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who's afraid of the bnp?

bbc news magazine, 28 september 2009

Next month Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party, will take his seat at the BBC’s Question Time table. Mr Straw's decision to share a platform with the BNP is a reversal of Labour Party policy and has prompted soul searching among some members. Until now, Labour has refused to appear alongside the BNP and Home Secretary Alan Johnson has publicly stated that he would not debate with someone he considers to be a racist.

For the BBC, the success of two BNP candidates – including Nick Griffin himself - in the Euro elections in June meant that an invitation to Question Time was inevitable. Ric Bailey, chief political advisor to the BBC, insists that the corporation ‘cannot discriminate between parties according to their policies. That would be a breach of impartiality’.

With others, however, the ‘impartiality’ argument cuts little ice. Chris Keates, general secretary of Britain’s largest teachers’ union, the NASUWT, which has been running a campaign to ‘stop the BNP’ is outraged at the idea of Nick Griffin on Question Time. 'The BBC can quite legitimately make a distinction between the BNP and other political parties and not give them a platform to promote racial hatred, intolerance and violence’, she says.

The controversy over Question Time puts in sharp focus a debate that has been brewing since the BNP’s success in the Euro elections: How should a liberal democratic society respond to an organization such as the BNP? Should the political mainstream ostracise the BNP or engage with it? And if engage, how?

Unlike in other European nations, the far right has never won mass support in Britain, nor tasted electoral success. Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s and the National Front in the 1970s were openly racist organizations, many of whose members were involved in violent actions. Compared to their Continental cousins, however, they were marginal groups, with virtually no political presence.

The roots of today’s BNP lie in that political tradition. Formed in 1982, it was in its early years, very similar to the NF in its ideas, policies and support. From the late 1990s onwards, however, the party embarked on a programme of ‘modernization’ under its new leader, Nick Griffin. Leaning from the successes of French Front National, the party tried to give up its skinhead image, swapping bovver boots for sober suits. Nick Griffin claims that the bovver boot image of the BNP is ‘something created mainly by hysterical media lies’ and that the BNP is no longer a racist party.  How genuine the conversion has been may be gauged by the party’s constitution which is still ‘wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples’ and believes in ‘restoring… the overwhelmingly white make up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948’.

While one might rightly be cynical about the rebranding of the BNP, what has indubitably changed is the nature of its support. During the Euro elections in June, the polling organization YouGov conducted a survey of around 32000 voters, including more 1100 BNP supporters. About half the BNP voters, YouGov found, were out-and-out racists, many of whom would probably have supported the party in its  pre-modernization days. But they’ve been joined by 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 supporters who now feel abandoned by the political mainstream, anxious about their future and distrustful of any figure of authority.

Little will sway the views of the hardline racists, YouGov’s Peter Kellner believes. But those drawn to the BNP because they have become alienated from the mainstream political process should not simply be dismissed as racist bigots. It is the failure to engage with them and with their fears and concerns that helped pave their way to the far-right.

But just as fear is driving many towards the BNP, it is also shaping much of the response to the BNP. The result is an incoherent and illiberal reaction, vacillating between demonising the BNP and pandering to its prejudices. Some critics of the BNP fear that allowing the party into public forums, such as Question Time, can only increase its support. The writer and economist Philippe Legrain is unimpressed. ‘It shows a complete lack of trust in the British people’, he says, ‘to suggest that if they’re exposed to racist views on television, they’ll all be swayed by them.’ The best way to deal with obnoxious views, he insists, is through open debate not censorship.

Others fear that support for the BNP will continue to grow unless mainstream politicians accept that indigenous Britons are being unfairly treated. It’s a view that has led many politicians who are not racist nevertheless to echo the claims of the far-right. When Gordon Brown talked of ‘British jobs for British workers’, he adopted a slogan last heard on National Front demonstrations in the 1980s.

For Philippe Legrain the real problem is not the BNP itself as an over-reaction to its relatively minor electoral successes, an over-reaction that betrays a lack of confidence by mainstream politicians in both the electorate and in basic liberal democratic values. ‘I would have more confidence in people’, he says, ‘and more confidence in the power of the arguments’.