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No Pasaran Youth against Racism in Europe magazine: Issue 11, Summer 2003

What kind of threat are the BNP today?

by Naomi Byron, YRE secretary

How far has Nick Griffin's project to reinvent the BNP as a far-right populist party gone? The vote that the BNP received in May 2003 has strengthened this process (though not completed it), and weakened the wing within the BNP that is most impatient to return to the strategy of street violence.

Griffin's rejection of his past position - that control of the streets was the aim of the far-right, not looking respectable and standing in elections - looks likely to hold firm. While some BNP members have been involved in a few scuffles, and are still prone to the odd slip (like the Nazi salutes given by BNP members leaving the count in Burnley after the May elections), these appear at the moment to be the exception rather than the rule.

There is no question of the leaders of the BNP and the hardcore of experienced members having fundamentally changed their neo-Nazi ideas - this new behaviour is purely a tactic aimed at breaking the BNP out of the marginal position it has always occupied.

The BNP has turned to this new strategy because they recognise that building a neo-Nazi organisation of more than a few thousand (the aim of the BNP’s previous leader John Tyndall) is impossible in the current political situation in Britain. Fed up of their isolation, they have decided to try to copy more successful far-right groups like the 'Freedom Party' in Austria and the National Front in France.

The BNP’s new public face

To make themselves more respectable and electable, the BNP have changed a number of their public policies. For example, they have dropped their public demand for 'compulsory repatriation' in favour of 'voluntary repatriation' of 'non-British' people living in Britain (as far as the BNP are concerned this means non-white).

Their policy of making homosexuality illegal has also been dropped (though in at least one internal meeting it was explained to BNP members that this was only for public consumption).

This turn has brought the BNP its biggest electoral successes ever, as well as huge publicity.

Fascism not on the agenda

A mass fascist movement is not a threat in Britain today.

The BNP cannot build some kind of mass fascist force in Britain over the next few years. Classical fascism, like that of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s, was a mass force of the ruined middle classes whose aim was to crush the working-class and its organisations.

Fascism used a combination of common prejudices and radical phrases to attract support, in the same way that the BNP does today. However, a fascist movement, by its very nature, must back up its populist propaganda with physical violence. The battle for control of the streets is essential, and this is what the BNP has backed off from in order to gain an electoral successes.

Despite their insignificant size, fascism has always previously been the BNP's model. For example during the early 1990s the BNP and its supporters carried out attacks on trade union offices (Mansfield NUM & Tower Hamlets Nalgo - now UNISON), and also carried out regular attacks on the left and the anti-racist movement.

However, the political period we are in is one of increasing trade union militancy and working-class struggle, not the series of serious defeats that workers suffered in Italy and Germany before Mussolini and Hitler were able to build serious fascist organisations.

Also, there are no serious sections of big business or the establishment that are prepared to back a neo-Nazi force at this stage. The establishment is quite aware that the use of right-wing militias against striking workers (for example against the firefighters in their dispute) could provoke a mass movement - against the militias, and also any government arrogant enough to use them.

What threat do the BNP pose today?

In the past the threat of the BNP has been partly physical and partly ideological. At the moment though, the main threat they pose is ideological: the influence that their propaganda and ideas can have on political debate and social attitudes in Britain, increasing the divisions that make it much harder for working-class people and local communities to fight back.

This is not to underestimate the threat that the BNP pose in Britain today. The BNP as populists are actually more dangerous than they were in their more openly neo-Nazi form, as they can reach and influence a much wider audience.

The way that the presence of the BNP can shift the political debate to the right has already been seen in New Labour's increasing attacks on asylum rights, and in the increased media coverage of the asylum issue (for example, The Sun's campaign earlier this year against people entering Britain illegally). Yet this only legitimises the BNP further.

Racist attacks

The level of racist attacks, and the level of attacks against asylum seekers had already been rising steadily for several years before the BNP re-appeared on the political scene. In part the BNP have merely exploited these rises. The level and nature of racist attacks, particularly in areas where the BNP has a significant active presence or councillors, need to be carefully monitored by the anti-racist and trade union movements.

Their successes in getting councillors elected (particularly because of the huge amount of media coverage they have received, making the BNP look much bigger and more powerful than they really are) has also had an effect in making racism much more accepted and respectable.

This is only helping to increase the existing divisions in communities - like Burnley and Bradford - which already have long-term problems with segregation, unemployment and poverty. Every new success for the BNP is a blow to the black and Asian community.

This is particularly the case for many black, Asian and Muslim young people who are angry at the racism they face in Britain as well as the problems of deprivation, low pay and exploitation; and radicalised by the brutal war fought against Iraq in the interests of US and British imperialism.

To these layers the presence of the BNP or the election of BNP councillors is yet another bitter insult; a rejection of their presence in Britain and right to be accepted as equals (despite the fact that the vast majority were born and brought up here).

Without a united movement against the BNP these radical layers, who should be some of the leaders of the anti-racist movement, could instead turn towards isolationist or separatist movements, or towards some of the right wing political Islamic movements that are trying to recruit.

Other groups targeted by the BNP, like the gay, Jewish and disabled communities, feel fear and anger at their advances. Even when leading BNP members are not carrying out or encouraging others to carry out hate crimes against these communities, the presence of a party (like the BNP) which has a long history of preaching hatred and carrying out physical attacks against them is a threat.

These increases in racism, tension and division are a weapon that the BNP uses against everyone, including its own supporters. For many deprived white communities, ignored by central and local government for years, this is a crucial question. None of the problems that working-class communities face will be solved without united campaigns for better resources. Everything the BNP does helps to sabotage this.

The threat of physical violence from the BNP

Will the BNP turn back to physical violence as a general tactic? This is most likely to happen if the BNP suffer serious electoral defeats and a section of the hardcore neo-Nazi wing of the BNP turn back to their old methods in despair.

However it is also possible that the BNP leadership will be prepared to tolerate a certain amount of violence and intimidation being used by a section of members or supporters. The Flemish Bloc in Belgium and the National Front in France both use physical violence against their political opponents (for example against the left in the universities) at the same time as using more populist methods to gain support in elections.

In the meantime, every anti-racist, anti-fascist and socialist needs to get involved in the task of campaigning against the BNP as they exist today.

>> Campaigning against racist attacks in Walthamstow