The great “Protest the Pope” implosion

It’s been a damp squib so far. Does opposition to the papal visit come only from a liberal metropoli

For the past few days, if not weeks (and sometimes it feels like months), I have had regular email updates from Peter Tatchell detailing his opposition to the papal visit. The latest, only hours ago, informs me that there has been a "Pope cover-up of gay Cardinal Newman".

Never mind that Tatchell is raking over what is by now a very familiar story, and coming up with some rather dubious "proof" for his assertion -- "Newman was not exactly macho. His soft, gentle, effeminate demeanour is typical of what we often associate with some gay men" (!!).

I like Peter, have known him through journalism for around 15 years now, and regard him as a brave man whose one-time militancy has matured into a principled and selfless stance that he has maintained at great personal cost.

Nevertheless, Peter and his colleagues in the Protest the Pope movement do not seem to have enjoyed conspicuous success so far. Areas specifically set aside by the police for demonstrators in Edinburgh were empty when the 24-hour news channels were covering His Holiness's arrival in the Scottish capital yesterday.

The greatest opposition so far seems to have been coming from the Rev Ian Paisley -- and I hardly think he is the kind of ally Peter and his friends want. (In fact, if they wanted to protest against Dr Paisley, I'd join them at the barricades any day. But that's another story.)

Great joy of the faithful

Could it be that large numbers of people, disgusted as they are by the paedophile abuse scandals involving Catholic priests that have been unearthed, are still nevertheless able to distinguish between the evils associated with the Church, and its harsh and inflexible rhetoric on all sorts of sexual behaviour -- and the good that it does, and the comfort and social solidarity it supplies to many people throughout the country?

I merely point out that many of the Pope's most vehement critics, from Polly Toynbee (who wrote a very spirited piece in the Guardian on Tuesday) to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, yes, even Geoffrey Robertson in the New Statesman, are all metropolitan liberals. Members of the middle classes, yes -- but more or less in the same way as David Cameron is, which is to say, part of a privileged minority.

Whereas I bet that if I went to any of the Catholic churches I attended as a child -- in which the congregations were overwhelmingly working class and an RP accent stuck out from a mile off -- the view from the pews today would still be of great joy that the Pontiff has come to the country.

Could it be that, even if coffee mornings, lunches, early-evening drinks and dinner parties across Hampstead, Islington, Holland Park, the newly affluent parts of Hackney and the cutting-edge borders of Peckham were cancelled, the protesting crowds would still be thin during the Pope's time in London?

If so, one might be left with the conclusion that almost the only group that is really, bitterly, foot-stampingly furious about the visit of the leader of the world's one billion-plus Catholics is the members of a metropolitan elite.

I may be wrong. In fact, I must hope I am proved so. Because that would not speak very well of the tolerance of which liberals -- and I write as one -- profess themselves to be such earnest defenders. A tolerance that draws its limits so sharply and aggressively is not worthy of the name at all, surely?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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