This is a guest post by Garvan Walshe
International terrorism and the economic downturn have created a perfect storm for the BNP. The mainstream parties, and independent campaigns like Hope not Hate are doing battle with the fascists in the upcoming local and European elections. Their work is crucial: a seat in the European Parliament can multiply the resources available to a small party.
But it is not enough.
The BNP is trying to evolve into something closer to a continental far right party. Out go the messages (though not the reality) of racial discrimination; in come nationalist identity politics and hostility to immigration – ideas, unlike racism, that echo across the political spectrum.
Both main parties sound ever-tougher on immigration. They point out that the most recent wave of immigrants came from Eastern Europe – it’s not racist to oppose immigration, we’re against white immigrants too!
The Prime Minister’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan has given ugly economic nationalism untold legitimacy. Meanwhile the Conservatives, still supposedly the party of the free market, insist that Whitehall bureaucrats can divine the ‘right’ number of immigrants to let in. Those that do squeeze in are loaded with extra imposts. We have a ‘migrant surcharge’ that raises very little money but makes the Government look ‘tough,’ and an ‘Australian-style’ points system: foreign policies for foreign workers.
Asylum seekers fare as serfs in this hierarchy. Banned form working and given benefits so derisory that many have to survive on less than £1 a day while their cases are ‘processed’ by a bureaucracy of Soviet efficiency.
Newspapers grow rich denouncing them as spongers and tax evaders. Defenders of these tough policies, if sometimes uncomfortable about their content, protest that they need to draw the sting of the BNP, just as Sarkozy did with the French National Front.
They may have drawn the sting of the old far-right, but have legitimised the discourse of the new.
A NATION-STATE NO MORE?
The days of the Hegelian nation state, based on the three unities of land, people and language are over. International travel is now so inexpensive and communication so downright cheap that it’s far easier for immigrants to stay in touch with their families, their culture, and the politics of ‘the old country’ than that German philosopher could have imagined. Nor is it the same permanent journey. Leaving the Russian Steppe after the latest pogrom, or fleeing poverty in Connemara, you knew that your journey working passage to Ellis Island was final. Even thirty years ago a plane ticket from New Zealand to London cost as much the average Kiwi’s annual salary. But now you can check up on the family crops in Sylhet with a webcam, or watch the same TV as your brother in Bogotá.
Dual loyalty used to be an accusation levelled at Jews. Now it’s a fact of life for millions of people living in Western countries. We need to get used to it. People with close ties to other countries have always carried their
politics with them; now those links are even stronger.
Much of the indigenous population gets increasingly nervous at this – they react with outrage to opinion polls that reveal this or that percentage saying they are ‘Muslim first’ rather than ‘British first.’ (That question
itself is mad –perhaps they should poll the men who used to work on trading floors: ‘are you a man first or a banker first?’)
Britain’s minority population has been growing. But the vast majority of the country is still white. Quite a few live in towns, or areas of towns, where they mainly see black or brown faces on TV. They only occasionally visit
multiethnic metropolitan Britain, and more often than not they hear only second-hand tales of this ‘foreign land’.
If they talk about race or immigration they know they’ll be censured for overstepping the boundaries but don’t really know where the metropolitan elite has drawn them. To many of this group, Nixon would have called it the ‘silent majority,’ ‘multiculturalism’ means they have lost what they thought was their country. Now, during the recession, people who live in districts taken for granted by the mainstream parties, who feel abandoned by a national elite culture that comes across as ‘political correctness gone mad’ (how many times do you hear that phrase while canvassing!), may begin to look elsewhere.
CORPORATISM AND IDENTITY POLITICS
Meanwhile the form that British multiculturalism has taken has encouraged minority identity politics too. Though they never institutionalised Netherlandish ‘pillars,’ the British state and political elite easily adopted a kind of informal corporatism. Minorities were divided into ‘communities’ and ‘community leaders’ would represent them. This had advantages – it was certainly better than just demanding assimilation and elevating the occasional darker-skinned or foreign-accented token to a public role; it was cheap; it didn’t require busy politicians and officials to develop detailed knowledge of one community or another; and it gave opportunities for ambitious and energetic members of ethnic minorities to set themselves up as intermediaries between their community and the state.
But it has led at best to fragmentation, and at worst to those parallel lives about which Ted Cantle, surveying the riots in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham in 2001, despaired.
Then once in a while there emerges a major political issue. One so large that the normal relations between government and community leaders are overwhelmed by the larger calculations of mainstream politics.
Normally, the Government can ‘deliver’ for the community leader in those relatively limited areas when the public as a whole – which frequently holds a rather different view — doesn’t notice. Government Ministers wouldn’t be human if they didn’t over-promise, and so they find the people they had so assiduously cultivated often resent them when mainstream politics intrudes.
This befell Mike O’Brien, then a Minister, who, writing in Muslim Weekly in the run-up to the 2005 election, explained how the government had ‘delivered’ for Muslims by producing a bill on incitement to religious hatred. The Muslim Council of Britain – a grand name expressing hope more than reality of communal representation – had hoped that the Muslim religion would be treated in law like a race, and that it would become criminal to attack it.
But religion is not like a race – you can choose which religion to follow and in a free society religious belief should be subject to argument. The new law generated so much opposition from artists and writers, comedians and
lawyers that even a Government with a majority of more than sixty lost the vote. That law would have overturned a fundamental principle of British political society. The Government could have explained that ‘freedom of
speech is a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy and a core value of the Labour party so we are afraid we will not countenance your proposed law,’ but instead tried to sneak the change in on grounds of
‘preventing terrorism.’ The MCB’s followers (actually only a small proportion of Muslims) felt betrayed; while many non-Muslims saw their ignorant prejudice, that Islam and liberal society were inherently incompatible, bolstered.
We see this happen almost every time a Muslim-related story appears in the press. It is as if Anti-Muslim and Islamist fanatics had concluded a secret pact. Just last month, the Daily Express led with the story ‘Muslim
Schools Ban Our Culture’ feeding both anti-Muslim bigotry and a sense among many Muslims that theywere under siege from an Islamophobic media.
Immigration policy has fallen into a similar trap. In reality, immigrants have the same economic effect as a new child born here: they add a new person to the workforce – except that another country has already paid to
educate them. If immigration damaged a country’s economy, the United States wouldn’t be the richest and most powerful country in the world.
This is a hard case to make. Instead politicians ask too much of border controls. As long as differences in wealth and political conditions are so large, and travel so cheap, there is little a free society can do to stop people overstaying their visas or smuggling themselves into the UK. Tough immigration controls probably do reduce migration at the margins (they can’t affect migrants from other EU countries or foreign students, without which higher education would collapse), but are expensive as well as harsh. They divert income away from the immigrants (who if legal could be taxed) towards criminal people-smuggling gangs (who cannot). Yet too many politicians would rather pander; and insist that they can deliver ‘British jobs for British workers’ or set a limit to immigration.
When this, inevitably, fails, the BNP just needs to say – ‘they won’t reduce immigration; we will.’
The BNP combine fears about immigration with scares of foreign cultural domination. They stir. Then add a generous helping of paranoia about Islam to the mix.
How should we stop them? There are some who say, in effect, that we must destroy multiculturalism in order to save it. ‘If you come and live here you must accept “Britishness” – not primarily because it’s good, though we
think it is, but because that’s the way we do things here.’
I don’t think that’s quite a fair demand – not least because nobody seems to know what ‘Britishness’ is, but also because in a democracy you can take part in changing the system, and so in deciding what Britishness should be.
Instead we need to be clearer about the values on which our liberal society is based, and build a ‘civic multiculturalism’ to deepen engagement with all Britain’s communities based on the values of liberal parliamentary
democracy. We need to persuade people to share them, if possible because they believe them, if necessary because that’s the best way to have a peaceful, multi-ethnic society. A lot of this won’t be about making laws,
but about establishing a consensus of civil identity. What should its core be? I don’t propose to come up with an answer here but I think several questions arise.
Tolerance and respect for differences are important: what do we mean by them? Can it be more than a kind of armistice – that I live my life and you live yours; as long as we all obey the law what I do is none of your business? We live in a democracy, so you could be expected to try to change the law to make it more hospitable to your way of life and less to mine. The BNP, for instance, want to ban interracial relationships. They say they will limit themselves to democratic methods. Some religious groups call for the extension of the blasphemy law to cover all religions and demand that it should be strictly enforced. Others suggest that sexist religious courts (which would also look askance at interreligious marriage) should adjudicate marriage and divorce between members of the same religion. How should we oppose such ideas? If abiding by the law is not enough, how should we persuade people to adopt these fundamental values of a liberal society? How much cultural autonomy can equality allow? How do we ensure that nobody is seen to get ‘special treatment,’ provoking resentment in others?
In a country – and particularly in cities like London – where many citizens have strong cultural and family ties to other states, what does it mean to be British? Even people who don’t actually have more than one passport often feel they belong at least partly to more country. Britain hasn’t quite got the same handle on hyphenation as the United States. There you are civilly ‘-American’ even if culturally also something else. Would that work here, and what are the alternatives?
Finally how will it play in Pontefract? For too long a liberal elite has been contemptuous of ‘Middle Englanders who cling to their Daily Mails and pints of Carling’ – how should the case for civic multiculturalism not fall
into that trap?