Alistair Campbell was once famously quoted as saying that Tony Blair ‘doesn’t do God’.
Blair is, as most people will be aware, a practising Christian who, if occasional pieces of media speculation are to be believed, may ultimately convert to Catholicism once his tenure as Prime Minister comes to a close. If there’s any truth to this latter rumour is impossible to say, not having met Tony and discussed the matter personally, the fact is that whether or not that is his intention it not something he can do while Prime Minister for a number of constitutional reasons related to the 1701 Act of Settlement and PM’s role in appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury as the religious ‘head’ of the Anglican Church - which, incidentally, also says a lot about the Lib Dem’s expectations of forming a government any time in the near future as their current leader, Charles Kennedy, is a Roman-Catholic and could not, even if elected, take up the position of Prime Minister.
Campbell’s statement was made with the intention that us, the electorate, should believe that while Blair’s personal beliefs are clearly important to him they are exactly, personal beliefs, and not something which would affect or influence his political judgement as PM. However, as is seemingly ever the case with Tony, the public face does not always marry up well with his actions - Blair may not publicly ‘do God’ but there are certainly instances in which his beliefs have led to a degree of unnecessary and unwarranted bias in favour of religious interests when setting government policy.
Take Britain’s anti-discrimination laws for example. To bring us into line with EU regulations these are in the process of being extended which it comes to employment and now outlaw discrimination on grounds of religion and sexuality, which age discrimination regulations to come next year…
…except that thanks to a last minute amendment that was slipped in under the radar and after public consultations had been completed, religious organisations can still legally discriminate against homosexuals in employment on the grounds that homosexuality may be contrary to their beliefs and ‘offend’ members of their community.
This, of course, is contrary to article 14 of the Human Rights Act and ECHR which states that its unlawful to apply the rights accorded under the Act - article 8 on respect for private and family life is the basis for peoples ‘right’ to be gay in the EU - in a discriminatory manner. Fortunately, Tony’s discriminatory anti-discrimination law is being challenged by a couple or organisations, including one of the teaching unions - union activism at its best.
A more recent example of religious-based bias creeping in to legislation came with the passing of new laws covering incitement to religious hatred.
I have somewhat mixed feelings on the subject of these new laws - on the one hand any law which seeks to place limits of acceptability on free expression is invariably fraught with the potential for misuse by vested interests seeking to suppress legitimate criticism, satire and parody - big hint to the legislators, bringing back the criminal offence of ‘barratry‘ would head that one off at the pass - but on the other hand British juries and judges have, with one or two exceptions such as the ‘Oz’ trial, tended to treat censorious legislation with a fair degree of common sense, as was the case in the late 1950’s when the newly passed Obscene Publications Act was used to try to ban one of the great works of English Literature, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.
On the whole I’m inclined to think with this law that we’ll get a few ridiculous complaints and maybe one or two dumb attempts to prosecute before it all settles down nicely to the right kind of judicial precedents which mean that the genuine hate mongers get their just desserts while properly protecting valid comment and free expression.
Nevertheless, in bringing in this law the government had a gilt-edged opportunity to get rid of two of the most outdated and ridiculous of all common law offences - ‘blasphemy’ and ‘blasphemous libel’ - in fact it was widely thought at one point that these two offences would be removed, at last, from UK common law only for the government to force through their retention on a three-line whip covering the whole bill. Once again, the UK’s blasphemy laws, which apply only to Christianity, violate article 14 of the Human Rights Act.
As an aside, here, while I get how blasphemy works, although I still can’t see its relevance, I’m much less certain how this whole ‘blasphemous libel’ thing plays out, I mean how can you libel God, especially if, as an atheist, you don’t believe he exists anyway? Logically, it just doesn’t work for me. I mean its not as though God is likely to appear in person to defend himself, even if you did try to serve him with a writ of habeous corpus, in which case how, as the defendant, could you have a fair trial when it would be impossible to conduct a cross-examination?
On the whole being sued for blasphemy/blasphemous libel seems about as logical as being sued for defamation by Winnie the Pooh. The Bible, or at least the bits of it which relate directly to the direct teachings of Jesus Christ, contains what is basically a fair bit of sound moral philosophy, as the ‘Pythons’ observed a while back when being interviewed about controversy stirred up by ‘Life of Brian’, but as a non-believer I cannot reconcile the idea that, in theory, I could indeed find myself on the wrong end of a prosecution for making comments on something which I consider to be an entirely fictional character. Retaining the blasphemy laws is quite simple absurd.
Blair may not ‘do God’ in the sense that unlike Dubya over the pond he doesn’t make a big public play on his personal beliefs or use them to actively cultivate a religious vote amongst the British electorate but he does certainly have a pretty consistent track record of making legislative concessions to religion-based vested interests and doing it in a disingenuous fashion which avoids legitimate public debate, which I guess means that what Campbell really meant was that Tony only does god with a small ‘g’.