What, indeed, is the point of the whole anti-Nazi campaign? Ever since Derek Beackon won the Millwall by-election last September, a veritable anti-BNP industry has emerged. Journalists and television producers have fallen over themselves to provide us with another expose of racism in East London. Politicians have queued up to proclaim their abhorrence of Nazis. The TUC and the Anti-Nazi League have vied with each other to hold anti-BNP marches.
I would be the first to acknowledge that racism is a central feature of Britain today. From the harassment of 'illegal' immigrants by police and immigration officers to the gut-chauvinism spouted by senior politicians, xenophobia and racism reach to the heart of British life. But this is not the kind of racism anti-Nazis want to talk about. It is contemptuously dismissed as 'soft' racism and unimportant compared with the real struggle against the 'hard' racists - the BNP.
Indeed, such is the obsession with the Nazi threat that racism becomes news only if it can be associated with the BNP. Last year the media made much of the fact that racist attacks had risen sharply in South-east London, pointing out that the BNP had opened up a bookshop in the area. Last week it was revealed that racist attacks in Islington had jumped by 20 per cent, without any known BNP involvement. These figures were largely ignored. The only racist that counts, apparently, is one wearing a swastika armband.
The distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' racism has no bearing on reality. The vast majority of racist attacks in this country are carried out by people with no links to Nazi groups. The BNP plays no part in the killing of Joy Gardner, nor in the inhuman treatment of refugees locked away in Britain's detention centres. So-called 'soft' racism is more brutal, degrading and pervasive than 'hard' racism.
But then, the real point about the anti-BNP campaign is not that it fights racism but that it invests its supporters with moral legitimacy. Nearly everyone abhors fascism. This makes anti-fascism an invaluable ideology in an age when there is a widespread distrust of politicians and political activists. For politicians needing to earn a few Brownie points, knocking the BNP makes populist sense. For the left, feeling isolated in the post-Communist era, anti-fascism gives the illusion of being part of a great movement again.
At the heart of the anti-fascist argument is the idea that the BNP is alien to the British political tradition. 'They are not one of us,' is the message. This view of the BNP as a virus polluting an otherwise healthy body politic allows the mainstream political parties to claim extra credibility. It is striking that in Tower Hamlets none of the main parties is campaigning on its own merit. Rather, there has been an unseemly scramble to promote each of themselves as the one best placed to stop the BNP. 'Our own record may be unsavoury,' seems to be the message, 'but at least we hate Nazis.'
For the anti-racist movement the anti-BNP campaign provides a route to respectability. In the past anti-racists were often pilloried as 'extremists' or 'loony left'. No longer. Recasting anti-racism as anti-Nazism has made it acceptable because it has touched a chord in a nation busy replaying the Second World War. Contemporary anti-fascism is less a fight against racism than a nostalgic harking back to the glory days of the wartime effort against Hitler.
'We fought the Nazis then and won. Fight them again and win.' So reads one anti-BNP poster. And, just to ram home the point, it juxtaposes a picture of Adolf Hitler with that of a young BNP thug. The anti-BNP campaign simply provides an affirmation of a sentiment that has been central to British political culture throughout the post-war years.
The main losers in all this are those at the sharp end of racism. The obsessive concern with the BNP has helped to sweep under the carpet the real problems that black people face. The consequence of the anti-BNP campaign is to make the so-called 'soft racism' that much more acceptable.
One of the key arguments in the anti-BNP campaign is that if the party wins two more seats in Millwall, it will succeed in gaining control of the pounds 23m Isle of Dogs budget. But the truth is that, however odious the BNP may be, of all the parties standing in tomorrow's local elections, it is among the least responsible for creating the climate of racism that now grips Tower Hamlets.
It is, after all, the Tories who have presided over the economic crisis that has led to mass unemployment and deteriorating housing, and whose immigration legislation has helped to whip up racist fears. It is the Labour Party which has abandoned its working-class constituency, having previously imbued it with narrow-minded parochial prejudices that could easily take a racist form. And it is the Liberal Democrats who have shamelessly played the race card in Tower Hamlets' local elections over the past eight years. Yet such facts are swept aside in the political stampede to 'stop the BNP'.
Behind the anti-fascist facade, the mainstream parties continue to pander to the same old prejudices. Labour's manifesto for the Isle of Dogs, for instance, refers to the needs of 'local people' 11 times. In the language of Tower Hamlets, 'local people' is the politically correct term for 'whites'. This is not a 'soft racism', simply a more dishonest one. And that is what makes it that much more important to combat.