In response to:

Britain: A False Dawn? from the July 15, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

Jonathan Raban in his report on Britain’s recent general election [“Britain: A False Dawn,” NYR, July 15] derided the fascist British National Party’s results. The far-right immigrant-bashing racist BNP was “treated with proper scorn” by the voters, who refused to give it a single parliamentary seat. Proper scorn, really? Actually, the party fielded its most candidates to date and nationwide tripled its actual votes, from 192,000 in 2005 to 563,000. If proportional representation (PR) existed in the UK, this neo-Nazi party would have gained twelve to thirteen seats in the House of Commons. The major parties may be ostracizing the BNP, and ordinary voters may still be unwilling to elect BNP candidates (except on local councils), but the fact remains that its popular vote is increasing.

Anyway, electoral statistics are not a true barometer of the BNP’s deep-rooted strength. That’s not its game. Going as far back as Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the violent-extreme right does its most damaging work at the grassroots, in pubs, on football pitches, in workplaces, and with increasing success grabbing TV time in spectacular demos and brawls. Westminster’s chronic disconnect with the reasons for people’s anger—unemployment, cuts in social services, apparent favoritism toward exotic immigrants, etc.—is a never-ending fuel for the fire. It is political astigmatism to confuse the fascists’ growing strength with their weak showing at the ballot box.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles, California

Jonathan Raban replies:

Ever since I read Mr. Sigal’s Weekend in Dinlock (1960) long ago, I’ve admired his distinctively American take on matters of social class and politics in Britain, and I entirely agree that the BNP’s “most damaging work” is done less in electoral politics than in the pubs and on the football terraces. However, the conclusions he draws from the number of votes cast for the BNP in the May election seem to me to overegg the pudding.

In the 2005 general election, the BNP had candidates in 119 constituencies; in 2010 the party fielded 338 candidates, so it was inevitable that the number of votes cast for them would significantly rise. Yet their percentage share of the national vote increased only marginally, from 1.2 percent in 2005 to 1.9 percent in 2010. In May, the party was resoundingly defeated in both the parliamentary and the local council elections.

This was in sharp (and welcome) contrast to the BNP’s performance in elections for the European Parliament, which were held in the summer of 2009, with a low voter turnout (45 percent), and at the height of the parliamentary expenses scandal. Then, the BNP secured 8.38 percent of the national vote, and, because a “closed list” system of PR is used in European elections, two BNP candidates (Nick Griffin in the North West region and Andrew Brons in Yorkshire and the Humber) gained seats in the EU Parliament. Little more than a year ago, it was greatly feared that the BNP was on the verge of a major—and very ominous—electoral breakthrough in the 2010 general election.

As for Mr. Sigal’s claim that had “PR” (he doesn’t specify which system) been used in May this year, “this neo-Nazi party would have gained twelve to thirteen seats in the House of Commons,” I consulted Andy White, research analyst at the Electoral Reform Society, which I take to be the organization in Britain that is most knowledgeable about all PR systems. He wrote:

Even the “purest” forms of proportional representation (where seat share is very closely matched to vote share) usually include a threshold of about 5 percent. This means that only parties securing over 5 percent of the national vote (or whatever the threshold figure is) can win seats.

He added, “The reform being proposed at the moment—the Alternative Vote—is not anyway a proportional system. It will probably make it even harder for the BNP to win seats.”

I share Mr. Sigal’s view that the BNP is deep-rooted, dangerous, and to be taken seriously. However, on May 6 of this year it was—as I wrote in my piece—treated with proper scorn by 98.1 percent of voters.

This Issue

September 30, 2010