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The BNP - Why Would One Fifth Of Britain Look Again

Mal Fletcher
Posted 25 October 2009
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The furore surrounding BNP leader Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time last week was followed by the stunning news that, in a poll taken after the BBC programme, a full 22 percent of Britons would now 'seriously consider' voting for the BNP in a future election.

A percentage of these people, I think, would have been reacting to the way the TV programme was structured. Some viewers would have found the programme unsettling not so much because it revealed Griffin's fascist views - these had been well publicised and castigated by the press for months - but because panelists and moderator alike seemed intent on doing nothing more than publicly humiliating the BNP leader.

Although there were revealing moments, the 'debate' was more about heat than light.

Trying to use broadcasting as some kind of substitute for public lynching is dangerous. For one thing, it carries with it the possibility that the audience may actually empathize with the plight, if not the policies, of the intended victim. Besides, it seems that Griffin doesn't need a lot of help in the humiliation stakes. His arguments were often tenuous, rambling and self-pitying in their tone - and that's being kind.

It would have been useful for the pollsters to add a follow-up question: 'Did you feel that Nick Griffin was treated fairly on Question Time?' Once you removed people who answered 'yes' to this, you'd likely be left with a much smaller percentage who're thinking they may favour the BNP for their policies or history.

Of course, it took only a relatively small swing to the BNP to give them two seats in the European Parliament in June. If we want to avoid a repeat of that in the forthcoming general election, we must identify the reasons why anyone outside the xenophobic fringe would countenance a vote for the BNP.

Two of the most obvious factors are public fear and disenchantment.

Freud rightly said that fear is exacerbated by social aggravation. People can quite literally talk each other into a state of fear while chatting over the water cooler at work, or during a dinner party. Right now, recession is the subject of a good deal of lunch-room chatter and a cause of major aggravation.

Figures released last week show that Britain is still in recession while most other developed nations, certainly in Europe, have now moved beyond it. For people here, this is especially galling because the government claimed that we were better placed than most of our neighbours to deal with the post-crunch slowdown.

Recessions play very well for radical political parties, because they allow a vent for people's short-term fears.

There is fear in the medium term, too; this has more to do with the rapid pace of change in modern life. Ours is the age of impermanence, where perhaps the only thing that doesn't change is change itself.

Change has never been comfortable for the human psyche. Walter Bagehot wrote that, 'The greatest pain to human nature is the pain of a new idea.' If that's true, the times we live in are painful indeed.

The fear of dramatic change, the unsettling of the status quo that we know and understand, is at the root of some of the support enjoyed by radical groups like the BNP. Some people will transmute a fear of the unknown into a fear of the different, including xenophobia.

The BNP has also gained support because of public disenchantment with mainstream politics and politicians. All parties share some of the blame for this, not least in the aftermath of the ongoing expenses scandal. Yet the governing party has most to answer for, on two fronts.

For one, Labour has largely abandoned its core constituency in working class areas, leaving them without a voice and healthy prey for the cynical and manipulative rhetoric of the BNP. It may be true that the working class has shrunk, being swallowed up by an aspirational middle class, but recession has a way of bringing aspirations down with a thud.

Secondly, during its years in government Labour has undertaken a major exercise in social engineering. Speaking late last week, a former Downing Street advisor said that the government threw open the doors to immigration because it wanted to make Britain more diverse.

Since the birth of the new EU, Britain has allowed more migrants from Eastern Europe than any other European nation. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing - people from all cultures bring with them skills and a cultural identity that can deeply enrich our own. Yet the signs are that perhaps the government hasn't thought strategically enough about how to integrate these people into mainstream British life and to bring public opinion along with the process.

The vast majority of people in the UK, I think, value the benefits of a multi-cultural society. They acknowledge the cultural richness it brings and wouldn't want to turn back the clock. Yet, many would still like to see more discussion about the management of immigration and how immigrants can be integrated without needing to totally subsume their cultural identity.

When it comes to immigration, we need less talk about tolerance and more about respect. Tolerance often assumes a superior attitude. 'Look at me,' it says. 'Notice how tolerant I am of you, even though you are in some ways inferior to me.' It feeds a sense of smugness.

Respect, on the other hand, assumes at the very least a level playing field, an equal footing and at best an upward looking posture. It sees what is best in the other culture and what it might learn through a closer association.

The government has, until recently, largely taken immigration off the table as a debatable issue. Aided by some sections of the media, it has even tried to make any discussion of immigration management appear as if it were motivated by intolerance or racism.

In closing down any immigration debate, the government has effectively sent some people to the fringes of politics, in search of someone who will give voice to their concerns. Sadly, they end up in the camp of groups like the BNP who hide their true intentions behind a tissue-thin mask of respectability.

If we're to stamp out the impact of neo-fascism, we need politicians who will show courage in addressing such sensitive issues in a positive, forward-looking, balanced and respectful way.

All of these factors have a bearing on any increase in support for the BNP. Yet there is one more that plays a greater role still.

For more than a generation, British culture - Western culture generally - has lived with liberal values driven by moral relativism. This philosophy, which came into its own in the post-war years, preaches that morals are fluid; they change according to the time and circumstance.

This applies to individual morality as well as the moral values of a society.

Antonia Senior, writing in The Times last Friday, had this to say on the subject: 'Moral relativism, as philosophies go, is just so nice. It's a shame then, that it is also incoherent, logically flawed and utterly tired. Few philosophers take it seriously any more. Yet having escaped the ivory towers, it has taken on a life independent of the theorists. It sits at the heart of our society like a jolly, beaming tumour, eating away at our ability to take on the BNP and their ilk.'

The relativist's position, she adds, is that all cultural views are equally valid, 'unless your culture is that of a white, male racist. In which case, you are wrong and the relativists are right, despite the fact there is no objective right and wrong, only cultural practices.' It doesn't take the philosophical equivalent of a rocket scientist to see the incoherence in this.

Relativism silences us when we most need to be debating, speaking out and demanding answers. It provides a seedbed for groups like the BNP, because many people feel a deep sense of frustration, a sense that our society is morally adrift. For them, it's as if we are without a compass in the midst of a storm of change.

In 2006 the then head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt said: 'In the Cold War, the threats to this country were about armies rolling in. Threats now are not territorial but to the values of our country... Once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind.'

Unless we're willing to stop apologising for the basic moral tenets that made our society viable and strong in the past - without turning back the clock in terms of our cultural mix - the foundations of personal responsibility and community life will continue to be eroded. In the process we will swing the door ever wider for extremists like Mr. Griffin and his band of not-so-merry men.




What’s your view?

Do you feel that neo-fascism is on the rise in today's world?

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No

Keywords: fascism | BNP | Griffin | Question Time

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