I don’t suppose that the inside of Nick Griffin’s head is a great place to be, what with all that racism, homophobia, curiously selective history, and confusion over what he has or hasn’t said in the past. But I would like to be inside that head this morning, to know what he really thinks about his performance on BBC Question Time last night.
Since leaving the studio, where he felt the venom of fellow panellists and audience alike, he will have been enveloped by like-minded staff, family and friends, who will have told him he did well in the face of a five against one onslaught, and an audience rigged as part of the Marxist BBC’s multi-cultural hellhole conspiracy against him. They will have told him that sure, he looked a bit nervy at times, but he came over as an underdog fighting off allcomers, and even if he got a bit muddled from time to time about his views on the Holocaust and the Ku Klux Klan, he got in plenty of soundbites that will have had a few of their target voters nodding quietly in agreement. He will survey the papers, and probably take from them a level of exposure undreamed of until he was invited onto the programme, and see that as being more important than the negative slant of most of the articles about him.
His staff will be telling him that the BNP website has never had so many visitors, that some of those have been offering donations and asking to join. They will dismiss most of the attacks upon him as being entirely predictable, but will take some comfort from the observations, from among others Peter Hain, that what the BBC did last night was legitimise the BNP in a way nothing had done up to the point of emission. And if he has any sense, he will now be focussing on next steps, and how to exploit that ‘legitimisation.’
How he did, how the other panellists did, how David Dimbleby did, how the audience did, what the effect of the violence outside was … these are questions that will be discussed all over Britain today, as the country takes stock of what was an important broadcasting and political moment.
But though technically, his performance was poor, the main parties would do well not to share the general media complacency this morning. This was a programme which began after half past ten and finished just before midnight. So the tenor of many of the articles in this morning’s papers was well set long before the programme ended and, in many cases, before it began.
I heard one discussion on the radio in which it was said that Griffin had failed because the headlines were terrible for him. But it is always a mistake to confuse media opinion and public opinion. Griffin was not aiming for media popularity because he knows he can’t attain it, even if softening the extremist views he genuinely holds. Indeed he attacks the media at every turn as a way of playing up his self-styled underdog/victim of the Establishment status. His immediate goal is simpler: he is the leader of a small party, aiming to become a bit bigger, by targetting messages at people who are disaffected with the main parties and the political process generally.
I suspect last night there were quite a lot of first-time Question Time viewers. There will also have been disaffected Labour supporters, disaffected Tories, people hacked off with all of them because of expenses. Some with legitimate grievances. Others just too used to living in a media-driven blame culture, in which someone else is always in the way of getting you what you think you want or deserve. These were his targets last night, not the activists who hate him already, or the politicians who find his views repellent, or the leaderwriters or the headline writers, let alone the blacks, Muslims and Jews who are his targets in a very different sense.
We would be foolish to think he made no connection at all with at least some of his political targets. This despite the fact that technically, as I say, he was dreadful. He was clearly nervous, which I suppose was understandable. But the twitching eyes and the constantly fidgeting lips were signs of something more than mild stage fright. So was the loud clapping of semi-humorous points made by others, and the over-rehearsed smile. And at times the content was truly dreadful, prompting justified derision at several points.
And yet, never was there a greater need than now to guard against complacency. Once the furore over his appearance has died down, once the frenzy has abated, he and his supporters will be taking their messages to what may be less challenging environments than last night’s hothouse – the doorsteps of the disaffected and the disgruntled. And that is where the mainstream non-racist parties have to fight hardest now.
When an audience member asked whether for example failure on immigration was responsible for the recent relative success of the BNP, the truth is that while we might be able to make a defence of our immigration policies, there are certainly people who have moved to the BNP because they do not believe the main parties listen to them on the issue. They can only be won back by being exposed to a bigger argument and explanation than they will ever get from the slogans of the BNP. But they won’t be won back by us saying they’re wrong.
Likewise on Europe, we have a largely Eurosceptic media, a Eurosceptic Opposition, and so it becomes more important for Labour politicians to make and win the big arguments about why Europe is a good thing not a bad thing.
At the last local elections, where I live in Camden, Labour’s campaign only really found any momentum when the BNP seemed to be getting some traction. Once there was a clear target, it became a bit easier to get over messages about why it was important to reject the politics of race and support a politics of values.
That is what the mainstream parties, and particularly Labour, have to take from these last few days. Politics at its best operates on the basis of strong argument rooted in clear principle. The Tory conference got the Conservatives up in lights in a way that was not wholly beneficial to them. The same can be said of the BNP arising from Griffin’s Question Time appearance. And before Tories get too worked up, there the comparison ends.
It has not been a comfortable few days for politics. But provided there is no complacency, and provided Labour understand why people voted for the BNP, and seize the opportunity to take on and defeat the arguments that led them there – so many of which fell apart under a bit of pressure last night – it might yet be possible to look back on last night not as a turning point for Griffin, but a turning point away from him.
And in the meantime, with so many of the public seemingly angry that he was on the programme at all, all of the mainstream parties should be reminding those same members of the public that he only got there because so few of them could be bothered to vote.