How the Rise of the BNP Prefigured Modern British Politics

Twenty years ago, the far-right British National Party gained its first council seats in Burnley, Lancashire following a series of riots in Northern towns – a new book explores the lessons from their rise to prominence.

Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party from 1999-2014. Credit: Getty Images

When the British National Party first gained council seats in Burnley twenty years ago, it was relatively easy for national media to dismiss the town as a special case from which no wider conclusions need be drawn. Indeed, this is exactly what many commentators did, attributing the successes of the far right in Burnley to the town’s supposed social backwardness. With the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the collapse of Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ three years later, liberal Britain could no longer console itself with these platitudes.

In 2001, Mike-Makin Waite—a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and an active anti-fascist for a number of years—was working as a council officer in Burnley, and suddenly found himself obliged to work with the new BNP councillors while maintaining some degree of impartiality. In On Burnley Road—in equal parts history, memoir, and sociological study—Makin-Waite revisits his own experiences during the period and examines how a northern post-industrial town became fertile territory for the extreme right.

The BNP’s rise to prominence in Burnley came hard on the heels of the 2001 riots which swept several northern towns, including Bradford and Oldham as well as Burnley itself. By 2003, the party had reached the peak of its influence in the town, with eight seats on the local council. It would retain representation on the council for a decade. The local mainstream parties, Makin-Waite notes, ‘responded with a mixture of alarm and accommodation’. In fact, some councillors had already pandered to racism for years.

As Makin-Waite points out, a lot of the issues first raised by the riots and the subsequent rise of the BNP in parts of northern England’s rust belt have, in the years since, gone from being local to national hot-button topics. In the book, Makin-Waite highlights the dangerous growth of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment, but insists that this does not provide an explanation on its own: the long-term effects of deindustrialisation, and the concomitant growth of inequality and poverty, produced the kind of alienation on which the far right often feeds.

One of the consequences of this deepening alienation was a profound antipathy towards politicians and the electoral process in general. This problem is compounded by the fact that underpowered and underfunded local authorities in areas like Burnley are often poorly equipped to handle the multiple pressures they are under, and their position has worsened even further in the last decade. Makin-Waite points out that Burnley’s core funding from Whitehall was cut from £15.2 million in 2010 to just £9.6 million only five years later.

Another problem, Makin-Waite argues, is rooted in the prevailing model of official ‘community relations’, where relations with racial minorities were mediated through voluntary organisations and (overwhelmingly male) ‘community leaders’, though it was always doubtful how much of their communities they genuinely represented. This resulted in small-scale graft and, in Makin-Waite’s experience, exacerbated tensions by setting working-class people on different sides of the racial divide against one another, squabbling over dwindling funds while the decline of the whole town accelerated.

Thus, Makin-Waite says, many white residents came to view their own grievances—among them deprivation, unemployment, underinvestment, poor housing conditions, and social atomisation—through a distorting racist prism, even though their Muslim counterparts were also plagued by many of the same fundamental problems. Playing on racialised sentiments that had long been latent in Labourism ‘at a subterranean level’, this ‘sullen sense of being badly done by’, though far from groundless, was often articulated in a nativist direction.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party in Burnley—in a story repeated in too many other areas—had become complacent over time, assuming that it had the council sewn up, come what may. But disgruntled voters—both white and Asian—began to look elsewhere; in the former case, to a local group of right-wing ‘independents’, and to the Liberal Democrats in the latter. As finances tightened, Labour councillors effectively came to see themselves ‘as lobbyists for “their” wards’, competing for resources – of which there were fewer and fewer.

One Labour councillor, Eddie Fisk, was belatedly expelled from the party for the racist misallocation of council housing, ensuring that Asians in need were effectively kept out of his ward. As an independent, Fisk—who had also been a strike-breaking miner during the 1984-85 miners’ strike—subsequently won re-election on the issue and later became lord mayor, by which time there was a group of twelve like-minded, right-wing ‘independents’ on the council. Under the leadership of another ex-Labour councillor, Harry Brooks, the independents whipped up white resentment, with the indulgence of the local press.

Before long, the BNP would inherit the base that the right-wing independents had cultivated. Within a year of its foundation in 1999, Burnley’s BNP branch had attracted over two hundred members. It was able to step into a vacuum left behind by Labour, which—in a pattern analysed by Peter Mair at the national level in Ruling the Void—had retreated further and further into the institutions of the local state. The BNP engaged in small-scale community work like litter picking, while Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories were estimated to have just 540 members between them in Burnley – and only a small minority of these were active.

Makin-Waite observes that for some time, the BNP’s opposition struggled to pin it down. Attempts by the Anti-Nazi League to portray the party’s local candidates as unreconstructed Nazis fell flat, as they appeared to be a long way from the old skinhead/bootboy stereotype. Many Burnley residents came to resent the intervention of ‘outsiders’ in their town’s politics, while BNP councillors built up a favourable reputation for dealing with common problems like litter and vandalism. They could even turn their poor attendance record to their advantage, claiming that town hall politics was stitched up by insider cliques indifferent to local needs.

By this time, the BNP’s growing presence in Burnley was ringing alarm bells in the upper echelons of New Labour, but Tony Blair and his acolytes—with their credulous, servile hero worship of big business—understood little about the realities of life in places like Burnley, and were prepared to do little to help turn things around. If anything, they tended to look askance at the former industrial towns, as if their failure to thrive under conditions of neoliberal globalisation was a product of their own lack of dynamism and entrepreneurialism.

Their responses to the rise of the BNP were cack-handed at best, and inflammatory and irresponsible at worst. David Blunkett, among others, implied that the deepening social strife towns like Burnley faced was rooted less in entrenched social inequalities and racial discrimination, and more in the supposedly wilful self-segregation of Muslims themselves. Blairite Burnley MP Kitty Ussher, in 2009, put out a ‘local immigration survey’ intended to draw attention to and win approval for the Labour government’s deportation policies.

New Labour’s attempted solutions were inevitably ineffective, if not downright insulting: ‘language lessons, citizenship tests and ceremonies for new British citizens’ were among those policies presented as panaceas, the implication being that previous generations of migrants had been too stubbornly insular to integrate. But amid the wreckage of post-war social democracy, Makin-Waite suggests, racism and nativism had, for many whites, come to serve as a way of articulating antipathy to the political establishment as a whole.

Deindustrialisation, and the ‘battering of pride’ that went with it, produced what Makin-Waite calls a ‘demoralised class politics’ – or, in the late Mark Fisher’s terms, ‘class without class consciousness’. Class returned to mainstream political discourse, but only when it was preceded by the word ‘white’ and, crucially, without the danger of proletarian self-organisation and militancy. This was a class politics wide open to elite manipulation and ventriloquising. As such, it set different sections of the class at each other’s throats, manufacturing consent for austerity measures that would leave them all much worse off.

By the coalition years, the BNP was rapidly being superseded by other, seemingly more presentable and palatable forces on the populist right – namely UKIP, which was in turn largely absorbed and used for political leverage by the right wing of the Tory Party. All fourteen districts in Lancashire, including Burnley, voted Leave in 2016, while the town itself turned blue for the first time since the introduction of mass suffrage in 2019. The local borough council remains under Labour control, but only thanks to Lib Dem support.

The demise of the BNP in Burnley, while obviously welcome, gives the Left little cause for real celebration, as the reactionary right continues to eat into what were once Labour heartlands. The base the BNP and UKIP helped to create has been taken on by a Tory Party itself moving ever rightward. Makin-Waite makes no attempt to offer false optimism in this regard, but his careful, nuanced account of the far right’s rise in Burnley provides valuable lessons as to how we got to this point. We would do well to heed them, and act on them.