On the 15th of October, the British National Party and the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission faced each other in court in London, for a short but significant hearing that was always a foregone conclusion.
In the Red corner was John Wadham, Legal Director of the EHRC, the government’s “super-equality” body with an annual budget of £70 million, founded in 2006 through the amalgamation of the Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission, and Equal Opportunities Commission, to bring the ever-expanding causes of racial, sexual, religious, and health equality under one gigantic gaudy umbrella. The EHRC defines its role in this way:
The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourage compliance with the Human Rights Act and international treaties. It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.
It is worth noting that “enforces” precedes “advice” or “guidance.” Other details which give the authentic flavor of the EHRC are that it is chaired by Guyana-born Trevor Phillips, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, who keeps a bust of Lenin on his desk, that the nominal total of 15 EHRC Commissioners is presently down to around nine, following a spate of vitriolic in-fighting and entertaining accusations of “playing the race card”; and that the National Audit Office refused to sign off the Commission’s accounts after it paid £325,000 to staff members re-employed as consultants immediately after being given handsome redundancy packages.
In the red-white-and-blue corner was the BNP, a much-reviled party with an estimated 14,000 members, in excess of 100 councillors (counting parish councillors), one member of the Greater London Assembly and two MEPs, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons. Not only were the material odds strongly against the BNP, but so too the moral and political advantage, in a political climate in which “equality” is pursued almost as zealously by the humorously-named “Conservative Party” as by their ostensible ideological opposites.
At issue was the BNP’s constitution, which contains the following paragraph, which has a slightly 19th century sound even to those who believe that white people should enjoy the same rights of free expression and association as every other group:
The British National Party represents the collective National, Environmental, Political, Racial, Folkish, Social, Cultural, Religious and Economic interests of the indigenous Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse folk communities of Britain and those we regard as closely related and ethnically assimilated or assimilable aboriginal members of the European race also resident in Britain.
At present, membership in the BNP is open only to those who fit within these closely defined parameters (at least theoretically”the BNP has long had members who do not necessarily fit the “Folkish” bill). Now that the party is in receipt of public monies (after the elections of Griffin and Brons last June””a sobering moment for our country” intoned Trevor Phillips at the time), this policy was at odds with the UK’s race relations legislation. The EHRC also stated their concerns that the BNP sought to recruit paid staff from within the party (amazingly illegal) and that they would treat ethnic minority constituents unjustly (rightly illegal).
The BNP was given just a month to react to the EHRC letter, and therefore missed the 20th July deadline for providing written undertakings that they would comply with the law. Party loyalists believe that the pressure was put on deliberately in the hope that the party would dig in its heels and incur ruinous legal costs.
Before the court action, the party stated its policy had always been to provide equal service to constituents whatever their ethnic origin, and that its councillors had in any case signed the Members” Code of Conduct, which precludes local authorities contravening equality laws. By adding “if applicable” to their employment forms they also complied with the EHRC’s required recruitment criteria. These commitments were eventually accepted by the Commission.
But the party argued that changing the constitution and membership rules would require the consent of party members”and asked exactly why they should change them, bearing in mind that there are all-Asian housing associations, black-only police associations and the like which also receive public monies.
The Commission declined to enter into the latter argument, and on 24 August issued county court proceedings against Nick Griffin, deputy leader Simon Darby and ex-nominating officer Tanya Jane Lumby, on the constitution and membership requirements. The Commission seems not to have much experience of legal proceedings; Simon Darby told this journal that until the last moment the Commission were insisting that Griffin should come to court for cross-examination.
On 15 October, the BNP promised to use “all reasonable endeavours” to ensure that it did not discriminate on any “protected characteristic” (race, ethnic, or religious status) as defined in the 2006 Equality Bill. They were given three months to amend the constitution, during which time the party was forbidden to accept any new members. The case has been adjourned until 28 January 2010. Speaking to BBC television on 15th October, John Wadham exulted as much as anyone could who has co-authored the soporific Blackstone’s Guide to the Human Rights Act: “That’s a result for us!”
The BNP is planning an emergency general meeting within the next month to discuss the ultimatum, but there seems to be no way they can avoid changing the constitution without risking legal sanctions or at the very least prohibitive legal bills. The party stated that the membership policy might have been defensible under existing legislation (Section 26 of the Race Relations Act permits ethnically exclusive organizations), but that it would certainly have been illegal under the forthcoming Equality Bill, which is expected to remove this exception. It will be very interesting to see if the likely complete ban on all racial discrimination will be applied as rigorously to the aforementioned Asian housing associations and black police groups as it will undoubtedly be to the BNP.
The BNP has in recent years become a much more practical party, and Nick Griffin has been reputedly in favor of this change for some time. There will be some internal opposition to alteration, but Griffin’s position is so strong that he will almost certainly carry the day.
This judgment may conceivably have a dangerous effect on opinion outside the party. Simon Darby feels there is a possibility that it might even drive some more impulsive people into believing that democratic politics is a waste of time. In a period that has seen the sudden rise of radical groups like the English Defence League, this is surely not impossible.
Presuming the constitution is altered, an unforeseen beneficial side-effect for the BNP may be that the “racist” accusation so endlessly used against them will become more difficult to level convincingly. Internal BNP concerns that the change will lead to an influx of mischievous membership applications by persons seeking to subvert the party may be groundless; comparable parties like the French Front National and Vlaams Belang have never forbidden membership to non-whites and have never experienced that particular trouble. Darby told Takimag that there is an ongoing internal EHRC examination into allegations that three senior staff were involved in a video-conference earlier this year during which they encouraged ethnic minorities to join and thereby derail the BNP. If this is correct, it is, to say the least, an odd way for a supposedly apolitical body to behave”and could even be seen as a perversion of justice.
The constitutional change could be the BNP’s “Clause 4 moment” (referring to Tony Blair’s controversial 1995 repeal of Labour “Clause 4, which formerly stated the party’s commitment to state ownership of production.) Might the BNP be leaving behind its fringe roots and becoming more like the “post-fascist” Italian Alleanza Nazionale or the various Eurocommunist parties, all of whom have now more or less completely sloughed off their old unfortunate associations. Seen from several years hence, the removal of these always unnecessary restrictions may come to be seen as a milestone for Nick Griffin and his party”a welcome wayside marker in a long and tedious journey of realism and reinvention.