No platform won’t work
Calls to ban the far-right BNP from the BBC's Question Time can only harm democracy, says Salil Tripathi
09 Sep 09

Barring the far-right BNP from the BBC’s Question Time would only undermine democracy, says Salil Tripathi

If followers of the British National Party (BNP) had their way, people who look like me would be packed off with one-way tickets out of Britain. But barring this legal political party from the BBC would be yet another dangerous form of exclusion.

The BBC has said it “may” invite Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party (BNP), to appear on its flagship current affairs programme, Question Time.

The BNP is a legal political party in Britain. In June, it won nearly 943,000 votes in the European parliamentary elections. Its 6.1 per cent share of the vote cast was nearly three times what the Scottish National Party got, and only two percentage points less than the Green Party’s tally. Imagine the furore if leaders of those two parties were kept out of a talk show because the chattering classes decided that they represent only marginal views.

To be sure, the BNP’s views are marginal. And I am fully aware that if the BNP’s followers had their way, people who look like me — and perhaps even think like me –– would be given one-way tickets back from wherever they think we came from.

But it is ridiculous for anyone to think that you can defeat the BNP by silencing them. A sinister thought, when silenced, only gets wider currency in the subterranean world where everything “establishment” is viewed as a conspiracy. Sunlight is the best disinfectant; the mutually contradictory positions within the party’s platform would evaporate under that glare.

Many who see themselves as radical, progressive, leftist or liberal believe it is necessary to deny the BNP legitimacy. That is dangerous reasoning: the same argument can be turned around, to deny similar space to a left-leaning party. (And some would argue that some of BNP’s positions, such as giving the state a greater role in regulating lives, is copybook left).

When the BNP has to respond to a complex set of issues, and deal with a range of questions that go beyond simplistic arguments about waving the English flag and naïve policies on asylum seekers, the shallowness of the party’s thinking will be exposed. It is defeatist to believe that the BNP supporters won’t get swayed. And the assumption that undecided voters must be protected from a BNP charm offensive leads to infantilisation of politics.

An overwhelming majority of people in Britain do not support the BNP — and most oppose its divisive rhetoric for good reasons. The BNP represents a narrow-nationalist view of British identity that is at odds not only with post-colonial history, but runs against Britain’s own older past.

There is a church, which became a synagogue and now a mosque, near Fournier Street in Spitalfields, which the Economist magazine celebrated in 2003, because it is a living testament to the shared heritage of that area. Huguenots, Jews, and then Bangladeshi Muslims — all becoming British, step by step — in that area. It is a proud story, given a fresh lease of life in Richard Bean’s play, England People Very Nice, which shows how interwoven lives are on this island, how intricately bound together is the tapestry of this nation, and how impossible it is to unravel the embroidery of the composite identity of Britain.

During each such wave, the forerunners of the BNP tried to scare Britain into being something less than itself. But the people who lived here took those waves in. By accepting and tolerating differences, they adjusted, revealing an essential British trait. Griffin has already appeared on Newsnight and other BBC programmes, so the BNP’s opponents will not gain much keeping him off Question Time. But they will have done much harm to the tradition of free speech, which already faces more than its fair share of assaults in Britain anyway.