Letter from Westminster 30.10.09

Last Thursday night the nation was introduced to a new political hero on the BBC’s Question Time. For the first time we saw a new figure emerge onto the political stage – someone whose agenda was fresh and challenging and not bogged down in the old politics. I was won over heart and mind. I have a new political hero.

Unfortunately she had to share the programme with the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, but for me the star of the show was the playwright Bonnie Greer.

If Griffin had thought that he was going to be up against a black “token” woman then he was very soon disabused of that notion. Some of her put downs were as beautiful as his statements were crass.

I would readily admit that I was apprehensive about the impact of Nick Griffin’s appearance on tele­vision. The far right in France claim that their political credibility stem­med from their leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, appearing on a mainstream political discussion programme.

My concern was that if Griffin appeared on Question Time and seemed to be plausible then his party could have enjoyed a major popu­larity boost. In the event I need not have worried.

Exposed to the full glare of pub­licity there was not much to be seen. At times his performance made you cringe. Asked, for example, about his past denial of the holocaust he replied: “I can’t tell you why I said these things or what made me change my mind.”

Was the BBC right to invite him on to the programme? I think they were but it is worth considering why they felt it necessary. Like it or not, Nick Griffin has been elected to the European Parliament, along with one other BNP candidate. They have a right, therefore, to some time on network television. The time for refusing them a platform is passed. The challenge now for mainstream politicians is to tackle the BNP head-on and to engage them in debate. We need, however, to understand some of the reasons for their winning.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. When mainstream parties fail to engage with voters they leave the way open for others to move in and fill the gap. Bluntly, that is what has happened in much of the north of England where the BNP has made its progress. If disengagement let the BNP move in then it is self-evident that re-engagement is the first step necessary to beat them.

By re-engagement I mean treating voters like grown ups and being prepared to tell them honestly what we think. A politics that was built on concealing your beliefs rather than arguing for them was never going to be sustainable. How can I be sure?

I saw the proof for myself last Thursday night. Bonnie Greer, a playwright not a politician, just called things as she saw them. It was a breath of fresh air that blew the flimsy credibility of Nick Griffin and his thuggish colleagues in the BNP clean away. It was politics as it used to be – and it worked.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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