Permission to speak

Is Adrian Smith a Christian martyr or just a casualty of corporate conformism?

It's an everyday story of religion and society in 21st century Britain. A man, who happens to work for a housing trust, expresses an opinion on his Facebook page to the effect that churches should not be compelled to conduct gay marriages. He gets demoted and loses a third of his wages. He's suing. The Mail on Sunday has taken up his case. So has Cristina Odone, who compared the plight of Britain's Christians with that of the Nonconformists who left for the American colonies in the 17th century rather than submit to the established church.

Hmm. Adrian Smith's case certainly shows something, but whether this is really a story about religious freedom I have my doubts.

But let's look at that disputed Facebook post. Adrian Smith's considered view, expressed in response to a question from one of his online friends, was that

The Bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women. If the State wants to offer civil marriages to the same sex then that is up to the State; but the State shouldn't impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.

Which seems uncontentious enough. As Peter Tatchell has said, it's not a particularly homophobic comment. Indeed, it represents government policy. As the piece which Smith linked to shows (from the date, the incident took place in February) there are no plans to force places of worship to conduct gay weddings; merely a possibility that they might be allowed to do so. But misunderstanding the import of suggested legislation is not much of a reason for taking someone's job away from him. Unless there were aggravating factors (and Trafford Housing Trust has declined to go into much detail), this looks like an overreaction. It looks vindictive.

The Trust has issued a statement, the first two paragraphs of which, ominously, are taken up with self-congratulatory remarks about how it has been "rated as one of the best 100 public sector employers in the UK", has won various community award and received a number of "big ticks". The main charge against Adrian Smith appears to be that he is in breach of a condition in a new code of conduct which limits the use by employees of social networking sites. In particular, he made his comments in a page "that identified him as a manager at Trafford Housing Trust."

The Christian Institute has a template into which it invariably fits the cases that it highlights: a template of persecution. The template is that of Christians targeted and oppressed by a secularist establishment that is intolerant towards any expression of their faith, and most especially intolerant of Biblically-derived but politically incorrect opinions on matters such as homosexuality. It's a template that appeals as much to the Daily Mail as to Christian pressure groups such as the CI, because it provides a simple explanatory model covering everything from a street preacher calling on gay people to repent, to a local authority's alleged desire to replace Christmas with "Winterval".

Yet there's a huge variability even between individual instances of "oppression" championed by the Christian Institute. Adrian Smith merely expressed a personal opinion on his Facebook page, an opinion that had no relevance whatever to his job. Compare this with Lilian Ladele, the Islington registrar who has now taken her case for unfair dismissal to the European Court of Human Rights. She was disciplined for refusing to perform gay civil partnership ceremonies, which was part of her job. There's a difference, but it's a difference easily overlooked if you're predisposed to view all these cases as instances of religious persecution.

The fact that Adrian Smith was expressing a view derived from his understanding of Christianity is (or should be) incidental. The real question is whether, in a free and democratic society, an employer should have the right to limit what its employees do or think in a private capacity.

Smith's Facebook page was, we are told, readable only by friends (or at any rate by Facebook friends), but even had it been public the number of people who saw it will have been small. No one can have been under the impression that Smith was making the statement as an official representative of Trafford Housing Trust, even if he did mention his job in his personal profile. The very notion is absurd. Had he been commenting on housing policy or making offensive personal comments about colleagues, the Trust would have been entitled to take disciplinary action. But Smith's opinions on gay marriage or the Bible are utterly irrelevant to his functioning as a housing manager. Public or private, and so long as they are not criminally inciteful, his opinions are his business.

Trafford Housing Trust seems to have embraced (and even codified) a dangerous doctrine that their employees are never off-duty; that everything they do or say publicly is done or said on behalf of the company; that their opinions are no longer their own but they can only express views in accordance with company policy. In a free society, this is outrageous. Indeed, it is tyrannical. It so happened that Adrian Smith had an opinion about gay marriage. Someone else might have views about the Euro, or take part in a political protest, or have an unconventional sex life. This case is not really about religious freedom at all. It's about freedom to be yourself, even if you are fortunate enough to work for a company that has been "recognised by Investors in People with their Gold and Health and Wellbeing Awards."

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear