…the British National Party?

Is the far right on the rise in Britain?

Nathalie Rothschild

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Nathalie Rothschild on how a tiny party of far-right has-beens and cranks has been transformed into the bogeyman of British politics.

Panicking over the ‘rise of the British National Party’ (BNP) has become a regular feature of British local elections. This year’s no different. Everyone from Christian leaders to media commentators is warning about fascism on the march. A Guardian columnist pointed out that the BNP is using the social networking website Facebook to mobilise supporters ahead of the 4 May elections (1). The Archbishop of York placed an advert in his local paper yesterday warning readers they will be sleepwalking into a ‘wall of hate’ lest they fail to show up and vote for anything but the BNP. Unite Against Fascism and media unions welcomed BBC Wales’ decision to force the BNP to change its party election broadcast, but said the BBC should not allow the far right any platform at all.

These desperate measures and shrill warnings reveal a degraded view of the democratic process and of voters. There is a lot of talk of ‘angry’ and ‘disgruntled’ voters and of the BNP tapping into their fears and concerns, winning them over with ‘inflammatory’ material, as if the public, and in particular the white working classes, is a mob waiting to explode. The logical conclusion is that the BNP has to be silenced and censored. But, as has been argued elsewhere on spiked, if there’s anything worse than the racist anti-immigration BNP, it’s using that marginal party as a pretext to clamp down on liberty and democracy (2). Such clampdowns will affect all of us – not just cranks like BNP leader Nick Griffin. The democratic process requires all views to be heard so that citizens can make their minds up as to who should represent them.

With all the current handwringing over the fascists’ threat to British politics and values, it’s easy to forget that the BNP is a tiny party. Currently, only 53 out of 20,000 local councillors are from the BNP – that means the BNP has just 0.265 per cent of all local councillors. Yet everyone from politicians to media organisations to anti-fascist campaign groups is obsessing about the far right taking over Britain. With all the publicity these people are giving the BNP, Griffin and his cronies don’t need to work very hard on their own election campaigns. So long as they increase their number of candidates each year – this year they are fielding a record 746 candidates – there are plenty of people out there who are willing to blow their trumpet for them. The irony is that while the BNP has won very little influence in elections (making up less than half of one per cent of local councillors) everyone’s obsession with the BNP standing in elections has won the party headlines and airtime that other tiny groupings can only dream about.

Such is the obsession with the BNP that many of the other mainstream parties now define themselves against the BNP. MP John Cruddas, a Labour deputy leadership candidate, readily admits his own party’s failings. He said New Labour is facing an ‘unprecedented challenge’ from the BNP (as in, the challenge hasn’t been this significant since last year). According to Cruddas, the BNP is ‘thriving’ in some poor areas, particularly former Labour heartlands. (3) Amidst fears that the BNP is exploiting resentment over the housing shortage and convincing white working class people that asylum seekers get preference in housing waiting lists, former home secretary David Blunkett said council property should be set aside for Brits to help tackle anger at immigrants perceived to be jumping queues. This kind of cynical politicking allows mainstream politicians to push through potentially unpopular measures while dressing them up as merely an attempt to counter the ‘fascist threat’.

As well as thriving on the free publicity that comes courtesy of the media and political obsession with them, the BNP also feeds off today’s broader mainstream debates about national identity and immigration. It is not the 0.265 per centers of the BNP who transformed immigration into a ‘problem’; New Labour itself has been busy blaming immigrants for every conceivable social ill over the past few weeks. According to Home Office Minister Liam Byrne, immigrants are putting a strain on public services such as the NHS, schools, housing and transport and are ‘threatening community cohesion’.

The government has gone into overdrive to show that it is tough on immigrants. It recently announced a host of measures to further bolster Britain’s stringent immigration policies, including strengthening border controls, introducing ID cards for all immigrants, making greater use of technology such as iris scans to check their identities and raising the minimum age for a marriage visa from 18 to 21. Byrne also recently announced the creation of a new government committee, the Migration Impact Forum, which will look at the ‘social impact of immigration’ and report to the proposed Migration Advisory Committee, which will set quotas for migrant workers through a new points-based system. The BNP can make (some) mileage out of the immigration issue only because it has already been problematised by today’s ruling parties. In terms of both their electoral standing and their political viewpoints, the BNP remains small-scale and parasitical.

Nothing the BNP has done explains its elevation to the bogeyman of British politics. Rather it is the political exhaustion of the mainstream parties that has given the BNP something of a new lease of life. Many voters who are disillusioned with New Labour or the Tories, and politics in general, vote BNP as a kind of two-fingered protest against the rest of the political elite. At the same time, mainstream parties that have no clear or sparkling selling points of their own are turning the BNP into a punchbag that they can use to show that they are serious and principled, and as a way of warning the rest of us that we had better vote for a mainstream party or else.

What’s worse than the BNP? The transformation of mainstream political debate into an illiberal scare-fest over fascists, where argument and debate are replaced by the blackmail of the electorate to do the ‘right thing’.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

Read on: spiked issue Who’s afraid of…?

(1) The dark side of facebook, Comment is Free, 25 April 2007

(2) See If there’s one thing far worse than the BNP… by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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