Four men stand in army fatigues under exposed wooden beams in a small room, berets jutting forward on their heads as they focus shooting at a target. The camera pans left, revealing the target: an easel holding a large photograph of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, standing at a lectern at party conference, a red wall behind him, the image of his face now pocked with holes. A caption, “Happy with that” overlays the Snapchat video.
After the clip circulated on social media, Britain’s Ministry of Defence was forced to confirm that it showed members of the Army’s Third Parachute Regiment at a base in Kabul, Afghanistan. One former soldier shared the clip with a tweet saying, “Not looking good for a Labour leader,” then deleted the tweet and video after they began to gain traction, claiming it was fake, and attacking those complaining.
The army accepted that the video showed active soldiers and was inappropriate, promising a full inquiry. Many Twitter comments on news reports of the case supported the paratroopers, with Spectator columnist James Delingpole opining, “How is it wrong for the Army to train against terrorist-supporting, Jew-hating, Commie revolutionaries? Don’t get the fuss.” Responses to a Sky News reporter’s tweet included, “What a shame it was only paintballs would have been better if they had something a bit more powerful!” and “I’m surprised that his and Diane’s Abbots heads/bodies are not put on ALL firing ranges.” One of the former soldiers who first shared the video had previously tweeted, “Well @jeremycorbyn you should be thankful that veterans abide by the law or you would be in a box in the ground already.”
The overall tone of many defending the soldiers was either sinister or brashly insisted the episode was mere tomfoolery, that it simply didn’t matter, and that the subtext had no consequence. Yet since Corbyn has taken office, the language used to attack him has been deliberately inflammatory, borrowing heavily from the far right and claiming his pacifism and opposition to the Iraq War make him a threat to the UK’s armed forces and security personnel. Last year, an anonymous general in the British Army said the army would take “direct action” to stop a Corbyn government from downgrading their position. “There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny,” the general said. “Feelings are running very high within the armed forces. You would see a major break in convention with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital important policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of NATO and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces. The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardize the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.”
The threat of mutiny is very real: recently released National Archive documents show that in 1981 the government war-gamed the arrest of then-Labour leader Michael Foot at a hypothetical peace rally, in the event of looming nuclear war.
The story broke a day after the end of a long court case against a neo-Nazi jailed for plotting to kill another Labour member of parliament. Jack Renshaw planned to kill his MP, Rosie Cooper, with a forty-eight-inch knife just a year after Labour MP Jo Cox was fatally stabbed to death in public by a far-right activist. The plot to kill Cooper was only foiled after Renshaw, who had previous convictions for child sex offenses, told an undercover activist for Hope Not Hate of his plan to kill Cooper and take hostage a female police officer who had investigated him. Renshaw’s recent trial was over his alleged membership of proscribed far-right group National Action, a charge he denied.
In 2017, an attack on a mosque in which one man died was revealed to have been carried out by a man who extensively followed the social media and video postings of Tommy Robinson, a far-right activist and former leader of the notorious English Defence League. The offender told the court he had planned to kill Corbyn, expecting him to attend a march that day in his constituency, claiming it would mean “one less terrorist on our streets”.
Conservative politicians and many media figures have been happy to use the most inflammatory language about Corbyn and Labour figures, claiming the leader of the opposition is an IRA and Hamas sympathizer, that he consorts with terrorists and represents a threat to the British public if he is allowed anywhere near power. Publicly, they then act surprised when violent events occur, pretending they are unaware their dog-whistle appeals to the far right might incite violence and cause their political and ideological targets to become physical targets in genuinely life threatening situations.
Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges wrote a column titled “Labour MUST kill the vampire Jezza” with a mock-up of Corbyn in a coffin. On the day the Corbyn target practice story broke, Tory MP Priti Patel tweeted: “A man who sides with terrorists and socialist dictators, would surrender our nuclear deterrent, has let anti-Semitism run rife in his Party and would bankrupt Britain has now been given the keys to Brexit”; Conservative Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC, of Theresa May’s talks with Corbyn, ”I’m absolutely appalled, it legitimizes a Marxist whose sole purpose in life is to do real damage to the country”; in his resignation letter, Tory Nigel Adams called Corbyn “a Marxist who has never once in his political life, put British interests first.” The following day, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock called Corbyn a Marxist who “is dangerous on security.” The Telegraph newspaper once hysterically called on Corbyn to “release his Stasi files” on meetings with purported Communist spies. The Daily Mail called the Labour leader a “collaborator” with Cold War spies.
The threat from fascism is growing rapidly in Britain: police have warned that terrorism from the far right is an increasing concern, with several plots having been stopped; UK-based far-right activists are described by counterterror forces as “organized, professional and actively attempting to recruit.” Anti-Brexit Conservative MP Anna Soubry, and journalists including Sky News’s Kay Burley, the Guardian’s Owen Jones, and myself were targeted with threats and abuse by a right-wing street gang while broadcasting outside Parliament. While the far right threat is very much present and growing, MPs are feeding the beast and refusing to accept responsibility for stoking hatred: Jacob Rees-Mogg recently tweeted a video by the far-right German AfD party, a group of Tory MPs recently nicknamed themselves “Grand Wizards,” and Conservative Suella Braverman repeatedly used and defended the antisemitic conspiracy term “Cultural Marxism” in a speech claiming Corbyn and Labour posed a threat to the West.
There is no careless lack of thinking involved here: facing a crisis of leadership in the party and looming election defeat if and when another ballot is called, the Tories are lurching heavily to the right, happy to respond to the rise of the far right by actively appealing to them. History tells us appeals to fascism always end in violence: this is already happening in the UK, and will continue to do so for as long as Conservatives continue their overt and dog-whistle appeals to the far right. Foolishly, they think they can harness fascists for their own political gain and won’t get hurt in the process. Inexplicably, the death of Jo Cox has failed to induce some politicians to dial down the rhetoric, nor played on their conscience when they ape the language of her killer and his ideological bedfellows.