NICK Griffin foresaw homegrown Islamic terrorists. He even predicted that the aftershock from a cataclysmic implosion of American capitalism would ripple through the world like a financial tsunami, spreading hardship into every corner of the globe. But never in the BNP leader's most fevered imaginings could he have envisaged a domestic crisis of democracy so profound that it would propel his reviled fringe party to centre stage in the forthcoming local and Euro elections.
The confluence of the war on terror, the credit crunch and the public's incandescent rage at the expenses scandal which has debased parliament has produced a perfect storm of fear and loathing that has provided fertile ground for far-right politics. The BNP will not match Oswald Mosley's New Party, which won 16 per cent of the vote in 1931, but with 465 candidates in the English county council elections, compared with 39 five years ago, the mainstream parties fear they will make the most significant strides in the post-war era.
There's heady talk of firsts: of returning up to six MEPs, of the party winning its first county council seats. Griffin is convinced his promised land is within sight. He knows the voters are sick of the establishment and are looking for an alternative, and no party is further removed from the mainstream than the BNP.
"In terms of voter sentiments, there has probably never been a better time for the BNP," says the party's leader. "The only thing that comes close is the immediate aftermath of 7/7. This is our time."
What Griffin means is that this is his time. He's been working towards this breakthrough since he was a spotty 15-year-old public schoolboy who was taken along to a National Front meeting by a Tory father disillusioned with the country's leftward lurch.
It's interesting to see this would-be prime minister at such close quarters. Like Gordon Brown he has a glass eye, although he didn't lose his on the rugby pitch but instead when a shotgun cartridge exploded in his face 20 years ago in France in unexplained circumstances. Griffin does have a sporting pedigree of sorts, though, winning a boxing blue for Cambridge, but he isn't physically menacing and it would be a surprise if he won the bout.
He talks in a muted monotone, deliberately removing any hint of emotion from his voice; it's a bit like your teacher explaining why your essay wasn't quite up to scratch, only taking ages to do it. His academic delivery sets him apart from his predecessor at the BNP, the fiery orator John Tyndall, and you sense that self-confidence is not his strong suit. At one stage he talks about how if the party had a more Aryan leader "who's 6ft 2in and whose two eyes are blue … then they'd probably take the party further on".
His reactions are also fascinating: he expects aggression and reacts with relief when he doesn't get it, which is why he does well while canvassing. He doesn't have the presence of the genuine political superstar but his instinctive reaction is to lean in and listen respectfully, before replying in his measured estuary English. He manages to make bold predictions without sounding particularly bombastic or patronising, a rare skill.
A suspicion that those predictions may be more than self-serving hyperbole began to dawn when I accompanied him onto the streets of Carlisle last Monday. Just a few miles from the border, the Cumbrian town doesn't have a significant immigrant problem. It does, however, have a bad case of disaffection.
Where once Griffin and his party canvassers would have been chased from their stall in the town's grey, pedestrianised shopping centre, this week the reactions that confronted Griffin varied from disinterest to enthusiastic engagement. Roughly 80 per cent of people took their fliers, with a quarter of them stopping to talk. Each of the voters who engaged with Griffin said afterwards that they were actively contemplating voting for him.
"My interest stems from the fact that the indigenous people of this country are treated far worse than anyone else," said a pensioner who cheerfully gave her name as Eileen but declined to add her surname. "I don't have anything against anyone of a different colour or creed but charity begins at home. It's ridiculous that people are coming here and sponging off our social services, and getting things ahead of people who've worked hard all their lives. I think it's got to stop. I've had enough.
"The BNP are the party that will best represent me; I don't want to be European, I'm proud to be British and what it stands for. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be multicultural and I don't want to be. We're not even consulted, we're just expected to take what's given. The BNP's the only party that's going to keep us British and I know a lot of people who think that way too. I don't think they'll win here but I think it'll be close. The British people have completely lost faith in the main parties."
Even angrier was James, a married freight train driver in his thirties whose sense of dislocation from the political classes was palpable. "I'm interested in the BNP because they're upsetting people who've been upsetting me for a bloody long time and because they're outside the mainstream," he said. "I've long held views about politicians which have recently become quite fashionable; it's like the whole nation's woken up. That's why I am, for the first time, considering voting for the BNP."
Pensioner Linda Smith is another convert. "The government have really shown their true colours, I felt the same even before the expenses because they're all busy doing for themselves," she says. "This will be my first time voting for the BNP, I'm usually a Conservative voter. Lots of my friends are going to vote for them and I think they'll do very, very well."
Nor was it just the retired and the unemployed who stopped to chew the cud. My unscientific snapshot of those stopping to engage with the BNP included several conspicuously well-groomed, professional, middle-aged women. There was the odd crazy, such as a tattooed 42-year-old who looked as likely to dispense a kicking as trade in political debate, but the abiding impression was of the sheer ordinariness of those planning to vote for a party widely regarded as the National Front in its Sunday best.
Griffin's local acolytes were a surprisingly run-of-the-mill bunch too. Apart from the barrel-chested, gargantuan gym rat who dropped the Great Leader at our rendezvous and quickly disappeared, you could not wish to meet a more ordinary bunch. North-west regional organiser Clive Jefferson is a middle-aged former electrician who walks with the aid of a stick after a car crash smashed his hip five years ago, and he's with an affable chain-smoking Londoner who moved to the north-west to retire and met Jefferson in a pub. The stall in the town centre is manned by statuesque 17-year-old activist Natasha Elliman, whose quiet, respectful manner plays well with the public. Elliman has been in the party for four years and has never seen it doing so well.
Jefferson talks excitedly of the public anger: normally there would be Tory and Labour canvassers over the town like a rash, he says, but they have faced such a level of intimidation and ire from voters that the main parties have withdrawn to leave the ground to the BNP. In Carlisle alone, the BNP has 17 candidates knocking on every door, with an unprecedented 42 candidates in Cumbria. Across the north-west there are 26 "active units" of between 10 and 30 core activists, most swollen to twice that number by casual members.
Nor are they there to make up the numbers. The party believes it can make significant gains, particularly in the north-west, Midlands and East Anglia, while areas such as Merseyside and Cumbria, which five years ago returned the lowest average vote for the BNP, are now seen as hotspots. Jefferson says that nearby Whitehaven is "fizzing" and highlights the case of Kells & Sandwith, one of the safest Labour County Council seats in the country. In 2005, Labour won it with 65.8 per cent of the vote; when a by-election took place last December, on a much-reduced turnout they held it by 16 votes from the BNP, who were contesting the seat for the first time. The BNP attracted support from the overwhelmingly Conservative voters in the pretty little town of Sandwith, and in even greater numbers from the Labour stronghold of Kells, the big estate around Cumbria's last remaining pit.
This time around, the BNP believe that a schizophrenic mix of voter apathy and anger will deliver them one of Labour's prize seats. In a seat that is 97.7 per cent white, alienation from mainstream politics is as much an issue as immigration, with Griffin asserting that canvassers have seen a 25 per cent upswing in support for the BNP on Carlisle doorsteps within a fortnight as the expenses row rages.
Neither of the main political parties have yet managed to devise a means of effectively combating the rise of the BNP. Labour have demonised the BNP and the Tories have ignored them in the hope they'll go away, but neither approach seems to be working. If Griffin is to be believed, the BNP are on the cusp of making the transition from a single-issue party or protest vote to a fully fledged alternative for disillusioned voters.
"We're not just a protest vote. We may have been so once, but not now," he says. "Across large bits of the country ours is a solid vote. We've got a couple of seats – Burnley was the first one – where we've taken and then defended all three seats in a ward, which is a community vote."
Griffin, who studied law and history at Cambridge, might seem shallow but he knows his history. He says he studied how the SNP went from a disorganised, single-issue fringe party to governing Scotland. Even more instructive has been the leader of France's far-right National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who "turned a bunch of crazies into a serious political force". Griffin envisages a two-stage process: drop the extreme views so that you're electable; once elected, prove that you can govern and expand slowly and sustainably.
The BNP, which plans to fight every seat on mainland Britain at the next election, now has the infrastructure to win seats. It has 14,000 members, up from 1,300 a decade ago, and Griffin claims that 200 new members a day are signing up, providing the funds to expand its operations. In 2007, the independent web monitoring company Hitwise said the BNP's website had more hits than all the other political parties combined.
Yet Griffin knows it will be a long haul. "There's no doubt we still have an image problem," he says, which is why he insists all party members wear a jacket and tie when canvassing. "The skinhead/thug stereotype puts off a lot of middle-class people, but we know if we can get them to look more closely at what we stand for then they tend to agree with us. The truth is that we have changed fundamentally. I can understand someone from our opposition thinking it's all window dressing, but no party can keep up a charade."
Griffin says his own views have changed from the days when he attended his first National Front meeting as a 15-year-old, and from his 1998 conviction for incitement to racial hatred for publishing material that denied the Holocaust. "My views were immature when I was younger, everybody's are," he says. "You mature as you grow older and you begin to see shades of grey where once there was only black and white."
Opposition to the multiculturalism which he says has been forced upon us by the "liberal elite" is still his lodestar, and he remains an unrepentant opponent of asylum and an enthusiastic advocate of repatriation, even if "we talk about resettlement grants" these days. His plan is to spend Britain's foreign aid budget of 9bn per year incentivising immigrants to return to their country of ethnic origin.
He is, he stresses, no longer a Holocaust denier. In fact, he says he supports Israel's right to flatten Gaza should it decide to, and points out that the party has a Jewish councillor in Epping Forest.
Mind you, who needs Jews to hate when you've got Muslims to hand? And Griffin really hates Muslims. The longer our interview lasts – we spent over an hour talking – the more difficult it becomes for Griffin to hide his real beliefs. Apropos of nothing, he begins to talk about Muslims in the same terms that the Nazis once talked about Jews.
"I'm not an Islamaphobe, because a phobia is an irrational fear, and my fear of Islam is not irrational at all," he says.
At which point he goes off on a vile ramble so close to an incitement to racial hatred that for legal reasons it can't be repeated here. In his mind Muslim men are targeting underage white girls with the aim of breeding white Britons into a minority in their own country. If Griffin is to be believed there's "an epidemic of grooming in every single town where there is a significant Muslim population".
I am, momentarily, stunned. Is this, I ask him, going on where I live? Is this a feature of life in Scotland?
"I have no firm evidence that this is happening in Scotland, but I know that if any young Scottish kid in Glasgow has an altercation with a Muslim he'll be warned "f*** off or you'll be Criptoed" because Criptoe was the nickname for Kriss Donald. So they're saying 'if you stand up to us we'll do to you what we did to Kriss Donald. When there's that level of racist violence directed against young Scottish lads, I would be very surprised if the flipside of that, which is sexual abuse directed against young women, wasn't there."
At least Griffin has a solution. Any Muslim "caught indulging in specific crimes" would be told "it's either go back to Pakistan or be hanged". Any of the 100,000 Muslims who "openly support the aims of the jihadists … should be booted out of the country and their assets should be handed over to Gurkha families". This would be a good thing, he says, as most of the assets would be curry houses and "the Gurkhas make far better curries". Griffin knows about curries; his favourite meal is a korma.
For all the obfuscation and talk of change, it's clear that Griffin's BNP remains essentially a single-issue party based around race and immigration. Scots will soon be able to see this at close quarters, because Griffin has plans for Caledonia.
"We've got a small and quite well-organised team of people in Scotland, but there's a mismatch between a great deal of soft public sympathy and the number of votes," says Griffin. "There was a by-election in Glasgow a few months ago, and eight or nine years ago BNP people couldn't even have canvassed around there, they'd have been chased from the streets. Now they go out and knock doors and talk to people, and everybody's polite, most people are interested, and a significant minority are sympathetic, but it's not translating into votes at present.
"That's the process we've seen elsewhere, but it's complicated by the SNP, which is still the party of protest against the liberal elite and the establishment. That will change, but for the time being we're just getting ourselves organised and all we're after is for our share of the vote, which was 2.3 per cent last time, to go up to 2.5 per cent, because that's the point at which we save our deposit.
"We've had a lot of enquiries this time from Scotland, especially in the last few days after our leaflet went out. Last time we had a handful of enquiries, six if my memory serves me right, and three of them were Englishmen living in Scotland, and one was from a lunatic. This time we've got hundreds of enquiries, and that will translate into votes. What is sure is that we will have our highest vote ever in Scotland, and will have enough Scottish organisers in place to be in a position to fight every seat in the country at the next general election.
"The Glasgow conurbation will be the springboard, and if our maths are right, it's perfectly feasible for us to be serious challengers for a Scottish parliamentary seat in the greater Glasgow constituency in the next parliamentary elections in a couple of years' time. We've got to triple our vote but from the low base we were on there, from our greater organisational sophistication and from the feel of the times, tripling our vote over four years is entirely doable."
And entirely disturbing for genuine democrats.