BNP acquittal heralds fresh attack on rights

Communists reject giving the state more powers to restrict free speech, says Jim Moody

The acquittal last week of British National Party leader Nick Griffin and fellow fascist Mark Collett of inciting racial hatred has led to threats by chancellor Gordon Brown and home secretary John Reid to launch a further legal assault on the right to free speech.

As readers will recall, a BBC documentary screened last year, The secret agent, included a recording made at a BNP meeting at the Reservoir Tavern in Keighley on January 19 2004. Griffin told the meeting that islam was "a vicious, wicked faith". He claimed that "muslim thugs and perverts" were drugging and raping white girls as part of an islamic plot to take over Britain. In February, the pair were acquitted on two charges of incitement, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on four other counts, resulting in last week's retrial.

While communists detest the BNP and all it stands for, we can certainly understand why the jury dismissed the charges. After all, it is not clear that the remarks quoted above are per se racist. Of course, we all know what the BNP's agenda is - for this vile bunch muslims are most definitely the 'other' - they are mostly dark-skinned and so cannot be considered part of the British 'race'. But such a sentiment is not that far removed from some of the comment, albeit much more mildly expressed, that followed Jack Straw's notorious anti-niqab statements last month - wearing the full veil is not the British way, is it?

No democrat can object to legislation outlawing incitement to commit violence (ie, specific action) against members of ethnic or religious groups. This is, though, certainly not the same thing as making criticism of religions and religious believers, in the strongest or even in the foulest terms. And allowing the state to decide what constitutes 'legitimate comment' and what is beyond the pale is highly dangerous.

However, for some, any stick can be used to beat a dog. The Socialist Workers Party clearly supported the prosecution and its members joined the Unite Against Fascism picket outside Leeds crown court, where the case was held. Socialist Worker expressed "outrage" at the acquittals and quoted SWP member Weyman Bennett, joint national secretary of Unite, as saying it was "tragic that a fascist organisation can hide behind free speech" (November 18).

The article correctly concludes that we "cannot rely on the judicial system to stop the BNP" - although it has to be said that giving 'critical support', however hedged or muted, to such legal actions is short-sighted in the extreme. The state cannot be relied upon because it is not our friend. While the establishment wants to do the BNP (it does, after all, pose a marginal electoral threat, especially to Labour), in the long run groups such as Griffin's gang are not the enemy of the ruling class. It is the organisations of the working class which fall into that category - which is why it is essential that those who claim to be socialists must defend "free speech", not imply that it should be denied to those like the extreme right.

Prime ministerial hopeful Gordon Brown said after the acquittal: "Any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country. I think we have got to do whatever we can to root it out, from whatever quarter it comes. If that means that we have to look at the laws again, I think we will have to do so."

Yet the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (RRHA) 2006, which is expected to come into force next year, was intended to close "an unacceptable loophole" in existing anti-incitement legislation - as the Griffin case shows, it is no easy matter to win a conviction against religious incitement under 'race relations' laws. Back in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the Labour government tried for the first time to outlaw 'religious hatred'. This failed, as did a second attempt to do so in early 2005. But after the May 2005 election, a watered down version was finally passed.

Although Labour lefts like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn voted against the bill in the Commons, shamefully George Galloway, with the full support of the SWP and Respect, voted with the government. New Labour had at last got its legislative sop to try to win back lost muslim voters, but it had to accept certain House of Lords amendments.

For example, thanks to the Lords, the act contains a disclaimer: "Nothing in this part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system."

This was vehemently opposed by the government (and Respect), for it seems to negate the whole purpose of the act. However, it may still be overridden if it is alleged that the accused intended to incite hatred - "A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred." The prosecution must therefore aim to convince a jury that strongly expressed anti-religious words are tantamount to a deliberate intention to incite 'religious hatred'. So, even despite the disclaimer inserted by the Lords, the act's very existence is likely to cause those who criticise religion or religious believers to 'moderate' their words, thus hobbling debate and discussion about religion and belief.

Another section of the RRHA  that Brown and Reid may wish to 'strengthen' is the clause which states: "An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the written material is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and are not heard or seen except by other persons in that or another dwelling." In the Griffin case, it could have been argued that a pub is not a "dwelling" - but what if the recording had been made in a private residence? Perhaps its screening on national television would also have enabled the crown prosecution service to feel justified in pursuing the case - or perhaps not.

The home office claim that it wants to protect people from both religious and racial hatred is spurious. In fact, the legislation exists primarily to give the state the power to decide what is legitimate hatred and what is not. No doubt the Blairites imagined that the propaganda effect of the RRHA would bring respectable muslim leaders back into the fold. It is part and parcel of Blair's 'stick and carrot' approach towards muslims - concessions to win the 'moderates' and the threat of demonisation for those who refuse to comply.

As the act says, "'religious hatred' means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief". But nowhere is the nature of 'hatred' itself defined, suggesting this is to be a catch-all, whose meaning would depend on the political atmosphere, the whim of the jury and the judge's summation. In fact, anything that can be drummed up.

We have seen before how laws said to combat the right have been used against our own movement. When Mosley's blackshirt fascists were on the march in 1930s Britain, legislation was introduced ostensibly to deal with the 'threat to democracy': the Public Order Act 1936 (POA). At least, that was the propaganda the British state used to persuade democrats to accept it. But in the 70 years since it arrived on the statute books, the POA has only ever been used against the left and trade unionists; it remains, in its 1986 reincarnation, as a valuable weapon in the armoury of the state to use against demonstrators and those it sees as recalcitrant.

In effect, the RRHA amends provisions in part III of the POA. Interestingly, the defence to charges under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act focuses on whether material upon which charges are brought is "threatening, abusive or insulting". These are exactly the same words used in section 5 of the POA. Without question, the words "threatening, abusive or insulting" are extremely broad and vague, even with the proviso that an intention to incite must be proved. In its current watered down form, the RRHA still represents an attack on democratic rights. But if Brown and co succeeded in removing the various provisos inserted by Lords amendments, given the right political atmosphere, it would hand a draconian weapon to the state.

In point of fact, this act exists to corral and control expression of opinion - and, ultimately, thought itself - in ways that the state shall dictate. In no way can a religious belief system appear sane, rational or scientific to someone not an acolyte. But no-one will be allowed to say so and feel safe from prosecution under this act unless they express their non-belief in the most anodyne way.

Marxists are extreme democrats. We fight for free expression and oppose all state infringements on our right to speak out. We want the POA and RRHA - not to mention the blasphemy law that protects the established Church of England - repealed immediately. We fight for a secular republic, constitutionally committed to the right of believers to freely practise their religion as they see fit (with the proviso that it must do no harm to others); in addition, we demand the right of non-believers to make propaganda against religious institutions and religious superstition.