Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Know your enemy

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan ever posed any credible threat to the West’s freedom. Russia, with its Psy-war manipulation of the internal politics of Western democracies, does.

But it’s not just Putin that we need to worry about. We also have to take seriously the threat posed by Cambridge Analytica, ALEC, the Koch brothers, and all the dark forces of oligarchy.

How to deal with Evil Wicked Tories

(Excerpt from Psalm 37)

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

For evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait upon the Lord shall possess the land.

In a little while the wicked shall be no more; you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.

But the lowly shall possess the land; they will delight in abundance of peace.

The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash at them with their teeth.

The Lord laughs at the wicked, because he sees that their day will come.

The wicked draw their sword and bend their bow to strike down the poor and needy, to slaughter those who are upright in their ways.

Their sword shall go through their own heart, and their bow shall be broken.

The little that the righteous has is better than great riches of the wicked.

For the power of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous.

Say YES to a Better Scotland

Guest post by Neill Walker

I will be voting Yes to Scottish Independence in any future Scottish Independence Referendum.

Scottish Independence is principally about normalising democracy in Scotland so that Scotland, as a country, is always guaranteed to get the governments that Scotland votes for on all areas of governance affecting Scotland.

Scottish Independence is principally about bringing democracy home to Scotland, so that the people of Scotland make the democratic decisions concerning Scotland and the democratic decisions concerning Scotland are made in Scotland.

In addition to the fundamental democratic principle that makes Scottish Independence imperative, there is also the question of the kind of society in Scotland that we might aspire to shape with the full democratic powers of Scottish Independence.

In this respect, I would like to set out an initial trajectory and prospectus to indicate the kind of society in Scotland that I would like to see Scotland work towards achieving:

•to position Scotland as a nation that re-affirms and declares the sovereignty of the Scottish people

•to achieve democratic justice and equality for Scotland, and for the people of Scotland

•to renew a sense of participative and deliberative democracy across Scotland

•to facilitate progress on social inequalities, child poverty, social exclusion and making progress to end the need for food banks in Scotland

•to achieve welfare policies which empower individuals and communities, rather than punishing the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable

•to achieve a written constitution enshrining rights and responsibilities, following an inclusive and participative public consultation

•to protect the liberties and the rights of the people of Scotland

•to heal and transform deep issues associated with individual and community dis-empowerment and dis-engagement

•to nurture more successful, aspirational, happy and generous individuals and communities

•to explore the potential of Scotland’s renewable energy capacity, for the benefit of local communities and of the wider environment

•to position Scotland as anti-fracking and pro-renewables

•to position Scotland as a nation of world-leading climate change targets and deep ecological awareness

•to explore the potential of greater levels of community ownership of local natural resources for the benefit of local communities across Scotland

•to position Scotland as a nation working towards the inclusion and empowerment of marginalised individuals and communities

•to advance a transformative land reform agenda in Scotland, supporting community buyouts, and empowering local communities across Scotland

•to protect NHS Scotland from the threat of privatisation to maintain it as a public asset for the benefit of all

•to advance health and wellbeing among the people of Scotland

•to keep key public services in public hands for the benefit of everyone who lives in Scotland

•to achieve more welcoming and compassionate immigration, refugee and asylum policies, positioning Scotland as a compassionate nation at home and abroad

•to position mainstream nationalism in Scotland as civic, inclusive, welcoming and centre-left, and arguably that needs to be positively celebrated more when we see other examples of ethnic, exclusive, xenophobic and right-wing forms of nationalism elsewhere

•to position Scotland as a nation working towards social, economic, environmental, energy, gender and racial justice and progressive equality

•to position Scotland as welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and diversity and society-enhancing immigration

•to be open and welcoming to ever greater diversity in Scotland, and to see diversity as a necessary and enriching strand of Scottish life

•to sustainably grow Scotland’s net immigration according to Scotland’s needs, enriching Scottish life and society and welcoming ‘new Scots’ to Scotland

•to create more good opportunities for those young Scots who want to stay in Scotland, so that no young Scot feels that they have to go abroad to realise their potential

•to further extend Scotland’s educational and research excellence, taking particular account of Scotland’s distinctive needs and strengths

•to protect Scotland’s distinctive approach to higher education which has been a key foundation for much of Scotland’s success

•to strengthen local democracy across Scotland, empowering individuals and communities to take part in decisions that affect their day-to-day lives

•to explore the potential of a citizen’s income, which could be a key initiative to tackle poverty in Scotland

•to advance transformative childcare provision to free up greater opportunities for women (and men) to fulfil their aspirations and potential in Scottish society

•to more strongly support Scottish arts and culture in its distinctiveness, and exploring their international contexts

•to free Scotland of nuclear weapons, and to free Scotland of Trident insecurity

•to position Scotland as anti-Trident and pro-conventional defence

•to re-imagine security in terms of environmental justice, greater levels of social equality, and personal, social, community and democratic empowerment

•to achieve levels of defence for Scotland better suited to Scotland’s distinctive circumstances and needs

•to allow Scotland to have its own distinctive international relations according to its distinctive history and needs

•to position Scotland as a nation working towards an ethical foreign policy

•to improve Scotland’s distinctive visibility in the world, reflecting the diversity and richness of contemporary Scottish life and society

•to nurture greater levels of mutual respect among the nations and people of the British Isles, placing the relations on a much stronger foundation of equality

•to advance solidarity, empathy and goodwill of the people of Scotland with peoples across the world, and being empowered to act upon that solidarity through full democratic representation

•to nurture a media culture in Scotland that better supports a thriving democracy, and which better supports self-esteem and confidence among the people of Scotland

•to position Scotland as a force for good in the world through soft power, cultural exchange and peaceful co-existence

•to position Scotland not just as a rich country but as a fair, compassionate and a good society

•to energise and inspire the people of Scotland to imagine a better future for themselves and for their communities

•to move from protesting and imagining to building the better Scotland that many of us aspire to live in

•to position Scotland as a nation embracing change, and being the change

•to position Scotland as a nation that is European in formation and world-embracing

•to position Scotland as a nation celebrating our diversity, enriching our communities

•to advance the necessary democratic, social and cultural institutions and infrastructure to support Scotland’s flourishing at home and abroad

•to co-create and write together the story of Scotland that better reflects our needs, circumstances, hopes and aspirations

•to raise up in their own eyes the confidence, self-belief, self-esteem and compassionate generosity of the people of Scotland

•to release the great potential of the people of Scotland so that Scotland can shine in renewed confidence and health and wellbeing on the world stage

A Yes vote will allow Scotland to flourish according to its own values, principles, aspirations and vision, and it is essential that Scotland’s political culture is fully aligned with its values, principles, aspirations and vision, and that will be the best possible foundation for Scotland to flourish and to fully play its part on the world stage.

A Yes vote will allow Scotland to address its own distinctive needs, and to adopt policies suited to addressing those distinctive needs across all areas of governance affecting Scotland. Addressing those distinctive needs is a necessary pre-condition for Scotland to flourish, and to realise its undoubtedly great potential.

By nurturing self-respect, democratic, personal, community and national empowerment, and health and well-being at home in Scotland, the people of Scotland can then contribute to being the change that many of us want to see in the world, though our own example.

Scotland can then shine in the light of its own uniqueness and be nourished in the breath of its own distinctiveness.

Post-Yes, we can work towards an inclusive, sustainable-immigration-welcoming, diversity-celebrating, multiple-identity-embracing Scotland that can be a positive beacon for many countries in what is possible, enshrining equal rights for all citizens in a written constitution for Scotland.

Many will see such a Scotland as a positive example to follow.

A Yes vote is a necessary first step to facilitate such opportunities, change, transformation, empowerment and deep healing.

The time for YES is NOW!

Conservatives against Trump

Where are the real conservatives? I’m not a conservative (as I’ve posted here), but there used to be – on both sides of the Atlantic – a moderate, pragmatic conservatism that one could at least understand and respect.

Those conservatives really thought that they were upholding traditions, institutions and values that were important, that contributed in some way to the maintenance of a society that – if not good, exactly – was at least broadly acceptable and better than untried alternatives. They had a certain sense of public duty, integrity, responsibility and decorum.

They were even willing to make reforms – incremental, cautious ones, but reforms nevertheless – in response to real public grievances, because their interest was in maintaining the whole, not in squeezing every drop of out the economy or the planet and then watching society go down in flames. 

But where did these people go?

In America, it’s not enough for Democrats, hipsters, college kids, feminists and minorities to oppose Trump – there are just not enough of them, and they occupy only half of the conversation. The Republicans need to find the sense and the courage to oppose him too.

If conservatism as a mindset and ideology has anything of value to contribute to public debate, it is its insistence on the need for wise, competent and responsible leadership, acting through stable, lawful, established institutions. Trump is the antithesis of all that. His volatile temper, rapacious appetites, crass populism and petty hunger for revenge all make him the very opposite of the conservative archetype of a good leader.

Its time for the tweedy, old fashioned rich white men to take a stand.

Scotland’s European Futures: Mapping the Alternatives

A Guest Post by Derick Tulloch

The Scottish Government has correctly focused on single market membership. The absolute red line is EEA membership. And that can be achieved either by full EU membership or via EFTA

It’s worth separating this into 4 strands.

1 what is the preferred outcome?

Personally that is EEA membership. Not bothered by which route.

Achievable by either staying in the EU, joining EFTA or EFTA first then EU after a vote.

2 What is the easiest and most practical to achieve?

Depends on whether the EU is prepared to state openly that we would remain a member in advance of any vote. And on the attitude of 27 states + several devolved regions, all of whom have a veto.

Inherently easier to agree with 4 in EFTA than 30. Scottish EFTA membership would strengthen that organisation without overwhelming it. So there are advantages for them.

On the other hand, we have friends in high places in the EU.

3 What route is least able to be influenced and sabotaged by rUK?

Particularly politically. Perception is paramount. ‘Spain will veto EU membership’. ‘EU won’t negotiate with a non-independent nation”. “Scotland’s deficit is too high for EU membership”. Like it or not those slogans have traction with waverers, even through they are lies.

No Spanish veto over EFTA membership!

4 Last but not least. What is likely to garner the most support for Yes?

Would 33% Yes/EU membership folk go for EFTA first, at least as a step towards full membership? We need to find out.

The 11% Yes/Leave EU would grab it.

If so that’s 44% right there.

And the 2014 No/EU folk? Attract half of them and we’d start the campaign well over 50%

Everyone knows the polls haven’t changed because the 11% or so No to Yes have been balanced by 12% 2014 Yes/Leave moving to No. We need the lowest risk compromise that brings those folk back on side. Plus something attractive to those who currently want both EU and UK membership.

2017

In 2016 I took a bit of an intellectual break from the study of constitutions. I mean, it was still my profession, but I deliberately chose, for one year, not to make it my hobby and my obsession as well. For the first time since 2007, I did not have either a PhD thesis or a book project on the go. Instead, I spent my spare time cultivating other hobbies and interests instead, like building my model railway. If I did any reading outside of work, it was mostly leisure reading that was, at most, only tangentially related to my subject. And of course, I spent much of 2016 dealing with the baby, and much of my mental space has been occupied by baby-related things.

But 2016 is over, and if we learnt anything from it, it is that the principles and foundations of democratic constitutionalism are under some stress, even in what we thought were established and staple democracies. While I sympathise to a great extent with those populists who are angry at the failure of smug, corrupt, selfish, out-of-touch elites, I’m worried about the dangers of authoritarian demagoguery. Real constitutional democracy – not crass populism, its cheap counterfeit – is needed now more than ever.

I have also become convinced that in order to save and strengthen constitutional democracy, we need to go deeper than we have in the last 30 years. We are not living in the 1990s anymore, where we can assume that there is a harmonious and uncomplicated relationship between economic liberalism and democracy; indeed, the two are now in great tension, and that tension is exacerbated by social, cultural and technological changes – not to mention climatic and demographic changes – that are putting great stress on democratic systems. The restoration and renewal of constitutional democracy may require far more than just institutional tinkering: it may require us to consider how to reinforce the moral, ethical, cultural and material foundations on which we seek to build a democratic state.

So my resolution in 2017 is to undertake my next book project. This will be my fourth book about constitutional matters, but my first not to have a Scottish focus. Instead, it deals with constitutions more generally, examining through a series of historical case studies why we have them, what they do, why they matter, and how they interact with political, legal and socio-economic realities.

Musical Memories

My wife and I were reminiscing about music from way back, and spent a happily nostalgic evening listening to stuff we each used to listen to in our undergraduate days.

This led to a conversation about which 12 tracks would be most representative, memorable or iconic from that time in our lives. Here’s my (tentative) list, in no particular order:

 
1. Oasis: ‘Champagne Supernova’ – I was never really into Oasis, but it was such an icon of the era and it was played everywhere. This beats Wonderwall.
 
2. Pulp: ‘Disco 2000’ – 2000 was our year of graduation, and I seem to remember this as a sort of theme song of our year’s cohort. It was also played everywhere.
 
3. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: ‘Buy for me the rain’ – I first heard this at 2am, sitting in my car in the rain outside a kebab shop, with two good friends. It launched me into a deep exploration of all sorts of bluegrass, old timey, southern folk and country music, which eventually led to my road trip around the southern US and by decision some years later to try and learn the banjo (not a success).
 
4. R. L. Burnside: ‘Rollin’ Tumblin’ – I remember sitting in halls of residence, looking out over a rain-drenched Arthur’s Seat, sipping hazelnut flavoured coffee, getting hooked on the guttural sounds of deep down and dirty delta blues.
 
5. Alabama 3: ‘Ain’t Goin’ to Goa’ – It would be hard to isolate just one Alabama 3 track, and there are several other close candidates from their first album, including ‘Converted’ and ‘Peace in the Valley’, but Ain’t Goin’ to Goa’ was the first track I heard, and it’s the one that got me hooked on their unique brand of sweet pretty country acid house hardcore gospel techno music. Now I need it every hour.
 
6. Barenaked Ladies: ‘What a Good Boy’ – as an angsty 19 year old, this seemed like a really profound track at the time; it probably has not aged as well as some of the others on this list, and wasn’t perhaps as groundbreaking musically, but it still deserves honourable mention because of the amount of playtime it got on my old walkman.
 
7. Alanis Morissette: ‘Ironic’ – I don’t have much to say about this, except that I remember playing the whole Jagged Little Pill album on continuous loop for about a week during the first summer of uni, while doing the Fringe for the first time. I don’t know, looking back, whether they were actually happy days – I think, in some ways, they weren’t – but they were certainly formative days, mostly thanks to eye-opening conversations with my Italian flatmate.
 
8. Morcheeba: ‘Shoulder Holster’ – This pretty much always seemed to be playing in Elephants and Bagels, which was a favourite haunt of mine. I can almost taste the bacon, cream cheese and jalepeno, on toasted plain bagels, that I used to order.
 
9. Bjork: ‘Big Time Sensuality’ – I never really found Bjork easy to listen to, and I’m not even sure if I like her music, to be honest, but whenever I hear this track or others from the same album it reminds me of those years, so I guess that’s a reasonable basis for inclusion in this list.
 
10. R.E.M.: ‘I Believe – R.E.M. have some great tracks that have stood the test of time, but lyrically this song spoke to me at the time – it spoke to my questing uncertainty in matters of faith. The line ‘Be true to your calling, be sure that your calling’s true’ has stuck with me.
 
11. Rammstein: ‘Wollt ihr das Bett in Flammen sehen?’ – It was around this time that I was getting into gothic music. I could probably make a list of ten tracks in that genre alone, including Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, Joy Division, Inkubus Sukkubus etc, but this Rammstein track was a musical turning point for me, that opened up a whole fascinating subculture.
 
12. Vineyard Music: ‘Hungry’ – I sort of blame Nicky Gumble for this one, and for all that ‘Soul Survivor’ and ‘WOW Worship’ stuff I listened to as well.
 

Values and Principles III

I still regard the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of humanity’s great legal, ethical and political achievements. If you have not done so, I recommend that you sit down and read the text.

Seen as a declaratory and aspirational document, it sets out all the basic principles and values of a free, just and humane society. I regard it as a kind of meta-constitution, setting out the benchmark by which all other constitutions, laws, systems of government and policies should be judged.

In light of an apparent retreat from these principles in certain quarters (including in long established Western liberal-democracies that should know better) it is more relevant today than ever. Across the ‘Free World’, democracy is being eroded and corrupted. Hard won human rights are being cast aside.

The list is long and crushing:

Rapacious oligarchs are closing ranks in the face of the worst economic inequality since the Great Depression.

The values of civility are being undermined by a gutter press and polarised media.

Public duty and responsibility are disregarded by a venial political class who are still enriching themselves by selling off public assets to their friends.

Poverty stalks millions of families, even in wealthy countries.

The European Union, which for all its many faults has promoted peace, freedom and tranquility in Europe, is being torn apart by dark reactionary forces.

We are destroying the environment with fracking, carbon emissions and nuclear waste.

Russia is rattling sabres from the Baltic to the Black Sea – and let’s not even mention the horrors of Aleppo.

Saudi Arabia is waging a proxy war with arms we sell them in Yemen.

Many thousands of refugees are fleeing wars in the Middle East and the horn of Africa.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It barely scratches the surface of all that is so horribly wrong in the world. In general, the outlook look at the end of 2016 seems pretty bleak. Hope feels far.

Yet, somehow, we must believe in hope. Hope is a Christian virtue, which gives us the power to live in a world as it is while living for a world as it should be. It is also a civic virtue, without which whole societies can fall into the paralysing bewildered despair on which corruption and despotism feed. 

That’s the tension: How to be an ethical citizen who cares about the state of the world, without being crushed and depressed by the the burden of it?  How to live as a citizen in a democratic society, to ‘seek the good of the city’, without losing hope when it all looks so very bleak? 

The Christian narrative asserts that ‘a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. Somehow, some day, that light is going to transform everything that it touches (and not in a merely spiritual way, or as a ‘pie in the sky when you die’ compensation, but in practical, tangible ways that actually bring human life closer to what it should be).

But the darkness feels so big, and the candle often seems to flicker so faintly. There is a challenge right there: not to be overcome by evil, but to carry on overcoming evil by good. 

I’m not interested in glib, dismissive answers. ‘God’s in control’ doesn’t really address the issue, it just blames God for whatever happens, as if torture and tyranny, poverty and war – the world as it is – were God’s final word, and as if there were nothing we could do about any of it. I’m convinced that God weeps for the state of the world and calls us to be agents of change within it. It wasn’t supposed to be broken like this.  One day, it won’t be broken anymore. We – as salt that preserves and savours, and as light that shines – have some vital and active part in the long, difficult process of redeeming and restoring the world.  

This requires the integration of, on the one hand, a distinctly Christian civic ethic that can reanimate the values of humane democratic politics and, on the other, a practical theology of hope that can motivate one through the waves of despair. We have to figure out how, in our capacity as citizens in a flawed and increasingly shaky democracy, to walk by faith in a possible and promised restoration, and not by the sight of the perils and ruins we see around us.

So I’m walking through the world today with a Bible in one hand and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the other, aware that these two are intrinsically and intimately linked, and trying to figure out, in practical terms, how to put them both into action together.

Values and Principles I

Advices and Queries, from the Quaker tradition, reminds us to ‘Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand.’ In the Unitarian tradition in which so much of my intellectual formation took place, we have a covenantal commitment to ‘The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.’

For me, democracy – rightly ordered, constitutional democracy – is not only a demonstrably useful tool for peaceful and inclusive decision making, but is also something that flows from certain core principles. These principles may be secularised and operationalised through documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but they are rooted in concepts such as ‘the inherent dignity and worth of each human being’ that are ultimately theological in nature. The distortion and corruption of democracy, and the retreat from human rights which we see around us today, is therefore a problem with theological implications that demands a response that can be articulated in theological terms.

I’m not a theologian, I’m a scholar of constitutions. But if I’ve had any new insight into my work this year, it is this: we have, as a field or discipline of study, paid too much attention to mechanisms, and not enough to values. Mechanisms matter, but Harrington and Madison were wrong to think that the common good could be achieved by constitutional artifice alone, without paying attention to the character and values of both leaders and citizens. Even the best constitutional machine operates on a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ basis – if the citizens are ignorant, apathic and passive, the leaders will be venal, corrupt and arrogant. We need good constitutions, but we also need good citizens and good leaders.

That means, I think, reconsecrating civic and public life, and trying to emphasize that citizenship and civic leadership are vocations with important ethical obligations attached to them. Civic life is no place for the Hobbesian ‘rational egoist’ or the ‘utility maximizer’ of economic theory. Rather, it cries out for people of virtue, people who can provide ethical leadership, people of self-sacrifice who have a strong ethos of public service and public duty. If we want democracy to flourish, we need a renewal of public spirit.

 

Values and Principles II

It is so much easier to ask folks to be true to values and principles, as recently proposed by a member of the Tory government, when you actually have some values and principles in the first place.

That requires identifying those values and principles, in a way that makes them distinct from just the policy preferences of incumbent governments. It means building a broad consensus around what those values and principles mean – what implications they have for the state and society – and enscribing these in a document with some sort of overarching authority. I hate to mention the ‘C-word’, as we refer to it in our house, but it’s very difficult to talk about the public articulation of ‘national values’ without thinking in terms of Constitution building. 

For example, if you want to say that ‘democracy’ is a British value, then what implications does that have for the House of Lords, First Past the Post, the Crown Prerogative, and that damned anti-democratic insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament? If you say you believe in ‘freedom’, what does that mean for attempts to repeal the Human Rights Act or impose the ‘snooper’s charter’? If you say you believe in tolerance, what does that mean for racist immigrant-blaming, or witch-hunts against those who oppose Brexit? If you want to assert some sort of generalised idea of decency, what does that have to say about prison conditions, homelessness, the way we treat the disabled, or the sale of weapons to middle eastern despots?

Last but not least, if you are to assert these things as ‘British’ values, you need to have an agreed – not imposed – concept of Britishness that can accommodate four distinct nations within it. So, yes, great idea, but if it is to be anything more than a silly gimmick or an exercise in organised hypocrisy, it is essentially a revolutionary proposal for genuinely constitutional democracy.