As an evening, it was absurdly, grotesquely British. A rather tired old TV current affairs programme found its audience trebled by the mere introduction of a pudgy middle-aged racist who doubts whether Hitler killed six million Jews. For Nick Griffin of the BNP, last night's appearance on Question Time represented an acknowledgement that hundreds of thousands of British people have shown themselves willing to vote for his party in the dog days of a deeply unpopular government. The BBC has been at its most sanctimonious about the whole Griffin saga, welcoming an opportunity to parade its commitment to free speech as a diversion from defending the salaries of Jonathan Ross and its director-general.
This was not Question Time as we know it, about Afghanistan, or the Roman Catholic bid to take over the Church of England, or bankers' bonuses. It was QT squarely and exclusively about Nick Griffin and the views of his British National Party. I doubt whether host David Dimbleby and the other members of last night's panel enjoyed the usual backstage joshing with Griffin before the show. On the air, they strove to avoid joining his curious outbursts of laughter, or seeming to agree with him even about whether it was Thursday or Friday. Black playwright Bonnie Greer winced when Griffin at one moment attempted to put his arm around her, as if she were repelling the advances of a squid. Chris Huhne of the Lib Dems said that the BNP's policies 'are as old as the hills' - they are in the business of finding people to blame. Justice Secretary Jack Straw denounced Griffin's attempts to hijack Winston Churchill and Britain's values of the Second World War for his cause. Greer said that Churchill's mother was possibly of Mohawk Indian descent, which made nonsense of the BNP's ideas on British racial identity. As a history lesson, almost all the panel talked tosh. Winston Churchill, in his own time, possessed the values and racial attitudes of the Victorian aristocracy from which he came, wildly politically incorrect in modern terms. I suspect that the old prime minister would have found it almost as deplorable for Jack Straw to try to identify New Labour values with his own as for Nick Griffin to do so. But the panel had little difficulty making Griffin seem slippery and indeed repugnant when he dodged and weaved about his own attitude to the Holocaust.
He denied making crudely racist statements which are recorded on film. He excused himself for meeting the leader of America's white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, asserting that he is a decent fellow really. It was not easy for Dimbleby and the questioners to get a handle on Griffin, because his party's policies do not get far beyond a bitter hostility to immigrants. For the first 20 minutes, there was little substantial debate, merely an exchange of insults and platitudes.
'If you all attack on different fronts,' said Dimbleby at one despairing moment, 'we shall get nowhere.' But just beyond half-time the programme came to life. This was the result not of a new assault on Nick Griffin, but of a question to Jack Straw. An audience member named Johnny Lisle demanded: 'Can the recent successes of the BNP be explained by the misguided immigration policies of the Government?' This was so obviously true that the Justice Minister had to deny it. 'There is a long history of immigration in this country,' he said, then added lamely: 'We are seeking actively to control numbers better. Can we pull up the drawbridge and stop people coming to this country? Certainly not.' Dimbleby pressed Straw to answer the question: is the BNP's success the result of government failure?
'I don't believe it is,' said the minister. The Tory Baroness Warsi, by far the most impressive member of the panel, asserted boldly: 'That is not an honest answer. There are real issues. We have to go out and say to these people - who have voted for the BNP - we are prepared to listen. We are prepared to deal with this. We need a cap on the numbers.' At last almost everybody in the studio could address what they know is the real issue. Nobody except Nick Griffin wants to send every immigrant in Britain home. But almost everybody outside the current government knows that the current policy of allowing unrestricted entry has been a catastrophe. Nick Huhne, for the Lib Dems, said: 'There has been an undoubted failure of immigration policy. Two million visas are issued to students every year, and we don't even know whether they've left. The success of the BNP is about people being disconnected from the political system.'
Amid all the mutual name-calling, the programme achieved two useful things. First, it emphasised that a lot of people who hate racism are appalled by the recklessness of this government's immigration policies, which have done shocking damage to the social fabric of Britain. When Jack Straw said, 'I don't happen to believe that putting a cap on population is possible', Baroness Warsi said: 'You're in denial.' And of course she was right. It was a very bad night for Straw, and for the Government on an issue of vital concern to millions of people
The programme also fulfilled the hopes of millions of believers in free speech. By giving Nick Griffin a platform, it showed what an empty vessel he is. He spent the programme half-excusing, half-denying almost everything he is known to have said about other races. He has nothing to say, beyond asserting his hostility to those who he claims have committed 'genocide against the British people'. He says that his party's immigration policy 'is supported by 84 per cent of the British people', but was visibly stumped by the black audience member who said: 'You're committed to a white Britain. Where do you want me to go?'
With luck, last night's Question Time will have made a lot of people ask themselves whether anger about this government's shocking irresponsible immigration policy makes it sensible to vote for a party as contemptible as the BNP. But it should also concentrate Tory minds. Any party which seeks to regain popular faith in government, to drive the BNP back over the edge where it belongs, must address the huge, shamefully neglected issue of Britain's soaring population and open borders.
This article first appeared in the Daily Mail on 23rd October 2009.