Good morning Lemmings and holy crap, you are actually reading the second post in the space of a week. Trust me, I have better things to do (my kill kill/death ratio in Team Fortress 2 is not going populate itself) but something’s really got my hackles up this week, hackled enough to prompt a response. I’m talking about the Question Time shitstorm. It’s been nearly a week now, but this seems to have really got under everyones skin, generating tremendous amounts of heat and preciously little light. Somehow, I think we’ve missed the point.
OK, first things first, a small confession. I’m a complete Question Time geek. Seriously, it’s my equivalent of sport and Thursday is a hallowed day in the House of Ribs. I’ve toyed with the idea of producing a post-match report every week and posting up but have yet to do so because a) I’m usually too drunk on the night (I like booze with my bile) to make anything coherent out of it and thus too hungover the next day and b) I think I will have crossed some sort of nerdy Rubicon from which there is no going back. Anyhoo, I love it. When I watch it there’s a weird mental commentary that goes on in my head (“Prescott lunges at Widecome, lands a glancing blow on her cheek, but leaves himself exposed….And Widdecombe’s in there, pummeling that gut!”) and naturally, having Griffin on was going to lend it a whole new element of visceral eye scratching to it. And so it turned out to be, but not as I expected.
Given the extensive lead up to events, I had plenty of time to ponder who my dream line up would be. It looked like this:
Labour: There should be no debate in this matter as Cruddas was clearly the man for the job. A grassroots man of the people with impeccable left wing credentials, a sharp mind and extensive experience of combating the BNP on his own doorstep, he’s the real deal. Tony Benn came a close second for his slightly offbeat gravitas and the fact that he actually did fly planes in the war. Take that, Spitfire purloining Nazi’s!
Conservatives: New boys need not apply. This is the sort of thing that one of the old monsters should be well suited to, Heseltine perhaps, but in the end I plumped for David Davis. His ‘I’ve killed before so don’t fuck with me’ manner combined with his alarming (to Conservative Central Office) tendency to speak his own mind would have made for a killer combo.
Lib Dems: A clear win for Shirley Williams on this front as she’s got that whole righteous anger/eminent wisdom thing going and isn’t averse to telling people off. Ashdown did cross my mind (for reasons similar to my Davis punt), but then I realised that he had, at one point, been a de-facto dictator. That took the wind out of his sails a little.
The Non-Party One: This was the hardest one as there was so much choice about. I toyed with Lenny Henry as saying anything remotely nasty about race around him would look like a fat kid punching a baby and National Treasure status would give him a leeway the others don’t have (even if he isn’t funny any more). However, George Galloway won out in the end on pure value-for-money terms. His to-do at that Congressional Hearing is still one of my favourite bits of TV and the opportunity to hear Griffin being called a toady/lickspittle/poppinjay/brigand was too good to turn down. The Specials or a reanimated Joe Strummer were turned down for reasons of practicality.
That was what I wanted. This is what I got:
Labour: Jack Cocking Straw? Really? I mean, I don’t debate the fact that he’s a crafty (to the point of underhand) and canny (to the point of war criminal bastard) operator but his credibility is shot to pieces and he has a nasty habit of defensive wriggling. Not appealing.
Conservatives: They made an interesting choice in Baroness Warsi. On the one hand, she’s not afraid to get stuck in, is a poster girl for successful cultural assimilation and is quite quick on her feet. The downside is she overextends herself. Time and time again on Question Time I’ve seen her land a skillfull jab and then suddenly turn into some sort of Ruth Badger on PCP, relentlessly piling in until she’s dangerously off-kilter and then crashes and burns. Could have been worse though. It could have been Boris.
Lib Dems: Chris Hulne is a steady politician. And that’s the problem, he just reeks of generic, career, politician. He never says anything too rash, never overplays his hand and is ideal for the ‘steady pair of hands’ role. But for the fight of a lifetime? Nope.
The Non Party One: I was kind of pleased to see Bonnie Greer in. She’s got an air of confidence and authority that play well and is free from political constraints to say whatever she damn well pleases. However, there is a down side: She can get a little tangential and lose her focus, chasing after dead points. Not a bad choice though.
So what happened? Weirdness, that’s what. It was always going to be a highly charged event but there was blood in the air that night. Griffin did awesomely well in proving himself to be an utter shit and the audience did a stand up job at making it clear that his brand of crap is not going to fly. For the other panelists, it was open season with low hanging fruit positively cluttering up the place. The man was (rightly) damned, pilloried and exposed as the fuckface that he is and by the end, it looked like the forces of progress and reason had triumphed over the vile standard bearers of hatred. Yes, Jack Straw practised some of his trademark chicanery, Warsi briefly got stuck out on a limb and Bonnie Greer got totally sidetracked with genetics, but all in all it was a case of mission accomplished. Personally, I thought it was a riot. Far right twat gets pwnd by more palatable people and Britain once again displays its famed tolerance? What’s not to like? At least that’s how it appeared at the time.
The morning after, amid the usual post QTime hangover I started thinking about it a bit more. One thing in particular was grating at me, the immigration question. As soon as the question was uttered, you could see all the party panelists have an ‘Oh Fuck’ moment and they immediately turned to point the finger at each other. A minor scuffle ensued, a few cheap blows were traded and then things rapidly moved on. But the funny thing was that crowd also hushed themselves. Suddenly, the elephant lumbered into the room. From a personal point of view, I haven’t got a problem with immigration. I think it makes this country richer in many ways but I have to concede that it does make a lot of people very angry for various reasons (some valid, some not) and for a smaller proportion, it is the most important political issue to them. Yet the politicians couldn’t bear to look it, just in case that somehow validated it and made it real. Unfortunately, it is real.
While this episode may seem like a minor crack in the facade, briefly glimpsed from the corner of an eye, it belies something deeper and something that all the post QTime fuss has not yet addressed. The BNP got a million votes from regular people. In that pool, there will be a certain proportion racist, hateful nutters who are repulsive to everything this country stands for, but the rest of them are probably aren’t your regular skinhead thugs. So who are they? Stand by for me to sound slightly sanctimonious. My job means I spend a lot of time in poor, white areas of a large city in the north. My bread and butter is woe and anguish, so naturally, these places tend to get a lot of my time. The weird thing is that before I did these sort of jobs, these places might as well not have existed. They were bus stops that you don’t get off at, a place of ‘others’ and of potential danger. It inhabitants could usually be summed up as chavs or scallies and to all intents and purposes I had no reason to give them the time of day. However, now I have to (the early days were fucking scary) and over time, I’ve had to revise the way I look at them. Something that struck me early on was that everyone in these places looked like they had had the life sucked out of them. Physically, people were either too thin or too fat, their skin pasty and their habits destructive. But it was deeper. In none of these places was there any sense of hope or a vision of how things could be. Basically, ‘life’ was something that happened to them, not something they had a say in. Various do-gooders like myself would occasionally pass through their lives, promise the earth and deliver very little while the state’s carrot and stick approach would usually want the responsibility up front and the reward on the never-never. Watching the news in one of these households would usually end up with a weary round of “I’d like to see them live off sixty quid a week” and “they’re all same”-ing while the adbreaks would taunt them stuff they could have, if only they weren’t them (although sometimes, by means of dodgy credit or DLA back payments, 40” LCD’s would magically appear). To them, the world outside the estate was as unreal and ethereal as their world had been to me, the only difference being that in their eyes my world was intent of fucking over there’s.
These people were largely invisible because no-one really represented them. The left had pretty much collapsed with Labour morphing from the party of the people to the party of whatever keeps the fun times going and nothing came along to fill its place. As a result, this clutch of people effectively wrote themselves out of the game. They did this by not voting. Now they were really in the shit because no one could see any benefit in fighting their corner. The battle for power became about Middle England and the underclass were left to fester, an angry boil tucked out of sight but getting bigger with every passing day. Unfortunately, someone is offering these people a vision now and in their eyes, it’s a far better prospect than the helping of Shit Pie they’ve got right now. That someone is the BNP.
In the eyes of the rest of the world, the BNP seem to stand for one thing and one thing alone: Racism. Whilst I wouldn’t argue for a second that they are anything other than a bunch of biggoted fucktards who appall me, that’s only half the picture. The part we don’t talk about is the vision that they are selling which is far broader. They are offering these angry, pissed off people something that no-one else does: Pride and a perceived righting of perceived wrongs. To some of them, the BNP are people who do have an idea of what it’s like to live in a shitty estate, they are people who will stand up for their interests, will not cave in to Big Money and they are people who can conceivably make life better for them, even if that means swallowing a hearty dose of race hate. After all, what has immigration ever given them? From their point of view, it’s made a housing system that was already buckling completely collapse and made those elusive career prospects even scanter (and in some cases, there is an element of crude racism). The benefits that we reap from it simple aren’t visible in their world and if someone was going to frame the debate in terms of ‘Us or Them’, then they’re going to plump for ‘Us’.
Don’t get me wrong, I in no way condone anything that BNP stand for and don’t think for a second that these areas are exclusively made up from the downtrodden and repressed masses of toiling salts of the earth. The truth is that there are some real shits who don’t take responsibility for anything, harbour some sickening views and generally weaken their communities. But the same can be said for any walk of life. That’s humanity. However, what I do caution against is turning this into a one dimensional conflict where if you’re with the BNP, you’re a racist and that’s the end of the argument. It achieves little than to confirm our own prejudices and mask the wider argument. An interesting parallel is Germany in the 20’s and 30’s. Looking back after the event, it is easy to equate pretty much everything the Nazi’s did to their racial policy and thus conclude that the German people were simply a nation of closet racists just waiting for the opportunity to unleash their hatred upon Europe. But it’s not that simple. Many of Germany’s people either did not share the Nazi’s opinion on the Jews or simply didn’t feel very strongly about it. What they did feel, and oh so keenly, was that their nation had been broken, humiliated and given the beat down by a world that was exacting revenge. That was the fuel that allowed the Nazi’s in and although the aspects of racial hatred were often explicit among the hardcore supporters, it simply wasn’t the big issue for the many and the ghastly policies that eventually emerged developed at a slow but relentless pace. It was a trade off the people may not have been comfortable with, but the pro’s outweighed the cons. A graphic illustration of how this operates in our time is that I’ve met Asians who are considering voting for the BNP. While this fact is by turns mind boggling and stomach turning, it warrants further examination. The said people I’ve met have also lived in grotty areas, have very few prospects and feel that no-one stands up for them. They and their families have lived in Britain long enough for them to consider themselves ‘British’ and like their white counterparts, see immigration as a further threat to the tenuous existence that cling on to. When you try and point out that the BNP has an extensive history of hatred towards Asians and explicitly bans them from membership, there doesn’t seem to be any resonance. It’s about the trade off. These guys might believe some pretty horrific stuff, but at least they also have some of my interests at heart. And that’s the problem.
I’m guessing that some of the stuff I’ve written might make a few people very angry and I want to make it clear that have a lot of sympathy for the argument that racists shouldn’t be given the time of day. It’s easy for me, being white and never having been the victim of direct racism to spout off about ‘grey areas’ and I’m sure it would be very different if I had grown up with the NF at my school gates, singling me out for no better reason than the colour of my skin. Nor do I want to be misunderstood as believing that racism isn’t a problem in this country. It is and I encounter it far too often in my work to write it off as anything other than a serious and ugly blight on our society. However, I think it’s of the utmost importance that we avoid this argument become polaraised into a battle over one issue and one issue alone. If we do that, we risk taking our eye off the ball to the issues that actually count for the people who are considering voting for the BNP, fail to do anything about them and then let in an abhorrent party by the back door. Again, Germany springs to mind where the debate in the 30’s became about Communists vs. Fascists. The middle ground simply ceased to exist as mainstream parties failed to recognize that the battle wasn’t just about a very select few specific beliefs. What I believe Question Time demonstrated was that the mainstream parties are on notice: There is an army of people who you have forgotten. They are angry, hurt and at the point where they will consider actions that we feel to be the unreasonable. They may not have voted in the past, but that’s because they felt there was no-one to vote for. Now they do. Cater for these people now or face genuine and widespread support for the diabolical on your doorstep. You have been warned.
Oh great! I ended all depressing again! It ain’t easy being me.