I don't like seeing the law used to repress political parties, but I feel that this is a special case. Like all rights, freedom of speech comes with responsibilities - you aren't free to shout 'Fire' in a crowded place, for example. By the nature of democracy in this country, it is open to all, so the moment you start to spread fear about a distinct racial or religious group, you put yourself beyond the limits of reasonable political behaviour. Inspiring racial division makes you an enemy of democracy.
The BNP are wise to the fact that attacking a racial group will being the force of the law down upon them, so they have cynically used the post-September 11th climate to target the Islamic minority in this country. The BNP seize upon a general fear and ignorance to spread their half-truths and lies in pursuit of a broader aim. They want to work at a visceral level, digging below our reasoned, intellectual processes to spark our fears of the unknown and the different.
A few years back, the BNP and other parties were the preserve of a few nutcases and skinheads, but that is changing. At the 2004 local elections, they were out in force and there are a number of smarter, more politically-savvy leaders coming up through the ranks. They now work smarter - they try to work through small local 'cells' and make great efforts to talk only to those who want to hear their brand of hatred. They promise to end the domination by 'the old gang' of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors and take up suitable local issues. Fortunately, their political successes so far have been few and seem to have a habit of ending in failure, with BNP councillors facing criminal charges, admitting that they don't understand the council budget or just not doing anything at all.
That doesn't mean that they aren't a threat to good order. Their policies and their political activity is divisive and designed to spread fear and hatred. I have in front of me a leaflet handed out by the BNP in Birmingham, which states:
"Next time you see a Muslim driver with black ribbon tied to his exhaust, remember this is a wonderful example of the positive enrichment of multi-culturalism. It signifies allegiance to the barbarian terrorists of al-Qaeda!"The leaflet also accuses the Liberal Democrats of aiming to "destroy the moral fabric of our society." I don't like the LibDems, but even I think that's a little strong.
In case there was any doubt, the BNP post a revealing 'news item' on their website. Firstly, it points out that secretly obtained footage is inadmissible as evidence in the UK, so those arrested have to resort to 'no comment' in their interviews, hoping that no-one else present at the speech which triggered all of this will provide evidence. They also repeat an email from a senior BNP member to their founder, John Tyndall, which describes the 'Race Act' as "a disgusting piece of legislation."
So what do we do? I favour allowing them the maximum amount of rope - as they can't avoid damning themselves the more they talk. The interview by John Gaunt with Julian Leppart, the BNP London Mayoral candidate in 2004 is particularly revealing, as he seems to blame asylum seekers for traffic congestion - and everything else, obviously. I trust the British people - of whatever ethnic origin, religion or colour - to see through the tarnishing veneer of legitimacy and find the racist, fascist truth underneath. When their spokesmen fall foul of the law, shout about it - make sure that everyone knows that we won't tolerate the preaching of hatred and that we will stand up for those groups who need support and protection. If that means going to law, then let's do it. Being a politician, even an unsavoury one, shouldn't be a defence against inciting racial hatred.
Incidentally, if you want to find out the truth behind those claims about asylum seekers, try the Refugee Council's myth busting page - lots of facts, all referenced and supported.