Small Town Napoleons: Barnsley & the BNP

June 10, 2009 at 9:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 4 Comments

When I was last in the Lakes, I stumbled-upon a shop which specialised in antique books. It was a place where you could spend hours devouring the breadth of history on display; thumbing through thin, musty-smelling pages & admiring the old-fashioned covers on the shelves.

One book which caught my eye was a volume of ‘stories from the empire’ – a collection of articles describing different writers’ journeys across land seized by the British. It’s not a book you’d get away with writing today: the attitudes displayed were (mostly) from a bygone era and the amazed, disapproving depictions of the local people stank of one of the worst aspects of colonialism. Indeed, rather than enlightening the reader about what life was like in the commonwealth’s farthest corners, the portrayals only served to reinforce a reader’s preconceptions.

The same discomfiting cringe I felt reading that book has re-emerged in recent days as people have scrambled to explain why voters across the Pennines elected two BNP candidates to the European Parliament. As the new boomtown for British nationalism – the party doubled its share of the vote since 2004 – journalists have started flocking to Barnsley to ask why this former Labour stronghold has become increasingly fertile ground for extremists.

After reading these articles, I sighed over how depressing & unwelcoming the town must seem to outsiders: how ill-informed the interviewees were, how casually they deployed xenophobia as a defence mechanism. I worried that the media coverage only told one side of the town’s story, and told it in a way which – like that book I left on the shelf – would only reinforce the presumptions about the people who live here.

First things first: yes, the BNP found over 3,000 new voters since 2004, but it’s also lost a lot of votes in just 12 months. In last year’s council elections only a third of Barnsley’s seats were up for grabs, but the BNP still gathered 1,800 more votes than it did for an election held across the town. No, this isn’t comparing like with like, but it does suggest that if you really wanted to investigate us during an upsurge of support for nationalism, you should’ve done it 12 months ago. There are different ways to gauge the strength of support a party has, but I think it’s useful to use the old measure of party membership. On that score, the infamous leaked BNP list might’ve boasted over a hundred Barnsley addresses, but for a population of around 220,000, I think I’m entitled to regard that number as feeble.

The racism suggested by the national media is also a lot more abstract than any of the articles have acknowledged. Even with a modest increase in the number of immigrants over the past decade, Barnsley remains one of the whitest towns in the north, and because there’s no semblance of a minority community, there’s no direct conflict with the white working class on grounds of religion, race or culture. Many of us are still healed by foreign doctors, taught by foreign teachers, served by foreign barmaids or learn alongside foreign children, and they can, by and large, live and learn and work free from harassment or intimidation.

I don’t believe I’m being naive in saying this; I’ve lived in Barnsley for long enough to know that there are some genuinely hateful racists in the town, and even if I hadn’t lived there, it wouldn’t have taken long for Google to prove it. What I do contend, however, is that racism isn’t necessarily the prime motivating factor behind a vote for the BNP.

The basis for this overhyped ‘conflict’ between the white working class and the rest is a fight over limited resources; a battle for a better standard of living which many feel is being lost – or stolen. The BNP has been very successful in explaining this as a legacy of lax immigration and ‘PC gone mad’, but the more unpalatable truth is that the town is still failing to give up the ghosts of its industrial past.

I’ve written before about how a culture of low expectations persists here, and it’s prevented the town from adequately retooling after the collapse of coal mining. These days, many of the children & grandchildren of ex-miners will simply train in some other unskilled manual occupation, but in the 21st century, they’re at the mercy of unforgiving markets like never before.

The kids who leave school with only the barest of GCSEs might think those qualifications don’t matter much, but by the time they’ve finished some apprenticeship in house building, plastering or plumbing, they’ll discover that on top of the low pay, they’re competing with foreign labour in a horrid economic climate where nothing is being built. It’s easy to blame some faceless Polish plasterer who you imagine is stealing your living; it’s far harder to get a grasp on how so many other factors have led them to that point: family background, low education, personal choice, a labour market that doesn’t have enough openings for skilled manual work, nor enough qualified applicants to fill them.

If I was to give a passing journalist one final piece of advice about examining the relationship between Barnsley and the BNP, it would be to look again at the lessons from the 2008 council elections. There, the BNP came third with over 10,000 votes, but still failed to win a single seat on the council. There are several reasons for this, but foremost among them was the strength of a coalition called the Barnsley Independent Group. This BIG is a collection of staunchly local politicians who’ve fought for small, important things like local amenities, public transport and paving over potholes. In about 5 years, they’ve not only managed to break Labour’s dominance of the council, but also managed to stop the nationalists from dumping their flabby hides in our town hall.

The lesson we should learn from the group’s rapid rise is this: nationalism is not the natural recourse for disaffected Labour voters, and when given a choice between localism and nationalism (a vote for something or a vote against something) more people will prefer fixing fences to flinging out foreigners.

I just wish that some of this had been a feature of the media’s post-election frenzy. Instead, they not only risked giving these snarling, small town Napoleons far more credit than they’re due, but they portrayed the town in such a way that folk ‘round these parts will struggle to recognise it.

Image #1 and #2 courtesy of Flickr users antspider and evissa (Creative Commons)


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  1. Really valuable post – and for an ex-Sheffield resident, an evocative one too. It chimes a lot with my experience of living in Pitsmoor. There, the Asian community and the white working class one lived separately mostly but shared amenities: in my time there I heard resentful mutterings about the supposed ease with which immigrants were able to access benefits, the number of non-whites in the doctor’s waiting room, and the impossibility of building a church in a Muslim state. People who saw problems, and believed for whatever reason that immigration and asylum were the cause.

  2. Thanks Sarah, and I can certainly recognise your experience of Pitsmoor. It’s not quite the same, but you can find a similar (albeit much less racially-tinged) conflict if you drive up to somewhere like Crookes, where there’s a grudging relationship between the people who live there and the student population. So these things can happen regardless of ethnicity, and whilst racism is obviously going to come into a vote for the BNP, it’s not going to apply for everyone and it’s not necessarily going to be the main motivating factor behind that vote.

  3. A typically eloquent post, but also a fundamentally necessary one – good on you

  4. […] Small Town Napoleons: Barnsley & The BNP […]

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