I miss Nick Griffin, and I’m not even sorry…
In a political landscape dominated by explosive cultural insecurity and an ever rightward-lurching populism, I’m starting to feel a touch of nostalgia for our squishy fascist idol of yesteryear.
I remember when you could call a racist a racist, without the anti-PC Brigade jumping down your throat. These days you can’t even tweet a picture of somebody’s house without him being given a national platform – in the guise of a manufactured rightwing media class-consciousness – to promote the use of corporal punishment, or send bricks or human shit in the post in case it offends a Ukip. I remember when you could choose to wear a poppy, or not, without feeling as if you were either deliberately mocking the dead or somehow endorsing the cultural oppression that its legacy exists to expel (or that you’d inadvertently been coerced into advertising a supermarket). In the good old days you didn’t have to worry which public service the Tories would cut next, or what Katie Hopkins would say on Twitter… because Twitter wasn’t that popular (or at least wasn’t popular to the point of ubiquity) in those days… back in my day… the good old days.
I’m talking of course, about 2009. One year after Gordon Brown’s Labour Party had caused the global financial crash that started with the US housing market and spread, via the Lehman Brothers, throughout the banking sector and to most large financial institutions in the world, the then-prime minister had audaciously taken measures to break the fall of the global economy before kick-starting growth in the UK by 3.1% in his final year, without mention of the word austerity (although thankfully there was an election soon after and somebody sensible could take over.) This was the year that I voted in my first national election. This was also the year when BNP candidates Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons were chosen by the electorate to represent our interests in the European Parliament. And for those of you who were too young, too apathetic, or are too forgetful; we were outraged.
The BNP pair were quickly derided by competing candidates from across all parties, with Griffin in turn accusing his opponents of elitism and insulting the voting public; a fair enough point, and – especially in light of the aforementioned Thornberry debacle – one worth dwelling on briefly. On this particular occasion in 2009, The Sun and Daily Mail chose the side of the ‘elite’, and the voters whose views were called “disgusting” and “racist” (which, to clarify, they are…) weren’t afforded the conceited front-page deference to their choice expression of patriotism that our friend with the van was. This must have been a tough call for both newspapers to make, risking as they did alienating a large number of the working class voters in post-industrial northern towns that they apparently care about now, but clearly the allure of mob-outrage was too much to resist for either.
The anti-BNP backlash though, was not limited at all to the mainstream politicians and media. On his infamous Question Time appearance, then-leader Griffin was subject to a tirade from audience members and panellists for the entirety of the show – causing his supporters to accuse the BBC of bias and detractors to lament the unnecessary legitimisation of the party. Whichever view you took though, the BNP and its controversial views were never far from public consciousness.
So what makes Nick Griffin relevant today? Well… virtually nothing, frankly. In fact trying to research his current activity leads only to strange and tedious videos of a far-right quasi-statesmanlike approach to the numerous and disparate extremist organisations of a similar ilk; offering his opinions on the EDL leadership and Britain First for example (or hosting a unique, culturally insensitive approach to the home-cooking show format), and all the while adhering to the familiar irrelevant extremist figurehead archetype of overestimating the threat to his personal security. In one bizarre clip filmed in the foyer of some hotel or office block, he actually seems to try and one-up a Tommy Robinson press-statement line-by-line.
But in attitudes towards the extreme opinions of an elected party, there are significant parallels with a contemporary cross-European trend for increasing far-right support, and some novel inconsistencies in political rhetoric in the UK. For example, it is no coincidence that the BNP’s European support was wiped out in the surge of Ukip; as BNP splinter group and click-bait honey trap enthusiasts Britain First say: “Ukip in the ballot box and Britain First on the streets: a winning combination” (which must be about as welcome as Farage in the No campaign), and yet the two parties share almost no political ground other than the single-issue of immigration. At the very least, both BNP and Ukip success amongst working-class towns is key to understanding the importance of cultural capital in communities that have been all but written-off economically by the Westminster establishment – although this is nothing new.
The idea of a straight-talker is overwhelmingly desirable amidst a political class viewed with deep suspicion and mistrust on behalf of the electorate, and say what you like about Nick Griffin (… please! Heh) but, bar the odd Holocaust denial-denial, he usually stuck to his guns. He denied the existence of black Welshmen, and said so, and in the same breath defined Welshness objectively as having lived in Wales “since the end of the last ice age”, whereas Farage conversely, regularly flaunts essentialist terms such as ‘foreign’ and ‘unrecognisable’ and ‘indigenous’ without offering any such elaboration.
Although misguided, offensive, and wholly incorrect, Griffin genuinely believes that purging the UK of people that haven’t lived here since the last ice age, 12000 years ago (and I’d be included in that, having only lived in England since I was born in 1990), is actually the way to achieve secure, well paid, full employment. Ukip, since they have no such aim (pledging to end the Agency Workers Directive) take their strategy directly from US Republicans in impoverished bible-belt states. As Thomas Frank said in What’s the Matter with Kansas?..., this means pedalling a social agenda with the economic implications in the back seat. Could The Sun and The Mail ever have backed the BNP? An extreme suggestion might be simply that they lacked the neoliberal agenda required to engage with them sympathetically; another is that such support from the press may have been the difference between the wilderness and inroads to government, or perhaps simply, even reactionary, scaremongering tabloids have some sort of primitive morality after all.
Nick Griffin was a laughing stock (although arguably also a genuine moderniser that can be credited with making the BNP “electable”) – his party, absurd. But it isn’t just his outspoken contempt for those born since 10000BC that fills me with (albeit vague, and perhaps a little for controversy’s sake) nostalgia for days of old, but precisely his buffoonish idiocy as a whole. Griffin was a pantomime villain, whose relatively minor success sparked fury in the hearts of millions and lead to countless column inches, protests, and marches with the explicit intention of disparaging his cause. Most importantly though, he was a poor political performer atop a poorly-organised party, and although its views and individual members could be intimidating, on the whole the party was little more than a subject of ridicule. It’s worrying to think about the damage that could have been done by a Blair or Farage-type figure.
Moreover, the rise of Ukip in his wake denotes – intentionally or not – a step-by-step New Labour-esque formula for success: keep hold of the core support through history and bluster, and target more central voters. Ukip, subsequently, represents the transition from outsider-angst to a suitably electable grey version of the ultra-right; a propagation of the enduring political hegemony that their rhetoric attacks. They target the left socially and the right socio-economically – the result of which, as Jonathan Freedland highlighted beautifully, has created a “culture wars” political landscape akin to that of US. A lot has changed since 2009 and now, as policy takes a peripheral role, every tweet, every comment, and every debate strikes us each to the very core of our identity. Ah, 2009… those were the days.