Yesterday, it emerged that the 2007 membership list of the British National Party, the BNP, was leaked onto the Internet. Now, for those of you who don't know, the BNP is a 'far right' party, who believe that Britain should be for the British, blah, blah, blah. I'm sure you know the type of party I'm talking about - every country has them.
Now, the BNP is the pariah of British politics. Forget that they are actually winning council seats in some parts of the country, they are (as called by most of the media and their opponents) 'racists' and are to be look ed down on.
But, they are not illegal. You see, Britain is, or so I thought, a free democracy with free speech and a free press. But as the list emerged, it also became clear that being a member of the BNP is seriously bad for you. There are people on the list who have received death threats within hours of the website going live. Apparently, policemen and prison officers are banned from being members of the BNP (but not banned from being members of other parties) and the largest teachers organisation came out and said membership was incompatible with teaching.
Now, let's be clear about this, I'm not a member or supporter of the BNP. I have never voted for them, and never would. Just as I don't ever envisage myself voting for Labour, the Communists, or any other number of other parties. But that doesn't mean I believe they should be banned.
I have always believed that the best way to deal with extreme groups is to engage them in reasoned debate and show their ideas to be as ridiculous as they are through your own arguments. But it seems that the media and the political establishment don't believe this to be the case. They think they should just be banned.
Forgive me, but isn't the banning of political groups the first step towards a dictatorial state? How can we claim to have free speech, if the leaders of the country stop one group from talking because they don't agree with them?
The BNP's views are, from what I've seen of them making their arguments, abhorrent. But last night on Channel 4 News, the leader of this party was made to look like the reasonable one during an interview because all he was asking for was a chance to put his views across, like any other party, and to protect his members from abuse, like any other party.
It's a crazy situation when the extremists are made to look like moderates. More than once the interviewer, who did a good job for the most part, twisted the man's words to make him sound more extreme but ended up looking silly because the response he got was "No, I didn't say that. Stop putting words in my mouth. All I said was..."
Maybe I'm naive, but I really did think we lived in a 'free' country. But I guess there's no such thing.