Just back from Bath with the family. On the journey, I happened to catch an extended interview the PM did today with Real Radio. Inevitably, he was asked about Nick Griffin's appearance on the Question Time programme, which is kicking off shortly. He said that this was a "great opportunity" to put pressure on the BNP and expose them for who they are. Unfortunately, in the truncated news bulletins, this was shortened considerably to (and I paraphrase) "BNP leader Nick Griffin appears on the Question Time programme this evening. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this was a great opportunity". Oh dear...
Almost every element of the BBC's decison to allow Griffin onto Question Time seems to have been mismanaged and poorly thought through. This is clearly a complex issue, but I'm not sure the BBC properly appreciated the extent to which their invitation represented for the racists a genuine "Rubicon" moment. I think it's beginning to dawn on Beeb executives now, as well as the rest of the political world.
To be clear, this is an issue on which I have some "form". As a student hack, I made a name for myself challenging my students' union's position of 'No Platform' - i.e. racists or fascists were barred from promoting their policies during debates. As a callow starter, for me, this was simply an issue about democracy - the best way to challenge the far right and deal with their obnoxious policies was via open debate. Preventing a public dialogue only served to undermine the credibility of the true supporters of democracy. It was an issue I cared passionately about, and my motion carried the day.
Now with twenty-five or so years experience under my belt, I see things a little differently. I apply to this matter my 'law of unintended consequences' test. An analogy is with the legalisation of drugs. I fully respect the views of those who think that all drugs should be liberalised as a matter of freedom of choice. Similarly, there is also a rational argument that says that the decriminalisation of hard drugs would weaken the drug traffikers, and at a stroke take the profiteering out of the trade. For me, however, the logical endpoint of allowing heroin or cannabisd to be legalised means that as a society we are quite content with seeing kids as young as 9 or 10 shooting up on street corners. For sure, that is not what the well-meaning proponents of legalisation intend. But if heroin or cocaine have the same legal status as alcohol or tobacco, you can be sure that out streets would be as awash with these substances. They would have gained a degree of acceptability currently denied, for all of the imperfections of the current law. A critical 'line in the sand' would have been crossed.
So it is with the BNP. I do not doubt for one second the uncanny ability of the far right to let slip its true face behind the mask. Nick Griffin likening the heads of our Armed Services to war criminals at Nuremberg was a ghastly slip on several levels - reminding us of the Nazi horror democratic societies fought at such cost during World War II, as well as the likely fate of nay-sayers in any (hypothetical) BNP government. Comparing himself to Churchill, as Griffin has also done recently, would be laughable were it not so offensive to a giant of a statesman who spent the best part of his life to warning the free world about the dangers of fascism, and then committing every sinew of his being to fighting its scourge.
Still, with their invitation onto Question Time, the BNP has crossed a rubicon all of its own. The BBC has signalled that it is now part of mainstream political discourse in this country. Executives at the Corporation have argued that the votes gained at this year's European elections have made their appearence inevitable. I beg to differ.
Are we ready now to welcome in the BNP into every debate we have as a society. When we talk about health, or education or defence, must there be someone there advocating that Muslims are stigmatised as terrorists, or that your nationality is determined by the colour of your skin? Are you ready for a teacher at your kids' school to be a BNP member and to question the Holocaust as a gigantic hoax? Are you ready for that? Because I'm not.
Question Time is about to begin. I have no doubt the panellists to a man and woman will combine to give Griffin the (verbal) working over his nauseous politics deserve. But don't be fooled into thinking that things haven't fundamentally changed for the worst afterwards.