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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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.