Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Bloody Nasty People, Daniel Trilling

This is a short history of Britain's extreme political right, told by Daniel Trilling, an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Trilling's point of departure is the first election victory of the modern far right, when the BNP's Derek Beackon won a council seat in Tower Hamlets in 1993.  This followed a toxic history of racial strife in the area between white and Bangladeshi residents, caused in large part by housing shortages, which the Liberal Democrats had initially attempted to exploit.  The mainstream national media went berserk at the idea of a fascist being elected to public office, and Beackon lost his seat at the next election.  But the BNP had not appeared out of nowhere, and they were not about to disappear any time soon.

Trilling traces the story back to the antics of two neo-Nazis in postwar London, John Tyndall and Colin Jordan.  These men in turn drew inspiration from the pre-war fascist activists Arnold Leese and Arthur Kenneth Chesterton.  (The real granddaddy of pre-war fascism, Sir Oswald Mosley, had become an increasingly marginal figure after 1945.)  Tyndall and Jordan's promising partnership took something of a hit when Jordan married Tyndall's fiancĂ©e; Tyndall went on to become the leader of the National Front in its glory days in the 1970s, while Jordan was disgraced after he was caught shoplifting women's lingerie from Tesco.  By the 1980s, the NF's fortunes were on the wane: Trilling points out, a little unfairly, that there was already one nationalist demagogue in Downing Street.  Tyndall broke away from the Front and got together with one of Jordan's associates to form the BNP.

Yet it was not Tyndall, an eccentric plum-voiced Hitler-worshipper, who brought the BNP to public prominence and a measure of temporary electoral success.  That honour fell to Nick Griffin.  A teenaged Griffin had first joined the National Front back in the 1970s, and proved to be something of a political chameleon.  He spent the 80s experimenting with an eclectic mix of political ideologies drawn from figures ranging from the left-wing Nazis Gregor and Otto Strasser through Colonel Gaddafi and his Green Book to the romantic Catholic conservatives Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.  He ended up falling in with the Italian far-rightist Roberto Fiore, with whom he took the lead in founding an eccentric environmentally-friendly fascist organisation called the International Third Position.

By 1995, Griffin had joined up with Tyndall's BNP.  Initially a hardliner, advocating Holocaust denial (he thought that David Irving was a dangerous liberal), he reinvented himself once again, this time as a voter-friendly pragmatist, out to attract mainstream support.  In truth, this was not a new strategy - in the 1970s, Tyndall's NF had attempted to conceal its vein of radical neo-Nazism behind a facade of populist patriotism.  Nevertheless, Tyndall was unconvinced by his approach, so he deposed Tyndall as leader in 1999 and set about trying to change the party.

It seemed that Griffin's time had come.  Britain lacked an effective mainstream right-wing party following the crushing defeat of the Conservatives in 1997.  The time was ripe for a more robust alternative, in the wake of the asylum crisis of the late 1990s, the Stephen Lawrence case, the political controversies surrounding the Macpherson and Parekh Reports, and the fallout from 9/11.  By now, the enemy of the far right was changing from Jews and black immigrants to Muslims.  This was less because Griffin and his friends had theological problems with the finer points of Islamic doctrine than because anti-Muslim rhetoric was easier to elide with legitimate mainstream concerns about Islamist extremism in an era when nakedly racist rhetoric was no longer a fertile source of votes.  The party even attracted a small number of supporters from the Sikh and Jewish communities.  This was not what John Tyndall had had in mind when he had set the party up.

In spite of the inevitable backlash from hardliners, Griffin's new strategy seemed to be working.  Following the milltown riots of 2001, three BNP candidates were elected to Burnley town council.  New Labour responded by panicking and trying to show that it understood voters' concerns about asylum and immigration.  But it was too late.  The BNP were on the march.  Effective grassroots campaigning and disillusionment with the main parties handed it small but significant electoral victories in different parts of the country.  As the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out, the party experienced more success in the 2000s than Mosley's BUF ever managed during the high noon of fascism in the 1930s.

The zenith of BNP support came in 2008-09, when Richard Barnbrook won a seat on the London Assembly and Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons (a former follower of Colin Jordan) got elected to the European Parliament.  Yet even in the BNP's hour of triumph, the cracks were beginning to show.  There were internal dissensions, as well as unwelcome attention from anti-fascist campaigners and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  Griffin put in an unimpressive performance on Question Time, and the party was confronted with an unexpected rival on the streets in the shape of the English Defence League (which Griffin claimed was an MI5 front).  The EDL represents a postmodern form of hard-rightism, appropriating the language of human rights and anti-racism, though its membership seems to include some rather unreconstructed types who would be more at home with John Tyndall than Shami Chakrabarti.

These days, the BNP is looking like a spent force.  It has fewer than 100 local councillors out of over 20,000, and no representation in Parliament.  It is unlikely that Griffin and Brons will retain their seats in the European Parliament.  Yet Trilling counsels that the history of the British far right is not at an end.  In this he is probably right.

The book is far from perfect.  Trilling isn't shy about letting us know what his own political convictions are, which wouldn't matter so much if they weren't so drearily uninteresting (can you guess what he thinks of, say, the Right-to-Buy policy? or David Blunkett?).  He seems to regard honest attempts by mainstream politicians to marginalise the far right by talking about immigration and multiculturalism as pandering to fascism.  His monocausal emphasis of economic class as an explanatory category leads him to downplay too much the real importance of culture when looking at the social and political trends that he analyses.  He is also perhaps a little too eager to see the BNP as a straightforwardly fascist outfit - "profoundly fascist" is the term he uses.  While he is certainly right to highlight the fascist credentials of some of its members, and while Griffin's PR tactics are somewhat superficial, I suspect that a BNP government would be less likely to take the Third Reich as its model than Botha's South Africa or Wallace's Alabama.

In all, however, this is an interesting little book which tells a story that is still known by too few informed people in Britain today.