Nick Griffin on Question Time - Raphael Schlembach

Shift Editor Raphael Schlembach looks at the politics of Nick Griffin and some of the misconceptions around contemporary fascism. Originally published in January 2010.

8 million viewers saw Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time last October; many more were involved in conversations about it, or read about it in newspapers or on the internet. By all means, the BBC platform that was offered to the chairman was a national, if not nationalist, event. You might have joined in the drinking games that were suggested on online forums and blogs: drink one finger every time ‘Evil Nick’ mentions immigration, two fingers every time he mentions Dunkirk or Churchill, and down your pint if he accuses someone of being a Stalinist or ultra-leftist. You might have taken pleasure at Griffin’s unwillingness to explain his views on the Holocaust, to denounce the KKK or to distance himself from the Third Reich. Ha, those Unite against Fascism (UAF) placards outside the BBC television studio are telling the truth: the BNP is a Nazi party!

Or is it? You might have also observed the awkward silence from the audience when Griffin spoke out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or mentioned the economic crisis. Is this not the opinion of a liberal lefty? Are the BNP an anti-war party? And how do we explain Griffin’s insistence that he is a hate-figure in British neo-Nazi circles? Are those UAF slogans mistaken after all?

I offer here some comments on three of Griffin’s remarks on Question Time that seemed to conflict with the UAF understanding of fascism – and that most left-wing commentators chose to ignore. They seemed to silence the Question Time audience as much as Griffin’s most vocal opponents on the left. Yet, they contribute to an understanding of the modern BNP that is vital to anti-fascist campaigners.

Nazis vs. the BNP

Outside the television studio, UAF had called for a protest against Griffin’s appearance on Question Time with placards declaring ‘The BNP is a Nazi party’. But inside, Griffin insisted that he is not a Nazi – or at least not any more. Who is right? Probably neither. To be sure, there are neo-Nazi elements within the BNP, in terms of membership, policies and international allies. Yet, Nazism is not the defining characteristic of the BNP’s agenda. In fact, Griffin is right when he says that he does not count many friends amongst the UK’s small neo-Nazi scene; even though this is statement which left UAF supporters stunned. So for once the (otherwise rowdy) Question Time audience was reduced to silence when Griffin explained:

“I am the most loathed man in Britain in the eyes of Nazis. There are Nazis in Britain and they loathe me because I have brought the British National party from the frankly anti-semitic and racist organisation, into the only party which in the clashes between Israel and Gaza supported Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists.”

The short episode where Griffin struggled to balance an attack and a defence of KKK founder Duke does not appear to have gained him any more credit amongst neo-Nazi anti-Semites, as comments left on the white supremacist online forum Stormfront suggest. One forum member, with the user name ‘Ethelred’ stated:

“I thought it was quite a bad performance by Griffin in comparison to his other TV appearances. I didn’t like his attack on Duke but at least he got the truth out by saying Duke’s KKK was a peaceful non-violent one. It reminded me of the old Griffin – a good nationalist and on our side but after [Bonnie Greer] interrupted him with something that implied she was some sort of expert on the KKK just because she’s American-born [...] he seemed to retract that unfortunately and started attacking him.”

Another Stormfront member commented:

“Nick cemented his position as a zionist mouthpiece with his support of Israel.
Shame on him. He made us all look stupid by refusing to tackle the issues that matter and as for nudging and laughing with the black supremacist Greer, well I wanted to vomit. Why would you want to engage with that creature? … Griffin taking the pee out of K.K.K. hoods, saying that he’s not a “nazi”. He singularly failed to mention why we are called racists and why it is wrong, he wouldn’t go near the truth about the holocaust for fear of being called antisemitic, what a cowardly performance overall… Question time was a state sanctioned pantomime, with Nick being the tail end of the horse, firmly up the arse of Israel.”

Griffin has indeed made a remarkable transformation from his earlier neo-Nazi leanings to a more moderate, albeit populist, nationalism. And he has taken the BNP with him on this trajectory. Under its previous leadership, headed by John Tyndall, the party did not just differ in its use of tactics which included a much more antagonistic street presence. There has also been a political shift.

Griffin began his career as a politician in the neo-Nazi National Front and was then instrumental in helping to prominence the ideas of the ‘Third Position’ movement, inspired notably by Italian neo-fascist Roberto Fiore. ‘Third Position’ politics is essentially a move away from traditional racism and white-supremacism, and replaces it with an ultra-nationalist belief in the separation and co-existence of races. As such, Griffin early on showed an interest in black separatism and national liberation movements. But Griffin struggled to find support for his Euro-fascist ideology in Britain and, as leader of the BNP, resorted back to a form of ultra-nationalist populism coupled with old-style racism to win over a broad range of followers. In Britain’s neo-Nazi scene, he thus remains a controversial character who is mostly considered a sell-out.

Patriots vs. the war

It was another remark that Griffin dropped during the Question Time debate that most challenged the audience and his adversaries on the panel – when he suggested that the BNP was the only anti-war party represented.

On the BNP website Griffin makes this very clear: “The war is based on a series of grotesque lies, manufactured by the Labour and Tory party leadership. They claim that it is being fought to prevent terrorism. This is nonsense. Instead of preventing terrorism, the war there is actually encouraging it.”

The BNP’s anti-war stance has nothing to do with the humble recognition of Britain’s colonialist past. And certainly it’s miles apart from the anti-Islamophobia position of the Stop the War Coalition. It has more to do with a brand of nationalism that the party’s leadership have recently tried to push: ethno-nationalism, or ethno-pluralism.

Ethno-pluralism as a right-wing populist ideology is essentially an anti-immigration discourse that developed in the context of immigration to Europe from its former colonies in the 1960s. It attempts to describe and justify aggressive opposition to migrants as a ‘natural defence’ of one’s ‘indigenous’ culture. Cultures are seen as static and hermetically-closed entities with a homogenous internal identity. Whilst ethno-pluralist ideology regards different cultures and identities as formally equal, they are also seen as incompatible.

This new form of racism, a racism without races, thus bases itself on a right to difference. Different cultures, ethnic groups and identities need to be defended from cultural globalisation, multi-culturalism and universalism. Cultural rights are not bestowed politically by the state, but are somehow derived ‘naturally’ – hence the emphasis on history and tradition. Ethno-pluralism has thus an air of ‘anti-imperialism’ about it.

If nations are to co-exist alongside each other in a ‘natural’ order, aggressive and expansionist wars have no role to play in nationalist politics. Griffin can therefore justify the BNP’s opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq not only with reference to the death toll amongst British soldiers but also as part of a politics that claims the sovereignty of nations over ‘their’ territory.

The BNP vs. Usury

None of this suggests any BNP sympathy towards Muslims or the Arab world. On the contrary, Islamophobia is what most defines the party and its supporters today. So it was even more remarkable when Griffin on Question Time began defending some elements of political Islam and combined this with the evening’s only reference to the economic crisis:

“Islam does have some good points - it does not allow for usury and would not have allowed the banks to run riot the way they have.”

Here Griffin attacked the banks, greed and the political centre, much like the populist left and parts of the mainstream do. And, he hails in Islam one character – the opposition to usury.
Essentially, usury is lending money at interest. It was banned by the Catholic Church in the 12th century and also Islam is widely seen as demanding condemnation of the practice. Both the medieval European and the Islamic banking systems got around this by declaring loans to be investments (so the return is profit not interest) or by actually paying out less then the lending contract specifies, for example.

In common usage today, the term refers to the charging of unreasonably high rates of interest. What is more, it has historically become associated with Jews. Because of the (religious) laws in Europe and elsewhere that restricted interest charging to Christians, Jewish trade has often correlated with the sphere of money circulation.

Anti-Semitic imagery has traditionally attempted to create an analogy between Jews and money-lending. Fascist anti-globalisation ideology makes a distinction between industrial/productive capital and finance capital. The former is seen as honest, national and democratic. The ‘secretive web’ of financiers, speculators and capitalists, on the other hand, is characterised as Jewish. This is brought to its ‘logical’ extreme primarily in the German and parts of the wider European neo-Nazi scene, where nationalists have readopted socialist rhetoric, albeit coupled with beliefs in the ‘people’, ‘nation’ or ‘German values’.

So the remark about usury shows that anti-Semitism in Nick Griffin’s politics has not suddenly vanished. Anti-Semitism is still an element of BNP ideology, although now it manifests itself in the populist scapegoating of bankers and finance workers for the economic crisis.

True enough, in its populist form the BNP’s emphasis is mostly on anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric. But its populist ultra-nationalism lets it stay in touch with the neo-Nazi obsession with what they see as an international Jewish conspiracy of bankers and speculators.

This is something that the UAF analysis is unable to grasp: where Griffin presents the BNP as a populist anti-greed, anti-sleaze and anti-war party, this is not to hide its true colours; rather it is entirely compatible with his version of ethno-pluralist nationalism.

"Raphael Schlembach is an editor of Shift Magazine."