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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.

The demise of the BNP is an important achievement which tells us something positive about Britain.
Nick Griffin campaigns in Wythenshawe Shopping Centre on February 13, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.