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