Photo by Jennifer Jane Mills
Europe / United Kingdom

UKIP and Friends: Free Expression and the New Right in the United Kingdom

In August of 2014, a profoundly disturbing story broke in the United Kingdom. In the small city of Rotherham, in South Yorkshire, approximately 1400 children had been the victims of sexual abuse since 1997 as local authorities failed to respond. A report released by Alexis Jay, former Chief Inspector of Social Work in the town, contains damning indictments of the relevant local councilors, whom she and others believe ignored the problem. The Chief Inspector specifically targets the Deputy Director of the Council, Jahangir Akhtar, saying that, “He was one of the elected members who said they thought the criminal convictions in 2010 were ‘a one-off, isolated case’, and not an example of a more deep-rooted problem of Pakistani-heritage perpetrators targeting young white girls. This was at best naive, and at worst ignoring a politically inconvenient truth.” Jay argues that social workers and councilors remained silent on the issue for fear of being called racist when they pointed out that most of the perpetrators in this case were men of Pakistani heritage.

The massive scandal has provided political fodder for Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and a rising star in British politics. UKIP is a young party that has risen to prominence recently as a new conservative voice in British politics. Describing itself as “unashamedly patriotic,” the party supports a British exit from the EU, accompanied by strict border controls and other anti-immigrant policies, such as barring immigrants from receiving public health or welfare services for five years. Farage is strictly opposed to free speech limitations such as hate speech laws, and called the Rotherham scandal a “direct result of [Labour party’s] political correctness.” So the question arises, can political correctness get in the way of justice?

British hate speech laws may be fairly unfamiliar to an American audience, but prohibitions against offensive speech are generally much stronger across the pond then in the United States. Before the European elections, a member of a marginal far-right party was arrested in Dorset for quoting texts critical of the Muslim religion. Though many might find the text unpleasant, it comes from a man who is often quoted in the United Kingdom: Winston Churchill. This kind of arrest may be what the Labour councilors in Rotherham were afraid of. Although the sentiment, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” reaches back to dawn of Enlightenment liberalism, UKIP has just recently risen to prominence championing it. It is no surprise that UKIP jumped from one seat to ten (out of twenty) in the last council elections in Rotherham, as criticism of UK immigration policy and free speech law rises to the fore of discussion in light of scandals like Rotherham’s.

UKIP’s rise  has been meteoric: their share of the vote increased from 16.6% in the 2009 EU elections to 27.5% in 2014, more than any other British party. Party membership has tripled since 2010. (Note that British political party membership is not like American party membership – most voters are not party members. UKIP’s currently has about 50,000 members, compared to Labour’s 190,000). UKIP is not unique in Europe – many other new, Euroskeptical parties have grown considerably in recent years. France’s controversial National Front, for example, lept from a 6% share to a 25% share of France’s seats in the European Parliament (the European Union’s legislature) in the same time frame that UKIP made its own historic gains. The right-wing Swedish Democrats rose from 3% to 10% as well.

It bears mentioning that these parties are by no means uniform. The Telegraph, a prominent British newspaper, has divided these parties into three groups: the Populist right, comprising relatively moderate groups like UKIP; the Far right, consisting of parties that often have a history of explicit racism but who have cleaned up their image and decried anti-Semitism, like the National Front and the Swedish Democrats; and the Extreme Far right, comprising explicitly racist parties, such as the Hungarian Jobbik party and the Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Nigel Farage has distanced himself from the National Front, saying he believed that anti-Semitism was “in their DNA,” a distinction made clear when UKIP refused to allow the National Front into their European Parliament coalition. Jobbik and the Golden Dawn are too small to form their own group within the EU, and the National Front, in an attempt to distance themselves from a dangerously violent past, has also not agreed to work with them, leaving these fringe parties on the margin of European politics.

Of all these parties, however, UKIP is certainly the most powerful. Recently, a member of parliament (MP) from Clacton, named Douglas Carswell, defected from the Conservative party to UKIP. In an attempt to show political honesty, Carswell chose to step down and run again to see if the people would re-elect him in his new party, and they did: he beat the Conservative party candidate 60% to 25%. Labour hearly lost a strong position in Rochester UKIP in another by-election, with the margin barely topping 600 votes. UKIP is expected to gain several seats in the next national elections, sending their first full delegation to Westminster.

Beyond human tragedies like Rotherham, economics have also played a large part in driving the rise of the Right in Europe. The Eurozone crisis has brought recession throughout the continent, leading to a Europe-wide youth unemployment rate of over 20%. Many European conservatives react with anger at the fact that many jobs are held by immigrants rather than natives, a sentiment with which American conservatives might agree. This belief is not inherently racist, although it doesn’t quite make sense based on the evidence. Norway, for example, has an immigrant population of 15% compared to the UK’s 8%, and has a considerably more stable economy with much higher wages.

Some who espouse nativist beliefs, however, do display bias in a way that raises doubts about the origins of their opinions. Nigel Farage, for example, once stated that he felt uncomfortable when heard people speaking languages other than English. Some other UKIP members have made similar remarks that, while not perhaps explicitly racist, do betray a degree of xenophobic sentiment. This  has caused some non-white supporters, such as Indian-born student and former UKIP youth leader Sanya-Jeet Thandi, to denounce and leave the party. UKIP seeks to limit immigration by leaving the EU, instituting tighter border controls, and restricting benefits to recent immigrants. Whether or not racism motivates this position likely depends on the UKIP member in question.

These two sentiments – one which opposes violent extremism inadvertently protected by hate speech laws, and one which rejects immigration (or immigrants) more generally – are generally conflated and associated, as parties like UKIP are currently the loudest voices expressing them. These attitudes are often seen as motivated by racism, and indeed, Farage has been the target of such accusations. Some of his comments about Romanian immigrants, for example, as well as many similar statements from other members of the party, have drawn the criticism of politicians from every major British party.

However, concerns about certain hate speech laws come from all parts of the political spectrum. Intellectuals of many stripes have raised concerns about particular religious ideologies, even if they have no desire to restrict immigration or racially profile individuals. The ever-spirited British-American writer Christopher Hitchens once said on the subject that he was “beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now… between religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity… and what we might call multicultural etiquette.” His criticism of Islam includes the reflection that, while one might be arrested for saying what he was wont to say about Islam (which, as a regular critic of all religions, was rather scathing), those in Europe who protest with placards with text such as “behead those who insult Islam” are unlikely to be. And of course, he argues, passages from the Bible and the Qur’an that condemn homosexuals to death, for example, will not be censored for hate speech, as the censors may themselves be accused of prejudice towards the religious – a conundrum that the censorious must address. Hitchens summarizes his belief in the importance of free and open criticism with a quotation from the play “A Man for all Seasons,” written by Robert Bolt:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

A distinction must be made, then, between those who would criticize a religious ideology such as Islam in the same way that our antecedents would have criticized an ideology like communism, and those who harbor genuine prejudices towards people of other races, genders, or sexualities. As American writer Sam Harris pointed out in his recent discussion with Ben Affleck, polling data from Europe, the UK and the Middle East regarding the beliefs of some in the Muslim community should trouble us: 40% of British Muslims support the introduction of Sharia law into some areas of the UK, as well as minority sympathy for the 7/7 bombers (though 99% of Muslims in the UK did condemn the attacks.) Harris argues further that conservative Islamists make up a sizable minority of Muslims – a small percent outnumbered considerably by the moderate majority, but concerning nonetheless.

Views like this are rarely voiced in Europe, and although racist attitudes are always contemptible, it should come as no surprise to censorious European politicians when their unwillingness to allow a free and open discussion of ideas encourages a popular backlash in the form of the insidious nationalism now rising throughout the continent. When incidents like Rotherham occur, some feel like their nation is threatened, and that they are restricted from discussing it by a government that seems unconcerned with their fears. To condemn immigrant populations in Europe in their entirety, or to expel them unilaterally, would indeed reflect the kind of racism we all wish to leave behind, but condemning all criticism of a religion as hate speech will only polarize the discussion. Those who do not hold biases and do not wish to be seen as such will leave the conversation, leaving ample room for the reactionary Right.