Sizing up the Ultra-Right

David Butler

  • The National Front by Nigel Fielding
    Routledge, 252 pp, £12.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0559 8
  • Left, Right: The March of Political Extremism in Britain by John Tomlinson
    Calder, 152 pp, £4.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 7145 3855 8

Britain in recent years should have been a breeding ground for parties of the ultra-Right. A country humbled by the loss of its imperial role, by its industrial decline compared to other major – and minor – powers, and by the failure of the nostrums prescribed by alternating governments, meets most of the textbook requirements for the growth of extremism. Some profess to see in the monetarist takeover of the Conservative Party, or in the Labour Party’s lurch to the left, a fulfilment of these requirements. But Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn are committed Parliamentarians and, despite all the rhetoric about the reactionary Conservative Government or Marxists in the Labour Party, no policy that has been, or is likely to be, enacted at Westminster ranges beyond what has proved acceptable in civilised democracies elsewhere. Indeed, current developments suggest a move back to the middle, as Conservative and Labour each seeks to recapture the neglected centre ground which recent opinion polls have shown to be so extensive.

In the mid-Seventies, however, when Dr Fielding was writing this thesis, a lot of people did take the National Front seriously. In the West Bromwich by-election of 1973, the NF saved their deposit for the first time. In 1975, a former NF chairman won a seat on Blackburn Council. In 1976, NF candidates in Leicester municipal elections secured 19 per cent of the vote. In a number of local and Parliamentary contests in those years, the NF pushed the Liberals into fourth place. It was not altogether fanciful for the NF to announce plans to fight the next election as a full-scale national party.

In fact, the media were taking the NF far more seriously than it deserved. As the decade advanced, the bubble burst. The NF did put up 300 candidates in the 1979 General Election but they fared abysmally, getting on average 1.4 per cent of the vote, less than half the level achieved in 1974. The reality became plain: the NF was a negligible, ill-co-ordinated group, without backing from any people of name or influence, without any sustained or reasoned answer to national problems, dependent for their appeal on violent, and widely unacceptable, prejudices.

This had always been the case. The NF had won headlines but never broad-based support. There were frightening, if isolated cases of violence against blacks; NF thuggery terrorised a few neighbourhoods and the hysteria surrounding the occasionally successful NF rally could be alarming. But the social and intellectual base for a big NF advance was not there, and the leaders of the NF were not the men to appeal outside their own narrow coterie – their personal records were too often vulnerable when the media’s searchlight turned upon them.

The NF owed much of its publicity to its enemies, in the mid-Seventies there were elements on the Left that had great need of the NF. The Conservatives in opposition did not offer a convincing target and there were some inhibitions about attacking a Labour government, however unwelcome its policies. In such circumstances, the Paki-bashing louts of the NF provided conveniently hateful symbols of fascism and racialism. To confront them on the streets and to wreck their marches seemed a noble task and one in which success was sometimes achievable. Fighting an opponent of your own size can be more satisfying than battering helplessly on the established centres of power: the Anti-Nazi League drew young enthusiasts from a wide political spectrum.

The National Front, in its turn, needed the Anti-Nazi League (or some equivalent). The prospect of a legitimised punch-up was one of the recruiting draws of the NF. The confrontations with the Anti-Nazi League also enabled it to invoke the ideals of free speech on its own behalf. The NF could complain that it was being denied the chance to put its case. Left-wing threats to arrange counter-demonstrations and thereby create civil disorder, together with the refusal of zealous Labour councils to hire out halls to the NF, touched a liberal nerve. What would Voltaire have said?

Faith in the ability of truth to win in a fair market can always be put under challenge, theoretically as well as pragmatically, by extremist activity. Would the NF attract support for their odious doctrines if they were allowed to hold open meetings undisturbed? Would counter-attacks play into their hands by giving them the publicity they seek? Would determined resistance reinforce their solidarity and attract new sympathy for their position? It is not easy to decide whether the hostility of left-wing activists and the obstruction of local councils and, more rarely, of the police helped or hurt the National Front – and Dr Fielding does nothing to resolve the problem. Some evidence is offered by a recent Times quotation from an NF spokesman: ‘We have been working on the assumption that violence does pay. It has been used on us by the Left and as a result some of our weaker members have dropped out.’

For some people, however, the NF’s main interest lies less in its political impact than in its potential as a case-study in the behaviour of small groups: as such, it offers a challenge to historians, to political scientists, to sociologists and to social psychologists. Dr Fielding undertook extensive observation of NF branches in the South-East of England in an effort to fit the phenomena surrounding this unattractive, neurotic conglomerate of miscellaneous prejudice – right-wing, racial and nationalistic – into a study in the sociology of deviance. The result must offer frustrating reading to all except sociologists of deviance – and perhaps even to them. Dr Fielding shows limited interest in the political process. He makes no reference, for example, to Michael Steed’s devastating analysis of the NF vote (Parliamentary Affairs, Summer 1978) or to other worthwhile writing by political scientists such as Layton-Henry or Taylor, and although he has added references to events in 1979 and even 1980, he has not really brought his story up to date or accepted the implications of the result of the last General Election. He writes clearly and often perceptively about people and institutions, but in default of more comprehensive data, his conclusions are based on decidedly selective participant observation. Obviously he had a hard task. He obtained limited access to a secretive, and at times paranoid, organisation with which he had no sympathy. He reports rationally on what he saw and he analyses shrewdly some of the motives that were at work. But he could not get far inside the inner councils or collect comprehensive membership statistics, let alone conduct sample surveys among either the leaders or the rank and file. Anyone who wants instruction about the NF will be wiser after reading this book – yet not a lot wiser. And if they seek to use it as a work of reference, they should be warned: it has an index so capricious that it must set some kind of record for an academic work.

The student of groups and institutions is always tempted to impose upon their activities a more ordered pattern and a stronger ideological base than they actually possess. The random frustrations that lead people to join the NF or to stay in it cannot provide the foundation for substantial sociological theorising. The trivial activities of often evanescent groups may not merit serious analysis, even when exhaustive observation is possible (which is not the case with the NF): with such an insubstantial group, the background of its members and the rivalries among its élite are likely to tell us relatively little of general interest about individual behaviour in relation to society.

Yet there is a fascination in observing the conduct of any close-knit group. The extremes in polities are notoriously factional. Despairing of real power, they focus on the purity of their own sect. Niceties of ideology, combined with the naked pursuit of leadership roles even within the most insignificant of cliques, produce split after split. The spectacular divisions between Stalinists, Trotskyites and Maoists – and the successive rifts between subdivisions of those groups – can be matched on a smaller scale by the fragmentations that develop between Nazis, Mosleyites, League of Empire Loyalists and simple racialists, and between ultra-Right personalities each with his past record of political or riotous activities. Their factionalism has often to be explained in terms of social class, or role in a bygone struggle, or simple personal antipathy. Is there no more to it than that? Dr Fielding is at his most interesting in his search for an ultra-Right ideology, an intellectual structure that would distinguish NF activities from mere racism fuelled by the immigrant problems in the inner cities. But in the end it is hard to give the diverse opinions expressed under the NF umbrella the honour of being seen as a coherent ideology. The NF’s position offers more serious subject-matter for the psychopathologist than for the political theorist.

More information about the actual world of politics is available in a slighter book. John Tomlinson, a Labour MP who lost his seat in 1979, has collected a large ragbag of useful if undigested facts about the ultra-Right and ultra-Left movements in Britain and about their activities in recent years. Anyone seeking the genealogy of the rival Trotskyite groups or the relationship between the League of St George and the National Front can find an answer in Mr Tomlinson’s pages. Thirty years ago Isaiah Berlin identified the Extreme Centre, a group whose uniting belief was that all members of the extreme Right and extreme Left should be shot. Mr Tomlinson has provided the Extreme Centre with a brief campaign handbook.