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.

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.

Image caption 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.

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.

Image caption 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.

Around the BBC