I enjoyed a very pleasant meal with friends last night in Rugby where there is currently a County by-election. The by-election is the first time that the British National Party has fought in the town and is a tester for them to see whether they can get a foothold after failures in neighbouring towns such as Nuneaton. Rugby is a diverse but very settled town so they are unlikely to make much headway.
As the conversation progressed something struck me. Instead of talking about education, equality, social justice, we were talking mainly about issues of identity and race. And that's the BNP's gain. Because that's how they operate by making issues that were previously of minor concern or irrelevance or just plain nonsense seem far more contentious and challenging than they actually are.
The importance that voters give 'immigration' as a set of issues was negligible a decade ago but is now one of the greatest concerns. It is very interesting to contrast the reaction of Britain and the US to terrorist attacks (and the attacks of 7/7 are undoubtedly a catalyst.) While the US turned its ire on the external world, we have turned in on ourselves. For me, it demonstrates that we have a long way to go before we have a settled and unifying view of ourselves. We have to find a way of articulating a modern sense of Britishness and reconcile ourselves to that as a nation. Politicians are not up to the job alone quite frankly. It needs to be one that also engages historians, musicians, writers, the business community, religious groups, and all.
Until we find a way of understanding ourselves as individuals in the context of a modern and diverse nation then groups like the BNP will continue to have the capacity to divide us. They may not have electoral success but they will still inject their poison into our consciousness in a way that will drag other parties onto their ground and keep us divided as a nation. That can and should be avoided.