Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS A tendency in Britain to assume that we are immune from the extremes of left- and right-wing politics. Not because of our highly developed civic culture and respect for democracy, but because of our highly developed sense of the ridiculous. Hitler would never have got anywhere here, the argument goes, because he'd have been laughed out of court. This line of thinking goes back at least to the Second World War, when the British sense of humour was regularly invoked as a secret weapon against the square-headed German. It's a rather self-congratulatory argument, and perhaps gets things the wrong way round. Because fascism has never got a political toehold in Britain - thanks largely to our first- past-the-post electoral system - we can afford to laugh at it in a way that other countries can't.

But whichever way round you put it, the truth is that for all their ugliness and viciousness, British fascists remain irredeemably ludicrous. This was amply demonstrated in The Lost Race (BBC2), in which Jolyon Jenkins traced the rise and fall of the National Front and the various splinter groups that succeeded it.

The film began grimly enough, in Leicester in the early 1970s, when an influx of Asian refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda so alarmed the local council that they took out an advert in a Ugandan paper urging them to stay away from the city. Asian displaced people were persecuted - windows broken, "obscene things" pushed through the letterbox - and support for the NF mushroomed.

But this backing was never converted into electoral success: at its zenith in 1979, the NF put up 300 candidates in the general election, and every single one lost its deposit. From here on in, the story was pure farce, punctuated by occasional episodes of violence. In response to the electoral defeat, which the NF leadership blamed on a Zionist conspiracy, the party turned to religious renewal. NF activists were reborn as "Political Soldiers", destined to inspire others by the strength of their convictions (which were mainly for violence and drunkenness). Recruitment plummeted.

In an attempt to widen its electoral base, the NF then tried appealing to black voters, hoping for an alliance with black separatists such as Louis Farrakhan; this didn't work. They even wooed the Jewish community, at which point the party fell apart. New factions sprang up, including the Third Position, which wanted to get in touch with the soil of these islands. It did this by moving to a "commune" in France, though Jenkins's investigations showed it had never held more than a couple of people. Another branch became the confusingly titled Third Way, which abandoned notions of Zionist conspiracy to concentrate on grassroots issues such as keeping public toilets open. The nastiest part of the organisation became the British National Party - and here, I have to say, the jokes grind to a halt.

On balance, however, the film was mordantly hilarious; and surely, in making fascism ridiculous, it did more to neuter it than any number of marches or demonstrations.