It's no longer about whether the BNP will appear on Question Time. It's about how they will appear on Question Time. For good or for ill, Nick Griffin will be on the panel tonight, and we need to ensure that, despite his presence, the programme is a good advert for the tolerant mainstream of British politics.
Clearly, the best possible outcome is for Griffin to be demolished in debate by the other panellists. From any reasonable perspective, his views range between the deeply offensive and the deeply laughable. (See this article from today's Independent for more information.) With any luck, he'll appear unelectable, devoid of any real answers for Britain, and exposed for the ugly racist he is.
Then again, Griffin is an experienced and slick public speaker. In his job, you'd have to be. He will be used to dealing with probing questions, and you can be sure that he will have worked out his answers, long in advance, to the very predictable things that he'll be asked. So this would appear to be the worst outcome for tonight's show: Griffin deflects the criticism, and maintains a façade of reasonableness that wins over yet more disenchanted voters to the BNP.
But there's an even worse possible outcome. Groups such as Unite Against Fascism have been encouraging their supporters to request tickets to the recording, and it's a fair bet that there will be plenty of anti-fascist campaigners in the studio audience. People who have no interest in arguing against the BNP, and are angry that the BNP has been invited along at all. The atmosphere will be confrontational, and Griffin's attempts to debate will be lost under a barrage of jeers and hisses. If that happens, then he will look like a martyr. As a supporter of a tolerant society, which headline would you rather read in tomorrow's papers? "Racist exposed on TV"? Or "Griffin shouted down by protesters"?
I can think of an outcome that is worse still. Perhaps the worst of all. Because the biggest danger is that tonight's Question Time will turn into a debate with no substance. Accusations of racism met with bare denials and counter-accusations: this will do nothing to tackle the very real problems which have led to the BNP's recent and upsetting electoral success.
We benefit hugely from living in a society where we are valued equally, whatever our ethnicity; we benefit hugely from living in a Britain where we are free to choose our religion, our style of dress, our cultural identity. And we benefit hugely from properly managed, legal immigration to our country. Despite this, a large number of Britons feel worried and alienated by the way in which our society is changing. If we want those people to vote for non-racist parties, we need to take their concerns seriously, understand them, and deal with them in a rather more nuanced way than simply venting our spleen at them.
The argument for tolerance is a complicated one. It needs to be made, and made with conviction. But the other panellists, already under fire for appearing on the programme, will be keen to distance themselves from the BNP as their first priority. If they spend most of the time simply shouting "Griffin is a racist, don't listen to him," the argument for tolerance will never be made at all. And for the political mainstream, that will be the biggest own goal of the evening.