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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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