BNP's strategy of prejudice was sinister but simple

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Indy Politics

"Perhaps one or two people here have lots and lots of money. If so, that's great and, please, can we have some of it?"

When Nick Griffin addressed a group of American neo-Nazis in New Jersey earlier this year, his plea for cash was pitched perfectly for his audience. Young, suited and boasting a very British line in irony, the BNP chairman was given a rapturous reception on a key leg of his fund-raising tour of the United States.

With his party intent on exploiting what were then the first stirrings of racial discontent in northern towns such as Oldham, Griffin wowed his hosts with his plans to stand for Parliament in the name of white pride. However, following the threat of the UK Electoral Commission's first investigation, a probe that could result in jail for him and crippling fines for his party, his appeal for funds may not now look like such a good a idea.

Yet as the cheques and dollar bills were handed over at the little-known event in May, the British expatriate who had made it all possible couldn't help but feel pleased with himself. Standing against the backdrop of a union flag and a stars and stripes, Mark Cotterill looked on with pride as the gathering took on the fervour of an evangelists' prayer meeting.

For Mr Cotterill, a 40-year-old former builder, the moment was the culmination of more than 18 months hard work that began when he founded the American Friends of the British National Party (AFBNP) His idea was sinister but simple: to tap into the huge reserve of money swilling around in the US for far-right causes by appealing to white Americans' love of "the old country". He admitted his strategy was based on the success of Noraid, the US fundraising group that has bankrolled Sinn Fein and the IRA for decades.

He had a long record of involvement with the far right, stretching back to the time he left school at 17 and joined the National Front. He remained a member, campaigning at the 1992 general election for the party, before joining the Tories in 1993 courtesy of Torbay Conservative Association.

It was during his spell with the Torbay Tories that Mr Cotterill learned the more genteel arts of fundraising and traditional party politics, organising cheese and wine parties and tombolas. The Conservatives expelled him when his NF past was revealed and he soon joined the BNP instead. He moved to Washington in 1995, taking part-time jobs as he set up his brainchild of the AFBNP.

Since then, Mr Cotterill has used his Britishness to great effect, playing on US white supremacists' admiration for the UK and scaring the living daylights out of them with tales of non-white immigration.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), a leading anti-racist campaign in the US that has managed to infiltrate the AFBNP, its meetings are a far cry from backwoods Ku Klux Klan cross burnings. Held in ordinary looking meeting rooms and restaurants they can look more like a methodists' coffee morning than Nazi worshippers.

But the with tables loaded with neo-Nazi paraphernalia the air is also thick with Holocaust denial and demands for global white unity. Mr Cotterill told a recent AFBNP meeting: "It is not an American fight or a British fight or a German fight. It is a white fight, and we have got to win it."

In all, Mr Cotterill claims to have 100 dues-paying members in 40 states, with 1,000 people receiving his e-mail newsletter. According to the SPLC, he has succeeded in raising some £80,000 in funds for the BNP, some in single donations of $10,000 or $15,000 at a time, through at least 20 meetings over the past 18 months.

However, when the SPLC phoned him this week to reveal it knew about his activities, Mr Cotterill mysteriously resigned, sending an e-mail to Nick Griffin apologising for his decision "due to personal reasons".

With the US Justice Department and the Electoral Commission now poised to investigate him, it may be the case that, far from realising his dream of global white unity, he has unwittingly sown the seeds of the BNP's destruction.

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