Nick Griffin: A rat on a sinking ship
The collapsing British National Party is the victim of its own contradictions, not anti-fascism, writes Paul Demarty
Watching the British National Party these last few years has been cruelly enjoyable, for anyone whose political sympathies lie to the left of this obviously moribund gang of crypto-fascists.
One is reminded somewhat, as BNP Führer Nick Griffin puts an increasingly hollow brave face on successive calamities, of the famous Black Knight sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Griffin is made to look like a slippery anti-Semite on Question time - merely a flesh wound! The Equalities and Human Rights Commission strikes down the BNP’s constitution, which restricted membership to white Britons - come back and fight, you coward!
Now, Griffin himself has declared bankruptcy, in a dispute over legal fees with Gilbert Davies and Partners. Under these circumstances, Griffin is not - as he would be in other cases - barred from heading the BNP list in the North West England constituency in this year’s European elections; and so he has found it easy enough to declare, poker-faced, “Our campaign in May will be our most professional yet.” The good people of Oldham and Burnley, then, can expect ultra-chauvinist leaflets to be dropped by flying pigs.
We have to ask the question: why is Griffin liable for a six-figure legal bill? It was not in pursuit of any personal litigation, but because he took on legal issues facing his party, in order to claim legal aid. He has been fighting the battles of his organisation. Surely, then, the BNP would step in to cover the costs with its own funds.
Except, obviously, it is unable to do so, because the BNP has itself been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for some time, facing debts estimated at up to £500,000. “Party funds are not affected in any way,” Pollyanna Griffin chirrups. BNP insiders will ask: what party funds?
Political organisations of any level of competence are able to raise funds, even if those funds are ludicrously stretched at times (this is, in fact, quite as true of mainstream bourgeois parties as the far-left or far-right fringe). Thus, Griffin’s financial crisis is the BNP’s financial crisis; and the BNP’s financial crisis is at root a political crisis.
Nick Griffin’s rise to pre-eminence on the British extreme right was a drawn-out affair. In the 1980s, he - along with Michael Harrington and others - took the official National Front in all manner of esoteric political directions, quite at odds with the British fascism of its 70s incarnation. By some counts, he has been a Hitlerite, a Strasserite, a Leesite and a third positionist at one time or another.
As the BNP gathered steam in the mid-90s, then leader John Tyndall found himself under attack from ‘moderates’ who wished to transform the BNP into a far-right populist party on the model of the French Front National and the like. Griffin was brought in by Tyndall as a boots-and-fists fascist hardliner and political enforcer; but Griffin had bigger ambitions, dropped his overt anti-Semitism, took up with the ‘reformers’ and ousted Tyndall in 1999. The subsequent decade saw the BNP’s star steadily rise, as it accumulated councillors primarily among the most battered white working class communities, and in 2009, Griffin and Andrew Brons - formerly a bitter rival in the NF Flag Group breakaway - were elected to the European parliament.
This success took place on the basis of, as it were, a devil’s bargain between Griffin and his party. He would bring the BNP into the mainstream - but that meant trusting his leadership absolutely. It meant swallowing bitter pills, dropping flagship BNP policies (the ‘clause four’ issue here being the compulsory repatriation of migrants), and suppressing (rather than repudiating) the fascist esoterica that - in truth - most of the BNP’s core cadre still held to be true (holocaust denial, biological racism and the like). The BNP, appropriately, was thus organised according to the Führerprinzip.
While things were on the up, and the BNP grew, ‘moderate’ populist heresies were tolerated - as was, by and large, the dictatorial and cliquish leadership style of Griffin. When its steady progress reached the tipping point, however, and the BNP sent Griffin and Brons onto the Brussels gravy train, the political establishment began to take it a little more seriously. There was, doubtless, no conspiracy involved; but sections of the media and bourgeois politics decided that the time had come to press the attack.
The most spectacular result was Griffin’s lynching on Question time - but the matter of the BNP’s racist admissions policy was equally, if not more, important (it no doubt contributed to the row with Gibson Davies). Griffin’s success was predicated on the relative success with which he was able to distance himself from his polymorphously perverse fascist past - and yet here he was on Question time, defending the Ku Klux Klan and dodging questions about the Nazi genocide.
As tempers frayed among the BNP’s activists, its first serious competitor in decades arrived in the form of the English Defence League. Hostilities between the two organisations were immediate and bitter, despite similar overt politics; but have so far worked overwhelmingly to the EDL’s advantage. It is, after all, far more convincingly English and patriotic than the BNP, which simply has too many key members with goose-stepping, Roman-saluting personal histories. It also marked an opportunity for the angry, mostly-young mostly-men that made up the core constituency of both groups to engage in street intimidation. The BNP lost what respectability it had gained as a right-populist electoral operation; simultaneously, it lost its status as the only real game in town for fascist thugs.
The history of the BNP since 2009 has been one of endless schisms and acrimonious fallings-out. Eddy Butler, one of the original BNP ‘reformers’ in the mid-1990s, decamped with a number of followers to the English Democrats. Brons has resigned to form the British Democratic Party, apparently taking with him a number of ideological hard-liners. Jim Dowson - an Orangeman and for years the BNP’s chief fundraiser, who was so close to Griffin that the party office was moved to Belfast for a time - decamped to form Britain First, which has dedicated its existence to pursuing Dowson’s and others’ feuds with Griffin and the BNP. Brons, upon his resignation last year, estimated that BNP membership is down 90% from its peak. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much.
While it may seem - particularly to those remaining BNP members - that all this amounts to, at best, an unfortunate coincidence of inopportune external factors, and at worst a conspiracy (BNP members have, at times, considered the EDL to be a Zionist plot), it is in truth the unfolding of the contradiction at the heart of Griffin’s strategy. He wished to build a mass, right-populist force on the basis of a membership consisting, in its core cadre, of hardened fascist lunatics of one sort or another. The ‘suits, not boots’ presentation strategy was laughably easy to puncture for the media; the boot boys themselves, meanwhile, were all too easily lured away when the electoral successes stalled.
There are two matters of direct relevance to the left arising from Griffin’s downfall. The first will be familiar to regular readers: he and his unconvincingly suit-clad cronies were never a particularly significant generator of national chauvinist poison, which is all the more omnipresent, now that the far more convincing UK Independence Party has stepped in to channel the irrationalism of little England and the Daily Mail into meaningful electoral performances. Chasing ‘Nasty Nazi Nick’ around the country - and latterly, the EDL - has blinded our ranks to the far more significant role of the state and the reactionary media in promulgating, by intention or accident, the reactionary, bigoted filth Griffin only ever plagiarised.
The second is that Griffin’s bankruptcy involves an issue of fundamental democratic principle which is, from our point of view, worrying. He has been brought to this pass because the state bureaucracy deems it appropriate to interfere in the free association of persons in this society; he and the BNP fought a legal case on this principle, and lost - and lost big. Whether or not the BNP admits black members is its own business - just as disciplinary action against scabs and the like is our own business. The principle is the same - for revolutionary democrats, and for the state bureaucrats who constantly poke their noses in to obstruct the functioning of organisations they consider ‘troublesome’.
Furthermore, the bankruptcy itself underlines an obvious fact - justice is available in rough proportion to the funds available to purchase it. Nick Griffin is nobody’s idea of a pauper; but only the very rich can pony up a £120,000 legal bill without some discomfort. For the masses, the prospect is basically laughable. While the BNP’s doom was inevitable, failing a decisive transformation into a party like the FN, that it was triggered by undemocratic laws and an plutocratic legal system ought to remind our side what thin ice we skate on most of the time.
It is too early to tell what the actual response from the far left will be to the likely imminent demise of the BNP. For now, we have a (very) short article in this week’s Socialist Worker, reporting the fact of the bankruptcy. In spite of this good news, “Griffin, who is an MEP for the North West, still intends to stand for re-election to the European parliament in May. He only needs seven percent to be re-elected” (January 7). With his party in chaos and Ukip rampant, Griffin might have a prayer if the relevant authorities lower the threshold to 0.7 percent. Alas, the Socialist Workers Party, in order to get its dwindling membership’s minds off the recent trauma in their own ranks, will happily torment reality with the vigour of a New Labour spin doctor.
The SWP, and its front, Unite Against Fascism, have been quick to claim credit for almost every setback the BNP has suffered. As we have seen, this is bunk. If UAF had never existed, the BNP would have collapsed anyway. We cannot but note that no new items have been posted on the UAF website since November, indicating that it has hardly escaped the SWP’s turbulent 2013 - or perhaps the gods consider it poetic to dispatch UAF to oblivion simultaneously with the man it has for the past decade been telling us is one BBC appearance away from becoming a British Hitler.
Indeed, if we were to accept that UAF had any impact at all on the BNP’s fortunes, we would have to say that the former accelerated its growth. In the whole period that UAF was dedicated more or less entirely to harassing the BNP, it went from strength to strength. Only when its attention was diverted by the EDL, during the last five years, did the BNP enter into its present death spiral.
This thesis is as risible as its opposite, of course: anti-fascism was a serious matter when fascism was able to organise physical violence against the left and its other sociological scapegoats (and will be again, should such conditions return, as has been threatened fleetingly with the rise of the EDL), but in recent history it has been largely a matter of sound and fury - and mostly sound at that. For now, we may wonder what will preoccupy the SWP, now that its bête noire faces a more definitive political oblivion even than the SWP itself.