Rommel with ballet shoes: what it’s like to take tea with the man thrown out of the BNP

Photo by Andy Paradise

Richard Barnbrook, who won a seat on the Greater London Assembly for the BNP, is now being expelled from the party after an attempted coup, according to a report in today’s Guardian. I took tea with him at his home in Dagenham two years ago, for the Independent on Sunday, and it was a remarkable experience. Here’s what happened:

***

The flags are a bit of a giveaway. No other house in this East London street has a pair of big white poles sticking up and out of the front, flying an enormous Union flag and an equally oversized cross of St George. “Hello Richard,” calls a neighbour, smiling. She’s an elderly lady. White. The young girl who lives over on the other side of this ex-council square in Dagenham just stares at us in silence. She’s black.

“Once Britain has been returned to the British people,” says Richard Barnbrook, opening his front door, “and we have regained our identity, then we will be able to say to others: ‘If you play by the rules we set, you are welcome to become part of us.'”

And if not? Well, his British National Party wants to expel at least two million immigrants from this country as soon as possible, and offer many more cash incentives to go “home”.

For now, though, Barnbrook offers me a pot of tea. This 47-year-old with a cropped nape and floppy fringe is the closest thing the BNP has to a presentable face. He is not dressed in his election suit, described by the Daily Mail as “stormtrooper brown”, but in a sandy-coloured linen version with a gold tie. More Rommel than Hitler? “Yes. Great tactician.”

Barnbrook’s election to the Greater London Assembly in May 2008 was described by the analyst Tony Travers as “the biggest prize the extreme right has ever won in British politics”. Tomorrow, it will be one month since Barnbrook began work on the GLA. Something is clear from having watched him closely during that time: unpleasant and neo-fascist as it may be, in London at least, the BNP can no longer be ignored.

Barnbrook has the legal right to speak in GLA debates, even if he only represents the 130,000 Londoners who actually voted BNP. The people of the capital pay him £50,000 a year, a 10th of which he gives to his party. The money helps to fund his campaign to win Dagenham at the next election, which would make him the far right’s first MP.

Clearly, he is the frontman in an attempt to rid the party of its image as a bunch of hate-filled, screaming street-fighters. “Before, we were like: ‘March here! Shout here! Anger, anger, anger!’ It was going nowhere. It was not applying itself to the business of winning elections.” But there is something far more intriguing than all that about Barnbrook himself, who has undergone an extreme and extraordinary transformation.

The son of an army musician, he was hailed in his youth as a gifted artist, graduated from the Royal Academy and became an accomplished painter and sculptor. He collaborated with the likes of the film-maker Derek Jarman and was, he insists, the lover of the radical actor Tilda Swinton. “I’ve got DNA proof that I went out with her.”

Charming. But the point is that Barnbrook, who also worked as an art teacher, was deeply embedded in the “liberal elite” he now despises. So what happened? And where has all the art gone? There is an empty easel in the corner of his front room, but no paintings. “Sold ’em,” he says quickly.

“I like things clean, neat, orderly,” he says, asking me to take my shoes off to protect the cream carpets – and revealing socks to match the linen suit. His mobile phone rings, with the sound of a chorister singing “Jerusalem”, and while he is out of the room I peek under the cream throw that covers his television. Minority Report, a DVD about an authoritarian future regime with psychic thought-police, is lying on another, folded, flag of St George.

“No regalia,” he says, appearing at the door, suggesting I was looking for Nazi gear. “I’ve got a life.” What he does have, hanging from the gilded frame of a large mirror, is a pair of red satin ballet shoes signed by Simone Clarke, former principal dancer with the English National Ballet.

There were protests outside the Coliseum last year when she danced the lead in Giselle, having just been revealed in the press as a member of the BNP. Barnbrook took her flowers, and the pair became lovers – although the relationship was not helped by a tabloid story that claimed he also wooed a Finnish nurse by sending her photos of “his private parts”.

“Eighty per cent of that was total fabrication,” he says, in a south London accent that is a bit posh because his father gave him a clip round the ear when it wasn’t. “I’ve got a book of Mein Kampf under my bed? Yeah, right. I haven’t even got a bloody copy of it.”

The relationship with Simone is “patching itself back together again after one or two mistakes I have made,” he says. She is up in Leeds with her parents, apparently. “I’ve stopped drinking,” he says, going off to the kitchen to make that tea, “at Simone’s say so.”

How long for? “For ever.” No, I meant how long has he been teetotal so far? “Oh. Twenty days. I look at people slurring and I think: ‘Was I like that?'” How much was he drinking before, then? “Three or four pints a night. Not much. But it’s the perception that counts.”

That is the mantra of the new BNP. The party website describes its new approach as “positive propaganda”. There are still loose cannons, admits Barnbrook. “Every party has nutters. Some of ours are knuckle-dragging junk from the past. But there are fewer left now.”

The BNP complains that the media peddles myths and lies about it. So let’s tell the truth, by quoting from its own online statement of beliefs. First on the list, for no apparent reason, is its disapproval of mixed marriages. Isn’t that a bit of a problem for Barnbrook, whose beloved Simone has a mixed-race daughter by a Cuban-Chinese dancer? “I don’t give a damn,” he says. “She is very beautiful, very bright, really astute.” Right… and in any case, he drops rather sad hints that his devotion to the prima ballerina may no longer be quite so requited. “I made a mistake,” he says. “I apologised about it, again and again and again. I screwed up. I regret it.”

Back to the website, which says races “cannot be directly compared”. It denies racism but “blacks and Asians” are not allowed into the party “for the same reason the Girl Guides don’t allow boys to join”. Its purpose is “to cater for the interests of the indigenous British population”.

To those who protest that there is no such thing, the BNP has an answer. It refers to an “indigenous British genotype” created 1,000 years ago, a blend of Celtic, Scandinavian, Germanic, Norman and Roman blood. This was “a fusion of genetically similar Northern and Western European peoples all coming from within a few hundred miles of each other”. Immigrants from beyond this area are compared to a different species.

In power, the BNP would “deport all the two million-plus who are here illegally” as well as “all those who commit crimes and whose original nationality was not British”.

It would “review” the rights of those recently granted citizenship or residency, to see if they were “appropriate”. It would like “no more than 2 to 3 per cent of population” in any given area to be non-white.

These are the things that Richard Barnbrook really stands for. They are the reason the other candidates left the stage when his results were announced.

He claims “intimidation and bullying” at City Hall, but adds: “My skin is thick. As a teacher, I dealt with hard-nut kids with behavioural problems intent on destruction in Hackney. The assembly is kindergarten.”

The truth is that he looked like a nervous, stroppy toddler when I saw him debate at City Hall earlier in the day. Barnbrook shouted, interrupted, talked across people and appeared deranged at times. But he also wrong-footed his opponents twice: once by asking the new Mayor to work with Winston McKenzie, the former boxer, who is black; and the other by putting himself up for a place on the regional arts council. His arts CV was better than that of any other member, he said, and he was right. So the BNP may yet get to decide on which statues to put up where.

The flaw in his strategy to be taken seriously is that while Barnbrook may be cleverer than most of the people he mixes with, he is not nearly as articulate as he likes to think. His sentences are fractured, confusing and full of ironies he just can’t hear, like describing tolerance as one of the essentials of the British character.

This is a man whose party declares itself against “the flaunting or celebrating of homosexuality”, but who once made a homo-erotic movie called HMS Discovery: A Love Story. “It’s not gay,” he insists. To give you some idea of what it is like to listen to him, here’s his description of the film, written verbatim: “Sexuality and Aids and the concept of a relationship, how does a man and a woman relate, going through history, between Captains Scott and Oates, between Christ and John the Baptist and the Mother Earth walking through carrying the flag … it’s almost like a still-born child, how does people relate to each other … it was dealing with the bigotry of attitudes towards people.”

Remarkable. The oldest of five, brought up in a household where nobody was allowed to speak at the dinner table, he suffered at school in Grimsby for being an arty dyslexic with a southern accent. “Head down the toilet a couple of times, but so what?”

But Barnbrook was reasonably successful by the time he married in 1998. His ex-wife has described how he changed suddenly the following year. “His views became very extreme. It was a total shock.”

It sounds, I tell him, like he suffered a bang on the head or a breakdown. Barnbrook says no. “I just walked around London, seeing the feeling of dejection and depravity, thinking: ‘This is not right.'” The BNP was then a discredited shambles, but he has collaborated with chairman Nick Griffin in its repackaging.

Maybe he had a mid-life crisis. Maybe he saw the chance to be a big fish in a passionate little pool. However he got there, Barnbrook is now the most prominent, directly elected representative the British far right has ever had.

On the day he signed in, his supporters stood outside City Hall chanting: “Our storm is coming.” What did they mean by that? “I don’t know,” he says at first, but of course he does. “If the democratic process does not work out within the next five to six years … you will have strife on the streets… riots on the streets of Britain.”

This is not analysis. It’s not electoral politics. It’s an old-fashioned threat. When he talks in this way, Richard Barnbrook’s face shows fear and anger. He can’t hide that – it is as unmissable as those great big flags on the front of his house.

The Independent on Sunday 1 June 2008

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