Ethnic tension and the BNP

Daniel ‘Dsquared’ Davies has written an article on what he calls, in Brechtian fashion, ‘The Resistible rise’   of the British National Party, which is witty, intelligent, and much better than his rather shallow original piece on the subject. He also does rather a poor job of explaining what I said on the subject, but that’s okay: so did I. And Dsquared doesn’t rebut my main point at all, though he makes a vague two-fingered gesture at it in his comments thread.

Self-important though this clearly is, it’s time to revisit my earlier post; to rewrite the parts that were unclear and to restate the parts that weren’t. Doing this will hopefully clear the ground for some less self-obsessed posts on the subjects of ethnic tension in England and some awful possible parallels with the recent history of another part of the United Kingdom.

 1) A little humility would be in order from a couple of white, London-based Oxford graduates writing about ethnic tensions in the English Midlands and Northwest

 I don’t like the way I wrote my original post. And I don’t like the way Dan Davies wrote either of his two posts.

 Both of us sound like God Almighty advising the mortals on the mysteries of life, rather than a couple of bright Oxford graduates with interesting but necessarily- given the general lack of knowledge of events ‘on the ground’ in BNP-voting areas, and also given the rather specific ignorance of Messrs Hardie and Davies- somewhat speculative ideas on local politics in places where we don’t live. 

What is missing from both our posts is any sense that it might be a good idea to look for other data, or that the phenomena we’re describing might have multiple causes instead of being due entirely to our favoured explanations.

2) The BNP won’t win many elections or hold many seats, and that isn’t the damn point.

Any confusion on this point is my fault entirely. I had stated perfectly clearly in the post: ‘There will not be a BNP-ruled Britain… the party will never win a Parliamentary seat…’- to which I should add that I’d be amazed if they ever have a majority on a single Borough council, let alone any bigger Local Authority. Then I slapped on the snappy title ‘The Very Real Rise of the BNP’, which does conjure pictures of the BNP winning lots of council or even Westminster seats.

 Chris Dillow, who linked to the post, called it ‘Why the BNP do matter’. That, or ”Why the BNP might be a threat’, or the present title, would have been less punchy but more accurate. The old title was misleading because it implied that the BNP was rising to power by electoral means (which the post said it wasn’t) and also objectionable because of the unshakeable certainty it displayed- which my post, alas, entirely shared.

(Scepticism patch: yes, I might well be wrong that the BNP will never win a council or get an MP elected. But that needs a longer post, and I’m speeding through this point because Dsquared and I agreed on it.)

 3) Elected members of local government have few or no powers to affect peoples’ lives: this is also not the damn point.

Again, clearly stated in my original post: ‘the BNPers can’t or won’t run anything’, with the possible exception of local low-cost council housing, stocks of which are now very small. (Even here they will run up against Race Relations legislation and the permanent local government officers who really run most of the show, to say nothing of the Treasury who provide most of the financing, so even a BNP majority council, should there ever be one, will have a very circumscribed opportunity to favour ‘whites’ in allocating housing.)

As I said, ‘Local voting does count, even if local councillors don’t’. Why do I think that? Keep reading.

4) Signalling by a static population of racists is not really a problem…

Dsquared argues- in the comments to his second post- that if you have 20,000 racists in Blackburn who decide to tell you that they’re racist by voting BNP in largely meaningless local elections, the problem is not that they’ve declared their racism but that they were racist in the first place. Which is where I have to respond that he didn’t read, and hasn’t rebutted, the key point in my original post.

5) …Unless that signalling contributes to a process of ethnic (or ‘racial’) polarisation- and a growth in the racist population.

The key point from my original post: ‘what does a strong ‘white’ vote for the BNP do in a place like Bradford? It sends out a strong signal to Bradford Asians: lots of local whites hate you and you don’t know which ones, so best to treat them all with suspicion or even aggression.’  Further: ‘Voting is a signal even where it doesn’t really affect policy, and voting BNP is a massive signal of hatred towards your Asian neighbours. ‘

In conclusion: ‘the BNP are still a threat, because their presence is both a symptom of and a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation in a number of British regions.’

With all due humility, I’d like to say that that last sentence needs changing:  yes, the vote for an openly racist party is rather clearly ‘a symptom of’ a worrying degree of ethnic tension, but I can’t say whether it succeeds as ‘a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation’. 

 Firstly because I personally don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring in areas where the BNP are making a pitch for votes, or in areas where they aren’t. Secondly because I can’t (as yet) find evidence that anyone else really knows this or not. Thirdly because one can certainly imagine other ways of signalling ethnic hatred other than voting BNP, which may be more effective (or just as ineffective) a signal as a vote for Griffin’s shambling crew.

6)  We don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring.

 Specifically, my initial trawl of the data suggests that we don’t know very much about whether ethnic polarisation is occurring in the regions of Britain where the BNP gets some votes. More than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a determined effort to collect such data. There are some worrying but rather ‘soft’ data points indicating that there has been ethnic polarisation in areas which the BNP have found fruitful: the Cantle Report on Bradford is a good place to start. There is some rather harder data arguing that there is considerable ethnic segregation among British schoolchildren: but this is only one working paper and might well, if we all look hard enough, contain considerable flaws, and we don’t know what bearing it has on specifically BNP-targeted areas. This paper argues in a more restrained fashion that internal migration is leading to increased ethnic concentration, but says that the phenomenon needs a lot more study. By contrast, the demographer Ludi Simpson has written a paper arguing that ‘self-segregation’ on ethnic lines is a ‘myth’, singling the Cantle report out for particular criticism. Writers decrying or praising current levels of immigration, or the hard-to-measure ‘integration’, quote whichever of these documents draws conclusions most amenable to them.

Although the links above only scratch the surface, there is a debate on ethnic polarisation and segregation among social scientists like Simpson and local government officers like Cantle. If polarisation is occurring, then the BNP are unlikely to be having a benign effect- but they may well be having only a small malign effect or possibly no effect at all. We don’t know.

7) Daniel Davies and I are worrying about different things

Dsquared argues that the rising vote for the BNP in General Elections, and their winning of (a very small number) of council seats is irrelevant because none of them puts the Party anywhere near the effective exercise of political power: I agree. He also says that the BNP’s electoral success is peaking and any peak is likely to be followed by rapid decline (the first point buttressed by this excellent post on The Gaping Silence) and I think this is very likely true. He finally points out that the BNP’s current membership and electorate probably consists disproportionately of weirdos and marginal individuals: having met a few of them, and also thinking about the social costs incurred at most levels of society by being an open fascist, I again think that this is almost certainly true.

So we agreed all along? No- and this is just stubborn misreading on Dsquared’s part. I’m not worried about these shambling apes taking over the government of the UK or even of any small town. It won’t happen.

 I’m worried about the possibility that they may not just be a signal of non-increasing white racism but a factor in increasing the number of Asians who fear that their white neighbours are racist- and hence opt to separate from the ‘white’ community

8.) Weirdos count in weird situations and small populations can generate big conflicts.

Why am I worried about the BNP- a small collection of marginal individuals believing crazy things about the Third Reich, who have just about managed to win fifty council seats, few of which they will retain?

Short answer: because I have read a great deal of Northern Irish history.  If you look at the towns in the English North and Midlands where large Asian and white working-class populations live near each other, there are just too many similiarities with the Northern Ireland of 1967, just before the most recent bout of ‘The Troubles’ got properly going.  

Northern Ireland had a population of 1.5 million in 1969: much of the Province was quiet then and remained so in the years to come. Ever been to South Belfast? A lovely place, if a little twee.  And yet this tiny population, many of whom never participated in violence in any way, and most of whom rejected extremist politics, generated a conflict which lasted three decades, and killed over three thousand people. A disproportionate amount of the violence came from the Falls and Shankill roads- both of which one can walk up and down in the span of a single afternoon.Is this alarmist? It could be. But consider this. In 1969 the leading racist demagogue in Northern Ireland- the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley- was unable to win a seat in the local Stormont assembly, and struggled in council elections. The leading ‘loyalist’ terror group, the UVF, murdered three or four people in 1967-69; the IRA managed no killings until they defended the Catholic ghettos in the riots of ’69. Only sociopaths and weirdos attended the meetings of the UVF, or kindred groups like ‘Tara‘.

The IRA existed: as an ineffectual mixture of an Old Comrades Association and a semi-Marxist discussion group. There were areas of segregated housing, but many more streets were Catholic and Protestant families lived alongside each other. In parts of modern Britain- in Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, in the West Midlands and the East End- the de facto segregation of ethnic communities is comparable and the death toll from terrorist violence, with 53 murdered in London under two years ago, is much higher.

 9) To summarise:

There may or may not be a process of ethnic polarisation in certain areas of modern Britain.  I think that there is pretty good prima facie evidence in three of the links above, but Ludi Simpson’s paper puts the opposite view with considerable force.

But if – if- there is racial polarisation, then we do need to worry about the BNP – and their Salafi  or Takfiri counterparts at work in the Asian communities. Of course there won’t be an elected fascist government or even an elected fascist council in this country. But when large communities live near by each other and find direct communication difficult, the hate-filled messages of weirdo minorities might help increase that polarisation, and turn polarisation into hostility. It has happened: only weirdos wanted violence in Northern Ireland in 1966 or 1967. Two years later, they had their wish, and then violence stopped being the preserve of the oddball fringe. If there is ethnic violence in the streets of your town you may not wish to participate but you cannot ignore it.  

This is what I am worried about: not the elections, but what election results may say to people living in a society which to some extent is dividing on communalist lines. We have seen something rather like this before, and it didn’t turn out well.

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2 Responses to “Ethnic tension and the BNP”

  1. murthercity Says:

    There are obvious differences from the situation just before the troubles: everyone has the vote, and no-one is being attacked by the army or the police. The institutions of state are not massively racially discriminatory. These aren’t the conditions for grudges and gangsterism to flourish.

  2. Britblog Round up » Big Brother Celebrity News & Gossip : Anorak Says:

    […] it is? D-squrared Digest thinks it is not rising and backs this argument with facts and analysis. Dan Hardie disagrees and the Yorkshire Ranter and Blood & Treasure continue the debate. Elsewhere in the […]

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