The leader of the British National Party must be cursing to himself this weekend. Following his illiberal remarks about Muslims, aired on television on Thursday, he must be wondering if his dream of mainstream political success now lies in the gutter. For all his bravado about welcoming a possible prosecution, the hidden camera that filmed him describing Islam as "a wicked, vicious faith" - his colleagues saying much worse - was a huge blow.
Nick Griffin, 45, is perhaps the most media-savvy figure to emerge from the phalanxes of the extreme right since Oswald Mosley. For the most part his predecessors have not been flattered by the media spotlight. By contrast, the urbane, besuited Griffin has welcomed attention, so much so that anti-fascist campaigners have even complained that the media have given the nice-looking middle-class father of four an easy ride.
Until last week, Griffin's plan to present the BNP as a reformed party - now the voice of the disenfranchised - seemed to be working. Notwithstanding the faintly sinister aspect lent him by his glass eye - acquired following an unexplained incident with a gun 15 years ago - he has succeeded in presenting himself as the less menacing, respectable face of the extreme right. But the BBC film made unpleasant viewing, showing hate-filled BNP members conforming to the stereotype - working class and thuggish - that Griffin has been trying to escape. (This is not a party of smokey pubs and lager any longer, he claimed.) If ever the party's implicit intolerance was to be laid bare, the on-screen bragging about beating up Muslims, putting faeces through letterboxes and fantasising about killing "Pakis" could not have done more to do so. Griffin's later solemn protestations that these people were not representative will have impressed few. Certainly Barclays Bank is embarrassed by any association with the BNP and is closing the party's accounts. A Swiss bank, it seems, may have to resume its historically inglorious role.
Griffin has not been without electoral success, though. Under his guidance the party's share of the vote has reached the highest for any extreme right-wing party for more than 30 years. In May 2002. the BNP won three council seats in Burnley. Griffin polled 16 per cent - some 4,500 votes - in Oldham West. This was at a time when it was unusual for any extreme right-wing party to get a candidate elected. Concentrating on public concern about immigration, it found a niche. In the 10 June elections this year it picked up 21 council seats across the country, the best result for an extreme-right party in decades, although it failed to get a seat in the European Parliament despite winning 800,000 votes.
Griffin, who can claim to be the moving spirit behind this success, comes from a wealthy family with a record of involvement in right-wing politics. His father, Edgar Griffin, expelled from the Conservative Party in 2001, admits to having attended National Front meetings. His sister also stood as an NF candidate in a Suffolk county council election. His mother is the administration secretary of the BNP and was a candidate in the 2001 general election, two years after he became its leader.
Griffin is said to have attended his first National Front meeting at the age of 15 with his father, but did not officially join the party until he was a law student at Downing College, Cambridge. Once in, the plausible Griffin was quick to rise through the party, becoming the national organiser by 1978. Since leaving university, where he had been a boxing blue, Griffin has worked variously in agricultural engineering, property renovation and forestry, and he continues to defy easy pigeon-holing. In addition to his political work he keeps pigs, sheep and chickens at his remote farmhouse near Welshpool, Shropshire, as a hobby, which he says also provides organic, humanely produced meat.
Paradoxically, his political rise is based on the teachings of a foreign political refugee - a suspected terrorist living in Britain. Roberto Fiore, an Italian fascist, fled to Britain in the late 1970s and was sought by the Italian police in connection with the Bologna train station bombings which killed 85 people. Fiore belonged to the NAR, a group espousing the Third Position, which seeks to transcend the evils of both capitalism and communism and their tendency to concentrate ownership in the hands of a small number of people. The Third Way is an old fascist slogan - Nazism was the Third Way between Jewish capitalism and Jewish Bolshevism.
Far-right politics in Britain has attracted only a tiny minority since the days of Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. The National Front had a brief resurgence in the 1970s when it claimed 15,000 members. The extreme right has been kept on the defensive by anti-fascist campaigners such as those around Searchlight magazine, which helped with the BBC documentary.
Members of extreme-right parties were exposed time and again as neo-Nazis. The various parties have been riven by personal feuds, factions and splits. At first Griffin attempted to deny these links. But in 1984, Searchlight revealed his relationship with Fiore. Griffin ran a company called Heritage Tours with Michael Walker, editor of Scorpion magazine. Walker's flat, where Heritage Tours was based, was frequented by Fiore. Griffin has also been a frequent visitor to Fiore's flat. Griffin's father is Fiore's accountant.
The National Front took up Fiore's ideology as the Griffin cabal took control, but it soon began to make some curious alliances. The "political soldiers" wing was meeting representatives of Colonel Gaddafi's regime through the Libyan People's Bureau in London, and expressing support for it and for Ayatollah Khomeini. Writing in Nationalism Today in 1985, Griffin praised the black separatist Louis Farrakhan, saying, "White nationalists everywhere wish [Farrakhan] well, for we share a common struggle for the same ends: Racial Separation and Racial Freedom." Not surprisingly this did not go down well with rank-and-file members of the NF.
In 1995, Griffin joined the BNP at the behest of then leader and founder John Tyndall. The latter had become editor of The Rune, an anti-Semitic quarterly produced by Croydon BNP.
A year later, Griffin launched an attack on the Holocaust denier David Irving for admitting that some people might have died in the Holocaust. "True Revisionists will not be fooled by this new twist to the sorry tale of the Hoax of the Twentieth Century," Griffin wrote. In 1998, Griffin was found guilty of distributing material likely to incite racial hatred, for which he received a two-year suspended jail sentence.
This week Griffin has tried his best to save the situation for the BNP. On Newsnight he maintained that party had changed and the documentary was a essentially a selectively edited fit-up by the BBC. Looking pasty and tired, he said three of the loose-mouthed members who had appeared in the film had been expelled and another one, a BNP councillor, is to face a party tribunal.
But Griffin refused to apologise for his own comments about Islam. While he might welcome the publicity that a day in court might bring, the airing of this documentary means he will need all much proclaimed media skills if he is to rescue any serious aspiration towards respectability. Whatever the fate of the BNP, clearly the Griffin clan is here to stay. His 17-year-old daughter Jennifer admits she plans to follow in her father's footsteps, even to the extent of becoming the BNP's leader. "I am not a racist," she says. "Racists hate people. I don't hate anyone."
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