Fraser Nelson

Question Time conundrum

Question Time conundrum
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I was a panelist on Question Time last night, and it started me thinking about how they will handle the BNP episode – which I expect fairly soon. Make no mistake, a Question Time slot is as big for the BNP as winning seats in Europe. When I was on the campaign trail with them for a cover story in June, I noticed how they would refer to Question Time as a goal – almost as much as getting to Brussels. It represents one thing: the political mainstream. With two MEPs and almost a million voters the BNP have a legitimate claim to that Question Time panel. For them, it is totemic. It will be an historic moment – and one which could work to the BNP’s favour.

It is fashionable to claim that the media spotlight will expose Nick Griffin for the racist thug that he is, and that Question Time will be the end of him. Anyone making this argument has no experience of the BNP or understanding of its support. Here are some arguments I’d like to advance…

1. Nick Griffin is not a stupid man. He is a hugely talented debater and got to where he is by being mentally agile. He specialises in sounding reasonable, and portraying his opponents as extremists. This is what he has been doing for twenty years – and, judging by the steady rise of votes, doing it rather well. Mosley’s blackshirts did not come close achieving the mass support that the BNP have now.

2. Westminster politicians don’t know how to debate the BNP. Mostly, they shout ‘racist’ down a microphone – and that’s as close as they get. It's precisely the shrilness of this tactic which drives BNP support. The Westminster system is focused on swing voters in swing seats. The language and priorities of our politics are focused on this tiny 0.5 per cent of the electorate – it’s a huge defect in the system, but is nonetheless how elections are won. The BNP don’t go near swing seats. They prosper in safe seats – the modern-day rotten boroughs where the local MP doesn’t bother to campaign. As a result, perhaps half a dozen of the 630MPs have experience of hand-to-hand combat with the BNP. By that, I mean going on doorsteps to talk to people who are genuinely considering a BNP vote. Jon Cruddas knows. Siobhan McDonagh, too. But in the Cabinet? No chance.

3. The BNP can turn racism accusations to its advantage. Last night, Harriet Harman faced a BNP questioner and she called him racist. She pointed out, righty, that the party has an all-white membership policy. They do, but I suspect they’ll dump it by the time Griffin gets on that Question Time panel because it is the firmest stick with which the Westminster class has to beat him. Then – what? Griffin loves, absolutely loves, to say that when these (hated) Westminster politicians use words like ‘racist’ they are referring to ordinary people being concerned about immigration. The shriller the attack, the wider Griffin’s smile.

4. The BNP also have a hinterland. Question Time will not be one long debate about immigration. People will discuss other policy areas, health, culture etc. Might Griffin be left speechless? My research into the BNP makes me think otherwise. They do have energy and health policies, and much of these involve telling the EU to go to hell. On a personal basis, anyone expecting its candidates to be monsters will be disappointed: the guy I was out campaigning with in June, for example, had spent the previous day in Kew Gardens with his family teaching his kids about plants. Griffin will have spent his career trying to rebut the notion that he’s a skinhead thug. You can bet he has carefully acquired, and learnt to articulate, opinion in all sorts of things.

5. The BNP thrive on distrust of Westminster. We all know what Question Time audiences think of MPs expenses – and of dissembling politicians in general. This, far more than any race-related issue, is what drives BNP support. It is the closest thing voters can do, electorally, to throwing a stone into the window of Westminster. So Griffin will talk about immigration, but will major on how all parties are the same and none to be trusted. This is a theme which resonates with viewers at home.

6. Who will control the Question Time audience? Last night, when this BNP guy asked a question, the audience started on him before anyone from the panel did. How will they react to Griffin? Even if the panel sharpen their wits and carefully calibrate their argument, Griffin may provoke from the floor the shrill attacks he is seeking. Ideally, some trust fund girl standing up and screaming ‘racist pig’ at him – thereby representing the voice of the liberal elite whom the BNP claim to stand athwart. Even better, some dreadlocked hard-left activist throwing something. Question Time do not search their audiences, and the anti-fascist groups are quite adept at infiltration. If I were them, I’d leave far more than the usual hour before going on air.

7. Who should the parties put up? I’d reckon David Davis for the Tories – because he’s tough and amiable. Gove is, perhaps, the best debater. For Labour, it has got to be Jon Cruddas. If Labour put up Phil Woolas or someone who has supposed rank, then Griffin will mop up. Would the gentle, affable Bonnie Greer be the best foil for Griffin – or would her American accent reinforce her immigrant status? Does Shami Chakrabati, who is so good at besting Home Secretaries, have the combat skills required to get the better of Griffin? The non-politico slot (filled by me last night, David Starkey next week) is the only chance to get someone who is not white on the panel. This will discomfit Griffin – he’s use to talking to white people about brown people.