One hundred and twenty eight days from now, British voters will head to the polls to have their say in elections to the European Parliament and local elections. Between now and then, much of the political debate will continue to focus on the UK Independence Party, which has mobilised the single most successful insurgency in English politics since 1945 (and one that we put under the microscope in a forthcoming book). Among pundits and politicians there is a consensus that 2014 will be another record year for the Ukippers.
But as one insurgent has prospered, another has fallen. While the elections in 2014 may see Ukip’s revolt on the right reach new heights, they are also likely to see the extremist British National Party thrown out of British politics altogether. While Nick Griffin has been back in the news after attending a Golden Dawn press conference in Athens today, the reality is that the past three years have been disastrous for his party. Since 2009, Griffin and the BNP have been edging ever closer to political irrelevance, having been torn apart by bitter infighting and consistently rejected by voters. While they hoped 2014 would see a change of fortunes, the first week of the New Year brought the revelation that Griffin is now bankrupt. The news dealt yet another blow to the party’s distant hopes of mounting some sort of comeback in May. As things stand today, it is distinctly unlikely Griffin will retain his seat in the North West of England (the other BNP Member of the European Parliament in Yorkshire has resigned the BNP whip and set up a new rival party, the British Democratic Party).
Griffin’s bankruptcy was hardly surprising. Before taking control of the BNP in 1999, and then being elected to the European Parliament ten years later, he had almost certainly lived on a financial shoestring. Inside the shambolic world of Britain’s far right, he had long been chased by allegations of financial corruption and general incompetence. His opponents who have since left the BNP (or been purged by Griffin) say that he has now played an active role in destroying the two most significant far right parties in post-war Britain, having previously also been a leading member of the National Front in the 1980s. Conspiracy theories concerning Griffin, the British state and the regular implosion of far right groups in Britain are never far behind.
What makes the fall of Griffin and the BNP so intriguing is that they were given everything they could ever hope for – a global financial crisis, recession, rising inequality, immigration, an expenses scandal, Islamist terrorism and fiscal austerity, much of which hit their favoured territory in northern England. But still, Griffin led his party into a series of major miscalculations and internal crises. They were easily outflanked by the English Defence League, which offered a more confrontational and exciting outlet for activists who saw little point in elections. Instead of seeking an alliance, Griffin attacked the EDL as a pro-Zionist lobby. Then, on Question Time, and in front of eight million viewers, he thought it a good idea to defend the Ku Klux Klan. The next year, a major offensive at the 2010 general election failed to halt the decline, while Griffin’s pursuit of costly and unsuccessful legal battles emptied an already paltry war chest. All of this contributed to a mass exodus of activists who either switched to new rivals or left politics altogether. Griffin predicted that a global crisis would turn his party into a major force. Instead, the BNP has been reduced to a few old, white men standing in the electoral wilderness and facing a bleak future. That Griffin thinks the way to rebuild the BNP is to build links with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece – who are linked to murder and attacks on migrants – speaks volumes.
But at the same time, Griffin’s story does tell us something about what the far right needs to survive and thrive. More often than not, the success and failure of Europe’s far right is traced to ‘charismatic leadership’ – the presence of a telegenic and messianic populist who employs simplistic slogans and demands to protect ‘the people’. But as academics like Roger Eatwell point out, charismatic leadership is important in other ways. Sure, there is the external and outward-facing charisma that we are all familiar with, and which the likes of Geert Wilders use to attract votes and success. But just as important (if not more so) is internal charisma – the ability to sustain the loyalty of an inner cadre of highly committed followers, who can ‘keep the flame alive’ not only during the good days, but also the bad.
The problem for the far right in Britain is that it has never had a leader who can deliver both. In earlier decades Oswald Mosley had internal but not external charisma. He not only turned off voters but did not even take elections seriously, believing like many other interwar fascists that he would simply be swept (or invited) into power amidst crisis. Yet even in the shadow of the Second World War he was still revered among a tight circle of loyalists as almost god-like, which played an important role in the formation of the Union Movement in 1948 and subsequent groups that would nurture the next generation of racial nationalists. Then came John Tyndall, a former leader of the 1970s National Front who went on to establish the BNP in 1982. That Tyndall lacked external charisma is reflected in the fact that for seventeen years the BNP managed to win just one local council seat. But internally, his dictatorial style and presence did ensure the survival of a small right-wing party under a long period of Thatcherism and low immigration – far from easy.
Only when activists began to sense the climate was changing did they remove Tyndall and install Griffin, who promised them ‘modernization’ and success. But Griffin had neither external nor internal charisma. He neither won over the masses nor was able to build a unified army of diehards who would follow him over the top. Instead, Griffin got lucky – he rode the waves of popular anxiety over immigration at a time when Labour took their old base for granted, the Conservatives were in disarray and there was no other alternative on the radical right flank. There simply was no other place for voters who felt economically left behind and threatened by mass immigration – except to stay at home. This was enough for Griffin to attract record success, but it never reflected a genuine bond between his party and voters. Over 80 per cent of voters said they would never even consider voting BNP.
Today, with the Conservatives in power and Ukip on the rise, Griffin and the BNP’s weaknesses have been laid bare. Given a legitimate alternative that does not force voters to compromise on their democratic principles, and the BNP has fallen quickly off the electoral radar. So too has Griffin. The psychologist Michael Billig once observed how individuals on the far right often attract a level of attention that is wholly disproportionate to their actual significance. Griffin is quickly on his way to becoming one of these figures. He will continue to attract headlines but his influence over the far right has waned. On the continent he has been overtaken by a new generation of radical right politicians who steer well clear of Griffin’s racial nationalism, and avoid the kind of admiration of Greece’s Golden Dawn that now regularly appears on the BNP website. Meanwhile, internally he has somehow managed to alienate everyone who was anyone on the far right. Many disgruntled activists argue that Griffin has single-handedly ruined their one chance at a breakthrough before (in their eyes) the tides of immigration and ethnic change take hold and change Britain forever. One thing, however, is clear: history will remember Nick Griffin not as the man who brought the far right success and respectability, but as perhaps the most divisive figure in its entire history.
Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham University.