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What killed the BNP?

It's not extinct, but it might as well be.

The British National Party is not quite dead yet. On Friday, the Electoral Commission announced that the BNP had failed to confirm its registration details, and so had been removed from the official register of political parties. Within hours the party posted the necessary paperwork to the Electoral Commission, and expects to be re-registered by the end of this week.

Not that it matters much. The BNP might not be officially extinct, but the party has already descended into irrelevance. From 563,743 votes in 2010, the party won only 1,667 votes in the general election last year. It has collapsed from 338 councillors to just two, and lost both its European Parliament seats to boot. Only a few hundred members remain. The party’s offices in Wigton, in Cumbria, appear abandoned, with party work taking place at the home of one of the BNP’s admin staff instead, according to Matthew Collins, director of research for Hope not Hate.

The BNP’s collapse is partly a classic tale of factionalism and vicious infighting destroying a political party. Many BNP members came to loathe Nick Griffin, who hoarded power during his 15 years as BNP chairman from 1999, almost as much as those outside the party.

For years, an ugly war simmered between Griffin and Andrew Brons, the two men elected as BNP MEPs in 2009. Brons came within nine votes of ousting Griffin as leader in 2011, and then quit the party in 2012, railing against how Griffin had “destroyed the party”. A year before Brons left to join the British Democratic Party, 400 BNP members moved to the English Democrats with Eddy Butler, a senior BNP figure, in 2011. Griffin was eventually expelled from the BNP in October 2014 for "trying to cause disunity".

The BNP’s strategy was also flawed. After successes in 2008 and 2009, the BNP “gambled everything” in the 2010 general election, Collins says. The party stood in 339 seats at the general election, and won over half a million votes: 1.9 per cent of UK voters. Yet the election “nearly bankrupted us,” admits Stephen Squire, a party spokesman and London BNP organiser. Two hundred and sixty-seven candidates got under five per cent, leaving the BNP to foot the bill for £133,500 in lost deposits.

But even the best-organised party in the world could not have overcome the British public’s contempt for crude racism. Every generation in Britain is becoming less racist than the last: while almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. This was reflected in the BNP’s poor performance among young people: 18-24-year-olds provided only 11 per cent of the BNP’s support, compared with 40 per cent for the National Front in the 1970s. Unlike the most successful far-right parties, the BNP failed to link immigration to a wider political narrative, allowing the party to be depicted as racist thugs: BNP policies were far less popular when associated with the party.

The BNP also suffered from being confronted head-on by the anti-extremist group Hope not Hate. In 2010, Griffin expected to be elected MP for Barking, where the BNP had won 41 per cent of the wards they contested during the previous local elections. Hope not Hate mobilised 1,500 volunteers and handed out 350,000 newspapers, leaflets and letters across the borough before the elections; not only did Griffin lose, but the BNP’s vote share actually decreased from 2005.

“We organised a massive voter drive and hammered the BNP on the ground,” Collins says. “Everywhere the BNP got a foothold, our activists worked hard in each local community to expose and undermine their message of division. We ran very localised campaigns in each area. Our campaigners were backed up by our research team, who continually found dirt on BNP councillors and candidates. Only a handful of BNP councillors held on to their seats in subsequent elections after 2010.”

Yet perhaps most important to the BNP’s collapse was the rise of Ukip. “Ukip are stealing our policies,” Squire says. He has previously called Ukip “an establishment safety valve”, while Griffin attacked Ukip as “plastic nationalists”.

“No one has done more to damage the BNP than me,” Nigel Farage has said, claiming that Ukip has absorbed a third of the BNP vote. Farage has described Ukip’s message for BNP supporters thus: If you are voting BNP because you are frustrated, upset, with the change in your community but you are holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, then come and vote for us.

There is a significant overlap between BNP and Ukip voters – both are older, poorer, whiter and more male-dominated than the population as a whole – and Ukip has wooed thousands of former BNP supporters. “There is a clear relationship between the rise of Ukip in local elections and the disintegration of the BNP," says Matthew Goodwin, the author of UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics. “The same social groups are underpinning both parties, as they are radical right parties across Europe.”

Ukip’s rise is a reminder that, while the British public has rejected the BNP’s crude racism, the population is still deeply dissatisfied with the political elite. Only 15 per cent of voters today feel close to the main six parties (the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Ukip).

The loathing of mainstream politicians has not gone away, even if the BNP is no longer a beneficiary. “Resignations and expulsions are a regular, almost daily occurrence, now,” Collins says. “There are now no longer enough people in the party for factions and splits.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.