Geert Wilders and the welcome silence of the majority

Denying an Islamophobe the oxygen of outrage.

Considerable sound and fury was generated last year when Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who warns that Britain's capital is in danger of turning into "Londonistan" (yawn), was refused entry into the country.

Now he's been, has shown his odious little film Fitna to a small audience at the House of Lords, and . . . to what effect, exactly?

The Independent put it well in its report from the Lords:

Yesterday, after a wait of more than a year, he returned to screen his anti-Islamic film in the House of Lords, but unlike his earlier visit, which provoked a storm of debate about the right to free speech, this time few people seemed to notice.

The politician's flowing locks of swept-back blond hair have led some to nickname him Mozart. So it was unfortunate that Mr Wilders was forced to address the world's media yesterday in a tiny room with a piano prominently displayed in one corner.

On the wall behind him was a portrait of Peregrine Bertie, the Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven, whose 18th-century wig bore more than a passing resemblance to Mr Wilders's hairstyle. The duke's expression remained calm throughout, a remarkable feat, considering the events which unfolded in front of him.

According to the Daily Telegraph, about 200 protesters gathered outside parliament, but compared to the marches and protests we're used to having in London, that's a pretty insignificant number.

Kenan Malik, also in the Independent, had it right when he wrote:

I despise Geert Wilders. I loathe his populist anti-immigration rhetoric. I despair of his tirades against Muslims. I find his film obnoxious.

But I also think that he has every right to be as crude and as loathsome as he wants to be. He should be free to be as rude about me and my beliefs -- indeed, about anybody's beliefs -- as I am about him and his. That is the essence of robust political debate in a plural society.

It is precisely when people hear what Wilders has to say that they can draw the conclusion that he is crude and loathsome. Or, in the case of his host, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, just plain silly. Here is Lord P's sage contribution to the debate: "To get these subjects discussed you have to sometimes be a little bit naughty, you have to sometimes say things like 'ban the burqa'."

The other day I came across the following quotation from Thomas Jefferson in Ian Buruma's new book, Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, which struck me as apt:

They have made the happy discovery that the way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them.

It is easy and understandable to be outraged by a man such as Wilders, and were he to stand a chance of high office here, as he may in Holland, we would be right to be very worried about him, too. I'm rather glad, however, that this time so few people have taken any notice of his visit.

Sometimes the silence of the majority can speak far more eloquently than the righteous anger of the crowd.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.