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All white on the right

Jon Cruddas reviews Daniel Trilling's book on Nick Griffin and the BNP, Bloody Nasty People.

Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right
Daniel Trilling
Verso, 240pp, £14.99

Why bother with the BNP? It’s heading into oblivion through factionalism, financial disintegration and assorted membership problems. Sure, the EDL (English Defence League) has its militia-style street politics but why write a new text on the growth of the far right? Isn’t it in free fall? Maybe the New Statesman’s Daniel Trilling should have not bothered and just kept busy at the day job.

In the warm afterglow of Olympic triumph, we’ve been pretty busy congratulating ourselves on the nature of modern Britain. Team GB’s successful multiculturalism defines a positive national story, in strict contrast to one anchored in loss, anomie and far-right extremism. That is all to the good. Why, then, a new history of the BNP and assorted far-right crews?

There is a central pivot to this book that alone is worth the asking price. Hit the rewind button and think of another Olympic year – the late summer and early autumn of 2000, following the Sydney Games – and one of the great missed opportunities of the last government. Twelve years before the London Games of Danny Boyle, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, there was an opportunity to forge a new, confident national story. Trilling’s book hinges on this often forgotten moment and the damage that political indecision inflicted on the character of the country.

In 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain signalled that Britain faced a fork in the road. Would the country push forward and define itself as a “community of communities . . . at ease with its place in the world and with its own internal differences” or would it squander this opportunity and accept emerging resentments? Fearful that this opportunity might be missed as a result of the toxic climate around race and asylum, the commission implored the then Labour government to make a formal declaration that Britain was a multicultural, multi-faith society.

Following leaks in the Daily Telegraph, the government swerved around the question of modern national identity and triangulated instead between the nationalist right and the liberal left. What followed over the next decade were successive attempts at a much vaguer, defensive notion of Britishness. In short, the Labour government lost a decade in this debate, much to the dismay of Bhikhu Parekh, the commission’s chairman. Trilling’s book joins the dots and works through the fallout.

In August 2000, Nick Griffin’s leadership of the BNP was in crisis: the Conservatives under William Hague were making the running on asylum and immigration. Yet within a year of Labour’s body swerve on the commission’s report, the BNP was on the move and a decadelong battle was taking shape.

By the spring and summer of 2001, communities off the radar of the middle-England focused political calculus – Bradford, Oldham and Burnley – were rioting. Griffin learned from Bruno Mégret, the principal strategist of the French Front National, that the party founded by John Tyndall had to forge a new identity politics; that the old left/right fault line was withering away and the real conflicts were “between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, between identity and internationalism”. The attacks of 11 September 2001 soon followed and the climate of fear and suspicion intensified, playing into the hands of the BNP and its new emphasis on “freedom, security, democracy and identity”.

Bloody Nasty People walks us through the various sites of contest across England. It offers sharp portraits while also keeping an eye on the increasingly harsh tone of political language driven by fear, polling and press dynamics. However, the book is by no means all one-way traffic. While all the political parties are criticized for pandering – for example, at different times, each of them deployed ruthless “sons and daughters” populism on housing issues – light is also shone on successful mobilization and forms of political resistance (though this is a long and painful war of position that has left plenty of wreckage by the roadside).

One might take issue with some of Trilling’s conclusions or with the slightly reductive class component to his analysis, and more discussion of the various strategies, as well as the tensions, inside the anti-fascist movement would have been desirable. But these are second-order points. This is a cracking book that respectfully weaves together testimonies and stories – of people and places – with national political formations, examining them alongside the deeper economic and cultural questions posed by globalisation. Especially strong is the analysis of the cross-currents at play in the 1993 Isle of Dogs council by-election victory of Derek Beackon.

Despite our post-Olympic glow, Trilling’s book is a useful reminder of our Balkanised political landscape. It places him alongside other young, left-wing writers such as Owen Jones in the front line of political and cultural debate, to which I don’t see a downside. I just keep thinking back to 2000 – to the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain and what might have been.

Jon Cruddas is MP (Labour) for Dagenham and Rainham.

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?