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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle