Over the past year the British National Party has repeatedly occupied a place in the media spotlight, and much discussion has taken place about the appropriate steps that government and civil society should take to address this far-right party. After the broadcast of the BBC documentary ‘The Secret Agent’ earlier this year, they achieved a new level of notoriety. The programme, showing secretly recorded footage of BNP members describing the violent attacks and harassment they had perpetrated, was the product of months of undercover work by Jason Gwynne, a BBC reporter, and Andy Sykes, a regional organiser for the BNP who had become disillusioned with their agenda. Following the broadcast the police launched investigations regarding the footage, and BNP members including its leader Nick Griffin, may face prosecution.
Earlier in the year, there was concern that protest votes could produce big gains for the BNP in the local and European elections in June. To avert this prospect the main parties entered into dialogue in order to form strategies to undermine the BNP, especially in sensitive constituencies. Trade unions and other civic organisations discussed methods to prevent their offices becoming platforms for the BNP or other racist parties. In tandem with this in the House of Lords, an amendment to the Employment Relations Bill was tabled in order to allow trade unions to expel BNP activists. Small protests took place outside BBC offices in different cities on Friday 28th May, opposing the airing of the BNP’s party political broadcast on the terrestrial television channels.
In order to prevent major gains by the BNP in the June 10th elections, anti-Nazi organisations with the backing of some trade unions, coalesced into a platform entitled ‘Unite against Fascism’. They were convinced that the best way to combat this fascist party was to deny it any voice in the public arena by all possible means, as well as expose its racist ideology whenever possible. In addition they called on people to ensure that they participated in the June 10th elections and voted for any party other than the BNP.
Since the broadcast of the programme, increased scrutiny of the party’s activities and internal wrangling have placed the organisation in crisis. Prosecutions have been brought against members, its finances are under investigation and hardliners in the party claim that current leadership policies are a betrayal of their founding ideals. Those who blame the BNP for exacerbating racial tension and dividing communities will welcome the party’s current problems. But it would be complacent to assume that those tensions will resolve even if this group were to disappear; in fact the BNP is a reflection of wider problems in society.
The British National Party activists are deeply committed to a narrow nationalistic agenda, which in their view requires that Britain be ‘reclaimed’ from a hostile, culturally deviant elite. In their view, because the elite’s Capitalist predilections (though at times the BNP refers to them as Marxists) require them to seek cheap labour from abroad, they blithely imperil the very existence of Britain as a nation, without giving thought to the result for the ordinary man in the street. While racism, casual or otherwise may be prevalent in British society, preserving the ‘purity’ of British blood is not high on the agenda of most people. For nationalists such as the BNP, their motivation for involvement in politics is allegiance to and the preservation of, their national group. The issues that will win them support be it immigration, crime and the like are actually secondary to their goal of a pure nation, free from miscegenation. The fact that they do not draw on their views of race and nationality when canvassing is not simply because people will oppose them, in actuality for most people, preservation of the race is not usually the highest item on their list of priorities. For this reason, as well as the need to avoid litigation, the BNP have moved away from overt racism in public. Whereas in the past they would call on people to confront the danger of non-white immigration, now their approach is more subtle. They draw on popular concern about other issues, preferably ones that can be linked to a racial or cultural dimension, in order to gain the interest of potential voters, rather than expressing their doctrines towards race.
In order to deflect attacks in the media that label them as fascists, racists and homophobes, the group has worked assiduously to field candidates who do not fit the caricature of the jack-booted thug. By putting doctors and other professionals forward as candidates, they gain added respectability. In order to buck the stereotype further, they have even put forward a Muslim convert and a Jewish housewife as local representatives in elections. A BNP broadcast issued in May on the BBC’s channels featured Rajinder Singh, bemoaning the rise of Islamic extremism in Britain. Mr. Singh has been involved with the group for some time, serving as a guest columnist on the official party magazine for a year. This more palatable image has no doubt helped them gain support from voters who would otherwise be wary of such an organisation.
By capitalising on the frustration and resentment of some white voters towards the discrimination that they perceive favours blacks and Asians over them, the BNP has gained new members and some electoral successes in places such as Oldham and Burnley. By campaigning in these tense areas, which have already attracted the attention of the national press, they have managed to generate much greater publicity than their relatively small party could hope to muster ordinarily.
These tactics have produced results for the BNP, so it is not surprising that anxiety about the group has increased at the same time. But it would not be correct to assume that marginalising this group would be an effective way to deal with the tensions that they exploit. When we examine the policies of the current government and the standpoint of the main opposition party, it is clear that the BNP are not the only ones prepared to capitalise on fear and anxiety. In response to the accusation that it is soft on immigration and asylum issues, the government has done its best to demonstrate that it has effective and stringent immigration policies. When the Home Secretary David Blunkett talks of the country being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers, what need is there for far-right parties? The Conservatives are not to be outdone in this regard, and regularly claim that they can offer stricter policies than Labour. It is the mainstream media, not the far right, which has done the most to arouse anxiety and resentment about the issues of immigration, asylum and race in a way that is completely out of proportion to the scale of the problem. As Nick Griffin stated in the May 28th broadcast: “A big BNP vote will make the other parties take notice of the patriotic majority.” In other words, votes for the BNP can be used to express frustration about race-related policies, but it is the main parties who are in a position to actually execute the policies, not the fringe group.
Even if the BNP had a much lower profile than it does currently, media coverage of the asylum and immigration issue would still stir the indignation of many people out of all proportion to the scale of the problem facing the country. According to the media portrayal, asylum seekers are an unbearable cost for the public, which if not checked, will bring the country to ruin. When people hear that the total cost of asylum support is just over £1bn, it seems an alarming and incredible figure that must be burdening the country. But how many people are aware that total government spending exceeds £400bn each year, making the previous figure comparatively small? No doubt the figure for asylum support would be much lower if asylum seekers were not prevented from working for two years after making initial applications.
For most people who will vote for the BNP, their vote is a way to register protest at the failures of government – local or national. To call on the party faithful of different colours to outvote the discontents is to fail to address why racial or ethnic politics is appealing to many people, at least in the short term. It also doesn’t address the fact that xenophobia and racism as expressed by the media makes a much greater contribution to public attitudes towards race and asylum than the BNP could ever hope to achieve.
As well as using existing legislation and the proposed changes to employment law, the latest government move, ostensibly aimed at the activities of groups like the BNP, is the introduction of a law against inciting ‘religious hatred’. The Home Secretary has been the driving force behind the proposal, which he claims will act to prevent the use of a gap in the law, which allows people of faith, Muslims in particular, to be vilified in a way that would be illegal if used in reference to racial groups.
A previous attempt to bring in very similar legislation in 2001 failed amidst claims that it would be unworkable in practice. As the law will not attempt to define religious beliefs or practices, it will not be clear who or what cannot be attacked. Judging by the Home Secretary’s recent record, it is likely that the main usage of the legislation will not be against the far-right, but against people of different religions, Muslims in particular. As he said in a speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research, “This will help tackle extremists who use religion to stir up hatred in our society, including religious extremists who preach hate against other religions.” He also stated, “It applies equally to far-right evangelical Christians as to extremists in the Islamic faith.” The comparison between this proposal and existing race relations legislation is apposite. As has been pointed out by critics of the plan, laws against incitement to racial hatred have been used disproportionately to bring charges against minorities rather than protecting them. Therefore it seems likely, especially in the light of Blunkett’s comments, that the primary use of this legislation will be against Muslims who express views that the home secretary finds unpalatable.
By changing their language and being more careful in public, the BNP have been able to maintain their agenda without fear of prosecution, while audiences in private venues are still receptive to the full-blown message. Likewise, while the religious hatred law may produce a tactical change, their underlying stance will be unaffected. The main result of the planned restrictions, if they are successfully brought into law, will be that they will limit people’s ability to debate and discuss in an open way about their differing ideas.
In reality, the BNP have been accorded a far greater significance than they merit, as their intellectual weaknesses mean that they will never have mass appeal, nor will they be able to sustain elected positions they may win without possession of any real policies. At most, mainstream parties, and affiliated organisations such as the trade unions can highlight their activities in order to motivate an apathetic electorate to turn up at the polling booths. People feel concerned when they perceive a rise in the BNP’s popularity. Conversely they may also worry that many Muslims are not sufficiently integrated into mainstream society. Beyond that, an even larger number of people do not vote at all, due to indifference or disillusionment with the current system. This reflects the fact that, at the moment, there are no big ideas or grand vision in British politics that can inspire people to action, or win over those who are skeptical about what they think is on offer. So the broader question for people who believe in the current system to consider is how to win over people who simply do not believe in the same set of ideals as them, as well as how to enthuse those who currently find no motivation to get out and vote.
Society has much to gain from engaging in a wider discussion about what are the values and ideas that Britain embodies. Those who feel that Britain is under threat should substantiate their opinions, especially those in the media who have contributed so much to the shrill tone of the immigration debate. Likewise those who feel that a harmonious multi-ethnic society is possible should state their case. Ultimately, open discussion of these problems can make a much greater contribution to societal wellbeing than sweeping them under the carpet.