The rise of far right extremism in Northamptonshire

An investigation by NN Journal has revealed a worrying increase in far right extremism in the county

By Natalie Bloomer and Sarah Ward

Young Northants teens are being drawn into far right extremism through their computer screens, while racially motivated hate crime incidents have soared. This comes against a backdrop of far right activity across Northamptonshire, including the targeting of public figures and even rough sleepers.

In an interview with NN Journal, Chief Inspector Alex Woods, the region’s police officer in charge of the anti-radicalisation Prevent programme said during the coronavirus lockdown the amount of referrals to the scheme rose significantly with more far right than Islamist referrals.

“We are seeing younger individuals being drawn into this world and I think the internet is the main cause of that, because unfortunately when people are looking at stuff on social media – if they start to click on certain videos and follow certain things they go more and more down that rabbit hole and the algorithms make it a lot easier to inform their views without having the counter arguments,” he says.

“And if people are regularly visiting these sites or social media videos it’s easier to pick them off if they are commenting on stuff and to target them, drawing them into that murky world.”

The latest official figures for the year to March 2019 showed 43 Northants residents had been referred to the programme, with more than three quarters being male and more than half aged under 16. Three referrals were of children aged eleven or younger.

Northants schools made a third of these referrals for pupils they had concerns about and a recent report from the county’s social services provider Children First points to extreme right wing ideology accounting for a high percentage of recent referrals, although it says the footprint is still small.

During the lockdown months of Spring and Summer 2020 Chief Insp Woods says the referral number increased significantly on the 43 of the previous year, with Northampton the county’s hotspot. It has led him to say that far right extremism is now the county’s ‘biggest growing’ security threat. 

Impressionable boys are often being groomed while playing computer games or watching social media videos. The closure of schools to fight the spread of the virus and the subsequent extra hours children consumed online were perfect conditions for some to become exposed to the far right wing views being promoted across various websites, chat rooms and social media platforms.  

“There is the increased use of the online to promulgate messages and images and a lot of use of memes on the internet”, says Chief Insp Woods.

“Images that are very dark humour with often anti-Semite or anti-Islamic sentiments within them. That is a deliberate approach to target the younger elements.” 

Black Lives Matter

The promotion of conspiracy theories around the cause of Covid-19 and the UK government’s handling of it, at the same time as the death of George Floyd in America led to more politicised thought being aired on social media. The Black Lives Matter protests that took place across the world and in towns across Northamptonshire also acted as a catalyst to stir up right wing factions onto the streets.

Chief Insp Woods says the far right used the division caused within the political landscape to engage with people and recruit them to their cause. He points to a worrying move towards the more extreme ideology of white nationalism and supremacy, which categorise other races as inferior.

The officer is increasingly concerned about possible lone actors who are becoming self-radicalised through the hateful ideology they are reading and watching online, which could be leading them to consider committing individual acts of terrorism. This radicalism of young teens is a growing national problem. The country’s head of counter terrorism policing Neil Basu told a parliamentary committee in September there had been a dramatic rise in children as young as 13 talking about committing right wing terror attacks. And the threat is coming closer to home. Just a few miles over the county border, a Rugby teenager was sentenced in November to five and a half years in prison for preparing acts of neo-Nazi terrorism. 

Hate crimes

The rise in referrals to Northamptonshire Prevent comes against a backdrop of a significant increase in hate crime incidents in the county. The latest Home Office figures show there were 1,162 incidents of hate crime in Northants the year 2019/20 a rise of 43 per cent on the previous year. A Freedom of Information request put into Northamptonshire Police last January sheds more light on the issue with a vast majority of the hate crimes being of a racist nature.

On average there were 90 race fuelled hate crimes carried out every month in Northamptonshire in 2019. The results are not broken down into whether these crimes were committed against non-whites, but all indicators point to a growing surge of violence in the county motivated by racial hatred.

In Northamptonshire, the presence of the far right is not always overly visible, but it is there nonetheless.

Public figure targeted

In 2019, Sarah Taylor (we have changed her name to avoid further abuse) stood for election in the county. Within hours of her name being announced, she began to receive online abuse. Sarah was the only non-white candidate standing, a fact that hadn't gone unnoticed by some.

"It was stuff like telling me to go back to my own country, but there were also real threats," she says.

"It's not the first time this has happened, I've stood in seven different elections in Northants and I've had abuse every time. I count down the minutes from my name being announced to the first racist message coming through."

Some of the messages she received were from a group known as The White Pendragons, an organisation which in 2018 turned up to an event in London with a homemade gallows and attempted to stage a citizen's arrest of Sadiq Khan. Leading the protest was former English Defence League (EDL) member Davey Russell.

So what interest did the White Pendragons have with a Northamptonshire election?

"We think this was some sort of splinter group that is based in the county," Sarah says. "They had local knowledge about things like the GP surgery, so we believe they were from nearby."

At some of the campaign hustings people would turn up and shout things at her. On one occasion, police had to be informed before she attended an event because of the threats she received.

Far right links in the county

There are links to the far right across Northamptonshire. Back in 2009, the British National Party (BNP) fielded twelve candidates standing across Northants with three apiece in Corby and Northampton. The most successful hopeful received 451 votes in Daventry West. But by 2012, the party, which was founded in the early 1980s by fascist former National Front leader John Tyndall, had floundered due to in-fighting and in 2018 a local election in Desborough saw the party pick up just 4 percent of the vote. 

However the roots of the organisations and those signed up to the ideology remain. A leading former BNP member, who lives in Northampton, has been linked to the National Action extremist group that was banned under the Terrorism Act in 2016. In 2017, four serving members of the army were arrested on suspicion of being members of National Action, including a 24-year-old from Northampton.

Elsewhere, a website set up by the group Northants English Welfare Society (NEWS) looks fairly innocuous at first glance. There are photos of the English countryside and the first line of the site's 'about' page says the group is "about caring". However, it goes on to say: "caring for and helping the English folk of our country." The group was affiliated with the Steadfast Trust, an organisation which in their own words "exists to promote the education, legal rights, welfare and overall interests of the ethnic English community". In 2015, video footage showed members of the Steadfast Trust making Nazi salutes. The last post on the NEWS website is from 2017 announcing the death of founding member Stephen Osborne, who had links to members of the far right.

Grooming rough sleepers

Northampton-based Homelessness charity Project 16:15 says it has concerns over what it believes is the potential grooming of rough sleepers in the town by far right groups. The group has been told by people sleeping on the streets that members of various radical groups have approached them.

“Their approach with the homeless seems to be that they tell them they are only on the streets because the country doesn’t look after its own,” Stan Robertson, who runs Project 16:15 says.

“If you tell someone enough times that their problems are only happening because refugees are coming over on a boat and taking all the benefits, it gets into people’s heads. I’ve seen some of the literature the guys on the street have been given and it’s from the BNP and Britain’s First. It’s like they see the homeless as easy targets, it’s recruitment grooming.”

The A6 Corridor

Daniel Jones, a researcher of the extreme right and anti-fascism at the University of Northampton, suggests the activity of the radical right in parts of the county could be explained by their proximity to the A6. In the 1960s and 70s Leicester was a far right stronghold and one of the places where the National Front would meet and have their pamphlets printed. Towns like Desborough, Rothwell and Higham Ferrers all sit along the A6 corridor from Leicester which, Jones believes, could explain some of the continued activity in these places over the years.

“There is a lot of change going on in civil society in Northamptonshire that may cause some of those divisions to come out again,” he says.

He acknowledges the criticism the Prevent programme has had from human rights campaigners and some academics due to the accusation it has been used to spy on certain communities, but says it is important people know about the activities of the far right in the community and the role of Prevent.

The increase in Northants Prevent referrals during the first Covid-19 lockdown meant the county was an outlier in the region, as the East Midlands saw referrals drop during the pandemic, only to start rising again from September.

Chief Inspector Woods is unsure what the reason for this is, but highlights the success of the force’s communications campaign Act Early, which tells people the signs to look out for if someone is becoming radicalised and how to go about getting them help.

What he is certain about is what can be done about the young teens who are drifting dangerously towards radicalisation and terrorism.

“Parents should definitely take an interest in what their children are doing online, the sites they are viewing and the games they are playing,” he says. 

“We know of incidents where individuals have been targeted via computer games, someone talking to them in live game through the headphones and radicalising them by the stuff they are talking about. 

“So if they are playing a violent computer game where they are going and killing people and they have people feeding this stuff through their ears, it is a concern.”

He also says that while self-initiated youngsters who may be plotting a lone terrorist attack are hard for the authorities to identify they will usually let slip something about their beliefs or terrorist plans to those close to them and it is crucial for those concerned to pass on their concerns to his team.

If you have concerns that someone who you know may be becoming radicalised you can find out more at www.actearly.uk

Thanks for reading this article. We are an independent news provider covering the important issues in Northamptonshire. You can sign up to our free daily news email here