At the State Opening of Parliament yesterday, television footage showed the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition leading a long line of their parliamentary colleagues into the Upper Chamber to hear the Queen outline the plans of her new Government, following a landslide win for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
It is never easy for a loser in such circumstances, but while there was much bonhomie in evidence between political opponents along the line, at the front Jeremy Corbyn rebuffed the attempts of the Prime Minister to engage in relaxed conversation and walked like a man to the scaffold, deliberately ignoring the victor who was plainly trying to show some humanity toward his vanquished foe. It was pretty graceless.
Mr Corbyn is an Arsenal fan. He must be aware of the footballing adage: ‘Form is temporary; class is permanent.’ He was determined to show no class at all.
At its best, sport is character-forming. It is always heartening to see two boxers exchanging smiles and hugs 30 seconds after trading blows which would be lethal to the rest of us. After a fiercely fought game of rugby, prop-forwards routinely put aside the ‘dark arts’ of the scrum to enjoy a beer with their opponents, each probably exhibiting a gap-toothed smile and a cauliflower ear. They review and reminisce about past bruising contests, and exhibit the very best of what we in the Church of England have come to call “good disagreement”. A fair fight, well won, is not not the occasion either for crowing or surly resentment. We used to teach this to our children, though the lesson isn’t so pervasive nowadays.
The Church of England’s General Synod is run on quasi-parliamentary lines with similar ceremony and conventions regulating how we conduct ourselves. Debate there may also be sincerely contested, passionately advanced, and even adorned by the odd sub-Dennis Skinner moment. But, like the best of Commons Speakers, our Synod Chairs endeavour to preserve a sense of dignity and respect in the Chamber, and that is still very much the norm. We have a culture of mutual respect, and are all the better for it.
Sometimes important issues there are passed with close votes, yet we still, by and large, follow the advice of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And greet those two impostors just the same.” Kipling may not be familiar to, or approved by the ‘woke’ generation, but our colonial past still has aspects that serve us well. We in the Church try to model the idea that all our best efforts are provisional and that in God’s good time much shall be resolved differently to what we might currently predict. The parables are full of unlikely and unforeseen outcomes which ought to curb our own self-confidences when we are sure that our way unerringly represents the will of the Almighty.
After conflict, generosity of spirit is the wisest course, and one hopes that Mr Corbyn will cheer himself up with that thought soon, otherwise he may look forward to an embittered old age: there are only so many times he can take comfort in a dwindling crowd singing, ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’. Discordant voices are already being raised by his erstwhile fan-base.
Someone should tell Mr Corbyn that simple good manners are usually the mark of good character. Though Jesus never used the term, his teaching that we should “do unto others as we would be done by” is entirely congruent with good manners in all their forms. It is also demonstrably the case in society at large. Good communities tend to those where it is the norm to be respectful of others, and the converse is also true. In New York City, Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Ray Bratton turned round decades of urban decay by paying attention to ‘small’, anti-social behaviours, leading to the unlikely outcome that when minor crime like criminal damage was reduced by early police response, the murder rate severely declined. It is counter-intuitive, but true. It is not such a startling idea. We used to teach ‘Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves’. Jesus himself taught in the parable of the shrewd manager that “Whoever is faithful with very little will also be faithful with much”. It seems that the wisdom of crowds has just proved the same point. Mr Corbyn is not able to observe ordinary social niceties: are we surprised that he and his more abusive followers were not trusted with the great commission of leading the nation? If you want to be Prime Minister, be prime ministerial: if you want the public to share your views, show them respect.
It is not as if we are short of other examples. When the school league tables are published we have seen this wisdom working out for ordinary pupils when sound leadership is demonstrated. Few exemplify this better than Katharine Birbalsingh, whose inner-city school is leading the way with remarkable results, proving that working class pupils like the security of consistent standards and disciple and prosper when these standards are taught and enforced. Respect in the classroom pays dividends. On the streets, too many young people in poor areas without such leadership end up fighting to earn ‘respect’. Badly channelled that so easily ends in tragedy. When every level of society both gives and expects respect in all its forms as a matter of social norm, everybody wins, which is why the surliness of Mr Corbyn and the coarseness of the Liberal Democrats with their “Bollocks to Brexit” narrative are not simply childish, but undermining, damaging and dangerous. Small things matter.
Convention, carefully observed, is a much underrated public virtue. Doing things right because “that’s the way we do it here” has a huge amount to commend it. When I was in Hong Kong earlier in the year, my local guide explained that when challenged by mainland Chinese why they chose to cling to colonial social mores, he answered: “Because they are better”, citing the normality of queuing as one simple example. Not abusing your political opponent, or impugning their morals or integrity, is another good example. We need to get away from the coarsening of behaviour, and for that to happen we need all our leaders to lead by example.
In a strange way the importance of prioritising simple good manners can be seen as the best way out of the recent difficult decision in the case of Maya Forstater. She is the campaigner for feminism who has just failed in an Employment Tribunal case where she sought relief for having been dismissed from work for offending the current orthodoxy in the debate on transgender issues. She has stated clearly that she believes that sex (biology) is a material reality which should not be confused with gender (psycho-sociology), and that being female is an immutable biological fact, not a feeling or an identity. In a detailed judgment, the Employment Tribunal has found that this belief is not protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which safeguards freedom of thought and conscience, or Article 10 which protects freedom of expression.
The claimant was no heartless bully. As she made clear in her statement: “I believe that people deserve respect, but ideas do not.” That seems to me to be a key part of the controversy, and I am sure that the decision will need to be clarified by appeal. It is timely that this decision comes just as the Prime Minister was announcing in the Queen’s speech the Government intends to protect freedom of expression and to depart from the jurisdiction of the European Court so that judges can return to the historic pragmatism of the English Common Law.
One of the problems of the continental approach to Jurisprudence, from which the Human Rights Act emerges, is that we are encouraged to believe that the best way to approach complex matters is from first principles. This approach enshrines binary choices, and in a way promotes conflict. The hardest cases are those where both sides have a point, and this seems to be the case here. Nobody, least of all professing Christians, should seek to belittle or abuse another. We are all God’s children, whatever our opinions or circumstances. It is wrong, whether you couch the narrative in Human Rights terms or those of simple good manners, to show lack of courtesy or respect to transgender people. If we had not so debased the public discourse by our ready recourse to disdain, ridicule or abuse, such cases might never have needed litigating. Yet in the binary world of Human Rights, we cannot urge people to resolve such issues with good manners, practice, convention or kindness. The fact that Ms Forstater has not been beastly to anyone, and has no intention or likelihood of doing so, is seemingly irrelevant. Under the philosophy underpinning this legal approach, somebody must have a superior right to somebody else. It is built into the mindset of the system, and this is not a healthy or sound approach. Good conscience on either side can be maintained where goodwill and mutual respect are regarded as more important than paper rights.
It may be that with the Government having signified its intention to strengthen freedom of speech, the next stage of the proceedings (if they can be afforded) will see the Judiciary considering that perhaps this is the time to reflect and turn back the tide. As one aficionado of English radical history on Twitter reminded us, the great libertarian Thomas Paine was defended by none other than Erskine May on a charge of seditious libel and asserted: “It is not whether his opinion be yours: you are not to try his opinions, for the law has nothing to do with opinions… every man is protected in his opinions, it is only his conduct that makes guilt.” Put less elegantly, traditionally it has been the inalienable right of every Englishman to spit on the poop deck and call the Pope his father. It is this principle which has come under attack by this Tribunal decision. It needs to be changed, and it is disrespectful to nobody to say so.
It seems to me that on this of all days we should reassert two traditional virtues of English identity: respect for freedom of expression and conscience, and advocacy for old-fashioned good manners. If we were to apply thereon both sides and in all such instances, there is no reason why we could not all get along famously, and many of these confected conflicts would fall by the wayside.