Secularism silenced

Evan Harris losing his seat is not just a blow to the Liberal Democrats.

A few prayers of thanks will be offered up today over the departure from the Commons of the Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris, if this extraordinarily personal and vitriolic column by the Telegraph's religion editor, Rev George Pitcher, is anything to go by.

"Hallelujah," writes Pitcher, whom I know in normal circumstances to be highly agreeable and level-headed, but who now describes the defenestration of Harris as nothing less than "the best result of the election". No danger of understatement there.

What has he got against Evan? His accusations are these:

A stranger to principle, Harris has coat-tailed some of the most vulnerable and weak people available to him to further his dogged, secularist campaign to have people of faith -- any faith -- swept from the public sphere. The Lib Dems served the purpose of providing him with a parliamentary seat, but his true love was the National Secular Society. For a doctor, he supported the strange idea that terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves. He pretended to defend Roman Catholics by attacking the Act of Settlement, with the real aim of undermining the established Church of England. A drab, secular determinism was his sole motivation; his parliamentary career consequently a one-trick pony.

Well, let me, as someone who first met Evan 20 years ago when he was a postgraduate and I an undergraduate at Oxford, put another point of view.

If more MPs had been like him, it is highly unlikely that politicians would have come to be held in such low regard. If more Liberal Democrats had been like him, I suspect they would be doing much better and might even have stood a genuine chance of replacing Labour as the main party of the left.

A consistently strong voice for the National Health Service and for science, he shared the title of "Secularist of the Year" with Lord Avebury in 2009 for their work in helping abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. He has campaigned against faith schools and argued courageously in favour of abortion, euthanasia, immigration and gay rights.

Some readers -- especially those who have described me as being "an apologist for religion" -- may be surprised to see me praising him. On the contrary, although I may disagree with some of Evan's stances, I think he has been one of the most principled MPs in parliament, sticking to his convictions and standing up for a true-liberal view of free speech and of the idea of liberty itself.

That some of the policies he advocates led "one Labour MP" in this peculiarly nasty Daily Mail profile to say "he's way to the left of us" only serves to show that Evan -- or "Dr Death", as the Mail's Leo McKinstry calls him -- has not tacked and trimmed to the centre right as New Labour did. (And doesn't that tactic look tattered and shameful now?)

Evan lost Oxford West and Abingdon by fewer than 200 votes after being the target of campaigns by at least two priests, one of whom was behind a leaflet distributed in his constituency that again described him as "Dr Death". Such blatant and ad hominem interference in the political process demonstrates how much voices for secularism are needed in parliament, though that message evidently did not get through to the voters.

I came across a quotation that provides a far better -- and, I would have thought, more Christian -- way of debating with a man such as Evan, in a book by another atheist, euthanasia-supporting Liberal, the late Ludovic Kennedy.

"There is only one way of dealing with people of different opinions; answer them. If the Christian faith can only reply . . . with personal abuse and can find no compelling answer, it deserves to fail and will in fact disappear."

Guess where Kennedy took the quote from? The Church of England Newspaper, in 1955. It was right then and it's still right today. Surely you wouldn't disagree, George?

 

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.