Saturday, 24 October 2009

It's Question Time

Regular readers will know that I spent a few years in the US. It was the late 80s/early 90s and we had no new media, no internet, no Twitter, and there was still a significant cultural gap between the two countries. Seems strange to say, especially when I could go out and speak my own native tongue and be relatively well understood, but the culture shock was hard.

I didn’t know how to buy milk that tasted OK (the fat levels were very different) and I had never before conceived of the need for a whole shop with one hundred different types of pasta (I bought the mushroom flavour and decided it was a winner). I couldn’t find a clothes shop without satin and shoulder pads (although, to be fair, I was trawling through an Italian area in the late 80s) and the TV was nigh-on un-watchable.

Since I pulled off I 95 at Raleigh, North Carolina, the old broomstick never did make it to Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union. Or Alabama, or Kentucky. Which was a shame, because a visit to those states (among many others) would have supplied another culture-shock experience, an anthropological curiosity that I had never encountered in the UK.

‘White trash’ is an American pejorative term which applies to under-educated, under-employed, low social status Caucasians. They exist on the economic margins of society. They don’t share the Puritan, middle-class values of deferred gratification, education and the value of work for its own sake. If the only work available is minimum wage and there’s no way up, why bother? Such a class is maintained on welfare or the lowest-paid work possible. They are socially gauche and a sometimes a cruel source of humour for those higher-up the social and economic ladder.

I, like 7,999,999 other people, watched Nick Griffin on Question Time on Thursday night. The next day’s news stories suggested that Griffin had done badly: he “gave a twitchy performance and described homosexuals as "creepy"” (The Independent*) and he “gave a shaky and erratic performance” (Daily Mail). He was a “smug bigot” (The Sun) and he “left with his tail between his legs” (Kevin Maguire, The Mirror). The racist was routed.

This was not, I have to say, my impression.

Instead, I felt that the program’s whole format had been altered to enable two thirds of its running length to be devoted to direct attacks upon Griffin. And he was bullied directly by David Dimbleby – the putative moderator who drove home points of his own instead of pushing for answers to others’ questions. I suppose the BBC had a delicate line to tread. Having been criticised so heavily for even allowing Griffin a platform, there must have been terrific pressure to make sure he didn’t look good.

It’s no shock to point out that the educated and liberal speak largely to themselves, and in addition, this in particular is an emotive subject where all seek to be conspicuously politically correct. But I thought yesterday that this tendency may actually work in the BNP’s favour … and today, a YouGov poll reveals that twenty percent of people would now consider voting for the BNP.

We were all patting ourselves on the back prematurely. Shouting Griffin down has made him a more sympathetic figure to his constituency. I agree that he made several appalling comments, but he still wasn’t allowed sufficient rope hang himself.

There have been massive changes in the UK in my lifetime. One of them has been the creation of our very own ‘white trash’ underclass – a whole raft of people whom we’re happy to keep chronically unemployed. In the last ten years, they have been squeezed in two critical directions by the appearance of masses of imported unskilled labour, mostly from new EU countries. Housing has been squeezed and the chances of getting an unskilled job for a reasonable wage have gone down. There is now a great deal of competition for both. The benefits system is structured in a way that makes it very difficult to aspire. The abandonment of the 10p tax band was a disaster. Complaints about cheap eastern European labour have been roughly shoved aside as racism. It was necessarily a black Englishman who asked Jack Straw “Have Labour’s immigration policies contributed to increased support of the BNP?”

If you didn’t manage your GCSE in English you may not be as articulate as we’d like for the telly. And as for the rest of us, we who got our qualifications, spell reasonably well and broadcast to each other, we have words like ‘chav’ to make you seem like an inconsequential charicature. In short, the unskilled working classes of this country have been treated with contempt … and now they’re listening to Nick Griffin.

Nick Griffin is odious but he’s not stupid. I’m no expert political commentator, but study of the supernatural leads you read a lot about scapegoating. I believe it to be one of the most fundamental mechanisms of human social behaviour. It’s the search for “… an original cause which (can) be rectified”, “a pertinent cause on the plane of social relationships” as the pioneering anthropologist Evans-Pritchard described it. It’s a potently satisfying relief mechanism and a strong bonding experience for individuals within a group.

Jews in medieval Europe were accused of sacrificing children in blood rites (for example, William of Norwich and Hugh of Lincoln). People have even dug up corpses in order to perform ceremonies intended to halt the plague (email me if you want to read about Pitton de Tournefort’s encounter with the Vampire of Mykonos). Nigeria’s social ills are manifesting as child abuse in the name of witch-hunting. And people have, from time to time, looked askance at their black and brown neighbours. It’s a lot more natural (and significantly easier) than seeking a complex reason for your pain.

My maternal grandmother was hard-up throughout her whole life. She was an economic migrant to London from Newcastle in the 1930s. She wasn’t daft, neither were her seven surviving siblings, but having left school at fourteen, her prospects were poor. She was a career cleaner, in factories and middle-class households. However, she always managed to work (as did her husband) she managed to send two children off to professional training (my mother was nurse, my uncle was an engineer) and she also managed to buy a small flat. Actually buy a flat! Something that many graduate couples can’t do today.

The fact is that nice middle-class people should have been paying more for cleaners, shop workers, nannies and gardeners over the last ten years. There was home-grown labour of all colours, but we wanted it even cheaper. Middle-class jobs and wages haven’t been undermined, theirs have. As a result, a massive group of people have been excluded from our upwardly-mobile society.

Today The Times proposes that ‘History shows that BNP will follow Mosley’s Fascists down the drain’. However, I believe that the Mosley’s demise is not as relevant an example as The Times would like to think. The thing that did for Mosley was not the activists at Cable Street (my paternal grandfather among them), nor an unswervingly fair British moral temperament. It was the war with Hitler.

I don’t think that Griffin’s supporters will ever be in a majority or ever form a government. But you don’t have to be that large to be that troublesome. I was a teenager living in Southall during the riots of 1979. Blair Peach was murdered a little way down the road. I remember all the shops boarded up and an eerie silence at four in the afternoon, prior to expected troubles. No cars, no people, no dogs even. Then we locked ourselves in the house and hoped it wouldn’t get too close to us. To a fourteen year old, it was terrifying.

I’d prefer to never see that again. But I think we may. We have a looming recession, a chronically unemployed class and a man who is happy to tell them that they’re disenfranchised partly because of their black and Asian neighbours. And the best chance anybody had to publicly expose the basic flaws in his thinking was lost in a smug onslaught of preaching to the choir.

* I don’t actually remember that wording – I thought he described seeing two men kiss as ‘creepy’, but I’m quoting.


  1. The representatives of the three main parties spent far too much time trying to score points off each other, too - a wasted opportunity when you only have one hour.

  2. Racism begins with our families, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, people we admire, respect and love.

    However, as we grow and mature we come to the realization that what we were told by our family when we were children were slanted lies base on their prejudices. We realize that most people are like ourselves and not so different and want the same things, like a home, steady work, a Medicare plan and schools for our children (if you travel you will see this). We realize that most people are of good hearts and goodwill.

    This reminds me of a parable from the good book where a Levite and Priest come upon a man who fell among thieves and they both individually passed by and didn't stop to help him.

    Finally a man of another race came by, he got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy and got down with the injured man, administered first aid, and helped the man in need.

    Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his fellow man.

    You see, the Levite and the Priest were afraid, they asked themselves, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"

    But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

    That's the question before us. The question is not, "If I stop to help the immigrant in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the immigrant, what will happen to him or her?" That's the question.

    This current climate of blaming others for our woes is not new. We have had this before and we have conquered it.

    Remember “Evil flourishes when good men (and women) do nothing”. Raise your voices with those of us who believe we are equal and we can win this battle again.

  3. I was just sitting down to compose an erudite comment for this post when my eye glanced at Minette Marrin's article in todays Sunday Times. It sums up my feeling about the Question Time with Nasty Nick, perfectly.