November 01, 2009

The respectable face of the BNP?

Nick Griffin didn’t speak to many Scots when he visited Glasgow last week

Two men in crisp suits are standing outside the stylish Corinthian bar, nodding in a string of men and women, chatting to some as old friends. The pair are not bouncers – not any more – but members of the British National Party.

Those entering are not regulars of the bar, but activists who have come to hear a speech by the party’s leader, Nick Griffin, currently enjoying his highest profile thanks to his appearance on BBC’s Question Time.

But in spite of the opportunity for more publicity, it is a low-key affair. If the location leaked out it could attract “undesirables”, admits fundraiser Ian Wilson. So the only outward evidence is a small sign, directing those in the know to an event for “Max Dunbar”, one of the party’s organisers. Even the G1 Group, owners of the Corinthian, said later that they were unaware their venue was booked by the BNP, or that a political meeting had taken place.

Inside the Strong Room on the second floor, however, the pretence ends. A Union Flag and BNP flag are hung over a wall and piles of Freedom newspapers are stacked on a table by a collection plate. The back page of the paper advertises T-shirts with slogans including “Stop Islamic Colonisation: No More Mosques” and “Enoch Powell was Right.” By 7.30pm, around 60 people have squeezed in. True to the BNP’s “suits not boots” rebranding, there are no skinheads, no fixed scowls at the press, and almost no tattoos on show.

Most people are in their 30s and 40s, with women making up about a fifth of the crowd. The main subject of conversation is the ferocious heat, which is making everyone sweat. Then in an incongruous Bristol accent, Gary Raikes, the BNP leader in Scotland, welcomes everyone to the official launch of the Glasgow North East by-election campaign.

The meeting’s focus is on statistics and strategy, and on how the by-election and general election are only stepping stones towards the next Holyrood poll.

“Our overall strategy is to win a regional seat in 2011,” says Raikes. “In Scotland, in the regional seats, we need 5%-6%. If you remember not that long ago, the Scottish Socialist Party had five MSPs [actually it had six]. It shows how it’s possible for a small party like ours to win seats under that system.”

Charlie Baillie, the BNP candidate in Glasgow North East, gleefully picks up the baton.

“Mr Dewar must be spinning in his grave. We are not in favour of Scottish independence, but we have a devolved assembly and it gives the Scotland branch of the BNP a platform. How wonderful! How absolutely wonderful! We have got the best chance in the white working-class areas. We don’t need to say what we stand for: the white working-class who have been deserted by Labour.”

Military metaphors, paranoia, Winston Churchill, and fear of Britain becoming an Islamic republic are also to the fore in the speeches.

“We are clear in this party: this is the second Battle of Britain. We are fighting for our survival as a people,” says Mr Raikes.

After a cryptic warning about the BNP’s “enemies within”, he rounds off by quoting from Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. Mr Baillie quotes Churchill too, and also goes back another 500 years to Agincourt and Henry V’s archers defeating the French.

“We are in a battle. We are the longbowmen. No-one else will save this country,” he exclaims.

Other metaphors are less subtle. Mr Baillie detects a “darkness” threatening Britain. “It’s a darkness everyone must face. That darkness covers everything in sight. It needs a single point of light. The BNP is that single point of light. We alone stand for the survival of this nation and will secure a future for British children,” he says. Most of the rest is a ragbag of Keynesian economic stimulus proposals, letting greedy banks fail, hated liberal elites, and Mr Griffin’s heroic stand against the Question Time “bullies”.

There are also some practical campaign tips. “Generally it’s not a good idea to write to the papers as a BNP supporter,” says one old hand. “They don’t like us. You all know what the issues are. Just write about immigration and crime.”

During a break to escape the heat and set about the buffet, Mr Griffin arrives with an entourage of square giants and heads upstairs for a closed session with his lieutenants. At one point a man pops out to check no-one is listening at the door – that paranoia again.

Mr Griffin is highly media savvy: before his picture is taken he removes the change from his jacket so his suit hangs well in the full-length shots and in profile, he turns his glass eye away from the camera in case it glares in the flash. (Griffin lost his left eye in an accident in France about 20 years ago.) In our interview, he talk up the party’s chances on the Holyrood list system. “A seat in the Scottish Parliament is the first big step. Everything is geared towards that,” he says.

Despite the SNP abhorring his ethnic nationalism, Mr Griffin says the two parties draw support from a common well.

“One has to assume that the jump from Scottish National Party – ie, the concept that our people are something a little bit special and entitled to something – to British National Party, which is very much in favour of Scottish identity and fair treatment for the Scots and so on, it’s not as big a jump as from the Labour Party to the BNP or the Tories to the BNP, and plenty of people make that jump. If people have once voted Nationalist then another form of nationalism is an entirely logical step, especially when it’s from an illogical nationalism to a logical one.”

He denies any link between the BNP and the English and Scottish Defence leagues, the soccer-hooligan led anti-Islamic protestors who are due to meet in Glasgow next month. Mr Griffin says they are “agents provocateurs”, set up by the British state to make the BNP look bad and blame whites “when it all goes bang”.

Asked about his aspirations, he says he can get the BNP 20% of the vote. Some would think that delusional enough, but Griffin reckons he might be in Downing Street one day – “Every politician wants to be Prime Minister,” he says.

And he goes on: “The appalling financial catastrophe that the old elites and their financial system have created, running out of oil, and turning homogenous boring and fundamentally stable Britain into something like the Tower of Babel, makes it entirely possible that the existing political system could be swept aside in a few months of enormously fast-paced change and we could be in government.”

Later, he lets rip in his main speech about immigration, radical Islam, and the elites who have “looted” the public purse while letting down the poor and war veterans. Arguing for a dead halt to immigration, he says Glasgow is overcrowded because it takes longer than 15 minutes to drive across it in the rush hour. What that has to do with immigration is never explained.

Explaining why migrants must understand they are “perpetual guests”, he says: “As long as they’re here obeying our ways, supporting our system, then I have no problem with having significant numbers, say, of Gurkhas in Britain. I would be delighted if we could turn all those restaurants and kebab shops which are at present run by radicalised young Muslims for the purpose of pushing drugs and seducing young girls – all that ungrateful, unloyal, anti-British shower – and replace them with Gurkhas.”

The next day, Mr Griffin ducks out of campaigning in Glasgow North East, suggesting to some a lack of conviction in his own rhetoric. The BNP has promised big before and failed – at every election in recent years, it claimed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough in Scotland. But that may not last forever. The commonly held belief that “it couldn’t happen here” – that Scots are more resistant to racism than other parts of the UK – won’t hold them back. The BNP originally once had miniscule support in England, but now has two MEPs.

Mr Griffin needs poverty, disillusion and fear to prosper, and there is plenty of that to go round. In Glasgow North East, where voting is on November 12, the worst poverty level in Scotland is combined with the highest concentration of asylum seekers.

On the streets of Springburn, it is not difficult to find residents who think the BNP will do well. It’s a small, unscientific sample which may not be typical of the area, but it is troubling nonetheless. By the towering Red Road flats, Mary, 40, who works for the council’s care service, smokes as she watches a steady stream of African tenants at the bus stop. “I think people are getting fed up, I really do, because everywhere you go they’re everywhere,” she says. “A lot of them lack manners. What really annoys me is pensioners not being able to get a seat on the bus and there’s coloured kids sitting on a full seat, whereas our kids don’t.”

She says she loathes Labour, but wouldn’t vote BNP: “No, I think they’re racists. They want this to be a white country, but you can’t have that. It’s good that they’re integrating with us, but there’s far too many of them.”

Morag Simpson, 54, a former nurse out walking her Doberman by the flats, reckons the BNP will get support because new housing, “needless to say”, was given to asylum seekers, adding: “We have a lady here, she’s 94, stays three [storeys] up, she’s blind, and she did not get offered a house.”

She goes on: “I was brought up in the Highlands as a Scottish Nationalist, but the way things are going… I just feel as if we don’t get priority. It’s our country. I think [the BNP] are over the top, but we as a people, the Scots people, have to do something about it ourselves. I feel there’s no-one looking out for the ones that have worked all their lives.”

Outside Springburn shopping centre, Michelle Slane, 32, a social care student at North Glasgow College, also predicts a good result for the BNP because of asylum seekers. “They’re getting everything, f***’s sake. They’re getting everything. Ask anybody about. Everybody hates them. Go into that Post Office now and it’s like the United Nations … I think the local community should come before people who are just coming in.”

Alan Fisher, 47, a single parent, says he’ll vote Labour, but agrees about housing.

“I stay on a scheme that’s all vandalised. They get f***ing brand new fridges, f***ing brand new TVs, they get brand new everything. You can’t even say ‘Get tae f***’ because they don’t know what you’re saying to them.”

Margaret Rodgers, 28, out with her two-year-old son Connor, would vote BNP.

“I’m just out a homeless flat. I was in there 13 months. It was in the East End of the city. It was totally run down. There were murders happening twice a week. I think it’s shocking they’re getting up-and-down-stairs and everything. It’s not fair. I just think the asylum seekers are getting too much, far, far too much.I agree with the BNP: don’t let any more in.”

It’s not all like this, of course.

“They’re fascists,” says one elderly lady of the BNP. “We saw him [Nick Griffin] on Question Time. All he did was smile, he couldn’t answer.”

Craig Dunbar, 21, a music performance student at Glasgow North College, wants the BNP to do badly.

“I don’t approve of anything they stand for. I don’t agree with the guy’s views.”

And Michelle Slane’s friend, Liz, a young mother, is shocked by her pal’s views.

“That’s a sin,” she says of her comments. “I think it’s live and let live. Everyone just jumps on their back all the time. I think we are all just people trying to make do and do the best for our children.”

The 18 months to the Holyrood election will tell just how many people think likewise.

Sunday Herald

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