Tribal Politics

The British National Party reinvents itself

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th April 1999.

Five weeks ago, Muquim Ahmed took me around Brick Lane, explaining, for a television programme I was presenting, the intimacies of one of London’s most diverse and complex urban villages. Afterwards, we ate in Muquim’s Cafe Naz, perhaps the best Bengali restaurant in London. Today, the Cafe Naz is in ruins, and Muquim and his staff are lucky to be alive.

The neanderthals who planted the nail bomb in Brick Lane inhabit, we would like to believe, the utmost fringe of peripheral politics. The bombings, almost everyone agrees, are a sign of the far right’s despair at the prospects of ever breaking into mainstream British political life. Since the Lawrence enquiry, Britain has been enjoying a new mood of consensus and reconciliation. Racial politics, we imagine, will never take root here again.

But British racism, long characterised as the atavistic fantasy of political knucklegrazers, is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. It is beginning to tap into some modern and very real fears about identity and belonging in a rapidly globalising, big business-dominated world. It has also begun cleverly to co-opt the language and ideas of cultural survival and tribal self-determination. These new arguments will be critical to what the British National Party calls “the most sophisticated election and recruitment campaign ever run by a British nationalist organisation” for the European elections in June.

At the end of last year, Nick Griffin, the BNP’s Director of Publicity, sought to persuade me that his party’s worldview was rather like that of, for example, Survival International. “If you can believe in Third World tribal survival without hating others,” he wrote, “why do you label as ‘haters’ people who stand for the survival of the larger, but almost equally endangered white tribes of the First World?

It’s a superficially seductive argument. How can we defend the culture and autonomy of the Yanomami or the BaMbuti if we are not also prepared to defend the culture and autonomy of white people in Britain?

But Mr Griffin’s question exposes a multitude of misconceptions. There is, of course, no “white tribe” in Britain. British people are drawn from a vast mixture of tribes and nations, resulting from wave upon wave of invasion or immigration. Britain has been multicultural since the Palaeolithic.

Moreover, identity among most indigenous peoples tends to be built not upon racial characteristics but upon cultural associations. The Maasai, for example, used to run training centres in which outsiders were taught their customs and language, prior to being initiated into the tribe. One of their foremost political leaders is the son of an Englishman. Among the tribal peoples of the Amazon are many whose ancestors clearly include both Africans and Europeans. They are threatened not by the handful of genes which determine skin colour, but by murder, disease and the theft of their land.

Clearly tribal people in many parts of the world are caught up in identity politics, but these characteristically reflect not the incompatibility of different cultures, but attempts by dominant political classes to extend their power by means of ethnic conflict. In Rwanda, Indonesia, Guatemala and Serbia, the politics of power have been smartly and dishonestly translated into the politics of race.

But the BNP’s cleverest manouevre is its recent conflation of multiracialism and multinationalism. “By opposing multiracialism and New World Order globalisation,” the party maintains, “we are in fact the last protectors of human dignity, freedom and identity.” The BNP correctly identifies the dominance of big business and international treaties, such as the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment, as threats to employment, diversity and belonging, then claims that the response to these threats must be racial separation.

In Brick Lane, these arguments would be met with hollow laughter. The district’s diversity, its evident identity and sense of belonging, emerge from hundreds of years of multiculturalism. The mosque halfway down the street used to be a synagogue: before that it was a Huguenot chapel. Brick Lane’s small businesses, its tiny textile factories, shops and restaurants, reflect its extraordinary ethnic complexity. They are threatened by the very forces the BNP laments. The City of London is creeping outwards, driving up property prices, converting the workshops into elegant loft apartments for the beneficiaries of global financial integration.

The communities of Brick Lane will be dispersed and destroyed not by bombs but by money. And though the City of London is dominated by whites, it is not because they are white that this is happening, but because they are powerful, and the property market is poorly regulated. The Bengali community in Brick Lane is hit twice: by the power of big business and by the racists using concerns about that power as a new weapon against reconciliation.