“For evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing,” said the famous 18th-century politician Edmund Burke.
That is the tradition, anyway; in fact exhaustive searches of his works have failed to turn up that exact expression.
But it has the ring of truth about it, and it is very apposite as we consider the recent elections to the European Parliament.
Widespread apathy has combined with protest votes both passive (I’m staying at home) and active (all politicians are crooks, out for what they can get) to deliver two seats to the British National Party (BNP).
Cue much hand-wringing from the liberal intelligentsia, who are contemplating not just the failure of the center-left vision, but a very violent lurch to the right.
There are grounds for thinking, though, that it isn’t as bad as all that, or at least, that these victories don’t represent some fundamental shift in the general nature of political discourse in our country.
For one thing, the BNP polled fewer votes in Yorkshire than it did in 2004. But a major cause of BNP success was the widespread disenchantment with politicians in the wake of the expenses scandal. It was always predicted that smaller parties would gain as a result of this.
A second reason is undoubtedly the lack of awareness among many people about the BNP’s ideology and history. Its publicity celebrates Britishness. The flag-waving, plucky underdog who’ll stand up for ‘our’ rights against Brussels will always be popular among some. It doesn’t have to parade its xenophobia in order to win votes.
Thirdly, though, it taps into a sense of alienation and betrayal felt by what it would call ‘indigenous British’ people. Immigrants, the narrative goes, take our jobs, get preferential treatment on Council housing lists and are swamping our culture. This may not be true. But it plays well in areas where, within a generation, there has been block immigration by people from other countries who speak another language and don’t always want – or need – to integrate with the wider community.
If the answer from mainstream politicians and Christian churches is simply to hold up their hands in horror at the BNP and lecture voters about supporting them, it’s no wonder that people are inclined to respond with a very loud raspberry. Faced with unemployment, isolation, the decline of cherished institutions and a sense of alienation from what they feel should be home, people will seek salvation elsewhere.
The BNP is poisonous; it speaks the language of hatred, and Christians should have nothing to do with it. We need not fear it – the circumstances that allowed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s were very different from those we face today – but we should deeply regret the fact that so many people feel that they have nowhere else to go, and that no one else speaks for them.
Social cohesion is one of the great challenges facing the political establishment today. Whoever is in government this time next year, that issue will be at the top of the agenda. Its complexities require the resources of our whole society to address adequately, and particularly those of the churches. Demonizing BNP voters is not a good way to start.
Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times.