Two months ago, my home of Walthamstow in northeast London became a battleground between English Defence League (EDL) – this country's most fascist ‘non-fascist’ protest movement – and local residents. A planned march on September 1 saw ‘divisions’ of king thug Tommy Robinson's aggro clan march through Walthamstow, flanked by policemen who tried to keep them separated from the residents and business owners of the area who lined the streets. Some chanted anti-fascist slogans. A minority threw bricks and bottles at the assembled EDL hierarchy outside Walthamstow’s grand Town Hall as Robinson, wearing shades and flanked by heavies, revelled in the status of victim. The EDL had planned to repeat the march again two Saturdays ago, before it was banned due to fears that violence from both sides would escalate.
Daniel Trilling set out to write Bloody Nasty People (Verso) to try and dig a little deeper into the reasons why the UK far right has become so visible in recent years. The New Statesman's assistant editor interviewed Nick Griffin, British National Party leader, a number of times for the book – at the European Parliament in Strasbourg and at various locations around the UK, glimpsing a snapshot of the paranoid life of the pantomime villain of UK politics. Griffin can't take public transport through fear of attack, so he spends all his time in a car with a minder. “It's an on-the-road existence," says Trilling. "And beyond the sensational interest in knowing that, I think it tells you something about [him]. To do all that stuff you've got to be pretty committed. They are people who have devoted their lives to this and therefore it needs to be taken seriously in order to stop it.”
One of the key points in your book is the way that the wider media, instead of going against it, have fanned the far right’s agenda so it seems like a much wider issue.
Daniel Trilling: I tried to show that the BNP’s beliefs were rooted in the neo-Nazi doctrine and that the central figures were all signed up to that for years. In the case of Griffin, he once led the National Front but wanted to turn the BNP into something that could win elections. To do that he realised he had to win the support of a much wider group of people who didn’t share those beliefs so had to find points in common with the BNP’s wider world view. That’s why in the in the late 90s and early 2000s they tried to focus around the issue of asylum seekers, because that was being readily provided for them by the tabloid press which was whipping up a storm of anti-asylum seeker feeling. And likewise a bit later on you get the same thing in the way that Islam is discussed in the media and by politicians – the BNP and the EDL try to ride on the back of that.
How has it been allowed to happen?
Daniel Trilling: In some cases you could see these racist resentments building in a town and one political party that started saying things that pandered to this racism to get a few votes. All that did was legitimise the racist politics and give the BNP a clear run at winning votes. The question is: Why did politics decay in that way? If you look at where the far right have done well, it’s where there is quite an acute economic resentment that has got mixed up with a fear over cultural or racial difference. In Barking and Dagenham [where the BNP formed the largest opposition party from 2006-10 with 12 councillors] there was a very acute housing crisis. People were led to believe it was all because of immigrants, whereas there were much more profound reasons such as thirty years of council houses being privatised and no one building any more.
And it can get mixed up – former Labour voters do vote BNP.
Daniel Trilling: This is what I really wanted to show. I think it is vital to be very clear about what the people at the heart of parties like that believe. Not everyone who votes for them will share all of those beliefs. It’s a real mistake to regard people who might vote BNP once or twice as a protest or out of anger as fascist. The BNP did manage to pick up on this real angry feeling of people who thought the whole political system had let them down. Towns that were devastated by Thatcher in the 80s like Stoke-on-Trent – I interviewed this guy who was a BNP councillor there, [who was once] a classic working class Tory. [He said] after he saw what happened to his town no one would dream of voting Tory ever again.
How optimistic are you about the future? You say at the end, the threat hasn’t gone.
Daniel Trilling: There is a good news story out of the book – that these people can be beaten and they can be pushed back. That’s what happened in 2010 with this massive anti-BNP campaign that took place in the run-up to the election. They were almost entirely wiped out from council seats and the ones that didn’t lose their seats lost them a year later. Similarly the EDL have been pushed back by people going out on the street and blocking their path, showing them, as they did in Walthamstow, that they have nothing to do with their town. By sheer numbers, a mix of men women of different ages and ethnicities saying this is what we are about, we won’t let you come here and have your rally. And this has an effect, it pushes back against them. In a time where people will rightly feel pessimistic about the future and their ability to change things politically, this is an example of how people power actually works. They had been let down by the political elite but they managed to organise and achieve something. But the threat hasn’t passed – the BNP as a party is smashed but its support still held up. The battle of the immediate far right threat has been won but there is a much bigger task to do to actually change wider society so that we don’t have such huge inequalities that breed resentment and a press that whips up fear and hatred. You don’t have to wait until the BNP is threatening to win elections, you can do this now.