A fatal blow? The latest split within the British National Party

The resignation of MEP Andrew Brons is another blow to Nick Griffin. But the future of the far-right lies elsewhere.

Yesterday, one of the two British National Party Members of the European Parliament resigned his membership of the flagging extreme right group. The resignation of Andrew Brons -a veteran and influential activist within the far right- leaves Nick Griffin as the only BNP voice in the European Parliament. More broadly, the split reduces the total number of elected BNP officials to four -a long fall from its heyday in 2009 when the party had one seat on the Greater London Assembly, two MEPs, and dozens of local councillors.

The departure of Brons was a long time coming, and will surprise few who take an active interest in Britain’s far right. The roots of the split lie in a series of personality disputes, and allegations among the grassroots that Griffin is financially and politically incompetent (or, as some claim, simply corrupt). As journalists poured over the BNP’s ‘success’ at the 2009 European elections, inside the party a growing revolt was fuelled by a feeling among some of the more astute BNP organisers that -looking toward UKIP’s 13 seats- their party should actually have done far better.  ’Perhaps this is as far as we can go with Griffin’, they began to mutter.

The subsequent failure to breakthrough in Barking and Stoke at the 2010 general election, and a series of costly legal disputes, pushed a growing number of these activists to the conclusion that the party could go no further, and that -ultimately- Griffin would never relinquish control. Some of these rebels left politics altogether. Others joined a growing number of far right competitors. The increasing significance of the latter was evident by the time of the 2012 local elections, which -excluding the BNP- were fought by a total of 149 candidates from a range of other extreme and radical right-wing groups, including the English Democrats, National Front, British Freedom, Democratic Nationalists, England First or the British People’s Party. While these parties vary in terms of their ideology and history, most are united in their opposition to Griffin.

Of course, this internal warfare is nothing new. Historically, Britain’s far right has long failed to cultivate the internal unity and discipline that have come to characterise some of its far more successful cousins on the continent. Factionalism is the perennial Achilles heel of the British far right. Similarly, even from 2001, and as its electoral fortunes improved, the BNP exhibited an ongoing tendency to implode: a revolt from activists loyal to its expelled founder, John Tyndall; a rebellion from activists who bemoaned the lack of financial transparency; and then a revolt from the so-called ‘December rebels’ who voiced dissatisfaction over the party’s growing debt and Griffin’s dictatorial style of leadership. Each of these challenges failed, as Griffin’s stubborn persistence became one of the defining features of the British far right. Indeed, for this reason alone Brons’ resignation is unlikely to enact the fatal blow to Griffin, who though embattled will not simply abandon forty years of work on what many within the movement describe simply as “the cause”.

Electorally, however, Griffin is unlikely to retain his seat in the North West region at the 2014 European elections. This owes less to infighting than to the conclusion reached by most voters that his party is simply not a credible or legitimate alternative, despite their concerns over core far right issues. His only hope lies in stubbornly persistent economic stagnation, and evidence that the far right has reaped some electoral benefits from the financial crisis. At the 2010 general election, the BNP polled strongest in constituencies that experienced the largest increases in unemployment rates since 2005. Add to this the prospect of further local service cuts, ongoing public concerns over immigration and asylum, and anxieties in northern towns over the ‘grooming’ or child exploitation issue, and there emerge clear opportunities for the only far right movement in Britain that can realistically claim to be a household name. In other words, while it is unlikely that the thirty-year old BNP will save its last remaining seat in the European Parliament, it is far too early to write off the prospect.

Yet, seen from another angle nor does it really matter whether or not Griffin retains the seat. Since 2010, the BNP has been ramping up its involvement in non-electoral activities, partly as an attempt to flirt with disgruntled factions of the English Defence League, but also because of Griffin’s own ideas about how to sustain a far right movement. Think-tanks and academics like to interpret the relative health of far right parties simply by counting their number of votes. But far right parties like the BNP are also social movements, which view electioneering simply as one of several strategies available to them. Just as important as the quest for votes is sustaining a loyal band of true believers – through the good times, and the bad.

For veteran activists like Griffin, sustaining the ideology and ‘passing over the torch’ to future generations is paramount. And this is where the significance of more recent groups like the English Defence League comes into play: though often reduced to a public order issue, or the ramblings of Tommy Robinson on Twitter, the key point about groups like the EDL is that they have radicalised somewhere in the region of 1,000-3,000 young, working class men into the orbit of far right and counter-Jihad politics. In many respects, these supporters form a stronger foundation for a far right movement than those  who were active in the 1960s and 1970s: they are more likely than average to have experienced unemployment; are economically insecure; pessimistic about their prospects; have already given up on mainstream party politics; and are concerned not simply about Islam but a broader cluster of immigration-related issues. Judging from his recent overtures, it is these young angry white men who veteran activists like Griffin see as the future ideologues of the British far right.

This post originally appeared on Extremis Project.

 

Former British National Party MEP Andrew Brons with BNP leader Nick Griffin in June 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.

Extremis Project is a body dedicated to researching extremism and terrorism.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.