A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Bowing down to big oil altar

Shell and its apologists are wriggling as usual in their attempts to pass off £3.2b nillion profit over the last three months as entirely reasonable. They deny that it is motorists in Britain who contribute, through previously unseen forecourt petrol prices, to this level of profits, insisting that half of their bonanza comes from extracting the oil, and selling it on the wholesale market. Maybe it does, but 25% of it comes from refining, distribution and retail, which is a not inconsiderable slice of the cake. In any case, the oil transnational companies' ploy of dividing up their operations into the various stages from exploration to the petrol pump is simply a means of obfuscating the obscene level of their profits. It is similar to the game played by the gas and electricity privateers, which blame the price that they are forced to charge on the upstream costs that they have to bear. They don't mention that each company has its own wholesale operation which maximises its profits by charging the ultimate price to the parent company's subsidiary further down the line. It's almost like value added tax, with every single transaction bringing an additional cost. But, whereas VAT ends up in the exchequer, the ratcheted-up costs of the gas, electricity and oil companies pour a profits stream of flood-like proportions into the pockets of shareholders.

Those who claim that energy markets are highly competitive are living in another world. These markets are dominated by an oligopoly, into which it is virtually impossible for new companies to break. Even if they give the impression of challenging each other for contracts, their commanding positions in the marketplace guarantee their continued, very profitable domination. Nor is it true that Shell and the other oil majors have to have this level of profits to either search for new oil fields or to diversify into renewables. Shell is, in fact, investing less in exploration than previously and it has retreated from its fine words on renewables of a decade ago to concentrate on environmentally damaging projects such as the exploitation of Canada's oil sands. Disregard the cuddly, nice-to-be-with sunshine adverts of the oil transnationals. They are all as single-minded as ever to control the globe's scarce hydrocarbon reserves, even if it takes invasions of sovereign states, as in Iraq, and their sole priority is the well-being of shareholders. As Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley intimates, that should not be acceptable to the people of this country or to its government. New Labour has been too soft by half on big business, holding down its share of taxation, slashing corporation tax and refusing to increase income tax on the super-rich who benefit disproportionately from the profits bonanza. And this at a time when Gordon Brown and his cloned Chancellor Alistair Darling miss no opportunity to impose below-inflation pay settlements on public-service staff and to lecture low-paid workers on the need to rein in their demands. An immediate windfall tax on Shell's obscene profits could help to plug the yawning gap in the government's tax income, but the only long-term solution to this problem is to bring these oligopolies into public ownership.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Education not for sale

Michael Gove has been drawing some of the details onto the Tories' fuzzy "people power" poster. The big question is, which people, what power? The answer is - not you. Instead, Gove's mates will get the power to take money away from your children. The Tory manifesto says it will copy Sweden's "free schools programme," allowing parents to set up their own schools with government money. This month the Tories admitted the obvious - that "any parent can take the money," but they will take the money from somewhere else. A new "free school" will not be free for the Local Education Authority - cash will drain away from existing schools to fund Gove's new toys. And where will the money go? The manifesto says that new schools can be "founded by foundations, charities and others." We need to ask the same question they always ask in that TV programme Lost. "Who are the others?" In the television show, "the others" are a malevolent and sinister group of settlers who harass and manipulate the unfortunates marooned on the tropical island. On Gove Island "the others" are an even more malevolent and manipulative group - Cameron's business chums.

Aspirational consumer parents on the Toby Young model will front the new people power schools. But the actual running of the school can be passed to for-profit companies - which must interest John Nash and his wife Caroline. They have given the Tories £177,500 since 2006. Nash runs Sovereign Capital, a private equity firm specialising in investments in private school companies. So far he has failed to get his hands on a state academy school due to worries about his Tory and business links; Gove as minister would change all that. Look at the wider Tories' education policy and you'll see they plan to revive the policies of one of the least successful Tory ministers of the Major years. John Patten, education minister between 1992 and 1994, was so ineffectual that most people confuse him with former environment secretary Chris Patten. Chris was the blond one who became governor of Hong Kong. John was the one with brown hair in a kind of Brideshead floppy style. John Patten always had trouble making the right impression, according to his former girlfriend, author Lucinda Lambton. She said that, when he walked into the same room as her in the 1990s, she had "felt sick" and "had to leave" as he had been "repellently smooth." She told a friend: "In my greasy past, he is the biggest grease spot of all." She also described Patten as "the slimiest skeleton in my cupboard."

He made an unpleasant mark in education as well. First he made a fool of himself by describing leading educationalist Tim Brighouse as a "nutter." Brighouse sued for defamation and Patten had to pay out £100,000. Patten then tried to take on the teaching unions - and failed. In his autobiography former PM John Major wrote that Patten was "rather worn down by it," to the point where "his health suffered and I decided he needed a sabbatical." Patten was widely rumoured to have suffered a nervous breakdown, and the minister could be heard mumbling that heaven and hell should have a more prominent place on the school curriculum to scare children into better behaviour. Major sacked Patten and sent him to the back benches, his ministerial career over. And now the Tories want to revive all his disastrous schemes. Patten wanted schools to "opt out" of local authority control. He didn't want democratically elected local councils running schools. Instead, he wanted centrally funded schools answerable to a committee that he set up, stuffed with businessmen who funded the Tory Party. It flopped. But the Tories' "free schools" would follow the same lines.Patten launched a "licensed teacher" scheme. He was convinced that teacher training colleges were soaked in the "fashionable ideas of the 1960s."

He wanted to send people with a "business background" straight into the classroom to learn on the job without the influence of the ungodly radicals who he thought infested the colleges. It flopped. But now Gove is promising a programme called Teach Now, which would also put party-qualified people from "business backgrounds in the classroom." Of course it is easy for the Tories to launch these crazy schemes because Labour has been running its own versions of Patten's failures - incredibly with Patten's personal help. Patten lost none of his appetite for failure after leaving government. Indeed it even seemed to infect his wife. Lady Louise Patten was a key director of Bradford & Bingley. The firm collapsed after issuing too many dodgy mortgages and had to be bailed out by the Labour government. She was also a director of a property firm called Brixton. That went bust too. Her husband had beaten her to the punch when it came to collapsing companies. After Parliament, Patten became a director of privatisation specialist Amey. It went into a crisis and was bought out by a Spanish multinational, leaving Patten out of a job. But before his company crashed, the Labour government asked Patten to help out with schools. Patten's firm Amey sponsored the Middlesbrough "city academy." This business-backed school was supposed to rejuvenate education, but instead inspectors found truancy, poor teaching, inappropriate buildings, "exceptionally low" results and "inadequate" progress. Labour's academies were their version of Patten's "opted-out" schools and the Tories "free schools" take the process one step further.

Labour had its own version of "licensed teachers" as well, an on-the-job training scheme marked by "weak training," leading to "unsatisfactory teaching." So the Conservatives plan to revive the education policy of a man even his former girlfriend called a greasy spot and a slimy skeleton. But their job is a whole lot easier because Labour already flattered Tory failures with its own imitations.

Home truths about immigration

The havoc created by the recent storm of racial tension has been loosed by the same pack of dogs who unleashed war abroad and the shredding of civil liberties at home. Thirteen years of new Labour rule has left social democracy in this country so enfeebled that, when Michael Howard - who can't see a belt without wanting to hit below it - predictably scraped the barrel on immigration and asylum, all that the Blairites could field as a defence was that his goals were impossible within the budget constraints that he'd set himself. New Labour could scarcely start arguing against Howard's central argument - that immigrants and minorities were a "problem" or even a "crisis" - because they, themselves, have embraced this thesis from the "new dawn" of May 1 1997. David Blunkett himself had used the Thatcher S-word - "swamped" - when talking about the "problem" of asylum family children in schools, had said that immigrants should use English, even in their own kitchens, lest they become "schizophrenic," had locked up asylum-seekers behind barbed wire guarded by savage dogs, invented new tests of "citizenship," piloted ID cards and driven through rafts of "anti-terrorism" legislation, leading to Britian's Guantanamo at Belmarsh.

It was he, the new Labour Home Secretary, who threatened to take asylum-seekers' children hostage, to be exchanged at the foot of the aircraft steps for their parents' agreement to be deported. It was Blairite Foreign Minister Denis MacShane, who said that British Muslims would "have to choose ... between the 'British way' of non-violence and peaceful dialogue ... and terrorism." If you don't run, of course, they can't chase you. But new Labour has been on the run on these issues from the start. And the dogs of racism and war are fast catching them up. A principled stand on issues of race, asylum, immigration and nationality would have looked like this. Every country must have control of its borders - no-one serious is advocating the scrapping of immigration controls. In any case, there is nothing "left-wing" about urging all the most accomplished and determined people to leave the poor countries of the world and come to the richest - this would make the poor countries poorer and the rich countries richer. But immigration controls must be colour-blind or else they are racist. A system which welcomes rich US citizens and blonde blue-eyed Australians but brands those who look different from the majority as a "problem" consisting of people who must continuously "prove themselves" to the satisfaction of rabid - foreign-owned - tabloids feeds the insatiable apetites of the racists.

Second, the case would be made that, if immigration were a bad thing, then the US would be the poorest country in the world and India would be the richest. We are a country which sent its people to the far corners of the earth not only to live in but colonise countries, whole continents even, over at least two centuries. Immigrants usually work harder than host communities and have an above average track record of creating net economic benefits in the countries that they move to. Whole sectors of the British economy would collapse or be seriously undermined without the presence of immigrants. Agriculture, catering, hospitality, the health service, public transport, retailing - even the priesthood - would have critical labour shortages without the contribution of immigrants. Over the last six decades the average British family size has declined from 2.4 children to 1.1 children - and that figure is inflated by the above average family size among immigrants. At this rate, Britain faces a demographic timebomb, with an elderly population creakily supported by declining numbers of wealth creators. In short, Britain needs new people and, short of an explosion of the birth rate, the only way to get them is to encourage new immigrants.

Our culinary, cultural, economic, sartorial, educational and social lives would be incomparably poorer, more bland, and less exciting without the presence of those immigrant communities already here, as anyone who lived in 1950s Britain could testify. They are not a "problem" to be solved, but a great asset whom we should celebrate. We must strangle the false dichotomy between asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Most people who come here do so for a mixture of reasons. Did the large number of people fleeing the imperialist attacks on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq come here for political or economic reasons? Both, in most cases, just like my grandparents, who arrived barefoot in cattle boats from Ireland - and were greeted with the same kind of racist sectarian hatred as many of today's arrivals. My great grandmother must have been one of the few people in the 19th century to emigrate from the US to Scotland. She may have just got on the wrong boat, she may have come for any number of reasons, but did Scotland lose anything from her arrival? It should be clear that, when the racists talk of asylum-seekers, they really mean immigrants. And, when they talk about immigrants, they really mean ethnic minorities - most of them British born and bred. If there were no asylum-seekers and an end of all immigration, racism would merely turn its sights on those who just looked, sounded, ate, dressed or prayed differently to the rest of us.

We on the left have, traditionally and correctly, dismissed calls for curbs on immigration and asylum-seekers as little more than a fig leaf for racism. However, a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to genuine concerns or worries about immigration and asylum simply dodges the underlying malaise and does nothing to allay fears, be they justified, exaggerated or based on ignorance and rumour. Most people in this country are not died-in-the-wool racists or bigots and Britain has some of the most enlightened anti-racist legislation and policies of any country, even if the practice often falls short of the goals. So why do so many ordinary people apparently see this issue as important? Has it simply been whipped up by the media? Well, yes it has. But the media can only whip up something where a potential already exists. In its post-empire and post-colonial era, Britain had lost its sense of identity as a world power. More recently, under Thatcher and Major, it witnessed the destruction of its working-class communities and this compounded that loss of identity, particularly for working class people who identified closely with the communities in which they lived and worked. It was Thatcher's boot-boy Norman Tebbitt who encouraged workers to "get on their bikes" and look for work.

Many were forced to up sticks and move elsewhere in their attempt to find those elusive jobs. Then there is the widespread alienation from politics. People see their political leaders indulging in lying, hypocrisy and opportunism and are, increasingly, turning away from the wider political process, believing that their views are unrepresented. Young people are virtually excluded from the housing market by the obscenely high prices, older people see their pensions threatened and there is no guarantee of genuine free health care or an adequate welfare support system. All these factors have led to insidious and creeping alienation, social instability and insecurity. In such situations, scapegoats in the form of an identifiable minority group are easily picked on and blamed. Immigrants, foreigners and asylum-seekers, particularly black ones, become easy targets and the BNP is exploiting this. Many groups of post-war immigrants have come from very different cultural backgrounds to those of British communities and, particularly in larger groups, they can be seen as a challenge to indigenous culture. It is true that immigrants have brought new ideas, new colour and innovation to the country. But they have also brought new challenges in terms of religion, culture and way of life, challenges to what the indigenous population saw or see as "their own way of life." Without sensitive and proactive integration policies, these challenges can easily develop into animosities and strife. To ignore this aspect is to ignore day-to-day reality.

There is also the objective factor of finite limits to our population. Britain is the most densely populated country in Europe and a small island only has a fixed amount of resources. Government statisticians say that the "UK population has grown nearly 20 per cent since 1950 and is still rising by the equivalent of one whole city - more than 200,000 people - every year. Continuous national population growth is fuelling internal population movement and adding development pressures and environmental degradation to almost all local areas." While there is no serious number crisis at the moment, I think that few of us would seriously argue that the country can easily accept unlimited numbers of new immigrants, on a continuous basis, without serious repercussions on social relations and resources. Although many would argue that there is, at present, no undue pressure and that the immigration "influx" has been greatly exaggerated, few would doubt that, if the rampages of the US and its allies continue, there will be increasing numbers of people fleeing their countries and putting pressure on the receiving nations. This is why the the dangerous immigration hysteria needs to be answered with more than a simple rejection of the issue as a whole. There has to be a joined-up and international consensus on all aspects of asylum and immigration.

The left needs to address people's concerns without pandering to racism or xenophobia. It can do that only by using facts in a sober and unemotional manner, countering media lies, hatred and exaggerations. It is good to see that the refugee charities have united to counter the widespread myths on immigration by publishing a booklet called Tell It Like It Is, which provides the true facts. We need to emphasise that there are very few people who willingly leave their country, their home, friends and relatives to move to an alien country without pressing reasons. These reasons are also varied but, for 99 per cent of these people, there are two main ones - oppression and economic poverty. Most people would like to see a solution which allows them to stay in their own country and we need to stress that this should be our joint aim - to assist all developing nations in dealing with the problems of tyranny and poverty so that people can stay, and will want to stay, in their own countries. This, of course, is hardly possible without a change to the rampant neoliberal economic polices of the US, the World Bank and IMF which has bolstered tyrants, fomented wars and created the economic devastation that forces tens of thousands to flee their homes in search of dignity and survival. Only by changing the roles of the World Bank and IMF, investing in the infrastructures of the poorer countries and combating corruption can the refugee problem be tackled properly and in the interests of those refugees.

Britain is not full up. There are hundreds of thousands of job vacancies and empty council houses. In whole areas of the country, like Scotland, populations are actually declining. There should be an amnesty of all exisiting asylum-seekers - these people want to be here and we need them. Bingo! The same goes for those who are living here in the twighlight world as "illegals," exploited and hunted. Then, we should publish an economic social demographic plan for population growth based on a points system and our own needs. No immigrant should be told that he must live separated from his wife and children - family unity is a moral imperative. And if we stopped bombing large numbers of refugees out of their own countries, fought for an economic system of global trade and economic justice, stopped propping up tinpot tyrannies throughout the poor world and distributed the resources of the world more fairly, we'd miraculously discover that, for the most part, people would, if they could, prefer to continue living in their own countries - visiting us as tourists, as we visit them.

Being gay is still an issue

Last October, the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote one of the most bigoted and despicable articles that odious right-wing rag has seen fit to publish. She was responding to the untimely death of pop idol Stephen Gately. Despite the coroner's report which stated that Gately had died of natural causes Moir decided that she knew better - Gately was gay and therefore his "lifestyle" meant his death could not have been natural. It wasn't just that it was insensitive to his family and friends to write such an article before Gately had even been buried, it was also an attack on all the advances gay people have made in the last decade. According to Moir, civil partnerships cause suicide, while homosexuality is an unnatural lifestyle connected with promiscuity and drug taking which does not deserve to be regarded in the same way as heterosexual relationships. So far, so depressing, but there is a brighter side to this story. Moir got more than she bargained for when she penned this reactionary drivel. Within hours of the story going to print the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was being bombarded by those who were disgusted by the Daily Mail piece. Within a day the PCC had issued a statement saying that it had already received a record number of complaints and the reaction to her piece went to the top of the news agenda, helped no doubt by the star quality of her victim.

While Moir's article was a throwback to the '70s, the response was something new. It's not just that there was no email and Twitter back then, although that certainly speeded up the ability of people to write in. There has been a significant cultural shift against this kind of bigotry, even if the Daily Mail isn't printing the letters. You'd have to have a heart made of stone not to recognise the importance of that shift, but sadly there is no time for complacency because it is not just in the fetid corridors of the Mail that homophobia still exists. In the same week in Trafalgar Square Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man on his way home, was attacked by a small gang of youths who hurled homophobic abuse at him and then kicked him to death; astonishingly, none of them were brought to justice. If anyone thought that homophobia was confined to an older generation raised with less enlightened values, they had better think again. The fact that Baynham's attackers were young men and women is a warning to us all that we need to be ensuring our schools are part of the fight against bigotry. "There have been major changes in some areas like civil partnerships, equal age of consent etc but we have to contrast this with problems at schools," says London Assembly Member Darren Johnson. "Bullying in many schools is as bad now as it was 30 years ago. We need to tackle this, taking a much more proactive approach."

Johnson's view is shared by Charlotte Dingle, editor of gay and bisexual women's magazine G3. She tells the Morning Star: "I think homophobia is slowly on the wane, but it's atrocious that things aren't moving faster. I think there's a widespread misconception that because of changes in the law gay people are now more or less treated equally. It's not all about laws, though. People's attitudes still desperately need changing. "The fact that people are still spouting homophobic rubbish in our papers and on our TVs and not being properly held to account, because, oh, it was a 'joke,' makes my blood boil. I'm afraid I don't have much truck with the political correctness gone mad brigade. The situation in schools is still pretty awful, despite the best efforts of groups like Stonewall campaigning to try and change kids' attitudes. There need to be far more regulations in place preventing gay children being bullied - indeed, this is one of the most important issues that needs addressing for the gay community in this country. Teachers just don't want to address the problem, mainly because they don't know how to, and they don't know what they're allowed to say or do. This needs to change." In 2008 the campaigning organisation Stonewall commissioned YouGov to conduct a comprehensive poll of lesbian and gay people. It found that one in five had suffered from some form of homophobic attack in the previous three years. For those who think we're living in a liberal utopia where bigotry has been abolished that may come as something of a shock.

Due to changes in the way that hate crimes have been recorded it is difficult to draw out a definitive picture of long-term UK statistics in hate crime, but what's clear is that there are two dominant trends. First, that it is easier to be openly gay now than at any time in the last 50 years. Second, that this is not the same thing as saying that we have wiped out homophobia from society - far from it. There is a social movement against prejudice that we can draw on. Sadly we're going to have to do just that, because there is an anti-social movement for prejudice that must be faced up to. The answer lies in reaching into every part of society to challenge stereotypes and equip those in positions of authority, like teachers, with the arguments and training they need. People in the media like small-minded Radio One DJ Chris Moyles who undermine the good work of campaigners against homophobia also need to be challenged. As Mark Healey, the organiser of a vigil in Trafalgar Square next week against homophobic attacks, says, "we need to unite against all forms of hate crime, stand together and say out loud that this is no longer acceptable in our society anymore." We certainly can't just sit back and assume things will get better on their own.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Burning issues fall on deaf ears?

The more important the issue, the less likely it is to come up in the general election. Trivia and bribes are the order of the day. This goes especially for economics. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories are competing to introduce ever larger public spending cuts and it is accepted that taxes are likely to increase. Yet the reason we have a deficit is the banking bailout. The British economy is far too reliant on banking and finance in the City of London. The City is far too reliant on increasingly esoteric financial instruments, which are essentially highly sophisticated forms of gambling. Let's not forget that the British economy came close to a total crash because British banks like Northern Rock held toxic assets. Buying up financial instruments that contained dodgy subprime mortgages from Florida caused chaos. The Tories bleat about Labour increasing debt - but forget that Thatcher ripped up the rule book and allowed banks to lend in irresponsible ways and march into speculation. The Tory push to demutualise building societies made it worse. The most significant part of our present economy strongly rewards irresponsible risk via a bonus-fuelled culture of excess. When the banks mess up, we all pay through tax increases and spending cuts. Yet a critique of speculative finance remains off of the agenda.

Let's be frank. The Tories under Thatcher created a financial timebomb that exploded and is primed to go off again. Most politicians don't understand the madness that is modern banking so they are leaving well alone. The banks could crash again and we could pick up the tab again. The Tories decimated manufacturing and with globalisation running riot British industry has continued to decline. Unless we reverse this, the long-term stability of the economy is under threat. Britain has been living off of oil revenues. The discovery of North Sea reserves funded Thatcher's economic experiment and cushioned Major, Blair and Brown. During the 1980s and 1990s, when production peaked, oil prices were just £6.50 a barrel. Now oil is at £55 and could head to £130. But North Sea oil is largely exhausted. This is a huge scandal - and guess what, politicians will be ignoring it during the election and blaming hard-working migrants for the unfolding British economic disaster. Ultimately an economy based on gambling and fuelled by dirt-cheap fossil fuels is not going to pay our pensions or provide security for our children.

We need economic democracy, with people in control of economic activity. The drive to privatisation and private finance schemes takes economic control out of our hands and places it in the hands of an increasingly small global elite who are concerned with immediate profit - not real long-term prosperity. Politics is increasingly meaningless because politicians elected by voters have less and less influence. How can we develop solutions to climate change if buses and rail services are no longer controlled by elected representatives? Mutual or co-operative control of banks would reverse the tendency to focus on the short-term. Economics needs to be a tool used to make us better off. Above all, the economy needs to work ecologically. The idea of an economy that ruthlessly focuses on profit means we mortgage the future for immediate gratification. Cleggmania is a product of voters who want to see a change, but the far-from-left Liberal Democrats have leant further and further to the right under his leadership. Social liberalism has made way for market liberalism, so the fundamentals of leaving economic activity to corporations and continuing to privatise - which are creating an unsustainable and increasingly unequal Britain - will continue. Unless we change our economy, it will become increasingly unstable. Green economics need to be on the agenda and that won't be brought about by electing a fresh crop of new Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat neoliberals.

Britain's shifting racism spectre

Racism, according to the New Labour communities secretary John Denham, is on the decline. The government’s progress in promoting racial equality in the last decade is, he argues, substantially responsible for this state of affairs. Denham’s claim is astonishing in light of a documented rise in the incidence of racism in the UK, the growth of support for the far right BNP, the emergence of violent street gangs under the rubric of the English Defence League (whom Denham himself has compared to Mosley’s British Union of Fascists), the reappearance of anti-immigrant politics in labour disputes such as at the Lindsey oil refinery, and the extraordinary increase in media-led hostility towards Muslims. Anti-racists are not as sanguine as Denham. The Guardian journalist Gary Younge argues that the last decade has witnessed a sharp regression, as “the shift in emphasis from race to religion and from colour to creed and culture” has grafted “old views on to new scapegoats”. Younge’s analysis is much more convincing than Denham’s, though the shift to creed and culture can be traced back further to the New Right’s agenda on race relations, a major inspiration in the career of Enoch Powell. As we shal see, racist ideologies have always had a concern with creed and culture.

Yet the acceleration of this shift, and the novelties of racism in contemporary Britain, need to be registered if anti-racists are to be effective. A number of important transformations are taking place in terms of the intellectual justifications for racism, and its targets. If creed and culture have come to the fore, so have ideas of nationality and citizenship that do not neatly correspond to older ideas of race concerned with biology and skin colour. The targets of anti-immigrant hostility are not necessarily black, and those engaged in racism towards Muslims are not automatically hostile to all black Britons. That fact alone confuses the discussions of racism and gives racists an important alibi. Many of those vilifying Muslims will earnestly explain that they hold no brief for racists, and that they only intend to defend human rights or “British values” from a culture that violates them. They will often add that Muslims aren’t a “race”, as if this resolved the controversy. The “war on terror” is a proximate cause of much of this racism. However, the temptation to reduce the question of Islamophobia to a sub-narrative of the “war on terror” is one that must be avoided. Racism towards Muslims pre-dates 9/11 and the ensuing warmongering, and is not necessarily tied to pro-war opinion. It has far more to do with domestic social processes than a singular focus on the “war on terror” would allow.

In fact, if socialists are to resist the far right, they will have to come to terms with the way in which they articulate a right wing anti-war sentiment in seeming opposition to their traditionally imperialist ideology. This is related to a displacement within racist ideas in the post-colonial era in which aggressive global white supremacism was replaced by defensive white nationalism. Nor does cultural chauvinism towards Muslims stop at the boundaries of Islam. Anindya Bhattacharyya has usefully characterised Islamophobia as the “cutting edge” of contemporary racism in that it carves out a path for older forms of racism to once again emerge in mainstream culture. Segments of liberal opinion have adopted the New Right’s agenda on race relations, often swallowing wholesale the culturalist arguments on immigration and citizenship that were crafted in opposition to multiculturalism. The centre-left has also increasingly embraced the idea of a progressive nationalism. In a way that mirrors the New Right, they hold that social solidarity and cultural diversity are opposing aims. Following the lead set by Gordon Brown, they have set out to develop a liberal account of “British values” that could underpin social solidarity. This has all too often led to a prosecutorial attitude to Muslims, the rationale being that “Britishness” includes respect for feminism, human rights and “Enlightenment values”, all of which are supposedly at odds with Islam, or at least with immoderate manifestations of it. Again liberal complicity in such cultural chauvinism is not as outlandish as it may appear.

As conventional forms of racism are revived on the basis of Islamophobic cultural essentialism, there has been a notable attempt to revive old racist terms of abuse. Strictly Come Dancing presenter Bruce Forsyth defended the use of the word “Paki” by contestant Anton Du Beke, averring that “at one time the Americans used to call us limeys, which doesn’t sound very nice, but we used to laugh about it. Everybody has a nickname.” Again, when Ron Atkinson referred to black Chelsea player Marcel Desailly as a “lazy thick nigger”, he was defended by sports commentator Jimmy Hill who said that such comments were just “fun”. It is probably no coincidence that such terms, whose function is to normalise racist behaviour, should be so aggressively championed just as the recorded incidents of racist harassment and violence increase. The statistics are damning. In 2005 it was reported that racial incidents had more than quadrupled in England and Wales from 13,151 in 1996-7 to 52,694 in 2003-4. Of the latter figure, more than 35,000 were characterised as “serious” and included wounding, assault and harassment. And the rise has continued. In 2003-5 the number of racist incidents in England and Wales rose by 12 percent. In 2005-7 the number rose again by 28 percent. In Scotland the number of racial incidents recorded per year rose from 4,519 in 2004-5 to 5,243 in 2007-8. The Crown Prosecution Service reports that the number of defendants received for racist incidents in England and Wales has risen year on year since 1999-2000. The number of defendants in 2006-7 was almost four times the number in 1999-2000.

The climate of racism engendering such behaviour has all too often been abetted by the government, and has led to a surge in support for the far right which is currently outperforming its last high point in the 1970s. It has also led to the development of street-fighting gangs of racists, football casuals and far right activists known as the English Defence League (EDL) and their associates. Purporting merely to oppose Islamists such as Anjem Choudary the EDL also claims to oppose racism and welcome non-Muslims, whatever their “race”. Yet protests by the EDL have often degenerated into racist chanting, sieg heils, and attacks on Asian pedestrians and businesses. All of this represents the culmination of the “new racism”, a trend described by the philosopher Martin Barker in 1981. Shorn of explicit commitment to biological determinism, or an express belief in the supremacy of “the white race”, its core axioms centre on the cultural practices of ethnic minorities and their supposed incompatibility with “mainstream” culture. Its advocates, originally only hard-line followers of Enoch Powell but now embracing sectors of the centre left, rely on common misunderstandings about the nature of racism in order to ring-fence their culturalist discourse as a neatly distinct matter from racism proper.

Those advocating oppressive and exclusionary practices today offer a number of claims to ward off accusations of racism. One such is that they believe in the existence and importance of racial differences but do not hold that any race is innately superior to others. Another is that they do not accept that races exist, and therefore consider the idea of racial supremacy to be incoherent, but they do believe in cultures (or civilisations) which are emphatically unequal. This claim is especially prominent in liberal attacks on “multiculturalism”. For example, Martin Amis defends his intemperate and usually indiscriminate verbal attacks on Muslims against charges of racism in the following terms: “I adore multiracialism. There can’t be enough immigrants in this country for my taste. I’d like to see immigrants from Mars or Jupiter. But multiculturalism, I believe, is a fraud. We cannot justify these things because they’re traditional. The tradition has to go”. By “tradition” he means such practices as “honour killing”, which he understands to be uncomplicatedly “Islamic” behaviour. That unspoken hypothesis is incorrect—”honour killing” is a form of patriarchal violence that does not respect such cultural boundaries. According to Human Rights Watch, such violence “goes across cultures and across religions”. It is practised under various names—dowry killings, crimes of passion, etc—in Latin America, India, Italy, Sweden, Brazil and Great Britain. Nor is it at all true that “multiculturalism” entails tolerating the murder of women whether by appeal to tradition or cultural sensibility. Nonetheless, Amis’s argument confirms that in attacking such practices he means to impugn a supposedly undifferentiated culture known as Islam.

Another attack on multiculturalism came in a widely denounced provocation by Rod Liddle, the former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, in which he ascribed the “overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London” to “young men from the African-Caribbean community”. Liddle was slightly less cautiously expressing the same views that Tony Blair had in 2007 when he blamed a spate of knife and gun crimes on a distinctive black culture, specifically on failing black families. But Liddle’s statistical claims were simply false. And in his broader conclusions he reproduced verbatim a commonplace of racist ideology since the first arrival of substantial numbers of Commonwealth migrants to the UK in the 1950s. However, he justified himself by saying that he was not speaking of race but of culture. “The creed of multiculturalism is largely to blame, the notion that cultures, no matter how antithetical to the norm, or anti-social, should be allowed to develop unhindered, without criticism”. To say that this mis-states the “creed of multiculturalism” would be unnecessarily diplomatic: it is a flimsy straw man. Multiculturalism has its origins in a state-led attempt to domesticate politically rebellious black and Asian minorities in 1980s Britain. Its basic thrust was defined before the fact by Roy Jenkins who, as home secretary in 1966, declared the aim of achieving “equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.

Multiculturalism, though challenging spurious conceptions of an ethnically “pure” nationhood, has its weaknesses as a response to racism. It fails seriously to address the systemic roots of racial discrimination. And in attempting to “celebrate” diverse cultures in a depoliticised fashion, it transforms culture from a process in which one might participate into a static object to be passively observed and enjoyed. Liddle’s defence indicates several prominent features of contemporary Islamophobia. These include the claim that there are such things as discrete, largely impervious cultures and that there is therefore a cultural “norm” that a problematic minority is violating on behalf of its own alien cultural tenets. A constant theme of the anti-Muslim animus today is that its conspicuous symbols such as the hijab or even the burqa indicate a hostility to “mainstream culture” and a desire to separate from it. That such ideas should then become the basis of an attack on an older scapegoat—young black men in this instance—belies the complacent view that official hostility to Islam has no broader implications for race relations. A third example of such defensive pleading is that, in advocating racist practices, one merely seeks to conserve a valuable social and cultural order that is endangered by cross-cultural penetration.

These confusions are possible in part because of the exaggerated importance attached to “scientific” racism. Racism, in this sense, entails a belief that the variation in physical human appearance is arranged according to a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. As the anthropologist C Loring Brace puts it, “race” is a concept that has “no coherent biological validity”. Variations in physical characteristics such as skin colour, tooth length, blood type, nose length, the presence or absence of haemoglobin S are not distributed in a way that conforms to notions of race. The margin for biological racism in respectable opinion has been squeezed (though it still has its defenders among devotees of The Bell Curve, which argues that black people are inherently less intelligent than their white counterparts). Were it the case that racism amounted to a discredited belief in a non-existent entity, further discussion would be futile. It would be aimed at correcting a mistake that few are likely to make. But such a view of racism is highly misleading. Racist narratives do not begin and end with the body, and the present-day emphasis on cultural difference is not as anomalous as it might at first appear. “Race” overlaps with a range of other discourses such as nationality and ethnicity that are not strictly to do with biological variation. The everyday language of racism draws on a “common sense”, a series of stereotypes and generalisations, about groups of people—be they a nationality, a faith group or an ethnicity. These stereotypes invariably focus on ostensible cultural traits.

Ali Rattansi points out that when alleged cultural traits become stereotypes they are naturalised and made to seem inherent to the group that is so characterised. “Thus the supposed avariciousness of Jews, the alleged aggressiveness of Africans and African Americans, the criminality of Afro-Caribbeans or the slyness of ‘Orientals’, become traits that are invariably attached to these groups over extremely long periods of time”. It is this essentialising gesture that has become known as “cultural racism”. As for the supposed novelty of cultural racism, it has been with us from the inception of modern racism. Enlightenment philosophers, encountering (and sometimes complicit with) the realities of the slave trade and colonialism, sought to explain white European supremacy in terms of cultural superiority. Hume is notorious for having suspected “the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites”. This was not, however, on account of any biological sense of racial difference. Rather, it was on account of customs and habits of “the Negroes”, the way of doing things that they had acquired—in other words their culture. John Stuart Mill, as a colonial administrator and Britain’s most outstanding liberal philosopher, similarly entertained a culturally chauvinist contempt for non-Europeans that was not grounded in biological racism, which he specifically opposed. He certainly accepted that colonial subjects were inferior but his explanation for that inferiority lay in the “laws of national character”, by far “the most important class of sociological laws”.

A more fundamental problem with the narrow reading of racism in terms of its bodily discourses is that it even misunderstands how “race” works. Historians of racism such as Theodore Allen, David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev demonstrate that race is a socially constructed category that expresses socially produced phenomena as inherent qualities of oppressed groups. The concept of “race” as a biological entity has had little to do with the actual construction of racial hierarchies, which was always a political act. Historically the purpose of “race” has been to manage class systems by stratifying labour markets along colour-coded lines. This was pioneered, according to Theodore Allen, in the rule of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, a distinctive form of class rule in which a segment of the labouring majority is integrated into an oppressor group. However poor Protestant labourers were in colonial Ireland they enjoyed privileges with respect to their Irish Catholic counterparts. Following a series of multiracial class rebellions against indentured servitude in 17th century Anglo-America, epitomised by the Bacon Rebellion of 1676, the ruling colonists turned to a system of racial slavery that accentuated and exaggerated the differences between the oppression of African and European workers. Through a series of legal and political innovations very similar to those elaborated in Ireland, a “white race” was constructed in opposition to more oppressed Africans and American Indians. Racial oppression did not depend on supposed physical differences.

 “Race-making” processes continued to be important for capital accumulation in post-slavery America as new groups of immigrants were racially “othered”. Irish, Hungarian, Polish, Italian and Jewish workers, who would today be considered “white”, were racialised in such a way as to exclude them from the privileges of “whiteness”, while at the same time setting them in competition with one another as well as with Chinese immigrants and African-Americans. The “race management” strategies of American capital involved the constant adjustment and adaptation of racial categories and stereotypes such that the demarcations of “scientific” racist discourses were not strictly relevant. Instead of looking for a reference to supposed static entities called “races” to define acts of racism, it makes more sense to consider racialisation as a constant process. Just as fascism is notoriously a “scavenger” ideology, opportunistically appropriating ideological bric-a-brac from other outlooks and traditions, so racist ideologies are continually constructed and reconstructed with a variety of elements of national, regional, religious, sectional and class stereotypes. What they have in common is their relationship to the practice of racial oppression in which a minority is systemically excluded from the opportunities and entitlements of normal citizenship. Nor are they strictly literal in their expression.

Racism operates to a great extent by allusion and conflation—mark the speed with which “Muslim” was substituted for “Asian” in the target of racist polemics after 2001. Indeed, that very shift tells us that the cultural racism currently directed against Muslims is rooted in several generations of anti-immigrant racism and, before it, imperial racism. For as long as Britain remained an empire with global authority its ruling class preferred “free” immigration, its demand for labour seemingly limitless. Imperialist racism justified the domination rather than exclusion of non-European labour. At the turn of the 20th century there were some moves to restrict labour mobility. The 1905 Aliens Act was introduced on a wave of anti-Semitic invective in parliament and the gutter press, and amid protests and riots over the migration of Russian and Eastern European Jews to the UK. Political anti-Semitism was, until the Second World War, the ideological backbone of organised racists and fascists across Europe including the UK. But with the defeat of the Third Reich and the revelations of its barbarism such anti-Semitism no longer availed itself as a method of recruitment and growth. And as European countries experiencing severe labour shortages began to import labour from the colonies—North Africa in France, the Caribbean in the UK—the focus of necessity shifted to anti-immigrant racism.

Until 1962 there remained a considerable degree of freedom of movement for labour within the British Commonwealth both to and from the colonies. Subjects of the Commonwealth were considered subjects of the British monarch and in legislation passed in 1948 confirmed as citizens of the “UK and Colonies”. However, the post-war Labour government mainly sought to solve the labour shortfall, estimated at over 1.25 million, by recruiting white European labourers from Ireland and Poland. It was believed by both Conservatives and Labour that mass immigration could only be managed if the immigrants were of “good stock” and were capable of merging into the general population. Implicit in this approach was the racist belief that white and black people could not happily co-exist as equals. Even so a certain limited amount of immigration from the West Indies did begin to take place. The restrictions imposed upon such immigration began in 1962 with the Commonwealth Immigration Act with further restrictions added in a 1965 White Paper and then in subsequent acts in 1968 and 1971. The state’s regulation of flows of migrant labour tends to reflect the fluctuations of demand for labour in the economy, though initial restrictions did not come at a time when demand for labour was weakening.

A crucial consideration in the timing of the legislation was that the government found a way to implement controls that would be flexible, depending on political and economic factors, and overtly colour-blind while permitting de facto discrimination in favour of Old Commonwealth migrants. Even so the controls implemented by the act still permitted the influx of more New Commonwealth immigrants than had arrived throughout the 1950s. By 1982 no less than 80 percent of black and Asian immigrants living in Britain had arrived after the act was passed. What the new controls did achieve was not reduced immigration. Rather they entrenched institutional racism in a new way, curtailing the citizenship rights hitherto extended to citizens of the UK and Colonies and making their entitlement to live and work in the UK subject to employers’ demand for their labour. Labour had pledged to oppose the act while in opposition on the grounds that it was racist. Once in office, however, they effected a complete volte face, embraced the act and tightened the restrictions in its provisions. It was in this climate that the elements of New Right thinking on race started to come together. The transformation is neatly encapsulated in the career of Enoch Powell. During his period in government as Conservative health minister thousands of labourers from the West Indies were recruited and he never once gave any indication that he was opposed to such immigration. He spoke out against immigration controls in 1956 and in 1964 said that he could not support “making any difference between one citizen of this country and another on grounds of his origin”.

Having lost the Conservative leadership election to Ted Heath in 1965 he served in the shadow cabinet before emerging with a new cause—one made infamous by his “rivers of blood” speech in Birmingham in April 1968. This skilfully conjured racist hysteria with the use of anecdotes supposedly conveyed to him by his constituents. Most significantly for Powell’s purposes he could claim that “thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking” the things that he was expressing. The argument that he spoke for a hitherto silent populace represented an important step in articulating the “new racism”. As theorists of the “new racism” such as Martin Barker and Paul Gilroy have argued, the racism of the New Right no longer depended on claims of white superiority, or even of significant biological differences between “races”. It depended instead on a view of human nature in which social solidarity is only possible among those considered part of the “in-group” or “tribe”, an ideological assumption given a veneer of theoretical respectability by the output of sociobiology and ethology. It was not that black or Asian people were inferior but that they could not be assimilated into a white British nation. The instinctive passions of people keen to retain their traditional way of doing things, their “culture” in other words, were not susceptible to reason or bargaining.

An excess of non-white immigration—racists like Powell insisted that it was the numbers migrating that spelled disaster—would inevitably generate bloody conflict. Thus a defensive white nationalism could be asserted as a common sense response to immigration, with “voluntary” repatriation and authoritarian border controls an appropriate solution. The immediate beneficiary of Powell’s agitation was the fascist National Front (NF), the forerunner of today’s British National Party. For almost a decade afterward the party grew in membership reaching a high of over 17,000 members in 1976. It gained votes and began to build a cadre of street-fighters known as Honour Guards who terrorised black people, trade unionists and the left. The instinct of governments, both Tory and Labour, was to steal the NF’s clothes on immigration and race. The Heath government introduced new restrictions with the Immigration Act of 1971, while deportations under the subsequent Labour government increased and immigration officials began to impose virginity tests on Asian women. Though the fascist threat was seen off by a campaign attracting far larger numbers of people—the Anti Nazi League had 250 branches with 50,000 members and could mobilise half a million people at its height—the discourses that had fuelled the NF’s success also fed into the New Right’s attack on multiracial Britain.

Margaret Thatcher adopted a decidedly Powellite tone in 1978 when she argued that: People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. It was the shrill language of being “swamped” that was picked up on but the key referents here are a supposed common sense and specific focus on “culture” as the likely source of conflict. Good race relations, then, depended on minimising the number of black and Asian people in Britain. This approach was not unique to the New Right. It was an assumption built into successive governments’ handling of race relations. But it was reflected in the Thatcher government’s British Nationality Act of 1981, which consecrated existing practices by revising the category of “Citizenship of the UK and Colonies” into new categories so that most Commonwealth residents no longer had the right of abode in the UK. By this time primary immigration had come to a virtual standstill. The official moves to shut down black and Asian immigration were accompanied by a number of pieces of “race relations” legislation aimed at outlawing racial discrimination.

This set a pattern which has persisted to this day. Since the 1960s successive governments have pursued a contradictory policy of on the one hand separating race relations from immigration and on the other using the issue of race relations to justify ever tighter immigration controls. A primary justification for immigration controls is that they ensure good race relations. The rationale is that by controlling the fears of the white population integration for Britain’s non-white minority is made easier. Yet the signal sent by such a policy is that Britain is in some sense threatened by the presence of immigrants, especially by non-white immigrants. Roy Hattersley, once an advocate of strict immigration controls, conceded the point more than a decade ago regarding the Tories’ 1996 Asylum and Immigration Bill: “It is measures like the Asylum and Immigration Bill—and the attendant speeches—which create the impression that ‘we cannot afford to let them in’. And if we cannot afford to let them in, those of them who are here already must be doing harm”. This contradiction between anti-immigration measures and race relations policy has historically been overcome by exempting immigration policy from the provisions of anti-racist legislation. New Labour’s Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000 expanded the scope of the original 1976 legislation making it illegal for public authorities such as the police and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to discriminate on the grounds of race or nationality. However, there remains an exemption for immigration and nationality functions, where discrimination on ethnic and national grounds is permitted if it is required by legislation or ministerial authorisation. Thus agencies of the state can pursue and implement a racist immigration policy while preserving a formally anti-racist position in other policy areas.

Though the focus of official racism was initially on restricting New Commonwealth migration, changing patterns in labour migration and changing political attitudes led to new targets. Increasingly in the 1990s it was the issue of asylum that animated new government restrictions. Just as Europe was being transformed by the collapse of the USSR, and the European Community was looking to remove border controls among member states, the single largest category of migrants to the UK became asylum seekers. Asylum seekers had rights under law, that the British state did not extend to immigrants in general, as a result of previous racist legislation. The Major government sought to change that state of affairs with the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act of 1993, by increasing the number of asylum claims that could be rejected and reducing access to social security and legal aid for claimants. This was followed by further legislation in 1996 limiting access to employment and public services for asylum seekers. The goal was to restrict access to asylum without appearing to breach the British state’s legal commitments under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and the strategy settled upon was to transform asylum seekers into normal would-be immigrants, or “economic migrants”.

If a great number of asylum claims were “bogus”—the majority, as then home secretary Michael Howard claimed in a 1992 debate on the bill—then they could be treated as would-be immigrants and deported. New Labour had opposed the law in opposition but proposed and implemented even tougher measures in 1999. Just as previous arrivals in the UK had been regarded as threats to British identity and parasites who were liable to undermine the welfare system, so asylum seekers were depicted as drains on housing and welfare services. Rather than people in need, and perhaps with much to offer, they were considered competitors for scarce resources and sources of anti-social behaviour. These themes have been introduced by successive governments but they were avidly adopted by the British press. This had a predictable effect on public opinion. Polls showed that 67 percent of the public believed that less than a quarter of asylum seekers were genuine refugees. Research carried out at Swansea University found that most asylum seekers are fleeing persecution from war, don’t specifically seek to come to Britain, and have no knowledge of the welfare system before they arrive. The Refugee Council noted that while polling detected compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers the public over-estimated the number of refugees living in the UK by ten times. In one survey people thought that the UK had 23 percent of the world’s refugees, when the actual figure was closer to two percent. And the majority of the public, almost two thirds, supported the Tories’ 2005 proposal to withdraw from the 1951 Convention. A recent poll found that two thirds of Britons believe the country has an “immigration problem” and 47 percent—twice the average across Europe—favour discrimination against legal immigrants in terms of access to benefits.

The anti-immigrant racism directed towards Eastern Europeans, especially Roma gypsies in the form of asylum-bashing has also fed into hostility towards Polish workers. This found a small but dangerous foothold in the organised labour movement during the Lindsey oil construction workers’ dispute in early 2009 where a prominent slogan was “British jobs for British workers”. However, it is in the context of a pronounced Islamophobia that New Right arguments over immigration and integration have been taken up by segments of the centre left. Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, represents a culmination of a trend which developed throughout the 1990s when anti-Muslim sentiment was commingled with a more diffuse anti-Asian racism. In northern cities such as Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds institutional racism combined with the wholesale destruction of local economies wrought by neoliberalism to produce severe racial tensions. Policies of de facto segregation in housing allocation had been pursued by local councils, leaving Asian families in poorer housing, cut off from white neighbourhoods. Following the 1988 Education Reform Act, designed to foster a homogenous white Christian culture in schools, a number of white parents began to withdraw their children from schools with too many Asian students. In some districts school catchment areas were almost exclusively composed of one ethnic group. Unemployment had soared as a result of the destruction of labour-intensive manufacturing industries. This affected all workers but it did not affect them equally and about 54 percent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi homes across the country survived on income support. Racist gangs engaged in altercations with local Asian youths, though the blame for ensuing violence was placed by both police and local media on Asians. In February 2001 Oldham’s police chief Eric Hewitt blamed most racist violence on Asian youths.

In the spring of 2001 riots broke out across northern towns after a gang of 200 white racists attacked an Asian area of the Glodwick estate in Oldham. When police clad in riot gear targeted Asians resisting this assault, there was a prolonged stand-off between hundreds of youths and a hundred police officers. A similar confrontation took place when a gang of racists and football hooligans, including National Front members, Combat-18 fighters and—though they deny this—BNP supporters, attempted to march on an Asian area in Burnley. When residents gathered to stop the march from taking place, riot police advanced on them and another night of rioting ensued. Similar events later took place in Bradford.

The official response, the Cantle report, blamed “self-segregation” by the different communities and commended Oldham Council for its attempts to “build community cohesion”. The report systematically refused to consider issues of racial oppression, implying that the “communities” were symmetrical and that the problem was simply a failure to get along. Its suggested solution was not to offer ways to combat racial oppression but to elaborate a set of shared “values” that would centre on the meaning of British citizenship. Significantly, it was interpreted by the government to mean that minority communities in particular must get their act together. Home secretary David Blunkett responded by proposing a “British test” for would-be immigrants, and later told British Asians that they must speak English when in their homes if they wanted to properly integrate. This anticipated the themes that would later be adopted by those belabouring Muslims. The rise of anti-Muslim racism has been documented in numerous studies. A 2004 study by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia revealed a variety of forms of discrimination, including the absence of legal protection extended to other religious groups, employment discrimination, media hostility to Muslims, and verbal and physical attacks on Muslims.

A recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 45 percent believe that “religious diversity” is harming Britain. 55 percent would object to a large mosque being built in their area compared to only 15 percent who would object to a large church. Only a quarter entertain “positive” feelings about Muslims while a third say they feel “cool” about them. To a considerable extent the media bears responsibility for this. In 2007 a study of one week of national newspaper headlines found that 91 percent of those dealing with Muslims were negative. This is a trend that has become particularly marked as a result of the war on Iraq. A detailed survey of the British print media (focusing on the broadsheets and therefore omitting the more pungent output of tabloids such as the Express and the Star) found that the single biggest category of Islam-related stories in 2003 were those relating to terrorism, counter-terrorism and “extremism”. The themes of such reporting were that British Muslims posed a security threat to the UK, threatened mainstream “British values”, and created tensions through their inherent cultural differences with other Britons. The survey also noted that in the pre-9/11 period, though Muslims were less likely to be discussed in the media because they lacked news clout, the framework (of “fundamentalism”, criminality, Muslim politics, the impact of Muslim schools, arranged marriages and—increasingly—”honour killings”) in which Muslims were discussed tended to be in terms of their non-proximity to mainstream culture. The construction put on such news items overwhelmingly tended to depict Muslims as being inherently at odds with a desirable norm. This once again warns against reducing the hostility toward Muslims to a product of the “war on terror”.

The current wave of Islamophobia is given an official mandate by policies pursued by governments across Europe on the pretext of seeking the “integration” of spotlit minorities, particularly Muslims. A pattern of measures such as language tests, loyalty tests, and even—in one German state—inquiries as to private beliefs concerning such matters as sexuality, has emerged as part of the state’s crackdown on politically troublesome immigrant populations. New Labour launched a series of initiatives concerned with promoting the integration of Muslim communities. Just as Asians were previously singled out for lectures on what language to speak, who to marry and what values they should have, there was an increasing government focus on the supposedly disintegrative propensities of Muslims, particularly after 7 July 2005. The precedent had been set by the government’s response to the Macpherson report into police handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Home secretary David Blunkett protested against the idea of “institutional racism” being a problem in Britain, and opposed the Macpherson report’s proposals for anti-racism education on the grounds that Britons had too long downplayed their culture and “we need to reinforce pride in what we have”. This agenda was carried forward in a 2002 White Paper which averred that the influx of immigrants caused “tensions” that needed to be overcome with “a shared sense of belonging and identity”, as opposed to the old canons of cultural diversity. This could be achieved with citizenship tests, language tests and ceremonial oaths to the queen.

There were many subsequent efforts to bolster the government’s flagging popularity with clumsy appeals to nationalism. Gordon Brown announced in January 2005 that it was time to stop apologising for the British Empire: “We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it” he claimed. “And we should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world”. This was a vision of “Britishness” that a large number of Britons would find repellent: it could hardly be expected to be endorsed by descendants of African-Caribbean, Pakistani, Bengali and Indian migrants. After 7/7 the promotion of “British values”—always nebulously defined—became a top priority. Blair made a point of insisting, contrary to intelligence briefings and popular opinion, that the attacks on London had nothing to do with the war in Iraq. They were, he said, motivated by an “evil ideology”, a perversion of Islam that promoted “absurd” grievances. Muslims were charged with the task of rooting out “this evil within the Muslim community”, and he sought to mobilise “moderate” Muslim leaders for that task. The message strongly sent was that the only acceptable “moderate” Muslims, as far as the government was concerned, were Muslims who didn’t have anything critical to say about government policy.

This point was emphasised by the response to a letter from three Muslim MPs who criticised UK foreign policy. The government said that it would give “ammunition to extremists”, while the pro-Labour Daily Mirror squealed “Muslim Blackmail”. Just as Muslims have been singled out for failing to properly integrate, British Muslims have demonstrated more “patriotism” than their non-Muslim counterparts in polls. For example, a Gallup poll conducted in May 2009 found that 77 percent of Muslims said they “identified with the UK”, compared to just 50 percent of the public at large—in fact, the same pattern was repeated across Europe. Such expressions of loyalty can in part be interpreted as a defensive response to official opprobrium. And the very fact that such questions are being asked of Muslims is itself indicative of the atmosphere of the tribunal. But if one half of the public at large is not terribly bothered about patriotism or loyalty, why should Muslims be expected to be different? The demand for “integration” is a demand for double standards and ultimately for political quiescence. Liberals have all too often provided cover for this particular kind of racism. After 2001 the centre-left began to espouse arguments about national identity and immigration that mimicked those of the New Right. The New Labour friendly commentator and editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, revived Powellite arguments that the welfare state was under threat from excessive diversity. He maintained that the pro-welfare consensus was under threat because people would be less willing to pool resources to look after people who were unlike them and whose values they did not share. The upshot was that the government should not only seek to control borders but should work harder to “integrate” minorities—thus he applauded David Blunkett’s demand that Asian families should speak English in their own homes. He expressed the fear that “we will wake up in 20 years and find we have become a US-style society with sharp ethnic tension and a weak welfare state”.
Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) initially denounced liberals of Goodhart’s ilk as “liberal Powellites”, but later reversed his position and advised that it was time to dump “multiculturalism” as it “suggests separateness”. He said that it was necessary to fight for a “core of Britishness” that would unite society, and was defended in this position by liberal columnist Polly Toynbee. He warned that Britain was “sleepwalking to segregation” with the development of “fully fledged ghettos”. In a detailed response to these sorts of alarmist claims, a study by two experts based in Manchester University found that the evidence does not support the claims of disintegration along racial lines. For most young people from minorities half or more of their friends are white, less than a fifth of minorities born in Britain have friends only among their ethnic cohort (far fewer than whites), and Asian Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus marry out of their own group as frequently as white Christians.
As liberals have embraced such discourses, the right has felt more confident about exploring them, as when Lord Carey announced that migration threatened the “DNA” of the nation. That “DNA” consisted of “liberal democratic values” which were upheld by “democratic institutions such as the monarchy, parliament, the judiciary, the Church of England, our free press and the BBC”. He went on to say that “some groups of migrants are ambivalent about or even hostile to such institutions”. He also called for a campaign to prevent a projected 15 percent rise in the UK population over the next 20 years. David Cameron backed the call, maintaining that such levels of immigration would place a burden on public services—Cameron’s core policy for the coming election is a rapid and deep cut in public spending! Aside from the fact that immigrants can work and produce taxes as well as consume public services, the majority of future population increase will be due to births, not immigration. In general, immigrants are largely skilled, qualified professionals, and generate more in taxes than they consume in public services and benefits.

The structural logic of the liberal antagonism to Islam, moreover, is almost identical to that of forces much further to the right. Essentially, it goes like this: we do not oppose Islam only extremism. But, as it happens, Islam itself is extreme therefore it is necessary to discipline Muslims and to prevent Europe from becoming too populated with Muslims either by birth or migration. Sometimes liberal concerns about Muslims are ostensibly humanitarian, most obviously so when liberals rail against the oppression of Muslim women. However, in subjecting the patriarchal aspects of Islam to selective attention, Islamophobic liberals have actually colluded in discourses that make life more difficult for Muslim women. Some have even been willing to defend discriminatory employment practices. Consider the case of Bushra Noah who was refused a job at a hairdressing salon because she wore a hijab. She successfully pursued a law suit proving that she was the victim of discrimination, a decision that led to murmurs of discontent among some liberals. The purported humanitarianism of liberals, concerned about the condition of women who wear the hijab or niqab, is intermingled with a moral panic about Muslims “not fitting in”. For liberals as much as for reactionaries, the “veil” is a signifier of cultural separatism, of Islamist agitation and ultimately of terrorist intent. Joan Smith, for example, leavens her feminist objections to the niqab and the burqa with shrill denunciations of alleged separatism. For example, she maintains that “it’s hard to think of another form of dress which is so highly politicised—or so rejectionist of mainstream culture”.

However, what Smith means by “rejectionist of mainstream culture” is made clear when she speaks of Islamists plotting terror while enjoying “some success in persuading Muslim women to adopt the niqab and jilbab”. In a paranoid leap of the imagination, Smith treats such garments as if they are an extension of an “Islamist” agenda to subvert liberal democracy. Again this is a continental trend. The feminist writer Joan Wallach Scott has described how in France the “veil” is depicted as an “enemy flag” in the Republic. The Sarkozy administration’s attempts to ban the burqa bear this out. Construing Islam as an “enemy” within segues into a dangerous argument that Muslims are “colonising” Europe through sheer force of numbers. Lord Pearson, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), claims that on the basis of present Muslim birth-rates Britain will have lost the ability to determine its “own” system of government within ten or 20 years. Niall Ferguson has spoken of the “subtle Muslim colonisation of Europe’s cities”. Across the continent such claims consistently inform right wing hostility to Muslims. For example, the Lega Nord (Northern League) in Italy ran an advertising campaign depicting the effects of “immigration” on Native Americans—”Now they live in reservations”, the posters said. The metaphor of colonisation was dramatically pictorialised during the successful Swiss campaign for a ban on the construction of minarets, when its campaign posters depicted a Swiss flag covered from corner to corner with ominous black minarets. In the foreground was a “veiled” Muslim woman, again depicted in black.

Taking this language to its demagogic extreme, the BNP asserts that “Islamic colonisation” in the UK amounts to a “bloodless genocide”. The language of colonisation implies that the appropriate response is a “national liberation” struggle. While such martial connotations would not be welcomed by liberal Islamophobes, this is the message taken to heart by would-be far-right bombers. Martin Gilleard, who manufactured nail bombs for the purposes of such a struggle, said, “Be under no illusion, we are at war. And it is a war we are losing badly… I am so sick and tired of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back…the time has come to stop the talk and start to act”. A founder of the English Defence League (EDL) feels much the same way. Commenting on the daubing of inflammatory graffiti on an Indian restaurant, he claimed, “I personally look forward to the day that we are posting news of acts of war against the Moslem community and not just graffiti”. This interface between the authoritarian policies of European states, media propaganda and the racist priorities of the far right has contributed to the growing profile of xenophobic and outright fascist parties across the continent. In Italy the Lega Nord shares power in a hard-right coalition. In Belgium the far-right Vlaams Belang is the single largest party. In Denmark the Danish People’s Party is the third largest party and governs in coalition with the centre-right Conservative People’s Party. In Holland the second largest party is Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. And in Britain we face the twin threats of an electoral surge by the BNP and ugly manifestations of street violence by various far-right activists and racist hooligans under the rubric of the EDL.

The far right in Britain is currently enjoying its best election results since the Second World War. The BNP is outstripping the best results obtained by the National Front during its heyday in the mid-1970s. In the 2001 general election the party gained a total of 47,129 votes, largely based on localised pockets of strength in the north east following race riots. In the 2005 general election this had increased to 192,746. In the 2008 London Assembly elections the party gained a seat on the assembly for the first time with 130,714 votes. And in the 2009 European Parliament elections the BNP gained two MEPs and a total of 943,598 votes nationwide. From the start to the end of the last decade, in other words, the BNP had increased its total vote by over 2000 percent to almost a million. The party’s membership in 2008 stood at more than 10,000. This performance is even more shocking in the light of the schismatic nature of far-right politics, and the splits that have beset the BNP itself in recent years. There has been a simplistic tendency to reduce BNP support to the disaffected “white working class”, comprising former Labour supporters angered by the party’s allegedly lenient stance on immigration. The conclusion drawn by some Labour ministers is that the party should abandon “politically correct” equal rights legislation and appeal to white workers on the basis of pandering to anti-immigration sentiment. One study, based on a composite of several polls, would appear to give some weight to this picture. It identifies typical BNP supporters as middle aged white males working in skilled manufacturing roles. They are not necessarily the poorest workers but they are typically the most aggrieved. In contrast to NF supporters in the 1970s, they are older, less sympathetic to the Conservative Party and much angrier about the state of society. They share significant demographic qualities with Labour supporters and “52 of the 58 council seats won by the BNP since 2005 have come at the expense of Labour incumbents”.

Other research, however, casts a different light on this. First of all there is the Democratic Audit study from 2004 which found that the majority of BNP voters were ex-Tories rather than former Labour supporters. “In fact the BNP gains most from the Conservatives and least from Labour”, it said. That survey also suggested a more complicated story with respect to the class background of fascist voters, a disproportionate number of whom were “lower middle class”. Another survey carried out by YouGov last year was large enough to include a representative sample of BNP voters. It confirmed that the BNP had made substantial inroads into the working class but still found that their voters tended to have voted Conservative in the past rather than Labour. Indeed, the traditional base of the Labour Party, the organised labour movement, is the most resistant of all social groups to the BNP’s ideas. Another cliché is that BNP voters are not expressing racism so much as dissatisfaction with levels of immigration, or an inchoate rage about their diminishing economic prospects. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, alleges that “most” BNP voters are “not racists”. In fact, the YouGov survey found that the majority of BNP voters, some 72 percent, support the party’s platform of “voluntary” repatriation, a key step in their programme for an “all-white Britain”. 94 percent want all immigration stopped and 58 percent attribute most crime to immigrants. Only 35 percent of BNP voters agree that non-white British citizens who were born in this country are just as “British” as their white counterparts. This is a layer of people who don’t want to share a country with black or Asian people. A sizeable number of them are also prepared to endorse explicitly punitive measures against non-white Britons, as 49 percent want employers to discriminate on the grounds of race. BNP voters are also disproportionately inclined to believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, in as much as 9 percent believe that there is an international conspiracy led by Jews and communists to undermine Christian values in Western countries. A further 24 percent believe that such a conspiracy exists but that it is “exaggerated”. These are not merely hardcore racist ideas. They are even more extreme than the BNP are prepared to appear in public.

BNP voters also tend to express a spurious victimology in which white people are the “real” victims of racism, corroborated by the media and politicians who hypocritically vent about the “white working class”. The Yougov poll found that 77 percent of BNP voters believe that white people are unfairly discriminated against. 70 percent believe that Muslims enjoy unfair advantages and 62 percent believe that non-white people in general are given undue favour. But in this as in other respects the BNP is tapping into much wider layers of racism. Across the public in general the single largest sector of opinion, 40 percent believe that white people are the victims of discrimination, 39 percent believe that Muslims are unfairly advantaged and 36 percent believe that non-white people in general receive unfair benefits. 44 percent believe that Islam, even in its milder forms, is a “serious danger” to “Western civilisation”. 61 percent of the public share the view that all immigration to the UK should be stopped. More than a quarter favour the government “encouraging” “immigrants and their families” to leave the UK even if they were born here. Predictably, it is the most right wing voters that entertain these views but they are also shared by a substantial number of Labour supporters. Note the overlap between the racist resentment of Muslims and the same resentment towards other minorities. These are not separate but parallel phenomena.

The BNP’s approach to would-be voters has been decisively shaped by the new international political climate forged by the “war on terror”. In this respect, it mimics xenophobic and fascist parties across Europe by redirecting its fire onto Muslims, tailoring its message to avoid public expressions of anti-Semitism and even for the first time expressing support for the state of Israel. The first sign of the latter change came in 2006 when Lee Barnes, the BNP’s legal officer, outlined the position with respect to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon: “I support Israel 100 percent in their dispute with Hezbollah… I hope they wipe Hezbollah off the Lebanese map and bomb them until they leave large greasy craters in the cities where their Islamic extremist cantons of terror once stood.” The party declared itself “prudently” on Israel’s side, for reasons of “national interest”: Israel was part of a “Western, if not European” civilisation whose opponents were “trying to conquer the world and subject it to their religion”. An article on the BNP’s website explained that the party had cast off “the leg-irons of conspiracy theories and the thinly veiled anti-Semitism which has held this party back for two decades”. BNP leader Nick Griffin explained the new strategy berating those who wished to continue to focus on Jews by saying, “We should be positioning ourselves to take advantage for our own political ends of the growing wave of public hostility to Islam currently being whipped up by the mass media”.

However, this has not translated into a pro-war stance in the major theatres of the “war on terror”, nor has it necessarily involved explicitly cheerleading Israeli aggression. The BNP has opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, claiming to be the “only serious party calling for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan”. It has, however, tapped into pro-troops sentiment by standing in wards where soldiers have died, and Griffin has even made an appearance at Wootton Bassett where the coffins of deceased soldiers are routinely paraded. On Operation Cast Lead, Nick Griffin explained to supporters that though it was in the general interest of Britain for Israel to defeat its opponents, the BNP took no view on Israel’s assault on Gaza because it was none of Britain’s business how the two sides dealt with one another. By saying that the troops should be brought home to police Britain’s borders the BNP taps into a right wing version of anti-war feeling, the gist of which is that Britain should have nothing to do with Muslims either at home or abroad. Obviously this does not represent a conversion to anti-imperialism. The BNP has roots in a post-war organisation called the League of Empire Loyalists, and its British Pride website celebrates the British Empire as a “noble” and “benevolent” venture. What it signifies is, firstly, the BNP’s hostility to the United States and, secondly, its adaptation to the shift from explicitly pro-colonial racism to a more conservative white nationalism. The claim that Muslim “colonists” are carrying out a “bloodless genocide” in Britain reflects an agenda of militarising British society in quite a different way to that intended by the government.

In order to “take advantage” of “public hostility to Islam” being “whipped up by the mass media”, a division of labour has come about on the far right. Lee Barnes explained: “The BNP have no interest in seeking to return to street activism so the way is clear for the NF to become the primary organisation in the UK that organises and deploys those nationalists who are not interested in political electioneering but in street activism.” Tom Linden, a National Front organiser, made the same point in strikingly similar language. The formation of the English Defence League, avowedly in response to “Islamic extremism”, represents something of an opportunity along these lines. The EDL and the BNP formally maintain an organisational distance. Indeed, each is operatically appalled at the very idea that it would have anything to do with the other. The EDL denies that it is racist like the BNP, and the BNP has gone so far as to accuse the EDL of being a “Zionist false flag” operation. The truth is that the two organisations are connected in a number of ways. Chris Renton, a key EDL organiser, is a known BNP activist. Davy Cooling, a member of the BNP, is also active in the thuggish outfit “Men in Gear” and a key activist in the EDL’s Luton “division”. Sean Corrigan, who runs the EDL’s online forum, is a BNP activist from St Albans. Several BNP members have been spotted at EDL protests. The EDL also accepts Nazis from other backgrounds such as the British Freedom Movement and is open about the fact that violent Combat 18 members attend its protests. One of its key funders and strategists is a far-right businessman named Alan Lake, who has previously worked with the fascist Swedish Democrats.

What appears to be happening is that the organisational and “intellectual” spine of the organisation is being supplied by organised Nazis while the foot-soldiers are recruited from among football casuals and other violent right wing, but non-Nazi, groups. This is not the first time that such a tactic has been pursued. The National Front used to infiltrate and mobilise skinhead and football hooligan groups during the 1970s in order to attack the left and ethnic minorities. It is also analogous to the general tendency by fascist organisations to use paramilitaries, comprising many who are not ideologically committed fascists, both as weapons against opponents and as socialising institutions that can help produce a disciplined fascist cadre. This is one reason why it is a mistake to simply dismiss the EDL as thugs who can be dealt with by police as a public order issue. The swing, within a decade, from post Lawrence Inquiry optimism to the current abysmal state of affairs was not inevitable. To a considerable extent racism has been driven by policy and encouraged by media reaction. Contrary to the ahistorical analyses of racism that see it as an instinctive response to “otherness”—which by naturalising racism, undermines criticism of it—racialisation is a political act, and racism a structure of political oppression. In this sense the revival of Powellite racism, the “new racism”, is a result of various government strategies for managing troublesome minorities, making immigration work to the benefit of capital accumulation, and depoliticising anti-racism so that it can be accommodated to the neoliberal settlement.

But it would be a mistake to see this as a purely top-down process. Racist ideas have caught on because they in some sense explain people’s experiences of the world, and they are particularly popular among those for whom the world is structured by competition for scarce resources. It is these groups of naturally right wing voters who gravitate toward UKIP and the BNP. The “war on terror” has helped radicalise these ideas and give them a poisonous edge, but it didn’t create them, and it isn’t the principal source of them. To combat racism it is necessary not only to mobilise the anti-war and anti-racist majority and fight the delirious propaganda of the right wing press, but also to reassert the basic class antagonism that structures society and the necessity for working class unity in the face of that. This becomes an altogether more urgent task as the deepest recession since the 1920s throws millions out of work, depresses incomes, and threatens to eviscerate public services and welfare.

Fascist vultures are circling

The British National Party is determined to contest more seats than any British extreme-right party ever before. With over 160 candidates declared for the general election at the time of writing, the BNP appears well on track to reach its target. The figure the BNP has to beat is the 303 candidates that the National Front (NF) fielded in the 1979 general election. However, their average vote of 1.5% was the end of the road for the NF, which had overreached itself and imploded. Out of the ruins was born the BNP, founded in 1982. Unfortunately there are few comparisons between today’s BNP challenge and that of the NF. The NF had never really been interested in contesting elections for their own sake, preferring a more violent path. It believed it could rise to power if it could “kick our way into the headlines” through demonstrations and marches in an attempt to “control” the streets. Nevertheless the NF did contest elections and occasionally achieved some notable results. In 1973 Martin Webster, the NF’s national activities organiser, polled 16% in a by-election in West Bromwich. This compares favourably with the 16% that Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, polled in Oldham West and Royton in the 2001 general election and the 17% that Richard Barnbrook won in 2005, the highest percentage achieved by the BNP at a general election to date.

However the NF was not geared organisationally towards contesting elections in the same sustained manner in which the BNP has focussed on cultivating wards and constituencies in recent years. The NF believed that its support, which was concentrated in the West Midlands and Greater London, would simply filter outwards but did little to facilitate such growth. NF support experienced two distinct spikes related to the influx of Asian immigrants in 1972 and 1976. BNP support in contrast, although similarly concentrated in pockets of the country, shows some sign that it is transcending the regionalisation of its core support base. Since emerging as an electoral threat in 2001-02, the BNP has fielded increasing numbers of candidates at local and general elections. It currently has 56 council seats, one member in the London Assembly and two MEPs. BNP support appears less volatile than that of the NF, which has given the BNP a measure of electoral stability that the NF never managed to achieve. There is another crucial factor, which invalidates any comparison with the 1979 general election. The BNP’s fortunes are still rising; the NF in 1979 was already in decline, which its appalling showing in the general election that year only helped accelerate. The party was in poor shape after being wracked by splits in the middle of the decade, which the temporary boost given to the NF by the arrival of the Malawi Asians in 1976 served to mask.
The party polled strongly in the 1976 local election and in the following year fielded more than 400 council election candidates across the country, achieving 235,000 votes. In the 1977 Greater London Council election the NF stood in all but one of the 92 seats and took 119,000 votes, over 5% of the total. In Hackney South the NF polled 19%. This was the peak of the NF’s electoral achievement. The BNP is simply not in the same position. Griffin is more realistic about his prospects and is standing for Parliament in Barking largely to boost his party’s attempt to win the main prize, namely control of Barking and Dagenham council. The BNP has implemented a “ladder strategy” – securing one tier of government before contesting the next – something that was beyond the resources and strategic imagination of the NF. However, it offers the BNP its most realistic chance of putting down enduring roots in Barking and Dagenham. In addition, the BNP is operating in a different political context. In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher led a resurgent right-wing Conservative Party that won support on the back of campaigning against immigration. There was also a strong left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, which acted as a pole of attraction for working-class militants.
These factors are not present today. David Cameron is desperate to divest the Conservative Party of its right-wing image but is widely disliked by the type of working-class Tories who flocked to Thatcher in 1979. The left is considerably weaker than in the past and less involved in the lives of working-class communities. The vacuum, on the left and the right, is now being occupied by the BNP. It has taken the BNP a long time to reach this position. After founding the BNP in 1982, John Tyndall perhaps unsurprisingly remained committed to the same failed strategy as he had followed while leader of the NF. The BNP would have to wait more than a decade for its first whiff of electoral success, with the election of a councillor in Tower Hamlets in a by-election. The party lost the seat in the council elections seven months later and it would be another decade before it began to focus on elections and grassroots campaigning. Unlike Tyndall, however, Griffin has belatedly learned many of the lessons of the past, making the BNP and the threat it poses in the forthcoming general election a very different proposition. Some argue that the BNP is overstretching itself by fielding so many candidates in the general election. However, the position of the BNP today cannot be compared with that of the NF in 1979.
Contesting a large number of seats will give the BNP legitimacy, a free mail shot to millions of voters and television airtime. With many of its candidates likely to save their deposits, the BNP will see the money paid out as a good political investment. The defeat of the British National Party in the court case brought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) over the party’s racist constitution has, claims the BNP, galvanised its members to action. In truth the capitulation of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, to the EHRC, which forced him to comply with the Equality Bill now completing its passage through Parliament, has incensed a large swathe of BNP activists who have no desire whatsoever to associate with people from ethnic minorities in their party branch meetings, now that the BNP can no longer use skin colour as a membership criterion. The vultures are circling and none more so than the National Front (NF), which is trying to take advantage of the discontent in the BNP by pitching itself as a genuine racist alternative. With its hardline ideological stance, one of which is killing people for being gay, the NF is well placed to benefit from discontent in the BNP over the theoretical prospect of minority members, which many see as the start of the “sickly spiral of moderation” that Griffin once so vehemently denounced.

Following a “palace coup” against the ossified leadership of Tom Holmes, the top dog in the NF is Ian Edward, a former BNP member from west London, who was elected chairman after Holmes’s enforced resignation in January 2010. Others in the NF leadership are the Leeds-based fascist Eddy Morrison, who at one time or another has been a member of every far-right party you can name and probably a few that you can’t; Tom Linden, the former Harrogate BNP organiser, who has proved moderately adept at getting the NF into the media; Nick Walsh, the former BNP Hull organiser, and the NF veterans Steve Rowland and Andrew Cripps. The BNP is furious with even the limited inroads that the NF is making into its support. Lee Barnes, the head of the BNP’s legal department, at one point praised the NF as “heroes” for opposing the fictitious Islam4UK march through Wootton Bassett, which failed to materialise after it was whipped up into a massive media storm. Barnes now argues on his blog that NF is part of a massive state-orchestrated conspiracy against the BNP and that it is run (depending on his mood) either by “drunks” or by “Searchlight”. Griffin is said to be livid because the NF has succeeded in enticing some BNP branches to defect, including those in Daventry and Hull. The NF has also won over some individual BNP activists. Foremost among them is Chris Jackson, the BNP’s former North West regional organiser, who challenged Griffin for the party leadership in 2007. Jackson, who has been appointed North West NF organiser, is standing as an NF candidate in Rochdale in the general election. He is joined by the former Rochdale BNP organiser Kevin Bryan and Mike Easter, another veteran BNP member, who ran the BNP “Reform Group” against Griffin’s leadership in 2007, an act of “treachery” that prompted his expulsion from the party. It is not just the threat from the NF to its activist base that worries the BNP. The NF could also pose an electoral threat if it manages to get its act together. During the 2008 London Assembly elections the NF put forward five candidates in the constituency section of the poll. Their results were good enough to represent a threat to the BNP if the two parties were to go head to head.

Their votes were undoubtedly boosted by the absence of BNP candidates against them. Only in City and East, where the NF polled its lowest vote, was there a BNP candidate who polled 18,020 votes (9.82%). Despite easily outpolling the NF, the BNP certainly does not welcome a challenge for the racist vote. The NF has announced that it intends to field 25 candidates in the general election, although it remains to be seen whether the party has the funds and people to do so. Simon Darby, the BNP’s deputy leader, is known to be less than pleased that the NF has said it will stand against him in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Outside the BNP the rejuvenated NF has also absorbed much of the rest of the far-right fringe. Several members of the England First Party (EFP), including its leader Steven Smith, the former Burnley BNP leader, jumped ship to join the NF. The Democratic Nationalists, a BNP splinter group based primarily in Bradford, have also to all intents and purposes merged with the NF after Jim Lewthwaite, their leading light, joined the NF in December 2009. The NF even briefly gained a borough councillor. John Gamble was elected as a BNP councillor in Rotherham in 2008, defected to the EFP in 2009 and moved on to the NF in March 2010. However he lasted less than two weeks before the NF announced that its “party whip was removed” from him. The NF claims that its membership has recently “surged by 70%” but it continues to lack the organisational structure and internal unity to challenge the BNP effectively.