Censorship is the wrong way to combat BNP
03 Jun 2009

The illiberal obsession with silencing Nick Griffin and the British National Party in the run up to elections has won the party undeserved publicity, says Claire Fox

“If you are not supporting Labour then … please go out and vote for one of the other main parties. If you don’t, the UK will have Euro-MPs from the far-Right BNP” — so pleaded government minister Phil Woolas in the Daily Mail last month, in the build up to the European and local elections on 4 June.

What is it about the British National Party that requires the suspension of the norms of party politics, where censure of a legal — though repulsive — party can be seen as legitimate? For all the hyperbolic bluster about the rise of neo-Nazism, what really offends Woolas et al is the BNP’s nasty and illiberal attitudes to immigrants. So it is particularly galling that Phil Woolas, an immigration minister who has gleefully wielded power against migrants, zealously promoting stronger border controls, stringent points-based quotas, ID cards for migrant workers and raising the minimum age for a marriage visa from 18 to 21, avoids an open debate on his immigration politics by morally grandstanding against the “beyond the pale” BNP.

As someone who has argued against immigration controls for years — a demand that none of the mainstream parties hold to — this is indeed just one aspect of the BNP’s (and Labour’s) policies that I most despise. But to challenge that requires a commitment to democracy, precisely to expose these views to scrutiny, ridicule and contradiction in the court of public opinion.

The expenses furore and Parliament’s meltdown has only added to this mainstream campaign to isolate the BNP. Hardened militant atheists nodded in approval as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York warned that it would be “tragic” if anger with the major parties led the public to vote BNP and urged us to vote for anyone but. Similarly, the usually mildly republican commentariat broke out in a bout of monarchist angst at the prospect of Nick Griffin, a bone fide candidate in the forthcoming elections whatever his views, tarnishing the Queen’s garden party.

I hate to mention it, but isn’t the point of a democratic election to give the electorate a free choice to vote for any political party they wish? Frankly, if we can choose between all the above except the BNP, this is no freer an election than those sham affairs conducted by authoritarian regimes. If the choices we are offered are merely between the BNP and the “any-of-the-above-anti-BNP-alliance”, we are narrowing down any notion of a political contest.

Elections are the very time that every citizen has the right to hear varied and contrasting views so they can make their minds up as to who should represent them. You might say that the treatment of the BNP is justified because they are so abhorrent, but on principle we should be robust in arguing for the right of every citizen to espouse the political views of his or her choice. The electorate’s voice should be heard at every hustings, on every doorstep and find ultimate expression on the ballot paper. To effectively Tipp-ex out one of the options by demonising “extremist” views effectively denies the electorate their free speech in the McCarthyite demand: “Are you now, or have you ever been… BNP?”

Inevitably this atmosphere gives the green light to overt censorship. Already postal workers have refused to deliver BNP election leaflets. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has claimed hundreds of postal workers have decided to exercise the right to exercise a negotiated “conscience clause” that allows them to refuse to deliver election material they feel is offensive. What a damned shame that in the middle of a savage recession, trade union militancy should be channelled in a campaign of censorship.

What exactly are politicians and the CWU worried about? One postman told the Western Daily Press that his route bordered two ethnic-minority areas and it was “concerning” to be made to deliver “inflammatory” material. Do we really need to be protected by considerate postmen from views that may affront us? Do we believe that all the white electorate has to do is read a BNP leaflet and they will morph into a racist mob? And if some voters read the leaflet and agree with it, surely opponents use the democratic process to mount an argument to win them over rather than mount a boycott to silence the debate.

In reality, many of those who vote BNP do so not because they are racists or endorse any of the party’s specific policies, but rather as a way of giving two fingers to mainstream parties. Ironically, while the BNP remains a tiny rump of an organisation that has won very little influence in elections, making up less than half of one per cent of local councillors, the obsession with silencing Nick Griffin has won the party undeserved publicity. It has given them the pretence of a protest movement against the discredited establishment.

If there’s anything worse than the racist anti-immigration BNP, it’s using that marginal party as a pretext to moralise about permissible opinions and, by default, to clamp down on liberty and democracy.

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas

14 responses to “Censorship is the wrong way to combat BNP”

  1. John Piggot says:

    So “Index on Censorship” thinks the BNP is “racist” and “ridiculous”? Labour plus Tories voted to invade an Arab country on the basis of doctored intelligence reports and a pack of lies (more or less the reasons Hitler invaded Poland). A million Muslims and Kurds died as a result. In contrast, the BNP always opposed the war. One million ethnics killed by Labour and friends. Zero muslims and Kurds killed by the BNP.

    Who are the racists? And who is the most ridiculous?

  2. I think the comments in response to this article show a typical failure to engage with Clare’s central argument – that people should be trusted to hear all the arguments and make up their own minds. The left in the UK and USA have for years held the cowardly ‘no platform’ position that has given minor parties like the BNP credibility that they could never have had if anti-racists had had the courage of their convictions and had the arguments out in public. It does everyone a disservice to silence any politicial view rather than argue against it.

  3. Dominic says:

    Postal workers? I was responding to someone who basically said he was a BNP member. Or maybe I got the wrong end of stick, in which case, yes I’m thick. Why on earth anyone would think I’d wish any harm to postal workers is beyond me.

  4. Eamonn De Valera says:

    Jeffrey Marshall wrote:

    Dominic wrote:

    “And I thought there was nothing positive about knife crime. Well it’s good to know that every cloud has a silver lining.”

    Postal workers getting stabbed is positive? I always suspected the Left included some sick human beings but you have even surprised me.

    Jeffrey, Dominic is displaying the usual half baked lack of intelligence, typical of the knee-jerk reactionary. However, your response is not much better in generalising about the “Left”, as that is where your party stands. Left/Right is an economic measure and has no bearing on how fascistic or liberal the non-economic measures are. Your party is a fair stride to the left of centre, economically, with a large authoritarian content to its policies. Just as far to the “left” as the “left you generalised about and regard as opponents.
    For the others, who may see this,: consider this point – Labour Conservative and LibDem are a long way over to the “right” and just about as authoritarian as the BNP.
    My point? Think carefully before deriding others – get your *FACTS* right and beware of how easy it is to shoot yourself in the foot.

  5. Jeffrey Marshall says:

    Dominic wrote:

    “And I thought there was nothing positive about knife crime. Well it’s good to know that every cloud has a silver lining.”

    Postal workers getting stabbed is positive? I always suspected the Left included some sick human beings but you have even surprised me.

  6. […] to an article by Claire Fox, from the Institute of Ideas, who had argued tin an article for Index on Censorship that the attempting to anathematise the BNP is a form of censorship. This is Claire’s reply […]

  7. C Sanderson says:

    Addendum: I meant ‘Extreme political views’ in my second line.

  8. C Sanderson says:

    Claire is right: ‘the point of a democratic election is to give the electorate a free choice to vote for any political party they wish’. Political views are like a disease: if they exist, it is better to have them expressed than to try to suppress them. If the world pretended that swine flu did not exist, where might we be in a few months’ time? Perhaps where South Africa is with AIDS; their last president said AIDS did not exist, and now it is widespread. So it might be with extreme views, if they were suppressed. In the same way, it is wrong to stop people coming into the country to speak – whether they be ‘pornographer’, ‘Taleban’ or ‘racist’ – and to prevent those already here from speaking. Stop them only if they promote violence or deliberate illegality. The BNP is a legal party, and its access to the polling booth, the electoral platform – or Buckingham Palace – should be the same as any other party, be they Monster Raving Loony, Commander Bill Boaks (who was dead right, and streets ahead of his time, on road safety), or the Socialist Workers.

    The other point to make about attitudes towards ‘racism’ is to suggest a parallel with attitudes towards homosexuality, when it was illegal. Before Wolfenden, many homosexuals, it is said, were pursued with unexpected zeal by agents provocateurs, who loitered round toilet cubicles and waited for – or actually prompted – behaviour that was then illegal. It is likely that many of those zealots (like Hoover of the FBI) felt secretly guilty of their own ambivalent sexual attitudes. In the same sort of way, I suspect that many of those who speak most strongly against the BNP, and who seek to censor them, are, in fact, closet ‘racists’; that is, they have reservations (or stronger feelings) about people who are not like them. This accounts for their virulence, as it probably did for Hoover’s.

    The parallel is only with the attitude, and the feelings of guilt: there is no suggestion that racist behaviour is legitimate as homosexuality is now accepted to be.

    Let the BNP and all the others speak: their words will provide the vaccine to stimulate resistance to their views.

  9. Dominic says:

    Jeffrey Marshall (BNP) wrote

    “If she had ever distributed BNP leaflets as I have she would know that this is where the greatest danger lies, and what the postmen were probably concerned about most was getting stabbed by blacks.”

    And I thought there was nothing positive about knife crime. Well it’s good to know that every cloud has a silver lining.

  10. Jeffrey Marshall (BNP) says:

    Nice article – but Claire seems to miss the point that the postal workers actually refused to deliver to ethnic minority areas.

    If she had ever distributed BNP leaflets as I have she would know that this is where the greatest danger lies, and what the postmen were probably concerned about most was getting stabbed by blacks.

    High-minded matters of ‘censorship’ did not enter into their calculations.

  11. NMcC says:

    Well said, Claire. If there is one thing we need to save ourselves from, it is those who would save us from the views of others – on the grounds that our self-appointed saviours don’t like such views. What an utter disgrace that the Labour Party thinks itself morally qualified to lecture us on why we should not vote for an anti-immigration party. The Labour Party! Just think about it; the most openly anti-immigrant party ever to constitute a British Government. The party that has, as Claire Fox points out, used all manner of legislation to stop people coming into Britain (unless they are rich, of course) and when they do, bashes them from every direction; a party which has set up the nearest thing to a police state that it’s possible to imagine so that, if the BNP ever, by some miracle, achieved national power and moved into Government, the only thing they would have to change would be the curtains at No. 10. This is the party that warns against voting for the BNP!

    And what a disgrace that the postal workers have nothing better to complain about. Incidentally, my postman is an imbecile. The thought of him self-electing himself as a member of the thought police is, well, more frightening than having a BNP leaflet stuck through my door.

    This tendency for holier than them hypocrisy has to be fought against. It is becoming more and more widespread. What a joke, for example, that Richard Dawkins is one of the signatories to the Simon Singh fight against censorship in the form of the alleged unfairness of the British libel laws. On Dawkins’ website, he has empowered a clique of acolytes that hang on his every word to stifle any dissenting voice. Say anything in disagreement to Dawkins, and a mere 5 of the High Priest’s disciples can, and will, silence you.

  12. Rob Shorrock says:

    Any democrat would not want the BNP to be banned as an organisation. However, democrats do want to work together to combat a racist organisation. Hence, it is utterly understandable that a minister would urge people to vote for any democratic party other than the BNP.

    In fact, Labour knew that one of the best ways to galvanise their activists was to appeal to their anti-fascist, anti-racist instincts rather than any loyalty to the party.

    It is also understandable, for a variety of reasons, that the CWU would be concerned about delivering BNP materials into some areas and should be able to give voice to these concerns.

    There is no doubt that the digital age and 24 hour news has given the BNP, and every fruitcake organisation a platform they could not have dreamed of 20-30 years ago. So talk about banning them is kind of redundant and we have to work hard to challenge those who may be susceptible to their simplistic and prejudiced analysis.

  13. […] However, she does a great disservice to the defence of free speech from censorship by her muddled and inaccurate recent article about the BNP. Indeed Claire unwittingly is actually calling for censorship of those who oppose the BNP; and she […]

  14. Brittancus says:

    Illegal Immigration effects everybody, your taxes, your jobs, your language, your culture, your moral integrity, your religion. YOU CAN MAKE AN IMMENSE DIFFERENCE? Being an AMERICAN I’m aware of the national press that uses propaganda, to alienate anybody that doesn’t agree with their ideals. All relatives in London who for generations have voted conservative. Have joined the British National Party (BNP) as they see no ending to the corruption in the other parties, or the unfettered legal or illegal immigration. They are adamant of removing the pestilence call Islamic intervention in their own religious faith, specially when their own Archbishop of Canterbury said they should embrace their laws. This is outrageous to the indigenous British peoples. This will eventually lead to riots and violence in the streets, that is the harbinger of any forced AMNESTY on the American people. Viva BNP!