THE WRONG GOOD FRIDAY

Spanish Inquisition‘God is dead’ Nietzsche infamously proclaimed in 1882. He was issuing a then-provocative statement within the context of a wider discussion; but as a snappy slogan it was inevitably misconstrued by his critics and appropriated by atheists whose righteous conviction in their chosen belief system can often make them as sanctimoniously zealous as the followers of the faiths they decry. Religion, whether worshipping a living God or a dead one, always divides as much as it unites, with rival factions of the same faith having a habit of engaging in never-ending family feuds that can cost hundreds of thousands of lives when elongated over decades and, in some cases, centuries; and then there are the opposing faiths that routinely square up to one another every few years in order to prove whose God is bigger than the other. So many religions, so many Gods, so much unnecessary bloodshed – no wonder so many societies are secular today compared to the past.

A modern multi-faith democracy has to accommodate all of these spiritual ideologies, yet whereas the ultimate judgement as to which religion takes priority over the rest is traditionally in the hands of those following the dominant faith (for they tend to hold all the power), if secularism is their common currency, favouritism can be influenced by other factors. Whilst most would argue the majority of Brits today inhabit a secular world that mainly only acknowledges two Christian festivals – Christmas and Easter – this is still technically a Christian country, albeit one our Christian forefathers would sometimes struggle to recognise as such. To take the changing, diverse nature of the nation’s worship on board, our law-makers have done their best to ensure none of the myriad religions on offer today is discriminated against; however, there can be shades of an Identity Politics approach at play when ring-fencing faiths that aren’t associated with any of the British traditions which are now criminally unfashionable.

The foot-soldiers of the law-makers are dispatched to enforce those laws, and the undeniable existence of two-tier policing is evident in the way ring-fencing a minority at the expense of the majority produces one rule for one and one rule for another. Just as few MPs of recent years have seen active service in the armed forces compared to previous generations of politicians – therefore making it far easier for them to deploy troops when they have no notion of what operating in war-zones really entails – there probably aren’t many honourable members who’ve been policemen or women. I should imagine passing some ill-conceived new law is simple enough if you’re safe in the knowledge that you personally won’t be sent out onto the streets to enforce it; and if you’ve never been in that position, your grasp of the realities of doing so is probably limited to watching one of those ‘Police Camera Action’-type cheapo docs on Channel 5. Moreover, if those making up the rules have none of the inbred loyalty to Christianity that a Christian country implies, they won’t necessarily exhibit sensitivity towards its worshippers in the same way they might with other (more politically beneficial) faiths.

An illegal gathering of individuals outlawed by Covid restrictions – we’ve all seen such gatherings dispersed in an often-OTT manner by the police in online videos shot by those present; this is what we’ve come to expect. Not so in Batley, however. An illegal gathering outside a school there included the likes of Shamima Begum’s lawyer and was organised by an organisation which has apparently received effective sponsorship from the local branch of the teaching union – something that might further explain the silence and absence of support for the teacher now in hiding from the intolerant bigots who believe he didn’t show the followers of their faith the respect they’re not automatically entitled to. An illegal gathering breaking the restrictions the rest of us have to abide by and the incitement of religious hatred – two issues that surely should have led to police wading in and dispersing, no? No, of course not. Contrast this with events on Good Friday when the Met gate-crashed a service at a Polish Catholic church in South London with such brutish and arrogant insensitivity it was a wonder they didn’t declare ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’

A scenario impossible to imagine being enacted in a mosque – and it would be no more enlightening or laudable a spectacle there than in a synagogue or a Methodist chapel – the interruption during the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion at Christ the King Polish church in Balham doesn’t require a devotion to the faith in question to send shivers down the spine. On the widely-circulated video, the leader of this glorified Gestapo makes the most of his moment in the spotlight by showing the worshippers who is boss. ‘You are not allowed to meet inside with this many people under law,’ he declares. ‘At this moment in time you need to go home. Failure to comply with this direction to leave and go to your home address ultimately could lead to being fined £200 or, if you fail to give your details, to you being arrested.’ It was like a scene from a movie set in the post-Reformation 16th century, when Catholic practices were outlawed in England and forced to be secretly staged in clandestine priest holes in constant danger of being raided. One might almost imagine we have a fresh network of spies dotted about the country reporting suspected services to the authorities. Perish the thought.

The protestors in Batley were not in the process of commemorating a Muslim Holy day – which may have led to an understandable softly-softly approach by the police; they were denouncing an ‘infidel’ and placing him in fear for his life with their vile rhetoric as they forced the closure of a school. The worshippers at the church in Balham, on the other hand, were celebrating the most solemn day in the Catholic calendar; and the police deliberately brought it to a close halfway through by striding into the church wearing their size-nines and barking their orders at the small congregation from the altar. This was a service that was being streamed online and had, according to reports, complied with the regulations at a time when the coronavirus is declining in the capital; that the police didn’t even have the decency to wait until the service was over would have robbed them of their melodramatic money-shot, one they clearly imagined would emphasise their authority and instil fear into those considering breaking the law. Yet it just made them look even more like an out-of-control private army drunk on its new powers.

As a long-term, prominent immigrant community in the UK, Poles have historically set up home here after fleeing persecution under totalitarian regimes that weren’t exactly tolerant of their faith. That a Polish church in particular should have been singled out for this unedifying treatment seems an especially damning indictment on the way in which two-tier policing is now dispensed in this country as well as highlighting a glaring lack of insight and understanding as to the kind of ghosts such an incident can evoke. Immigrant communities and their descendants carry the scars of their ancestors, packed into the collective suitcase when departing the homeland and then passed down the generations as part of the family silver, helping to forge a shared identity. Worship can often form a key element of this identity, yet one doesn’t have to be a believer at all to find the clumsy actions of the police in Balham a fairly shameful desecration of that worship which would be just as bad were it applied across the board to all forms of worship. That it isn’t being applied this way makes a mockery of both the law and the law enforcers, neither of which are generating the feeling that we’re all in this together. Because we’re clearly not.

© The Editor

POLES APART?

PolesOne of the few British TV dramas of recent years that portrayed working-class characters neither as idle benefits-scroungers or comedy losers was Jimmy McGovern’s ‘The Street’, which ended a three-series run in 2009. One episode centred upon a ranting racist played by Joseph Mawle, who brilliantly exhibited the ignorance of the man whose vitriol’s relentless flow requires the absence of facts to maintain its propulsion. Reflecting contemporary Britain, Mawle’s character reserved his most vociferous ire for Poles, often falling back on hand-me-down World War II myths and legends of a selective nature whilst letting rip. This tendency to conjure up the Churchillian spirit of Britain standing alone whilst conveniently overlooking the crucial role Polish airmen played during the Battle of Britain is and remains a classic bigot’s tactic when justification is needed for each outburst.

The allies Britain could count upon during the Second World War for the whole duration doesn’t constitute the lengthiest of lists; and lest we forget, one of them was the country whose invasion forced Chamberlain’s hand in September 1939. The geographical vulnerability of the Polish Corridor dividing East and West Prussia was bound to make Poland the next Nazi conquest in the summer of 1939; and wracked with the guilt of having abandoned Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich Agreement, it was plain to the British Government that any further ‘annexation’ on the part of Hitler would inevitably lead to first an ultimatum and then war.

Polish fighter pilots comprised the highest number of non-native airmen on the side of the Allies in the Battle of Britain. The often-overlooked strength-in-depth of the Empire certainly helped on all British fronts – air, sea and land – before America entered the war; but the RAF’s Polish contingent was priceless to the eventual outcome of 1940’s key conflict. Polish troops were present at the later Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy, and Polish contributions were also essential when it came to the cracking of the Enigma code. It was fitting that Poland’s government-in-exile was based in London, for it seems to be pretty indisputable that Poland was this country’s most invaluable European ally in our darkest hour.

After 1945, the surrender of Poland to the Soviet Union as one of the unavoidable concessions the Allies made to Stalin to ensure his participation in the defeat of Germany appears a poor way of thanking the country for six years of constant support and assistance; but Poland wasn’t alone when the boundaries of the Iron Curtain were drawn; and, to be fair, the Allies didn’t really have much choice. The ruthless suppression of rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia by the USSR in 1956 and 1968 respectively didn’t prevent the admirable resistance of the Polish trade union Solidarity to Soviet dominance in the 70s, however. The charismatic Lech Walesa became the figurehead for this resistance, imprisoned for his troubles, though ultimately the hero of the resistance when martial law was imposed in 1981; he was eventually rewarded for his efforts by becoming the first democratically-elected Polish President in 1990, following the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc.

In the decades following the Second World War, the vast majority of immigration into the UK was drawn from former imperial colonies, particularly the Indian Subcontinent and the West Indies. Old loyalties to the Commonwealth were more evident than wartime alliances. Citizens from former European allies were far smaller in number up until the change in the constitution of the European Union in the 90s, when Eastern Europeans began to breach Britannia’s borders in sizeable numbers for the first time.

The figures released this week revealing that the largest immigrant population in the UK is now Polish I suppose consist of various caveats. Poles now apparently outnumber Asians, though do we include second or third generation members of the Asian population as ‘immigrants’ – or do we only include those who have arrived here in the last five to ten years? Nobody today, for example, would refer to, say, those of West Indian descent as ‘immigrants’, so successfully has Britain’s black population been absorbed into the social fabric of the nation, not to mention becoming the most high visibility other halves in interracial relationships; and those of us who were at urban schools in the 70s and 80s have grown up accustomed to black and Asian faces being as integral to the nation as white ones. So, we’re presumably talking ‘immigration’ in terms of the past decade.

A headline doesn’t explain all, though it’s not the business of the likes of the Daily Mail to do so; a paper that ran with a 1934 headline proclaiming ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ can’t necessarily be trusted to dispense facts that contradict the prejudices of both editor and readership. And how many of that readership rely on Poles for home repairs and au pairs, one wonders?

As ever, one’s personal perspective is derived from one’s own experience. The non-white British population of my neighbourhood is predominantly Asian, though all of the Asians I come into contact with speak in broad local accents, suggesting a British lineage stretching back a good thirty or forty years, which makes them no more ‘immigrants’ than me. My mother lives in another part of town, and her nearest high-street has apparently been colonised by Poles, which seems to have the effect of making her feel like a stranger in her own city; I do make the point, however, that were it not for the Poles who have taken over the shops, those shops would most likely be closed and the high-street relatively derelict. Asian enterprise saved the corner-shop in the 70s, after all; and enterprise can transcend ghettoisation in a generation. These things take time.

If the appalling mob-murder of Polish man Arkadiusz Jozwik in Harlow is proven to be attributable to the excuse of a post-Brexit Hate Crime, it would seem a little historical perspective is worth bearing in mind before we forget who we are and how we got here.

© The Editor