Ukip might not get votes – but its anti-Islamic voices have a platform
It seems tempting to ignore the election of Richard Braine, the new leader of the UK Independence Party. After all, its former leader Nigel Farage moved on to found the Brexit Party and much of Ukip’s support seems to have migrated there with him.
But it would be a mistake to disregard Ukip. Its strongest impact was never in the parliamentary seats it failed to get, either in the House of Commons or the European Parliament. Rather, it made its mark by moving the conversation dangerously further to the right than was previously acceptable. Take, for example, the first controversy to emerge involving Mr Braine. Footage of a hustings for the leadership race showed him complaining some British towns and cities were effectively no-go areas for non-Muslims and calling for it to be a crime to hand out copies of the Quran under laws connected to violence.
As oxygen has been given to such right-wing views in so much of the mainstream media, such voices and their radical views have become normalised
Such virulent anti-Muslim sentiment underpins Ukip and has only become more intense over the years, despite claims that it wants to distance itself from the anti-Islamic views that shaped the leadership of Mr Braine’s predecessor, Gerard Batten. Mr Farage quit the party over the issue of Islamophobia and Mr Batten’s links to far-right activist Tommy Robinson. The footage of Mr Braine seems to indicate it’s a different face at the helm but the same message.
For a party that is arguably on the far-right of British politics, Ukip enjoys an outsized presence in terms of press coverage. The boisterous antics of the likes of Mr Farage boosted his popularity and was handsomely rewarded by a disproportionate amount of airtime on television, a radio show on a mainstream network and a platform with various media outlets.
But as oxygen has been given to such right-wing views in so much of the mainstream media, such voices and their radical views have become normalised.
Ukip began as a Eurosceptic party and leaving the EU was the issue that defined its purpose. It never found a critical mass to vote for it as a party – but it did manage to get a critical mass to take up its one issue. As a result, the Brexit referendum of 2016 happened. The turmoil that has unfolded since is significantly down to mainstream political parties not taking seriously how to provide leadership in an age where Ukip-style populist politics can make a difference.
Mr Farage has now moved on to another political force, one which yielded considerably more success in the recent European elections. But the Brexit Party could never have done so if Ukip had not existed in the first place. Ukip continues to tap into a minority of the British public’s sentiments – an unruly minority that seeks division in order to promote its agenda.
That agenda is increasingly not about leaving the EU, an issue that has been taken up by the Brexit Party, large parts of the Conservative party, and even significant pats of the Labour party. Ukip might deny it is an anti-Islamic party - but the issue of Islamophobia is increasingly shaping conversations both within its ranks and about it.
Since the Brexit referendum took place, it is the issue that has energised the remaining Ukip base like no other. Robinson, currently serving nine months in prison, was until recently serving as a political adviser to Mr Batten. Others, including Ukip candidates Mark Meechan and Carl Benjamin and Paul Joseph Watson, have been accused of racist, threatening language. Mr Watson founded the far-right conspiracy website Infowars which is known for promoting absurd conspiracy theories; he himself declared “Islam control” was needed rather than gun control.
The anti-Islam animus has been present within Ukip since its early days – but it now seems to have overtaken nearly all other considerations within the party today. Anti-Muslim sentiment is a problem that infests many parts of the political spectrum already, including within the ranks of the Conservative party, to the point where even the term Islamophobia is challenged.
Ukip is currently polling badly in the UK. But with anti-Muslim bigotry across Europe on the rise, history reminds us that insignificance at the ballot box doesn’t mean irrelevance elsewhere.
Dr HA Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Updated: August 20, 2019 07:50 PM