Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


BNP Debate in The Name of Democracy
Corriere della Sera - October 25th 2009

It is a problem at the very heart of democracy: are anyone’s political ideas so objectionable that they should not be allowed to be heard in public, especially on publicly financed television? That is what Britons have been debating for weeks, once it became known that the BBC, which is owned by the state but is resolutely independent from government, had decided to invite the leader of the British National Party (BNP) on to its political discussion programme, Question Time. And since Nick Griffin, the leader of the racist, anti-immigrant BNP, appeared on the show on Thursday October 22nd, the debate has just intensified.

            Nick Griffin made a fool of himself, said some. He is a “disgrace to humanity” said the headline in a tabloid newspaper, the Daily Express. Now that his offensive views, which include denial of the Holocaust, support for America’s Ku Klux Klan and a belief that non-whites should be repatriated from Britain, have been aired publicly, some argue that the small support the BNP has will decline. The instant opinion poll taken after the Question Time show by an independent research firm, YouGov, suggested the opposite, however: direct support for the BNP appeared to have risen from 2% to 3% of the electorate, and an astonishing 22% of those polled said they would “seriously consider” voting for the BNP in an election.

            What to make of all this? Well, the first point that must be accepted is that the British National Party exists, just as extreme right-wing parties exist in every west European country. In the European elections in June two BNP candidates were elected to the European Parliament, one of whom is Mr Griffin. That is why the BBC felt obliged to invite him on to their show. The second point that must be accepted is that suspicion, fear or dislike of immigration is held by a larger percentage of the British public than the 2% or so that has typically voted for the BNP. As people do not like to admit to racism when talking to opinion-research firms, it is hard to know how many people share this view. But it is certainly larger than is measured by BNP membership or votes.

            That gap, between formal BNP support and the latent feelings against immigration, provides the basic case against allowing figures such as Mr Griffin to air their views on mainstream television. The BNP has suffered in the past from a reputation both for violence and for financial misconduct. In addition, the British electoral system of “first past the post” makes voting for fringe groups like the BNP look like a waste of time, since with that winner-takes-all system there has been no chance of them forming a government or even of winning any seats.

But when this previously disreputable party is invited on to a show like Question Time, suddenly its views can start to look respectable. People might now think that it has a chance, and that voting for it is now acceptable. That, as many commentators in Britain pointed out this week, was what happened for France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen when the leader of the Front National appeared on a French political talkshow called L’Heure de Verite in 1984. The FN then enjoyed a surge of support.

The same could, in theory, now happen for the BNP. Certainly, this is a time of disillusionment with conventional political parties, thanks to the economic recession and to Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal. Reactions to Mr Griffin’s performance on Question Time showed the danger, in effect. The intellectual elite, writing in the higher quality newspapers, decided that he had been humiliated, exposed as bigoted, ignorant and rather slow-witted. The popular reaction, however, may well be different: the YouGov poll suggests that his views do strike a chord with quite a large number of people. And his vulgar language and unsophisticated performance is not necessarily a weakness. No one could call Silvio Berlusconi unsophisticated, but political leaders such as him and Nicolas Sarkozy prove that connecting directly with the thoughts and feelings of ordinary voters, even appealing to their baser instincts, can be an advantage.

So we will have to wait and see: Britain’s general election has to take place by June next year. The first-past-the-post electoral system will still make it very hard for fringe parties like the BNP to have any impact. But a general trend in Britain has been the fragmentation of the vote away from the conventional parties and towards newer ones, especially regional parties, and this new exposure for the BNP could reinforce that process.

Whatever happens, however, it will not mean that parties like the BNP should be banned from mainstream television. In a democracy, free debate is the best way to win arguments. If extreme parties’ views on topics like immigration do strike a chord with parts of the electorate, the only sustainable, long-term response is to debate that topic, openly, and show that people’s concerns can be dealt with in ways that do not require extreme, intolerant solutions. If that argument cannot be won in our democracies, then we will be in truly deep trouble—and the reason for that trouble will lie in ourselves and our political processes, not in whether or not racists like Nick Griffin have been invited on to TV talk shows.





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