European Council expects full negotiations to start in June as planned despite Theresa May calling for snap UK election.
The United Kingdom Independence Party, whose activism and electioneering just led Britain out of the European Union, is now lost without a cause. Close to four million Britons voted for UKIP at the last general election, for which the party returned only one Member of Parliament.
UKIP had two enormous boons for their cause: a hugely charismatic leader, probably the most capable and cynical politician of his generation, Nigel Farage; and a singular enemy, the European Union.
The party was therefore able to pull off the political coup of the century. UKIP brought the EU, an issue which was barely a priority to most UK households, to the fore. Then they up-ended the European status quo in place since the World War II, by leading Britain out of the Union.
Now, with their guru Farage busy photographing himself beside the crass Donald Trump, stubbornly low polling, and the EU already in the rear view mirror, UKIP is floating on the seas of political oblivion. It faces one question from the electorate – what is UKIP now for?
UKIP members were infamously derided by former Prime Minister David Cameron as “fruitcakes”, yet it was these fruitcakes that forced No 10 into holding a referendum on Europe. UKIP’s logo was and still is an outdated yellow pound sign against a purple backdrop – as if the battle for whether Britain should join the eurozone, which was launched in the late 1990s, was still being fought today. As many a bored political reporter can attest to, UKIP party conferences are famously attended almost exclusively by old-age pensioners. It was always easy to laugh at UKIP.
Nevertheless, the party is clearly the most impactful in Britain since the World War II. What other party can claim to have pulled off such a significant national change, with such profound international ramifications, as Brexit?
A week ago, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election for June. In response, UKIP delivered a weekend policy salvo of blistering religious prejudice.
‘Burqas and sharia’
It has now become clear that UKIP is simply a party of rebels against any cause – so long as they regard it as foreign. They are now putting their heads together to vilify not just distant Eurocrats and a generalised conception of immigration, but a specific religious minority. In the 1930s, those kind of people would have targeted Jews. Now, they target Muslims.
UKIP wants to “pass a law against the wearing of face veils,” ignoring that only a tiny minority of British Muslim women wear these and that, albeit anecdotally, as no official statistics are collected, this number appears to be low.
What is happening here is clear. UKIP, the ultimate Brexit party of post-Brexit Britain, has lost its raison d'etre. Nobody knows what UKIP is for any more.
UKIP members also wants to “explicitly ban” what they call “sharia”, which they have failed to define. Nevertheless the party claims sharia “undermines women’s rights”. UKIP undermines women’s rights, too – the right of Muslim women to use their own divorce courts, a right that UKIP wants to strip.
UKIP was asked over the weekend whether it wants to ban Jewish courts as well. The party’s leader, Paul Nuttall, replied that “The Orthodox Jewish population is falling, it’s about a quarter of a million now. The issue surrounding sharia is that the Muslim population is doubling decade on decade.” He then said that “this isn’t an attack specifically on Muslims,” claiming instead, “it’s all about integration.”
Nuttall also wants a “moratorium on new Islamic faith schools until substantial progress has been demonstrated in integrating Muslims into mainstream British society.” UKIP ignores the fact that nearly 20 percent of the top performing 50 schools in the UK are Islamic faith schools.
Only in January, two Islamic faith schools came first and third for the best examination results in the country. Curiously, UKIP had no problem with the 48 Jewish faith schools in Britain, nearly twice as many as Muslim faith schools, nor the 11 Sikh schools nor the five Hindu schools. It was just the Muslim schools UKIP cared about – even if those schools appear rather good at what they do.
‘The integration agenda’
Yet still, the party’s new leader denies they have an anti-Muslim policy. A paper copy of his manifesto, handed out to political journalists with UKIP’s still dated “pound-sign” branding, came with an Orwellian title. They called their anti-Muslim manifesto “The Integration Agenda”.
What is happening here is clear. UKIP, the ultimate Brexit party of post-Brexit Britain, has lost its raison d’etre. Nobody knows what UKIP is for any more.
Now, UKIP does. Again, it is about populism – the potent mixture of popular but sometimes illogical policies.
Make no mistake – by a margin of two to one, the populace of Britain back a ban of the niqab, even if banning veils runs counter to the elected right-wing governments policy of “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
Perhaps the public fear it because, the latest available official statistics suggest, more than half of those charged with terrorist offences in Britain are self-identified Muslims, and because the British media seem obsessed with Muslim above far-right or Northern Irish killings.
The question is whether UKIP-style policies – telling Muslim women what to wear, shutting down high-performing schools, or focusing party strategy on “the other” – will really help.
The party’s manifesto is not one that will ride UKIP into power and government, or perhaps even return them a single MP. The pressure that UKIP is about to place on British Muslims from the sidelines – in much the way they crowed from the sidelines to force through Brexit – is still worth taking very seriously indeed.
Alastair Sloan covers international affairs, politics and human rights for a variety of British newspapers and magazines.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.