Few will lament the BNP’s travails, says Sonia Gable. But something worse may supersede it
The British National Party came out of the European Parliamentary election in June 2009 with two MEPs, albeit by the slenderest of margins. These gains – which could have been greater, had it not been for a strong anti-fascist campaign – boosted the party’s respectability and finances, and enabled several BNP activists to move onto the European parliamentary staff payroll. They also led to an appearance on the BBC’s Question Time in October last year for BNP leader Nick Griffin and opened the possibility that the party would take control of its first council in May 2010.
Eighteen months on, the BNP is disintegrating. Party officers have been expelled and it cannot pay its bills. It has lost half its district councillors and its London Assembly member, who now sits as an independent. It is contesting few council by-elections and where it fights, it gets few votes. Members are leaving and it faces crippling legal costs if the High Court rules against the party in the action brought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over racial discrimination in its constitution.
The BNP’s collapse is not really surprising and is the result of several factors coming together. A dysfunctional party of bigots and extremists who prefer bickering among themselves to campaigning, led by a man who cannot bear genuine democracy, reason and compromise, and whose only real skill is in political intrigue and playing off one faction against another, could only go so far. Few people with any professional ability or management skills are attracted to the party and any who have been given party positions – which are in the sole gift of Griffin – have been removed as soon as they inevitably clashed with him. Others are promoted far beyond their ability on the back of their unquestioning support for their leader.
Many members were disillusioned after the BNP’s abysmal failure in the general and council elections in May. Right up until polling day, Griffin had held out the hope of taking control of Barking and Dagenham council and winning parliamentary seats. “We stand on the brink of a massive breakthrough”, he emailed supporters on May 3.
The heightened interest in the contest between the three main parties was only partly to blame for the wipe-out of the BNP. A massive campaign by Hope Not Hate dealt a heavy blow, especially in Barking and Dagenham, where the party’s 12 councillors all lost their seats. And Griffin’s mind was not fully on the campaign, as he was preoccupied with laboriously rewriting the party constitution in an attempt to get away with minimum compliance with race relations legislation, while taking the opportunity to insert provisions to consolidate his absolute power in the party and make it near impossible to challenge his leadership. Only a fascist party would give such power to one individual.
Five weeks before the election came the shock revelation that the BNP’s head of publicity had been arrested for threatening to kill Griffin. Mark Collett, who was in charge of producing the BNP’s election literature, was also accused of “financial irregularities and scamming” and of trying to sabotage the party’s campaign. He was suspended from membership and Eddy Butler, the BNP’s national elections officer, accused of conspiring with him, was relieved of his post.
Collett, who notoriously featured in the television documentary Young, Nazi and Proud, in which he said he was inspired by images of German Nazis “sieg heiling” in the streets, was unpopular within the BNP. In accusing him of financial irregularities, Griffin was undoubtedly trying to deflect attention from his own long record of financial mismanagement that would eventually result in the party’s near bankruptcy.
Searchlight has long been on the trail of the BNP’s dodgy finances. For the past few years, BNP national treasurers have lasted only a few months in the job. In 2004, a new treasurer shredded the financial records held by his predecessor. Accounts are delivered late to the Electoral Commission. The 2009 accounts are nearly five months overdue and the 2008 accounts remain under investigation because the auditors were unable to report that they represented a “true and fair view” – a devastating verdict for any organisation.
A major issue in the rebellion within the BNP at the end of 2007 was the incompetence of the treasurer and deputy treasurer. Griffin sided with the treasurers and expelled the rebels. He also brought in James Dowson to kick life into the party’s fundraising ability. Dowson, a man with criminal convictions, who had achieved some success for a militant anti-abortion campaign, made some headway for the BNP. Although many members complained about the constant begging letters, they brought in money.
But Dowson brought with him the seeds of the BNP’s destruction. Searchlight relentlessly exposed every lie, such as the claim that the BNP had bought its own advertising lorry, the misnamed “truth truck”, which remained all the time in Dowson’s ownership. Searchlight also tracked Dowson’s takeover of the bulk of the BNP’s assets and operations, including the leases for party offices and the Belfast call centre, opened before the European elections.
Searchlight’s accusation that Dowson owned the BNP reached the ears of many BNP activists, who were already unhappy at how Dowson, who claimed not even to be a BNP member, had, in effect, become Griffin’s consigliere. Worse, he was being paid £160,000 a year for this. And faster than Dowson brought in the money, Griffin spent it – on long, drawn-out and inept legal battles, unfairly dismissing employees and deliberately provoking Unilever by using a Marmite image in a party election broadcast.
All that might have been forgiven had Griffin brought home the election goods in May. As it was, it sparked an attempt to challenge his leadership. Butler, the sacked elections officer, had no disagreements with Griffin on policy, but condemned his financial and administrative incompetence, his reckless legal actions and Dowson’s excessive power. Griffin pulled out all the stops to prevent Butler getting the almost impossibly high number of signatures needed to require a leadership election, imposing rigid procedural rules and suspending several of Butler’s supporters from party membership.
Inevitably Butler failed and was expelled. He now sits on the sidelines, promoting a new party constitution and exposing Griffin’s continued shortcomings in the belief that he can still rescue the BNP. Some of those who supported Butler’s challenge have formed a new party, the British Freedom Party, largely based in the south-west of England. Ironically, it replaced its first treasurer less than a month after his appointment. With similar policies to the BNP and no charismatic personalities, it is likely to follow the Democratic Nationalists, formed by the rebels of December 2007, into near oblivion.
The BNP continues to lose members rapidly. It has debts that even when Dowson’s fundraising was at its peak, it would have struggled to pay. These debts could cost Griffin his treasured seat in the European Parliament if he is held personally responsible for them and made bankrupt. Dowson appears to have walked out, while Griffin’s dwindling band of henchmen, who now include Patrick Harrington, an old comrade from Griffin’s days as a National Front “political soldier”, are constantly bickering with one another and jockeying for petty positions.
The BNP may limp on, as does the NF, which still insults Britain’s war dead on an annual basis by marching to the Cenotaph on the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday. Few of the BNP’s ex-supporters have joined other far-right parties. The risk is that, disillusioned with electoral politics and with a simplistic outlook on the world, they will be attracted to the English Defence League’s brand of Islamophobia and street violence, fuelled by outrageous and irresponsible daily attacks on Muslims in the right-wing gutter press.
Sonia Gable is deputy editor of Searchlight