After Nick Griffin and Question Time
October 23rd 2009
The evening after the day after. It still feels that something has shifted. That we have passed through some as yet unidentifiable watershed. One which affects our politics, the media, the nature of their relationship, and how our political system lives, breathes and operates.
Like a large part of the British population I tuned into BBC One’s ‘Question Time’, but unlike most I watch it most Thursdays. I listened to the post-programme discussions, read the papers, and scanned the blogs.
It felt like this was part of a defining and vital national conversation; a nation trying to say that for all its problems, crises and breakdown in trust with authority, it recognised some things were still serious and worthy of adult attention. Although at the same time it did feel that Kelvin Mackenzie comparing it to ‘Frost/Nixon’ was a bit over the top! The real event, the play, the film, or all three?
The wider context has to be acknowledged of how we got here, where we are and where we are going. The rise of the BNP has to be seen alongside the open articulation of Holocaust denial from people much less extreme than the BNP or Iranian authorities. Then there is the rise of Islamophobia and anti-semitism; so many political figures seem to be selective about which forms of ‘hate crimes’ they acknowledge and see. Step forward Ken Livingstone in a new low even in his career.
And of course there is the Conservative Party and their new odious European allies in Poland and Latvia – the Law and Justice Party and For Fatherland and Freedom Party respectively. Ken Clarke has given us the benefit of his years of wisdom dismissing the whole sordid episode stating, ‘Its all an anorak issue’ (1).
Timothy Garton Ash, someone I have long admired for his intimate, perceptive understanding of European history and politics and British insularity, but never someone I thought of as a radical in domestic matters, increasingly in ‘The Guardian’ provides one of the most prescient voices on the nature of the UK crisis. This week examining the British fixation with Germany he commented:
It is Britain that has a discredited Parliament, a constitutional mess, the erosion of civil liberties and a chronic identity problem. (2)
In the previous week’s ‘Guardian’, Garton Ash wrote about the scale of the crisis facing British democracy and the staggering inept response of the political class and their attempts at reform. The tone and content of his words are unusual for a mainstream British commentator to use, Tom Nairn apart, and clearly influenced by Tom’s many years of penetrating narrative and analysis:
Yet, if we go on like this, with endless Heath Robinson fixes and further piecemeal steps towards devolution (downwards to consumers and communities, as Cameron proposes, and outwards to Scotland and Wales), with gaping legitimacy deficits (unelected House of Lords and an unfair electoral system for the Commons), there will come another moment, sooner or later, when the whole system is called into question. The UK is already a kind of miniature Austro-Hungarian empire, full of heroic anachronisms. Adapting Robert Musil’s famous description of the late Habsburg empire as “Kakania”, the Scottish writer Tom Nairn has called it “Ukania”. (3)
The current predicament of the British political system and the emergence of the BNP are not just about anxieties over asylum, race and immigration. There is a wider set of fears about globalisation, dislocation, people feeling insecurity and worried about themselves and their futures. There is a prevalent sense that people have lost many of the anchors by which they defined their lives, their progress and society: how they thought of work, careers, employer responsibilities, the role of government and what politics is for and about.
There is a potent whiff in the air which was there pre-crash that all politicians are the same, that they are all liars, scoundrels and bounders and much worse. This has emerged at a point when the old political tribes and philosophies are dieing off and it was always possible that they could be replaced by something worse, rather than something better.
A ‘Daily Telegraph’ poll in the immediate aftermath of Griffin’s appearance found 22% of respondents would seriously consider voting for the BNP in a future election; 12% completely agree with the BNP while 43% share some of its concerns and have ‘no sympathy for the party itself’ (4).
Speaking the day after ‘Question Time’ at the Scottish Refugee Council Annual Conference (5) with Heaven Crawley of Swansea University we explored the hypocrisies of mainstream politicians – who cite evidence based policy one minute – and then within a breath are talking of immigration and race as one of the most important issues facing the country and at the top of voter concerns. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy and vicious cycle here which has to be broken.
As Heaven explored in a persuasive and fascinating presentation this mainstream is absolutely irretrievably broken. It cannot be put back together. It is what the mainstream has bastardised and morphed into that is the problem. Instead we need to profoundly change the narrative.
What that different narrative is is already emerging. What it is and what it is not. What it is not is colluding or accepting of the crisis of the liberal establishment and thought. The slow decline of our political class and the BBC has a short and long story, but they are inextricably linked and the latter’s decline has been accelerated, post-Hutton, post-Greg Dyke.
What it is centred on is finding a new language and philosophy of justice and fairness, a form of justice which can articulate an economic, social and cultural way of thinking and action which takes head on the market fundamentalism and individualism which has caused so much damage across the world. That seems a tough call, but at least we are beginning to talk in the mainstream about the scale of the crisis and bankruptcy of the established order.
1. Jonathan Freedland, ‘I knew the day of Holocaust ‘debate’ would come. Just not in my lifetime’, The Guardian, October 20th 2009,
2. Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Britain fluffed the German Question. Now Britain is Europe’s Great Puzzle’, The Guardian, October 21st 2009,
3. Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Back to the same old Ukania, with a muddle in place of a constitution’, The Guardian, October 14th 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/14/constitutional-reform-parliament-electoral-system
4. Rosa Prince, ‘One in five ‘would consider voting BNP’ after Nick Griffin Question Time appearance’, Daily Telegraph, October 24th 2009,
5. Scottish Refugee Council, http://www.scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk/