Ian Birrell: How our politicians failed to stop the rise of the far right

This is a significant moment – the fascists have come in from the cold

A few weeks ago I attended a think-tank lunch held to discuss whether the rise of the left was inevitable in the wake of the banking crisis. After some discussion, Dominic Grieve, the cerebral shadow Justice minister, intervened. "I don't worry about the hard left," he said. "It is the rise of the far right that scares me."

His words appeared prescient yesterday, as we woke to news that Britain is sending two neo-fascists to represent us in Europe, shattering any comfortable illusions about the innate tolerance of the British people. In the privacy of the voting booths, nearly one million people put their cross besides the name of an extreme-right party headed by a man once convicted for inciting racial hatred.

We should not underestimate the significance of this moment. Oswald Mosley, for all his oratorical fervour, was a flop at the polls with both his New Party and the British Union of Fascists. The National Front caused shockwaves in the early Seventies when it managed to save its deposit in a by-election; after that, it was downhill all the way. And the BNP used to be such an irrelevance that only 35,000 people voted for it in the 1997 general election, when there was twice last week's turnout.

And now this: the moment when the fascists came in from the cold. When the voters in Yorkshire and Humber plumped for a man who had joined the National Socialist Movement, whose members once went around burning synagogues in Britain. And when the voters of the north-west returned a man found guilty over Holocaust denial. These are the people who will now jump on the gravy train to Strasbourg, no doubt taking all the allowances possible to promulgate their bone-headed propaganda.

The big question, of course, is what changed? Britain has prided itself on its political moderation, which evolved over centuries in the land that gave birth to modern parliamentary democracy. So why have some people become so alienated by the political process that they have turned to such extremists?

There is little doubt that the BNP under Griffin has smartened up its act. This is not just in appearances, although the counts had their share of sweating skinheads squeezed into their three-piece suits, clutching pints of beer (Bulldog or Spitfire, presumably, rather than a nasty European lager). Crude racist talk has been buried, in public at least, replaced with street-level campaigning on highly localised issues. And it has positioned itself as the anti-politics party, presenting itself as outside "the system" and picking up tricks from the mainstream right in America and the far right in Europe, especially France.

In communities where there are deep concerns at the impact of globalisation, of fast social change and of the recession, the BNP has sown seeds of doubt over conventional politics, fertilising them with fear and falsehoods. And in the wake of the expenses scandal and the Labour meltdown, these seeds blossomed into electoral success.

For all this, it remains puzzling that so many Britons would turn to an avowedly racist party. There are no wards that could be called ghettos here. We have one of the highest rates of mixed-race marriage in the world, surely the ultimate sign of racial tolerance. And popular culture shows an ease with multi-culturalism – indeed, the winner of the most recent series of Britain's Got Talent was a mixed-race dance group called Diversity.

Some would argue that the reason is simple: there is too much immigration, upsetting the delicate balance of society, and our politicians talk too little about a core concern. They are wrong. The problem is not that there has been too much discussion, but that it is unashamedly hostile to newcomers. Just as it is little wonder support for the European Union is wilting when it is never publicly defended, so it is little surprise that a racist party can rise when there seems to be only hostility to immigrants and asylum-seekers.

By talking of schools being "swamped" by immigrants, or demanding "British jobs for British workers", or even by constantly trying to define "Britishness", politicians like David Blunkett and Gordon Brown – in tandem with elements of the populist press, the net and radio talkshows – have coarsened the public discourse. Instead of cool discussion of an incendiary issue, such loose talk has sanctioned race-based politics, contributing to a situation in which politicans are terrified of tackling urban myths on issues such as housing and education.

The result is that, on the same day as Britain elected two racist MEPs, a revelatory report was published by the Red Cross, which showed how skewed British perceptions are on asylum-seekers. It revealed, for example, that people believed the UK is home to one in four of the world's asylum-seekers; the true figure is about one in 33. In such a climate, is it any wonder that sections of a confused electorate, angry with its politicians, turn to a party based on race hatred?