The real cause of our anxieties is not the potential of the far right. It's the emergence of people power
Never underestimate how fast fear can swell in Britain. Sophisticated politicians and commentators analyse the "moral panics" of the masses about immigration and crime while remaining unaware of their own irrational prejudices. For in its nervous moments, polite society is just as panicky as the most hysterical tabloid reader. The veil of good manners slips and it describes its fellow citizens as tattooed and shaven-headed brutes who, given the right circumstances, would vote for the modern equivalent of the Nazi party.
The conditions ought to be right this summer. Indeed, I cannot imagine better conditions for a neo-fascist advance. Britain is coming to the end of the longest wave of immigration in her history. I argued when it was at its height that we could take a modest pride in the absence of rioting mobs and burning crosses, but I had to temper my patriotic sentiments with the admission that mass immigration came while the economy was booming and the public was more interested in shopping than taking to the streets. At the risk of stating the obvious, the boom is over. Unemployment is rising and anger at foreigners taking British jobs is rising with it.
To make matters worse - or better from the point of view of extremists - this parliament has disgraced itself. Its frauds turned Westminster into a tax haven and the House of Commons fees office into a cash machine that kept on giving. The electorate has gone from its normal state of surly acquiescence into a righteous fury.
Even before the scandal broke, no less an authority than the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that Britain needed to heed the lessons of Nazi Germany and accept "a very high risk of financial stringency leading to political extremes - anger finding its expression in xenophobia. The fact that the BNP can win a seat in Sevenoaks is a straw in the wind and we have to watch the horizon very, very carefully for the tempest that might be behind that".
I would mock him for imagining the leaders of the British National party crying: "Today Sevenoaks! Tomorrow the world!" But then it is just the kind of thing the leaders of the BNP would say and, in any case, the archbishop is hardly a lone voice. The combination of economic and political crises has led many politicians and journalists to predict sweeping BNP advances - five, six maybe seven European seats.
The party was hiding its roots in European fascism, they argued, and putting on respectable suits and friendly smiles to calm the electorate. It looked set to prosper.
I accept that it is foolish to call an election before a vote has been cast, and low turnouts can produce freak results, but the evidence that the BNP is surfing popular outrage is hard to find. On Thursday, the voters of Salford's Irwell Riverside ward ought to have given the far right an easy victory. If Salford is no longer Friedrich Engels's classic slum of "dirt and poverty", most of the ward's white, working-class voters still live in run-down terraces. Hazel Blears, Salford's Labour MP, did not share their struggles. She claimed for three different properties in one year, along with assorted televisions, beds, mattresses, curtains, pots, pans and overnight stays at one of London's chicest hotels.
After journalists worked out that she had managed to avoid capital gains tax after selling one home she had done up at public expense, she waved a cheque for £13,000 on television and announced she would send it to HM Revenue. Her gesture would have been less tactless if the idea of ever being in a position to write a cheque for £13,000 were not beyond the dreams of many of her constituents. Yet Blears stood at the count in Salford and saw Labour hold the seat. Its support was down, but despite the recession and the scandals, the BNP stayed stuck in third place, its share of the vote up a mere 3.8% on last year.
The anti-fascist campaigners, who gather around Searchlight magazine, were not surprised. They say that internal BNP documents show it to be a feeble organisation, running out of money and credible candidates. They do not think its strategy of dressing thugs in suits is working and nor do I. Not the least of the BNP's problems is that Nick Griffin was caught on camera at a meeting with the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke explaining how he would seek to con the public by using warm words - freedom, security, identity, democracy.
"Perhaps one day, once by being rather more subtle we've got ourselves in a position where we control the British broadcasting media, the British people might change their mind and say, 'Yes, every last one must go.' But if you offer that as your sole aim to start with, you're gonna get absolutely nowhere. So, instead of talking about racial purity, we talk about identity."
Griffin has fooled the occasional journalist, but the regular convictions of BNP members for racial assaults, drug dealing and sex crimes leave most people in no doubt that the new BNP is no different from the old BNP: an alliance of criminals with criminal policies. If it fails to break through even in these propitious circumstances, however, it will still have revealed a latent prejudice in the British elite.
Alongside honourable concerns lurks a suspicion of popular power. Listen carefully whenever proposals are discussed to improve local democracy by, say, electing chief constables and police authorities. Eventually, an authoritative voice will tell you that the British cannot be trusted with more power because they may let the BNP take over the police forces. Similarly with reforms to the national voting system. Once again, we are told that a fairer election system cannot be contemplated because it will let the BNP out of its cage.
The best reason for hoping that it is trounced is not that a vile party will have gone down to a deserved defeat, but because it will make it harder for the opponents of reform to argue that their fellow citizens are nasty children whose betters cannot allow them to run their own affairs.
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