BNP Puts Down Roots As Mainstream Parties Respond With Fear And Fascination – Column 24.10.09
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 24.10.09
BY SOME STRANGE chance, the week of the hugely controversial Question Time appearance by the British National Party leader Nick Griffin was also a week when two theatres in Edinburgh offered up shows which seek to imagine what evil might look like, if it were made flesh. At the Royal Lyceum, you can see the young anti-hero of James Hogg’s mighty 19th century novel The Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner being stalked by his demonic familiar spirit Gil-Martin. And at the Traverse, in the touring show for teenagers The Curse Of The Demeter, you can watch the crew of the ship in which Count Dracula and his vampires made their famous journey to England responding in a telling range of ways to the evil they begin to sense in their midst; with fear or disbelief, insidious fascination, or brave resistance.
As we all now know, of course, Nick Griffin is not nearly as seductive a devil as either Dracula or Gilmartin; he lacks the brains and the style, although he obviously likes to indulge in a bit of shape-changing. But there is a kind of evil, no doubt, in the very nature of his political project, which aims to take hold of the deepest economic and social fears of ordinary white Britons, and to turn them against other groups even more vulnerable than themselves, largely identified by race and skin-colour. It’s a contemptible project, as stupid as it is ugly-minded. And it’s by our response to that evil that we will be judged, over the next decade.
So how are we doing, two days on from Griffin’s roasting at the hands of a Question Time audience of furious west Londoners? Not spectacularly well, is the short answer. Almost all mainstream politicians, of course – and many members of the public – are willing to sound off in smug and self-righteous terms about their rejection of the BNP’s views; the leader in this field, this week, was perhaps the SNP’s Mike Russell, who indulged in a particularly ill-judged form of political point-scoring by implying – absurdly enough, given the statistics on racist and ethnic attacks in this country – that Scots are somehow immune to the BNP virus. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a lot of bluster, some telling silences, and mounting evidence that many mainstream politicians are so frightened of the BNP’s arguments, and so fascinated by their apparent popular appeal, that they can barely produce any coherent response at all.
On the question of the position of women, for example – and of the reactionary views on gender and homosexuality held by many Muslim communities – no member of Thursday’s Question Time panel offered much of a comment, despite a direct question from the audience. In fact, it is nonsense for politicians like Griffin to suggest that this problem is peculiar to Islam, particularly in a week when some sections of the Church of England were loudly welcoming the Pope’s offer of a form of communion that would allow them to continue to treat women as spiritual inferiors. But no member of the panel had either the nous or the nerve to point out that full equality for women is something that tends to happen in defiance of old-time religion, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish; and that it has nothing to do with the intrinsic teachings of the faiths themselves, which in each case are capable of both reactionary and liberal interpretations.
The argument over the role of women is a sideshow, though, compared with the one on the central issue of migration and employment; for here, the mainstream parties tend to concede 90% of the ground to the BNP before the debate even begins, by never contesting their central and flawed assertion that immigrants somehow cost Britain more than they contribute. Essentially, what has happened in the British labour market over the last 15 years is that millions of migrants have arrived, eager to work, and that their impact on the economy as a whole has been positive, particularly in terms of unattractive jobs filled, and taxes paid.
The problem, though, is that down in the low-wage badlands of the British economy, where British-born workers are forced to compete with incomers for what are junk jobs even at best, their willingness to work for a relative pittance naturally causes bad feeling, exacerbated by the fact that no mainstream party now dares to suggest reversing the labour market “reforms” which permit this kind of exploitation. On the contrary, they seem determined to extend them further; just look at “Prince of Darkness” Peter Mandelson and his Tory opposite number siding with the Royal Mail management in their attempt to smash the postal workers’ union, and you will see in a single image – more elegantly satanic than anything Nick Griffin can offer - the living reason why some voters are turning to the BNP.
The BNP are therefore sadly right when they hint that the ranting of mainstream politicians against racism has an inauthentic sound. Racism is a great evil; but it is not more evil than the kind of blatant economic injustice that is now rife in our society, and which our government is apparently both powerless and unwilling to prevent. And in refusing to confront that central form of injustice, our mainstream politicians are beginning, tragically, to bring into disrepute those struggles for equality which they do embrace. Look at the history of the 1930’s, if you need a reminder of how quickly economic misery can turn into bitter fascism. And then consider how the history of that decade might have turned out, if there had been no socialists offering a different kind of working-class politics, on the streets and in parliament. Because thanks to Peter Mandelson and his generation of politicians, there are precious few socialists around now; only a vast abandoned space on what was once the left of British politics, where Nick Griffin and his boys are beginning to put down roots.