ACADEMICS & THE BNP: NIGEL COPSEY & ALAN SYKES REVIEWED

This article first appeared in Lobster magazine issue 49 Summer 2005 p.30-32

Review of 'Contemporary British Fascism The British National Party and the quest for legitimacy' Nigel Copsey Palgrave/Macmillan 2004, £47.50, hardback and 'The Radical Right in Britain' Alan Sykes Palgrave/Macmillan, 2005, £16.99, paperback by Larry O'Hara

Modern British fascism has been poorly served by academic research, especially when it comes to coverage of the last two decades. These books attempt to address this deficiency, Sykes the more successfully.

Copsey's book has a narrow recent focus, the history, ideology and prospects of the BNP from 1982 to the present. While at times chaotic, and describing events more than analysing them, Copsey's book is useful as much BNP history has never before been scrutinised in this detail; and thus, while partial, this book can serve as a timeline check for future researchers. He makes copious use of primary sources, both those in the Warwick University Modern Records Centre and others possessed by Searchlight and its satellites. Copsey rightly focuses on individual areas where the BNP has broken through at different times: the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (1993) Oldham (2001) and Burnley (2002 onwards). He helpfully draws attention to parallels between the French Front National's organisation and strategy and similar initiatives in the BNP. This may be obvious but it has hitherto eluded most commentators.

Thus far, the book, as described, has considerable strengths. However, the text has major flaws which derive from Copsey's use of propagandistic sources as though they are respectable academic ones; and a related, if surprising, weakness, when it comes to considering BNP ideology and its provenance. The propaganda source referred to is Searchlight magazine, incessantly cited by Copsey as authoritative on fascist activity, strategy or simply factual developments. I have shown repeatedly elsewhere [1] why this is not acceptable [2]. Over and above multiple factual errors, Searchlight's approach is fundamentally schizophrenic: on the one hand telling us what a threat the BNP are, while simultaneously implying they are in terminal crisis and months if not weeks away from meltdown. Furthermore, to boost itself and its assets, history is constantly skewed by Searchlight to present its own personnel in a good light, exaggerating their contribution to everything except (of course) illegal activity. Copsey falls for this, absurdly doing what he accuses John Tyndall of: distorting history to give Searchlight operative Ray Hill a leading role in both founding the BNP (pp.23-4) and persuading Tyndall to ignore the 1983 overtures from the NF's Joe Pearce (p.29). Not only did the 'overtures' come from Tyndall, not Pearce, by Hill's own account he was winding down his (peripheral) involvement with the BNP by this time anyway [3]. The fact that Hill has already been shown (by myself in Lobster 24 and elsewhere) to have fabricated his main claim to fame, the 1981 Notting Hill 'bomb plot', means that, at the very least. Hill's version of anything should not be accepted at face value. By 'rewriting history' like this to elevate a minor racist thug, Copsey seriously undermines his book's claim to academic credibility. Copsey also reports, without proper qualification, other allegations by Searchlight and its proxies, such as the contention that Nick Griffin once had a 'gay affair' with former NF 'Activities Organiser' Martin Webster (p.111). Crucially, Copsey does not counterbalance allegations from such quarters by reference to other views, even when readily available. For example he recounts (p.67) the highly questionable Searchlight/World in Action view of the C18-MI5 relationship as though it was the only one. Importing into academic discourse the propaganda output of Searchlight magazine gravely hampers what at first sight seems the book's strong suit: taking ideology seriously. This fault is amplified because, unlike Martin Walker's classic text on the NF, the prose and presentation is dull and, to use a favourite Copsey word, 'ostensibly' academic.

In Searchlight's world-view, the BNP and NF before them, as well as every other fascist group are Nazis. This desire to impose a preordained ideological template onto reality is shared to a large extent by Copsey. Take, for example, the ideology of John Tyndall, subjected to some interesting scrutiny. As Copsey shows (not that he puts it so circumspectly), there are definitely resonances between BNP policy documents and the Nazi era and ideology (pp.10-12 and 85-6). However, if, as Copsey claims, Tyndall is a Nazi, why exactly did the British Movement or, even better, the archetypal Nazis. Combat 18, differ from him so? Copsey's treatment of the BNP-C18 struggle describes conflict but does not ideologically explain it and ends weakly by advancing a version of the Searchlight conspiracy theory (pp.65-68), that C18's Charlie Sargent was a Special Branch asset [4].

Tyndall, however, is yesterday's man, and the ideology of the BNP under Nick Griffin deserves most current attention. Copsey's understanding is hindered by his use of the flawed model/definition advanced by Roger Griffin of fascism being a palingenetic revolutionary form of ultra-nationalism. Despite bitchy remarks about Roger Griffin 'overselling' his product (p. 80) and the word palingenesis having certainly 'gone the rounds within the academic circles of fascist studies' (p.81), Copsey tamely concludes that 'we will hold fast with Griffin, that he currently offers the most heuristically useful theory is beyond doubt' (p.82). You do not need the genius of Kierkegaard to realise that nothing intellectual is ever beyond doubt. Indeed, refinement of academic theories does not necessarily mean improvement - as instanced by the way Stanley Payne's views in this field have been by-passed to a large extent. In 1980 Payne revolutionised 'fascism studies' by developing a tripartite definition of fascism in which its features are classed under three headings: negations (what they were against); ideology and goals (programmatic matters); and style/organisation (such as symbolism and presentation). Under furious attack, from Roger Eatwell and Roger Griffin in particular, Payne drastically simplified his definition to a one sentence offering acceptable to them: that fascism is a 'form of revolutionary nationalism for national rebirth based on a primarily vitalist philosophy, is structured on extreme elitism, mass mobilisation and the Fuhrerprinzip, positively values violence as an end as well as means and tends to normalise war and/or the military virtues' [5]. Payne simplifying his earlier nuanced definition wasn't a sign of academic progress but of debate being dumbed-down. What this subject needs is a recognition of complexity, not the imposition of banality [6]. The importance of the recognition of complexity, and rejection of simplicity in the matter of definitions can be shown by reference to the work of Roger Griffin himself. As I showed, Roger Griffin's definition is hardly based (as he claims) on scrupulous examination of empirical fascist reality; indeed is replete with basic and repeated factual errors concerning British fascism in particular of such a grave nature as to call into question his general definition [7]. Griffin's definition of fascism is, therefore, much less serviceable than his criteria for assessing fascist strategy and leadership, which Copsey would have done far better adopting.

Political soldiers

Which brings us to the near fatal weakness of Copsey's book: his total lack of understanding of the 1980s National Front history and ideological experimentation from whence came Nick Griffin. Speaking of the 1986-90 'political soldier' NF he states, 'other than recruiting an elite corps of hard-core political activists, the strategy of these "political soldiers" lacked clarity' (p.36). I disagree. While Copsey half-heartedly describes some 1980s initiatives such as throwing out biological separatism, forging links with Black separatists and ideological sympathy for Libya (p.44), he misses out far more of relevance to today: discussions of technology, Green politics, economic policy, the role of front groups, state repression and, indeed, strategy in the grand sense. It is Griffin's impressive ability to learn from that era, including mistakes made, that marks him out as such a dangerous (and non-Nazi) figure. Copsey sees none of this because - to re-coin one of his own phrases - the half-trained lazy eye is unwilling to look. Instead, Copsey departs from academic analysis by using fatuous words like 'incredulously' to describe what they believed, or 'Loony Front' as a label. Such ideological and historical amnesia means Copsey is far too willing to see ideological/tactical shifts as always mimicking French developments (e.g. representing racism in cultural not biological terms p.114) when the roots are closer to home. It was the 1986-90 NF that pioneered 'cultural racism', for example. Equally, Copsey does not seem to grasp how Griffin's early 1990s sojourn in the Internationa! Third Position (ITP) helped further shape his ideology, in particular the importance of making the BNP and its subsections economically viable [8].

The crux of the book is Copsey's (correct) assertion the BNP are still fascist, though he doesn't establish this as clearly for the Griffin BNP as for theTyndall regime (up to 1999). Instead, Copsey repeats Griffin's claims at various times that he still believes in the BNP's revolutionary ideology [9]. In place of rigorous and detailed examination of current (Griffin) BNP ideology, Copsey tells us 'the trained eye does not have to look too far to find evidence that Griffin's "new" BNP is not that different to the BNP of "old" ' (p.170). He draws attention to two 'ideal types' on the far right: 'revolutionary nationalist' and 'reformist authoritarian nationalist' (p. 78). He says Griffin's BNP is a 'classic case' of the former constructing a 'false front' to appear as the latter (p. 79). Elsewhere, he admits the BNP has 'worryingly' sought to use 'populist themes' (p.177). Despite asserting that the Griffin BNP remains 'revolutionary nationalist', Copsey is all at sea when it comes to apprehending the precise form this has taken. He states that 'Griffin does occasionally depart from Tyndall's ideological beliefs but his revisions merely take us back to NF radicalism in the 1980s' (p.170) - not realising that this admission holes his argument of Tyndall/Griffm BNP continuity beneath the waterline [10]

For the 1986-90 NF, and Griffin now, the term 'revolutionary nationalist' was in any case developed in opposition to neo-Nazism, this latter seen as an atavistic creed for losers. Copsey's position is this: Tyndall was a Nazi; Griffin hasn't changed the BNP 'ideological core'; therefore Griffin must be Nazi, too, even though most BNP members aren't. Unsurprisingly, when Copsey has to acknowledge Griffin's attacks on Nazism, he is a trifle irritated, referring to one such Griffin offering as having 'smacked of sheer hypocrisy' from a 'former Strasserite Nazi' (p.110). In fact, Griffin was a Third Positionist, not Strasserite; therefore on this score, at least, not hypocritical. The BNP is too serious a subject to be .approached in a blinkered manner ignoring all available evidence: yet while in his PhD Copsey referenced my detailed research on the 1980s published in Lobster, in this book it has disappeared from view. Hence, in part, his failure to grasp the significance of that period and how it relates to today's BNP.

Far easier than actually studying current BNP ideology is to merely state (falsely) of the Griffin regime that 'ideology is rareiy talked about in any real detail' (p.175). On the contrary, while ideology is rarely debated in detail, it is elaborated virtually every month in some nuance or other by Griffin, especially in Identity magazine [11]. When examining the complex and dangerous phenomenon that is the BNP, Copsey's ideological and historical blind spots are profoundly debilitating; no more so than in this Panglossian conclusion: 'In the final analysis....either the BNP will genuinely turn itself into a reformist "national populist" party (and thereby cease to be fascist) or it will surely return to the murky political backwaters from whence it came' (p.177). The choice is not that stark; and, as I have argued elsewhere [12], the Griffin BNP is a novel but still fascist hybrid that is seeking to transcend these simplistic polarities. In this respect, the 2005 BNP General Election manifesto, where the party describes itself as 'national populist' (p.54) indeed deserves the sort of detailed textual scrutiny Copsey has avoided for the Griffin regime, asserting that 'none of Griffin's "modernisation programme" envisaged modification to the party's ideological core' (p.175). Not only do I disagree, so do many Griffin critics inside and outside the BNP.

Copsey often repeats his supposed theoretical insight into the reasons for modern fascist success (or otherwise), the gaining of 'legitimacy' (p.147), while wondering why others do not accord this term the deference he thinks it deserves. But this concept is at best one essential part of an overall understanding, not a substitute for it. On its own it is merely a truism: parties gain support if their ideas are seen as 'acceptable'

A joy to read

If Copsey's book is highly uneven, and at times deeply frustrating, Sykes' book is a joy to read. As befits a historian (he has earlier written on Tariff Reform and the history of the Liberal Party), Sykes takes his task seriously: the 'focus is on the ideas' (p.1). Which makes it all the more impressive that he covers the entire 20th Century, including some of the smallest groups, right up to the present day. While at times I found Sykes' definition of 'Radical Right' confusing (pp.2-3) especially the inclusion of Joseph Chamberlain (pp.17-18), there is a delightful vignette on the pre-Great War figure of Willoughby de Broke (pp. 24-28) - new to me - a man whose stated views make John Tyndall seem like a flower-power enthusiast. Sykes has the ability to sum up salient ideological and strategic issues in few words, as in the careful examination of the dilemmas facing 'fringe patriots' in World War One and thereafter; relations with the Tories; and the twin tensions between social reform and nationalism and the interests of capital and labour. The chapter on Oswald Mosley is a fine distillation of what remains pertinent in his political trajectory, surpassed only by the exemplary consideration of Social Credit and Distributist ideology (pp.73-92). While Sykes perhaps overstates the ideological linkage between Distributism and 1980s NF 'Back to the Land' policies [13], this is an impressive contribution in itself.

As Sykes gets closer to the present day the quality of analysis does not flag [14]. The sensitive analysis of why the NF failed to break though in the 1970s, while not original, is certainly apposite; although the argument that late 1970s NF factionalism led to the Tories occupying their political space (p.114) perhaps confuses cause with effect. Sykes scores particularly well in that, unlike Copsey, he does not write off the 1980s, seeing NF attempts at constructing a post-imperial ideology as of great importance (p.116). He follows the consensus in labelling Fiore et al as Strasserites; whereas I still see the 1983-6 NF regime as a fragile coalition between genuine Strasserites and Evolians (like Derek Holland and Roberto Fiore), for whom Strasserism was a tactical feint [15]. Sykes clearly grasps the fact that 1986-90 (and indeed 1983-6) NF ideology and strategy was innovative (pp.125-7) and worth taking seriously; additionally tracing the evolution of some into the English Nationalist Movement, International Third Position, National Revolutionary Faction and finally National Anarchy. Sykes also draws readers attention to the small but important strand of BNP critics represented by the White Nationalist Party. All this when covering a vastly greater-period in significantly fewer pages than Copsey.

Again, unlike Copsey, Sykes is aware of important ideological differences between the Nazi CI8 and Tyndall's BNP, and covers the differing analyses of the phenomenon by the Searchlight coterie and myself in an exemplary fashion (pp.132-35) [16]. While necessarily constrained in terms of space, Sykes' coverage of the modem BNP is thought-provoking, all the more so because he does not exclude evidence for partisan reasons. His careful conclusion is a welcome contrast to Copsey:

"By retaining at least strong elements of Distributism and building up from below through community politics, the BNP has added another dimension to working within the system while seeking its radical alteration....The outlook of the Radical Right remains, as it was throughout the twentieth century, ideologically innovative" (p.151).

In conclusion, both books have something to offer, but whereas Sykes' can be taken neat, to properly put Copsey's effort in context requires a degree of intellectual and political alertness, as well as background knowledge most readers will not have. In some ways this is a pity: to repeat, Copsey has accessed some excellent written sources, even if he lacks the critical faculties to use them with discernment and discrimination. Almost despite himself, Copsey's text is littered with useful nuggets of information and statistics that competent researchers will be able to make use of. There is no real academic debate in this important subject and there should be. In that sense the quality of Sykes' research and Copsey's research materials will hopefully kick-start an improvement in standards. And about time too!

FOOTNOTES

1) For example in Lobster issues 23 24 & 25.
2) Copsey of all people should know this, as his book 'Anti-fascism in Britain' (Palgrave/Macmillan 2000) showed he is aware of the far more reliable Fighting Talk, the former Anti-Fascist Action publication.
3) Ray Hill with Andrew Bell, The Other Face of Terror (London; Grafton 1988, p.180)
4) The refined version, that CI8 was created by the secret state in the first place, Copsey spares readers. Yet, if true, it raises more interesting academic questions than he could begin to comprehend.
5) 'Fascism 1914-45', (UCL Press, 1995) p.14
6) My PhD proposed a modification but not rejection of Payne's original tripartite version. Larry O'Hara, 'Creating Political Soldiers? The National Front 1986-90', London University, 2001, pp.11-12 [accessible free by clicking the link on this page to the British Library thesis collection]
7) O'Hara (see note 6), pp.28-9 and 58-61
8) Certainly, Griffin was declared bankrupt in 1994, as Copsey points out (p.111), but the same never happened to Roberto Fiore, the ultimate strategic trailblazer in this field.
9) Most notably the Spring 1999 declaration in Patriot magazine before he became leader and membership bulletins just afterwards (p.123).
10) For given that his argument is that Tyndall's BNP were Nazi and Griffin hasn't changed the 'ideological core', by admitting Griffin is in fact making important changes to BNP ideology by importing his own 1980s ideas/beliefs, the 'purity', if you will, of the BNP's core ideology is being undermined.
11) See also example, the lengthy ideological article by Griffin on the BNP web-site December 2004 entitled "The Deadly Twins'.
12) For example in Notes From the Borderland 6, p.33.
13) I would suggest Darre and Evolianism as equally important.
14) Though he mistakenly has NF guru Richard Lawson being an NF Constitutional Movement member (p.115).
15) Speaking of Holland, Sykes accepting his claim to be 'against terrorism' (p.123) is as wide of the mark as Copsey's facile reportage of Roger Eatwell characterising the 1986-90 NF as 'proto-terrorist' (Copsey p.36). On the contrary, the 'political soldier' ideology had many effects on the NF, one of which was the development by Holland of what might be called (after Thomas Sheehan) the 'metaphysics of terror'; terrorism was not ruled out in principle, at some future date. Equally, because Copsey does not look at the ITP, he perhaps does not know that the 'Political Soldier' series by Holland ended up as a trilogy, the last even more religious than the second.
16) On CI8 and MI5 see my piece in Lobster 30 pp.28-9. [reproduced in this very section of the current web-site]

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About NFB Magazine

Welcome to Britain's premier parapolitical investigative magazine Notes from the Borderland (NFB). We have been producing the magazine since 1997 but some published material before then.

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