The politics of extremism

In September 1993 a BNP candidate was elected to the Tower Hamlets Borough Council in a by-election in the Millwall. Twenty years before this National Front candidates had polled in double figures in a number of parliamentary elections and this had catalysed the Anti-Nazi League demonstrations but here was the first actual election victory in Britain for an extremist right wing candidate and it created shock waves amongst the political establishment.

As it happened Derek Beackon’s victory in the Millwall by-election was short lived - he was defeated at the full elections in the following May and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. However today there are fifty-six BNP Councillors in Britain, an elected member of the Greater London Authority and the possibility of a BNP MEP being elected under the extremely defective proportional system being used for June’s European Parliament election. In Leeds their one Councillor was elected in Morley, where there is scarcely a black resident in sight, and last month a BNP candidate came within 200 votes of winning a City Council by-election.

Now, despite the fact that the BNP can poll at least 20% of the votes in many urban wards without much effort, there is remarkably complacent view is that they really do not pose a serious threat. I for one do not subscribe to this opinion and I am alarmed that there is no settled view of how to deal with this dangerous and extreme party.

We should have learnt by now what does not work. Ignoring the BNP and thinking that they will go away quietly if no-one draws attention to them is obviously foolish - they clearly exist for a particular section of the electorate. Boycotting their elected Councillors and not putting them on committees and other representative bodies simply feeds their image of being outside the establishment, which is a potent selling point in these troubled political times. Endeavouring to deny individual BNP members their civil rights has a similar effect. Waiting until the incompetence of their elected representatives shows itself - which, curiously, has actually been urged seriously - is hardly a safe course of action. Demonstrations and protests outside town halls and council offices are easy and make the participants feel good, but are wholly ineffective in that they have little or no resonance amongst those inclined to support the BNP and they feed the party’s martyrdom image.

Principled statements by the great and the good, such as united groups of religious leaders in Leeds recently, urging the great British public not to vote for the BNP on moral grounds, are a waste of breath as few of the BNP’s potential vote are susceptible to any moral appeal, let alone one from the religious “establishment.” The latest proposal, from the otherwise splendid Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is for us all to develop an English identity and so passionately to promote our Englishness that we will thus deny the BNP their “unique selling point”! Quite bizarre! As if one can out-nationalist the nationalists, and as if there was a geographic logic to the BNP’s appeal. One local supporter who flies the English St George flag in his garden has a Honda car in his drive and a Volvo at the roadside!

It is thus clear what does not work. It is equally clear that the BNP case is so flimsy and unsustainable that no Liberal Democrat activist should have any difficulty in taking it on.

Contrary to the Archbishop’s view, we need to diminish the belief in nationalism rather than enhancing it. Even taking England rather than Britain, the idea that there is some sort of mystical unity which brings together individuals in Wigan and Woking or in Barrow and Bideford simply because they are in the same country is nonsense. The sense of a common community is much more narrow, Merseyside or Manchester, or the West Riding, for interest. Beyond that “local” identity we are talking far more about administrative entities or a common European culture than about national characteristics. Similarly any definition of “our jobs” is artificial. Bradford people taking Leeds’ jobs is hardly much different from Welsh people taking English jobs, or, for that matter, Calais citizens taking Dover jobs, or vice versa. Where one draws the line is practical rather than principled and Liberal Democrats, with their internationalism, need to point this out.

The BNP’s constitution and its mission statement make it clear that is a party based on a racial identity. There is a tortuous definition of “indigenous” to limit to white people those it seeks to serve without actually using the word. It is clear from similar phrases in its constitution that only white people can join the party. However, in its policy statements it is clearer: it speaks of “white Britons [being] second-class citizens”, and of “native British people [being] an ethnic minority in our country within sixty years.”

Whereas BNP activists may well be racists in the full sense, ie not only believing in discrimination against black people, but also believing whites to be innately superior, I doubt whether more than a few of BNP voters would go so far. Their support of the BNP largely comes from those who feel economically deprived, sometimes with two generations being unemployed, from those who regard themselves as being excluded from the broader urban community, and is fed by the huge problems of living on tough estates. The BNP, using the easy scapegoat of immigrants, and calling for tough law and order measures, chimes in perfectly with these electors’ concerns. The new besuited BNP puts on a respectable facade but its real aims are far more sinister and dangerous. The slogan Le Pen’s Front National slogan in France, “two million immigrants, two million unemployed French,” was facile and simplistic but very plausible.

Much of the “evidence” of preferential treatment of immigrants stems from the usual myths but the mainstream parties, largely including the Liberal Democrats, avoided tackling the issue of the visibly increased immigration of the past decade whilst there was no apparent electoral penalty for so doing. Now, when the swathe of disenchanted non-voters is being motivated by the extreme right, the positive arguments for the value of immigrants and for humanitarian treatment of asylum seekers need to be deployed. There is no evidence that harsh negative measures to try to assuage the immediate causes of apparent discontent would inhibit electors from voting BNP. The arguments presented are only the symptoms of the deeper seated sense of exclusion and the BNP can always be more extreme than any mainstream party.

The BNP has an increasing problem matching its white emphasis with its anti-immigration stance, in that the majority of current immigrants are from EU countries and are only identifiable, if at all, from their initial lack of English or from their accents. It has an additional difficulty in that, in common with other extreme right parties, it has an inherent anti-semitism. Traditionally it has been radical Jews who have infiltrated and provided information on such organisations but the BNP has had to soft pedal on its anti-semitism in order to concentrate on its more visible target.

It is ironic that a black man can be the President of the United States but cannot be a member of this small British political party. Interestingly the exit polls from the American election showed that many of the white American voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio who had expressed racist views and who are in similar economic circumstances to the BNP voters in urban Britain, did in the end vote for Barack Obama. This in itself shows the value of taking on the arguments.

How dangerous is the BNP? The answer is very simple: today hardly at all, but tomorrow, potentially very dangerous. A recent article in the New Statesman (“The BNP’s breakthrough”, Matthew Goodman and Robert Ford, 20 April) quoted survey material:

Those who dismiss the BNP fail to appreciate the potential appeal of the modern far right’s fusion of nationalism, xenophobia and economic populism. Our research suggests that roughly one-fifth of white British voters share most or all of the BNP’s views.

The comparisons with interwar Germany are not as fanciful as some suggest. The Nazi party first presented candidates in the two parliamentary elections of 1924, and then only in alliance with other right wing parties. It fielded its own candidates in the 1928 election but polled only 2.6% of the national vote. Its key breakthrough came in provincial elections the following year when it polled 7% in Baden in October, 5.4% in Prussia in November, and 11.3% in Thuringia in December. These polls presaged the phenomenal rise nationally from 18.3% in 1930 to 43.9% in 1933 - the final poll before elections were abolished and Hitler ruled by referendum, a separate lesson in itself.

There were those who saw the dangers too late but who still spoke out to warn the German people. In October 1930 Thomas Mann abandoned his familiar terrain of art, literature and philosophy to deliver an appeal to join him and the Social Democrats in defence of humanistic values. He noted the role that economic despair had played in the rise of Nazism but believed that it was part of a deeper “spiritual” crisis. In winter 1931 the great Liberal, Theodor Heuss, published a booklet with a formidable attack on the Nazi movement. He stressed the role of racism and anti-semitism in the Nazi appeal but believed that more important was Hitler’s ability to exploit the discontent of those who had become disorientated by Germany’s military defeat and a decade of economic hardship. All this has all too familiar echoes with the BNP today. All that differs is the scapegoat: the blacks rather than the Jews. The similarities are sufficient enough for Liberal Democrats to quote them as one of the powerful arguments for rejecting the BNP.

Essentially, the arguments against the BNP are based on peace rather than strife; on cohesion rather than division; on inclusion rather than exploitation; and on generosity rather than selfishness. None of these issues can be fully addressed without an immense effort to enhance the whole political process. So long as the their potential voters feel excluded from the political process, the BNP will have resonance. A democracy which is inclusive, and a party that can inspire, are the foundations on which the necessary policy structure can be built. It is a huge challenge, and there is little time. We have to make the case.

20 April 2009