Last Friday night while thousands of Bathonians were enjoying the opening night of the Bath Festival - which climaxed in a wonderful array of fireworks - I too experienced plenty of fireworks in Bath city centre. But of a wholly different kind.
For as one of those odd people who actually loves politics, I elected to attend and report on a meeting at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which was supposed to be a chance for as many as possible of the 17 candidates standing in next week’s EU elections to make their case.
To be honest, I know precious little about the whole EU adventure and I thought this would be a good chance to improve my knowledge.
But that’s not the way the evening turned out. As the BRLSI had invited all candidates – including the highly controversial right-wing British National Party – I was aware that there could be a demonstration by local anti-racists but I wasn’t prepared for just how big that demo would be or how it would affect the course of a truly remarkable evening.
In the end, somewhat sadly, the presence of the BNP wasn’t just an issue – it was the ONLY issue of the night.
The fact that the BNP was there meant that several of the other candidates refused to take part in the debate – although to their credit many were still there to make their points known outside of the chamber (Labour and the Greens were particularly good at this I thought).
Some of the other parties like the Lib Dems and UKIP were actually prepared to debate (although the Lib Dems wouldn't share a platform with the BNP) but a human barricade of protesters stopped many of these getting into the BRLSI during a tense and unpredictable hour or so in Bath's Queen Square.
Eventually the debate did go ahead but only four of the minor parties got to speak (the Liberats,eu group, the English Democrats, The Christian Party and the BNP itself) and so the big question we should ask is: was democracy served by the fact that the BNP was allowed to be there or was it ill-served by the fact that the party were there at all and many other voices never got heard?
It’s a tough and difficult question – and one I can’t answer – but in spite of all this chaos, I came away with a lot of admiration for many people involved in a night of political drama.
Firstly, I greatly admired the BRLSI for having the guts to continue with the debate despite the protest. The truly splendid convener, Rodney Tye, genuinely believed he was being fair by inviting all parties and doggedly stuck to his guns even when it must have seemed easier just to pack up and go home. I also applaud all the BRLSI members who were determined to hear the debate and patiently waited for the protest to end to do so. It was an example of commendable stoicism and reflected very well on the BRLSI as an organisation.
I also respected the protesters themselves. In a time when political apathy is actually applauded, it was good to see people with a passion and belief to actually stand up and be counted for what they truly believe.
And, I also applaud the police for their actions. This could have got very ugly, very easily but the police were as patient and as understanding as possible and the way they removed all the anti-BNP protesters without making a single arrest among them was a textbook example of good policing in difficult circumstances. They probably don't get too many situations like this - but they performed with real professionalism.
As for the BNP, well, it just left me deeply depressed. Unlike many of the protesters, I did go in to hear the debate (because I believe you have to hear what people say before judging them) and the moment the party’s spokesperson tried to claim he wasn’t a racist but called black people “Negroes” was the moment I realised this party is wedded to racism – despite the fact that many of them now wear nice suits.
In my opinion ther word 'Negroes' is the language of the American Civil War and not 21st century British politics – and I felt chilled and angry to hear it.
It left me with the feeling that BNP should stand for 'Beyond Normal Politics' and on a night when genuine political debate should have been the winner the presence of this party turned the whole thing into something of a circus.