Is the British far-right about to suffer a generation of neglect?

Matthew Goodwin, an expert on British far-right politics, wrote in the Guardian last week that the far-right in British politics is on the verge of a generation’s worth of even less support than it currently commands. Goodwin’s evidence for this hypothesis comes in poll results that have asked voters how their voting habits would be affected by variables such as a party emerging that would propose to stop all immigration or pursue Islamophobic policies. The young (those in the 18-24 age range) provided results suggesting that they were far more relaxed about immigration and non-British cultures and Goodwin suggests that the far-right faces a generation gap due to its lack of support within the young. However, the mistake made is that support for far-right parties relies as much on the prevailing conditions of the times as it does the voters and there is the potential that voters will be driven into the arms of the far-right in the coming years.

Goodwin reports that older adults are far more resolute in their support for anti-immigration policies (54% of over 60s) compared with the 18-24 age range (23%). However, we need to look at the underlying reasons for the young generation’s leniency and decide whether they will become just as cynical and right-wing as their parents and grandparents.

Firstly, there is a tendency for youngsters to subscribe to leftist points of view. University students for example are often taken in by the romanticism of Marxism, epitomised by the trend of Che Guevara posters that adorn the walls of students up and down the country. However, this trend tends to die out with age. As work in the real world begins, most university Marxists find their views dulled by pragmatism and cynicism brought on by leaving university and having to make their way in the job market. This leads to a trend whereby former leftists become social democrats in less extreme cases and disgruntled, old conservatives in others. This move into the jobs market is a big contributor to a shift to the right.

As youngsters move into work they begin to experience the pressures that high levels of immigration bring. With both high and low-skilled immigrants moving to Britain in their droves, competition for jobs is higher and in some cases this can lead to unemployment. One common side-effect of unemployment or decreased job prospects is the scapegoating of immigrants and a shift towards anti-immigration tendencies. I think it is quite likely that one of the reasons for the leniency of the younger generation is that they haven’t experienced the changing Britain that generations before them have. Their parents and grandparents will have worked for long periods and experienced wild fluctuations in job prospects and the availability of work. It is at times like these that anti-immigration, populist parties step in.

However, this view can be combatted by the evidence that 18-24 year olds are some of the worst hit in terms of job prospects during the current financial crisis. With massive numbers of unemployed, and university degrees too often seeming useless, the young are often the first cast onto the unemployment scrapheap and often remain there for lengthy periods. However, this same generation has so far avoided the cynicism that has afflicted previous generations and this is indeed promising.

The problem is that immigration continues, despite small populist cuts from the current coalition, and it continues at a high level. This level is unlikely to decrease by a large amount whilst the UK remains within the EU, which seems likely for the foreseeable future. Therefore, without a massive economic recovery and jobs boost, the problems that link unemployment with immigration will only increase and could perhaps drive this generation towards far-right, anti-immigrant populism.

Furthermore, it must be noted that this current generation, ignoring the election of Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons to the European Parliament (something that looks less and less likely to reoccur), has been treated to a very disparate and uninspiring right-wing. Unlike their more subtle European counterparts, the BNP has failed to cloak itself and remains a racist party, a fact that is readily available for all to see. However, the mainstream of British politics must ensure that it does not get complacent regarding the far-right, as things can probably only get better for them in the coming years and those who support respectable politics must be ready to counter any rise in racism and popularity amongst the far-right.
Whilst it appears unlikely that the far-right are about to make any major moves in British politics, I believe that the analysis of Goodwin and others risks being slightly complacent. As we have seen with the current recession (and the accession of BNP MEPs), it is often the times that make the politics, not the other way around, and if Britain fails to find a strong economic recovery and provide prosperity and jobs for the many, then we cannot consider ourselves free from the far-right threat merely by judging the current views of 18-24 year olds.