The British National Party thrives on hype
With its ceaseless posturing against the alleged rise of neo-fascism, the political class did more to boost the BNP's fortunes than ‘thick’ working-class voters did.
Through taking the time to talk to its members, a new academic study aiming to explain the rise and appeal of the British National Party (BNP) offers some important insights into the reasons the far-right group has gained supporters. But in focusing primarily on the history of the party and its backers, the author overlooks the major factors that turned the BNP into an important cultural and political phenomenon.
‘On 5 May, the electoral challenge from the BNP died after another string of dismal results’, declared academic Matthew Goodwin in what read as an obituary for the political party in the Guardian last month. The bitter irony for Goodwin, which doubtless wouldn’t have been lost on him, is that on that very same day, his study New British Fascism: Rise of the British National Party, was published.
The title of Goodwin’s long-awaited work is unfortunate in more ways than one. Not only was it released following the BNP’s wipeout in the 2010 council elections and General Election, but the newest British ‘fascists’, the English Defence League (EDL), barely get a mention in the book. With much of the research work evidently undertaken before the elections, Goodwin – a lecturer in the school of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham – struggles to reconcile the BNP’s electoral defeat with his original research thesis, which argues against the view that ‘extreme right parties like the BNP will never attract mass support’. Not helped by its rather rigid academic structure, the book ends up appearing more like a work of contemporary history than an examination of a burning contemporary political phenomenon.
Despite the apparent demise of the BNP, a rigorous analysis of its rise and fall over the past decade is much needed. Unfortunately, Goodwin assumes that the best way to understand the appeal of the BNP is to undertake an in-depth analysis of the party itself and its supporters. This is an error also made by one of the book’s high-profile champions, former New Labour home secretary David Blunkett, who commends Goodwin’s study of the motivations of BNP members: ‘While the oxygen of publicity is always welcome to small, ultra-right parties such as the BNP or EDL, nevertheless knowing what drives sometimes otherwise decent people to support the vicious and highly committed leadership of these neo-fascist organisations is essential in order to defeat them. It is easy to dismiss such extreme views as an irrelevance in British politics but, as this book shows, at a time of uncertainty and insecurity, it is all too easy for fringe views to emerge in the mainstream. That is why this in-depth study is worthy of examination.’
In reality the BNP has never been a significant threat, only ever garnering a few dozen council seats. And, contrary to what Blunkett says, the BNP should indeed have been viewed as largely irrelevant. But instead of dismissing the party in this way, the increasingly disoriented political class – of which Blunkett was a leading member – instead hyped up the BNP out of all proportion in order to give themselves a sense of purpose and direction. Politicians and the liberal elite quite explicitly used the threat of the BNP to guilt-trip the electorate into feeling the need to get out and vote for one of the homogenous, uninspiring mainstream parties. The one thing that Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem figures could be sure to agree on was that any vote was better than a vote for the BNP. That united front among politicians turned a vote for the BNP into a way of sticking two fingers up to the patronising, ideologically bankrupt political elite, something Goodwin clinically describes in his ‘political competence model’ of support for the BNP.
While Goodwin is right to characterise the BNP as the ‘most successful far-right party in British political history’, this is less of a major achievement than it sounds. The BNP’s predecessor, the National Front, barely made a dent on British politics. Furthermore, Goodwin has a preference for talking about the overall number of votes for the BNP rather than the number of seats the party secured. Alongside the fact that many of these votes could well have been protest votes, the focus on number of votes can lead one to forget that even when the BNP was still on the rise in 2008 it only had 55 councillors out of over 22,000 in Britain (amounting to a minuscule 0.25 per cent of the number of seats). When Goodwin talks about the ‘unprecedented heights’ of success for the BNP where ‘votes in general elections increased more than 70-fold, rising from 7,000 to more than half a million’, it’s important to remember these ‘surges’ are by comparison to a very low starting point.
This aside, there does remain much to value in the work, which provides a painstakingly accurate historical account of the transformation of the BNP from its roots in street gangs in the 1980s and 90s. Finally, having shaken off the out-of-date ‘colonial master’ approach to leadership possessed by former leader John Tyndall, the party started a process of modernisation. Goodwin shows how the BNP rebranded itself as a less ideological, more pragmatic political party under the ‘community politician’ style leadership of the comparatively shrewd political operator Nick Griffin. This meant it was able to distance itself considerably (but never, argues Goodwin, enough) from its fascist streetfighting roots in order to be palatable to voters.
To Goodwin’s credit, unlike many amongst the political elite and left-wing activist circles, he doesn’t dismiss BNP supporters as ‘bigots’ or try to silence their voices; he bothers to talk to BNP supporters and to hear what they have to say. The most valuable part of his work are the insights gained through dozens of interviews with BNP members and fellow travellers that Goodwin carried out over a six-year period between 2005 and 2011. His dry, academic presentation of these is refreshingly neutral, meaning it’s possible to hear the voices of these individuals without political bias or sneering.
What emerges is a picture of an increasingly marginalised white working class which feels betrayed and distrustful of politicians, left to feel like aliens in its own communities. It’s no surprise to see that 47 per cent of the parents of BNP voters had voted Labour, a higher percentage than all other political parties put together. Nor is it a surprise to hear that more than half of BNP voters think that ‘Labour used to care about the concerns of people like me but doesn’t nowadays’. In many ways, the ‘rise’ of the BNP coincided with the abandonment of the white working classes by the Labour Party and other institutions that would in the past have voiced their concerns.
In recent decades, the Labour Party has consciously turned its back on the working classes and become completely dislocated from them. In 1959, Labour’s support among the manual working classes was 62 per cent, dropping to 38 per cent in 1983. The majority of the Labour Party since, including its staff, has been solidly middle class. Labour hasn’t shied away from burning bridges with the past, seeing its historical base as outdated, unkempt, bigoted relics who need to be re-educated in all matters from healthy eating to parenting and – crucially in this instance – the importance of multiculturalism.
As has been pointed out previously on spiked, New Labour’s multicultural policies, not least its approach to immigration, were actively promoted as being an important ‘social good’ for the country. It was, as Brendan O’Neill characterised it, ‘a subconscious attempt by a disoriented elite to renew Britain, to redefine it, through altering the social make-up and elevating the virtues of the migrant above the virtues of traditional British nationalism and the native working classes’.
Rather than listening to the concerns of white working-class people, New Labour chose instead to cast the working classes as backward and problematic. The opportunistic BNP – bending over backwards to eradicate memories of its fascist past – was able to construct itself as an empty receptacle that could benefit from this disaffection with mainstream political parties. This was helped by an active door-stepping campaign speaking face-to-face with people in local areas at a time when the political elite could hardly bear to make eye contact with a member of the unwashed, ignorant masses.
However the recent collapse of the BNP in local-council elections, reducing its number of councillors across the country to a mere 14 (0.06 per cent of councillors nationwide), has proven beyond doubt what an unsatisfactory, leaky receptacle Griffin’s motley crew was for public discontent with the mainstream political elite. Even politicians and commentators realise that continuing their scaremongering about the increased threat of the BNP would be ludicrous, leading them to begin to inflate the tattooed ruffians of the EDL as their right-wing bogeymen of choice. The BNP’s overinflated bubble has well and truly burst.
The limit of Goodwin’s book is his fundamental error in trying to understand the phenomenon of the BNP through an analysis of its membership rather than the way its very existence was exploited by the political elite. However, his book does provide a wealth of evidence demonstrating the ways in which the vast swathes of the traditional working classes have been marginalised and betrayed by the institutions that once represented them. While it won’t be the BNP that fills this political vacuum, Goodwin is right to identify that the white working classes are trying to send ‘a message about issues that they care deeply about’. But the completely dislocated political elite seems uninterested in listening to them.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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