The threat has passed.
To be clear: Nick Griffin’s project has failed – but support for the BNP remains. The party never shook off its associations with neo-nazism and violence, and thanks in part to one of the largest anti-fascist mobilisations this country has ever seen, its support did not spread far beyond a hard core of voters. Yet, although the BNP was severely damaged as an organisation, and its morale was smashed at the 2010 general election, its support actually went up, with the party receiving 564,331 votes. This indicates a small but apparently solid base of support.
Griffin, along with the BNP’s Andrew Brons, remains an MEP. Lower-level activists, meanwhile, have been searching for a new vehicle. Some die-hard neo-Nazis have rejoined the National Front, but after the 2010 election, several ex-members joined the English Democrats, a rightwing, anti-immigration party whose candidate was elected mayor of Doncaster in 2009. Others have taken organising roles within the English Defence League. In November 2011, the EDL publicly endorsed the newly formed British Freedom Party, set up by disgruntled BNP members. One British Freedom activist praised the “endless” possibilities of “a grassroots social movement (EDL) working in tandem with a political party (British Freedom)”. In April 2012, British Freedom announced that the EDL’s Stephen Yaxley-Lennon would be joining the party as its deputy leader.
The BNP’s rise was a consequence of “too much” immigration.
Without doubt, “immigration” was the main reason voters chose the BNP. But it relied on the hugely distorted public perception of immigrants, created largely by inaccurate press coverage. A survey carried out by Oxford University’s migration observatory in the autumn of 2011, for instance, found that members of the public were most likely to associate immigration with asylum seekers, or illegal immigrants, even though these only make up a tiny proportion of the total. Burnley, where the BNP saw its first breakthrough into local politics in 2002, has a declining population: it is a town of emigration, not immigration. There’s a further problem: when a BNP supporter expresses an opposition to “immigration”, are they referring to people who have newly arrived in the country? Or do they regard non-white Britons as immigrants, even though they may have been born in this country? As John Cave, a BNP activist from Burnley, told me, the reason the BNP existed was “to give people a chance to say they don’t want multiculturalism, they don’t want integration and they want, as [BNP founder John] Tyndall used to say, a white Britain”. The BNP did well in some areas that were experiencing new immigration, such as Barking and Dagenham, but also in towns with settled non-white populations, such as Burnley or Stoke-on-Trent.
Racism only played a minor role in driving BNP support.
“I don’t suggest that everyone who votes BNP is racist,” said the Conservative shadow minister for communities Eric Pickles in 2009, the day after Griffin and Brons were elected to the European parliament. “If we do that, the BNP benefits.” In one sense, Pickles was right: blanket condemnation of BNP voters by mainstream politicians would have been a strategic mistake. For peripheral supporters, tempted to vote for the BNP because of their dismay at a lack of housing or a feeling of being ignored by the three big parties, this would merely have confirmed their suspicion that politics was run by an uncaring elite.
But the best available information on the attitudes of BNP voters speaks for itself. According to a study by the academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, a significant proportion (between 31% and 45% of those surveyed) shared the BNP’s biological racism – that black people, for instance, were intellectually inferior to white people. A greater number still (81%) held strongly hostile attitudes to Islam. The immigrants who most exercised BNP voters, and whom the BNP targeted most often with its propaganda, were non-white.
The argument that anti-Muslim prejudice is less of a problem since it is directed at religion rather than skin colour holds little weight: ever since Enoch Powell, the fear of alien cultures has been a central feature of racist discourse. Today, the cultural fear of Islam marshalled by the EDL slips easily into racist violence directed at “Pakis”.
The BNP gained support by exploiting racism in combination with economic resentment. It targeted people who felt they had been passed over for housing, or for regeneration money, and resented the presence of “Africans” in their borough, or felt it was unfair for Asians to be given resources, even when they were demonstrably in greater need. When the BNP was defeated, it was by campaigners who offered voters a positive, non-racist alternative. “I’m not racist, but I don’t think these Asians should get houses before us white people,” is a racist statement – but kick away the economic grievance that underpins it, and you undermine the racism on which parties such as the BNP thrive.
White people in Britain are discriminated against because of their skin colour.
In January 2012, the evening after two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers were finally convicted of murder, the black Labour MP Diane Abbott made an ill-advised comment on Twitter, in which she suggested that white people “love playing ‘divide and rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.”
Soul-searching over the Lawrence case was put on hold as a range of rightwing commentators rushed to condemn Abbott for her “racism”. Surely this was proof – just as the BNP argued – that racism “cuts both ways”? Well, no. As one defender of Abbott neatly put it: “I can imagine a world in which Diane Abbott’s tweet … would be racist. In this parallel universe Britain is dominated, politically and economically, by an unshakeable clique of black, working-class women and two black men have just been convicted, several years too late, thanks to an institutionally racist black police force, of the murder of white teenager Stephen Lawrence.”
In 21st-century England and Wales, you are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police if you are black than if you are white. Black and Asian people in Britain remain at a statistical disadvantage in employment opportunities and access to housing. Anti-racism laws are intended to level the playing field. Complaining about “anti-white” discrimination, as the BNP has done, is in fact an attempt to preserve privilege rather than remove it. There are indeed ways in which some white people in Britain are unfairly held back, but these have nothing to do with their skin colour.
‘Tough talk’ keeps the far right at bay.
In the early 90s, when the Lib Dems in Tower Hamlets, east London, offered housing for “sons and daughters”, it opened the way for the BNP to win a seat in Millwall. In 2000, when William Hague made immigration a national election issue for the first time since 1979, it did nothing to halt the early growth of the BNP. In 2002, when David Blunkett accused asylum seekers of “swamping” British schools, it did not stop the BNP making its breakthrough in Burnley. And when the Labour government then decided to “triangulate” BNP voters, the problem spread. In 2006, after Margaret Hodge claimed her constituents couldn’t get homes for their children because of immigration, the BNP won 11 seats on Barking and Dagenham council. In 2009, when Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers”, workers threw the slogan back in his face, and the BNP went on to win two seats in the European parliament. In April 2011, David Cameron suggested that “immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin … we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency”.
Blaming immigrants for the failings of the welfare state only fuels the misperceptions that drive support for the far right. If people complain they can’t get council houses, for instance, then the only honest question a politician can ask is: “Why aren’t there more council houses?” If there are large numbers of people receiving unemployment benefit or tax credits, then the only honest question is: “Why is the economy failing to provide more jobs, or pay sustainable wages?”
Anti-racism has been imposed on the white working class by a politically correct elite.
“I used to hate working there,” Jim Brinklow told me, as we sat in his car at what was once the entrance to Ford’s paint, trim and assembly plant in Dagenham. “But it breaks my heart to see it gone.” During the 80s, Brinklow, a white east Londoner, worked on the assembly line at Ford, where he was a convenor for his trade union branch. While Dagenham, where most Ford workers lived, was a largely white area, many black and Asian workers from elsewhere in east London also had jobs at the factory. Most of them worked alongside Jim on the assembly line – regarded as the worst job at Ford – and found that they were blocked from taking better-paid jobs elsewhere on the site. “When I started at the plant,” said Jim, “there was a lot of nastiness. Lots of racist graffiti on the toilet walls.” The far right was also active: during the 80s, BNP member Tony Lecomber – the convicted bomber who would later become Griffin’s head of group development – was employed as a foreman at the plant.
Brinklow and his fellow workers took a stand. “Two foremen were distributing a racist leaflet. So we went on strike, we stopped the production line. We said to the company, something’s radically wrong here when you have two foremen distributing stuff like that. As a result Ford set up an equal-opportunities committee. We insisted on monthly meetings. They began advertising jobs in the local press, the black press. They set up a prayer room for Muslims. Then black Christians began to complain: ‘What about us, we want a prayer room.’ They got one.”
This is what anti-racism looks like. Equal opportunities are not handed down from on high by Westminster bureaucrats; they have been fought for by ordinary men and women. Even at its peak, the BNP never spoke for anywhere near the majority of working-class white people – in Dagenham, or anywhere else.
The growth of the BNP and the emergence of the EDL indicate the failure of multiculturalism.
It can be tempting to see the BNP as evidence that Britain is becoming a nation of ethnic and cultural ghettos, where there are no-go zones for non-Muslims, and that communities are living increasingly parallel lives. In fact, as the statisticians Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson argue in Sleepwalking to Segregation? the trend is in the opposite direction: ethnic minorities are spreading more evenly across Britain. What’s more, areas of cities with concentrated ethnic minority populations tend not to be ghettos: think of Burnley, where even the Asian areas of Daneshouse and Stoneyholme are still around 40% white.
Yet the idea that Britain is a nation divided by race and culture, rather than wealth, persists across a wide range of rightwing and liberal opinion, with multiculturalism named as the culprit. Beneath these anxieties, however, exists the everyday, thriving multiculturalism of modern Britain; the result of our daily interactions with one another. Each one of us is unique, yet each one of us has habits and customs and ways of seeing the world that overlap. Culture is not a fixed set of attributes, nor is it handed down by decree; it’s what we do. This is a fact that even the BNP was forced to accept.
That’s why Griffin had to set up an ethnic liaison committee, and it is why, in the end, he had to tell his party to “adapt or die” and accept non-white members. The EDL is further evidence of how the far right has had to accommodate to the reality of modern Britain.
The BNP’s rise was Labour’s problem alone.
The BNP saw its greatest successes in what were once Labour strongholds. Barking and Dagenham, Burnley, Stoke-on-Trent, even Tower Hamlets – these were all boroughs that had been solidly Labour for decades. Yet analysis of the BNP vote suggests supporters were only marginally more likely to have come from Labour-voting backgrounds. What the BNP benefited from was a much larger fall in Labour support: in Barking, for instance, Margaret Hodge’s vote plummeted from well over 21,000 in 1997 to under 14,000 in 2005. By contrast, in 2005 the BNP could only attract 4,900 votes.
Yet when one mainstream party suffers a drop in support, another usually steps in to fill the gap. Where, we might ask, were the Tories? Where were the Lib Dems? Why did BNP voters feel that none of the three main parties had anything to offer them – and why, more broadly, did an official commission conclude in 2006 that there was a “well-ingrained popular view across the country that our political institutions and their politicians are failing, untrustworthy, and disconnected from the great mass of the British people”?
The BNP wasn’t a fascist organisation.
As the BNP’s own Language and Concepts Discipline manual advised, Griffin wished his party to be perceived as a “rightwing populist party” that espoused “right-of-centre views traditional to ordinary working people who are not leftists’. In fact, throughout its existence, the BNP has remained profoundly fascist, dedicated to a “revolution” that would make Britain an ethnically “pure” society. The BNP had its roots in the most extreme sections of Britain’s far right. Griffin developed his own personal ideology from a concoction of “leftwing” nazism, racist mysticism and ideas borrowed from the French Front National about how to pursue cultural hegemony in order to win political power.
After taking over the BNP, he attempted to fashion a respectable public image behind which these ideas could be hidden. Yet even as the BNP tried to distance itself in public from violence, it still attracted supporters who harboured fantasies about armed conflict. In 2006, former BNP member Robert Cottage was jailed for stockpiling explosive chemicals at his Lancashire home. Another ex-member, Terence Gavan, was jailed in 2010 for hoarding guns and homemade bombs in his bedroom. A rise in reported hate crime followed the election of BNP councillors in the West Midlands, London and Essex. What’s more, while the BNP attracted a layer of working-class support, it kept some roots in the middle classes, the traditional bedrock of fascism. Griffin was the privately educated son of a businessman; party members included company directors, computing entrepreneurs, bankers and estate agents. The genesis of the EDL indicates similar foundations. It has enjoyed the perception, reflected across the national media, of being a spontaneous expression of working-class anger. The origin of this group, which was conceived in a £500,000 apartment and shaped by a group of anti-Muslim ideologues including a director of a City investment fund and a property developer, suggest a more complex picture. The EDL has displayed increasingly fascist-like behaviour, targeting not only Muslims but leftwing movements too.
‘It couldn’t happen here.’
The communities among which the BNP thrived were those whose inhabitants had reasons to feel pessimistic, even during the boom years. Its voters were often skilled workers who had done well for themselves, but felt their position threatened. Now, during the worst economic crisis in a century, with a coalition government whose austerity policies are guaranteed to spread despondency further still, people have more reason than ever to worry about the future.
Across Europe, the financial crisis has inflamed tensions between a global market, a multinational EU and nation states that still count on patriotism as a social glue. Rightwing populism of various hues is on the rise, with neo-fascists in France and Hungary making electoral gains; the continued success of anti-Muslim parties in Holland, Belgium and elsewhere; and “nativist” movements such as Finland’s True Finns causing electoral upsets for the more established political parties. Crisis in the eurozone has led to the emergence of Greece’s Golden Dawn, an unashamedly neo-Nazi movement that swept into parliament at the country’s general election of May 2012. And the conspiracy theories cited by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik – that cultural Marxists are in charge of public institutions such as the BBC and that Europe is threatened by a Muslim takeover – have currency within mainstream political discourse.
In Britain, all three main parties are committed to varying degrees of austerity. We had a taste of the anger that can arise at feeling locked out of the political system when students smashed the windows of the Treasury in 2010. Perhaps aware of this, the coalition has been pursuing a media strategy that seeks to shift public anger on to convenient scapegoats: the unemployed, people on disability benefits and immigrants – who have been blamed at the same time for being benefit scroungers and for taking “British” jobs.
Societies that promise equality, freedom and democracy, yet preside over massive inequalities of wealth, are breeding grounds for racism and other vicious resentments. And wherever these resentments exist, the far right will try to exploit them. The fascism of the 20s and 30s succeeded because it played on wider fears, winning the support of those who would never have thought of themselves as extremists. The Nazis used antisemitism because it already existed in German society. Their successors today use Islamophobia and the hatred of migrants because it already exists in our societies. We do not need to wait for a successor to the BNP to emerge before addressing these much deeper problems.
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