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What lies behind the spectacular collapse of the British far-right?

In the form of UKIP, the toxic extreme right has been sidelined by a more competent radical right force.

Nick Griffin takes part in a protest outside the Old Bailey in central London, on November 18, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Less than four months from now, voters across Europe will head to the polls to choose their representatives in the European Parliament. Amidst the financial crisis and falling public trust in political institutions, there is an expectation in Brussels, Paris and Berlin that the elections will deliver record success for parties that subscribe to right-wing extremist or Eurosceptic beliefs, and which are often crudely lumped together under the far-right umbrella. Much of this concern has been driven by the latest polls, which suggest that the "usual suspects" will continue their march from the margins to the mainstream.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National looks on course to treble its level of support in 2009, possibly finishing first with over 20 per cent of the vote. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ radical right Party for Freedom may also finish in the top spot, while in Austria the Freedom Party will also take over 20 per cent. Yet Greece and Hungary elicit most concern. In the latter, support for the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik is holding steady at around 14 per cent, while Golden Dawn is likely to attract at least 9 per cent, introducing the real prospect of neo-Nazi MEPs sitting in Brussels. Even if the neo-Nazi party is forcibly disbanded, they have pledged to form a new party in time for the elections (the imaginatively titled "National Dawn").

If the polls are correct, the results will inevitably dominate headlines and fuel anxiety among progressives over the enduring appeal of exclusionary campaigns in Europe. But it is not quite as worrying as the media would have us believe. Behind the pictures of Le Pen and Wilders are countries in southern Europe, which, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, have grappled with the conditions that many predicted would usher in political armageddon: rampant deprivation; a generation of unemployed youth; harsh austerity; striking inequality; and only recently entrenched democratic traditions. Yet few journalists bother to ponder why, since the crisis, the far-right has retreated or simply failed to arrive in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain, or why it has flourished in Austria and the Netherlands, which have "enjoyed" some of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. In this sense, the puzzle is not why some far-right populists have prospered amidst the crisis, but why Europe has not turned en masse to the political extremes.

This is especially true in Britain, where, despite the crisis, recession and austerity, the far-right has completely collapsed. Cast your mind back five years to February 2009. Nick Griffin and the BNP were still in the afterglow of winning a seat on the Greater London Assembly. They had dozens of councillors and a grassroots membership on its way to over 14,000. And with a parliamentary expenses scandal about to explode, they would go on to poll over 6 per cent at the European elections and capture two seats. Shortly afterwards, a small protest in Luton would spiral into the English Defence League (EDL), which for a brief moment looked set to mobilise a street army of young, disillusioned and angry working class Britons. 

But since then the far-right has haemorrhaged support. The EDL spectacularly collapsed after their leader resigned and was then imprisoned. Meanwhile, the long-awaited crisis that Griffin promised would bring his followers victory, has brought them misery. Such is the disarray that their MEP Andrew Brons has resigned the BNP whip and launched a new, anti-Griffin party. Thousands of members have walked away, leaving Griffin not only bankrupt but appearing as a lonely and increasingly comical figure whose only route into the headlines today is to express solidarity with neo-Nazis in Greece. The BNP which has dominated Britain’s far-right for some thirty years is polling just 1 per cent, and so the prospect of saving its seats is nothing more than a distant dream. For the first time since 2001, Britain may well find its elected office "BNP free".

So why – despite the crisis - has the far-right collapsed? There are three schools of thought, which each point to a different ingredient. The first is that since 2009, British public demand for ideas associated with the far-right has withered. But even a cursory glance at the data undermines this view. If anything, British voters are now even more concerned about immigration, less trusting of the political class, and more receptive to populist appeals. Even as the crisis subsides, public concerns over immigration today are stronger than at any point since 2007. In fact, immigration now shares the top spot with the economy as the most important issue in the minds of voters, and by the time we get to May it may well occupy the top spot in its own right.

A second argument is that the British far-right simply failed to capitalise on the crisis, offering a toxic brand that was "beyond the pale' for most Britons. One of my favourite opinion polls of all time (run by YouGov) asked Britons to rank the most important markers of Britishness. The most popular answer was freedom of speech. But a close second was the country’s victory over Nazi ideology, which goes some way to explaining the power of the anti-fascist norm in Britain. Unlike, say, Marine Le Pen who grasps the necessity of detoxification, the extremist amateurism of the fascist BNP and the street thuggery of the EDL alienated voters who might otherwise be receptive to the radical right agenda. There was a window of opportunity where both groups could have connected with a disillusioned, working class and left behind generation of Britons, but instead they remained dominated by figures who the historian Richard Thurlow once described as "tinpot fuhrers and sawdust caesars".

While much of this rings true, it also complements a third argument; that since 2010 the toxic extreme right in British politics has been easily outflanked by a more competent radical right force, which not only targets the same cluster of concerns over immigration, Europe, the responsiveness of elites and perceived threats to national identity, but does so in the shadow of legitimacy. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has presented the BNP with an insurmountable challenge. As Griffin's party has sought to frame Ukippers as "plastic nationalists" and "posh boys" who like the bankers, the reality (as we show in a new book) is that the more legitimate and sophisticated UKIP brand is connecting far more successfully with the same social groups who only offered the extreme right some localised and ephemeral success. UKIP is not a right-wing extremist party. Neither Farage nor his party advocate an ethnic conception of nationalism, the overthrow of liberal democracy or conspiratorial anti-Semitism (the three features that are commonly thought to define right-wing extremism). To put UKIP in the same camp as the BNP misunderstands its revolt. 

But that is not to say that this revolt is not drawing support from the same sections of British society who have been left behind by the country’s economic transformation over recent decades, were then hit hardest by the financial crisis, and today feel completely adrift from an established political class that is increasingly focused on more secure, educated and professional middle-class voters who not only share a markedly different outlook but also determine the outcome of elections. This is one (but by no means the only) reason why the rise of UKIP carries as many important questions for the left as it does the right. Under any other circumstances, these disadvantaged, left behind voters should be expected to be rallying behind Labour. So while this May we should welcome the demise of the traditional extreme right in Britain, we will again be given good reason to ask why a growing number of Britons are turning their backs on mainstream political life.

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Nottingham and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is co-author, with Robert Ford, of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, which is published in March. Readers of the New Statesman can receive 20% off pre-orders here, using the code RTR14. He tweets @GoodwinMJ

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