No-platforming is not a principle but one of many tactics. As a strategy it has failed miserably, says Eddie Ford
By the time you read this article, the chances are that the world has not come to a sudden end. Which, if you had believed the hysterical outpourings of some with regard to Nick Griffin – the “Nazi” British National Party’s ‘fuhrer’ – and his scheduled appearance on this week’s BBC Question time programme, would probably come as a bit of a surprise. Of course, the most hysterical voices ringing the alarm about the fascist doomsday pencilled in for Thursday October 22 have emitted from the left, most notably in the shape of the Socialist Workers Party and its current favourite popular front, Unite Against Fascism.
Hence, on the dreadful day itself, the UAF supported an all-day picket outside the BBC centre at White City – a follow-on from the previous day’s ‘Questioning Question time’ rally in Conway Hall, central London. The UAF is, of course, backed by a roll call of the ‘anti-fascist’ great and good – union and religious leaders, plus leftish establishment politicians (not so leftish in the case of Peter Hain).
The UAF poster for the October 22 demonstration declares, “No plug for Nazi Nick – keep QT Nazi-free”. In this similar vein of liberal outrage, UAF’s website boasts about the “anger” that is “building up” against the BBC’s “disgraceful” decision to invite “convicted holocaust denier” into the hallowed Question time studio. Naturally, it quotes the UAF’s chair, Ken Livingstone, who fulminates about how the “public do not pay licence fees to have them abused by the BBC to help people spread hatred and intolerance” – and, warns Livingstone, if the BBC “continues” to allow BNP members to appear on Question time, it will “share responsibility for the crimes against minorities which will follow”.1
So, barring divine intervention or maybe a ‘pitch invasion’ by enraged UAF supporters, Nick Griffin – whose very words can corrupt the nation, or so we are led to believe – is to speak alongside the Conservative Muslim peer, baroness Sayeeda Warsi; Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, Chris Huhne; US-born black woman and critic, Bonnie Greer, and, of course, Labour’s very own minister of justice, Jack Straw.
In other words, all thoroughly acceptable figures for the establishment, as is the norm, of course, for the BBC’s ‘flagship’ (ie, dull as ditchwater) current affairs show – just like its BBC radio four sister programme, the equally soporific Any questions? Indeed, compared to his speak-by-numbers opponents, Griffin will almost come across as an edgy, free-thinking, radical – seeing how there will be no militant socialist or leftwinger on the panel. Yet the fact of the matter is that her majesty’s very loyal government in the shape of Straw shares many of Griffin’s obnoxious views on immigration – kick out the ‘illegals’, for instance. No room in the inn, and all that sort of ‘common sense’ reactionary crap spewed out every day by the popular press. But, of course, Griffin has no liberal anti-racist baggage to hulk around, so has the advantage of appearing more upfront, consistent and ‘honest’ than his ministerial co-panellist.
Naturally, there have been noisy protests against the besmirching of that once proud British institution, Question time – even doubts raised as to the moral probity of the BBC itself for inviting Griffin onto the programme. Perhaps even to the very legality of Griffin’s appearance, following last week’s attempt by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to seek a court injunction against the BNP – on the grounds that the organisation was breaking the Race Relations Act by restricting membership to “indigenous Caucasian” people (such as those deemed part of the “Anglo-Saxon folk community”, the “Celtic Scottish folk community”, the “Scots-Northern Irish folk community”, the “Anglo-Saxon-Norse folk community”, etc). In turn, Griffin promptly agreed to use “all reasonable endeavours” to persuade the BNP to amend its constitution so it no longer discriminates on grounds of race or religion, in accordance with clause four of the Equality Act. The BNP had no choice but to comply – not entirely without reason, Griffin accused the commission of “trying to bankrupt” it.
But, whatever the exact case, these legalistic shenanigans were enough for the reptilian elitist, Peter Hain – official anti-racist and “anti-fascist veteran”, according to the love-struck UAF – to discharge a thunderous letter to the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, maintaining that the BNP by its very own admission was currently an “unlawful body”. In which case, Hain sternly told Thompson, it “would be perverse of you to maintain that they are just like any other democratically elected party”, and that therefore the BBC should “rescind” the invitation to Griffin until the BNP passed “a basic threshold of legality”. Failing that, spluttered Hain, Thompson’s approach can only be seen as “unreasonable, irrational and unlawful”.
In response, the BBC failed to blink under Hain’s righteous offensive – the corporation, says it is obliged to treat all parties and individuals with “due impartiality”. Hence at the beginning of the week, BBC spokesperson Ric Bailey (and Question time’s executive editor until 2006), told Radio Five Live listeners – with impeccable logic, it has to be said – that if there was a general election tomorrow, then the BNP could stand. So what, went on Bailey, that there is a court case pending against the BNP – the government is always up before various courts about something or other. Does that make the UK government or the Labour Party an “illegal body”?
Furthermore, and crucially, Bailey cited the precedent of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Greens. Ever since they won representation at a national level they have appeared every now and then on Question time – so, Bailey stated, putting a BNP member on the panel would just be a “continuation of the approach which recognises that the level of electoral support is a relevant factor in making these judgements”. In fact, he pointed out, in the European elections 6% of all voters – nearly one million people – voted for the BNP, and the party also has more than 50 local councillors. That fact cannot be ignored or wished away, declared Bailey, nor can the BBC “apply different standards to different parties because of their particular policies” – which would be a flagrant breach of the BBC charter. Indeed, he concluded, if Griffin’s invitation was rescinded, as Hain wanted, then the BNP could easily have taken the BBC to the high court – and almost certainly won.
However, Hain’s almost aristocratic sentiments were echoed by an editorial in The Guardian – and enthusiastically quoted by UAF, of course – which pontificated about how the BNP is not a “normal party” and that the BBC should not be “allowing this mob such a spotlight”. Rather, the BNP on Question time is the “wrong party on the wrong programme”. In fact, fumed The Guardian, by placing Griffin on a panel with “established politicians”, the naive BBC is granting him a “spurious legitimacy” – this “dangerously slick” Cambridge graduate could be made to look like an “ordinary politician”, one “perfectly deserving of a cross on a ballot paper”.2
Frankly, communists must treat the arguments put forward by Hain and The Guardian – and brainlessly parroted by UAF – with the proper contempt they deserve. Yes, of course, the BBC is part and parcel of the establishment, and in no way could be described as a progressive institution. In reality its “due impartiality” ultimately helps to serve and maintain the capitalist status quo, constantly recycling the same old stale, mainstream viewpoints and opinions. Yes, of course, the BNP is an odious organisation and the left should never miss an opportunity to confront and destroy the repellent ideas promulgated by someone like Nick Griffin.
Clearly the whole political approach, and methodology, adopted by UAF/SWP is disastrously self-defeating – if not positively suicidal. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. By no yardstick can the SWP be viewed as a “normal party”, no matter how much it pretends to be one. Does not Socialist Worker inform its (possibly duped) readers every week that “the present system cannot be patched up” and that “the structures of the parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working people” – and presumably that includes the BBC as well? Therefore should the SWP “mob” also be denied access to a programme like Question time on the premise that it is an ‘anti-democratic body’ which seeks the abolition of her majesty’s lawfully constituted government, including the much beloved BBC?
Yet quite hypocritically, and with monumental dishonesty, the latest issue of Socialist Worker declares that those who “defend” Griffin’s appearance on Question time “need to learn from history”. Oh really? Thus Chris Bambery claims that in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s the Nazis were “allowed to pose as respectable parliamentarians and given a free run in the media, with liberal and leftwing opponents debating them” – but instead, he argues, the Nazis were “clear that they were using democracy in order to destroy all democracy”. Despite that though, writes Bambery sorrowfully, the leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party – apparently “the equivalent of the Labour Party in Britain today” – stupidly implored their supporters to “only oppose the fascists by ‘legal’, constitutional means” and not use ‘direct action’ against the Nazis (like “attempting to break up” their meetings and so on). Bambery concludes that Hitler’s eventual victory “shows we cannot trust big business or the liberal elite to fight the Nazis”, and that we cannot “allow the Nazis to gain respectability” – which will happen if “we fail to mobilise in opposition to them” (October 24). Like, we are meant to deduce, the UAF’s ‘No plugs for Nazi Nick’ demonstration/rally on October 22 in London.
Is this the very same SWP whose UAF comrades have called upon the “liberal elite” in the form of the BBC to banish Nick Griffin from Question time – and has repeatedly called upon the bourgeois state to use every “constitutional means” at its disposal to ban BNP events, along with demonstrations organised by the English Defence League? Or the very same SWP which is very happily part of the mother of all popular fronts in order to take on the “Nazi” BNP-EDL menace – and which now seems to include general Sir Richard Dannatt, former chief of the general staff and soon to be Conservative defence adviser in the House of Lords? Brandishing his anti-BNP credentials, Dannatt, it should be noted, is an evangelical Christian and self-confessed Islamophobe – who has told the Daily Mail that “the Islamist threat” within British society needs to be countered, so as to stop the country’s “moral compass” from “spinning” into a “spiritual vacuum”.3
But none of this prevented the Morning Star, which too, of course, thinks that Griffin should not be given a “platform” on Question time, from plastering all over its front-page – “Brass bites back at BNP army plot”, almost joyfully telling us that “top army figures” generals Dannatt and Sir Mike Jackson “presented a united front against fascism in Britain” by penning a “contempt-filled” open letter “denouncing the BNP, as new allegations emerged that the party has built influence at the heart of the military” (October 20). Yes, we are witnessing what the SWP would doubtless call a “united front of a special type” – an ‘anti-fascist alliance’ which stretches from rightwing army generals all the way to the SWP’s central committee. In effect that means the SWP has constituted itself the leftwing of the bourgeois establishment, albeit its extreme left.
So who’s afraid of Nick Griffin and the BNP then? Well, it looks like the SWP, UAF and Morning Star are – very, very, afraid. We communists, however, are not afraid. Indeed, so confident is the CPGB as to the power, correctness and popularity of its politics and programme, we would readily accept an invitation from the ‘impartial’ BBC to appear on Question time – even with likes of Nick Griffin there – in order to advocate democracy and socialism and expose the capitalist system in general and the British state in particular. Bring it on!