Amelia Hill finds the new power in the BNP and its allies is female – but the new face still masks old hatreds
When blonde, blue-eyed Wendy Edwards goes canvassing for the BNP with her husband, Phil, those with doubts about the far Right turn to her for reassurance that what he says can be safely ignored.
‘They look past Phil towards me, and say “you don’t believe this, do you?”‘ she laughs, smoothing her business suit and shushing her husband when he tries to interrupt.
‘When I tell them that I believe everything he says and more besides, and would even consider standing as a BNP election candidate, they are amazed,’ says the 29-year-old secretary.
The Edwardses are well-known for their political beliefs in their pretty village near Nottingham and are often phoned late at night by drunken anti-fascists.
‘Phil answers the phone during the day but I make sure I answer all calls that come in after a certain time because it floors people to get a polite, determined female voice on the other end of the line,’ says Edwards.
‘People aren’t used to women in the nationalist movement doing more than standing behind their menfolk. They don’t realise that it’s changed now; that we’re fighting side by side with them.’
Women have played a supporting role in fascism in the past – Oswald Mosley’s wife, Diana, championed Hitler’s ideas in the Thirties – but an Observer investigation has discovered that the far Right in Britain is now being transformed by an influx of women keen to fight for a longed-for racist future.
‘I headbutt, punch and kick just like a man,’ says Jackie Oakley, editor of the White Nationalist Party’s Valkyrie magazine and head of its women’s division. ‘None of your poncey girly scratching for me; I’m up there with the men and so are all the other women in the group.’
The male hierarchy of the far Right has traditionally regarded racial order and the gender order as inextricably linked, using crude definitions of biology, tradition and nature in their defence. In the past few years, however, belief in the rigid social hierarchy has been undermined. Promised a more prominent role, women are joining far Right parties in ever-growing numbers, winning support from those willing to believe that having more women equates to having more mainstream politics.
But it is, anti-fascists and academics believe, a cynical, sinister and successful tactic used by an increasingly sophisticated movement that has no genuine intention of softening its core politics.
‘The BNP, for one, has adapted its tactics to appeal to modern-day society and to appear as something quite other than what it really is,’ says Steve Silver, editor of anti-fascist newspaper Searchlight. ‘It’s been very successful. It is now seen as a wholesome, family-loving group that speaks up for the working man and woman, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘The BNP remains a deeply sinister organisation. We have people inside the party and what goes on behind closed doors is very different to what goes on in public.’
Sandra Morris, 56, is Jewish but has been a member of the National Front for 17 years. ‘Nationalism has not always embraced powerful women,’ she says. ‘But the old image of what role women should have in the party isn’t practical any more.’
Mike Newland – who, along with Sharron Edwards, co-founded the Freedom Party after leaving the BNP in protest at what they believed was a lack of democracy – agrees. ‘In the past five years, the right-wing movements have encouraged women to become more active and vociferous,’ he says.
‘In 1992 we couldn’t get women to come forward at all, but now they seem to feel less vulnerable in fighting and putting themselves up in public.’
Nick Griffin, a National Front figurehead during the Eighties, recently replaced John Tyndall as chairman of the BNP and has already done much to enhance the party’s appeal to women.
Events such as the annual summertime Red, White and Blue festival have allowed the party to present a family-focused facade, while a blurring of the official line on issues such as abortion has further softened its image.
‘Of course we would like to see more white children bred, but I have been a single mother myself and I’m inclined to say women should have the choice of whether to have abortions or not,’ says Bev Jones, who as national organiser for the north west is the highest ranking member of the BNP bar Griffin’s wife, Jackie.
Silver, however, believes the BNP is cynically trying to make itself look more mainstream in the lead-up to the European elections in June 2004.
‘They’re playing down their racism and trying to make it look as though they are just slightly more radical than the Conservatives,’ he says. ‘Many people joining now are unaware how extreme the party’s beliefs really are.’
Martin Durham, author of Women in Fascism and the country’s leading expert in gender and the British extreme Right, agrees. ‘The most important thing for the far Right is still to ensure that white women have more children,’ he says.
‘But the movement is quite capable of adapting to the changes in society by promising women a prominent, active role to win over young women and engender more votes.’
Jackie Griffin wife of Nick, has admitted her debt to feminism and written articles calling for women to play a more active part in the movement. ‘I owe my feeling of empowerment and strength to women of my grandmother’s generation who were staunch feminists,’ she says. Her admission has caused much disgust among the party’s old guard, including John Bean, editor of the new BNP party magazine, Identity.
Bean, who was an active member of the British Union of Fascists during the Holocaust – which Griffin still denies took place – is fondly remembered by John Tyndall in his memoirs as a guide and mentor. In the most recent edition of the magazine, Bean uses a whole page in a rant against the evils of feminism.
According to Silver, proof of the Right’s cynicism in posing as a defender of women’s rights is to be found in the fact that any discussion of female-orientated issues quickly leads back to race.
This was evident at a party meeting last Friday in Preston when Jackie Griffin, mother of four children, smoothly bought a discussion about education round to race.
‘The education of our children is something that this party is particularly anxious about,’ she said. ‘I live in a tiny village in Wales where the local school has 100 students.
‘Even in the middle of nowhere, there are three mixed race children in that school,’ she added, to gasps of outrage from the assembled gathering. ‘It’s terrible. Disgusting. Talk about the tide climbing higher and higher; there’s nowhere left to escape; we’ve no choice now but to stand and fight.’