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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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories