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Are civil liberties only for nice people?

Members of the BNP may not serve in the police force or prison services. Now School’s Secretary Ed Balls, is considering a ban on BNP members working as teachers. Earlier this month, Jacqui Smith apparently pledged to ban BNP members from demonstrating outside government buildings, while the Public and Commercial Services Union has been calling for a ban on BNP members working in the civil and public services.

This is all quite extraordinary considering the BNP is a legal political party.

It seems to me to be a really arse-about-face of doing things: we steadily erode the civil liberties of the party’s membership instead of simply banning them. Surely there can be no ethical justification for this. After all, what justification can there be for banning a person from holding a certain job or peacefully holding a picket sign when they have broken no laws, and solely on the basis of their membership of a group which it is not unlawful to join?

On the Liberal-left, we even have campaigns to protect the civil rights of those convicted of crimes – even violent ones – but none few of us seem concerned that the civil liberties of people who have not broken the law are being steadily removed. Of course we find their political views repugnant, but more repugnant than the actions of criminals?

Now, I’m all for firing teachers and civil servants who refuse to serve all members of the public with equal consideration and respect. If a police officer personally thought gay people were immoral perverts, that is his own view to which he is entitled. However, if he expressed that view while on the job and allowed it to affect his professionalism when dealing with gay people, that would be a different matter. He should then be disciplined or fired. It was quite right that Lillian Ladele (the evangelical Christian registrar in Islington) lost her job for refusing to provide services to gay people. But, if she had been fired simply for belonging to an evangelical christian church known to have homophobic views, it would have been scandalous.

Similarly, teachers should be disciplined or fired if they make racist remarks in the classroom. But certainly not merely because they belong to the British National Party.

Put simply, we cannot register a group as a legal political party and then abridge or deny the civil liberties of those citizens who are moved to join it. This is just wrong.

Instead of these ethical contortions which demonstrate that we have little respect for the law,  a far better approach is to force them to respect the law. A very positive move in this direction is the decision of The Equality and Human Rights Commission demanding the BNP comply with equality legislation and open up membership to all races. If they want to retain the status of being “a legal political party” then of course it is quite reasonable to insist they comply with the law of the land.

The EHRC’s legal director, John Wadham said:

“The legal advice we have received indicates that the British National party’s constitution and membership criteria, employment practices and provision of services to constituents and the public may breach discrimination laws which all political parties are legally obliged to uphold.”

And quite right. The BNP – as a legal political party – cannot have its cake and eat it. 

But neither can we. We must stop this assault on the civil rights of our fellow citizens – even if they do congregate around cretinous and repulsive racist beliefs. If these beliefs are such a threat to our nation, we must have the courage to make the case to ban their political expression. We must confront their proponents head on – not scratch at their heels like weasels.