The BNP says it is committed to a democratic path but a rigged system means there is a danger of people turning to more radical action. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
A hardcore of far-right supporters in the UK appears to believe violent conflict between different ethnic, racial and religious groups is inevitable, and that it is legitimate to prepare even for armed conflict, according to a new report.
The study, From Voting to Violence? Rightwing Extremists in Modern Britain (pdf), by Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Nottingham, and Jocelyn Evans, of Salford University, was launched at Chatham House on Thursday .
The report questioned more than 2,000 supporters of "radical-right" and "far-right" groups and found that many endorsed violence, with a "hostile inner core" apparently willing to plan for and prepare for attacks.
The authors describe the findings as preliminary but say the study published on Friday represents a stark warning about the potential threat posed by far-right extremists in the UK.
"What we have got here is a group of people who self-identify as supporters of the far right and who are, to quite a large extent, backing ideas about preparing for violence and appear to view violence as a justifiable political strategy," said Goodwin, who is a specialist in far-right politics.
The findings come ahead of the trial next month of Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right extremist who has confessed to the murder of 77 people in Norway in July. Breivik said he had contact with far-right groups in the UK and that he carried out the attacks on Utoya Island and Oslo to help protect Europe from a "Muslim takeover".
Goodwin said his report's findings should also be seen in light of the 17 people affiliated to the far right who have been imprisoned in the UK in recent years for terrorism offences.
"When you go through the transcripts of those cases what they often emphasise is this notion of impending race war, the impending clash of civilisations that meant they needed to stockpile explosives and plan attacks to defend their group from a perceived threat. It is that apocalyptic, almost survivalist notion that goes with far right ideology that we have begun to explore through these exploratory questions."
The study was based on a survey, carried out by YouGov, of 2,152 people who self identify as supporters of either the British National Party, the UK Independence Party and a smaller sample of English Defence League supporters.
Goodwin said Ukip supporters had been included as a "control group" for comparison with far-right organisations as it was to the right of the Conservatives. "Ukip is not an extreme or violent organisation but it is useful to see what its supporters think in comparison to supporters of other groups," he said.
The authors found that almost half of the BNP supporters in their sample thought "preparing for conflict between different groups is always or sometimes justifiable" and two-fifths considered armed conflict to be "always or sometimes" justifiable.
The report states: "The responses point towards a tranche of BNP supporters who endorse the view that both preparing for and engaging in inter-group conflict are always justifiable actions …. the BNP members in our sample appear to view themselves as a core vanguard who are preparing for a forthcoming conflict in a way that the party's more passive supporters are not."
Ukip supporters showed markedly less enthusiasm for conflict, although a majority believed that relations between different ethnic, racial and religious groups in the UK would inevitably end in violence.
"I think that is quite striking," said Goodwin. "Even at the less extreme end of the radical-right spectrum in the UK, large numbers of these citizens clearly believe that relations between different groups are not going to be harmonious but will soon descend into violent conflicts."
A Ukip spokesman said it was committed to effecting change through the ballot box or by the intellectual weight of an argument, not through violence.
"Recent polls show that Ukip is now only one or two points behind the Liberal Democrats," he said. "This proves that our policies on tax, defence, the EU, human rights, energy, education and immigration are increasingly resonating with voters. The party has also seen a number of defections from the Conservative party over the last week which further strengthens our position as a force in domestic politics."
A spokesman for the BNP said: "The party is committed to a democratic path and is against violence but because the system is utterly rigged against us there is a real danger that people are turning to a more radical course of action."
In line with previous studies, the respondents to the survey were largely men who had not been to university, were generally dissatisfied with their lives and were mostly concerned about immigration, the economy and a perceived threat from Muslims and Islam. Twenty per cent of BNP supporters and 25% of UKIP supporters who responded said they had served in the armed forces.
Goodwin said: "These findings do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the parties themselves but they are instructive as to the motivations and views of members and supporters."
The study follows a report from the home affairs select committee earlier this year that concluded that too little was known about far-right extremism and its potential for violence. Goodwin said the study's findings should be seen as a preliminary first step towards addressing that shortcoming and warned that the far right in the UK was now at a "fork in the road".
"On one side, we have a far-right party [the BNP] disintegrating at elections and closing down any chance of a ballot box strategy. On the other we have a more combative and confrontational form of street politics in the EDL. Then for the first time in recent history we have somebody in Breivik who has essentially offered a brand to would-be perpetrators of far right violence.
"Our findings would appear to suggest that within this wider climate and amidst continuing public anxiety over immigration, Islam and economic hardship there is a significant section within the far right who believe violence and armed conflict is a legitimate option should they feel their wider group is under threat."