‘Voltaire never saw concentration camps’
Tim Black reports from a radical-left anti-BNP rally at which free speech was denounced as ‘nonsense’.
To misquote that old reactionary Edmund Burke’s famous line (I might as well, given it’s used to the point of cliché in relation to Nazism), all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men, or better still those in charge of programming at the BBC, do nothing to stop a racist inadequate from appearing on a televised debate.
This at least was the logic employed throughout last night’s public rally at London’s Conway Hall in protest at the appearance of British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s flagship political debate show, Question Time. Given the rally was organised by Unite Against Fascism (UAF), the consensus among the 200 or so present was predictable: ‘swine-fascist’ Griffin should definitely not be allowed to appear on the BBC, let alone something as prestigious as Question Time. It will give the BNP – and this was the refrain of the night – legitimacy. ‘The BBC is giving the message that it is legitimate to spout racist views’, stormed Hugh Lanning, deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union.
If Griffin appears on national TV, the speakers were clear about what would happen. According to Weyman Bennett of UAF: ‘There is going to be violence. More mosques will be attacked, there’ll be more racist violence on the street.’ Former London mayor Ken Livingstone, in a message read out to the meeting, agreed. ‘Hate attacks on the street will increase.’ The only way to stop the march of fascism is, as Lanning put it, to stop the BNP from getting ‘their views over to millions of people… The BBC say they can’t ban anything, but they have a watershed for F-words. So why not one for fascists, 24-7.’
What about free speech? What about that hoary old Voltairean dictum, I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it? The chair Sabby Dhalu seemed almost annoyed by the idea. ‘This freedom of speech argument is nonsense’, she complained, ‘it’s the BNP who are against free speech, not the UAF. The first thing fascists do when they get power is to smash freedom of speech.’ Or as Bennett put it, ‘Voltaire did not see the concentration camps being built’.
So there you have it. Griffin’s appearance on the BBC will transform the viewing public into mosque-attacking racists. Which, given that the speakers also constantly complained that Griffin would try to conceal his fascism, is more than a little perplexing. ‘The very way in which fascists approach the electorate, as history shows, is duplicitous’, said the poet Michael Rosen. They are very clever, he continued: they use acceptable, slippery words like security, identity
and democracy, while under their pillows there are heavily annotated editions of Mein Kampf.
Griffin is of course duplicitous. His child-like desperation to be a proper, adult politician has seen him talk like one, employing whatever is the mainstream political argot of the day, be it environmentalist or multicultural, and sprinkling it with a bit of MPs’ expenses-style cynicism. All of which does raise a question: by not saying what he allegedly means, how will he create a cauldron of race hate? Will he frustrate racists into action? Is the public, seemingly deemed too stupid to resist open racist arguments, simultaneously deemed too clever not to indulge in incredible feats of fascist cryptography?
Yet this is the problem with the call to ban Griffin from Question Time. It implies that we the public are not capable of dealing with freedom of speech and open debate. We need to be protected from certain arguments and points of view, the merest hints of which will send us racist. The public here is viewed as a child-like mass, incapable of resisting the sinister adult advances of people like Griffin. Could we be more condescended to? The idea that the two million people watching Question Time will suddenly go Nazi because some whites-only crank is on the panel is as absurd as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg hoping two million people will suddenly go Lib Dem because Chris Huhne is sat there too. Monkey see, monkey do, goes the thinking.
Except we the public aren’t monkeys unthinkingly responding to external stimuli. As members of a putatively democratic society, we’re active subjects, citizens, capable of rationally assessing arguments, of rejecting some parts and agreeing with others. That so many, from the UAF to Welsh secretary Peter Hain, are investing Griffin with such miraculous powers of persuasion says more about a lack of confidence in their own arguments than it does about Nick ‘Cicero’ Griffin.
Giving the public a little credit, however, is the last thing UAF and their friends in high places are capable of doing. For contemporary anti-fascism is not really anything to do with struggling against fascism. Rather, the recourse to the popular front against the Nazis of the 1930s and 40s draws upon that period’s aura, its Good War ambience, as a way of providing today’s ruling elite with a semblance of legitimacy, a readymade moral authority to be donned in these politically uncertain times. While they don’t know what they’re for, they know what they’re against: fascism. Being against alleged fascism, and especially the BNP, has become a central prop for the British state.
Every institution, no matter how hollowed out, finds some purpose in being opposed to racists and fascists, whether it’s the police or, even more absurdly, the army. Hence this week we’ve witnessed the ridiculous spectacle of the British Army attacking the BNP for using images of the Spitfires and Winston Churchill in its campaign material for the European elections: ‘We call on all those who seek to hijack the good name of the British military for their own advantage to cease and desist.’ Yes, this is the same British Army, a body of armed men employed by the British state to defend and assert British interests, that is currently shooting ‘rag heads’ in Afghanistan. News satire magazine The Daily Mash captured the absurdity well: ‘RACISTS UNDERMINING ARMY’S MISSION TO KILL BROWN PEOPLE.’
Is it any surprise that the BNP has been raiding the Second World War, the Good War, for iconography, given the whole anti-fascist, anti-Nazi mission of the British establishment uses the same resource to bolster its flagging authority? Little wonder that the UAF rally seemed marked by a desperate nostalgia. While people from the floor stood up to proclaim their lineage stretched back to Cable Street, Rosen cut to the chase, arguing that Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 30s was ‘not dissimilar to Britain now’.
So let’s take a look at the contemporary fascist behemoth that is the BNP, bestriding the UK like a jack-booted colossus. Such is their strength, that, according to a leaked membership list, in certain parliamentary constituencies membership figures stray easily into double figures. There they are in the North West strongholds of Halifax (76), Pendle (92). And down in the south of England, they’ve 67 in Epping Forest and 71 in Ropchford and Southend East. In total, they’ve about 11,000 members, about the same number of people who turn up to support Queens Park Rangers each week.
Just as the BNP do not herald a new wave of 1930s fascism, so Britain in 2009 is not a country ravaged by 1930s anti-Semitism or indeed racism more broadly. But so desperate are today’s rulers – and radicals – to find a purpose and authority that they need the BNP to be the fascist spectre of their wet-nightmares. Being anti-, just being against, is increasingly important for a state that struggles to say what it’s for.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.