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Laurie Penny: Lessons from the Pope Protest

Now the Pope has gone home, the left needs to rediscover the courage of its convictions.

Now the Pope has gone home, the left needs to rediscover the courage of its convictions.

The atmosphere amongst the liberal left in the aftermath of the Pope's state visit to Britain calls to mind the uncomfortable eye-avoidance that takes place after someone suddenly turns the lights on at an orgy. Yes, we had a lot of fun, and we probably got rather carried away, but we're not overly keen to discuss it the next morning and we might well hesitate before leaping into any more messy entanglements with gay rights, feminism and anti-state activism.

The protest itself was a joyful chorus of self-congratulatory liberal paralysis. As bagfuls of naughty blown-up condoms floated up into an azure Piccadilly sky, central London thundered with the sound of twenty thousand broadly centre-left Britons failing to make up their minds about why they were there. Some of the printed-out slogans bemoaned the extra public expense of lugging the Popemobile around the country; some complained about homophobia, others about the oppression of women, but never too impolitely. There was, in fact, a horrific delicacy about this collective mumble, as if to make any real, overarching complaint about regressive state and religious indoctrination would be, well, a little tasteless.
'It's fantastic that there's a protest," said queer theorist James Butler, who I met in the crowd, "but it's telling that the only thing being chanted with any enthusiasm is 'Pope Go Home!' That sentiment seems less about creating real change than registering a formal objection while retaining the status quo."

Well, the Pope has now gone home, as he was always planning to. Hurrah. Well done us. Unfortunately, homophobia, misogyny, bigotry, intolerance and abuse have not gone home with the Pope.

The impulse towards egalitarianism and collective rationality that nominally brought twenty thousand liberals to Piccadilly last week should not now be permitted to disperse like incense in an empty church. It's vital that the left remembers that for many of us, there was more to this demonstration than the chance to stand around central London wearing pink paper mitres and making unhelpful jokes about men in dresses.
Even more dispiriting than the silly-hat brigade was the peevish fixation, by way of speeches, slogans and placards, on the cost of the Papal visit. Even Peter Tatchell and the Secular Society chose to focus attention on the twelve million pound bill to the state, in this new age of austerity, seemingly in order to rally the disparate strands of popular anti-papism into one miserly chorus of public annoyance.

This type of shoddy reasoning panders entirely to the clunky conservative line on the necessity of public sector cuts, and implies that, in this instance, liberal Britain would have been entirely happy to host the anointed head of an organisation which has covered up institutional child-rape, opposed women's rights and promoted homophobia across the globe if only it hadn't been so jolly expensive.

Packaging our ideology in the language of financial prudence is a dangerous move for the left, not only because it allows the conservative right to set the agenda, but because meaningful social change is rarely part of any state's five-year budget. Consider the declaration this week by Ben Summerskill, head of LGB campaigning group Stonewall, that his organisation plans to abandon its lobby for marriage equality for homosexuals - because it would be too expensive for the government to implement.

Many LGBT activists justly make the case that the right to form family units of which Iain Duncan Smith would approve should not be the primary focus of the queer movement when homophobic attacks and murders are still taking place up and down the country. Nonetheless, equal legal recognition within a flawed system is an important first step for liberation movements, and I for one will march until my feet bleed for the right of gay and bisexual men and women to bugger up their lives just as frivolously as straight couples. Moreover, being the public face of safe, unthreatening homosexuality is Stonewall's job - but nothing in that job description includes the caveat: "we'd like our human rights, but only if you're absolutely sure you can afford to splash out on us."

It's worth remembering the most positive social revolutions in history, large and small, have all come at cost to the state. Britain, after all, couldn't really afford to stop trading in slaves. We couldn't afford votes for women, or universal suffrage. We certainly couldn't afford to institute a welfare state and universal healthcare just after a world war that left our national deficit at several times the level it is today. Those battles were fought and won because a few brave social innovators believed that justice and progress were more important than balancing the books.

Radical, useful social change does not wait around for those in power to decide that they can afford it. It does not shrink from genuine confrontation to stand at the sidelines sniping about funny hats and fancy frocks. Radical, useful social change is always uncomfortable, it's always expensive, and it always involves an element of personal risk for those who take up the banner. The left needs to stop pandering to conservative parochialism and remember the courage of its convictions.