At last year’s general election, the far-right British National Party (BNP) were routed across the board. It was hailed as a knock-out blow to the country’s radical right-wing, to a brand of politics derided as intolerance in a suit. The BNP’s leader, Nick Griffin, lost out to Labour incumbent Margaret Hodge in the east London seat of Barking, and was dealt a frightful ear-bashing for his troubles.
“On behalf of all the people in Britain, we in Barking have not just beaten but we have smashed the attempt of extremist outsiders,” Hodge said after retaining her seat. “The message of Barking to the BNP is clear, get out and stay out. You are not wanted here and your vile politics have no place in British democracy.”
But events of recent weeks suggest that, although the BNP bogeyman may have been hobbled at the ballot box, the firebrands have not yet flamed out. Far from it. Two weeks ago, as the country was convulsed by riots, the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right ‘street protest movement’, seized on public outrage to reinforce its hardline anti-immigration stance. On September 3, another flashpoint looms, with the EDL planning a march through Tower Hamlets, organisers promising to take “our message into the heart of militant Islam within our own country”.
According to Matthew Goodwin, author of New British Fascism: The Rise Of The British National Party, there remains strong grassroots support for policies espoused by the BNP and its ilk, even if it has not been mobilised effectively.
“In Britain, we’ve never had an organisation that’s taken advantage of it, that’s presented itself as a modern, credible alternative – the BNP tried but failed miserably,” Goodwin says. “The traditional weakness in Britain is that these parties have shot themselves in the foot.“
According to Goodwin, the key driver of support for far-right parties like the BNP and, its apparent successor, the EDL, is opposition to immigration and the sense that the government is out of touch on this issue. In particular, though, those on the far-right are obsessed with the ‘cultural threat’ posed by Muslims, homegrown or otherwise.
“Even though the BNP is pretty much finished, the trends that fuelled its support remain in place,” Goodwin says. “That section of the public remains concerned about Muslim communities and the way they integrate and the way the major parties approach that.
“So while some people, especially on the left, were celebrating the failure of the BNP, I would be far more cautious because it’s not going to suddenly disappear. Where do all these ideologically committed activists go? Some of them are so committed that they won’t just withdraw, they won’t just decide that the time has passed. They’re more likely to conclude that direct action is the answer.”
The rise of anti-Islamic sentiment is not a peculiarly British phenomena. And, unavoidably, any discussion of its European counterpoints recalls Anders Breivik, who murdered 69 people in Norway last month. Breivik was a rabid Islamophobe who frequented hard-right websites and whose online manifesto fetishised a coming ‘clash of civilisations’. In discussing the resilience and ideological oomph of the British far-right, Goodwin ponders an uncomfortable hypothetical: what if Breivik had grown up in Leeds or Bradford or Birmingham, instead of Oslo?
“Breivik is not unique; the scale of violence was unique but his motivation was not unique. I must have sat down with 50 activists who talked about the same kind of direct action and the threat of Islam,” Goodwin says.
“So if Breivik was to implant himself in the British far-right or if there was a British equivalent, there’s no doubt the groups over here offer a climate for people like him and the frames to justify acts of violence.”
According to Goodwin, the internet and its seething miasma of hard-right proselytisation is a crucial factor in establishing these so-called frames – the fundamentals men like Breivik embrace, the prism through which they come to see the world.
“The internet enables the far-right to offer their view, their diagnosis with what’s wrong with the country, without interference from other media. It’s a process called ‘narrowcasting’, where people no longer tune in to BBC or CNN – they begin to get all their information from one forum, one source.
“These sites, like The Brussels Journal or the Gates Of Vienna, bring like-minded people together to exchange ideas and exchange tactics. The far-right has been one of the quickest movements to realise the potential of the internet.”
The robustness of this online community, broiling away in the corners of cyberspace, bolsters Goodwin’s conviction that, with or without the BNP, the sun is unlikely to set on these far-right groups any time soon; not unless governments can engage and ameliorate the grievances of those drawn to the right-wing fringe.
“I think the far-right will basically go in two directions,” Goodwin says. “You’ll have the organised parties who try to influence policy, but you’ll also have these groups, movements, lone wolves, who reject the ballot box, who come to the conclusion that the political parties haven’t made any progress. Where do those activists go? Do they just withdraw or do they adopt a more confrontational approach?”
Thanks to Greg for the heads-up