We see them fleetingly. Men dressed in white sheets, paunchy figures in survival gear, throwing their Hitler salutes. We laugh or shake our heads, turn the page, and move on to less depressing or ridiculous news. After all, what have skinheads, hooligans and Nazi fanatics to do with the rest of us?
But what if these people represented something larger? A twisted mirror to al-Qaeda, perhaps. Leading ordinary lives in and among us, with the same problems and fears. Not so different after all.
Researching my book Homeland, a journey into that world of the far right, led to a collaboration with the BBC as creative producer for the new BBC1 drama England Expects. Written by the accomplished Frank Deasy, responsible for The Captives, Looking After Jo-Jo, Real Men and Prozac Nation, it is the first major TV drama to tackle the far right in more than 20 years. Since 1982, when a young Tim Roth made his fearsome debut playing the eloquent skinhead Trevor in Alan Clarke’s film Made in Britain, little has been attempted.
In the character of security guard Ray Knight, played by Steven Mackintosh, Deasy creates a frighteningly believable extremist: a man who loves his daughter, has a job, tries (but fails) to understand the world around him, and slowly descends back to his far-right roots as his life collapses.
Through Ray’s eyes we meet someone not dissimilar to our friends and neighbours. Of course, all is not well with Ray, there are issues linked to his past, and a crippling desire for control, which cause him to lash out. He is also searching for a lost identity, a common theme among many of the extremists I met. Like those supporting the far right today, Ray has to pin blame on the "Other". In his case, it is the Bangladeshi Muslim community living around him in east London. For some, it is simply Muslims per se. Or Asians, immigrants, benefit tourists and terrorists.
Ray’s journey is a "what if?", posing an important question about the nature and direction of the far right today, how it plays on our fears and actively stokes up tensions. Although very much a drama, England Expects has real research behind it. Frank Deasy and I met members of extremist parties and organisations across Britain - on the campaign trail, in pubs, at their homes, and at their meetings. We have seen how groups leaflet and target problem areas. It is well known that far-right gangs were instrumental in setting off riots in Oldham in 2001. Both of us have also met the Bangladeshis of London’s East End - where there is an identity crisis among the young - and talked with many Muslims.
It is a strange feeling to know the drama is finally airing. It was in August 2000 that I first met with veteran BBC drama producer Ruth Caleb. At that time Ruth simply had an idea to make something on the far right. Neither of us knew just how prescient it might be. Now, years later, the result is out. For most of that time, few even inside the BBC knew what we were preparing. The project was shrouded in secrecy, going by the name Ray’s Daze. Extra security was hired for parts of the filming. But for me it was simply the culmination of a series of encounters that had started years before.
"Stitch us up, and we’ll f*** you over badly," the voice had growled. It belonged to a fat, leering face, the mouth set in a small, intimidating "o". Sour breath had wafted over me. Paul David "Charlie" Sargent was a leader not so much by charisma as by force and fear. Around him a clamour of guttural "yeahs" supported his words.
It was autumn 1996. Unknown to friends or family, I had arranged a meeting with the leadership of Combat 18, Britain’s most notorious neo-nazi gang. The "1" and "8" in their name stood for the initials "A" and "AH" in the alphabet, those of Adolf Hitler. I had contacted the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, looking for information on football hooligans. I was hoping to write a book on our growing subcultures, wanting to go in-depth and behind the usual headlines. The young man who called back suggested I write a story about the gang and its desire for an "Aryan homeland" in Essex. It sounds laughable, but ethnic homelands and racial tensions - the idea of separation - were themes I encountered time and again on my travels. Not just in the wilds of Alabama, but in Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda and many other conflicts.
I was to be the first outsider to meet Combat 18, winning the trust of the two Sargent brothers who led the enterprise. Sitting in a pub surrounded by drinking commuters, it was a strange - and threatening - entrance into the world of right-wing extremism. Terrified would be too simple a way to describe my feelings. Fascinated and terrified might be a better way to put it. Yet the gang clearly wanted to talk, to share their thoughts. In the end, I was amazed how easily they opened up. Few, it seemed, had bothered to approach them in the way I’d done.
With their links to Loyalist paramilitaries, hooligan "firms", continental neo-nazis and a burgeoning illegal music business, it couldn’t last. Charlie Sargent fell out with his lieutenant, a man nicknamed "The Beast". The feud led to a murder for which Sargent is now serving a life sentence.
In the end, Combat 18 became my introduction to something much larger. To Nick Griffin, for one, now the leader of the British National Party (BNP) and former vice-chairman of the National Front. It was through my "friendship" with Griffin - who clearly saw me as a liberal journalist he could manipulate - that a doorway opened into a vast network.
This was a world which seemed to mirror our own. But it was also a reflection of al-Qaeda. As fundamentalism rose in the East, so our own zealots grew in the West. The network stretched from the most violent and deranged hooligans and bombers, through to suave politicians and presidential candidates.
My travels took me to places where the boundaries with my own beliefs sometimes blurred. Where "respectable" folk could be racists; where I swapped gossip about beer prices and TV shows with men who could squirt acid into the face of a Asian woman, then laugh about it. Most of the time, though, I discovered that hate wears a different face altogether. In this world, I found extremists of all shades mixing: fascists with vegans, animal liberation extremists with anti-abortionists, and a mle of small far-left, anarchist, far-right and environmental groups on the fringes of the anti-capitalist crusades. During my six-year journey, millions of my fellow Europeans - people who loved their children, worked nine to five, and thought of themselves as respectable citizens - voted for neo-nazi and ultra-nationalist parties.
Thanks to my connections with Nick Griffin, I even lived with the BNP’s man in America. Mark Cotterill, a Loyalist supporter and former NF member, was working for ex-Republican Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign. I met Buchanan, then accompanied Cotterill down to the annual conference of the white supremacist group Council of Conservative Citizens. I met many people, too, linked to the issue of Holocaust denial, including a former White House press officer and a Republican lobbyist. Cotterill is now back in the UK, backing a rival far-right party, England First, against the BNP.
My unmasking - if you can call it that - took place in a hotel in North Carolina. Members of the notorious neo-nazi cult, the National Alliance, were extremely hostile to my presence and said they knew all about me (they didn’t). Before his death two years ago, the Alliance was run by neo-nazi ideologue William Pierce. His book, The Turner Diaries, about a worldwide racist uprising, was found in the possession of the Oklahoma bomber and in the flat of the Brixton nailbomber David Copeland. My encounter with Pierce’s then-number two was unpleasant, but thankfully short-lived.
Deep in the mountains of Arkansas, I visited a fundamentalist, racist Christian ministry. David Copeland had once surfed its site, something he shared with his police interrogators as he sought to justify his actions on r acial and religious grounds. I went undercover in Beirut for a conference of Holocaust deniers and Islamic fundamentalists, united in mutual anti-Semitism. Later in my voyage I crossed paths with Europe’s smiling ultra-nationalist politicians. And at the end of this odyssey I gained access inside the "liberated zones" rising in the former East Germany, where a founding member of the Baader-Meinhof gang was helping lead a neo-nazi party. Someone our very own Nick Griffin had encountered at a gathering of international extremists.
Everywhere I looked, hatred seemed to surround me. Many of the people I met seemed to be searching for something: belonging, power, a second of meaning or glory. Of course, there are many real reasons and causes - the failures of the Left, mass voter apathy, the breakdown of traditional communities, plus the rise of single issue politics and a harking back to "mythical" better times - that suggest why people are voting for the Right. Still, I could not help but be struck by the sheer number of angry, intense and deeply repressed individuals flocking to this scene.
Are they dangerous? Well, as the drama England Expects hopefully shows, these groups are a warning sign; of pressures building. And you meet very real and dangerous characters within them. The politicians may have "suited up", like Keith Barron’s character Larry, but you still find the lone wolf accepted within their ranks. People like London nailbomber David Copeland, for example, who belonged both to the BNP and then the National Socialist Movement (a tiny group spawned by Combat 18 and run by a former monk). So-called "lone wolves" are undoubtedly attracted to, and influenced by, fundamentalist organisations. These add to the momentum that helps tip potential killers over the edge. Yet every right-wing leader I met tried to deny they bore any responsibility for someone who took them at their word. You don’t see Copeland, or Buford Furrow, a white supremacist who shot Jewish children in a kindergarten in Los Angeles or Maxime Brunerie, the French neo-nazi who tried to assassinate French president Jacques Chirac on Bastille Day 2002. You find them on the fringes.
What I discovered - or had affirmed - during the research for my book was that I was witnessing the distorted face of belief. There were people, whether neo-nazi skins or leaders of xenophobic political movements, who wanted to contain our often complex and confusing world with a black-and-white straitjacket. A Canadian extremist on the Stormfront "white pride" website reckons: "Nick Ryan is a man with a world of hate for the White race".
Hate comes easily. I saw its victims travelling in convoy through Slovenia, Croatia and into Bosnia, in the lines of refugees crawling over the border from Kosovo into Albania, when I met families whose sons and daughters had been murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria. Yet the people I met in the realms of ultra-nationalism would say they "loved" their race.
By the end of my journey, BNP leader Nick Griffin was thanking the tabloids for doing his job for him. We seemed to be drowning in a tide of hysteria and isolationism.
Since completing Homeland, the Right has continued its rise, its servants more capable now than mere thugs and hooligans. The line between extremism and the mainstream is increasingly blurred.
Racism has gone beyond the neo-nazi fringe, far beyond the BNP’s 18 council seats. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise across Europe, the attacks often perpetrated by disaffected young Muslims. Sometimes Jews face harassment from both neo-nazis and militant Islam. The coming decades will be a time of identity politics, identity beliefs. Let us take stock now.
• Nick Ryan is creative producer of England Expects, 9pm, tonight. Homeland: Into a World of Hate, Mainstream, 9.99.
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