No, this is not a post about the events of the last two weeks in Australian public life, but a review of Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right, by Daniel Trilling (Verso, 2012). There is a connection, however, and if you bear with me I’ll return to it at the end.
Trilling charts the ascent of the British National Party under the leadership of Nick Griffin, in particular how Griffin pulled fascist strategy towards serious engagement with official politics. At its peak, in 2009, the BNP achieved electoral success exceeding that of any far-right organisation in British history, with 58 council seats and two members of European Parliament. It claimed to have over 12 500 members and, even as it started to falter, won over half a million votes at the 2010 General Election.
Bloody Nasty People is especially strong because it systematically dispels most of the mainstream mythology about the far Right. Trilling demonstrates how the ideologies that sustain British fascism are rooted in right-wing, nationalist and racist traditions to be found in more ‘acceptable’ conservative British quarters. He traces the post-Second World War regeneration of far-right currents in mainstream ‘new racism’ – based more on culture than biology – deployed by the likes of Enoch Powell.
With a real eye for local detail and colour, Trilling explains how the BNP’s October 1993 electoral breakthrough in the poverty-stricken Isle of Dogs, under the gleaming towers of London’s financial hub Canary Wharf, was initial vindication for a project of emulating the electoral success of the French Front National. With their livelihoods and social services neglected by all the mainstream parties, some East London voters looked to the BNP as the only local force claiming to offer something different. It was not that every BNP voter was a fascist, but that the party could make a convincing enough case that it would shake up the complacency of the political elite and stop politicians giving ‘special benefits’ to mainly South Asian immigrants. While the BNP soon lost that council seat, it continued to build its electoral machine and by the 2000s was making small but significant inroads in several British regions.
The resort to electoralism did not represent a softening of the BNP’s politics. Rather, it was a new strategy for building support after the defeat of the British National Front’s street orientation in the late 1970s. One result was that many mainstream politicians adapted their rhetoric to try to outflank the BNP on law and order, opposition to immigration and asylum seekers, and criticism of minorities. Talk of the need to protect ‘the white working class’ from the problems of multiculturalism became more common across the political spectrum in response to Griffin’s assertions that the BNP was the defender of a white identity under threat (an inversion of the identity politics previously considered the preserve of the Left). Yet Trilling also shows how each such move only legitimised Griffin’s party.
Traditionally, anti-fascist campaigning had been focused on direct confrontation when the far Right tried to march. The new BNP electoralism forced campaigners to adapt and engage much more with local politics and the political process, a complex matter that often led to debates over how to relate to mainstream politicians with lousy records on race but now keen to save themselves from the BNP threat. However, new methods of activism started to pay off. Successful Love Music Hate Racism festivals popularised the anti-fascist message among young people, and an increasingly sophisticated strategy of relating to elections added pressure. Meanwhile the initial spurt of rapid growth led to ructions within the BNP, with (as seems to be the norm for the far Right) death threats and violence being a prominent feature. Griffin botched an appearance on BBC’s Question Time (Britain’s version of Q&A) in 2009 while hundreds protested outside.
The 2010 election, with no seats won, seems to have been a turning point by disappointing inflated expectations of electoral success, and council seats began to tumble thereafter – including all 12 in the BNP stronghold of Barking. Yet if it appeared that the far Right would simply disappear, attention soon shifted to the English Defence League, a shadowy outfit emerging from football supporter networks but articulating a clear Islamophobic line and confrontational strategy on the streets. Since Trilling finished writing the book, campaigning against the EDL has led to significant setbacks for the organisation.
If there is one area that Trilling’s otherwise excellent book is weak, it is in explaining the context in which fascists can make an impact. At various points he mentions how the BNP fed off poor socioeconomic conditions and policies targeting minority groups, but this largely remains at the level of background detail. European fascists have tended to be more successful in conditions of growing social polarisation and relative economic stagnation in the decades since the end of the post-Second World War boom. But the hollowing out of political representation in the neoliberal era also creates a significant space for far-right alternatives to try to insert themselves.
Even where the far Right has posed it no threat, the political class has resorted to deflecting its failure to provide secure social conditions into the scapegoating of minority groups and other threats to national cohesion and security. Trilling recognises the influence of the War on Terror but misses how politicians’ use of coercive state power, often to try to mobilise authority when traditional social bases withered, creates the material basis for more authoritarian ideas and organisations to be legitimised. Thus Trilling places some hope in the actions of politicians and the state in addressing the threat of fascism where I would see them as much more part of the problem.
Perhaps this dynamic is clearer in Australia where the far Right has not achieved organisational breakthroughs in recent years, yet the actions of the political class and state have had the effect of what might be called the ‘fascisation’ of part of the Right’s constituency, as well as legitimising their vile ideas and language more widely. Perhaps controversially, I’d argue that the language being deployed by the Right – such a big issue in the last fortnight – is a much lesser danger than the actions of government around things like denying equal marriage rights, policing Muslim communities, mistreating asylum seekers, criminalising Indigenous populations, stripping benefits from single mothers and introducing ever more repressive security legislation (all while they remain united in support for military adventures abroad). In deeds there is little to separate the ALP from the Liberals, and the more both sides lose authority, the more that darker forces will find a space to claim they can succeed where the major parties have failed. Gillard may finally have found the ability to speak against some of what has been unleashed, but her actions continue to feed it.