The angry white men and their motives

by Matthew Goodwin

The potent combination of anti-immigrant hostility and political dissatisfaction is at the core of understanding support for the far right. Attempts to win back support must involve not only addressing border control and economic concerns, but also confronting questions about identity and feelings of cultural threat.

If elections were held tomorrow in Austria and France, and recent surveys are correct, then the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) would top the polls while Marine Le Pen would recruit a quarter of the vote, potentially beating Nicolas Sarkozy into the second round. These polls follow recent elections in Finland and Sweden – countries once considered immune to a successful far right – where xenophobic parties were propelled into parliament and onto the national stage.

These events reaffirm how early predictions that the challenge from far right parties would evaporate were wrong. In fact, over the past decade it could be argued that this exclusionary brand of politics never had it so good. The arrival of a favourable climate was evident in Britain, where several trends combined to produce a perfect storm for parties that pitched an anti-establishment and anti-immigrant narrative to economically insecure groups. Public concern over immigration rocketed to historic levels. Dissatisfaction with the response of Labour to these concerns went through the roof. There emerged significant public anxiety over the presence and loyalty of settled Muslims. Labour elites ran the risk of legitimating far-right campaigns, by suggesting asylum-seekers were ‘swamping’ schools, Islamic dress was damaging social cohesion and there should be ‘British jobs for British workers’. And all of this came before a parliamentary expenses scandal and financial crisis.

Interestingly, these trends also coincided with a decade-long investment by Labour in supporting ‘community cohesion’. While councils attempted to construct bridges across diverse communities, and unite citizens around a shared set of values, national trends pointed in the opposite direction toward a rising tide of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. In the end, however, a combination of a toxic legacy and political amateurism meant that the far-right British National Party (BNP) failed to capitalise. Nonetheless, there remains a large reservoir of latent support and ample demand for a more sophisticated successor.1 This raises the question of which groups in society are particularly receptive to the far-right narrative, and what are their underlying concerns?

In terms of ‘who’, we now have lots of evidence on the socio-demographic profile of these citizens.2 Like their continental neighbours, these ‘angry white men’ share a distinct social profile: they are drawn from the working classes, especially the skilled working classes who have more to lose from rising diversity; they are poorly educated, after leaving school with no formal qualifications; they gather their information from xenophobic tabloid papers, such as The Sun, Daily Express or Daily Mail; and reflecting their economic insecurity, they are deeply pessimistic about their financial prospects.

Many Britons now openly question whether their future economic position will necessarily be an improvement on the past. The angry white men are absolutely convinced that theirs will worsen. Consider this: three quarters of BNP supporters were dissatisfied about their family’s financial situation, and almost half were fearful that they or a close relative would soon lose their job. Nor was this pessimistic outlook restricted to economics: almost half were dissatisfied with the safety of their community and more than two fifths were dissatisfied about access to local services, such as schools and hospitals. Set against those who turned out for the far right in the 1970s, these citizens are also older, and more likely to come from northern England.

Turning to ‘why’, some on the centre-left have long shared a belief that these citizens are reacting against the mainstream, rather than opting for policies offered by the far right. Others coalesce around the notion that they are simply single-issue voters, whose discontent with immigration policy can be satisfied by talking about caps on numbers, border control and stressing the economic benefits of migration. Both views are mistaken, and ignore a large body of research that suggests otherwise. At first glance, the modern far right voter is actually concerned about a diverse range of issues. We found that the Britons who are most susceptible to this narrative are more likely than others to endorse a varied array of ideas and policies.3  As we might expect, they were more than twice as likely to rate immigration as the most important issue, to reject the suggestion immigration has brought benefits to Britain and say immigrants should leave. But they were also twice as likely to say gays and lesbians have unfair advantages, to oppose civil partnerships, to distrust their Member of Parliament, to think most politicians are corrupt, to view the main parties as being all the same, to advocate withdrawal from the EU, and consider Islam a danger to Western civilisation.

That said, it remains true that hostility towards immigration is the most powerful predictor of support for the far right. BNP voters are overwhelmingly more likely than other voters to advocate halting all further immigration; to endorse the view that immigrants receive preferential treatment from local authorities; to reject the suggestion that immigration has helped the economy; and to disagree that Britain has benefited from the arrival of people from different countries and cultures. Importantly, these voters are also more likely than others to endorse more strident forms of racism: almost three quarters agreed the government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including those born in the country); almost three fifths thought most crimes are committed by immigrants; almost half thought employers should favour whites over non-whites; over two fifths rejected the suggestion that non-white citizens born in Britain are just as British as white Britons born in the country; and almost one third rejected the suggestion that there is no difference in levels of intelligence between black and white Britons. Not all of the angry white men endorsed these harder forms of intolerance, but they were more likely than supporters of other political parties to do so.

Anti-immigrant hostility, however, is only one side of the story. These voters are also driven to the far right by their dissatisfaction with existing political options: they are far more distrustful than other voters of national and local politicians (upwards of four fifths said they distrust their MP, council officials and civil servants); and they are more likely to say there are no real differences between Labour and the Conservatives (almost 70% agreed compared to 46% of the sample overall). When seen as a whole, and after statistical analysis, it is this ‘potent combination’ of anti-immigrant hostility and political dissatisfaction that is at the core of understanding why these angry white men have shifted behind parties like the BNP.4

When making sense of these concerns, we also know that context matters. These citizens are not floating adrift. Their attitudes are not shaped by esoteric debates in Westminster and they are not blind to happenings within their neighbourhoods. On the contrary, their local context has important effects. For example, even after we control for the education and employment status of individual BNP voters, we found support for the party was most heavily concentrated in areas where education levels were low and employment rates were high. And these effects were strong. Moving from a seat with a low number of unqualified voters to one with a very large number led to a quadrupling of BNP support. Yet the most important finding was a strong and positive relationship between higher levels of BNP support and the presence of a large Muslim community of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage. This relationship did not hold for non-Muslim Asians, while support was lower in areas with large numbers of black Britons.

On the one hand, this suggests the appeal of the modern far right is more subtle than in earlier decades, and that modern Britons are generally at ease with minority groups which they feel are less culturally distinct and better integrated. On the other, it suggests that attempting to win these voters back by talking only about immigration caps, border control and the economic contribution of immigrants are doomed to fail. Citizens who are receptive to the far right are profoundly concerned about immigration, but they are also deeply anxious about a culturally distinct minority group that is settled, is not going anywhere and is growing. Nor are these concerns solely about threats to economic goods like jobs and social housing. Rather, they stem from a feeling that ‘British’ values, national identity and ways of life are under threat. This sense of cultural threat is evident in numerous surveys of public opinion, but it was especially striking during my interviews with the more strongly committed members and activists on the far right. Many genuinely believe Britain is on the brink of race war, and reached the conclusion that the only way of protecting their group from these broader threats was by joining the far right.

For progressives, dealing with this potent combination and feelings of cultural threat means starting some difficult conversations. But those who start these conversations can draw strength from the fact they are supported by evidence across Europe, which reveals how it is these cultural-based concerns that are the most powerful driver of public hostility to immigration, and rising ethno-cultural diversity more broadly.

Dr Matthew Goodwin is a lecturer in political science at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow of Chatham House. He is the author of New British Fascism: Rise of the British National Party and co-editor of The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain (both published by Routledge)

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