LONDON, U.K. — Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park is a storied carnival of free speech: Anyone can hold forth as long as they don't use offensive language, and anyone can heckle. So it was no surprised when Union Jack-draped activists for the British National Party (BNP), disbanded by police in Trafalgar Square one mid-October Sunday, regrouped here.
"Are you going to set up next to him then?" said one BNP member to their local leader, Bob Bailey, while indicating a bearded black man in a long robe, a regular they have nicknamed "The Mad Mullah."
"Me? Next to 'im?" Bailey replied. "I'm sure he's got something interesting to say, though."
"Put women in their place," joked someone else.
"Ain't so sure about the alcohol thing, though," another riffed. "Can't be banning alcohol, can you?"
Bailey scanned the Speakers' Corner crowd: "Full of nutters," he said, using British slang for lunatics, adding, "present company excepted."
Of course, those who Bailey called "nutters" might have said the same about him. The whites-only BNP, founded in 1982 as a breakaway from the neo-Nazi National Front, has been trying to shed its nutter image as part of a bid for respectability in mainstream politics. It was recently given a platform far more prominent than Speakers' Corner, when its chairman, Nick Griffin, appeared on the BBC flagship program "Question Time" alongside members of the political establishment. Griffin was elected to the European Parliament in June.
This weekend, at its annual convention at an undisclosed location, 300 core BNP members will debate changing its constitution, which currently restricts membership to "indigenous Caucasians." The move resulted from a lawsuit against the BNP by the country's Equalities and Human Rights Commission, but Griffin is spinning it as further proof of a changed party.
Since becoming leader in 1999, Griffin has pursued a strategy of remaking the party's image from one of anti-Semitic, racist jackboots to one of electable suits — a feat, for a man who once referred to the Holocaust as the Holohoax and who founded the youth wing of the National Front when at Cambridge. He described his tactics of reinvention to sympathizers in Texas in 2000, from a stage shared with David Duke.
"There's a difference between selling out your ideas and selling your ideas," he told the American Friends of the BNP. "And the British National Party isn't about selling out its ideas ... but we are determined now to sell them."
Griffin wasn't in court in October when his party promised to end its ban on non-whites, but another deputy explained the decision: Fighting the lawsuit would bankrupt the party, which would satisfy the political elite who had picked on it because they felt threatened at the polls.
"We have to take a common sense approach ... if we want to be in the game," said Chris Robinson, the deputy. "We're in the business of fighting elections. We're doing it rather successfully at the moment."
The party has more elected officials, and at higher levels, than it ever has: two in the European Parliament, including Griffin; one, its first, on the 25-member London assembly; and at least 53 on local councils nationwide. The gains were made as the party took cues from far-right parties in Europe, including Jean Marie Le-Pen's in France and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, by exploiting a backlash against immigrants and Islam.
One BNP activist who plans to fight the constitution change, London postal worker Bob Gertner, was at a national organizers meeting five years ago when Griffin revealed the party's new focus. "He said we will no longer talk about Jewish control of the media," Gertner recalled. "He said it would go over peoples' heads ... and he said, from now on, all we're going to talk about is Islam, Islam, Islam."
That message resonated with truck driver Peter Fisher of Luton, where the English Defence League, a group with ties to soccer hooliganism and a history of violent street clashes, was born this spring after some Muslims protested a parade of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. After it emerged that a BNP member had designed the league's website, the BNP disavowed the group, criticizing its confrontational style. Still, Fisher praised them for "standing up to extremist Muslims."
"They have their own schools, their own gyms, their own banks," he said. "If we were to start our own schools and gyms, we'd be called racists. The Muslims seem to get away with everything these days."
The BNP has cast itself as bold enough to say publicly what the ordinary bloke can only say privately about the double standards of multiculturalism. It has tried to appear credible not crazy, but its own lieutenants often make that sell hard. Bailey, despite decrying others' sanity at Speakers' Corner, recently told a judge that he refused a breathalizer test after being stopped by police who suspected him of drunk driving because police were conspiring against him. His attorney argued that he suffered from a paranoid personality disorder. Bailey, an ex-Royal Marine, leads a bloc of BNP councillors in East London. Meanwhile, Richard Barnbrook, the party's London Assemblyman, was suspended for a month because he invented two murders in a campaign video histrionic about crime.
Read about one of the BNP's strongholds, the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.
Gaiutra Bahadur is a journalist based in the New York metropolitan area. She has written extensively about the culture and politics of international migration. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and Ms. Magazine, among other publications.
Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Bob Bailey is a local leader of the BNP.