One day, politics will return. And while it might not be the thing we’re missing most, when it does much will turn on what form it takes.
Before coronavirus — a phrase we’ll come to use a lot, I suspect — talk was of a new divide in British politics. Now talk is of a country — post-Brexit and post-Covid-19 — more united. But there are good reasons to believe that the schism of the time before, hinging on social identity rather than economic circumstances, will persist. While many things may change, our politics is likely to feel familiar. This is part of what political historian Steve Davies describes as “a political realignment,” where questions of collective identity come to matter more to voters than the extent to which the state intervenes — or fails to intervene — in the economy.
For that reason, it’s worth thinking about the shape of post-corona-politics, to explore whether there are straws in the wind offering directional clues.
In the heady months between the Conservative Party’s thumping electoral victory and what some people are calling “the rona”, I considered the electoral divisions the 2016 Referendum and 2019 general election exposed. Broadly speaking there are four, all with strong geographical bases: Radical Remainia, Liberal Remainia, Brexitshire, and Leaverstan.
Leaverstan is the group that concerns me here, although the political realignment as expressed by the other three groups provides background radiation to Leaverstan’s voting behaviour last December. These are working-class voters in small towns and older industrial regions in the North, Midlands, and Wales. They also dominate in coastal areas. They are the least likely of any of the four groups to be university-educated. They are opposed to immigration, intensely patriotic in much the same way as Brexitshire, while supporting significant economic redistribution. They compete with Radical Remainia when it comes to professing undying love for the National Health Service. Both Brexitshire and Leaverstan fall on the “nationalist” side of the post-Trump political divide, in opposition to Remainia cosmopolitanism or globalism.
Leaverstan deserted Labour in droves, lending their votes to the Tories and collapsing Labour’s Red Wall, sometimes with abject horror at what they were doing. In some seats, voting Tory was too much for them and they voted Brexit Party instead. There were many seats — think Hartlepool and Barnsley Central — where Farage’s outfit got between the high teens and 30%. These are people who voted Leave, are utterly pissed off with Labour, but fundamentally anti-systemic. If they have a core politics, it’s “Hang the paedos, fund the NHS”.
Not too long ago — in 2009 — a million people from what later became Leaverstan voted for the BNP. Jack Buckby’s Monster Of Their Own Making is about that million, because he was once one of them. For those of us living in Liberal Remainia, Brexitshire, and Radical Remainia — who even now often think of this country as a placid place — it will seem incredible that the author of this dramatic memoir was born in Lancashire.
Jack Buckby is still in his late twenties. He was brought up in the impoverished, benighted north-west that only really became properly visible to the rest of the country after June 2016. Before, it had been left to rot: “managed decline”, it seems, happened to places other than Liverpool.
In his teens, furious as local police ignored Pakistani Muslim grooming gangs, Labour MPs did nothing about sky-high local unemployment, and as gang violence on grim council estates exploded, Buckby joined the BNP. He was a firebrand speaker — both helped and hindered by his high intellect — winning entry to Liverpool University to read politics, then being expelled before graduation for BNP activism that included claiming a speaker invited by the university’s Islamic Society endorsed Lee Rigby’s murder. The BNP realised it had a talent, and Nick Griffin saw to it that he was promoted through the party hierarchy.
Most notoriously, he ran for Jo Cox’s seat of Batley & Spen when all other parties stood down in response to her murder, canvassing in parts of the constituency where grooming gangs had been most active. He admits he was furious at the possibility of a Labour “coronation” and ran a deliberately divisive campaign. By this point, he was the quintessential angry young man.
For reasons he did not understand at the time — and which he explores with great honesty in Monster Of Their Own Making — he always kept a part of his mind insulated from the extremism roiling his “new best friends”. A significant part of the book is devoted to his long association with Jack Renshaw, who in 2018 was sentenced to life imprisonment for preparing an act of terrorism with the intention of killing Rosie Cooper, Labour’s MP for West Lancashire. Buckby witnessed the younger man’s downward spiral, and given his own antecedents, he’s still unsure why he didn’t follow the same path.
It’s possible the presence of a Jewish great-grandfather in his family tree helped. His account of the grotesque, conspiratorial anti-Semitism directed at him when some other BNP activists realised he was wearing his great-grandfather’s distinctively Jewish wedding ring is terrifying. When they winkled out of him that the man had been imprisoned at Dachau, Buckby was treated to earfuls of Holocaust denial.
He recounts how, at another meeting, he had “no luck blending into the background,” because “of course I won the bloody raffle”. “I awkwardly shuffled up to the front of the room to choose a prize from the selection laid out on a table. I saw a copy of Mein Kampf, framed Nazi imagery (…) and, thankfully, a rather innocuous-looking wooden coat-of-arms. I had no idea what it represented, but it looked nice, and it didn’t have a swastika on it.”
In far right circles, Buckby is often still considered a “crypto Jew” or a “Jewish plant”. This hostility — although it only came from a few people — kept him on his guard and meant he noted early that while many of those who voted BNP or even went to meetings were simply angry about grooming gangs or poverty and not racists, the party’s leadership — despite cosmetic changes for public consumption — was thick with them. As he insists throughout Monster Of Their Own Making, its numbers may be small, but “the far right is real”.
It is a horrifying reflection on modern Britain that a young man with Buckby’s talents should have such a lurid biography. It’s clear from his story that this was not the result of bad parents or any personality disorder: thousands of young, working-class white men were part of the same fanaticism. It is also clear that, at almost every turn, those in authority in these Islands were poisonously ignorant and negligent of goings-on among a certain sub-class of Pakistani Muslims, or plain scared of losing “the Muslim vote”.
Of particular note — as he transitioned away from extremism — is that Buckby nonetheless remained a cultural conservative and, later, became a Tory voter. There is some parallel in his life story to that of LBC radio presenter Maajid Nawaz, who abandoned radical Islam but remains a sincere Muslim. Buckby’s argument that white nationalists who become progressive “social justice warriors” or Islamists who apostasise and become atheists are profoundly unrepresentative of most people who reject extremism is a persuasive one.
It occurs in a chapter setting out a measured critique of the Prevent programme and suggests that Buckby, like Nawaz, has something to offer the wider counter-terrorism debate. It has to be possible, Buckby argues, to be opposed to mass immigration without being stigmatised as a racist, to be a conservative Muslim or Christian without being stigmatised as a homophobe, and for the United Kingdom — in the words of Trevor Phillips — “to assert a core of Britishness” and demand immigrants integrate.
If multiculturalism as a policy led to vast numbers of child sex offenders going unprosecuted, sometimes for decades, then it is legitimate to call it a failure. If the most disadvantaged group in the country is working-class white men and boys, then there is a serious case to be made that positive discrimination in favour of women and ethnic minorities in the BBC or civil service should be brought to an end.
Monster Of Their Own Making does a huge public service in exposing how the far right works internally, how it recruits, and how it can be countered. Buckby is brave, but he is not a prophet. He is a bright, eloquent young man who wants to get on. It is one of the key tasks of a successful modern society to channel such people in beneficial or at least harmless directions.
Post-coronavirus, Leaverstan will still be there, with its strong focus on place and culture, on social identity and belonging. For this reason, it’s perhaps fitting that Buckby now works for a think-tank.
He and others like him will be waiting when politics returns.
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