The Klan Overseas

They're not just in the U.S. anymore

From its beginnings during Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan has claimed deep British roots, including the medieval Scottish practice of cross-burning. Now, helped along by American Klan organizers, the racist group is organizing around the island nation.

It is not the first time that Klan groupings have appeared in Britain. As early as the 1960s, a British neo-Fascist party set up small "klaverns" in the Midlands, a part of England hard-hit by unemployment and the demise of the auto and steel industries. The 1970s saw visits by leading American Klan organizers, and in the 1980s, a deputy of a leading American Klan chieftain organized widely around the British Isles.

But recent developments have experts worried. Groups that monitor Britain's racist right say a revival is taking place and could gather strength.

Blaring headlines have announced Klan recruitment drives in London, the Midlands and Scotland. According to the Reuters news agency, there are secret paramilitary training camps operating in Scotland and others are planned for England. Searchlight, an anti-racist investigative magazine, says that Klan leaders apparently have access to computerized Social Security information and are using it to check up on would-be members.

And the British Klan's new leader, who was reportedly sworn in last summer by American Klan leaders in a secret ceremony, is promising to unify Britain's often fractious right.

"The new Klan is attracting the worst kind of racists," says Gerry Gable, editor of Searchlight. "A lot of people here see it as the group that has stayed the [racist ideological] course, despite its ups and downs. There's that kind of admiration."

The movement is not large, but it comes in the context of a burgeoning European white power rock 'n' roll scene and a number of electoral successes by neo-Fascist parties throughout Britain and the Continent. Gable estimates there are 200 active Klan followers around the island, although Klan organizers have claimed hundreds more.

Demise of a Pedophile
The British Klan's new leader is Alan Winder, a 35-year-old salesman who claims to have worked in the British Army as an intelligence operative. He took over the Invisible Empire, United Klans of Europe (British Knights) after the demise of former leader Allan Beshella. The British-born Beshella, who lived in the States for many years, is a former aide to American James W. Farrands, leader of the now-defunct Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Several years ago, Farrands organized widely in Britain.

Beshella, 40, who now lives in Wales, was effective for a time. But he left the Klan after Searchlight exposed his 1972 Los Angeles conviction for child molesting.

The British Klan underwent a period of turmoil in the mid-1990s, dropping from some 400 members to less than half that number. But last summer, Winder promised to rebuild and expand the group. In a letter to Klan factions announcing his appointment as leader of the British Klan, he promised to end divisions on the racist right.

"I intend to make us a success," the former newspaper vendor wrote. "By a 'success,' I mean nothing short of being the leading group throughout Europe for the fight for the preservation of our race ... and exile of the Jewish and mud [non-white] races."

Winder also officially set up a new company — No. 03409828, the Invisible Empire (Europe) Ltd. — in an apparent effort to insulate his racist activities from legal scrutiny. In Britain, individuals can be prosecuted in many instances for spreading racist propaganda. It is more difficult to secure criminal convictions against corporations.

Other white supremacist groups in the British Isles have used American connections to avoid prosecution under tougher British laws. For instance, The Phoenix, the newsletter of the National Socialist Irish Workers Party and the National Socialist Party of the United Kingdom, is printed in the United States and uses a Bethlehem, Penn., post office box.

The Klan Goes on Tour
These European-American connections are not unique.

  • In the 1970s, Bill Wilkinson and David Duke, while top leaders of the Invisible Empire, visited rightists in Britain. Farrands organized there in the early 1990s.
  • In November 1995, neo-Nazi William Pierce, leader of the West Virginia-based National Alliance, spoke at a meeting of the neo-Fascist British National Party.
  • Kirk Lyons, an American attorney who for many years has represented U.S. Klan leaders and other white supremacists, spoke at a 1990s rally of the British National Party.
  • Dennis Mahon, then of Oklahoma's White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, reportedly helped to organize Klan groups in Germany during a 1991 visit. He also met and signed up Ian Stuart Donaldson, the late lead singer of a seminal British racist rock group, Skrewdriver. Donaldson was reportedly sworn in during a secret ceremony in Derbyshire.

For British rightists, much of the appeal of the Klan lies in its history as a secret society, an "invisible empire" of racists unafraid of direct action. "White supremacists in Europe are attracted to the mystique that surrounds the American Klan," says Lenny Zeskind, an expert on the extreme right. For Americans, the appeal of the island — and most especially Scotland — centers on a kind of mythic vision of medieval history.

The first American Klansmen claimed Scottish descent ("Klan" derives from the Scottish clans) and then, as now, saw Celtic-Scottish history as a heroic struggle of oppressed whites.

Later, the Klan adopted cross-burning based on a system of signalling used by Scottish clans in the 14th century. The practice was popularized as a terrorist technique in the 1905 American novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon.

Even the recent movie Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson, has risen to the status of mythology in the minds of American Klansmen. The movie portrays the life of William Wallace, hero of the Scottish struggle for independence against the English. Among the many favorable reviewers is Louis Beam, a notorious former Texas Klan leader.

Now, British racists are looking back across the ocean.

"Today," says Searchlight's Gable, "if you look at the movement in Europe, the street movement of violent activists, the inspiration definitely comes from the States. It's Louis Beam and Bob Mathews [leader of The Order, a U.S. terrorist group responsible for two murders, who was himself killed in a 1984 shootout with police].

"Mathews is everyone's martyr over here. They name their kids after Bob Mathews."