I’m not one of those people who felt Nick Griffin shouldn’t have been allowed on Question Time because his and the British National Party’s (BNP) views on race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation were perverse. They clearly are, but I acknowledge too that freedom of speech has to include those views you despise, as well as those you agree with – you can’t preemptively say even someone as hateful as Nick Griffin shouldn’t be allowed to speak. If he breaks laws then he has to pay a price, if he indulges in hate speech he needs to be prosecuted, if he says appalling things about the holocaust he needs to be condemned for it, but be stopped from speaking because he’s a homophobic racist? Absolutely not. So what was Question Time like after all the hype? In my view it was a mixed bag.
If Griffin wanted to continue his process of ‘cleaning up’ the BNP brand he did a pretty lousy job of it. He came across as blatantly homophobic (he wasn’t alone on the panel in that, you Tories), he was unapologetically anti-semitic and refused to be drawn into sensible discussion by Bonnie Greer about just what he meant by the ‘indigenous British people’. Anyone with any degree of common sense will have watched that and been thoroughly appalled when he tried to wriggle out of his penchant for holocaust denial, and when he tried to justify homophobia. He’s a disgusting man, with a disgusting message, but he will sadly have made significant political capital out of two aspects of the show. Firstly when Jack Straw was asked whether he thought New Labour’s authoritarian immigration policy had contributed to the rise of the BNP, Straw pointedly dodged the question. Typically lawyerly Straw simply answered another question, and it was tragically the key pitfall which lay in wait for him, and which he unceremoniously threw himself into. A government which demonises ‘failed’ asylum seekers, which makes legal aid next to impossible for people fleeing persecution, and expecting help under the Geneva Convention, and which locks up their children, is hardly in a position to preach tolerance to the BNP. Straw knew it, the panel knew it and a smirking Griffin knew it too; Blair and now Brown have given him part of a constituency previously unthinkable in modern times.
The other gain for Griffin was even more alarming. The entire show was debated on the BNP’s terms – their talking points were justified by concentrating only on them. Even Chris Huhne demeaned himself by trying to prove that, yes, the Lib Dems too could be tough on immigration. Every word uttered was a gain for the BNP; whilst it was a delight to see him hammered comprehensively (notably by David Dimbleby), the man who claimed to be a legitimate elected representative wasn’t ever called to express his position on education, the health service, energy policy or transport. By making the programme an attack on Griffin, however justifiably, the BBC played right into his hands, as did every guest on the panel other than Bonnie Greer.
The BBC has said it might invite him back onto the show – if it does I sincerely hope they hold a normal panel, and stop enabling him to play the martyr, particularly one who isn’t expected to live up to the standards expected of the office he now holds. We must remember Griffin’s rise is inextricably connected with the failure of the political system, which forces all three major parties to fight for marginal advantage over a tiny number of swing voters, and all are now entirely disinterested in concerns outside of that bubble. When they either bother to get round to addressing the issues affecting their former supporters, or are forced to by a more proportional voting system, Griffin and his scummy ilk will soon fall back into irrelevance. Until then, we have a problem on our hands, and need to start coming up with less sensationalistic ways of dealing with it.