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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad