Nigel was my hero.
I loved him for how, almost singlehandedly, he had rescued the country from the controlling clutches of Jean-Claude Junker and the power-mad dead-hands in Brussels.
I respected him for how, single-mindedly, he had toured the country for 20 years speaking against our membership of the EU. I first heard him in a Tottenham backstreet ten years ago before I joined UKIP. The meeting had been organised by Winston McKenzie, then UKIP’s Commonwealth spokesman, but it was a cold wet night and only 10 people attended. Nevertheless Nigel was charismatic, passionate and funny. I was impressed.
I admired him for how he was so committed to the cause that he rolled with the punches, took insults, opprobrium and debilitating ‘racist’ accusations on the chin, and still came back for more – usually smiling and with a pint in his hand.
I even defended him when he resigned as party leader immediately after the 2016 referendum, leaving the party bereft and adrift. “Nigel has given his all,” I pointed out to his UKIP critics. “He has earned a holiday and a break from politics.”
The first inkling that Nigel wanted to stay involved in UKIP internal affairs despite his resignation came when he agreed to be Henry Bolton’s political referee during the September 2017 party leadership election. I was David Kurten’s campaign manager and was frustrated that Nigel should give this huge and unfair boost to Henry, alone of all the candidates.
My jaw also dropped with disappointment when, in January this year, Nigel argued that there possibly should be a second referendum to stop the whining and whingeing of Remoaners like Nick Clegg and Tony Blair. It seemed like betrayal. After all UKIP’s hard work, Nigel was now wobbling under pressure from lightweight busted flushes Clegg and Blair. My hero’s halo was beginning to slip.
But the show-stopper came in February when Nigel again publicly backed the incompetent lothario Henry Bolton. Bolton’s antics and arrogance were destroying UKIP before our eyes, yet Nigel fatuously compared him to Jeremy Corbyn and said Bolton could be the reforming saviour of the party.
Fortunately members ignored him and at the Birmingham EGM the same month they voted for Bolton to pack his bags. Nigel’s nominee was sacked after just five ineffective and embarrassing months in the job.
The party, though, was left a laughing-stock and nearly bankrupt. And Nigel’s halo was hanging by a thread.
Without personal ambition and from an honourable sense of duty, Gerard Batten stepped into the breach and promptly raised enough money to save the party and force London Mayor Sadiq Khan to eat his spite-fuelled words. He appointed a new chairman and treasurer and new deputy leaders, and started to clear up Henry’s mess and steady the ship.
And as the party’s former Brexit spokesman, he ensured exiting the EU remained the party’s core issue and his personal priority.
But Gerard is also known as a proponent of free speech and a critic of Islam, although he will never countenance any form of Muslim-bashing.
In this context former Islamic extremist and founder of the Quilliam Foundation, Majid Naawaz, draws an important distinction between Muslimophobia (hating Muslims as people) which is not acceptable, and Islamophobia (hating Islam the religion) which is. It’s a distinction that is vital in a democracy, and one that I suspect Gerard strongly supports.
When Gerard tweeted recently that ‘Islam is a death cult’, his Twitter account was immediately suspended and his free speech curtailed. But it’s a valid if contentious view about Islam that ought to be open for free debate, not closed down.
And indeed, if Gerard had instead described Christianity or Communism as a death cult, nobody would have batted an eyelid. Read for instance the extraordinary abuse that celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins heaps on the Jewish and Christian God in his best-seller, ‘The God Delusion’- insults he repeats on stage and screen while chortling at his own cleverness. I’ve seen him.
And read the Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan stinging critiques of Communism.
The blasphemy laws that protect Islam alone from criticism and that prevail in official circles and the media as well as on Twitter, have caught others in their net too. Lauren Southern was banned from the UK as a result of the adjectives she applied to Islam’s Allah – adjectives that are much milder than those Dawkins applies to Christianity’s God.
And when Tommy Robinson held up a Quran on Piers Morgan’s Good Morning Britain TV show and said it is a violent and accursed book – which is virtually exactly what Dawkins says about the Bible – Morgan went apoplectic, the media went into meltdown and the show was referred to Ofcom.
More recently Robinson was banned from Twitter too. Gerard decided therefore to join his ‘Day of Freedom’ protest outside Downing Street on 6th May to speak up for free speech and the right to criticise Islam freely as we do other religions and ideologies.
Robinson is no saint and certainly he has in the past strayed into Muslimophobia which is utterly unacceptable. Muslims are our fellow citizens and deserve respect like everyone else.
But the aim of the protest was right so Gerard spoke powerfully from the platform. He also spoke at last weekend’s massive (and global) #FreeTommy protest after Robinson was suddenly arrested, convicted and jailed all within five hours at Leeds Crown Court.
Some party members are wary of the UKIP association with Robinson and the apparent tilt of the party towards the free-speech Right. Jim Carver MEP quietly resigned. Other members have emailed Gerard their concerns and anxious senior colleagues have no doubt spoken to him in private. That’s the right route, and I have little doubt the leader will take on board what they say.
But Nigel does party allegiance differently. He has toured UKIP branches openly criticising the association with Robinson and objecting to any anti-Islam stance – views that were rapidly republished on social and old media .
Any private suggestions or quiet words of advice from the former leader to the current one? None. Instead it’s the Farage foghorn, sounded with the deliberate intention of stirring up party disunity.
Having nearly destroyed the party by foisting Henry Bolton on us, it looks like Nigel is having another go with his wrecking ball by publicly undermining the leader who rescued us from that disaster.
Yet he could instead do something really constructive and useful. Brexit is in crisis. He might follow the example of Gordon Brown during the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. The former prime minister came out of political retirement, toured Scotland with a series of barnstorming speeches and, by various accounts, turned public opinion and saved the day. Nigel could do likewise for exiting the EU and we’d love him for it.
Meanwhile his halo now lies in the dust and my hero has made himself zero.
If Nigel cannot show some loyalty to the party and its present leader, he should renounce his party membership and butt out.