You may have seen the protest that occurred in Rotherham last Saturday, outside of a Holiday Inn. There were two protests in fact. One was an anti-immigration protest, which sparked the event, and the second was a counter-protest. I am from that area. I used to frequently spend a lot of time at the KFC and Taco Bell close by during Sixth Form. Therefore, to see such a toxic protest take place and to feature on the news is quite something – but not surprising.
Since I can remember, there has been a very vocal minority – and it’s important to stress this is a minority, thankfully – that have felt the need to attack, belittle and abuse any sight of immigration into the local area. That being said, the town is overwhelmingly white (nearly 97% according to the latest census), so immigration isn’t something experienced by those who live there. However, since the 2016 EU Referendum, there has been a toxicity towards any ‘outsiders’ which is uncomfortable to witness. I use the word ‘outsider’ because that is how the vocal minority most likely view anyone non-white who moves to the town.
While many were shocked at the protest on Saturday, I was not. Many of those on the far-right who were protesting against the Holiday Inn housing refugees weren’t from the area. They had travelled miles, as it seems they do this most weekends. Plus, the protest wasn’t really about refugees in a hotel. Several posters promoting the protest used an image of a white, middle-class looking family, suggesting that is the ideal family for England to strive towards. Nothing more than literal racism. Surprising to some, pictures and accounts of young people surfaced, showing that the far-right doesn’t just involve those of an older age. However, I wasn’t surprised by this either.
It begs the question as to why young people, as young as pre-teen in some cases, hold such extreme views. I have always firmly believed education is a primary factor. I and many others who come from that town have been to university and got an education, and the vast majority of us don’t hold such views. Though I would argue it isn’t necessarily the education which prevents far-right radicalisation (although a good humanities subject will always have its benefits), it is more the environment in which we study as students.
Those back home are in their little small-town bubble. That’s not to say if you don’t go to university you will become a far-right, EDL supporting, little Englander. However, there is something that these young people, who hold such views, are missing. Being surrounded by people of different races, cultures, sexualities and gender identities does increase tolerance. It’s just a fact. Those who stay in their small hometown are bound to become trapped in a bubble, especially if they have predispositions to right-wing tendencies.
I’ve heard people of a similar age to me claim university is a waste and a place for ‘woke indoctrination’, but I’ll take that as a compliment. University helps people to develop some level of critical thinking, something which many of those with (extreme) anti-immigration views lack.
Although to be fair to some, they haven’t the opportunities to develop an alternative point of view. How can we combat the far-right rhetoric present amongst young people? One fellow student told me part of the problem lies in the underfunding of the welfare state, particularly in terms of mental health and substance abuse services. The removal of youth centres from towns have also been devastating for many young people who have nowhere else to turn to.
Social media is significant in this debate too. I come across far-right content on the local Facebook groups on a daily basis. Often shared by older generations, such content, without any context, evokes an emotional reaction from all ages. They tend to direct their anger of underfunded schools, GPs and other services towards a few hundred refugees housed in a hotel down the road. Of course, that’s wrong, but it’s an easy target. This is the same mindset that helped the Leave campaign win in 2016. A town with some of the lowest immigration in the entire country voting overwhelmingly to leave the EU, partly due to immigration.
There’s not just views on immigration which are worrying, but also the fact that the far-right have planted seeds of transphobia and other forms of discrimination into the minds of young people. Again, a lack of exposure to people of all walks of life is what’s leading to such indoctrination.
It’s hard to have a debate with such people online. It does tend to be the same names popping up to share some far-right conspiracy theory or propaganda, but it bleeds through the barriers of younger generations. Who can blame these young people? When they aren’t exposed to differing views, they are bound to become radicalised.
There’s no easy answer or solution. The main priority would be to intervene at an early age or perhaps make higher education more affordable. Education is a big part of this issue, but exposure is the thing which ultimately spreads tolerance.
I’ve been asked if I’m ashamed to be from the area where such a toxic protest took place. I always answer, no, I’m not. For one, the vast majority of people in the town don’t share the views of the vocal far-right minority, but two, seeing such rhetoric spewed out onto Facebook reminds me why university and experiencing different environments is so important.
Main image: Hannah Jackson