Leeds Beckett academic Dr David Lowe: ‘People are not stupid, they will see through far-right’

With three decades of front-line experience behind him, ex-police officer David Lowe now guiding students at a Yorkshire university. He spoke to Rob Parsons about how the country’s growing far-right threat can be tackled.

Saturday, 20th April 2019, 7:28 am
Dr David Lowe of Leeds Beckett University. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Like many police officers coming to the end of their 30 years, David Lowe had put considerable thought into what he was going to after his retirement from the service.

Rather than head back to a police force in a civilian role, or take to the golf course, he planned on a career in the law and had already started doing a law degree part-time in his final years with Merseyside Police.

But fate took a different course and the 59-year-old can pinpoint the moment that changed his mind, setting him on a path into academia that has now taken him to Leeds Beckett University and made him a nationally recognised expert on counter-terrorism.

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Dr David Lowe of Leeds Beckett University. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

"I will always remember, I was half-way through my law degree [at Liverpool John Moores University], I was interviewing a suspect. It was just after 9pm. I knew the solicitor, he was very professional, really nice fellow, absolute gentleman, he was not soft on us by any means.

"The one he was representing was really off with him. I thought, am I studying to come out at nine at night to represent people like this? I had a really inspirational tutor at John Moores. I thought, no I am going to be a university lecturer when I retire. That was the moment I decided, during that one suspect interview"

His decision led to a ten-year stint as an academic at the university in his native city where he did his part-time law degree. With terrorism and security as his main interests, he was able to get articles published in academic journals and was used as an expert witness by both the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism unit and the Irish state prosecutor.

His current post as a senior research fellow at Leeds Beckett's Law School, where he does one-to-one teaching and lecturing, puts him in a part of the world that is all too familiar with another of his specialist research areas, namely the far-right.

Thomas Mair is said to have shouted “Britain first” as he murdered Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox outside her constituency surgery in Birstall in 2016. Later that year, National Action, a group which celebrated Mrs Cox's murder and had a large presence in Yorkshire, became the first extreme right-wing group to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

Late last year, former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson was sent to prison for contempt of court after staging a broadcast on social media outside Leeds Crown Court, where members of a Huddersfield grooming gang were being tried.

Dr Lowe differentiates between the far-right, the likes of Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who express anti-Islamic views, and the extreme far-right, national socialist groups who promote and glorify violence.

Pointing out that the UK is the only country worldwide to ban a far-right group as a terrorist organisation, he compares the Government's stance here with that of the rest of the world.

If the UK can do it, why not the US, where the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division advocates the violent overthrow of the government, or New Zealand, rocked last month by terrorist attacks on two of its mosques. It comes down to the issue of freedom of expression, says Dr Lowe.

"They could, but is [what they say] political commentary or extremist in nature. Of course, everyone has a go at social media. Twitter is international, Facebook and Instagram, they are all international. So where is their baseline, for them to operate, that is definitely extremist content?

"If you are looking at, say, child pornography, that is easy for them, that's a child, that's sexual abuse, that it is easy to do, but is it political commentary or is it extremist. Where the baseline should come is 'if you are glorifying or promoting violence for your cause, you are an extremist', if not then it could be political commentary.

"We have some good cases here that you need to hear the heretical, the offensive, otherwise it is not freedom of expression. The likes of Tommy Robinson are saying 'this country is limiting our freedom of speech but the Muslims can do this'.

"When I was at the Home Office I said 'let's take the fire away from them'. The example I gave was of [British National Party] leader Nick Griffin in 2009 on Question Time, I thought 'great, I'm glad he is on, because people will see right through him'.

"People say 'It's shocking, you're giving him a platform', but I remember people were laughing at him. He tied himself in knots, I think really you saw the demise of the BNP from that show. People aren't stupid, they will see through an argument and say 'that doesn't make sense'."

Dr Lowe, a father-of-two, says terrorism, whether Islamist, extreme far-right or Northern Irish, remains a threat, with adherents of all extreme views potentially latching onto the ongoing Brexit debate that has polarised the country since 2016.

After voting remain in 2016, due to the benefits of EU membership for security, academic research and funding for many northern cities including Leeds, he says he would like the chance to vote again and would this time opt to leave.

Citing the major countries who would like to trade with an independent UK and the volume of European-made cars on British roads, he believes the country could thrive outside the European bloc.

But he has little time for some of the "irresponsible" rhetoric by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who he describes as a "liar".

As an example of the inflamed atmosphere, he says: "Even on my social media there are retired bobbies, they are all leave, you put something up about whether there should be a second referendum, it is lighting the blue touch paper, there are posts saying 'the people have spoken once, there will be civil war'. These are people I work with and I have never heard them so fired up before."

Though there is the possibility of civil unrest as Brexit continues to unravel, he says his former colleague in the police service are prepared.

"From what has come out in reports, they are looking at it. It's not because intelligence says it is going to happen," he says. "They are looking at what will the situation be should it happen, are we ready for this?

"Last time we saw mutual aid [between police forces] on this scale was the miners' strike in 1984/5. Most protests will be in London. The Met have been stretched, they will need support from forces around them, but other major cities need to look at what protests they might have and have public order officers attend and have a mechanism for that mutual aid.

"Be prepared, it's easier to scale down. It's hard when something happens and you have to scale up. Hopefully it won't happen, hopefully there will be a Brexit agreement that we are all happy with, but I think people are frustrated.

'I won't be party of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party'

A former chairman of his local Labour Party on Merseyside, Dr Lowe worked with Luciana Berger, the Liverpool Wavertree MP who left the party earlier this year to form The Independent Group.

But he says he left himself when Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell took over the leadership, due to Mr Corbyn's association with the Provisional IRA and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

"I said to Lou, how could you go on his shadow cabinet, he is anti-Semitic. I said I can't canvas for Labour while he was in charge," he said.