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.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.