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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Commission event. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.