The election of the BNP to the London Assembly threatens clear thinking across the political board
I sent this one-word text message to a member of the Tory high command as the results from the local elections came in and it became apparent that what had seemed almost impossible a few months ago had come to pass — Boris Johnson would be the next mayor of London.
“I think you mean cripes!” came the reply.
I have to admit it. It doesn’t reflect particularly well on me as a human being, but there it is. I took pleasure in Ken Livingstone’s defeat the other night. I was delighted to see him go down.
I read Jonathan Freedland in this paper a couple of weeks back making a case for Ken, and you can’t read Freedland without at least pausing. But I must say that, ahem, I didn’t pause as long as I have done on other occasions.
Ken Livingstone spent my money — my money — welcoming Yusuf al-Qaradawi to City Hall as an honoured guest. He knew what he was doing. He did it largely to annoy Jews. From playing footsie with the Workers Revolutionary Party, to his involvement with the fiercely anti-Zionist Labour Herald newspaper, annoying Jews has been a big theme of Livingstone’s career.
Well, congratulations, Ken. You
But even with Livingstone’s departure, I couldn’t fully enjoy the results from City Hall. For alongside Boris’s triumph there came disaster. A member of the British National Party was elected to the London Assembly.
The combination of their scoring 130,000 votes and gaining office is a genuine and unprecedented calamity. In the early 1970s, of course, the National Front began to make advances. Yet even at their peak — before collapsing due to an internal dispute over which of them should be Führer — they did not win office like this.
It is true that being a party-list member of the London Assembly is not like being a member of the Senate of the United States of America. The powers are extremely limited. In normal circumstances, it is hard for an assembly member to command attention of any kind. So why do I believe this BNP victory to be a calamity?
First, because the new member can act a rallying point for neo-Fascists.
On London’s Carlton House Terrace, there is a tiny grave marked “Giro”. It contains the remains of the dog that had belonged to the ambassador from Nazi Germany. It is the only British soil the Nazis managed to conquer. Now there will be a space in City Hall too. You can expect the BNP to make full use of this.
The second reason that it is a calamity is that the new post will provide a rallying point for extreme opponents of the BNP.
Since the 1930s, opposition to Fascism has been a recruiting technique for the far left. Along with the BNP, expect to see the Socialist Workers Party (who have time on their hands after their hilarious split with George Galloway) with their placards outside City Hall.
One might be tempted to welcome the presence of such doughty fighters except for this — their aim is not to fight Fascism so much as to advance their own cause. They want an atmosphere in which violent upheaval is possible. One tool will be to press for restrictions on free speech, ostensibly aimed at the BNP but in fact designed to restrict the freedom of expression of everyone who disagrees with them.
This may seem an odd thing to say, but parties like the Socialist Workers Party have made supporters of Israel a particular target. Over the last 30 years, the extreme left has been at least as big a threat to our community as parties like the BNP, especially after their alliance with extremist members of the Muslim community.
The third reason it might prove a calamity is that it might prevent clear thinking on multiculturalism.
In the 1970s, three things destroyed the National Front. The first was the way the Thatcher government tackled Britain’s economic problems, the second was the Nationality Act that closed down the immigration issue, the third was the way that peer pressure was exerted by campaigns like Rock Against Racism. Under this pressure, the NF collapsed.
If the rise of the BNP deters the mainstream parties from discussing immigration in a measured and sensible way, and makes them frightened to argue that people who come to this country must make an effort to integrate, then the extremists will gain.
For some time it has been possible to believe that the BNP was not a real danger to the Jewish community. Yes it was bad, but it wasn’t a serious force.
I don’t think we can take such a relaxed view any more.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times