Out-manoeuvring the BNP

Blog by RJ Thomson | 30 Oct 2009

“The BNP are a legitimate political party. The BNP are standing candidates in many constituencies throughout Scotland.” Those were almost exactly the words intoned by a near-chanting BNP campaigner, overheard on Sauchiehall Street, while I was taking part in a ‘sound walk’ as part of the Instal experimental music festival earlier this year.

That’s what they want – legitimacy – and so there’s no doubt Nick Griffin’s historic BBC appearance on Question Time on 22 October will have done his party good. Now, I’m not here to argue that the BBC shouldn’t have allowed him on when they were just following standard practice. Nor am I going to attempt a wide-ranging and nuanced political overview: plenty of commentators are more naturally placed for such a piece. Instead I’d like to focus on a couple of more culture-related arguments that came to mind on the back of watching the programme.

I’d like to argue that one of the things that could have been handled better was the manner of the other panellists, who for the most part looked like politicians always do, and who failed to adapt to fit the occasion (the true nature of which should have been to nullify).

I’d also like to say that they weren’t creative enough in their approach to the challenge posed by Griffin’s appearance (not by Griffin himself).

So my concern is that an opportunity was wasted. Griffin, despite looking a weak, deluded fool, wasn’t truly shown up by the other panellists, so much as berated. I fully appreciate the extremely difficult job the three party representatives (Jack Straw, Sayeeda Warsi, and Chris Huhne) had to do, but these occasions demand the highest standards. To some observers, those who could consider voting BNP – they might well have seemed noisy and hypocritical, rather than cool and clear. All three came across as career politicians: eloquent yes, passionate, yes, but also part of the system (despite their differing personal histories). Those who already feel disenfranchised by this side of political life will have no new reason not to turn to an ‘outsider’ party of the sort Griffin represents, and may have found new reasons to resent the parties closer to power.

[NB - We should be thankful that Griffin squirmed around his true beliefs, and didn’t stand up and say atrocious things while claiming that he speaks for the silent; we should also be thankful that Britain is a climate where that sort of thing is considered unacceptable, in law.]

The panellist who did most to skewer Griffin was Bonnie Greer, and her primary weapons were calm and circumspection (although she did slightly overdo the contempt). In appearing like that Greer made a good case for the place of culture: the need for informed, independent and authoritative voices that exist outside the realm of politics. This isn’t to say culture always gets it right, but the combination of composure and – because Greer couldn’t hide it entirely – fun that culture brings to the table, should always be welcome at even the highest level debates.

Just as Greer was effective in the method of her approach, the politicians on the panel were caught being too political. Much of their carry on – particularly regarding the key issue of immigration – resembled a normal edition of Question Time. But this wasn’t a normal edition; it was always going to be defined by the first appearance of this extreme political party.

What I’d like to suggest as a further point is a key lesson-for-life that applies quite broadly, but that the politicians on this particular show all failed to follow: sometimes, the best way to achieve what you want is to do the logical opposite of the obvious.

So, rather than noisily defending their parties against the other parties on hairline issues of policy, had just one of them made the decision to put party loyalty aside for an evening, and calmly open up the debate (on immigration in particular) to a more ideology-free discussion, Griffin would have suffered terribly. A bit of contemplation would have further emphasised just what nonsense he was talking. And a discussion on those terms would have given a better impression of politics in general (which does Griffin no favours). Further still, the panellist able to make that jump would have looked diplomatic, wise, and capable of leadership, all of which would have done their party great credit in the eyes of the massive audience.

This sort of contrary but practical thinking is exactly the sort of thing we can learn from the arts, from culture. It’s tempting to think that reason is our best weapon against fundamentalist irrationality, but it can only go so far. Equally important, but harder to measure, are style and creativity.