Robin McAlpine: The skin colour of extremism isn't what you think

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine dissects the UK's terrorism narrative following some new research about where the dangers really lie

YOU might well have missed the following:

"The threat from far-right terrorists is being neglected by governments and law enforcement, according to the most extensive survey yet of 'lone actors' in Europe. While Islamist plotters are given full attention, the authors of the 98-page report warn that in comparison, individuals and small groups of rightwing extremists in the mould of Norway's Anders Breivik are in fact more lethal, almost as numerous, and much harder to detect by security services." (As reported in The Guardian.)

This was in a report by the Royal United Services Institute, Chatham House, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands - so not exactly fringe lefties. It makes clear that we've been unbalanced in how we are perceiving the terror threat. But it hasn't been plastered over the front page of every newspaper.

So for reasons of consistency, let me say what is said in every other context of terrorism but not here - what is the wider community of rightwingers doing to prevent the radicalisation of some of its members?

This is probably unsurprising because its other conclusion is that Britain is Europe's primary centre of rightwing terrorism with more than three times as many plots being uncovered here than in any other European country.

So for reasons of consistency, let me say what is said in every other context of terrorism but not here - what is the wider community of rightwingers doing to prevent the radicalisation of some of its members?

If every Muslim in Britain is asked to police their 'community', what's Ruth Davidson been doing to prevent white supremacism?

Now, I don't want to tar the whole community of rightwingers in Britain with the same brush. I am sure 95 per cent of rightwingers are decent people. But when some among them are willing to murder innocent people in support of their fundamental belief in low tax, tightly controlled immigration and a harsh penal system, it simply isn't good enough for that decent majority to stand aside in silence.

The institutions of rightwing ideology in Britain could do more. The Daily Mail must receive an awful lot of letters which would give rise to serious concern about whether the authors may be planning acts of violence - after all, they publish enough of them. Are they cooperating fully with the security services in tracking down the extreme elements of their community?

If every Muslim in Britain is asked to police their 'community', what's Ruth Davidson been doing to prevent white supremacism?

It is no good for the Daily Mail to claim that publishing white supremacist propaganda is freedom of speech when its fuelling extremist violence and endorsing and supporting an ideology which is fundamentally at odds with the principles and values of this country.

And, once again for consistency, if a family member of someone engaged in planning a terrorist act in the name of Islam is committing a crime, have you all personally checked to make sure your cousin didn't think about joining a Scottish Defence League march, a well-known recruiting ground for rightwing extremism? To be on the safe side, you better phone the police and report him (96 per cent of plotters in the study are male).

Now, of course, it is impossible for the security forces to monitor everyone in the country and priorities must be set. So given that all religiously-motivated plots combined (including all those linked to Islam in any way) represented only eight per cent of fatalities and those connected to rightwing extremism resulted in just under half of those killed, the message on how to target terrorism is clear - we have to target places where rightwingers live and congregate.

After all, that angry white man frothing at the mouth about immigrants could just be the looney fringe of Ukip - but he could be a 'cleanskin', an unknown terror threat. Given the threat to our way of life in Britain posed by these extremists, can we really afford to give them the benefit of the doubt?

OK, that was fun but that's probably enough. I don't really think that Ruth Davidson is a 'gateway drug' which leads directly to some lonely guy in his shed trying to work out how to make a bomb out of cleaning products. But then none of my Muslim friends are planning a massacre either and they've had to put up with precisely this kind of shit for years.

OK, that was fun but that's probably enough. I don't really think that Ruth Davidson is a 'gateway drug' which leads directly to some lonely guy in his shed trying to work out how to make a bomb out of cleaning products.

It has been an unshakable foundation of the last 15 years of British politics that security is not a political or ideological issue, it is purely a matter of protecting innocent civilians. Tony Blair's obsession with war meant that this uncritical support for anything the security services define as 'anti-terrorism' is almost as hard-wired into the Labour Party as it is in the Tories.

But I've never believed that it wasn't political or ideological, because the patterns are too clear. In the 1960s it started with the peace movement and their dangerous aim of non-violence.

By the 1970s the Labour Party itself (even when it was the government) was seen as a legitimate target for the security services. When that came to light it was promised that it would not happen again - so they went after the trade unions.

In the 1980s the miners were subject to intense intervention from the security services, on the basis they were a threat to the nation. Somehow I doubt the bankers (who continue to prove a much bigger threat to us all) are currently being infiltrated by spooks in disguise (though I doubt a spook needs much disguise to pass as a city trader).

By the 1990s, with the trade unions weakened and marginalised, it was the environmental movement which seemed to be the new target of the month. "That woman has dreadlocks - we better put her under surveillance." From there is was a short hop to the anti-globalisation movement of the 2000s.

So, a quick two-part quiz. First, what connects the peace movement, the Labour Party (in the olden days), the trade unions, the environmental movement and the anti-globalisation movement? Can you see any political or ideological connection between them?

Second, write down a list of the atrocities carried out by these groups (although I'm afraid you'll need to exclude the Labour Party which would otherwise distort your results). If your answers are 'they're all leftwing and socially progressive' and 'but they've never hurt a soul and barely broken a window' you may be moving towards a statement of my own discomfort.

The very clear message is that Islam (or the workers or the activists) are a coordinated and existential threat while the fascists and the white supremacists are just individual lonely and sad criminals.

The security forces will presumably be monitoring some extreme rightwing groups too, of course, but not Ukip (surely as far to the right as CND is to the left). And not the Taxpayers Alliance (further to the right than the environmentalists ever were to the left).

But even more significantly, the very clear message is that Islam (or the workers or the activists) are a coordinated and existential threat while the fascists and the white supremacists are just individual lonely and sad criminals.

That is political narrative-building and while much of that isn't done by the security services themselves, they seem to be intensely comfortable with a world view that marginalises those not close to power.

Because that is the other defining factor which causes me discomfort - the profile of the victims. Rightwing extremists target the weak - mainly people from immigrant or non-white communities and sometimes social campaign groups. These are not groups about which the security services have ever demonstrated a large degree of empathy.

But those damned environmental protesters? Hell, they might delay a flight - you know, the kind of flight that a politician or a senior businessman or diplomat of some sort might be on. With those people, security services seem to have an empathy verging on true love. Those people matter, really matter.

In Scotland we've seen an awful lot more violence from the right than from the left. It's not only rising attacks on Muslims, it's also the legacy of violence towards the Irish Catholic community and, more recently, the overt violence shown towards supporters of independence.

That is political narrative-building and while much of that isn't done by the security services themselves, they seem to be intensely comfortable with a world view that marginalises those not close to power.

If we're putting effort into tackling political violence, perhaps we might look at the evidence and spend a little less time browbeating Muslim Scots.

So it's great news to have some proper research which put some numbers and some analysis into our national debate about security and public safety. It raises some serious questions about whether our comfortable story that the risk to our nation and our 'values and principles' comes from people who conveniently don't look like us because their skin is a different colour stands up to any real scrutiny.

In the end, all of these forms of radical violence really stem from the same cause - economic marginalisation. It's not the wealthy rightwingers nor the affluent Muslims who are planning acts of rage and revenge.

So I write this in a spirit of irony but I mean it in a spirit of inclusion. We can only tackle international terrorism by creating a sense of justice across regions of the world where justice is hard to come by.

In the end, all of these forms of radical violence really stem from the same cause - economic marginalisation. It's not the wealthy rightwingers nor the affluent Muslims who are planning acts of rage and revenge.

And we can only tackle the impotent rage of poor, working class white men by giving them back a stake in the economy, a sense of security in their society and a sense of pride in their identity based not on who they hate but who they are.

I wish that was the lesson that Britain would take from this report. The fact that no-one seems to be willing to talk about it suggests that is not what will happen.

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine