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Among the Thugs—Britain’s Far Right

SINCE THE GOVERNMENT of David Cameron came to power in 2010, the United Kingdom has been subjected to a brutally masochistic economic joke—“policy” is too kind a word—for which, the prime minister confirmed in an October interview, there is no end in sight. For Cameron and George Osborne, his chancellor of the exchequer, austerity is always the answer: any bit of good news is proof that austerity works, while the more frequent bad news proves that deeper cuts are the only way forward. They have hit everything from hospitals to the civil service, and the result has been a sharp double-dip contraction worse than most other OECD countries, with the prospect of a third one near. The British economy, even without the straitjacket of the euro, is performing worse at this point than it did at the equivalent pass in the 1930s. Welcome to the depression, chaps! 

In just a few years Britain—which last decade could call itself the most dynamic country in Europe—has simply accepted mass unemployment, stagnated growth, and a ravaged urban landscape one Tory columnist called “Detroit UK.” And the economic disaster has far-reaching social consequences: far more than the United States, Britain is now suffering from a crisis not just of finance but also of institutions. The four-years-and-counting News International phone-hacking scandal (which reaches all the way to Cameron’s desk) is only the largest: from the giant Libor scam to the recent upheaval at the BBC, what may once have elicited democratic anger now only prompts Italian-style acceptance of establishment rot.

And still it comes, for Cameron’s Britain is a land where ideology can be so strong that its defenders are willing to burn money in order to preserve their convictions. The 1980s this is not. The old Thatcherites wanted to cut the state mostly in order to get rich, but Britain’s new austerity enthusiasts have left the poor poorer and the rich poorer, too. Outdated fantasies about soaring interest rates (in fact, borrowing costs are at a 300-year low, essentially free) keep getting trotted out, while clueless intonations that the country has “no more money” continue to appear in respectable newspapers and magazines; the case for Keynesian stimulus remains far afield. At the Tory party conference in October, Cameron used the notion of government spending as a laugh line. And a traumatized nation mired in a preventable depression keeps calm and carries on.

IN SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES, it may seem a bit strange for Daniel Trilling, an editor at the center-left weekly the New Statesman, to have devoted a book to the phenomenon of the British far right. In the face of the wholesale destruction of British society now underway, the real extremists, it seems, are in Downing Street. But Bloody Nasty People (the title is borrowed from a headline in The Sun, a Murdoch tabloid) is an exposé of the neo-fascist British National Party (BNP) and its longtime leader Nick Griffin; but it also chronicles the last fifteen years in British society—notably, immigration, the Iraq war, and deepening income inequality—through the filthy lens of political extremism. In this way, it is a book about more than just the far right. It is also about extreme fears that sidle toward the center and mainstream anxieties that get blown out of proportion at the fringes.

The recent history of the British hard right is therefore an important story for today, and Trilling is a crack reporter. For this rigorously researched book he undertook the disagreeable assignment of interviewing not only Griffin (at a dodgy Essex pub), but also a mixed collection of racists, fascists, and delusionals. His book starts with the National Front, led by the Holocaust denier John Tyndall, which surged in the 1970s but fell back after the Thatcher government came to power. Tyndall, “the Führer of Notting Hill,” went on to form the British National Party in 1982. The BNP espoused appalling policies, such as the mandatory “repatriation” of non-white immigrants, but their influence was small through the mid-1990s.

But Nick Griffin, who was then editing the party’s in-house magazine, saw a model across the channel: Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National (FN), who had forced immigration to the center of French politics. With the guidance of an FN strategist, Griffin started to recast the party in a lepéniste mold, emphasizing the supposed tyranny of the European Union, threats to security, and the indifference to everyday Britons of “a self-chosen, self-serving politico-media ‘elite.’” And it worked. The press stopped calling the BNP “fascist” or “Nazi,” favoring the terms “far right” or “ultra-nationalist.”

By 1999, Griffin had wrested control of the BNP, and in a series of special elections for vacant parliamentary seats the party performed disconcertingly well. Soon they were winning spots on local councils, first in post-industrial towns in the north, then in London. Who was to blame? The scapegoat was the Labour Party, whose embrace of neo-liberalism under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown allegedly alienated its traditional working-class base of support. (Immigration had become such a combustible issue that, soon after becoming prime minister, Brown endorsed “British jobs for British workers”—a sentiment that is not only racist, but illegal under EU law.)

Yet Trilling argues that Labour alone was not to blame. The Tories under William Hague, now foreign secretary in the Cameron government, went into the 2001 election on an ugly platform that called for all asylum-seekers to be thrown into detention. The war in Iraq didn’t help. Neither did the London bombings in 2005. Britain’s fanatical tabloid press, with its xenophobic and often explicitly anti-Muslim front pages, also stoked the fires: “BRITAIN TO TURN ISLAMIC BY 2035,” screamed the downmarket Daily Star.

For the BNP, whose constitution banned non-white members and claimed London was being “ethnically cleansed,” the time appeared ripe. In 2009, Griffin ran for a seat in the European parliament, telling reporters that Islam was a “cancer eating away at our freedoms and our democracy” and that the EU should torpedo migrants’ boats in the Mediterranean. He won. The party seemed to be edging toward respectability; the BNP had never gained seats in Strasbourg before. At the same time, the mainstream British parties were humiliated by a running expenses scandal that revealed how members of parliament had billed the taxpayer for everything from home renovations to pornography to Kit Kat bars.

Against this background, the BBC invited Griffin to appear on Question Time, a tedious but inexplicably popular political debate program. The Beeb—correctly, in my view—insisted that it had no choice: the broadcaster is subject to impartiality rules, and Griffin was an elected representative from a legal political party. But mainstream politicians and much of the media were furious, and the Brown government was divided over whether a minister should appear at all. (Eventually they sent Jack Straw, the justice secretary and MP for Bradford, where the BNP had a seat on the city council.) The possibility of a real breakthrough for the hard right, one comparable to that of the Front National in the 1980s, hung in the air.

But it turned out that for all Griffin’s tabloid appeal, he had none of Le Pen’s television savvy, and on the program he came across as unprepared and unqualified. “He rambled, prevaricated, seemed unable to give straight answers to straight questions,” Trilling writes. “When the subject of Holocaust denial was raised, he had a strange smirk on his face.” One panelist sensibly tried to steer the discussion away from race and toward economics, the real cause of extremism—and yet, writes Trilling, “in the midst of a global recession, the real question of ‘resources’ was barely touched upon.” Instead the host kept the emphasis on racism and immigration, and Griffin crumbled. An Asian audience member told him to “go to the South Pole, it’s a colorless landscape. You’d love it.”

Griffin left the BBC deflated, and he did not recover. The BNP went on to get pummeled in the general election in 2010, and in local elections last May the party lost ten of its twelve seats. Its finances are a shambles. Amid the usual small-party infighting, Griffin recently faced a leadership challenge from “an aging neo-Nazi.” Griffin, once the uncontested chief, could manage the barest of new mandates: he scraped through by just nine votes.

Still, this book carries the subtitle The Rise of Britain’s Far Right, and Trilling cautions against any easy celebration. Griffin might have failed his prime-time test, but the claims that undergirded his earlier success were largely unchallenged. “Now, during the worst economic crisis in a century, with a coalition government whose austerity policies are guaranteed to spread despondency further still,” Trilling insists, “people have more reason than ever to worry about the future.”

Can the BNP stage a comeback? Maybe, but maybe not. It has become conventional wisdom that the crisis represents some hard-right bonanza, but nationalist and ultraconservative parties have advanced irregularly since the start of the European crisis, and there is no clear connection between the economic position of an EU nation and its propensity for extremism. Greece’s repulsive Golden Dawn, a motley brigade of Holocaust-denying fascists whose (male) leader smacked another (female) politician on national television, made gains at the last election, but support for them pales to that for the pragmatic leftists of Syriza. The collapse of Spain has benefited regional parties, not extremist ones. In France last May, Marine Le Pen notched the best presidential result ever for the Front National, and her 22-year-old niece got into parliament. But not only has the German extremist right made no gains since the crisis began, but German nationalism has made no inroads, and Germans remain strongly pro-European. (Whatever Angela Merkel’s missteps, this is one of her major achievements.) Finland—a “creditor nation” rather than a “debtor nation,” in the unfortunate locution of the day—has seen the rise of the xenophobic True Finns, but in the Netherlands, also a “creditor nation,” Geert Wilders’s xenophobes were trounced in September’s election. Outside the eurozone, the picture is no clearer: the hard right has fallen back in Denmark and Poland, advanced in Hungary and Romania.

And in Britain? Well, the hard right there has never had a charismatic leader like Wilders, the Le Pens, or Denmark’s Pia Kjærsgaard. Griffin, amazingly, was the best they could muster. None seems to be on the horizon, either: the head of the English Defence League (EDL), a crew of Islamophobic street brawlers sometimes spoken of as a BNP successor, is in custody for passport fraud. (Griffin, for his part, hates the EDL and accuses it of harboring “Zionist terrorists.”) It helps, too, that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has got his act together after a rocky start and is now finally making the case for expansionary fiscal policy and the virtues of the welfare state—because the truly terrifying prospect is that the hard right takes on, unchallenged, the anti-austerity mantle.

In Trilling’s portrait of the last decade, the BNP was a predictable phenomenon, one that naturally accompanies cynical Blairite politics and a growing gap between rich and poor. But the 2000s look like a golden age compared to the perpetual desolation of the Cameron era. Miliband’s reviving Labour Party and the less ideologically blinkered press have to make the case for government and against the mindless dogma of austerity—austerity that doesn’t just destroy communities and ruin lives in the long run, but that hasn’t even succeeded on its own short-run fiscal terms to lower deficits or stimulate private sector demand. Otherwise we may see not only the continuation of this British nightmare, but an even darker time in which the only alternative for most Britons is Griffin and his ilk.

Jason Farago is a writer based in New York. Follow: @jsf