BNP teacher ban a slippery slope
A campaign for a BNP teacher ban smacks of the thought police; people should not be punished for their private thoughts, however repugnant, argues Brendan O’Neill
28 May 10

A campaign for a BNP teacher ban smacks of the thought police; people should not be punished for their private thoughts, however repugnant, argues Brendan O’Neill

One of the central pillars of a free, democratic society is that people should never be penalised or discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs. The state and society have the right to demand that all of us obey the law and perform our public duties to a high standard, but they have no right to tell us what to think; they have no right to invade our minds or to exclude us from the public realm on the basis that we have the “wrong beliefs”.

Yet today, trade union officials and apparently liberal commentators seem determined to demolish this pillar of democracy. They want members of the British National Party to be denied the right to teach in schools, not because they are professionally unfit, or lack the right qualifications, or have been recorded making racist speeches to their pupils, but because their private thoughts, their personal belief systems, are deemed to be unacceptable. This is a new kind of McCarthyism, aimed at the far right rather than the far left.

On Tuesday, the General Teaching Council cleared Adam Walker, a former teacher and BNP activist, of racial and religious intolerance. While he was a teacher in Sunderland in 2007, Walker had used a school laptop to post vile comments in an online forum. He described immigrants as “savage animals” and said Britain had become a “dumping ground for the filth of the third world”. It was nasty stuff, yet the GTC said its main concern is the fact that Walker had used school property during school times for personal reasons — which it has every right to be concerned about —  rather than the idea that he is unfit to teach because he is racially intolerant.

Some commentators are outraged. Joseph Harker at the Guardian scoffs at the idea that “it is okay to have BNP members teaching our kids” and hopes that our new prime minister, David Cameron, will sort this problem out. After all, Cameron once said: “Any good headteacher would not have a member of the BNP within a hundred miles of a school. They should be able to fire someone for that reason.” This echoes last year’s claim by a group of GTC members that “it is not possible, in our view, for a BNP member to be a registered teacher”.

The extraordinary intolerance and illiberalism of these arguments seems to have passed people by. Discriminating against individuals on the basis of their beliefs is no better than discriminating against them on the basis of their religion or sexuality. Commentators are calling for “BNP teachers” to be banned from teaching in schools not on the basis that they are failing to stick to the curriculum or have attempted to indoctrinate students with racist thinking —which would indeed call into question their professional capabilities — but simply because, in everyday life, outside of the classroom, they adhere to a political belief system that many of us find obnoxious.

Bizarrely, many of the anti-“BNP teacher” campaigners justify their arguments in the language of “rights” and “diversity”. Harker says every parent has the “fundamental right” to know that their child is not being taught by a racist, while some GTC members justify their opposition to “BNP teachers” on the basis that their presence in schools is “fundamentally inconsistent with the ethos [of diversity]”.

This is a warped and Orwellian use of language. In the name of “parents’ rights”, the real rights of adults to believe what they want and to not be punished for it by the state is being undermined. For all their talk about “celebrating diversity”, teaching officials are sending the clear message that there are limits to diversity— it cannot possibly include, for example, allowing individuals whose views are judged to be beyond the pale to work in the education sector.

However much these commentators and activists try to hide behind the language of rights and tolerance, there’s no disguising the fact that they are explicitly arguing for the policing of people’s thoughts and the state-enforced exclusion of people from the public sector if their thoughts are deemed unpalatable. Treating individuals as sub-citizens simply because they support a certain political party is far more anti-democratic than anything the BNP has yet come up with.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked Online