For England and St George: the English Democrats' voter base has disintegrated. Photo: Getty
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Whatever happened to the English Democrats?

Peter Davis’s election as mayor of Doncaster remains the far-right fringe party’s biggest achievement.

In June 2009, shortly after public regard for politicians following the MPs’ expenses scandal reached its nadir, Peter Davies was elected mayor of Doncaster. As he had run on a hard-right manifesto that promised tough punishments for “young thugs”, to cut translation services and “PC jobs” and to slash council funding for Doncaster’s annual LGBT Pride event, his tenure as mayor began to unravel only a few days after the election when he gave a car-crash interview to BBC Radio Sheffield. Under gentle quizzing from the station’s presenter Toby Foster, it emerged that Davies had not bothered to find out if he could legally fulfil his pledges.

Foster: OK, now you’re going to cut the number of councillors from 60 to 20 . . .

Davies: Well – we can appeal to their moral consciences.

Foster: You can’t do it, can you?

Davies: Look, you keep telling me what I can’t do. I’ll find out what I can’t do and if I can’t do it, I will tell . . .

Foster: You are finding out now; I’m telling you, Peter, you can’t do it. You’d have thought you [should have] thought of this before you started.

Davies was a member of the English Democrats – a fringe party that campaigns for an elected English parliament, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and an end to “mass immigration” – and to date, his election remains their greatest achievement. Despite widespread anti-immigration sentiment, disaffection with the mainstream parties and the rise in numbers identifying as English rather than British, the party has fared poorly in local elections and received a derisory 0.17 per cent at the 2013 Eastleigh by-election.

There is one obvious reason for this lack of success: Ukip. As the political scientist Matthew Goodwin, the co-author of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, explains, there is “no question” that Nigel Farage’s party has “hampered the progress of other radical-right movements that also target English nationalism as a recruiter of votes”.

Ukip’s support is certainly strongest in England, yet the party explicitly defines itself as British and is staunchly unionist when it comes to the UK’s member nations. Does that show there’s no appetite for English nationalism? “English identity is growing,” says Sunder Katwala of the think tank British Future, but he argues that it is usually more concerned with cultural recognition than with political representation for the English.

That desire for “cultural recognition” plays a role in votes for right-wing nationalist parties, whether they identify as British or English – a collection of “real and imagined” grievances memorably summarised by the Tory pollster Michael Ashcroft: “Schools . . . can’t hold Nativity plays . . . you can’t fly a flag of Saint George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more . . . you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist.”

With such grievances as a driving force, support for the parties can be volatile – just look at the British National Party, which five years ago was the main beneficiary of this discontent yet whose support has since drained away. It’s a lesson some of its more capable activists took to heart. After the collapse of their party following its terrible performance in the 2010 general election, they were looking around for a new home – and alighted on the English Democrats. Among them was Eddy Butler, who had been a senior member of the BNP since the 1980s, when the party did not try to hide its neo-Nazism, and who masterminded its by-election victory on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 off the back of a “Rights for Whites” campaign.

Although the English Democrats, founded in 2002 by Robin Tilbrook, a solicitor, is not fascist in origin and describes itself as “civic” (as opposed to ethnic) nationalist, its openness to former BNP members has led the anti-fascist campaign organisation Hope not Hate to list it as a “hate group”. Present and past members of the party have links with the Stop Islamisation of Europe protest group and a former BNP organiser, Chris Beverley, is a prospective lead candidate for the English Democrats in the 22 May elections for the European Parliament.

And what of Peter Davies? Shortly before he was booted out of office in 2013, he quit the English Democrats, complaining about “members of the BNP . . . being hoovered up by the party leadership”. But the boundaries between reactionaries and something more extreme are often porous – which is why it’s worth keeping an eye on the hard right, even when its most prominent activities seem to be run so incompetently.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Leader: Europe and the long shadow of war

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place: the two great wars in the first half of the 20th century.

Amid all the claims and counterclaims about David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is often forgotten, or conveniently ignored, just how successful the European project has been in helping to create and maintain the post-Second World War peace order.

We support continued British membership of the EU but are sceptical of the imperial ambitions of the European elites. We opposed British membership of the single currency, a decision that the eurozone crisis has vindicated. It is obvious that the Schengen Agreement is unravelling and in all likelihood is unsustainable, as embattled nation states reimpose emergency border controls and the continent grapples with its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Like the British government, we are opposed to further political and economic integration and to the creation of a federal or quasi-federal superstate.

However, at a time of profound instability in the world, we accept that it would be foolish for the United Kingdom to retreat from our various multilateral peace alliances – whether that be membership of the EU or, indeed, Nato (as some on the left would wish) – all of which involve some kind of surrender of sovereignty.

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place. The two great wars in the first half of the 20th century racked the continent, with neighbouring armies slaughtering each other on a scale that still defies comprehension. As Alistair Horne writes on page 22, “the most atrocious battle in history” began a century ago next week in Verdun, France, on the Western Front. The German army hoped to lure the enemy into a trap and then “bleed the French army white” using its superior firepower. Yet the rivers of blood flowed both ways: in ten months, over 25 square miles, pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas, 300,000 French and German soldiers died.

The lessons of the battle were not quickly learned – the carnage of the Second World War was still to come – yet ultimately they were. In 1963, France’s Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded at Verdun, signed a treaty with the then German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, binding two countries that had engaged for centuries in tit-for-tat wars in an enduring nexus of co-operation. The aim, as David Reynolds notes in his article on page 28, was “to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism”.

Two decades later, President François Mitterrand, who fought near Verdun in 1940, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose father served there in 1916, attended a commemoration ceremony at one of the battle sites. In what became an iconic image of reconciliation at the heart of Europe, Mitterrand impulsively gripped Kohl’s hand during their national anthems. The two men were later the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union under its current name.

These are troubling times for Europe. Confidence and optimism are low. The wars in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic State, Russian revanchism and financial and economic turbulence have dented the morale of even the most committed liberal Europhiles. In addition, the EU seems unable or unwilling to control or police its borders, just as it has been unable to bring an end to the crisis in the eurozone. Nor is it any closer to forging a common foreign policy, let alone forming a common European army that might be necessary in future years to patrol the outer edges of the continent.

“Unless the EU can find solutions to the problems Europe is facing that are acceptable to its members . . . the Union will be on a glide path to collapse,” wrote the historians Brendan Simms and Timothy Less in a recent issue of the New Statesman. And yet, for all its flaws and present difficulties, the EU remains a force for stability in the world. It embodies the liberal, rules-based order without which barbarism and war are never far away, as the centenary of the Battle of Verdun so poignantly reminds us. 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle