Do we want the BNP in our schools?

Arguments over whether or not Adam Walker’s comments were “racist” obscure the real issue.

A BNP activist and former teacher has been cleared of racism by the General Teaching Council. Adam Walker, 41, used a school laptop to post comments online describing immigrants as "savage animals" while working at Houghton Kepier Sports College, in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham. He also claimed Britain was a "dumping ground for the filth of the third world".

Despite declaring itself "troubled" by Walker's views, the GTC decided that while Walker's postings demonstrated an attitude that might be considered racist, the specific references to immigrants were not necessarily "suggestive of any particular views on race".

The ruling has been criticised by teaching unions, including the NUT, whose leader, Christine Blower, described the decision as "perverse".

The decision in March by the then schools secretary, Ed Balls, not to ban teachers from joining the BNP outright means that the debate has now descended into an argument over semantics. (The GTC, in effect, is saying it's not racist to describe immigrants in general as "filth", because immigrants are an ethnically diverse group -- a line of argument not unlike that of a comedian who makes jokes about black people saying "I'm not racist, I hate everyone . . .") But this threatens to obscure a more fundamental question: should BNP members have any involvement in our schools at all?

The education system plays a crucial role in the far-right party's quest for respectabililty. It has made a determined effort to get its members elected to school governing bodies. (This has been made easier in recent years by a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors' posts.)

In Stoke-on-Trent last year, for example, three BNP councillors attempted to join the board of governors of Edensor Technology College, a school where 80 per cent of the pupils are Asian.

Speaking outside the GTC hearing in Birmingham, Walker and his party chairman, Nick Griffin, presented the case as a free speech issue. But there is a clear difference between expressing privately held views and being a member of a political organisation that is committed to dividing British society along ethnic lines -- the party's 2009 county council manifesto, for example, declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Furthermore, Walker plays an active role in the BNP. He stood as a parliamentary candidate in May and, as the NS revealed in April, during the BNP's election campaign he was frequently pictured by Nick Griffin's side, wearing army fatigues. Here is how we reported it at the time:

On Saturday [Walker] was parading in front of news cameras gathered in Barking to cover the BNP's campaign launch. Asked if he was a real soldier, he admitted he wasn't. "I'm wearing this uniform in solidarity with our boys in Afghanistan," Walker said.

David Cameron has already said that he sees membership of the BNP as "incompatible" with the role of a teacher. It remains to be seen whether his government will take a fresh look at the matter.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.