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BRUSSELS — The press in England has had a field day over the past 20 years chronicling the rise of the Continent’s far right. The first chance came in the early 1980s with the emergence of France’s National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man who believes the Americans built the gas chambers in the Buchenwald concentration camp after the war. Next came the re-emergence of the Italian neofascist Moviemento Sociale Italiano, or MSI, and the birth of the German Republikaner.

More recently the rash has spread like wildfire as new parties that dance in the limbo between Fascist-lite and the far right proceed by saltation from candidacy to council chamber, and from coalition to Cabinet. Such parties have been established components of government in Austria and Italy, while their merely xenophobic stepbrothers serve in Holland and set the asylum and immigration agenda in Denmark, Belgium and Switzerland.

In Italy, Gianfranco Fini, leader of Alleanza Nazionale, the successor to the MSI, serves as deputy prime minister. And in this year’s presidential elections in France Le Pen finished — albeit distantly — second to President Jacques Chirac.

All this time the British media, and to a lesser extent the political establishment, quietly sneered at the inability of their continental colleagues to deal with the phenomenon, and commented that they could do well to learn from Britain how to handle these problems.

Now they may have a rude awakening. As in other Western democracies, the end of the Cold War and growing apathy, alienation and disillusionment with the political process has led to decreased participation in elections, creating a vacuum that can be filled by fruitcakes, fascists and frauds. The first evidence was in the general election of 1997 when, obscured by the Blair tidal wave that swept the Tories from power, Britain’s homegrown Nazis, the British National Party, obtained 10 percent or more of the vote in London and the northwest of England.

Nick Griffin, England’s erstwhile Le Pen, wrote that his aim over the next decade was to replace the Tories and Liberals as the opposition to Labour in Britain’s inner cities. The process is under way. In the 2001 general election, following riots by Asian youth in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford — often triggered by provocations involving BNP members and sympathizers — the BNP scored particularly well in Oldham, with Griffin obtaining the highest vote for an extreme-right candidate since the 1930s and the days of the British Union of Fascists.

In the local elections of May 2002, their progress continued in northwest England. They won seats in Burnley with a squad of squeaky clean candidates rather than the BNP’s traditional collection of people with criminal convictions. In Oldham they polled even better, narrowly failing to capture a seat, despite fielding candidates with convictions — including one for gang rape.

Since then, they have obtained almost 20 percent of the vote in Stoke-on-Trent’s mayoral elections and, in late November, captured a council seat with 32 percent of the vote in a by-election in Blackburn, the constituency of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. All achieved in the “first past the post” electoral environment traditional to Britain.

In the meantime, Griffin has made the explosive claim that sections of the police are colluding with the BNP by providing them with internal police material and reports. That claim, if proved correct, will only stoke tension in areas where trials are due to start against Asians arrested in the rioting, and where exemplary sentences are to be expected. The fact that the community is being policed partly by those who share the political philosophy of the racist BNP can only challenge the validity of some criminal cases in which the very same officers may be called to testify against the accused.

Meanwhile, things can only get worse. Next year, the BNP may well have parliamentary representation for the first time ever. June 2004 will see elections for the European Parliament across the European Union. The electoral architecture for these are varieties of proportional representation.

When Britain first adopted the system for the European elections in 1999, it chose to have multimember constituencies of wildly varying size, ranging from three in Northern Ireland and four in the northeast, to 10 in London and the northwest and 11 in the southeast, despite warnings of electoral consequences — a proliferation of minor parties in the larger regions.

In 1999, the number of “minor party” candidates elected, outside of the special case of Northern Ireland, went from one to 10. In 2004, they are likely to be joined by at least one representative from the BNP. In 1999, all the party would have needed in northwest England was 7.06 percent of the votes, or around 72,000 people. In current projections, the BNP could well reach that target, followed by enormous media coverage and the apparent legitimation of their politics.

To stop them will require first a mobilization of all those who see the dangers they pose to Britain’s multicultural, multiracial society. The Labour and Trade Union Movement needs to unite with Jews, Christians and Muslims — to incorporate people of all parties and no party, to loudly proclaim the reality that the BNP is a far-right wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Alongside this mobilization for tolerance, traditional political parties must stand up against the seductive short-term calls of election strategists and reclaim the streets of their heartland areas too often abandoned for leafy suburbia.

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