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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.