I have fond memories of living in Britain when I was a teen and then again when I was in graduate school. But the more news I read coming from the Sceptered Isle, the more convinced I am that it will forever remain a great place to vacation, but not a place I’d ever want to live again for the long term. It seems like every time they solve one of their problems they come up with some new bad idea to embrace as a nation.
The 70s was the era of raging socialism and prohibitive taxes, when the wealthy classes who are the backbone of any successful society were driven out of the country or forced into genteel poverty by a government so grasping and rapacious that at one point they were taxing 90% of the annual income of their wealthiest citizens. Margaret Thatcher put an end to that era of horrors, but the cost of her pro-business and entrepreneurial reforms was the high unemployment, race riots and increasing political divisiveness of the 1980s.
The backlash against Thatcher led to the rise of New Labour with its soft socialism, internationalist agenda and a willingness to sell out British autonomy for the modern equivalent of a handful of magic beans. The Blair era has produced and inevitable backlash of its own in the form of a new conservatism which has had both positive and negative effects.
On the plus side there has been a resurgence of resistence to the dictates of the European Union, a political environment which has made it difficult to roll back tax reforms, and even a new legitimacy for discussion of the possibility of lifting restrictions on gun ownership.
But the down side of rising conservatism is a combination of statism and nationalism which is so troubling that I doubt I could ever live in Britain again.
Here in the United States groups like the KKK and the White Aryan Party are looked on as political jokes in bad taste. Even their sanitized frontman David Dukes can’t win a significant amount of support in a local or regional election. Not so in Britain, where the fastest rising political force is the British National Party, a successor of the old National Front which offers a cleaner, more positive version of nazism for Britain’s future.
The BNP isn’t exactly on the verge of taking over the country, but they can attract significant numbers of votes in local elections, beating out the Conservative and Liberal parties in many cases, and even got 6% of the vote in a recent election for representatives to the EU parliament. They’ve actually gotten 24 members elected to significant local government postions, using a strategy of focusing their efforts on communities which have intense racial divisions.
And make no mistake, the BNP may be kindler, gentler nazis, but they’re still nazis. They deny the holocaust, promote a policy of repatriating all foreign immigrants going back two generations, and believe in a policy of racial separation. But at the same time, they put at the forefront of their platform much more attractive ideas which actually have some broad appeal. They support the return of corporal and capital punishment which makes some sense with the rapidly rising crime rate in Britain. They support withdrawing from the European Union which always attracts some adherents. They also favor a Swiss-style universal national service program. And strangely they’re big supporters of industrial collectivism and organic farming.
The leader of the BNP is the charismatic, articulate and somewhat creepy Nick Griffin. He’s very good at presenting their ideas while downplaying the crazier aspects and making them sound perfectly reasonable. He hasn’t been terribly successful in his personal political ambitions, but he’s provided an effective national voice for the party which has certainly helped put others in office. Interestingly under the charter of the BNP he holds total power in the organization with complete personal control over finances and policies, just like a little dictator.
While the BNP is certainly bad enough, they aren’t in any real danger of taking over the country and turning it into an authoritarian state. But do they even need to when in reaction to them and Britain’s strong tradition of racial tension, the established government has instituted policies which are more appropriate to a police state than the free society from which the great democracies of the west descend?
Right now BNP leader Nick Griffin is on trial under a 1986 hate speech law for making negative comments about Islam in a speech to a small group of supporters in Leeds in 2004. He is one of 12 people arrested in connection with a BBC documentary in which his speech was reproduced. The main statements the case revolves around are his comment that Islam is a “wicked, vicious faith” and that it was inevitable that Britain would be bombed by terrorists who would “probably turn out to be second generation Pakistanis from somewhere like Bradford” who would “blast the hell out of London tube trains and buses.” Note that these comments were made a year before the London subway bombings, making him a prophet of sorts.
The scary part of this is not Griffin’s statements so much as the possibility that he might serve time in jail for making them. Here in the United States even our most extreme hate crime legislation wouldn’t result in someone being brought to trial for making general negative comments about a religion or the association of certain groups with terrorism. I can walk down the street all day long shouting that Moslems are terrorists and no one is going to arrest me, not just because it’s at least partially true, but because we have the right to have opinions and state them under the law.
As far back as the American Revolution their free speech restrictions were a bone of contention. Over the years Britain has developed increasingly severe restrictions on free speech that might be construed as racist or provocative to the point where they are now prosecuting people on the basis that any mildly racist or stereotypical statement is considered an incitement to violence, even when not one word is said about doing violence or taking any kind of action. And the Public Order Act of 1986 is just one step in the progression. Parliament is currently considering an even more comprehensive Racial and Religious Hatred law which might go so far as to make race or religion based comedy or satire illegal.
The real problem with putting Griffin on trial, above and beyond the free speech issue, is that it goes a long way towards legitimizing him as a political figure and a martyr. It gives him a real cause for outrage which people who don’t necessarily share his racial views can identify with. As a champion of racial separation his audience was limited. As a champion of free speech he could have a lot more people listening to him and taking him seriously. The situation is made even worse by the fact that his racist statements turned out to be almost exactly true as a prediction of the London subway bombings. In the eyes of many that turns him from a racist to a prophet.
If he ultimately get convicted he will receive the ultimate endorsement of martyrdom which will make him a hero to every person who resents the power of government whether they agree with his specific beliefs or not. It’s disturbingly difficult not to sympathize with them at least within this limited context.
Griffin and one of his co-defendents are blogging their trial as it goes on and doing their best to make it into a real circus, taking advantage of the sensationalist British media to generate a lot of publicity. There’s also some excellent discussion of the issue from a more balanced perspective on The Pub Philosopher.
The Griffin trial and the way that the BNP is capitalizing on it to make themselves look more legitimate at the expense of the government is a perfect example of why laws restricting free speech are a terrible mistake in a free society. Such laws breed resentment, are easily abused by ideologues and the over-zealous and have the potential to turn on those they were originally designed to protect. Prosecuting Griffin may seem appealing to those who don’t like his beliefs, but the ultimate price will likely be more racism and more power for the BNP.
I used to daydream about moving back to Britain with my kids, but it’s looking less and less appealing all the time.