Why Angry British Voters Are Tuning In to Bigots

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AP Photo / BBC Question Time

An image taken from TV showing British National Party chief Nick Griffin during the BBC program Question Time Thursday Oct. 22, 2009.

A tourist might have mistaken it for an innocuous conversational gambit, but to a longtime London resident, the cabbie's query — "Are you heading home to watch Question Time?" — was politically charged.

On Thursday, 7.9 million people in Britain headed home or found alternative berths from which to switch on the BBC's late-night weekly politics show, almost three times the program's normal viewership and around half of the total TV audience for the 10:35 p.m. slot. They were drawn like moths by a fiery controversy over the BBC's decision to invite Nick Griffin, the leader of the extremist British National Party, to join the debate. The taxi driver was determined to share his opinions on the matter, no matter that his passenger was dreamily communing with her iPod. "I'm not a BNP supporter," bellowed the cabbie, craning round to make sure he had my full attention. "But at least the BNP talks about what's wrong with this country: the special dispensations to minorities. Nobody speaks for people like me."

There's nothing unusual about encountering an angry London cabbie. If the capital's taxis could be converted to run on choler, they'd have an inexhaustible supply of fuel. But the sense of grievance articulated by this cabbie is widely held, and is especially potent among white, working-class Britons, who believe they are in competition with immigrants and minorities for limited jobs and resources, and that the political classes give preferential treatment to those groups.

In the June elections for the European Parliament, the anger of these voters propelled the BNP to its greatest-ever success. The racist party won close to a million votes and two seats in the Parliament. That, in turn, earned Griffin his Question Time invitation. "Question Time is the public's chance to challenge the politicians. That is why it is so important that they should sometimes be able to hear and interrogate politicians from the relative fringes as well as from the mainstream," wrote Mark Thompson, the BBC's Director General, in an eve-of-transmission exegesis of BBC policy published in the Guardian newspaper. Britain's Home Secretary Alan Johnson disagreed strongly. The invitation "gives [the BNP] a legitimacy they do not deserve," Johnson, appearing on Question Time a week ahead of Griffin, told the show's host, David Dimbleby.

It's too early to judge if Johnson was right. In 1984, when French far right politician Jean Marie Le Pen made a high-profile TV debut, his Front National party received a substantial boost in the polls. Griffin's shambling performance didn't on the face of it seem likely to gain him many converts and may have cost the BNP future votes. Some viewers may have been startled by the revelation that Griffin had once shared a platform with Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and won't have been reassured by Griffin's risible statement that the KKK is "almost totally non-violent." Griffin also said he found "the sight of two grown men kissing in public really creepy." A lesbian audience member told him "the feeling of revulsion is mutual." She spoke for a large numbers of Britons, who would never have dreamed of voting for the BNP anyway.

But for some white Britons, especially those in poorer areas, at least part of the BNP message resonates: that, as Griffin puts it, they are "shut out in their own country." Disenfranchised and alienated, such viewers will have drawn a different lesson from Question Time. They saw Griffin attempting to hold his own as politicians from Britain's mainstream parties, showing a rare unanimity of purpose, attacked and belittled him. Yet politicians in Britain are at best damaged goods, their authority sapped by constant partisan skirmishing and their reputations tarnished by recent revelations of Westminster's venal expenses culture. In that context, their joint assault on Griffin, heartfelt as it was, could read like the establishment conspiring to protect its vested interests against an outsider.

Question Time ate itself, turning into a debate about Question Time. The real issue has never been whether Griffin and his ilk should be allowed to join the show's panel. The fundamental problem is how the mainstream parties can reconnect with the electorate and assuage their fury. With British parliamentary elections due by June 2010, party tacticians may be tempted to borrow from the BNP's populist playbook, talking tough on immigration and integration. Such rhetoric often proves a vote winner. But exploiting voters' discontent can simply stoke it. Until mainstream parties figure out how to earn back public trust and respect, the lunatic fringes will gain ground. That might be good news for BBC ratings, but it's bad news for British democracy.