‘Both sides-ism’, centrism, and the electoral politics of terror

In this blog, Dr Ben Whitham comments on how a centrist discourse coupled with a misguided representation of threat that different political movements pose is enabling the rise of the far right in the UK, and internationally. 

In light of the events in London last Friday, people are talking about terrorism again. But this conversation is tightly embedded in the context of the imminent general election. Right wingers, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were quick to exploit the attack – against the explicit wishes of one victim’s grieving parents – to justify more draconian counter-terrorism sentencing measures. It is a febrile political climate as we approach what the ruling Conservative Party would like us to think of as a ‘Brexit election’, and in a context where, just prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016, a sitting MP – Jo Cox – was assassinated in a terrorist attack. The authorities are, understandably, taking care to warn prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) of potential dangers.

In their Joint Guidance for Candidates in Elections: When it goes too far, sent to all PPCs last week, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service, and the College of Policing point out that the current national security ‘threat level’, set by the security services, is ‘SUBSTANTIAL’. They go on to explain to PPCs that this ‘reflects the threat from Islamist, Right and Left Wing Terrorism’.

While the terminology may be problematic, there have been many major terrorist attacks in the UK, prior to last week’s, that are deemed ‘Islamist’. In 2017 alone, 35 people were killed and hundreds injured – many of whom sustained serious, life-changing injuries – in the Westminster, Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks. The latter two attacks were both claimed by the ‘Islamic State’ militant group. The threat of right wing terrorism has a similarly clear evidential basis. Thomas Mair assassinated Jo Cox, a sitting, pro-remain Labour MP, during the Brexit referendum campaign, shouting ‘this is for Britain!’, ‘keep Britain independent!’, and ‘Britain first!’ as he murdered her. His home was ‘stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia’, and the CPS declared the attack political terrorism. Furthermore, Mair was not – despite media representations to the contrary – a ‘lone wolf’. He is one person is a large, emboldened, and fast-growing transnational movement of right wing terrorists. In the last few months alone, far right terrorists including Jack Renshaw, David Parnhamand Vincent Fuller have been jailed in the UK for attempted, hoaxed, or actual white supremacist terrorist attacks. This is not to mention their comrades’ bloody attacks on churches, synagogues, mosques and shops in the US and New Zealand. In September, the head of counter-terrorism policing in the UK, Neil Basu, described right wing terrorism as the ‘fastest-growing problem’ he faced.

But what of the ‘Left Wing Terrorism’ that the Joint Guidanceputs on a par with Islamist and right wing terror threats? I have tried to think of a single example of an attack, and have to say I am coming up blank. It could be that the authors are privy to specific intelligence about a secret lefty plot – a sort of UK Red Brigades. But I suspect it is actually an example of a toxic ‘centrist’ political imaginary that pervades many of our institutions, drawing false political and moral equivalences as a facile expression of ‘neutrality’. This simplistic ‘both sides-ism’ is a level of political discourse so degenerate that even Donald Trump knows how to effectively exploit it, but its most dangerous proponents are the well-intentioned liberal establishment individuals and organisations who think that their overriding duty is to provide ‘balance’ when they make pronouncements on politics.

Both sides-ism is dangerous because it minimises the very real threat posed by the rise of the far right, in the name of balance. We are supposed to consider what, milkshaking, to be ‘Left Wing Terrorism’ equivalent to the far right’s mass murders and assassinations? The messaging in the Joint Guidance downplays the singular threat posed by an insurgent, transnational far right movement that has developed strong links with ‘mainstream’ right-wing governments, through figures like Steve Bannon, in the UK, the US, and elsewhere. It also suggests an obscene and offensive moral equivalence between those who want a more equal society, and those who want genocide.

The BBC, of course, has become Both Sides Central in recent years – a process exacerbated by the Brexit referendum and subsequent political ‘debate’ – obliviously drawing an identical equivalence between antifa and neo-fascists to Trump’s famous ‘both sides’ remark on Charlottesville. If they interview a prominent climate scientist, they’ll scour the land for a climate change denier. If they interview an anti-racist commentator, campaigner or columnist, they’ll be sure to find an openly Islamophobic racist to ‘balance’ those views. This is a lamentable trajectory for journalism and leads to a situation in which, as Tory journalist Peter Oborne has pointed out, the Prime Minister can openly and repeatedly lie without real challenge. What’s more, political issues don’t have only ‘two sides’ (Brexit is perhaps the multi-faceted issue par excellence, splitting views within and between political parties, spawning new parties, floor-crossings and expulsions), and amplifying obscure, hateful voices is not a path to ‘neutrality’ or a sensible response to ‘bias’.

Centrism has enabled and continues to enable the rise of the far right. The far right knows that centrist liberal discourse can be exploited, as is evident from the openly white supremacist social media users who use ‘classical liberal’ in their bio, and from the endless stream of Islamophobic and alt-right columns on ‘free speech’. That the centrist imaginary shapes how the police think about their responsibilities to protect political actors from terrorism during an election campaign is deeply troubling, and like all ‘both sides-ism’ today, actually plays specifically into the hands of the political right. As Boris Johnson, whose extensive racist, sexist and homophobic comments are a matter of public record, plays for far right votes – especially through Islamophobia, the unifying hatred of the new far right – he knows he can rely on such portrayals of his left wing enemies as somehow equally morally bankrupt.

Dr Ben Whitham is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at De Montfort University and a member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity. His current CURA-supported research project explores the intersectional politics of austerity and Islamophobia.

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