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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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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