The Guardian journalist who became central London organiser for the BNP
Ian Cobain went undercover for seven months to explore the clandestine world of the BNP: how it operates, recruits and holds meetings
Ian CobainThursday December 21, 2006
Early one evening in October, outside an entrance to Liverpool Street station in London, a few dozen men and women are standing around in small groups, whispering into mobile telephones, shuffling their feet, smiling and nodding discreetly to one another.
It is unseasonably warm, and people are spilling onto the pavement from the Hamilton Hall, a pub a few yards away. It's also a Saturday, and throngs of noisy football supporters are weaving in and out of the station on their way home from matches around the capital.
The small groups of men and women become larger, gradually merge into one company. But they blend in beautifully with the people around them; nobody sees their congregation, nobody else notices that they are one.
These people are using what they call an RVP - a clandestine rendezvous point. And if it sounds like an extraordinarily secretive way to meet your friends on a Saturday evening, that's exactly what it is supposed to be.
But then, these are people who will use pseudonyms to conceal their true identities. Their emails are encrypted, with only the chosen few possessing the codes needed to decipher their messages. They are people who employ carefully-coded language to express their views, and who will, before speaking plainly, quite literally look over their shoulders.
This is the strange world of what may be the United Kingdom's fastest-growing political party: these people have proclaimed themselves to be the Torch-Bearers of British Culture, the guardians of our national identity.
Welcome to life inside the British National Party.
The first meeting
My first meeting with a BNP activist was in the Amato Cafe in Soho's Old Compton Street on September 7. His name was Steve Tyler, he was slightly scruffy, and he had a goatee beard and dyed hair. He must have been about 60. His companion was a young Brazilian woman. They were obviously close. As she left, and our meeting began, Steve muttered something about his friend wanting help bringing her sister into the country. That was my first surprise. The second came when Steve admitted that he is not British at all: he is Australian.
Despite this, Steve clearly regards immigration as the greatest problem facing his adopted home. "The whole world is pouring down on us," he said. "It's a huge problem, and it's going to get worse." Not that he is a racist, you understand - "I'm on the liberal wing of the party ... most of the people in the party are" - and he doesn't blame the immigrants themselves - "if I was a 19-year-old Kurd, I'd be trying to get into the country". It's just that there is such a deluge, he explains. And really, something must be done about it! "I don't want to be lying on my deathbed thinking that I could have done something about it, but didn't."
For generations people like Steve have struggled to capture more than a tiny percentage of the votes at local or general elections. That has begun to change following Nick Griffin's attempts to clean up the BNP's image since becoming chairman seven years ago. In last May's local elections the party won 229,000 votes and now has more than 50 council seats.
To put this in some context, around seven million votes were cast last May, and 364,000 people voted for the Green party. But support for the BNP is clearly growing. In some parts of the country - in areas of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire, in pockets of the Midlands and on the eastern outskirts of London - the extreme right has achieved the political legitimacy which has eluded it for generations. It is also recruiting new members hand over fist.
But what sort of people are now joining the party? What is its electoral strategy? Is it dedicated purely to the pursuit of democratic politics? And where is it obtaining its funds? In an attempt to answer these questions, and to take a glimpse behind Griffin's facade of normality, the Guardian decided that it would join the BNP.
I signed up under an assumed name last June, using a fake address in central London from which I could pick up BNP correspondence, a new email account and a dedicated mobile telephone. I was keen to become active, I said on my application form, but I wanted to remain behind the scenes.
In my first meetings with BNP activists I hinted heavily that I worked in the public sector, and could lose my job if my membership became known. Over the months that followed, there would be times when members would question me closely about my views and my background, and it would be unclear to me whether they were merely curious, or suspicious. Before most meetings I would feel some fear of exposure. But when asked about my work, I found I could reply, quite truthfully: "Trust me, if you knew what I did for a living, you would understand exactly why it is that I can't tell you."
Who is watching?
After talking about my "work for the government", Steve turned to the question of police surveillance. "The police will watch leading members, of course, but they can't watch everybody who joins. They're too busy watching Islamic terrorists these days. And it's no secret that most police officers probably support us. Certainly those working in central London know the problems we face ..."
The problems we face. I heard phrases like this uttered by BNP members many times and, after several months, came to understand their precise, nuanced meanings. "Nice areas" I quickly understood to signify predominantly white areas. "Quiet areas" are places where black and minority ethnic people live, but keep a low profile, and don't compete too hard for jobs, school places or sexual partners. "Troublesome areas" are places where black people do just the opposite. "No-go areas" are places where black and minority ethnic people are in a majority. "Ethnics" speaks for itself, as does "our people". And "the problems we face"? They are, quite simply, that there are black people living among us whites.
In my seven months as a party member I heard very few racist epithets, and no anti-semitic comments. Such language appears almost to be frowned upon in Griffin's post-makeover BNP. Perhaps it is a tribute to the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Public Order Act 1986, and to the gently shifting mores of British life, that racists rarely feel able to express themselves, even among like-minded people. But some of the fear and the hatred remains: it just emerges in code.
The Orange Tree pub
On the evening of Sunday September 24 I was sitting in the Orange Tree pub in Richmond, south-west London, opposite a man who had contacted me by email. He had told me that his name was Nick Russell, and that he was the London regional organiser for the BNP. One these statements was true; the other I knew to be a lie.
Nick is indeed a dedicated party activist. His real name, however, is Nick Eriksen. He is 47, a former civil servant, and he once served as a Tory councillor in Southwark, south London. An intense man, with bitten nails and a permanent frown, he appears forever to be on the brink of losing his temper. His complaints that night were endless: the sale of a local real-ale brewery, the iniquity of Britain's divorce laws, interference from Brussels and, of course, immigration. "Yes, I suppose if I was a half-starved Somali goat-herd, I would want to come to Britain ... the South Africans will never stage a proper World Cup, how could they? It's a black country. They've got the infrastructure the whites left them, but it's a mess now ... I hear there are a hundred thousand Bulgarians and Romanians waiting to get in ... I would have thought the number of people we had living in Britain in the 1930s or 40s was the optimum population." And so it goes on.
Nick, I discover in time, is an almost archetypal BNP member. I had joined a party which draws in people who are not only xenophobic, but harassed and malcontented, people who feel themselves to be unfairly put-upon, to be slightly under siege. It is a party of people for whom British society, as it is and as it is developing, has no appeal, and no room.
It was also a party which was about to appoint a Guardian journalist to one of its key positions.
Nick was looking for a central London organiser. He already had almost a dozen district organisers working under him, in different parts of the capital, but central London had been neglected for years. The party had decided to bring its members living in central London into one branch, and then get some of them active: distributing leaflets, writing to newspapers, contesting council byelections.
The party, Nick explained, is particularly keen to gain a foothold in the Greater London Assembly. The next elections to the assembly, in 2008, will be held under a proportional representation system, and the BNP will capture a seat if it wins just five per cent of the vote. "Around 7% or 8 % will give us two seats, which would be good, as it could be a bit lonely for just one person."
Nick explained that the lists of local members and former members would be sent to me in encrypted emails. He slid a brown envelope across the table: inside was a CD which held the software which would enable me to decode them. He also asked me to write down the elaborate password I must use with the software: "the KING was born on 31 FEBRUARY."
It will also be my job to organise social events four times a year: "We'll tell you which venues you should use." And one last matter: Nick thinks that perhaps I should use a pseudonym, just to be on the safe side. "Why not? It's not against the law. It's a free country." I could even use it when meeting other BNP members. Nobody need ever know my real name. Nick suggests I call myself Ian Taylor.
A couple of months later, when Nick eventually tells me his real name, he explains that he adopted his pseudonym because he is an English teacher. (An inordinate number of members claim to be teachers, or retired teachers, or married to teachers - I'm never sure whether they are telling the truth.)
"It's ludicrous that you could lose your job for being a member of the party," he says. "But there's nothing wrong with using another name. We have a long tradition in this country of using different names. George Orwell wasn't really George Orwell. Cliff Richard isn't Cliff Richard."
Before I leave the Orange Tree, we are joined by Chris Forster, who stood as a BNP candidate in Richmond at the last council elections. A rather raffish-looking Cockney in his 60s, Chris explains that he was a National Front supporter in the 1970s. He talks about a number of murders and child sex attacks which he hears are happening in West Yorkshire, which are being ignored by the media, and which - we are expected to understand - have been committed by Asians.
Nick and Chris agree that the news from such areas is unremittingly depressing. "And that's not to mention Lambeth." From time to time they become so despondent about "the problems we face" that they fall silent and just shake their heads. Nevertheless, they insist that it is a great time to be joining the BNP. The party is completely skint, it seems, but they assure me that more and more people are joining every day. Up to 100 new members a week. An electoral breakthrough must be just over the horizon. It must be!
Tomorrow, it seems, belongs to us.
Central London organiser
Shortly after this, Sadie Graham, the BNP's Group Development Officer, writes from Nottingham to thank me for becoming the central London organiser and to offer advice. This includes the suggestion that I contact my "regional security officer" before holding any meetings.
From York, the party's Group Support Officer, Ian Dawson, telephones to give me details of my dedicated email account - email@example.com - which sits on the BNP server. He then sends me my password for the account: 27sortcode87.
The following week I receive an email with an encrypted attachment. Using the software from Nick, I open up the attachment to find it is an Excel spreadsheet listing 192 current and lapsed members living in the three central London boroughs, plus the north London boroughs of Camden and Islington. I am also sent a second list of people who have joined in the previous few months, or expressed an interest in joining. Someone has made notes against a handful of applicants' and members' names, observing that they appear to be of "Italian origin" or "Greek origin".
While some of the members of my new flock are from the BNP's traditional constituency - the white working class - there are also some scattered around some of the wealthiest areas of the capital, living in Chelsea townhouses, Belgravia mansions and apartments in Knightsbridge. They include dozens of company directors, computing entrepreneurs, bankers and estate agents, and a handful of teachers. One member is a former Miss England, another is the American chief executive of a City investment corporation, while one is a servant of the Queen, living at Buckingham Palace.
Among my members, I discover, is Simone Clarke, principal dancer with the English National Ballet. During a subsequent conversation, Ms Clarke says that she believes immigration "has really got out of hand", despite her partner, both on and off-stage, being a Cuban dancer of Chinese extraction. She adds: "If everyone who thinks like I do joined, it would really make a difference."
Another is Richard Highton, administrator of the Optical Consumer Complaints Service, which handles complaints about opticians. "Everyone you speak to is fed up and thinks the same," he says. "I would have thought central London is a breeding ground for discontent at what we have at the moment."
Then there is Peter Bradbury, a leading practitioner of complementary medicine and board member of the General Naturopathic Council, which works in partnership with a charity established by Prince Charles. He explains that he first joined the party many years ago, and was a friend of its late founder, John Tyndall.
Gregory Lauder-Frost, former political secretary of the Conservative Monday Club, the rightwing pressure group, emails to say he is unable to be an active member, as he spends most of his time at his home in the country.
And Annabel Geddes, the entrepreneur who created the London Dungeon and who became director of the London Tourist Board when she sold the business, apologises for having lapsed and promises to send a cheque to renew her membership. Annabel volunteers the opinion that Asian immigrants are a "bloody bore" while black people are "ghastly". "I'm a racist," she declares proudly. "We've got to keep little UK basically Anglo-Saxon."
She pauses, and asks whether I agree. "Well madam," I reply, "I am the central London organiser of the British National party ..."