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A Christmas Present for the British National Party?

Impact‘s Alex Friede comments on the results of the BNP’s controversial appearance on last night’s Question Time.

I will start with a basic premise. Nick Griffin MEP is a democratically elected member of our political establishment. He leads a legal political party that seeks to participate in fair elections and – according to the June election to the European Parliament – represents almost a million Britons. Rather than demonize the British nationalist movement, our political elites should address why it is the fastest growing political party in Britain.

It is for this reason that I suggest yesterday’s Question Time was somewhat counter-productive. The entire tone of the show was geared towards ostracising Griffin – with the crowd as a hysterical lynch mob, planted questions designed to inflame and a bombardment from the panel. The problem with this approach is that Griffin positively thrives on this sort of treatment – it allows him to play the role of ‘outsider’ to the traditional order at Westminster and gives him the opportunity to present himself as a martyr for his core supporters. I must confess that I was quite proud of the way Britons came together and rejected racism so passionately last night – like many in the audience, I find Griffin’s intolerance to be odious and his view of British culture entirely too subjective. However, we must remember that Griffin’s target audience do not fill Question Time’s studios – rather, his pitch is to the white, working class populace that are thoroughly disconnected from mainstream politics. Are any of the million Britons who voted BNP in June likely to be turned off their policies by the ‘witch hunt’ atmosphere at Question Time? Unfortunately not. In fact, Griffin may even have secured some measure of sympathy due to the pageantry of last night’s show.

However – even considering the hostile environment – Griffin put in a fairly poor performance. To his credit, he did advance a fairly reasonable argument against the erosion of British culture which will have resonated with some patriotic Britons that are frustrated or confused about immigration. However, his arbitrary view of ‘Indigenous Britishness’ was thoroughly exposed, while he struggled to defend his position on homosexuality and failed to persuade anyone he is not racist – his claims that he “has changed his mind” or that international law precludes him from expanding his racial ideas simply did not convince. In short, it was a triumph for those who believe the best way to dismantle Griffin’s beliefs is to test them in rational debate. Indeed, his weakness for sound-bites – from the supposed ‘genocide’ of Britain to the ‘creepiness’ of ‘militant’ homosexuality – resembled the words of an extremist, rather than a coherent political candidate. Moreover, his continual response to serious issues with laughter and jokes massively undermined him as a serious alternative to the elite at Westminster. The European Fascist movements of the early twentieth century were characterized by charismatic leadership – on the evidence of last night, Griffin is failing to live up to the standard of the Führerprinzip.

However, the biggest loser on yesterday’s episode was not Griffin, but Jack Straw and the Labour government. Here was a real chance to confront the reasons why people have turned to the BNP. As Chris Huhne correctly pointed out – the BNP vote is a ‘protest’. Yes, but the problem is that the protest has been ignored. Indeed, Straw completely evaded the entirely relevant issue of whether the success of the BNP can be attributed to this government’s poor record on immigration. His elusive answer will have failed to reassure those that have legitimate concerns about immigration, while his waffling style will only serve to reinforce the minds of those Britons that have lost confidence with Establishment politics. Baroness Varsi fared a little better – we heard practical Tory policies and a pledge to ‘listen’ – but it all seemed a little too hollow and rehearsed. The most pertinent moment of the night came not from the panel, but from a heckler in the audience – “Just do it!” Indeed, The rise of the BNP does not reflect the rise of British racism. Rather, Griffin trades on issues that are deemed too risky or polarising to discuss at Westminster – immigration and the EU, for example – and connects with a number of frustrated Britons in the process. The longer these issues are sidelined, the more of Griffin we will see.

So, was Question Time the ‘Christmas present’ that Hain predicted for Griffin and the BNP? Probably not; he did not present himself as a credible leader who can solve Britain’s ills – in particular, the consistent laughing will certainly have hurt his standing in the eyes of many Britons with entirely un-humorous concerns. However, it was hardly a ‘present’ for Westminster, either. The problem with Question Time was that the panel were all targeting different audiences. Whereas Griffin sought to portray himself as the underdog hero to the frustrated working class – “we feel shut out in our country” he urged – Straw and Co. were locked in a contest to prove to the liberal middle class that they hate Griffin the most. The trouble with this approach is that the people who hate Griffin after his appearance on Question Time have – to their credit – always hated him and will always hate him. He knows that his views will not resonate with Middle England – it is why his party rejected an interview with Impact this month – and focusses on traditionally run-down areas that have lost faith with the rot that has set in at Westminster. Vilifying Griffin as a racist will not bring these individuals back to mainstream politics.

This is why Bonnie Greer – for all her charm and eloquence – was a poor guest. Griffin should have been taken on by someone who represents the white, working and middle class where he derives most of his support from. Those BNP voters who feel marginalised – or “shut out” according to Griffin – will hardly have been comforted by Greer’s condescending jabs at Griffin. I do broadly agree with her judgement that closed the show – that the British people have too much “common sense” to vote for the British National Party. I would go further and argue that Griffin’s intolerance is quintessentially un-British. However, we should acknowledge that many of his supporters have genuine concerns that have nothing to do with race and address the reasons why Britons are joining it – I worry that Question Time failed to confront either of these questions, and as such, I fear this is far from the end for Griffin and his party.

Any comments or criticisms are more than welcome.

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4 Comments on this post.
  • Luther ‘at this level’ Luisao
    23 October 2009 at 18:28
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    A very well-constructed, fair and flowing article.

  • Luther ‘at this level’ Luisao
    23 October 2009 at 18:31
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    A great insight into a ever so slightly biased Question Time.

  • Blanch
    24 October 2009 at 15:54
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    “Straw and Co. were locked in a contest to prove to the liberal middle class that they hate Griffin the most.”
    So lamentably true.

    I think Griffin has a genuine grievance in that the format of the programme was changed from the panel all answering questions on various topics to an overt assault on his ideology. However, he and his policies did not cope under close scrutiny, and it makes me wonder, why wasn’t he prepared for such questioning? Surely it would have been obvious to him that at some point, his past statements regarding mixed marriage, race, Islam, The Holocaust and his history of associating with unsavoury characters would be brought up? Perhaps he, like myself, was expecting a traditional round table debate on a variety of topical issues.

    In retrospect however, we must be thankful that the debate did not take this form- for imagine if Nick Griffin had quite calmly expounded on the merits of more discipline in schools, increasing NHS staff pay whilst slashing red tape and bloated management, ensuring jobs for British workers, slashing banker’s bonuses, ensuring harsher punishments for paedophiles and rapists and freeing police from red tape. How could the other panellist disagree with such level headed policies without appearing out of touch? It is worth noting that all of these appear on the BNP website and manifesto.

    This is the crux of the matter: Nick Griffin has- as he pledged when he won BNP Leadership in 1999- moved his party away from NF-style Nazism and street violence, and towards a veneer of respectability. On the surface, when he is allowed to produce his soundbites and prewritten speeches, his policies have the potential to produce widespread appeal. It is only our knowledge of his odious and hate filled true intentions that the majority of us are not persuaded by his polished delivery when he is allowed to address us on his terms. It is my personal belief that if some of the more rational positions (as mentioned above) the BNP supports were adopted wholeheartedly by a mainstream party, they would see themselves swept into power. Disillusionment with the political process must not be underestimated, especially amongst the disenfranchised (the ‘white’ working class). A sad illustration of this is the case of the Burnley BNP councillor Maureen Stowe, who ran for office on the basis that they were pledging to tackle local issues such as unemployment and crime openly and honestly, without spin or red tape. It took her 9 months to realise that the party were in fact bigoted and racist and unaffiliate with them. If a woman ‘on the inside’ takes 9 months to see through the BNP’s not so thin veneer of respectability in the North East, we must work harder to discredit them.

    Sadly, many people share the BNP’s qualms about modern Britain. The fear that one cannot voice a concern against the drawbacks of multiculturalism or loss of ‘British values’ without being branded a racist and the rise of the ‘Political Correctness Brigade’ has left many Britons feeling cold. This is in no way an apology for the BNP and their tired xenophobia, but we must be aware that their message is seen as a real solution to our country’s real problems to at least 6% of our population (and I suspect many more in reality). Until the three main parties offer something other than spin, meaningless slogans, expenses fraud, infighting and out of touch policies, the BNP will continue to provide a ‘voice of the people’ alternative to weary, run down and out of work communities.

  • Ellis
    30 October 2009 at 13:31
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    The format of the programme was not changed. Every week they select questions in order of the number of people in the audience who wanted to ask it. So, last week, the most frequently proposed question from the pre-show audience ballot was about Churchill’s image on the BNP website and the next most popular question was about their immigration policy and so on.
    If the BBC had not abided by this rule as usual then there would be outrage that the BNP were being let off the hook. The questions are democratically selected, the vast majority of people in that audience wanted to hear about BNP race related policies and it is right that they were able to ask the questions they wanted to.

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