Another take on the Papal visit

I’m grateful to David Briggs for pointing me in the direction of this splendid take on the Papal visit to the UK:

I’m fully aware that there are some who will view the continual criticism of Mr Ratzinger during his visit as regrettable and perhaps even offensive but, despite my unashamed atheism, I post this clip simply because it made me laugh. Make of it what you will…

Philip Hollobone – Heroic Prophet or Complete Idiot?

Brace yourself for the outrage (it’s already off to a flier in the ‘comments’ section of the Daily Mail’s online content). Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, has been warned that he may fall foul of the Equality Act as a result of his claim that he will refuse to meet constituents who wear a burqa or a niqab. You can be reasonably sure that the Little Englanders and self-righteous warriors against ‘political correctness’ will have a field day defending this objectionable little toad’s ‘right’ to create division and enforce lazy stereotypes in the name of protecting Britain’s national culture.

This often tends to be the culture of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ which Hollobone and his ilk like to boast about when they puff their chests out and become all dewy-eyed when the Union Flag is waved around at Tory conference time, but it appears you should only be free and tolerated if you’re white and Christian – anything that differs from the formula must be treated with suspicion and thinly-veiled (no pun intended) hate.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has already voiced his concerns about breathing the same political air as the ‘toxic’ Tories, and it isn’t difficult to see why when an idiot like Hollobone crawls out of the woodwork. For all the work David Cameron has done trying to portray his party as modern and liberal, there is always the suspicion that you don’t have to look too far to find an army of Hollobones lurking on the Tory benches, foaming at the mouth about family values, tradition and ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

And of course, immigration is what this issue is all about. Hollobone’s prejudices tap into deeply held suspicions whipped up by the tabloid press that foreigners are coming ‘over here’ and taking all our jobs while selling our British, Christian identity down the river as they ruthlessly construct their Islamic state. This analysis coveniently avoids any discussion of what the British ‘identity’ really is, of course. No mention here of the historical influx of Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans and the like – perhaps the BNP should persuade their friends in the press to have a crack at this ‘menace’ while they’re doing such sterling work on burkas.

Hollobone isn’t the first idiot to emerge from the Tory backbenches and he certainly won’t be the last. While some of the Conservative grassroots understand the concept of appealing to the centre ground of politics, there are just as many who believe the Richard Littlejohns of this world are the straight-talking prophets who warn of Britain’s impending doom at the hands of the foreigners and queers who secretly plot the overthrow of everything they hold dear. Now, in Philip Hollobone, it seems they may have stumbled upon a new hero.

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Should prayer have a place at council meetings?

The National Secular Society is currently carrying out a piece of work examining the link between local councils and the inclusion of prayers as an item of business on their agendas. In some areas this has become an issue of some controversy, while in many other places most people would wonder what the fuss is about, either because prayer forms no part of their councils’ meetings or because it is a long-standing practice which the majority are comfortable with.

Council prayers are something I’ve chosen to absent myself from since I was first elected to Cornwall County Council in 2005, and while some of the ‘old hands’ initially saw it as a direct attack on their beliefs, I think they mostly now realise that I (and the growing number of other abstainers) simply made a different choice.

Those who would defend the scheduling of a prayer session within a council meeting would probably point to a number of different arguments. Many would say it is a traditional item on the agenda, or that a quiet moment of reflection at the start of a meeting helps put them in the correct frame of mind for the business at hand. Many others would offer the slightly more trenchant view that “this is a Christian country” and that those who disagree should bloody well live somewhere else.

The only one of these arguments that holds any water for me is the second, that a calm period of thought at the start of a meeting is good for clearing the mental decks. Tradition is a complete non-argument because that puts forward the case for the perpetual status quo. Societies and traditions evolve (I chose that word carefully) over time and I believe that our representation at local and national level should reflect that.

As for the suggestion that this is a Christian country, I’m afraid that simply doesn’t bear any meaningful scrutiny. Only a minority of the population regularly attend a Christian ceremony, and the long-term decline in footfall at Anglican churches speaks of a growing trend towards secularism. I know that many people still identify themselves as Christians, even if their only contact with their religion is weddings and funerals, but apathy should not be taken for unqualified support.

I would never dream of trying to prevent anyone from practising their belief system, but equally I don’t think others should seek to impose their beliefs on me (or anyone else for that matter). Perhaps a better option than formalising prayers as an agenda item might be holding a voluntary prayer session prior to the meeting itself. This could provide that period of reflection while leaving the meeting itself purely for the business at hand.

I’m always happy to have a philosophical debate with anyone on the topic of what we believe, but I wonder if parliament and councils across the country need to enshrine a particular denomination within business items that otherwise have no connection with the ‘spiritual’. My concern about the first item of business being prayers has never been about what other people believe, it is about inclusiveness and the signals our elected bodies send out to those who aren’t part of the Anglican tradition, whether they are Methodists, Catholics, Muslims, atheists or whatever.

(See also: Council prayers campaign progresses to the next stage)

All I want for Christmas…

I don’t much care for Christmas really. Like most of us I suppose, I enjoyed it when I was a kid, but as soon as the whole festival started to become a net loss to the bank account the magic quickly started to wane. Obviously I make an effort for the benefit of my children (although I’m not entirely comfortable with the lies and deceit around the whole ‘existence of Father Christmas’ issue) and there’s nothing wrong with having at least one day a year when families make an effort to sit round a table and eat a meal together. On the other hand the religious aspect of Christmas is completely lost on me (as would appear to be the case for the vast majority of binge-shoppers filling the streets at this time of year) and there can be little doubt that the materialistic excesses become more pronounced every year.

Anyway, those arguments are all very well rehearsed and I’m not going to go over them here. Instead I thought I’d enter into the spirit of things (kind of) and write down my political wishlist for Christmas and the New Year.

1. An Early Election. Gordon, for the sanity of us all, please get this nasty business out of the way early. We’ve all been in the middle of an election campaign for months now and the sooner it’s over the better. Of course, if the worst happens (and the Tories win) at least we’ll all have the comfort of knowing that, if you’d held out until June, they would probably have won anyway , and the sooner people start remembering why we threw them out in the first place the better.

2. Ideally the result I would like from an election would be a Hung Parliament. The ‘swing of the pendulum’ just isn’t working any more, the political system is at the lowest ebb of its public regard for the best part of two hundred years and it simply won’t do for this to carry on any longer. The worst excesses of the expenses scandal were the work of the MPs in the safest seats – a hung parliament and a sensible debate around electoral reform (STV please) would mean there wouldn’t be any safe seats. And everyone’s vote would count! What a novel idea.

3. Lord Ashcroft to come clean about his tax status. OK, I know it’s not going to happen but you’d just think that a party that has been bleating on about cleaning up the political system and sorting out the non-dom status of our legislators would get its own bloody house in order first. That’s all.

4. Something reasonably unpleasant to happen to George Osborne. Nothing fatal or physically damaging, you understand, just something reasonably unpleasant. A seagull dumping on his head every time he gives an interview, for example, or a sordid Bullingdon sex and drugs scandal, or (best of all) him not becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ever.

I know I can’t have everything I want for Christmas, but these four minor items would make me very happy as I sit by the fire with my eggnog, trying not to think about January’s credit card bill. Thanks.

Who The Bloody Hell Does Stephen Green Think He Is?

Five Live Phone-inOne of my many weaknesses is the radio phone-in. In some respects it’s a (metaphorically) abusive relationship – I know it’s cheap radio and I know the exposure to ranting Daily Mail readers is bad for me, but for some reason I just can’t walk away.

Thursday morning’s BBC Five Live effort, entitled “Should you be allowed to say what you really think?” ticked all the usual boxes of the genre: daft opening premise, mostly male participants, more heat than light, early and excessive use of the phrases “the Nanny State”, “political correctness gone mad” and “the PC Brigade”, and ultimately no discernible end product that was of any use to anyone.

However what spiced things up for me in the half hour leading up to the phone-in was the participation of Stephen Green, the wild-eyed mouthfoamer who heads up loony fundamentalist hate-mongers Christian Voice. He had been wheeled out (presumably the Tax Payer’s Alliance were unavailable) to comment on the latest pointless piece of government tinkering aimed at outlawing incitement to homophobic hate crime. As so often with the government, behind this is a worthy goal which is unfortunately backed up with clumsy, counter-productive legislation.

Stephen Green

Our Saviour Stephen Green

Green wasn’t going to miss this chance to promote himself and his particular brand of intolerance, and sure enough he soon fired into his standard homily on why ‘gayness’ is wrong. “Nobody’s born like it, and even if you are born like it you don’t have to stay like it,” he opined, citing his ‘Good Book’ as the one true law. Of course, I took the bait and started shouting at the radio, although thankfully I didn’t phone up and spill yet more bile over the airways. But the sad thing is that this man manages to get a rise out of me every time.

Just who the bloody hell does Stephen Green think he is? What right does he have to drip his extremist poison in my direction? Who elected him? (Even as I type I feel the rage rising.)

I suppose I should declare an interest here. I’m not a Christian. I used to be (sort of) but a diet of forced religion at school soon brought out the atheist in me, and even now I resent the peddling of unsubstantiated superstitions in a public setting. Nevertheless I try to be tolerant, not least because religion often seems to give some kind of comfort to many of its followers, and most priests of whatever religion appear pleasant enough as they go about their business.

Stephen Green is a different beast altogether. Shrill, arrogant and untroubled by doubt, he has no concept of his own hypocrisy as he and his organisation push their fundamental message: hate. (Funny, I thought the principle thrust of Christianity was supposed to be love, but obviously that doesn’t extend to homosexuality or any of the other modern day facts of life that don’t fit in with Christian Voice’s Old Testament agenda.)

Of course, it’s homosexuality that gets Green hottest under the collar, and you could hear the delight in his voice on Thursday morning as he was invited to vent spleen freely at the suggestion that not everyone might find his views on the subject helpful. I wonder why he’s so fascinated about a subject that supposedly has no connection to him…

Green and the others of his ilk like to hide behind the selective quoting of Bible texts, and at times it seems that the exact prose of their scripture is of more importance to them than the philosophy it contains. Many of us may sneer at America and the malign influence of its evangelical groups, but we would be foolish to think that it could never happen here in the UK. Christian Voice are a noisy minority at the moment, but when the Tories follow Murdoch’s bidding and leave the broadcast media to the mercy of the market, how long will it be before our airwaves start to fill up with their nonsense?

Perhaps the scenario in this brilliant clip from the West Wing may not be too far away: