The transition of Anne Marie Waters from secular campaigner to far-right idol poses some uncomfortable questions. But we cannot ignore them, and any defender of religious privilege who believes Waters mere name can become a way to silence rational secular argument should recognise that they are weakening their own position and strengthening hers.
A leadership election in UKIP, that assortment of odd-balls which passes for Britain’s hard-right political party, is the kind of thing which should have any sane person turning the page. However, much as I’d prefer to ignore the contest that’s just getting underway, that feels too easy when the field contains Anne Marie Waters, a woman with a history of determined campaigning for just the kind of secular causes which I call my own. What’s more, with the theophilic left already using Waters as a way to cast all secular argument as unacceptable far-right demagoguery, there’s an urgency to making a clear-eyed assessment of Waters and of her strange political journey to UKIP contender.
Waters is an out lesbian and for several years was a high-profile campaigner against religious power in the public sphere, highlighting how it limits the rights of women and of gays. She has been a council member of the National Secular Society and worked as a spokesperson for One Law for All, arguing against the development of a parallel Sharia legal system and for the equal legal rights of all British citizens. Her activism was, undeniably, energetic and occasionally brave, facing up to campus intimidation at Queen Mary, University of London.
“Waters is an out lesbian and for several years was a high-profile campaigner against religious power in the public sphere, highlighting how it limits the rights of women and of gays. (…). Sometime in late 2013, however, and after she had failed to be adopted as a Labour parliamentary candidate for Brighton Pavilion, Waters’ politics took a darker turn”
Sometime in late 2013, however, and after she had failed to be adopted as a Labour parliamentary candidate for Brighton Pavilion, Waters’ politics took a darker turn. In short order she left One Law for All, setting up a detractive imitator Sharia Watch UK, and became an intimate of various far-right rabble rousers from across Europe, founding a UK branch of the German anti-migrant movement Pegida with the notorious Tommy Robinson. In a tactical tack back to the mainstream, she then left Pegida to join UKIP and ran unsuccessfully as a councillor, and as a candidate in the 2015 general election, before announcing her leadership bid after the resignation of Paul Nuttall in June 2017. It’s a testament to the confusion of contemporary politics that UKIP’s libertarian wing, with their enthusiasm for dismantling the NHS, regard Waters’ Trump-style combination of economic and anti-immigrant nationalism as a toxic move to the extreme right. It thus remains possible that her candidacy will be blocked when the party’s Executive announces the final list of candidates in mid-August.
Without doubt, Waters’ recent antics are an embarrassment to her former associates and their supporters. The hard left commentator who compared Waters to the ‘ignorant and extreme’ Tommy Robinson back in 2013 has some reason to be smug. However, the attempt to use Waters’ personal example to position the ideas and arguments of secular organisations as inherently proto-fascist and fit only for censorship is nothing but dishonest. With the UKIP election barely underway, the respected news website Politics.co.uk has already carried an opinion piece by Steve Harman which does just this. The spectre of Waters as a British Marine Le Pen is blamed firmly on the mainstream media whose failing, in Harman’s view, has been to treat seriously the critiques of Islam’s political influence which the now discredited Waters was making as a representative of the National Secular Society and One Law for All. Harman discounts the explicitly stated intention of such critiques, to protect individual citizen’s rights from the agendas of those in religious authority, and views them instead as an attack on British Muslims and as preliminaries to the ravings of an unmasked far-right. Even Jack Straw’s comments from 2006 on the full veil as a potential hindrance to community relations are cited as, in effect, a truckling with the Front National. The conclusion drawn, inevitably, is that discussion of religious power should be excluded from mainstream commentary.
“However, the attempt to use Waters’ personal example to position the ideas and arguments of secular organisations as inherently proto-fascist and fit only for censorship is nothing but dishonest”
If Waters’ candidacy goes forward this specious argument will no doubt be used a lot more as a way to side-step and silence unwanted perspectives. If she wins, and that’s unlikely but by no means impossible, things will be a lot worse. Given these circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to hope that the whole nasty business will simply go away, courtesy of Waters’ disqualification by the UKIP Executive or – heaven help us – heavy defeat by its electorate. However, pleasant as that would be, it evades some of the tougher questions posed by the Waters story; in particular, whether there are real continuities between the positions of Waters the one-time secular campaigner and Waters the UKIP far-right outrider?
It is fair to say that from 2014 a number of far-right tropes appeared in Waters’ rhetoric which had no part in her previous public existence. Most obvious is an extreme hostility to immigration and to some immigrants: her UKIP leadership manifesto’s promise of a temporary freeze on immigration gives a public face to earlier comments, let slip to an undercover journalist for the Daily Mirror, that ‘a lot of people need to be deported’. This is a far cry from One Law for All’s close and inclusive work with Muslims, ex-Muslims and asylum seekers. Waters’ manifesto also promises a ban on the burqa; a use of the law to impose cultural codes which is opposed by the National Secular Society. Moreover, whilst an apparent sympathy for the victims of child marriage, FGM, and honour violence animated some of her earlier work, these issues have now been reset as the sole constituent of an allegedly tough law and order policy, retrospectively undermining those earlier protestations of concern. Ironically, Waters’ secular past is something she now feels the need to defend to UKIP’s church-and-king-minded base.
“If Waters’ candidacy goes forward this specious argument will no doubt be used a lot more as a way to side-step and silence unwanted perspective. If she wins, and that’s unlikely but by no means impossible, things will be a lot worse”
Yet it would be too easy to see this as the whole story. There are also, undeniably, continuities in Waters’ positions. She continues to argue, for example, against the operation of Sharia councils, and it would be hard for any liberal secularist to disagree with the declaration in her manifesto that ‘freedom of religion does not permit the fracturing of the jurisdiction of the British state. Religion must be subject to the law of the land, not vice versa’. The point here, it seems to me, is to remain honest and consistent in the face of Waters’ apostasy and critics’ mischief making. It can’t be pretended that Waters had nothing to do with secularism in her past or that this is not the inspiration for at least some of her current positions. Where these positions fall outside the tenets of liberalism and tolerance she should be condemned (as Mariam Namazie, her former colleague at One Law for All, has done); where she remains inside those tenets, all well and good, though elegant phrase-making in her manifesto cannot hide the unpleasant odour from her new political associates.
Whatever happens in UKIP’s leadership election, secularism’s antagonists will be enjoying the Anne Marie Waters story for a while yet. However, they should be cautious. Predictably, Waters manifesto is filled with Trump-style claims to be ‘saying the unsayable’ in a censorious age. Any defender of religious privilege who believes Waters mere name can become a way to silence rational secular argument should recognise that they are weakening their own position and strengthening hers.