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Laurie Penny: Proud to say nope to the Pope

Those planning to protest the Pope's visit are not instinctively anti-Catholic. But justice demands that we challenge religious oppression.

What is the Protest the Pope movement really about? Ask ten different activists why they object to Mr Joseph Ratzinger's state visit to Britain and they'll give you ten different answers. My own mother, a lapsed Catholic who is not normally the sort of lady to spoil her shoes on noisy demonstrations, looked me in the eye when I inquired about her reasons for attending the protest and said, very quietly, "it's personal".

For many of the millions who are dismayed at the prospect of the papal visit, it is indeed personal, and it is also political. Deep-rooted resentment drawn from first or second-hand experience of the institutional brutalities of Britain's largest "minority" faith - there are nine million Catholics in this country- forms the basis of legitimate liberal indignation.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what offends most about Ratzinger's visit: it his attempts to rehabilitate child-rape within the church, or his intolerant stance on safe sex and abortion? Is it his relentless persecution of homosexuals, or the fact that public funds are being spent on driving this horrible old man around the country in his shiny white popemobile? It is all of these things, and none.

It is about religion. It is about what organised religion does to human societies. It is about the British and our unique distaste for being told what to do by celibates in silly cassocks. It is about modernity, and the limits of what modernity will tolerate.

Anarchist journalist Angelo Quattrocchi wrote in his recently-released polemic "The Pope is Not Gay!" that Ratzinger's backward-looking moral crusade is "spitting into the wind" - expectorating intolerant bile that can only cause unnecessary suffering as a tremendous tsunami of modern tolerance surges forward to swamp the rotten structures of family, patriarchy, superstition and sexual prudery. The Protest the Pope movement is, in fact, so terribly modern that it can sometimes come across as a little smug.

This week's Southbank launch of Quattrochi's book, replete with heartfelt performance poetry and expensive box-wine, was a restrained orgy of liberal self-congratulation. But why on earth shouldn't we congratulate ourselves? We are one of the most tolerant cultures on the planet, taking a stand, in the midst of domestic turmoil, against global religious oppression. Can't we feel just a little bit proud?

Most of those planning to 'Protest the Pope' this weekend are not instinctively anti-Catholic; we have no issue with belief itself. The notion of taking special exception to one religion over and above any other dodgy cult cobbled together by deranged desert patriarchs should be abhorrent to any secularist who believes in freedom of thought. When Elizabeth I granted private amnesty to English Catholics, she declared that she had no desire to "make windows into men's souls", and nor do today's Pope Protestors. We simply wish to register our displeasure when the same believers dash around smashing in the animistic vitrines of their fellow citizens with big bricks made of bigotry and intolerance.

A few short weeks ago, senior priest Edmund Adamus condemned Britain in general and London in particular as a "hedonistic wasteland" - the "geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death' - because of our dirty little fetish for protecting homosexuals from discrimination, supporting single parents and preserving limited access to abortion services.

If believing in a woman's right to choose is anti-Catholic, then I am an anti-Catholic. If believing that homosexuals deserve absolute legal and social equality with heterosexuals is anti-Catholic, then Britain is full of anti-Catholics.

If it is anti-Catholic to believe that child-rape ought to be eliminated, that stopping the spread of AIDs in Africa trumps religious squeamishness about condom use, and that human happiness is more important than dogmatic adherence to cobweb-crusted notions of purity and morality, then I for one am proud to be part of the geopolitical culture of death.

On Saturday, I'll be marching through my home city beside thousands of others to tell bigots and dogmatists everywhere that if they try to push back at the raw edge of modernity, they're going to get cut. If that conviction makes me anti-Catholic, then just give me a pen and show me where to sign.

Read Laurie Penny's column every week in the New Statesman.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisoners is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.