Bideford Town Council hasn't a prayer

The High Court has ruled that local councils can't have prayers on the agenda.

The National Secular Society has won a Judicial Review against Bideford Town Council's practice of holding prayers as part of its formal proceedings. Mr Justice Ouseley, leading judge of the Administrative Division of the High Court, today ruled that the 1972 Local Government Act did not give councils the power to introduce a religious dimension to their meetings.

The judge didn't decide that having to sit through prayers amounted to a breach of atheist councillors' human rights, as the NSS had argued, or to unlawful discrimination. A crucial part of his reasoning was that because the prayers were optional -- any councillor who objected was free to leave -- they couldn't be considered an integral part of council business. In that sense it was a very technical ruling. But he did suggest that it might impose unacceptable "burdens" on some representatives, marking them out or excluding them from their role as "equally elected councillors".

"Still, a win is a win" was the instant reaction from Dr Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and secularist campaigner. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, was perhaps more effusive. "Acts of worship in council meetings are key to the separation of religion from politics," he said, "So we're very pleased with the judgement, and the clear secular message it sends."

As for the Christian Institute, the evangelical pressure-group that had backed Bideford Council, its spokesman Simon Calvert called the ruling "extraordinary" and wondered if councils were now also banned from beginning council meetings with the national anthem or offering congratulations to the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee.

The decision has also been attacked on Twitter by local government minister Eric Pickles. He suggested that "the right to worship is a fundamental and hard fought British liberty" (but then what of the right not to worship?). More intriguingly, he claimed that under the new Localism Act, which comes into force today, councils have a power of general competence: "Logically this includes ability to pray before meetings."

So it's far from over yet.

In the key passage highlighted by the NSS in its initial response to the ruling, Mr Justice Ouseley declared:

I do not think the 1972 Act [...] should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors.

For around seventy years it has been the practice -- regular if not strictly adhered to or laid down in any regulation -- for the mayor to invite prayers to be said before council meetings in Bideford. The current row has been going on since Clive Bone, who brought the complaint with the aid of the National Secular Society, was elected to the council in 2007. The judicial review was brought last year despite the fact that Bone was no longer a councillor. His departure was, it seems, at least partly due to his unhappiness over the prayer issue and the poisonous atmosphere the row had created.

In November 2008, the Standards Board for England rejected an earlier complaint by Devon humanists. The board did "not think that for a council to have prayers is a breach of any of the relevant equality legislation". It added that "It is a decision for the council how it conducts its business and any change to that needs to be addressed by changing the governance arrangements with the consent of the majority of the council."

The following year the new mayor, Andy Powell, declined to appoint a chaplain and replaced the pre-meeting prayers with a period of silence which he described as "a mutual solution to the subject of religion in our chambers." But the prayers were later restored, prompting the legal action. The current practice is for the mayor to invite a local cleric to say a prayer at the start of meetings. Occasionally, a local representative of the Quakers leads a "moment of reflection" instead. Sometimes the mayor calls for a minute's silence instead of prayers.

Since it was based on the fairly narrow grounds of the Local Government Act, the case is unlikely to have the wide-ranging application that some have suggested. It does not threaten daily prayers in the House of Commons, for example: Parliament is not subject to the provisions of the Local Government Act. Nor will it prevent councillors' involvement in remembrance or Christmas carol services. Even the NSS says it has no objection to prayers being said before council meetings (though how long before remains a moot point). The point being contested was, arguably, a fairly trivial one: whether prayers could be an item on the formal council agenda. Trevor Phillips dismissed the case as "nonsense on stilts". But on such narrow points great questions of principle sometimes hang.

The most obvious outcome of today's ruling is that the understanding of the law set out in the Standards Board's response to the earlier complaint must be revised. Defending the NSS's decision to bring the case, despite the wish of a majority of local councillors to have prayers at their meetings, Keith Porteous Wood declared that "the law is not made in Bideford". But it would seem that the law has indeed been made in Bideford, at least pending a probably inevitable appeal.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.