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
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.