Fractured history of the far-right in Britain
In the era of Brexit, Ian O'Doherty takes a look at a book that explores the rise of the far-right, but is most interesting in depicting the movement's cast of misfits and charlatans
English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far-Right
Melville House, hardback, 224 pages, €18.22
If there is one thing which both sides of an increasingly fractious debate can agree on, it is that Western politics has changed utterly in the space of just two years.
It's easy to forget now, but it wasn't that long ago when Donald Trump was seen as a joke candidate, a weird hybrid of previous fringe players on the American political stage along the lines of Ross Perot, or even goons like Lyndon LaRouche.
Similarly, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage was never taken seriously by either the European or British political classes.
Both were seen as eccentric egomaniacs, two wealthy men playing at being the voice of their respecting working classes and who seemed to be motivated by a strange combination of personal spite and political score settling who made for good copy, but weren't deserving of serious attention.
As we now know, that attitude - which was dismissive to the point of dereliction of duty by the media - led to the two biggest shocks in Western politics of the last 50 years.
In English Uprising, Paul Stocker's immensely readable, if occasionally contradictory, examination of the genesis of Brexit from far-right fever dream to political reality, the academic and writer makes an impressive attempt to contextualise a situation which many people thought was simply unthinkable.
According to the publicity blurb, Stocker's book "examines how ideas of the far-right - always a fringe movement in Britain - have become part of the political mainstream, especially via a noxious right-wing press, and how these issues are not unique to Britain. Rather, the growth of far-right populism is a Western phenomenon and one with trends which can be seen in several European countries, as well as the United States".
The fact that English Uprising is not entirely successful in its attempt to examine the myriad streams of right-wing thinking which gathered into a veritable tsunami of dissent is perfectly understandable - historians are going to be arguing about the causes of recent events for decades to come.
Where Stocker is at his strongest is exploring the weird and fractured history of the far right in Britain, particularly when wading through the gene pool of the likes of the National Front, the openly fascist gang of thugs and skinheads who would eventually mutate into the - marginally - more palatable British National Party.
One of the great ironies of fascist movements is that while fascism itself is obviously no laughing matter, the main players tended to be a joke.
For example, the forerunner of the National Front in the UK back in the 1960s was the National Socialist Movement, a collection of misfits, cranks and thugs led by the odious John Tyndall. Their attempts to make Nazism palatable to a generation which still had vivid living memories of the war was as absurd as you might expect. But their eventual and inevitable political schism came in most un-Nazi like behaviour, not from a row over racial purity laws, or a philosophical debate over the finer points of extermination camps, but over a woman.
Even those circumstances were odd to the point of farcical - Tyndall was engaged to Françoise Dior, the niece of French fashion designer Christian Dior and an avowed Nazi, who broke up with him and instead married his former friend Colin Jordan in a Nazi-themed wedding which involved them pricking their fingers and swapping blood over a copy of Mein Kampf.
The two men never reconciled, but Tyndall would go on to be something of a mentor to Nick Griffin of the BNP, a man who also receives appropriate contempt from Stocker in later chapters.
In fact, wading through the gruesome cast of misfits, charlatans and the mentally deranged is a bit like going through a swamp of stupidity and comic ineptitude, but as the author argues, these are the men who would ultimately lay the foundation for the far-right movements we see today. While Stocker is strong on the strange history of this movement - although technically, it's probably more accurate to call them 'movements' since so many of them seemed to hate each other - he is weaker on what is the central premise of the entire book, which is the apparent enabling and legitimisation of extreme thoughts by the right-wing media.
That there have been numerous examples of journalists - on both sides of the political divide, lest we forget - going way too far is not in question, but his chapter on the rise and subsequent fall of the BNP seems to turn in against itself with every page.
Blaming the popular press for the rise of xenophobic attitudes, he also admits that the very same media gave the BNP a torrid time, quoting numerous articles and columns referring to Nick Griffin's party as "a sinister sect of creeps, misfits and racists" which featured "discredited racial theories, Holocaust deniers, nose measurers and violent oafs".
It's a mentally dexterous approach, for sure. After all, blaming the media for creating and improving the fortunes of a party they constantly, and vigorously, condemned seems harsh to say the least.
He is on stronger ground in his explanation of the rise of 'populism', a catch-all phrase used by establishment politicians to dismiss anything they don't understand.
As he points out, populism is not a political ideology but a political style, and one which has been used by both the far right and the far left.
There is much to disagree with in English Uprising, as is inevitable on such a thorny subject.
But there is much to recommend it and the absence of lazy hectoring gives it a greater heft than other, similar efforts of recent times.