge increase in supply of disaffected young people. The continental branches have their own bars, gyms and summer retreats. The UK branch, in contrast, couldn’t even organise a beach clean in August.

Although it’s true that GI attracts more young people than most other far-right groups, when it comes to ideology, the difference between GI and the traditional far-right is not quite what it seems. 

Excising or Excusing Anti-Semitism

Intellectually, GI emerged from the French Nouvelle Droite, a neo-Gramscian reimagining of racial separatism with an in-built campaign manual.

Rather than winning elections or holding mass protests, its goal is to alter the language and boundaries of politics so as to normalise white nationalism by stealth. This requires strict message discipline. One aspect of this is a public repudiation of conspiratorial anti-Semitism due to its association with Nazism.

This is certainly an innovation, but it doesn’t represent the kind of clear practical distance from historical fascism that the group likes to claim. GI is still virulently Islamophobic, which is no less extreme a form of hatred than anti-Semitism. 

Martin Sellner, head of the Identitarian Movement, is a prominent figure of the alt-right and international white supremacist movements

In the group’s private Telegram, one member wrote: “The sooner our people get sick of Muslims, the sooner they will throw them out. If Muslims start to play nicer, our people might not wake up till the great replacement is already accomplished.” 

Predicting a growing backlash against Muslims in the UK, another member pointed to the 2017 Finsbury Park Mosque attack as an example of “retaliation”. A third responded: “I certainly don’t think the WW2 guilt trip works as well now as it did a couple of decades ago.” 

Moreover, Generation Identity does not even repudiate anti-Semitism. In response to my infiltration, GI UK leader Ben Jones accused me of working for my ethnic (Jewish) interests, against those of “Europeans”. Although it does not take an official position on Israel-Palestine, many GI members clearly see Jews as a foreign body within Europe whose home is elsewhere.

While this strategy of normalisation has so far proved useful for getting soft-ball media coverage, it has caused issues in recruitment which ultimately contributed to the UK branch’s split from Europe this summer.

Speaking in a private chat in the wake of the split, Jones said: “Treating them [conspiratorial anti-Semites] like Frankenstein-like monsters is not the appropriate course of action. As of late, we’ve lost an 18-year old girl because she was a ‘JQer’ [believer in the ‘Jewish Question’], a 16-year old applicant, also a female, because of this problem. It is rife. Pretending it is not there and ignoring it is not going to solve the problem.”

Moreover, GI is hoping to recruit from those in the ‘Tommy Robinson’ movement who are leaving over what they see as its increasing Israeli partisanship under Jewish spokesman Avi Yemini.

Set loose from the broader network, GI UK will be in a position to expand its recruitment pool by opening itself up to much more virulently anti-Semitic elements of the far-right. While the leadership has presented this as an attempt to ‘moderate’ such individuals, it is clearly also a reaction to historically poor recruitment numbers. 

GI UK may fail in its new recruitment drive and remain numerically irrelevant or it may succeed and lose its hope of mainstream respectability. Either way, its future is not bright.

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