Feted as a people’s champion, his welcome prefigured a sensational showing for the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) in last week’s European Parliament polls catapulting the obscure party into the heart of the continent’s most powerful decision-making body.
Taking 18% of the vote, the party captured 12 of the 72 seats allotted to Britain, behind only the main opposition Conservative and ruling Labour parties.
Kilroy-Silk’s popularity, which is tipped to take him to the head of the UKIP, owes much to his career as a no-nonsense TV talk-show host whose fears about European integration chime with the scepticism of Middle England.
Earlier this year the smooth-talking housewives’ favourite was forced to step down from his programme by the BBC after generating an uproar with a newspaper column describing Arabs as “suicide bombers, limb amputators and women oppressors”.
But his political resurrection, and the parallel advance of a party perceived by many as anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim, has renewed fears among minority rights activists about the continuing slide to the right of the British electorate.
Britain’s Muslims claim they are
“The success of the right-wing parties and the fact that they had racists at the helm which helped their cause represents a dangerous trend”, according to Massoud Shadjareh of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission.
While observers have put the UKIP’s strong showing down to its anti-EU platform its anti-immigration agenda may also have played a role.
“I don’t think racism and Islamophobia won the UKIP any votes, but on the other hand they didn’t lose the party any votes either,” said Shadjareh. “But the very fact that people like Kilroy-Silk can be an electoral asset rather than a liability is very worrying.”
Other experts concur, although they caution against drawing too much from results from an exercise where turnout was 38.2% compared to figures of 70% and 60% respectively for the last two general elections.
Moreover, European and local polls have typically been an opportunity for voters to vent their spleen at whichever party is in power. This Euro-election was no different with most incumbent parties in the 25-member EU getting a kicking.
“The problem with these elections is that the people who go out to vote are the people with an axe to grind,” explained Kate Taylor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, for whom the growing popularity of the British National Party is more disturbing.
“I would call UKIP the politically correct face of the BNP”
Anas Takriti, former head, Muslim Association of Britain
The party, which wants to see an end to non-European immigration and advocates a policy of voluntary resettlement for Britons of foreign extraction, notched up 788,000 votes around the nation but failed to return a single MEP.
“That was the one they really wanted because it brings publicity and European funding”, said Taylor. “They were expecting a major breakthrough. But because of the UKIP the BNP did not perform as well as it expected”.
Some activists are less sanguine. They believe the far right and right are flipsides of the same coin whose main contribution is to pollute the political climate.
“I would call UKIP the politically correct face of the BNP. The anti-Europe sentiment is a concern, particularly for Muslims. At this point in time it is in the Muslim community’s interest for the UK to be a strong part of Europe, not the 51st state of the US,” said Anas Takriti, former head of the Muslim Association of Britain.
The creeping intolerance that is feeding the success of the far right appears to be driven by fears about national identity.
PM Tony Blair has overseen a raft
Whether the debate is about becoming politically one with Europe or accepting more immigrants, the bottom line appears to be anxieties about what it should mean to be British. Increasingly, notions perceived as foreign, such as Islam, are being rejected.
Government policy is chiefly to blame, according to Denis Fernando of the National Assembly Against Racism.
“Legislation is setting a context in which the whole idea of immigration is called into question and in turn the idea of multiculturalism itself,” he said. “Government policy is allowing the right wing media off the leash.”
In recent years, Britain‘s right wing press has latched on to rightward movements in legislation on asylum seekers, racial integration, and security, generating several social scares.
In April the British government outlined plans to introduce identity cards for the first time in 50 years, in response to the perceived threat from “terror attacks” and illegal immigration.
Rioting by young Muslims in northern cities during the summer of 2001, the airliner attacks on the USA in September the same year, and fears about illegal immigration or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ have all come together to produce a rise in anti-multiculturalism.
“There’s a trend across the EU but Britain is not at the leading edge of the curve, we’re at the end”
Tariq Modood, Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship
Parties like the UKIP have benefited. “Certainly there is a very big anti-immigration vote at the moment,” believes Tariq Modood, director of Bristol University‘s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship.
“And UKIP doesn’t exactly stand for a position that one could call broadly multiculturalist.”
The rightward shift in Britain mirrors a movement across the continent on issues surrounding minority communities. But for the moment at least Britain has been spared the intemperate headscarf ban recently introduced in France and the ‘integration’ tests of the Netherlands.
“There’s a trend across the EU but Britain is not at the leading edge of the curve, we’re at the end,” believes Modood.
“I don’t think one should be complacent about the rise of UKIP but I wouldn’t want to read too much into it. The situation is not particularly good but it is certainly not time to write panicky analyses.”