Sunday Review: New British Fascism: rise of the British National Party by Matthew J Goodwin

by Anthony Painter

The BNP has overreached itself. In an attempt to make the political big time, it stretched its resources and organisational capability beyond the point of elasticity. Triumph for the forces of hope over the forces of hate? Yes. But, as Matthew J Goodwin argues in the New British Fascism, the extreme right is a more permanent phenomenon than we wish to admit. This has deeper consequences for our politics than we seem to want to face up to.

Where this book succeeds is in tying together narrative history, survey and statistical evidence, and interviews gleaned from BNP activists themselves. It gives us both a sense of context and continuity. The rise of the BNP was down to a different way of communicating hate – focused more on culture and nation than race per se – and it was also dependent on community based organisation. However, the BNP tapped a reservoir of support that was particular and politically instrumental.

Whether the BNP is still with us at the next election or not, it will have a successor. Its exodus is latching onto other groups and parties – the English Democrats and the English Defence League seem obvious places for disillusioned BNP activists to head. Indeed, ex-BNP London Assembly, Richard Barmbrook, was invited to join the English Democrats. It remains to be seen whether they can survive their transformation into the successors to the BNP as their existing membership base revolts.

Two substantive factors have changed over the last decade or so. Racially driven extremism has been rejected. They are still racist but the BNP and others have evolved their argument into a more sophisticated critique of cultural threat, political betrayal, and economic desolation. This is what has enabled the BNP, falsely, to claim that they are the “Labour party that your father voted for”.

The second factor that transformed the far right was the historically high net immigration. Quite simply, mainstream politics was blind-sided. Immigration tied together cultural angst, economic anxiety, and political distrust. As an issue, it moved from the fringe to the mainstream. The BNPs successes were both a symptom and a catalyst of that.

So who is attracted to the BNP? They are generally aged over-35, C2 or DE, not in full-time work but do own their own house. Are we talking the National Front grown up? Yes and no. The activist base – especially at senior level – often has roots in the National Front, but its supporter base is strikingly different in many ways. BNP supporters are more northern (41% are in the north) whereas the National Front was more urban London/West Midlands. We may be talking about a similar socio-political phenomenon, but its geography is strikingly different. What is notable from Goodwin’s interviews with BNP activists is their Labour background – they feel let down by Labour, but live in traditional Labour, single-industry or highly concentrated industry towns. Voters are more mixed with a quarter coming from Conservative backgrounds.

There is a clear group of people to whom the BNP had an attraction. Despite the Twitter and chattering class (tautological?) opprobrium heaped on Nick Griffin after his Question Time performance, 20% said they would consider voting for the party in a poll straight afterwards. In our Searchlight Fear and Hope report, a Populus poll put 23% in the categories of either “latent hostility” or “active enmity”. The numbers are strikingly similar. The good news is that the far right is quarantined – especially when you have street thugs, Holocaust deniers, and besuited racists bouncing around. The bad news is that there are more subtle forms of hate and division that can reach beyond hostility and enmity.

Goodwin is right in his contention that the far-right is not a Richard Hofstadter phenomenon: “once they have stung, they die”. Rather, they are more like moths: they come out in the dark, and metamorphose from one form to another. The BNP may only be the pupal stage of the British right. From National Front to BNP to who knows what, at each stage they have tried to shed their previous form. Luckily, they have failed – and that may be intrinsic to the psycho-political type we are talking about. Let’s not be complacent though. The latest incarnation, the English Defence League is a complete political dead end – it’s a reversion to the National Front type. However, what’s to say that a culturally nationalist yet rhetorically moderate form of fascism won’t emerge?

In previous times, working-class solidarity and the labour movement guarded against fascism. Now the working-classes are fragmented, politically pluralistic, and don’t feel anywhere near the same degree of class solidarity. Labour can try a nostalgic political strategy but it will fall on deaf ears. When Labour came into office in 1997, there was a thin and defensive (mainly northern) class solidarity following the Thatcher/Major threat. Tory-Lib Dem austerity may create a similar reaction, but I wouldn’t bank on it. The Labour party no longer exists solely as the political wing of the English working-class. Nor will it be so ever again.

My guess is that immigration – once the government cap proves to be yet another political deception – will remain as an issue and may even spike again. Further serious immigration control, even if it were possible, will be exceedingly economically harmful. Indeed, it already is economically harmful so the low-hanging fruit of tougher borders has already been plucked. Alongside that, the politics of nation is humming in the background. Like immigration before it, the political class is refusing to contemplate an untapped English sentiment. Optimistic Scottish nationalism presents an existential challenge to our current political form. Just as was the case with immigration, our political classes seem happy to leave this discussion to antagonistic and hate-filled voices. Once bitten, bitten again, and again and again.

Unless there is a mainstream political answer to economic anxiety, cultural angst and political distrust, we are in dangerous territory. These are the implications of Goodwin’s analysis. New British Fascism is not only essential for understanding how a bunch of neo-Nazis became a political force; it hints at the real political challenges we collectively face. This excellent analysis is grounded in evidence. Yet, between the lines, it contains warning signals not only for those communities which suffer as a result of the politics of hate, but for all our political future. Ignore these debates, these real concerns and we will reap what we sow.

Anthony Painter is a writer and critic.

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6 Responses to “Sunday Review: New British Fascism: rise of the British National Party by Matthew J Goodwin”

  1. Gary says:

    Let me get this straight:

    1) BNP activists are “Labour background – they feel let down by Labour, but live in traditional Labour, single-industry or highly concentrated industry towns”

    2) BNP supporters are “41% are in the north” and less likely to be Tory (“a quarter coming from Conservative backgrounds”).

    3) Unsuprisingly then, It’s Barking and Degenham or Stoke that see strong display from the BNP i.e. Labour areas. This is consistent with the *fact* that “most likely (more than half) to have been Labour voters” (a).

    So why do we insist on calling this a ‘far right’ issue? This is squarely an issue of Labour supporters voting for working class issues like nationalisation, etc. That’s a LONG way away from ‘far right’.

    I don’t come here to read the Daily Mail. I expect a serious, evidence-based discussion. Denying the facts will not help the left make progress.


  2. Gary, you seem quite worked up but I’m not sure I understand why. I’d recommend the book as it has bucket loads of evidence/data.

    I don’t think your ‘Labour not left-wing enough’ explanation of the BNP in the 2000s quite hits the nail on the head. Labour lost around 5 million voters from 1997-2010 and good majority of them were C2DE. The BNP had the support of around 500,000 or so in the 2010 election. If Labour lost those voters because they were not true old clause four voters and the BNP was a natural home for them then why did 90% of Labour’s lost voters not vote BNP?

    There’s something else at play; and whatever the BNP say about their economic approach etc, the simple fact is that they are self-evidently a ethnic nationalist party. Given that is what they are recognised as, it must be that which is a major part of their appeal. And in fact, Goodwin explains how the BNP targets economic anxiety, cultural concern, and mistrust in politics. If it were just about socialist betrayal as you imply then why did these 500,000 go for the BNP instead of, say, the Socialist Workers Party?

    It just doesn’t make sense. So I’m sticking with Goodwin and my own research on this- voting BNP is a particular phenomenon, it’s real, but it’s a complex mix of factors.

  3. (and ps all of the 500,000 BNP voters were not ex-Labour voters so the conversion from Labour to BNP voter is actually significantly less than 10% of Labour’s lost support from 1997-2010.)

  4. John P Reid says:

    the English democrats want Norhtern Ireland tobe part of Ireland and had talks with Sinn Fein on such, Richard Barnbrook the Ex BNP member was a former albour party member, I agree that the BNP have imploded and that people who were ex laobur voters who aren’t ready to come back to us may go over to the english democrats, But we still have to ask oursleves why did former labour voters start supporting political parties with strong immigration policies, rather than trying to compare the BNPO to the EDL or to English democrats, (or two compare teh EDL toenglish democrats either).

  5. Robert says:

    No your right denying the fact that labour do not speak anymore for the working class but is now in a full blown battle with the Tories to become the party of the small C.

    Labours got little to offer people like myself and I was in the party for a life time wasted.

    But sadly the BNP do not yet offer politics, it offering hate, once it or it’s forerunner get it’s act together drops the silly racism and gets on with politics it may well become a real party of the working class.

  6. Edward McKenna says:


    You say:

    “Labour lost around 5 million voters from 1997-2010 and good majority of them were C2DE. The BNP had the support of around 500,000 or so in the 2010 election. If Labour lost those voters because they were not true old clause four voters and the BNP was a natural home for them then why did 90% of Labour’s lost voters not vote BNP?”

    Firstly, the BNP did not stand everywhere, so you can’t say that all the lost Labour voters had the opportunity to vote BNP even if they’d wanted to.

    Secondly, Labour lost votes for a range of reasons, not all to do with Clause 4. If they had been, then Labour’s vote would have taken a hit in 1997. Things like the Iraq war and the various sleaze scandals – Bernie Ecclestone to cash for peerages – led people to become disillusioned with Labour, along with the realisation that hardly anyone out of New Labour had ever done an honest day’s work in their lives. The creation of a new political elite unconnected with people’s everyday lives, politicians who had gone to university, from university into Labour party jobs, to being selected as councillors or MPs – as well as other issues – alienated people from the Labour party.

    Thirdly, a proportion of the lost votes would have been from ethnic minorities. Their reasons for abandoning the party might be different from their white working class peers – but I doubt they would vote BNP. You seem to ignore the ethnic diversity of the working class.

    Fourthly, while I believe there is a correlation between some working class, poor Labour voting areas and a rise in the BNP’s vote, this is not entirely due to the Labour party’s performance in Parliament, but to the Labour party taking their vote for granted *and* the BNP trying new tactics and making a connection with local people which other parties no longer did except at election time, where they still bothered to. The ideas of politics by focus group and the changing demographics of Labour party politicians put the party at a remove from those it claimed to represent.

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