The left’s spluttering response to Nick Griffin’s invitation to appear on Question time reveals a floundering political strategy, argues James Turley
On October 22, yet one more edition of the BBC’s long-running politics show Question time will, barring some act of god, be broadcast. On that date, joining toadyish and cynical members of the three main parties will be, for the first time, Nick Griffin of the British National Party.
This follows a long period of coquetry on the part of the BBC. The corporation apparently decided in February that, should the BNP achieve an electoral breakthrough in June’s European elections, topical coverage would have to start treating it ‘seriously’, in line with BBC ‘impartiality’ guidelines. Thus, in early September, the possibility of a BNP appearance on Question time was first floated, and after much eyelash-fluttering back and forth, the invitation was formally issued last week.1
In reality, the June elections did not represent any explosion of support for the BNP – particularly considering the immediate context of the MPs’ expenses crisis. Yet this time, its burgeoning support was distributed more kindly for it, gaining the BNP two MEPs – and underlining that, despite the protestations of official politics, over the past decade or so the BNP has transcended the cults and groupuscules of the far right to become a force in British politics.
While an invite to Question time is unlikely to help the BNP reach its core target audience directly – at the moment, atomised proletarians and lumpen elements – it does represent a coup for Nick Griffin, whose strategy since assuming leadership 10 years ago has been to remould the BNP into a vehicle for respectable, electoral politics, based around a programme of quasi-racialised populism.
Griffin’s perspective has been presented by many as a ‘quest for legitimacy’, but this is not strictly true – rather it is a quest for ingratiation into the political establishment, in order to build over a long period of time a stronger base for extreme-right politics – what Gramsci would have called a ‘war of position’. The BNP’s painstaking work at the grassroots (at a time when mainstream bourgeois politics is utterly decimated at the local level) has created ‘legitimacy’ on the doorstep already. The BBC, and others involved in the affair, are merely recognising what is a fait accompli.
And it is not just the BBC. The Labour Party has now dropped its policy of not sharing a platform with the BNP, and will send Jack Straw to the Question time debate. This seems to have more to do with the foxhole Gordon Brown has found himself in. Sending along Straw amounts to broadcasting a message to alienated Labour voters who have turned to Griffin – ‘I understand your concerns, so turn out for Labour’. Of course, whether he actually does understand what alienates such people is debatable – that all he has to offer these layers is the insubstantial reactionary bluster of the likes of immigration minister Phil Woolas is plain.
Other Labourites are not happy, of course – Peter Hain, oleaginous stalwart of official anti-fascism, decried the decision to allow an “avowedly racist and fascist” organisation equal footing (even for a poxy hour of television programming) with the mainstream parties. (It seems to have escaped the honourable member for Neath that, even under stiff-arm-saluting former leader John Tyndall, the BNP did not identify itself as fascist – let alone under the Le Pen-worshipping Griffin.) Hain offered his support for any legal challenges against the BBC.2
Hain is not alone – to pay heed to the typically millenarian response of the ‘anti-fascist’ left, you would think that an act of god really was in the offing on October 22 – perhaps the onset of the Book of Revelation, or at least a plague of locusts. Unite Against Fascism, as usual, gets the wooden spoon for abject political cretinism. “Shame on the BBC,” squeals a press release, for inviting Griffin onto the programme – “a man with a criminal conviction for denying Hitler’s holocaust.”
UAF chair Weyman Bennett, a member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee, is on hand to lay down the line: “The BNP is not a normal, democratic party. It is a Nazi party whose political agenda is to destroy democracy and wipe out ethnic minorities in Britain. By granting Griffin a prime-time platform the BBC is in practice helping to legitimise the BNP and its politics of race hatred.”3 Of course, the Labour Party and the Tories do not exactly have a sterling record on democracy (nor, for that matter, does the SWP) – but such things are of little relevance to the delusional crusaders that staff UAF.
Open up a copy of last week’s Socialist Worker,4 and things – astonishingly – get worse. Michael Rosen, SWP member, poet and sometime broadcaster, pens an extended argument for ‘disinviting’ the BNP. Ben Lewis referred to it briefly last week,5 but it deserves to be quoted at greater length. The BBC is “a public space” and is “indirectly publicly owned”. Therefore, “the BBC has a responsibility to represent everyone. It has no responsibility to represent those who attack sections of the population and demand that they leave the country.”
Anyone with a basic grasp of logic will already be left floundering at that extraordinary couplet, but the comrade trundles on regardless. Griffin, despite his nice-and-respectable PR makeover, can only achieve his aims through “terror, internment, deportation and murder” (just as true of Phil Woolas or Frank Field, of course). We – the proud, if indirect, owners of the BBC – are by no means obliged to allow such political programmes, “open or hidden”, the oxygen of publicity.
Rosen draws two analogies, both telling: “The BBC doesn’t have to broadcast what anti-social people say and do. It doesn’t have to give a platform to people who advocate burglary as a way of life … when it does [feature such a person] it will always be surrounded by commentary and context that make clear that this is anti-social and that it is a ‘problem’ that this person is saying such a thing.”
Secondly, though it “may seem too trivial” a comparison, the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand scandal is cited in a flurry of scare-quotes: it “broke ‘compliance’ and ‘trust’. The BBC’s contract with the public was deemed to be broken because it ‘offended’ ‘us’, and ‘we’ couldn’t ‘trust’ it any more.” Surely inviting a Nazi thug onto television is far more offensive than jabbering on about a sexual tryst on a voicemail?
His final argument is the most telling of all – the BBC should defend itself against “a political party that wants to use the BBC in order to smash the very political system that is putting that party on air”. This, let us remember, appeared in a newspaper whose ‘Where we stand’ column argues that “the present system cannot be patched up – it has to be completely transformed. The structures of the parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working people.”6
To recap, then, the BBC is ‘ours’ because we pay for it (but not the BNP’s – perhaps, along with all their other criminal activities, they aren’t renewing their TV licences?). The BNP’s programme is “anti-social”, equivalent to burglary. Therefore we should demand that the BBC’s bureaucratically cooked up ‘trust agenda’ be wielded against these thugs. There is no difference acknowledged between thought (the BNP’s politics) and action (racist thuggery); there is no difference acknowledged even between the anti-immigrant nativist rhetoric of the BNP and blood-and-soil Nazism.
The only distinction Rosen appears to admit is between the ‘bad guys’ in the BNP, in the name of whose defeat literally anything can be advocated, and the ‘good guys’ – the BBC and, by implication, everyone whose presence on Question time is not decried: the Tories (who have a long history of overt racism and low-level thuggery), the Labour Party (whose reactionary stances on immigration are in our faces every day), the Liberal Democrats (who have intermittently played the race card themselves, notably in the background to the BNP’s first council election victory in Millwall).
It is perfectly plain that Rosen’s article – in line with virtually every pronouncement on fascism to emanate from his leaders on the SWP CC – is miserable, moralistic guff. Its unseemly cringing before the bourgeois state and its pet ideological apparatuses is systematically incompatible with anything resembling a revolutionary perspective. If the BBC is ‘indirectly’ ours, what about the police? We fund their activities far more ‘directly’ through tax takings. Perhaps they do not need to be got rid of after all … It is also obvious that the perspective is deeply anti-democratic – the masses, apparently, are so dense that even to be exposed for an hour to the ‘wrong’ views will turn them into Nazi boot boys.
Yet it should be noted that the basic error here is one of class analysis – that is, the UAF perspective flows perfectly naturally from the axiom that anti-fascist activity is a persistent and overriding duty of the workers’ movement. This necessarily implies that the struggle against fascism is parcelled off from the struggle against bourgeois rule – reified, in the jargon of Hegelian Marxism. Therefore, the view develops that there is a consistent division in the bourgeoisie between a (more) democratic section and a fascistic, authoritarian section, and that the latter is always a bigger threat to the workers’ movement. It is almost to the SWP-UAF’s credit that they follow this logic as far as it will go – to naked class-collaboration and defence of the bureaucratic state apparatus against the fascist pathogen.
The major perspective against this within anti-fascism is the militant no-platform strategy – confronting fascists in the streets, attacking their demonstrations. They are not so far down the road to class collaboration as UAF, but their distance from the latter is basically moral – while Weyman Bennett jumped into the arms of Searchlight and sundry Labour grandees, militant anti-fascists walked the line. They remain wedded to the idea that anti-fascism is an autonomous and permanent fixture of political activity, and so are crippled in much the same way.
Trotsky is cited by both (although not by the anarchist elements of the latter or the outright Stalinists of the former) as a predecessor – in practice or in ‘spirit’. Yet this dramatically misunderstands Trotsky’s writings on fascism, which are among his best directly political texts – the argument for a united front against fascism is based on the immediate situation of 1930s Europe, with Mussolini in power and Hitler on the cusp, and many millions of black and brown shirts on the streets, breaking up strikes and demonstrations. In this situation, argues Trotsky, the very existence of the workers’ movement needs to be defended. Even so, he derides the idea that the fascists are ‘worse’ than the reactionary government, offering an illustration for the “feeble-minded”:
“When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a ‘lesser evil’ in comparison with the revolver.”7
Any Marxist approach to a given political problem has to start from the elements of Marxist strategy – that the working class needs to take power, and that it can only do that by expropriating the political power of the bourgeoisie, which is located in the state. No, comrade Rosen, the BBC is not ours, any more than the worker owns the means of production because it is their unpaid labour that has ‘indirectly’ bought it.
In certain situations, fascist groupings are a direct and physical threat to our capacity to challenge state power, and must be confronted directly. If our working class organisations, meetings and demonstrations are being directly threatened in a given locality, then socialists, trade-unionists and others should take whatever steps are necessary to defend them. But this is not true of the situation in British politics at large. We are not witnessing the rise of a ‘British Hitler’. The capitalist state’s need for national borders to regulate the movement of labour and working conditions through immigration controls ensures that there will always be esoteric far-right groups of a racist character. The BNP’s relatively sudden rise is merely a symptom of the present situation – the decline both of ‘official’ bourgeois politics and of the left, vacating space for the far right.
If the left wants seriously to defeat Nick Griffin and his dismal crew, it needs to take seriously the task of building a political alternative – not to the BNP or ‘fascism’, but to capitalism. We should not demand the BBC ditch Nick Griffin on October 22 – but that the establishment make room for the Marxist left on its platforms.