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Boneheads and Ballots

Explaining the rise of the British National Party

Ben Cohen
June 17, 2009
Leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin MEP gives a media conference in the Ace of Diamonds pub on June 10, 2009 in Manchester, England.(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin MEP gives a media conference in the Ace of Diamonds pub on June 10, 2009 in Manchester, England.(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Poor Nick Griffin. Every time the leader of the British National Party thinks he’s gained respectability, something comes along to spoil it. In the European parliament elections two weeks ago, the BNP won two seats. Days later, James von Brunn murdered a security guard in an assault on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and it quickly emerged that the aging white supremacist had attended meetings of the BNP’s American Friends branch. He did so with his friend John de Nugent, who last year launched what the neo-Nazi online forum Stormfront called a “serious bid for President of the United States.” De Nugent gushed on his blog that Griffin, whom he had met twice, was bravely tackling the “Jewsmedia…. Hail the White Leader, Nick Griffin!”

Griffin could do without these kinds of encomiums. As one of the new BNP European Parliamentary members, Griffin’s electoral success demonstrates the effectiveness of his strategy to emphasize the party’s British nationalism while adopting an amnesiac approach to its neo-Nazi origins. The elections marked a breakthrough.

The party has never secured any kind of parliamentary representation before. However, Griffin and his supporters know that the European parliament does not have the significance or the prestige of the British parliament at Westminster. Those who bother to vote in European elections often do so to register a protest against the establishment parties. When the time comes for a Westminster election, the good sense and caution of the voters kicks back in. If Griffin is to buck that trend, he must cast away any associations with de Nugent, Von Brunn, and people of that ilk.

To be sure, the BNP has quite a history to overcome. Nothing better symbolizes the unashamedly Nazi roots of the party than the October 1963 wedding between Colin Jordan and Françoise Dior. Jordan was the founder of the National Socialist Movement, from which the BNP is directly descended. His bride, the niece of fashion designer Christian Dior, was a Hitler worshipper who had spent most of her life on the edges of the moldering French aristocracy. Their nuptials were a macabre celebration of Nazi occultism. Having sworn that they were both of pure Aryan stock, Dior and Jordan pricked their fingers and let their mingled blood drip onto a virgin copy of Mein Kampf.

A Royal Air Force reject, Jordan founded the National Socialist Movement on what would have been Hitler’s 73rd birthday, April 20, 1962. He was the most foul of racists, obsessed with the image of black males as sexual predators. (“Semi-savages are given material rewards to mate with the women of one of the leading civilized nations in the world,” he spat.) These demons in his head were fueled by the svelte, hard-faced Dior, who taunted him about her previous relationship with John Tyndall, Jordan’s deputy. When Jordan eventually dismissed Tyndall, Dior said: “I once thought Colin was weak. Now he has proved his strength.” A few months later, she dumped him.

Such melodrama makes it easy to forget that Jordan and Tyndall—when they were not fighting each other or doing time for such offenses as an arson campaign against synagogues—were at the helm of a group that never had more than a few hundred members. By the end of the 1960s, Jordan had been eclipsed and Tyndall was slowly realizing that winning elections was a necessary condition of political success. He reasoned that labels like “British nationalist” were probably more appealing to the public than “National Socialist.”

Tyndall became one of the leaders of the National Front, which dominated the British far right during the 1970s. What distinguished the National Front was not so much its hostility to immigrants—a plentiful sentiment in the Conservative Party of the time—as its strident racism and proclivity for violence. These were never moderated for electoral purposes. Rude Boy, a film released in 1980 starring The Clash, features documentary footage of a National Front candidate ranting menacingly about an opponent who is “half wog, half Jew!” For nationalists like these, race and nation were one and the same—and always would be.

In his public statements, Nick Griffin may have eschewed the racist verbiage of his predecessors—
“wog,” “coon,” “yid,” and so forth—but racial nationalism remains the thread which links the British National Party with the National Socialist Movement. The BNP’s constitution restricts membership to “indigenous Caucasians.” “Rights for Whites,” a racial slogan, is one of the party’s favorites. Moreover, most political reformers will tend to disown or at least apologize for an unsavory past. Griffin has not done so, either on behalf of himself—his career highlights include teenage activism in the National Front, Holocaust denial and authorship of a brazenly anti-Semitic pamphlet entitled
“The Mindbenders”—or his party.

However, the BNP only won two seats, and not to the national legislature, so how worried should Jews and liberals in the United Kingdom be? Wasn’t it possible, I asked Mark Gardner, head of the Community Security Trust—the British Jewish communal body which tracks antisemitic incidents and trends—that the BNP could suffer the same kind of humiliation that the National Front did in the 1979 election, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party came to power with British pride as one of their themes? “The Conservatives will need to say to that sector of the electorate, ‘we hear your concerns, we won’t let you down,’” he answered. “They might not be as blunt as that.”

So who is politically in a position to shape the fight against the BNP? Historically, that role has been fallen to the far left—but to allow it to do so now might mean courting further disaster. As one of the Britain’s more outspoken bloggers put it, “The first step towards defeating the BNP is to take the fight against the far right out of the hands of the far left.”

As 10 years of Israel fixation on the far left can attest, the tropes of anti-Semitism are not just the preserve of the farthest right. Indeed, they have become so embedded on the left that one British advocate of an academic boycott of Israel has promoted the latest crackpot myth doing the rounds of anti-Semites, namely that Lehman Brothers transferred its assets to Israel before going under. Other characteristics of the far right—the scorning of internationalism in the name of a selfish, parochial isolationism, admiration for tyrants, depicting terrorists as “resistors” or “political soldiers”—have also penetrated the far left. All of which suggests that if the people who might vote for the BNP are to vote for someone else, they need a credible centrist voice to persuade them accordingly.

Ben Cohen is the associate director of communications for the American Jewish Committee. He blogs at Z Word.

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York who publishes frequently on Jewish and international affairs. His Twitter feed is @BenCohenOpinion.