A priest I know was told by a member of his congregation, in the parish social club, over a pint, that he was going to vote for the BNP. “You’ll not be welcome in this club if you do,” the cleric responded, toughly articulating the standard ecclesiastical line.
The parishioner looked taken aback. “Well, I’ll vote for Ukip instead,” he replied — which may perhaps explain why the UK Independence Party did so well. Even so, I am not sure how helpful an intervention this was.
You could say something similar about the comments by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, who reacted to the news that the BNP had gained its first two members of the European Parliament by denouncing it as a party of “thugs and fascists”. I have some bad news for Mr Clegg. Things are far worse than that. A significant number of BNP members, along with many of those who voted for the party, are ordinary decent working people rather than the skinhead bootboys who characterised the BNP of old.
Not long before the election, I went to Cumbria, one of the areas in which the party made significant inroads in earlier council elections. I spent a couple of days watching the BNP at work. The individuals I met were not the sinister jackbooted zealots of the old National Front era. They numbered a gas-fitter, a nurse, a garage-owner, a former soldier, a retired grandmother, and an engineer from the nuclear plant at Sellafield.
What united them was that life had, they felt, done the dirty on them. Without exception, each one had a story of disillusionment. They had lost their jobs, been badly treated by the insurance industry, had poor treatment from the NHS, and the like. In each, a sense of grievance had been exacerbated by the bitterness of seeking out someone to blame for their woes.
They were not bad people, just disappointed, and ready prey for prejudice and the easy scapegoating of immigrants, Islam, and the political correctness of a liberal élite that was comfortable in the affluences of which they felt cheated. They were as exercised about bin collections and dog dirt in the street as they were about asylum-seekers.
If the policies of the BNP on all this are an incoherent ragbag, the party can at least offer candidates whom these disenchanted white working-class voters regard as “one of us”, in a way that members of the metropolitan political class, of whatever party, are decidedly not. And this was even before the MPs’ expenses scandal.
There is, of course, a con at the heart of all this. The leaders of the BNP, such as Nick Griffin, have donned suits and ties, and clothed many of their old prejudices in a new moderate garb. But, beneath them, the dark old racist and homophobic atavisms lurk.
Behind the scenes, Mr Griffin has maintained his links with the hard Right in Europe and the United States, where he has spoken on platforms with white supremacists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, and Holocaust-deniers. His continued obsession with a coming civil war also shows how little his politics have changed.
All that needs to be challenged. But dismissing BNP supporters as fascists and thugs — and banning them from the parish social club — may not be the best way to do that. Our mainstream parties need to be seen to address the sense of abandonment and alienation on which the BNP feeds. Significantly, the party’s two MEPs were not elected on a huge rise in support for the BNP, but rather because massive numbers of Labour voters, particularly here in the north, did not bother to vote. The lesson lies in that.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.