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In the middle of December last year, five police officers turned up at the Welsh home of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National party, and arrested him on suspicion of inciting racial hatred.
Griffin was driven to Halifax police station and forced to watch three hours’ worth of his own speeches, which the police had surreptitiously recorded. He was then released without charge, bailed and told to reappear on 2 March this year — precisely at the time campaigning is expected to begin for the next general election. Mr Griffin is standing against David Blunkett, in Sheffield Brightside.
A bunch of other BNP members were arrested at the same time as Mr Griffin. The West Yorkshire police investigation was provoked by a BBC ‘undercover’ programme which revealed the startling fact that some members of the BNP — although not Griffin — clearly harboured racist views. It also showed Griffin talking in a pub and suggesting that Islam was a ‘wicked’ religion.
This programme was shown in July last year and, in a statement following the arrests, West Yorkshire police proudly announced that it had deployed a team of officers on the case ‘five days a week, ten hours a day’ ever since. Now at this point in the article, a really good journalist would tell you how big that team of policemen was. And how much the investigation had cost the taxpayer. And also cross-referenced it with how many burglaries, muggings, etc., had been carried out in the West Yorkshire area from July to 12 December. Especially unsolved ones. But I haven’t been able to find that stuff out: the police won’t tell me. But let’s just remember: a team of police officers, five days a week, ten hours per day.
I got interested in this case after writing an article for the Sunday Times about Blunkett’s proposed law prohibiting people from inciting religious hatred. This is part of the new Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill, unveiled in the Queen’s Speech. According to Blunkett, it is intended to protect ‘individuals’ rather than ‘ideology’ — but this is a meaningless and disingenuous statement. It’s actually to stop you dissing Islam, full stop. I tried to find out from the Home Office what would constitute an offence under the new Act and nobody could tell me: they haven’t got a clue. I asked loads of times. And then, on 8 December, a Home Office press officer said to me the following:
‘It’s all about context. If you wrote something in your column about Islam, the Crown Prosecution Service might not be interested, but if the same thing was said by Nick Griffin in a pub in Bradford, they might well be.’
Now, leave aside for a moment the repulsive implications of such person-specific legislation and therefore the wholly subjective nature of this new ‘offence’. Forget for a moment that it will be left to the police (or the Home Secretary) to decide whether or not someone dissing Islam is doing it for naughty reasons or for nice reasons and what the hell difference that makes. What interested me once my article had been printed were the apparently clairvoyant powers of the Home Office press officer. Because, of course, four days after that conversation with the press officer, Nick Griffin was arrested for having said something in a pub about Islam.
It must be clairvoyance, because when I rang the Home Office back it insisted it had no involvement whatsoever in the Nick Griffin case. It didn’t even know that the arrests were pending, proposed or imminent, a different press officer pronounced. Its officials had not even talked to the West Yorkshire police about the case, I was told. Twice.
‘Stretching it a bit to be just coincidence, isn’t it?’ I asked.
‘We had no contact at all,’ the press officer repeated.
That’s not quite what West Yorkshire police say officially, however. In a written statement to me (their press officers are incapable of speech, I think) they said the following: ‘West Yorkshire police has worked closely with the Crown Prosecution Service throughout this inquiry. The Home Office has had no part in the direction and control of this inquiry, which is the responsibility of the chief constable. However, both Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies and Home Office officials have been kept apprised of the progress of the inquiry.’
This is, to my mind, a direct contradiction of what the Home Office told me. What do you think?
Unofficially, the West Yorkshire police were more forthcoming. Two officers visited a local BNP member, Paul Cromie, as part of the same operation which ‘netted’ Nick Griffin. Here’s what one of the police officers, from West Yorkshire’s Manningham nick, told Mr Cromie at the close of his interview: ‘At the end of the day this whole thing should be … well, it is very political. It’s not coming from senior police. It’s coming from much higher than that.’
Earlier in their conversation the same officer asserted that the investigation wasn’t expected to ‘come to much’.
We know this because Mr Cromie made a surreptitious recording of his interview and I’ve got a copy of the tape. I suppose he might have paid some actors to play the parts of policemen, but I don’t think so.
Anyway, West Yorkshire police said they wouldn’t comment on the comments allegedly made by one of their officers, which was no great surprise, frankly, as they wouldn’t even tell me what the regional crime figures were.
Curious to find out a little more about the mechanics behind the arrest of Mr Griffin, I spoke to the magistrate who signed the warrant for his arrest. That’s Mrs Valerie Parnham, who lives near Bradford.
A man answered the telephone. I told him I was a journalist and wanted to speak to Mrs Parnham. He shouted down the hallway: ‘Valerie? VALERIE? I told you this would happen!’
Then a timorous Mrs Parnham came on the telephone. ‘I can’t say anything about this. I could get into trouble.’
Well, I just wanted to know if you were happy to sign the arrest warrant, I said, as plaintively as possible.
‘(Long pause) I can’t say anything about this. I’m sorry.’
It’s all a bit of a mystery, isn’t it? Although why, heaven alone knows. West Yorkshire police seem simultaneously proud of the operation and terribly reticent. The Home Office is, yet again, dissembling.
Meanwhile, the BNP leader Nick Griffin thinks it highly unlikely that he will be charged with anything at all and believes the whole thing is merely an attempt on the part of the Home Office — he is very clear about that — to ‘break’ the BNP. It wouldn’t surprise me overmuch if he were right about that. But I suspect it’s more a case that the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, wished to placate New Labour’s enormous Muslim constituency which has been querulous of late, partly over the war against Iraq, partly over the arrests of suspected Muslim terrorists here in the UK. What better way to do a bit of placating than round up the ghastly racists of the BNP? And how fortuitous that the next time the BNP members appear in court it will be on 2 March, just as the general election campaign is expected to get under way.
But a number of questions remain in the mind. For example, who is telling the truth, the West Yorkshire police or the Home Office? And how does the Home Office explain away that statement to me from its press officer which predated Nick Griffin’s arrest?
More seriously, we might start to worry ourselves about the laws against inciting racial hatred and the new one intended to combat what has been called religious hatred. Griffin was arrested on suspicion of contravening the former of these. As his comments were confined exclusively to Muslims (and even then in comparatively moderate tones) and the new law about inciting religious hatred was intended to give Muslims hitherto absent protection, why do we need a new law? What’s the point of it? If people can be arrested for dissing Islam, then the new law is surely entirely superfluous.
And then there’s this. Griffin was forced to watch all his speeches with the coppers in attendance — but no single specific phrase was identified by the police as having contravened the laws against inciting racial hatred. Instead, the policemen explained to him that it was the totality of what he had said: in other words, we can’t quite put our finger on it, but we think you might have broken the law. But as I say, there’s nothing we can actually point to. Isn’t that approach a bit dangerous? And are we happy with the way in which legislation is invoked to punish people to whom we may be politically opposed?
For the man in the street, the taxpayer, the voter mulling over the question of law and order, there’s this question: West Yorkshire police spent an awful lot of money and an awful lot of man hours investigating a man who will almost certainly not face a criminal charge nine months later, no matter how liberally the charge of inciting racial hatred is interpreted. Is this a responsible use of police time and effort?
And despite the denials, don’t you suspect that this was precisely a politically motivated and, indeed, directed operation which will, in the end, do nothing to improve race relations and only ensured that a few more burglars and other such recidivists, who are a genuine menace to the public, were able to go about their business unhindered because of the priorities of this government? Would West Yorkshire police have spent so much time and effort on the case had it not been for political involvement from — as that errant officer put it — ‘higher than that’?
And there is the broader, more general philosophical point: as an indirect result of the War on Terror, our freedom to say what we believe is being swiftly eroded. It’s not just the Muslims who want people silenced or banged up: the Sikhs have been getting in on the act too, forcing a play which was critical of their religion to close. On the day it closed the Sikhs got support from a particularly fatuous spokesman for the Archbishop of Birmingham. He said that people should be free to criticise religion if they did so ‘responsibly’. What a pompous ass. Surely it would be better if God, rather than the West Yorkshire police or the Sikhs or Muslim community leaders, decided what constituted responsible criticism — and delivered His terrible judgment in that black nanosecond after we have drawn our terminal breath. Otherwise the law courts are going to be full for a while to come.
(Posted on January 3, 2005)