From National Front to BNP to UKIP: The Rise of Right Wing Populism

by A.L. Shaw

UKIP strategy to muster a 'people's army' against non selective immigration is so familiar - how has it managed to circumvent its predecessors' neo-fascist and neo-Nazi connotations?

First published: 30 April, 2015 | Category: Migration, The Right

The first part of this essay showed that post-1930s right-wing populist groups pursued a fundamentally bilateral electoral strategy split between their ‘officer class’ (party leaders and deputies) and the ‘rank and file’. The notionally anti-elitist platform propounded by the officer class consistently sought to portray Britain being dominated by an anti-British elitist conspiracy. Immigration was repeatedly offered as one leading manifestation of this; consequently, the rank and file view most often appealed to anti-immigration sentiment. This encouraged and legitimised the vilification of vulnerable minorities by its leaders and the rank and file as an authentic and principled people’s reprisal against their dominating elites. This helped sustain the movements to a greater extent than anti-elitism alone could manage. UKIP’s electoral strategy and aspects of its ideology clearly mirrors this approach – but with far greater success than anything witnessed before. 

John Tyndall and Martin Webster co-led the National Front (NF) – Britain’s second most electorally successful (neo) fascist group (after the present British National Party). In a foreshadowing of the British National Party’s subsequent attempts to do likewise, Tyndall sought to make the NF more respectable by cloaking its increasingly unacceptable anti-Semitism from public view while retaining it as its ideological core. A letter of March 1967 records:

I have […] sought to modify our propaganda, though not, of course, the essence of our ideology. […] pure Nazi literature is something that must be used now more as something to circulate privately as a means of training and enlightening the partially converted than as a public selling line.[1]

Tyndall accordingly refashioned NF rank and file literature along pan-nationalist lines that retained its avowed commitment to anti-immigration and obligatory repatriation. Through its youth publication Bulldog he extended its anti-elitist fight to the classroom with brazen face-to-face thuggish threats against allegedly left-wing teachers.[2] By this time, with his Six Principles of British Nationalism of 1966, he had also reverted to more Mosleyan territory with his calls for a new national leadership style, and greater emphasis on economic nationalism, corporatism, protectionism and the need for empire. Echoing similar rationales of the Union Movement (as discussed in Part I), he argued Britain should form a post-imperial alliance with “the older Dominions – the hard core of the Commonwealth – not as subordinate colonies but as free and equal partners,” namely Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia,[3] to counterbalance the economic power of the USSR and the USA. Britain, lacking their domestic purchasing power, should

 find a very large and growing market which we can control and organise ourselves, combatting foreign competition by protective tariffs and mobilising our productive forces to cater for this market in full.[4]

Some regional results during the late 1960s and the 1970s were surprisingly good (at least for a new party), indicating Tyndall’s revised approach was having some success.[5]  However, these results appear to have buoyed the NF’s confidence to its detriment. In 1979 their share of the national vote peaked at only 0.6%, a general election that irreparably damaged the party with all 303 candidates losing their parliamentary deposits. Margaret Thatcher’s Powellist stance on immigration, partially appropriating NF territory, is commonly cited as possibly the principal cause for the Front’s sudden slump following its earlier gains.

The defeat cost Tyndall the NF leadership. He went on to found the New National Front, which he incorporated into the new British National Party (BNP), which he headed until his replacement by Nick Griffin in 1999. The later Tyndall claimed to have modified aspects of his views – particularly in respect of anti-Semitism. In a 1999 interview, six years before his death, he was still committed to the view that a multifaceted elite including “some”, not all, Jews and “some Gentile agents” including post-Edward Heath politicians had betrayed the British people through the “black invasion and the Asian invasion” and the surrender of sovereignty to the European Union (EU).

The post-Tyndall BNP, at least until Griffin’s deposition in July 2014, while steadfastly disavowing neo-fascism and anti-Semitism, continues to rail against a “liberal elite.” This comprises parliamentarians, mainstream modern news media (particularly the BBC) and media regulators, the EU, and other factions which prevent the British from expressing their ethnic identity.[6] Griffin was elected as party leader on a platform of modernisation. In a significantly publicised recorded exchange with David Duke, onetime Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he proposed promoting the BNP’s ideas differently by appropriating the language of modern politics – for example, by using “saleable words” like “freedom”, “security”, “identity” (instead of “racial purity”), and “democracy”,[7] jettisoning its public appeals on the Jewish conspiracy and adopting a more ‘suited’ rather than ‘booted’ image.

The same strategy is still evident: the principled anti-elitist ‘officer class’ platform serves to legitimise, as the patriotic defence of Britain, the battle spoils (intimidation of and violence towards vulnerable ethnic minority groups) granted to the ‘rank and file’ to sustain the movement. The latter aspect is continually adapted to suit the social mores du jour. Nonetheless, to this day suspicion of an exclusive cabal of capitalists, socialists and international Jewry engineering anti-British social change through immigration evidently remains. Speaking in the European Parliament in March 2014, Griffin, who once publicly denied the Holocaust, railed against:

 an unholy alliance of leftists, capitalists and Zionist supremacists [that] has schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation with the deliberate aim of breeding us out of existence in our own homelands.

As with Tyndall’s attempts, Griffin’s notional modernisation of the BNP was rewarded with the greatest electoral success for a far-right party in modern UK political history. Having won nearly a million votes (6.3% of the UK total) in the 2009 European elections, its 338 candidates went on to secure over half a million votes (1.9% of the total) in the 2010 general election. This was nearly three times as many as the NF at its 1979 peak, although this fell to just under 180,000 in the 2014 European elections. Britain First, a nominally populist recent BNP breakaway faction that adopts a similar position to UKIP on the EU, appears to have reverted to the more traditional ‘rank and file’ tactics of Tyndall and Mosley in its paramilitary gangs targeting not Jewish or Commonwealth immigrants but Muslim communities.[8] It also uses modern technological innovations, namely using social media to create an apparently huge online following by posting on emotive ‘clickbait’ subjects as diverse as the British Armed Forces, the death of actress Lynda Bellingham,[9] the late Diana, Princess of Wales, halal meat, paedophilia[10] and animal cruelty.[11]

This account so far has focused on non-mainstream right-wing groups that have stood on platforms campaigning against alleged elites that exist at the expense of the needs and wishes of the populus. It has excluded far-right groups that either never sought public office (like Combat 18,[12] the Racial Preservation Society and Column 88), were not strictly anti-elitist (for example, the British Empire Party and the English Defence League), have had no particularly enduring legacy (such as the National Democratic Party, the National Independence Party, the Traditional Britain Group and the November 9th Society), or do not believe in any fundamental authority belonging to the people (like the proscribed Islamist group Islam4UK).

UKIP: a new British populism?

When set in the context of comparable British political history, UKIP may appear untypically populist as well as a rather maverick libertarian party. In UKIP’s sight is the encroaching elitist Eurocracy predominantly mandated by the domestic ‘London’[13] or ‘metropolitan elite’[14] that benefits from the “cheaper chauffeurs, cheaper gardeners and cheaper nannies”[15] that immigration has made available at the expense of the common man, against which the forgotten “people’s army” is set to rebel. While hostility to immigration is unarguably familiar British populist territory, typically used to inspire and sustain greater momentum than anti-elitist platforms alone could inspire, UKIP espouses neither an outright ban nor repatriation or resettlement but a preferential policy that prioritises highly over less-skilled foreign nationals who “must financially support themselves and their dependents for 5 years” and provide proof of private health insurance upon entry.[16]

UKIP embraces a striking mix of generally regressive old-fashioned laissez-faire economics, barring its protectionist immigration policy, and a more progressive neo-Keynesianism. This includes 

UKIP’s accessible, professional and mainstream presentational style contrasts strongly with the angrily racist and anti-Semitic, jackbooted paramilitary brand of conspiratorial anti-elitism of the far right. The encroaching Eurocrat has replaced the subversive Semite, the seditious socialist and the conniving capitalist as the cause of anti-British immigration. Nonetheless, UKIP has avowedly persisted with possibly the key sustaining strategy of Mosley and his successors: the mustering of a patriotic “people’s army” (though more rhetorical than actual) against a profiteering elite (the ‘officer class’ platform) set to destroy British livelihoods and personal security (the ‘rank and file’ appeal).

In its 2014 poster campaign ahead of the European Parliamentary elections, UKIP warned:

 EU policy at work. British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour.[18]

26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?[19]

No border. No control. The EU has opened our borders to 4,000 people every week.[20]

Stop open door EU immigration. Enough’s enough.[21]

They are lying about EU migration. Huge numbers coming next year in the ‘second wave’. How much more can our housing, hospitals and schools take?[22]

 Next year, the EU will allow 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK. The Government have admitted there’s nothing we can do about it, while we’re in the EU. (And Labour say they don’t want to do anything anyway.)[23]

The foregoing analysis should explain why there is a very significant explanatory gap between the recent resounding success of an ostensibly anti-EU party and the much smaller proportion of the British population, peaking at only 12% in 2014, that considers the EU a particularly important issue. As with the BUF and Mosley’s many successors, comparatively few Britons have ever supported the anti-elitist ‘officer class’ ideology; the rank and file platform is what really motivates the movement and accounts for any success. Accordingly, the proportion of Britons giving some other connotatively prejudiced answers is cumulatively much greater. When asked “What would you say is the most important issue(s) facing Britain today?”, the economy is typically the area of greatest concern – between 31% and 40% in 2014 from a peak of 71% in 2010; crime averaged at 14% in 2014 from a peak of 55% in 2007; unemployment has polled consistently highly between 20% and 40% since 2009; and immigration and race relations finished at 47% in December 2014 having fluctuated rather dramatically from a low of 19% in 2012.[24]

However, as my previous article on UKIP noted, there is not even a vaguely close precedent for “a minority party without any Westminsterial representation at all overcoming the majoritarian cultural, the establishmentarian, or the counter-cyclical biases inherent in the UK political system that only normally favour established parties.” Why does it suddenly appear to be working now?


At last, British populism has managed to find a tangible elite, belief in whose existence neither requires a leap of faith nor strains credibility, is neither extravagantly conspiratorial nor unpopularly anti-Semitic. The miserable congress of clerks at the Ministry of Truth professing brokenly docile obedience to their Eurocratic Commissioners evokes a far less fanciful bête noire than the villainous fantastical Fagins or cultish uniformly bearded Marxists envisaged by Mosley, Chesterton and Tyndall.

There are several possible reasons for the far right’s failure at building a durable people’s army. On the ‘rank and file appeal’, one of the strongest possibilities is their failure in recognising the complex ideological mix of their target sector: the working and lower-middle classes.

However, we must emphatically reject at least two possible horribly arrogant presumptions. Firstly, that British anti-racism originated as an urbane middle class virtue by which the values of the rakish country bumpkin and backwoodsman were purified and gentrified (thereby strangling far right support) – a view that arguably persists today.[25] Further, as Satnam Virdee cautioned in NLP’s ‘Race and Class in Britain’ series, we need to dispel the idea that labour unionism has always espoused multicultural social justice: “Migrants also faced enforced discriminatory practices from trade unions on the grounds that they were not white and thus could not be classed as British. Racist quotas and colour bars were commonplace” supported by industrial action.[26]

Just as racism did not originate purely from the working classes and anti-racism from the middle classes, Jon Lawrence, writing in the same series, has argued that the surviving social science field notes from the 1930s to the 2000s show three important points. Firstly, ethnicity did not strongly feature in localised conceptions of belonging. Secondly, post-imperial nationhood and race in the 1950s and 1960s was much more strongly expressed among the middle rather than the working classes. And thirdly, in the wake of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, anti-racist campaigners were able to achieve so much given the parallel socialist/internationalist and liberal/parochial parallel working-class opposition to white racism – “the British working class was never a monolithic bastion of ‘whiteness.” Moreover, in a striking foreshadowing of UKIP support, which is particularly localised to areas with less experience of immigration, Lawrence reports that in the mid-1950s, “most of this overt racism came from middle-class newcomers to the [New Town of Stevenage] for whom it was an abstract political issue about national decline and the loss of empire, not a personal issue rooted in local experience.”[27]

However, less attention has been paid to the anti-elitist ‘officer class’ platform. A leading reason, for the lack of success of previous right-wing anti-elitist narratives is that British popular culture, with perhaps the curious single exception of theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has never been favourably disposed to British-based conspiracy theories. As a result, beliefs propounded by British neo-fascists and neo-Nazis have never been formulated in a style of thinking readily acceptable to the public.

Britain’s longstanding Establishmentarian and institution-premised culture, however, while allowing for critical satire in respect of corrupt individuals and questionable self-interested alliances, may have left little room or appetite for avowedly anti-elitist countercultures outside literary or cinematographic fiction. Accordingly, any British group asserting a narrative alleging a hidden elite has persistently and unambiguously failed as it has simply never been believable. The only subtext that has superficially sustained such movements has been the ‘rank and file’ venting their destructive tendencies under the auspices of the ‘officer class.’

Once recognised in the context set out in this two-part article, the revolt of UKIP’s “people’s army” against non-selective immigration caused by an implacable alien elite should be so unmistakably familiar that one may wonder how UKIP has managed to circumvent so much of its predecessors’ neo-fascist and neo-Nazi connotative impediments. Indeed, it has attracted not only durable public support but also deep-pocketed donors[28] and established MPs. UKIP has won popular support by adopting a non-fantastical anti-elitist position, which few (no more than 12%) consider particularly important in itself, but which becomes a crucially non-stigmatised conduit for approaching immigration and allied proxy issues such as the economy, housing, education and law and order.

Until now, Britain’s strongly majoritarian political culture with its resulting biases has all but neutered non-mainstream parties. However non-conspiratorial anti-elitism fused with a latent resentment of immigration and granted a new media-generated appearance of Establishment candidacy has suddenly shown itself to be capable of overwhelming this. These are the essential elements that have created an impression of personable trustworthiness sufficient to overcome the pro-Establishment Britons’ scepticism to anti-elitism, allowing UKIP to secure broader socioeconomic support than previous populists.

This may appear a desperate prospect for socialists: UKIP has secured, at least for now, its own Commons presence, thereby – unlike almost all previous right-populists – benefitting electorally from an increasingly normalised widespread jaundiced view of immigration. The mainstream parties either seek to ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ or pledge to avoid doing so.[29] This demonstrates how they have seized the prerogative of setting the electoral agenda, usually the province of mainstream political parties. However, this is far from an inevitable electoral crescendo if the electorate is presented with an effective counternarrative.

While notionally rational, to frame immigration purely and fundamentally in terms of numbers – as beloved of Enoch Powell, Thatcher and UKIP – is nonetheless an effective way of dehumanising migrants. It implies an undignified host nation as a passive receptacle for an incoming amorphous mass, not as a proud defender of all individuals and families with their own intrinsic human worth and potential. Like Mosley before him, Farage has consistently had to rely on grossly pessimistic predictions of, for example, a Romanian and Bulgarian crime wave[30] and widespread employment endangerment to secure support. As noted above, opinion polls confirm that law and order and unemployment remain important issues for British voters. Voting for UKIP may be an expression of a fear of loss of stability or livelihood, which is up to twice as powerful a factor in human decision-making than potential gains (such as from future European trading partners).

The left should look far more promisingly at the liberal working class that has historically played an indispensable role in fighting fascism and racism. Accordingly, it should publicly disavow the assumption that the demise of Mosley and Tyndall were middle class or Establishment triumphs over plebeian politics. It is imperative that, as Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill put it, an increasingly gentrified left leadership with worryingly little experience of a poorer life avoids

 “the notion of a passive working class who need to be organized or rescued by the intelligentsia. The people who have the experiences that are being talked about are not the people doing the speaking.”[31]

UKIP’s “people’s army” is clearly calculated at utilising the language of empowerment for a populus with a veritable miscellany of barely connected grievances given a moderately conspiratorial explanatory narrative. It would be a terrible mistake to believe that only another elite could counter it.

A. L. Shaw is a pseudonym. The author read politics at the University of Exeter and political philosophy at the University of York, where he held a Morrell scholarship. He is now a freelance writer based in London. He tweets @A_L_Shaw.

[1] World in Action: The Nazi Party, Granada Television documentary, 1978

[3] John Tyndall, Six Principles of British Nationalism (London: The A. K. Chesterton Trust, 2012), p. 12

[4] Ibid., p. 17                                                                                     

[5] Webster recorded 16% of votes in West Bromwich in 1973; and various candidates attained 7.6% in Bethnal Green and Bow, 9.4% in Hackney South and Shoreditch, 8.3% in Tottenham, 8% in Wood Green and 11.5% in Newham South in 1974 (Sources: Richard Kimber's Political Science Resources and Wikipedia). Because the NF was founded so shortly before and contested just a single by-election prior to 1970, it is difficult to determine the effect that Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech had on voting preferences for the small far right parties compared to the mainstream Conservative Party, which also espoused (though never implemented) voluntary repatriation at the time. However, much like Margaret Thatcher’s “swamped” remarks in 1979, as many commentators have noted, Powell’s speech is likely to have won many votes for the Tories at the far-right’s expense, returning Ted Heath – Powell’s political adversary – to Downing St.

[6] This 2009 interview with Andrew Marr gives a brief account

[7] Footage available here

[8] Chris York, ‘Britain First Resume ‘Christian Patrols’ In ‘Muslim-Dominated’ Brick Lane In London’, The Huffington Post, 20th January 2015 (available here); Adam Withnall, ‘Britain First ‘Christian Patrols’ return to east London in wake of Charlie Hebdo shootings’, The Independent, 19th January 2015 (available here)

[9] Antonia Molloy, ‘Lynda Bellingham: Far-right group Britain First accused of using actress’ death to promote its Facebook page’, The Independent, 24th October 2014 (available here)

[10] Jim Waterson, ‘Britain First Has Quietly Become The Most Popular UK Political Party On Facebook’, Buzzfeed, 21st May 2014 (available here)

[11] See here

[12] “In a departure from previous right-wing ventures, C[ombat] 18 did not attempt to persuade ordinary people to its cause, or to win elections – it just acted. As [then leader] Charlie Sargent told me when I first met him: “It would be a lie to think we are attractive to most people, because we’re not. We are what we are. We don't pretend we're something we’re not.” ” Nick Ryan, ‘Combat 18: Memoirs of a street-fighting man’, The Independent, 1st February 1998 (available here)

[13] Ben Riley-Smith, ‘Nigel Farage defends use of word ‘Chinky’, The Telegraph, 19th December 2014 (available here)

[14] Rowena Mason, ‘Losing Ukip councillor blames poor London polls on ‘cultured elite’’, The Guardian, 23rd May 2014 (available here); Suzanne Moore, ‘Nigel Farage: a pustule of resentment on the body politic’, The Guardian, 23rd April 2014 (available here); ‘Vote 2014: Nigel Farage ‘a two fingers stuck up to elite’’, BBC News, 23rd May 2014 (available here)

[15] Asa Bennett, ‘Nigel Farage Brands Britain ‘The EU’s Cheap Labour Economy’’, The Huffington Post, 5th November 2014 (available here)

[16] UKIP website

[17] Sources: Matt Dathan, ‘Ukip economic policy: Spend £38bn every year on defence but quit the EU, axe foreign aid, scrap HS2 and slash Scottish spending’, The Independent, 5th April 2015 (available here) and the UKIP website

[18]  UKIP website

[19] UKIP website

[24] Source: Ipsos MORI – Issues Index: 2007 onwards. These examples as given as being likely to contain a significant proportion within them as motivated by the concern that immigration – i.e. non-Brits – is the cause of such problems. This is harder to estimate in other high-polling issues, such as race relations (which could be deemed to be caused by either immigrants or a hostile public) or the NHS (where the service could be overburdened as a result of immigration, an ageing population or sheer mismanagement).

[25] See: “[Emily Thornberry’s] tweet also taps into a wider discourse of ‘abject whites’ which reassures white middle-class people that racism lies firmly in the camp of another social group ‘thewhiteworkingclass’, which is cast as homogenous and racist, leaving manifestations of racism among the white middle classes untouched” (Emma Jackson, ‘Racialized Insiders And Hidden Bogeymen’, New Left Project, 23rd December 2014 – available here); “Yes, there was the National Front in the 1970s, but they were partly defeated by the efforts of the liberal working class (Rock Against Racism, for instance, and Red Wedge). The level of intermarriage among the WWC [white working class] and ethnic minorities was far higher than in the WLMC [white liberal middle class]” (Tim Lott, ‘White, working class – and threatened with extinction’, The Independent, 9th March 2008 – available here); “Raphael Samuel – a key member of the [Communist Party of Great Britain] historians group – described the march to the [Rock Against Racism] carnival as one of ‘the most working-class demonstrations I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion’” (D. Renton, When We Touched The Sky: the Anti-Nazi League, 1977 – 1981 (London: New Clarion Press, 2006), p. 121. Quoted in Satnam Virdee, ‘Anti-Racism, Working Class Formation and The Significance Of The Racialized Outsider’, New Left Project, 21st December 2014 – available here).

[26] Satnam Virdee, ‘The Politics Of Class And The Long Shadow Of Racism’, New Left Project, 16th December 2014 (available here)

[27] Jon Lawrence, ‘Why The Working Class Was Never ‘White’’, New Left Project, 26th December 2014 (available here)

[28] Kiran Stacey, ‘Stuart Wheeler restores cash flow but says Ukip will still fall short’, Financial Times, 16th February 2015 (available here)

[29] ‘Labour must not try to out-Ukip Ukip, says Diane Abbott’, The Guardian, 19th October 2014 (available here); John McDermott, ‘Everyone is ‘attempting to out-Ukip Ukip’’, Off Message blog, Financial Times, 18th November 2014 (available here; Andrew Grice, ‘Tony Blair: Labour must not try and 'out-Ukip' Nigel Farage’, The Independent, 26th November 2014 (available here); Asa Bennett, ‘Philip Hammond Tries To Out-Ukip Ukip With ‘Freeloading’ Migrants Attack’, The Huffington Post UK, 21st January 2015 (available here); Jon Craig, ‘Are The Conservatives Trying To Out-UKIP UKIP?’, Sky News, 27th October 2014 (available here); Chuka Umanna, ‘Labour will address immigration, but we won't try to out-Ukip Ukip’, The Guardian, 30th May 2014 (available here)

[30] Nigel Morris, ‘Ukip leader Nigel Farage puts threat of immigrant crime wave at centre stage for European elections’, The Independent, 20th September 2013 (available here); Nigel Farage, ‘I’ve signed the Express petition – you should too! Remember, it'll be Albanians next...’, The Daily Express, 1st November 2013 (available here)

[31] Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill, ‘The Gentrification Of The Left’, New Left Project, 19th August 2013 (available here)

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