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.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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