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Too early to worry

The British National Party’s success is not so much a reflection of growing intolerance to foreigners in Britain as a thumbs-down to the mess the mainstream parties have made of themselves, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2009 22:58 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

As if the news of attacks on Indians in Australia was not bad enough, grim reports emerged from Britain on Monday. For the first time ever, the ultra-right wing British National Party (BNP) won two seats in the election to the European Parliament.

Founded on the principles of xenophobia, the BNP is keen on keeping Britain as an exclusive preserve for white Britons. Nick Griffin, the party’s homophobic, 50-year-old leader, has, in his chequered past, led the burning of synagogues in Britain; he has urged “whites to defend their rights with well-directed boots and fists”; and he has said that none of the black men who play football for England can be called truly English.

The BNP’s victory in the European elections (nearly one million British citizens have voted for it) has led as much to introspection as disgust in Britain. The country’s Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, has called it a “sad moment”.

So, should we worry?

As with the cases in Australia — and as perceptively noted by The Australian newspaper’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, in these pages on Tuesday — we shouldn’t let sweeping generalisation distort our view of what has actually happened.

Sheridan wrote about the need to distinguish between the small minority of racists and Australia as a whole, to not tar with the same brush the contemptible people who had led the attacks on Indian students with the larger, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, tolerant country.

We need to keep that distinction just as clear, if not clearer, in the case of Britain. Every Indian alarmed at the sudden prominence the BNP has gained (and wondering if tattooed skinheads will be out for their blood on the streets on east London and on Friday nights outside pubs in Manchester), should remember that Britain still has, as the commentator Ian Birrell points out in the Independent, one of the highest rates of mixed race marriages in the world; that the country’s popular culture is much at ease with the notion of multiculturalism; and that, as a recent Red Cross survey showed, one in 33 of the world’s asylum seekers still come to Britain — and are embraced there.

The BNP’s win is unprecedented. At the same time, it has won merely 0.20 per cent of the seats up for grabs in the European Parliament. It has changed its style in the past few years, with Griffin distancing himself from his previous racist remarks (and we all know how short public memory can be, don’t we?) and led a slick campaign based on very local issues.

The real reason why the BNP triumphed (remember that in the 1997 general elections, the party won 35,000 votes in all) was that disaffected voters, beleaguered by the recession, appalled by the non-performance of the incumbent, strife-torn Labour Party government and repulsed by the expenses scam perpetrated by MPs cutting across all mainstream party lines, turned to it — as it also did to another fringe party, the United Kingdom Independent Party. The ruling Labour Party performed worse than in any national election in more than 70 years.

The BNP’s success is not so much a reflection of growing intolerance to foreigners in Britain as a thumbs-down to the mess the mainstream parties have made of themselves. It’s not time for us to worry. Not just yet.