In the UK we recently had a heated debate over a decision by the BBC to invite the MEP and leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, onto Question Time [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nft24]. The BBC argued that as the party won two seats in the 2009 European elections it was appropriate for Griffin to take part. The recording led to anti-fascist protests outside, several arrests and a tripling of the audience to more than eight million. Why did the appearance of a single politician generate so much interest?
The BNP is a ‘whites only’ party: membership is open only to ‘indigenous British ethnic groups’, though this may change after a ruling that the constitution broke the Race Relations Act. The party wants to stop all immigration and to introduce voluntary repatriation for British citizens of ‘foreign descent’. Griffin himself is a controversial figure, having been convicted of incitement to racial hatred in 1998. He is opposed to multiculturalism, presenting himself as spokesman for the white British working class and defending ‘traditional values’ against a ‘dominant liberal elite’. The BNP manifesto asserts that, ‘We, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority within our own country within 60 years’ [http://bnp.org.uk/policies/]. And for good measure, the party also sees anthropogenic climate change as the ‘theology of the liberal elite’, rejecting ‘the CO2/Global Warming myth’. Which at least sounds contemporary, albeit just wrong.
The BNP has tried to move into the political mainstream to be taken seriously as a respectable choice for voters. It no longer talks of distinct biological races but of ethnic groups and minorities. It has dropped explicit reference to superior and inferior races, favouring the language of ‘equal but separate’ cultural groups. This softening of a previously harsh and intemperate language illustrates the sociological thesis of a move away from old forms of racism, rooted in ideas of the natural superiority of whites and the inferior intelligence of other ‘races’, towards a ‘new racism’ that emphasises cultural factors and how these militate against an ‘artificial’ multiculturalism. The BNP, for example, claims that Islam is incompatible with British society and its ‘Christian values’, such as ‘freedom of speech and equal rights for women’. The notion that free speech and equal rights are in some way basic or exclusively Christian is of course ludicrous, as all sociology students will know. Feminists campaigned tirelessly to shift ‘Christian societies’ towards accepting their equal rights demands.
Nonetheless, the BNP has had some electoral success over recent years, particularly in areas that have previously experienced community tensions and unrest, as in the 2001 riots in Oldham, Bolton and Bradford. But we can see this improved political standing as the product of a quite complex set of circumstances. A ‘racialized’ political debate on immigration numbers played out in the mass media has certainly helped create an impression that the UK has an unsustainable population and positively discriminates in favour of both legal and illegal immigrants. The BNP’s stark immigration policy then offers a simplified if totally unrealistic alternative to the very similar policies of the main parties. In some established working-class communities where new migrants tend to settle, the party has been relatively successful as ‘insiders’ worry about the influence of ‘outsiders’. The present economic downturn and rising unemployment have also played their part, with some seeing recent migrants as ‘taking our jobs’. Such unjustified social scapegoating during difficult times is quite common. Added to these factors is something new, the effect of terrorism in the name of Islam since at least 2001. So-called ‘Islamic Terrorism’ has allowed racists, both new and old, to frame their message of racial and cultural conflict in a way that would not have been understandable even 15 years ago. Nick Griffin, for instance, has described Islam as a ‘wicked, evil faith’ and often refers to the ‘creeping Islamification of Britain’ in an attempt to link violent terrorism with all Muslims. Sociologists have to provide sober, reasoned and evidence-based assessments of such wild claims.
The BNP won two seats in the European parliament, but this was achieved on a national share of just 6.4% of the vote in a low turnout, mainly due to the collapse of support for the Labour Party. Still, this represented a rise from the 4.9% achieved in 2004. In the regions where the party won its seats, its vote actually went down compared to 2004, by almost 3,000 votes in Griffin’s North West constituency and more than 6,000 in Yorkshire and the Humber [http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/politics/domestic_politics/factcheck+how+many+bnp+votes/3203777]. The BNP also has around 56 councillors, which is less than 1% of all UK elected councillors, as well as one member of the London Assembly, who polled around 130,000 votes, just reaching the 5% threshold (5.3%). Finally, the party’s membership numbers only around 12,000 and is concentrated in the East Midlands and Essex [http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/oct/20/bnp-membership-list-analysis]. In sum, the BNP remains quite a small political party.
This doesn’t mean the party can be ignored, but the media interest in and airtime devoted to the BNP is far greater than its level of support deserves. This is especially noticeable if we compare the media presence of the BNP with other smaller parties, like the Green Party, which scarcely breaks the surface of mainstream media. In a 2006 study of the BNP’s electoral appeal, researchers found that levels of BNP support were highest in predominantly white rather than multicultural areas, contrary to the commonsense assumption of cultural or ‘racial’ conflict feeding racist attitudes. In mainly white areas where there is little contact with non-white people, information about the latter tends to be gleaned from media sources and the latter tend to work with broad social stereotypes. It is in this context that the row over the BBC’s Question Time can placed. It is true that the show gave the BNP what Margaret Thatcher once called ‘the oxygen of publicity’; but it also allowed the audience and other panellists to challenge the stereotypes and crude scapegoating that are the hallmarks of racist discourse, new and old. If only this trend would spread to fictional representations of ethnic groups as well.
Chapter 15 is the obvious place to start your further reading here. However, there is much discussion of ethnicity, racism and media representations in the book including race and education (pp. 850-3), nationalism and ethnicity (pp. 1035-45), media and inequalities (pp. 759-62), new terrorism (pp. 1057-62).