Gordon Brown, Bigot-gate, and Brexit.

Was this the moment that resulted in Brexit?

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.

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Birth of a Nation: Happy 100th Birthday?

BOAN

D W Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation is 100 years old on 8th February – and still remains possibly the most controversial movie in history. It is a movie of two halves, the first dealing with the American Civil War, and the second half dealing with the Reconstruction Era.

On the one hand it is a remarkable film. For the most part, Hollywood was still reliant on one or two-reel films (up to about 20 minutes in length), although longer, more ambitious films had started to come through from around 1913 onwards – but they were not dominant at this stage. But America had never produced a film on the scale of, or as technically sophisticated as, Birth of a Nation before. Griffith drew inspiration from the Italian epics of the early 1910s, taking their scale and ambition and applying them to a more realistic, American setting. It was, in many ways, the dawn of the modern film.  This wasn’t the first feature film, but with Birth of a Nation, American cinema had come of age.

And then there is the other side of Birth of a Nation. The fact that the second half of the film is a putrid, foul, racist diatribe in which African-Americans are not just portrayed as stupid and lazy, but also as rapist and murderers…with the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as the heroes of the film, not the villains.

Wilson-quote-in-birth-of-a-nation

Some today still argue that the film was simply a sign of the times, and stands today as a historical record of the views of 1915. But that, in my opinion, is just burying our heads in the sand. This wasn’t a film that was just re-iterating racial stereotypes or utilising blackface, it was one that was full of hatred and venom – it literally turned whites against blacks in America. There were demonstrations against the film even in 1915, and appeals to get the film banned in some cities. This didn’t happen in most cases. Instead, membership of the KKK swelled over the next few years, as did racially-motivated murders and lynchings. But hey, the film was great box office.

In 1916, partly to silence his critics, Griffith made Intolerance, a film simultaneously telling four stories in four different time periods – flitting back from one to the other faster and faster as the three-hour film progresses. But Griffith appears to have been hiding behind a mask in putting forward a film that was supposedly going to prove that he was anti-prejudice, for in 1930 he filmed an interview to be screened prior to a re-release of Birth of a Nation and he stands by the film and its contents totally. By this time, though, Griffith’s worthy, preachy, self-righteous films were out of favour, and he made his last film, The Struggle, the following year.

How does Birth of a Nation stand up today? Well, no-one can deny its achievement: in many ways the birth of modern film-making. Very little has changed from the point of view of techniques and film grammar in the last one hundred years. And yet Birth of a Nation when viewed today is, to me, a bore. Compared to other feature films from the era, the pace is slow and the direction heavy-handed. There is a sense of self-importance here which weighs the film down, and doesn’t allow it to work as entertainment in the present day. This isn’t true for all films of the period. Many features from the mid-to-late 1910s are still enjoyable today, but sitting through Birth of a Nation is a chore. Is this because of its length? No – Intolerance is just as long, but much more entertaining – even if its innovative structure takes a little getting used to.

But it’s Birth of a Nation that is still shown to poor first-year film students – presumably as punishment of some kind.  No doubt many of the students actually never see the racist elements of the second half of the film due to the fact they had nodded off sixty minutes earlier.  Why do we show it to them?  I have no idea.  Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s not typical of film-making in 1915.  As is so often the case, film students are shown a canonical work instead of a typical movie of the period, and therefore come away with no idea of what people watched most of the time during the mid-1910s.

More importantly, when viewed today, Birth of a Nation leaves one with a foul taste in the mouth, and rightfully so. It makes for remarkably uncomfortable viewing thanks to the racist elements. On the 100th anniversary of its release, we might celebrate what Griffith achieved technically, but that’s where the celebrations should end. Many people suffered, and many people were murdered/lynched as a result of the film being made and shown and kick-starting a resurgence of the KKK.

So, happy birthday, Birth of a Nation – may we never see the likes of you again.