An exploration of far-right extremism in the UK today

Sarah Knight watches.

The Left Behind opens with an attack by a group of young adults on a Halal butcher’s shop, and then goes back in time to show the series of events, from different perspectives, that led up to the attack. The story focuses on the main character; Gethin, a young male facing a number of daily struggles. Gethin’s mother has died, his father is an alcoholic living on the street, and he lives in cramped conditions with his sister, brother-in-law and niece. The family is facing eviction, and the lack of affordable housing forces them to accept a smaller, alternative accommodation which leaves Gethin homeless.

In parallel to this part of the story, we are shown a friendship developing between Gethin and Yasmin, a young adult female from a Muslim family who lives nearby. Both are struggling financially on zero-hours contracts, and end up in competition for available shifts where they work. In the background to this we see Gethin’s peer group becoming angry and frustrated with their situation regarding lack of housing and employment, and increasingly their views become more extreme, with local Muslims becoming the focus of their grievances. This leads to community tensions and ultimately three racially-aggravated acts of violence – one where Gethin is the victim and two where he and his friends are the perpetrators.  

The story draws on research by Professor Hilary Pilkington, author of Loud and Proud, a book informed by her time spent with the English Defence League. A prologue follows the opening of the programme, stating that: ‘Support for the far-right is growing in Britain’s post-industrial towns and cities, where work is insecure and housing is in crisis’, and ‘In 2018 there was a 36% increase in the number of far-right referrals to the UK Government’s counter-terrorism programme’. This is a timely topic to explore, as the increase in far-right extremism is a real social issue that has led to community tensions, divisions and at times violent attacks with serious consequences for both victims and perpetrators. As the programme states, ‘In 2018 there were 94,098 hate crimes in England and Wales… an increase of 123% in five years’.

The question of when, why and how people become radicalised and come to conduct extremist-related violent acts is of obvious interest to us as psychologists. Research findings show that not all radicals are violent, and not all violent extremists are radical. There are complex and multifaceted reasons why individuals become involved in extremism, and these vary between individuals (e.g. see Knight et al., 2017). It is generally agreed within the literature that people can be influenced by individual, group and social variables, which include ‘push’ (e.g. low economic status, peer pressure, mental health issues) and ‘pull’ (e.g. an appealing ideology, financial rewards) factors (e.g. Borum, 2015). Different behavioural outcomes between individuals exposed to similar factors can in part be explained by ‘protective’ factors (e.g. employment, family and friends who reject extremist ideas), which can mediate or moderate the impact of push and pull influences.

The Left Behind highlights a number of the factors known to underlie racism and extremism, such as low economic status, competition for resources, feelings of marginalisation and humiliation (experienced by both sides), as well as Gethin’s personal circumstances that demonstrate a lack of protective factors. These combined can lead to ‘ingroup-outgroup’ thinking and ‘othering’ and act as a catalyst for violence against members of the perceived outgroup.

Researchers are now exploring the ‘pathways’ into violent extremism as another way of understanding this phenomenon (e.g. Horgan, 2008). Pathways refer to the process by which a person’s ‘story’ can be viewed across a timeline, capturing their characteristics, situation, environment, and events that they experience. These can be analysed in order to make sense of the factors that may facilitate or impede them becoming involved in acts of violent extremism. Understanding key events, the sequence in which they occur, and the timescales between these may provide a different lens through which to examine different types of extremists, and may reveal new insights that may for example inform those responsible for preventing extremism. Here the concept of ‘reciprocal radicalisation’ (or ‘cumulative extremism’) is likely to be key, whereby different groups become more polarised and escalatory in response to each other (e.g. Bartlett & Birdwell, 2013). This is demonstrated in The Left Behind whereby both parties (Gethin’s and Yasmin’s peer group) become divided and more extreme in their views and behaviours towards each other.

Despite the large literature on extremism and radicalisation, more research is needed. The evidence base has improved significantly, but a recent review by Schuurman (2019) found that the literature is biased towards understanding jihadism and noted a dearth of empirical research on those inspired by far-right ideologies. This is despite evidence that the latter pose an increasing and credible threat; as shown, for example, by the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, which looked to have been inspired by a far-right ideology, the vehicle-ramming attack on pedestrians around Finsbury Park Mosque in 2017, and the attack on two New Zealand mosques in 2018.

The Left Behind makes for uncomfortable watching at times, as it shows a group of young adults expressing extreme racist and Islamophobic views. It walks a fine line in terms of outlining reasons that may be seen to justify these views and associated actions, and has a tone which at times is sympathetic to the perpetrators of violence. As psychologists we play a key role in developing and providing an objective understanding of what drives human behaviour that is based on a scientific, empirical evidence base. Further research is needed to better understand how, when and why individuals come to conduct violent acts against others that seem to be driven by a hate and fear of the ‘other’, and how this can be prevented and countered. 

- Reviewed by Dr Sarah Knight, Principal Psychologist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth.

Bartlett, J., & Birdwell, J. (2013). Cumulative radicalisation between the far-right and Islamist groups in the UK: A review of evidence. London: Demos.
Borum, R. (2015). Assessing risk for terrorism involvement. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 2(2), 63–87.
Horgan, J. (2008). From profiles to pathways and roots to routes: Perspectives from psychology on radicalization into terrorism. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 618, 80–94.
Knight, S., Woodward, K. & Lancaster, G.L.J. (2017). Violent versus nonviolent actors: An empirical study of different types of extremism. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 4(4), 230–248.
Schuurman, B. (2019). Topics in terrorism research: Reviewing trends and gaps, 2007–2016. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 12(3), 463–480.

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