The election of two British National Party MEPs owes as much to new forms of racism in mainstream politics as to alienation from the Labour Party.
Over the last few years, much of liberal England has given up on the idea that racism is a significant social problem. Instead the real problem is taken to be social fragmentation exacerbated by multiculturalism. For every mention of institutional racism, we have heard a thousand references to the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’, ‘Muslim self-segregation’ and the need for ‘integration’. Hence the official bodies established to tackle racism, however ineffectually, have been dismantled: the Commission for Racial Equality has been subsumed into a more nebulous Equality and Human Rights Commission, local racial equality councils have been pressured into reinventing themselves as promoters of assimilation and community-based anti-racist organisations have had their funding removed on the grounds that they cater exclusively to the needs of minority groups. Defending these trends, figures such as Trevor Phillips have argued that the real issue is not racism but ‘separatism’ and the solution is the imposition of a cohesive British national identity.
But racism did not go away – it simply changed its shape. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, along with new forms of immigration, have been the pretexts for racism to reinvent itself. We should not be diverted from this reality by the fact that skin colour is no longer the sole basis for this new racism. Race was always socially constructed from colour; that today’s racism, in new social conditions, takes culture or religion as its raw materials does not make it any less real for its victims. While Nick Griffin’s BNP has been quick to understand this – and focus its campaigning on Muslims and asylum seekers – many liberals remain trapped in old thinking that, over the last decade, has repeatedly played into the BNP’s hands.
In the newspapers, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria has been a daily diet. Meanwhile New Labour politicians have attempted to cover up the impact of neoliberal globalisation on the working class by borrowing nationalist rhetoric from the far Right. ‘British jobs for British workers’ was a BNP slogan before it was used by Gordon Brown. Years of New Labour borrowing from BNP nationalism has simply fuelled its steady rise, as New Labour’s message and the BNP’s have converged ever closer and issues of nationality, multiculturalism and immigration have dominated the political agenda. In New Labour circles, it is no longer ‘polite’ to point out that blaming immigrants for the housing crisis might be a racist argument, or even a mistaken argument. Instead, it is seen (patronisingly) as a legitimate expression of ‘White working class identity’. ‘Recognising’ this identity then becomes a convenient alternative to actually providing proper council housing. Meanwhile, by exploiting the gap between New Labour’s nationalist rhetoric and its globalist neoliberal policies, the BNP has gone from no elected representatives in 1997, to sixteen councillors by 2003, to two MEPs today – representing a party whose aim is ‘restoring … the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948’.
To interpret support for the BNP as a protest vote against New Labour for its abandonment of the White working class is therefore to see only part of the picture. For what the size of the BNP vote measures is not White working-class alienation per se but the extent to which that alienation has been co-opted by a right-wing politics of national identity. And that is not something that the BNP has been able to achieve by itself. Instead, centre-Left politicians and pundits have ably assisted for years.
Those who oppose the BNP will be most likely to reverse its rise if they now return to some home truths: Britain continues to have a problem of racism and the BNP’s success is fuelled by racial sentiment across our political culture. For mainstream politics to continue to legitimise the BNP’s anti-immigrant message, borrow from it or pretend it does not exist will prove to be counter-productive.