Nowhere else to go

It is too easy to believe that anyone who votes for the BNP in the 3 May elections is a racist or a

Under grey skies at Oldham Athletic football ground, a group of schoolkids stands on the steps of our 1964 double-decker anti-racism bus, wearing Hope Not Hate T-shirts. All except one boy, a pale-faced 11-year-old in an ill-fitting school uniform, who is standing at the back of the bus studying the floor.

"Come on, lad!" his teacher calls out. The boy stamps his feet one after the other. His expression says he wishes he were invisible. In big letters behind him, a sign reads: "Celebrating Modern Britain".

"Come on, J!" His friends are calling him. He drags off his hoodie and pulls on a yellow Hope Not Hate T-shirt over his white school shirt. He takes his place on the steps of the bus for the photograph. J turns out to have a lovely smile.

"That's a big step for him," one of the mums says. "His family are all BNP. It's more than 40 per cent on our estate voted for BNP in the last election." When I ask her why, she shrugs. "Because there's nowhere else to go," she says, in a matter-of-fact way. "Not really, when you think about it. Working families feel let down by Labour. It's like it's a London party for southerners. It's all about spin. There's Iraq and all that. Local lads dying out there from the regiments round here - cannon fodder." And why isn't she voting for them? "Because they aren't a proper party, that's what people don't realise. They're not like the other parties. They're extremists as bad as the ones in the mosques."

On 3 May, the British National Party will contest a record number of seats in the local elections. A total of 827 across England and Scotland, and more than twice the number the party has ever fielded before. The Hope Not Hate battle bus - which took a 1,700-mile drunk's scribble of a journey from London to Glasgow organised by the Daily Mirror and Searchlight - was an attempt to engage with those parts of the country most likely to connect with a far-right message.

It also turns out to be a tour of an angry, alienated Britain - the estates and shopping centres and market towns mainstream politics is no longer reaching. On estate after city centre, supermarket after community hall, we meet the same feeling that there is no longer any party left to speak for the working man or his wife or children, or his elderly parents.

At times our trip on a 1964 Leyland Titan with a grindingly slow top speed of 38mph (downhill and in fair winds), without such mod cons as heating or a petrol gauge, feels like a journey into a vacuum, the ground vacated by the political parties as they rush to the milk-and-honey heartland of Middle England. Every day brings its own surreal hybrid of celebrity visits to soap opera sets, interviews with pop stars, tea on sink estates and leafleting of supermarket car parks.

We meet people left on council waiting lists for housing, whose estates are no-go at night because of antisocial behaviour, and whose schools are failing and knife-ridden. People whose experience of the NHS is distressing and whose home is between two burnt-out properties.

One day in the West Midlands we spend a morning with white working-class shoppers, followed by Sugababes, and then an evening eating baltis and drinking Guinness at a Sikh-Irish pub.

In Thurrock, in Essex, a man tells us proudly that the local BNP candidate is a young woman in her twenties. "Not a thug with a pit bull," he says. I find this strangely shocking, as if women shouldn't be fascists, or at least young people should be idealists.

He looks at me curiously. "Maybe she is an idealist. Have you thought of that?"

It is too easy to believe that everyone voting for the BNP is a racist or a fool, when in fact it is no coincidence that the party is flourishing in old industrial areas where jobs are scarce and hope is thin on the ground.

In the BNP heartland of Dagenham, where the car industry has been ravaged, BNP leaflets are fresh in the doorways of the estates, and the party's presence is strong in the old mill towns and the once-proud Potteries. In the multiply disadvantaged Sandwell, the BNP 4x4 follows us at a distance, watching the kids come and take the badges and balloons.

In the towns where Tory recession and abandonment have bled into the disinterest of the national Labour Party, nationalism is both listening and offering a voice to quiet, bottled-up rage.

As we trundle through Leicester and Lincoln, Nottingham and Sheffield, we meet the same faces again and again - men and women who feel ignored, put upon, let down. These are the communities spitefully mocked by the middle classes, who prefer to caricature the "chav" underclass as feckless, ignorant and thuggish. Yet if you ask them they'll tell you it is Westminster that isn't "bovvered".

In Yorkshire, we meet Andy Sykes, a former BNP organiser turned anti-racist, who tells us why he joined the party in 2002. "I started going to meetings because I was afraid," he explains. "I started believing the stuff they were pushing through my letter box about paedophiles and rapists and murderers."

The BNP understands that people are feeling frightened and abandoned. It is slipping into the vacuum left by mainstream politics and setting out its stall, countered only by handfuls of local activists and MPs.

They don't tell people that they didn't support England in the World Cup because of its black players, or that their constitution states that a black or Asian person can never be British. They raise valid issues and then exploit them with dizzying distortions, a bombardment of half-truths and semi-facts, all in a language littered with buzzwords designed to inflame feelings of outrage and paranoia: paedophilia, jobs, Islam, 7/7, immigration. They find a tiny blister and then they rub and rub until it is a running sore.

They will tell you it is because of asylum-seekers that your grandmother's heart operation is being delayed - when in fact the amount given to asylum-seekers is less than 1 per cent of what is spent on the National Health Service each year. They will say these people are bringing tuberculosis into the country and that they are criminals, when the British Medical Association refutes any claim about TB and the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms there is no higher rate of criminality among asylum-seekers (and that, in fact, asylum-seekers are far more likely to become victims than perpetrators of crime).

They speak to people's perception that crime - especially violent crime - is on the rise and that eventually all the jobs they can do (and it's all right for Middle Englanders in their gated communities, plugging in by laptop to a global job market) will have gone abroad, and they'll wake up one day and everyone will be speaking Hindi or in that homogenised black-white patois common to inner-city youth.

And all the while, the same language is being whispered by extremist Muslim leaders to young black and Asian youths in our young offenders' institutions, sink estates and prisons: "No one is listening to you, except us. You are nothing, nobody to anyone but us."

Towering heroes

We met some towering heroes on our tour: the boxing legend Brendan Ingle - trainer of Prince Naseem, Herol "Bomber" Graham and, now, a generation of white and Asian Sheffield kids; Chris Keen on the deprived Stoops Estate in Burnley, a great big ex-rugby player of a community worker; Joe Sargonis, a Nottingham Forest football coach offering teenagers alternatives to gun culture.

But if I could have taken the alienated voters of Dagenham anywhere, it would have been to Oliver's Gym, a sweat-soaked, old-fashioned boxing club on a Salford industrial estate.

Here is J the schoolboy's biggest idol, effortlessly jumping rope - a 5ft 10in British Pakistani Olympic boxing hero. "Look at that gym in there," Amir Khan says, taking a breather. "English, Jamaican, Pakistani, Irish, we all train together. We're all treated equal and we all treat each other the same."

According to the BNP, Khan shouldn't be allowed to represent Great Britain. And, with more candidates than the National Front contested at its peak during the Seventies - as the BNP website boasts - there is a real danger that it will increase its foothold in some groups on 3 May.

Some, of course, are only paper candidates, but the party is standing full slates of regional candidates in areas such as Stoke, Leeds, Thurrock and Sunderland, as well as Scotland and Wales. Once elected, these candidates acquire no track record of doing anything to help communities. In fact, it rather suits them if alienation worsens, because they already have their scapegoats in place.

Still, Khan, at least, is optimistic.

"I think racism's going to die out," he says, jumping up into the driving seat of our bus. "It's got to, right? 'Cos in the end, what's the colour of your skin got to do with anything?"

Ros Wynne-Jones is senior feature writer for the Daily Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/hopenothate

Ros Wynne-Jones writes the Real Britain column at the Daily Mirror.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover