The BNP is in freefall but there is potential for one of its many rivals to move into the space it vacates
Last week, a new report on the English Defence League was released. Detailing the key personalities within the movement and their links to the global “counter-jihad” movement, the document sought to set out what “really lies behind” the group that attracts considerable attention but remains little understood. The author, however, was not a researcher, campaigner or thinktank. It was the chairman of the British National party, Nick Griffin.
Griffin’s report marks the latest episode in an escalating story of tension between the BNP and EDL, which has so far been restricted to Twitter and the occasional slanging match at demonstrations. The report goes further, claiming that behind the EDL lie a number of shadowy neoconservatives and “Zionist terrorists” who are seeking to manipulate public concern over Islam to launch new wars and split the far right nationalist scene. It is classic conspiracy theory stuff, although it is no surprise that the co-leader of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was unconvinced: “I swear Nick Griffin’s lost the plot,” he announced on Twitter.
Seen from one angle, the episode is merely the latest example in a long history of rivalry within the far right. The latest accusations are partly a response to anxieties within the BNP about being out-flanked by the EDL and its new alliance with British Freedom, which will see both groups increase their involvement in elections. This begins with elections for a police commissioner in Bedford in November, but may snowball into more significant campaigns at the 2013 local elections and 2014 European elections (where two BNP candidates, including Griffin, hope to save their seats).
For the BNP, the significance of the challenge is underscored by a disastrous set of results at elections this year. At the London mayoral election, its candidate of Uruguayan heritage polled fewer than 29,000 first preference votes, finishing seventh and failing to match the party’s result in 2000. Meanwhile, at the Greater London Assembly elections the number of BNP votes was lower than at any previous contest and at local elections the party stood fewer than 140 candidates and failed to win a single seat. With the party in electoral freefall, there is space for a new challenger.
But the rivalry also reflects a broader process of fragmentation within the far right. The most striking aspect of this year’s elections was the number of far right parties competing alongside the BNP. In England, local elections were contested by 149 candidates from far right groups other than the BNP, and in some areas these out-performed the 30-year-old party. In Dudley, for example, the BNP was forced to watch its old and more ideologically extreme rival, the National Front, attract more votes. This owes much to a series of personality clashes and ideological splits that have spawned an increasing number of groups, including Britain First, British Freedom, British People’s party, England First, National Front, English Democrats, Democratic Nationalists and the Britannica party. Most lack resources and members, but their emergence reflects a scene that is in transition and has not yet decided on its destination.
More broadly, the BNP-EDL rivalry also reflects how the failure of the far right has often owed more to internal disunity than a lack of external space. The latest spat follows a long line of disputes between the BNP and the National Front in the 1980s, the BNP and Combat 18 in the 1990s, and Griffin and his internal critics in the 2000s. But in Britain, as elsewhere, there has emerged a perfect storm for the far right: ongoing public concern over immigration, more specific anxiety over Islam, falling trust in political institutions, weakening bonds between voters and mainstream parties and the financial crisis have each offered opportunities.
The picture is not all bad, as the young are generally more tolerant than older generations. But there clearly remains ample potential for a far right populist challenger. Whether this latest round of internecine rivalry will remain confined to elections remains to be seen. What is clear is that – one way or another – the modern face of far right politics in Britain looks set to have a makeover.
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