go to the home page
see what Ruth is up to links to all Ruth's non-fiction publications links to all Ruth's crime fictions titles links to most of Ruth's journalist over the last four years
Sunday 26 November 2006

High-flier Willie falls at the cross

ONE of our most successful exports - tough, ruthless Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways - has just been humbled by a tiny, plump 55-year-old Anglo-Egyptian woman who worked at one of his check-in desks.

The man who in his days as a negotiator for the Irish pilots' union told his members that "a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations" and whose cost-cutting at the head of Aer Lingus earned him the nickname 'Slasher', acted with total intransigence, yet finally had to bow the knee to Miss Nadia Eweida. The story of the triumph of this little person has profound implications for the Church of England and British society as a whole.

It all began when Nadia was told by a duty manager to remove from view the tiny silver cross she wears on a necklace. As she had worn the cross without objection for her seven years at BA and at various Muslim airlines at which she had worked previously, she protested, but the customer services manager confirmed that she was contravening company policy by wearing what was classified as jewellery: it was irrelevant that she considered it a religious symbol.

She complied while she pondered her next course of 'The story of the triumph of this little person has profound implications'

action and continued working alongside colleagues wearing hijabs, turbans, Sikh bangles and other visible signs of religion.

That her cross had suddenly become an issue she puts down to the effect on line management of diversity training. On a course she had attended, where staff considered how to treat different religions and cultures sensitively, no mention had been made of Christianity. "It seemed to me," said Nadia, "the majority's needs had been disregarded in favour of the minority's."

She decided to challenge company policy, wrote to Walsh asking him to change the airline's uniform policy and turned up for work with her cross again visible. She told her manager ofthe deep personal significance the symbol held for her and of her desire to have equality with members of other religions, but on October 6 was ordered home without pay for wearing an 'adornment'.

She found a Christian barrister who agreed to represent her free of charge in her appeal and then enlisted her Liberal Democrat MP, Vincent Cable, who elicited from Willie Walsh - who had decided to take personal charge - an uncompromising refusal to change the rule book.

Had he no one to warn him against awakening the sleeping giant that is Middle England?

Several years ago, BA replaced the Union Jacks on their tailfins with various expressions of ethnic art and caused such an uproar that it had to return to using the national flag - which, incidentally, consists of the crossesof St George, St Andrew and St Patrick.

Despite having the support of many of her colleagues, including Muslims and Sikhs, Nadia lost two appeals, but she acquired an army, whose most terrifying warrior was the Archbishop of York.

Now when John Sentamu, a black Ugandan, was first appointed to the second most important job in the Church of England, there were those who whispered "political correctness". But Sentamu is a man of principle and courage, whose independence as a judge had him exiled by the tyrant Idi Amin and he is fast becoming a national treasure. He gives sermons defending not just Christianity, but the very fabric of British history and tradition.

Dr Sentamu described the decision as nonsense: "British Airways needs to look again at this decision and to look at the history of the country it represents, whose culture, laws, heritage and tradition owes so much to the very same symbol it would ban."

Twelve other Anglican bishops, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Muslim Council of Britain, 100 MPs from right across the political spectrum (including the SDLP and the DUP) and even Ken Livingstone, weighed in on Nadia's side, as did the Daily Mail and the Sun. Finally, amid public outrage and threats to boycott BA, the Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps stung by criticism of his woolliness and calls to have him replaced by Sentamu, astounded the nation by denouncing the BA policy as "deeply offensive" and threatening to sell the Church of England's £10m shares in the airline.

Walsh climbed down on Friday, promising a uniform review, yet he could not bring himself to apologise.

Hailing what it described as "a victory for its readers", the Sun wrote in its triumphant leader, that "barmily", Walsh had added 'Criticism of BA has been misplaced and unjustified.' Rubbish, Willie. Every word of it was right on target."

It may not cheer him up, but Willie Walsh has succeeded in radicalising the Church of England and bringing the British bulldog barking out of his kennel. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards