The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

As a good part of the nation prepares to sit down and watch the leader of our New Fascist party on Question Time, we need to ask what the BBC is up to? The argument about 'whether or not' Nick Griffin MEP should be invited to take part is less important, indeed it can play the BBC's game.

It is necessary and important to stress that Griffin is an English Fascist. This means he wears a cloak of reasonableness wrapped around his prejudice. We had a widely read encounter with this kind of politics in the early days of OurKingdom which you can read here. Choice phrases give the game away. Yesterday Griffin was interviewed by Martha Kearney on the BBC's World at One.

In the course of his answers he referred to prisoners in British jails as "vermin". She seemed to think this acceptable and let it pass. Of course, there are some very evil men behind bars in the UK. There are also over 4,000 women (in 2006, the last date given on the Prison Service website) and many sad, dyslexic short-term prisoners. To describe any of them as "vermin" is to fundamentally dehumanise some of our own citizens and part of the human race. Rats and cockroaches are vermin. You trap, kill poison... or gas them. The word was no slip, it occurs in official BNP communications. It gives permission to dream of extreme violence. It signals the real Fascism behind the New Fascism.

In these circumstances as the moral failure of the political class brings forth demons, the BNP has to be confronted. Stuart Hall got it right: they need to be engaged with by the media when they are part of a news story, but they should not be on Question Time giving us their views about everything as if they are an acceptable part of fireside conversation.

So what is the BBC up to? I refer to it in the singular as having an approach and an attitude. Of course, it employs a lot of people with minds of their own who have differences of view. But with over 40 people earning more than the Prime Minister and executives looking after its 'vision' paid over £500,000 a year, it is also a machine with a commanding perspective of its own, however this may be arrived at.

What it claims is that it speaks in a representative way and objective way, permitting wide access to the arguments that genuinely touch people, thus playing a responsible democratic role in the service of the public.

The reality is that it is part of the larger political class now seeking to perpetuate itself in the face of public discontent. Take the expanses scandal. This genuinely alarmed and alienated the public, to put it mildly. Did the BBC with its immense research facilities help to break the story? After it broke, did the BBC track down the most egregious examples or invest in its own sustained coverage of the issue that so moved the public, for example by commissioning a series of documentaries on the expenses culture of the Commons, the Lords and the different political parties? Did it keep the issue alive through the party conference season, as the public wished?

Did it, hell! Of course, it had been warned by the Prime Minister that it too might be subject to 'transparency' so it had better be careful.... What? You thought that the BBC had of its own volition published its expenses? As openDemocracy Chairman David Elstein points out in a wide ranging speech on public service broadcasting in the digital age, "The BBC's much-touted publication of the expenses incurred by its senior executives" was nothing of the sort. It was just the limited amount reclaimed by those executives, after they had initially laid out cash. 99% of total executive expenses are actually covered by central bookings, so not requiring reimbursement, and so still unpublished.

To put it kindly, the BBC is part of the expenses racket and its associated culture of entitlement which it defends from public scrutiny.

Or take the issue of modern liberty which the Convention that I co-directed with Henry Porter brought to the public's attention in a concerted fashion in February. It got widespread press coverage and was cross-party in its approach and we helped uncover a profound, intelligent, open-minded public concern about the reshaping of the state and its treatment of citizens. This is surely exactly the kind of responsible issue that a public service broadcaster should embrace. It allows important questions about how we are governed to be asked, from an interesting and new angle with clearly important scientific and technological changes being part of the mix. Was the BBC interested? Was it, hell!

The BBC, it turned out, was making videos saying that it knew where you lived, to reinforce the intrusive imposition of the license fee. It is itself an extension of the surveillance society and the database state (for our own good of course). One related aspect of this is its support for unaccountable coercion aka the Met. See Guy Aitchison and Stuart White's patient documentation here in OurKingdom.

The Convention showed that there is a smart public that does not want to be patronised and wants to think about how we are being governed. This same attitude emerged again more strongly with the expenses crisis. A true public service broadcaster as opposed to a regime service broadcaster would welcome this, probing the strength and vitality of the concerns. This should be the duty of the BBC. broadcasts fascists.

Why? Because it is in the interests of the regime service broadcaster to project public opinion as dangerous and potentially racist. Responsible democratic opposition is squished and deprived of 'oxygen'. But if you can show that beneath the veneer the public are worse than unwashed they are proto-fascist, why then, we will indeed need the BBC to protect us, won't we?

It refuses to cover matters that could make it accountable in a good ongoing way, that would help open up the political class to democracy. It will, however, cover the dark side of public opinion to ensure that the rest of us are faced with a choice between that and them. In short, it wants us to think of the great public as proto-fascist. This is the significance of the revelation by the current New Statesman political editor James Macintyre who was a former producer on "Question Time, quoted by Stuart Jefferies in the Guardian:

They've always wanted him on and I went to meetings where I had to argue against that position. They lost the battle with management then and now, after two years' lobbying, they have won."

The argument about whether the BBC should give Griffin a home on our screens should not be conducted in narrow terms to reinforce the idea that there is only a choice between the rise of the New Fascists or better government by the Old Patricians. In that case we will have to back the latter and the BBC executives can laugh all the way to the bank.

Anthony Barnett is the founder of

This article first appeared on Our Kingdom on 21st October 2009.

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.

Like most people, I hate admitting when I am wrong. But the BBC proved me wrong last night by showing an episode of Question Time that wasn't the car-crash I was expecting. My concern has always been that it was the wrong platform for Griffin as it doesn't usually allow sufficient space for people to challenge each other. And so Griffin could have got away with pretending to be a "normal" politician by offering populist rants on Royal Mail, Afghanistan and other issues.

As it happened, the BBC's David Dimbleby did not let him off the hook so easily and made him answer up to his highly controversial past. He was caught out: flustered, making inane statements and pretending he was being stifled by European law when asked to explain his antisemitic views. He must have felt stitched up.

But the BNP and Nick Griffin are very polarising people, so it's likely most came back with their prejudices confirmed. Griffin sent out a triumphant email and his supporters will no doubt rally behind him.

And how did they all do? The verbose Jack Straw could have spent a bit more time rehearsing succinct answers to predictable questions: he floundered a bit when asked to talk about immigration. Sayeeda Warsi, the politician who had the most to gain, clearly rehearsed her points and came across quite well. She even made her party's policy on immigration sound immeasurably more populist and clearer than Labour's though it is now the same as the government's view.

Chris Huhne was unusually aggressive, when he did speak, but at one point was amazingly trying to sound even more hardline than New Labour and the Tories on immigration. I thought Bonnie Greer performed rather poorly, though the lefties on Twitter seemed to love her. Which is perhaps why I was less than impressed.

There was Nick Griffin himself, described by my self-selected group of Twitter friends as: "incoherent", "shifty", an "arse" and more. Generally, we thought he was exposed as the nasty man he was. But then we would think that, wouldn't we?

My favourite moments, however, came from the audience itself, especially when people said they were proud of this country and wouldn't "go back" even if Griffin encouraged them to. "I'm sure we can have a whip around to buy you a plane ticket out of this country," said one. It's nice to see patriotic British Asians on TV.

Listening to radio debates following Question Time, it also struck me how many people now claim on radio and websites that although they weren't racist and would never vote for the BNP, they nevertheless understood why others did. Funny: this argument is never used with Muslim extremists.

And what now? In an interview following Question Time, Peter Hain stuck by his view that the BBC made a big mistake by inviting him on the show and giving him that air of respectability. That was backed up by Mr Griffin himself, who came on after to say that since he had been on the country's top political panel show, he was now "part of the mainstream" and ready to sit permanently among the big boys.

Nick Griffin knows this much: it doesn't matter how badly the haters try to expose him, his followers feel under siege enough to ignore all that as part of some massive left-wing conspiracy. What he really wants is to be accepted as part of the furniture and for his deeply racist views to be brushed under the carpet. He is playing the long game. Let's see if it pays off.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 23rd October 2009.

So after the high jinx and high drama of Question Time, where are we as regards Nick Griffin and the British National party? Certainly his position, having been given an unprecedented opportunity to air his views and parade his personality, is no better. His problem is not that he comes across as wicked and shouty, because he is smarter than that. The problem is that when pressed as he was last night, he just seems ridiculous and weird.

But let's not run away with ourselves. What happened? He went to what is basically a televised dinner party discussion and came off worst. How much does that matter? A bit. But let's see how it plays in the real world.

Griffin's progress thus far, a million votes and two Euro seats, hasn't been achieved through his ability to shine in television appearances because he doesn't or to provide much by way of coherent policy. The party's strategy thus far has been simple. Find an area full of disaffected working class whites and lovebomb them. Tell them the world is dreadful, more dreadful than they know, and that the blacks/Muslims/Poles/gay people are responsible. Tell them that Nick is their only friend. This works best in areas where Labour has dropped the ball, through lack of activism or arrogance and the Tories and the Lib Dems have failed or haven't bothered to capitalise. The BNP never thrives on a national stage. It thrives on the death of local politics.

The experience of Slade Green, an estate in Bexley, Kent is instructive. The BNP, picking up that whiff of decay, sent its people there en masse and came within a whisker of winning a council seat in 2002. The authority took that as a cue, not to replicate the party's saloon bar racism but to raise its game and to reconnect with residents who just wanted to feel they were being listened to. As we saw in the elections in May, people tend not to use the BNP as a vehicle for their protest if there is an acceptable alternative. In Slade Green, once the people and mainstream politicians re-engaged, the BNP became irrelevant. The area has three Labour councillors now. The BNP hasn't had a look-in since. The Question Time audience heard similar things about the BNP being pushed back by Lib Dems in Burnley.

Yes, Jack Straw, Bonnie Greer, Sayeeda Warsi and Chris Huhne, the audience and the masterly David Dimbleby did well by asking Griffin the appropriate questions. For once his inquisitors on the BBC did their homework. Its journalists should never again fall below that standard.

But the real battle must occur on the streets, not with boots and fists, as Griffin once dreamily prophesised, but with activists from the mainstream parties showing marginalised communities that, whatever the national sideshow, local politics works and that decent councillors deserve their support.

Griffin likes to quote Churchill, and the icon well described where we stand post Question Time. This is not the end or even the beginning of the end. It's probably the end of the beginning.

This article was published in the Guardian on 23rd October 2009.