Many Christians fear that right-on councils are plotting to ban Christmas. But the facts suggest otherwise, says Edward Stourton
6 B ID TO BAN CHRISTMAS" shrieked the head line in the Sun in bold caps, "Festive Fun Upsets Migrants, Says Labour ThinkTank". To someone writing a book about political correctness a story like that is, well, like Christmas coming early. There is my next chapter, I thought, as I filed the cutting.
But when I looked into the story in more detail it started fraying at the edges. Yes, it was certainly fair to describe the Institute for Public Policy Research as a "Labour ThinkTank" — Nick Pearce, the director of the IPPR at the time its allegedly anti-Christmas report was published, went on to become the head of policy at Downing Street. But when I rang their offices to ask whether they really wanted to ban Christmas (or, if you read the Daily Mail rather than the Sun, to see it "downgraded to help race relations") they denied any such thing. Here is what their report actually says: "Even-handedness dictates that we provide public recognition to minority cultures and traditions. If we are going to continue as a nation to mark Christmas — and it would be very hard to expunge it from our national life even if we wanted to — then public organisations should mark other religious festivals too." The tone may be a little po-faced, but the report does not in any sense suggest that Christmas should be abolished.
The lament about politically correct attempts to destroy this great festival is a hardyperennial of anti-PC journalism, and any newspaper stories appearing between now and early January which include the words "political correctness gone mad" need to be treated with a great deal of caution.
The locus classicus of the genre is the story that Birmingham City Council renamed Christmas "Winterval". There is a little bit of truth at the heart of it; the council did indeed run a promotional campaign called Winterval — for a couple of years in the late Nineties — which was designed to attract business to the city centre. But in all other respects civic Birmingham Continued to celebrate Christmas in the usual way — with lights in the streets and trees in the squares. The Guardian ran a piece trying to debunk the myths about Christmas in our PC world in December 2006, and when the paper's reporter telephoned Birmingham Council he reported meeting "a silence that might seasonably be described as frosty". A weary council spokesman told him: "We get this every year... It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it is b-----s, but it doesn't seem to make any difference.
A moment's reflection will tell you that no city council has the power to "ban" Christmas anyway. The only serious attempt to ban Christmas in Britain was led by Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century, and things have moved on a bit since then. So why do these myths about the politically correct assault on our favourite festival have such resilience?
The answer may lie in the way the concept of political correctness has evolved. It began life as an ideological tool of the Left; in the United States it was associated with what you might call "correct line-ism", the conviction that right-thinking people will always take a particular view on any given issue, and in Britain it was tied up with the emergence of the "identity politics" which provided a channel for Left-wing activism during the Thatcher years. But in both countries it was taken over by the Right as a term of abuse, and because it has never really been clearly defined it can be made to serve all sorts of agendas. So today it is used as a kind of ideological Christmas tree on which people hang all sorts of things that make them feel uneasy about life in a Blair-Brown Britain — whether it is batty health and safety rules about conkers or "nanny state" legislation about smoking and drinking.
The "PC gone mad" school of journalism which has emerged as a result is largely harmless and sometimes funny. Of course one feels sorry for that press officer in Birmingham, but if people enjoy chuckling about the Winterval story over their seasonal glass of mulled wine that cannot be such a terrible thing. But while researching my book I found evidence that stories of this kind can, in the febrile religious atmosphere of the world after 9/11, sometimes be dangerous.
In December 2005 the Express ran a huge headline which declared that "CHRISTMAS IS BANNED; IT OH-ENDS MUSLIMS-. The lead paragraph of the story continued: "Britain's proud heritage suffered a devastating blow yesterday after council chiefs banned Christmas. Criticsaccused a politically correct local authority of being ashamed to be Christian." The rather modest "fact" at the heart of this story was that advertisements for the switch-throwing ceremonies at street light displays in the London Borough of Lambeth referred to them as "winter lights" and "celebrity lights" rather than Christmas lights. It was, according to the Express, an "astonishing diktat" by Lambeth Council.
Lambeth very quickly tried to kill the story. A council spokesman said: "Our response to the story was that it was absurd. Christmas was going on as usual. The Christmas tree was up in the Town Hall, the usual Christmas carols were being sung, the lights were up." As a resident of the borough I am happy to report that we put up our Christmas tree as usual. stuck a Christmas wreath on the front door and were able to drive across the river to Westminster Cathedral for Mass on Christmas day without being stopped by the Gestapo.
The story was picked up by the authors of The Search for Common Ground, a report on the way Muslims are represented in the media which was commissioned by the Mayor of London. Ken Livingstone, and published inthe autumn of 2007. "There was,the report noted, "nothing in the news item to substantiate the headline that Christmas offends Muslims. or even that anyone has ever thought that it offends Muslims." Indeed the body of the story actually carried a quote from the Muslim Council of Britain condemning Lambeth's alleged anti-Christmas bias.
A few years ago I made a Radio 4 documentary about the English attachment to the idea of an Established Church and the web of archaic ties between church and state that involves. We found that the most enthusiastic antidisestablishmentarianists were not crusty old Anglican bishops but rabbis and imams; they told us that the existence of an Established Church preserves a religious space in British society which has made it easier for new faiths to find a home here. The fact that this overwhelmingly secular country still celebrates a religious festival in such a very public way is a source of reassurance to most Muslims, not offence. So that whooping headline "CHRISTMAS IS BANNED; IT OH-ENDS MUSLIMS" is not only based on an entirely false premise — it also distorts Muslim attitudes in a damaging way. There are plenty of potential sources of tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in post-9/11 Britain, but Muslim objections to Christian festivals is not one of them.
But I encountered a curious paradox on my journey through a PC world; usually we are happy to sign up to the principle of virtuous ideals — whether it is giving to the poor, or turning up for Mass on Sundays — but often find reasons not to act on them. With political correctness it is the other way round: we publicly condemn the idea, while quietly observing its demands.
. At a literary festival last week I asked the audience whether any of them would use the phrase "politically correct" as a compliment; not a single hand went up. So I tested their self-proclaimed un-PC credentials with a series of stories from the week's news. Did they think it was acceptable for Silvio Berlusconi to make a joke about Barack Obarna's "sun tan"? No, they did not. Did they agree with Bernie Ecclestone that the racial taunts levelled at Lewis Hamilton by Spanish Formula One fans were "just a bit of a joke"? No, they did not. And so it went on — confronted with real examples of bigotry they revealed themselves as PC enthusiasts every one.
Edward Stourton's It's a PC World: What it Means to Live in a Land Gone Politically Correct, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is priced 114.99