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Who's Afraid of British Muslims?

November 30, 2012Print This Post         

Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right,
by Daniel Trilling,
London: Verso, 240 pp.

by Roger Eatwell

Since the late 1990s, immigration has been a far more important issue in Britain than in almost any other European country. Indeed, for much of the new millennium it has been the thing which most troubles voters. Although opinion polls now show that concerns about the economy figures more prominently, the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey reports that 51 per cent of respondents seek a major reduction in immigration. Moreover, polls indicate growing hostility towards Muslims in particular: a 2012 Guardian poll found that only 28 per cent believe that Muslims want to integrate into British society.

Paradoxically, anti-immigrant parties have attracted far less electoral support than in countries such as Austria, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, yet alone that achieved by the mainstream Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which in 2009 led a referendum that banned minaret-building. In Britain, the National Front (NF) briefly threatened an electoral breakthrough during the 1970s before disappearing into obscurity. Its main successor, the British National Party (BNP), seemed set to suffer the same fate until it began to gather support after 2000 in a number of localities such as Burnley, Barking and Stoke. In the 2009 European elections, it elected two Members of the European Parliament in northern England, including its Cambridge University-educated leader Nick Griffin. However, hopes of a major breakthrough in the 2010 general elections were dashed. It has since lost virtually all its council seats and lapsed into internecine warfare, not least with the anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL).

Daniel Trilling’s new book offers a journalistic survey of this British scene, focusing especially on the rise of the BNP (the book has little to say about its decline). His account is very readable, though it offers no serious analysis of the debates which rage between academics about the relative importance of ‘agency’ and ‘structures’. The first refers to factors such as the way in which Griffin ‘modernised’ the party after becoming leader in 1999, including dropping policies such as the ‘compulsory repatriation’ of immigrants, and the way in which the media and other parties help or hinder such parties. ‘Structures’ refers to factors such as the impact of new immigration on communities, the effects of globalisation on the male working class, and institutional constraints such as the first past the post system used in many British elections.

The NF rose during the 1970s at a time of both growing ethnic tensions and unemployment, and predictably early analyses of the revival of the extreme right focused on ‘structures’. Such factors undoubtedly remain important. It is impossible to analyse the appeal of the BNP without looking at the rise in asylum seeker applications from a few thousand in the 1980s to a peak of over 100,000 in 2002, and New Labour’s view that migration encouraged economic dynamism (though it misjudged the high levels of newcomers following European Union expansion in 2004). Similarly, the BNP’s appeal to a section of the working class has to be understood in terms of including loss of male status, deskilling and a fear of economic change. BNP voters are not only characterised by strong hostility to immigrants: they are also extremely pessimistic about their future.

However, such approaches have serious limitations when it comes to explaining the highly localised nature of BNP support and national spikes in support. Although the BNP is electorally strongest where there are immigrant communities, there is no simple correlation at the local level with the size or composition of ethnic minorities. For example, the ethnic minority community in Burnley was notably smaller than in some areas where the BNP failed such as Leicester (a former NF stronghold). Moreover, an Ipsos-MORI poll in 2009 showed that whilst 70 per cent of respondents thought that immigration was a problem for Britain, only 18 per cent saw it as a problem for their own locality. This points to the likelihood that opinions about migrants and ethnic minorities are not so much influenced by direct experience as by other sources, notably the media.

Trilling’s title comes from a 2004 Sun newspaper headline about the BNP. The accompanying lead-article reinforced the point by claiming that the party was ‘a collection of evil, hate-filled moronic thugs…who should be locked up.’ This acerbic attack raises the question why sections of the tabloid media have frequently hyped immigration, but have either ignored the BNP or sought to damn it. However, Trilling focuses more on the claim that the media and mainstream politicians have at times set an agenda which was very similar to the BNP’s. Certainly Gordon’s Brown’s references after 2007 to ‘British jobs for British workers’ echoed a prominent BNP slogan, while some local Labour politicians argued for ‘Old’ Labour policies such as building more social housing, even for ending its allocation purely on need (which could favour new immigrants over those who had been on housing lists for years). This belated Labour response sought to counter a growing belief that it was no longer the party of the working class. Indeed, as Trilling notes in one chapter title, the BNP often campaigned as ‘the Labour Party your parents voted for’.

In some constituencies the Labour Party had largely ceased to canvass and its connections with traditional working class organisations was weak. Trilling accurately portrays how in places like Burnley BNP organisers developed a new form of ‘community politics’, partly influenced by the Liberal Democrat practice, which sought to re-connect with voters. The BNP did not simply exploit myths about the favourable treatment of ethnic minorities, but offered to deal with issues of everyday concern. In some cases, the party was inadvertently helped by a local media which covered immigration in provocative ways and/or reinforced a sense of economic despair. For instance, in 2001 a Burnley Express feature writer opined: ‘Those who think living in Burnley has all the attraction of a des res downwind of Sellafield – or a large cardboard box with a welcome mat outside in Albania – received some good news this week – life expectancy in Burnley is low, so they won’t have to put up with it for (too) long.’

As support grew, the BNP shipped in outside activists to help campaigning and create a sense of a growing movement. However, the BNP never attracted sufficient members or income to be able to engage in such activity beyond a small number of localities. In spite of its attempts at ‘modernisation’, it was widely seen as having a ‘spoiled identity’. This was partly because the party continued to offer a home to notable neo-fascist wings, though some of the factionalism which regularly plagued the party concerned personality as much as ideology and tactics. Trilling rightly stresses how the BNP never overcame this extremist side, a point stressed in local counter-mobilisation by ‘anti-fascist’ organisations such as Searchlight and Hope Not Hate, which sought to build links to trade unions and other civil society groups.

In order fully to understand this spoiled identity it is also important to look at the national media. Sections of the tabloid media have been more than happy to use provocative and often inaccurate headlines about ethnic minorities, such as the Daily Express’s 2005 claim that: ‘Christmas Is Banned: It Offends Muslims’. However, in the run-up to the 2009 European elections several tabloids openly attacked the BNP and the Hope Not Hate campaign was given extensive coverage by the Daily Mirror. After the elections, Griffin was controversially invited to appear on the BBC’s flagship Question Time, breaking the cordon sanitaire which the mainstream parties had previously sought to impose on the BNP. The result was less the beginning of a television breakthrough than a lynching, helped by Griffin’s lack of charismatic appeal. Typical of the onslaught in the tabloid media the next day was Daily Express’s headline that: ‘BNP Leader Nick Griffin Is a Disgrace to Humanity’.

One explanation for this apparently schizophrenic tabloid coverage is a desire on the part of some tabloid editors and owners to help the Conservatives, who after the 1960s were seen as the mainstream party which was toughest on immigration. The Conservatives had successfully played the immigration card in the closing stages of the 1992 general election, but early in the new millennium there were splits in the party leadership about the effect of anti-immigration campaigning on the growing number who seemed attracted to the Liberal Democrats. However, faced with the growing challenge of the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP), which gained its best vote in the 2004 European elections in Boston & Skegness, where migrant labour was a notable issue, the Conservatives responded by making immigration a major theme in the 2005 election.

Another explanation of the tabloids’ coverage of these issues is that they were not so much trying to lead opinion as follow it. The ongoing Leveson inquiry has not only revealed a continuing Press Baron tradition of seeking to use newspapers for political purposes, but also the intense competition between papers whose sales were dropping in the face of competition from other sources, not least the internet. The fact that the tabloid media also trumpeted the sleaze scandals which afflicted all the major parties, and which were very much highlighted in BNP propaganda during 2009, further underlines the question about the extent to which coverage was intended mainly to help the Conservatives.

Major debates rage in academia about the causal relationship between media content and audience opinions which cannot be pursued here. However, there is no doubt that concerns about immigration, yet alone racism, are not new in Britain. For example, recent events show that racism is far from dead in football; it is very much alive and kicking today, with crowds sometimes openly taunting black players. As recently as the 1970s, opinion polls showed that around 30 per cent supported the National Front’s signature policy, namely the compulsory repatriation of ‘immigrants’ (which for most respondents meant all who were not white, regardless of their place of birth). This is a remarkable figure given that overt racism in the post-Nazi era had become a taboo, which people tended to seek to hide in public discourse.

In his Conclusion, Trilling argues that ‘a significant proportion’ of BNP voters shared its ‘biological racism’. However, this overstates the truly racist side of the BNP. Indeed, in many ways it stereotypes BNP support in a similar way to terming a significant section of the working class ‘chavs’, an approach which Trilling rightly derides. Academic work which interviewed members who joined the BNP after 2000 has shown that many had previously been apolitical and had come to the BNP following some form of epiphany, such as a daughter pushed down a housing list by a new immigrant or children struggling in schools in which English was no longer the major language. Whilst there are some ‘bloody nasty people’ in the BNP, the former type of supporter needs engaging with rather than damning. Although it is not always easy to draw a neat line between racism and legitimate concerns, many BNP voters were protesting about a Labour government which did not seem to listen to related concerns about issues such as housing, schools, jobs and wages.

Some recent academic approaches have played down these last points, stressing more a ‘clash of civilizations’ approach, especially the anti-Islamic side to the opposition to immigration. Certainly opinion polls show growing fears about Islam, and the BNP had begun to highlight Islam even before the 9/11 attacks. However, the correlation between BNP voting and local Muslim communities is probably spurious. There is evidence that, as in Burnley, concerns about ethnic minority communities are strongest where these are concentrated and they gain political influence which encourages a belief that they are receiving unfavourable treatment. Muslim communities are more geographically concentrated than most. A similar point can be made if attention turns from voting to so-called ‘Paki bashing’. For example, one study of Manchester has shown that whilst the victims were all Muslim, the causes were more a diffuse racism and especially economic envy of taxi and small business owners who were seen as forms of capitalist by those living on poor white estates.

In his Conclusion, Trilling notes the possibility of a BNP comeback. Certainly the structural factors which helped the BNP’s rise have not disappeared. Indeed, a deepening of recession could heighten concerns about immigration, especially as the controls on Bulgarian and Romanian migration end in 2013 and the government is very unlikely to meet its target of notably reducing net migration overall. A September 2012 YouGov-Extremis project poll showed that there was significant latent support for a strongly anti-migrant party, though it is important to note that the claim there is about a 15-20% potential for a ‘modernised’ British extremist party has been around since the 1970s. Indeed, it is a point I frequently made myself in the last century.

However, it is important to distinguish between concerns about immigration and support for racist and authoritarian politics. Although politicians are now held in far lower respect than a generation ago, Britain is not characterised by notable anti-democratic sub-cultures of the types which have been found in some other European countries. Moreover, the YouGov poll noted above clearly shows that younger voters are far more at ease with a multicultural society in terms of accepting difference (though not necessarily accepting the rights that some claim difference entails). Although the onset of major economic crisis could change voting, the current evidence points to a cohort effect in which young peoples’ views stem from being raised in a very different society to that which existed before the 1970s. It is a Britain in which images of ‘London 2012’ reflect a new reality, not just a sporting dream, though all too often leading politicians seem afraid to proclaim it.

The BNP and its small successor groups are currently in disarray, while the EDL seems to have lost momentum. Indeed, if any party is likely to benefit from anti-immigrant sentiment electorally in the near future it is much more likely to be UKIP, especially in the ‘second order’ 2014 European elections. If a major threat from racism remains, it is more in the potential for a form of ‘cumulative extremism’, in which white terrorism and violence forms part of a wider spiral. However, the numbers willing to engage in such activity remains very small, though these could grow if defectors from the BNP and others return to the idea of promoting ‘race war’ rather than winning elections.


About the Author:

Roger Eatwell is Professor of Comparative European Politics at the University of Bath.

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