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
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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