I love Britain. The Daily Mail hates it.

What is Britain? This question doesn’t seem to have been asked much in the many arguments around the Daily Mail’s vicious attack on Ed Miliband’s father. Ralph Miliband, the Mail maintains, “hated Britain”.

Is “Britain” simply a geographical area? Or does the Mail really mean the United Kingdom, which is a political entity? Or the British people? We talk so much about countries that we can easily forget that nationality is an abstract and ill-defined concept.

The Daily Mail‘s deputy editor Jon Steafel now seems to have come up with a definition of Britain that few British people would recognise.

Defending his paper’s claims, he attacked Ralph Miliband’s “views on British institutions, from our schools to our royal family to our military, to our universities to the church [of England]”.

Steafel’s implication is that to oppose powerful institutions in Britain is to hate Britain. This is nonsense. There is more to Britain than its rulers. It is possible to love a country’s people, to love it as a place and to oppose its political and economic systems. Indeed, love for a country’s people should surely lead to a desire to be rid of unjust institutions that harm them.

I’m not too keen on the United Kingdom as a political entity, but I love the places and people within it. You may be surprised to hear that I also love many aspects of its politics.

I love British traditions of free speech, religious liberty and fair trials (although they’re abused). We have these things because people went out and campaigned for them, not because our rulers kindly handed them down.

I love the radical traditions of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Radical egalitarian forms of Christianity became popular in these islands in the seventeenth century, just after England had abolished its monarchy (over a hundred years before France did so; sadly, it didn’t last).

I love the stunning scenery in Snowdonia and the Antrim coast. I love the mix of cultures, languages and religions on the streets of London. I love the friendliness of Cardiff and the feeling of homecoming as the bus goes over Magdalen Bridge in Oxford. I love the rural Midlands roads that I walked down as a child, greasy spoon cafes in Birmingham, the sight of the castle in Edinburgh and the passion of people whose poverty is no barrier to resisting injustice. I love the British people.

The Daily Mail stirs up hatred of the British working class, British Muslims, British LGBT people, British people who were born outside the UK and British people who claim benefits. It is the Daily Mail that hates Britain.

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The above article appeared as my latest column for the website of the Ekklesia thinktank. Please see http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hill

We must condemn murder – in both Woolwich and Afghanistan

In a bitter coincidence of timing, Barack Obama announced the scaling down of drone operations by the US government just after the horrific murder of an unarmed man on the streets of Woolwich this week.

It remains to be seen how real or effective Obama’s new policy will be. His assertion that drones should not be used to kill civilians is absurd. Drones have killed civilians time and again. They cannot be used in a way that avoids civilian death. Time and again, claims about the targeting ability of new weapons prove to be untrue.

Nor does the British government plan to cut back on drones. Quite the reverse. They are now operating drones directly from the UK. Previously, UK drones were operated by RAF staff in the US.

Cameron, Clegg and their colleagues have rightly condemned the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Neither the fact that Rigby was a soldier, nor any policy of the UK government, can justify this vicious attack. Almost everyone, including all the major Muslim organisations in the UK, has condemned the killing.

Many have also condemned the predictable response of the EDL, BNP and other far-right thugs. There have been several attacks on mosques, as well as verbal and physical abuse of Muslims, since the Woolwich murder. Two years ago, when Anders Brevik claimed that Christianity had motivated his murder of 77 people in Norway, there were no attacks on churches. Today, the organisation Faith Matters reported that they had chronicled 150 incidents of anti-Muslim abuse or violence since Wednesday. 

This is just the sort of conflict that violent Islamic fundamentalists wish to promote. Islamic fundamentalists and the British far-right need each other. Attacks by one provoke attacks from the other, perpetuating senseless violence, usually against people who are neither fascist nor fundamentalist. Each group pretends that the other is representative of what they are fighting – be it Islam or western society. Hatred feeds off hatred.

In the midst of this horror, we are faced with the image of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the woman who calmly spoke with the killers, risking her own life but possibly preventing further bloodshed. I am sure that many people have this week been challenged by her inspiring example.

Unfortunately, some of those who praise don’t follow through on the example of active nonviolence that her behaviour represents. Although mainstream politicians condemn the anti-Muslim violence, few of them are doing so as loudly as they are speaking about Woolwich. Worse still, there are many murders that they do not condemn at all. The drones that rain down death on innocent Afghan civilians are no more justified than a murder with a meat cleaver in Woolwich.

There are those who say that this is not the time to talk about the UK government’s foreign policy. But how can there be a time when it is not right to talk about the killing of innocent people? We would all be disgusted if someone told Lee Rigby’s family not to talk about his death. Are we prepared to tell the mother of a child killed in Afghanistan that this is not the right time to be talking about it?

This is precisely the time to be talking about it. Indeed, if we are to be consistent and act with integrity, then we must talk about it. The Woolwich murderers appeared to believe that the killings in Afghanistan and elsewhere justified a killing in London. They do not. Nor does Rigby’s killing justify attacks on Muslims in Britain. And none of these events make it acceptable for people on any side to be killing innocent people on the other side of the world.

This week’s newspapers have been full of pictures of Michael Adebolajo, his hands covered in blood. The hands of David Cameron and Barack Obama may look a lot cleaner. This is only because they kill at a distance. When it comes to responsibility for death, Cameron and Obama are up to the waist in blood. If we are to have integrity as we condemn the vicious murder of Lee Rigby, we must be prepared to say so.

Same-sex marriage and the local elections: Who thinks they’re connected?

The “Christian Right” in Britain – inasmuch as it exists – is not like the Christian Right in the US. Over there, conservatism on issues such as marriage and abortion seems to go hand in hand with right-wing views on economics and foreign policy. Over here, we have conservative Christian lobby groups with a far more narrow focus. Organisations such as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern/Christian Legal Centre and so-called Anglican Mainstream focus largely on attacking LGBT rights. They also speak out against abortion, Islam and the supposed marginalisation of Christians in Britain.

But unlike their US counterparts, these groups rarely comment explicitly on economics or international relations. True, the tiny Christian Party adopts a right-wing stance on virtually every issue, cheering on Trident and tax cuts for the rich. In contrast, the (slightly older) Christian People’s Alliance is just as hostile to LGBT rights and Islam, but has a suprisingly good record of campaigning against the arms trade and talks quite a bit about poverty.

Shortly before the 2010 general election, Christian Concern appeared to endorse the candidacy of George Hargreaves, the Christian Party’s leader, in an email bulletin to supporters. The bulletin clearly provoked some negative reactions, as the group almost immediately issued another email insisting that they do not endorse one party or another.

This makes an email that they have sent out today particularly interesting. When giving advice to Christians about voting in tomorrow’s local elections, there is only one issue they mention: same-sex marriage.

Subscribers to their mailing list received an “action alert” today that declared:

Please take the time to find out which of your candidates supports marriage as between one man and one woman before you go to place your vote.”

You might think that the afternoon before polling day is a bit late to be finding out such things. You might also wonder what local elections have to do with marriage law. The email declares:

Local authorities hold a lot [of] power which they could use to penalise people or organisations who believe in authentic marriage, so it’s important that local councillors are pro real marriage.”

There is then a link to a leaflet produced by the “Coalition for Marriage” about the links between local government and marriage law. It consists largely of unsubstantiated statements. For example:

Schools could be forced to promote the new definition of marriage in the classroom. The rights of parents could be ignored, and teachers who believe in traditional marriage could be pushed out of their careers… Churches that refuse to hold same-sex weddings may be denied grants or refused permission to hire halls from councils in the future.”

No evidence is provided to back up these claims (I hope that schools will encourage children to consider all sides of the argument on ethical, political and religious issues – as they are already expected to).

The only party that the email mentions by name is the Conservatives. Christian Concern quote a Daily Telegraph poll that shows:

…that the plan to redefine marriage makes far more people ‘less likely’ to vote Conservative than ‘more likely’ to do so.”

Speaking personally, there is nothing that would make me “less likely” to vote Conservative, as there has never been any chance of my voting Conservative at all.

Will Christian Concern’s supporters vote primarily (or even solely) on the basis of which candidate or candidates oppose same-sex marriage? This could have alarming results. Of course, there are a few Labour, Lib Dem and SNP candidates who oppose marriage equality, but most anti-equality candidates are likely to be Tory, Independent or from far-right parties such as the UK Independence Party.

This is particularly relevant at a time when UKIP is under such scrutiny. Last week, their candidate Anna Marie Crampton was thrown out of the party for anti-Semitic comments on Facebook. When the story broke, one of the first to call for Crampton’s expulsion was Sam Westrop, director of the interfaith group Stand for Peace. He said, ““UKIP, to its credit, has expelled extremist and bigoted members in the past.” It is able to have done so only because it has had so many of them to expel.

Three years ago, I analysed UKIP’s policies and discovered remarkable overlaps with the BNP. UKIP are not only anti-European, anti-migrant and anti-Muslim. They also deny the reality of climate change, support an increase in military spending and want a flat rate of income tax (so milllionaires pay the same as cleaners and nurses). UKIP believe that the Tory cuts are not going far enough. Nigel Farage has described David Cameron, the man currently presiding over the destruction of the welfare state, as “a social democrat”.

And of course, UKIP is also strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Winston McKenzie, UKIP’s candidate in the Croydon North by-election, made this one of the main points of his campaign, targeting religious voters with the untrue claim that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties want to force churches and mosques to host same-sex weddings.

Mackenzie also described adoption by same-sex couples as “child abuse”. The party’s spokespeople disagreed with him, but they didn’t expel him. Instead, it was the head of UKIP’s youth wing who was forced out of his job for supporting same-sex marriage.

Is this the party that Christians are being urged to support tomorrow? Are Christian Concern simply naïve about the likely economic policies of most candidates opposed to same-sex marriage, or are they actively in favour of them?

Disability, abortion and UKIP

What must life be like for UKIP’s press officers? Just as the party’s support is rising, their candidates keep expressing views that are even farther to the right than UKIP’s official policies. Last month, UKIP’s culture spokesperson described adoption by same-sex couples as “child abuse”. Now one of their local government candidates in Kent has suggested that disabled children should face compulsory abortion.

Geoffrey Clark, who is contesting a council by-election in Gravesham, believes that the NHS should (you might have to brace yourself before reading this) “consider compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Down’s, spina bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, will render the child a burden on the state as well as the family”.

He also wants the NHS to offer “free euthanasia advice to all folk over eighty” because their treatment is “extremely costly”.

Clark has chosen a bizarre moment to make these disgusting suggestions. He’s not even standing for Parliament but for local government. Does he want the power to carry out compulsory abortions to be put into the hands of Gravesham Borough Council?

Clark’s views are too much even for some members of UKIP to stomach. He has been thrown out of the party, with a UKIP spokesman saying that “the party was not aware of these views when it allowed him to stand under our name”. The fact that someone who believes in eugenics can be selected as a UKIP candidate – even without going into his views on certain issues – says a great deal about far to the right UKIP is.

One of Clark’s oddest claims is that he wants to promote “Christian values”. Some socially conservative Christians share his view that same-sex marriage is an “abhorrence”. They might back his desire to ban the niqab. They may well applaud his attacks on the Qur’an. But they would not back compulsory abortion, or – in the cast of some of them – any abortion at all.

Nonetheless, many anti-abortionists overlook some of the concerns that Clark is exploiting. His claim that disabled people are a “burden”, implying that they only take from society and give nothing to it, is both morally repugnant and demonstrably untrue. Presumably he means that being disabled often costs more. This is true. The answer is not to abort babies but to ensure that society and the state provide adequate support so that individuals and families are not punished for something over which they have no control.

Exactly the opposite is happening. The government is cutting benefits for disabled people and local councils are cutting disability services. It is almost certain that this will lead to more parents choosing to go ahead with an abortion when they discover their child has spina bifida, Down’s syndrome or one of several other conditions. Indeed, the rise in poverty caused by the economic crisis and the government’s cuts will lead to an increase in abortions generally, as more people decide they can’t afford to bring up a child. For most of these parents, that decision will not be made lightly. It will be horribly traumatic.

But in the face of all this, debates over abortion are still conducted with little if any reference to poverty or disability. Some talk of the rights of unborn children, but condemn mothers making unimaginably horrific decisions. Others are suspicious of any talk of the rights of unborn children. This is understandable given how that rhetoric has been used to attack women, although it is possible to believe in the rights of mothers while still valuing unborn children.

Banning abortions wouldn’t stop them happening. It would simply condemn mothers already facing trauma and pain to receiving more trauma and pain at the hands of backstreet abortionists. If anti-abortion groups really want to reduce the number of abortions – or at least to stop the number increasing – they need to campaign against poverty, prejudice and the government’s cuts. Only when they do so will they have any moral claim to describe themselves as “pro-life”.

UKIP: The respectable face of the far right

Members of the United Kingdom Independence Party must be rubbing their hands with glee today. They’re the subject of the day’s leading news story. The Education Secretary has described them as “a mainstream party”. The Leader of the Opposition has effectively defended them. They’re being portrayed as victims of discrimination, despite their own discriminatory policies.

According to the story that broke this morning, foster carers in Rotherham had non-British children removed from their care because they are members of UKIP. This is the claim of the couple concerned. Rotherham Council’s statements seem less clear, suggesting that membership of UKIP influenced the decision, but implying it was not the only factor. They have spoken of the children’s cultural needs not being respected.

Our primary concern in all this must be the needs of the children. I do not know whether Rotherham Council were right to remove the children. I have not been involved in the case. I do not know the children; I do not know the foster carers; I do not know about all the issues involved. Nor, of course, do the many people who have rushed to condemn the council’s decision. These include Michael Gove, who has already described it as “the wrong decision”.

It is utterly inappropriate and unprofessional for the Education Secretary to comment on the rightness or wrongness of a fostering decision on the basis of media reports, without thoroughly investigating the details. It is comparable to the Home Secretary commenting on the guilt or innocence of someone who is in the middle of a criminal trial. Gove’s behaviour is the real scandal in this story.

I am not arguing that UKIP members should be barred from fostering children. I am not even arguing that UKIP members should be barred from fostering children who are not British. I am not arguing that Rotherham Council made the right decision. But I do believe that it is legitimate to take foster carers’ beliefs into account when considering the needs of children. For example, it would be inappropriate to place children from a Muslim family with foster carers who were prejudiced against Muslims.

UKIP are using this case to portray themselves as a reasonable, credible, non-racist party. The reality is that they are a far-right party. On many issues, their policies are comparable to the British National Party. It is true that they do not share the BNP’s focus on skin colour, but their policies are similar on issues including immigration, education, criminal justice and climate change. On economics, they are way to the right of the BNP, calling for all sorts of policies that would benefit the richt at the expense of the rest.

I do not make these claims lightly. Two years ago, I analysed the polices of both UKIP and the BNP. I had expected some similarities but I was genuinely shocked by the extent of them. The article I wrote as a result can be read here.

UKIP want to end all permanent immigration for five years, and severely restrict if after that. In their own words, they oppose multiculturalism. They would abolish the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees. Their education policy includes the teaching of a pro-imperial view of British history. They want to increase military spending by 40%, reduce taxes for the rich at the expense of the rest of us and force all unemployed people to work without pay in order to receive benefits. They are keen to double the number of people in prison. Unlike almost every other party in Britain, they want to discriminate against gay and bisexual people by denying marriage rights to same-sex couples. Until 2010, they wanted to make laws about what people were allowed to wear in public, by banning the niqab. Their attitude to the environment seems to be pure fantasy, based on the claim that climate change is not caused by humans.

I have come across many people who have voted UKIP because they oppose the European Union, but who are unaware of the rest of their policies. I have no doubt that some UKIP members are decent individuals. Indeed, I dare say that some of them would make good foster carers. I have no interest in encouraging personal hostility. But UKIP as a party is a far-right grouping with a twisted image of Britain, a strong stream of prejudice and policies that would benefit only the super-rich. I’m appalled that Michael Gove and Ed Miliband seem to be trying to claim otherwise.

Israelis against the bombing

I expected to be disappointed by Barrack Obama in his second term. I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. Today, he backed the Israeli government’s vicious assault on the people of Gaza. UK foreign secretary William Hague was not so explicit, but he made clear where his sympathies lie.

Of course, some will try to portray those of us who criticise Netanyahu’s government as apologists for Hamas. The vast majority of us are not. I don’t support Hamas any more than I support Netanyahu. Many people have conveniently forgotton that Hamas was originally built up and encouraged by the Israeli government who saw it as a counterweight to the power of secular Palestinian independence movements.

In reality, the lives of innocent Palestinians and Israelis are being sacrificed by the Israeli government and Hamas on the altars of their long-term ambitions. It is vital that the Israeli government engages in dialogue with Hamas instead of attacking civilians and putting its own population at further risk of attack.

I was therefore very pleased to hear of demonstrations in Tel Aviv by Israelis opposed to the bombing of Gaza. I was also pleased to be sent a copy of the following statement, produced the The Other Voice, a group of Isrealis living near Gaza:

“We, members of the villages and townships in the Gaza-enveloping region call on the Israeli government to stop mucking around with our lives and immediately enter into diplomatic and political contacts with the Hamas Government! We are sick and tired of being sitting ducks who serve political interests.

“Rockets from there and bombardments from here do not protect us. We have played around with those games of the use of force and war for long enough. And both sides have paid, and are continuing to pay, a high price of loss and suffering. The time has to come to endeavour to reach long-term understandings which will enable civilians on both sides of the border to live a normal life.“The Other Voice describe themselvse as a group of residents of Sderot and other places in the Gaza -enveloping region who have maintained a continuous link with residents of the Gaza Strip. The group advances “neighbourly and communicative relationships throughout the South and the entire land”.

A statement expressing similar views has been released by the Da’am Workers’ Party, a left-wing party that includes both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. I admit that my knowledge of the party is minimal, but I heartily agree with their statement on this issue. Here it is:
“The military operations in Gaza are a direct result of four years of time-wasting by Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which persistently refused to negotiate an agreement to put an end to the conflict. During this time, this same government continued to build settlements in the occupied territories.

“This latest military operation will not solve the security problems of Israel’s residents in the south. On the contrary, the operation will merely grant legitimacy to the Hamas government and its claims that Israel is not interested in peace. The operation weakens the Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and makes his overtures to Israel the target of mockery and derision among the Palestinians. Israel is also putting Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood leadership in an awkward position, provoking President Mohammed Morsi. “Under cover of the warfare in Gaza, Netanyahu’s government is trying to marginalize demands for social justice and present the security issue as the only legitimate issue for public debate. Poverty, unemployment, the retrenchment of welfare services and of course the austerity programme and budgetary cuts planned by Bibi’s future government are presented as irrelevant.

“Furthermore, we must not ignore Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s manoeuvre in trying to use Gaza to win another term of office, as his prospects currently look poor.

“Two sides will benefit from Israel’s military action: the right-wing government in Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza. The extremism on both sides will continue to thrive while the two peoples, who seek peace and social justice, will pay the heavy price.”

Warsi was right to link UKIP with the BNP

Sayeeda Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative Party, was last night brave enough to note a link between the BNP and UKIP. She pointed out that UKIP candidates are standing in areas where the BNP had previously stood, implying that they can draw on the same sort of support.

She triggered a storm of anger, including an abusive Twitter message from a leading member of UKIP (who thus made himself sound more like a far-right thug, rather than less), for which he later apologised.

Warsi was right to make the point. I hope she will not back down. All she has done is to state the obvious: two parties on the same end of the British political spectrum may well attract sympathy from the same voters.

She could go further. Two years ago, ahead of the last general election, I wrote an article comparing the stated policies of the BNP and UKIP. I found even more similarities than I had expected.

It is true that UKIP do not share the BNP’s obsession with ethnicity, and this is important. It is also true that the BNP are more statist and that UKIP are basically ultra-Thatcherite in economic terms. In other areas, their policies are very, very similar.

They are both strongly anti-immigration, anti-European, anti-multicultural and pro-military spending. They both deny the reality of climate change. Like totalitarian regimes, they both want to make laws about what people are allowed to wear in public (by banning niqabs). They both make comments on the niqab and on multiculturalism that whip up fear and prejudice against Muslims. They both want biased history teaching that portrays the British Empire in a positive light (this is explicit in their policies).  They both support “workfare”. And they both want extreme, punitive approaches to law and order.

It’s not that Warsi went too far. She didn’t go far enough. Because one far-right party includes middle class ex-Tories with a polite manner, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable than the other one.

Thinly veiled prejudice

The first steps in a legal challenge to the French ban on face coverings have already been taken. Twelve Muslim women were arrested outside Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday, apparently for an unauthorised protest rather than for wearing the niqab – ten of the twelve were not wearing it.

This protest and others undermined the notion that any woman wearing the niqab is disempowered and deprived of independence. Kenza Drider, a 32-year-old French woman, appeared to show a great deal of independence when she contacted the media in advance and tipped them off about her movements before travelling on a train from Avignon to Paris wearing a niqab.

 A challenge to the European Court of Human Rights can’t come soon enough. The notion that a relatively democratic European country is making laws about what clothes its citizens are allowed to wear should outrage anyone committed to free expression. 

Supporters of the ban have at times avoided the main issue by talking about women being forced to cover their faces by their husbands or parents. It’s outrageous to pressurise somewhere to wear a niqab against her will. But it’s no less outrageous to oblige her not to wear it when she would freely choose to do so.

The issue then is not about one form of dress versus another. It is about clothes that are freely chosen against those that result from force or social pressure. People may be pressurised into wearing a niqab, or they may be pressurised into dressing in the latest fashions when they would rather not. Or they may choose these things freely.

I respect the fact that some women find the niqab liberating and empowering. I recognise that others believe it to be a requirement for them. But I understand that others fear that the niqab is oppressive or ethically wrong. But it is a big leap from regarding something as wrong to calling for it to be banned.

I’m relieved that there have been few calls for a ban in Britain. Inside Parliament, a ban has the support of only one MP. Outside Parliament, a ban is backed by the UK Independence Party and the Daily Express, both of which are cheerleaders for a number of other far-right causes.

Sarkozy may hope to distract attention away from his own dreadful policies by targeting a small minority of the margins of society. Thankfully, women with the courage of Kenza Drider don’t seem likely to let him do so.