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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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.