Image: Enoch Powell (BBC)
How does the historical narrative of Bloody Nasty People account for the emergence of the BNP and its position within a tradition of far right movements?
I look back as far as the late 1950s. There is a history of neo-Nazis attempting to form movements that could break into the political mainstream, with occasional successes. The National Front in the 1970s was an earlier example, for instance. The BNP was founded in the early 80s but Nick Griffin wasn’t elected leader until 1999. It was only then really that there was a serious attempt to transform the organisation from a street movement into what they hoped would be seen as a respectable political party that could win elections. I go through all of that backstory to show who those people are and where they came from, but the focus of the book is Nick Griffin’s project of modernising the party, making it adopt ‘voter friendly’ messages that it would use in its overt publicity. The past decade has seen the initial success and then ultimate failure of that electoral project. I try to explain what that project was, why it had some success and then how it failed.
Britain in the 1990s is often presented as being ‘more comfortable’ with multiculturalism. Alongside this there is the argument that racism simultaneously ‘moved underground’ and that other novel forms of racism proliferated during this period. How does the book help to unpack the tension between these two points of view?
The end of the 90s is an interesting time for Nick Griffin to become leader of the BNP because Britain as a whole seems to have reached a watershed moment in race relations. This is perhaps best symbolised by the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence: a moment of reckoning for the British establishment, cathartic for Lawrence’s family and a rallying call for anti-racist campaigners. It was a big symbolic event where a section of British establishment was forced to acknowledge ‘we behaved in an institutionally racist way and we want to put it right’. This seems like a very optimistic time but within two or three years the BNP had won a record numbers of council seats.
So although Britain had resolved certain issues around race, multiculturalism and immigration, other issues had popped up simultaneously. This is really neatly encapsulated in a newspaper like The Daily Mail which managed to make itself the hero of the hour for getting behind the Macpherson inquiry - naming the suspects as murderers when the private prosecution failed - yet at the same time it was behind this movement that built hysteria about asylum seekers, constructing new racist stereotypes of these people as criminals, as disease ridden. What I try and show in the book is how that discourse over asylum and subsequently a few years later over Islam gave the BNP new tools with which to propagandise. In many ways by the 90s the BNP’s classic biological racism seems incredibly outdated, but here almost on a plate they were being handed a new way of getting their ideas into the mainstream.
While Labour supported Macpherson, can the burgeoning of this kind of rhetoric be attributed in any way to a reluctance on the part of the government to talk about immigration?
It’s not that Labour didn’t talk about it but that they talked about it in the wrong way. When, for example, David Blunkett was faced with dealing with the perceived fears around asylum - in my view stoked by misinformation in the press - his decision was to go out there and make reactionary statements about asylum seekers ‘swamping’ British schools. That wasn’t a fear of talking about immigration, he was very boldly doing a very stupid thing.
To what extent do you understand the rise of the BNP as reflecting such institutional brands of racism within the British elite?
One of the main tasks of the book was to attack the stereotype that political racism is only the preserve of the brain-dead, skinhead, lumpenproletariat idiot, which is how they are often caricatured. Actually on close examination of the far right since WW2, it remains rooted in the middle classes as a movement. Nick Griffin is privately educated, Oxbridge educated, the son of a businessman, and there are plenty of other people within the inner circle of the party who are from similar backgrounds. They made alliances with people from working class backgrounds but they are not essentially a working class movement.
This is why I discuss Enoch Powell in such depth near the beginning. He began his career as a fervent opponent of Britain giving up its imperial possessions and Indian independence. The Tory imperialist reaction to that was first to encourage immigration because it held onto the idea that commonwealth subjects were all equal under the crown and that Britain had an equal place for all of them. But as the empire recedes further and further into the past, Powell and others like him turn to this defensive nationalism where these commonwealth citizens who have come to the UK suddenly become a threat to the local culture. They’re described as ‘aliens’ and he ramps up this fear of the black man ‘holding the whip hand’ over the white man.
The same rhetoric we see from the BNP thirty years later…
Exactly. The people who would go on to form the BNP had already been using that rhetoric to some extent before 1968 when Powell made his ‘rivers of blood speech’. What Powell did was to spread that much more widely and legitimate that discourse. The far right was really able to capitalise on that in the 70s and similar things happened in subsequent decades. I try and show how this relates to the mechanisms through which the BNP and EDL have operated.
We’ve seen the electoral failing of the BNP in 2010 and their total wipeout at this year’s mayoral elections. In the context of their seeming delegitimisation as a political party, do you think we’re going to see a shift towards the street violence of groups like the EDL?
Well I think violence becomes more likely when there is no viable electoral path. The EDL themselves, though, are very much on the wane. They’ve really been pushed back. During the failed rally at Walthamstow which I was at, they were blocked by thousands of people on the street.
But really the activists remain. I think people within that political scene are really looking for a movement that will build up and grow again and there are various ideas of how to approach that. The more traditional way that far right groups have organised is to have a ‘respectable’ political wing and then a street movement that operates in tandem. In fact the EDL earlier this year linked up formally with the British Freedom Party, which some ex-BNP members had set up. At the moment the BFP is essentially a paper organization, it doesn’t have any popular support whatsoever, but it shows that some people are trying to pursue that path.
At the same time, Nick Griffin remains the leader of the BNP and I’m sure would like to rebuild the party and convince all the people who have left to come back. For the next few years, at least, there will be this kind of scrabbling around. The thing I wanted to reinforce at the end of the book is that the potential for support has not disappeared even though structurally they have collapsed.
What can be done to prevent this cycular reformulation of the far right?
Well I think there are two tasks. One is to prevent such groups from being able to operate. That involves dedicated anti-fascist campaigning which can take the form of election based operations but it can also take the form of literally blocking paths. It really depends on what the far right is trying to do.
Another important element is to think of ‘the BNP vote’ as an expression of discontent of some sort. Now that’s not to downplay the element of racism but based on the research and first-hand reporting that I’ve done it is apparent that the BNP have really prospered when there has been a resentment that has combined a form of racism with some kind of economic anxiety. Immigration has become a lightning rod for these debates but I think it grossly oversimplifies to say ‘it’s just a technocratic blip and if we get the numbers right everything will be better’. Immigration itself is not the problem, for the communities where these resentments arise, there are much deeper things going on, where resentment has built up over a number of decades.
What are these resentments?
It can differ from place to place. One of the things that often comes up in discussion is housing. There are also divisions that have sprung up between white and Asian communities over a number of years: the feeling that a town is being left out of its share of regeneration money gets mixed up with a feeling that what money there is gets given out to one group unfairly above another. To offer a way out of that which serves the rights of everyone who lives in an area, you have to have a much broader discussion of what are you going to do with these areas of Britain that were devastated under Thatcher and that New Labour didn’t really provide a solution for. Now, as bits of the welfare state are increasingly chipped away at, there is growing resentment at supposedly undeserving recipients of benefits.
Do you see class as a superordinate construct, central to the task of overcoming the ethnic arguments of the far right?
As I said, the BNP should not be seen as an authentic working class expression although obviously it prospered in areas that have a large working class population. Today’s workers are not the stereotype manual labourers associated with older working class movements. There is this broad range, going from those manual labourers to people who work in call centres and offices. All of that has to come into a discussion about class for it to become a meaningful category. But it’s an essential part of any left movement and it’s something I think Labour are ducking away from.
Competition for wages is the symptom of a society in which workers don’t have enough rights and they don’t have a strong enough voice to argue for better rights, better working conditions and better salaries. If we all have a stronger voice, immigrants and not, we can work to create conditions that are better for everybody. This doesn’t pitch one section of society against another in the way that anti-immigrant discourse does and that’s not apparent in the language of the Labour leadership. When it does emerge as part of the programme, that’s a result of pressure from below.
Do you see the potential break-up of the UK as providing a possible space through which to tackle the far right? Might an English Parliament, for example, stimulate the kind of participation you suggest as a solution?
I know there is a lot of talk at the moment about this great untapped Englishness, but I’m suspicious of how far that really goes. If you look at the EDL propaganda, they often come into these discussions: ‘we have to reclaim England from the EDL because otherwise they’ll monopolise this repressed nationalism’. Look at them. They have absolutely nothing to say about Englishness. If you go on their website – which I don’t recommend unless you’re really interested – it’s all about Islam. England is just this empty void into which any manner of fears and hatred can be projected.
I had a dual upbringing where I lived in London for half of it and smack bang in the middle of England, in the countryside and it does strike me that this discussion tends to be carried out by metropolitan middle class Londoners who reap all the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan city but seem to be arguing that this is somehow wrong. I’ll be the last defender of London cosmopolitanism and it isn’t an elite thing. London has got an elite that spoil it for the rest of us but most of the 8 million people that live in the city work, they need to make a living, they come from all sorts of backgrounds and places and they get along in a miraculous way the majority of the time. I think more power in the hands of ordinary people is a good thing but we are clearly able to find common political ground without having to latch on to England and Englishness.
'Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right' is available to purchase here.