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Gary Younge
A land fit for racists

The election of three British National party councillors in Burnley marks a significant development in our political and racial history. Sadly, it is not a turning point but the acceleration of a trend - the logical development not only of political disaffection but economic alienation, social degradation, and racial and ethnic intimidation.

Final figures show the BNP won 12% of the votes cast in Burnley, a fraction up on the 11.9% in last year's general election. Results around the country suggest the far right was a more potent national force during the 1970s (in the local elections of 1976, the National Front averaged 8.9% in seats it contested), but its performance in Burnley indicates that it is far more adept at targeting resources and courting the media than it has been in the past.

The BNP is the most vicious and violent expression of racism in Britain, but it is neither the most pervasive nor the most deadly. According to statistics from the institute for race relations, three times as many black people have died in police custody since 2001 as have been killed in racial violence. The BNP did not invent racism; it is exploiting it.

Those who claim these results mark a victory against organised racism must explain what, for them, would have constituted a defeat. Nine years ago, the election of one BNP councillor in the Isle of Dogs signalled a crisis in a democratic culture. Now three are returned in Burnley and some view it as a triumph.

On a continent where fascism has returned as a mainstream ideology during the past 20 years, many have set their sights grimly low. "Nazis are crushed," read the front page of yesterday's Express. But the smile on the face of the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, suggests anything but. "It's very good news for us indeed," he said, shortly before driving a decorated meat wagon through the village of Worsthorne, which returned a BNP councillor, blasting out the Dam Busters theme tune.

His victory anthem is apt, since it should prompt us to be careful with our terminology. To call the BNP Nazis is something of a misnomer. True, there are similarities in both form and content between it and Hitler's party of 70 years ago. True also, the word both evokes and emotes. But it misleads too. To refer to the BNP as Nazis suggests they represent something foreign - a throwback to a bygone supremacist age or a virus to infect our otherwise healthy and non-racist democracy. But the truth is that Britain has a perfectly vile, racist tradition of its own to draw from - one that provides far more lucid explanations as to why leafy villages and urban estates would opt for the BNP than anything that took place under the Third Reich.

At its heart lies the narrative of the empire. First, the theft of land and labour around the globe by which many Britons once defined themselves as great. Then came the subsequent loss of territories to independence by which many Britons defined themselves as being in decline. And finally, the immigration from former colonies after the war, which led many British to regard both their nation and their whiteness as under threat. "We are here because you were there," pointed out the editor of Race and Class, A Sivanandan. And when racism, in all its forms, reached fever pitch, we saw that the empire can, indeed, strike back.

It was the sizeable presence of black and Asian people in this country, the bigotry they faced and their resistance to it, that prompted the abuse of another key word - "immigration". When British politicians talk about immigration they are really talking about race. Immigration is a heavily racially connoted term just as immigration legislation is racially biased and motivated.

When they refer to immigrants they do not mean Australians or Americans, they mean Caribbeans and Asians. There are fewer immigrants in Burnley than in Manchester, Leeds or London. But there are plenty of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, the vast majority of whom are British, most of whom were born here, and all of whom wear their passports on their skin. The meaning of the word immigration, in Britain, is not confined to the movement of people in and out of the country. We are not talking demography but demonisation.

The BNP understands this only too well. "The ultimate aim is an all-white society," says Griffin. The Labour party understands this too. Why else would it respond to Jean-Marie Le Pen's breakthrough with yet more talk of clamping down on asylum seekers.

When Anthony Giddens, the architect of the third way, talks of being "tough on immigration and tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants", he knows his audience. If the strategy to combat racists is as coherent and competent as the one to tackle crime, from which this mantra was derived, then God help us all.

Yet Giddens is correct when he says the rise of the far right tells us something useful about the third way. For alternatives are indeed emerging which are breaking the mould of our politics. The new landscape is not framed by battles between the advocates of the private and public sectors, or even between social democracy and conservatism, but between the margins and the mainstream. The battle lines in Burnley were not drawn between those who believe they stand above the established notions of mainstream politics, but whether they stand in the system or outside it altogether.

At one point lies the crowded centre - the incremental, presentational and rhetorical distinctions among the main parties between whom many see no, or insufficient, difference. Neither Labour nor the Tories has much to crow about from this election.

At another point lies the margins. Not just the hard left and far right but the locally committed and individually extravagant. The monkey mayor of Hartlepool, the independents who took seats in Stoke-on-Trent, the BNP in Burnley. Anyone, in short, who is not connected to the main parties and who reaps the benefits of an electorate which is either disillusioned with the choices, indifferent to the outcome or desperate for a voice. This trend is in the ascendant.

And finally there are those who have lost interest, never had any interest or are unable to identify with anything on offer. Those who through apathy or antipathy have stopped showing up at the polls.

Blair used to like to say that disaffected Labour voters only had one choice - between him and the Tories. At the last election they showed him they could go to the pub rather than the polls; yesterday they showed him they had yet another option - extremism.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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