On the 22nd of October 2009, Nick Griffin, the new leader of the British National Party appeared on BBC’s Question Time. At this moment the show is available online.
Throughout the show, Mr. Griffin was attacked from all sides. The show was approximately an hour long; only ten minutes of the show were not used to directly savage the BNP, which were instead used to discuss the Moir article about the death of Stephen Gately – a topic designed to highlight the homophobia of the BNP. The audience, the panelists, and the chair all spent the entire programme quoting Mr. Griffin’s past statements, and emphasising those aspects of the party which the BNP has sought to play down in recent months: racism, homophobia, and the desire for nonviolent ethic cleansing.
Since the show has ended, the general feeling seems to be that the BNP were given a bloody nose, and were beaten. Certainly the closing comments of Jack Straw seem to reflect that view, which has been mirrored in the general gloating online. Indeed, it is hard to deny that the BNP were hit hard on every question, and Nick Griffin was very much embarrassed by his previous soundbites.
However, to be satisfied with this misses a fundamental point.
The BNP were always going to be roundly attacked, vilified and discredited on their first major national appearance; no other outcome was even remotely possible. The problem is that the BNP can merely utilise the same tactics as Sinn Fein, in order to become a valid part of the political system.
Sinn Fein stood (and in the eyes of many still stand) for murder and terrorism. In many debates this was used against them, and any time they took a moral stance, their own record was thrust in their faces. Even today, this is still done, but when it is done it is seen as tired, and as a cheap shot. By repeatedly going on the air and meeting these accusations head on, without flinching, or offering excuses, they became effectively immune to them.
Nothing changed about Sinn Fein, it did not repudiate its earlier endorsement of criminal activities, it has undergone no major ideological sift. The disbandment of the IRA helped significantly in making Sinn Fein more acceptable, but what has really enabled Sinn Fein to move closer to power in the Republic is that bringing up their IRA links is now cringeworthy, and seen as a cop-out. Without ever actually adequately rebutting a single one of the accusations levelled at it, a situation has been created whereby Sinn Fein can participate in an open and public discussion on national issues without the party’s links to criminality being brought up. What was once the pariah of Irish politics is moving closer (although it has suffered some set backs in the latest elections) to the day it can assume a role in the mainstream political life of the Dail.
A similar process can and will work for the BNP. Today’s Question Time was a historic occasion, as the BNP had never before been invited, which led to protests outside, and most of the questions being loaded against the BNP. The question remains, the next time the BNP are invited (and they will be), will those same crowds be there? Will every member of the audience and the panel gang up on the BNP? If so, will the same occur the time after that? And the time after?
Eventually, discussion will not focus on the BNP (though of course barbs will be continually thrown in) and the BNP will begin to take part in media discussions on their own terms. They shall do so on Question Time and on other media programmes. The attention and focus of the debate will move from the inherent characteristics of the BNP, and will begin to focus on the issues of the day. The BNP will adopt some form of populist rhetoric, and other participants will be faced with the choice of hurling insults at the BNP, and looking as if they are attempting to distract from themselves, or meet the BNP argument for argument and accept them as participants in politics.
That was the true reason Nick Griffin never stopped smiling, even when he was insulted in ways that would drive most men to fury. It is the reason he did his best to laugh heartily at even the most abusive comments made against him. He knows that all he must do is smile, laugh, and ignore every attack as best he can, in order to gain political validity (I doubt they dare yet to hope to enter the political mainstream). Once the initial wave of disgust has abated, he must treat these attacks as an attempt by the political establishment to divert attention from the problems the BNP is highlighting, in doing so he discourages the attacks without having to counter them, and if most of his opponants’s time is spent making attacks on him which are irrelevant to the subject at hand, then he has the added bonus of having the most time to articulate his views. After a few debates where the BNP sound rational and moderate, and their opposition have only offered vitriolic attacks, the other parties will be forced to debate with them on the issues, allowing the BNP to improve its standing further.
Once the BNP is accepted as an acceptable debating opponent, albeit a distasteful one, the core ideas of the BNP, of race and racism, of them and us, of multiple Britains, will begin to be debated once more in the public sphere. The mere existence of the BNP, their mere fact, combined with a continued willingness to articulate those ideas, will ensure that those ideas, concepts and attitudes will become part of the dialogue of the country, which should allow the BNP to increase their support further.
The BNP suffered no loss tonight, and no setback. They have taken their first step to becoming a true force in British politics. In the coming months and years they will seek every media appearance they can, and they will be ridiculed repeatedly, but they will continue a slow march upwards.