LONDON // The far-right British National Party, which stunned the political establishment by winning two seats in the European parliament elections, is being taken to court on Wednesday for its "whites only" membership rules. The government Equality and Human Rights Commission has initiated proceedings because it claims the BNP's constitution, which restricts membership to "indigenous Caucasians", is illegal.
Ministers have welcomed the action. Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the ruling Labour Party, said: "No party should be allowed to have an apartheid constitution in 21st century Britain. I welcome the action." The BNP's successes in European and local council elections this year have raised fears of a lurch to the extreme right in British politics. In the past week, it has been revealed that, at the BNP's Red, White and Blue family festival in Derbyshire this summer, events included the burning of a black teddy bear by an 11-year-old girl after a mock trial at which the golliwog was accused of "being black".
Other reports suggested that groups of men at the festival had joined together in "Seig Heil" chants while children at one of the sideshows were charged £1 (Dh6) to throw wet sponges at a man in a Barack Obama mask. Derbyshire Police announced yesterday that officers were investigating events at the festival. Last week, a Muslim community leader in Essex, who has been using a village hall for prayer meetings despite a BNP campaign to stop him, was kidnapped at knifepoint by two white men and told he would be killed if the gatherings did not cease.
Although the BNP has denied knowledge of such events, there are concerns that the party is becoming increasingly strident in its racism at a time of general dissatisfaction because of the recession. Even those opposed to the policies of the BNP - the party wants to halt immigration, and repatriation schemes for people of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin, including those born in the UK - have expressed concerns about this week's court action. They say other ethnic and even religious groups in the UK fighting for minority rights could be adversely affected if the prosecution of the BNP is successful.
Gerald Warner, a political commentator, wrote in The Daily Telegraph: "If a minor political party is influential and so cannot be allowed to pursue ethnically restrictive policies, what about the National Black Police Association whose members actually have powers of arrest? "Many people feel considerable unease about our police force being Balkanised into ethnic groupings. Would a National White Police Association be tolerated?"
John Wadham, the director of legal affairs at the commission, said: "The BNP has said that it is not willing to amend its membership criteria, which we believe are discriminatory and unlawful. The party still has an opportunity to resolve this quickly by giving the undertaking on its membership criteria that the commission requires." The BNP's constitution does not specifically mention the word white but, instead, talks about limiting membership to various Anglo-Saxon and Celtic "folk groups".
Lee Barnes, a legal officer for the BNP, told the BBC: "We think the commission has brought this action at the behest of the Labour Party." Mr Barnes also said the case was designed to divert attention from the equality commission's internal divisions, which have seen four commissioners resign this year amid criticism of Mr Phillips's leadership. email@example.com