Let me start this post by pointing out that I’m not a fan of the BNP, not by a long margin. It saddens me that I have to point that at at the beginning, but some people will read this post as a defence of Mr Griffin and his politics and that simply couldn’t be further from the truth.
That said, there was something quite disturbing about the events surrounding last night’s broadcast of Question Time here in Blighty, which featured the leader of the BNP on the basis of their recent success in the Euro Elections (the BNP won two seats in the European Parliament). That invitation to appear has caused a furore in the country and has highlighted some issues around free speech and impartiality which need to be addressed.
- Let’s begin with that issue of free speech in a democracy. It seems to me that one of the things that you have to put up with if you live in a liberal democracy is the fact that some of the people you share that liberal democracy with are not going to agree with you, not in the slightest. As the famous quote goes (commonly ascribed to Churchill but not actually by him – more probably Voltaire over two centuries earlier), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It seems to me that the protesters outside the BBC yesterday were taking the line, “I disapprove of what you say and I’ll do everything in my power to cut your tongue out”. That might seem harsh, but there is a clear difference between a peaceful protest against the views of Griffin (and quite right too) and the kind of criminal damage and trespass that we saw on Thursday. Like it or not (and I don’t like it one bit), the BNP have two elected members to the European Parliament and under the terms of the BBC’s charter they need to give their representatives the same public platform that any other representatives get. Look at it another way – they have the same number of MEPs as the SNP and three times as many votes. Why should Alex Salmond get onto Question Time but not Nick Griffin? If the only answer is “I don’t like what Nick Griffin says” then I think you miss the point. The way to get Nick Griffin off Question Time is not to violate the principles of liberal democracy but rather to utilise them – let’s make sure that next time the BNP don’t get half as many votes and therefore don’t get any MEPs.
- Now to the Question Time broadcast itself. Amazingly 8 million people watched it, more than Strictly Come Dancing and almost three times the normal audience. Given that most of the viewers were newbies, they may have missed the fact that the format seemed to alter. Normally on QT the panel are asked their opinion about various news items and political events in the past week. This time however it seemed that almost all the questions were about the BNP. I was really looking forward to hearing what Griffin had to say about the Postal Strike, the Lisbon Treaty or the war in Afghanistan, but instead we got question after question on the BNP’s stance on race, immigration etc. It’s not that I don’t think Nick Griffin and the BNP should be held to account for their views, it’s just that the normal format seemed to vanish in a “let’s rip the BNP apart” fest. I genuinely think that Nick Griffin has a fair complaint about this. There was a glorious opportunity to show how the BNP’s whole platform of policies is ill though out and incoherent (for example, David Aaronovitch noted on this morning’s Radio 4 Today, “He said the BNP was opposed to all sex education for primary-school-age children, which is an absolutely ludicrous policy. It means you wouldn’t tell girls about puberty until a lot of them were already passing into it. I think he thought that was somehow a vote-winner… Maybe his grasp on what the British people thinks is not quite as good as he thinks it is.“), but instead it was just jibes about being a Nazi which would have left him looking victimised in the eyes of those voters who were most likely to support him, the white working class. Matthew Parris sums it up perfectly when he wrote, “Nobody dared try what, if it could have been done, would have been the most devastating tactic of all, and perhaps the only tactic that would have done Mr Griffin any real harm: to brush him aside as a small man, enlarged by the anger of his enemies.“. It was a great opportunity to diminish Griffin and it was completely squandered.
- For the life of me, can we stop calling the BNP right-wing! They are a racist socialist party and even a vague reading of their manifesto would show that. This is the reason why their vote is based on the white working class and why the chief culprits behind their rise are the modern Labour Party who’s failed policies on immigration and cultural identity have left hordes of voters looking for a (protest?) alternative. The reason why the BNP does so well in this constituency is that they tap in again and again to their needs and give them quick knee-jerk answers that provide an easy target (immigrants) and an easy solution (prioritise the white-working class). That’s why Griffin styles himself this morning as “the White Working Class Champion” and Jack Straw’s dismissal of the idea that it is Labour’s failure to engage this part of the electorate which has caused the rise in the BNP vote was an exercise in political delusion.
If we want to beat the BNP (and trust me, we want to beat the BNP) we will not do it either by demonising them or by betraying out liberal democratic heritage. We will do it by understanding the reasons why disenchanted voters support the BNP, addressing those concerns and showing the BNP for what it is – a populist, racist left-wing party with little intellectual substance or philosophical clout.