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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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