This morning I was branded a nutter in front of about 100 people waiting to cross the road outside Victoria station. As I came up from the tube I noticed a man invoking us to “join the demonstration on the 27th” and to “stop the fascists”. I asked him what demonstration he was refering to and was told it was the one tasked with stopping Nick Griffin of the BNP getting to the BBC studio to take part in the Question Time debate on that date. Emboldened by the example of my colleague Robert Phillips who is still in debate with some of the climate change protestors who came to our offices (naked) the other week, I decided to give him the benefit of my view previously expressed on this blog; which is that we need to expose the nasty virus that is the BNP and not pretend it is not there and not (a despicable) part of our society. Public debate is the best way to do that and Question Time is about the perfect forum. It was noisy and either he didn’t hear me or he thought I was supporting the BNP because he stepped a bit closer to me and shouted even louder “stop the fascists”. Now this is England. And strangers don’t ‘get involved’ in public places, and if they do others get uneasy at the trampling of our up-tight social conventions. As the lights changed and the reluctant onlookers rushed across the road in relief, one person whispered sotto voce “nutters”.
Now as a firm we bang on about the need for public engagement on issues of import, but in the real world and face-to-face it can sometimes be quite a charged thing. Politicians campaigning door-to-door and CEOs doing town hall meetings on shop floors at difficult times know this very well. Most of us do not. And despite the less than perfect exchange of views that this incident represented, the value of public and person-to-person debate should not be forgotten in this era of digital conversation. It is one thing to unleash a volley via keyboard, another entirely to do it to someone’s face with a crowd around you. I for one will be tuned in with huge interest next week, and I agree with the leader column in today’s Times newspaper that we need to choose carefully the people who will take Nick Griffin on. They certainly need to have more presence than I did this morning and preferably they will be wise and experienced debaters. Westminster has many faults and the media is full again this morning of MPs shooting themselves in the other foot over paying back fraudulently claimed expenses. Here is a chance for us to see a few well chosen men and women earn their corn on the big stage. The brightest and the best from each party need to hone the arguments of freedom and tolerance and demonstrate the value of public debate and show us all what the BNP really stands for. And in the course of doing that, they might remind us what they really stand for.