BNP leader, Nick Griffin
The members table in the venerable Pall Mall club sounded bewildered. “We’ve always invited ambassadors and high commissioners to join regardless of country!” exclaimed one diner sipping his claret. “I can’t think of any golf club that has ever turned away a Jew,” said another, cutting into a rib eye steak. Race relations being of the best, why should 120,139 voters elect a couple of “fascist, racist thugs” (as David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, called them) to the European Parliament?
The men whose election “sickened” Cameron and which Harriet Harman, the Labour Party’s deputy leader, calls “horrific”, are Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons of the British National Party. But clubland had got the wrong end of the stick. The BNP doesn’t accuse Britain of being illiberal. On the contrary, its complaint is that Britain is far too liberal for its own good. Like our Bharatiya Janata Party, it feels that the majority community is hard done by.
“There is a huge amount of racism in this country,” Griffin says. He doesn’t mean that abuse is hurled at women shrouded from top to toe in black with only slits for their eyes or at turbanned Sikhs. Quite the contrary. It’s the peaches-and-cream English rose that faces extinction in England’s green and pleasant land. “Overwhelmingly,” Griffin laments, racism “is directed against the indigenous British majority.” The argument sounds familiar. BJP leaders blame “minorityism”; the charge here is against “multiculturalism”.
At one level, I must confess to a sneaking sympathy for the grievance. I asked a young assistant in Tesco, the grocery supermarket, if there was an express counter where, with only two small purchases, I could avoid the long queues of shoppers with overflowing trolleys at all the counters. The boy looked at me as if I was asking for the moon, jabbered away in some Latin lingo and beckoned to a mate. Equally disapproving, the second boy pointed to the crowded cash machines and said, “There!” When I repeated my need, he shook his head decisively, said, “No!” and again pointed to the crowds, repeating “There” like a master in an institution for the challenged to a particularly backward but persistent boy. I spent 45 minutes in the queue and, when I reached the cashier, asked — in Bengali since most Tesco employees are Bangladeshis — if there was no other way. “There!” he also said, pointing to a sign reading “Five items or less”.
There’s also the immigrant doctor I know who insists on speaking to me in an English I can barely understand. I have tried many times to beguile him into Bengali but he has lived in a Midlands town for 20 years and is proudly English. I mentioned him to an English friend who replied, “Now you know what we have to put up with because of the government’s open-door immigration policy.”
Does that mean I shall make a beeline for the nearest BNP office? Or would if I were a British subject? No. First, they wouldn’t have me. While the BJP flaunts one or two Muslims, the BNP is closed to African or Asian Britons. Griffin and Brons (ironically, of German descent) justify exclusiveness by saying they can’t join the Black Police Officers Association either. Second — and more important, however plausible the BNP’s complaints might sound, pandering to them could have grave consequences for the quality of life in what is still one of the most comfortable countries in the world for foreigners.
Jawaharlal Nehru believed, following Sartre whose views were formed by France’s Dreyfus tragedy, that the communalism of the majority is what we should worry about. Like the BJP, the BNP represents the majority, albeit a small and misguided section of it. That is why its success sends shivers down the spine of ordinary people who see it as a foot in the door of intolerance.
True, the BNP position has always exerted a certain appeal at the top and bottom rungs of British society. Sir Oswald Mosley, the aristocratic National Front leader whose followers affected black shirts, was jailed during World War II. His movement was reborn on Hitler’s birthday in 1960 as the National Socialist Movement. Earlier eras also saw “Paki-bashing” in London and “dot-busting” (attacks on Indians) in the American state of New Jersey. But like Australia’s “curry-bashing”, these were mob outbursts, not considered political action. The BNP has never won a parliamentary election in a Britain that sent Dadabhoy Naoroji to the Commons and regards Shapurji Saklatvala and Krishna Menon as figures in its political pantheon.
Its success could be part of a trend that includes campaigns against Muslims, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and immigrants elsewhere in Europe. Simultaneously, some Americans accuse Barack Obama’s nominee for the supreme court, Sonia Sotomayor, a woman of Puerto Rican descent, of “reverse racism”. Obama himself, of course, made even more momentous history, so that current global politics is witnessing two contrary trends. To add to the confusion, “Danny the Red”, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, charismatic former revolutionary of the Paris barricades, is also now a member of the European Parliament.
Sixty years ago this week George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, his chilling novel about the shape of things to come, which popularized telling concepts like “Doubletalk” and “Newspeak”. This is also the 65th anniversary of the World War II’s D-day when the fathers of today’s Britons went to fight Nazism. “Now we are sending Nazis to Europe,” lamented a newspaper reader.
Both MEPs are tarred by court convictions for racist demagoguery. Brons has taken part in meetings chanting “Rights for Whites” and “If they’re Black, send them Back!” that were associated with attacks on synagogues. He accuses “a group of Asian paedophiles” of sexually exploiting young white girls. Cambridge-educated Griffin is younger, more restrained and probably shrewder.
MEP status lends them respectability. They can link up with 23 other like-minded European MEPs to form an official parliamentary pressure group. They will not lack money. Taking into account individual salaries of more than £80,000, they will receive a bumper £4 million and be able to set up offices in Strasbourg and Brussels.
Can these advantages be exploited to launch a wider movement in Britain? The answer to that disturbing thought lies in how the government copes with its challenges. Britain is in deep recession, with factories closing down and jobs lost, the National Health Service facing a £15 billion shortfall, the scandal-ridden Labour Party squabbling in disarray and Peter Mandelson fighting for Gordon Brown’s survival. Brown has done himself little good by taking back into the government Shahid Malik, who quit as justice minister because of fraud allegations.
Every rumour is credible at such a time. People believe, for instance, that Britain is burdened with 100,000 asylum-seekers annually when the figure is only 25,000. Another survey showed that many young people brand asylum-seekers as “uneducated”, “hostile”, “lazy” and “cowardly”. Prejudice is based on stereotypes that feed on ignorance. People believe that South Asians batten on the welfare services when surveys show they use facilities the least.
The BNP’s solutions to major national problems are simplistic if patriotic. It promises to celebrate St George’s Day and a “Christian Christmas”. But if St George existed at all, he was no Englishman but a foreigner of dubious antecedents. As for a “Christian Christmas”, British business earnings would suffer disastrously if the commerce were taken out of Christmas. However, race is an emotive issue that can tap into popular discontent. Even pelting Griffin and Brons with eggs which are rather more messy than chappals can reinforce their sense of victimhood, as a Labour politician warns.
But clubland needn’t worry. As testified by Her Majesty’s designated representative to Calcutta, Britain’s destiny is coffee-coloured, as the Times (London) once predicted. The BNP’s is a cry in the wilderness. Only the wilderness may be strewn with more than broken eggs and perhaps even spattered with blood.