Why are we asking this now?
Because the British National Party's membership list has been published on the internet in defiance of a court order. It was put up on the internet on Monday night but has since been removed, although by then copies had already been made. Nick Griffin, the party's leader, tried to cover his embarrassment by claiming yesterday that the range of ages and occupations of his members disproved the caricature that the typical member was a "skinhead oik".
What was on the list?
It was the full list of the party's 13,500 UK members, up to date last year, including their home addresses, in and in many cases their occupations, phone numbers and email addresses. The occupations included teachers, ministers of religion, doctors, nurses, two solicitors, members of the armed forces, several "government employees" and a small number of police officers – who have not been permitted by law since 2004 to belong to the BNP.
Griffin claimed yesterday that some of the people on the list were not actually members, but had only expressed an interest in joining. One of the most surprising names on the list was that of someone who stood as a Green Party candidate in the 2001 and 2005 elections.
Who did it and why?
Griffin blames a disgruntled "hardliner", a senior member of the party who left last year. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday: "He didn't like the direction the party was going and broke away, taking the list with him." He complained that it was a "nasty piece of intimidation" but tried to exploit the sudden interest in his party by saying: "In terms of repositioning us as a party genuinely made up of ordinary British people from all walks of life that will actually do us good."
What is thelegal position?
The original publication was on the face of it a clear breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, and may also have been in contempt of court, in that the BNP obtained an injunction against its publication earlier this year. The legality of subsequent publication is less clear.
In one of the more piquant twists of the affair, Griffin was forced yesterday to admit that his party was hoping to rely on the right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights in its attempts to limit further publication. The BNP is opposed both to the Convention and to the Human Rights Act that incorporates it into British law.
One anti-BNP website, Harry's Place, having drawn attention to the list, yesterday deleted its links and posted a warning to other bloggers not to link to the list. But some experts yesterday pointed to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the state may not punish people for publishing information that is already in the public domain, even if the original publication was unlawful. They suggested that this would limit the scope of the Data Protection Act.
How have BNP members reacted?
The exposure of party members' names and personal details has opened many of them to harassment, ostracisation and even dismissal from their jobs. However, some of them reacted in a way that was not helpful to a party that has tried for years to shed its association with physical violence.
Simon Darby, a BNP spokesman, was quoted as saying: "If we find out the name of the person who published this list it will turn out to be one of the most foolish things they have done in their life." Griffin was forced to insist that this meant only that the person faced prison for breaching a high court injunction.
Many members were furious with the party leadership and posted comments on websites that were critical of Griffin's basic administrative ability. One asked why, if he couldn't keep a membership list secure, he thought he could run the country.
Others, however, responded by calling radio phone-ins to say how proud they were to be members of the BNP. Several presented themselves as martyrs to far-left intimidation. One woman member, who said that she was a teacher, called BBC Radio 5 Live to complain that she lived in a fascist state. A man said that he had already received threatening emails. It was not clear whether some of the callers were organised by the party, but when the man was asked if he would report the emails to the police said, "No, not unless the party want me to."
Are BNP members racist?
Many of the callers to phone-ins were keen to stress how respectable they and fellow members were, and to put a distance between themselves and the thuggish image of the National Front, one of the BNP's precursors. Even so, it becomes quickly apparent that the party is largely motivated by the single issue of immigration, and that racism is never far from the surface. Several variants of the classic "I'm not a racist but" line were heard yesterday, including "I've got a friend who is Indian", but sadly none of the honesty heard by Daniel Finkelstein, who claims when canvassing for the Conservative Party to have come across someone who said: "I'm not a racist but I hate black people."
Although Nick Griffin was acquitted on the charge of inciting racial hatred two years ago, his words at a private meeting of BNP members, filmed covertly, were in sharp contrast to his attempts to present himself in public as a reasonable moderate who just happens to be opposed to immigration. He described Islam as a "wicked, vicious faith" and said Muslims were turning Britain into a "multi-racial hell hole", while another BNP speaker said: "Let's show these ethnics the door in 2004."
And as anti-BNP bloggers pointed out yesterday, the BNP's constitution is explicitly racist in that it says: "Membership of the party shall be open only to those who are 16 years of age or over and whose ethnic origin is listed within Sub-section 2."
So is the BNP now part of the political mainstream?
The BNP – and some of its left-wing opponents – claim that the focus on the issue of immigration by Labour and Conservative parties gives it legitimacy. Griffin, who is an occasionally plausible media performer, has pursued a long-term strategy of portraying the party as democratic and non-violent.
The trouble for him is that he also likes to portray the party as the victim of prejudice against its "skinhead" image, which only emphasises how unacceptable its views continue to be to the majority. The fact that so many BNP members are secretive about their membership of the party is testament that the party is widely regarded as beyond the pale.
The election of a BNP member of the London Assembly earlier this year was less evidence of growing electoral support for the party than of the change in support for other parties, such as the UK Independence Party, interacting with the system of proportional representation.
The publication of the membership list is likely, if anything, to prompt calls for members of other occupations to be banned from BNP membership. So far, only police officers and prison service employees are banned from membership of the BNP and similar organisations, on the grounds that racial discrimination, which is BNP policy, is against the law.
Far from gaining acceptance, the exposure of teachers as BNP members, in particular, is likely to increase pressure to ban the profession from membership.
So is membership of the BNP now 'acceptable'?
* The 'skinhead oik' image is a hangover from the National Front days of the 1970s
* Many members of the BNP, as the list proves, work in 'respectable' graduate occupations
* Most BNP members are keen to be seen as democrats simply seeking to assert their right to free speech
* The far right has always drawn support from a minority of what was once called the petit bourgeoisie
* The presence of a few well educated members should not distract attention from the majority
* Hate-tinged rhetoric in private has been shown to contrast with apparent reasonableness in public.Reuse content