For the Bane and the Enlightening
By Max Dunbar.
New British Fascism: Rise of the British National Party, Matthew J Goodwin, Routledge 2011
Fascism tends to rise in landscapes of poverty, but Britain in the 2000s seemed to defy that generalisation. The new millennium held the promise of self-actualisation, that people would be free to transcend the old poisons of nation and race that had got so many of us killed during the preceding hundred years. We had an economic boom, accelerated technology, redistribution of wealth, the potential of the world opening up before us – and yet the national psyche yearned for the old certainties of blood, soil, faith and flag.
Throughout the 2000s there grew a new enthusiasm for religion among the educated classes, and support for Islamism on the left. New Age philosophies, alternative medicines, organic food and woo mythologies enjoyed a resurgence, and newspapers filled up with travelogues and thinkpieces on the flight from cities and the personal search for the authentic. Politicians gained votes with communitarian rhetoric, culminating in the Cameron/Hilton Big Society idea. Times change and we change with them – but, again, we do things differently here.
Soon, a narrative of Great Decline took hold. England had fallen from grace, our leaders told us; we’d lost our identity, compromised great institutions, sold our very souls. Shrieks about binge-drinking filled our newspapers and debating chambers: wails about reality TV. Religious figures, that in any sane civilisation should have lost the rights to be taken seriously, were given media platforms and government money for their apocalyptic platitudes. The culture of misery went right into the heart of government. Even the recent riots were fed into the narrative of the Fall, with David Cameron saying that the disorder was a signal of our ‘slow-motion moral collapse’ – the time-honoured disguise and borrowed language of Broken Britain.
In my view, the rise of the BNP has to be seen in this context. The far right, of course, has been predicting a Great Decline ever since Enoch Powell’s famous speech. If you read the whole thing, it’s interesting to see how many of today’s conspiracy theories are contained there. Powell quotes a constituent who tells him that ‘In this country in fifteen or twenty years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.’ BNP members today believe that UK native whites will be a minority by 2050. The idea that ‘we can’t talk about immigration’ is expressed by Powell when he speaks of ‘the high proportion of ordinary, decent, sensible people, writing a rational and often well-educated letter, who believed that they had to omit their address because it was dangerous to have committed themselves to paper to a Member of Parliament agreeing with the views I had expressed, and that they would risk penalties or reprisals if they were known to have done so.’ The complaint that minorities use equality legislation to gain the upper hand is illustrated in Powell’s story of a struggling English landlady who ‘is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. ‘Racialist,’; they chant.’
In the last ten years the following far right conspiracy theories have seeped into the mainstream: that the government and media are controlled by a liberal elite that promotes state multiculturalism; that they censor debate through a form of censorship called ‘political correctness’; and that native Britons are discriminated against in favour of immigrants and minorities. None of these claims bear any relation to reality, but are disseminated in mainstream newspapers, and believed by large swathes of the public. After decades of neglect and obscurity the British National Party elected scores of councillors, and seats in the London Assembly and European Parliament. Conditions for the plague bacillus did not seem so hostile after all.
So why did people vote BNP? Immigration of course played a part. Matthew Goodwin has the stats on the migration boom: ‘around 2.5 million foreign-born people were added to the population following the election of New Labour in 1997.’ For all his rhetoric of modernity and the open world, Tony Blair fought the free movement of labour harder than any Conservative. Serco thugs kicked in families’ front doors at 5am, asylum seekers were forced to subside on breadline vouchers and church donations, and there was the mass detention of immigrants, including children. But Blair was running up a down escalator, changes in international law and trade agreements meant he might as well have tried to reverse the orbit of the moon. The makeup of whole areas was transformed, and in those circumstances it’s natural to feel a little disorientated, even resentful. Goodwin cites the phenomenon of ‘superdiversity’ with over a hundred languages spoken in the playgrounds of local schools. Still, apart from a few flare-ups, the End of Days that Powell predicted (and that his supporters still predict) never happened.
The party also had a canny operator in Nick Griffin. To an audience of Texan fascists he revealed his strategy: ‘Perhaps, one day, once, by being rather more subtle, we’ve got ourselves in a position where we control the British broadcast media; then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say ‘yes, every last one must go’. Until that day, though, the party had to focus on ‘saleable ideas’ and ‘saleable words… freedom, security, identity, democracy. No one can criticise them.’ Conclusion: ‘instead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity’. To this end Griffin developed a raft of populist front policies and community-based campaigns – kind of a Big Volk. Craniometics and Holocaust denial were out: litter picks and village barbecues were in.
Goodwin devotes his second half to interviews with BNP members and supporters. I don’t see the value in this outreach work (apparently his research found that ‘BNP voters were more likely than other citizens to endorse the more openly racist and discriminatory ideas’. Who’d have thought it? ) but in Goodwin’s hands the process at least is interesting. I don’t doubt his assertion that ‘few of the BNP members who were interviewed in this study conformed to the popular stereotypes of them as being irrational and uninformed crude racists.’ One BNP member said that while he had no problem with people seeking political asylum, ‘a lot of the people that come to this country are doing it for economic reasons and, consequently, the impact on our workforce, and our own social services, our health service, they’re suffering because of that.’ Another quotes the ‘minority by 2050’ idea we’ve already mentioned and insists that ‘it’s Britain for the British and there’s too many coloured people coming into the country.’ It’s hard to see what would make these people satisfied, or even if there’s a point in trying.
Yet the BNP’s success was in large part an illusion. The BNP vote actually went down in 2009. Griffin became an MEP purely by getting the biggest slice of a shrunken market. Overreach, delusions and infighting led to financial meltdown and humiliation in the general election of 2010. The plague bacillus mutated into the racist totalitarian street movement of the English Defence League. Griffin had not detoxified the brand as much as he’d thought. In 2006 YouGov presented voters with a range of silo nation policies on immigration. ‘Two groups of voters were asked their views,’ Goodwin writes, ‘but only one group was informed they were the policies of the BNP.’ There was a high level of support for the ‘blind’ policies, but this went through the floor when these policies were explicitly associated with the BNP.
Why is it that British fascism has never got off the ground electorally like so many of its European counterparts? It’s not that there’s no public support. The UK to me feels like a society dividing into two tribes, clued-up hipster liberals versus shrieking silo nation reactionaries. Goodwin calls it a failure of potential. The BNP talks endlessly about ‘identity’ but so much of our identity comes from our finest hour fighting fascism in the 1940s. ‘In short,’ Goodwin concludes, ‘history matters.’ And perhaps political apathy and disengagement isn’t such a bad thing after all. Apathy might be all that prevents a twenty-first century British Auschwitz.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 26th, 2011.