Over fifty years ago the American political class, in one of its periodic fits of near insanity, began a witchhunt against communist sympathisers in the world of film and media. Led by the infamous Senator McCarthy, it was a short lived and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to drive communists and fellow travellers out of positions of influence in Hollywood and beyond.
Freedom of speech and freedom of political thought lies at the heart of a democratic, open and tolerant society. Sadly, McCarthyite tactics are being used today by political activists in an attempt to drive the leading ballerina, Simone Clarke, from the English National Ballet (ENB), whose headquarters are within my constituency. Ms Clarke’s offence in the minds of the mob who have protested vigorously at the London Coliseum, where the English National Ballet performs, is her membership of the British National Party (BNP).
I have no truck with the BNP and their brand of politics. Nevertheless, I unequivocally support Ms Clarke’s right to join that party and to express her views, provided she does so within the laws of the land. The BNP is not an illegal organisation, in contrast to several extremist groups on both the left and right of British politics. Indeed the BNP does not openly promote violence nor openly espouse racist sentiments, although it would be naïve to believe that at least some of its leading members do not still subscribe to such views. In Ms Clarke’s case, part of the trouble is that the English National Ballet, with whom she performs, depends upon £6 million of annual government grant. As a result the protestors are campaigning for her to be sacked as a principal dancer with the ENB. Failing which presumably they would like to see an end to the public funding of the ENB and thus drive this much-loved premier artistic institution out of existence.
I believe that these tactics are also doing untold damage to the cause of anti-racism. In Ms Clarke’s own words, the BNP is “the only party willing to take a stand on immigration.” I fear she is right and it is unhealthy that the BNP appears to have a near monopoly of the immigration issue. By contrast the three mainstream political parties have been largely silenced from making any contribution to the debate on immigration and asylum for fear of being branded as racist.
Without doubt, immigration is an issue which responsible politicians must handle with great care and sensitivity, but the continued inability to have an open national debate on the matter only benefits political extremists. As a result it is not difficult to understand why the British National Party vote has risen so dramatically in recent years. It is now the main Opposition on the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where it holds eleven council seats and has a further twenty or so nationwide. With all the major political parties avoiding any debate on the issue, many electors who have strong views on immigration believe they now have no mainstream political party which speaks for them.
I believe we need to understand and confront the grievances of the rapidly increasing number of folk who are willing to vote and be seen as BNP supporters. Clearly last autumn the BNP received a massive publicity coup when a politically-motivated retrial of its party leader, Nick Griffin, resulted in his acquittal on charges of inciting racial hatred. This legal battle of wills came about as a result of a persistent campaign fought by the West Yorkshire police which was so keen to parade its anti-racial credentials that it pursued a campaign against Mr Griffin which resulted in a disastrous public relations coup for the Far Right.
There is little doubt that across our country the BNP is beginning to play to the genuine fears of many electors who feel themselves disenfranchised from the political process. We need a rather more nuanced approach than simply branding a party – and its supporters – as fascists.
The latter-day attempts at McCarthyism that we see on the streets outside the English National Ballet are precisely the wrong way to start dealing with this issue. They can only lead to more division and discord – it is for the political establishment to address the reasons why people are attracted in a democracy to supporting extremist parties. Only then can we render redundant those politicians who choose to offer intolerant and prejudiced policies.