Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“I Hope He Gives You Hell”

It’s not been a good week for Labour. A Prime Minister accused of bullying colleagues and staff, questions of his equilibrium under pressure going mainstream, and now a Cardinal saying that he ‘hopes the Pope gives Labour hell’ when he next visits Scotland.

Cardinal O’Brien might perhaps have been more inclined to keep his thoughts to himself, had it not been for Jim Murphy’s extraordinary and egregious attempt in a widely trailed speech to portray the Labour Party as being the natural political home for people of faith. Quite rightly, Murphy has taken an absolute kicking from opponents and in the press for his trouble.

In response to the speech, the Cardinal issued a statement which said:

"Any recognition of the role played by faith and religion in society is to be welcomed. However, a tangible example by the government over the last decade that it acknowledged or endorsed religious values would also have been welcomed. Instead we have witnessed this government undertake a systematic and unrelenting attack on family values."

Murphy has managed to provoke a fiercer reaction than even Margaret Thatcher managed with her infamous ‘Sermon on the Mound’ in 1988 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. On that occasion, the Moderator merely confined himself to remarking to the Prime Minister that she had probably never before appeared in front of an audience which had so many members who were actively praying for her.

Although I’m uncomfortable with public declarations of faith when it comes to politicians, tending to be of the view that their faith or lack thereof is best kept as a private matter, I do not subscribe to the view that religion and politics do not mix, because they can scarcely do otherwise. The experiences which people have and the beliefs that they hold will always inform how they respond to the issues of the day and will always shape their views on how the world should be. While it’s plainly wrong to pretend that religious belief can lead only to one single ‘correct’ viewpoint or that someone's faith should lend their views any additional weight, it would be equally wrong to pretend that our public debate would be anything other than greatly diminished were no religious perspectives to be found.

However, Murphy here has crossed a line. Rather than acknowledge the strength and comfort which he doubtless finds personally in his faith, and explaining how he reconciles his faith with the need to represent others of different faiths and of none, he has tried to claim that his party is the natural home for people of any faith. Even allowing for the fact that we’re just weeks from an election, as political gambits go, it’s shoddy, shabby and sadly, entirely in keeping with Murphy’s MO.

The portrayal of Murphy in the Scottish press as some kind of political genius is something I’ve long puzzled over, probably because I remember him from his days as a hack in the NUS, busily selling the interests of students down the river while trying to secure a seat in parliament for himself. Of course, you could cite the very fact he managed to get away with it as evidence of a genius of a sort. Nevertheless, given his propensity to assert ‘that which is not’ and to continually misrepresent his opponents with any number of straw man arguments, I spent a good number of years trying to work out if he was serially dishonest, or simply lacking in his ability to understand what was really going on around him.

I remember barking him into an uncharacteristic silence during a debate at Stirling University shortly after he was elected in 1997. Banging on about priorities in politics, and explaining to the assembled studentry why it was a good thing that his government was about to withdraw their grants, he described Scotland’s universities as bastions of middle class privelige, to which access could only be widened if young people without financial means were prepared to go heavily into debt to pay their own way. There was, we were told, no money to pay for grants in future, and that the £150m which this move saved would be better spent elsewhere.

At this point, I interjected that just a week earlier, the MoD had agreed to spend £150m on upgrading Trident nuclear warheads. What, I wondered, did this tell us about Mr Murphy’s priorities?

With wisdom worthy of Confucius, the bold Jim pronounced that that money had already been spent, so wasn’t there any more. Indeed so, I acknowledged, but didn’t this show that the money had indeed been there; could have been used to maintain the grant had his government so wished; and that it was simply untrue for him to try and assert otherwise? To this, the answer came that it had already happened and that people needed to ‘move on’ – a plea we’ve heard many times since whenever his government has been caught in a lie.

In the end, I stopped puzzling over the nature of Mr Murphy’s dubious political attributes, and settled on his simply possessing a feral, mendacious cunning and a neck of brass; his inexplicable rise to the patronage of a Scottish Labour Party desperately short of talent, and to the support of a Scottish press corps with a curious willing to puff him up in public to a level of credibility well beyond that which his talents could tolerably sustain by themselves.

The brass neck is to some extent part of a politician’s DNA, of course, even if cunning and mendacity aren’t necessarily qualities to be admired. Having been given the bum’s rush by Cardinal O’Brien for his unsubtle attempts to equate his party with faith and morality, I wonder whether this rather dramatic falling to earth will lead to our inquisitors applying a little more rigour, and in taking a little less obvious pleasure in their own deception, where Mr Murphy is concerned.


Anonymous said...

Sorry but, I cannot agree about you there concerning the mixture of politics and religion.

The fact that it does and has been fundamentally so in parts of our land has been to the detriment of Scotland and her peoples.

I much prefer the complete separation of State and Faith, like France, for example.

I am from Glasgow and am only too aware of the corrosive pervasion of this mix.

Murphy is a complete Numpty and is running scared.

It is said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, I believe that bringing religion into politics is the first and in Murphy's case, the last.

Richard Thomson said...

Sorry but, I cannot agree about you there concerning the mixture of politics and religion.

Fair do's. I would probably have agreed with you a couple of years ago. I freely admit its a subject on which my own views have shifted quite a bit recently. I put that down mainly to 'arguments' I used to have with a former housemate when I worked in Westminster, who caused me to look again at the way I viewed the relationship between faith and politics.

I never gave her the satisfaction, though, so don't let on to her... :-)

SNP? said...

Such a shame you wrote this before YouGov could give us the picture.

What was that talk about 20 seats?

It also appears that the bullying allegations have had not the least imaginable impact upon the PM.

Whereas....that letter spelling out that Fraud can be a considered a mistake; how will that play.

2011! ONE seat in it.

Richard Thomson said...

Such a shame you wrote this before YouGov could give us the picture.

Why? Surely not even brave-hearted bloggers who don't want to identify themselves believe that Gordon Brown emerges from this in an attractive light?

Still. I concede Brown's pen-stabbing antics might help Labour in the Midlands. The car upholstery trade is still quite a big business there, isn't it?

Ted Harvey said...

I agree with your issue about the unpleasantness of the Murphy character and its oddly talent-lite rise in Scottish Labour.

However, I also share the discomfort with your assertion that politics and faith can mix - but paradoxically I concede your point that we can hardly pretend they do not get mixed at times.

I'd prefer that we simply work at keeping overt religion out of politics altogether. I don't see what good comes of it.

For example if you look again at O'Brien's rant that; "Instead we have witnessed this government undertake a systematic and unrelenting attack on family values", it's hard to know which it is more - blinkered, biased, disingenuous in the extreme or just plain stupid.

If that sounds harsh then consider just how far removed from reality it was to argue that any British Government at any time has ever seen it as part of it's purpose or aim to launch an 'unrelenting attack on family values.

But that is the kind of thing that comes out of when that kind of individual and that kind of religion gets involved in public politics.