May plays into hands of poppy burning Muslims Against Crusades

Anjem Choudary and his trolling friends like the publicity.

Muslims Against Crusades, the attention-seeking troublemakers who have burned poppies to enrage people who write for tabloid newspapers, have now been banned.

Whether this move by the Home Secretary Theresa May will get rid of this group's trolling polemic remains to be seen; what's happened before is that the group has simply changed name, kept more or less the same personnel and continued.

Anjem Choudary and his friends are keen to get into the news -- under a previous incarnation of Islam4UK they promised a vigil in the former repatriation town of (Royal) Wootton Bassett, for example. Will anything different happen this time?

The timing is significant. Today is the 11 November, and we are approaching Remembrance Sunday. It is possible that another stunt may have been planned to disrupt the minutes of silence, which are now observed with more scrutiny and participation than was the case ten or 15 years ago, to get the group more hate-headlines and more publicity for their deeply unworthy cause.

What MAC have done, however, shows an unfortunately strong nous for PR, for we are living in a time when we are more sensitive than ever about our symbols of remembrance. After years of playing in football shirts without poppies to mark the week of Remembrance in November, the England team has been involved in a controversy surrounding their presence on the strip this week, with figures such as Prince William, Sepp Blatter of FIFA and Prime Minister David Cameron getting involved.

Poppies mean more to us than they used to -- whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate, but we are more sensitive about these things than we used to be.

As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of anyone provocatively burning anything that people find important or sacred in their culture -- be it a paper flower symbolising fallen heroes or a holy book -- banning MAC plays into their hands.

As with the hastily-withdrawn promise of a march through Wootton Bassett, the thing itself isn't the goal: the headlines and the outrage are the aim, and that has now been achieved. Muslims Against Crusades will be in your newspaper today, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

You get the sense that the likes of MAC don't even burn poppies because they want to burn poppies, or talk about marching through Wootton Bassett because they want to march through Wootton Bassett: they're simply picking the totems that will cause the greatest amount of outrage and upset possible.

Who would care about a well organised but completely non-outrageous protest which took place on 11 November? Probably no-one. Probably no-one would cover it either, and there's the problem.

That a few poppy-burning nitwits could manage to garner more coverage than many more Muslims going out to collect for the British Legion, for example, says something about how our priorities have become skewed. We seek out the challenging, the outrageous, the relentlessly controversial, often at the expense of the reasonable, the community-minded, the positive. And I think that's a shame.

What I realise, of course, is that in writing this article about Muslims Against Crusades I've just played into their hands even more, giving them more of the limelight they're so desperate to get.

So instead of that, I think it's time to stop mentioning them altogether, and just let them get on with their sad little protests, putting them in the context of much larger, more positive activity that hardly ever gets a look-in.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.