Thursday, 22 October 2009

What fearing Nick Griffin tells us about ourselves

Why is everyone so scared of letting the leader of the British National Party speak during tonight's Question Time show? Why is everyone so worried about what it will signify, to take a seat on a panel next to him, in obvious opposition to him?
Don't give me that crap about legitimising him. What additional legitimacy does a democratically elected representative of the people need?

Tell me what's really on your mind people.

Are you afraid that cool, articulate, unflustered, racist Nick Griffin will get his despicable point across better than the representatives of the political mainstream?
Because that is what I am afraid of.
I am afraid he will be calmer than the other guys.
Less arrogant in the eyes of the average viewer.
I am afraid he will be more articulate and more convincing, keeping things real and relevant, never using abstractions and generalisations. I am afraid he will manage to reduce big issues to small, personal fears in a way that is non-patronising and almost self-evident.
I am afraid he will do all that without insulting any of his fellow panelists while they will be struggling to hold back cries of 'begone you disgusting racist slug'.
And I am afraid that the other side, the non-racist side, our side damn it, will be left speaking in generalities, attacking his racism but offering no coherent answer to counter his concerns and offering absolutely no counter-solution to his own objectionable measures.

So the problem is not him. It's us, folks.

Let's call a spade a spade.
Immigration is not a subject most parties are comfortable with. Invariably, even parties on the left are in favour of controlling the borders and not throwing the gates open to all and sundry. Increasingly centre and left-of-centre parties grudgingly accept that freedom of speech will not deal with radical Islamist preachers in our midst 'organically' and a bold fresh look is needed asking where their liberty infringes on someone else's – not on a community basis but on an individual basis, you know, the way we used to apply the law all these years before this became such a 'hot potato' issue. And then there is the issue of building community, and living together in all our multi-colour, multi-faith, multilingual splendour.
And many left or centre-left politicians are not comfortable with immigration debates because they rightly consider these three issues distinct and separate and find that more and more people don't and in fudging the debate these people confuse the matter, create panics and allow concerns over hate preachers to poison community relations.
Nick Griffin is one of those people.

He is not afraid to talk about immigration. For him the distinctions are distracting and the problem boils down to what moves and scares the individual citizen. And his solutions are stark, simple, bold. And racist.
But what is the other side counter-suggesting?
A convoluted narrative of freedom, multi-culturalism and necessary border controls, constant reminders that the problem is multi-faceted and many-tiered and above all not simple. All solutions offered are halting, nuanced, complicated, careful – because one should not confuse the issues. And rightly so. Still, I fear that Nick Griffin has this one wrapped up if 'straight talking' is what the audience are after.

Holding a contradiction in his mind is not a challenge for Mr Griffin who is both articulate and clever. He understand the contradictions and in them he sees the weakness his opponents most suffer from. This contradiction, in his hands, stops being innate in the subject and becomes a weakness in his opponents' political will and solutions' agenda.

What do we have to counter that? I am using 'we' in the loosest possible sense here, siding with the people who disagree with Nick Griffin even if that is the only thing we agree on.

What have we got?
Don't forget Jack Straw is sitting on our side.
Griffin is articulate, confident and confidence-inspiring. He sounds like he commands the issues and can effortlessly pare them down to their essence. Even though that essence is tainted, one-sided and heavily nuanced, he appears to be offering common sense summaries and bold solutions. Jack Straw is not and does not.

So why are we so scared of letting him speak tonight?
Not because we disagree profoundly with what he has to say – that, if anything, is reason to take him on, thrash it out, expose him to the public, ensure the other side is heard.
Not because we fear what his effect might be on the polity – because he is already in the polity so it is too late, plus we already know that enforced isolation and silence creates heroes and not villains.

It is because we are afraid we can't match him, blow for blow, for the hearts and minds of the viewers. And that is terrifying.
It's because we know Nick Griffin is as popular as his opinions are objectionable. And we know we have all the good arguments. But we don't have a Nick Griffin on our side to deliver those arguments in level, even-toned, convincing, populist nuggets.

So we are scared.
Of course we are scared.
I, for one, am terrified.

And I don't know about you. But I will be glued to Question Time tonight. Munching pop-corn, mumbling to myself and hoping against hope that Griffin will have a bad day, that he will lose his cool, that he will sound to all tonight as offensive as he sounds to me all the time. And that Baroness Warsi, Chris Huhne or Bonnie Greer will pull an ace out of their sleeves explaining why a world where Nick Griffin's opinions are not put into practice is a better world for all. And that Jack Straw stays silent. Wishful thinking but what the hell, while I'm at it I might as well.

I just hope that the arguments for our side go further than 'Nick Griffin, you are a racist' because he will slam them down and go for a home run before anything else has been stated. Not because he is not racist. But because pointing out the obvious in a petulant way is not good debating.
Telling him his policies are wrong because he is a bad person is a non-sequitur that makes us look like fools with nothing else to say and gives him the moral high-ground.
And that's the last place you want to concede to your neighborhood racist. He is already self-appointed defender of home and hearth, hand him the moral high ground on a platter and what have you got? A populist, playing on everyone's most closely guarded fears, articulating their concerns about safety on their streets, jobs for their children, a culture they call their own, who is victimised by the very same people who don't address the people's worries, the very same people who have no counter-argument to throw his way than an insult.
Attack him on who he is rather than what he says and you've driven people into his arms in droves.

You do see where I'm going with this right?
The urge to slap Nick Griffin lurks in us all. But that is not what is called for today.
We need to take him on the issues or go home. Blow by blow, line by line. Address the same questions, counter his conclusions, offer alternative solutions.
Speak to the same people he is speaking to on the same issues.
He claims he is of the people, for the people. Do we all realise what that means?
If he is addressing a struggling, white manual labourer in Bradford, we cannot be addressing a professor of ethics at Edinburgh. If he speaks about protection against radical Islam, we cannot be addressing comparative theology scholars who understand that the Islamic Umma is a community of peace ergo Griffin is wrong.
Take him on, damn it. Being more highbrow than him is how we lose this battle not how we win it.
Surely, career politicians can do this, right?

So what are we afraid of?
Are we afraid of 'the people'? Their inability to see through him and know better? Then we should all go home because no democrat is afraid of the people. You either trust in the people or join the populists a la Nick Griffin.

So if not that then what?
Could it be that although we disagree with Griffin we have absolutely no ideas on the matter he is about to challenge us on that we are comfortable with? I sincerely hope not. But I can see no other explanation that makes sense. We are afraid of Nick Griffin because he's calling our bluff and, other than grand ideas, the political mainstream have nothing to suggest that makes sense to their voters.
In which case we should be afraid of Nick Griffin. Very afraid.


  1. We're just a small tea shop in Brighton but we had a very recent encounter with the BNP. Read about our experience of Nick Griffin and our take on the Question Time debate here:

  2. Thanks for stopping by metrodeco. Very interesting post, thanks for bringing it to my attention.
    Hope to see you again on 'a matter of opinion'. Till then, take care.

  3. I have to say that I do not totally share your fears of the BNP. Historically there has been one country or another in Europe where the extreme right rears its ugly head, only to disappear after a few years. We have seen it in France, in Austria, in the Netherlands, now in Britain and let’s not forget the LAOS party in Greece. (by historically I mean the last 50 years, if we go back to the ‘30s my argument falls apart)
    Every society has dealt with them in a different way. By and large the two options seem to be either to marginalise them and hope that they go away (like they did with Lepen in France)or allow them in mainstream politics and hope that the everyday grind will either partly civilise them or at least remove the gloss of the underdog. (as per Austria and –I believe- in Greece)
    Britain has decided to allow them to take part in the political debate, and the cracks in the BNP have already started showing, as the more radical elements in the party are already accusing Griffin of being too accommodating and not extreme enough. I truly believe that after a few more of these appearances a split will follow and it’s back to political obscurity for them.
    The thing that I like about extremist parties (be on the Right or the Left) is that not matter how much of a nutjob you are, there is always someone ,much further down the road to lunacy, who’ll call you a traitor.

    p.s. My comment on the Greek LAOS may require some clarification. It is true that they have included neo-nazis in their ballots and that their rhetoric was to begin with, highly alarming. It is also true that these days true nazi parties (like Chrissi Avgi) are denouncing them as moderates and that they have tempered their rhetoric considerably in order to gain disaffected right wing voters. They represent -as these parties always do- the lumpen elements of the right, offering a vision of a clientelistic nanny state for god’s chosen people. Populistic claptrap ofcourse, but not much different from the fare served by the KKE from time immemorial. They will be wiped out the moment the conservatives manage to get a decent leader.

  4. @ Christos - I wish I could share the optimism.

    I agree that extremists rear their heads at regular intervals the world over but I don't see them leaving, once heads have been reared. Individuals may be superseded but once the ideological space has been cleared and claimed, they stay. Let's face it, Hitler made racism of all ilks a totally non-viable political discourse for a very long time but tides are sadly turning and Europe is moving to the right, on the whole, which is enough to terrify me on any day.

    That said, I agree with you that with extremists, generally speaking, you have to make a clear choice 'in' or 'out'. And the choice is made more in terms of what you want your polity to stand for and less in terms of how likeable they are (because they are not). The problem in Britain is that the decision has not quite been made. Or rather it was made but follow-through has been weak to say the least.

    The BNP is a legal party yet after the MEP elections, Griffin and co were NOT invited to a champagne reception for MEPs thrown by the FCO. Griffin is an elected representative of the people yet the debate on whether he should be ALLOWED on question time was fierce and lasted 2 weeks. Right now, the mainstream is dithering and the BNP has the best of both worlds: they are legal and legit AND get to play victimised and silenced by the mainstream and, let's face it, everyone loves an underdog. Britain is not banning the BNP yet they are treating it like something the cat dragged in lending credence to the PR strategy Griffin himself is working on.

    As for the rest, I shall end by quoting you back at the world as this is the quote of the century and you are a legend: 'The thing that I like about extremist parties (be on the Right or the Left) is that not matter how much of a nutjob you are, there is always someone, much further down the road to lunacy, who’ll call you a traitor.'