even racists have rights

bergens tidende, 5 december 2008

Last week the membership list of the far-right British National party was published online, allegedly by a disgruntled former member. Among the 13000 members were 66 soldiers, of whom 16 are still serving, 20 former police officers (and one current one), 15 accountants, a dozen driving instructors, a vicar, a lecturer in human rights, a storeman at Buckingham Palace, and a number of estate agents, civil servants and teachers. There were former Conservative and Labour councillors and a Green Party parliamentary candidate who, according to the Greens, apparently switched party allegiance because he thought that 'the BNP had more radical climate change policies'. There was even a witch.

The publication of the list led to a frenzy of media and political discussion about the changing character of the far-right in Britain. The list suggested that the BNP was no longer composed of 'skinhead oiks' as in the past but draws its support from wider sections of society. According to one study nine per cent of the BNP membership comprise professionals, 13 per cent shopkeepers and company bosses, eight per cent managers, seven per cent artists, six per cent public sector workers while nearly a third are police and prison officers, solders or other 'security' professionals. Of course, none of this means that the BNP is in any way influential or important. Sixteen soldiers in an army of 100, 000 or a handful teachers within Britain's thousands of schools is not the sign of a burgeoning movement.

The leaking of the list has also led to a major debate about whether membership of the BNP is compatible with certain jobs. Are signed up members of an openly racist party - and one that restricts its membership to 'indigenous' Britons - suitable police officers, social workers or teachers in a multicultural society? The British police do not think so. Police officers are barred from BNP membership on the grounds that the party 'undermines race relations'. The one serving policeman on the leaked list was immediately suspended pending an 'investigation' and probable sacking.

There is no such prohibition for teachers, doctors or civil servants. Many, however, believe that there should be. One of Britain's leading teachers' union, the NASUWT, has long campaigned to ensure that 'those who declare their affiliation to the BNP should not be allowed to work in the teaching profession or in public services'.

The BNP's views certainly odious. Yet equally odious is the idea that people should be denied their democratic rights simply because of their political views. We normally accept that individuals are capable of making a distinction between their private beliefs (whether political, cultural or religious) and their public actions. A Muslim may have a literal view of the Qur'an and believe that women should be stoned for committing adultery and that 'the punishment for those who wage war against Allah and his prophet and perpetrate disorder in the land is to kill and hang them or have a hand on one side and a foot on the other cut off'. But being a Muslim, even a fundamentalist Muslim, is and should be no bar to having a job as a teacher, social worker or policeman. Nor should being an evangelical Christian who believes that homosexuals are evil. And, from the other side of the political spectrum, an activist who believes in open borders should still have the right to work as an immigration officer. What matters in every case is not an individual's political or religious beliefs but his or her ability to perform a job competently and legally.

Earlier this year Lillian Ladelle, a marriage registrar who worked for Islington council in north London, sued her employers because she, like all council registrars, was obliged to perform civil partnership registrations between homosexuals. As a Christian she objected. An employment tribunal backed her and ruled that Islington Council had discriminated against Ladelle by forcing her to act against her 'conscience'. According to the tribunal the council had 'disregarded and displayed no respect for Ms Ladelle's genuinely held religious belief' and had created an 'intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her on grounds of her religion on belief'.

It was an outrageous decision. Gays have a legal right in Britain to civil partnerships. Marriage registrars have an obligation to enforce the law as it applies to marriage. They cannot pick and choose which bits of the law they wish to apply according to their conscience. I doubt if the tribunal would have been so sanguine about Ms Ladelle's conscience had it prevented her from marrying black people or conducting 'mixed race' unions.

For exactly the same reason that the industrial tribunal was wrong in supporting Lillian Ladelle's prejudices, so are those who would deny jobs to BNP members because of their political views. Both erase the distinction, critical for the functioning of any modern liberal democracy, between an individual's political and religious and their public actions. Democratic rights have to apply to all of us - fundamentalist Muslim, evangelical Christian, revolutionary communist or racist bigot. Otherwise they become not rights but privileges, distributed according to political beliefs.