Stop banning Pastor Terry Jones

Yes, he’s a bigoted, deluded Islamophobe – but can’t free speech cope with that?

So Pastor Terry Jones, the American preacher infamous for his aborted "Burn a Quran Day" prior to the last anniversary of September 11, has been banned from entering the UK after all. He now will not be able to join demonstrations against mosque-building organised by England Is Ours, an anti-immigration group which believes, according to its website, that Britain's three main political parties are all "corrupty" (sic).

Leave aside the nonsense spouted by this group and by Pastor Jones, who seems to share the concern of England Is Ours about "the expansion of Islam in the UK, and the apparent collusion shown by the British government to this expansion". (I like that dastardly word, "collusion".) It is wrong to bar him, just as it would have been wrong to have barred him in December when those other lovable rogues, the English Defence League, invited him to speak.

In the event, the EDL withdrew the invitation, so the Home Secretary was not called upon to make a decision about whether to let him in. Not before, however, many had insisted he be turned away – the Labour MP Jon Cruddas in particular.

I wrote about this at the time. (Cruddas responded in the Guardian by branding me a member of the "liberal elite". I would have thanked him for the compliment, but that clearly wasn't his intention.) You can find the original piece here, so I will just quote the following from it now:

We consider him to be distasteful, for sure, uncivilised, uncouth, the possessor of barbaric and ignorant views. But if we value free speech at all, those can never be reasons enough to ban him. Let Pastor Jones come to Britain, and if his speech breaks any law, then throw the book at him.

I stand by that. What I find sinister this time, however, is the language used by the Home Office to justify excluding him. "Numerous comments made by Pastor Jones are evidence of his unacceptable behaviour. Coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right, and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good."

Such vague, paternalistic terms, "conducive to the public good" and "unacceptable behaviour", the first sounding like a useful get-out for a police state and the second reminiscent of a ticking-off from an old-fashioned housemaster: "Matron found you in bed during morning prayers two days in a row, Byrnes. Your behaviour is unacceptable. You will commence three hours' detention after you have finished your prep."

Worse still, though, is this contention that "coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right". Yes, technically that may be correct. But in this day of easy and open borders and frequent travel, is that really how we view visiting another country? Perhaps we should put those words in big signs above our immigration counters. That would make tourists and businessmen feel welcome, wouldn't it?

Put it the other way. After flying over the Atlantic, would not a trip to New York start just that little bit less joyously if one were constantly reminded that even being let into the country was "a privilege, not a right"? (True, US immigration officials are notoriously brusque and unfriendly, but they don't go that far.) We have a visa waiver programme for when we go to the States, and US tourists or visitors need only present a valid passport on arrival in the UK. We expect to be able to travel freely between our two friendly nations, and anyone of an internationalist outlook would not wish it otherwise.

But Pastor Jones is such a danger to us all, apparently, that we must ban him from entering Britain. Stop – lest his honeyed tones and fine intellect persuade us of the merits of his views, or stir our nation of placid shopkeepers into a violent, howling mob!

Or you may think, as I do, that it is a ridiculous and heavy-handed ruling over a man whose words and actions should never have been taken so seriously in the first place.

As I concluded the last time I commented on Jones's case: "What has anyone to fear from a man so confused and deluded that, before his Quran-burning stunt, he could seriously declare that its aim was 'to send a message to the moderate Muslims to stay peaceful and moderate'?"

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage