Praying for an end to prayers

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

As living standards atrophy and the collapse of the eurozone becomes every day a little less unthinkable, it may seem trivial in the extreme to be arguing about whether or not the mayor of a small town in Devon should be called upon to say a prayer before the start of council meetings. Yet for the National Secular Society (NSS) it would seem to be a big deal. As their legal challenge is heard in the High Court, the NSS believes its case against Bideford council to be an issue that "goes to the very heart of secularism in public life and, if successful, will set a key country-wide precedent."

The law, declares the NSS in a press release, "is not made in Bideford". But whichever way the decision goes, Bideford will decide the law. The NSS estimates that half of all local councils in Britain begin their proceedings with prayers, usually of a Christian character. It's a custom that they're determined to see brought to an end. A document published on the NSS website calls both for donations to a fighting fund and for a pro-active campaign to root out instances of coucil prayer. Supporters are urged to find out if their local council begins its meetings with prayers -- and, if so, to complain to the council and to the local press ("the local media are always looking for stories, particularly those with a specific community angle") and to take part in radio phone-ins.

Feelings are running equally high on the other side. Last year when the NSS's legal challenge was first announced, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that the "centuries-long tradition of saying of prayers before council meetings" was "an acknowledgment of the important role the Christian faith plays in civic life". (This may be why the NSS finds them so objectionable, of course.) He condemned the lawsuit as "an attack on freedom and a cynical manoeuvre to drive public expressions of faith from national as well as local life." A local bishop went so far as to claim that council prayers formed "an integral part of the British system of government".

Bideford council is being represented by a firm of solicitors closely linked to the campaign group the Christian Institute. The firm has acted in a number of high profile cases -- most recently that of Adrian Smith, demoted by Trafford Housing Trust for objecting to gay marriage on his private Facebook account.

But the roots of the Bideford case are also local, particular and long-standing. At its centre is Councillor Clive Bone, who has been trying to get prayers abolished for more than three years. His attempt in 2008 to replace them with a moment of silent contemplation was defeated by nine votes to four. Bone claims that the practice is divisive, embarrassing and that he was aware of potential councillors who put off standing for election by the prospect of having to sit through prayers. According to the NSS, "prayers make him uncomfortable and he feels embarrassed and awkward as the public act of worship is practised". He objects to having to choose between "participating" or leaving the room, or else arriving late. Holding prayers "creates a feeling of exclusion for him and some other councillors," which has led him not to seek re-election.

I can well understand non-religious councillors finding prayers to be boring and unnecessary. The NSS may have a case in law. They report that the National Association of Local Councils shares their analysis that council prayers may be considered discriminatory. They certainly have a good case in logic. I would worry about any councillor who seriously believed that they required divine guidance before making decisions about some local planning application. And prayers at the start of meetings are likely to produce embarrassed shuffling of feet among non-believing councillors.

To impose prayers by majority vote upon council members who actively object to them strikes me as insensitive and less than wholly Christian. In Bideford itself, the controversy seems to have produced a poisonous atmosphere on the council that can hardly have been conducive to good local government; still less to the "cohesion" that was claimed to be the purpose of the prayers. There's more common sense on display in Gloucester, where to the NSS's delight council prayers have this week been abolished.

And yet I can't help thinking that high court judges have more pressing calls on their time, and more expertise than micromanaging how proceedings should be initiated in council chambers up and down the country. It's not as if -- as with religious school assemblies -- council prayers are compulsory, and for the National Secular Society to argue that it they represent a key front in the wider battle against religious domination of public life is as absurd as their opponents' contention that they are essential to maintaining the country's Christian foundation. In reality, the issue represents yet another opportunity for two legally-obsessed pressure groups to go head-to-head -- a depressingly recurrent feature of our modern human rights culture. Sometimes the law is best made in Bideford.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide