Good fences make good neighbours, Robert Frost famously wrote, one of those lines which is almost invariably quoted as if Frost approves of the sentiment.
In fact, the poem interrogates it — a hand-me-down wisdom offered up by a neighbour when Frost questions the need to maintain a physical barrier between a pine wood and an orchard.
I found myself questioning the truism, too, this week prompted by a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which revealed that, contrary to received opinion, support for the BNP is weaker in areas of high immigration rather than stronger.
For anyone of a liberal cast of mind this was good news — even if you might not want to depend too heavily on this finding in order to counter BNP electioneering.
For one thing, since immigrants themselves are highly unlikely to vote for the BNP the election returns might simply be evidence of “white flight”.
It may not be that potential BNP voters have changed their minds so much as the fact that they've moved to a constituency they find more congenial.
For another thing, the IPPR's definition of “resilience” — the quality they identified as providing the best inoculation against BNP inflammation — seemed oddly circular in some respects.
One of its criteria for establishing the “resilience” of a community, was social cohesion, identified by working out the percentage of residents who agree “their area is one where people from different backgrounds get along”. Hardly surprising, really, that the BNP vote might be lower in such places.
But there is a human truth contained in this report, which might best be summed up by paraphrasing Von Moltke's famous adage about military strategy. The new version would run like this: ‘No prejudice can survive contact with the enemy.’ That's the reason, after all, that bigots and separatists value fences so highly — because of the pernicious weakness of the human animal when it comes to fraternisation.
Critics of Big Brother sometimes forget the programme offered the spectacle of a mass audience overcoming its own prejudices against people it might have been expected to find ridiculous or threatening.
The BNP fears multicultural society not just because they dislike its darker components, but because they know it steadily erodes fear of the other. Which is, paradoxically, why the BNP should be doing all it can to support faith schools and even, perhaps, Government-funded madrassahs.
The more apartness the BNP can generate, the fewer opportunities for a homogenising friction that knocks the corners off ‘us’ and ‘them’, the better their electoral chances.
Because, sometimes, good fences make bad neighbours.