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?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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