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The BNP takes to the schoolyard

| Tuesday, 2 March 2004 Source: BBC

The far-right BNP has 'enlisted' school pupils as supporters. It looks like another attempt to give a respectable face to their extremism.

On its website, the Young BNP has named 160 schools and universities which it says have students who support it.

The list was started by Tony Wentworth, a politics student at Salford University and leader of the Young BNP.

He told the Times Educational Supplement: "I don't see any problem with campaigning at schools. There wouldn't be an outcry if it was the Liberal Democrats. The press and politicians are only reacting this way because we are coming out on top."

Other parts of the site attack left-wing teachers forgetting Britain's 'glorious past,' and portraying our forefathers' deeds as "evil, rotten and twisted."

The problem for schools is that the site makes it clear that only pupils and not schools back the BNP. Legally, the schools cannot get their names removed from the list.

Dewsbury, in West Yorkshire, has a population of 50,000 people and a well-established Asian community. Recently, far right activity in the area has risen and a member of the BNP sits on the local council.

Seven of the schools named on the website are in the town. One is The Community Science College, where 75% of its 11 to 16 year old pupils are white.

Headteacher Steve Valentine expressed his anger at his school's appearance on the website:

"I don't think any school should be named on this website… I don't think children as young as this should be used."

Tony Wentworth argues:

"I know the schools are angry but we're not doing anything wrong. We've got supporters who e-mail us and tell us what school they go to… at the end of the day we want supporters to know they're not alone."

"We try to check they're all accurate."

That may be so but the fact remains that several of the schools on the website don't actually exist.

What's the BNP playing at?

This scheme fits in with recent activity from the BNP. Once associated with unsubtle racism and overt violence from skinheads in bomber jackets, they are attempting to re-brand themselves.

Leader Nick Griffin, is not your 'typical' extremist: softly-spoken, Cambridge-educated and dressed, almost always, in a suit. A style which many in the party have adopted.

Exploiting the increasing disillusionment with mainstream political parties, they are trying to portray themselves as an acceptable political force.

The BNP have concentrated on areas badly affected by poverty and with a history of social, partially race-related, unrest. It is here that they have managed to gain a limited political foothold, usually in local elections.

The Lancashire town of Burnley is an instructive example of the fortunes of the 'new' BNP.

In May they briefly became the official opposition to the Labour-controlled council on the back of a low turnout and a collapse in support for the traditional parties, especially the Tories.

They campaigned on issues that they see as worries for white Britons: unemployment, crime and asylum. They were careful to distance themselves from their old image although the far-right 'white Britain' message remained beneath the surface.

The BNP's brief tenure as official opposition came to an end at the hands of the Lib Dems in a June by-election and they again lost out in a second in August. The circumstances surrounding the latter also say much about the kind of image they are trying to cultivate.

The by-election was called when BNP Councillor Luke Smith resigned over a drunken fracas. The hand of the leadership played a part, with Griffin reprimanding him:

"When people vote for a BNP councillor, they vote for, and are entitled to expect, a decent citizen who isn't into drunkenness and yobbery or anything else like that."

The BNP's national press officer, Dr Phil Edwards, went on to reprimand him for abusing a visitor from Hungary.

The BNP's attempt to show support in schools looks like the latest attempt to cultivate a repectable public face.

Their ends remain extreme but their means are heading towards the mainstream, where the danger is not lost on concerned voices.

Shortly after the BNP's victory in Burnley GMB Union Leader Gary Jones told BBC Radio Lancashire:

"I honestly believe it's about time that Burnley Council and us work in partnership to relieve this economic strain that's been beared upon Burnley. I believe this is causing this move to the BNP."

Poverty? Disillusionment with the main parties? The media? What do you think has made the BNP re-surface?

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