Doing fascists a favour
The left's 'No Platform' policy has elevated the BNP.
The election of three British National Party (BNP) local councillors in Burnley on 2 May 2002 has heightened the debate around ‘no platform for fascists’.
Many have argued that interviews with, or features on, BNP spokesmen makes the far-right party appear ‘respectable’ and therefore more electable. Such concerns have escalated since the rioting in Oldham in summer 2001, when the BBC’s flagship current affairs programmes, Radio 4’s Today and BBC2’s Newsnight, were slammed for interviewing BNP chairman Nick Griffin. ‘The BBC has now become the in-house journal for the BNP’, said Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. ‘The BBC is lending a hand in legitimising racism.’ (1)
Some commentators, like the Guardian‘s Jackie Ashley, are particularly unsettled by ‘how successful the BNP has been in insinuating itself into parts of mainstream media’. She continued: ‘Last week the London Evening Standard carried what read like a lifestyle article about an ordinary couple of BNP candidates.’ (2) Others have suggested that the BNP’s recent electoral success is because it is ‘more adept at courting the media than it has been in the past’ (3).
So has recent media coverage given the BNP newfound respectability?
The far right has always found it very difficult to be fascist and be respectable. Aside from wheeling out ex-public schoolboys in suits, British fascists have hopped on to every soft campaign going, such as environmentalism, animal rights and opposing the Poll Tax, in the hope of appearing in touch with mainstream concerns. The BNP’s latest initiative – banging the anti-globalisation drum – might be giving May Day protestors the sweats, but such transparent posturings only reveal how isolated and irrelevant the party is.
Yet there’s one arena where the BNP can appear ‘respectable’ by doing very little: and that’s an as unlikely champion of free speech and democracy. After a decade of the left demanding state bans on far-right organisations, closures of their shops and sackings of their members – all hallmarks of authoritarianism – the BNP can appear ‘moderate’ and level-headed by comparison. ‘When I came to Leeds University I joined the Free Speech society to fight political correctness’, said 21-year-old Business student and BNP member Mark Collett. ‘Then a BNP speaker got expelled which I thought was absurd.’ (4)
The more the left has pursued an hysterical anti-fascist campaign, the more its emphasis on ‘no platform’ has revealed a snobbish distrust of the electorate – and the more the BNP can bogusly pose as champions of ‘the people’. As Today programme editor and Guardian columnist Rod Liddle put it: ‘The image that the BNP promotes there is of a brave, campaigning party.… Like the people they claim to represent, they are the victimized underdog, excluded from the political process.’ (5)
It is doubtful whether many would even have been aware of the BNP’s existence without the left’s tireless promotion. As it has turned out, voting BNP has become a way of giving two fingers to the establishment.
The left’s anti-fascist campaigning has also made the BNP newsworthy. Having built the BNP up as a terrifying threat, it’s hardly surprising that press and TV are curious to see what all the blather is about. But with race now centre-stage of political discussion, you’d expect this to be a big opportunity to challenge the far-right and racism. Not a chance. The left lacks confidence in its arguments on race and racism, and is convinced that the far-right have enormous powers of persuasion. Consequently, it hides behind ‘no platform’ to evade political contest.
As such, free speech and open debate have come to be seen as massively problematic. The anti-fascist campaigns of the past 10 years haven’t directly combated racism, but instead demand that the state closely dictates political life. As veteran protest singer songwriter Billy Bragg puts it in the forthcoming documentary The Punk Years: ‘Looking back I can’t believe that the National Front was even allowed to march in the first place.’ By hailing state bans as a ‘victory’, the left is more or less arguing that it is free speech, not racism, that’s the problem.
For the vast majority of people, and even for those who voted BNP, it will never become a ‘respectable’ party. Far from being a threat, the far-right – like its tamer, mainstream counterpart – are too discredited, too much of a cranky bunch to ever be taken seriously. No amount of soft-focus campaigns or earnest statements that ‘we like Muslims, honestly’ can alter that.
Yet if the left believed in themselves more, and were less scared of the ‘ignorant mob’, who’d need to worry about the BNP appearing more respectable than they are? If Nick Griffin enjoys print profiles and Newsnight interviews, it’s only because the left refuses to engage in political debate. And so long as the left continues to hammer free speech and democracy, even a bunch of boneheads like the BNP can appear respectable and electable.
Neil Davenport is a film and music journalist for Uncut magazine.
spiked-issue: Free speech
Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Guardian, 9 September 2001
(2) Guardian, 1 May 2002
(3) Guardian, 4 May 2002
(4) Guardian, 1 May 2002
(5) Guardian, 17 April 2002
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