Joan Smith: Take offence if you will, but don't drag the law in

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An astonishing claim was made last week: the Government has a sense of humour. I know it seems unlikely, at a time when the country is being run by the most pompous bunch of politicians in living memory. But a spokesman emerged from the Ministry of Silly Walks – sorry,

An astonishing claim was made last week: the Government has a sense of humour. I know it seems unlikely, at a time when the country is being run by the most pompous bunch of politicians in living memory. But a spokesman emerged from the Ministry of Silly Walks – sorry, Downing Street – and announced confidently that "we are able to tell the difference between comic sketches and comedy, and the people who are trying to whip up and incite religious hatred".

He went on to ask political correspondents whether they had heard the one about the Christian, the Muslim and the atheist....

Oh dear, I really can't take this seriously. A government that was previously regarded as an irony-free zone is now telling us that a minister will decide whether to sanction prosecutions under the proposed law, effectively creating a post of Secretary of State for Humour. Indeed, a wave of merriment swept across government benches last week, with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, cracking a joke about the hilarious new penalty (seven years' imprisonment) he is proposing for offending religious sensibilities. Describing the protection he intends to offer believers, he added: "I shall examine carefully the question of atheists and – I say this wryly – consider whether unpleasant and unhelpful comments about atheists could be included." As you can imagine, the House did not exactly crack up.

This is not the first time Mr Blunkett has essayed a new career as a stand-up comedian. Who could forget the side-splitting moment when he explained, in a previous incarnation at the Department for Education, that his pledge that there would be no selection in secondary schools had actually been a joke? (It's the way you tell them, Dave, and we all loved the bit about "read my lips".) Actually, Mr Blunkett knows perfectly well that atheists have never asked for the kind of special status he is offering religious groups. Believers are notoriously sensitive for a very simple reason: there is no rational basis for their convictions. Poke the house of cards and it falls down, which is why they are so keen to limit debate.

Like most atheists, I don't mind in the least being insulted for my beliefs, as long as I am not prevented from expressing them. But it is already becoming clear that some Christians and members of other faiths see the new law as an opportunity to set the terms of future discussions about religion.

Peter Allwood, headmaster of Lichfield Cathedral School, gave the game away when he declared last week that critics of religion have nothing to fear, as long as their views are expressed with respect and humility. This means you can criticise religion but only if you agree to do it nicely, and don't offend anyone.

Well, sod that for a game of soldiers. I don't believe I have a right not to be offended, and neither does anyone else have such a right. More to the point, why should the law protect beliefs and practices that are themselves hateful, such as the way the Taliban and the Wahabi regime in Saudi Arabia treat women or the rampant homophobia of the evangelical wing of the Church of England? I think we should recall that it was Muslims who threatened the life of Salman Rushdie, not the other way round, while some members of the faith in this country openly support Osama bin Laden. Offering protection to people who have repeatedly shown themselves to be humourless, intolerant and perfectly capable of trying to silence opponents is a joke, but only in the worst possible sense.

Better to worry about the cigarettes in your pocket than Bin Laden

Throughout my adult life, Britain has been threatened by terrorists. I live in west London, where the IRA has been making determined attempts to blow up Hammersmith Bridge since the 1930s. In March this year, I had just gone to bed when I heard a bomb go off outside the BBC in White City. And in August, a friend of mine who lives in Ealing felt the blast of another device planted by Irish terrorists. I have never been caught in an IRA explosion, but I have been close enough to two terrorist incidents – one in Istanbul, the other in the Soho district of London - to hear and feel the detonation. I have never had any illusions about the world, or even my small patch of it, being a safe place. So I am perplexed by the fears of people who lived through all these events with apparent calm, only to blurt out, in the past few days, their urgent anxieties about an imminent terrorist attack on Britain.

Several friends say they are worried about using the London Underground, while one couple I know are seriously thinking of moving to the country to protect their children. Speculation about chemical and biological warfare has changed their habits in a way that actual IRA bombing campaigns never did, but the vast majority of us are still more likely to be injured in a car crash than fall victim to a terrorist attack. If you happen to be a smoker, your chance of dying from your habit is around 50 per cent, so it makes more sense to worry about the packet of fags in your pocket than Osama bin Laden.

It's hard to resist the conclusion that recent events have shocked people out of an illusion of security into an exaggerated sense of danger. No doubt it is alarming to see pictures of members of the emergency services in biological warfare suits, but it is also important to keep a sense of proportion. We know Britain is vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Unlike the US, it always has been. So have France, Spain, Italy, Japan and a long list of other countries. Terrorists thrive on panic and the only way to thwart them is to reject both our old complacency and the hysteria that seems to be infecting normally sensible people.

Stop moralising, Ms May

I returned from Turkey last week to find the country in the grip of an outbreak of emotional correctness. When ghastly events happen, there is a tendency for self-appointed people to seize the moral high ground and tell everyone else how to behave. Take the case of Jo Moore, special adviser to the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, who did something distasteful – everyone knows the sequence of events by now, so I won't rehearse it – and publicly apologised for it. She was visibly shaken, and her expression of regret seemed sincere enough to me.

Not, though, for a host of angry commentators led by Theresa May (right), the shadow Transport secretary, who said Ms Moore had failed to mention people who are still grieving for relatives killed in the attacks. No matter how many people Ms Moore apologised to, I suspect Ms May's reaction would have been the same. Inspired by her sense of moral superiority, she wanted Ms Moore to grovel. Ms May demanded her resignation, and that of her boss, thus committing the same offence – making political capital out of tragedy – as the people she was criticising. It would be nice to see her get off her high horse and return to the business of attacking Mr Byers over his catastrophic PPP plans for London Underground.