God, the Queen and Tony Blair

The British are uncomfortable with a politician who "does God", but don't mind when the monarch does

When Tony Blair expressed a desire to end a broadcast at the time of the Iraq War with the phrase "God Bless Britain", consternation ensued. Committees were convened, aides (we must imagine) shuffled uncomfortably and looked at their shoes, and a "po-faced" civil servant -- we have Blair's own word for this -- reminded the PM in a very disapproving tone that "this is not America."

And indeed this is not America.  It may be customary for US presidents to call upon God to bless America on every conceivable occasion -- the phrase has become a mere vacancy, with no more theological significance than an automatic "bless you" uttered in response to a sneeze -- but in the mouth of a British prime minister it would sound jarring, unexpected, un-British.  This is not so much a reflection of the greater religiosity of Americans as one of culture and history.  God, in Britain, has not been usually been requested to bless the nation.  Rather, He has traditionally been required to Save the Queen.

If Blair had chosen to conclude his broadcast with that formulation, he would probably have avoided the disapproving stares of his civil servants (although Alastair Campbell might have been unimpressed).  It would not have sounded hammy or pious or overly theological.  It would, on the other hand, have struck many as jingoistic, not to mention helplessly old-fashioned.  That Blair (presumably) never even considered using the phrase says more about the prejudice against nationalism in modern Britain than it does about the eclipse of religion or even about New Labour's somewhat ambiguous relationship with the monarchy.  For both "God Bless America" and "God Save the Queen" are linguistic expressions of national solidarity rather than of religious faith.

In the USA the country; in the UK the monarch.  In a similar way, prosecutions in America are brought in the name of "the people", while in Britain criminals are charged in the name of the Queen (and, if convicted, sent down to reside at Her Majesty's Pleasure).  Our shops are now full of patriotic tat in advance of the Diamond Jubilee.  Americans come out to celebrate Americanness every Fourth of July (and many don't seem to need even that excuse).  For us Brits, however, only the irregular occurrence of a Jubilee or a big Royal Wedding permits a patriotic blow-out.  (England winning the World Cup or Euro 2012 would, I suppose, provide another, though even rarer, opportunity.)  We have no national day.  We are condemned to celebrate our nationhood by proxy, by pretending to celebrate an hereditary ruler or her heirs.

This also helps explain, I think, why according to a new opinion poll almost three quarters of the public believe that the Queen should continue to sport her traditional (originally and ironically papal) title of "Defender of the Faith".  For a President to say "God Bless America" is for him to speak in his capacity as priest-king.  To invoke divine blessings on the nation is part of the symbolic function of a head of state, as it has been since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs.  For a British prime minister to do so would be a usurpation.  It's not his job.  God, like the Queen, is supposed to be above politics.  Therefore only the Queen is allowed to "do God" -- as she often does, for example, in her Christmas broadcasts.

Today's poll, which also found that almost 80 per cent of respondents agreed that the Queen still had an important "faith role", failed to impress Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. He believes that the monarch's close relationship with the Church of England "renders everyone who is not of that religion to be less than full citizens."  But this rather misses the point.  Sanderson apparently thinks that Prince Charles's stated wish to be "Defender of Faith" rather than of "the Faith" would be "a step forward".  On the contrary, it would be divisive: it would imply the monarch's active participation the increasingly ugly battle between secularists and the religious, on the side of "faith" rather than of "no-faith".

I would suggest that public support for the Queen's continuing, if attenuated, "faith role" is part of the same national psychology that has long been uncomfortable with politicians "doing God" and that now looks on aghast as religious and secularist pressure groups take each other to court with claims of discrimination or offence.  The majority of people in this country are vaguely spiritual rather than actively religious or anti-religious.  Faith belongs to the private sphere rather than (as in the US) to the sphere of active citizenship.  Institutional religion exists for big personal occasions -- weddings and funerals -- rather in the same way that overt expressions of national pride are best confined to intermittent royal Jubilees.

For this reason, unenthusiastic about the monarchy as I am, I say God Save the Queen.
 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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