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The fears of a brave new world

Does the publicity given to the Far Right mean that these parties are a growing threat? Catherine Fieschi argues the situation is more complex and less immediately dangerous than some commentators have suggested.

After all the pre-election hype on the potential rise of the ‘far right’ (‘1 in 5 Britons could vote for the far right! screamed the New Statesman headline), it was rather reassuring that, in fact, the numbers did not materialise. But, while many a disingenuous article attempted to tar all parties to the right of the Conservatives with the same fascist brush, it is important that we know what these parties are and who they appeal to.

The BNP and UKIP (and for a short-lived moment Veritas) are generally the two parties labelled as the British far right. As articles by Jon Cruddas and Tim Pendry - in this very publication – make abundantly clear, UKIP and the BNP may well play to the some of the same paranoid fears of the British media, but they are in fact two very different animals. Conflating them does us a huge disservice: we lose sight of the real nature of our enemy and, by virtue of that, relinquish any hope of countering it appropriately and effectively. Of course, it is not impossible to find common ground between them, in particular in their supporters: they tend to be white, they tend to be male, they tend to be nationalists, they tend to place themselves to the right of the Conservatives. But UKIP supporters are more middle class, they tend to be older than BNP supporters, they are concentrated in different areas of the country and, while they are nationalists and often xenophobic, few of them hold the aggressively racist opinions of BNP supporters or members.

As for the leaders, while the Farrages and Kilroy-Silks of this world might be nastier than their attempts at smoothness try to dissimulate, they have, nevertheless, very little in common with BNP leaders. We may find them petty and offensive, but they are more ankle-biting chihuahua than vicious rottweiler material. UKIP, in other words, is a populist party: it has far more in common with the Lega Nord (part tax-revolt, part-rebellion against bureaucracy), than it does with the BNP. The BNP is a far right party, which might well be post-fascist given its willingness to participate in the broad sphere of electoral politics, but whose fundamental commitment is to a white Britain and whose policies are those of a racist, extremist party.

Two issues are important now—where do these parties loosely termed of the ‘far right’ stand now (i.e. after their lack of electoral success in the May General Elections)? And, perhaps, regardless of where they are now, should we fear them?

There is no doubt that BNP support has been on the increase in the past few years. Part of the explanation might be that, as Jon Cruddas argued in these pages a few months ago, Labour might be seen as having alienated (or failed to represent) its working class constituency. But such a diagnosis relies on the idea that the mainstay of BNP supporters are disgruntled Labour voters. This is somewhat of a misconception: while there has been a transfer of votes from Labour to the BNP, the overwhelming majority of BNP voters are either people who had previously voted Conservative or who had never voted before. So, we must be careful about relying too much on what is an appealing paradox (voters who move from the left to the right), rather than an accurate depiction of reality. Nevertheless, having said this, it is clear that part of the support voiced or tacit for the BNP is a sense of frustration. But I would argue that it has more to do with a sense of frustration with mainstream politics as a whole rather than with Labour politics in particular. And in this respect, while the two parties capitalise on different sections of the population, the fact is that what these voters share is a deep mistrust and even resentment of mainstream politics. And as pointed by Tim Pendry, part of that frustration is inevitably directed at the party in power. But the success story is actually both a qualified one and a short one.

Strengthened by their relatively good show in the 2004 European and local elections, the BNP ran more candidates in May 2005 than in any other previous election. In 2005 they fielded 119 candidates as compared to 33 in 2001, yet despite this push for victory, the results were nowhere near what they hoped. The vote for the BNP has increased since 1992 (as has the vote in favour of nearly all small parties)—there is no doubt about it: in General Elections their vote has risen from 1.0% (1992) to 1.3 (1997) to 3.9 (2001) to finally, 4.2 last May. But this needs to be kept in perspective: their share of the vote has increased but having fielded 4 times more candidates at enormous cost, the increase is of only 0.55%. Some argue that General Elections are not representative of what the BNP can do; and perhaps this is true in some respects: the first past the post voting system is stacked against smaller parties, but on the other hand General Elections give the BNP a national platform that is crucial when it comes to having appeal at the local level. General Elections grant these parties credibility: Jean Marie Le Pen has never (seriously) expected to become President, but the national stage and results at national elections were crucial in terms of establishing the party’s credibility. Arguing that local electoral successes translate into national gains is only half the story, we need to see this as a two-way street, and national elections usually contribute to these parties’ success at the local level.

In the case of the BNP, local electoral success did not do much for national level success, and indeed, it can easily be argued that the BNP has come out damaged from these elections. The campaign drew attention to them at a difficult time for the party: the Panorama documentary and its repercussions still hung heavy in the air; the scale of the campaign took a huge financial toll on the party which is now virtually broke; and the arrest of Nick Griffin and publicity associated with it did much to (re?) ghettoise them as a marginal, extremist party after years of trying to break into the mainstream. All of this has done much to dent the kind of ‘mavericks for the people image’ which the BNP had done so much to cultivate as a substitute for its extremist tag. The death of John Tyndall is probably the party’s only silver-lining with a cloud: it removes the embarrassing possibility of the BNP remaining associated with such a character, but nevertheless comes as an added omen signalling that the BNP is most likely a spent force at least in terms of a significant presence at the national level rather than as a destructive but localised force.

As for UKIP its momentary skill was to be able to use Europe as an almost shamanic lightning rod. All sources of discontent about modernisation, globalisation, bureaucracy, the decline of British cities, the quality (and shape!) of vegetables, the decay of our institutions, the public’s apathy—all of it could be traced back to Europe.

At its most successful, UKIP managed 16.1% of the vote in the 2004 European elections. This yielded 12 MEPs. But by 2005 the picture changed significantly. The bickering had reached hilarious proportions, Kilroy-Silk was gone, Europe was not on the electoral agenda and the Conservatives had stolen UKIP’s other campaign theme, immigration. With Europe not quite so prominent on the political agenda, the relevance of UKIP becomes less clear. Pendry makes a good point when he argues that UKIP is a ‘revolt against centralised modernisation and the perception that freedoms are being eroded by a political elite that is neither entirely honest nor competent’. This, to some extent, is long-hand for populism. Populism is precisely about such resentment and feelings of betrayal. Recent elections across Europe illustrate that such politics are the hallmark of late modernity in liberal democratic regimes. UKIP is, of course, a quintessentially English expression of populism but it is not so far removed from the French Poujadists of the 1950s or, even, the List Pim Fortuyn.

These parties were masterful in composing with its indigenous attributes, specific cultural panorama and existing national political balances of forces—but, all in all, the forces of populism are very similar across contexts. While UKIP might be irrelevant in European terms, it can nevertheless play a role in these politics of resentment.

In conclusion then, let us return to the central questions: are these parties to be feared? There is no need to make dodgy historical parallels: their level of support, as a result of a combination of factors, does not suggest a capacity to massively influence government. Once elected, the representatives of these parties do their best to discredit their own parties: BNP councillors have fights in pubs (reassuringly, this is generally amongst themselves) and get thrown in jail, while UKIP MEPs argue amongst themselves or/and fail to turn up in Brussels. All in all, the record in office is less than impressive. But, from a different perspective these parties have separate and not irrelevant impacts. The BNP makes the communities in which it is active dangerous and threatening for their targeted enemies and feed the public’s sense in which local institutions are not managing their areas. More diffusely, the presence of the BNP is associated with decline, hopelessness and distrust. Such ills, while they are known to fuel the BNP shouldn’t be underestimated as resulting from BNP presence in a given area. In the current context, the aftermath of 7/7, it is also quite obvious that the BNP are well placed to make gains in next May’s local elections. As for parties like UKIP, in different ways, but with similar results, they are dangerous in the mistrust they foster. The repeated appeal to common-sense, the reduction of complex problems to expressions of outrage and disgust, the undermining of institutional reforms, all of these signal a resistance to change and adaptation that does not bode well in nations whose survival depends on embracing change and adapting both to its constraints and opportunities.

Overall, it is likely that populist and racist parties will probably keep doing relatively well in the next few years especially at the local level – across Europe in the next few years. Their niche in the localised politics of resentment is probably secure for a while longer. At this level of politics, resentment and fear are alive and well and well-placed to fuel populist and racist support. But overall, while they should be relentlessly combatted, it is folly to turn them into the wrong sort of threat by misreading the springs of their success or misinterpreting their intentions. UKIP is a lower middle-class revolt against modernity. Its fuel is confusion and the twin fears of fast-paced-change and loss of privilege. The BNP capitalise, not so much on fear of change, as, simply, fear itself. There is only one solution: brave management of long-standing and inevitable transformations, rather than political nostalgia.