Environmentalism is a topic that has entered the mainstream, with two-thirds of Britons now believing we are in a climate emergency according to a 2019 poll. It has even, surprisingly for many, been embraced by parts of the radical right including by Marine Le Pen’s French nationalist party National Rally (formerly the Front National) who have sought to embrace environmentalism as a new cause to argue for nationalism.
At a rally in April of 2019 to launch their European Election manifesto, the head of their candidate list announced ‘Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet’. This was a change for the Le Pen brand, her father had often denigrated environmentalism using the stereotype of environmentalists as left-wing middle-class bohemians. As surprising as this turn is, however, it is something we have seen in Britain as well, and it has deep roots into our post-war past.
Recently we have seen the extreme right in Britain try to campaign on issues normally associated with progressive or mainstream causes, trying to reframe far-right activist Tommy Robinson as a ‘martyr’ for Free Speech in attempts to de-toxify his brand and allow bleed into more mainstream elements of the political right. This, of course, is nothing new – we saw these same campaigns based around perceived virtues like freedom and patriotism in the 1970s around Robert Relf, who refused to sell his house to anyone but an ‘English Family’ (defined along racial lines). To what extent though does this recent embrace of environmentalism specifically have roots within the British extreme right?
Fifty years ago veteran extreme right leader John Bean (first leader of the 1960s British National Party) wrote about environmentalism for the January 1970 edition of National Front publication Spearhead. Spearhead was distributed primarily through subscription to members and supporters, but was also sold by branches directly and had a circulation in the thousands. In his article, Bean declared that environmentalism was ‘[a] fashionable protest for the seventies, and one which will certainly have my support’. For Bean, however, environmentalism must not simply address the threat to the planet caused by ‘an island of discarded plastic wrappings floating on a sea of chemical effluents’, but what he saw as an equal threat to that of pollution: population growth. In arguing for control of non-European populations, Bean was attempting to use environmentalism as a new avenue for pushing classic extreme right, even Nazi, race control theories.
Bean returned to this topic in the next issue of Spearhead, this time linking environmentalism to the Cold War by arguing that pollution was a problem within both the capitalist and communist systems, and that a new method separate to the existing parties must be tried. Environmentalism then is now presented as a reason to support the syncretic ‘Third Way’ which rejected both the existing capitalist system as well as the offer of communism to try and create some new revolutionary system drawing elements from both, something long espoused by National Socialists like Bean. It provided an avenue to sell their ideas as solutions to a new audience, to widen their support base – just as Le Pen would try to do almost 50 years later. As well as promoting neo-Nazi ideals that sought to blend and borrow elements of socialist theory with a hard line ethno-nationalism, such as those used by Strasser in the Nazi party, Bean suggested that mainstream political parties were not sympathetic voices on this issue, presenting nationalism as an authentic voice for the environmentalist movement. This conforms strongly with the style of populism present within the New Consensus school of fascist studies, where fascist organisations sought not just to capture the public mood – as in regular populism – but to represent themselves as the faithful and true voice of a public that has long been oppressed by corrupt institutions of the existing state.
Of course, it’s important not to exaggerate this as a mainstream tactic even within Spearhead when it was first raised. In October of 1970, the editorial section (entitled ‘What We Think’) derided the exaggeration of environmental problems to an international level requiring international action, arguing instead they were a national or local problems and shouldn’t be inflated. The editor of Spearhead, and leader of the National Front, John Tyndall was critical of any politicisation of pollution, giving the impression of an issue that he did not care a great deal about. There are also glimpses into the cynical approach they took, with Philip Baker’s piece ‘Revolutionary Role of the Radical Right’ in the January 1971 issue arguing that preservation of the environment was an issue they could engage with young people on, as it was one of national survival requiring revolutionary acts.
By the end of 1971, in September, Tyndall had converted fully – at least in appearance – to the environmentalist cause. In his piece ‘The Environment’, Tyndall welcomed the appointment of a Minister for the Environment and lamented the fact that ‘millions of people yet need convincing that an environmental policy exists at all’. Tyndall protested the construction of new tower blocks in London, built he claimed for migrant populations coming in. These migrants disturbed the environment, Tyndall argued, and contributed to the social and economic problems Britain was facing at the time. Tyndall in this sense is using environment to speak to two audiences at once – both the lay reader, and the hardened consumer of Spearhead’s brand of soft-peddle National Socialism. Environment as a term had often been used in Spearhead before by figures like Martin Webster, a long serving lieutenant of Tyndall’s who would go on to help mentor the youth wing, the Young National Front. Webster spoke about environment in terms of society, the morals and cultures in which the next generation were being raised – and the need for a strong, healthy and pure environment in order to deliver a strong future. It was, Webster argued, therefore key to control and purify the environment if you wished a strong and capable next generation, rather than the weakness these writers saw in the existing society. These two distinct uses of environment, both for ecology and society, were seemingly deliberately confused and conflated by Spearhead’s editorial staff, trying to draw environmentalists through into the deeper levels of extreme right thought.
This debate rumbled on, and Spearhead and the front attempted to recruit environmentalists to their cause but it never appeared to gain traction, and by March 1976, environmentalists were very clearly lumped in as an enemy along with liberals in their piece ‘White Birth Rate Slumps in Britain’. This attempted flirtation and infiltration of the environmentalist movement can be seen to continue beyond the pages of Spearhead however, and indeed in different time frames. If we fast forward to the Green Anarchy movement around the millennium, we see how this misuse continued. Several articles and adverts appear within Green Anarchy publications in the late 1990s and into 2000 for groups like Albion Awake that, though they profess radical green viewpoints, do so in terms worryingly familiar to those who study extreme right groups – emphasising nation, and using nationalist symbols such as the Sun Cross.
Examining the Summer 2000 issue of Alternative Green, we encounter some of this. Alternative Green was a spin off from the Green Anarchist publication, after editor Richard Hunt had disagreements with the Green Anarchist collective. Hunt was a long term member of the green anarchist movement, and advocated measures to reduce population and also to deconstruct the state to a village level. There are reviews and correspondence around an English nationalist book Which Englishness?, which used an imagined version of the early medieval past to try to draw Anglo-Saxon identities forward as a scaffold for some re-imagined English identity. More interesting though is an article from Troy Southgate.
Southgate is a former member of the National Front and the International Third Position, who had founded in 1998 the National Revolutionary Faction. It was as secretary of this group that Southgate wrote in Alternative Green about the need for radical anti-capitalism from beyond the left and right spectrums to preserve the environment and end globalism. Southgate was not coy or bashful about citing his inspiration, talking about the Strasserite faction of the German NSDAP that had been purged in the 1930s as National Bolshevists. At the end he celebrated ‘[h]ere’s to a long and fruitful collaboration’, speaking of their work with Alternative Green.
What Southgate was trying to do, by using the language of anti-globalisation and environmentalism, was become an accepted ‘in’ voice within the environmental movement, to link with its followers, so they would then give credence to the ideas that might otherwise have rejected – those of Strasserite National Socialism. In fact, this is exactly what he was exposed as trying to do on multiple fronts – with the Sunday Telegraph exposing a concerted effort to move into the animal rights movements in 2001.
So, what Le Pen has done is not without historical precedent in the British extreme right and shows how these nationalist counter cultures attempt to latch onto other radical and activist movements through creation of a shared language and positioning themselves as a more faithful adherent to their ideals than mainstream politicians. It shows how members of fringe movements can be targeted for radicalisation by other groups posing as fellow travellers, and how language can shift and be manipulated to draw people in to closed cultic spaces like the extreme right.
Daniel Jones is Associate Lecturer in History and archivist for the Searchlight Archive at the University of Northampton, where he is finishing his PhD in post-war British fascist and anti-fascist movements.