After the furore over Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance has died down somewhat, perhaps we might be able to see more clearly its potential consequences for the British political landscape. Dianne Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, argues in The Independent that it was not the triumph for free speech that “white metropolitan liberals” tend to think it was. On the contrary, she says that it “legitimised” Griffin, and brought his extreme views a level of acceptance they would not otherwise have achieved. She makes the point that although Griffin has the right to express his views however he sees fit within the law, it is by no means his right to appear on the BBC with other “legitimate” politicians. That is true enough; however the reason for his appearance was not only the fact that he represents a small minority of voters, but also that he would inevitably expose his views for how ignorant and unacceptable they really are.
Although Abbott speaks confidently about “legitimisation”, she provides no real evidence for her thesis, and indeed fails to make clear what she means by it. What does it mean, really, to say that Griffin has become legitimised? In any case, does it not show—especially for a politician—a worrying faithlessness in democracy that merely because a political party is legitimised we must all fear that the ignorant British public won’t be able to resist the deviously seductive call of the siren-like British National Party? To extend the metaphor: surely Griffin’s appearance is rather the political equivalent of a map of the seas, which if a sailor should look at closely enough, he will know to avoid the sirens entirely.
So then, what does Abbott mean by “legitimate”? It may seem obvious. And perhaps it was obvious to Abbott when she wrote the piece. What she means by it, probably, is “to be treated the same as other politicians.” If that is what she meant, then clearly that isn’t the case. By devoting the show almost entirely to Griffin and his party, that’s a very clear statement that they’re treating him very differently to other politicians. Furthermore, it implies that there won’t be many editions of Question Time in which Griffin gets a say at all. If they were to legitimise him in the above sense, then they would have to have spoken on topics unrelated to the BNP, and Griffin would merely contribute his opinion like the rest of the panel. If his treatment on Question Time is legitimisation, then he is now the most legitimate politician in Britain.
This kind of legitimisation is no bad thing. Griffin is still very clearly cast as an outsider in the political realm, and such appearances as we witnessed on Thursday will only happen very rarely if at all. The British public still won’t be as exposed to his views as often as they would be to those of the three major parties. At the same time, they would be thoroughly more exposed to them than before, and if the BNP is as much of a threat as many think, then that can only be a good thing.
Perhaps the only risk with this kind of very limited legitimisation is that political debate may well focus more than it previously did on the BNP’s policies. This would only be something to fear if these policy discussions crowded out all other subjects. But that is unthinkable—after all, the BNP’s policies deal with a very limited range of issues, and as important as immigration is, it is not quite on the same level as extracting the country from the economic mess, an area which as far as I know Griffin has no proposed solutions for.
Abbott writes of Thursday’s Question Time that “although they were denouncing the man, the debate stayed firmly on territory delineated by the BNP. Thus does the introduction of the BNP into mainstream discourse drag our politics further rightward.” A very strong statement to make, by any measure, and yet again she offers no proof. Apparently, the BNP are a vicious animal introduced into a helpless, New Zealand-like ecosystem in which the animals have lost the ability to defend themselves. The discussion on the show may have been in some sense dragged rightward, but only in the same way that a Tory would be dragged leftward in a debate with a Labour politician. One of the major reasons for the BNP’s rise is the fact that they can walk unchallenged in policy areas that the other parties don’t dare to tackle directly. The occasional injection of extremist fringes into mainstream discussion can only be a healthy thing for our collective immune system, acting like a vaccine and better equipping us to fight.