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who's afraid of the bnp?

analysis, bbc radio 4, 28 september 2009

CHRIS KEATES  What I object to is the BNP’s cynical use of the democratic process in this country to seek to provide a cloak of respectability for its vile agenda. I think the BNP should be banned.

PHILIPPE LEGRAIN  I think it shows a complete lack of trust in British people to suggest that suddenly if they’re exposed to racist views on television somehow they’re all going to be swayed by them; that they’re not going to think hang on a minute, these people are ridiculous, they’re stupid, they’re obnoxious, and they’re wrong. So whether it’s principle or
pragmatism, both argue in favour of engaging with the BNP.

NICK GRIFFIN  There is an irony when these liberals start getting ultra fascist and trying to deny us freedom of speech, start trying to throw people out of jobs for their political beliefs.

KENAN MALIK  Teachers’ leader Chris Keates, the writer and economist Philippe Legrain, and Nick Griffin of the British National Party. Other European nations have long been used to the presence of far right politicians in parliament and even in government. Not so Britain. Here the far right has always been marginal. So the election in June of two British National Party MEPs - one of them Nick Griffin himself - has created fear, anxiety and much soul-searching about how a liberal, democratic society should respond. Does it mean that there are, as one newspaper leader put it, ‘a million racist voters’ in this country? Should mainstream politicians ostracise the BNP or engage with it? And if they should engage, how?

At the end of October, Nick Griffin will be given a seat at the BBC’s Question Time table. It’s proved a particularly controversial decision. Ric Bailey is the BBC’s chief political adviser.

RIC BAILEY  The BBC cannot discriminate between parties according to their policies. That would be a breach of impartiality. The BNP won two seats in the European Election, and that’s the first time that they have won representation at a national level in a national election. So clearly the calculation then about what due impartiality means is affected by that. And so if you look back in the past at other parties who’ve established themselves at a similar level - UK Independence Party obviously won a couple of seats some years ago, it now has more seats; the Green Party, that has representation at the European Parliament - they are parties who do get on Question Time. It’s not so much a question of making a decision. It’s about being consistent about your interpretation of impartiality.

KENAN MALIK  For some, however, the argument about ‘due impartiality’ cuts little ice. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, will apparently be debating Nick Griffin on Question Time. But many leading politicians, including the Home Secretary Alan Johnson, have said they’d refuse to share a platform with someone they regard a racist. Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, the largest teaching union, agrees with them.

CHRIS KEATES   The problem with the BBC arguing that the BNP is a political party and therefore should be given the same airtime as other political parties is that the BBC is falling into the trap of not recognising that this is a group that is actually cynically using the democratic processes to actually legitimise its agenda, and there is a real issue therefore of trying to equate the BNP with other political parties and I think it’s very easy for the BBC to make the distinction between the BNP and others. The BBC is the British Broadcasting Company. That’s about actually the whole of the population, a diverse population. The BNP stands on a ticket of only having membership of white heritage groups. They’re not speaking to the whole population. And, therefore, I think the BBC can quite legitimately make a clear distinction between the BNP and other political parties and not give them a platform to actually promote racial hatred, intolerance and violence.

KENAN MALIK  The idea that there should be ‘no platform for racists and fascists’ grew out of the often violent struggles against the National Front and other far right groups in the 1970s and 80s. The slogan became an important part of student and trade union activism. I myself cut my political teeth on Anti-Nazi League demos in the 1980s. But even back then, I was sceptical of the ‘no platform’ argument. The best way to tackle racist views was, it seemed to me, to challenge them openly, rather than censoring them. Today, many who are as opposed to the policies of the BNP as Chris Keates think the same. Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.

PHILIPPE LEGRAIN  Freedom of expression is not something that you only give to people who you agree with, but, just as importantly, to people who you don’t. Frankly, I think the BNP appearing on Question Time will be fantastic. Nick Griffin is going to get caught out. He’s going to sound stupid, he’s going to sound extremist. That kind of exposure is actually the best way to combat the BNP.

KENAN MALIK  Chris Keates, however, wants to extend the idea of ‘no platform’ to deny the BNP not just airtime but also access to much of the public sector.

CHRIS KEATES  We have been pursuing changes to the teachers’ contract, which would prohibit members of the BNP actually working as teachers. In fact, we would like to see contractual change right across public service to prevent the BNP working in public services.

KENAN MALIK  Suppose you have a teacher whose work is exemplary, who has taught white children, minority children without complaint. Then you find that he or she is a member of the BNP. Should they be sacked?

CHRIS KEATES  Racism can be covert and silent and teachers are in an extremely powerful position. So we might say that that teacher has done everything expected of them within a code of conduct expected of teachers; but that teacher as a member of the BNP, they could quite easily, in a way that’s extremely difficult to detect, find themselves privileging one group of pupils, giving more attention to particular groups, and it can be subtle and it can be subversive.

KENAN MALIK  What you’re really saying is that you want to ban them not for something they might have done, but for some things they might believe? In other words, it’s not their actions you want to ban them for, but their thoughts?

CHRIS KEATES  What the NASUWT wants to do is that people who are subscribing to the views of the BNP in our view are holding views and beliefs that are incompatible with public service.

KENAN MALIK   For the BNP’s Nick Griffin, arguments such as these only confirm his view that there exists a liberal conspiracy against his party.

NICK GRIFFIN  When people say we should be denied the right to speak, they’re not really denying us the right to speak. They’re denying the public the right to hear and to make up their own minds, and it’s a form of liberal fascism and it’s absolutely unacceptable. As regards jobs, we’re not a racist party, we don’t have racist policies, but the idea that anyone should be denied a job for their peacefully held and exercised political beliefs is a monstrous idea which has no place in the British tradition.

KENAN MALIK  You don’t have racist policies, but you only allow white indigenous Britons into your party?

NICK GRIFFIN  It has nothing to do with white. We’re talking about indigenous. The fact that historically the indigenous British are white doesn’t mean it’s a colour issue.

KENAN MALIK  It’s just a matter of convenience and coincidence that indigenous Britons happen to be white?

NICK GRIFFIN  No, because I don’t give a damn about white. It really
doesn’t matter.

KENAN MALIK  That, I suspect, is a sentiment that wouldn’t go down particularly well at many BNP rallies. Nor does it correspond with the aims of the BNP’s constitution, which prohibits, and I quote, ‘racial integration between British and non-European peoples’ and wants to restore ‘the overwhelmingly white make up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948’.

So, the question this debate raises is this: is the BNP a party like any other? Or are its policies and aims so different - and so inimical to liberal democracy - that special rules should apply to it? Matt Goodwin is a Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Manchester and an expert on the history of the BNP.

MATT GOODWIN  The BNP is a continuation of a much longer political tradition in Britain. It is a successor to the 1970s National Front. Between 1982 and '99, the BNP was in effect an identical organisation to the National Front in terms of its ideas, in terms of its structure. But from '99 onwards, we’ve seen some pretty significant changes.

KENAN MALIK  And to what extent then was there a conscious decision taken by the leadership of the BNP to become, if you like, a more mainstream party?

MATT GOODWIN  This is a specific strategy that has been implemented by Griffin and a number of other activists to modernise the far right in Britain along similar lines to what we’ve seen on the European continent. It really goes back to the mid to late 1990s. Griffin and others were looking at Jean-Marie Le Pen’s organisation in France, they were looking at ways to increase their number of votes, looking at ways to spread the party’s influence. And in effect the BNP began copying what was being done on the continent and this process has gathered pace, particularly after the party began receiving more votes and began electing local councillors.

MARGARET HODGE   I’ve watched the BNP, you know campaigned against them in the '70s when the extreme right was making headway in Tower Hamlets, close to Barking and Dagenham. And that was very different.

KENAN MALIK  Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking and Dagenham in East London.

MARGARET HODGE   The BNP in the 70s tended to be skinheads, thugs, tattooed, tended to engage in street fights. The BNP today, with very much the same ideology and values and purpose that they had in the '70s, today’s typical BNP member that I come across in Barking is well dressed in a suit and will engage in community politics: will make sure the graffiti gets removed if that’s causing irritation locally, will go to the local summer fair, will deal with the individual complaints that people have about housing, parking and so on.

KENAN MALIK   The BNP has certainly rebranded itself over the past decade. But has it really climbed out of the far right swamp from which it emerged? Nick Griffin.

NICK GRIFFIN  I’ve never worn bovver boots. Most of my colleagues never have done. The idea of the British Nationalist Movement as a skinhead phenomenon is something created mainly by hysterical media lies rather than the actual truth.

KENAN MALIK  So was it a different Nick Griffin that said in court about the Holocaust ten years ago that ‘it is a mixture of allied wartime
propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and, later, witch hysteria’?

NICK GRIFFIN  I never said that in court. That was in a leaflet. I haven’t got any kind of conviction for Holocaust denial. I’ve never denied the Holocaust. I used to say it was exaggerated by Gentile leftists to stop sensible discussion of immigration, but quite simply that's in the last century. Jews in Britain now are the victims and potentially the victims of Islam even more than the rest of us and it’s time for us to stand together.

KENAN MALIK  Well let me quote what you actually said. ‘I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated and turned into lampshades. Orthodox opinion also once held that the earth was flat. I have reached a conclusion that the extermination tale is a mixture of allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and, later, witch hysteria’.

NICK GRIFFIN   I’ve changed my mind on some of those points, but I cannot talk about these. I can’t tell you what I used to believe, why I’ve changed my mind on some things, and what I believe now. I’m not allowed to by European law.

KENAN MALIK  I’m not sure which European law prevents Nick Griffin from revealing his true views about the Holocaust, though it’s a highly convenient one for him. It’s perhaps symptomatic of the new BNP that not only should Nick Griffin be coy about his views, but that he should blame European law for his inability to come clean. Matt Goodwin of the University of Manchester.

MATT GOODWIN  We can gain some insight from looking at the activists who hold senior positions within the party. Nick Griffin, you can trace his involvement back to the National Front; Simon Darby, the deputy leader of the Party, you can trace his involvement back to the BNP’s predecessors; you look at the editor of the party magazine, John Bean, you can trace his involvement with the far right back to Oswald Mosley in the 1950s. So all of these individuals are heavily indebted to a particular ideological tradition in Britain and that, I think, has fuelled cynicism among commentators and other political parties about this shift.

KENAN MALIK  Many people indeed remain sceptical about the transformation of the BNP. What has indubitably changed, however, is the nature of its support. Two decades ago, the stereotype of the neo-Nazi was also a fair description of a BNP supporter: young, male, skinhead, bigoted, violent. Today, says Peter Kellner of YouGov, the polling organisation, many of its supporters fit a very different profile. In June, during the Euro Elections, YouGov polled more than 30,000 people, including around 1,000 BNP voters.

PETER KELLNER  Our conclusion is that broadly speaking half the BNP votes can be described as racist and the other half is not so much racist as scared, alienated, worried, insecure. The fact is BNP voters exist on a spectrum from the out and out rabid, virtually psychotic racists through to the people who actually don’t care about race at all but are worried, alienated, insecure. What I’m really saying is you can roughly divide that spectrum in the middle, but there are a lot of racists who are insecure and a lot of insecure people who have anti-immigrant, mildly anti-black feelings. What I would say is that for those people race is not the prime driver. They don’t like the political process. People in the BNP do feel apart from society, but they’re at the extreme end of a much more widespread feeling which embraces many millions of people in Britain who somehow feel uncomfortable and insecure and not really understood by people in authority.

KENAN MALIK  Whatever may be the nature of the BNP as an organisation then, it’s clear that there’s no straightforward way to characterise its support. Sure, there remains a core of hardline racist bigots, but they’ve been joined by a swathe of new supporters whose hostility towards immigrants, minorities and Muslims is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity. Even more than the rest of the population, they seem dissatisfied with their lives, anxious about the future, distrustful of any figure of authority, incredulous of conspiracy theories. The BNP has become highly adept at presenting itself both as the voice of the voter abandoned by mainstream parties and as itself a victim of a malign liberal conspiracy. And it’s been able to do so because there’s a kernel of truth to the grievances felt by many of its supporters, particularly their sense of being betrayed by the mainstream parties. One of the areas in which the BNP has made major inroads in recent years is Barking and Dagenham in London. In 2006, 11 BNP councillors were elected. The BNP was so successful, suggests local MP Margaret Hodge, because the Labour party in the area was so inadequate.

MARGARET HODGE  Until really the BNP emerged, come elections you might deliver a few leaflets, you might have a presence at the polling station. Nobody really knocked on doors, nobody asked people what was the thing that mattered to them in their local community. Nobody really listened. And people were fed up with us not listening and they had this change in the community, they had all their concerns about the quality of the housing and the quality of the environment and access to jobs, and there we were, us politicians being voted in year on year on year and we were simply not listening and not responding to the very real concerns that people have.

KENAN MALIK  Challenging the BNP requires, then, not simply dismissing its supporters as racist, but taking their concerns seriously. But how should mainstream politicians engage with potential BNP voters? Margaret Hodge generated great controversy in 2006 when she suggested that the only way to stop the BNP was by accepting that indigenous Britons were indeed treated unfairly. New policies were therefore needed, which ensured that indigenous Britons received priority over migrants, especially in social housing. Does she still believe that?

MARGARET HODGE  I think migration is a feature of globalisation and I think policies that pretend that you can strictly control immigration are bound to fail. So if you accept that as a premise, that actually migration is difficult to control, you’ve then got to say, right, people have got to feel it’s fair. Stop saying that you can stop people coming in because people will come, but start saying you will have fairness in the allocation of public resources. Now that was the debate I was trying to raise, and I still think it’s a relevant debate today because that’s where the anger comes and that’s the anger that then leads to the racism, the division and the rise of the extreme right. If you come in as an economic migrant, you come in with the knowledge that you won’t immediately be able to access a resource that is always going to be in short supply, and you know that, then I think we would lance that boil of people feeling that they’re jumping the queue.

KENAN MALIK  You and I both agree that engaging with the BNP’s constituents or potential constituents, it’s important not dismissing them as racists. But there are two ways one can engage with them: one is to pander to existing prejudices; the other is to challenge those prejudices. Isn’t what you’ve done pandering to existing prejudices about what the problems are for white working class constituents?

MARGARET HODGE  If I’m concerned in building a community where there is harmony between people from very different backgrounds and races, I think you have to listen to the very, very strongly held views of people who’ve been in that community for a long time. And that view about are we fair in the allocation of limited public resources is a fantastically strongly held view, and I think you do have to pierce that dangerous boil if you’re going to build good multiracial communities in harmony.

KENAN MALIK  Margaret Hodge’s comments have drawn considerable criticism from her own colleagues who accuse her of using the ‘language of the BNP’ and of playing into its hands. The BNP itself sent her a bunch of flowers after its electoral success in the 2006 council elections saying it was ‘indebted’ to her for ‘having the gumption to tell the truth about housing’.

There is in fact no evidence that migrants either jump the housing queue or are responsible for the shortage of council housing. A recent study for the Equalities 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. Even migrants who had lived here for more than five years accounted for only 10 per cent of social housing. 88 per cent of council tenants are UK-born. The real reason for long waiting lists, Liam Smith, deputy leader of the Labour-run Barking and Dagenham council
insists, is a failure to build sufficient council housing.

Despite such figures, mainstream politicians seem increasingly to have bought into the BNP argument. Earlier this year, the government announced plans to allow town halls to prioritise local people for social housing, a move widely seen as an attempt to head off support for the far right. 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. When, at the Labour Party conference two years ago, Gordon Brown talked of ‘British jobs for British workers’, he was echoing a slogan last heard on National Front demonstrations in the 1980s. Even Margaret Hodge is worried.

MARGARET HODGE  I don’t think I’d have chosen those words. And I think it’s just for that reason that I would love to have a discourse from our politicians about migration which sees it as a part of modern Britain, not as something that could be controlled in the way that is suggested through immigration controls or through you know who gets the jobs.

KENAN MALIK  But if you talk about priority for social housing, aren’t you really talking about 'British houses for British people'?

MARGARET HODGE  Well that’s how you choose to interpret it. I know that I was raising a contentious issue, but I think there is a legitimate debate to be had on how we allocate those scarce resources, those scare public resources which always will have to be rationed. I’d love to see that debate without that sort of viciousness of god you’re a racist to have raised it.

KENAN MALIK  It’s true that the ‘r’ word is used far too often as a way of making certain arguments appear illegitimate. You can’t get away from the fact though that many arguments put forward by politicians who are not racist nevertheless echo the claims of the far right, giving those claims greater legitimacy. And, according to Matt Goodwin of the University of Manchester, it’s not just in relation to immigration that BNP arguments are being validated by the mainstream.

MATT GOODWIN  A number of different studies now have shown that BNP support is positively related to areas where there are significant Muslim populations. Now the implication of that is that the BNP’s emphasis on Islam in its campaign literature, which has been increasing in recent years, is having an effect. But also it perhaps reflects the way in which mainstream commentators and even some politicians have spoken out quite stridently about Muslims and Islam, and that this in some way is legitimising the BNP’s campaign. And this is something again that we haven’t seen on the far right before that, for example in previous years when the far right espoused anti-Semitism, nobody in the media or political establishment endorsed that position. You know the National Front was way out and seen as being a completely abnormal organisation. But today you can pick up anti-Islam sentiments in parts of the media, parts of the political establishment, and voters I think are aware of that and so the BNP doesn’t look quite as out in the sticks as it once did.

KENAN MALIK  One reason that mainstream politicians have begun to talk about the rights of indigenous Britons and about the need to discriminate against migrants is fear: fear that the BNP is on the march and can only be stopped by taking seriously anxieties about immigration. Fear, ironically, is leading some both to demonise the BNP and to appropriate its policies. But is the BNP really as great a threat as many believe? Peter Kellner of YouGov.

PETER KELLNER  One’s got to take notice of the fact that the BNP gained their first seats in the European Parliament, winning two seats in the June election. Their vote was very little up in numerical terms. In percentage terms, it was up from 5 per cent to 6 per cent. That’s well below the 10 to 15 per cent you tend to get for right wing Nationalist parties on the European continent. Also if you look at it interms of the total electorate, roughly one third of the British electorate voted in the European elections, so as a percentage of the total electorate the BNP won just 2 per cent. So overall, 1 per cent of the electorate voted BNP for racist reasons and 1 per cent voted for reasons of alienation and insecurity.

KENAN MALIK  And yet the BNP’s electoral success still feels shocking because the far right has never before possessed the national presence in this country. So what lessons can we learn from other European nations where such electoral success is more routine? The writer and economist Philippe Legrain.

PHILIPPE LEGRAIN  You look at France, for example. The National Front in 2002 came second in the first round of the presidential elections. Jean-Marie Le Pen was in the run off against Jacques Chirac. At the time the French were deeply distressed about what it said about their society, but actually it gave the opportunity for 80 per cent of French people to vote decisively against the National Front in the second round of presidential elections. Socialists held their noses and voted for the right winger Jacques Chirac in preference to Jean-Marie Le Pen and actually that marked the high watermark of the National Front. So what until then seemed like simply a protest party, when they were actually at the doors of power people realised and wanted to clearly express the fact that they didn’t want the National Front in government.

KENAN MALIK  Even when far right politicians walk the corridors of power, Matt Goodwin suggests, the consequences have not been what one might expect.

MATT GOODWIN  If we look across Europe in recent years, what we can see is that when the far right has been let into the establishment, if you like, when it has participated in government coalitions or when it has had access to mainstream newspapers and programmes and so on, what we can see is that the far right generally has not done anything that’s particularly extreme, that is consistent with some of those fears. Rather the far right has tamed itself or has been tamed by the experience of government or the experience of exposure to voters. And in some cases, for example Austria in the first years of the 21st century, they found it very difficult to cope with this normalisation process and completely imploded from within. So if we’re letting the BNP into these programmes and into local council chambers, it’s never been done before but I don’t think that simply shunning them and confirming their outsider status is perhaps the most effective way forward.

KENAN MALIK  I’m not sure I’d be so sanguine about letting the BNP achieve real power. Nevertheless, Matt Goodwin’s point is well made that one should not overreact to the election of a few BNP representatives, especially if by doing so they can be turned into martyrs. For Philippe Legrain, the real problem is less the BNP than the lack of faith of mainstream politicians in their own values.

PHILIPPE LEGRAIN  There’s a large element of the liberal intelligentsia who’s convinced that a large section of white working class people are inherently racist and that they need to be protected against their kind of baser instincts. And frankly I think that’s patronising, I think it’s untrue. I would have more confidence in people, I would have more confidence in the power of your arguments. I’d have more confidence that when people really get to see close up what the BNP’s about, that they’re not going to like what they see. The biggest danger from the BNP is not the BNP itself, which is a small, marginal party. The biggest danger is the overreaction of those who really have power, whether it’s the government or the main opposition party; the overreaction of the media or other people who have real power in this country.

KENAN MALIK  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 reaction, with some demanding that BNP supporters be deprived of basic rights, while others pander to their prejudices. Jettisoning a commitment to the fundamental values of a liberal democracy is not the best way of weaning people away from the far right.