It is now a week since the infamous edition of BBC TV’s Question Time in which Nick Griffin pitted himself against 'mainstream' politicians. Now, the BBC Director General Mark Thompson has indicated that the BNP may appear annually on the programme.
The whole saga was more of a watershed for Question Time than for the BNP’s fortunes. The BBC had a good argument for the invitation and no doubt a less honourable intention bound up with the increasing 'tabloidisation' of news coverage. In this case, the news vendor was the story far more were than the news makers. That said, democracy is democracy and unsavoury views have the right to be aired. On balance, my own view is that they were probably wrong, but it is a balance. So what do we make of it all now?
On the election front, we have to take into account the fact that there may be some limited success for the BNP but this will not be of any significance in the manner of other European countries' experience of the Far Right. The danger is that it has 'taken the eye off the ball' of the isolationist, anti-immigrant yet smooth-talking UKIP.
However, there were two revelations in the programme which continue to play on the mind. The first was the incoherence of the three mainstream politicians on the issue of immigration. Chris Huhne was the most disappointing. He was clearly caught up in the moment in cloaking the best of all the party positions on immigration into the schoolyard “we are tougher than you” debate.
Jack Straw was unable to convince anyone that the Labour government’s tough approach had any impact. It is deeply ironic that Labour is seen as the party of immigration when its United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) is bringing the kind of fear which the BNP would love to be able to spread, directly into our communities.
Baroness Warsi was the most disingenuous. Having told us that we need honesty, she then proceeded to trot out a line which would have us believe that a future Conservative government would cap immigration. That is only possible if we withdraw from the Geneva Convention, Human Rights conventions and the European Union.
Anyone who wants to have a mature debate about the highly complex and extremely nuanced issues of migration in a world of cheap travel, unequal economies, huge investment in arms, persistent and irresolvable conflicts and climate change, needs to worry far more about the three main parties than about the BNP.
The second issue playing on the mind is Nick Griffin’s insistence that the BNP is defending ‘Christian Britain’. It seemed that he was using the word Christian to mean not-Muslim and not-Jewish. His one good word for Islam was that it opposed usury, in this case coded fascist language meaning that Muslims opposed Jews. Like everything that comes out of Nick Griffin’s mouth, this was very chilling, not least for those of us who hold our Christian commitment as something very precious.
So what divides Nick Griffin’s Christianity from mainstream Christianity? It is interesting that it is the more right wing of the Christian church which has leapt to its defence. What differs seems to be the fruit, not the ideology. History tells us that no Christian could sleep safely in a fascist state. However, many Christians, like the BNP, still seem to hold ‘Christian Britain’ as the ideal. They still believe our faith makes us superior to others.
How often are we told that Islam’s problem is that it did not have a reformation or was by-passed by the enlightenment? Christian amnesia fails to remember how many died in the Reformation and how it rent the church apart. It fails to recall that the Enlightenment has weakened our capacity to sense the transcendent. When statehood and faith are inextricably aligned, we cease to tell the narrative of the faith but tell instead the story of the state’s interest cloaked in virtuous language.
Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, writing in the Guardian, argues that Christian missionaries challenged difficult and enslaving cultural practices in many countries and were often, though by no means always, a force for good. That is what happens when one culture meets another. It is possible to see more clearly what is wrong with your own. It is one of the great pay-offs of migration.
The real irony is that as people of other faiths come to the UK, we will experience the same cultural challenges as those posed by previous generations of Christian missionaries. As a simple example, in my own church there is a fear that the children will be bored if they have to spend 10 minutes in the church service before their own activities. God forbid that they should hear the Bible read beautifully or learn to be quiet when they pray. Their Muslim playmates at school will be patiently undergoing the discipline of learning the Qur’an word for word and growing up better for it.
The truth is that in London, at least, the church is an immigrant church. The thousands upon thousands of Christians attending Mass, delighting in Orthodox liturgy and singing praise and worship songs with their well-thumbed Bibles in hand, are migrants. While this is happening, our church leaders are desperate not so much to defend them from the potential violence and hatred of the BNP, but to defend a privileged place in British society for themslves. Indeed, Lord Carey seems to want to deny their presence in defence of ‘Christian Britain’.
As Christians in Britain (we are not the whole of it!) we have to be faithful to the narrative of our faith. This is a narrative, within the Bible itself, in which the constant struggle between the nomad and the settler is played out. It is a history which tells us that the fruits of faith are indeed totally rotten when it is aligned to power and wealth. It is also one which tells us that the faith is powerful on a world stage when it defends the persecuted and the poor. A little humility is in order.
Christians who are housing undocumented migrants; buying their supermarket vouchers so the UKBA cannot determine what and how people spend their pittances; shouting loud that no civilised state would imprison children, as Britain does, for just being the children of deportees, and yes – “singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (as it says in the Psalms) - they, are the answer to Nick Griffin’s crude appropriation of the name ‘Christian’.
By our fruits will we all be known.
(c) Vaughan Jones is a United Reformed Church minister in East London and Chief Executive of Praxis, which has worked with displaced people in London since 1983. He is an Ekklesia associate.