We live in very strange times. We are in an election week in UK, when Thursday 5th May will see UK citizens go to the polls to elect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, English local councils, Police & Crime commissioners, and English Mayors, including notably the new Mayor of London. Perhaps naively one might have expected a barrage of electioneering, with manifestos, election broadcasts, etc.
But the backdrop against which all this pans out is most peculiar indeed. We have a majority Conservative UK Government which seems to be doing its best to get as much wrong as it can, and alienate its “natural” electorate: examples are the March budget and the forced U-turn on benefits for the disabled; appalling mismanagement of a proposed new contract for junior doctors, resulting in the first all-out strike of health professionals in the history of the NHS; a needless attempt to force all schools to become academies; a “strike” by parents against a regime of excessive testing of young children; and a woeful performance on safeguarding our steel industry against foreign dumping. And all this in the context of an upcoming vote on EU membership: as I write the outcome looks likely to be in favour of “remain”, but it’s far from certain: conflicting views are strongly held and expressed within both main political parties, leading to a state almost approaching political civil war – inevitably much of the focus and energy of government will be devoted to this over the coming weeks, at the expense of running the country.
With the Tory Government in such disarray, and with its resources spread so thinly, we ought to be seeing the Labour party in ascendancy – more open goals to shoot at than might ever have been dreamt of. But what do we see instead? A Labour Party riven with its own leadership crisis, which has rumbled on since the disastrous election of Jeremy Corbyn last September – unelectable, yet un-removable. Maybe these should have been bumper times for the Liberal Democrats, but they were almost wiped out in the May 2015 general election: 57 seats down to 8.
It’s in this context we’ve seen a most extraordinary political development – instead of challenging the Government, and campaigning for success in the May elections, Labour has been obsessed with…………………..a debate about anti-Semitism.
There’s no doubt that certain figures in the Labour Party have form on this subject, and a wiser leadership would have pre-empted the issue many months ago, so the fact that the issue has come up to bite at this inopportune time is something of an own-goal. However – and here is my contention- it’s not hard to get this right, and put it to bed.
I have just watched again Sunday’s (1st May) BBC The Big Questions, where a studio audience debated the topic of trying to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Wow! As is usual with such topics, there was a great deal more heat than light, with most people intent on shouting down what they perceived as an opposing and unacceptable view, rather than listening, and attempting to identify and build on common ground. Yet there were good solid points being made. Here is my take on a set of views which most could and should be able to subscribe to. It is in effect three fundamental principles of civilized behaviour.
1 Hatred and vilification of any group of people on the grounds of who they are is unacceptable: this goes for country of origin, mother tongue, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disablement, congenital disfigurement, and any other characteristic which is not a matter of choice. It goes too for religious affiliation, which is a matter of choice (or at least ought to be!). So by this token anti-Semitism is a complete no-no: it is vilification of people on the grounds that they are ethnically Jewish. There are many other examples, some sadly common, some rarer but nonetheless abhorrent: by far the commonest is misogyny; other common examples are racism expressed as dislike / mistrust of people with different skin colour, and dislike/mistrust of “all Muslims”, or “all Hispanics”, or “all atheists”; homophobia is prevalent in many countries of the world, in some cases encoded in the law of the land, and in some (eg USA and UK) propagated by certain religious groups. Albinism, though rare, is a source of severe prejudice eg in Tanzania, where albinos live in fear of their lives.
2 Challenge, even ridicule, of ideas is not only fair game, it is essential for human progress. This goes for political ideas, government policy, and religious ideology alike. There is no place for blasphemy laws, nor is there a place for governments or regimes to restrict criticism of their political views or policies. Religions must never have a “free pass”- religious views should stand open challenge and scrutiny as for any other ideas and viewpoints. If people find them ridiculous, they should be free to say so, and why. If others espouse them devoutly, they should be free to do so, and defend their views in argument and debate if they so choose. Satire and a free press are healthy – openness to ridicule and criticism is a bellwether of the robustness and maturity of a political system.
3 Separation of religion and state is an essential for human progress and harmony. This means that all citizens are free to follow whatever religion they want, without fear or favour. It also guarantees freedom FROM religion – no one religion is given special favoured status by the state , so that laws and education systems are wholly indifferent to whatever religion any individual or group choose to follow. In this way, for example, a country with a huge majority Muslim population, such as Turkey, should operate with minorities of other religions happily co-existing in mutual respect. Israel, while it remains a democracy which respects the rights of its (approximately 1/3) non-Jewish population, is a far better example of how a country should best be run that say Saudi Arabia, where Islam is both the state religion and the political system of government. History shows us that setting up political boundaries based on the ethnicity or religion of populations is fraught with problems, even disaster. Obvious examples are the partition of India into a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim E & W Pakistan in 1947, and the partition of Ireland into a predominantly Roman Catholic south and a predominantly Protestant north in 1921. If we could go back and try again we would certainly seek to avoid those mistakes. There are interesting tensions in this area now in the USA and UK. The USA was founded on secular principles, and the constitution has been an enormously powerful agent for tolerance, mutual respect, and prosperity: but even now that is under threat from a Christian right who would seek to dominate , and try to turn the country into a Christian theocracy. The UK, in contrast, is constitutionally religious, with the reigning monarch the ex officio head of the C of E and “Defender of the Faith”; yet in practice it is amongst the most religiously tolerant and diverse countries of the world. Secularism is the de facto way things work in the UK, but that is not without threat from a minority Christian right. Secularism has many battles ahead, but it is worth fighting for.
I contend that if politicians could just get these three principles firmly on board, they would be much less likely to be trapped into espousing views which might trip up their careers. They would also be able to express clearly and simply what views are to be encouraged within their parties, what views are to be discouraged, and what views are beyond the pale. We might also see a much more constructive approach to reducing racism and religious intolerance, and to the protection of minority views. In summary, more healthy government.