State-enforced ‘equality’ is damaging democracy
Yes, the BNP should be free to appear on Question Time, but there’s another, harder argument to be made: it must also be free to exclude non-whites.
Should the British National Party, that collection of far-right misfits and former skinheads, be allowed to appear on the BBC’s political show, Question Time? ‘Yes’, was the pretty surprising answer from much of the political commentariat, who seem finally to have caught up with an argument spiked has been making for many years: namely that ‘no platforming’ far-right groups is no way to challenge their arguments, and is a deeply censorious tactic that treats us, the audience, as childish imbeciles who cannot tell a good idea from a BNP one.
But should the BNP be free to exclude non-whites from its support base? ‘Absolutely not’, was the resounding judgement of the political and media class, who for the past few months have been pursuing or supporting a legal action against the BNP to force it to abandon its whites-only membership policy. The fact that the BNP has, since its founding in 1982, only allowed ‘indigenous Caucasians’ to become members is ‘utterly unacceptable’, we are told, and thus the government-funded Equality and Human Rights Commission is taking action against the BNP under the Race Relations Act to force it to open up to blacks and Asians, too (1).
So in one breath political observers quite sensibly say that, in a democracy, the only way to challenge a party like the BNP is to debate it, possibly on a programme like Question Time – yet in the next breath they express support for the state determining the make-up of political parties and using the threat of legal punishment to force a party to rewrite its constitution and change its nature.
In one breath they say democracy is the only tool with which to challenge backward ideas; in the next they support an utterly undemocratic state intervention into the freedom of association and freedom of thought of a political party. This schizophrenic, changeable attitude to democracy captures how today’s anti-BNP sloganeering and policymaking are graver threats to democracy than the racist party itself. Because if we are really serious about defending an open and free democratic society, then we must not only say ‘yes, the BNP should be free to appear on Question Time’, but also – however much it sticks in our throats – ‘it must be free to exclude non-whites, too’.
When it was revealed that the BBC was considering inviting the BNP on to Question Time, there was a mostly sensible response. One columnist said: ‘The BNP is not going to quietly fold its tents and disappear, so surely it is better to allow it to subject its policies to open debate and questioning.’ (2) For the BBC, it’s about allowing ‘our audiences, and the electorate, [to] make up their own minds about the different policies offered by elected politicians’ (3). Even New Labour is abandoning its policy of never appearing on a platform with the BNP and is considering sending Jack Straw to take on BNP leader Nick Griffin. (Though this no doubt springs, less from a firm commitment to open debate, and more from a desperate hope that having a bunfight with the BNP on almost-live TV will boost Labour’s standing in the run-up to the General Election.)
Not everyone took a sensible position, of course. The remains of the anti-fascist left revealed once more that they are amongst the most censorious sections of the body politic. Unite Against Fascism said the BBC should ‘stop giving succour to the BNP by inviting its bigots on to our airwaves’ (4). The Socialist Worker argued that ‘debating with the BNP is pointless’ since its members ‘try to hide their real aims’ (5). Writing in the Sun, the editor of Searchlight – the anti-fascist magazine that now seems to exist solely to campaign for censorship – said allowing the BNP to spout their views on Question Time would be like allowing a ‘cancer to spread’; there would be a ‘drip, drip, drip effect, in which it becomes the norm for BNP views and propaganda to be publicised widely’ (6).
This sums up the combination of paternalism and political cowardice that underpins the demand to ban the BNP. Like every censorious figure throughout history, from Torquemada to Tony Blair, the anti-fascist left sees certain words not only as wrong, and thus challengeable, but as dangerous and diseased. So the BNP’s words are like a ‘cancer’ that will spread through Britain. In the idea that there will be a ‘drip, drip, drip effect’ if the BNP is allowed on to Question Time – allowing fascist thinking to become ‘normalised’ – we can glimpse the core conviction of every censor: that people are fickle and easily led and thus might be switched on to fascism at the sight of Nick Griffin’s ugly mug on TV. We must therefore be protected from our own worst instincts by caring, gracious, morally superior individuals with the power to censor.
Worst of all, the call for censorship allows certain ideas to go unchallenged. When left campaigners argue that ‘Debating the BNP is pointless’ (7), they really expose their own lack of self-belief and conviction, their deep doubt that they will be able to convince the public why they are right and the BNP is wrong. So instead they call on the powers-that-be to silence their opponents on their behalf; they prefer brute censorship to nervewracking debate. The consequence of this would be that the BNP’s ideas were never challenged, never disproven, never submitted to the only judgement that really counts: public judgement. Instead they’d simply fester on the outskirts of society.
Yet on the question of the BNP’s whites-only membership policy, there was far more uniformity of thinking. Everyone seems to agree that the state should have the right and the power to force the BNP to rewrite its racist constitution. But it shouldn’t have that power.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, formerly the Commission for Racial Equality, argues that the BNP’s membership policy breaches the Race Relations Act, because it ‘discriminates on the basis of ethnicity’. So it issued proceedings against the BNP in August. Many see this action as a test case for the government’s Equality Bill, likely to be passed by parliament in the coming months, which will ban all political parties from discriminating on the grounds of ethnicity. Last week, fearing that a costly legal case would cripple his party, Nick Griffin decided to pre-empt the court decision by changing his party’s constitution to allow blacks and Asians to join, a move that would ‘stick in the craw of all dedicated nationalists’, he typically said (8).
The only criticism of the ‘equality case’ against the BNP is that it is pointless – after all, how many blacks and Asians are queuing up to join a party that considers them to be second-class citizens? Yet this case is far more problematic than that, and provides a taster of the kind of state intervention into the life of private clubs, groups and political parties that we can expect under New Labour’s Equality Bill. The case has set the scene for further attacks on freedom of association and independent organisation by a state acting under the auspices of ‘equality’.
The fact is that, unlike public bodies, private bodies must be free to discriminate. Freedom of association and the right to organise politically – two key rights in any democratic society worth its name – inevitably involve choosing who to associate and organise with, and therefore excluding those who, for whatever reason, do not live up to the standards, political beliefs or membership criteria of your organisation. For Ramblers’ Associations, whose business is walking, that might mean excluding wheelchair-users; for a gay men’s discussion group, whose business is homosexuality, it might mean excluding heterosexuals; and for the BNP, whose rotten business is racism, it means excluding blacks and Asians. Forcing all manner of private and political groups to open their doors to everybody and anybody would represent a stinging attack on freedom of association, and on the choice, independence and freedom of thought that are bound up in the forming of private associations and political groups.
Of course a distinction should be drawn between public bodies and private or political bodies. Discrimination in the public realm is intolerable because it denies an individual his full humanity. It hampers his ability to live a full and free life and transforms him into a second-class citizen. Equality is essential in public life in order to guarantee opportunity for all and to preserve civilisation itself. For example, if a publicly-funded, NHS hospital were to deny treatment to an individual on the basis that he is black, that would be a disgrace, something really worth protesting about, because it would send the powerful message that, in the public view in Britain, black people are worth less than white people. However, if a gay man’s clinic were to deny an appointment to a straight man, that would be in order, because it is a private organisation that has chosen to assist and associate with only one section of society. If a state-funded adoption agency were to deny a couple the right to adopt on the basis that they are poor, that would be deeply problematic; it would send a signal to the public that poor people are worse parents and have fewer rights than wealthy people. However, if a Catholic adoption agency refuses to allow gay couples to adopt its children, that is in order, since it is a non-public organisation that has freely devised its own rules of association and belief system. A state that denies an individual access to health or adoption services is severely limiting that individual’s choices and standard of living; a private organisation that denies individuals access to such things is not.
In the private and political realm, equality simply and almost naturally takes second place to freedom of association. Where equality is essential to any decent and civilised public realm, it is potentially destructive in the private and political realm. Being free to associate means precisely that: the freedom to choose who to organise with and what to organise around. The new state-enforced ‘equality’ (the quote marks are essential here) is a direct threat to freedom of association and political independence, since it potentially grants the state the authority to override groups’ belief systems, overhaul their membership lists and even rewrite their constitutions, all in the name of ‘opening them up’ to members of society who probably have no interest in joining them anyway. What really lies behind today’s ‘equality agenda’ is the state’s thirst to meddle in and micro-organise every aspect of our private associations, so that anything too ‘discriminatory’ – that is, too ideological, too exclusive, too bombastic – is ironed out and brought under control.
In the late 1950s, Hannah Arendt wrote a provocative essay on Little Rock, the city in Arkansas where in 1957, following a Supreme Court judgement against segregation in schools, a whites-only school was forced to take nine black students. Arendt made some strong, testing arguments, and some weaker ones, too. She argued that court-enforced equality potentially poses a threat to ‘the Republic’ and its core freedoms. In the social realm, away from the public realm, we must be free to exclude people from groups, she argued. ‘[T]he right to free association, and therefore to discrimination, has greater validity than the principle of equality.’ Her mistake was to argue that schools, including the public schools in Arkansas, were part of the ‘private realm’, and therefore ‘to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies – the private right over their children and the social right to free association’ (9). In fact discrimination in public schools is unjustifiable. But Arendt’s defence of free association in our social and private lives against top-down equality is worth recalling today.
Of course the BNP’s constitution is foul, and people are free to denounce it and expose it. But in the name of combating the BNP, the authorities are seriously damaging democracy. First there was the clamour for BNP members to be excluded from jobs in the public sector, which really was a demand for an unacceptable form of public discrimination against individuals on the basis of their political views. Now a legal case against the BNP is rewriting the nature of the right to organise in contemporary society. This case, and the forthcoming Equality Bill, will effectively deny people the freedom to set up racist organisations. Yet in a democracy, a true democracy, people should be free even to be racist – and the rest of us should be free to argue and shout and organise against them.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Previously on spiked
Nathalie Rothschild asked ‘who’s afraid of the BNP?’. Mick Hume stated it should not be an offence to belong to the BNP and argued for indivisible free speech. Josie Appleton wondered how anyone could see Nick Griffin and his band of nobodies as a threat. Sandy Starr reckoned the constant attention given to the BNP has made them the talking point of British politics. Shirley Dent explained why she applauded the BNP ballerina. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
(1) BNP faces challenge to whites-only membership, The Times, 24 June 2009
(2) Why the BBC’s decision to include the BNP will be judged as wise, Sunday Express, 13 September 2009
(3) Why the BBC’s decision to include the BNP will be judged as wise, Sunday Express, 13 September 2009
(4) Stop the BBC ‘rolling out the red carpet’ for Nazi BNP leader on Question Time, Socialist Worker, 8 September 2009
(5) Stop the BBC ‘rolling out the red carpet’ for Nazi BNP leader on Question Time, Socialist Worker, 8 September 2009
(6) Anger at BBC plans for BNP, Sun, 7 September 2009
(7) Stop the BBC ‘rolling out the red carpet’ for Nazi BNP leader on Question Time, Socialist Worker, 8 September 2009
(8) BNP leader: party must admit non-whites, UPI, 3 September 2009
(9) Reflections on Little Rock, Hannah Arendt, Dissent, Winter 1959
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