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The End of a Decade Without a Name: Right-Wing Populism, Referendums, Digital Darkness and Self-Harm

Part Two of Otto English’s take on the 2010s, charting the death of Lee Rigby, the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and the forces that led to the UK voting to Leave the European Union.

Right-Wing Populism, Digital Darkness, Self-Harm

Part Two of Otto English’s take on the 2010s, charting the death of Lee Rigby, the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and the forces that led to the UK voting to Leave the European Union.

Hope, Tragedy, Hate

In the summer of 2012, the UK hosted the Olympic Games and, for a few weeks as the world focused its gaze on Britain, the nation seemed to bask in glory.

Here was a relaxed, multicultural country, at ease with itself and its post-colonial legacy, which could do big things. Deliver great spectacles. Come together to play host to the world. The cloud of gloom that had hung over the country in the four years following the financial crisis seemed to lift. It felt, briefly, that all would be well.

It was a false dawn.

The shocking and brutal murder of Lee Rigby, outside his barracks in Woolwich, south-east London, in May 2013 changed everything.

In the days that followed, the idea of a happy and contented multicultural Britain disappeared in a puff of hate. Following the murder, hundreds of incidents of harassment and assault against Muslims were reported. Graffiti was scrawled onto mosques and businesses. On the very night of Lee Rigby’s death, a man entered a mosque in Braintree, armed with a knife, and started threatening members of the congregation with what looked like a home-made bomb. There were reports of arson, petrol bombings and threats and intimidation against British Muslims.

By June 2013, the Metropolitan Police reported that there had been an eight-fold rise in hate crimes against Muslim communities since Gunner Rigby’s death. Soon, far-right fringe groups such as the English Defence League were seizing on the murder and politicising it for their own ends. An image of the young father, with the caption “lest we forget” was copied from his own family’s Facebook account and circulated by Britain First. 

Gunner Rigby had been wearing a Help for Heroes t-shirt at the time of his death and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – also known as ‘Tommy Robinson’ – was soon seeking to raise money for the charity in memory of the victim. Help for Heroes rejected the cash, Rigby’s family asked that they be left in peace and that Lee’s death not be politicised – but the far-right were having none of it. Depressingly, as the weeks went by, their rhetoric seeped into the mainstream.

It once again became acceptable to say unacceptable things. 

The Farage Force

Within a year, commentators, including most prominently Katie Hopkins – a former contestant on The Apprentice reality television show – were adopting the language of the far-right.

In 2013, Hopkins had joined The Sun as “Britain’s most controversial columnist”. Two years later, she was writing that gunboats should be used on migrants who were seeking to cross the Mediterranean in the UK’s biggest selling newspaper. She referred to asylum seekers as “vermin” and, rather than be condemned for it, her career blossomed. 48 hours after the publication of her column, an estimated 700 refugees drowned when their boat capsized in the Med. Rather than being rendered unemployed, Hopkins was poached by the Mail Online and, shortly after that, was offered a prime-time slot as a host on LBC. Controversy and outrage got clicks and clicks meant revenue. Hate had gone mainstream and it paid dividends to be a bigot.

But, Hopkins was not alone. From the once respectable Spectator magazine, to the sofas of Good Morning Britain and the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph, long dormant views started to be expressed again and the political opportunists took note.

Precisely one year to the day after the death of Lee Rigby on 22 May 2014, UKIP led by Nigel Farage, stormed the EU Elections, winning more seats than any of the other UK parties. It was the first time since 1910 that a party other than the Conservatives and Labour had won the largest number of seats in a national election. Farage was catapulted onto the national stage, along with his agenda, and UKIP went from being a fringe movement to a major force in British politics.

UKIP’s 2014 win altered the political landscape. Euroscepticism, long the preserve of wingnuts and loons, became a major issue and Farage was a different kind of beast to the metropolitan David Cameron and Ed Miliband. His appeal transcended old divisions.

Like Katie Hopkins, Farage was not afraid to say controversial things. He made anti-politically correct rhetoric acceptable in mainstream politics again and, as his party started to make inroads and siphon off the Conservative vote, Cameron began to panic. Soon Farage was attracting defecting Tory MPs Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, meaning that UKIP had representation at Westminster.

But, the assault on the established order was not only happening in England.

Scotland and Social Media

The Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 was a particularly bitter and brutal example of how Britain was starting to turn in on itself and how dangerous binary plebiscites could be.

“No” won, but the fractures that the campaign opened up reflected the wider forces of acrimony and hate that were being unleashed across the country. It also hinted for the first time that Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine of internet trolls, bots and dissemblers were interfering in UK democratic process.

The Russian state television channel Sputnik sent dozens of journalists to Scotland during the referendum and alarm bells were raised that the Kremlin was seeking to create chaos and disorder in Britain. Those accusations were brushed off by the SNP leader Alex Salmond – even as he took up the offer of presenting a show on Russia Today (now RT).

The Scottish Referendum was a stark warning of the dangers of giving in to the forces of populism, but the vain and indolent Prime Minister David Cameron failed to take the lesson on board and ploughed on.

The old political parties had seemingly not noticed that the rules of the game had changed and that the internet had irredeemably altered the landscape. The web may have been with us since the early 1990s, but the growing influence of social media was only now coming into its own. The political agenda – so long set by Fleet Street journalists, lobbyists and spin doctors – was now being led by Twitter and social media commentary.

Facebook, once a place where people had shared holiday snaps and pictures of cats, was being politicised and, more potently, was itself turning into a ‘news source.’ By 2019, Facebook had become the third biggest provider of news in the UK after ITV and the BBC, with almost 40% of social media users viewing it as impartial. 

Social media allowed politically like-minded people to meet and gather in a way that had previously been unprecedented. But it also caused Britain First memes to go viral, and allowed unfettered and uncensored conversations and only recently proscribed views to get aired once again. All of this was undeniably part of UKIP’s success and the resurgence of the populist right.

No Way Back

The General Election of 2015 saw David Cameron returned with a majority Government and an election commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

That catastrophic gamble was an attempt to see off the rising tide of UKIP popularity and to placate a long rumbling dispute on the Conservative backbenches. It was to backfire in spectacular fashion. 

As the date of that plebiscite neared, all that had gone before came together in a perfect storm.

The fear of migration, whipped up by the likes of Hopkins and Farage and the far-right; the disconnect between forward-looking Isles of Wonder-thinking and Spitfire nationalism; and the meddling of Kremlin bots and the changing media landscape all came to a head and Britain descended into a bitter and acrimonious civil war.

As the forces of populism took hold, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson saw an opportunity to fulfill his lifelong ambition to become Prime Minister and hitched his cart to the Brexit donkey.

One hardly needs to spell out what happened next. In the course of five years, the UK has embarked on a lengthy and painful act of self-defenestration. The nation has given in to the forces of irrationality and intolerance, as nebulous politicians have busied themselves drilling holes in the hull of the HMS Britannia. The causes of our self-destruction are many and varied. But, the Labour Party’s abject refusal to present a viable alternative to the chaotic and destructive forces of the right has certainly contributed to the disaster.

Decades need to be judged from a distance. It is possible that, in time, all of this will come to be seen as a long overdue re-calibration. The chaos that has been unleashed might even have some positive outcomes.

But, there is no turning back. Alone among our European neighbours, Britain has not suffered a seismic event in the past 100 years – a lost war or revolution – that has forced us to re-examine who we are or where we are going. Perhaps the Brexit decade has been that moment. 

If only the soundtrack had been better.

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