The Britain First organisation, which has invaded mosques and handed out Bibles to Muslims, is masterminded by a religious zealot with a criminal record for violence.
Although usually described as a splinter group of the far-right British National Party, its roots go deeper into the hardline Christian fundamentalist, anti-abortion movement.
Britain First has begun training followers in martial arts and has adopted a green-jacketed uniform. Five police forces have launched investigations into the party over allegations including public disorder and racial hatred. The East London Mosque, which it invaded on Monday, is to ask for an antisocial behaviour order on the group.
The organisation was founded by Jim Dowson, 49, a born-again Christian who was once a successful fundraiser for the BNP, amassing millions of pounds for the party. The chairman is Paul Golding, 32, a lorry driver and one-time BNP councillor who has spent much of this year being arrested in connection with the group’s publicity-seeking stunts.
Britain First said: “Mr Golding has not been charged with any offences.” Mr Golding last night strongly denied the allegations and insisted that none of the material he had distributed had a racial element.
To the distress of the family of the murdered soldier Lee Rigby, Mr Golding used the slogan “Remember Lee Rigby” on ballot papers for the European elections in Wales. Election day was the first anniversary of the killing and dozens of Britain First supporters commemorated it by marching through Brick Lane in east London, an area with a large Muslim population.
Mr Dowson earned notoriety in the 1990s when he went from a Cumbernauld paper-napkin salesman to become the leader of Precious Life Scotland, a militant group that picketed abortion clinics. Journalists discovered that he was a former Orange Order flute player with convictions for having a weapon, breaching the peace and criminal damage.
Mr Dowson, a Presbyterian Calvinist, went on to create the Parent Truth Campaign, opposing sex education and gay rights. He said yesterday that his criminal record came from fighting as a youth in Glasgow and that the weapon had been a stick.
Mr Dowson later moved to Northern Ireland to run a call centre for the BNP, raising £2 million. With Mr Golding, he jumped ship to launch Britain First in 2011. Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, called Mr Golding a “pikey” and Mr Dowson a “conman”.
The pair became prominent in disruptive loyalist protests against the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall. They appear to have embraced a host of causes: Protestant Coalition, Better Treatment for British Soldiers, and pro-life and Christian fringe groups.
Matthew Collins, whose investigation into Britain First will be published by the campaign group Hope Not Hate, said Mr Dowson targeted voters motivated by such issues. “It’s all about collecting signatures . . . people sign petitions and they send them a leaflet through the post. He has an enormous mailing list of people who are anti-abortion and who are in a moral panic. The guy hasn’t had a real job for nearly 20 years — just full-time agitator.”
Mr Dowson said that he was adding 57,000 names a week to his list.
The BNP’s origins were racist and the street-fighting English Defence League targeted Muslims but without the religiosity. Britain First, by contrast, is explicitly Christian. It recruits angry young men from the EDL, teaches them boxing, bans drinking and swearing, and introduces them to the Bible.
Mr Collins suggested that Britain First was “not dissimilar” in its approach to the Muslim preacher Anjem Choudary’s movement. Both deploy inflammatory language and imagery, seeking confrontation.
Mr Dowson predicts that killings by Muslim extremists will lead to British society being divided in the way that Northern Irish communities were torn apart by the Troubles. “The same will happen in England. Then it’s us and them,” he said. He rejected racism, saying: “God makes people in all different colours.”
Britain First’s inaugural stunt in January was to create “Christian patrols” outside the East London Mosque. Since then, Mr Golding has been arrested three times: for alleged harassment after confronting Mr Choudary at home — an investigation that was discontinued — for alleged public disorder at a counter-demonstration against Mr Choudary’s group and for allegedly stirring up race hate. He remains on bail over the latter two issues.