Nick Griffin campaigns in Wythenshawe Shopping Centre on February 13, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The strange death of British fascism

The demise of the BNP is an important achievement which tells us something positive about mainstream civic society and politics in Britain.

It was a strange death for electoral fascism in British politics. When the end came, it was not with a bang, but a whimper. The BNP lost its two seats in the European Parliament. It barely put up a campaign to defend them. Its 1 per cent of the national vote confirms its political bankruptcy. The loss of EU funding will see its national organisation collapse, and quite probably confirm its financial bankruptcy too. There are good reasons to believe that we shall never see its like again. This is the end of the road for the fascist tradition as an electoral force in British national politics.

The BNP failed because it decisively lost the argument about who counts as British. This would-be patriotic party never understood our national identity at all. Ipsos-Mori found that victory in the second world war is the top source of British pride: quite a problem for a political movement so deeply torn about which side it was on.

The BNP tried to speak to the anxieties of older Britons. But they peaked with the over-55s, and failed to win similar support among the over-65s. Pride in the wartime victory over fascism meant those unsettled by change could never see the BNP as a legitimate vehicle. Nick Griffin's rather too nuanced denials - "they called me a Nazi; I was never a Hitlerite Nazi" - never convinced anybody.

The BNP problem with younger Britons went much deeper. Racism in Britain has simply collapsed among younger generations, which is why reports of its rise are much exaggerated. Those who grew up in a more diverse Britain are most comfortable with it. The BNP also failed because people came out to oppose it. From Cable Street in the 1930s to the anti-NF activity of the 1970s, to the campaign against its bid to establish a power base in Barking in the last decade, the opponents of fascism have always persuaded the British public that the politics of hatred don't have any answers.

The BNP's collapse brings to a close this long history of failure. British Fascism in the 1930s had a charismatic leader with senior political experience, a talent for violent confrontation, and some influential media  champions. But it never had any voters. The sole electoral success of Mosley's British Union of Fascists was the election of a solitary Suffolk councillor in1938. 

The 1970s menace of the National Front remains an important part of the cultural memory of Britain's ethnic minorities. It had 15,000 members and a strategy of "kicking its way into the headlines". It was a violent menace, but an utter political failure. It was humiliated by losing its deposit on 538 of the 539 occasions it offered the voters the chance to elect an NF MP. The BNP was, against this rather weak competition, easily the most successful far-right project. It is now reduced to two councillors and a few local branches of activists. It was right that its few electoral breakthroughs raised the alarm and sparked widespread concern. We shouldn't fail to mark its failure too.

The BNP failed because, whenever given a platform, it repelled most people in Britain. Nick Griffin on Question Time did so very publicly. Campaign groups, trade unions and activists across political parties set out an alternative to the BNP, which brought disaffected voters in Burnley, Oldham and Barking back into a connection with political parties who realised they needed to become active in communities again.

After the political death of the BNP, several dangers remain. There will still be neo-fascist street activity - and quite possibly a risk of more violence. Past history suggests that Nick Griffin's failure will see a proliferation of breakaway groups: the far-right has always been prone to paying unwitting tribute Monty Python's Life of Brian with its fear and loathing among miniscule "splitter" factions.

That the far-right says it is no longer interested in electoral strategies. Indeed rejecting the ballot box looks rational, when the voting public have shown so little interest in their ideology. But those few hundred BNP and EDL activists who continue marching may well now prove more dangerous as individuals, having seen their political projects fail.

The demise of the BNP is an important achievement which tells us something positive about mainstream civic society and politics in Britain. It offers an important symbol of how, even in anxious times, the vast majority of people will rally to a call to protect the anti-prejudice norms of British society, and to reject the politics of racism and hatred.

Undoubtedly, the problems of racism and prejudice, and of anxiety about immigration and integration, have not gone away entirely. Those are conversations that we need to have. That fascists had nothing useful to contribute to them is beyond reasonable doubt. Good riddance. Rest in Peace.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser