Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille Regis - a legend, a trailblazer and pioneer.

It was a real privilege to play with Cyrille.
He was then, as always, a class act.
I was shocked and deeply saddened to discover that Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromich Albion, Coventry City and England striker, has died at the age of 59.

As a child, Regis was a hero to me. I was not a West Brom supporter - but you didn't need to be to admire his flair, his athleticism and his creativity. At a time when black footballers were few in number and regularly subjected to racist abuse, Cyrille and his team-mates Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson (known as the "Three Degrees") not only produced some of the most attractive attacking football ever seen at the Hawthorns, but were to prove transformative in other ways too.

It may be difficult for many now to fully appreciate how hostile an environment Regis and other black players were entering every time they took to the field at that time. While they would inspire many, they would also become targets for the worst kinds of abuse. As Batson recounted: "We would get off coaches at away matches and the National Front would be there. In those days we didn't have security. We'd get to the players entrance and there would be spit on my jacket or Cyrille's shirt. We coped. It wasn't a new phenomenon." Playing at some league grounds was notoriously tough for black players, with ferocious crowds booing every touch of the ball and shouting racist slogans. The trio also received death threats.

But, whether consciously or otherwise, Regis and his friends resisted. And the more they did, the more they inspired more black people to participate in sport. Attitudes didn't change immediately, and one of the short-term effects of the Three Degrees was that they become the focus for a particularly vitriolic form of racism. But they endured, and in doing so helped create a culture in which such racism would no longer be tolerated. Whenever I see "Kick racism out of football" adverts, I can't help but think of Cyrille.

As I mentioned, Cyrille was a hero to me as a child. This was, inevitably, party connected with the great entertainer he was on the football pitch. There can be no doubt about the fact he was one of the greatest players ever to grace The Hawthorns or Highfield Road. He was undoubtedly a football genius, but he was so much more than that. Even as someone aged about 7 or 8, I subconsciously recognised that to be accepted as a black player back in the early 80s you had to be exceptionally gifted, and I had some idea of the unfair treatment people like him had to experience. It's hard not to admire someone you know is standing up to injustice, but in such a way as to let his sporting ability to all the talking.

I played with Cyrille in a charity/legends match in 2007. It's not everyone who gets the opportunity to spend 90 minutes on a football pitch with a childhood idol, of course - but what says more about the man is what happened afterwards. After a conversation about our various charitable efforts, he agreed to help support one of my causes through his association with Christians in Sport. We also discussed how we could work together to use football to provide opportunities to underprivileged young people. Challenging racism also, somewhat inevitably, came into the conversations - and I went away feeling that Cyrille was the kind of person who would just want to help in any way he could. That was his nature.

He also did a lot of work for Water Aid and similar charities, and if it is possible to sum the man up in a sentence it would be this: "a humanitarian who changed the way we look at the world". There can be no greater tribute. That he happened to be an immensely gifted footballer allowed him to have the huge impact on challenging the shameful prejudice and abuse that the likes of the FA and the BBC preferred to overlook (the latter famously claimed it was impossible to make out what was being shouted from the terraces). He was a real pioneer - both on the pitch and off it, and committed his life to improving opportunities for others.

I can't count Cyrille among my friends and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise, but I am very proud to have had the opportunity to play with him and to have been involved in some projects that made a positive contribution to empowering others. What I know is that, at a time when racism again is rearing its head and needing people to directly challenge it, we need to remember Cyrille's example. The world is a poorer place for his passing.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Farron might regret saying gay sex is not a sin. I never will.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Tim Farron is making headlines again.

And what would the reason be? Yes, he just can't leave this issue alone.

Much as I try not to identify Tim with any kind of sex (he is a political colleague after all), the inescapable reality is that he has become firmly associated in the public mind with same-sex relations. And sinful ones at that. When you're a former party leader with some forthright views on such things as Brexit, tackling poverty and cancer care at his local hospital, it might be a good idea to make sure the positive messages aren't overshadowed by controversial and rather unnecessary interventions on religion.

The Liberal Democrats' 2017 General Election campaign was hardly a work of genius and it would be wrong to blame one individual for a failure to make significant gains - but there can be no denying that Tim's refusal to answer the "is gay sex a sin?" question damaged our chances. After evading the question on multiple occasions Tim eventually responded to a question from Nigel Evans MP in the Commons, who asked whether Tim believed being gay was sinful. Tim replied: "I do not".

Which seemed pretty unequivocal.

However, today Tim has given an interview to Premier Christian Radio in which he expressed "regret" that he had "bowed to pressure" to say that gay sex was not sinful. He said: "the bottom line is, of course, I did [feel pressured] and there are things - including that - that I said that I regret."

Having listened to the interview, it would appear that Tim privately believes same-sex relationships to be sinful but, as a Liberal, be can hold that view while simultaneously defending individuals' rights to make their own choices. I might - indeed, I do - disagree with that, but his personal views are not what concern me.

What is more worrying is that he is now expressing "regret" about statements he made on the floor of the House of Commons. Taking back an expressed opinion (and blaming others for it!) naturally raises questions of integrity and honesty, and also re-opens the issue, which is only likely to cause the party further embarrassment.

I don't know what his motivations for speaking to Premier Christian Radio are, but while I'd defend his right to do it I have to question the wisdom of his decision. Tim seems determined to project himself as a Christian martyr, unfairly hounded out of the leadership by intolerant pseudo-liberals - but what statements like this actually do is suggest that he is hypocritical and untrustworthy. What sort of leader admits to buckling under pressure - especially when such pressure is a fairly innocuous line of questioning that a more proficient individual would have dealt with far more convincingly?

This is the same Tim Farron who, when pressed on the gay sex question, often responded with the "I don't pontificate on religious matters" line. It now seems all Tim wants to do in pontificate on religious matters, which would be fine if he was the independent MP for his local Evangelical Church. As it is, his continued - and continuing - interventions on religion (almost exclusively about same-sex relationships or Christian persecution) only serve to damage his own reputation and standing and the cause of the party he clearly loves.

During the Premier interview Tim promised that, on the specific issue of Biblical teaching on same-sex relationships, he "will write a little bit about this in the coming weeks". Do us a favour, Tim. Don't. Really, just don't. No good will come of it, and the rest of us will almost certainly regret it. Use your time to talk about something else instead - women's rights, the EU, electoral reform, international relations, the NHS, public transport...even Blackburn Rovers!

Vince Cable also now has to decide whether any discipline is appropriate given Tim appears to be admitting to lying in Parliament, and misleading the Commons (even if he does blame others for "pressuring" him into it). His position on the Lib Dems' front bench team is becoming increasingly untenable.

I have no reason to doubt that Tim genuinely feels regret, just as I also have no reason for doubting that he always believed relations between same-sex couples to be sinful. However, as ever with Tim's public statements on faith, I wonder why he had to say this when he must have realised the damage that will arise from it. I defend his right to believe what he likes, even to say what he likes. But I will always ask why he seems so determined to pursue a course of action that brings the party into disrepute, makes himself appear untrustworthy, leads to people becoming even less open to listening to him and undermining his positive messages on more pertinent political issues.

Tim talked about regret in his interview. He also said this, not referring exclusively to the media: "the idea that the people asking these questions were interested in theology is naïve in the extreme." Well, as someone who has been asking these questions of Tim for almost 13 years (I first asked him the gay sex question in March 2005 and he was no more convincing then) that dismissal actually hurts a little. Some of us are not only interested in theology, we are studying it. Tim should know that many of those who take a completely different view to his are Christians, and for him to deny this is unacceptable. I do not deny his existence or his faith; he should not deny mine or that of other progressive Christians.

I am sorry that Tim regrets saying that gay sex is not a sin. Speaking of regrets, as a proudly liberal Christian I have a few confessions to make too - especially as tonight, as a result of Tim's interview, a fellow Christian asked me if I ever had regrets over my position on same-sex relationships.

No, I do not regret having stated on countless occasions that same-sex relationships are not sinful. I do not regret my own relationships. I do not regret who I am. I do not regret having campaigned for LGBT+ rights for the best part of two decades. I do not regret working within the church to create faith communities that are inclusive and open to LGBT+ people. I do not regret championing LGBT+ inclusion - and same-sex marriage - at political hustings way before it was ever fashionable. I do not regret being part of a church that affirms the lives of same-sex couples and marries them. I regret not a single public statement I have ever made that has challenged the notion that there is something inherently sinful in homosexuality or bisexuality. I do not regret having used this blog to question the wisdom of Tim Farron's many statements on religion or his connections with CARE.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

What I do regret is having a loose cannon of a former leader in the parliamentary party who doesn't seem to understand that it isn't the wisest thing to unburden oneself to the listeners of Premier Christian Radio. Sometimes, Tim, nothing is a very sensible thing to say.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

An inept reshuffle that underlines Prime Ministerial weakness

Justine Greening (Photo: Standard)
In advance of the Prime Minister’s cabinet reshuffle, I thought that the events of yesterday would tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister, her direction, how well she is able to reinvent and rebrand her party and how effectively she can revitalise her cabinet.

My expectations were not particularly high, but even I was surprised by the ineptitude of the attempted reshuffle. It did indeed tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister and her government, some of it quite surprising.

From the official party’s twitter account wrongly congratulating Chris Grayling on becoming Tory Party chair to Theresa May’s refusal to move any of the key personnel, this attempt at a reshuffle was an exercise in ineptitude.  What was supposed to be a show of strength and an opportunity to refresh the cabinet has instead starkly underlined the Prime Minister’s many weaknesses.

Twitter accidents happen, of course, but the Grayling non-appointment won’t have helped convince anyone that the Conservative Party is an efficient communications outfit.  With the outside world – well, the British media at least – watching developments eagerly and expecting some kind of radical shake-up, what actually happened was a series of unambitious reappointments of less than inspiring ministers. As a reshuffle this was not only disappointing, but fundamentally futile: what is the point of a reshuffle when the key protagonists all stay in place, especially when they include David Davis, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt?

This was not a reshuffle worthy of the name. Even the oft quoted “deckchairs, Titanic” metaphor fails here, as the proverbial captain actually moved the chairs around a bit. A generous commentator might see that as a sign of confidence in the team, but it is more likely that May has played safe so avoid political fall-out. Unfortunately, this has served to further undermine her leadership. It has now become painfully transparent – if ever it was really in doubt – that those who hold power in the Conservative Party (and cabinet) are leading Brexiteers that May feels powerless to take on.

If a powerless Prime Minister isn’t worrying enough, the appointment of Esther McVey as Work and Pensions secretary should chill us all. This is someone who, as Employment minister, suggested benefit sanctions “teach”JSA claimants to take job seeking seriously  and as late as February 2015 defended such sanctions as “effective” in spite of growing evidence to the contrary.   There are surely more suitable people in the ranks of Conservative parliamentarians for the DWP portfolio, but clearly McVey has friends in high places.

Equally concerning is the fact that not only is Jeremy Hunt continuing at Health, but his brief has been expanded to include Social Care. I have for some time championed greater integration of health and social care, but a merged department is not the way to approach this, and Hunt is certainly not the ideal person to be overseeing it. Anyone who, during the recent pressures within the NHS widely claimed to represent a “crisis” refuses to take any responsibility whatsoever, is hardly the kind of person who should be rewarded in this way. What has he done to merit this?

May’s ultra-cautious approach and reluctance to move people makes her removal of Justine Greening from Education all the more inexplicable.  I can’t comment on how effective a minister she was, but the statements from the teaching unions in the last few hours must count for something. Greening was certainly competent and understood her brief; in trying circumstances, she was seeking to positively engage with teachers and, admirably, kept her focus on young people. As Stephen Bush writes in the New Statesman, May’s ideal Education Secretary would be someone who could “drive through big reforms...during the first real-terms decrease in school spending in the modern era, while not becoming a hate figure with parents, teachers, academics or teaching’s hard to see how Theresa May will find someone better than Justine Greening.”

I quipped in my New Year predictions that Philip Hammond may well be sacked for being too competent. I was half right – I focused on the wrong person. Competence is clearly not an attribute that matters when it comes to cabinet appointments. Inept and disloyal people continue, while a strong performer like Greening is sidelined. The message is clear: ministers who endanger British citizens abroad or mislead select committees are safe because it would be political suicide to sack such “personalities”, however deficient. The likes of Johnson, Fox, Davis and, to a point Hunt, have become untouchable in the post-referendum political climate. The only person to be effectively sacked was a woman who was arguably one of the better performers in cabinet.

Greening was offered the opportunity to move to the DWP, and refused. The Prime Minister was resolved not to back down and the stand-off ended with Greening’s resignation. Hunt, on the other hand, was offered the role of Business Secretary and similarly refused, but was able to convince the Prime Minister to not only keep him at Health but effectively promote him with additional responsibilities. What does that say about cabinet dynamics? What does Hunt have that Greening doesn’t? Why was the Prime Minister unable to impose her will on an under-fire minister like Hunt, capitulating entirely to his demands, while standing firm against Greening?

As an aside, how can we possibly trust the Prime Minister to successfully negotiate with the EU to get the deal she wants when she allows herself to be bullied out of a pre-determined course of action by Jeremy Hunt?

Ultimately, Theresa May can’t even manage to carry out a reshuffle properly. It is clear she is not in charge and, in spite of talk to the contrary, the cabinet is far from refreshed. It remains stale; worse, it is full of inept but untouchable ministers who owe their position at the cabinet table to their Brexit stance. In another era, Johnson would have been sacked and Davis would have resigned months ago.

Tim Farron got it absolutely right when he tweeted: "That wasn't a reshuffle, it was a half-hearted stir, with all the useless lump bits unmoved in the middle." That's as apt a description as offered by anyone.

What does this mean for May? I think she has made a huge mistake in her appointments and has undermined her own fading authority. If I can draw a parallel to a previous Prime Minister who demoted a competent colleague in a reshuffle back in 1989, Greening now has the potential to be as difficult for May as Geoffrey Howe was to Thatcher. Neither Howe nor Greening were ever likely rebels but May has now created a potential troublemaker, with many influential allies and a strongly pro-remain constituency, and allowed her onto the backbenches.  Greening has the potential to be equally as dangerous as Johnson or Davis, perhaps more so.

All that bold talk of "strong and stable leadership" last year has now been shown up for the vacuous nonsense it was. The Prime Minister is far from strong; indeed, she appears to be even weaker than most commentators imagined. 

The reshuffle has failed in its key objectives: to detoxify the party in the public mind, to provide a freshness at the cabinet table and to demonstrate the Prime Minister’s authority. As reshuffles go, it was undeniably amateurish – but the real question is whether May’s treatment of Justine Greening will come back to haunt her.