The white far-right and the Islamist fringe fight for their survival
Born of a National Front splinter-group in 1982, the far-right British National Party has never had an easy relationship with anti-racism laws. Nick Griffin, the BNP’s Cambridge-educated leader, was temporarily banned from standing in local elections after a 1998 conviction for inciting racial hatred. (The offence doesn’t stop him from holding a seat in the European Parliament, however.) On February 14th the party suffered its latest legal indignity, when it reluctantly agreed to drop its longstanding whites-only membership policy, following a court order. If its new constitution is approved by the judges, blacks and Asians will at last be able to join a party that campaigns for their “voluntary repatriation”. A stampede is not expected.
In another shadowy corner of Britain’s political landscape, a different extremist group is preparing for battle with the law. Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist outfit that wants to establish a caliphate in what it calls the Muslim world, is facing calls from the opposition Conservatives for its proscription. The party, which is banned in much of the Middle East and restricted in Germany, was targeted in 2005 by the Labour government but managed to save its skin. The Tories are determined that it will not escape again.
The two parties are more alike than they might think. The surly young men who lurk at the back of their meetings are more or less identical but for the hairstyles. Both parties officially denounce violence and are occasionally let down on this front by their members. And both have won a higher profile of late, which now threatens to come back to hurt them.
The BNP’s electoral gains in the European Parliament and London Assembly last year won its leader a place on the BBC’s main current-affairs debate programme, “Question Time”. But they also caught the eye of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the official watchdog that brought the case against the BNP, which Mr Griffin says has cost the party over £100,000 ($157,200). Now the government is supposedly mulling a ban on BNP members working in schools. (They are already barred from the police and the prison service.)
The party also faces discontent in its ranks. Mr Griffin has already upset the hard core by dragging the party fractionally closer to the centre ground. Following the BNP’s retreat over its whites-only policy, he e-mailed members to reassure them that the party was not “going soft”, citing the roughing-up of a Times journalist by BNP security staff as evidence of the party’s commitment to its old values.
Hizb ut-Tahrir faces a similar balancing act between its party faithful and the real world. Britain’s laws against glorifying terrorism force it to watch its language: suicide bombers may no longer be described as “martyrs”, for instance, to the dismay of some hotter-headed members. And not everyone has approved of the party’s strategy of engagement, which once saw it providing advice to the government and inviting the media to public debates.
Those tactics now seem to be changing. Since the noisy departure of some of its more moderate members and the ramping up of the Tory campaign against it, Hizb ut-Tahrir has gone on the offensive. Maajid Nawaz, a former senior member who cut his ties with the party in 2007 and is now co-director of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank, says hardliners within the party have been able to argue that the softer approach didn’t work. The rhetoric has certainly heated up: Hizb ut-Tahrir’s rare press conferences are now cross little affairs in which its enemies are robotically condemned as “neocons”.
The party may yet survive the Conservatives’ plans, just as the BNP seems to have got the courts off its back for the time being. But both parties have learned that a higher profile has its drawbacks.