As I am sure you know Nick Griffin is on Question Time next week. There has been a lot of fuss among the liberal left about the fact that the BBC is providing a platform for a far-right group to promote its agenda on a popular show that always does well in the ratings. The BNP website has, in fact, already installed a countdown clock, as if welcoming in some kind of apocalyptic final showdown; Straw and Griffin, poised to go head to head (I assume with Dimbleby acting as some kind of burlesque referee). I don’t think Griffin knows Straw has impaired eyesight; I don’t think Straw knows he is facing a parody of Stephen King’s ‘IT’ (principally manifest as a clown, but sometimes also taking the form of people’s deepest fears). If we accept that the limit of free speech within a democratic society is realised exactly at the propagation of wholly undemocratic ideas then we should quite reasonably conclude that a publicly funded body should not allow this farce. But a farce is what it will almost certainly be, and, I think, it may be a useful one.
I personally can’t take Nick Griffin seriously; he does actually remind me of an angry clown. For the record, I am completely aware that Griffin’s rhetoric is not only offensive, but also inflammatory and potentially dangerous. The recent spats of racially motivated violence and vandalism against Muslims and Jews are enough to remind us how serious a general threat the ideas of the far right in modern Britain can be.
The other panellists on Question Time have a decision to make early on next Thursday. On the one hand, they can collectively condemn Griffin from the off, quashing his attacks wherever possible, bully style, at best letting proceedings deteriorate into a shouting match, and, at worst, potentially risking an exhibition in martyrdom. On the other, an alternative (albeit risky) approach may very well be to let Griffin enjoy the platform, abuse it even. By keeping disagreement and correction firm but mild – parental, soothingly patronising even – the panel can allow Griffin to be the only farce on show. Thinking back a year or so ago, Joe Biden’s strategy in the Vice-Presidential debate showed that this can work. Biden respectfully allowed Palin to expose her own cognitive deficiencies. I am obviously not trying to compare the politics of Sarah Palin and Nick Griffin; one is an extremist power-hungry maniac, and the other is… Er…
The point is that Griffin’s ideas should not be taken seriously, even if they are by some groups that are presently feeling disenfranchised from the public sphere. Surely we should be addressing the roots of that marginalisation, rather than assuming swathes of the population are either innately racist, or too stupid to spot someone making a public fool of them self? This is not ‘Weimar Britain’, despite the BNP’s preference for the population transfer of all non-indigenous persons (that is, essentially, all of us – can the last person in Britain please turn the light out?). The fact that the BNP website seriously suggests that ‘overpopulation’ – a direct result of immigration – is ‘the cause of the destruction of our environment’ shows that Griffin can quite capably show the fallacies of the BNP attack without any help, and quite on his own terms.
The great thing about the UK is that we (generally) have an understanding of public citizenship according to secular and non-ethnic/racial/gendered criteria. That is something that – dare I say it – we can be proud of, and something that has taken many hundreds of years to establish. Yes, we live in a culture that en masse consumes Simon Cowell as entertaining, and yes, sometimes the public is not critical enough of blindingly obvious blights to our society (the Royal Family). But there is a tendency on the liberal left to err toward a rhetoric of condemnation which, in situations like the forthcoming BNP Question Time appearance, further inhibit the collective critical conscience, rather than stimulating it. In some situations this can be helpful, crucial even (on climate change perhaps). But the public needs to be able to make its own judgement on Nick Griffin, in many ways just to illustrate clearly what political apathy can lead to. In making that judgement, I am convinced that the public will see Griffin next Thursday for what he is: an angry (and dangerous) clown.
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