When you contact the British National Party you cross over to the political dark side, a shadowy world over which neither Gordon Brown nor David Cameron hold dominion. There is paranoia behind the voice telling me that I, as a member of the press, will be allowed to attend the launch of the BNP’s European election manifesto, but that I will not be told where or when it is, not until a few hours beforehand. I will also have the chance to interview Nick Griffin, the BNP leader but, again, the timing of this will remain vague for fear of “sabotage”.
So it is that I find myself at a “redirection point”, the Aldi carpark in Grays, Essex, from where I will be taken on to the secret venue. A “Truth Truck” is being unveiled, its billboard showing a white family, all smiles, and a slogan: “People like you voting BNP”. The none-too-subtle subtext is that the BNP is not for “people like them”: black people, people from ethnic minorities, immigrants. Almost immediately, the police arrive. There has been a complaint from the manager of Aldi. The Truth Truck is covered up and moved on.
The venue turns out to be a theatre in the town, a 10-minute walk away. Men and women with red, white and blue BNP rosettes are milling around outside, quite openly. One wears a smart tie and blazer with the insignia of the Merchant Navy. It reminds you that when details of the 10,000 or so members of the BNP were leaked last year, some turned out to be retired policemen, ex-servicemen, solicitors, teachers, even a ballerina – as well as all the white van men and nightclub bouncers you might expect.
There are no protesters today, thanks presumably to the secrecy. Councillor Robert Bailey, an ex-Royal Marine, is the BNP candidate for London. “Most of us are ex-Labour,” he tells me. “The Labour Party used to stand for what we believe in. Now, no way. It’s not just immigration that has changed; it’s our way of life. We’re becoming a Third World country in Europe with no influence, no power and the people not knowing anything about their own history.”
When I talk to other members, they don’t want me to use their names. Is this because they are ashamed? “No, it’s because of the intimidation and threats. Because we might lose our jobs.” A retired man in a trilby tells me that, according to YouGov, many of the people who are intending to vote BNP on June 4 won’t say they are for that same reason, but in the anonymity of the polling booth the true scale of BNP support will be revealed.
Worryingly, he may be right. It is predicted that the BNP may win not only its first seat in the European Parliament but, because of the proportional representation system of voting, as many as seven. To win in the North-West it needs just 8 per cent of the vote, barely 1.5 per cent more than it got in 2004. Griffin is calling it a “perfect storm”. He believes that the combined effects of the credit crunch, the perceived lack of control over immigration and, most significantly, the perception that all of the mainstream parties are corrupt – thanks to the MPs’ expenses scandal – will mean a big turn-out for the BNP. “Journalists are going to say it was a protest vote: well, that is fine with us,” he tells me later in the day. “The British public have a lot to protest about.”
The Conservative Party is so concerned about the BNP benefiting from the expenses scandal that it won’t even discuss the party by name for fear of giving it publicity; in one of his few comments on the subject David Cameron has dismissed the BNP as an “evil party”. Lord Tebbit’s intervention last week was not helpful: he argued that people should punish the main parties in the European elections, though he was at pains to add that he did not mean vote BNP (he meant Ukip, presumably).
Labour, meanwhile, has gone on the attack, mobilising at local level wherever there is a sign of heavy BNP activity. National funding has been provided for “Stop the BNP” leafleting. Cabinet ministers have been warning disillusioned Labour supporters not to vote BNP. They would rather they voted Tory.
That is the peculiar thing about the BNP: it seems to be an amalgam of extreme Left and Right. Its policies include taking Britain out of the EU, deporting all illegal immigrants (and offering legal immigrants money to return home), and bringing back not only hanging and the birch but also National Service and imperial measurements.
Yet it is also, fundamentally, Old Labour. It would take the railways back into public ownership. It rejects globalisation. It believes in strong trade unions and that as much of industry as possible should be owned by those who work in it. In these respects it reminds you that Oswald Mosley left the Labour Party in 1931 to form the party that ultimately became the British Union of Fascists because Labour had rejected his plan to defeat mass unemployment with a programme of public investment. It is no coincidence that campaign leaflets in white working-class areas describe the BNP as “the Labour Party your grandfathers voted for”.
Before she will talk to me, one BNP rosette-wearing woman from Epping Forest, who works for the NHS, wants to know who I will vote for. When I decline to tell her, other than to say it is certainly not the BNP, she takes this in good part and tells me the reason she votes BNP. She is worried that if Turkey is allowed to join the EU, Muslims will be in a majority here within 20 years. “They are going to take us like an army. It’s the way they breed.” They. Them. Always the language of otherness, of fear.
Inside the theatre, Vera Lynn is playing over the sound system. I’m asked not to mention this because she has complained about being used by the BNP in the past. There are speakers and film clips which reveal that the BNP is proud of its new call centre and the row of computers it calls its data processing unit. A suited man who sounds like Charles Kennedy explains the finances of the party and claims that it now has funds of £2million and that “this will send a shiver up the spine of the main parties”. It will be contesting every region in this upcoming election. Simon Darby, the deputy leader, refers to “the greedy, lying, treacherous bunch of swine in Troughminster”.
But the theatre is only half full, with about 100 people, and there is an amateurish feel to the presentation, with slides not coming up and sound systems not working. There is also a propaganda stunt worthy of Maoist China. Three “politicians”, wearing suits, pig masks and rosettes of the main parties, come on the stage and guzzle money out of troughs, before being chased off the stage by construction workers waving banners saying “British jobs for British workers”. This is the slogan the BNP is fighting on –one they had first, as they are delighted to remind me. Gordon Brown, they claim, nicked it from the BNP.
By now the leader is running half an hour late. This, I discover later, is because he has been interviewed by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics in London. “First time I’ve been allowed into a BBC studio,” he is to tell me. “When I was interviewed by Paxman I had to be filmed somewhere other than in the building.”
When Griffin arrives and makes his stump speech it is in front of a poster of a Spitfire. He is greeted with a standing ovation. “We are not going to Brussels to get our noses in the trough but to become whistle blowers about the corruption there,” he says. “We are going to throw some rusty spanners in the works.”
Although it wants to leave the EU ultimately, for now, he says, the BNP will oppose the entry of Turkey into the EU – because otherwise this country will be flooded with “low-wage Muslims”. Someone behind me shouts “Never!” and is rebuked by the Charles Kennedy sound-alike in front of me who turns and silences him with a finger to his lips. Clearly they have been told to tone down the thuggish image for this conference.
Grotesquely, given the British were fighting the Nazis in the war, Griffin compares June 4 to D-Day, a chance for the BNP to get a bridgehead into Europe. And he ends his speech by giving a Churchillian two-finger salute.
It is time to meet. The Labour leader has something other than a slogan in common with the leader of the BNP. They both have a glass eye. I think Julie Burchill’s description of Griffin takes some beating. “To look at, he’s like a plain man who is halfway through eating a handsome one; to listen to, sometimes he sounds sensible, sometimes completely mad. I’ve never seen a face so asymmetrical as Mr Griffin’s. You can actually see his Mr Nice/Mr Nasty sides jostling each other for dominance.”
He is 50 this year, married to a nurse, and the father of four. They live in a remote part of rural Wales with guard dogs and security cameras. His father, a farmer and Tory councillor, met his mother while heckling a Communist Party meeting in north London in 1948. When everyone else has gone, apart from his bodyguards, we wander into the town to find a café. When he offers me a coffee, he says: “With milk? Not white coffee. Can’t say that.” He is wearing a tiny metal poppy in his lapel – the British Legion sign – and cufflinks that have a griffin on them, the crest of Downing College, Cambridge, where he read law.
I tell him that most of the activists I have talked to seemed more concerned with race than the BNP’s official slogan. “The British jobs for British workers slogan has become a way to openly and legitimately express concern about the multicultural transformation of Britain,” he says. “And that is the core of our vote, the reason we are here.”
When Griffin became leader in 1999 he began to change the BNP’s stance on racial issues. He claims to have repudiated racism now, instead espousing what he calls “ethno-nationalism”. But the fact remains that in 1998 he was convicted for incitement to racial hatred for denying the Holocaust. More recently he was acquitted on two charges of incitement to racial hatred against Muslims, after describing Islam as “vicious” and “wicked”.
When he refers to “low-paid Muslims entering Britain from Turkey”, he is presumably, I suggest, blowing a dog whistle to potential supporters who are racist. “No, we’re talking about Turkey because there is a serious plan afoot by our liberal elite to give 80 million Turks the right to come here. Their culture is very different to ours; we find some of their culture thoroughly unpleasant. Giving them the right to come and settle in Britain is a huge issue. I think if British people really understood that was one of the consequences of our membership of the EU, then I think you would find that 95 per cent of the population of this country would want us to leave the EU. It wouldn’t just be the native Brits; it would be the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Christian West Indians, even the moderate Muslims not wanting to be part of an Islamic state.”
So he accepts there is such a thing as a moderate Muslim? “There is, and he is effectively a bad Muslim because Islam is fundamentally intolerant of all other religions. Someone who really follows the Koran is obliged to be a bad neighbour; that is what the Koran tells them.”
The BNP’s “People like you” whites-only billboard, I ask: does it mean that if you are black you are meant to think you are one of “them” and therefore you don’t belong in this country? “I’d never thought of that billboard in a racial sense. What that is portraying is ordinary, happy, family people and not strange people on the fringes of society. Now there may well be people from ethnic minorities who would like to feature on our poster because they don’t want to see any more immigration either, but we think it would send out a confusing and mixed message if we had black faces on that poster – because people would think even the BNP is politically correct these days.”
He claims his is not a racist party, yet he won’t have black or ethnic members: isn’t that as good a definition of racism as any? “It could change but at present, because the BNP is defined ethnically, any discrimination against the BNP is indirect racial discrimination, so members who feel their job is threatened because of the membership can say to their employers if you sack me I will go to a tribunal for racial discrimination.”
Under a European law? “Yes, funnily enough. The other thing is that every other ethnic group in this country has a large number of groups representing their interests – the Black Police Officers Association, Muslim Lawyers Association, Bangladeshi Women’s Association – there are hundreds of them. You try and form an English Lawyers Association and you would be thrown off the Bar Council, or a White Policeman’s Association: you would be up for racism. So the only group that the white, indigenous population of this country has to speak up for them is us.”
If he doesn’t think he is racist, I say, I’d like to know what his definition of racism is. “It’s a term invented by Trotsky to demonise political opponents and, if it means anything, it is about exercising power to disadvantage or hurt other people just because they are from a different racial or national or cultural group, and I think it is wrong. I think there is racism in this country and most of it is directed at the indigenous population. On the streets of Birmingham and Bradford there is an epidemic of racist violence against young white males.”
There are probably a lot of racist people in this country, so might there not be some votes in admitting it is a racist party? “I don’t think so. We almost put on our poster ‘BNP. I’m not racist but …’ because that is what everyone says. They don’t want to be perceived as racist, they don’t feel they are racist but they know there is deep unfairness going on, directed against the native Brits. There are racists out there. The National Front is still out there and that is a rival organisation; it’s very much unreconstructed, hardcore racist and no one supports it. But even if there were votes to be had in racism I would not want those votes because we are not a racist party.”
Is that why he left the National Front? “I realised it was unreconstructable. Tainted goods. I walked away.”
Griffin has become a skilful interviewee. He has learnt to sound reasonable, arguing that any racist or anti-Semitic quotes from the past have been “taken out of context”. (He now accepts that millions of Jews were killed, but claims that some historians still question whether it was deliberate genocide.)
I gather that over the next three weeks the party will be running ad campaigns in newspapers – something it has not been able to do much of in the past. “Last time we did this was two years ago; half the papers said yes, half said no. There are more this time saying yes because newspapers need the money.”
So does he feel he is now coming in from the cold? “We patently aren’t more mainstream. There are politicians queueing up to denounce us. You can usually cut the atmosphere with a knife when our councillors arrive on the first day [they have 56] but after a year or so, when other councillors see that we are just trying to help things improve, they relax a bit. I wouldn’t want to be too normalised, though, because I think that is what has happened to Ukip’s vote. It’s seen to be sleazy as well. When they are treated well by the BBC, that goes against them, because we are both competing for the same anti-establishment vote. When I get on the BBC, they want to rough me up and we have a good old ding-dong and voters realise we are not the same as the others. Very beneficial for us. But we do want to do some of the things the other parties do, like hold a meeting in a public venue and advertise it, like go on The Daily Politics without having a gang of Labour goons waiting for me outside.”
Sounds like he enjoys the ding-dongs. “Yes, I boxed at university and I still enjoy a good scrap.”
A bodyguard tells us we need to move: we’re attracting unwanted attention. A final question, then. What about the argument that Griffin is a liability to his party because of his Holocaust-denying past? “Because of my talent for horrifically vicious sound bites that come back to bite me, you mean? That’s as maybe. I can probably take the party to an 18 per cent threshold but the final step to power will have to be taken by someone else. Before long things that nationalists said when they were young may become like John Reid saying he was a member of the Communist Party when he was young.”
I doubt it. Griffin doesn’t seem to appreciate quite how beyond the pale he is and his views are. The British are a tolerant people. The cloven hoof of fascism does not suit our national temperament. I’ve been trying to work out how the BNP is different from the National Front of the Seventies and the British Union of Fascists in the Thirties and the answer is that it is now playing the victim. The white working class it represents felt superior before. Now they feel inferior and victimised.
The final word should go to the black man who was working on reception at the theatre. I asked him what he made of all these rosette-wearing supporters strutting around his theatre. He shrugged and said: “Seems a shame.”
A shame is exactly what it seems.