And that’s a problem not only for the ideological left, but for both of Britain’s main political parties. The British National Party, deeply unpleasant though it might be, has a point. In fact it has several points, and they’re points that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are at present willing or able to address.
The BNP speaks to the white working classes, a constituency which feels increasingly alienated, neglected, and abandoned by a “New” Labour party which once drew the bulk of its support from those same people. In broad terms, these are people who feel left behind by the pace of social and economic change. They are concerned about the erosion of what they see as their British identity under a government obsessed with promoting multiculturalism. More pressingly, they feel under pressure from mass immigration, angered by the continuing transfer of political power away from their elected leaders and into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats of the European Union, concerned by rising crime, and alarmed by the spread of Islamic extremism.
The last time the far right (to use the term in its broadest and laziest sense) made inroads into British political life, in the 1970s, they were killed off by the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, who stood up for British interests and addressed the concerns of the working classes without pandering to racist attitudes. The economic chaos that accompanied the fall of the Labour government in 1979 was exploited by racist and nationalist groups, and it’s no coincidence that now, as then, such elements are growing in popularity during the death throes of a Labour administration.
Thatcher was largely able to repair the damage. These days, however, the malaise runs deeper. Labour long ago lost the big battles of economic ideas to the Conservatives, but Britain’s cultural establishment has succeeded in making left-wing and “progressive” views on immigration, Europe, and crime the orthodoxy of the ruling classes, despite their unpopularity at the ballot box. (A former Labour advisor recently revealed how Tony Blair and his ministers encouraged mass immigration to socially engineer a “multicultural” Britain and “rub the right’s noses in diversity.”)
Those who comprise the establishment are insulated from the problems which have turned their less privileged countrymen toward extremists such as the BNP. The elites don’t live in those parts of London where you take your life in your hands when you get on public transport or where children have to run the gauntlet of gangs armed with guns and knives in order to get to school. Nor do they live in the northern cities, where Islamic extremist preach jihad at Friday prayers. Yet they feel eminently qualified to tell others how they should behave and what they should think.
So anyone who voices legitimate concerns about virtually unregulated mass immigration or suggests that it would be a good thing if immigrants who arrive legally were encouraged to integrate into society is branded a racist. And anyone who voices the opinion that maybe British voters should be able to have a say in how they’re governed, rather than having laws imposed on them from Brussels, is labeled a xenophobe.
The British left is more angry than usual these days because the rise of far-right extremism during a long period of ostensibly progressive government doesn’t make progressive policies look good. But so successful has been the left’s distorting of the debate — there is no “far left,” only the “far right” and, on the other side, “normal” people — that the Conservatives have been cowed into silence on issues that matter deeply to a majority of the British people.
And if the Tories fail to address the problems that have festered for the past twelve years, the extremists will grow stronger. If a rabble of a party like the BNP, with its repellent leader and half-baked set of policies, can attract the support of a million voters, there’s a real danger that more articulate and persuasive racists will one day become serious players in British political life.