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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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

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