The appearance of the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, on BBC's Question Time would have been unthinkable a few years ago, yet that is what happened last Thursday. Despite the controversy surrounding his appearance on the show, there is no denying the fact that his party has achieved a certain amount of success lately. While some people, like Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, a veteran anti-Apartheid campaigner, were opposed to giving Mr Griffin such a prestigious platform, opinion polls showed that the majority of the public were in favour of him appearing on the show because, after all, the BNP had done well in the European elections in June, getting nearly a million votes. Indeed, the BNP is now able to get enough votes that it can no longer be ignored.
Hundreds of anti-fascist protestors, most of them white, vented their disgust and anger outside BBC TV Centre in west London before the show began. Griffin was exposed for the racist, homophobic, anti-Islamic, Nazi sympathising bigot he is as he came under intense scrutiny in front of a largely hostile audience. In other countries, the appearance of a politician or spokesperson from the political far right does not cause such outcry. In India, for instance, it is quite common for members of the extremist Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to appear in the mainstream media. However, in such countries, there is a greater acceptance of views deemed to be at the far right of domestic public opinion.
An opinion poll soon after Question Time showed 22% of people ‘might' vote for the BNP. This should not be interpreted as a surge in support for the party as similar polls over the last few years have consistently shown that around a fifth of people are attracted to vote for the BNP. As research shows (see "The British National Party: the roots of its appeal" published by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and provided online by OurKingdom), there is support for the BNP's message, rather than the party itself, from a significant portion of the white working class. Apart from the BNP's anti-immigration and anti-Islamic stand, which resonates with them, there is the anger about the perceived failure of mainstream political parties to engage with them. Over the last couple of decades a deeply unequal society, in which social mobility is the lowest since the 1920s, has emerged. At the bottom is a group of people dependent on benefits or surviving on low wages in which levels of family breakdown, educational underachievement, crime, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and voluntary unemployment are rife.
Immigration is a subject that evokes strong feelings as it always has. Since Labour came to power in 1997, levels of immigration into Britain have reached record levels. Last year there was a net immigration of 118,000 to Britain, down from 237,000 in 2007, which is almost a tenfold increase on the figure when I came in 1979 as a young boy. Although generally immigrants have contributed positively to the economy one cannot ignore the drawbacks too. The wages of low skilled indigenous workers have hardly risen due to cheap immigrant labour, and public services such as schools and social housing have come under considerable strain. For a largely homogenous country like Britain, immigration also presents challenges regarding integration of people from many different ethnic backgrounds.
As well as race, immigration also raises issues about religion. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 sent shivers down the backs of many people in Britain, and have contributed to an increased "Islamophobia" in society. Muslim extremists such as Anjem Choudhary brazenly call for the Queen and all Brits to convert to Islam, and want to bring about "a pure Islamic State with Sharia Law in Britain". These extremists are a small but very noisy crowd who get a disproportional amount of media attention. It is not difficult to see why some white people might see Nick Griffin as a countervailing force against Islamic extremists in this country.
All the media attention regarding Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time will only work in favour of the BNP. Extremists of all hues thrive on publicity, and whenever they get it they misuse it to propagate their fears and bigoted ideas. The more publicity they get, the greater the chances of psychological success. The BNP's success has not come about simply by its own making; it has come about due to the failures of mainstream parties, as well as pandering to the rhetoric of the far right. "British jobs for British workers" was a slogan used by the BNP before being adopted by Gordon Brown.
Dealing with the issues outlined here are necessary to tackling the rise of the BNP. Immigration is probably the most straightforward to deal with, by having a robust but fair policy, which is something the government initiated last year with the introduction of the Australian-style points system. Dealing with the other issues is more challenging and complex. It would be a mistake to dismiss the recent success of the BNP as a flash in the pan. Society is changing and policy makers need to take note. Of course there are some people who are genuinely racist and will always vote for the BNP. It would be naive to think racism is simply a thing of the past, as much as we would like to. However, by dealing effectively with the issues outlined here, and without adopting its rhetoric, I think the wings of the far right can once again be clipped.