Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, poses during a press conference in the Ace of Diamonds pub in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The blighting of Burnley

How the far right gained a foothold in England – and how the political establishment failed to stop them.

On Colne Road, one of the main thoroughfares leading out of Burnley and into the surrounding Lancashire hills, sits an old library building. Its heavy grey stone exterior, a relic of municipal grandeur from Burnley’s heyday as a mill town, now houses a community centre staffed by volunteers. As I arrived there late one Thursday afternoon in the summer of 2011, it was closing for the day and a stream of people – white and Asian, young and old – filed past me on their way out. The visitors had been taking lessons in English and maths; burnishing their CVs; doing whatever they could to improve their chances in a job market where the odds were stacked against them.

“This is neutral territory,” the centre’s genial manager, Richard Chipps, told me. “Everyone feels comfortable in here.”

At first sight, it was unremarkable: an image of everyday multicultural Britain, no doubt repeated in towns and cities across the country. But here on Colne Road, which divides the predominantly Asian districts of Daneshouse and Stoneyholme from their largely white neighbours, I was watching a minor miracle. Just a few years previously, Burnley was the scene of the British National Party’s first electoral breakthroughs under Nick Griffin: the nadir of a series of events that led to the town being branded “racist capital of Britain”.

Chipps, himself a former BNP voter, was one of many Burnley residents determined never to let it happen again. “I thought, I can’t cope with another generation living through these problems,” he told me, explaining why he and Ishtiaq, a Muslim youth worker, had tried hard to make the centre a place where whites and Asians could mix. “You think about Enoch Powell and you think perhaps his timing were off – perhaps in the future what he said will happen and that it’s just going to take longer. Well, this country is too good for that, I don’t want it to happen.”

Ten years ago, Colne Road was at the centre of a riot. On the night of Friday 22 June 2001, a fight between rival drug dealers – some white, some Asian – broke out in front of a Burnley nightclub. The fighting spread up Colne Road and several cars were damaged. Later that evening, an Asian taxi driver who stopped to inspect the damaged cars was attacked with a hammer by a group of whites. Thanks to the radio network over which Burnley’s mainly Asian taxi drivers communicated, rumours that the driver had died spread quickly through the town. The following evening, a group of Asian men attacked the Duke of York pub on Colne Road; its white customers ran out on to the street with make - shift weapons, before police managed to drive the two groups apart. Over the weekend, what had begun as a turf war developed into ethnic conflict, with arson attacks on both sides.

The Burnley riot was one of a string of “disturbances”, as they are known by official euphemism, that broke out across the north of England in the spring and summer of 2001, bringing communities that had been excluded from Labour’s New Britain to national attention. In Bradford, then Oldham, then Burnley, then Bradford again, local tensions spilled over into violence between whites and Asians. All three shared the same broad patterns of economic deprivation and racism – and in all three towns the situation was made worse by the BNP and its fellow-travellers on the far right.

It was in Oldham, a satellite of Manchester, where the BNP had seen the greatest potential. As far back as 1998, Griffin had identified Oldham as a target for BNP campaigns. That year a branch was established, surprising party leaders with the rapid take-up. Above all, one issue seemed to be driving BNP support – a perception among some white residents that Asian youths were given an easier ride by police, and that certain parts of the town were “no-go” areas for whites. The grievances continued to simmer, amplified by the local press. On 3 March 2001, as complaints grew more vocal, the BNP held a Rights for Whites rally outside the police station.

In April, two months before the general election, this was turned into a live political issue when Greater Manchester Police drew public attention to an allegedly high level of assaults on whites by Asian youths in Oldham, claims that were picked up by the national press. The next day, the situation grew worse when a white pensioner named Walter Chamberlain was beaten up by a group of young Asian men in the town centre. The bruised and battered face of Chamberlain, a D-Day veteran, was pictured on the Oldham Chronicle’s front page. Now white resentment had its symbolic victim.

At this opportunity, Griffin announced he would stand for parliament in West Oldham. Clearly he would benefit if race relations worsened – and while the BNP had to be seen to distance itself from violent activity, other farright groups had no such worries. Throughout May, the National Front (a remnant of which had survived largely in England’s north-west) joined forces with Oldham-based football hooligans and Combat 18 activists and repeatedly tried to march through Asian-inhabited areas. Griffin tried to ingratiate himself with these groups but the rivalry was vicious and on 26 May he was chased out of an Oldham pub by Combat 18 activists.

That evening, the far right finally managed to provoke a riot in the Asian-inhabited area of Glodwick. As national media descended on Oldham, Griffin used the opportunity to position himself as the voice of the town’s disaffected whites. He was invited on to Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme Today, drawing strong criticism from anti-fascists for breaking the BBC’s long-standing policy of “no platform” for fascist politicians. In interviews, Griffin pushed a racist interpretation of events, advocating Northern Ireland-style “peace walls” to keep communities separate. In keeping with the BNP’s new rhetoric, he claimed it was not the Asians’ colour that was the problem, it was their culture – specifically their Muslim religion:

“[Muslims are] the biggest problem at present, for several reasons, because they have the highest birth rate, which means their communities need living space – that’s what the ethnic cleansing is about. They have political corruption in their own countries, and when they have a chance to get council places they are there for graft. Most important of all is that Islam is an aggressive religion.”

At the general election, against a background of widespread apathy (a record low turnout nationally, and down by 18 per cent in the northwest), Griffin came third with 16.4 per cent of the vote. He used the night of the count for some further posturing, appearing on the platform with a gag around his mouth and a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Gagged for Telling the Truth”. It appeared to have the desired effect. As one woman told the Times, “I voted BNP and I don’t worry who knows it. Everyone in the street voted for them. This morning I feel like someone is actually fighting for the white people of Oldham, for their rights.”

But while Griffin was busy trying to turn Oldham into the front line of a race war, the party’s candidate in Burnley – a local man with no media profile – had fared almost as well as Griffin at the general election, coming fourth, with 11 per cent of the vote.

Steven Smith lives in a modest cottage in Cliviger, a small hillside village on the outskirts of Burnley. Known locally as “Stone Wall Smith”, this former accountant runs a dry stone walling business – a skill much in demand in the pretty Lancashire countryside. He is also regarded as something of a crank: when I first called, Smith was out, walking the town centre wearing a wooden sandwich board. Immigrants, Islam, “political correctness” and the town’s Asian population are his usual targets – when I managed to contact him a few days later, he told me that his current target was a newly opened deli that had allegedly been serving halal meat without informing its customers. “He seems a lovely man, ever so polite,” one of Smith’s stone wall clients, the owner of a farmhouse near Cliviger, told me. “But then you see the vitriol of what he writes in his leaflets. You can hardly believe it’s the same person.”

When I finally tracked Smith down, he was indeed polite, turning prickly only when I asked if he considered himself a racist: “That word’s only been in circulation for the past twenty or so years and it’s just an invention of the left to stop people like me and others complaining about what’s happening in the country.”

It’s not that he denied being a racist, only that he didn’t see anything wrong with it. “You’ve got to step outside the box: a racist is basically someone that believes in preserving who and what they are, and by bringing tens of thousands if not millions of black and brown people into this country, eventually you’re going to finish up with a mongrel race of people. Now I don’t think all them boys and girls that fought in two world wars did so for that, and had they seen or known what was going to happen, I doubt very few of them would actually have gone to war.”

Smith had been a presence on Burnley’s political scene since the early 1990s, when he chained himself to the town-hall railings in protest at a twinning project with a village in Pakistan. In another town, at another time, that might have been the highlight of his political career – a bizarre headline in a local newspaper. But in 1999, he set up a branch of the BNP; in 2001 he stood as the party’s general election candidate; and in 2002 he helped three candidates win seats on the local council. The majority of Burnley’s voters may not have shared his fears about a “mongrel race”, but something in what Smith had to offer evidently touched a nerve. Visiting the town, a decade on, would I be able to find anybody who could tell me why?

After Wendy Graham, a Burnley community activist, picked me up from the station, the first thing she did was drive me out to Towneley Park, the landscaped grounds of a country house that once belonged to the local aristocratic family. The detour was meant to serve as a gentle warning to a journalist, freshly arrived from London, not to let their prejudices get the better of them. The day before I arrived, Burnley had made national headlines for boasting Britain’s cheapest house – a three-bedroom terrace that had sold at auction for £10,000. “They called Burnley a run-down former mill town,” she said. “It makes me see red. Does this look rundown to you?”

Like many others I met, Graham was fiercely proud of her town. But as we drove around the centre, it became clear that Burnley, too small and too tucked away in the Pennines to attract the glitzy, property-market-driven regeneration schemes of a city like Manchester, had not benefited from the boom years. Its crumbling textile mills sit derelict. Now in her fifties, Graham can remember the clatter of the looms, but they fell silent in the 1980s. The area in which the mills sit has been optimistically renamed the Weavers’ Triangle, but they were still waiting to be converted into shops and flats.

Burnley is one of the few towns in England with a declining population: the number of residents fell by 4.7 per cent between 2001 and 2010, to just over 85,000. It is a town marked by emigration, not immigration – and many residents feel abandoned: “You feel like you’re being kept at arm’s length,” Graham told me. “People do still have a sense of pride in the place, and the BNP appeal to people’s sentiment and nostalgia.”

The other thing the BNP appealed to was a feeling, shared by some of the town’s white residents, that “Asian” areas of the town were being favoured with what little public money there was. In 1995, a former Labour councillor named Harry Brooks, then sitting as an independent, gave an interview to the Burnley Express in which he claimed the council had been disproportionately allocating funds to Asian community groups for “political” reasons. The paper gave these claims the front page – the start of a campaign that grew throughout the late 1990s. In truth, the “Asian” areas were receiving the funding because they needed it the most, ranking among the most deprived wards in England. Daneshouse and Stoneyholme were no ghettos: some 40 per cent of the ward’s residents were white, but Brooks’s campaign racialised Burnley’s economic neglect.

Yet that “Asian” areas existed at all in Burnley was itself a legacy of racism. During the 1960s and 1970s, workers from Pakistan had been encouraged to come and prop up the region’s faltering textile industry. Because of the unsociable hours they were asked to work – often filling vacancies on the night shift – and because of local councils’ refusal to house them on the smarter white estates, these immigrants tended to settle in the most run-down parts of town, close to the mills.

When the mills finally closed in the 1980s, these communities were cut off from the economic lifeline that had enabled some of their white forebears to save money and move out to more salubrious parts. Groups of young, unemployed Asian men pooled their resources and started taxi firms or kebab shops: these small economic success stories exacerbated resentment among whites who had lacked the wherewithal to do the same. There also developed a perception that having Asian neighbours would bring down house prices.

Shahid Malik, a former Labour MP who grew up in Daneshouse, described his childhood to me as a “racist hell on earth”. He continued: “As we saw white people moving out you’d get some Asian people thinking why don’t we try to move out as well, to places like Padiham [a village on the outskirts of Burnley], but when the excrement through the letter box and the graffiti came they started to move back to the places where they felt most secure.”

At the same time, a younger, British-born generation of Asians were not as willing to put up with the racist abuse experienced by their parents. As Malik explained, “When I was growing up, the violence was one way: it was racists and it was whites on those of Asian origin. It was initiated one way, but that’s not how it ended up. And later on you did start to see some indiscriminate racist attacks on white people as well.”

A perception that crime committed by Asians was not taken as seriously bred resentment among the town’s whites. “It’s one law for them and another for us,” was how Paul, a white taxi driver, put it to me. “The police are scared to deal with them [Asians] because they’ll be called racist,” he said. “You read all this stuff in the newspapers – you see an Asian lad doing 120 down the M65 and he’ll get a sixmonth driving ban for speeding. Then the next day there’ll be a white lad who’ll get a 12-month ban for doing 80.”

According to Mike Waite, a senior council manager in charge of community cohesion, the cause of such problems was not so much political as practical: a lack of adequate training meant that council officials “had an anxiety that they would be called ‘racist’ for taking action – for example, to enforce a planning regulation, or a health and safety rule in relation to the taxi trade or a fast-food business”. Such failures only encouraged feelings of mutual suspicion between white and Asian inhabitants.

By 2000 Burnley had 11 independent councillors. Led by Harry Brooks, they formed the main opposition to a Labour Party that had long dominated local politics. This group campaigned for the council’s translation unit to be closed down, and for funding to be withdrawn from the Bangladesh Welfare Association and other Asian community groups. The effect was to racialise the whole political culture, with other parties moving to compete on the territory carved out by Brooks. In 1996, the Lib Dems were criticised for distributing false information in their campaign material about the funding of Asian voluntary groups; in 1998, the Tories criticised the council for neglecting problems such as litter and preferring instead to “spend ridiculously high amounts of money on certain areas” (my italics). Burnley Labour Party politics was shaped by this rightward drift: in 1997, there was controversy when a number of its own councillors were investigated and disciplined for putting pressure on council officers not to house Asian families in their wards. The local racial equality council had its funding withdrawn by Labour during the late 1990s.

Brooks and his independents did not stand a candidate in the 2001 general election. The BNP’s Steven Smith stepped into the gap. His tactics were crude but effective: Smith estimates, for instance, that he personally delivered 30,000 leaflets to homes before that election.

He was helped by a new national narrative that developed in the year after the riots: neither economic deprivation nor white racism was seen to be the root cause; rather it was the deficient culture of an Asian Muslim minority. This view appeared to be endorsed by some Labour MPs. In July 2001 after riots broke out in Bradford, provoked by the National Front and exacerbated by Asians’ anger at the police’s failure to protect them, the recently appointed home secretary, David Blunkett, threatened to deploy water cannon and tear gas.

The same month, Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley, near Bradford, suggested that arranged marriages and poor English skills were responsible for Muslims failing to integrate. In December, a series of official reports into the riots was published, chief among them one by Ted Cantle which identified communities’ “parallel lives” as the main cause of unrest. White racism, and the failure of New Labour to set out a vision that could give hope to an industrial working class decimated by Thatcherism, were played down in the discussion that followed. Two years previously, Jack Straw had proclaimed that the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence had “opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today”. Now, the government was blaming the victims.

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion surrounding British Muslims also intensified after the 11 September 2001 attacks. With no small irony, Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs that “certain categories” of immigrants, “from certain often highly troubled parts of the world . . . imported their own internal issues, from those parts of the world, into the towns and villages in Britain”.

This gave an opportunity for the BNP to broaden its own propaganda. In the autumn of 2001, the party distributed leaflets claiming that “Islam” stood for “Intolerance, Slaughter, Looting, Arson and Molestation of Women”. It also sought to exploit religious divisions among British Asians. Griffin’s “ethnic liaison committee” claimed to have made contact with Sikhs and Hindus, whose contributions were distributed on an audio cassette.

In February 2002, matters were made worse when Blunkett attempted to address fears over both British Muslims and asylum-seekers in a government white paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven. This merely conflated the issues of race and immigration, according to his critics.

The challenge for the BNP was to turn this rising anxiety into seats at the 2002 local elections. In Burnley, Steven Smith extended his DIY publicity techniques, hanging a banner from a 30-foot mill chimney that overlooked the town’s busiest road. BNP cards were left in pubs and at the football ground, directing the public towards a website, Burnley Bravepages,which featured rumours about preferential treatment for Asians and asylum-seekers being allowed to jump the queues in doctors’ waiting rooms. Smith also began building a database of potential supporters by trawling the telephone directory: “We knew that our core support was obviously white, for the most part workingclass and to a large extent self-employed. Most, if not all, of these could be found in the Yellow Pages under the headings of builders, joiners, electricians, mechanics, etc.”

Backed by an election manifesto that promised regeneration money for “British” council tenants, plus a crackdown on crime and asylumseekers, BNP canvassers wheedled their way into voters’ minds on the doorstep with the slogan: “Use one vote – make it count!” In 2002, every council seat in Burnley was up for election, with three councillors per ward, so BNP canvassers presented their party as a convenient way to get the attention of mainstream politicians, telling voters to “give” one out of their three votes to the BNP and the remaining two to mainstream parties, with the plaintive refrain: “Give us a chance, what do you have to lose?”

Richard Chipps was one of many Burnley residents to whom this offer appealed: “I voted for them because it was a protest that no one was paying attention to the problems we had. Very few people are actual BNP members. But once you vote for them, people listen.”

By April, the government had become alarmed. Blair gave a front-page interview to the Lancashire Telegraph warning people not to vote BNP, and his press secretary Alastair Campbell, a well-known supporter of Burnley Football Club, came out of a self-imposed media silence to do the same. But it was too late. On 2 May 2002, the repackaged BNP made its first step on to the bottom rung of Britain’s political ladder, winning three council seats – two in one of the better-off working-class wards, and the other in an outlying village that normally voted Tory.

If voters in Burnley wanted the government’s attention, now they had it. Over the weekend of 15 and 16 June, write Nigel Copsey and David Renton in British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State (Palgrave Macmillan), Tony Blair met with senior strategists, chief among them his pollster Philip Gould, who warned that thousands of “angry young working-class men” were poised to desert Labour for the BNP. There were also danger signs from Europe, where far-right parties were on the rise. In Austria, the slick political operator Jörg Haider had briefly pushed his anti-immigrant Freedom Party into a coalition government in 2000, and in May 2002 Jean- Marie Le Pen of the Front National shocked France’s political establishment by reaching the run-off stage against Jacques Chirac in the presidential elections.

France provided a salutary tale: it was the Socialist Party’s ratcheting up of anti-immigration rhetoric during the 1980s and 1990s that had paved the way for Le Pen. But New Labour was in thrall to triangulation, the strategy which had helped the party defeat the Conservatives by occupying the political space normally held by the right, pushing them further away from the centre. What would it mean to “occupy” the space held by fascists? After the BNP’s shock local by-election victory on the
Isle of Dogs in 1993, Labour had won back the trust of voters by promising to tackle the housing shortage that had fuelled racist resentment. This time, Gould advised, the party should embrace voters’ concerns on immigration and asylum.

In fact, Blunkett was already doing so. With his reputation for tough pronouncements on law and order, immigration and the need for Muslims to integrate, the home secretary’s most notorious moment had come during a BBC radio interview a month before the BNP’s first election victories in Burnley, when he had accused asylum-seekers’ children of “swamping” British schools. The term echoed comments made by Margaret Thatcher in 1978.

I visited Blunkett at his House of Commons office in the autumn of 2011. He denied pandering to racism. “My use of the word ‘swamped’ was specific. It means ‘overwhelmed’ and if you look at the dictionary definition they’re interchangeable,” he told me, still testy about the incident. Yet even though he now regretted his incautious use of wording, he defended the strategy: “My concern from 2001 onwards was to ensure that we didn’t allow that considerable progress that [far-right parties] were making in other parts of Europe to be reflected in Britain.”

Blunkett believed he was in an impossible situation during his time in office, caught “like a pig in the middle”, as he confided to his diary, between his critics on the left and a tabloid press in attack mode. “We’re not racists, Mr Blunkett, just terrified for our children’s health,” read one 2003 headline in the Sun, which mounted a campaign accusing asylumseekers of infecting Britain with HIV, tuberculosis and Hepatitis C. Yet the government’s strategy went beyond simply rebutting tabloid criticism; just as Blair, Blunkett and other New Labour grandees made efforts to befriend Rupert Murdoch and the then editor of the Sun, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), so it actively collaborated in their campaigns.

The extent of this collusion was exposed in the summer of 2003 when Downing Street’s media planning grid – a calendar on which ministers’ publicity engagements were noted in advance – was leaked. For the week of 18 August, the grid entry under “Main news for the week” was “Sun asylum week”. On the Monday, the Sun was to run a story headlined “Halt the asylum tide now”; on the Tuesday, “Our heritage is crumbling”; on the Wednesday, it ran yet another health scare story; and on the Thursday, as noted in advance on Downing Street’s grid, was “Blunkett asylum interview”, where the home secretary promised “draconian” measures to clamp down on bogus claimants.

Beyond this, the government lacked any serious policy to halt the BNP’s progress. The riots, followed by the elections in Burnley, had shown that something was wrong in Labour’s heartlands, yet Blunkett claims there was a “lack of collective will” among his cabinet colleagues to do more than triangulate. After the 2003 local elections drew a turnout in England of just 35.6 per cent, Blunkett despaired: “Tony [Blair] is still not of the mind that real disillusionment has set in . . . It is very hard to get across to someone who believes that everything is fine that the electorate are cheesed off with us.”

Over the next year, the BNP began to pick up votes away from towns directly affected by the riots – with the asylum panic and worsening attitudes towards Muslims as a backdrop. As the Blair government beat the drums for war with Iraq, a BNP councillor was elected in Blackburn after distributing leaflets claiming that the town was to build replicas of the giant arches made of crossed swords installed by Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. The party won a council seat in the Hertfordshire borough of Broxbourne – a white area with no direct experience of immigration – based on a toxic combination of fears about asylum and a deeper-seated hostility to nearby multiracial London.

In the 2003 local elections, the BNP won a further six seats on Burnley Council, making it the second-largest group – and spread out further into Lancashire and West Yorkshire, winning seats in Halifax. In Halifax, as with Burnley, the initial breakthrough came in wards that normally voted Tory.

In fact, there was compelling evidence to show that the BNP remained a party which nurtured violence and racism. A 2004 BBC documentary, made by an undercover journalist, revealed party activists in Bradford boasting about beating up Asians during the 2001 riots and fantasising about shooting “Pakis”. It also featured a secret recording of Griffin addressing a party meeting in Keighley, West Yorkshire, where he expressed his hopes for a riot and described Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith”, claiming that Muslim men were deliberately trying to get white girls pregnant so that they could spread Islam across the world. A young rising star of the BNP, Mark Collett, was also filmed describing asylum-seekers as “cockroaches”. These comments would lead both to be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred. They were acquitted in 2006.

The BBC exposé was accompanied by a front-page story in the Sun, which bore the headline “Bloody nasty people”. But if only it were so easy to separate the “nasty” people from the rest.

When I phoned Sharon Wilkinson, she was putting her two baby granddaughters to bed. First elected in 2004, 50-year-old Wilkinson was one of the BNP’s few remaining councillors in 2011 – and it’s not hard to see why she had retained local support even as her party’s fortunes have receded. Gentle-voiced, Wilkinson explained to me that she joined the BNP because, “as a white person, I was being treated differently because of the colour of my skin. By the police, the  stablishment.” The owner of an off-licence, she felt it was unfair that the Asian-run newsagent across the road had been given a licence to sell alcohol. “Forty-three people attended the hearing to speak against the licence, but they still got it. And that was the whole community that had been ignored. So I stood as a BNP councillor.”

Several Burnley residents I spoke to who opposed the BNP conceded that Wilkinson was good at her job. She certainly seemed to relish the hard, unglamorous slog of local politics, talking enthusiastically to me about her work dealing with dog mess, or successfully winning money for her ward to have traffic calming measures installed

But when the conversation turned towards the BNP’s true nature, Wilkinson became less confident. Did she think the party was fascist? “I didn’t find that.” What about its commitment to the repatriation of non-whites? “It’s not a reality, is it?” She hesitated, and I could hear a murmuring in the background. “I’m not against anyone having their own ethnic whatever it is, but let us have ours.”

There was some more murmuring. “Is that John?” I asked, realising I had been on speakerphone. “Hello, Daniel,” came a gruff reply. John Cave is a veteran BNP member with “a stack of membership cards” who believes “the world needs a leader”. The BNP handbook states that the party should be a “surrogate family” to its members – but for Cave and Wilkinson this has gone a step further: they got married.

Enoch Powell had been right, Cave told me; in 21st-century Britain the immigrant had indeed got the “whip hand” over the white man. He emphasised that grass-roots politics was never anything more than a stepping-stone for the BNP. “Local politics is boring,” he said. “And anyone who gets involved in it has to see it from that line of thought that it isn’t about doing this and moving a litter bin from A to B or getting the grass cut. In reality the only reason you’re there is to give people a chance to say they don’t want multiculturalism, they don’t want integration.”

To me, this disturbing encounter illustrated just why the BNP seemed to have outfoxed its opponents in the early 2000s – and why it took the best part of a decade to drive it out of local politics. As Steven Smith recalled, calling his party “Nazis” did not seem to match up with the local shopkeepers and grandmothers the BNP had convinced to stand as candidates. A few days before the local elections in 2003, he explained, anti-fascists distributed a leaflet that bore a picture of Burnley town hall superimposed with a giant swastika and the slogan: “Is this what you really want?”

“Now then,” Smith said. “Bearing in mind that not many days after that leaflet was circulated, the Burnley electorate voted for another six BNP councillors, there’s one of two things you can say: either people weren’t put off by it – or perhaps they weren’t too averse to it. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

Daniel Trilling’s “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” is out now, published by Verso (£14.99).

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 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror