In 2009 the British National Party (BNP) secured the election of two candidates to the European Parliament, prompting immediate fears of the prospects for extreme right parties within the UK. Yet just a year later the General Election saw the BNP’s hopes for the election of its leader Nick Griffin to Parliament for the constituency of Barking destroyed and between 2010 and 2011 the party lost a total of 38 Councillors in local elections. Many commentators assumed that this signaled the demise of the extreme right as an electoral force, whilst some suggested these developments merely reinforced a stable facet of British democracy; it is largely immune from extremist politics. Yet whilst it is perfectly true that Britain has never witnessed successful extreme right parties comparable to the Front National in France, the Austrian Freedom Party or Flemish Block/ Flemish Interest, there is little evidence that the extreme right is destined only for electoral failure and substantial evidence to the contrary.
Extreme right parties are a rising phenomenon across Europe and it is worthwhile to consider the reasons for this. Whilst the parties and organisations we think of as ‘extreme right’ vary according to national and local conditions, a number of factors are common to the extreme right brand. They offer policies and an ideology which incorporate a mix of anti-establishment populism, anti-immigrant hostility, nativism and Islamophobia. They therefore seek out those sections of the electorate that are cynical about mainstream politicians and parties, skeptical about the costs of immigration and fearful about a perceived loss of national identity.
All the evidence indicates that these factors apply just as much in Britain as elsewhere. Disillusionment with politics is increasingly evident in Britain, indicated by falling levels of mainstream party membership and activism, the declining proportion of the vote assigned to the three major parties and the rise of small parties. Meanwhile, recent survey research by YouGov found that 41% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a party that promised to stop all immigration into the UK and 55% a party that prioritised traditional British values over other cultures. Unsurprisingly the proportions giving these responses was higher amongst those voters that are consistently over-represented within extreme right party electorates, including older voters and those from the lower social classes.
The reason for the consistent failure of the British extreme right lies within the British extreme right itself. It is fragmented, poorly funded, badly organised and associated with violence, crime and an intolerable neo-Nazi skinhead culture. Yet many are keenly aware of the possibilities could these problems be rectified. The BNP is attempting to claw back its predominance as the leading extreme right party in Britain, the English Defence League has recently formed an alliance with the British Freedom Party and a plethora of new parties remain poised to take their place. Whilst the future remains uncertain, we should question our assumptions about the place of the extreme right in British politics.