By Nick Lowles | Conventional wisdom suggests that the British National Party will benefit politically from a recession. Government ministers certainly seem to think so. Journalists think so. And the BNP themselves certainly think so.
With unemployment likely to hit two million by the end of the year and house prices dropping 15% in the past 12 months, most people are feeling the pinch. The government’s response to the credit crunch might have boosted its poll ratings in the short term but it could be the far-right BNP that benefits when the recession really bites.
“Economic meltdowns are one of the drivers of political revolutions, and the BNP must be ready to take advantage of the mess all of the other parties have made of the economy,” David Hannam, the BNP deputy treasurer, told a party meeting recently.
He went on to explain the party’s line of attack. “Each immigrant who entered Britain decreased job prospects for native British workers. Our freedom is linked to the financial state of the country, and in a recession it is the workers who are first and hardest hit. The truth is that in an economically declining society, the worker is hit, but even in a so-called economically growing society, it is the worker who also gets hit. Successful monopolies are a by-product of globalism, and it is monopolies that decrease the demand for workers.”
His view is backed by party leader Nick Griffin who is confidently boasting that the BNP will benefit enormously from an economic downturn.
The belief of a far-right gain is supported by the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. “I’ve got a sense of foreboding about what lies ahead,” he told the BBC. “It will make a qualitative difference in terms of the context within which they’re allowed to perpetuate their scapegoating and myth-making.”
The government, meanwhile, is worried that an economic downturn would result in increased racial tension and violence between communities and even terrorism. In a 12-page internal memo, leaked to the Conservatives two months ago, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith relayed her concern over the consequences of an economic crisis. “There is a risk of a downturn increasing the appeal of far-right extremism and racism, which presents a threat as there is evidence that grievances based on experiencing racism are one of the factors that can lead to people becoming terrorists.”
The memo added that a downturn would affect the need for migrant workers, particularly in jobs such as construction where they make up a large proportion of the workforce. “Increased public hostility to migrants” was predicted to result from heightened competition for employment.
The government is so concerned that it has recently established a new police taskforce to monitor racist violence.
Last month the new Immigration Minister controversially weighed into the debate. Phil Woolas told The Times that immigration became an “extremely thorny” subject if people were losing their jobs.
“It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder,” he said.
Employers should, he believes, put British people first, or they will risk fuelling racism. “In times of economic difficulties, racial stereotyping becomes stronger but also if you’ve got skills shortages you should, as a government, attempt to fill those skills shortages with your indigenous population.”
Woolas was careful to include all British people in his British first policy, highlighting the high levels of unemployment affecting the British Bangladeshi community. He claimed that it was all too easy for an employer to hire a migrant to fill a job rather than to retrain British people of all races.
While Woolas was actually addressing some tough issues, including many which have wrongly been ignored for too long, he left himself open to attack with a series of incendiary quotes which he should have known would cause offence. He promised not to allow Britain’s population to rise above 70 million and attacked “health tourism”.
“It’s a national health service — it’s not an international health service,” he said.
Woolas has not been alone in raising difficult and controversial issues. Trevor Phillips, head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, also weighed into the debate last month. Speaking ahead of an address to a CBI conference, Phillips said: “After forty years in which it was impolite to speak frankly about immigration policy, we now must be able to address this fundamental aspect of economic policy without embarrassment or without fear of being labelled closet racists or open-border fantasists.
“In what is to come, the best defence against prejudice against immigrants will be to make those who resent them competitive, to give them a place in society.
“We may need to do so with the sort of special measures we’ve previously targeted at ethnic minorities. But the name of the game today is to tackle inequality, not racial special pleading.”
This was not his first foray into this terrain. He had previously stressed the importance of positive action to help white working class communities through the economic crisis. “What we are seeing is that there is a whole group of people, a large proportion of whom are white, who are going to suffer from this crisis who are going to be the people we should want to help, particularly because they come from the wrong side of town,” he said.
“We are going to have to do something special for them. We are going to have to put extra resources where young people can’t compete with migrants’ skills.
“And in some parts of the country, it is clear that what defines disadvantage won’t be black or brown, it will be white. And we will have to take positive action to help some white groups, what we might call the white underclass.”
Nothing is certain
However, there are dissenting voices to the view that the far right will necessarily gain from an economic downturn. “Although there tends to be a bit of moral panic about it, it’s never really happened in a way that, in any sense, threatens the domination of the political scene by the main parties,” Professor Colin Rallings, from Plymouth University, says.
He went on to stress that previous economic downturns had been accompanied by only short-term boosts for the right and were often geographically patchy.
Is Rawlings right? Will any boost for the far right be patchy and short-lived? Certainly recent history is on his side. The 1970s economic crisis failed to give any long-lasting boost to the National Front. Indeed, if anything, the political fortunes of the NF were already on the wane at the height of the crisis and certainly by the early 1980s, when unemployment topped three million and bank base rate was in double figures and reached over 15%, the NF hardly existed.
During the recession of the early 1990s, and despite widespread media-fuelled concern over refugees, the BNP remained a largely inconsequential political force.
A different world
There is reason to believe that events might be different this time around. Britain of today is very different from that of the late 1970s. The Cold War overshadowed British and indeed world politics. There was a vibrant left in Britain and a strong and very active trade union movement. The Second World War was still strong in public consciousness and nationalism was a dirty word.
Since then the Soviet Union has collapsed and Europe fragmented. Nationalism has become the driving ideology of the past 20 years and socialism and social democracy are experiencing an identity crisis of huge proportions. In the past year alone eight out of ten social democratic parties have been driven from power in Europe, partly to the benefit of the far right. Fascist and rightwing populist parties have been rising across western Europe and there is no reason to suggest that the same cannot happen in Britain.
Additionally, the BNP of today is quite different from the NF of the 1970s. The NF contested elections, but only in a half-hearted manner. For the NF leaders John Tyndall and Martin Webster elections were simply an organising tool but real power was going to be gained through control of the streets and by positioning themselves as ready to answer society’s call to restore social order.
By contrast, the BNP has understood some political realities. It has publicly dropped some of its hardline policies, such as compulsory repatriation, which it knew would not be accepted by the vast majority of the population, and it has turned to local politics. As a result the BNP is positioning itself as a real and lasting challenge to the main political parties, particularly Labour.
More importantly, the political terrain has changed. Disillusionment with the mainstream parties is at an all-time high, voting at an all-time low and active participation in political parties is, in too many communities, seemingly non-existent.
It is into this disillusionment that the BNP message is resonating. Race remains the cornerstone of BNP politics but its appeal is far wider and deeper. It is precisely because of this that the BNP could benefit enormously from an economic downturn.
In Stoke-on-Trent the BNP believes it can take control of the council within two years. If there had been a mayoral contest next spring there were many, including some government ministers, who believed the BNP could win. At 6% of the local population the non-white community is tiny compared to many other towns and cities across the country. Immigration and race are not the causes of the city’s problems but simply the prism through which the BNP allows local people to understand their problems and anger.
The same is true for many other areas where the BNP is doing well. The former mining communities of Rotherham, Heanor and Nuneaton, three other areas of BNP success, have relatively small BME populations but deep-rooted structural economic problems.
Compare that to the NF of the 1970s, which drew the bulk of its support from towns and cities, such as Leicester and Bradford, which experienced the greatest influx of non-white immigrants.
There are two other issues that differentiate the present from the 1970s. The Cold War has been replaced by a world defined by the “war on terror” and just as a recession could boost the far right, so fundamentalist religious groups will prosper.
As unemployment rises and disillusionment with mainstream parties deepens, friction between new and old communities will grow. Winding this up will be the BNP and other fascist groups on one side and fundamentalist religious groups, bent on demonising other communities and religions, on the other. There is a symbiotic relationship between these extremes, with both needing the other to justify their own existence.
This could play out on the streets, as we saw so vividly in Oldham and Burnley in 2001, or through a rise in domestic terrorism. It is this fear that is gripping the Home Office. We are already beginning to see a rise in violent racism and this is only likely to accelerate as the economy nosedives.
There has also been a rise in terrorism in recent times. While every Muslim plot attracts massive media attention, less known has been the increase in attempted far-right terrorism, both in Britain and across the continent. In 2007, ten people were arrested in alleged rightwing plots in Britain. While all were stopped before they were executed, it does raise the likelihood that rightwing terrorism, be it by individuals or small groups, will continue to grow. One can only imagine the consequences of a fascist bombing campaign against Muslim targets in Britain. Likewise, while the feel good factor following the decision to award London the Olympics probably helped to defuse a backlash against the London bombs of 2005, a similar bombing campaign amid an economic downturn might have a different outcome.
In the 1970s the trade unions played a crucial role in defeating the NF and today they have once again indicated their willingness to take a lead. But today’s world, particularly in the workplace, is very different from that of 30 years ago. The unions are weaker, more workplaces are un-unionised and also fragmented.
“The workplace is different from the 1970s,” says Paul Meszaros, secretary of Bradford Trades Council. “Back then workplaces were bigger and more unionised so it was more common for Asian and white people to work alongside each other. We were able to debate, argue and eventually find common ground.
“Today, workplaces are smaller and with communities living more separate lives and in different neighbourhoods within the city there are fewer opportunities for people to come together.”
Recession might be a gift to the BNP but whether it will exploit the opportunity remains to be seen. Despite its growing sophistication the BNP still struggles to win first-past-the-post elections. It has even performed poorly in recent by-elections, including some in traditional strongholds.
How opponents of the BNP react will also determine the potential electoral boost for the far right and this is where things need to change. The criticism of Woolas and Phillips has been strong and sometimes correct but it has also highlighted two fundamental issues. Firstly, a common unwillingness to debate difficult but very real issues and secondly an acknowledgement that progressives have partly contributed to the problem.
The error of identity politics
It is easy to criticise Woolas for his comments and of course some of his remarks echo the disastrous “British jobs for British workers” approach adopted by Gordon Brown last year. However, he was trying to grapple with some difficult issues, which all too many people prefer to ignore.
Likewise, Phillips’s call for preferential treatment for white working class communities has been met by a barrage of criticism, some of it justified, some not. Phillips is totally correct in saying that a growing number of white working class people feel ignored, abandoned and unrepresented. As I myself have argued previously, the BNP is providing an identity for sections of this group.
However, accepting the existence of these sub-groups and calling for preferential treatment is part of the problem in the first place. We no longer talk of a working class without sub-dividing it along racial lines. Playing identity politics is a very dangerous game and it is now coming back to haunt us. Too much government policy and spending, locally and nationally, is directed through the prism of race, which is unwittingly helping to create this “white” identity, which is in turn being exploited by the BNP. Too many progressive people have been complicit in this, knowingly or unknowingly.
To prevent the BNP from exploiting our economic worries, class needs to replace race in popular discourse. We shouldn’t have white unemployed or black unemployed but just unemployed. We shouldn’t talk about white workers or black workers but just workers. That isn’t to say that we should ignore groups or not recognise particular hardships or discrimination, but we have to find a way to bring people along together, to get them to understand a common interest and shared future. If we don’t then how can we complain when communal groups, including the white working class, compete for scarce resources.
Similarly, we need to develop a more secular approach. One of the successes of the anti-fascist and anti-racist struggle in the late 1970s was its secularism. This was particularly found within the Asian Youth Movement, which brought together young Asian people of different religious backgrounds. While accepting the right to faith, we again need to find ways to bring people from different religious backgrounds together and this is no easy task. It is not just a question of differences between Christian and Muslim communities. In today’s Britain there is widespread suspicion and distrust between many religions, another issue that has too long been ignored.
We must bring more politics (with a small p) into anti-fascism. Just as we have been arguing for the past couple of years that simply shouting “nazi” at the BNP is no longer sufficient, so we must recognise that just calling for “Hope” over hate is also inadequate. When people are struggling economically and perhaps see little hope around them, we need to be able to address some of the underlying issues that might make them susceptible to the BNP and answer directly racist myths. Hope is a positive concept but will only resonate when people feel good about the community in which they live and positive about their own economic future.
However, we also need to show fairness in our approach. We need to demonstrate that we are fighting for everyone, regardless of colour of skin or religious background. We must also be prepared to criticise and condemn when it is necessary. Wrong is wrong, from whichever angle or community it derives.
Trade unions are in an excellent position to take on the BNP and its economic scapegoating, but it needs a different approach. Unions need to find a more direct way to engage with their members and their families than they do at present. A letter through the post or an article in a union journal is no substitute for a workplace meeting and human dialogue.
The road ahead will not be easy. A recession will increase insecurity and so suspicion and hostility between communities. As the job market shrinks and local resources become increasingly scarce so racism and bitterness will grow. The BNP could make huge advances in the next couple of years. Whether it does will partly depend on how we — government, unions and anti-fascists — respond.