Cleverly Done?

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10 November 2022

Cleverly Done?

Behaviour in Qatar

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Let us suppose, if indeed it is not the case, that you have a son or a daughter of whom, for reasons probably not obvious to others, you are particularly fond. Why are those reasons not obvious? Because he or she is a soccer fan and, worse still, a sufficiently keen fan to incur the expense and inconvenience of foreign travel to watch England perform in the World Cup. Repulsive behaviour certainly, or so those of us who prefer rugby would think, but still, the ties of blood are strong and as you see them depart for Qatar, you yourself, whatever your friends might think, rather hope that they will return undamaged. The trouble is that you know they are other outspoken on human rights and LGBT issues generally.

So what do you say in that last Polonius moment when you see them off at the airport and hand them an emergency wad of Rials? Do you suggest that they keep out of trouble, compromise a little with Islamic norms and show respect for the host country? Or do you take the second route and tell them that they know that the Qatari approach to LGBT issues is repugnant to them, that they should stand up aggressively for what they believe in and take the consequences – prove themselves indeed worthy heirs of the crusaders of the early Middle Ages?  Well then, which is it to be? Safety over principle or principle over safety?

That is the question which was faced by the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, in respect of his advice to the England fans as a whole and he went for the first route, saying that with a little “flex and compromise at both ends” all should be well and it should be possible to enjoy the football in peace. No one gets hurt, then, but the opportunity to push forward the reform of Islam is missed.

England LGBT fan group 3Lionspride is in the other corner with: “With respect, this is an extremely unhelpful intervention that shows a lack of understanding and context. To insinuate that an acceptable and proportionate safety measure is to ‘be less queer’ forces us back into the closet and risks mental health crises.”

There safety must take second place. After all, you cannot make a revolution without breaking eggs and in this case the eggs will be any fans who suffer at the hands of the authorities.

Obviously those members of the chatterati who have no friends or relatives travelling to Qatar will go for the aggressive route. After all, why not? It is other people’s children we are talking about and some of them have plenty of children to spare. This seems to be the view emerging from the political class generally and fogies like Mr Cleverly who regard the safety of British subjects as more important than social reform in the Gulf are castigated when the advice they are giving the public is precisely the advice they would give to people of whom they are fond. Perhaps they give that advice because they actually like their fellow citizens or perhaps because they don’t care too much about principles. Either way they look like the “compassionate conservatives” who Sunak is fond of referring to.

This tension between looking after your people and pursuing an objective runs through public affairs generally and those who achieve the most are usually those who put the objective first. Generals who sacrifice large numbers of troops to tactical considerations, politicians who will let a pandemic run its course rather than risk strangling the ensuing recovery, businessman who will strip their workforce to give themselves the chance to change, these are the heroes for whom the statues will be erected; these are the men and women who get things changed, generally through other people’s sacrifices.

It is all very magnificent but as always there is a balance involved. Is the achievement worth the price? Is it really our business how they treat each other in Qatar? What is it that says that we should be entitled to impose our Christian values over their Islamic ones? Should we try to civilise the world in a burst of revived imperialism? There is really no right or wrong about this. It is a question of preference to be decided on a case by case basis. Do you focus on people and their well-being or do you focus on principles? On this question of the World Cup, Mr Cleverly has put the people first, and there is nothing dishonourable about that, but those whose priority is LGBT reform will take a different view.

About one thing, however, there can be no doubt. The words at the end of the statement by 3 Lionspride quoted above are distinctly odd. Whose mental health are they talking about? That of Qataris? Logically it should be, since they are presumably the ones oppressed by the Islamic rules, but it doesn’t read like that. The suggestion seems to be that failure to get to grips with the Qatari authorities will damage the mental health of the gay fan base of the England team. Really, that sounds like nonsense and, were I travelling to Qatar, which I’m not, it would give me pause for thought before I jeopardised my safety as part of a campaign led by these people.

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