Imagine that you are a Labour politician seeking to make the most of public anxiety over the persecution of Christians worldwide (and remember: most people in Britain self-identify as Christians, even if they never darken the door of a church even once a year at Christmas). What would you do?
One course you might take is to write an article for a right-of-centre broadsheet that is read by many churchgoers. To hit the political sweet spot, such a piece might point out, without mincing its words, that “Christians are the victims of 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today”. It could go on to denounce “a misplaced sense of political correctness that had meant too many British politicians had forsaken speaking out against the evil that is anti-Christian persecution”.
It might then seek to make the most of Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation earlier this year – weeping tears of crocodile regret at her departure – and claim that her former role as Minister for Faith has now been downgraded. It could end by praising the United States and Canada’s centre-right government for appointing international ambassadors for religious freedom (a course of action that this site has long urged on David Cameron) and commit a future Labour Government to doing likewise.
This is exactly what Douglas Alexander has done in today’s Sunday Telegraph. It will take a great deal more than one newspaper article to persuade voters that Labour means it, and the Shadow Foreign Secretary has a nerve in presenting his party as a bulwark against political correctness (in any context).
However, chutzpah is part of what political campaigning is all about. And to be fair to Alexander, which even a Conservative-supporting website should seek to be, this is not the first time he has made this case. Nor should his gambit simply be written off as a cynical ploy. The Shadow Foreign Secretary is a son of the manse and a churchgoer – which his piece makes glancing reference to – and he seems to have decided to take the issue seriously: “likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth”…
There is no reason to believe that Alexander reads this site, but we have put the case for such an Ambassador before. (For a sceptical view of this proposal, see Ziya Meral’s take on the issue.) Whatever view one takes, the threat of Islamist extremism – the source of most anti-Christian persecution worldwide – is a constantly mutating one. One year, its most prominent form is Al Qaeda. The next, it is ISIS. The last week has seen the horrible massacre of children in Pakistan (a reminder that most of Islamism’s victims are Muslims) and the siege in a Sydney cafe.
What Britain’s churches want, as far as our own public square is concerned, is access to it – which the Government is striving to provide, as protests from secular groups confirm. The same churches, with the fears of their fellow Christians in mind, tread very carefully when it comes to persecution abroad.
None the less, there is a parallel with the pre-collapse of communism debate about how to deal with the Soviet Union. Some claimed that denouncing it would make the treatment of political prisoners even worse. Others said that the Soviet regime would never change until it was put under pressure.
The appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom, properly backed by research and policy capacity in Whitehall, would help to dramatise and project the Government’s commitment to it.
William Hague pushed stopping rape as a weapon of war, complete with Angelina Jolie-assisted photo opportunities. Now Philip Hammond has an opportunity to plug religious freedom.
It is the season of goodwill. In that spirit, it is worth asking why the devil – in the form of the Foreign Secretary’s – should have all the best tubes.