They may have some similar views, but the UK Independence Party (UKIP) does not and has never had the same politics as the British National Party (BNP). Surprised? Did you think UKIP was just a little less rough around the edges, perhaps? The BNP was – probably still is – a ‘Nazi’ party. I’m not waving a noisy placard as I write this or planning on abseiling through the roof into one of their branch meetings above a pub somewhere to catch them all in “the act” of being Nazis. The BNP was formed as a Nazi-oriented party (in 1982), and practiced and preached overt Nazism until Nick Griffin took over the leadership in 1999.
Between that pinnacle moment and July of last year (when the BNP sacked and then later expelled him), Nick Griffin and the BNP merely flirted with Nazism. They also avoided it, denied it, hid it and to the chagrin of those who stayed along for a 40 year long ride, occasionally forgot about it.
Nor are the English Defence League (EDL) a new BNP. With a million votes, scores of councillors and two MEPs in 2009, how the EDL managed to rise right under the BNP’s nose and begin a process of destroying the party is still a mysterious misery for them. The EDL’s not even a political party.
Britain First – a vehemently anti-Muslim, Christian fundamentalist group – is a political party. Admittedly, it’s one of the smallest in the United Kingdom - but one with the largest Facebook following of any political party, including Labour, Lib Dems and the Tories. Facebook is how so many people have actually heard of them. Fluffy animals, dead soldiers, poppies, Jesus on a cross-on a Union Flag, caricatured, liked and shared by millions of people, often quite innocently and infuriatingly.
What should be nameless and faceless individuals and organisations are not entirely that, however. One criminologist last year exclaimed (having gone in search of racism and Islamphobia - and found it) that the far right had “invaded” the internet. Type “Islam” or “Muslim” into a search engine and you’ll get a fair idea what sort of form and purpose that “invasion” has taken.
The long-term rise of the BNP was long before Facebook and Twitter occupied our evenings in front of the television. It was actually a symptom of changing and hardening attitudes towards race and immigration in some of the most desperately ignored parts of the country. And yes, Islam was subjected to both those hardened attitudes, particularly post-7/7. As any Muslim hater will proudly tell you, Islam is not a race. Despite that, it is subject to scrutiny and antagonism by racist values and attitudes.
The BNP’s rose to ignorant bliss between 2001 [9/11] and a peak in 2009. By 2010 it was limping off and onto life support whilst the still new EDL was kicking in shop and pub windows as it marched up and down England carrying cans of lager and dressed in matching EDL “hoodies.” The BNP’s demise was covered admirably by the print and news media. It had all the ingredients of a classic British soap opera and the public tittered that the BNP was apparently not very important anyway, as we now had the EDL being racist and horrible about and to foreigners.
The media hated the BNP (ever seen Nick Griffin excoriated on Question Time in 2009?). The EDL on the other hand – rough, brash and hedonistic – was like a hooligan’s cast off of TOWIE. Its leader, Stephen Lennon, was a darling of some red-top newspapers and his followers, initially, were black, white, straight, gay and even in one bizarre case, a Muslim.
To give a brief and rather underdone summary of their mutual dislike of each other, the EDL called the BNP racist and Nazi (which it was) and the BNP called the EDL “Zionist” in return. The BNP wanted Muslims deported from the UK while the EDL wanted Muslims assimilated, forcibly, and without their religion in tow.
The EDL revolutionised social media. The only way to contact the EDL was on Facebook or to abuse them or their leader on twitter. Even we at HOPE not hate barely touched our Facebook page until the EDL turned up.
By the time Gunner Lee Rigby was murdered by Islamists on the streets of South London in May 2013 hardly anybody was aware that the EDL’s bubble had also long burst. It had splintered into some five or six different groups in the previous two years and ground to an almost halt. As their founder and leader would later lament, it had also become just another tiny Nazi group.
Britain First was the next group to emerge. It is, of all things, a “hybrid” of the BNP and the EDL. The smaller of the three, it burst into life in 2013 by mimicking both the BNP’s Nazism and the EDL’s heavy boozing and lust for uniforms. Understandably, the BNP and the EDL both hated it. Britain First broke every rule; it invaded mosques as well as the internet. Its activists wore green uniforms and waved bibles and cans of lager outside mosques. And most importantly, it bought some 200,000 “likes” on Facebook and actually tapped into the symptoms of Britain’s moans, groans and fears, by mass produced “memes”: of Jesus, half-eaten dogs and beloved dead actresses. It now has over half-a-million Facebook followers but few actual activists.
It actually tells people, as does Nick Griffin, to vote UKIP. All the splintering, all the arguing, all the confusions and yes, the growth of UKIP has actually left the ultra-extremists quite bereft of members, and yet they are super-stars on social media and the focus of bloggers. I shouldn’t complain, I make my living writing about them, but at least I do investigate them. Last year my report into Britain First caused their founder to leave the group and Britain First to issue threats to journalists using the research.
The far right is actually now tiny. No amount of scare stories can change that. Suggestions that Rigby’s murder and the outrageous grooming scandal in Rotherham were helping rebuild the extreme far-right were just that – rumours – and desperate hopes in some cases.
The Sun reported last month that Britain First had “six thousand members” despite its marches attracting fewer than 50 people and being beaten at the polls by the Monster Raving Loony Party. The Sun got the figure after a lie by Britain First to the BBC about its membership figure went unchallenged the month before.
The BNP, like the EDL, limps on without recognisable or charismatic leaders. The once great Nick Griffin, now bankrupt and out of work, tweets and blogs to a disinterested public about how much he hates Muslims, and Jews too, obviously.
What people are seeing, is not a massive far right growing in strength. They’re looking at an angry and disillusioned country in part and discovering that there is an awful lot of far-right and fascist groups. The extreme far-right has never had to be big to be nasty. Large it ain’t, increasingly nasty it is.
Readers can view the report as part of the new (first ever) digital edition of HOPE not hate magazine.