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."

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.