Extremism is now mainstream. Globally, the far right is shaking democracy to its foundations. How did this happen? To find out, Writer at Large Neil Mackay speaks to Dr Joe Mulhall, one of the world’s leading experts on the far right and a man who risked his life infiltrating extremist organisations in order to discover their plans to seize power

THE pillars of liberal democracy tremble around the world. This January, nearly two billion people lived in countries with governments defined as far right: Narendra Modi’s India, Donald Trump’s America, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and Andrzej Duda’s Poland, chief among them. Numbers slimmed with Trump’s defeat, which came with an outpouring of far-right violence as extremists stormed the Capitol Building.

Far-right parties are now mainstream across Europe – in France, Germany, Sweden, Slovenia, Spain and Italy. Ukip – which incrementally became far right – has been the most powerful influence on British politics in decades, despite consistently poor electoral performances

Let’s be clear, though: far right doesn’t mean Nazi. Far-right parties are primarily anti-immigration, hyper-nationalistic and anti-equality – often seeking to roll back rights for ethnic minorities and LGBT people. Democratic rules are there to be flouted.

Meanwhile, far-right terrorism is on the rise globally. White terror is Britain’s fastest-growing threat, according to the Met police. Right-wing extremists were behind 267 terror plots in America since 2015. In 2020, 66 per cent of domestic attacks and plots in America were by right-wing terrorists, outstripping Islamist inspired violence. Across the west, neo-Nazis have infiltrated police and military from Canada to Germany.

A decade ago this would have been unimaginable. How did we get here? More importantly, where are we going when it comes to the far right’s electoral success?

If there’s one man who understands the far right, it’s Dr Joe Mulhall, head of research at the UK’s renowned anti-extremist watchdog Hope Not Hate. He has spent years undercover infiltrating far-right movements around the world. His new book, Drums In The Distance: Journeys Into The Global Far Right, appears this week. It’s a chilling account of both the rise of the far right and how Mulhall risked his life going undercover inside extremist organisations.

A wave of terror

MULHALL is bewildered by anyone who remains unmoved by the far-right threat. It’s staring us in the face, he says: “In the last five years, we’ve seen a wave of terror attacks.”

In Britain, MP Jo Cox was assassinated by a white supremacist, and a neo-Nazi plotted the murder of Labour’s Rosie Cooper. The Christchurch mosque shootings saw 51 murdered; a white nationalist gunman killed 23 Latinos in El Paso; there have been anti-Semitic attacks like the Halle synagogue shooting in Germany in which two died; and the Poway synagogue attack in California. These are just the most high-profile acts of terror amid a daily litany of violence and intimidation around the world.

Many attacks are linked, with one act inspiring another. The Christchurch shooter referenced the 2011 Norway terror attacks where 77 people died. Christchurch inspired El Paso.

“In Britain,” says Mulhall, “there’s been a record number of far-right terror arrests in the last two years. You’ve seen the banning of National Action, a neo-Nazi extremist organisation – the first explicit government ban on a far-right party here since 1939.”

Electoral far right

THE far right has two faces, though –the extremist and “the moderate side, the electoral far right”. Through most of the post-war period, Mulhall says, it seemed impossible to imagine the far right in power, “but from the 1990s onward we started to see this slow rise across the continent and then eventually around the world”.

Today, the far right has moved from the political fringes to either taking government or having significant representation in many democracies across the West.

“In power, you see a number of effects happen,” says Mulhall.

“You see the far right turning back the clock on progressive change.”

Just think of the anti-LGBT legislation in Hungary and Poland, he says – as well as climate denial and xenophobic anti-migrant laws.

“So at the most extreme end, the far right kills people, at the less extreme end it’s rolling back the clock.

“There’s often similar goals between the most extreme and the more moderate.”

What differs is the tactics. The dividing line is a belief or non-belief in democracy.Extremists despise democracy and sometimes see race war as the only route to achieve their aims.

“On the more moderate end,” Mulhall says, “in some ways there’s similar politics: the belief Muslims are invading Europe, LGBT people are degenerates, that equality is a myth.”

Far right “moderates”, though, will likely pursue parliamentary means. “There’s a similarity of objective but a tactical difference.”

He warns, however, that “many of those you find at the more extreme end, this terroristic end, have often come through the more moderate end – become disillusioned and decided the only way to bring about change is through terrorism.

“So some of these moderate parties act as gateways. They also normalise the politics into the mainstream, create a space where people can go further and radicalise to the right. They offer a veneer of respectability around the politics of discrimination and prejudice.”

False face of fascism

MULHALL points to how the BNP tried to change its image from neo-Nazi thugs to respectable politicians via a policy called

“Suits not Boots”. The party hit a high watermark in 2009, with two MEPs elected including leader Nick Griffin, and 55 councillors. The party’s racist and fascist beliefs came under intense scrutiny, however, after this electoral success and voters rapidly rejected the BNP. Subsequently both Ukip – and Boris Johnson’s Tories, to some extent –stole the BNP’s clothes on issues like immigration and Europe.

Today’s new far-right organisations also try to adopt an acceptable front. Mulhall points to the millennial far right movement Generation Identity which “frames itself as hipsters, cool nonviolent kids”. However, he says, in the broader ‘Identitarian’ movement “there’s a number of people who have come through … who then go and engage in terrorism”.

France recently banned Generation Identity. The group also exists in England and Scotland. The Christchurch shooter had links to Generation Identity.

A core far-right tenet is the conspiracy theory that “white people are being replaced and so you must get active”, says Mulhall. “For some people, getting active means printing leaflets, knocking on doors – for others, it’s picking up guns.”

Globalised force

INFILTRATION of the military is now widespread. Two Generation Identity members were able to join the Royal Navy – one was to be deployed on a nuclear sub. At least 11 members of the armed forces have been referred to the UK’s anti-terror Prevent programme. “It’s terrifying,” Mulhall says. A Met police officer was recently jailed for membership of the proscribed neo-Nazi group National Action. He owned a manual written by Norwegian extremist mass murderer Anders Breivik.

Far-right activists have always thought globally, something the liberal left fails to copy. Mulhall says “there’s a gossamer web – nodes of activity and synapses” across the world, with organisations sharing aims and ideas.

Media failure

THE media has badly failed to keep on top of the far right’s rise. Media scrutiny is crucial, Mulhall says, to prevent groups from “framing” themselves in the public imagination – as the BNP did, presenting itself as an “anti-immigration” party when it was riddled with Nazis.

This failure by the media accompanies an historic failure by mainstream political parties to openly debate difficult issues like immigration. By keeping quiet on a matter deemed uncomfortable, mainstream parties allowed extremists to fill the vacuum. That led to the brief rise of the BNP – and the subsequent mainstreaming of Ukip’s hardline position.

Mulhall says a “robust, confident discussion about immigration” should have been had with British voters – particularly those in deprived communities – before the BNP made headway. By the time an honest political and media discussion started “Nick Griffen was on Question Time”, and the far right was mainstreaming.

“The Labour Party, and progressive politics more broadly, failed to engage with those communities for too long. We see this around the world where progressive movements failed to engage with deindustrialised communities in France, the rustbelt in America. They presumed these people had nowhere to go. Then all of a sudden the BNP knocked on their door and said ‘I’ll give you an answer’. They exploited fears, preyed on the fact jobs were disappearing, and gave them an enemy to hate: immigrants.”

The left behind

MANY of the 950,000 people who voted BNP in 2009 weren’t Nazis, says Mulhall. “They voted BNP because they didn’t have a job in 10 years, there were no hospitals or schools in their communities. They didn’t have a way to articulate that, other than the way it was given to them by the BNP.”

This growth of the BNP directly influenced the post-Brexit culture war political landscape we live in today. “The politics which the BNP exploited had the same political impulses which in some ways had a core influence on Brexit – mainly communities feeling the current system isn’t working,” Mulhall says. “The promise that my kids will do better than I did has disappeared in lots of places – and they’ve seen this political elite which for decades has sneered or ignored them. It pissed a lot of people off. For a lot of people there was a sense of ‘why the f*** not?’.”

Voting Brexit clearly isn’t a sign that someone is far right – many left-wingers also opposed the EU, and there are plenty of legitimate concerns about Brussels. Even with Trump, many voters weren’t supporting xenophobia or white nationalism. In deindustrialised America, many Trump voters, Mulhall believes, “were saying ‘nothing else has worked in the last 50 years so let’s try something radically different’.”

Winning back

WITH many far-right parties, leaders and members may well be racist extremists, and although some voters might also share that position, many won’t. “These are people desperate for change who are being preyed upon. In some ways they’re victims … It’s important to understand that, as those are the people you win back … They aren’t neo-Nazis, they’re angry and disenfranchised.”

Mulhall says these voters “need to be listened to. It’s not about conceding and agreeing with xenophobic politics, it’s not about giving an inch on that, it’s about saying the reasons you don’t have a house or job isn’t because of a Syrian refugee”. To fail to differentiate between voters and parties, to call voters Nazis and racists, “only contributes further to the idea that they’re ignored – that Westminster and Washington aren’t going to listen.”

How far we fall

A GOOD indicator of how mainstream the far right has become is the view by commentators that Marine Le Pen –leader of National Rally, previously France’s National Front – got a “bloody nose” when she fared badly in recent local elections. “She polled nearly 21 per cent,” Mulhall points out – and will still run for president. “It shows how far we’ve come that we’re relieved she didn’t take control of a region of France – a party that not long ago was run by an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. Things that would’ve been inconceivable, terrifying, two decades ago now seem normal – that’s where we are globally.” Trump’s defeat was a setback for the far right but we’re now in a period of a power struggle that will “go on over decades”.

However, it’s not just “the far right that’s attacking the pillars of democracy,” says Mulhall. “Let’s be frank, they were wobbling already.” The 2008 financial crash, and the failure of mainstream parties to help ordinary people, was a key driver of far right success. Clearly, Islamist atrocities, in part a response to Western foreign policy, also fuelled the far right.


MULHALL notes that the culture war is also radicalising many – often online – and leading them towards far=right politics. “If someone gets tipped one way on the trans issue, for example, you start to see them echoing anti-Black Lives Matter stuff,” says Mulhall. “We see more anti-trans content from within the far right than against any other minority today.”

English Defence League (EDL) figures “disproportionally talk about trans rights way more than Muslims now”.

“There’s a debate to be had,” says Mulhall, about issues like women-only bathrooms although he personally says he’d leave that to “trans people”. “However, at a base level, wherever you fall on those debates, the trans community is being attacked by the far right. Whatever you think about trans athletes in the Olympics, it’s unacceptable trans people are being attacked.”

The far right sees trans hatred as a “route to the mainstream. Talking about Jews isn’t. It ostracises you. But if you talk about trans issues it opens the doors to the mainstream. The far right are saying things they know will be echoed in the comment pages of the right-wing press.”

He warns about “the excesses” of so-called “woke” politics aiding the far right. Mulhall is weary of progressive politics being represented by a “student in first year university” who mouths slogans and has no depth to their argument.

“Progressive politics makes perfect sense when framed correctly and nuanced,” he adds. “We need to make sure we’ve intelligent, articulate people fighting these battles.”


MULHALL is fearful of British exceptionalism – the idea that the far right can’t get a foothold here. He says the same view was held in other countries like Sweden and Germany until it was too late.

He notes with irony that in Britain “you can have far-right politics without far-right political success”. During the brief rise of the BNP there was condemnation in the press of the party’s neo-Nazism but “turn the page and the rhetoric you’d read about immigrants was indistinguishable from what the BNP was saying”.

With the BNP rejected because of its overt fascism, mainstream parties stole key elements of its platform which had worked. “If you look at the rhetoric coming from Priti Patel [Conservative Home Secretary] in some ways it’s pretty indistinguishable from what you see from the far right.”

He adds: “The British far right is in the toilet electorally but in some ways that’s because it’s not needed … There’s elements of far-right politics around prejudice and discrimination that’s enacted by mainstream means, whether newspapers or political parties.”

In some ways, Mulhall says, traditional far-right parties aren’t really important in Britain any morebecause their politics is already so saturated into the mainstream. It’s been normalised. “We’re not going to have an AfD [a far-right German party] rise up here, because we don’t need to. If you don’t like [LGBT] rights or migrants why vote for the BNP with all that stigma when Priti Patel in the Home Office is giving you that already.”

The constitutional “stratification” of Britain is seen as a future far-right threat by Hope Not Hate, with nationalisms of various stripes turning people against each other. He points to English nationalism with its “anti-Scots and Welsh xenophobia”. In England, far right groups are even coalescing regionally, with the EDL morphing into entities like the Northeast or Northwest Infidels.

Scotland has long had its own far right groups from Combat 18 to the National Front and BNP. However, the far right additionally plays into the loyalist-republican divide in Glasgow. There’s also, Mulhall says, “a question about what happens with broader Scottish nationalism”.

The SNP, he says, “is progressive and much softer than the sort of nationalism you see in England but, of course, there are elements to any form of nationalism which have a xenophobic edge to them”. Recently, overt anti-English xenophobia was displayed by hardline Scottish nationalists at the border over Covid. The Alba Party was described as “a bekilted ally – of Faragism”.

Mulhall says: “Let’s see [what happens] when there’s a second referendum.”

Future hope

DESPITE the far right wave sweeping the world, Mulhall remains hopeful. “I’m confident the people who believe in liberal democracy are still in the majority … The pillars of democracy are wobbling in a way we’ve not seen in a long time … but the way the far right will win isn’t because everyone will become far right but because not enough people will be outraged at the far right.

“Not everyone who votes for Le Pen is fascist but they don’t care enough about her xenophobic politics to not vote for her. That’s how we lose.”

Put simply, we need to blow our trumpet about democracy – we need to offer a vision of the future and then make that work for people, Mulhall says. “It’s a huge danger we’re facing but we can withstand it only if we fight. If we don’t fight, we’ll lose in the shadows. We’ll go to sleep one day and it’ll be gone. This takes vigilance.”