It was ten years ago this year (October 2009) that the BBC’s Question Time reached an audience of eight million viewers for the only time in its lengthy history. The reason? Well, that was human curiosity at the inclusion of the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, on the panel. For those that don’t remember, the invite to Griffin to appear on the show caused considerable controversy. There were protests and complaints. Columns in the national press suggested that Griffin’s appearance would normalise the BNP and make it seem just like any other political party. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that it would “legitimise” the views of the BNP and compared the party to fascism and the National Front. It didn’t happen. Griffin was revealed to be the vile creature he was. At the election in 2010, less than a year after the Question Time appearance, the BNP contested 339 seats. They won just 1.9% of the national vote despite the number of contested seats, and the average votes per candidate had gone down from the 2005 number, despite (or perhaps because of) the publicity on the BBC programme.
Let’s skip forward a few months to the election campaign in 2010 and Gordon Brown being recorded by accident telling those travelling with him in his car that the woman who he had just been speaking to was “bigoted” after she complained to him about the amount of Eastern Europeans “flocking” to the country, and about there being too many immigrants. The media jumped on him for his comments, and he apologised. More than that, he then went back for a forty minute chat with the woman in order to try to save face. But what had happened between October 2009 and April 2010? Nick Griffin was lambasted and reviled for his views on Question Time (and rightfully so) and yet there was outrage when Gordon Brown called out a woman for being bigoted for her views on immigration, but little anger for what she had actually said.
My suggestion is that it was that moment, “Bigot-gate,” when the seed was sown for Brexit. It wasn’t Question Time, accused of legitimisising the views of the far-right by allowing Nick Griffin to appear and show himself to be a vile human being, it was Gordon Brown apologising for the bigot comment. By apologising (and some might say grovelling), Brown did something that neither Griffin or Farage had managed to do – he admitted it was OK, legitimate, to think what Mrs Duffy thought about immigration and air those views in public. It’s certainly true that, in comparison to what many have said since (or what Griffin was saying at the time), her comments were relatively tame, but that is beside the point because everything we have now, not least Brexit, but also the racism, the xenophobia, the Islamophobia, the increased homophobia and misogyny – all of which we see on a daily basis on Twitter and in newspaper headline, and overhear down the pub – stems from Gordon Brown’s apology. In apologising, effectively saying that it wasn’t bigoted or wrong to have those thoughts, Gordon Brown brought bigotry, hatred, and the distrust of those unlike ourselves back into the mainstream. He gave Mrs Duffy a voice. It opened the floodgates; people need no longer be ashamed of what they thought about any group of people.
This begs the question of what should Brown have done once he had said Mrs. Duffy was a bigot? The answer, in all likelihood, is that he should have gone on TV, smoothed things over by saying he had chosen his words badly, and then gone on to explain why what had been said had upset him so much in the first place and why it had no place in British society. Instead, the opposite happened.
While Nick Griffin sank back into obscurity, the next couple of years saw many changes. Immigration became a core policy of the coalition government formed in 2010, and, beyond that, political language changed – it was fine for Cameron & Co to name and shame those they thought were responsible for the state of the nation. Immigrants weren’t the only enemy of the people, but also the unemployed (people were either workers or shirkers) and the disabled who couldn’t work. The people wanted someone to blame for the financial crash, and, now he felt he could pick on certain groups, naming and shaming them for all to see. It was OK to do that now.
Then, of course, there was the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular, leading his party in the 2013 local elections to 23% of the vote. Within three years of Mrs Duffy’s comments about immigration, one in four people at the polling booth were voting UKIP (in the wards where they put forward a candidate). By 2014, Mrs Duffy’s comments seemed mild compared to what Farage was saying at his party conference:
“In scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”(Nigel Farage, 2014 UKIP conference speech)
And this, of course, is the kind of rhetoric and opinion that led many to vote for Brexit in 2016. Would Farage have been saying this if Gordon Brown hadn’t opened the door for him by legitimising this train of thought? Would Boris Johnson be getting away with his “letterbox” and “bank robber” comments? We shall never know for sure, but for me there is a clear trajectory. Without the “bigot” incident there would have been be no legitimate voice for UKIP, without that there would have been no referendum in an attempt to stop Tory voters flocking to UKIP, and without the referendum we wouldn’t be where we are now as new year begins with the UK in chaos. Oh, Gordon Brown and Mrs. Duffy, what a wonderful thing hindsight can be.