Britain’s European elections are in three weeks, with the right-wing UK Independence Party predicted first place.
This blog’s core readers aren’t likely to vote for them, but the party has startling support in parts of UK secularism. Anne Marie Waters, who serves on the National Secular Society’s board of directors, was this month announced as UKIP’s 2015 candidate for Basildon, joining supporters like Pat Condell. (Her site now voices rather sudden fears about ‘erosion of British democracy and identity as a result of our membership of the European Union’.)
Given UKIP’s policies, I have questions for Waters and secularists tempted to vote for them.
1. What will secularists do without human rights laws?
The European Convention on Human Rights was a key part of recent years’ court success against homophobic B&B owners, and was cited initially in the NSS’s 2012 case against council prayers. UKIP want Britain to withdraw from it.
The Human Rights Act 1998, modelled on it and passed by Labour to make filing human rights cases easier, is cited frequently – not least by Waters – as demanding abolition of the UK’s 80-plus sharia courts; it’s also referenced by critics of state-maintained ‘faith’ schools. UKIP want to repeal it. (In a likely case of far-right influencing so-called centre-right, the Conservatives have now pledged to do so if reelected.)
Britain, unlike the US, is not constitutionally secular. Without an establishment clause dividing religion and state, these laws are the most powerful we have prohibiting religious privilege and abuse. This renders them essential to work like the NSS’s: scapping them as UKIP propose would make campaigns like those above inordinately harder if not impossible.
2. With Ofsted gone, what will stop fundamentalist schools?
The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) does exactly what its name implies, inspecting schools on everything from teaching to pastoral care – a remit which includes maintaining satisfactory science lessons, sex education and social diversity, areas mounting fundamentalism threatens.
While different schools have varying degrees of exemption from Ofsted’s rules, religious ones among them, and there’s evidence it’s granted some extremists far too much leeway, its watchdog role keeps many in check. According to a recent Guardian report, the current government’s ‘free schools’ – often religious, startable by anyone and with no requirement for qualified teachers – fail inspections at three times the average rate; the Office is currently investigating Islamists’ leaked plot in Birmigham to gain control of city schools.
The logical need from a secularist viewpoint is for more robust deployment of Ofsted’s powers. UKIP’s latest manifesto, meanwhile, promised ‘Ofsted will be abolished’, opening potential floodgates to a tidal wave of religious malpractice. (Perhaps on science teaching specifically, we shouldn’t have expected much: it also boasts the party, which ‘look[s] favourably on home education’, is the first ‘to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.)
3. What do UKIP votes mean for a secular state?
The 2010 manifesto further states UKIP ‘oppose disestablishment of the Church of England’; around the same time, their website added ‘and believe the Monarch should remain Defender of the Faith – faith being the Church of England.’
The web page in question is now empty, and leader Nigel Farage has publicly distanced himself from the manifesto, arguing that since he wasn’t in office in May 2010, its doesn’t reflect UKIP under him. (He fails to mention that he was, in fact, leader from 2006 to 2009.) Current events suggest, however, that change is unlikely.
When David Cameron, amid cabinet praise for the Church of England, used his Easter message to declare ‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’, Farage replied on behalf of his party:
We have been saying for years that we should be more muscular in our defence of Judaeo-Christian culture, and after all, we have a Christian constitution. The Church of England is the established church of this country. What Cameron is doing, once again, was really mimicking what UKIP have been saying.
What happens, as such a party gains support, to prospects for a secular state?
4. What’s UKIP’s record on religious sexism and homophobia?
The NSS has long made equality and human rights a keystone of its work. Many self-declared secularists supporting UKIP and other far-right groups, in fact, do so ostensibly out of commitment to these goals – in particular, to ‘save’ women and gay people from invading Muslims. Beside opposing key laws that safeguard them against religious abuse, then, what’s UKIP’s record on LGBT and women’s rights?
In 2012 David Coburn, spokesperson for the party’s National Executive Committee, described government same-sex marriage support as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’. In 2013, all but one of UKIP’s MEPs voted to halt progress on a motion in the European Parliament for increased provision of reproductive rights and women’s sexual health information. (The NSS lobbied for the bill; religious groups opposed it.) The exception was deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who appears not to have been present. Nuttall himself belongs to the mainly religious Society for the Protection Unborn Children and has spoken at their meetings. SPUC calls for a ban on all abortions, as well as numerous forms of birth control.
UKIP’s candidates, councillors and MEPs have furthermore called female audience members sluts whose place was cleaning fridges, called feminists ‘shrill, bored, middle class women of a certain physical genre’ and denied ‘the impossibility of the creationist theory’, called bisexual and transgender people part-time homosexuals, blamed floods on gay marriage and promised to scrap ‘politically correct laws’ that ‘made it possible for lifestyle choices to be placed above religious faith’. These may be individual views rather than policies, but is a party that attracts such people in large numbers good for secularists?
UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular by nature; there are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists. Their mission is in zero-sum conflict with those of groups like the NSS, in whose place I’d be concerned to have their members on my council of management.
Update 30/04/14: Waters has now resigned.