Should teachers be banned from joining the British National Party? With a date now set for a disciplinary hearing into a BNP teacher (page 5), many in the profession think that they should. Most of the teaching unions want a ban, the Schools Secretary is sufficiently exercised to set up an inquiry and the General Teaching Council for England is split.
On the face of it, this is curious. The BNP is a party of scrubbed thugs, malicious charlatans and credulous misfits. Its candidates have opined that too many immigrants would seriously deplete the levels of drinking water in the Thames Estuary, that the Holocaust, although exaggerated, ultimately benefited dentistry, and that women are far more worried about having their handbags stolen than about being raped. Once elected, BNP councillors have demonstrated that they are far more stupid, incompetent, idle and back-stabbing than any other party in the history of local democracy. Threat? They're a pantomime.
On the other hand, jokers and charlatans have been known to grow into something a lot more sinister. The BNP has made huge efforts to hide its steel-capped boots, tattoos and racist ideologies behind voter-friendly suits and policies. This quest for respectability appeared to work when the BNP won seats in last year's European elections. They "cynically use democracy for non-democratic purposes", as one union leader put it. To contemplate allowing teachers who share the BNP's opinions to be in charge of impressionable youngsters is understandably upsetting.
Clearly, those who hold BNP views are not cut out for public service, given that their notion of the public they would have to serve is limited to "indigenous Britons", whoever they are. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to exclude teachers for their opinions as well as their actions. Legislation already exists to punish teachers who impede a child's education because they have an issue with their race or creed. To ban teachers from belonging to a legal organisation, however odious, simply because they belong and not because they have done anything discriminatory, unprofessional or illegal, would be wrong and undemocratic.
There is a bigger issue at stake here. BNP support is not confined to die-hard racists. The party attracts a lot of votes from those who feel insecure, marginalised and ignored by those in authority. Using racism to make their concerns illegitimate doesn't dispel them; it increases their disillusion and allows the BNP to say that only it understands them when others do not.
To throw out BNP-supporting teachers, whose numbers according to leaked membership lists are mercifully tiny, would simply widen that democratic deficit. It would be a gross overreaction and turn them into martyrs.
Democracy is messy. It should not be denied to those who play by the rules but whose intentions are suspect. Democrats should have faith in their own values and not carelessly undermine them with dubious disqualifications. A ban is no substitute for an argument.
Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: firstname.lastname@example.org.