I have been profoundly disturbed by the content of my email inbox in recent weeks. These emails say things like: ‘I used to vote Conservative but I want to support Tommy Robinson, who is a patriotic Englishman unfairly jailed by your Government.’
There is a short response to this, which is that he not a patriot, he is a thug with a string of convictions and his recent legal problems stem from his deliberately ignoring a court order stopping him jeopardising a sex-grooming trial.
The appalling Robinson is a symptom of the growth of the so-called alt-Right, which is a hip-sounding way of saying the extreme Right.
This is a worldwide phenomenon. Around the world, including in the UK, a version of Right-wing politics is growing that is based on dividing societies.
The best slogan Conservatives have always used is ‘One Nation’. You cannot have One Nation if British people who happen to have a particular religious belief or ethnic background are excluded. So no true Conservative can be a racist or religious bigot.
‘My fear now is that Boris is being turned into a martyr by the alt-Right. Some commentators have urged him to “go the full Trump”,’ says Damian Green
What then to make of the sound and fury about Boris and the burka?
The controversy has centred on his ‘jokes’ about Muslim women looking like letterboxes and bank robbers.
While I disagree that it amounted to a breach of party rules – it was an MP commenting on a current political issue, and if we can’t do that, what are we for? – it was right for Party Chairman Brandon Lewis to ask for an apology.
At least Boris was right to also say in his column that banning the burka would be wrong.
It is unBritish to start telling women what they can and can’t wear. It would immediately create a group who want to be martyrs, and this would turn into the most colossal waste of police time.
My fear now is that Boris is being turned into a martyr by the alt-Right. Some commentators have urged him to ‘go the full Trump’.
They want him to be the frontman for this type of politics, shooting from the hip and always choosing the populist option.
This would be a disaster, for him and the Conservative Party. The Conservatives must never give the impression we exclude any group of British citizens.
Party Chairman Brandon Lewis asked Boris Johnson to apologise for his comments
Boris used to realise this – when he relied on the votes of Londoners to elect him as Mayor for an eight-year term.
Then he was a liberal-minded, modern Conservative, who did not hanker after turning the clock back.
He embraced the lifestyles of the many religions and races who come to London.
His stance helped to blot out memories of previous Boris howlers, such as his extraordinary reference to ‘piccaninnies’ in one column, which no one could deny was offensive. He must remain immune to the siren voices of the alt-Right.
They want him to ditch liberal Conservatism to chase after the support of those who want to divide our country, and who specifically want to exclude all British Muslims from the mainstream of British life.
I am particularly concerned by reports that President Trump’s sacked adviser Steve Bannon is forming a Europe-wide far-Right campaign group – and has been in touch with Boris.
I hope that no Conservative politician, including Boris, is taking advice from him about how the Conservative Party should behave.
This would be a disastrous path for the party, and, more importantly, for the country.
There are indeed two groups of people who say you cannot be a Muslim and a patriotic Brit.
The first are the Islamist extremists who reject Western democracy and our values. The second are the far–Right extremists such as Tommy Robinson who thrive on conflict.
No democratic politician should pick a side in the fight that both these horrible groups want. They are both wrong. We should oppose both.
Boris Johnson (left) remarked that the burka (right) looked ‘ridiculous’, leading people to call for an apology from the former foreign secretary
If people are tempted to support the far-Right because they hate terrorism we should be explaining to them that it is more important than ever to stick by our British traditions of democratic tolerance and free debate that make us better than the terrorists.
Ridiculing the small minority of Muslim women who cover their faces is absolutely not the way to persuade them that they should stop doing so.
We want them to play a full part in our community life.
To do that we need to demonstrate why the British values that Islamist extremists reject are the best way to defend the interests of Muslim women. This is too important a task to be risked for a joke or two spicing up a newspaper column.
One of those British values is the need for robust but polite debate on sensitive issues.
That is threatened today by both the hard-Left and the hard-Right.
It is also increasingly threatened by the standard of political exchanges on social media, which too often feel like a group of playground bullies piling in.
It is time for mainstream politicians to hold on to our values and not be tempted to placate extremists.
We are at our best, as Boris showed when Mayor of London, when we combine our belief in free markets with a relaxed, socially liberal, attitude to society as it changes.