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Pol/Econ: The rise of the BNP and Working Class Discontent
Tuesday, 14 November 2006 Written by Henry Midgley
This week has seen the acquital in a trial on the basis of race hatred of the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin. Many politicians and commentators have rushed in to advocate changing the law. Griffin was acquitted because instead of making filthy comments about people with darker skin, he made his obnoxious interventions on the subject of Islam and argued that Islam was by nature an evil religion. The jury decided that this was within the realm of free speech. After the verdict Gordon Brown announced that he wished to change the law so as to get the BNP for incitement to religious hatred. Plenty of columnists though greeted the acquital with worries about the growth of the BNP in various areas- as Mike Ion commented in the Guardian, at the 2004 European elections the BNP picked up 4.9% of the vote. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party has cited such figures to justify his own party's existance, arguing that his party stopped the BNP rising further by articulating the greivances of the white working classes in a recent interview. The question therefore seems to be why is the BNP rising and what can be done to stop this odious fascistic party rising to the same prominence as the National Front in France or the Vlaams Blok in Belgium?

The BNP's rise, most observers agree, is linked to the fall of the economic status of the white working class. The people satirised in the television show Little Britain, neglected by the main parties at Westminster who pursue the swing middle class vote. The people on council estates worried about the supposed flight of resources towards immigrants on other council estates. The people involved in the rioting in Bradford and Burnley, what Mike Ion calls the traditional Labour supporters. Its conventional to address this problem through politics- to say that these people lack political opportunities to voice their greivances- that they lack the ability therefore to articulate themselves and that the Labour party by moving to the right has deserted them, like a jilted lover neglected for her tatty charms they run to the political equivalent of the spotty oik down the street, the BNP.

This has some truth in it. Ideas that are repeated and find so much resonance within the minds of so many intelligent observers often do but I think there is something more subtle at work which is making the Alf Garnett's of the world behave the way they are doing. It is not merely that politics has moved away from these people, but that civil society has moved away as well. The traditional wellspring of working class politics was the unions- and the unions have seen a huge decline in membership. As the BBC examined Trade Union membership has fallen from roughly 12 million in 1980 to around 8 million today despite population expansion. Furthermore the Trade Unions have shifted to focusing on proffessionals like teachers rather than their traditional working class constituencies. As Trade Unions have gone, so have other forms of working class cultural life. Working men's Clubs for example have halved both their numbers and the existing one's memberships since the 1970s. Even football clubs are no longer the vibrant force of working class culture that they once were. When one looks say at Jonathan Rose's study of working class culture in the earlier twentieth century, one finds the dissemination of culture through organisations like lectures or indeed miner's libraries that to a large extent no longer exist anymore.

It seems like an overwhelming generalisation- and of course new forms of working class culture are emerging all the time but the social capital of some parts of working class white society seems to be dwindling. One of the facets of that dwindling may well be the rise of the BNP, as isolation grows, as people lose confidence in themselves and in society, explanations of the world which rely upon a sense of vengeful powerlessness gain ground within their minds. The vacuum inhabited by extremism may not therefore merely be one within the political spectrum but also one within civil society. Fixing it may require more than a reconnection of Labour with its political roots, it may require reconnecting civil society with working class communities.