Viewpoint: What are BNP supporters really like?

BNP activists

Many people believe the far right has only irrational, isolated supporters and could never succeed in the UK. They're wrong, says Matthew Goodwin.

About seven years ago, when I was a PhD student, I got into my clapped out Nissan Micra and trundled down to the south-west of England to interview a lady about why she had got involved in politics.

Sharon was in her early 50s, and reminded me a bit of my mum. Over the next few hours and cups of tea, I listened to her story.

Sharon was born and raised in the local village. She knew everyone, and devoted much of her spare time to helping the Residents Association. She was never really that interested in politics. Her husband was a Conservative, but she only went along to the meetings because she liked the sandwiches.

But then, over the years, things began to change. For Sharon, it seemed as though the way of life she had become accustomed to was under threat.

She talked about feeling a sense of injustice about what had been perpetrated on her fellow citizens - our increasing involvement with Europe, the loss of our manufacturing base, a dwindling sense of respect among young people and the creeping advance of political correctness.

Find out more

Matthew Goodwin
  • Matthew Goodwin is the author of a number of works on the BNP, and an expert in electoral behaviour and extremism at the University of Nottingham
  • His episode of Four Thought is on BBC Radio 4 on 28 September 2011 at 20:45 BST

But more than anything, she was concerned about a new phase of immigration into the country. She was profoundly anxious, especially about the impact of this rapid and unsettling change on her friends and loved ones.

Her concern wasn't simply about the economy. It stemmed from her feeling that British culture, values and the national community were under threat.

Sharon was Jewish, and the party that she decided to join was the British National Party. Though aware of its history of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial, for her the far right was the only movement that was serious about tackling the threat from Islam.

But as she quickly found out, involvement with the far right comes with consequences. Some of her friends stopped returning her calls - after 17 years the Residents Association no longer required her help. When she stood for the party at an election, her employer threatened to have her dismissed.

Then one night, when home alone, Sharon was woken by a car full of anti-fascists who pulled up outside to shout abuse. Sharon told me she could handle all of that, but what really hurt, she explained, was that she was reviled by the very people that she was fighting to protect.

When I asked Sharon why, despite all of these consequences, she carries on there was little hesitation: "Because doing nothing is not an option. I am fighting for the survival of my people."

I spent the next four years travelling up and down the country to interview some of the most committed followers of the far right. Conventional wisdom tells us there is something "wrong" with people like Sharon. Implicit in the stereotypes is that they are driven by crude racism, irrational impulses, and psychological problems.

The inadequacy of these stereotypes became quickly apparent during the interviews. On the whole, most of the activists appeared as relatively normal people.

Protest at the BBC When the party leader appeared on Question Time, there were protests at the BBC

Rather than isolated, they seemed well connected to their local communities. Rather than irrational, they had a clearly defined and coherent set of goals. Rather than psychologically damaged, they seemed balanced, reasonable and articulate.

Clearly, there were some exceptions, but the point is that these were very much the exception rather than the norm. Like Sharon, most of these supporters were neither Nazis nor fascists. More than anything, they were a group of citizens who were profoundly concerned about the effects of immigration and rising diversity on their communities and the country.

Driving back from that first interview with Sharon, my mind wandered to my own grandparents who had expressed similar though not as extreme views about the scale and pace of immigration. I used to ask them why they never supported parties like the BNP, or the old National Front and they would look at me as though I were mad: "The Blackshirts?', they would say, "oh no, we'd never vote for that lot."

Implicit in their reaction is a sentiment firmly entrenched in the collective British mindset - that no matter how bad things get, Britain is immune to the appeals of extremists. It is difficult to quantify, but centres on the notion there is just something fundamentally "unBritish" about supporting extremists.

Start Quote

The far right reeks of history - if voters cannot tell your party apart from Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, you know you are failing to connect”

End Quote

The British story has contrasted sharply with experiences across the Channel where since the 1980s the far right has moved from the margins to the mainstream. In Britain, by contrast, from one election to the next, the far right was the dog that refused to bark.

But is Britain really immune to a successful far right party? I think it would be mistaken to assume that this tradition has deprived extremists of fertile soil.

When we look at the evidence there is a large reservoir of potential support for a far right party. Large numbers of us have become concerned about the issue of immigration - at one point, it was more important to us than education, crime and the NHS.

In fact, one out of every five of us thought it was the most important issue facing the country. And the concern was not simply about competition over jobs or council housing. Surveys told us that two-thirds of the population thought Britain was "losing its culture" because of immigration.

Also, those who are concerned about immigration are not concerned simply about traditional immigration. Significant numbers of us are also anxious over the presence and perceived compatibility of settled Muslim communities.

At the time that two BNP members were elected to the European Parliament in 2009, over two-fifths of the population expressed agreement with the suggestion that even in its milder forms Islam poses a danger to Western civilisation.

Muslims now find themselves at the core of a new and potent far right narrative, which vilifies Muslim communities while claiming to defend traditions of tolerance, gender equality and the rights of homosexuals. It downplays socially unacceptable arguments about race in favour of more acceptable arguments about the compatibility of values and cultures.

BNP van canvassing To many people, extremism seems fundamentally "unBritish"

It is quite easy to see how this argument could be implanted in Britain. Imagine a far right populist who was free of extremist baggage and who talked about the need to oppose Islam in order to protect British traditions of parliamentary democracy, or who rallied against Muslims while proclaiming to defend the rights of women, homosexuals or civil liberties.

As the likes of Geert Wilders have shown in the Netherlands, by employing these arguments and downplaying the old toxic far right message, far right parties can become national political players.

In Britain, until now, few voters have been enticed by the offerings of the far right. My personal view is that this failure has owed less to a supposed lack of public demand - of which there is much - than to the issue of supply. A bit like my dear old grandparents, the far right reeks of history. If voters cannot tell your party apart from Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, you know you are failing to connect.

But the failure of the "old" far right parties like the National Front or the BNP should not lead us toward the conclusion that Britain is somehow immune to the "new" far right, nor should we dismiss their supporters as a fringe and irrelevant minority.

Large numbers of us share their concerns, if not their chosen outlet, and the number who are potentially receptive to a more professional and articulate successor is far higher than the number who have turned out over the past decade

My view is that if they were free of baggage and political amateurism they would be met with significant support.

This is an edited version of Matthew Goodwin's Four Thought broadcast.

Here is a selection of your comments

These are indeed Nazis all over again. There were many Nazis in 1930s Germany just like your Sharon (except probably not Jewish) - respectable pillars of their communities. But with extreme anti-'foreigner' views, like Sharon, and, it seems, you. There is no difference between BNP policies and at least the domestic ones of the Nazis. The aim is to fuel hate, disorder, anarchy and then repression., leading to fascism. Britain is too sensible a country for it ever to gain much support.

Jamie, Dorchester

I liked the article, though a Muslim immigrant myself, living in a country town of around 95% British Whites, I think people coming here must not try to make UK their homeland, no one here asks me to "shun" my values, but at the same time I do not try to "impose" my culture on them. Anyway, if I pray, I pray at home, if I fast, it's fine with everyone. But I do it in my home. I don't want mosques to have minarets or loud speakers or other stuff that would disturb others. I attend local weddings, play with the local cricket club and do all social stuff. It's perfectly fine. I admit such behaviour is scarce but I wish more migrants shared my view.

E, UK

As someone that has great concerns about how this country will look in the future I enjoy a good debate on what the real BNP is. I agree with so many of their statements and policies yet I cannot bring myself to vote for them - why? The stigma attached to the party from years gone by is simply too much for me to get my head around. I am proud to be British and I firmly believe that if people chose to move to this country they should adopt our culture and traditions. It appalls me that in some areas schools are now being taught in other languages. I think we need to adopt a much firmer approach like France and Australia and start protecting our identity before it's too late.

JG084, Falkirk

I personally agree with the fact that our main issue with Britain today is immigration. I am a British Pakistani, born in Morden and brought up by British Pakistani parents. Therefore the values I have been brought up upon is a mixture; fundamentally Muslim but also British. In Islam, you are taught to respect your mother and father. To respect friends or anyone, never mind what their own beliefs are. It seems as though particular members of the BNP feel as though the substantial decline in family values is the cause of immigration, particularly Islam. I disagree, immigration is the problem, not a religion. Let me explain. The policies that the British government bring in are ridiculous, to care for and nurture someone who has come into this country illegally better than the elderly etc is something very wrong. As a British Pakistani, I understand the BNP's viewpoint on illegal immigrants coming into this country, taking opportunities such as jobs which in turn can earn them a house/flat which then enables them to raise children which also then enables them to take advantage of a wonderful education system here. It is a major problem in Britain but make no mistake, I do respect the UK for the most diverse country. It is a wonderful place, unlike any other. Where all types of people from different backgrounds can talk and mingle together freely. I just think that the ones we talk to and mingle with should be ones who have been brought up or earned their way here.

Nisar, Whitstable

I'm not sure what Sharon is expecting should the BNP gain power - She won't be thanked for her vote, rather told to get on the boat with all the other "undesirables", and where will her idea of British culture be then? There are many other political parties in the system, all of which have a viewpoint on immigration and other such issues - I would suggest voting for them if that's how you feel. But anyone supporting the BNP can only be a racist extremist, no matter how you dress up and veil the supposed arguments it has discrimination as its core values. Having right of centre views is fine, but we should never allow ourselves to be naive to the overall aims of the far right, or the disguise it may use to gain power.

Ian, London

Concerns about immigration levels affects settled immigrant communities as much as they do anyone else and it doesn't make one racist to say as much. If the Lib-Cons deal with this properly and fairly then BNP would have run out of bullets. Well not quite. Right wing parties will always drum up support by creating an enemy that they can save them from. The most fashionable one for now is the Muslim. By portraying Muslim communities as a threat to this country's culture, BNP make it sound like we are close to becoming a Caliphate. With a population less than 3% and the majority of those not interested in an Islamic state, I struggle to see how that will ever happen. Creating a fear and then gaining votes as a saviour from the fear is a brilliant trick. Sadly Muslims then feel marginalised and targeted and start developing a fear of their own which is then cashed in on by extremist groups. These cycles can only be broken if our elected politicians tackle the issues properly rather than hoping for the best.

Shahid Kakar, Bradford

"My view is that if they were free of baggage and political amateurism they would be met with significant support." I agree entirely. It seems huge numbers of people care about immigration and simply about putting the needs of existing and indigenous people above foreigners and big business, the latter wanting cheap and/or skilled labour. But there is no proper party to vote for. Lots of people are also concerned now that large numbers of houses need building in a country where many identify with rural areas and green countryside. Stopping all immigration would partially relieve this problem, but instead you have to vote for clever planning to limit the effects. At the same time we should be increasing our food supply etc so we can adapt successfully to a greener future - higher population density and reduced open space makes this all the harder. And yet, people who ask whether immigration is necessary and look to alleviate this perceived problem are branded racists. I don't think it is racist to put quality of life and the environment first. At the same time, the BNP spout a lot of nonsense and are not a serious contender to run the country.

John, Cambridge

Unfortunately the main example in this article IS of a woman driven by "crude racism, irrational impulses, and psychological problems". The racism is clear from the fact that she is Jewish and has a fear of Islam.

Tommy, Maidstone

The most hypocritcal aspect of BNP supporters is how they want to supposedly preserve British heritage by outrightly attacking immigration. The fact is, Britain has been one of the most invaded states in the world, and arguably the most multicultural out there, even before the 20th Century, ie we have Celtic, Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman, German heritgage in our history amongst others. The very fact that we are the United Kingdom is tribute to the tolerance of our nation and how we know that a diverse population will only make us stronger.

Richard Godley, Oxford

I know several policemen, if you ask them what a typical BNP member looks like they will largley describe a football hooligan, as these are the people they have to deal with at BNP protests, marches etc. Are the main parties not looking into immigration? I would rather the issue be addressed by one of the traditional parties than let the BNP have a crack at it. The lady in the article is Jewish, I would have thought she would undestand that vilifying peaceful immigrant-Muslim commuities is the same as vilifying peaceful immigrant-Jewish communites as was done in certain parts of Europe about 70 years ago.

Craig, Nottingham

I'm an ex-Labour party, ex-Amnesty and soon to be ex-Unison member. Why the ex? I'm sick and tired of being blamed and hated for things I've never done, simply because I'm a white male. My views and experiences are ignored or denied while everyone else is represented and supported by black or women's forums and networks. Of course I can't be represented because, I'm told, we live in a white male-dominated society; as if the middle class public school boys who own and run everything have anything in common with me. Keep pushing white working men away from democracy and representation and see what happens.

J Connolly, Northampton

I overlook the BNP as a viable political party for the same reason I overlook the Greens and Mebyon Kernow. They're too narrowly focused. When there is popular support for their agendas the larger political parties will be able to address their specific concerns. And they'll also be able to do much more. If the BNP banned immigration on their first day in power, what would they do on their second day?

Tom, Cornwall

I may be what the BNP call "English" but they do not speak for me - if someone wants to express their opinion, all well and good but I never asked to have a bunch of bigots speak for me. Immigration is an issue which is debated by every major political party and within reason it is overwhelmingly beneficial - indeed everyone in the UK is an Xth generation immigrant if you go back far enough. The BNP not only oppose diversity, they misrepresent themselves as standing up for white British people - to all their supporters I say you are beneath contempt and I don't need you to speak to me.

Nathan Jordan, Jersey

Personally, I would not vote for the BNP but I can understand why some people choose to. English values, culture and our very way of life have been eroded by mass immigration, particularly from the Indian sub-continent. This is a frightening thing to witness. The town in which I live has witnessed a near tripling in ethnic numbers in the last 20 years - the result is that I feel like a stranger in my own home town. Whole areas of England (Oldham, Bradford, Blackburn, Ealing) to name but a few now have massive immigrant populations. These immigrants have failed to integrate into the UK and have in effect become a nation within a nation. There is nothing wrong with a small, sustainable level of immigration, regardless of colour. However, clearly cultures that are diametrically opposed to the UK's Judeo-Christian based culture are much harder to integrate. The result is a large group within the UK that live here, work here, gain from the UK society but are not British and decry large elements of British life. Understandably this irritates the indigenous population. It is ok to have multi ethnicities (within reason) but there must be one culture.

Scott Cook, Surrey

I agree with a lot of this, many people in this country are unhappy with the way mass immigration is changing our society and values. Unfortunately the London based media, including the BBC, is obsessed with ramming it's multi-cultural agenda down our throats. London does NOT represent the rest of the UK, in fact it is completely unrepresentative. I would say that most of the white indigenous population now feel like foreigners when visiting their capital city.

Tim, Portsmouth

So, no mention that these people are short sighted idiots then? "I am fighting for the survival of my people." Who are her people? Why does she think they're at risk? "Britain was "losing its culture" because of immigration" You mean in the same way British culture has changed over thousands of years? These people are just idiots without any idea of what they are talking about, riled up by racists, thugs and fearmongerers...

Frankie D, Surrey

The problems the far right face in being taken seriously include, in no particular order... Being "the far right" rather than "the party of civil liberties, decent behaviour and forward-looking policy". Generally being defined as against things rather than having serious policies (apart from lunatic schemes like "withdrawing all of our troops from abroad to patrol our ports"). Irritating references to our history as justification for a viewpoint. The battle of Agincourt was not fought to keep foreigners out of Britain. Failure to distinguish race from culture. A white middle class salaried employee has more culture in common with his colleagues of all races than with a white hunter gatherer. Failing to discourage demonstrations where people who look like they belong on Devil's Island scream slogans into the attending TV cameras. It doesn't get votes.

Jason, Herts

Interesting rhetoric on the supposed detrimental impact of Muslim communities settling in the UK and disrupting British culture. Although a so called threat from Islam is mentioned, unfortunately it doesn't state what this perceived threat is. Just for the record, in Islam, Muslims must adhere to the laws of the country they live in. When referring to Islam, unfortunately, the author seems to be alluding to the extremist view of Islam by the few Muslims and not the honest, hardworking majority. We live in a country that accepts a multitude of faiths and whilst it is unfortunate that the communities we once used to live in are dissipating down to insignificant numbers, to blame this on the religious faith of a minority is disappointing. The once British culture has vanished not because of one religion or the other, but because of the choices our elected leaders have made. They sought out to increase multiculturalism and political correctness to a point where we don't celebrate Christmas in public shopping areas in off chance we offend somebody.

Mohammad Ali, Derby

Instead of looking at the actions of these thugs and the effects they're speeches, forums and other activities have on inter-community relations, Mr Goodwin decides to look at the "face" of the party. After reading this article it made even me ( a young Muslim male) think slightly positive about these thugs. But as I ( even though born and bred in this country and a working healthcare professional) am seen as the new "enemy", I remembered the abuse that both my peers and I have suffered from these people, made me realise that beneath this new veneer of professionalism, the core is and will always remain, HATE. That is not even something Mr Goodwin would be able to deny.

Sarfraz Patel, Bolton

I completely agree. There doesn't appear to be any options available to the British public to allow the views of many of us to be aired. Many "normal" people who are in no way extremists or at all racist simply seem to be unheard despite the obvious concerns by the majority of the public at the time of the last general election. Many decent hard-working people (across all classes) that I have spoken to agree that immigration has got out of control yet none would join a party such as the BNP as they are simply too right wing. The government appears to be putting tighter restrictions on immigration but I feel they should be doing more to merge communities together.

Greg, Leeds

Personally, I think that the problem is that if the BNP were ever in a position of serious power, I can see them slowly begininning to make their views more extreme - what would at first begin as "protecting British values and culture" would before long become "protecting the white race" etc. and the problem is then that most of those who supported them originally would continue supporting them - the same way there are very few who would stop supporting the Conservative or Labour parties just because of one change in policy, and eventually the BNP could openly become what most of us believe they already are, without losing much support.

Alex, Canterbury

Here is a profile for you - mine. 55 years old, running an IT company, ex-army, computer literate since 1972, educated to degree standard, speaks three languages. I am also a BNP supporter. Not exactly the knuckle-dragging morons we are painted in the gutter press is it?

John Bunyan, Berlin

You'd have thought a Jewish woman would have more sense. A lot of the anti-muslim propaganda out at the moment could be straight out of the third Reich. Has 'Sharon' forgotten that Hitler claimed Jews were a threat that wanted to turn Europe communist? Almost identical to the claim that Muslims want to turn Europe Sharia. If the BNP and their ilk succeed it'll be the Jews they blame for the UK's problems once they've deported the Asians.

Peter, Notts

They need two things: 1. A complete PR revamp including name and 2. Galvanisation of the potential voter support. After that they need a third thing which is a full portfolio of policies across a range of areas. Keep words like British, League, Front, Defence, National out of the name and go for traditional names like the Peoples Party, the Centrist Party, the Traditional & Moderate Party or the United Popular Party - something uncontroversial with a broader nationwide appeal. And this is a good time to do it. Due to the crises, scandals and nefarious associations people are fed up with traditional parties and politicians. More people than ever are staying away from the polls. Rarely has there been such a good time and arena for an alternative. People like the BNP, EDL and UKIP never get anywhere because they are one-issue parties (same with the Greens).

Nick Rougier, London

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