First they came for the neo-fascists…
The cajoling of the racist BNP to change its constitution should alarm everyone who believes in free association.
Since its foundation in 1982, the British National Party has always had a racist, whites-only membership policy. The reason for this probably won’t blow your mind: it was because the BNP was a racist, whites-only political organisation. Their vision was racist, whites-only, and their policies, such as they were, were racist, whites-only – you know, little things like the forced repatriation of anyone not fitting their dubious racial categories.
Admittedly, things have changed a bit since former BNP leader John Tyndall was prancing around dressed as Adolf Hitler in the 1980s. They have tried to appear, well, just not quite so racist. The compulsory repatriation of non-whites policy has become ‘incentivised’ repratriation of non-whites. Attacking blacks and Asians has become a half-baked-criticism of multiculturalism. And a frankly lusty obsession with indigenous Caucasians has become mangled guff about Britishness.
Yet despite its New Labour modernising moment, the BNP remains at its core a bunch of cranks and inadequates united by their whites-only racism. And because of this, because they are a bunch of cranks and inadequates drawn together by their racist beliefs, their membership policy reflected this: ‘You had to be indigenous British to join’, to quote their current leader, Nick Griffin.
But not anymore. Last month the BNP were told by a central London county court that unless they changed their membership requirements, those state-sponsored crusaders at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would take them to court under the 2003 Race Relations Act. So, this Sunday, at a fractious Extraordinary General Meeting in Essex, the BNP agreed, for the first time, that non-whites could become bona fide members of the BNP.
A victory for anti-racism? A triumph for equality and fairness? Very few seemed to see it that way. Anti-racism campaign group Searchlight called it a ‘meaningless gesture’, before pointing out that ‘no one seriously believes that thousands of black and Asian Britons will now be queuing up to join Nick Griffin’s party’. ‘The BNP is racist. Racism is an attitude, not a legalistic nicety’, declared The Times leader comment: ‘Mr Griffin made clear that the vote was merely an acknowledgement of “legal reality”. The party does not throw off a history of ideological conviction by acquiescing in what the law demands.’
National secretary of Unite Against Fascism, Weyman Bennett, was equally sceptical: ‘I think that regardless of the vote, the changes are cosmetic and have only happened because the courts forced them to stop racist practices.’
Such criticisms are understandable. Seeing as it’s still the BNP, the party will remain a refuge for racist cranks and loons regardless of the entrance policy. And in that sense, the changes to its membership criteria are ‘meaningless’ and ‘cosmetic’. But that doesn’t mean that what happened here was not significant. In fact, what the EHRC did was highly significant. By threatening a political organisation with civil legal proceedings unless it changed its constitution – a constitution which reflected that group’s beliefs – the state is effectively deciding the nature of opposition in the political sphere, what views can be tolerated, and what views can’t.
That the object of state-enforced configuration is the BNP ought not to detract from what is a serious affront to democracy. Yes, the BNP holds obnoxious views, and yes, its membership and employment policy was repellent – but freedom of speech, and its accompaniment, the freedom to associate with those whom one agrees with, ought not to be negotiable. Just because in this case it’s the freedom to hold racist opinions, and to associate with those who hold similarly abhorrent views, it does not mean that fundamental democratic principles should just be abandoned.
And freedom of association is just such a fundamental democratic right. It means that not only are we free to decide what we believe, to freely express our beliefs, but that we are also free to organise ourselves around those beliefs. And that is exactly what the BNP – an association of racists – did, and ought to be free to continue doing so. None of this is to approve of a group like the the BNP. Hence, just as the BNP are free to come out with immigrant-baiting rubbish, so those who don’t agree with such views are free to organise against this lowdown form of politics.
Judgement of, and argument against, the views and beliefs of political associations like the BNP is born of a vital political sphere, a public realm in which we are free to exercise not just our right to speak our minds but to join forces with those who have like minds. And it is precisely such a sphere that the opportunistic posturing of the state, in the guise of the EHRC, is now denigrating. Instead, by deciding on the forms that political associations are allowed to take, they seem intent on imposing a political straitjacket on democratic debate.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Tim Black described New Labour’s phoney battle with fascism and reported on an anti-BNP rally. Mick Hume noted how, when all else fails, the elite goes after the BNP. Elsewhere, he said it shouldn’t be an offence to belong to the BNP. Rob Lyons said ‘the far-right surge’ was a myth. Nathalie Rothschild asked: ‘Who’s afraid of the BNP?’ Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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