TWENTY years ago, Nick Griffin told his comrades in the British National Party that they needed a strong, disciplined organisation to back up its slogan, “Defend Rights for Whites”, with “well directed boots and fists”.
In this book, Daniel Trilling traces one of the greatest, and most ephemeral, success stories in recent British political history, as Griffin’s “bloody nasty people” attempted to gain electoral respectability while retaining their roots among the pond-life of the fascist right.
The BNP’s triumph in a council by-election on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 proved to be more than a “nasty local difficulty”, as they tapped into “indigenous” resentment against Asian immigrants, notably in the council housing queue, and disillusionment with the main parties, starting with Labour.
The results of the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, pointing to endemic racism among the “most tolerant nation on earth”, then the Burnley riots and revelations about Asian men grooming white girls for sex, only fuelled fears of the British becoming a “mongrel race”, corrupted by multiculturalism, international finance and neo-marxist egalitarianism.
At the same time, Griffin broke with the jackbooted “march to power” favoured by John Tyndall, the “Führer of Notting Hill”, and, taking his cue from the charismatic and sinister Jean-Marie Le Pen, strove to turn the BNP into a mean electoral machine. Putting aside a sordid past of paramilitary summer camps, flirtation with the “anti-Zionist” Gaddafi, and enthusiasm for SS pagan rituals, he told supporters: “forget about the ideas and think about selling them.”
In this he was helped by the mainstream. Just as Enoch Powell’s prophecies of “rivers of blood”, and his subsequent ejection from Edward Heath’s Shadow Cabinet, opened a space for the National Front, so the BNP’s fears and prejudices were echoed in respectable places.
It was the Daily Telegraph which led the charge against post-Lawrence accusations of institutionalised racism in the police, while that guardian of white working-class rectitude, Tony Parsons, could write in the Mirror that “the rash of baby-toting Romanian beggars rubs the nation up the wrong way”.
After the 2011 riots, eminent historian David Starkey opined that “the whites have become black”. Trilling shows how New Labour and Conservative attempts to triangulate and capture the high ground on the issue of immigration and asylum seekers only helped the far right.
In 2009, Gordon Brown may have campaigned for “British jobs for British workers”, but it did not prevent the BNP, the self-proclaimed “Labour Party your parents voted for”, entering the European Parliament and continuing a series of electoral breakthroughs that Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts could only have dream of.
For all that, Griffin followed his hapless fascist predecessors in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. On BBC’s Question Time, the leader was rambling and incoherent, strangely smirking at mention of the Holocaust. He showed none of the frightening aplomb of Jean-Marie Le Pen, or his daughter Marine: if today the French National Front enjoys nearly 20% of the vote, Griffin’s BNP is a pale shadow of its recent self, torn apart by personal enmities and financial chaos.
It is one of the many merits of Trilling’s book, however, that he punctures any complacency about the threat of the extreme right in Britain.
The general election of 2010 saw Griffin fail spectacularly in his attempt to unseat Margaret Hodge in Barking, but overall the BNP vote increased. The English Defence League, and its Welsh and Scottish offshoots, have occupied the space left by Griffin, articulating a new adrenalin-pumping street politics directed against a religion, Islam, rather than a race: it is bigotry for the Mo Farah age.
Trilling concludes his survey in an East End pub, whose doors are locked as police escort EDL demonstrators outside. A rather earnest attempt to spark a discussion on racism only makes a drinker proudly boast her “Huguenot roots” and rant about “Pakis” who “don’t work”. The “brown beast” is down but far from out.