The afterlife of Brian

Does a 30-year-old blasphemy row still have relevance today?

More than 30 years on, the controversy surrounding the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian seems more than a bit ridiculous -- a fit subject for a comedy. Certainly, the BBC thinks so: Holy Flying Circus, based on those events, will be broadcast on BBC4 in a few weeks. Taking centre stage is a recreation of a notorious TV debate in which the Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin took on a fired-up Malcolm Muggeridge, who denounced the film as "squalid", and the slightly milder Bishop of Southwark, who predicted that the team would "get their 30 pieces of silver".

That event (you can watch extracts on YouTube) is indeed rich in comic potential. The bishop, all wild hair and purple cassock, waves around an enormous silver cross. Muggeridge (in his day a significant public figure, though few now remember him) just looks demented. Palin looks, at times, genuinely distressed. The show was parodied shortly afterwards on Not the Nine O'Clock News but the original is much funnier.

At the time, though, the debate was deadly serious. Life of Brian was banned in several US states and a number of countries (including Ireland, in those days still virtually a theocracy -- and we all know how well that turned out). There were protests, too, in Britain, co-ordinated by the Festival of Light, an evangelical group associated with Mary Whitehouse. After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the BBFC to ban the film, the group masterminded a letter-writing campaign to local authorities. Thirty-nine responded by banning or reclassifying it.

There was even talk of bringing a private prosecution for blasphemy -- sufficiently serious for the team to take legal advice from John Mortimer QC, who had led the defence in Whitehouse's earlier, successful prosecution of Gay News.

It wasn't the Satanic Verses, nowhere near, but the principles at stake were the same. On one side, freedom of expression and the right to treat religion with not greater reverence than, say, politics or literature. On the other, the view that one shouldn't make fun of religion, either because it annoys God or, more pragmatically, because believers tend to get quite upset. The issues remain, sadly, as topical as ever.

Yet it can be hard, today, to see what all the fuss was about. Partly, that's because the film is such a classic. It has given immortal phrases to the English language: "Blessed are the cheesemakers"; "What have the Romans ever done for us?"; "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy." After all these years, it's still extremely funny; but the religious satire has largely lost its power to shock. In some ways, it has almost become an object of veneration in its own right, as one of the greatest comic films ever made, a high point of British popular culture.

Blasphemy, too, has gone, at least as a crime in British law. After a last, failed attempt to revive it in the case of Jerry Springer: the Opera, the ancient law of blasphemous libel was quietly euthanised in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It was probably the campaign against Jerry Springer (led by Stephen Green of the small pressure group Christian Voice) that nudged the then government into repealing the law. There was a rearguard action in both the Lords and Commons to preserve it but the illogicality of the blasphemy law was well summed up by the late (and much missed) Earl of Onslow: "If God does not exist, nothing will happen; if he does exist, it is up to him to get hold of the chap who wrote it and make sure that he does time in the diabolical house of correction."

Stephen Green is a much more marginal figure than Mary Whitehouse and the Church of England is no longer much of a force in the land. The same government that repealed the blasphemy law, however, introduced a new crime of "religious hatred", replacing the fear of insulting God with that of insulting believers. The talk is of mutual respect and social cohesion. Where insult is perceived, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the believer and the belief.

Here, Life of Brian remains as subversive as ever. If not an overt attack on Christianity, the film is devastating in its satire of religious behaviour. Blasphemy is parodied in the famous stoning scene. Just as pointed, in its own way, is the depiction of a would-be disciple who thinks that Brian will heal his wife's headache because "her brother-in-law is the ex-mayor of Gath". The scene in which Brian flees from a crowd of would-be worshippers manages to encapsulate the whole history of religion in around three minutes.

Brian himself is something of a holy fool. Though naive, and far more interested in getting off with Judith than in either revolution or starting a religion, he sees with more clarity than any of the idiots, charlatans and human sheep that constitute the local population. In some ways, he may indeed be the Messiah:

Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me! You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!

Life of Brian is about much more than just religion. All human life is there: at least, all human folly, which is to say much the same thing. It's a film about human vanity and stupidity, about pretension and wishful thinking, about people's almost irresistible tendency to think inside the box. The grammar-obsessed Roman centurion who forces Brian to write "Romans go home!" in huge letters all over the city wall as a punishment for getting his inflections muddled up is as caught up in his own self-referential universe as Reg, the all-too-recognisable leader of the People's Front of Judea, whose idea of defeating the might of Imperial Rome is to pass resolutions and inveigh against the "splitters" in the Judean People's Front.

Religion, in this wider context, is just another manifestation of human stupidity. Subversive indeed.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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