Seeking a British identity

Published

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Jonathan Amgott

The British National Party (BNP) is frequently dismissed as an irrelevance in British electoral politics. Yet, for the asylum seekers the party opposes — and the public it purports to represent — the BNP’s far-right platform constitutes a substantial threat.
Charlie Baillie — BNP candidate for the upcoming by-election in the north-east of Glasgow — explained his party’s opposition to asylum seekers in a recent telephone interview with Guardian. He asserts that the UK asylum system is rife with “economic migrants who pose fraudulently” to obtain safe haven here, and insists that applicants are lying to obtain entry to the country.
Of course, many asylum seekers would object, citing the first-hand experiences of war, ethnic violence and political persecution that forced them to leave their home country for the UK. But Baillie dismisses their claims with the accusation that “sixty percent of all [asylum] applications are rejected.”
Strictly speaking, Baillie is correct. Home Office statistics show that nearly seventy percent of asylum-related applications were denied in 2008. This does not, however, qualify as a good reason to say that all — or even a majority — of those applications were “bogus”.
Asylum petitions are denied for numerous reasons, including insufficient material evidence, a heavy Home Office workload, or (somewhat more suspect), Whitehall’s refusal to characterise particular causes or certain national struggles as worthy of asylum.
Regardless of the flimsy evidence against asylum seekers, Baillie persists in trying to placate us with this red herring, but then goes on to expose the true intent of his party by announcing: “[the] British National Party would shut the door immediately to all immigration.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter to the BNP whether asylum applications are bogus or if they are authentic, because for Baillie and his associates on the far-right, all immigration requests are entirely illegitimate.
Furthermore, neither Baillie nor his party suggests that immigrants and asylum seekers are unwelcome because they might have a detrimental effect on the domestic economy or soak up subsidies from the British tax-payer (a common argument of the American Right). There might conceivably be an iota of respectability to such reasoning, if it were true. But clearly, the BNP’s bottom line is simply that newcomers are unwelcome. The real reason for their opposition to asylum seekers and immigrants is based on — and constructed around — a rigid doctrine of intolerance.
The BNP website warns that the “facts point inexorably to the overwhelming and extinguishing of Britain and British identity under a tsunami of immigration.” If a Briton were unfamiliar with the party and its far-right perspective, they might sceptically ask to see these “facts”, and wait pensively for a persuasive response. Inevitably, they would be left waiting a while.
Accept for a moment that the proliferation of Indian cuisine across Britain might represent a threat to British culinary identity. On inspection, one would quickly find that the evidence of a “foreign invasion” is sorely lacking. For example, Mr. Singh’s India, a Glasgow restaurant, specializes in Indian-Scottish fusion dishes. This establishment certainly serves traditional Indian recipes, but distinguishes itself from its dozens of competitors by offering dishes like haggis curry.
If anything, this innovation suggests the vitality of Scottish culture and illustrates its capacity to absorb and engage with other, supposedly alien, tastes and influences — rather than indicating its impending collapse. Furthermore, Indian food’s chance of establishing its cultural dominance here has been thwarted; it now benignly shares freezer-shelf space with the likes of fish and chips and frozen pizza. Curry is an integral part of British identity, not a threat to it.
Nevertheless, when asked what Mr. Singh’s haggis curry suggests about the fluidity of the concept of national identity, Baillie could only haplessly respond that it is an example of “multiculturalism”. He continued: “Each person’s identity and culture is … their right, [but] a multicultural society [is one] where each of us all lose our identity.”
This is puzzling. Wouldn’t it be quite sad if foreign food could destroy a person’s — or a nation’s — identity? And if an identity is that easy to lose it might not be worth keeping anyway. Disregarding these sorry realisations, Baillie offered no rationale for why or how a multicultural society necessitates the loss of an individual’s identity, nor is an explanation readily apparent — unless we think of the idea of “identity” as frivolously as Baillie does.
Food, and other material aspects of traditional British culture, are not part of the BNP’s definition of “British identity”. If only multiculturalism were the real issue!
The BNP mission statement instead explains that British identity was formed by the amalgamation of “Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and closely related kindred peoples” who arrived here centuries ago, as well as the “indigenous peoples” here since “the last great Ice Age”. It is this ethnic conception of national identity to which the BNP pins its shaky mast. It is even more absurd and dubious to argue that the identity encompassing the majority of Britain could be and needs to be represented by a single ethnic party.
However, when the protection of national identity becomes exclusive and confrontational, it’s tough to justify. American pride traced this course to its painful and tragic conclusion after September 11, when civic dialogue and national policy became aggressively anti-Muslim. In the UK, the July 7, 2005 attacks prompted a similar backlash against Muslims. Using the BNP’s weak and idiosyncratic logic, one attack by radical Islamists affirms the need for all immigration to be banned. According to a BBC News article on July 12, 2005, the party published campaign materials within a week of the attack claiming: “Maybe now it’s time to start listening to the BNP.”
This statement is just one in a long string of controversial statements which have earned the party a reputation for being racist.
For example, after his paper-thin rebuttal of multiculturalism, Baillie claimed that “the recent decade of mass immigration … damaged the identity and integrity of the British”. Obviously, from a party opposed to immigration, this statement isn’t surprising. Yet, before he said this, Baillie had dismissed the effects of prior immigration as being benign: “The British National Party believe that migrants who have been here for one or two generations are part of the nation.”
How can recent immigrants wreak such havoc on the delicate fabric of Britishness, while immigrants arriving before, say 2000, now have the uncontested distinction of being British themselves? This curious inconsistency in the BNP’s argument supposedly justifies a blanket, un-discriminating and arbitrary ban on all new immigration.
Preferential treatment for earlier generations can only be explained in a few possible ways. Perhaps prior immigrants might have had greater work ethic and thus made a more positive contribution to British society than do the “work-shy” newcomers. In contrast, according to the Unity Centre — a non-profit organisation dedicated to asylum casework — current asylum-seekers are more than willing to work, it’s just that the law won’t permit them to do so while their applications are being processed. Though immigrants come from different circumstances, it’s tough to believe that they wouldn’t work hard while other traumatised newcomers would.
And finally among the potential reasons why the BNP favours one generation of newcomers over another: racism.  In his discussion of detrimental asylum trends, Baillie commented about his and his party’s objection to “persons who come from Africa” and later, people “sailing across the Mediterranean” to Europe. He didn’t mention asylum seekers from anywhere else, and although many are from Africa, many travel equally far from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Baillie says the BNP would only accept asylum seekers from the countries next to Britain — Ireland or France — because only these fulfil the international refugee law stipulation that a refugee must seek asylum in the first safe country he or she reaches. He tellingly refrains from mentioning the refugees who are flown directly to Britain by humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross, or the refugees who are duped into flights to Britain rather than somewhere closer to their own country.
Is it mere coincidence that Irish and French asylum seekers would be both welcome and share a similar ethnicity with the British? Would the BNP behave differently if it were an Italian National Party defending Italian shores against refugees coming directly from Libya to the nearest safe country?
Judging from the BNP’s comments about July 7; opposition to multiculturalism; and preferential treatment for earlier waves of immigrants, their thinly-veiled racism is undeniable and inexcusable.
At this point, some readers might be inclined to scoff, knowing all along that the BNP is racist but also agreeing with the aforementioned premise that the party is little more than an irrelevance. The first sentiment is true, as we have proven, but the second is false, and the mere fact that some would label the BNP no more than a thorn in their side lends the party power. In fact, the British National Party quietly thrives on public ignorance, like a silent cancer in a lifelong smoker. The BNP’s current manifestations are small, but its potential influence is deadly, if left untreated.
The most prominent indication of the Party’s influence is its recent victories in the European Parliament elections. Not only do BNP Chairman, Nick Griffin, and the new MEP, Andrew Brons, now have the opportunity to slowly sow their anti-immigration policies on an international platform, but their election more importantly signifies that this party offers something appealing to UK voters. If the BNP can win at a regional level, who’s to say that they won’t be sliding into office at home sometime soon, and with voter approval, no less?
Secondly — and more importantly — BNP sentiments are an extreme version of the same insensitivity that characterises much of the current immigration and asylum legislation. Labour Party policy in practice means that many asylum seekers have been deported because they did not follow the UK asylum procedures, which they did not know and had no opportunity to follow prior to arrival. According to an experienced staff member at the Unity Centre, asylum seekers stay in the UK illegally for one of several reasons. Those who have fled from persecution may fear the repercussions of resorting to the appointed legal channels to begin the asylum process.
The staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, reports that members of the Taliban sit in a cafe across from the British Embassy in Kabul, marking for death those who go in, and inevitably, must emerge. This begs the question of how many people know how to seek asylum correctly in the first place. People caught in the crosshairs of domestic unrest, civil war, or genocide cannot be expected to know that they are obligated to seek asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. Thus they frequently arrive by illicit means, including human smuggling, and after crossing many safe European countries to seek UK asylum.
Consequently, another reason immigrant might remain here illegally is that they closely identify with British culture. Squatters in Calais camps, waiting to secretly scramble aboard a vessel to England, come from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the British colonial legacy is primarily the English language. Why remain a stone’s throw from England when you cannot understand a lick of French? You probably wouldn’t either, especially if you had children to provide for.
And yet, the BNP categorically opposes not only economically-motivated immigrants but also powerless asylum seekers. Ironically, asylum seekers’ choice of Britain, of all the countries to which they might go (assuming that there is a choice), is an affirmation of — even a compliment to — the British identity, the very pillar of the BNP’s existence, rather than a weakening of it, as the Party alleges.
Thankfully, the BNP is not responsible for current asylum and immigration policies. Perversely, it is the Labour Government and Tory opposition, compliant MPs, and their predecessors that are culpable when the UK deports failed asylum seekers who arrive for both political and economic reasons.
At this rate, it will be a long time until the BNP is recognised as politically or socially acceptable in British society. If we continue to allow the BNP the distinction of sharing the sentiments underlying UK immigration policies, then Baillie’s description of racism will start to ring true.
“What I would define as racist is … a term of insult referring to those who have patriotic agendas … There is nothing racist about being patriotic. And the term racist is a meaningless word.”
Of course, what Baillie fails to understand is that the kind of patriotism he has in mind is often very hard to distinguish from the racism asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees are subjected to when they come to these shores in search of a safer existence.