Pickles overturns ban on council prayers

The legal wrangle highlights the need for an unambiguous separation between church and state.

After a week of absurd headlines declaring that "militant secularism" is endangering religion, Eric Pickles has acted to overturn the High Court ruling against council prayers. The Communities Secretary rushed through the implementation of "a general power of competence", which allows councils to do anything an individual can unless specifically prohibited by law.

Pickles declared:

By effectively reversing (the High Court's) illiberal ruling, we are striking a blow for localism over central interference, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism, and for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness.

The National Secular Society, which launched the legal challenge to council prayers, has responded by questioning the legality of Pickles's actions,

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, commented:

A number of senior lawyers have expressed doubt whether the Localism Act will, as Mr Pickles hopes, make prayers lawful, and the Act was clearly not passed with that express intention. His powers to pass legislation are not, as he implies, untrammelled. Council prayers increasingly look set to become a battle between the government and the courts at ever higher levels.

The legal ambiguity points to the need for a clear and unequivocal separation between church and state. Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished despite the country's secular constitution (the legal basis for the ban on school prayers).

Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move:

I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.

In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace. Now is as good a time as any to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.