If there’s one thing far worse than the BNP…

...it is using a botched political prosecution of that far-right party as another stick to beat free speech and jury trials.

The state stages a transparent politically-motivated trial of weak opponents, in order to lay down the law on the limits of official tolerance. Unfortunately the authorities fail to persuade the jury, which finds the dissident politicians not guilty. In response to this embarrassing failure to get their way, government ministers declare that the law must be changed, in order to ensure that their enemies are found guilty of crimes against society next time.

To some, this might sound like the stuff of a police state in a ‘banana republic’, or perhaps of the sort of dystopian futuristic drama beloved of the BBC. But in fact it is what happened in the UK last week, when the leader of the British National Party was cleared of stirring up racial hatred by attacking Islam, and New Labour ministers had an authoritarian tantrum in response.

(However, it is funny you should mention the BBC, as the broadcasting corporation was heavily involved in this little piece of real-world political theatre – scarier than anything seen in its conspiracy dramas.)

The case was prompted by an undercover BBC documentary. The BBC secretly filmed a meeting of BNP supporters, during which Nick Griffin, the party leader, condemned Islam as ‘a wicked, vicious faith’. In the media-inspired furore that followed, Griffin and Mark Collett, BNP publicity director, were charged with incitement to racial hatred. Griffin repeated his views on Islam from the dock. After their first trial, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Last Friday a second jury found them both not guilty.

On hearing of this disgraceful display of independent thinking by the jurors of Yorkshire, New Labour and the rest of the anti-racist establishment immediately threw all of its toys out of the pram. No less a figure than chancellor Gordon Brown, prime minister in waiting and a man not noted for hot-blooded political speeches, immediately intimated to the BBC that this sort of thing would not be tolerated on his watch. ‘I think any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country and I think we have got to do whatever we can to root it out from whatever quarter it comes. And if that means we have got to look at the laws again, then we will have to do so.’

Other New Labour ministers were quick to join the chorus, while one anti-racist campaign condemned the verdict as ‘a travesty of justice’ because ‘the BNP are guilty of inciting racial hatred’, as if the party should have been on trial for its views in general, rather than Griffin for anything specific he might have said or done. Insiders pointed out that the government’s attempt to introduce a tough law against incitement to religious hatred had been defeated earlier this year; surely the failure of this prosecution for incitement to racial hatred proved that law was needed now? And there were mutterings about the problem of trying such cases before unreliable juries – particularly when, as almost every report made clear, this was an ‘all-white’ jury.

Here on spiked we have no sympathy or time for racists. But this carry-on is far more worrying than anything the BNP might say. The political motives behind the prosecution were transparent. First the BBC played its self-appointed role as broadcasting wing of the Commission for Racial Equality, with a programme clearly scripted to ‘expose’ the fact that the BNP is not a friend of immigrants and Islam (shock horror!). Then the state stepped in and announced the decision to prosecute the BNP pair the day before the launch of last year’s General Election campaign – a campaign in which bashing the BNP became a ploy for all the major parties to demonstrate their decency. It now seems that even West Yorkshire police were concerned that this heavy-handed exercise would present the BNP with a ‘no-lose opportunity’, whatever the eventual outcome of the trial.

If there is one thing worse (and a lot worse) than the feeble far-right, it is the state using that little political faction as the pretext for another political clampdown on liberty and democracy. After all, it is not the BNP that is now planning to introduce new laws further to limit freedom of expression, laying down new rules about what we are allowed to say about religion, or floating ideas in high places about the ‘problem’ of jury trials. Griffin can only vent his illiberal prejudices at private meetings of his party activists. The government has the power to try to turn its illiberal prejudices into public custom and law.

Chancellor Brown’s statement that we cannot tolerate opinions which ‘offend mainstream opinion in this country’ sums up the outlook of the political class today. There is a powerful mood of conformism, of intolerant tolerance, an attitude of ‘You cannot say THAT!’ which seeks to restrict the terms of public debate. And in this climate, offending what is deemed to be ‘the mainstream’ often seems to be considered the worst offence of all. You can have all the ‘diversity’ you want, so long as it does not diverge too far from the centre. The mainstream is the only stream in town (see The age of intolerant tolerance, by Mick Hume).

As we have consistently argued on spiked, however, free speech is not divisible. Expression cannot be half-free. And the ‘freedom’ to say only what does not offend the mainstream is no freedom at all. Indeed, as champions of free speech from Mill to Orwell have long pointed out, it is only the fringe, ‘extreme’ or unconventional opinions that need protecting – mainstream opinion is quite capable of looking after itself.

If defending fully free speech is important as a general principle, it is also politically vital in the particular circumstances of today. The unresolved problems of division and tension in our society are not going to be addressed by burying them underground and forcing everybody to abide by an empty etiquette of tolerance. That is simply storing up more explosive trouble for the future. We need genuine tolerance that allows the expression of views with which you vehemently disagree, more clear opinions and sharp debate not less, a no-holds barred argument about the sort of society in which we want to live. That must involve the liberty to criticise Islam, Christianity or any other religion as wrong or even ‘wicked’ – the freedom for Griffin and the BNP to attack Islam, for Muslim radicals to denounce the Pope, or for Sir Elton John to call for a ban on all religion as homophobic. It also, of course, includes the freedom of religious types to tell the likes of me that we are going to hell.

The law on incitement is a dangerous instrument that needs to be handled with great care even when it applies to a real crime such as murder. When we are dealing with racial or religious hatred, however, incitement laws have no place. It is a peculiar situation where feeling hatred itself is, quite rightly, not a crime, but incitement to that non-crime can itself be deemed a criminal offence. The criminal law is here intruding into the realm of ideas and thought-policing, and it should be shown the door again. If a racist instructs somebody to go and attack a mosque, and hands him the petrol can, he should be held responsible. But if somebody were to hear the likes of Nick Griffin say Islam is wicked, and then takes it into his head to launch such an attack, the speaker cannot be held to account for the actions of another. However unpleasant words might be, we need to insist upon the distinction between speech and deed (see ‘Free speech’ is more than a slogan, by Dolan Cummings).

I recall a case from America a few years ago, where a racist firebrand who told a crowd of (largely armed) supporters that America would be better off without blacks and Jews was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder. As his defence lawyers argued, in a free society, so long as we are dealing with words rather than violent actions, people should be free to hate.

As I always have to insist at this point, we are not interested in upholding any human right to be racist. This is not primarily about Griffin and Co, it is about freedom for the rest of us – our liberty to listen to all of the arguments, stupid as well as sensible, and judge the truth for ourselves. That is the freedom the authorities now seem to fear most of all. The venom that they direct against the BNP reflects their fear that the simpleton white working classes are putty in the hands of such rabble-rousers. Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, backed Brown’s call for a change in the law after last week’s case, on the ground that ‘what is being said to young Muslim people of this country is that we as a country are anti-Islam and we have got to demonstrate without compromising freedom that we are not’. It sounded as if he was suggesting that the BNP speaks for Britons! Solution? Shut them up – without compromising freedom, of course.

Whatever else it might be the BNP does not represent Nazism on the march. Indeed, in some ways it embodies an eccentric version of the fashionable political attitudes of the age: Griffin has welcomed the rise of the politics of ethnic diversity, in which whites vote BNP while Muslims vote RESPECT, and both he and Collett emerged from court wearing blue ribbons for their cause.

The BNP is an empty receptacle for the disaffection of sections of the white working class who have never read its programme, but feel intensely alienated from the mainstream of the political class. And this cack-handed attempt to crack down on its views from on high will hardly alter that state of affairs. Indeed, the tragedy is that the BNP has now been able to claim the high ground as the champion of free speech. It will have turned many a stomach to see Griffin standing on the steps of the court boasting that ‘They can’t take our FREEDOM!’ But the government’s response – to threaten to change the law to do just that – is more sickening, and can only make matters far worse.

It is high time we had a campaign for free speech and genuine tolerance, in defence of jury trials and democracy, and against illiberalism in all its forms, whether it is directed at immigrants or white voters. No doubt that might ‘offend mainstream opinion’, and upset New Labour as well as the BNP. But it’s a free country – isn’t it?

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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