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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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.