LONDON // An avowed anti-Islamist has been elected leader of a major political party in Britain. Lord [Malcolm] Pearson of Rannoch was named as the new leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) at the weekend, after convincingly beating four other hopefuls in a vote among party members.
Although Ukip does not have any MPs in the national parliament, it attracted the second-highest number of votes behind the Conservatives in European elections held over the summer. In choosing the 67-year-old peer to succeed Nigel Farage - who stepped down as leader to concentrate his efforts on winning a parliamentary seat in next spring's general election - members have opted for a man determined to tackle Islamic fundamentalists and, according to his critics, much more.
Lord Pearson courted controversy in February this year when he invited the right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders to the House of Lords to show his film Fitna, a 17-minute video criticising Muslims and what Mr Wilders describes as "the creeping tyranny of Islamisation". Jacqui Smith, then home secretary, banned Mr Wilders from entering the country when he arrived at Heathrow. In September, a legal challenge succeeded in overturning that ban and Mr Wilders entered the UK for a meeting with Lord Pearson.
Ukip's new leader is now expected to broaden the party's direction, hitherto limited to urging Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, to include campaigning against Islamic fundamentalism and in favour of tougher immigration policies. A Ukip source told The Times: "You are going to see a quite a lot stronger position from us. Nigel [Farage] has always been afraid of the Islam thing backfiring. But the [far-right] British National Party are taking ownership of issues that have not been addressed by Labour, the Conservatives or the Lib-Dems and they need addressing."
The Independent headlined its election story: "Lord Pearson plays the Islam card to win leadership of Ukip". Lord Pearson, an Eton-educated, self-made millionaire who used to belong to the Conservative Party and was made a peer by the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, spelt out his views on Islam when he attended a meeting in Washington last month. Asked how much time he believed that Britain had before it lost control of its cultural identity, he said in a video recording: "What is going to decide the answer to that is the birth rate. The fact is that Muslims are breeding 10 times faster than us.
"I do not know at what point they reach such a number that we are no longer able to resist the rest of their demands, but if we do not do something now within the next year or two, we have, in effect, lost." When challenged later about his remarks, he insisted that he was only talking about Islamic fundamentalists. "One is talking about the violent end of the spectrum," he said. Mehdi Hasan, the New Statesman's senior politics editor, describes Lord Pearson as "odious".
"Defenders of Pearson would argue that his fear is of Islamism or 'radical Islam', and not mainstream Islam as a whole, or all Muslims," he says. "However, this disingenuous defence falls apart on examination of this video in which the Ukip peer, aside from railing against the 'growing threat of Islamism' and 'the threat that faces us from violent Islam', argues that Britain is under threat because 'the Muslims are breeding 10 times faster than us'.
"His true colours have been revealed. It is not 'violent Islam' that exercises him; it is the presence of Muslims - all Muslims - in Britain. "And I'm sure I don't need to tell you that his alarmist and ill-informed predictions about the Muslim birth rate, and the demonising and dehumanising language, mirror the language employed by the far right about the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s." However, Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP), said that Lord Pearson's views were identical to that of the BNP. Mr Griffin pointed out that his party had released a cassette tape titled: "Islam - a threat to us all" eight years ago.
"Comments such as those made by Lord Pearson clearly place him in the BNP camp of thinking on Islam as well as the EU, which are the two most important issues of our time," Mr Griffin continued.
He added that the BNP seemed Lord Pearson's "natural home". Mr Griffin said: "Lord Pearson remarked in that video of how well the BNP had done in the recent elections. While we know that he must mouth the stereotypical anti-BNP mumblings, he is aware that the BNP is a growing force directly as a result of the immigration invasion." Mr Griffin said that, if Lord Pearson's views were genuine and "not some passing hot air, then the BNP would have to give serious consideration to co-operation with Ukip".
It is an overture that Lord Pearson looks likely to reject. After being elected with 48 per cent of the vote, he said: "My ambition is for Ukip to do well enough at the next general election so that we can force a hung parliament and a realignment in British politics." He also revealed that, after Ukip had beaten Labour into third place in June's European elections, that he had made an offer to the Conservatives that his party would not contest the next general election in return for a written pledge that a Tory government would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which creates a more powerful European Union set-up.
The Conservatives rejected the offer. Mark Francois, their shadow Europe minister, said: "We don't make policy on the basis of secret deals with other parties; we decide our policies on the basis of what is right for the country. As we have said, a made-up referendum after ratification would be pointless." Ed West, a columnist on The Daily Telegraph, wrote on Saturday: "I imagine Ukip will now probably make immigration and radical Islam as much their thing as Europe, and move closer to the Dutch Freedom Party, whose leader Geert Wilders is an ally of Pearson.
"It will play well to the public, many of whom are horrified about the direction the country is taking, and who want to physically puke every time they see a Westminster MP on television, but who are not prepared for the mental leap of voting for the BNP." The current UK fertility rate is about 1.9, which would mean that, if Lord Pearson's assertion were true, each Muslim mother would have to have 19 children.
Official estimates indicate that Pakistani-born (ie, mainly Muslim) women currently have three times more children than indigenous British mothers. But studies in both Europe and the US show that initially high fertility rates among migrant groups drop to the national norm, often within one generation. firstname.lastname@example.org