Religion marginalised? Nonsense

Far from being repressed, expressions of faith and evidence of religious practice and identity are e

Anyone who believes that religion has been marginalised in Britain should consider the extraordinary events of past few weeks in the Premier League, where two seriously ill footballers elicited a nationwide summons to prayer. However many of the supporters and the wider public actually heeded the calls to pray for Fabrice Muamba and Stilian Petrov, these scenes raise fresh questions about the public face of faith and its relationship with the secular world.

The emergence of a kulturkampf between a coalition of faith and the forces of so-called militant secularism is a regrettable fabrication. The imagined “threat” of secularism is a phenomenon that can be measured only in the indifference of the non-religious to religion – it is exists only as passivity. Religion, by contrast, is very much active.

This, in itself, is nothing of note, but vociferous groups and individuals are attempting to create a narrative through which they can portray themselves as victims, turn rights into privileges and create conflict where there was none.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the return to power of the Conservatives has seen an increase in this rhetoric. Baroness Warsi’s recent trip to the Vatican confirmed that a reactionary alliance was forming against a secularism that was not merely described as militant, but as “intolerant”. Intolerant?

This year’s ruling against public prayer as an official element of council meetings in Devon is not intolerance. It is a decision designed to protect those without faith – enforced through the same laws that protect the rights of the religious. Here is the myth of militant secularism, a fantasy to suit the persecution complexes of people who feel out of step with mainstream culture.

Even if the Tories are (tentatively) pushing a pro-religion stance to shore up voters with conservative social values it has not stopped some in Labour, David Lammy for one, pursuing the same line. What David Cameron thinks about all this is anyone’s guess, though one would suspect any unease he may feel – the campaigning of Nadine Dorries MP may give him sleepless nights – is outweighed by the thought of all those religious voters.

The disproportionate influence of faith schools, which make up one third of state funded schools in England, is another manifestation of religiosity that makes a mockery of these claims. Faith schools are regularly the best in their area because they are often able to cherry-pick children from better-off families. Hardly the province of the persecuted.

Although it is virtually impossible to assess the accuracy of Cameron’s proclamation that Britain is a Christian country, the fact the he feels he can say it is evidence that 1) it is at least partly true and 2) this is a country that does not discriminate against Christians. Religious people have rights, but a minority confuse those rights with privileges. The irony is that secular laws exist to protect the rights of the religious. Religious laws, where they exist, tend to work in the opposite way. The judge who upheld the complaint of the gay couple who were refused a booking at a Cornwall B&B because of the owners’ religious beliefs put it succinctly. “I do not consider that the appellants face any difficulty in manifesting their religious beliefs. They are merely prohibited from so doing in the commercial context they have chosen.” It is these people’s views that are discriminatory, not the law.

As well as specific examples of militant faith, a sense that religion is valuable and relevant – in public and in private – is creeping back into national life. Much was made of the positivity and good will of those involved in football after the dramatic and upsetting collapse of Bolton’s Muamba, followed a week later by the news that Aston Villa’s Petrov has leukaemia. The initial shock and sadness over Muamba’s condition was dignified and decent. But in the week that followed, ostentatious public concern – with a conspicuously religious element - became a national obsession.

There is something novel about so many British people openly accepting that prayer would contribute to the wellbeing of another person. Millions of tweets calling for prayer, thousands of tributes left outside the Reebok Stadium doing the same and days of quasi-obituaries with pictures reflected the latent soft-core religiosity of the public. “Pray” is not merely a synonym for “hope he gets better”. If there was any doubt that pray was meant literally the Sun ran the words of Muamba’s fiancee as its splash headline the same week: God is in control.

Despite its reputation for debauchery, football is chock-full of the faithful – mainly Catholic and charismatic Christians who genuflect and cross themselves on the pitch – and when they urged fans to pray they meant it. The nation’s favourite sport, with its most influential names, became the locus of a mass religious experience.

What football has shown us is that there is an untapped reservoir of faith envy. It is likely that most of those called to prayer to heal the sick were without faith, and yet they embraced the opportunity like lost pilgrims. It is also likely that the uneasy coalition of prosthelytising Christians and Muslims is aware of this potential.

If Christians (or Muslims or anyone else) are a minority in modern Britain they should have their rights protected. But hang on - they already do. Plus there are bishops in the Lords, churches in every town and village, priests on Radio 2 and religious iconography everywhere you look. This is not the landscape of a victimised and marginalised sect. There is nothing inherently wrong about the presence of religious expression and thought in public life, but after an Easter weekend of watching The King of Kings and The Passion from Port Talbot let us not pretend they are voices crying in the wilderness.

Young Tottenham fans hold up a banner in support of Fabrice Muamba. Photograph: Getty Images.

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.