The fall of Britain's far-right party
By Tim Black
Back in June 2009, the far-right British National Party (BNP) was basking in the dubious glow of what appeared to be a significant electoral achievement.
Having amassed 943,598 votes (6.2 percent of votes cast) in the European Parliament elections, the BNP had won itself two seats in the European Parliament, one for Andrew Brons, and the other for its increasingly infamous leader, Nick Griffin. This was enough to prompt academic and commentator, Matthew Goodwin, to declare the BNP "the most successful party in the history of the extreme right in Britain" (1).
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Others were to strike a more ominous note. "Have we hit a political tipping point?", asked the Labour Party's John Cruddas as the results were confirmed. "In the early hours of yesterday the political landscape changed. The election of two BNP members to the European parliament has given fascism a foothold." The historian David Kynaston added to the hype, noting: "There are definite parallels between Germany in the prewar years and now."
Some public figures did seek to downplay the BNP's success, pointing out that 6.2 percent of the vote was hardly evidence of fascism on the march. But many seemed all too happy to scaremonger, with headlines such as "the BNP has never been more dangerous" becoming routine.
All the talk of the rise of the BNP, of the threat posed by this "evil, vile, fascist organisation", as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called it, did have one palpable effect. It went straight to Griffin's head. Ahead of the 2010 UK General Election, he boasted that he had turned the British National Party "from a potential footnote in history into a serious contender for power".
Five years on from being the most "most successful party in the history of the extreme right in Britain", is the BNP really "a serious contender for power"?
Not exactly. Since the heady days of 2009, when Griffin appeared on the BBC's flagship political debate show Question Time, and politicians and pundits queued around the Broadcasting House to announce how much they despised him, the BNP has disintegrated: MEP Andrew Brons has departed to set up a rival organisation, Griffin himself has been declared bankrupt, and, most striking of all, the BNP's support has evaporated.
Confirmation of the BNP's meltdown, if any was needed, arrived at the 2012 local council elections. The total number of votes the BNP received had slumped from nearly 300,000 in 2006 to under 26,000. Having once had dozens of local councillors, it now had just three. Its electoral prospects for this year's European and local council elections suggest things may get worse. As one commentator notes, "For the first time since 2001, Britain may well find its elected office 'BNP free'."
So what happened?
Five years ago, we were being told that the BNP was a growing threat. We were told that its "success is fuelled by racial sentiment across [the UK's] political culture". We were told that just as other far-right parties were making ground across a Europe gripped by austerity, so the BNP was set to follow suit in the UK.
So why hasn't his scenario materialised?
After all, according to one rather determinist strain of thinking, conditions in the UK have supposedly been ripe for the far-right's rise: the economy has alternated between recession and stagnation, and the public's support for the political establishment has continued to ebb. So why, given the fearful predictions of five years ago, has the BNP become not so much a political force as a political irrelevance?
There are several factors at play in the failure of the BNP, and more broadly in the failure of the far right in general to make much of an impact in the UK.
First, the far right in the UK has consistently been politically marginalised by the political establishment.
While world war, revolution and economic crisis during the 1920s and 1930s were providing the social and political tumult in which Fascism proper flourished in Europe, Britain's political institutions, comprising in the main a mass Conservative Party, a highly reformist, social democratic Labour Party, and a trade-union movement largely free of syndicalist elements, proved adept at preserving capitalism, rather than threatening its overthrow.
This meant that first, the British Fascists, and then later, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, were unable to exploit ruling-class fears of revolution.
There was certainly anti-Semitism in British society, especially among its upper echelons, not to mention a fear of Communism. But as opposed to the open class-based conflicts on the continent, the predominance of a reformist Labour Party – ready, if push came to shove, to ally itself with the Liberals and Conservatives 'in the national interest', as happened with the national government of 1931 – left the negligible British fascist movement stuck on the outside of political culture looking in.
Again in the late 1960s and 1970s, the BNP's predecessor party, the National Front, which was itself an amalgamation of various obscure fascist and racist grouplets still hanging around after the Second World War, found it equally difficult to cultivate a political space on which to build support. The problem was that the ground on which it wanted to make its appeal - race and immigration - had been largely cultivated by the British party-political mainstream.
After all, immigration controls had already been introduced by the then Conservative government in the early 1960s. And while the Labour Party was initially pro-immigration, by the mid-1960s, it too was making anti-immigration arguments. As Labour MP Roy Hattersly said in 1965, 'I believe unrestricted immigration can only produce additional problems, additional suffering and additional hardship unless some kind of limitation is imposed and continued'.
Given the party-political establishment's willingness to play the race card and exploit anxiety over immigration, the NF was left, like its fascist predecessors, on the margins of political culture.
By the time of the National Front's implosion following a disastrous showing at the 1979 General Election, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party, with its threat to end immigration full stop, had, as one academic puts it, "virtually monopolised the ground on which any fascist movement might hope to base itself" (2).
Likewise, the BNP, which emerged out of the ashes of the National Front in the early 1980s, has also struggled with the problem of a lack of political space. Indeed, since Nick Griffin became leader in 1999, it has concentrated on what he called its "electability", an attempt to express its positions in the "least controversial way possible", while teaching "the truth to the hardcore" (3). This is not a mark of ideological confidence. It amounts to the BNP's own acknowledgement that its arguments do not and will not resonate with the broader public.
But another significant factor has also inhibited its development: over the past 30 to 40 years, Britain has simply become a far more multi-ethnic, and far better integrated society. As the 2011 census revealed, the UK is not only becoming decreasingly white and British, with its ethnic-minority population growing from nine percent of the total in 2001 to 14 percent; revealingly, it is also enjoying its biggest single increase in the number of people claiming a mixed-ethnic background, which has almost doubled to around 1.2 million. In the midst of such a shift in the social soil, openly racist, let alone fascist, politics will find it very difficult to prosper.
The Second World War narrative
A third factor, which militates against the success of a party like the BNP, is the extent to which the Second World War, and the so-called fight against fascism, persists as one of the few remaining national narratives with any purchase on the popular imagination.
At the 2012 Labour Party conference, shadow chancellor Ed Balls drew on the 'People's War' to justify his own austerity-laced policy proposals: "Let me remind you of the summer of 1945 – the end of six hard years of war – when our nation welcomed its heroes home from the battlefields of Europe, Asia and the Atlantic, and celebrated together the defeat of fascism."
Indeed, so important has the Second World War become to a sense of being British, on both left and right, that in a 2005 YouGov poll, "defiance of the Nazis" was voted second only to "free speech" as a defining characteristic of Britishness.
Given the peculiarly anti-fascist flavour to a British nationalism long shorn of any attachment to Empire, it's hardly a surprise that Britain's far right, mired in a Nazi-invoking past, has consistently found itself unpalatable to the British electorate.
In fact, given the BNP's political marginalisation, the profound social changes of recent years, and the anti-fascist twist to British nationalism, it's a surprise that the BNP was able to make any headway at all during the 2000s. And here we come to the fourth and possibly most important factor in the BNP's demise: it was never really that popular.
In the minds of many politicians and pundits, the BNP did appear to be popular. But this testified more to political and media classes' own estrangement from the public, their fear of who and what the distant public might want, than it did to the strength of the BNP. In reality, the BNP itself was as politically irrelevant, and as profoundly unpopular, as it always had been.
In the 2010 General Election, it polled just 1.9 per cent of votes cast, an improvement on its sub one per cent polling in the early 2000s, but hardly evidence of a far-right force.
In fact, if one looks at the number of votes per candidate the BNP received, and its membership figures at the height of its recent 'success', the BNP did little better than the National Front during its own peak years in the mid-1970s.
More importantly, the BNP's supposed 'breakthrough' success in the Euro elections of 2009 was not evidence of a rising tide of popular racism, or of support for the BNP's actual policies. A poll of the BNP's support in 2009 showed that for almost half of BNP voters, immigration was not among the worries of day-to-day life. Furthermore, it showed that the majority of BNP voters did not subscribe to what the pollster Peter Kellner described as 'normal racist views'. Indeed, just 44 percent agreed with the party in rejecting the view that non-white citizens are just as British as white citizens.
The BNP's relatively high percentage of the vote owed rather more, it seems, to a protest rather than a pro-racist sentiment. Given that over 70 percent of BNP voters polled felt that there was little difference between the three main parties, it seems disenchantment with the party-political mainstream was a greater motivating factor than any enthusiasm towards the BNP.
As a report into the BNP's relative success at local council level in 2006 concluded: "Even in Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP has polled well, the party is disliked and distrusted. The BNP was seen as a racist, anti-immigrant and deceitful party and voting for it as an aberrant or embarrassing act... a 'kick up the backside', or a wake-up call, for the major parties." This was borne out in 2010, when the BNP lost all its council seats in Barking and Dagenham.
What seems clear is that the collapse of the BNP should not have been unexpected. The BNP, despite its efforts under Nick Griffin to present itself as a more moderate party, was never really going to appeal to even a significant minority of the British electorate. Rather, the best it could hope for was to capitalise on a small protest vote, not a large pro-racist groundswell. And as a result, its success was always going to be evanescent.
All which raises a rather more pertinent question: why did so many in the press and in parliament feel the need to hype up the BNP as the second coming of fascism? It seems that posturing against Britain's rather non-existent far-right came a little too easy to rather too many.
(1) See the The New British Fascism – Rise of the British National Party, by Matthew Goodwin, Routledge, 2011 (2) Cited in The Failure of British Fascism, edited by Mike Cronin, Palgrave MacMillan, 1996 (3) Cited in Contemporary British Fascism, by Nigel Copsey, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004