By Jasper Gerard,
He takes a call on his mobile about his invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party, admires his smooth visage in a car window and strolls up a crunchy drive to charm a housewife into voting for his party. He could be any politician, but this is Richard Barnbrook of the British National Party.
The extreme right used to be confined to the dank, disappointed back alleys of British politics, but television commentators are petrified that the BNP is receiving a polite reception up smarter garden paths, and not merely from the Queen. The housewife who offers support has a gleaming Mercedes, window boxes and comfy slippers. If she jumps into the odorous arms of Nick Griffin's party, how many might follow?
describe the mood as "febrile". MPs predict "meltdown". Stoking it all is the endlessly repeated orthodoxy that the BNP will benefit from disgust at the MPs' expenses scandal in the forthcoming Euro and local elections.
But what if all this is hot air? When we turned against the main parties in 1989, we voted Green, so might we not back similarly benign fringe parties this time, or stay at home? Or could we even – and this is heretical – be grown up and realise it is not in our interests to vote out often dedicated councillors from the three larger parties who can't be blamed for the misdeeds of their Westminster betters?
The danger is that pundits so demonise a party we hitherto ignored that warnings become self-fulfilling. Did The Andrew Marr Show really contact the BNP, as the party claims, requesting a long interview with Griffin should he win a Euro seat? Do normally responsible figures enjoy the frisson of talking up the threat from the party?
We British have a far cleverer weapon than outrage to deploy against the BNP, the smart bomb all demagogues fear: laughter. It is why PG Wodehouse depicted Spode, his Oswald Mosley caricature, as a closet lingerie salesman. And actually, there is nothing like spending a day with the BNP in their key target county of Essex to see them not as terrifying heavies but as light entertainment. March on Rome? I'm not sure they could march on Romford.
A BNP organiser tells us that canvassers will be in a Brentwood car park from 10am, under a party billboard: "British Jobs For British Workers". It's a powerful slogan, with a new study showing foreign workers retaining jobs more successfully in the downturn than natives. But someone has removed the poster overnight and the BNP is 45 minutes late.
My first reaction when I see its corps lumbering forth with England football flags is, "Oh, here's Dad's Army". Their Capt Mainwaring is Len Heather, an old boy with a bowls club pin to control his faux regimental BNP tie. It takes him several minutes to notice his poster is missing, followed by much tutting about declining standards.
He hands me leaflets harking back obsessively to our "finest hour": the BNP's adopted symbol is the Spitfire, based on, um, a Polish squadron. Eventually, members of Griffin Youth, one with West Ham tattoos, erect a rickety table and drape it with a tattered Union flag. When he remembers, Heather barks into a megaphone at a deserted car park. In two hours – before police arrive to move the BNP for campaigning on council property – the gang of six have talked to precisely one member of the public, who is Italian.
As the BNP hasn't twigged that campaigning tends to involve talking to voters, I try to stop folk hurrying past. Margaret Bush says: "I got their leaflet. It was just preying on fears." James Nolan, retired builder, says: "When I came here from Ireland in the Fifties, there were signs saying: 'No blacks, Irish or dogs'. I'm proud to live in a country that's so different."
But the BNP has long been home to the disappointed and the disgusted, and there are plenty of those about, with fears of foreign labour. I explain to a pretty waitress on her fag break that the BNP would send "foreigners" "home". "Oh yeah," she shrugs, "I agree with that."
BNP support seems to rise in inverse relationship to understanding. Indeed, the three BNP stalwarts I talk to in Brentwood spout absurd "facts", such as "the only foreigners allowed to work in Japan are prostitutes". Curiously, all three have strong foreign connections. Una Rice, with her "Islam is
b------s" key ring, blithely explains her family left "Rhodesia" for a better life here; Jay Slaven admits to being of "northern European" origin; and Heather lauds his Dutch step-mother.
I ask Heather if I can follow his Brentwood division as they canvass. "Ooh, I don't think we'll be doing any of that," he says, contemplating the vile prospect of work. "Who's ready for the pub?" And so the BNP repairs to a beer cellar.
They had boasted of a crack BNP division swarming over Hornchurch. There, I find one council candidate climbing out of a cab driven by a party member, and two others. Michael Joyce wears a dark suit and dark glasses; not quite The Godfather, but The Godfather's shark pool attendant. His leaflet announces he "works in the building industry" but he tells me he can't work due to his eyesight.
Troop leader is Barnbrook, a London Assembly member who has forgone the BNP's traditional Dr Martens for a top hat. There is no mention of the "r" word, racism; he talks of getting the RSPCA office painted and funding a boxing club. It is stealing the Liberal Democrat pavement politics, for darker ends.
Barnbrook, who made a homo-erotic film before engagement to the so-called "BNP ballerina" Simone Clarke, is really in love with himself. His acolytes so lap up his ramblings they forget to canvass. But hey, they can't agree on whether they've already knocked up this road – the BNP doesn't seem to do canvass returns – and they manage four households in an hour.
That said, Barnbrook convinces three of the four. He, at least, has a brain and is the more sinister for it. He tells me the BNP would allow "foreigners" who refuse repatriation to "remain". Pause: "But many wouldn't stay for long under the BNP because of fear and hysteria." And who, I ask, would have created that? He looks at me coldly: "Have you looked in the mirror lately?"
He admits to having trouble spelling but uses as many long words as he can, which go over the head of Eileen Fairs, puffing away in a pink shell suit. But she doesn't mind. "Last time I voted NF," she smiles.
BNP types are often life's victims, deserving pity more than scorn. But Barnbrook and his proposed Buck House date Griffin lack that excuse. I saw the superficiality of Griffin's BNP makeover when I interviewed him not long ago. He admitted Sikhs are actually more law-abiding than "us". But the BNP has simply grown more discriminating about its discrimination; Griffin lauds older immigrants in order to knock young Muslims.
Opposite me were the two faces of the party: Griffin, mastering the argot of the Islington social worker, claiming to approve of "diversity"; and his hired skin-headed muscle. This veritable 300lb whopper took up most of the sofa's Lebensraum, but Griffin did the talking.
What would he do with those he couldn't send "home" because we don't know their nationality? It's the kind of thorny problem real politicians wrestle with, but Griffin looked like his head would explode. Eventually he spluttered: "Drop them out of a plane somewhere over Africa. I don't really care." I realised dialogue was futile.
Despite protests, Griffin may yet munch the Queen's cucumber sarnies, while MPs eat more humble pie. But the BNP are simply too stupid ever to kiss hands and take up the seals of office. It's hard to laugh, but they are just a joke.