Angela Wallace is one of a new breed of wavering voter. ‘I’m disgusted with all of the parties,’ she says, peering suspiciously at the men with clipboards on her doorstep. ‘MPs are not like they used to be. Now they’re all as bad as each other.’ The political activists I am accompanying have a ready response. ‘Well, why not make a protest vote?’ asks the candidate. ‘We’re the BNP.’ They have a leaflet ready: ‘Punish the Pigs’, it says. The BNP, it continues, is ‘the only party that makes them squeal. We’re NOT in it for the money.’ She promises to think about it.
In these deliberations, she will be very far from alone. In next week’s European and local elections, some 800,000 people are projected to vote BNP if the party continues its steady, menacing and (since 1987) unbroken advance. This time it is on the cusp of a breakthrough. All it needs is 8.5 per cent of the vote in the North West and Nick Griffin, its leader, will be on his way to Strasbourg as an MEP. If so, he will achieve what the National Front and the British Union of Fascists could only dream of: a legitimate seat in a legislature.
Just ten years ago, obituaries were being written for British racial nationalism. Oswald Mosley may have filled the Albert Hall in 1940, but he never won so much as a council ward at the ballot box. The National Front won two such contests, but was crushed by Thatcher in 1979 and never recovered. The British National Party had a brief victory in Isle of Dogs in 1993 but then seemed to perish. To hawk its racism in a country as tolerant as Britain seemed as futile as trying to start a coconut farm in Yorkshire. It just didn’t seem to take root.
In recent years, however, under the very noses of the apparently triumphant mainstream political class, the BNP has suddenly started to grow again — and its rise is exponential. Nine years ago it scored just 3,020 votes in England’s local elections. Last year its total was 235,000, giving the BNP 56 incumbent councillors. One such is Seamus Dunne, whom I meet outside the Dick Whittington pub in South Oxhey, a Hertfordshire housing estate built after the war. He has agreed to let me tag along with him and his fellow campaigners, to see what he calls the ‘real BNP’ — not what he regards as the caricature invented by the media.
Certainly, Mr Dunne could scarcely be more different from the stereotype of the tattooed thug. Besuited and softly spoken, he talks about taking his family to Kew Gardens and says that he wants to serve locals — ‘black or white’ — as best he can. It is a racially mixed estate, and there is no telling what the ethnicity of the voter opening the door will be. But the first, a young white man in his thirties, is a quick success. ‘You’re the guy who sorted out the rat infestation for us,’ he tells Mr Dunne. ‘You’ll get my vote. I’m BNP, and so is everyone I know.’
This is the first important point to note: there is no explicit talk of race, immigration or the death penalty (which the BNP supports). Just rats. This chap had a problem; his councillor fixed it and secured at least one vote. This is a significant and new aspect of the BNP’s strategy. Just as Lib Dems talk about holes in the road, not holes in the nation’s finances, the BNP (in spite of its nationalist identity) focuses relentlessly on the local. It targets councils with huge (normally Labour) majorities which have, for whatever reason, lost the will or capacity to campaign and govern well. The BNP then seeks to make itself useful: most recently, by sending squads to clear litter in strategic locations. It is a devious ploy: distracting public attention from the racist reality of the BNP by presenting itself as the ‘helpful party’.
As Mr Dunne continues down the road, this is his pledge. ‘I’ll work for you, the Lib-Lab con will not.’ In itself, it’s a bland and unremarkable democratic proposition. But what strikes me is that the letters BNP are not in themselves off-putting. I wonder why until we meet a lady in the next house. ‘Only ignorant or illiterate people think the BNP is about black vs white,’ she says. ‘The BNP principles are absolutely fine. The issue is about immigration — and this government is soft in letting everyone in.’ To hear this from a swing voter is disarming, to say the least. But what makes the remark so staggering is that the woman who utters it is black.
She immigrated from Jamaica aged three, and proudly considers herself British, ‘which is why I wasn’t happy when they sprayed “NF” on my car.’ Mr Dunne sympathises. ‘My parents came here when they said “no dogs, no Irish,”’ he said. ‘But you work your way up, obey the laws.’ The lady nods. The question of racism and anxiety about immigration — so often conflated in Westminster — are totally separate matters in her mind. Not only does she not regard the BNP as racist, she believes this to be a slur.
That the BNP is racist is, of course, not a matter of opinion. It has a whites-only membership policy, for example, and while it no longer supports compulsory repatriation, there are no prizes for guessing its definition of ‘indigenous population’. But there is no hint of this on the campaign trail. The letters BNP are, to me, hatefully synonymous with racism and all its sickening implications. But the people who have BNP posters in their windows regard this primarily as a gesture of defiance, a protest, a means of throwing stones at the glass of the Palace of Westminster.
Some people approach Mr Dunne and ask him for posters — like Mary Higham, 72, who was moved from Notting Hill to South Oxhey after the war and says she is voting BNP because of teenagers who roam the streets at night and leave smashed bottles. I ask if the youths are black. ‘Oh, no. The blacks don’t go in for that sort of behaviour,’ she says. As we speak, a black teenager wearing an England top comes up and joins us. ‘He’s a lovely boy,’ Ms Higham says, clutching her BNP leaflet.
I ask what she thinks about the main parties. ‘I won’t vote Labour. Gordon Brown is not for us. Well, he is...’ — she looks at me apologetically — ‘Scottish. And that Cameron doesn’t have what it takes. I adored Thatcher, she was for us. But there’s no one this time. That’s why I’m BNP.’
Thus does history repeat itself: Mosley’s Blackshirts used to pose as social avengers, making a great show of standing up for people being evicted. He campaigned against what he called the failed ‘old gangs’ of Westminster. The BNP is using the same decades-old techniques — only this time, depressingly, they seem to be working.
The far Right’s historic mistake was to advertise its racism — a prejudice which does not much animate the British working class in the early 21st century. Research shows just 20 per cent of working-class Brits believe that being white is an ‘important factor’ in being British; among the young, the suggestion that national identity is dependent upon a particular ethnicity is regarded as simply bizarre rather than obnoxious. Studies show that the BNP derives no electoral advantage from an influx of Indian settlers to a neighbourhood, and do badly in areas where there are many Britons of Afro-Caribbean descent. It is in places with Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities — that is, Muslim areas — that the BNP do es well. Its focus there is not how people look, but how some act.
The trick is to take the minority of veiled or bearded Muslims as a proxy for Islam as a whole. If a (mainly white) local authority bans Christmas lights, so much the better for the BNP. This is why the mill towns of the North are now proving more fertile ground than the London suburbs — and this is why Griffin has chosen the North West to stand in. A seat in the European parliament could be his passport to the mainstream media: it would be much harder to deny the BNP a slot on regular television broadcasts (such as the BBC’s Question Time) that routinely feature representatives of Ukip.
That Griffin has come this far suggests that the old strategy deployed against Sinn Fein — denying objectionable politicians the oxygen of publicity — has failed. Indeed, it has allowed the BNP to take on multiple identities. The more the party is seen to be excluded by the Westminster village and the mainstream media, the more easily it can pose as the voice of the plucky outsider: one of the favourite postures of the campaigning fascist (Hitler himself loved to pose as David raging against the decadent Goliath of the German establishment). When Harriet Harman summoned Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems to a joint platform against the BNP last month, it was publicity that Griffin could not have bought.
The BNP presents a conundrum for the Conservatives. They argue that the BNP prospers in neglected Labour fiefdoms and is best regarded as the beneficiary of a left-wing splinter vote. Yet there is no denying that Margaret Thatcher destroyed the National Front by showing herself sensitive to the cultural anxieties of whites who felt ‘swamped’, never coming close to the incendiary rhetoric of Enoch Powell but using plain language which spoke directly to working-class voters. Suddenly, people like Mrs Higham in her council house felt they had a tribune — and no need of the far Right parties.
Thirty years on from Mrs Thatcher’s first general election victory, Tory strategists argue that for Mr Cameron to make immigration a key election issue would scare away the Liberal Democrat voters he has so carefully wooed. They do not believe that the loss of such voters could be balanced out by winning working-class support; in their view, the great mistake of the 2005 Conservative election campaign was to make this wrong assumption. ‘We’re way ahead of Labour on immigration anyway,’ says one senior Cameroon, ‘so we don’t need to shout.’ Thus, the BNP is granted an effective monopoly on public discussion of immigration — an issue which the polls show, again and again, troubles the public more than any other except the economy.
Regrettably, the climate is likely to grow even more favourable to the BNP. Its levels of support tends to track net migration to Britain, which is forecast to keep on increasing. Add that to the million more jobs expected to be lost, and the public’s rage with Westminster in the wake of the expenses scandal, and you have an alarmingly fertile political Petri dish for the incubation of BNP support.
So here is the BNP paradox. Britain has never been less racist. Yet support for the main racist party has never been higher. This contradiction is driven home as I listen to Reg Norgan, the BNP’s Northamptonshire organiser, give his spiel about racial purity. ‘It’s not racist to defend your people, your culture and identity when it is [under] attack,’ he says. But he has to speak up because a pop song is being blasted out by the white kids from a nearby house. It is ‘Jai Ho’, a Hindi song which has reigned in the British charts for weeks. With the backing track, Norgan’s rhetoric seems comically crackpot rather than sinister. But that should not distract us from its poisonous content, or make us sanguine about the potential social and political implications if the BNP does well next week.
The sudden death of the National Front — which had more members than the 10,000 presently on the BNP’s books — underlines the vulnerability of all far Right parties. But the economic forecast and the almighty mess at Westminster mean that, for the foreseeable future, the context will be worryingly auspicious for Griffin and his lieutenants. The BNP is moving on to prime political real estate that has been vacated by the mainstream parties which, when they are not frantically occupied by the expenses scandal, are busily fighting a three-way battle over the centre ground. The BNP cannot believe its luck.
In his definitive History of Fascism, Stanley Payne concludes that the British Union of Fascists was a ‘contradiction in terms’. Writing in 1995, he seemed to consider fascism extinct here. The attention given to the Mosley phenomenon, he said, was ‘inversely proportional to its significance’. But the opposite has proved to be true of the BNP. While the Westminster parties were looking the other way, the far Right has mutated by harvesting votes its established rivals seem no longer to seek. And this is why the most significant electoral breakthrough in the history of British fascism could be just days away.