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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.

Ever since our successful demonstration against al-Muhajiroun (under the name of Islam4UK) on the 31 October which turned into a celebration of democracy and freedom, we have been inundated with calls and emails from Muslims and non-Muslims alike who have expressed their appreciation at our efforts to uphold democratic values and those of freedom and liberty in the face of extremism and bigotry. These are the values which are supposed to underpin our society and foster community cohesion.

Upon finding out that a campaign group called Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) was planning a protest on 13 December outside Harrow mosque over its extension, similar to another one held by the English Defence League on 11 September 2009, British Muslims for Secular Democracy felt it necessary to open up a dialogue with SIOE to try and deter them from going ahead with their plans to protest outside a place of worship. In this regard I wrote a letter to the SIOE spokesperson Stephen Gash who happened to be present at the anti-Islam4UK demonstration at Piccadilly Circus, and with whom some of our supporters had an interesting exchange of ideas about the role of Islam as a religion in the UK and SIOE's viewpoint. In my letter a sincere attempt has been made to convey to SIOE our deep-seated concerns about the perception of SIOE's aims and in particular the methods they employ to highlight their concerns. They are alienating an increasing number of British Muslims who are otherwise equally concerned about the rise of political Islam and are appalled at religious extremism within their own communities.

We are confused about SIOE's choice of venue for the protest, since Harrow as a borough is deemed to have harmonious community relations and any protest outside a place of worship is in principle hugely distasteful. The point we put to SIOE is that just because Muslims attend certain mosques out of convenience this does not mean that they subscribe to the views of the mosque committees and management who might have extremist or hardline sympathies, which, in any case, does not appear to be the case with Harrow Central Mosque. Representatives from the mosque joined our protest against al Muhajiroun and their leading members wholeheartedly support the merits of secular democracy alongside BMSD.

It has become apparent since the 31 October demo any attempts to curtail the religious freedom and human rights of the citizens of this country will be met with stiff resistance by pro-democracy groups like ours. Whether such attempts are made by the likes of Anjem Choudary who daydreams of implementing his own version of sharia in this country, or the SIOE campaign which aims to restrict Muslims' right to practice their religion, each campaign will be matched by enthusiastic democrats who have decided not to sit on the sidelines anymore and will come out to peacefully defend the fundamental rights of the people of Britain. However, at the same time, BMSD strongly advises all Muslims to exercise extreme caution and not to patronise any religious institutions, be they mosques or madrasas, which spread hatred or promote mental and physical segregation from mainstream society. Unfortunately there are a few such Muslim institutions whose activities and that of those affiliated to them have given ammunition to the groups including SIOE and the English Defence League.

We sincerely hope that on this occasion SIOE will call off its protest and respond in kind by opening a formal channel of communication with us and other like-minded pro-democracy groups in order to address the issue of religious extremism and the rise of the far right, both of which are threatening community cohesion in this country. If they persist in their endeavours, BMSD would have no choice but to counter SIOE's protest with one of our own, one in favour of democratic rights and religious freedom.

Source: Shaaz Mahboob / Comment is free