It was the dramatic conclusion of a month-long drama – Nick Griffin, the controversial leader of the whites-only British National Party, appeared on revered public affairs program Question Time last night amidst massive protests outside the studio, and the largest audience in the programme’s history glued to their TV sets at home.
There’s been much written today about what went on last night, but for me what was most interesting was what was not said on last night’s program. Almost unitarily focused on race, host David Dimbleby went out of his way to avoid any discussion of the institution Griffin was actually elected to in June, the European Parliament. I found this bizarre considering it was that election which the BBC says necessitated Griffin’s appearance on the programme in the first place. If it’s the June election that changed the equation in the BBC’s mind, why was the program unitarily focused on things that were said and done well before June 2009?
The level of public attention this program and the build-up to it received has been astounding. Griffin is the leader of the far right British National Party, which has advocated for an “all-white Britain.” His own extremist history has included membership in the violent Neo Nazi group National Front in the 1970’s, denying the holocaust and advocating the criminalisation of homosexuality, the deportation of British Muslims and the denunciation of multiculturalism. He has in the past professed admiration for both the Klu Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler.
Normally a person with such extreme views would not be featured as a guest on a major British public policy show, but the BNP has a significant electoral success in June, garnering one million votes in the European Parliament election which netted them two seats in that body, their first elected positions ever (Griffin and his deputy took up the seats). The BBC said now that Griffin has been elected to a national position by the British public, it cannot justify refusing to allow him on the broadcaster’s main programs – since it has a mandate as an unbiased public institution.
This sparked a huge outcry, culminating in a massive protest yesterday at BBC Television Centre during the taping of the episode. The show itself ended up being rather predictable. Both the other panellists and the audience took turns berating him for his racist views, and Griffin gave blathering incoherent responses that showed he is essentially a rather confused idiot. The program quickly turned into a game of cat and mouse – with Griffin working hard to project an image of a new moderated mainstream BNP which isn’t overtly “racist,” and the panellists and audience reminding him of all the racist things he’s said in the past, which he repeatedly denied saying.
Of course his excuses for why he had “changed his mind” about many of the odious things he’s said in the past were as inept as they were implausible. He twisted, laughed and clapped bizarrely as he was confronted by his past statements. And he seemed completely unprepared when presented with a quote from before the June election, on video, in which laid out a plan to pretend to moderate his beliefs on race and religion in order to make the BNP palatable and get it into office. Surely, if you’re planning some kind of Machiavellian coup like that, you probably shouldn’t talk about your plans on video!
The main aim of both the BBC and the panellists seemed to be to highlight Griffin’s racist views for the BNP voters at home who don’t consider themselves to be ‘racist’ but voted for them as a “protest vote.” The BNP has tried to gloss over their racist foundations with pamphlets full of images of British flags, happy families, proud soldiers and Churchill, Churchill, Churchill. The Tory representative, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (herself British Asian), seemed to actually be making a concerted effort to steal away those “protest vote” BNP voters over to the Tory side. (Incidentally, I thought she and the Tories were the clear winners from last night’s show. She did a great job, though I was a little creeped out by her efforts to woo BNPers to the Conservative bosom).
But throughout it all Dimbleby was hell-bent on keeping the conversation focused on race and sexuality, as Griffin’s previous statements on those subjects are repugnant to the vast majority of British people. But the newly politically calculating Griffin refused to be drawn in, saying very few overtly offensive things during the conversation. In fact the most offensive thing he said was probably that Islam is an “evil” religion, a view I suspect many in Britain share (even many on the left). Throughout the whole discussion I kept thinking what some BNP-voter up in the East Midlands would be thinking watching this – a bunch of smug West Londoners seemingly putting racist words in the mouth of Griffin while he just sat there and said very little. For people who already feel alienated from the political system, this probably just played right in to their admiration of Griffin as an ‘underdog standing up for the working class’.
The fact is that outside its positions on race and sexuality, much of the BNPs political platform are grievances shared by an increasingly large swathe of the British public – xenophobic attitudes toward the EU, immigration and resource sharing. But Dimbleby was intent on steering the conversation away from those issues so the program could highlight Griffin’s differences with mainstream British opinion rather than the overlap. He didn’t want to highlight the aspects of the caged monster shared with the stone-throwing audience. But if Griffin’s opinions are supposedly so uniformly vile to the British public, how did he attract a million votes in the last election?
The omission was evidenced by the almost absurd non-inclusion of any discussion about the body Griffin was actually just elected to, the European Parliament. Toward the beginning of the program a questioner tried to ask Griffin about Europe and Dimbleby shut him down. “We’re talking about race!” he bellowed. “We’ll get to that later.”
Of course they did not get to that later. Clearly Dimbleby considered this to be an irrelevant question. Nevermind the fact that that Griffin is now representing the UK in the European Parliament!
The fact is probably many in the audience probably agreed with Griffin’s opinion that the EU is dangerous and tyrannical, and after all, finding commonalities between Griffin and the British public was not what this show was all about. No no, let’s stay focused on race so we can all boo and jeer Mr. Griffin’s medieval views (views which, by the way, have now been largely erased or covered over in the official BNP party platform). God forbid any of the audience, or on the panel, should look in the mirror to see how their assumption of British superiority over the rest of Europe, their subtle xenophobia rather than overt racism, informs their attitude toward European integration. That probably wouldn’t have been very comfortable for them, seeing their opinions mirrored in the spittle-flecked ramblings of a far-right nationalist.
It’s puzzling to see how, while Griffin has been a unitary obsession of the British media over the past month, his new position in Brussels has been almost completely ignored. The most egregious example came yesterday in this article from the Guardian, which called on the Question Time panel to grill Griffin about his views on climate change (he denies its existence except when warning of overpopulation). Of course the show should have asked him about climate change (they didn’t, as it’s not race-related). Griffin is now on the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, meaning he has a sizable influence over environmental policy affecting the UK (the majority of which comes from Brussels), far more influence than the vast majority of MPs in Westminster. Yet the Guardian article manages to not mention Griffin’s position on the Committee even once, even though the whole purpose of the article is to rail about Griffin’s views on climate change.
I don’t mean to be a one-trick pony here, but it really irked me that this very significant development – that Griffin is now representing Britain in the EU and has a particular influence on environmental policy, was completely ignored. Perhaps there was good reason to focus on Griffin’s racism since he is so keen to gloss over it. And perhaps it was better not to delve into an actual policy discussion with him for fear of legitimising his position. But from my vantage point it was just yet another example of the British public’s steadfast determination to ignore the existence of the EU at all costs.
The British Tancredo
But perhaps I’m too hard on the British. After all I have to say, as an American I’ve actually been quite impressed and heartened by the energetic resistance to the rise of Griffin’s ideology. Much of the BNP’s current platform (the cleaned-up version that omits the group’s overtly racist origins) is nearly identical to the platform of mainstream Republican politicians in the US. Griffin’s immigration policy, as expressed on Question Time last night, is very similar to that of Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, who was a major contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. That’s not to mention the BNP platform’s similarities to right-wing American television commentators like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs. And Griffin’s current stated view on homosexuality, though it was condemned by the representatives of all three major UK parties on the Question Time panel, would easily be at home in the Republican Party’s official platform. So it’s nice to see that I live in a country where these kinds of views, so common in my home country, are so reviled.
Also, Britain should keep in mind that it is hardly the first European country to send far-right politicians to the European Parliament, France beat them to that by many years. In fact the experience of France with far right Front Nationale leader Jean Marie Le Pen (also of the European Parliament) has been repeatedly brought up as a cautionary tale by British commentators. An invite by the French broadcaster for Le Pen to appear on the French equivalent of Question Time was equally controversial, and resulted in a doubling in the size of the party. Le Pen eventually rode that wave of popularity all the way to victory in the 2002 presidential race, when a fluke in the 1st round voting meant that the second round was a one-on-one contest between him and French President Jacques Chirac. There are fears that Griffin’s appearance on Question Time could lead to a similarly meteoric rise in the UK, but I just don’t see that happening.
By the way, the BBC has a great article here about how the media deals with far-right parties across Europe. It’s a very interesting side-by-side comparison, and I think helps to set all this within a larger context.
Of course, that would require some thinking about Europe, which as we learned last night, the Brits are loathe to do.