Fighting talk: Claire Rayner and Peter Tatchell
Claire Rayner on how Blair's 'war glee' has frightened the socks off her - and Peter Tatchell on the new restrictions on the 'right to insult and offend'.
‘As someone who spent 28 hours buried under 30 feet of rubble in 1940, I can tell you: war is not nice.’
Claire Rayner, agony aunt, writer and Labour Party defector, is ‘mighty concerned’ about the West’s war on Afghanistan. ‘Tony Blair is not old enough to know what a bloody war is like’, she says. ‘And those of us who are old enough know that there’s a bit more to it than running around like a shadow of Winston Churchill with a shadow of Churchill’s cigar between your teeth – not a real cigar for Blair, obviously – putting on a flak jacket, chatting to troops, and switching on the “I’m a great statesman” act. There’s more to war than gloss.’
So Rayner is opposed to the war? ‘Of course, my love. On every level. Firstly, it’s unwinnable: it is so stupid to throw a lot of money that we need for other things at bombing impossible landscapes and tents – the lunacy of it. Secondly, these wars rarely do anything to the people at the top – they only kill the population and the people at the bottom. I’ve been bombed and it’s bloody frightening; Blair’s never been bombed so maybe he just doesn’t get it.’
Having supported the Labour Party since ‘before she was old enough’, Rayner famously decamped to the Liberal Democrats earlier this year because of ‘serious concerns about Labour under Blair’. Now, as Blair ‘enters war mode’, all of Rayner’s fears have been confirmed.
‘Blair has discovered something horrible, something terrible’, says Rayner: ‘The royal prerogative. The awful thing is that even if they say before they come into power that they want to reform the monarchy, the minute they get that royal prerogative in their hands there’s no stopping them. It gives them too much power, which is why Blair has this kind of war glee. That’s why it’s perfectly legal for him to declare war without consulting parliament, never mind the rest of us – and the glee with which he’s done it frightens the bloody socks off me.’
Is Rayner not convinced by Blair’s desire to right all the wrongs in our crazy mixed-up world? ‘Oh, poor Blair’, says Rayner. ‘I think he probably means well – but you can’t say worse than that can you? The terrible tragedy is that he’s a good religious man, and the trouble with good religious men is that they think they only have to explain to people what their good religious views are and everyone will say, “Oh, so that’s what we’re supposed to do!”. But the real world? Sorry Tony, it don’t work that way.’
And on the charge that Blair is using the events of 11 September to forge a new role for himself as a great British statesman, Rayner says: ‘Surprise, surprise….’ ‘Honey, when did a politician not do everything to boost his own political standing? They can’t help themselves, that’s what they’re there for, and that’s what they do.’ Which is one reason why Rayner can’t understand why such a fuss has been kicked up over transport department worker Jo Moore and her ‘let’s bury bad news’ email.
‘I almost feel sorry for the woman’, says Rayner. ‘All she did was behave like a politician – but she got caught. She did what politicians do: made the best of a situation and turned it to beneficial party political use. All she said was, Woah! Here is some really heavy news that’s going to fill every paper so let’s get rid of some of our rubbish. This is normal political behaviour, she didn’t do anything that any other politician wouldn’t have done, but she got found out.’
What about the post-11 September restrictions on civil liberties? In the past, New Labour’s undermining of liberty has made Rayner want to ‘spit spit spit’ – but in the wake of 11 September she didn’t find herself getting as hot under the collar:
‘Civil liberties is not something that I’m going to get quite as agitated about as some. I have carried an identity card for years – in my childhood, through my teens, when I had a ration book. We all carry ID and we’re all used to being hyper-identified. The biggest attack on our civil liberties has been taking us into war without our consent. I mean, to hell with stupid things like identity cards and tapping phones, they’re taking us into a bloody war! Laminated identity cards is a luxurious issue that you can fight about and have a go on when there aren’t more important things happening in the world. But at times likes these, when the government is doing desperately dangerous things without our consent, making a fuss about ID cards takes all our eyes off the ball.’
But what Rayner is ‘most fascinated by’ post-11 September is ‘the anthrax thing’ – and how we all seem to be ‘gripped by fear’ at the sight of white powder. Does the former nurse and Britain’s one-time most famous agony aunt have any advice for our fearful nation?
‘Stop panicking’, says Rayner. ‘If you know anything about biological warfare and you really want to do something dangerous, then you don’t choose something that’s as hard to catch as leprosy. I mean, it’s bloody hard to catch! This anthrax thing is just being done for show – especially as they’re sending it to media people and politicians. So common sense tells me that they’re not going to do it to you or me, lovey. Or maybe they will, we’re media people. But they’re not going to do it to your mum or my aunt because it’s not worth it. So the general population, all those people who want to move out of London and go into hiding, they needn’t fear.’
So what would Rayner like to see happen next? ‘I want this bloody war to stop’, says Rayner. ‘And now. Because the terrible thing is, they’re playing right into Osama bin Laden’s hands, they’re doing exactly what he wanted. If it was a poker game, then bin Laden’s won with just a couple of deuces while Blair and Bush are holding royal flushes. He’s bluffed them all into it.
‘Blair and Bush are warmongers for sure – but they’re buffoons, too.’
‘Religious leaders and institutions are some of the biggest hate-mongers in our society – so why should they be given special legal protection to spout their rubbish and bigotry?’
Peter Tatchell, the UK’s best known and most notorious gay rights activist, is no friend of religion. In 1994 he protested outside a gathering of Muslims in London with placards saying ‘Islam Nazis burn and behead queers’, and on Easter Sunday 1998 he stormed the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral, took over the microphone from Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, and proceeded to slam the Church of England for its stance on homosexuality to a shocked congregation.
Now Tatchell is concerned that home secretary David Blunkett’s proposals to outlaw incitement to religious hatred could criminalise protests against religious leaders.
‘If there are going to be laws like this’, says Tatchell, ‘shouldn’t they apply to all formers of hate speech, covering not just religion, but also non-religious opinion and beliefs, and unpopular political views? Shouldn’t they protect other vulnerable social groups such as travellers, people with HIV and lesbians and gay men?’
So is Tatchell’s objection to Blunkett’s proposed laws a form of special pleading? That queers deserve to be protected from harmful words as much as Muslims, Jews and Christians? Tatchell says that is only ‘part of it’, and that his biggest problem with outlawing incitement to religious hatred is the effect it will have on free speech and the right to protest.
‘The right to insult or offend other people is a hallmark of freedom of speech’, says Tatchell. ‘And any attempt to police people’s ideas and opinions is bound to threaten democracy and civil liberties.’ Tatchell says he could only support incitement to hatred laws if they were ‘extremely narrowly defined, to only cover incitement that is likely to result in imminent violence and harassment. Incitement or speech that does not pose an immediate, imminent threat to people must remain free.’
According to Tatchell, the proposed law could be abused ‘to prosecute people like Salman Rushdie, who is critical of religious superstition; or satirical programmes like Spitting Image that often mock religious obscurantism; or feminists and gay organisations protesting against religious bigotry…’.
And as somebody who was once charged under the obscure 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act – which deems acts that ‘disturb the sanctity of a church’ to be indecent and criminal – Tatchell points out that there are more than enough public order laws already that ‘are abused by the authorities to shut protesters up. The last thing we need is more legislation that not only threatens our right to protest but also attacks the right to offend and, ultimately, the right to think what we want’.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
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