I like the commitment to giving the British people a say on our future membership of the European Union. I like the commitment to stripping away burdensome regulation from business. And I really like the libertarian streak which says (with the shameful and notable exception of opposing gay marriage) that you can do what you damn well like in your eating, drinking or recreational life without fearing either chastisement or prosecution by the government. But the recent scandals and dramas within UKIP are making me realise all over again that having a few really great core principles is simply not enough. Not for a political party with serious national electoral ambitions, at any rate.
In moment of great frustration with British politics and the day-to-day compromise of coalition government I have flirted with the idea of giving UKIP my vote. There are parts of the UKIP agenda – you’ll only find them on the UKIP website, the British media generally fails to report the serious stuff – that make perfect sense and which should appeal to anyone of a conservative-libertarian leaning. And in the past it has frustrated me that the focus on UKIP’s more sensible ideas has been continually taken away by the actions of some of UKIP’s more unhinged, out-of-the-mainstream supporters.
I continued to make this argument in good conscience throughout the Godfrey Bloom saga and then the David Silvester affair, because the first was a nonsense and the second was a nonentity. But not so this time.
Gerard Batten is a serving MEP and a serious voice within his party – not a swivel eyed lunatic from the fringe. And so when he publicly advocates making Muslims effectively sign an oath of loyalty and nonviolence to prove their harmlessness to the state, this represents a very real problem for UKIP, damages their pro-liberty credentials and alienates many people (myself included) who were otherwise inclined to give them a fair hearing.
The Guardian gives some of the detail:
Gerard Batten, who represents London and is member of the party’s executive, told the Guardian on Tuesday that he stood by a “charter of Muslim understanding”, which he commissioned in 2006.
The document asks Muslims to sign a declaration rejecting violence and says parts of the Qur’an that promote “violent physical Jihad” should be regarded as “inapplicable, invalid and non-Islamic”.
Critics said his comments represent the “ugliest side of Ukip” and “overlap with the far-right”, in spite of the efforts of party leader Nigel Farage to create a disciplined election machine ahead of the European elections.
Asked on Tuesday about the charter, Batten told the Guardian he had written it with a friend, who is an Islamic scholar, and could not see why “any reasonable, normal person” would object to signing it.
One hardly needs to restate their horror and revulsion at all forms of violence and terrorism in the name of religion before condemning this politician’s attempt to take a redacting pen to the holy book of a faith not his own – but I shall do so anyway. We can abhor the violence, but that does not make it right to propose amendments to the religious texts of a faith that you do not yourself practice. Indeed, if Gerard Batten is to apply his editing skills to every major religious text touting a menu of violent and uncivilised punishments to be meted out to those who accidentally violate the etiquette of their ancient day, he will not only raise Muslim ire but also the outrage of other religions perhaps much closer to his own heart.
Seeing the “I have Muslim friends” card played as a defence by Godfrey Bloom is also quite depressing, and hardly mitigates the fact that he is basically advocating state interference in the workings of a religion, state interpretation of religious texts and state monitoring of compliance with religious teaching.
And in a final flourish, Batten also failed to repudiate his 2010 call for a ban on new mosques in Europe, apparently confirming the suspicions of many that UKIP is concerned about freedom of religion and freedom from religious persecution only when it can be used as an argument to allow certain Christians to continue discriminating against gay people.
The latest UKIP scandal has, naturally and rightly, drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum, with Conservative MP Robert Halfon (of the Jewish faith) describing Batten’s “Islamic code of conduct” as the first step toward making a persecuted people wear a visible gold star on their clothing:
Halfon, who is Jewish and has spoken out repeatedly against Islamic extremism, told the Guardian he considered Batten’s views “unbelievably sinister” and “frightening”.
He tweeted: “Big difference btwn lawful Muslims & extreme Islamists. UKIP MEP Batten’s statement a 1st step to wearing a Yellow Star.”
Sarah Ludford, a Liberal Democrat MEP for London, also criticised the comments, saying they “rip apart Ukip’s pretence” that it treats everybody equally.
“His offensive blanket stereotyping of Muslims speaks volumes about Ukip’s extremism and should warn voters that voting Ukip means associating with hatred and Islamophobia,” she said.
These shenanigans within UKIP must come to an immediate halt if the party is to staunch the bleeding and begin to repair its tarnished reputation. The existing media portrayal of the party as a club for closet racists, little-Englanders and swivel eyed loons is harmful enough without having senior MEPs throwing more fuel on the fire. The fact that some of the provocative statements in question were given in the year 2006 is no defence or mitigating factor here – all that means is that eight years have passed without a public apology and withdrawal of the remarks.
True to recent form, Nigel Farage has been slow to respond to this latest volley of bad publicity – and so, for the moment, Gerard Batten is left to twist in the wind. This, in itself, is unacceptable. This is a time for the leader to lead. Perhaps UKIP wants to be a party of unapologetic Islamophobia and a cheerleader for freedom of religion, but only when Christian freedoms are perceived as being threatened. And if so, that is their choice to make – free speech is still just about protected in this country, and UKIP are entitled to campaign on that platform. In turn, I would also then be freed from the desire to give them any further serious consideration and airtime on this blog, because I would exercise my right to avoid associating myself with such a party.
But if the UK Independence Party actually stands for personal liberty and does not wish to associate itself with religion-specific loyalty tests and bans on practicing Islam (because that is what withholding permission to build new mosques would ultimately mean), with fearmongering or with discriminatory policies, then Nigel Farage needs to speak up and show any recalcitrant members the door.
Newer, less established and experienced political parties eventually have to choose between their fiery, populist rhetoric and the need for sober policymaking; between courting any stray vote that can easily be won and accepting that the votes of some other people are fundamentally undesirable. The Liberal Democrats faced their reality-check on the topic of undergraduate tuition fees, and for better or worse they chose responsible government over delivering on their tuition fee cap bribe to their starry-eyed voters. It increasingly looks as though UKIP will have a dual reckoning – with their attitude to gay marriage on one hand and the decision to condone or condemn Islamophobia on the other.
If Mr. Farage could please make up his mind on these issues and convey the message to his troops, the rest of us will know whether to keep giving UKIP the time of day, or letting them jog on by.