When the British National Party finally managed two successes in the June 2009 European Elections, the mainstream media reaction was one of astonishment followed by intense curiosity and soul searching. This was a UK version of the 2002 success of the Front National in France, when Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to get through the first round of the presidential elections. Most commentators at the time attributed Le Pen’s success to the general disaffection with politics, while those on the left lamented the fact that the “false” issues stirred up by the hard right (the foreign threat, Islamic contamination, etc.) appealed much more to voters than the “real” issues (neo-liberal economic exploitation, uneven globalization, etc). There was a collective sigh of relief when Le Pen was overwhelmingly defeated in the second round, but the subsequent rise of the hard right in the UK can only continue to serve as a source of frustration at the impotence of the left.
Perhaps the most opprobrious aspect of the BNP is the racism dressed up as the struggle for the preservation of the “indigenous” population. By indigenous they mean the earliest settlers to the British Isles, including the migrations of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and “closely related kindred peoples”. This indigenous population is also sometimes referred to as the aboriginal peoples of Britain, just like the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Notwithstanding the likelihood that few of the nearly one million who voted BNP would be inclined to call themselves aborigines, to compare the demand for English racial purity to the colonial persecution of the Australian aboriginal peoples is rather distasteful to say the least. Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, claims that it is neither he nor the Party that is racist, but all those who would see the eventual annihilation of the “original” British peoples through cultural and genetic contamination. He claims he is not trying to provoke racial hatred but to improve racial harmony through segregation and, where appropriate, repatriation. What he fails to see is that the demand for racial purity is itself an exemplary form of racism. It is the petrification of identity, the fear and loathing of becoming other, and of course a basis for ethnic cleansing and war.
Attempts have already been made (and are indeed ongoing at the time of writing) to pursue legal challenges against the BNP. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have threatened, amongst other things, to sue the Party for their whites only policy on Party membership under section 25 of the Race Relations Act 1976, which outlaws discrimination by associations. The irony is that the BNP may have a good case under section 26 of the Act which allows an exception “if the main object of the association is to enable the benefits of membership (whatever they may be) to be enjoyed by persons of a particular racial group …”. While this section may have been aimed at the protection of ethnic minority community associations, no doubt the BNP will argue that the British “indigenous” peoples constitute a “particular racial group” within the meaning of the Act.
Whatever the outcome, the resort to formal legal processes is a good example of an activity that does something but ultimately changes nothing. Legalism is just as impotent as the current political left at addressing the underlying problems. Even if the Equality and Human Rights Commission succeeds in its litigation, racism will continue within a society where latent political energy is unable to be channelled in more productive directions. As the late Labour MP Maurice Foley remarked in the parliamentary debate leading up to the Race Relations Act: “Whatever form legislation eventually takes, it will never be the complete answer. Discrimination stems from an attitude of mind. Its eradication must depend ultimately on an understanding of its causes and on a process of education whereby we can create a climate of opinion in which it cannot exist” (HC Deb 27 May 1966 vol 729 cc 923–51).
Perhaps, then, those on the left ought to focus on the underlying social reality that manages to be seduced by the rhetoric of extreme nationalism. The BNP may rely on political issues that are false and distracting, but underneath, the desire of many voters for a sense of common identity around which to articulate social and political struggles is very real. It is no longer enough to rely solely on class-based economic solidarity. The left should actively promote a common identity beyond this; one that encourages people to identify with others not only in economic terms, but also in cultural and historical ones. But rather than allow this common identity to distract from the material conditions of political struggle, it should be made to help focus on them. The aim should be to hear people say, in their own way of course, “I am proud to belong to a particular culturohistorical constellation. This doesn’t prevent me from seeing the real issues, it actually helps me to do so because in the end I also appreciate my identity for what it ultimately is, namely perfectly contingent and continually evolving”. The challenge is to inspire a common identity that can come to terms with, and even embrace, its inherent lack of absolute ground. One way to do this, perhaps, is to promote a self-deprecating and self-effacing patriotism.