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

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The prophets of Trumpism

How the ideas of two pre-war intellectual refugees – the radical Herbert Marcuse and the reactionary Eric Voegelin – are influencing the new culture wars among Trump and his acolytes.

Even after Donald Trump’s more conciliatory address to Congress, American politics seems set to become a battle between the president’s joyless autocracy and a carnival of protest that could end up evoking the anti-war movements of the 1960s. There will be more draconian executive orders and more marches in pink hats. There may well be violence.

The intellectual battle that will be played out in the months and years to come, however, was foretold by two German refugees from Nazi persecution: Eric Voegelin, the doyen of Cold War reactionary conservatives, and Herbert Marcuse, the inspiration behind the revolutionary student activism of the 1960s. Voegelin argued that society needed an order that could be found only by reaching back to the past. Marcuse argued that refusal to accede to tyranny was essential to give birth to a revolutionary politics that would propel progress to a new kind of society. Marcuse the radical and Voegelin the reactionary could not seem further apart, and yet they share a common intellectual root in Germany in the 1920s, from which came a shared critique of modern society. Their ideas may well inspire some of the political conflicts to come.

The culture wars of the 1960s are very much alive for Trump’s acolytes. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News and Trump’s chief strategist, blames the counterculture of the 1960s – the drugs, the hippies, the liberal reforms – for America losing its way and, eventually, succumbing to economic crisis in 2008. Bannon set out his ideas in Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary which blamed the financial crash not on greedy, under-regulated bankers but on the moral and cultural malaise that started in the 1960s. He is still fighting people who might have been inspired by Marcuse. “The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centred, most narcissistic generation the country has ever produced,” he told an interviewer in 2011.

Bannon’s thinking, set out in several speeches over the past few years, is that America’s working and middle classes have been betrayed by an elite in Washington, DC (the “Imperial City”, he calls it) which oversees insider deals so that the insiders can profit from global capitalism. Bannon wants to return America to traditions rooted in Judaeo-Christian values and to reassert national sovereignty. Most worryingly, on several occasions he has said that the crisis will only be resolved through the catharsis of conflict and national mobilisation through war.

America has always been a work in progress. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were very different presidents but they shared a belief that progress was America’s calling. The reactionary turn in US politics is not just a shift to the right but an attempt to displace progress as the common creed.

Instead, Bannon and his ilk want America to become a work in regress, as the historian Mark Lilla argues in his recent book on reactionary philosophy, The Shipwrecked Mind. Much of the new reactionary thinking echoes Voegelin’s idea that, in order to renew itself, a society must first go backwards to find where and how it lost its way.

 

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Eric Voegelin defies easy categorisation. Born in 1901 in Cologne and brought up in Vienna, he was brave and principled. After a visit to the United States in the 1920s, he wrote two books criticising Nazi racial politics, which got him sacked from his teaching position at the University of Vienna. When the Germans arrived in Austria following the Anschluss in 1938, Voegelin and his wife fled on a train as the Gestapo ransacked their apartment.

After a brief stay in Switzerland, he moved to America and in 1942 took up an academic post at Louisiana State University. He then embarked on a prolific career, the centrepiece of which was his sprawling, multi-volume work Order and History.

Voegelin’s philosophy gave expression to the dark and powerful forces that had shaped his life. He believed that modern society was prey to flawed utopianism – he called this “gnosticism” – in which an elite of prophets takes power, claiming special insight into how heaven could be created on Earth for a chosen people. Gnostic sects in the Middle Ages had their modern equivalents in the Nazi proclamation of a racially pure utopia and the Marxist promise of equality for all. Voegelin’s catchphrase was: “Don’t immanentise the eschaton!” (meaning: “Do not try to build heaven on Earth”).

Marxism and Nazism, Voegelin argued, were political versions of religion: we get rid of God only to reinstall him in the form of an elite of reformers with all the answers. In his recent bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that we are entering a new stage of the process that Voegelin identified. We have become as powerful as gods, he argued, but now need to learn how to be wise and responsible gods.

Today Voegelin’s attack on overreaching perfectionism echoes in reactionary criticism of Obamacare and in the yearning for national certitude. Voegelin thought the role of philosophy was not to change the world, but to understand its underlying order and help us tune in to that, rather than being diverted by the lure of the false prophets of political religion.

He was influenced by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who said that “origin is the goal”, by which he meant that the point of the future was to restore the ancient past. For Voegelin, order comes from a sense of harmony, of everything being in its place. This is a position that opens itself up to deeply conservative interpretations.

When, in his presidential inauguration address, Trump spoke of American “carnage”, he was echoing Voegelin’s account of decay and disorder. When he talked of “one people, one nation, one heart” he was evoking the kind of order that Voegelin spoke of. Trump and his acolytes see their mission as the need to restore a natural order, under which illegal immigrants and aliens are kept well away and white people can feel at home once more in a society where everyone signs up to Judaeo-Christian beliefs.

Nothing could be further from the ideas of Herbert Marcuse.

Born in 1898 in Berlin, Marcuse became a member of the celebrated Marxist Frankfurt School, which included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and, tangentially, Walter Benjamin. Marcuse emigrated to the United States in 1933 as Hitler came to power. By 1940, he had become a US citizen and, while Voegelin was starting work at Louisiana State, Marcuse was working as a researcher for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. He continued working for the government after the war and resumed his academic career only in 1952. His best-known book, One-Dimensional Man, was published in 1964.

One of Marcuse’s big ideas was the “Great Refusal”: progress had to start with refusing to accept an unacceptable reality. One should say “no” to a world of alienating work, dominated by corporations and impersonal systems, which allow little room for people to explore their deeper sense of humanity. Marcuse saw the student and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, which adopted him as their intellectual mentor, as evidence that the Great Refusal was gaining momentum.

Trump has given the Great Refusal new life. The documentary film-maker Michael Moore has called for cities to become “regions of resistance” by offering sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation. Angela Davis, the once-jailed Black Panther revolutionary who was close to Marcuse, told the Women’s March in Washington that people had to be ready for “1,459 days of resistance: resistance on the ground, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music”. In a lecture at the Free University of West Berlin published in 1970, Marcuse said demonstrations and protests were an essential first step towards a “liberation of consciousness” from the capitalist machine:

“The whole person must demonstrate his participation and his will to live . . . in a pacified, human world . . . it is . . . harmful . . . to preach defeatism and quietism, which can only play into the hands of those who run the system . . . We must resist if we still want to live as human beings, to work and be happy.”

The Great Refusal was a capacious idea capable of embracing anyone who wanted to say, “No, enough!” It could embrace trade unions and workers, African Americans and feminists, students and national liberation movements, those who were on the margins of society and those professionals – technicians, scientists, artists, intellectuals – who worked at its centres of power and who chose to refuse as an act of conscience.

As a new generation prepares to embark on a period of resistance, what lessons should they learn from the wave of protest that Marcuse once helped to inspire?

Protest is a way to bear witness, to make voices heard and to make it possible for people to bond. Yet the fire of protest can easily die out as the Occupy movement did, even if its embers are still glowing. The carnival-type atmosphere can be uplifting but fleeting. Creating common programmes to be taken forward by organisations demands hard work. The Arab spring showed how quickly a popular revolution can turn sour when a movement is not ready to take power.

Since the protests that Marcuse was involved in, no comparable movement of the left in the United States has mobilised such a broad support base. Instead, that period of resistance was followed, at the end of the 1970s, by a shift to the right in the US and the UK. It was reactionaries, not revolutionaries, who set off forward to the past.

Now we seem to be in for an intensifying cycle of conflict between the adherents of Marcuse and Voegelin: between the Marxist revolutionary and the mystic conservative; between resistance and order; between those who want to live among a cosmopolitan, urban multitude and those who want a society of provincial oneness and sameness; those who want change, innovation and creativity and those who crave simplicity, stability and authority.

That much is obvious. Yet what is striking is not how different Marcuse was from Voegelin, but how alike they were. The best way to respond to the rise of Trump might be to blend their ideas rather than set them against one another, to create a new intellectual and political combination. Indeed, they could be seen as different branches of the same intellectual tree.

Voegelin was influenced by the German- Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, who studied with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg in the 1920s. Jonas joined the German Jewish Brigade, which fought against Hitler, before emigrating to the US, where he became a professor at the New School in New York. He was one of the foremost scholars of gnosticism, which became Voegelin’s focus. Towards the end of his life, Jonas took up a chair at the University of Munich named after Voegelin.

Voegelin did not study at Freiburg, but one of his closest friends was the social ­theorist Alfred Schütz, a student of Edmund Husserl’s who applied his phenomenological thinking to the sociology of ­everyday life. Marcuse studied with Husserl and Heidegger at Freiburg, at the same time as Jonas and Hannah Arendt. From that shared intellectual root have emerged some powerful ideas that could unite progressives and conservatives.

Only at moments of profound crisis – of the kind we are living through – do we see just how contingent, vulnerable and fragile our society is. Voegelin warned: “In an hour of crisis, when the order of society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability.”

A crisis should be a time for profound reflection, yet leaders are more likely to resort to “magical operations” to divert people’s attention: moral condemnation, branding enemies as aggressors, threatening war. “The intellectual and moral corruption,” Voegelin wrote, “which expresses itself in the aggregate of such magical operations may pervade society with the weird ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in Western society.”

Welcome to the Trump White House.

 

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Voegelin is a timely reminder of how unconservative Donald Trump is and of how conservatives should be a vital part of the coalition against him. Conservatism comes in several strains: laissez-faire conservatives such as George Osborne want small government, free trade, low taxes and freedom of choice. Status quo conservatives such as Angela Merkel want stability and continuity, even if that entails sticking with social welfare programmes and liberal democracy. Authoritarian conservatives, however, are prepared to use the big state to engineer change.

One important question for the future is whether the laissez-faire and status quo conservatives will realign around the ascendant authoritarian camp promoted by Trump. Merkel is the world leader of the conservative-inspired opposition to the US president. But his most profound critic is Pope Francis, who uses language similar to Voegelin’s to condemn the “material and spiritual poverty” of capitalism, and the language of Marcuse to condemn the process of dehumanisation embarked upon by Bannon and Trump.

“As Christians and all people of goodwill, it is for us to live and act at this moment,” the Pope has said. “It is a grave responsib­ility, since certain present realities, unless ­effectively dealt with, are capable of ­setting off a process of dehumanisation which would then be hard to reverse.”

The challenge for progressives is to reframe resistance in terms that can appeal to conservatives: to use conservative ideas of character and spirituality for progressive ends. We will spend a great deal more time trying to conserve things. The swarm of legal challenges against Trump will hold him to the principles of the US constitution and the rule of law. Many of the young people attracted to Bernie Sanders and the Occupy movement yearned for the restoration of the American dream.

Building bridges with the conservative opposition is not merely a tactical manoeuvre to widen support. It has deeper roots in shared doubts about modernity which go back to Freiburg and the man both Marcuse and Jonas renounced in 1964 for supporting the Nazis: Martin Heidegger.

For Heidegger, modernity was a restless, disruptive force that displaced people from jobs, communities and old ways of life, and so left them searching for a sense of home, a place to come back to, where they could be at one with the world. Technology played a central role in this, Heidegger argued, providing not just tools for us to use, but an entire framework for our lives.

Marcuse, writing four decades before ­Facebook and Google, warned that we needed to resist a life in which we freely comply with our own subjugation by technical, bureaucratic systems that control our every thought and act; which make life rich but empty, busy but dead, and turn people into adjuncts of vast systems. We should “resist playing a game that was always rigged against true freedom”, he urged, using language that has been adopted by Trump.

Writing not far from what was to become Silicon Valley, Marcuse pointed to a much larger possibility: the technological bounty of capitalism could, in principle, free us from necessity and meet all human needs, but “. . . only if the vast capabilities of science and technology, of the scientific and artistic imagination, direct the construction of a sensuous environment; only if the world of work loses its alienating features and becomes a world of human relationships; only if productivity becomes creativity are the roots of domination dried up in individuals”.

Writing in the 1960s, when full employment was the norm and advanced society was enjoying a sense of plenty, Marcuse foreshadowed the debates we are having now about what it will mean to be human in an age of machines capable of rapid learning. Mark Zuckerberg’s argument in his recently published manifesto that Facebook creates an infrastructure for a co-operative and creative global civil society is a response to concerns that Marcuse raised.

 

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Just as Marcuse saw that capitalism was a union of contradictions – freedom created on the basis of exploitation, wealth generated by poverty – Voegelin thought modern society was self-defeating: it declined as it advanced. Giving everyone wages to buy stuff from the shops was not progress, he said, but a soulless distortion of the good life, an invitation to spiritual devastation. The gnosticism that Voegelin so hated, the effort to design a perfect society, was also the source of the technological and rational bureaucracy that Marcuse blamed for creating a one-dimensional society. Voegelin would have regarded the apostles of Silicon Valley as arch-gnostics, creating a rational order to the world with the insights gleaned from Big Data and artificial intelligence.

Marcuse and Voegelin point us in the same direction for a way forward. People need to be able to find a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Both would have seen Trump’s ascendancy as a symptom of a deeper failure in modern society, one that we feel inside ourselves. The problem for many of us is not that we do not have enough money, but that we do not have enough meaning.

For Voegelin, living well involves “opening our souls” to something higher than buy and sell, work and shop, calculate and trade, margins and profits. Once we detach ourselves from these temporary, Earthly measures of success, we might learn to accept that life is a mysterious, bubbling stream upon which we cannot impose a direction.

A true sense of order, Voegelin argues, comes from living with an open soul and a full spirit, not being part of a machine manufacturing false promises. If we cannot manage to create order from within, by returning to the life guided by the soul, we will find order imposed, more brutally, from without. Marcuse, likewise, thought that turning the Great Refusal into a creative movement required an inner renewal, a “liberation of consciousness” through aesthetics, art, fantasy, imagination and creativity. We can only escape the grip of the one-dimensional society, which reduces life to routines of buying and selling, by recognising that we are multidimensional people, full of potential to grow in different ways. It is not enough merely to resist reality; we have to escape it through leaps of imagination and see the world afresh.

Václav Havel, the leader of the Czech resistance to communist rule, called this “living in truth”. Havel’s most influential essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, written in 1978, is about how to avoid the slow spiritual death that comes from living in an oppressive regime that does not require you to believe in what it does, merely to go along with “living within a lie”.

The greengrocer who is the central figure and motif in Havel’s essay eventually snaps, and stops putting in his shop window an official sign that reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel wrote: “In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”

Human beings by nature long to live in truth, even when put under pressure to live a lie. In language evocative of Voegelin and Marcuse, Havel writes: “In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.”

In communist Czechoslovakia that meant taking a wide and generous view of what counts as resistance as people sought their own ways to “live in truth”. Under President Trump, many Americans are finding they are living within a regime of lies, and they will be drawn back, time and again, to find ways, large and small, personal and political, to live in truth.

Resistance to Trump and Trumpism will succeed only if it mobilises both conservative and progressive forces opposed to authoritarianism, and it needs to stand for a better way to live in truth, with dignity.

Charles Leadbeater is the author of the ALT/Now manifesto, which is available to read at: banffcentre.ca

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution