President Trump’s retweets of anti-Islam videos posted by Britain First leader Jayda Fransen this morning was doubly unfortunate for elevating a fringe group that thrives on attention and social media buzz.
Britain First is considered fairly fringe even within Britain’s far-right anti-immigrant movement. The group was founded in 2011 by Jim Dowson, a Protestant preacher and anti-abortion campaigner who was a member of the neo-fascist British National Party. It grew in prominence after the BNP slowly imploded and its counterpart, the far-right protest movement English Defense League, broke up, eventually becoming “the most prolific ‘counter-jihad’ street protest organisation in the UK,” according to the anti-racist group Hope Not Hate.
Britain First became famous for mounting “Christian Patrols,” with military-style uniforms and vehicles, through Muslim neighborhoods to counter the “Muslim Patrols” carried out by Islamist groups. Hope Not Hate notes that the group often had a somewhat symbiotic relationship with Islamist extremist groups. Britain First members also launched invasions of mosques and halal slaughterhouses. Dowson left the organization in 2014 in a disagreement over its aggressive tactics, leaving it in the hands of veteran far-right activist Paul Golding, who had been elected to a district council in Kent as a member of the BNP in 2009. He stepped down two years later after criticism that he hadn’t actually done anything in office.
Golding ran for mayor of London in 2016 but came in a dismal eighth place with only 1.2 percent of the vote. During the campaign, the mother of Lee Rigby, a British soldier murdered by Islamist radicals in 2013, criticized Britain First for using her son in campaign materials, saying he did not share their views. After Sadiq Khan won the election, becoming Britain’s first Muslim mayor, Golding turned his back during Khan’s victory speech, and Britain First announced it would take “militant direct action” against Muslim elected officials.
Golding was jailed last year for violating a court injunction preventing him from entering any mosque. He recently stepped down as head of the party for what he called family reasons, leaving it in the hands of his former deputy, Fransen, whom Hope Not Hate describes as “one of those responsible for injecting the group with its religious zeal, believing strongly in invasion and crusader narratives.”
In 2016, Fransen was found guilty and fined for religiously aggravated harassment after hurling verbal abuse at a woman in a hijab in front of her children during a march. She told the woman that Muslim men force women to cover up “because they cannot control their sexual urges” and that they are “coming into my country raping women across the continent.” She and Golding were also found guilty of wearing political uniforms in public, a law that dates back to the 1930s.
In September, the two were charged with religious harassment again for distributing leaflets and posting videos during the rape trial of four Muslim men.
While Britain First has a massive internet presence, with nearly 2 million likes on Facebook, its real-world membership is estimated at around 1,000, and it may only have a few dozen active members. William Morgan, a reporter for the Independent who went undercover to one of its meetings in 2015, described it as “Islamophobes Anonymous, a gathering of about 30 people with greying hair and loose polo shirts talking about how much they hate and/or fear Islam.”
He writes that he “found it difficult to fear Britain First” after the meeting, during which they played the Shire theme from Lord of the Rings.
Ultimately, Britain First’s strength lies less in its membership or political organization than its knack for provocative stunts and social media clout. But I doubt even Golding and Fransen could have anticipated this morning’s shoutout from the leader of the free world.