Saturday, 18 February 2012

The New Tory (il)Liberalism - Why Pickles is Wrong.

The BBC is reporting that the Government is to give councils powers to have prayers as part of formal meetings - and this is confirmed on the Department for Communities and Local Government website.

Now, as a Liberal Democrat, I'm all for people's freedom to worship. As someone who grew up in evangelical church circles, I believe I have a better understanding than most of the types of opprobrium than can be directed at people for sincerely held views. I believe that the aim of a Liberal Democracy should be to facilitate the freedom of expression and observance for people of all faiths - and none.

There are those - Baronness Warsi, for example - who would have you believe that the freedom to individual expression of faith is under attack. Specifically, that the Christian faith is under attack from something called "Militant Secularism".

I neither subscribe to such a notion nor believe that this is somehow being inflicted on people of faith. I do subscribe to a view of society that says the State, it's institutions and services, and those providing them should do so without fear or favour. This means that they should neither seek to subscribe to one set of religious ideals, impose these on people of other faiths - or none -, nor oppress those of any given faith.

In this context, I believe it's completely right and proper that any religious exercise, such as the saying of prayers, does not form a part of the formal proceedings of council meetings. (I would extend this further, to Parliament and Schools for example, but that is an issue for another day...). Should councils wish to have a time for reflection, prayers, or whatever, they should be free to do so, but not as part of their official business.

Such a move is not an attack on the Church of England, faith in general or the Judeo-Christian culture and heritage we have - it's a genuinely Liberal position which recognises that faith is a private rather than collegiate matter. Context, is, as they say, everything.

And this is where I come to the real inspiration for this blog-post; the Communities and Local Goverment Secretary, Eric Pickles. Mr Pickles is quoted as saying, taking the recent High Court judgement against council prayers as his starting point:
"The High Court judgement has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council. For too long, faith has been marginalised in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation.
"As a matter of urgency I have personally signed a Parliamentary order to bring into force an important part of the new Localism Act - the general power of competence - that gives councils the vital legal standing that should allow them to continue to hold formal prayers at meetings where they wish to do so.
"This should effectively overtake the ruling and it also shows that greater localism can give local councils the strength and freedom to act in their best interests.
"We will stand for freedom to worship, for Parliamentary sovereignty, and for long-standing British liberties."
I fundimentally disagree with him on the position of faith in public life - and the idea that moving towards greater secularism as society somehow denies the Church's historic importance in the forming of the country.

But the comments that really exercised me were these ones quoted on the BBC website:
"By effectively reversing that 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 reason I'm so worked up is that, whilst I can agree with much of it - localism, freedom to worship, a general dislike of society which is too quick to resort to the courts - I cannot agree with his definition of illiberal.

These comments - like those of Baronness Warsi this week - give the lie to the notion that the Tories are more liberal than the previous Labour government, just that it is expressed in a different way. Labour's illiberalism was authoritarian, the Conservative illiberalism is, it transpires, about resistance to change. (This could equally be said of their general view of immigration.).

Whilst they portray their views as liberal, it is a version of liberalism that resists change to time-honoured traditions. A liberalism-of-convenience which is about the freedom to do what we've always done, a freedom to resist societal changes and a freedom to impose "traditional" "values" on those who happen not share those.

That is not a liberalism I can endorse. Mainly because it is not Liberal.



Raybeard said...

You'd think that Pickles, huffing and puffing as he always does, was concerned that saying prayers in a council chamber was going to be ILLEGAL. As you say, Andrew, there was and still is nothing stopping such meetings holding prayers BEFORE getting started on the formal agenda. But when he says it like he does it sounds like he's striking a blow in favour of the God-botherers, whose vote is SO useful to have, especially when your own majority is precarious.

As for Warsi and her ilk, they really do have some brass neck complaining about 'aggressiveness' and 'militancy' in atheism and secularism, which they talk about as being the same thing. (Would they then support 'gentle' secularism, whatever that is? I think not.) Bur since when were religions NOT guilty of these very attributes she complains about? - She with her opposing any equalisation of gay-discriminating laws at every twist and turn, all in the name of her own 'tolerant' religion, and only very reluctantly concurring with, through gritted teeth, David Cameron's (apparent) gay-friendly overtures. What a humbug she is!

Stephen Glenn said...

I heard a prayer in church this morning where the words intolerance of not allowing prayer to be part of a council meeting was uttered. As you have pointed out, as I did before last Sunday where it formed part of the Sermon then, it is not being prevented from happening jut not as part of formal business.

What is intolerant is insisting that they are part of council business so that someone who absents themselves from them for personal reasons will then be minuted as a late attendeee at the meeting.