It is hard to know what to make of this week’s Question Time. Most of what happened was fairly predictable. Nick Griffin was a rhetorical mess and the other members of the panel (including David Dimbleby) had clearly come well-prepared with damning quotations and facts. If Griffin hoped to advance his cause – as he believed he could – then he failed. But it is questionable whether that matters. Most of his actual and potential supporters are unlikely to watch Question Time and few people who do watch it would be converted, however brilliantly he performed. The BNP draws such strength as it has (and it is not much) from grievances which are not met by arguments from the facts. That Nick Griffin was shown to be a complete muddlehead won’t influence his supporters one way or the other.
More interesting was the behaviour of the other members of the panel. Jack Straw – of all people – defending racial plurality and liberal tolerance was a sight not seen for many years and the hypocrisy of it left a nasty taste in the mouth. Lady Warsi, the Tory spokesperson, and generally thought to be lightweight by everyone, turned out surprisingly tough, and she is the only British politician I have ever heard point out there is no such thing as a ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. You are either an asylum seeker or not. Bonnie Greer simply rose above the occasion, as expected.
Had Griffin been faster on his feet, however, he could have embarrassed the others. The spokespersons of the three major parties had trouble with one question: is the rise of the BNP due to the failures of the government’s immigration policies? They none of them really answered it – despite repeated proddings from Dimbleby – but they did spend much of their time disputing who had been or would be toughest on immigration, which, however necessary immigration controls might be in practice, in a sense concedes half the argument to the BNP. Although all said how good and necessary immigration was they did not look as though they believed it.
Indeed, the low point came when Chris Huhne of the Lib Dems, anxious to emphasise how incompetent the government was, came close to arguing, perhaps inadvertently, that there was something wrong in the Eastern European migration to Britain. Their general refusal to come clean, of course, was a result of an understandable reluctance to admit that they (and their media allies) had done almost as much to politicise immigration as the BNP. They were also understandably reluctant to admit that many of the grievances BNP supporters have, as victims of what is now the dominant economic ideology, might be legitimate.