Mark Perryman reviews Daniel Trilling’s new book on the British far right.
Daniel Trilling has been for some time one of the few mainstream political journalists to take the British Far Right seriously. While at various moments anti-fascism has been a galvanising force for wide sections of the Left, the centre ground has too often been dominated by the wish that if only the BNP’s opponents would ignore them then the BNP and others like them would go away. Trilling’s achievement is to confront the dangers of this passivity and reveal the frightening consequences of leaving the Far Right to their own hateful and violent devices.
Bloody Nasty People is an ambitious mix of journalism, investigation and political analysis. The journalism mainly consists of spending time with a number of key figures on the Far Right. The culture of those drawn to Fascism remains largely a mystery to their opponents, and more particularly the milieu of casual support and voters that the BNP in particular at its height was able to mobilise. In an earlier period, the mid to late 1970s, Martin Walker produced the definitive account of the resistible rise of the National Front. Brilliantly written, Walker’s book The National Front read like a spinechilling thriller as he detailed how a neo nazi fringe moved into a position of becoming a mass movement focussed on anti-immigration and repatriation. Trilling seeks to equal the to-date unmatched achievement of Walker’s book and he comes admirably close.
The sections on the growth of the BNP under the odious Nick Griffin’s leadership after ousting the veteran Nazi John Tyndall are strong, as is Trilling’s detailing of the BNP’s earlier success winning their first council seat on the Isle of Dogs in 1993. But compared to another account of this earlier period of Far Right success Triling has a tougher challenge. David Edgar’s 1976 stage play , Destiny, broadcast two years later as a BBC Play for Today, almost uniquely uncovered the mix of emotional impulses that framed the Far Right. Edgar’s portrayal of Far Right activism has never in my view ever been improved upon. It is of course a difficult, ugly and sometimes dangerous task to reveal the organisational and ideological culture of the Far Right. Most often this has been done by anti-fascist moles, mainly from the magazine Searchlight, pretending to be their own worst enemies. This tale of what this undercover work revealed was told most recently in Matthew Collins’ painfully honest memoir Hate which is in many ways a more powerful read than Trillings’. Although in terms of the ‘inside story’ its already a little dated, which gives Trilling’s book an extra edge as it is as up to date as any book of this sort can be.
One curious absence from Bloody Nasty People given the obvious political ambition of his book is any strategic discussion of the factors that has led both to the electoral collapse of the BNP and a failure of the street-fighting EDL to muster anything resembling significant support outside of its hardcore. Anti-fascism can be bedevilled by the most arcane splits, unlikely to be of much interest to the general reader. Yet the community campaigning led by Hope not Hate in particular, aided by the more street presence of groups such as Unite against Fascism, deserves a careful appreciation. Ahead of the 2010 General and London elections the BNP did seem on the verge of an electoral breakthrough, and similarly the anti-muslim campaigning of the English Defence League posed a different kind of danger. Both have largely failed, not just because they imploded but because the opposition succeeded.
Understanding how the Far Right, at least these versions, lost is key because the old right constituency they sought to represent hasn’t gone away. It is simplistic to simply situate UKIP in the same political space as the BNP. Yet it is undeniable they now offer a populist, anti-immigration threat to the Tories in 2015 that could yet prove to be as significant as the BNP targeting disenfranchised white working class Labour voters as new Labour headed towards defeat in 2010. This is the basis of the stand out chapter in Trilling’s book, his concluding ‘Ten Myths About the Far Right’. This is a framework for integrating anti-fascism into day to day political understanding and campaigning. Written with an urgency and imagination the subject demands the final pages ensure Bloody Nasty People not only informs its readers, but inspires us too.
The Substantive’s Football Columnist, Mel Gomes’s e-book, Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley, covers his journey following first Spurs and then Barcelona through Europe in a game now overshadowed by money. It is available to preview for free and download in full for less than a price of a pint at Wembley Stadium from Amazon and Smashwords.