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.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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