Philip Hollobone – Heroic Prophet or Complete Idiot?

Brace yourself for the outrage (it’s already off to a flier in the ‘comments’ section of the Daily Mail’s online content). Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, has been warned that he may fall foul of the Equality Act as a result of his claim that he will refuse to meet constituents who wear a burqa or a niqab. You can be reasonably sure that the Little Englanders and self-righteous warriors against ‘political correctness’ will have a field day defending this objectionable little toad’s ‘right’ to create division and enforce lazy stereotypes in the name of protecting Britain’s national culture.

This often tends to be the culture of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ which Hollobone and his ilk like to boast about when they puff their chests out and become all dewy-eyed when the Union Flag is waved around at Tory conference time, but it appears you should only be free and tolerated if you’re white and Christian – anything that differs from the formula must be treated with suspicion and thinly-veiled (no pun intended) hate.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has already voiced his concerns about breathing the same political air as the ‘toxic’ Tories, and it isn’t difficult to see why when an idiot like Hollobone crawls out of the woodwork. For all the work David Cameron has done trying to portray his party as modern and liberal, there is always the suspicion that you don’t have to look too far to find an army of Hollobones lurking on the Tory benches, foaming at the mouth about family values, tradition and ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

And of course, immigration is what this issue is all about. Hollobone’s prejudices tap into deeply held suspicions whipped up by the tabloid press that foreigners are coming ‘over here’ and taking all our jobs while selling our British, Christian identity down the river as they ruthlessly construct their Islamic state. This analysis coveniently avoids any discussion of what the British ‘identity’ really is, of course. No mention here of the historical influx of Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans and the like – perhaps the BNP should persuade their friends in the press to have a crack at this ‘menace’ while they’re doing such sterling work on burkas.

Hollobone isn’t the first idiot to emerge from the Tory backbenches and he certainly won’t be the last. While some of the Conservative grassroots understand the concept of appealing to the centre ground of politics, there are just as many who believe the Richard Littlejohns of this world are the straight-talking prophets who warn of Britain’s impending doom at the hands of the foreigners and queers who secretly plot the overthrow of everything they hold dear. Now, in Philip Hollobone, it seems they may have stumbled upon a new hero.

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2010 – The Tories Haven’t Closed The Deal Yet

Bar ChartSince Gordon Brown made the apparently disastrous decision not to call a General Election in the Autumn of 2007, the opinion polls all seem to have been pointing in only one direction – a Labour defeat. Month after month YouGov, ICM, Ipsos MORI and the rest all deliver the same tale of woe for the government, and the easy assumption from this is that the Tories are a shoo-in to triumph in the spring. But the polls and electoral history may well tell an altogether different tale.

Conservative support in the opinion polls seems to be fairly steady around 40% and the pollsters have tended to be reasonably accurate when gauging the Tory vote in recent years (1992 being the stunning exception). Perhaps those people who are going to vote for David Cameron have already made their minds up and are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise. This would explain the consistent ratings.

Consensus on the level of Labour support is much more difficult to find. Since the aborted 2007 election-that-never-was the Government’s ratings have been anywhere between 22% and 29% – dismal by anyone’s reckoning, but certainly not a clear picture. This could well be because it’s very easy to desert a party when interviewed by an opinion pollster. The question for Labour is whether they can make enough inroads into Britain’s consistent non-Tory majority when the real vote takes place and the choice is a stark reality as opposed to a theoretical possibility. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that, as the General Election draws near and wavering Labour voters are confronted with the possibility of a Conservative government, Labour’s ratings will start to creep above the 30% mark.

The Liberal Democrats are the unknown quantity. They have been polling anywhere between 15% and 23% over the last couple of years, and recent electoral history clearly demonstrates that they are more likely to feel the benefits of equal broadcast media exposure during an election campaign. Add to this the Lib Dem strength as a local campaigning force and they could yet take seats from both Labour and the Tories and confound predictions of significant losses to their number at Westminster.

griffin_hateAnother aspect to the challenge to Labour comes in the shape of the BNP, although this may well be overplayed. Griffin’s party will probably cause the odd localised scare on election night but there’s no evidence to suggest that their showing in the 2009 European elections was anything more than a protest vote. Nevertheless, Labour will ignore their challenge at their peril – the white working class, who make up the vast bulk of the BNP’s support, can do significant damage to Labour candidates unless the government stop taking them for granted.

Amid all this speculation it’s worth remembering that the Tories need a lead of at least 10% (and more probably 12%) to form a majority government, which would represent a swing to the Conservatives which is unprecedented in modern times. Assuming Labour can make even a modest recovery and start to register around 32% in the polls, the 2010 Election starts to look more difficult to call with any certainty. Factor in last week’s impressive Labour by-election performance in Glasgow and it would seem that there may well be hope for Gordon Brown yet, even if it’s only of the damage limitation variety. Hung parliament anyone?

Question Time – How Was It For You?

Although this will be my third post in a week about Griffin and the BNP I promise I’m not developing an unhealthy fixation with the far right – my immediate reaction to last night’s Question Time is that they simply aren’t that important. _46595525_qt_bbc226280 I must admit I approached yesterday’s programme with a certain amount of dread, fearing that Griffin would turn in an accomplished, well-rehearsed performance, but in the end I needn’t have worried. The BNP leader looked nervous, defensive and shifty, he fluffed many of his lines and didn’t once strike a chord with an audience who made me proud to be British.

We’re perhaps led to believe that the British public is entirely composed of curtain-twitching Daily Mail readers who are convinced we all live in a land of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘elf and safety nazis’ (curse your lazy journalism, Richard Littlejohn) but it was heartening to see the way the Question Time audience, always a meticulous cross-section of the public, refused to allow Griffin to be their spokesman. Time and again he clumsily fired out a soundbite and each time he met with a wall of disdain.

The other panellists all performed well, crucially steering away from hysteria to tackle the BNP with reasoned argument, but the show-stealer for me was Bonnie Greer. She dealt with Griffin with an assured calm, most memorably with her “Got some reading for you Nick, think you need it” comment.

Today’s clumsy rebuttal operation from the BNP, inevitably accusing the BBC of bias and of putting Griffin in front of a lynch mob, just proves how poorly they think their leader performed. It also proves that the BBC were right to let Britain have this important debate.

Nick Griffin’s Question Time Appearance – How It Happened

(with thanks to The Daily Quail)

(with thanks to The Daily Quail)

Much of the day’s political discussion on the airwaves has centred around Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time tonight. Opinion still seems to be sharply divided over whether the BBC has done the right thing in inviting Griffin onto the show, with no end of voxpops either talking of ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom from fascism’. As I’ve previously written, I have a great deal of sympathy with both of those arguments but ultimately freedom of speech wins it for me.

It’s perhaps worth remembering how we arrived at this point. Griffin wasn’t invited onto Question Time because the BBC have a deep-seated sympathy for his far-right views. (All sides of the political argument regularly accuse the BBC of bias, but I don’t think anyone has seriously claimed they are a white supremacist mouthpiece.) The BNP have a seat at the table because they have two seats in the European Parliament. The BBC – rightly in my view – have treated them the same way they would treat any other political party who are democratically elected, like it or not.

So perhaps the question really ought to be: “How did we, a tolerant, essentially liberal nation with a proud democratic history, create the circumstances in which such a party is able to represent Britain on an international stage?”

There are three groups of culprits here, in my opinion. The first target, and for me probably the easiest, is the print media. While I think it’s fair to point out that broadcasters have done their limited best to promote racial equality over the years, the same cannot be said of their tabloid cousins. On an almost daily basis the headlines scream ‘Immigration Out Of Control’, ‘Muslims Want Sharia Law’, ‘Britain’s Open Border Policy’ and so on. Although we all like to think that our opinions are not affected by the newspapers we read, if we’re exposed to a daily diet of the same myth eventually some of it is going to seep in. Most people who regularly read a paper stick with the same one six days a week, so if your diet consists of the Mail, the Express, the Sun or the Star the chances are you’re exposed to this kind of propaganda throughout the week. (It’s ironic, of course, that these same papers are the ones giving the BBC a kicking for promoting Griffin.)

The second ‘at fault’ group are the mainstream political parties. While all of them attack the extremism of the BNP none of them are prepared to pick a fight with the newspapers who keep peddling the myths that feed Griffin’s party. There are understandable political reasons why they don’t, but one of the things we hope to get from our leaders is leadership and unfortunately too little of it has been forthcoming on issues such as why we benefit from immigration. By being too timid to speak our leaders have allowed the debate to be framed in terms of ‘”they come over here and take all our jobs”, instead of pointing out that without immigration the economy would barely function, not to mention arguing for the wider benefits of broadening our culture.

Phil WoolasThe Labour Party has been the most disappointing in this area. One would expect a party of such proud traditions to be out there banging the drum for modern Britain. Instead they offer us Phil Woolas who seems to spend his time spewing out anti-immigration ‘initiatives’ tailored for the consumption of the Daily Mail et al. I know full well the Tories will head down the same road when their time comes, but I would expect little else of ‘the nasty party’. Labour disappoint because of all the opportunities they’ve spurned.

The last group of culprits are the public at large, every single one of us. We are the ones who have the power to tackle the BNP. We are the ones who can choose which newspapers we buy. We are the ones who decide what language is socially acceptable. How many of us challenge those who tell racist jokes in pubs? How often do we step in when we hear a ‘casual’ racist remark in someone else’s conversation? How many of us will switch off the TV and actually bother to go out and vote in those areas where the BNP find strength through ignorance? The answer is some, but not enough.

So when we feel our liberal sensibilities offended by Griffin’s appearance on tonight’s Question Time perhaps we should ask: “How exactly did he come to be there?”

Why the BBC are right not to ban the BNP from Question Time

This is a difficult one for sure. The BNP are clearly a malign, divisive force for evil, targeted at the ignorant and the nasty, and it will be highly uncomfortable for many of us to see their leader, Nick Griffin, sitting on a BBC Question Time panel alongside the representatives of democratically constituted political parties – parties whose membership is open to all, irrespective of colour or racial origin. And I do understand that instinct within many who feel that the BBC, or any other broadcaster, should not be giving these racists the oxygen of publicity.

Peter Hain arrested during Apartheid protests

Peter Hain arrested during Apartheid protests

Peter Hain is a case in point. No one can dispute his credentials as a campaigner for racial equality, having first reached the public consciousness in the fight against Apartheid, but I believe he is wrong to raise the spectre of legal action over Griffin’s Question Time appearance (BBC: BNP debate ‘illegal’, warns Hain).

For me, the simple part of the debate boils down to freedom of speech. In our society all views should be free to be aired and argued with, provided there is no physical threat to the freedom of others as a result. This can be an ugly concept at times – as the furore over Jan Moir’s deeply regrettable column on Stephen Gately’s death demonstrated last week – but it is one we should all be prepared to defend. Let’s not forget that when our forebears went to war against the Nazis seventy years ago one of the things at stake was freedom of speech, the lack of which was a feature of life under a far right government obsessed with racial theory and the subjugation of supposedly inferior races. (Sound familiar?)

That, for me, is the easy part of the argument. What is much harder is having to sit through an exuberant Griffin firing his nasty soundbites to a wider audience than he’s previously been accustomed to. Unfortunately that’s the downside of democracy. But that does lead me to ask the question “What would Griffin want the BBC to do?”.

My guess is that he would absolutely love it if the BBC pulled the plug on his Question Time appearance. Not only would he not have to sit through a public scrutiny of the swivel-eyed nonsense his party spouts, but also he will receive acres of coverage in the print and broadcast media which may, perversely, fuel a sense of outrage and injustice that his voice will not be heard. You can almost hear the soundbites now: ‘Liberal bias in the media’, ‘The supression of the voice of our indigenous people’ and so it will go on.

So while Thursday night’s Question Time may well be uncomfortable viewing, we must hope that the panellists and the studio audience ‘do a job’ on Griffin in a symbolic arena of our democratic rights. If they don’t pull it off we can console ourselves that the BBC did the right thing, and that the alternative would have been so much worse.