Deborah Ross: How exciting! I've never met proper racists before

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He's got a nice complexion, but Nick Griffin could do with a history lesson. Deborah Ross gets under the BNP leader's skin on the campaign trail in Essex

So, I'm off to spend the day with the British National Party which appals almost everyone I know – "Poor you"; "Say you're busy"; "Can't you pull a sickie?" – but I find I'm peculiarly thrilled and excited.

Perhaps I've always lived in some kind of bubble, but I've never met proper racists before. Once, when I was a kid, a girl down the road called me a "dirty yid" but my mum punched her and that was that, pretty much, and I've never witnessed or been involved in any instances since. Might they wear uniforms? March? Say Auschwitz was all one big, fat, stonking lie? As days out go, it has to be better than a stately home. (Although Blenheim Palace is said to be good, with a more than decent café).

I find the BNP in Barking and Dagenham, which basically means going east on the District line until you fall off at the end. This is where they already have 12 councillors (they need 14 more to gain control of the council), and where Nick Griffin, the leader, is standing as an MP against Labour's Margaret Hodge (majority: 8,883). They are all out canvassing today, and have gathered on a street on the vast Becontree Estate, which is comprised of 27,000 council homes and, apparently, houses 167,000 people. As I tip up, an altercation is already taking place – oh, joy of joys – between a BNP man in a sandy-coloured suit and a fat, white tattooed fellow with a neck thicker than his head and a Staffordshire bull terrier snarling at his side. "You got a problem with my bird, looking over the fence," the tattooed man is shouting, while jabbing the sandy-suited man in the chest. "Next time you come over, I'll hit you with a shovel!"

My God, you don't get this at Blenheim! Hit him with the shovel! Quick, someone find him a shovel! But, disappointingly, the minders manage to talk the tattooed man down. What was that all about? I ask. "That," says one of the minders, "was because Richard Barnbrook [the sandy-suited man, a BNP councillor] looked over the other fellow's fence where his girlfriend was having a bonfire, and he got cross about it." The minder is friendly and later updates me on where dog-fighting is at these days. "They use them Japanese akita dogs now. They can pick up a Staffie and it's gone." He also says: "I can't give you my real name, love, for security reasons, but it's Terry."

Back to work, pounding the streets, along with Nick and some of the other candidates – "I have two mixed-race grandchildren," says one happily, "but that's all right, because we never talk politics at home" – and the minder who would be nameless, if only he weren't Terry. Nick is not wearing a uniform, alas, and does not march. He just sort of pootles along. But he does have a glass eye, which is something. The eye is blue and spookily opaque, giving him the look of a dead fish that's been rather too long on the slab. He lost it while doing up a derelict house in France. He'd been burning rubbish on the fire when a shotgun cartridge, concealed in the rubbish, exploded in his face. "Ouch!" I say. "Didn't hurt at all," he says. What? Your eye is blown out and there is no pain? Pull the other one, although, I should warn you, it is just as Jewish as the first. He says: "It's like when someone has been stabbed, and they don't feel it. I guess it's a natural reaction when you've been injured. You've got more chance of getting away and surviving if you don't initially feel pain or whatever." A car passes. A young black woman sticks her head out the window, shouts "racist bastard" and speeds off. Is that painful? I ask. "No," he says. "You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros, doing this job." Actually, Nick has rather nice skin; he's 52, but possibly looks younger. Your beauty regime, Nick? Clinique? Clarins? Eve Lom? "I've never smoked ... I don't know actually ... it's just the way things are." Clinique, I'm thinking.

The job, today, is to press the flesh and distribute flyers. The flyers come with the headline "New Labour Have Changed The Face of Barking & Dagenham" and juxtapose two photographs. One shows pretty, white young women in tea-dresses, lining a street on what appears to be VE Day, and has a "From this..." arrow on it. The other, meanwhile, has a "To this..." arrow on it, and shows three women in burkhas, one of whom is giving the finger. I confess I have never personally seen a woman in a burkha give the finger but, like I said, perhaps I've lived in some kind of bubble.

Anyway, Nick's shtick, if you'll excuse my Yiddish, which you better had, or my mum will punch you, is that Hodge has been moving Labour-voting immigrants into the borough "on a huge scale" to see off the BNP threat. Some residents certainly believe this. "See that turning? Hodge has filled it with Africans," says one. The BNP even have a leaflet, "Africans for Essex" , which claims that the Government has paid Africans up to £50,000 to move here and "ensure safe majority seats in the future". However, as it turns out, the incentive scheme was open to everyone, not just immigrants, and how many took advantage? Just 39, of which six were white, 15 Asian, 13 black and five not recorded. Just 39, then, in a population of 167,000 which, as far as I can work out, represents an uptake of 0.02 per cent. Come on, Nick, I say. You're a Cambridge graduate. Surely you can see an uptake of 0.02 per cent isn't exactly the worry of the century, or even the week. You couldn't even brush your teeth and make that worry last. It's not a leaflet-worthy worry, is it? "It's symptomatic," he says. Of what? "In the last few years 5,000 natives have moved out of Barking and Dagenham and they've been replaced by Africans. The Labour Party hasn't had a programme by that name, but there has been deliberate gerrymandering."

Richard Barnbrook interrupts. "Nick," he says, "there is a man round the corner who is very angry with the BNP. He says you're the cause of bringing in all the immigrants." We go to see this man, who lives in a house with rotting windows and, for some reason, two lampposts lying horizontally across the concrete out front. "Nick," says the man, "I'll be straight with ya. Because you've got in here, they've [Labour] given 'em [immigrants] incentives from Hackney and every other borough ... That's what's happened." And this is what happens, I suppose, when gerrymandering accusations come back to bite you on the bum. I ask the man: are you blaming Nick? "I am," says the man. Might you want to hit him with a shovel? I haven't seen anyone hit with a shovel all day. Nick says: "Labour are bringing them [immigrants] in to deal with BNP votes, but if you go back to Hackney and Tower Hamlets in the Seventies, when the BNP wasn't there, and the National Front weren't a threat, the Labour Party still swamped them with immigrants, and they'll do the same here in Barking, whether we are here or not. Immigrants are cheap labour, and that's what it's really about, isn't it...?" Whoa, Nick, I say. I'm only here for the crack. I'm only here because I thought it would be more fun than Blenheim. I don't want to get involved. But to say the population is being deliberately manipulated, and to then say, actually, it's all down to the free market... It's manifestly contradictory, Nick. "I'm not a racist," says Nick, by way of reply. And neither is the man on the doorstep. "In 1964," he says, "my best friend was a black man." I say: Nick, why do you always use the world "swamped"? Nobody likes it. "The people round here do," he replies.

What is a racist? If you are worried that this country is becoming over-crowded, is that racism? I don't know. I put it to Nick. Nick, what is a racist? "It's a phrase that was invented by Leon Trotsky, who was a mass murderer, to demonise his political opponents. That's the first thing," he says. "But I think the definition that the ethnic minorities use is prejudice plus power. If that definition is used then, self-evidently, the BNP cannot be racist because we do not have any power."

And if you did have power, what's the first thing you would do? "Get out of Europe." Has there ever been an ideal time to live in Britain? "I think being a member of a yeoman's family under Elizabeth I would have been pretty good, before the theft of Parliament. The people were free. There was Shakespeare," Do you like Shakespeare? "I do, yes." Do you read Shakespeare? "I don't get that much time."

Barking actually has a lower proportion of people from ethnic minorities than most other London boroughs, so perhaps what's happening here isn't about a rise in immigration, but a rise in the fear of immigration. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research even revealed that support for the BNP is actually weaker in areas of high immigration rather than stronger. It seems the less you have to do with immigrants, the more you will take against them. Nick himself lives in mid-Wales, which isn't the most mixed of areas. In fact, my husband is from mid-Wales and I was the first Jew my mother-in-law had ever met. ("What is a Jew exactly?" she asked. "I suppose," I replied, "Jews don't believe Christ was the Messiah." "I see," she said, before going to lie down for the afternoon).

I ask Nick if immigration has had a direct impact on his life. "I'll give you an example," he says. "I was campaigning in Birmingham, three or four years ago, and I put a leaflet though a letterbox and a boxer dog stood the other side and ripped the top off my finger. I went off to get a tetanus jab and get it sorted out, and the doctor there was a south Indian, and everyone else in A&E thought it was hilarious, but I was grateful to him for the treatment." But Nick, you big silly, that's a positive anecdote! He looks crestfallen, then continues: "Britain steals health workers from countries that are far poorer than us and need those health workers far more. I've got nothing against someone working in our health service from abroad, the shame is they were trained somewhere else and we've pinched them." Anyone would think he was making it up as he goes along.

Terry, meanwhile, is wondering why all we journalists ever want to talk about is immigration. Terry, I say, have you seen your own flyers? Terry, I add, why do you go to dog-fights, anyhow? You should be ashamed of yourself. "You can't avoid them where I live, love." he says. I ask Nick about John Tyndall, the founder of the National Front. What are your memories of him? "He was ideologically a fascist," he says, "but a gentle person." He insists that the BNP is not just the National Front in new clothes. What's the main difference? "We're electable." And who is an "indigenous Brit?" "You can see it at a DNA level," he says. "The fact is, if your maternal grandmother was born in this country before 1948, you are about 80 per cent likely to be descended from people who came here when the last ice melted 18,000 years ago. Until very recently, the last wave of invasion we had was in 1066." So is someone descended from a Norman an indigenous Brit? "Yes, as a matter of fact, because one of the phrases is 'before legal memory', which is the time of Edward I."

Am I an indigenous Brit, Nick? "Yes, because Jews were here before legal memory. There will always be a blurring of populations around the edges but the idea we are a nation of mongrels is most bizarre. It's almost a form of inverse Nazi race science." Inverse Nazi race science? Can you study that anywhere? The LSE? "If you have a mongrel race you must be able to have a pure race. As a matter of fact, you can't really have either. You wouldn't dream of going up to a Maori, whose people have only been in New Zealand for a thousand years, and saying: 'You're not indigenous,' whereas we've been here for 18,000 years." Well, the fact is we "swamped" the Maoris, and the Aborigines and the Native Americans. We did more than "swamp". We stole their land. If countries belong to their indigenous populations, as you say, shouldn't we now give those lands back? "That colonisation of other countries was wrong, but I'm not going to let it happen to mine," he says.

We end up in a pub on the Goresbrook Road, where we drink beer outside in the sun. Have you seen Shane Meadows's film, This Is England, I ask Nick. "Yes," he says. And? "It wasn't particularly good. It was shallow propaganda." A black fella walks by with one of those old-fashioned, Victorian bulldogs. It's a lovely dog, if called Razor, so Terry and I get up to make a big fuss of it. "Great dog," says Terry, to the owner. "Cheers," says the owner. Terry, who would still be nameless if only he were, then says: "See? We're not so bad. We talk to darkies." I think it's probably Blenheim next weekend. Leeds Castle is also said to be good.

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