Yesterday, one of the two British National Party Members of the European Parliament resigned his membership of the flagging extreme right group. The resignation of Andrew Brons -a veteran and influential activist within the far right- leaves Nick Griffin as the only BNP voice in the European Parliament. More broadly, the split reduces the total number of elected BNP officials to four -a long fall from its heyday in 2009 when the party had one seat on the Greater London Assembly, two MEPs, and dozens of local councillors.
The departure of Brons was a long time coming, and will surprise few who take an active interest in Britain’s far right. The roots of the split lie in a series of personality disputes, and allegations among the grassroots that Griffin is financially and politically incompetent (or, as some claim, simply corrupt). As journalists poured over the BNP’s ‘success’ at the 2009 European elections, inside the party a growing revolt was fuelled by a feeling among some of the more astute BNP organisers that -looking toward UKIP’s 13 seats- their party should actually have done far better. ’Perhaps this is as far as we can go with Griffin’, they began to mutter.
The subsequent failure to breakthrough in Barking and Stoke at the 2010 general election, and a series of costly legal disputes, pushed a growing number of these activists to the conclusion that the party could go no further, and that -ultimately- Griffin would never relinquish control. Some of these rebels left politics altogether. Others joined a growing number of far right competitors. The increasing significance of the latter was evident by the time of the 2012 local elections, which -excluding the BNP- were fought by a total of 149 candidates from a range of other extreme and radical right-wing groups, including the English Democrats, National Front, British Freedom, Democratic Nationalists, England First or the British People’s Party. While these parties vary in terms of their ideology and history, most are united in their opposition to Griffin.
Of course, this internal warfare is nothing new. Historically, Britain’s far right has long failed to cultivate the internal unity and discipline that have come to characterise some of its far more successful cousins on the continent. Factionalism is the perennial Achilles heel of the British far right. Similarly, even from 2001, and as its electoral fortunes improved, the BNP exhibited an ongoing tendency to implode: a revolt from activists loyal to its expelled founder, John Tyndall; a rebellion from activists who bemoaned the lack of financial transparency; and then a revolt from the so-called ‘December rebels’ who voiced dissatisfaction over the party’s growing debt and Griffin’s dictatorial style of leadership. Each of these challenges failed, as Griffin’s stubborn persistence became one of the defining features of the British far right. Indeed, for this reason alone Brons’ resignation is unlikely to enact the fatal blow to Griffin, who though embattled will not simply abandon forty years of work on what many within the movement describe simply as “the cause”.
Electorally, however, Griffin is unlikely to retain his seat in the North West region at the 2014 European elections. This owes less to infighting than to the conclusion reached by most voters that his party is simply not a credible or legitimate alternative, despite their concerns over core far right issues. His only hope lies in stubbornly persistent economic stagnation, and evidence that the far right has reaped some electoral benefits from the financial crisis. At the 2010 general election, the BNP polled strongest in constituencies that experienced the largest increases in unemployment rates since 2005. Add to this the prospect of further local service cuts, ongoing public concerns over immigration and asylum, and anxieties in northern towns over the ‘grooming’ or child exploitation issue, and there emerge clear opportunities for the only far right movement in Britain that can realistically claim to be a household name. In other words, while it is unlikely that the thirty-year old BNP will save its last remaining seat in the European Parliament, it is far too early to write off the prospect.
Yet, seen from another angle nor does it really matter whether or not Griffin retains the seat. Since 2010, the BNP has been ramping up its involvement in non-electoral activities, partly as an attempt to flirt with disgruntled factions of the English Defence League, but also because of Griffin’s own ideas about how to sustain a far right movement. Think-tanks and academics like to interpret the relative health of far right parties simply by counting their number of votes. But far right parties like the BNP are also social movements, which view electioneering simply as one of several strategies available to them. Just as important as the quest for votes is sustaining a loyal band of true believers – through the good times, and the bad.
For veteran activists like Griffin, sustaining the ideology and ‘passing over the torch’ to future generations is paramount. And this is where the significance of more recent groups like the English Defence League comes into play: though often reduced to a public order issue, or the ramblings of Tommy Robinson on Twitter, the key point about groups like the EDL is that they have radicalised somewhere in the region of 1,000-3,000 young, working class men into the orbit of far right and counter-Jihad politics. In many respects, these supporters form a stronger foundation for a far right movement than those who were active in the 1960s and 1970s: they are more likely than average to have experienced unemployment; are economically insecure; pessimistic about their prospects; have already given up on mainstream party politics; and are concerned not simply about Islam but a broader cluster of immigration-related issues. Judging from his recent overtures, it is these young angry white men who veteran activists like Griffin see as the future ideologues of the British far right.