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The new divide in British politics: Us and Him

Question Time was no victory for rigorous and free debate – it merely confirmed Nick Griffin’s elevation as the voodoo doll of public life.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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The BBC, Jack Straw and others have tried to present last night’s Question Time, which featured Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP), as a victory for free and grown-up debate. It was no such thing.

It was a cultural lynching of Griffin by members of a political elite bereft of ideas and lost for words. It was a cynical performance by politicians and BBC bigwigs, designed to demonstrate their inherent goodness and sense of mission against the easy target of a bumbling buffoon with backward ideas. It was a calculated act of moral distancing, an attempt to conjure up two moral universes – Us and Him – at a time when British political life has little else going for it. And it involved, not open, adult debate, but its opposite: the suppression of discussion, analysis and nuance, all buried beneath the theatrical display of the new Non-Nick consensus.

The show confirmed what Griffin has become for the political elite: a voodoo doll they can stick pins in to try to ward off their own political misfortunes. New Labour justice secretary Straw got the ball rolling in response to a question about whether it is right for the BNP to use Second World War and Churchillian imagery in its campaigning literature. No, he said, because it is a racial party and is thus different to all other parties in Britain. ‘What is common about every other political party, regardless of their differences, is that they each have a moral compass, a recognisable moral compass based on longstanding cultural, philosophical and religious values of Western society’, he said, to wild cheers from the audience – surely the first time in months, if not years, a Labour minister has been publicly whooped rather than whipped.

For Straw, a leading figure in a party that struggles to define modern British values and which is fast losing support amongst the public, winning a mere 7.5 per cent of the whole electorate’s support in the local elections in June, posturing against Nasty Nick is the only way he can assume some moral authority and outline the decency of the political class. It is striking that he sought to suppress the political differences (such as they are) between Britain’s main parties and instead bigged up the whole political elite’s ‘recognisable moral compass’ and ‘cultural, philosophical and religious values’. He instinctively recognises that the contemporary crisis of legitimacy and authority, the widespread distrust of politicians, is a problem not only for New Labour but for the political class more broadly. Straw signalled that this was not to be a debate, a spat over issues and visions, but rather an apolitical performance of superiority, a televised attempt to rescue the reputation of the political class by contrasting it to the weaselness of Nick Griffin.

Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats went one better than Straw, seeking to recreate the Blitz Spirit of the Second World War, only in response to Griffin’s bluster rather than German bombs. He said the BNP went ‘completely against the traditions of this country’. ‘Churchill would be frankly rolling in his grave’, he said, to find himself associated with the BNP. (Really? The same Churchill who described Indians in eastern Africa as a ‘very low class of coolies’? Who said ‘the continuing increase of the number of coloured people coming to Britain… would sooner or later come be resented’? Who described the Soviet Union as ‘a worldwide communistic state under Jewish domination’?)

Huhne’s aim was to trace the moral lineage of today’s three mainstream parties back to Churchill, anti-fascism and the last ‘good war’. ‘There are three parties here that can say something about Churchill’s legacy’, he said. ‘Churchill was a Liberal for many years, he was a Conservative for many years, and he led a government that was composed of Labour ministers.’ In short, Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are the moral spawn of Churchill while the BNP is the immoral spawn of Hitler. Huhne was desperately trying to recreate, around the Question Time table, the historic stand-off between Britain and Germany, the divide between liberty and fascism, with him and Straw and Sayeeda Warsi of the Conservative Party playing the role of Churchillian warriors for goodness and Griffin playing the role of the jackbooted threat to the British way of life. It is an indictment of the modern discombobulation of the political class that it remains so reliant on a largely mythologised version of the 1940s for its moral authority.

The impact of this pantomime performance of superiority was to suppress debate rather than enable it. Political differences were brushed aside, pressing issues were sidelined in favour of re-enacting a cartoon version of the war against Hitler. This became clear on the issue of immigration, where there was some disagreement between the three mainstream party representatives, but only over who is doing a better job of capping the number of immigrants into Britain and streamlining the removal of ‘illegals’. As part of their chest-puffing posturing against Nasty Nick, each of the politicians sought to demonstrate that they had a handle on the ‘immigration problem’, that they would ‘fix it’, and that this important job of keeping the wrong people out of Britain was being made harder by unnecessary scaremongering by the BNP and others.

So one of the key issues of our time – which raises important questions about liberty, equality and elite insecurity about the unpredictable movements of unknowable people – was turned into a technical issue over which there were only mild, managerial disagreements. The cynical desire to demonstrate superiority at the expense of the gurning Griffin meant that even when disagreement reared its ugly and unnecessary head, it was only in terms of whether the cap should be 20,000 migrants a year, 50,000, or 100,000, etczzz. No one put the case for freedom of movement. No one challenged the political class’s bizarre notion that migrants damage ‘social cohesion’ both by their own behaviour and by the resentment they allegedly provoke in ‘white enclaves’ (1).

Indeed, so surreal was the Question Time debate, so geared was it to allowing mainstream politicians to get their rocks off against Griffin, that Straw, Huhne and Warsi could even present their anti-immigration policies in the name of freedom and fairness, arguing that only their ‘responsible’ (read restrictive and mean-spirited) management of migration flows could counter the BNP’s attempt to exploit people’s fears of uncontrolled migration. The apolitical nature of the whole performance of fear, concern, decency and moral bluster was best summed by the other panellist, writer Bonnie Greer. ‘I know nothing about politics’, she said, with a peculiar sense of pride. But then, why should she know anything about politics? This was not a political discussion; it was cheap moral theatre.

The entire elite in Britain – the political class, the church, the military – now seeks to define its ‘moral compass’ through posturing against the BNP. Straw tried to rescue the political world’s flagging reputation by seizing with relish the opportunity to share a stage with evil Griffin. The Church of England voted earlier this year to ban BNP members from becoming vicars on the grounds that they have committed ‘the sin of racial prejudice’. At a time of profound crisis for mainstream Christianity – when it finds defining good and evil, never mind God and the devil, to be increasingly difficult – the Church has turned the BNP into a secular stand-in for Satan, hoping that denouncing it from the pulpit will provide vicars with a sense of moral direction. Even the military, bogged down by a disastrous war in Afghanistan and finding that political correctness at home is hampering its ability to create soldiers and maintain fighting spirit, hopes that rescuing Churchillian imagery from the BNP will restore its reputation as a Good Institution which once, a long time ago, fought against fascism.

And now the BBC does it, too. Last night’s show exposed the utter disingenuousness of the BBC’s claim merely to be providing an ordinary platform for the BNP because it has won a certain amount of electoral support. In fact the entire programme was about the BNP; even the one question that wasn’t about the BNP was turned by presenter David Dimbleby into a discussion of the BNP’s attitude towards homosexuality. The BBC did not stage a serious political debate so that ‘viewers could make up their own minds’, as director-general Mark Thompson claimed – it staged a moralistic shared national experience to allow itself and politicians to look good and to allow the studio audience to shout and cheer and jeer.

I have always thought that the only way to challenge backward thinking is to have unfettered freedom of speech and open debate. spiked opposes every form of censorship. But the BBC did not stage this Question Time in the name of free and serious debate, but rather as an opportunity for various sections of the political class to partake in a ritualised performance of purpose. The only disagreement between someone like Peter Hain, who wants the BNP banned, and Jack Straw, who debated with the BNP, is that Hain believes he can demonstrate his moral superiority and ‘save the public’ through censoring Griffin, while Straw believes he can do those things by entering into a carefully staged clash with Griffin. Both sides are driven by a desperate need to discover their moral compass and by a primal urge to save the public from itself, either by covering our ears or allowing us only to hear carefully constructed denunciations of evil. It’s better to let Griffin speak than not, but this cultural lynching sprang not from liberty, openness and political maturity, but from the narrow needs of a disorientated elite.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See The fight to re-enfranchise the electorate starts here, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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