“You say grace, Alan,” someone urged.
I was in a classy restaurant in London’s West End last week with the small MegaMosqueNoThanks team and our professional advisers – a lawyer, a town planner, a chartered surveyor, an academic journalist – that together opposed the construction of a huge mosque close to the 2012 London Olympic stadium in East London.
The ‘Selkirk Grace’ of the Scottish poet Robert Burns sprang immediately to mind. My father, a Glaswegian Scot to his fingertips but no church-goer, taught it to us and prayed it himself on semi-formal occasions such as family Christmas lunch:
‘Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit.’
It’s a grace that was much prayed at Burns Night suppers this week too, no doubt – but I flunked it. Burns’ poetry needs a strong Scots’ inflection and my Sassenach tongue would mangle it. I gave thanks in English.
We had a lot to ‘be thankit’ for. As Burns recognised, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’; but for us our nine-year campaign against the mosque had not gone ‘agley’. Rather, as regular readers of this blog will know, we’d been given real success as first the local planning authority in December 2012 and then the Secretary of State in October 2015 both rejected the mosque plans.
Tablighi Jamaat, the fundamentalist group behind the mosque proposals, are now in a desperate corner but they have very deep pockets. In December they applied to the High Court for the right to appeal the government’s decision, and no doubt they will if necessary petition the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and even up to the European Court. This likely will go on for years. As I said, they have very deep pockets…
But as we tucked in to our Cauliflower veloute and Goosnargh duck we reckoned we had much to celebrate. We were certain that our campaign had a major impact; for instance Tablighi Jamaat explained on BBC TV that they downsized the project because of our strong opposition.
We also had done our bit to force Newham Council to shift – grudgingly – from 100% support for a mega-mosque to outright opposition. In celebration I had long wanted to raise a glass to Newham’s Labour mayor Sir Robin Wales who huffed and puffed much vitriol towards me personally, but in the end did the necessary U-turn and came to agree with our position on the mosque.
It was at a different table the next day that other colleagues and I had another cause to celebrate. This time the event was held in the House of Lords dining room and we celebrated with very English mid-afternoon cups of tea, cucumber sandwiches, scones, jam and clotted cream. We had just been present at the successful third and final reading of Baroness Caroline Cox’s private member’s bill.
Regular readers of this blog will know that the bill tackles gender discrimination in Sharia councils and the growth of an Islamic parallel legal system in the UK, and also that we have been researching the issue, listening to evidence and promoting the bill for four years. The completion of the bill’s passage through the upper house means that it now goes to the House of Commons, and we were elated that en route it had received strong encouragement and warm support from all quarters in the Lords – apart from the government front bench.
The job is not yet done of course: it will be a very different ball-game in the Commons and further non-cooperation by the government will be a real obstacle. Nonetheless we had reason to celebrate progress so far and afternoon tea seemed appropriate.
Political activity involves major troughs as well as peaks, dark valleys as well as sunlit mountain-tops, and in my experience it’s unusual for two political wins to coincide and enable celebrations on consecutive days. I was delighted. I was having a good week.
But in If, the English poet Rudyard Kipling famously denotes Triumph and Disaster as “twin imposters”. In Scots Wha Hae, Robert Burns is indifferent between success and failure: “Welcome to your gory bed, Or to victorie… Let us do or die!” And in the Gospels, Christ asks us, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
So at some deep and personal level political successes aren’t – or shouldn’t be – important. But it was pleasurable nonetheless to ignore past frustrations, give thanks for these wins and to celebrate roundly with friends and colleagues.