Friday, 27 February 2009

Engaging with the BNP: Race, Culture and National Identity

If parties were stocks and shares then it might be observed that the political world is currently going through a ‘credit crunch’ of its own as people lose confidence in the old institutions. In such turbulent times, where are they to invest their voting ‘capital’?

Just as, north of the border, voters have finally turned to Scottish Nationalism, it is now evident that in the south the British National Party has become the ‘penny share’ — the low value stock with speculative potential.

Since the beginning of this year, the BNP has gained just one seat in local council elections. But it stood in five out of nine contested wards and, most significantly of all, has taken 22.6% of the overall vote.

A truly grass roots movement
What these results also reflect is that the BNP is a ‘grass roots’ movement. Despite accusations of ‘spreading lies’, the fact is that the BNP relies for its results on hard work by local supporters. Its ‘propaganda machine’ consists of downloadable leaflets and photocopiers, and there is no indication of substantial financial backing. What money there is comes, it would seem, from members’ pockets.

And success at the polls is certainly not dependent on the appeal of a charismatic leader. Unlike the mainstream parties, the fortunes of the BNP seem unaffected by the fact that its chairman, Nick Griffin, is in appearance more ‘David Brent’ than Il Duce. People are clearly not voting BNP because they prefer Griffin to Brown, Cameron or Clegg.

A reason for worry
The mainstream parties are right, then, to be worried about the BNP, not because there is any likelihood of them ever forming a government — a penny share rarely makes it to the FTSE. But as a ‘bellwether’, rising support for the BNP is a clear indication of public feeling.

The accusation from its opponents is that the BNP is racist and even thuggish. Yet despite this, in the privacy of the ballot box people are prepared to put their X by the name of the BNP candidate. Must we then conclude that 40% of the voters in Swanley are racist thugs? However low our opinion may be of Sevenoaks, that seems an unlikely prospect.

Confrontation must give way to engagement
Those opposed to the BNP have, until now, relied largely on confrontation. Most recently, and in my view, most foolishly, the General Synod of the Church of England recently voted that clergy should be banned from BNP membership (a vote with which 59% of those polled on this blog disagreed). This was, presumably, on the grounds that the BNP is racist and since racism is a sin, clergy need to banned from sinning.

Yet the rise in BNP support cannot be addressed by moral sloganeering. What is needed is direct engagement with the issues, as raised by the BNP itself. Otherwise, we may be sure there will be many more ‘Swanleys’ to come. And the first and core issue to address must be that of national identity.

Race and identity
The issue of race is central to the BNP. According to Section 1:2,b of its Constitution,

The British National Party stands for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people and is wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples. It is therefore committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent, the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948.

And Section 2:1 states,

Membership of the BNP is strictly defined within the terms of, and our members also self define themselves within, the legal ambit of a defined ‘racial group’ this being ‘Indigenous Caucasian’ and defined ‘ethnic groups’ emanating from that Race as specified in law in the House of Lords case of Mandla V Dowell Lee (1983) 1 ALL ER 1062, HL.

For some, this is sufficient evidence of guilt: a racially defined national identity and party membership is ‘racist’, and no more need to be said.

A denial of racism
Yet the BNP denies that it is racist. “Each and every community,” it states, “has the inalienable right to look after its own interests,” adding, “This includes the indigenous British folk” — folk being also used as a technical term for ‘racial grouping’ within the Constitution (2:1,2).

In other words, the BNP says, we are only identifying with White British people in the same way that a multitude of other groups identify with Blacks, Asians, Irish, Poles, etc. To suggest, over against this, that White groups are of necessity racist itself smacks of racism and, moreover, plays directly into the hands of the BNP.

Race and the issue of nationhood
In any case, the issue raised by the BNP is itself too serious to be resolved by simply attacking the party over racism.

How is a nation to be defined? Do nations have a place in the modern world? Do nations have a place in Christian theology? All these are questions which the policies of the BNP rightly identify as needing to be addressed.

The nation is being redefined
Go to the website for the Institute for Public Policy Research
, a think-tank with links to the Labour Party, and you will find numerous articles on social issues, including one titled The Power of Belonging: Identity, citizenship and community cohesion, a summary of which can be downloaded here. In the section on ‘National Identity’, this statement stands out:

... the act of removing historical anachronisms such as the place of bishops in the House of Lords could place multiculturalism at the heart of our constitutional arrangements, and by doing so help pluralise our understanding of Britishness.

What is important here is not, of course, the mention of bishops in the House of Lords, but their instancing as but one example of ‘historical anachronisms’ to be removed, over against which our understanding of ‘Britishness’ is to be ‘pluralised’ around a number of new constitutional arrangements with “multiculturalism at the heart”.

The sheer existence of this report, irregardless of its content, proves there is a conscious process underway to redefine the concept of the British nation. If the churches are to engage with both sides of this debate, they must do some serious work on what this involves.

Is nation culture, race or what?
The answer being given by mainstream political parties to questions of nationhood is that it is a matter of culture, and above all of ‘values’. Yet the problem with values, as the IPPR report itself shows, is that they are constantly changing, and indeed may need to be challenged. One of the supposed ‘values’ of British culture is now the inclusion of homosexual behaviours and relationships within our social and legal fabric. Yet this is a value which I, and many Christians, reject. On the other hand, a ‘value’ which some would wish to include is a recognition of Shariah law. Many will disagree with this, yet are Muslim Britons not to be allowed to champion a change of
‘our’ values to embrace theirs?

It is no wonder that the IPPR report concludes that values “on their own lack the motivational power to bind a community together.” National identity, if it has any meaning, cannot simply be ‘the sharing of values’, especially if those values are, for the most part, shared by other nations. Nor does this address the issue of how there can be such an identity when values within that nation differ widely.

Over against this, the BNP argument that national identity must include racial identity needs to be taken seriously. For at least racial identity provides a ‘community cohesion’ which cannot be rewritten overnight and yet can be easily recognized and demonstrated.

Yet there are nations, such as the United States, Australia and South Africa, where a genuine sense of national identity transcends race. There are others, however, such as our own, where the establishment of such an identity is much less clearly successful. The suggestion that the answer lies in ‘multiculturalism’ is one that many now find hard to accept, and its rejection undoubtedly explains some of the support the BNP now receives.

What is the Christian position?
And then, thirdly, there is the Christian position — or rather, non-position, since it is not at all clear where we stand on this issue.

The Bible recognizes both the reality of racial identity, and its irrelevance to human unity. Yet the Bible is equally clear that the ‘dividing walls’ of humanity are only broken down in the gospel community. We are, as the old Keswick Convention slogan put it, all one in Christ Jesus. Here, there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal 3:28).

But what about beyond ‘here’? What about in London, or Liverpool, in England or Scotland, in the UK or Europe, and in the wider world? There, there are clearly ‘Jew and Greek’ and many other ‘folk’ besides.

Does the church simply deny ‘nationhood’? The Apostle Paul once said that God, “made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” Is this simply a matter for ‘the world’ and of no interest to us? Or do we have something to say?

Our society is actually looking for answers on this one. And there are other voices out there providing them. Some want to abolish all our “historical anachronisms”. Others want to reassert “the national and ethnic character of the British people”.

Is there a word from the Lord?

Revd John P Richardson
27 February 2009

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may not be posted.


  1. Yes, I for one would never consider supporting, or voting for, the BNP, and would urge others not to; but the ability to point out that many people might just vote BNP is a good stick with which to beat the main parties - a good thing, this - in particular, the one in power, which is bent of "redefining" Britishnes - as JPR shows - and which abandoned the British working classes (who created it) a very long time ago (thus, since Blair, Labour has been a Middle Class "liberal" party, with its roots in smart parts of north London, as once they were in the industrial North, and which was created by scooping up supporters of the old SDP (remember them?)). Perhaps, when soundly beaten, the main parties (Cons are as bad) will return to re-discover what ordinary British people want and hope for, something they clearly know very little about.

  2. John (R), thanks for dealing with this matter, perhaps in part in response to my request on Rachel's blog for you to clarify your position.

    I think we can get a bit further towards "a word from the Lord" on this matter by reading a bit further in the Word, from Acts 17:26 into 27, "that they should seek God ..."

    So the purpose of nations is not that they should stand for ever, but that they should lead people to God and so into his new people in Christ, a new people in which the old national distinctions have been obliterated as the dividing walls of hostility (cf Ephesians 2:14, but extending the phrase beyond its original context) have been broken down. According to Ephesians 2:19 (and not now out of context) all Christians are fellow citizens of the same new nation or city. This certainly provides not justification for Christians supporting the construction of further dividing walls.


  3. It seems to me the CofE has jumped the gun a little in banning clergy from being members of the BNP without previously showing the BNP holds views which are incompatible with Christianity. On the face of the BNP constitution I have to say things look that way but why doesn't the ban on membership then extend to all Anglicans?

    OTOH I have Romanian Magyar friends who would think God has inalienably assigned certain lands to certain peoples. It's quite a common view amongst many people groups, Christian or otherwise even if it seems historical nonsense.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe (rejoicing in the multi-racial church of Christ) (Hertford)

  4. One of the reasons I enjoy this blog is because John R is fearless in posing and tackling uncomfortable questions which the establishment of the Church would rather sweep under the carpet.

    The ban on vicars joining the bnp is just another example of the paucity of strong theological and reasoned debate in the CofE. I've interpreted this move as part of a crusade by Tom Wright and the 'Fulcrum evangelicals' whereby they can look good in the press without having to do very much. I think it disturbing that the Church should dictate the secular political opinions and activities of its members; but, if it is going to do so, then let it be accompanied with a full discussion of the issues.

    John Omani, Oxford