Gareth Young (Lewes, CEP): Upon reading Frank Field’s Speech to the University of Hertfordshire one Campaign for an English Parliament member told me that “the fact that Frank Field had made the threat of the BNP central to the article taints the English Question in the way we have fought so hard for it not to be”.
For a pressure group like the CEP, who make the constitutional case for an English parliament to represent all the people of England as one people, it is obviously disappointing to have our cause linked to immigration and the rise of the BNP. But for Frank, who looks through Labour eyes, The English Question is about addressing the practical results of devolution and Labour’s failure to discuss English issues. For Frank The English Question is not so much about a popular sovereignty that allows the English to decide how they are governed, in fact he barely mentions that. Instead it is a list of English grievances, symptoms of Labour’s failure, and the rumbling discontent that will cost Labour votes.
The dangers for Labour of failing to lead the debate are perhaps even greater. That conclusion may come about not simply by the Tories being generally accepted by voters as the English Party. An even worse outcome would be for Labour to concede to the BNP yet another issue – along with immigration – with which to appeal to Labour’s core voters. If this was allowed to happen we would then begin to witness what a future historian might call The Unnecessary Death of Labour England?
My first contact with the BNP came at eighteen, as a young dreadlocked and politically naive student at Leicester University, when I went down to Leicester market to demonstrate against a stall that was selling denial of the Holocaust books and distributing white supremecist literature. Leicester Market promoted itself as the largest permanent open-air market in Europe, it was a congenial and fun place to shop, a place where people of different races and religions set up shop alongside each other to trade. And as far as I was concerned this stall was most definitely not welcome. Our demonstration took the form of a human barrier between the public and the BNP stall. It was a disruptive but peaceful demonstration. Until, that is, a van load of booted and suited - and frankly very scary - thugs turned up in a van and the police were forced to intervene, disperse the combatants, and eventually close the stall down.
Today, we are told, the BNP has cleaned up it’s act. And it does appear that the public face of the BNP has benefited from a PR exercise that David Cameron himself would be proud of. The BNP are a party reborn, to such an extent that BNP Councillor, Michael Coleman, can claim that:
“The BNP is the new Labour Party, but we are nationalists as well so we’ve got a patriotic, nationalist and socialist stance.”
The BNP have always been nationalists - British nationalists - but these days their supporters are asked to prioritise the bringing of the national flags of England, Scotland and Wales over the Union Flag at demos and rallies. And disturbingly their leaflets in England now have echoes of the CEP’s literature:
For years after Leicester I had no contact with the BNP, until one day in June 2005 when my blog at the Campaign for an English Parliament website provoked a response from the BNP’s Legal Eagle, Lee Barnes.
We in the BNP will create an English Parliament for the indigenous English people themselves. The British State and its political structures will be the sole political representative bodies for all those of non-indigenous Anglo-Saxon English descent in England. Those from non-indigenous English and immigrant backgrounds should only be able to vote for parties and to stand for election in political institutions that are British, and never indigenous English. The English must first awaken and then rule over themselves. The BNP will form a Council of the Isles for the various Folk Parliaments of Britain to send elected representatives to participate in the proceedings of the British State, but only those that define themselves as indigenous English must and will have the right to form an English Parliament that recognises their ancestral rights over the lands of England and their right to self define and identify themselves as the indigenous English Folk of this land.
In comments that he subsequently left on the CEP blog Lee Barnes expanded upon his ideas by telling us that suitability for election to his Volk Parliament would be determined by genetic testing, and so too would the suitability of the electorate themselves. It was a suggestion that sparked understandable outrage. The ensuing flame war that occurred between the civic nationalists of the CEP and the ethnic nationalists of the BNP was nasty, but it was for me the zenith of the CEP News Blog because the exchanges were the opening salvo in the battle between two alternative visions of what England should be. It is a battle that Frank Field has now joined, as a representative of a reluctant Labour Party that, for reasons of political expediency, do not want to take part in any debate on Englishness.
My contact with the BNP has not ended. Over the last two years, as organiser of the Witanagemot Club (for bloggers that support an English parliament), I have received increasingly regular emails from BNP bloggers requesting membership. Their applications are always refused. The BNP’s support for an English parliament is pure naked opportunism, it is a means to a morally repugnant end.
Unfortunately New Labour’s support for an English parliament, when it comes, will not be on any sound ideological ethical basis; instead it will be a political reaction to the political opportunism of the BNP and the Conservative Party, who, it is feared, will make English interests their own.
The fact that Labour MPs now consider their failure to address The English Question as an electoral liability is a small victory for the Campaign for an English Parliament. But it will be a short-lived and hollow victory if a English Votes, or English Pauses for English Clauses, is imposed from on high, as a knee-jerk response to anxieties about the BNP or the collapse of Britishness.
The question confronting those that take a less partisan view is whether we should focus on promoting Britishness or Englishness as an inclusive shared identity. At present Britishness finds greatest resonance among non-white groups, but ignoring Englishness leaves it open to ethnicisation by the far right. The single biggest step in creating a shared inclusive Englishness is for everybody - regardless of ethnicity, race or religion - to be a stakeholder in England through the ballot box. This means creating an English parliament and government so that Englishness is constitutional. Until such time our anger should be directed not at the BNP, but at the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties whose lack of an English manifesto and mandate has allowed the BNP to jump on the populist bandwagon in an attempt to appropriate English nationalism for their own. As the BNP’s response to Frank Field’s speech correctly points out, it is a “debate that few in the Lib-Lab-Con cabal seek to confront”.
The official BNP line on an English parliament, as espoused by their chairman Nick Griffin, can be read in this reproduction of his column in the BNP’s “Idenity” Magazine. This version does not betray their true intent.