Last week a single judge unseated the mayor of Tower Hamlets,
Lutfur Rahman, for fixing his re-election in May 2014.
Among the reasons
presented by deputy high court judge Richard Mawrey QC for removing Rahman from
office, was that, in cahoots with local imams, the mayor exerted “undue
spiritual influence” on some sections of the electorate, specifically voters
from the Muslim Bangladeshi community.
The former mayor has now said he will appeal
against the judgment.
But in order properly to understand this extraordinary
and highly politicised piece of law one has to rewind to the middle of the 19th
century when it was first introduced as a response to the fear of the Irish,
specifically of Irish Roman Catholicism.
“The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our
enterprising industry, our pure religion,” wrote then prime minister Benjamin
“This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have
no sympathy with the English character.
“Their ideal of human felicity is an
alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an
unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”
The priest and historian Charles
Kingsley wrote in a letter to his wife, “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees
I saw [in Ireland]”.
What especially spooked the
English establishment was that these people now had the vote.
In 1872, the Ballot
Act introduced secret
ballots into the electoral system. For the first time, landlords were not able
to monitor the electoral behaviour of their tenants.
And in 1884, the Third
Reform Act extended
the franchise to all men, irrespective of wealth or property.
perfectly expressed by Disraeli, was that the Irish in particular, often
portrayed as sub-human, would no longer defer to their masters and betters and
instead be led by Rome.
In the late 19th century, the fear of Roman Catholicism
mingled with the racist fear of the Irish. “Home rule means Rome rule” was a
It was in this context that the
and Illegal Practices Act was
passed into law.
And with it the idea of “undue spiritual influence”, the
purpose of which was specifically to constrain the influence of the Roman
Catholic clergy on what the English establishment took to be the ignorant and
impressionable minds of the Irish proletariat.
It’s an almost identical version
of this 19th century law that has been passed down to us in the wording of the 1983
Representation of the People Act. Here
is what it says:
“A person shall be guilty of undue influence if he … makes use
of or threatens to make use of any force, violence or restraint, or inflicts or
threatens to inflict, by himself or by any other person, any temporal or
spiritual injury, damage, harm or loss upon or against any person in order to
induce or compel that person to vote or refrain from voting.”
Most of this is
fair enough. But what is “spiritual injury”?
In 1892, the bishop of Meath, Dr Nulty, wrote a colourful
letter to his congregations, urging them not to vote for “Parnellism” (despite
the fact that Charles Stewart Parnell had died the year before).
It “saps the
very foundations of the Catholic faith” the bishop said. And, as a result of
his intervention, the general election result for Meath was set aside on the
grounds of “undue spiritual influence”.
Reading the bishop’s pastoral letter,
it is worth noting that he did not threaten hellfire or damnation.
told his congregations that, in his opinion, a vote for Parnellism was incompatible
with being a good Roman Catholic.
It is unsurprising that this law
has been ignored since the 19th century, despite it remaining on the statute
It originated in a nasty atmosphere of racist hostility towards Irish
Catholicism and was used to suppress the power of the Roman clergy who were
feared because they did not behave as tame establishment Anglicans.
that is, until now.
To be clear – Lutfur Rahman was found liable for other
transgressions of the law and on those I have no particular comment.
astonishingly, the central plank of the judge’s argument concerning “undue
spiritual influence” is that the Rahman case is structurally similar to the
Irish case – and, specifically, he refers to a letter written by 101 imams (and
not by Rahman) urging their people to vote for Rahman.
About which the judge
“Although written in a foreign language by clerics of a different
faith, Dr Nulty would have had no difficulty in recognising this document. It
is a pastoral letter, remarkably similar to his letter to the faithful of
County Meath and published in the Drogheda Independent
on 2 July 1892.
words it is a letter from an influential cleric – in this case 101 influential
clerics – informing the faithful as to their religious duty. As with the
bishop, the imams’ message is clear; our religion is under attack, our enemies
despise us and wish to humiliate us; it is your duty as faithful sons and
daughters of the [Church][Mosque] to vote for candidate X: only he will defend
our religion and our community.
“As the imams’ letter puts it ‘[our opponents
are] spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as
abominable and at the same time condemnable’. The bishop could not – indeed did
not – express it more succinctly.”
So the judge is entirely unashamed to use a law that was
developed to subdue Irish Roman Catholics and then apply it to a contemporary
religious minority that is suffering from a very similar brew of racism and
hostility to what is seen as their foreign religious practices, i.e., Islam.
To make matters worse, Richard Mawrey
QC uses exactly the same trope of the “thick Irish” and applies it directly to
“Time and again in the Irish
cases it was stressed that the Catholic voters were men of simple faith,
usually much less well educated than the clergy who were influencing them, and
men whose natural instinct would be to obey the orders of their priests (even
more their bishops).
“This principle still holds good.
“In carrying out the
assessment a distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated
and politically literate community and a community which is traditional,
respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other
communities living in the same area.
“As with undue influence in the civil law
sphere, it is the character of the person sought to be influenced that is key
to whether influence has been applied.”
How is this not an echo of the
racist assumptions of the 19th century?
And here we reach the nub of it: this
is a judgment steeped in the history and prejudices of English cultural
It was created to deal with the fear that unruly Irish Catholics,
many migrating to Tower Hamlets, would not vote the way the establishment
wanted and expected them to vote – and the worry that, being uneducated and
superstitious, they would listen instead to their clergy.
Those who have defended this law
have done so because they believe it is a way of keeping politics and religion
The standard line has been that it is OK for a priest to express his
voting intentions, but not to sermonise his or her congregation to do the same.
It has been assumed that what is prohibited is the use of hellfire and
damnation to bully the idiot faithful – though neither the bishop of Meath nor
the 101 imams do anything remotely like that.
Neither mention punishment or
threat or any sort of injury, spiritual or otherwise.
Now I think there is a big question about why such things should
I mean, if I think voting for an out-and-out racist party would be
a sin (and I do), and that sins have eternal consequences (and I do), then I
don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to say such a thing in a free society.
from the pulpit too.
There will be plenty of people out there who will tell me
I am talking nonsense. And that’s fine – this is the sort of debate that makes
a free society free.
Indeed, religion is often the canary in the cage of a free
Furthermore, if the Tory party can arrange for 5,000 small
business leaders to say vote Tory
, why can’t the
imams organise a letter to say vote Rahman?
Because the small business leaders
are not threatening damnation, comes the reply.
But the imams have said nothing
of the sort – their crime was to have been too close to Rahman (which, no doubt
Indeed, it’s surely more convincing to argue that it was the
business leaders who were threatening “consequences” – telling us the economy
will go to hell in a handbasket if we don’t vote the right way.
Why is this not
And come to think of it, what about Anglican bishops in the
House of Lords? Surely that’s the most egregious example of undue spiritual
Yet, of course, it’s the imams and those they support who suffer the
consequences of the law.
I wonder why.