Poppy-burning and the limits of tolerance

Anjem Choudary is the man the tabloids love to hate, but does the government risk turning him into a free speech martyr?

So Theresa May has given in to the temptation, so often indulged by her New Labour predecessors, of banning a group associated with Anjem Choudary, the media's favourite Muslim radical. The latest news is that premises associated with the proscribed group have been raided by the police. "They've got nothing on me," was Choudary's reaction today. "Obviously it's inconvenient, but that doesn't stop me propagating what I believe."

No, I very much doubt that it will.

Officially, Muslims Against Crusades has been banned for glorifying terrorism (a vaguely defined crime under the Terrorism Act of 2000) and because it was -- the Home Office has only just realised -- another name for groups that had previously been banned. It was a continuation of Al-Muhajaroun by other names. But the ban -- certainly the timing of it -- surely had more to do with Choudary's plan to burn some poppies on Remembrance Day and the outrage that caused.

We've been here before, after all. The group's last incarnation, Islam4UK, was banned at the start of 2010 after Choudary declared that he and his dozen or so friends would march through the streets of Wootton Bassett in tribute (he claimed) to the thousands of unremarked Muslim casualties of Afghanistan and Iraq. As with the poppy protest, he didn't actually need to do this. It was enough that he said he would. The reaction that followed proved that however obnoxious his cause Choudary has something of a genius for publicity.

And indeed, there's a good argument for ignoring Choudary's groups rather than banning them simply because such bans play into his hands. Banning his outfit gives him more even more publicity. It gives him the one thing he craves even more than Islamist domination: getting his beard on the telly. The pragmatic response would be to ignore him.

The sad truth, though, is that it's impossible to ignore Anjem Choudary. It's doubtful that he is actually getting more publicity for being banned than he would have got for burning poppies. For Choudary not to get publicity would mean the press and broadcast media ending their love-affair with his unique brand of precisely-targeted outrage. He's successful because he inhabits a stereotype so well. He plays the part of an angry, puffed-up, anti-Western, terrorist-sympathising Islamic fundamentalist with such conviction and aplomb.

His views are cartoonish: with his visions of the flag of Islam flying over Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square turned into a popular venue for Saudi-style beheadings, he offers a reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism. The only proper response -- certainly, the proper British response -- is to laugh. As a country, we laughed at Hitler, as we laughed at his British wannabe Oswald Mosley. And Choudary is closer to Roderick Spode than he is to Mosley. Another figure he resembles is the Rev Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, who shares his belief in the efficacy of hate-filled placards. Phelps and his group were, you may remember, banned from Britain by Jacqui Smith after they proposed (without really intending to) bringing their "God hates Fags" campaign to the streets of Basingstoke.

Choudary gets attention because he is, in a strange way, reassuring. I've no doubt that he admires terrorists (even if he would never have the balls to be a terrorist himself) and that he would like to see Islamic law imposed on all the citizens of this country. He certainly has dubious connections, most notably his mentor, the now-exiled Omar Bakri Mohamed. But these days he's little more than a propagandist. Above all he's just too visible to be a real threat. It's true that the tabloids profess to be outraged rather than amused by his antics. But I doubt he would be quite so successful at getting his message across were it not for his essentially comic persona.

At the same time, he has an unerring instinct for the pressure-points of British society. Take Wotton Bassett. By the time he announced his would-be march, the Wiltshire town had become both the focus and the locus of that attenuated thing we're supposed to call Britishness, a place where the military covenant, elsewhere a hollow joke, became almost sacral. In the absence of any clear explanation of what we were doing in Afghanistan, Wootton Bassett became not merely the scene of tribute but, in an odd way, the mission's whole justification.

The true name for Choudary's crime on that occasion -- and again this year with his mooted poppy-burning -- is not glorifying terrorism or threatening public order. It is blasphemy. The public and political reaction to his group's noisy protests is the closest that secular British society comes to the strength of feeling elicited among some Muslims by Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoons, or among some Christians by Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But is blaspheming against the national consensus a good enough reason to outlaw him or his fan-club?

Choudary naturally exasperates more mainstream Muslims who, consequently, get much less airtime. But he is a product of the very freedoms, the very Western decadence, he professes to despise. That, too, is a principle that we are supposed to hold sacred. And this brings me to a more principled objection to banning his group.

The quintessential Choudary placard was the one that read "Freedom go to Hell", his group's response to the Danish cartoons and, indeed, to all instances where non-Muslims had exercised their rights to free expression in ways that were uncongenial to his brand of Islam. There would certainly not be much free speech in the Islamic republic he dreams that Britain will one day become. He is not, therefore, in much position to complain that the government wants to stifle his own freedom, though that is precisely what he has been doing all day as he toured the major TV studios. The fact that he is a hypocrite, however, does not mean that he is not correct in pointing out the hypocrisy of those who want to ban him.

The hard truth is that the freedom to be outrageous is one of the freedoms for which people in both world wars fought and, in some cases died.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.