A modest proposal

Well, with Brown exiting the stage, the talks on a Lib-Lab coalition are on as I write. And there’s one thing that’s annoying my brain in terms of the TV pundits and what they have to say about the arithmetic, and the prospect of a rainbow coalition.

First, the basic arithmetic. The winning post to get a bare majority in the Commons – taking into account the five abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs – is 323. Labour and the Lib Dems together have 315 – as the pundits point out, a little short, although more than the Tories can command on their own. Clearly the combo would require at least eight additional votes from somewhere.

Where could they pick up eight extra votes? To me, the answer has been obvious all along, but few people seem to have cottoned on to this. Where do you get eight votes? Easy.

You get them from the DUP.

At this point the bien-pensants go spare, at least those who have considered the issue. Because I find it highly amusing how British political correspondents don’t get the basics about this place. There was on Thursday night and Friday morning some talk on the teevee about how Cameron could count on the support of the “Ulster Unionists”. Would that perchance be the UUP led by Sir Reg Empey, which is indeed allied to Cameron? Because that party doesn’t have any MPs. What you’ve got is the DUP.

The pundits, thereafter, have tended to automatically lump the DUP into the Tory column. I assume this is because they’re reading Norn Iron politics on a left-right ideological spectrum, and thereby assuming the DUP have an affinity with the Tories. This doesn’t really work, for reasons I will get onto in the next post. Firstly, let me say that the DUP’s actual record in Westminster is one of wheeling and dealing with whomsoever can get them something they want, and indeed Sammy and Ian Jr have been going around the studios showing a bit of leg. Secondly, the DUP has just come out of an election campaign against Cameron’s local allies, fought on a fiercely anti-Tory basis. So an alignment with Cameron, while it can’t be ruled out, can’t be taken for granted either.

What’s more, this would put rather few demands on the Lib-Lab alliance. This wouldn’t be a question of having the DUP in government – we’re not looking at Sammy Wilson becoming minister for climate change – but of cooperation in Parliament, not voting down the budget and such. Nor do the DUP have any wacky policy demands – most of the stuff they care about is devolved to Stormont. What isn’t devolved is fiscal policy, and what they care about in terms of Westminster is protecting the block grant – this was their main line of attack against the Tories – and maybe getting a little cheque for police widows and such. And again, since Norn Iron is such a small place with a small economy, this would be much cheaper than any deal that might be struck with the SNP or Plaid – English taxpayers would hardly notice it, and it could be passed off as a peace process overhead.

This would probably be made more palatable if we put it in terms of the Norn Iron Grand Alliance, which would mean our thirteen MPs who take their seats collaborating to squeeze advantage out of the hung parliament. It helps that the other five are not averse to Lib-Labbery – the SDLP have taken the Labour whip for decades, Alliance have had close ties with the Lib Dems since the 1970s, and Lady Sylvia Hermon broke with the UUP due to her affinity with Labour. (One presumes there would also be moral support from the five abstentionists. Naomi Long raised this in the Assembly today, and Martin McGuinness was notably warm on the subject.) There are no automatically pro-Tory votes over here – nor, importantly, are there parties competing with Labour as the SNP does.

So, is this likely to happen? I don’t know, although if there is a Lib-Lab understanding it makes perfect sense in terms of the maths. It would, of course, cause conniptions in some of the Grauniad-reading advocates of a centre-left progressive alliance, that such a government would be reliant on hillbilly Paisleyites to get its agenda through. Which is sort of why there’s a part of me that hopes it happens, for thon would be deadly crack. And, let’s face it, a government of Blairites and Orange Bookers couldn’t be dragged any further to the right by the DUP.

Area man unimpressed by Mr Nicholas Clegg, even less impressed by Lord Snooty

Let’s take a brief look at what’s been happening over in Britland, where the main business of the election is. The first leaders’ debate has taken place and, bafflingly, the public seem to have warmed big time to Mr Nicholas Clegg, propelling the Lib Dems up the polls. I don’t really get it, but then I didn’t get the SuBo thing either.

Conversely, I find myself warming these days to Simon Heffer. This worries me a little. I’m not sure if it’s my advancing years or Hefferlump’s, but I couldn’t stand him when he was a brash young Powellite. Now that he seems to have transmogrified into the Telegraph‘s answer to Victor Meldrew, and in particular is pouring copious scorn on “Dave” Cameron, I find him rather entertaining. So, Simon has an idea about why Clegg did so well:

We now know exactly who Nick Clegg is: he is Mr Integrity, the nation’s sweetheart, the only honest man in politics. I had thought the public were a bit brighter than that, and would see through his pious, sanctimonious, oleaginous, not-me-guv display of cynical self-righteousness: but they didn’t. And for that we can only blame the two inadequates with whom he had the good fortune to go in front of the cameras: for they were shocking.

Quite so. Mr Clegg has positioned himself as the anti-politician, helped along by his party having been out of power for nearly a century. And when the public dislike Brown and aren’t sold on Cameron, there’s an obvious gap in the market that Clegg exploited to the full. Helped along, of course, by the performances of his opponents. Say on, Simon:

Mr Brown’s impersonation of a robot, and his projection of all the charm of a caravan site in February, were pretty predictable: but the place where hair was really being torn out yesterday was around poor old Dave. The attempt by this trust-funded Old Etonian (and Old Bullingdonian) to come over as Mr Ordinary was rather tragic: if we have to hear much more about his children’s state school and his family’s experience of the NHS, some of us will need medical attention of our own.

But where he really failed, as could easily have been predicted, was when the economy came up. Let us remember one fact above all others: that Gordon Brown has presided over the greatest economic catastrophe in our country since 1931. And yet, when this subject was raised, the audience regarded his promises on how to put things right as positive and Dave’s as negative. For Mr Brown to come out on top in this is like the proverbial one-legged man winning the arse-kicking contest. It defies belief. Yet he prevailed because the Tories, who went along with Labour’s dire economic policy (“sharing the proceeds of growth”) until banks started going bust, have absolutely no credibility on economic matters. Their policies are, except in one or two details, identical to those of Labour. And when you have a real thing and an imitation to choose from, you choose the real thing.

Hmm. Food for thought there, while Craig Murray has a theory about Cameron’s failure to get his message across:

Cameron is being coached for the debates by the Hon. Anthony Charles Gordon-Lennox, son of Lord Sir (sic) Nicholas Charles Gordon-Lennox, grandson of the Duke of Richmond. The Hon. Anthony Charles Gordon-Lennox is the Tories’ communications guru. Tax dodger in chief Lord Ashcroft presumably thinks the Hon. Anthony is worth the £322,196 pa the Tories pay him.

The Hon. Anthony is, naturally, an old Etonian. This is no laughing matter. Cameron evidently has a visceral need to be surrounded only by people of precisely his own caste. Do we really need an 18th century government? Hence his obsession with tax breaks for the ultra rich. Hence also his inability to communicate anything to anyone who doesn’t think yes is pronounced yaaah.

The Tory front bench does, as it happens, tend to remind one of the denizens of the Drones Club in one of Wodehouse’s lesser works. (Except for Gideon “George” Osborne, who has an uncanny resemblance to that bloke in The Fast Show who was in love with his gardener.) It’s the return of Macmillanism, only without Macmillan’s substance. And you know, “Dave” can be as free as he likes with the glottal stops, whilst Mrs Cameron (the daughter of a baronet and stepdaughter of a viscount) seems to have picked up a distinct Estuary twang from somewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the Tory leadership with a feel for the concerns of the council estate, as opposed to the landed estate. Bring back David Davis, I say.

Finally, the Thunderer takes a rare trip outside the M25 to the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield, where Labour candidate Gloria de Piero continues to draw media attention. To her credit, reporter Camilla Long does seem to realise – in tones that make you wonder how often she gets out of Wapping – that Ashfield is a depressed area with serious problems related to deprivation, as you’d expect from a former coalfield area. There’s a story to be told there, and the candidate may even be keen to talk about that story, but as with previous coverage, our press seem to be fixated on the candidate having massive norks. Yes, we’d noticed them. Gloria’s tits may be hard to miss, but do they really justify so many column inches in the national press? Not for the first time – and yes, I’m looking at you, Ruth Gledhill – I go to read the Times and wonder if I’ve clicked on the Onion by mistake. That paywall can’t come soon enough.

Newspaper astounded to discover that area woman has tits

With a general election coming up and 650 constituencies to choose from, why is the Mail on Sunday particularly preoccupied with the race in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield? I ask merely for information.

To be more precise, the Mail isn’t obsessed with the Ashfield constituency as such. It is obsessed with the candidate chosen by the Labour Party to succeed the retiring Geoff “Buff” Hoon. This is Bradford native Gloria de Piero, a party member since her teens, former party press officer, journalist and well-connected networker. There may be a little celebrity frisson here, as Gloria is coming off a stint as political editor of GMTV, which means that if you used to get up at six in the morning you could see her standing outside the Palace of Westminster in her duffel coat – in the dark, when nobody else was there – to do a “going live” piece to camera. But as celebrity goes… well, we’re not in Simon Cowell territory here.

I have to declare an interest as I knew Gloria slightly back in her days as a NOLS activist. What do I remember about her? She was bright, articulate and energetic; she was down to earth; and she came across as nice, which was memorable as NOLS at the time was defined by Jim Murphy, a man who will never run a charm school. Oh yes, and she had a couple of other outstanding attributes. Even from the other side of a conference hall, you couldn’t miss them.

As I mention, the Mail has had an interest in Gloria for a while, invariably stressing her glamorous image. (Well, relatively glamorous. Vide that duffel coat from the GMTV News Hour; and if she wants to be a Labour MP she’ll have to start dressing like an Avis Rent-a-Car girl. It’s the law.) But now, the Mail has got down to brass tacks. Yes, it’s run a front-page splash on a parliamentary candidate having big tits.

Seriously:

Brown star was a Page 3 girl aged 15: Yesterday she posed with PM, but 20 years ago she was topless model

That was the front-page headline, not of the Sunday Sport, but of the Mail on Sunday. Jesus wept.

Labour’s attempts to add glamour to their Election launch came under fire last night when it emerged that the candidate placed near Gordon Brown in a promotional photo posed topless when she was 15 years old.

The revelation reignites the row over the use of all-women shortlists, when carefully chosen, often glamorous, candidates are parachuted in to safe seats ahead of more qualified local activists.

The second paragraph is what’s technically known as “throat-clearing”, that is a transparent attempt to make it look like a real political story. But back to Gloria’s tits:

The Page Three-style pictures of television presenter Gloria De Piero were taken by a photographic agency in her native Bradford without her parents’ knowledge. Friends say Ms De Piero was seeking to earn some extra money when she posed for the photographs, thought to have been taken in 1988, before her 16th birthday.

So, Page Three “style” pictures. So, she wasn’t actually a Page Three girl then – we’re talking about a young woman who briefly considers modelling as a way of earning money, and poses for a few portfolio photos, one or two of which might have been a bit saucy. It happens all the time.

Such photographs would have been illegal, as she had not yet turned 16.

This may be true, and the age limit for glamour photography has since been raised to 18. But back in the 1980s the boundaries weren’t quite as stringently policed, and a lot of the Page Three phenomenon, then at its height, traded on a “barely legal” aesthetic. Samantha Fox, the biggest name in the business, started topless modelling at 16; one recalls Debee Ashby being expelled from school and unable to do her A-levels after appearing on Page Three.

But party officials deny former GMTV political correspondent Ms De Piero was picked for her looks.

‘Gloria has been a committed Labour supporter for many years,’ said one. ‘The idea that she needed help to become a candidate is nonsense. She is highly intelligent and commands great respect from colleagues in journalism as well as politics. What she did as a teenager is irrelevant. So what if she posed for a few risqué photos?’

Yes, and these photos – assuming they exist, because they haven’t surfaced yet – date from 22 years ago. There is, I’ll grant you, something of an argument about the parachuting of photogenic candidates into safe seats, something that was a huge issue in Labour around 1997 and is a huge issue for “Dave” Cameron’s New Tories today. But the Mail seems more interested in the tits angle:

The revelation will also be an embarrassment to staunch feminist Ms Harman, who has championed all-women shortlists as well as trying to ban semi-naked Page Three girls from newspapers.

Well, one assumes Harriet Harman is a woman of the world. And what of Glenda Jackson’s parliamentary record – she’s not beyond criticism to be sure, but the voters of Hampstead never seemed too perturbed by her having stripped off in Ken Russell films twenty years earlier.

A source close to Ms De Piero confirmed yesterday that she had posed for the topless pictures without her parents’ knowledge when she was 15 years old. The source said: ‘She just decided to do it to earn a bit of money. It was a photographic agency and she knew that the topless pictures could be put out to newspapers.’

Maybe I’m being cynical, but there may just possibly be a bit of damage limitation from Gloria’s side to pre-empt the possibility of those photos suddenly surfacing during the campaign. Certainly, the latter third of the article is complimentary towards her, and could almost come from her own campaign leaflets.

But at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a national newspaper running a front-page splash – with two more pages inside – on “parliamentary candidate has big tits”. One expects this sort of thing on a satirical blog. One even expects it on the Daily Mail website, with its endless stories about top-heavy American celebutante Kim Kardashian – someone virtually unheard of in Britain, but who would generate lots of web traffic from the States – going shopping, eating a salad etc. The 200-plus comments on the Mail website, many of them variations on “phwoar”, would indicate something similar. But all the same, this is a pretty blatant example of Googlejuice churnalism seeping through into the print edition.

And can someone remind me why enormous numbers of women read the Mail? Is it some kind of a masochism kick?

Area woman tries valiantly to make husband look more human

Not for the first time, I find myself agreeing with Cristina Odone. Cris writes:

I’m sick of the feminisation of politics. If it means having to meet Dave’s mum, Gordon’s auntie and Nick’s granny, give me macho politics any time.

Politicians once needed to prove their trustworthiness, efficiency, authority. Apparently these days they need an emotional hinterland to appeal to voters. The quickest way to achieve this is a picture op with a woman they love (wife, mum, sis, anything but mistress will do).

This is apropos of Sir Trevor McDonald’s unchallenging profile of “Dave” Cameron the other night, itself a transparent balancing act on ITV’s part after Gordon Brown’s unchallenging interview with Piers Moron. Two things immediately came to my mind on seeing the programme. The first was, presumably this means Mr Nicholas Clegg will have to be found a teevee vehicle befitting his dignity – perhaps an appearance on Loose Women. The other was, could we possibly have Trev back in a new series of News Knight?

But what captured the headlines was the deployment of SamCam, as the rather dishy Mrs C was pressed into service in her first TV interview.[1] One one level, I agree with Justin that:

If you are the sort of person who approves of, or allows their voting preference to be swayed even a little by, the interventions in our electoral process by the wives of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, you are a moron who should be interned until after the general election.

And further:

Insulting the country’s intelligence by wheeling out the wife seems to be a political tactic for all scenarios. Gordon Brown is seen as too serious by voters so the solution is to push out his wife to say nice things about him. David Cameron is seen as not serious enough by voters so the solution is to push out his wife to say nice things about him. The meagre amounts of dignity and self-respect on display are such you wouldn’t be surprised to see the two leaders being dropped off at the televised election debates by their mums.

Well, quite, but this is not without features of interest. For instance, Cris derides politicians for attempting to appeal to the Mumsnet audience. I don’t actually find this outrageous, because Mumsnet has a very big audience. It also holds out the prospect of politicians coming a cropper, because they don’t realise these mums are a highly demanding audience, and assume they can be fobbed off with talk of your favourite woolly jumper or what biscuits you like to dunk in your tea. The politician patronises those mums at his peril.

And yes, it is dispiriting that instead of “Hello, I’ve got a policy,” the party leaders are offering the electorate “Hello, have you met my wife?” In some ways it must be a function of the political spectrum having narrowed so incredibly, that a personality-driven beauty contest has largely displaced argument over policy. But even so, the sheer vapidity of the exercise is depressing.

Exhibit A: The Trevor McDonald profile followed hot on the heels of another unchallenging profile of Cameron, this time from Andrew Yawnsley, who doubtless has figured out which side his bread is buttered. To the extent that this made headlines, it was due to Tory frontbencher and occasional Wright Stuff panellist Mr Edward Vaizey speculating that at some point in the past Samantha might have voted Labour. That a Tory spokesman denied this is to miss the point. Why do the media assume that the politician’s spouse is under an obligation to agree with him about everything? In the more grown-up age of the 1940s, it was common knowledge that Violet Attlee was a Tory and Clementine Churchill was a Liberal. The sky didn’t fall in. We elect the politician, not the wife. When the wife seeks office in her own right then her opinions come into it, which is why the media’s headscratching over Sally Bercow being a Labour supporter is so silly.

Exhibit B: We actually aren’t talking about demure housewives here, although you’d think we were. Sarah Macaulay was known as one of the best PRs in London before giving it up to be a political wife. Samantha Sheffield has a successful career as a designer – of what, I’m not entirely certain, but I know it’s expensive stuff for a posh clientele. In any case, Sam’s business career is a good deal more impressive than Dave’s brief stint as a PR for Carlton TV.[2] Would you think, from following political coverage in either the broadcast or print media, that these were smart, successful, professional women in their own right? Not for a second. Their political role is to be pretty, well-dressed and usually mute, as if the political class was living in an episode of Mad Men. Perhaps it’s a backlash after the pushy, grasping excesses of Cherie Blair.

Exhibit C: Even when they do speak, invariably on the subject of their husbands’ characters, they don’t get to say anything interesting. If you were a biographer looking for a narrative, you might note that both Brown and Cameron are, coincidentally, bereaved fathers, and both have experience of raising a disabled child. That’s the sort of thing that might tell us something about their characters and outlook on the world. On the negative side, Brown’s volcanic temper is the stuff of legend, and Cameron’s Grocer-like rudeness is becoming so. But from the political wives – and I suppose their loyalty is commendable – the most colour you get is “He’s messy in the kitchen” or “He hogs the remote”. It’s not very illuminating. I’m not a huge fan of the confessional interview genre, but confessional interviews with nothing juicy just look like a waste of time.

God help me, I was never a fan of Iris Robinson, but you couldn’t ever accuse her of not being her own woman. For substantial modern women to transform themselves into props for their husbands, because that’s what the sexist assumptions of the political-media game require… that’s actually even more depressing than desperate husbands pressing the wives into service.

One final thought, on the issue of class. Mrs Cameron is, as we know, much posher than her other half. Dave may have been to Eton, but he’s still the son of a stockbroker, and I think (without consulting Noblesse Oblige) that’s still very non-U. Sam, on the other hand, was not only privately educated (Marlborough) but is the daughter of a baronet, the stepdaughter of a viscount and grew up on a 300-acre Lincolnshire estate. Not only that, but her business clientele is very posh too. Her teenage goth period notwithstanding, you’re talking actual aristocracy there. I can buy the idea that she keeps Dave grounded in an emotional sense, but I find slightly disturbing Mr Vaizey’s idea that he relies on her insight as a sort of woman in the street. Woman on the country estate, perhaps – for the woman on the street, you’d do better to poll Mumsnet readers. And where exactly did a Marlborough girl pick up that distinct Estuary twang?

Rud eile: Congratulations to Naomh Gall. Nice to see Belfast win something for a change.

[1] Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I find it difficult to hear a reference to “Sam and Dave” without thinking of two entirely different people. Hold on, I’m comin’!

[2] Carlton’s programming arm was notoriously pisspoor, but it managed to sustain an enormous corporate headquarters that seemed to function mostly as a halfway house for unemployed Etonians. These two aspects of the company may not be entirely unconnected.

Parachutes ahoy!

My word, isn’t Murder In Suburbia a load of cobblers? Entertaining and strangely addictive cobblers though, much in the Midsomer vein.

But now to more serious matters. There being an election coming up, candidates are being selected all over the place. There are selections of interest here, of course, but I’d like to turn to politics over in Britland for the moment. Since the Labour Party, as is normal in these pre-election periods, is having the odd outbreak of dissent over parachutism, then as the 27th most influential Labour blogger (according to Total Politics) it’s incumbent on me to cover this.

As is the way of these spats in this age of new media, accusations are pinging their way around the Labour blogosphere. National treasure Paul Flynn MP smells a stitch-up in Pontypridd. Meanwhile, Peter Kenyon has been banging on at some length about party selection procedures and the need to avoid even the appearance of stitch-ups. This in turn has provoked Luke Akehurst into performing his standard role as the Labour blogosphere’s resident Chief Wiggum, telling the broad masses, “Move along folks, nothing to see here.”

The thing is that, even if Luke is correct on all the facts, the optics are still problematic. And Luke does, as he always does even when he’s defending the indefensible, put up a spirited argument. From the left’s point of view, it is nice to see John Cryer getting the Leyton and Wanstead nomination, and NUM president Ian Lavery getting the nod for Wansbeck – that should be two more warm bodies for the Campaign Group, and both have I believe been sympathetic to the LRC. Since, with a quarter of Labour MPs retiring, there are an enormous number of new candidates who are largely unheard of, it’s hard for anyone not an obsessive Labour Party nerd to get a sense of who they are. Many, though, do seem to be long-serving local councillors.

Set against that, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that there are seats being squared away for well-connected greasy pole ascenders. Countervailing tendencies are that Labour’s dire straits might put off some of the weaker-willed careerists, and since the Georgia Gould fiasco in Erith the leadership seem to have trod a little more carefully when it comes to managing CLPs. There’s also a question of the sheer volume of new candidates, and of a much more ramshackle Labour organisation than in Mr Tony’s heyday. There are, though, a few cases that are exercising the commentariat.

The selection of Jack Dromey, aka Mr Harriet Harman, to contest Birmingham Erdington may actually be more defensible than some. Dromey, as we know, has been a prominent labour movement figure in his own right for decades. He’s replacing Siôn Simon, who isn’t exactly a horny-handed son of toil and was himself a notorious parachutist of a previous generation. And, what with Erdington being an area that still has some manufacturing jobs, some people might like the idea of being represented by an experienced union official who knows something about manufacturing. Nonetheless, as Peter Kenyon says, it would make sense to reassure local members that there is no stitch-up, doubly so with such a high-profile selection.

The Mail, which loves a celeb angle on politics, has splashed on speculation that glamorous GMTV political editor Gloria de Piero, who has relinquished her broadcasting career to help out an ailing Labour Party, may be lined up for Buff Hoon’s Ashfield seat. This will be a blow to viewers who used to enjoy waking up to Gloria’s ample journalistic talents, but their loss is Labour’s gain. Actually, I do remember Gorgeous Gloria from, oh, it must be fifteen years ago when she was a bright young NOLS activist. She seemed quite nice, which was an achievement in itself back in the days when Jim Murphy bestrode NOLS like a colossus. So she’s smart, articulate, a formidable networker and popular with the lobby – those are qualities that would recommend her to the national party. In Nottinghamshire, she would need to stress long years of Labour activism, a working-class background and a strong Yorkshire accent. Not being Geoff Hoon is an advantage in itself, but it would be up to her to prove that she’s not just another media luvvie. The existence of Caroline Flint-style fuck-me photoshoots may or may not help her cause.

As for Luciana Berger in Liverpool Wavertree, she may well make a good MP some day – when she’s a bit older and has held down a paying job for a few years – but I suggest that somewhere with as strong a sense of place as Liverpool is probably not the best place to parachute in a metropolitan wunderkind. Although, since Scousers still have the donkey-with-a-red-rosette mentality, they’ll doubtless get away with it.

On the other hand, this is a problem “Dave” Cameron seems to be having on a bigger scale. New Labour went through this period of Stalinoid micromanagement of selections with the aim of producing a parliamentary party in Mr Tony’s image – something it was largely successful in – and the helping hand of the All Women Shortlist can’t be underestimated in this. This is how we saw the entirely laudable aim of improving the gender balance in parliament being yoked to the more arguable aim of politically homogenising the party in a Blairite direction.

And so it is with “Dave”. In his case, a more visibly diverse party – even if, as with the US Republicans, the only ethnic faces are on the platform – is a crucial part of detoxifying the Tory brand. I’ve mentioned before the importance of Shaun Bailey as a talismanic figure – it’s not that “Dave” actually thinks Shaun will win over legions of black Londoners to the Tory cause (though if he did, that would be fine), it’s more that Shaun helps prove to middle-class white folks of liberal disposition that the Tories aren’t racist any more. Likewise, I think you’d have to be a very strange gay man to vote Tory because Alan Duncan is in the shadow cabinet, but Alan serves to blunt the charge of homophobia.

Tie this in to the fact that “Dave” doesn’t really like his party very much. He’s been ruthless in using the expenses scandal to rid himself of those Sir Bufton Tufton types whom he doesn’t like and who don’t like him. And to fill in the gaps, you have the Cameroonian A-List, which does not mean that Mr T will be a Tory candidate, but which is a device to shoehorn female and ethnic candidates into winnable seats. That these candidates are fanatical supporters of “Dave” and his agenda for the party is purely coincidental. There have already been grumblings from certain recalcitrant constituency associations, which have a habit of jealously guarding their independence, but by and large the Cameroons have kept a lid on things.

The trouble is that the Tory grassroots, to the extent they still exist, are elderly, almost exclusively white, and with political priorities roughly identical to those of the Daily Mail op-ed pages. They are not in instinctive sympathy with the Cameroon project – though they’ll support “Dave” as long as he looks a winner – and the current modernisation scheme aims to make the parliamentary party, well perhaps more representative of the population, but much less representative of the voluntary party. Presumably “Dave” hopes the makeover will, by osmosis, lead to a different makeup of the party ranks in the future. I would say that’s a pretty big punt.

Balls!

For the sake of my blood pressure, I really shouldn’t listen to the Today programme. But more of that presently.

As the left blogosphere’s designated religion correspondent, a role graciously shared by the incomparable Red Maria, it would be remiss of me not to pass any comment on last week’s No Popery demonstration in London. But to tell you the truth, it looked to me like the damp squib of the season. This was, let’s recall, a mobilisation of various anti-religious organisations along with some militant gays, and to be honest, “anti-Catholics don’t like the Pope very much” is about as newsworthy as “Pope may not be secular liberal”.

But that’s not to say that there was nothing remarkable about it. In fact there were several entertaining eccentricities. Firstly, the demonstrators met up at the Natural History Museum to namecheck Darwin and pat themselves on the back about being, like, all scientific and shit. This seems to have been based on the idea that the Catholic Church is opposed to the Darwinian theory of evolution, which would come as a shock to the late Cardinal Newman as well as at least the last half-dozen popes. (Catholicism’s allegorical reading of scripture has never really had a problem with evolution; that’s Protestant biblical literalism you’re thinking of.) From there, they set out to Westminster Cathedral to try and have a row with the congregation, by such means as brandishing placards featuring Pope Benny’s face with a Hitler moustache drawn on it – that must have seemed absolutely hilarious at the OutRage! office, but was perhaps not the best way to win friends and influence people at Westminster Cathedral. And the final lap was a walk to the Italian embassy to proclaim solidarity with some two-men-and-a-dog outfit in Italy that’s been campaigning to get Berlusconi to unilaterally tear up the Lateran Treaty and annex Vatican City. And all I have to say about that is that if you don’t like the Pope that’s fair enough, but if you think Berlusconi would be an improvement then you need your head felt.

Notable too that despite sympathetic media coverage less than 200 people bothered to turn up; and that atheist icon Maryam Namazie was a no-show, although some Iranian bloke did stand in for her. This is ominous for the No Popery Coalition, because militant secularist demos usually rely heavily on the WCPI to make up the numbers, and while the Hekmatists are up for any opportunity to bash Islam, they really don’t care about Catholicism. One tentatively suggests that, if they want to bolster their numbers come September, they’ll have to block with the Democratic Unionist Party and the Orange Order, although that might be a profound culture shock for Terry Sanderson and Peter Tatchell. Incidentally, I do worry that the enormous respect that Peter has rightly accrued down the years is undermined a little by his insistence on hanging out with these strange people.

But no matter, these guys were not to be discouraged. Over the last couple of days they have been in action again over the Children, Schools and Families Bill – yet another rather silly piece of Orwellian legislation from New Labour – and have been boosted by the support of the Liberal Democrats. It appears that Mr Nicholas Clegg and Dr Death Evan Harris are making a pitch for the militant secularist vote, although I’m not certain that a couple of hundred retired Open University lecturers are much of a vote bank. The proximate cause of this is the question of what’s now known as Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and how this is to be carried out in faith schools. But there’s more to this than meets the eye, and there are three aspects I want to explore – the legislative, the political and the educational. There are a few philosophical issues underlying it as well, but I’ll only be able to touch on these in passing – to go into them in depth would take unconscionably long.

Part the first:
New Labour, like most modern governments, produces far too much legislation and certainly far too much bad legislation. I was very taken by Jamie’s reference to the theory of Chinese Legalism, the idea that the government should legislate to improve the moral condition of its citizens. New Labour, combining as it does deracinated liberalism with a belief in the perfectibility of man, is especially addicted to this, and it’s resulted in a whole series of blockbuster laws that seek to get rid of every social ill you can think of. Harriet Harman’s current Equality Bill is a case in point – since the last (itself rather far-reaching) Equality Act came into force as recently as 2006, and was augmented by the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007, it’s not immediately apparent why yet another substantial piece of equality legislation is so urgently required.

Forgive me for going a bit Ron Paul, but the legislative process would be enormously improved by applying the “better fewer but better” approach, passing fewer but shorter laws that are competently drafted and properly scrutinised. Nor would it hurt to realise that some things can’t be easily sorted out by legislative fiat. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, if schools have a problem with homophobic bullying (and we know they do) it would seem sensible to me for the DCSF to issue schools with guidelines setting out best practice, and to get feedback from schools on the extent of the problem. It’s an executive problem, not one that can be solved by legislation. (It’s worth noting that teenagers involved in homophobic assaults will have spent their entire education under New Labour and will have had the whole gamut of diversity and equality drummed into them. This indicates that we’re dealing with a cultural problem that needs a long-term perspective.)

A further issue is that of what may be termed bullshit autonomy. It’s a bit like Francis Canavan’s critique of liberal thinkers like Ronald Dworkin – that they relied on statist solutions to uphold the supreme good of the autonomy of the atomised individual – but, this being practical politics, it’s the Beavis and Butt-head version. I draw your attention to “Dave” Cameron promising more local decision-making in the NHS, even including workers’ co-operatives. But on electoral hot-button issues like cancer care or IVF, “Dave” says he’ll end the postcode lottery. It obviously not having occurred to “Dave” that localism implies a postcode lottery – because local decision-making means differing decisions being made on the allocation of limited resources. So the line is that we’ll get more localism except where it matters, and where it matters there will be increased uniformity.

Education is an especially obvious example. What with LMS, the gutting of local education authorities, parental choice, academies and all the other shiny initiatives of the last three decades, one would imagine that education would be all localism and diversity. And yet, this is one of the areas most notorious for pettifogging micromanagement from Whitehall. And since the far distant days of Ken Baker, the weapon of choice for enforcing bullshit autonomy has been the National Curriculum.

What’s wrong with the National Curriculum could take up an entire book, but in very general terms it’s both too broad and too narrow. What it should be doing is setting a standard for the study of various subjects. It should define what’s necessary as a minimum, and it should also indicate academic range – for instance, the study of history should involve some sort of variety of topics, instead of the scandalous situation where you can get a history qualification after studying nothing but Hitler. That’s the sort of thing it should do. In practice, it’s a dumping ground for every bit of harebrained social engineering a government wants to try its hand at, via citizenship classes and the like. At the same time, the NC is absurdly prescriptive. Take literacy. Any teacher worth her salt knows there are a whole lot of different ways of teaching literacy, appropriate to different kids, of which synthetic phonics is one. But, thanks to New Labour’s kowtowing to the Daily Mail, synthetic phonics is now compulsory. And now, on the grounds that parents are falling down on the job and the NC has to take up the slack, kids who are already suffering the Tony Blair Literacy Hour face being subjected to the Ed Balls Sex Hour.

Finally, however bad New Labour are on this ground, we can confidently expect Cameron and Gove to be ten times worse.

Part the second:
This is where it’s necessary to separate the substance from the spin. At 8.10 on Tuesday morning the Today programme carried a rather weird interview between John Humphrys and Ed Balls, on the subject of an amendment Balls had introduced to his own bill, which is ostensibly about protecting the religious character of faith schools. More on this below.

The interview was rendered even more weird in that it was preceded by an appearance from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who was arguing in favour of one-size-fits-all statism and against any religious dispensation. This seemed an odd position for a rabbi to take, but then Reform Judaism is a strange beast.

There then followed the main event. Although the bill would also affect the more numerous Anglican schools (though many of these are faith schools in name only), not to mention Jewish, Muslim and Hindu schools, the entire conversation was about Catholic schools, and moreover between two men neither of whom had the faintest idea what Catholic doctrine actually was. (Can we please have Ed Stourton back?) Humphrys was hyper-aggressively demanding of Balls that Catholic schools should not be allowed to be influenced by, er, Catholicism; Balls was positively surreal, simultaneously posing as the defender of faith schools while reassuring Humphrys of his fidelity to secularist orthodoxy by affirming that he would be requiring Catholic schools to provide their pupils with information on how to access contraception and abortion.

The spin on this, too, has been wondrous to behold. Secularist groups (among which we can count the Liberal Democrats) have been spinning furiously that this is all about Teh Gays. You can’t blame them for taking this tack – look at the media success they had a few weeks back when the Pope made a speech that didn’t mention homosexuality once, and we ended up in a “hands off our lovely gays” condemnathon. (And, having tapped into primordial English anti-Catholicism, there was little need to bother with details such as what the guy actually said. Better to have well-meaning liberals getting really angry about what they knew he’d said.) Actually, while homosexuality isn’t irrelevant to all of this, discussion in Catholic fora has been much, much more concerned with abortion. As for the government, prior to the amendment it had been spinning that its religious critics were a bunch of lunatics opposed to any and all sex education (Mark Steel, for one, seems to have accepted this); after the amendment, their spin came back to bite them in the bum as BBC newsreaders were berating MPs for allowing the “opt-out”.

What of the Catholic spin? Well, there hasn’t been any. Archbishop Nichols, Bishop McMahon and the blessed Oona have been conspicuous by their vanishingly low profile. There was a very brief and neutrally worded press release from the CES about the amendment, but that was it. If one were to go by the radio silence from +Vinnie and +Malcolm, one might get the impression that the bishops endorsed what New Labour was up to. Not least because Balls is quoting them in support of his position, with nary a word of contradiction.

Let’s backpedal slightly here, because faith schools under New Labour are a classic example of bullshit autonomy. New Labour loves faith schools, because middle-class parents love faith schools. In the absence of a government with the balls to bring back grammars, the middle classes have identified faith schools as ersatz grammar schools and will go to extraordinary lengths of feigning religious belief so as to get the kids in there. (There is an analogue, though an inexact one, in the way south Dublin is full of middle-class atheists who join the Church of Ireland for schools admission purposes.) New Labour loves faith schools so much that a whole slew of government ministers have managed to get their own kids into exclusive faith schools. But New Labour also remains committed to a long menu of liberal policies that sit uneasily to say the least with actually existing religion. Hence Barry Sheerman’s comment that faith schools were fine as long as they didn’t take the faith bit too seriously. Ideally, New Labour would like the “faith” bit of faith schools to be just a bit of branding, a logo on the school gate. You can get away with that to some extent with the C of E, but the likes of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Jews are a tougher proposition.

So to the SRE proposals, and the Bill tightens considerably the leeway that schools had in designing their own SRE curricula. It would become illegal for any school not to offer SRE – even in primary schools, it is envisaged as being compulsory for the 8-11 age group, which is an odd move for a minister who’s said he’s concerned at how society is sexualising young children. From the age of fifteen, it will be illegal for parents to withdraw their children from SRE, no matter what reasonable concerns they may have about the content of what the school is offering. And this DCSF press release gives a flavour of what would specifically be expected from faith schools:

Q How could this work in practice in a faith school?

Let me answer that by way of providing an example. (This is Ed talkin’ here.)

St Thomas More is a mixed secondary school in Bedford. 60% of students are from a Catholic/Christian background with 40% from a range of ethnic minority groups, including Muslim. It has achieved Healthy Schools Status and has an Outstanding Award for cultural diversity.

St Thomas More delivers SRE through the pastoral programme in conjunction with the RE syllabus. It is led by pastoral tutors, all of whom are well prepared and confident to lead discussion with students across a wide range of SRE issues.

The school has developed a very successful balance of providing students with accurate information within the faith ethos of the school. For example, sex within marriage is promoted as the ideal of the Catholic faith, but the school explicitly recognises the reality that some young people may choose to be sexually active and, if that is the case, they need the knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs.

The school nurse provides students with clear accurate information about the full range of contraception and STIs and details of local services. Chlamydia screening is also offered to students in Years 11 to 13. Pregnancy options, including abortion, are also discussed in a non-judgemental way with the RE syllabus requiring students to understand the spectrum of pro- and anti-choice views on abortion. By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the context of relationships and the school’s values.

Terry Sanderson has been banging on about the rights of children to an “objective” sex education, as if you can eliminate values from such a discussion. In the spirit of Dude Hitchens’ proclamation in God Is Not Great that “my belief is not a belief”, Terry is arguing not for a value-free SRE curriculum, which is impossible in any case, but for one that reflects his values – with the rhetorical rider that “my values are not values, they’re objective”. Ed Balls, who’s much more important in this context than the voluble Mr Sanderson, actually comes closer to a value-free approach with his demand that schools be “non-judgemental”, in other words following the timeworn liberal view that radical personal autonomy is the supreme value.

But this is where liberalism’s insistence on the atomistic individual, at least when it devolves into statist solutions to reinforce personal autonomy, becomes deeply anti-pluralist. And this is where Balls and Sanderson are as one, because what they view as “enlightened”, “neutral” or “non-judgemental” is in fact a value statement, and one that many people don’t agree with. The real difference is that Balls thinks the demands of liberal statism and those of faith can be reconciled by the teacher adding the rider “here’s what we believe, but here are some other beliefs of absolutely equal value”, while Sanderson thinks the teacher should be legally prevented from adding the rider.

For example, let’s say your faith holds up lifelong monogamous marriage as an ideal, while recognising (and being sensitive to) the fact that actually existing society is more complex. Ed Balls wants to make it compulsory for you to say that cohabitation and civil partnerships are of equal value with marriage – so how do you express an opinion without being judgemental? The canonical example is abortion, where Mr Balls seems to think Catholic schools can instruct girls in how and where to obtain abortions – and in a “non-judgemental” manner – as long as they say “but we don’t do that”. One would have thought Archbishop Nichols might have explained to him that for Catholic educators to assist a pupil in obtaining an abortion is for them to be complicit in a grave sin, but then that would presume that a government minister would understand the concept of sin.

And what of the ostensible opt-out? Here is the text of the amendment:

Subsections (4) to (7) are not to be read as preventing the governing body or head teacher of a school within subsection (7B) from causing or allowing PSHE to be taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character.

Note that this replaces the provision in the Education Act 1996 that allows schools to opt out of what they consider to be inappropriate material; and that this amendment is in tension with all the other bits of the Bill stipulating that SRE must be carried out according to the (extremely broad-brush) requirements of “equality” and “diversity”, and it really doesn’t add up to much. What it amounts to in practice is that you can rely on the teachings of Jesus Christ as long as they don’t conflict with the teachings of Ed Balls. If they do, so much the worse for Jesus.

Even if you don’t subscribe to Catholic moral teaching – and I’m certainly not advocating that Catholic doctrine become the law of the land – there are good reasons to be alarmed at these occasional outbreaks of authoritarian Jacobinism from New Labour. I was saying a little while ago about the danger of erecting liberal analogues to Section 28, and this is exactly the sort of thing I meant. Genuine pluralist liberals – and a lot of liberals are shockingly illiberal on these issues – should realise that, at least on the Niemöller principle, it’s often necessary to defend the liberties of people you don’t agree with – as Pope Benny says, tolerance is not the same as approval – and that religious liberties are very often the canary in the mine. Apart from the civil libertarian argument, there’s also the prudential argument outlined by +Rowan at General Synod, when he talked about Section 28 and the danger of enshrining legal norms on disputed moral issues. You may not be worried as long as the government is enforcing liberal nostrums on the education system, but once put that sort of system in place, and should a morally conservative government come to power, the liberals would soon know what end was up.

Part the third:
This post has got far too long already, but I’d just like to quite briefly state my scepticism about whether these brave new plans Mr Balls is putting forward will actually do much good. One might profit from asking why there were much lower teen pregnancy and STI rates forty or fifty years ago, when there was almost no sex education in schools. Not, I hasten to add, that I’m calling for a return to those days.

I mention this because the debate on the CSF Bill has coincided with discussion of the government’s Teen Pregnancy Strategy, which will certainly miss by quite some margin its target of halving teen pregnancies in ten years, even with a bit of statistical jiggery-pokery aimed at making the headline figures look better. Sceptics view the TPS as not much more than a teen abortion strategy. (As the latest figures confirm, teenage birthrates have got very low, but that’s largely thanks to a 50% abortion rate rather than a reduction in teenage pregnancy.)

Many of you will have seen Anna Richardson’s Sex Education Show (aka Britain’s Got Herpes) on Channel 4. This was quite interesting in that it was arguing, on the face of it, that the teen pregnancy and STI crises could best be dealt with by more sex education. But, considering that there’s more sex education now than there has ever been, it might be more pertinent to call for better sex education.

There’s also the aspect of societal pressures. There are enormously strong influences on kids from the mass media, the internet, porn and what have you, reinforced by peer pressure. By far the most powerful vehicle for sex education in Britain is Radio 1’s Sunday Surgery, which always does some brief throat-clearing on the age of consent, and occasionally has on Christian girls who wear purity rings as a sort of sideshow attraction, but in general has a relentless message of “if it feels good, there can’t be anything wrong with it”. Set against this, pupils getting an hour a week in school of what Ed Balls considers to be good sex education – regardless of whether it’s any good – is comparable to government advertising campaigns on alcohol abuse when set alongside the mammoth advertising budget of the drinks industry. It’s a drop in the ocean.

Finally (phew!), there’s a general cultural issue. Holland, as is well known, has extremely permissive laws and as much sex in the media as you could possibly want, but a much lower teen pregnancy rate than Britain. But Dutch society, especially outside of the Amsterdam metropolis, is characterised by tight family units and a level of community cohesion that seems very old-fashioned to Brits. I can’t see the problem being sorted this side of a serious change in the culture, something that no act of legislation can decree.

More thoughts on this from Archbishop Cranmer.

Rud eile: I was immensely tickled to see Cardinal O’Brien slapping down the odious Jim Murphy. More on which here; and Ruthie reports that someone is having trouble with his comments box.

Secular liberals feign shock that Pope doesn’t subscribe to secular liberalism

Titus Oates of the National Secular Society is a very, very angry man. But then, isn’t he always? On the other hand, Ruthie Gledhill is over the moon, and well she should be as a religion correspondent, because it seems Pope Benedict only has to reiterate orthodox Catholic doctrine to generate a media shitstorm. Poor old Rowan Williams had to advocate the introduction of sharia law to get this kind of reaction.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen the kneejerk response from the English liberal left, who it seems only need to hear a word of Latin before the red mist descends and they go all seventeenth-century on us. There are lefty bloggers out there – naming no names – who I know to be decent, tolerant human beings as a rule, but whose line on Catholicism differs not a fierce amount from this guy. And some language being thrown about that, were it applied to another minority, could not inconceivably lead to collars being felt.

Let’s take the temperature down a little. We can usefully start by looking at what Benny said, rather than the spin the London media have put on it. To begin with, it’s important to remember that this was the public address marking the end of the five-day ad limina visit of the English and Welsh bishops, where they review the work of the last five years and map the way ahead. Usually such an address is a mixture of exhortation and backslapping; this one was notably short and blunt, with a remarkable shortage of backslapping. If this is what was said in public, one can only guess at what was said in private. (And that would be nothing compared to the rocket waiting for the Irish bishops when they get to Rome.)

The second thing you have to bear in mind is that, although the Pope sometimes directs remarks to secularists (he did this in the famous Subiaco Address just before his election), his main audience is closer to home, and most of what he says ties in to his project of revitalising Catholic identity. I hate to prick secularist egos – no, actually I don’t – but the Pope does not usually make speeches with the fragile sensibilities of Terry Sanderson or Evan Harris foremost in his mind. In an address to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the primary audience will be the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, and the secondary audience the Catholic clergy, religious and laity of England and Wales.

Finally, it is the Pope’s job to enunciate the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is an organic whole and not a pick ‘n’ mix. Although he is an authoritative figure, what he can actually say and do is constrained by both canon law and pre-existing Church teaching. For this reason you can’t have a liberal Pope – if B16 woke up tomorrow morning, had a rush of blood to the head and decided he wanted to reshape Catholic doctrine into a form acceptable to the Guardian and Channel 4 News, he wouldn’t be able to do it. (Which is why neither Catholic nor Orthodox Churches will ever ordain priestesses, no matter what Harriet Harman has to say on the matter.)

Right, so what was in the address? Emphases and interpolations are mine, of course.

Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.

This, in its entirety, is the controversial passage, and I’ll get back to it shortly. But you will notice that it is phrased vaguely and deliberately so. There is no specific reference to the Labour Party, Harriet Harman or the Equalities Bill; there is no specific reference to gay adoption; there’s actually no mention whatsoever of gay people in the entire address. The bishops will have known what specifically he meant, because it would have arisen from their discussions with him; but he’s more interested here in setting out a general framework.

I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended

If the full saving message of Christ is to be presented effectively and convincingly to the world, the Catholic community in your country needs to speak with a united voice. This requires not only you, the Bishops, but also priests, teachers, catechists, writers – in short all who are engaged in the task of communicating the Gospel – to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, who guides the whole Church into the truth, gathers her into unity and inspires her with missionary zeal.

This is more important in terms of internal Catholic politics. The Pope is telling the English and Welsh hierarchy that their public interventions must be orthodox (they aren’t always), they must speak up strongly and convincingly (often they don’t) and that they must speak with a united voice (good luck with that). It backs up Vinnie Nichols’ leadership – Nichols is not part of the Eccleston Square mafia and, unusually in the English hierarchy, has taken the trouble to read and understand Ratzinger’s thought – but also sets out a benchmark for the Nichols regime. Vinnie may well be getting a red hat later in the year, so this matters for Church politics.

Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society. In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them…

This is a good summation of Benny’s view on the role of religion in the public sphere. He’s written and spoken on numerous occasions about the need to keep church and state from getting too closely entwined – to prevent either one becoming an arm of the other – but has no patience for the sort of liberal monism that seeks to exclude any religious voices from public debate.

Make it your concern, then, to draw on the considerable gifts of the lay faithful in England and Wales and see that they are equipped to hand on the faith to new generations comprehensively, accurately, and with a keen awareness that in so doing they are playing their part in the Church’s mission.

The idea of drawing on the gifts of the laity may well have sent a shiver through the bishops, some at least of whom regard the active laity with horror.

In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.

Indeed not. It’s easy to mock the “Stand Up For Vatican II” crowd, but there is a difference between the Magisterium of the Church on the one hand, and what some trendy liberal says is his personal interpretation of Catholicism on the other. The ideas of the trendy liberal may be more personally congenial to you or me, but that’s why old Joe is the Pope and we aren’t.

There’s some stuff in there about the example of Newman – B16 is a big Newman fan and a beatification is expected in September – before we get to this zinger:

I would ask you to be generous in implementing the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, so as to assist those groups of Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. I am convinced that, if given a warm and open-hearted welcome, such groups will be a blessing for the entire Church.

Benny needs to say this, because he knows there are some in the English hierarchy who regard Anglicanorum Coetibus as a big giant pain in the hole, and would not be inclined to be generous in its implementation. Bluntly, there are two ecumenical projects going on. The English hierarchy are committed to the ARCIC process of having pleasant cups of tea with Anglican bishops and pretending they don’t have serious disagreements; the Pope has a project of bringing traditionally-minded Christians into full communion with Rome where they aren’t already. B16 is supportive of the English hierarchy’s work; the converse is not necessarily true.

That’s an overview. Now, what of the three sentences that have got everyone so het up?

There is the reference to natural law, but the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of lex naturalis, which is barely understood outside of Catholic circles these days (and not very well in them), is a very wide-ranging area indeed, encompassing the broad sweep of Catholic moral and ethical thought. This needs explaining to people who see the phrase “natural law”, read it as “gays”, and then accuse the Pope of being obsessed with homosexuality (and equally to those who really do have a morbid obsession with homosexuality, and will cherrypick what seems congenial from Benny’s comments). The Church’s various peace and justice campaigns come under the natural law rubric; so does its developing teaching on the environment; and the threat of legal euthanasia is something that’s very much in the news. Sexual ethics come into this, surely, but they aren’t the sum total.

Let us now get onto the whole question of sexuality, and I want to have a little dialogue with this quite fair-minded piece from Dave Osler. I want to say at the outset that Catholic teaching on the matter is not the same as Protestant fundamentalist teaching of the Iris Robinson variety, which is based on cherrypicking quotes from Leviticus. The problem with the Catholic natural law approach is not that it’s irrational – if anything it’s too rational, in that it doesn’t lend itself easily to making exceptions for sexual minorities. And, even though things have moved forward in recent decades – see the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar or Angelo Scola on gender – Church teaching does remain within the same basic framework.

That said, I think Dave may be under a slight misapprehension, perhaps referring back to the sin of Onan, as to just how restrictive Catholic sexual ethics actually are. He may be surprised to learn, for instance, that oral or anal penetration are not proscribed as foreplay, just as long as they don’t substitute for the main event. And sex is not merely about procreation but is also about the oneness of the couple – this is why Ratzinger’s critique of libertinism is based on the idea that sex outside a loving relationship, purely for the purposes of physical gratification, is ultimately empty and not truly erotic. Having said that, openness to the possibility of procreation is still regarded as vital, which is why homosexual acts – which deny the possibility of procreation – fall foul of the lex naturalis concept.

Moving on from this, although Catholic teaching continues to described homosexual acts as “objectively disordered”, the relevant CDF documents modify this in a more tolerant direction by stating, for instance, that:

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

Which can lend itself to generous interpretation, such as the expansive and humane approach taken by the impeccably orthodox Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Québec in reaching out to those who have been hurt by the Church in the past. There is a further formal statement in the CDF documents condemning unjust discrimination against gay people, which is obviously open to interpretation. The possibility is allowed that discrimination in certain narrow areas – such as military recruitment, adoption services or the legal recognition of marriage – may be justified in terms of the common good, but also allows space for argument on these grounds.

Now, to the question of British politics. A lot of the problem comes down to the inherent problem in liberal rights theory that it’s never been satisfactorily worked out what you do when two sets of rights conflict. For a lot of the liberal left, this isn’t really a problem – the rights of gay people (our kind of people) should take precedence over those of Catholics (not our sort of people). This, incidentally, is not only the position of gay advocacy groups – which is entirely justified from their point of view – but was actually written into law by New Labour on the introduction of the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

Now, my view is that you have to work out a modus vivendi, and I like Dave’s quip that:

Common sense alone dictates that the League Against Cruel Sports has no duty to be an equal opportunities employer in respect of illegal cock fighting aficionados. If you apply to be a Conservative parliamentary candidate and then inform the selection meeting that you are an anarcho-syndicalist, you do not have grounds subsequently to bring a discrimination case.

Peter Tatchell – a man with whom I usually agree on much – has been widely quoted taking the Pope to task on this one. But my guess is that he wouldn’t hire an overt homophobe for an admin job at OutRage!

By the same token, if you want to work for the Catholic Church, your potential bosses might reasonably expect you to uphold the teachings of Catholicism.

I largely agree with this, but then I’m a pluralist rather than a liberal. There’s a sort of illiberal liberalism in Anglophone political culture that I really don’t like – the sort of liberal monism that the late Francis Canavan criticised, with its view that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the job lot of liberal nostrums should have to shut up, in the name of liberalism. I think a lot of it goes back to Locke, whose appeal for religious toleration was specifically on behalf of the nonconforming Protestant sects, and who opposed toleration for Catholicism on the grounds that you couldn’t tolerate the intolerant. (If you think you hear echoes of Geert Wilders, you are not far wrong. British politics was dominated for over 300 years by the Catholic Problem, and the present-day Muslim Problem is old wine in new bottles.)

You start out with basic liberal good intentions, but if liberals don’t get a grip on their busybody instincts, you end up with a situation like you had in Holland back in 2005 when the Dutch courts tried to ban state funding to the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, a small Calvinist political party, on the grounds that it refused to allow women to become members of the party, and indeed had done since it was founded in 1918. (The court case eventually failed, but the SGP was cajoled into changing its membership rules.) The liberal who states that “there is no right to be reactionary” is a liberal with no sense of irony. The well-intentioned busybodying of New Labour around moral issues is not distinguished by much irony.

Whatever misgivings the Catholic bishops may have on the matter, the gay adoption battle has been fought and lost. But it was a battle that never needed to be fought in the first place. Removing the legal bar on gay adoption was the right thing to do, but the actual number of gay adoptions is so small that, taken in conjunction with the Catholic adoption agencies only catering for a smallish minority of children, the religious opt-out could easily have been left in place without infringing in the slightest on the access of gay couples to the many other agencies in the field. (And, whisper it, it wasn’t entirely unknown for the Catholic agencies to place children with a gay person who would adopt as the sole parent, leaving the partner out of the formal process – the sticking point was the insistence that they formally place children with gay couples.) Now, the Catholic adoption agencies have either ceased to offer adoption services, or have adopted a New Labour-approved gay-friendly policy and pretend to have nothing to do with Catholicism.

You’ve got a similar thing with the Equalities Bill – a blockbuster piece of legislation aiming to solve everything from homophobic hate crimes to equal pay to boys’ educational underachievement – although the usually lackadaisical C of E are doing the heavy lifting on that one. The substance of the argument is a bit abstruse, with Lady Harman insisting that the status quo will remain (much to the chagrin of the militant secularists of the NSS variety, who have a disturbing relish for the state bossing religious people about), while Church lawyers are warning that some loose wording could bog them down in litigation for years to come. But that is by the by.

Is it the case that, for instance, the ranks of teachers at Catholic schools contain remarried divorcees, people cohabiting with unmarried partners and (yes) active homosexuals? Yes, much as it may shock some of the crustier Catholic Herald readers, there are loads of them. Effectively, this is dealt with by a policy which Bill Clinton might dub “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the gay teacher can hold down a job at the Catholic primary, but she may be best advised not to go dancing on a float at Pride. Sure, there’s hypocrisy built in, but it’s a system that works reasonably well. It might be a reasonable expectation of someone working in a faith-based organisation that they not go around publicly flouting the ethos of that faith.

The thing that most bothers your Catholic in the street, as opposed to the bureaucrat in the CES, is the perception of an aggressive anti-religious bent in New Labour, and this is something that goes way beyond whether gay adoption could have been handled better. You have, for example, Mary Honeyball MEP declaiming on how the Labour Party shouldn’t allow Catholics to hold ministerial office if they actually believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church. You had Alan Johnson’s abortive plan to force faith schools to take a quota of pupils from non-religious families. You’ve had Barry Sheerman MP saying that faith schools are tolerable as long as they don’t take the faith bit very seriously. Now we have one Stephen Hughes, an MEP for the North East I’m told, who is making a bid for the Nancy Pelosi/Patrick Kennedy “I’m a Catholic, and as such I disagree with everything the Church says” franchise.

You know, it is open to Gordon Brown, or Jack Straw, or Dougie Alexander at any time to state that these are not the views of the Labour Party. But they’ve been reluctant to do so for some unaccountable reason. The majority of Catholics in Britain are Labour voters, and this doesn’t go unnoticed. If a message is going out that the Labour Party doesn’t want your support – well, it’s just as well nobody on the Tory or Lib Dem benches (the SNP is another matter) can make a convincing pitch, or you may well be tempted to take your custom elsewhere.

Arrest this man!

With fascinating stuff going on locally, I haven’t been paying much attention to the Iraq inquiry over in Britland, except to marvel at how remarkably uncurious the panel are. Anything of interest seems to have aris from witnesses’ desire to unburden themselves – or, in Campbell’s case, to continue acting out this weird psychodrama where he attaches himself to a father figure (Maxwell, Blair) and then defends them to the death.

Anyway, Mr Tony himself is giving evidence tomorrow. Apropos of which, Madam Miaow not only gives us a pen portrait of the inquiry panel – not only establishment to the core, but not a lawyer or military man among them – but also draws attention to George Monbiot’s appeal to raise a bounty for anyone willing to make a citizen’s arrest of Blair as a war criminal. I’d be very careful about trying it – make a grab for the Vicar and you run the risk of getting shot – but in publicity terms this is a very good idea on George’s part, and deserves to get more of an airing in the left blogosphere. Just remember when Peter Tatchell made his splendid attempt to arrest Bob Mugabe, and the massive impact that had.

I’d like to finish with a bit of a moan, but only a mild one. I’m sure Stop the War, despite being banned from protesting outside the QE2 Centre tomorrow, are putting in a lot of energy and organising plenty of events. But I do get the feeling there’s a trick being missed in terms of all the media interest. There are antiwar voices on the news, to be sure – some of the military families have been brilliant, and the aforementioned George Monbiot has just performed well against Nick Cohen on the wireless – but I’m not hearing much from the antiwar movement as such. Now would be a nice time to show some flair and imagination, and I really hope they do.

Much more on this story on a regular basis from the indefatigable Craig Murray.

Want a strategy that will help with Muslim alienation? Stop giving money to Ed Husain

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Maybe this is an effect of age, but I find myself increasingly thinking that Peter Hitchens has got a point about law and order. Not, I hasten to add, that I buy the Hitch’s entire bill of goods, with its emphasis on capital and corporal punishment. But I think he has a point in the more general sense, that if a few basic things were working reasonably well – a police service that did what it was supposed to, a criminal justice system that did what it was supposed to, and more solidarity at community level – then we could get rid of a lot of the accoutrements of the surveillance society. But the whole trajectory under New Labour – and there is zero evidence that the Tories will change this – is of an unwillingness to sort out those basics, a project that would take a lot of time and energy for little immediate reward, while responding to screaming tabloid headlines with dopey authoritarian initiatives.

And so it is that putting people like David Blunkett, John Reid and Wacky Jacqui Smith in charge of the Home Office has led to Britain sleepwalking into a sort of liberal Stasiland. On the one hand they’ll pass something decent like the Human Rights Act, then the Mail and the Express go buck mad when dodgy characters avail of it – which might have been expected, because your prosperous suburbanite is unlikely to need the Human Rights Act. And so, as the Human Rights Act is introduced with one hand, with the other you get the culture of Asbos, CCTV, ID cards, enormous DNA databases, fingerprinting of children and all the rest of it.

In the current climate, it’s not surprising that Muslims are getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. A lot of this has to do with the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, when it became clear that there was very little intelligence on angry young Muslims, a handful of whom might be prepared to blow themselves up along with whomever else happened to be in the vicinity. A sensible approach might have said that examining the causes of Muslim disaffection might be in order. Actually, since Mohammad Sidique Khan left behind his suicide video, we have a fair idea what he was angry about – Iraq and Palestine. But this falls foul of New Labour’s insistence that radicalisation of young Muslims has nothing whatsoever to do with British foreign policy, but results from “preachers of hate” and the occasional mosque bookshop stocking works by Sayyid Qutb.

As luck would have it, there was a ready-made mould for the new Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent for short) initiative to be poured into. This was the patronage system operated for decades by Labour councils in inner-city areas. Rather than try and lift Asians in Sparkbrook or West Indians in Brixton out of poverty, or deal with the long-range effects of structural discrimination, it was much easier to hand out grants to anyone who could plausibly claim to be a community leader, and it didn’t hurt that these people would then drum up votes for Labour, in many cases becoming Labour councillors. And this is what Prevent has largely become in practice – a politically corrupt use of the grants system to set up an enormous domestic spying operation.

Much of the outline of this was already known, but Saturday’s Guardian usefully gathered a lot of the information into one place, and it makes for uncomfortable reading:

The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism, the Guardian has learned.

The information the authorities are trying to find out includes political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates, and other sensitive information, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Other documents reveal that the intelligence and information can be stored until the people concerned reach the age of 100…

The government and police have repeatedly denied that the £140m programme is a cover for spying on Muslims in Britain. But sources directly involved in running Prevent schemes say it involves gathering intelligence about the thoughts and beliefs of Muslims who are not involved in criminal activity.

Instances around the country include:

  • In the Midlands, funding for a mental health project to help Muslims was linked to information about individuals being passed to the authorities.
  • In a college in northern England, a student who attended a meeting about Gaza was reported by one lecturer as a potential extremist. He was found not to be.
  • A nine-year-old schoolboy in east London, who was referred to the authorities after allegedly showing signs of extremism – the youngest case known in Britain. He was “deprogrammed” according to a source with knowledge of the case.
  • Within the last month, one new youth project in London alleged it was being pressured by the Metropolitan police to provide names and details of Muslim youngsters, as a condition of funding. None of the young Muslims have any known terrorist history.
  • In one London borough, those working with youngsters were told to add information to databases they hold to highlight which youths were Muslim. They were also asked to provide information, to be shared with the police, about which streets and areas Muslim youngsters could be found on.
  • In Birmingham the programme manager for Prevent is in fact a senior counter- terrorism police officer. Paul Marriott has been seconded to work in the equalities division of Britain’s biggest council.
  • In Blackburn, at least 80 people were reported to the authorities for showing signs of extremism. They were referred to the Channel project, part of Prevent.
  • A youth project manager alleges his refusal to provide intelligence led to the police spreading false rumours and trying to smear him and his organisation.
  • One manager of a project in London said : “I think part of the point of the [Prevent] programme is to spy and intelligence gather. I won’t do that.” In another London borough wardens on council estates were told to inform on people not whom they suspected of crimes, but whom they suspected could be susceptible to radicalisation. One source, who has been involved in Whitehall discussions on counter-terrorism, said: “There is no doubt Prevent is in part about gathering intelligence on people’s thoughts and beliefs. No doubt.” He added that the authorities feared “they’d be lynched” if they admitted Prevent included spying.

It would surely be more sensible and cost-effective to have confidence-building measures aimed at communities experiencing alienation, instead of alienating them further with this sort of “enemy within” stuff. What’s more, the less alienated the communities are, the more likely it is that you’ll get decent intelligence on the tiny minority of headbins who might fancy blowing themselves up. But apparently that is beyond the imagination of the Home Office.

However, one man is rather keen on all this snooping:

Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, said it was the morally right thing to do, and that waiting until people had fallen prey to extremism and were drawn into terrorism was too late…

Husain said of Prevent: “It is gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences. If it is to prevent people getting killed and committing terrorism, it is good and it is right.”…

Husain said gathering intelligence outweighed civil liberty concerns that prying into the political and religious beliefs of people was a dangerous move towards a police state: “That’s the name of the game. It’s not about doing the right thing by Islamists or by liberal do-gooders, it’s about creating a society where liberal do-gooders survive freely.”

Can it be coincidental that, under the auspices of Prevent, some £700,000 of taxpayers’ money has been handed over to the Quilliam Foundation? I suggest not.

One may hope that, in their current zeal for small government, the Tories might have something more sensible in mind. But no, their plans are even more draconian:

The Conservatives are seriously considering adopting a new policy called Preventing Extremism.

Among those who would be considered extreme under those plans are those who advocate a caliphate, a pan-Islamic state encompassing many countries; those promoting Sharia law; and those who believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world.

This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military and those who fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now, the Tories have been flaying the government for some time on the question of the non-violent Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Whilst having a rush of blood to the head, Mr Tony Blair promised to ban the Hizb, but the government backed away from this on the grounds that, while the Hizb say some objectionable things and they aren’t very popular, there was zero evidence of them being involved in violent activity or incitement of same. The Tories are adamant that they will ban the Hizb nonetheless. But it’s worth pondering for a moment just how far-reaching those Tory proposals are. Someone who writes an article or a blog post advocating Sharia law could be blacklisted; so could someone who states that the Palestinians have a right to resist occupation (and note here that we’re not talking about blowing up civilians, but about directly resisting the IDF); and you have to love that “fail to condemn” bit, which summons up images of the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade in Catch-22.

Here’s the kicker:

Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, who has advised both Labour and the Conservatives on extremism… (emphasis added)

You can find much more on Prevent from this report [pdf] from the Institute of Race Relations, which goes into some detail about how a programme supposedly aimed at stopping radicalisation is in fact increasing Muslim alienation. It also mentions the influence Ed and his mates are having on the Prevent programme.

Inayat Bunglawala puts it well:

In normal circumstances you would have expected British Muslims to wholeheartedly rally behind the stated goals of the Prevent agenda, i.e., to reduce the risk from terrorism and to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism.

In practice, however, under the guise of the Prevent program, ministers at the communities and local department (CLG), including Ruth Kelly and her successor Hazel Blears, attempted to engage in a rather ambitious bit of social engineering and began promoting and funding outfits which had little or no support among UK Muslims, including the Sufi Muslim Council and the Quilliam Foundation, while trying to marginalize far larger and more representative bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Oddly enough, the views of the government and these new outfits concerning the “war on terror” were largely indistinguishable…

According to The Guardian, the Quilliam Foundation has received £700,000 in Home Office Prevent funding to date. It is an eye-opening figure given that the Quilliam Foundation was only established in April 2008 by two former Hizb ut-Tahrir activists Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz.

The Quilliam Foundation has earned notoriety among UK Muslims by consistently being seen to smear and attempting to undermine leading Islamic figures and mainstream organizations by labeling them as ‘Islamists’.

And also adding to British Muslim concerns, the Quilliam Foundation has gained the vocal support of a whole gallery of influential neo-conservatives and Zionists including Nick Cohen, Michael Gove, Charles Moore, and Martin Bright. Indeed, the latter, Martin Bright, was the author of a notorious article whose title referred to the holy Qur’an as a ‘great con trick’…

(Ed’s popularity with the Decents is a good spot. He’s also been feted by the neocon Scoop Jackson Society, and hailed as an heroic figure by the Alliance for Workers Liberty. You can go a long way by telling people what they want to hear.)

Many British Muslims have understandably come to view the Quilliam Foundation as constituting a government-backed attempt to destabilize leading Islamic organizations in the UK. An essential and necessary first step to help rebuild relations with British Muslims and increase trust must be for the Home Office to publicly make crystal clear that the government does not in any way condone spying on individuals who are not suspected of involvement in unlawful activities. A second essential step must be to loudly distance itself from the actions and views of the Quilliam Foundation and to immediately cease funding its mischief-making against Islamic institutions.

Well said that man. The two cabinet ministers responsible for Prevent, Alan Johnson and John Denham, are relatively sensible characters who have made some of the right noises in recent months, certainly in comparison to the Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears double act that preceded them. It remains to be seen whether or not they are willing to follow through on those noises. Ceasing to shower enormous amounts of public money on Ed Husain would be a good start.

More thoughts on this from Liam, who is wondering whether now would be a good time to get rid of those Wolfe Tones CDs.

Jim, Joan and that Muslim wedding

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Amongst the ranks of MPs who don’t impress me, few impress me less than Jim Fitzpatrick. Perhaps this is because, prior to his being a New Labour hack, Jim served a political apprenticeship in the Socialist Workers Party. Like many former revolutionaries who moved over to the greener pastures of NuLab, Jim has abandoned what he used to believe, but taken with him many valuable life skills learned on the far left, most of them to do with the efficient shafting of one’s factional enemies.

Anyway, as many of you will know, Jim has been in the news recently. This has to do with him being invited, along with his wife, to the wedding of two Muslim constituents. By Jim’s account, he and the missus arrived at the venue to discover that male and female guests were gathering in different rooms. Apparently Jim didn’t know this sort of thing went on at Muslim weddings, and had a rush of blood to the head at the sight of people who were obviously Islamic extremists blatantly gathering in separate rooms in front of Jim Fitzpatrick. (It is possible Jim is telling the truth, and just doesn’t mix much socially with his Muslim constituents. Alternatively, it is possible that Jim, who has in the past assiduously courted Muslims, and actually gone all the way to Bangladesh to canvass for votes, is being a little disingenuous.) But, according to Jim, he didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to his hosts, so instead of remonstrating with them, Mr and Mrs Fitz left quietly and discreetly. And then Jim proceeded to contact the media and tell them all the story.

One may simply assume from this that Jim Fitzpatrick is an ignorant ganch. Such is the line taken by Sunny:

One of these days I’ll hopefully get married and a ceremony is likely to be held at a Sikh Gurdwara (more because my parents will want to have a ceremony there rather than on account of my own religiousness). In a Gurdwara the guys sit on one side and girls sit on the other side, and the bride-groom in the middle. If some MP came and didn’t like it, buggered off, and then sent a press release to all the media going on how about insulting he found it – I wouldn’t speak to that tosser ever either.

It’s one thing to raise the issues of female foeticide, forced marriages or other activities where people are forced to do things against their will. It’s entirely another to try and squeeze votes out of a situations you may not agree with. Let minorities deal with their own issues as long as it’s within the law. How about that for a revolutionary idea?

I have a suggestion: why don’t Labour MPs ban the practice of British women adopting the surname of their husband once they get married? That’s a pretty unequal situation too and I know plenty of feminists who won’t do it. It’s only right these MPs register their disgust and refuse to stand for it.

Sunny makes his case well. In fact, while the practice at weddings varies between the different Muslim communities, this sort of thing is quite common in other religious communities as well. Had Fitzpatrick attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, he would have seen a very similar segregation of the sexes; if you go to Mass in an Eastern Orthodox church, you’ll immediately notice the men standing on one side and the women (wearing headscarves) on the other. Customs pertaining to weddings and such aren’t really all that integral to women’s oppression. And one may note that MPAC have been doing a lot to challenge traditional patriarchy in Muslim communities with frig all support from the likes of Jim Fitzpatrick. (Note also that Jim was a firefighter in a previous life, so he’s not exactly unfamiliar with all-male environments.)

But then, there’s the political aspect. Many commentators have remarked that this sort of grandstanding is a bit rash on Jim’s part, as a third of his constituents are Muslim and they might be sensitive to a white bloke telling them how to celebrate their weddings. Not to mention that in the next election he’ll be facing up against George Galloway, whose ability to appeal to East End Muslims is well established. But you have to look at the matter in a Machiavellian sense. For the last five years or so, Labour strategy in Tower Hamlets – which Jim has played a key role in shaping – has been based on squeezing the Tory and Lib Dem votes with the message that only Labour can defeat Galloway. This tactic of the squeeze actually worked for Oona King in 2005, it just didn’t work well enough for her to win. One should also note that, Tower Hamlets politics being what they are, this sort of campaign very quickly polarises the vote on racial lines. Fitzpatrick will have weighed up the consequences of alienating Muslim voters as against appealing to the non-Muslim majority who are more likely to be resistant to Gallows’ charms, and will be Jim’s target audience.

There may also be a game within the game. Fitzpatrick made oblique reference to the nefarious influence of an outfit called the Islamic Forum Europe, which is active in the area and is rumoured to have some influence amongst the Bengali component of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. Set that alongside Labour’s ongoing purge of East London councillors, which has been ongoing next door in Newham and will surely be hitting Tower Hamlets soon.

But no matter, there will always be someone willing to defend Fitzpatrick. Yes, in a touching display of comradeship, it’s his SWP contemporary Joan Smith .[Actually, it appears I was misled by there being a plurality of feminists called Joan Smith. Thanks to Harrods and Phil in the comments for clearing that up.] Joan is now ensconced at the Independent, and, given her strong Decent affiliations, is not likely to miss an opportunity to bash teh Mooslims in the name of feminism. Thus Joan:

Two countries, two weddings, two outcomes. In the first instance, a minister in the British government has been accused of bad manners for leaving a Muslim wedding in east London when he was asked to sit in a separate room from his wife. In the second, 41 women and children died when fire broke out in the women’s marquee at a wedding party in Kuwait…

As the ghastly fire in the Gulf state demonstrates, insisting that men and women occupy different spaces is common in states where Islamic law is in operation. At last weekend’s wedding, male and female guests were directed to different tents and children sent to sit among the women, which is why no men died in the conflagration.

I honestly don’t understand Joan’s argument. Is she saying that the Kuwaiti fire would have been less of a tragedy had men died in it? She sounds here like a Private Eye caricature of a wimmin’s studies academic.

This kind of segregation is often presented as a custom which has nothing to do with religion, but it’s far more common in countries where people subscribe to religious ideas about purity and the need to curb sexual expression. In secular countries, the idea that men and woman should not mix socially – whether in public spaces such as nightclubs or at private parties – is regarded as at best out-of-date and at worst offensive.

One assumes that Joan never goes on a girls’ night out. A mixed-sex hen party would be dreadfully dull.

There’s no way of squaring this with any notion of universal human rights, and Fitzpatrick’s response seems to me both polite and principled. Years ago I argued against gender segregation in bars and golf clubs, and I’m no keener on it when it happens in religious buildings.

I don’t know if Joan plays golf, but I suspect she doesn’t spend a great deal of time in working men’s clubs. And, at the risk of boring readers, I note that Joan is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. For someone who believes in the separation of church and state, she’s very keen on politicians telling religious organisations what they can and can’t do.

Joan Smith, incidentally, is in a romantic relationship with Muslim-bashing MP Denis MacShame, and used to be married to Muslim-bashing journalist Francis Wheen. If this sounds a bit incestuous to you, you’ve latched onto an important fact about the interface between the political and media classes, especially their Decent component. Not, of course, that one judges Joan’s opinions by her other half of the moment. No, that would be sexist and wrong. She’s perfectly capable of being idiotic on her own account.

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