HOLY WEEK was marked, at least at its start, by almost nothing in the British press. Instead, a small and not entirely confected row about The Sunday Times’s choice of an illustration for the cash-for-dinners row. This showed a parody of the Last Supper in which David Cameron appears to be the Jesus figure. Obviously, this — and its timing — upset serious Christians; atheists, if they noticed it, will have been horrified that Nick Clegg was not portrayed as Judas.
THE backwash of Dr Rowan Williams’s resignation continued to supply fresh signs of the rather bewildered contempt in which the chattering classes hold Christianity. Catherine Bennett in The Guardian was a fairly representative example: “Guaranteed places for a dozen male prelates who are guided by religious laws and selected by a church hierarchy which denies equal rights to women and gay people and the dying but incapacitated: if this is any measure of the democratic zeal of the joint committee on House of Lords reform, you wonder if they shouldn’t just give up now to save disappointment, or legal challenges, later.”
BUT the real religious story was George Galloway, and his victory in the Bradford by-election. Whether he praised “Allah” or “God” or both after he had won is not clear. It seems likely that he praised “God” at the count and “Allah” when touring the city afterwards. Either way, he put the fear of Deity into London.
You might say that he ran against every aspect of Tony Blair’s rule, not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the exclusion of God from political discourse. There is an irony here, since Mr Blair, out of power, understands very well the power and importance of faith.
Cue a great deal of Melanie Phillipsing, not least by Melanie Phillips herself in the Mail. “With Galloway’s election, religious extremism has become for the first time a potential game-changer in British politics.” This might be thought of as an insult to the Scots, and it certainly seems an insult to Ian Paisley — I mean, if he’s not a religious extremist, who is? But of course what she means is Muslim extremism.
“Just as such religious hucksterism inflames millions of followers in the Islamic world, so certain unscrupulous British politicians have now realised they, too, can tap into the same well of irrational hatred to deliver them electoral victory.”
Reading her column, I was struck by how much of it could have been written in the 1850s about Roman Catholics here, and still more about RC immigrants to Boston. Indeed, Congressman Pete King, who takes a very Melanie-Phillips line on Islam, owes his career to the cultivation of pro-IRA sentiment among the Irish diaspora’s descendants in the US. Galloway, of course, is a Roman Catholic himself, though he finds it politic to play down this aspect of his spirituality.
I don’t like Galloway, and would never vote for a man with his record of sucking up to dictators; but it’s difficult to see him as a character more repulsive — or less charming — than Boris Johnson. We ought, I think, to distinguish between the faults of a candidate and those of his electorate.
There was a lot of metropolitan disdain about both at the weekend. Here’s Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times: “Not a great deal was said about the stuff that would interest the voters in 99% of other constituencies — the NHS, jobs, strikes and so on — unless it was simply an adolescent, catch-all condemnation of how evil capitalism is.
“Instead, we had Galloway insisting to his electorate that he was teetotal, and always had been, condemning all western intervention in Muslim lands and claiming his victory was down to ‘the grace of God’, and his supporters bandying about the word ‘Zionist’ at every possible opportunity. . .
“As a campaign strategy, you have to say it paid off handsomely. Instead of electing a moderate and decent Muslim bloke who was standing on the Labour ticket, Bradford West’s Muslim voters turned out en masse for Gorgeous George.”
I’m on my way to Bradford as I write this, and it’s reasonably certain that the story is a lot more complicated than it appears to Rod Liddle and Melanie Phillips, low as that may be setting the bar. What’s missing from their analysis was any consideration of how all these Muslims voted before Galloway. The turnout did not rise in his election.
This isn’t a particularly cheering reflection. If it’s true, the people who voted for Galloway were previously voting for other candidates as their clan networks told them to do, and this pattern can hardly be confined to Bradford. Suppose that religious zeal turns out to be a means of breaking these networks down. What will conservatives make of it? What will progressives? Quite probably, since it cuts across the assumptions of both groups, both will ignore it.