how the far right distorts the moral compass

bergens tidende, 29 october 2009

How do you undermine the influence of a far-right politician? Here’s how. First, you turn a minor politician into a major figure by transforming his forthcoming appearance on a TV show into a national debate. Next, you make him appear as a victim by blockading the TV studios on the day of the debate and attempting to prevent him from speaking. Then the broadcaster makes his TV appearance the lead news item throughout the day, ensuring that he receives unprecedented publicity. It also changes the format of the programme, giving over the whole show to an examination of far-right policies. And finally, after spending the whole programme denouncing far-right politicians as racist and immoral, the other panellists hold an auction to see who can appear toughest on immigration.

That, at least, is how it is done in Britain. Last Thursday, Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party, appeared on Question Time, the BBC’s flagship political debate programme. In a week in which Britain slipped into its longest recession since records began, there was a national postal strike, and more British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, Griffin’s Question Time appearance, almost surreally, dominated political debate in the country. It also provided a textbook account of how not to deal with the far-right.

Griffin’s performance on the programme was a shambles. He was unprepared, incoherent and rambling. Yet, thanks to the hamfisted activities of anti-fascists he was able to portray himself as the victim of an establishment ‘lynch mob’, an argument that caught the mood of an electorate that has become increasingly disillusioned with mainstream politics.

Other European nations have long been used to far-right politicians in parliament and occasionally even in government. Not so Britain. Here the far-right has historically comprised tiny groups of racist thugs, more interested in strutting their stuff on the streets than at the ballot box.

The BNP began life in this neo-fascist swamp. From the late 1990s, however, the party embarked on a programme of ‘modernization’ under its new leader, Nick Griffin. Learning from the successes of the French Front National, the party tried to give up its skinhead image, swapping bovver boots for sober suits, and downplaying its Holocaust denials in favour of community politics.

The rebranding of the BNP has not changed the essence of the organization. Non-whites are banned from joining the party (though that might soon have to change because of legal action by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission), and the BNP’s constitution remains ‘wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples’.

What has indubitably changed, however, is the nature of its support. The BNP retains a core of out-and-out racist followers. But it has gained a swathe of new supporters whose hostility towards immigrants is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a new-fangled sense of fear and insecurity. Many are traditional Labour Party members who now feel abandoned by a party that has cut links with its working class constituency, are anxious about their future and distrustful of any figure of authority. Such fear and insecurity often expresses itself through anti-immigrant sentiment.

But just as fear and insecurity is driving many towards the BNP, it is also shaping much of the response to the BNP. The result is an incoherent and illiberal response, vacillating between demonising the far-right and pandering to its prejudices. Some critics of the BNP want not only to ban the parry from public forums, such as Question Time, but also to bar BNP members from jobs in the public sector. The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, is considering a new law preventing BNP members from becoming teachers or acting as school governors.

Others fear that support for the BNP will continue to grow unless mainstream politicians accept far-right arguments about immigration and introduce legislation to discriminate in favour of indigenous Britons. Earlier this year, the government announced plans to allow local councils to prioritise local people for social housing, after claims that indigenous Britons were being squeezed out by migrants. There is no evidence that migrants either jump the housing queue or are responsible for the shortage of council housing. A recent study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that immigrants who had moved to the UK in the previous five years made up just 1.8 per cent of social tenants.

In the climate of panic created by the rise of the BNP, however, facts do not seem to matter. And this perhaps may be the biggest impact of the BNP’s electoral success: changing the argument and policies of the mainstream. Even the language has shifted. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown has talked of ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan first patented by the far-right.

What makes politicians fearful is not just the worry that the far-right may be on the march but also a sense that the growing support for the BNP expresses a loss of political authority by the mainstream. For all its electoral success, the BNP remains tiny. In the European elections in June, just two per cent of the total electorate voted for the BNP. The two successful candidates actually gained fewer votes than they had in the previous election. They won because the Labour vote plummeted catastrophically by almost 50 per cent in both constituencies. Voters no longer trust traditional politicians.

By turning all their guns on the BNP, mainstream politicians hope to regain some of their moral authority. As the Justice Minister Jack Straw, one of the panellists on last week’s Question Time put it, ‘What is common about every other political party, regardless of their differences, is that they each have a recognizable moral compass based longstanding cultural, philosophical, and religious values of Western society.’

Perhaps so. But what is the point of having such a moral compass if it tells us that the way to stop the far right is by undermining fundamental liberal democratic values and by pandering to racist prejudices about immigration?