Geert Wilders, Ukip and me

My row with the next leader of the UK Independence Party

This morning I engaged in a so-called "red-line" debate on Sky News about whether or not the right-wing Dutch Islamophobe and professional controversialist Geert Wilders is "welcome" in the UK. He is not. How can a man who views the faith of nearly two million British citizens and residents as a "totalitarian ideology" and a "retarded, dangerous one", and claims that "there is no such thing as 'moderate Islam'", be welcome in our multicultural, multiracial, multi-faith nation?

But what surrpised me was that the man I was debating -- who also happens to be the British parliamentarian who extended the original invitation to Wilders -- turned out to be Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the Ukip peer, and front-runner to succeed Nigel Farage as leader of the party. Pearson is an odious and reactionary Little Englander with Islamophobic leanings. He described, on air, "the problem with Islam", proclaimed his "fear" of Islam and claimed Islam was responsible for all the terrorism in the world.

And yet, regardless of that, I can't help but wonder what Pearson gets out of all this. Has Ukip gone from being a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly" (to quote David Cameron), obsessed only with the European Union and issues of sovereignty and parliamentary democracy, to suddenly leading the neoconservative (and BNP-backed) campaign against the alleged "Islamisation" of Europe? Its endorsement of Wilders by extending an official invitation to him through its next leader is both strange and unpleasant.

On a side note, may I point out the most ridiculous part of the whole Wilders debate? It's the idea that this man is a champion of free speech and that allowing him entry into the UK exemplifies our commitment to free speech. Sorry. No. That's nonsense. This is a man who not only abuses free speech but also makes a mockery of it in his home country of Holland, where he has advocated the banning and outlawing of the Quran, which he ludicrously considers to be a "fascist" book. This is the man who hides his anti-Islamic bigotry behind the notion of free speech -- and campaigns against Muslims' own right to free speech by advocating the outlawing of the Muslim holy book. How ironic. And disgusting.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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