Above: EXIT-UK was founded in 2017 to support individuals involved in far-right groups and who are seeking to leave.
Nigel Bromage, Founder of EXIT-UK
The following has been taken from an interview. The views expressed in it are the interviewee’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.
We spoke to Nigel Bromage, a former far-right activist who spent 20 years engaged with a number of movements and organisations before leaving and embarking on a pathway to help others follow suit. He has helped train over 35,000 people in schools, with community and faith groups, frontline workers and governmental departments. In October 2017, he founded EXIT-UK, an organisation of former members of far-right groups who are now offering support to those seeking to leave.
Strong Cities Network: What does EXIT-UK do and offer to those involved in far-right groups?
Nigel Bromage: EXIT-UK is a network of former-far-right activists linked up with other groups in Germany, Sweden and America. We operate in a non-judgemental, non-political space, where we’ll engage with individuals seeking to leave these groups who have reached out to us.
We’ve also got a couple of trained councillors on the team who have joined us from third-sector organisations. A lot of the issues we encounter go beyond the far-right ideology, so after we’ve dealt with that we then introduce that person to the councillor who can then open the door to other partnership services.
How did you come to found EXIT-UK?
I was operating as an intervention provider helping people go through CHANNEL [part of the UK’s extremism prevention strategy], but I realised there was a huge hole for people who didn’t quite meet the criteria. I came across EXIT-Germany, Sweden, and USA, and after a couple of meetings with them in 2017, myself and three formers set up EXIT-UK as a community group and it simply developed from there. We’re a non-profit organisation, but we’ve recently applied for charity status, which we hope will not only help with credibility but also sustainability of trying to provide a free service.
Does EXIT-UK have a definition of far-right?
Our definition of the far-right is anything that is based on racial superiority that promotes direct action and violence. There’s the populist right, the far-right, the extreme-right – and these definitions change quite often, so we’ve tried to make it as simple as possible.
You’ve been involved in helping people leave far-right groups now for a number of years. What would you say are the main reasons people get drawn into these groups and why do they choose to stay?
There’s a number of reasons. For some it’s because they’re looking for a place to fit in or because they’re lonely. For others it’s because they’ve been searching on the internet and, because their views may not be politically correct, they’ve then reached out to far-right groups.
Once they’re involved, they’re made to feel welcome and at home. Whereas in the outside world, most people would shy away from or challenge those views, the far-right respect and welcome them, offer them a space to be listened to, and then reinforce them. This is really worrying.
"It’s a very coordinated, target approach to recruitment; it’s not random. One of the things we’ve come across that’s really shocked us is that far-right groups have deliberately targeted people with autism."
Can you say more about far-right recruitment tactics?
It’s a very coordinated, targeted approach to recruitment; it’s not random. One of the things we’ve come across that’s really shocked us is that far-right groups have deliberately targeted people with autism. When you’re on the very fringes of the far-right, you’ll spend three days a week training so that when they approach somebody, there’s a hard and calculated approach to it. It’s not just “I’ll ask him because he’s wearing a Union Jack [flag]” – there’s a real process behind why they’ve approached somebody. There’s real profiling.
Everything’s a door. When people join in supporting [prominent UK far-right activist, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon] Tommy Robinson against grooming for instance, you’ll get groups like the British Movement and Generation Identity who will attend these demonstrations and talk to individuals and say to them “you’re quite switched on, you’re the type of calibre we want.” You’ll then be introduced to others.
In your experience, what have been the biggest challenges for individuals attempting to leave the far-right?
It’s a big mixture now – there are no stereotypes anymore. Whereas before it was predominantly a white working class movement, we’ve been getting individuals approaching us across all sorts of classes now.
When they try and come away, for some of them it can be a feeling of guilt – they’ve believed in these ideas, they’ve made friends, they’ve sometimes become godparents to children – so they feel walking away is a bit of a betrayal.
For some of them it’s fear – they don’t know what the outside world is going to be like. They worry that they’ll have a finger pointed at them, that they’ll be reprimanded or ignored.
And some of them don’t want to admit failure – they don’t want to admit that they believed in an ideology which was faulty, or that they were wrong.
Some are scared of the Neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups, because they know where you live, where you work, who your family members are – there is a real fear of leaving the far-right.
If someone suspects that a friend, family member or loved one is getting involved in these groups, what is the best way to broach this topic?
Allow the individual the space to express their opinions. We never state that the individual should be told that their views are wrong – it should be about “why did that individual take that path? Was there a trigger?” And if there was a trigger, we can try and counter that.
But if you’re a close friend or a family member or relative, never walk away – because that’s what happened to me. Close friends simply couldn’t understand why I was taking on these views, and it was like a flood of people walking away because they didn’t know how to deal with it.
One of things I would say is no matter what is said, don’t take it personally, because that individual has been groomed to take on those ideas and to see anyone who challenges them as an enemy.
"But if you’re a close friend or a family member or relative, never walk away – because that’s what happened to me. Close friends simply couldn’t understand why I was taking on these views, and it was like a flood of people walking away because they didn’t know how to deal with it. "
And once people have left these groups, is there then a separate challenge to prevent them from being drawn back in?
We realised about two years ago that we can get people out, but if they can’t fill that gap, many people can fall back because they’re lonely or they have no one to talk to. So once people have decided to leave, we try to fill the void however we can – whether this is gardening, sports or hiking – and we’ll try and give them a safe space to go and meet and have that safety valve. So if anything does upset anybody we can control the situation.
Is there any advice you would give to those who have already left these groups?
Absolutely. We’ve got a programme called ‘Inside Stories’ which is a great way of shutting that door. We’ve had people contact us who have been out of the movement for 10 years, saying “I’ve been waiting for years for this skeleton to fall out of the cupboard. My wife doesn’t know I used to be a member of the far-right, but I need to let this go.” Then we’ll have those conversations and that individual can either close that door and move on, or they can become part of the mentoring programme.
"As a result of the pandemic, enquiries to EXIT-UK have increased 320% in the past few months. Most have joined because they’ve been lost during COVID and have been looking at things [online] they wouldn’t normally look at."
What has been in the impact of COVID-19 on far-right recruitment?
As a result of the pandemic, enquiries to EXIT-UK have increased 320% in the past few months. Most have joined because they’ve been lost during COVID and have been looking at things [online] they wouldn’t normally look at. All the anti-COVID and anti-lockdown movements have then built mistrust towards the government, which in turn has been the back door to anti-Semitism and the New World Order – and all of a sudden there are people saying “I went in because I didn’t want to wear a mask, and this world has opened up.”
What should people do when they encounter this sort of material online?
The first thing is to sit back and make sure that you’re okay, because the content can be shocking. Then, if you want to take the next step, we recommend an app called ‘iREPORTit’, which is very simple and goes to the correct authorities to bring that content down.
[Having] less content online will reduce the number of people getting drawn into this world, so it creates a buffer. The quicker we can stop someone from getting involved in this world, the better, because the further they go in, the harder it is to mentor them out.
I wouldn’t engage with it, because far-right activists will step it up and you’ll go from a confrontation with one person to ten and it becomes very tiring. So don’t engage; report it, and try and get that material offline.
What can big tech companies be doing to address this online aspect of far-right propaganda?
70% of individuals involved with EXIT-UK joined far-right groups online. The far-right believe that the online space is theirs; it’s where they recruit the most people and where they’re the most active. So we’ve got to encourage the tech companies to take some responsibility there.
We’re trying to get tech companies to offer alternative viewpoints. We don’t use the term ‘counter-narrative’ because immediately you’re getting into a confrontation, and we’re not trying to say “your views are wrong”, we’re just offering an alternative viewpoint. It’s when you can see the whole argument from different angles that you start to see holes in the far-right ideology, and that’s when people decide to walk away.
How about local and national governments?
Everyone needs to get involved in this – this is about partnership and getting the message out that all extremism is wrong, that extremism not only damages the victim but also the perpetrator and individual. Local and national government can assist by getting the message out, getting key frontline staff – social workers, youth workers, police officers – trained up, so when they engage with somebody they’re able to see an opportunity to bring that individual back into society. Because if we don’t get that individual back into society, they’re lost to extremism for a long time.
You’ve spoken about how important communities are in this – what role do you see them playing in helping prevent recruitment into far-right groups?
We’ve become great believers in localism. We very much promote the idea that your local community is important and a form of collective identity. We’ll say “it’s okay to be patriotic” and we’ll promote events like Saint George’s Day because Saint George wasn’t English – he’s the patron saint of over 30 countries including Palestine, Syria and Ethiopia. So we can bring people together and show that we can talk about patriotism because we love the country we live in – whether we were born here or because we live here – so we should embrace that sort of nationhood.
Patriotism is about place, not race. If you were a patriot in 1939 you stood against Hitler and National Socialism, you wouldn’t join it. So let’s embrace what we’ve got on a local, city and national level, and promote that unity – but the minute it gets into the realm of racial supremacy, we’ve got to challenge that.