Dissenting Radical

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

Month: April, 2013

Creed, Covenant and Constitution

Scotland needs a Constitution (a written, codified and entrenched ‘supreme law’ that regulates the forms, powers and responsibilities of the institutions of the state and which defines the basic rights and liberties of citizens). This is a non-negotiable point. In order to be a stable and flourishing democracy, there must be decision-making structures and authoritative procedural ground-rules that are endorsed by the people and are binding on the Government and Parliament.

Without a written and enforceable Constitution, the state will not be a ‘public thing’ [res publica], belonging to the whole community of the realm, but will be the private fiefdom of whichever party or leader holds office at any given moment. Without it, although we may have certain liberties, we will enjoy them only at the grace and favour of our governors; having no Constitution to protect us, and so no title-deeds to our share in the common possession of our rights, every liberty could be taken away by a vote of the parliamentary majority, without any form of peaceful and lawful recourse.

We are not to imagine that such threats to liberty are chimerical. We see the consequences of non-constitutional government (a better term might be ‘parliamentary absolutism’) in the UK, where the Westminster Government, unfettered by a binding Constitution, has even considered making arbitrary ‘suspensions’ of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Constitution as a Political Document

There is growing enthusiasm, at least in certain quarters of Scottish society, for a Constitution. Many are coming to recognise that our problems are not simply due to isolated failures of party policy or leadership, but to systematic failures of governance that only a new Constitution can address.

Yet very little of this enthusiasm is directed at the institutional and procedural mechanisms of the Constitution. Rather, the focus of attention has been on a few highly-visible substantive or symbolic issues, such as choice of currency, the monarch’s coronation ceremony, the status of the Church of Scotland, the banning of weapons of mass destruction, and the public funding of higher education. All of these are important issues, and well-worth considering, but they are peripheral to the constitutional structures and processes of a democratic order.

This lack of concern over institutional and procedural details is not surprising. It stems from a lack of constitutional experience. We are conditioned to think in terms of policies and parties, not enduring constitutional provisions that transcend the prevailing parliamentary majority. It is tempting, therefore, to think of the Constitution as a sort of hyper-manifesto, into which one party or section of society pours all its policy preferences. While unsurprising, this tendency is nevertheless alarming. Such partisan and programmatic Constitutions seldom last; rather than acting as instruments of unity and healing, they can perpetuate disagreement and division.

If Scotland is to have a productive constitutional debate that is conducive to arriving at a good and stable Constitution, we need to clarify what a Constitution is, and what it is for. Perhaps most importantly, we must also be honest about what a Constitution – or a Constitution alone – cannot do.

This debate starts with a recognition that Constitutions are more than just legal documents. They are also (invariably, unavoidably, and rightly so) political documents. A written Constitution does not simply prescribe citizens’ rights and specify the workings of public institutions, but also expresses something important and enduring about the community’s values and self-identity.

In many cases, this declaratory, ‘community-defining’ function of the Constitution is explicit. The Constitution of Malta (1964/1974), for example, establishes Roman Catholicism as the national religion and gives the Roman Catholic church considerable privileges over public education (Art. 2). Similarly, but conversely, the French Constitution proclaims the ‘national creed’ of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. Those who do not maintain this creed commit apostasy against la république. If they are French, they belong to ‘another France’ – a France that, despite the occasional efforts of reactionaries to revive it, died in 1789.

Malta and France have achieved stability under these constitutional provisions because these ‘creedal statements’ reflect a general consensus in their respective societies – even if, in France, that consensus could be achieved only after a century and a half of recurring revolutionary uncertainty.

But where no such consensus exists, where a multiplicity of social, religious and political ‘creeds’ co-exist in a state (as is likely to be the case in an independent Scotland), how can the consensus necessary for constitutional stability be found? One solution is to limit the scope and ambition of the Constitution, so that the Constitution simply embodies the decision-making ground-rules (and minimal fundamental rights) necessary for the maintenance of a pluralistic democracy, while leaving all matters of policy and substance to be determined by ‘ordinary’, sub-constitutional, party politics. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a strong case to be made  for this approach. By limiting the Constitution that which is accepted as fundamental to democracy ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus‘ (always, everywhere, by everyone), the Constitution can enjoy the broad support and immunity from partisan controversy that is essential to stability.

Yet the discussion of values is impossible to avoid. Even the most minimal and open-ended democratic Constitution rests on the proposition that political disagreements should be settled by open discussion and universal suffrage, that the government ought to be accountable to the governed through periodic elections, and that the civil liberties necessary for this to occur should be protected. This implies and requires, at the very least, a pragmatic commitment to certain civic or democratic values (as opposed to, say, theocratic, plutocratic, or militaristic ones). But how can such a broad consensus of fundamental values be found, despite deep and sometimes intractable differences of opinion on the substantive ends of politics? Is it possible, in the absence of a common faith, to find maintain common democratic deliberation over common goods?

Creed and Covenant

The necessary solution is to separate ‘creed’ from ‘covenant’. A creed, in this sense, is statement of ideological beliefs. Membership of a creedal community is predicated on sharing these beliefs. Those who do not subscribe to those beliefs are not full members. A church is, in most cases, the archetypical creedal community, but the concept can also be applied in a political sense; a strongly ideological political party is a creedal community and its manifesto is its creed.

A ‘covenant’, meanwhile, is an articulation of mutual promises based on shared values, principles and objectives, but which is both broader and less exclusive than a creed. It speaks not so much about what one believes, as how one undertakes to act. The essence of a covenant is its mutuality. Trade unions, guilds, self-help groups, neighbourhood watch groups, residents’ associations, and so forth, might be regarded as covenantal communities. They contain within them people of different creeds, who disagree about fundamental aspects of belief, but who nevertheless promise to work together for common purposes.

Unlike most orthodox trinitarian churches, Unitarian and Universalist churches are non-creedal. They do not have a ‘statement of faith’, consisting of doctrinal positions that everyone must hold. Instead, they are ‘covenantal’ bodies – they are bound together not by uniformly shared beliefs, but by mutual promises. They recognise that we do not have to believe alike or be alike in order to work together.

Of course, traditional Unitarian and Universalist Church Covenants have a distinctly religious flavour. A typical and widely-used example of a Unitarian-Universalist Covenant reads as follows:

‘Love is the doctrine of this church,
the quest for truth is its sacrament,
and service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom,
to serve humanity in fellowship,
to the end that all souls shall grow
into harmony with the Divine.
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.’

A purist might argue that the first sentence of this covenant is pseudo-creedal in nature, but it is a very thin, minimal and broadly accessible statement; it differs quite considerably from, say, the more extensive and exclusive requirements of the so-called ‘Apostles’ Creed’. Nevertheless, the trust of the Covenant is not concerned with what ‘we believe’, but with what we promise to do together, and how we promise to do it. It recognises that, despite plurality of belief, the Covenanting members agree on how to treat and support one another in the achievement of common goals.

In a political sense, some states commit themselves to a particular creed. At the extreme, Communist States specifically define themselves in creedal terms: to be a non-communist citizen of a communist state is to be, at the very least, a non-privileged outsider. To a lesser extent, the United States and the French Republic are also, it could be argued, ‘creedal’ states; they both come with a set of enshrined ideological commitments, dissent from which makes one ‘un-American’ or ‘réactionaire‘.

Other states do not have a creed. There is no ‘belief’ or ideological commitment associated with citizenship, the holding of which makes one an ‘insider’, and dissent from which makes one an ‘outsider’. Yet these non-creedal states may still be held together by a ‘Covenant’ – a set of loosely defined and broadly shared values, implicitly or explicitly recognised, that act as guidelines of civic behaviour.

Covenant and Constitution

Just as the Covenant is broader and less exclusive than a creed, it is also quite different from a Constitution. A ‘Constitution’ is an authoritative expression of the basic ground-rules of a community. It defines the fundamental rights of the members of that community and prescribes its institutional forms and decision-making procedures.

Although the various creedal and covenantal communities which make up a flourishing society will often have their own constitutions, by which they regulate their internal conduct (every Tennis Club has its constitution), here we are concerned with the Constitution of the body-politic: the State, ‘res publica’, or ‘community of the realm’. The res publica is a covenantal community of whole realm, governed in accordance with its Constitution, in which we agree, despite the differences of creed which divide us, to practice mutuality through living together under common rules for our common good.

According to this understanding, the two instruments which define the res publica, the Covenant and the Constitution, tend to complement and inform each other. The Constitution is both the foundation and the apex of the ‘common rules’, while the Covenant is what describes and articulates our commitment to the ‘common good’. In other words, the Constitution expresses the how, the institutions, the processes, the rules; the Covenant expresses the what, the aim, the vision, the purpose.

Again, this may be illustrated by comparison to the functioning of a covenantal church. Most Unitarian-Universalist churches have both a Covenant and a Constitution.The Constitution may refer to or incorporate the Covenant, but these two documents differ in their intention, their form, and in the role they play in the community. The Covenant sets out the aims and values of the congregation. The Constitution sets out the decision-making rules of the congregation – how its executive committee is to be elected, the appointment of trustees, the rules for the conduct of Annual General Meetings etc. The Covenant says what the organisation is for, the Constitution how it operates. The Covenant is often short, literary and memorable, the Constitution is longer, more involved, and written in legalese. The Covenant seeks to express the spirit of the institution, the Constitution is its law. The Covenant has a theatrical, almost ‘liturgical’ role; it may be recited publicly, or displayed prominently behind the pulpit for all to see. The Constitution it is rarely referred to, except perhaps to settle points of order or procedure at congregational meetings.

Typically, if the Covenant of the res publica is explicit, it will be contained in a Preamble or Declaration, which is often non-justiciable and removed from the prosaic portions of the Constitution. If the Covenant is implicit, it may be buried in various constitutional or quasi-constitutional documents. For example, the Canadian ‘Covenant’, it could be argued, is to maintain ‘peace, order and good government’ through a parliamentary democracy ‘similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom’.

It is possible to have a Constitution with only a very thin and implicit Covenant. The preamble-less and ‘pragmatic-procedural’ Constitution of the Netherlands would be an example of the this. Such a thin, implicit, Covenant may be necessary in situations where consensual agreement on ultimate aims and purposes is difficult to find, but where agreement can be reached on basic democratic procedures. It is also possible to have a Covenant without a Constitution. For example, the Commonwealth Charter addresses the general values, aims and principles of the Commonwealth of Nations, without setting up any collective decision-making and office-holding rules.

Constitution before Covenant

Covenants are exciting, memorable, thought-provoking and eye-catching. They can even be poetic, as Angus Reid’s ‘Call for a Constitution’ (a ‘covenant in poetry’, written on walls from tip to toe of Scotland) amply demonstrated.

There is great thirst, amongst many progressive people in Scotland, for such a national covenant. It is felt that a great statement of aims, values and principles, thus enshrined, celebrated, repeated, venerated, lifted up and bowed down to, written on the door-posts and on the hearts of men, would provide a yardstick by which to measure the deeds and misdeeds of politicians, a narrative through which to express our story, and a vision towards which we can walk together through the difficulties and uncertainties of self-government.

However, most attempts at Covenant-writing, so far, have done little to break out of narrow creedal moulds in search of broader consensus. Agreement on an explicit Covenant might be difficult to achieve, especially for a society in which the very existence of an independent state lies in the future. While I am strongly in favour of a national Covenant, I am very conscious of the need for such a Covenant to be more than just a party manifesto in disguise. Perhaps it would be advisable to start with the four values inscribed on the Mace of the Scottish Parliament: Wisdom, Justice, Compassion, Integrity, and work to build consensus from there.

I am also conscious of the fact that, in the case of a newly independent state, the decision-making and procedural aspects of the Constitution are primordial. A Constitution (even if just a thin, basic, generic and interim Constitution) should be in place from the outset.

The good news is, that while a Covenant must proceed from a long and all-encompassing national conversation, I expect that agreement on a Constitution might be easier to achieve, if only on cold, pragmatic grounds. Here is an example of a Constitution. Unlike the stirring words of a Covenant, it is dull, boring and technical. It also builds upon and consolidates existing institutions going back to the Scotland Act, 1997. It’s tried and tested, and it has the redeeming characteristic of enabling us to govern ourselves democratically without agreeing on everything, or even on very much.

I therefore propose that we first agree the constitutional ground-rules, based only on the thin, implicit covenant that Scotland is to be a democratic and pluralist society. This means that the Scottish Government, in seeking to establish a viable Scottish State, should take the lead in developing an interim Constitution – one that will enshrine our basic rights and democratic processes, and insulate the permanent judicial, administrative and scrutinising institutions of the State from the Government of the day.

With this in place, we can then, at our leisure, and under the security and stability of that Constitution, have a full discussion about values, ends, purposes and identities and attempt to find the common ground between competing creeds that might lead, in time, to a more explicitly covenantal instrument. This might be embodied in an amended Constitution, expressed in a preamble to that Constitution, or issued as a Declaration in parallel to it.

We each have our own ‘creed’. We might, given time and patience, be able to agree on a broadly acceptable Covenant, expressed in a form of words that unites and inspires. But we absolutely must, from day one of independence, have a Constitution which enables our differences to be worked out peacefully and democratically, so that we, with all our different values and interests, can live in freedom and harmony with one another. If we get this distinction right, I think we will not go far wrong.


Answering Paul

‘Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?’ (1 Corinthians 11:14.)

No Paul, you are simply confusing your own narrow cultural prejudices for universal natural law again – just like you did with homosexuality and women speaking in public. You’d better be careful what you put in those letters, or someone twenty centuries into the future might confuse your half-baked culturally limited opinions for an immutable word of god, and use them as an excuse for being a pain in the arse. Oh, while we are at it, I know you are very proud of your ‘substitutionary atonement’ idea, and maybe at some deep psychological level it works for your, but it makes god out to be a cruel, blood-thirsty, monster. Besides, it misses the whole point of what Jesus was actually saying. Then again, you never met Jesus in real life, did you? You were not there in Galilee, to hear our great martyred rabbi preach. All you had was a weird mystical dream. And on this (with a bit of Mythraism and Hellenistic-Egyptian death cult mixed in) you base your whole religious system? You know, you are a great leader and organiser, and sometimes you do come up with a really pithy turn of phrase, but I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick about the whole Jesus thing. Perhaps you’d better let James write the letters from now on. At least he understands that it’s not just about personal salvation, but also about social, political and economic change. At least he, like Jesus, appreciated that charity and good works (not believing in absurdities!) are the only true measure of religion.

And by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, that ye establish Constantinian privilege

Yesterday, the clericalists wanted the constitution of an independent Scotland to maintain the established status of the Church of Scotland.

Today, it seems (from the comments I have received and the conversations I have had) that they deny that the Church of Scotland is established at all. In place of ‘establishment’, they prefer the term ‘recognition’.

This is dissembling. If the Queen must swear upon her accession to uphold the Church of Scotland, and sends a Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly, if Church of Scotland Ministers have privileged access to ‘non-denominational’ public schools, and if the Church of Scotland is recognised by law as a ‘national’ church, how does this not amount to establishment? It is a different form of establishment from that which prevailed before 1921, or before 1843, to be sure, but from a political-legal point of view, it is an establishment all the same.

Still, they don’t like the word, so let us set aside words. Let us assume that they seek not the establishment of the Church of Scotland, but only its ‘recognition’.

These then, are my questions: (i) What purpose does ‘recognition’ serve? (ii) By what authority, or for what reason, do you feel you are entitled to such ‘recognition’?

I have yet to receive answers to these questions.

The reason, I suspect, is that ‘recognition’ can serve no legitimate purpose. Provided that religious liberty and non-discrimination are enshrined in the Constitution (which of course they would have to be, as they are integral to the European Convention on Human Rights), recognition adds nothing to the freedom of churches; it adds only to their status and power. It serves no purpose except to say to all others, ‘We rule here, this is our country, you heretics are second-class citizens.’

I’d also ask, ‘What are they afraid of?’ A secular Constitution, giving equal freedom to all and special privileges – or ‘recognition’ – to none, can harm no-one and nothing. What does a church have to fear from this? What does the work of the Kingdom of God have to fear from this? Nothing. The only thing threatened by a secular Constitution is the false pride of the institutional church.

A Free (but not privileged) Church in a Free (but secular) State

Today the Church of Scotland published a joint report of the Church and Society Council, the Committee on Ecumenical Relations, and the Legal Questions Committee, outlining its stance on church-state relations in the Constitution of an independent Scotland.

The report is in many ways a welcome contribution to Scotland’s constitutional debate. It shows that the debate is moving beyond ‘mere independence’ to consider questions of post-independence state-building and institutional consolidation. Organisations such as the Constitutional Commission, the Electoral Reform Society (Scotland) and So Say Scotland have been advancing these discussions for some time, but the kirk is the first of the major social and civic institutions of Scotland, outside of party politics, to engage in this process.

That alone should merit two (but not three) cheers. However, the content of the report is somewhat disappointing. There are three aspects of the report, in particular, to which I wish to draw critical attention.

Firstly, the report asserts that the Queen of Scots (who, under the SNP’s most recently published draft Constitution, would hold the largely ceremonial office of titular head of state under a democratic, parliamentary Constitution) should continue to be bound by a coronation oath to ‘uphold Scottish religious life and traditions’ and should maintain ‘her or his role with regard to the Church of Scotland’.

Secondly, the report argues that ‘the lawfulness of the Articles Declaratory should be acknowledged in any constitutional settlement’. These articles claim, amongst other things, that the Church of Scotland is a ‘national church’ – a position embodied in statute law by the Church of Scotland Act, 1921.

Thirdly, it claims that ‘in any constitutional settlement the relationship between church and state should be affirmed by recognising that the role of the Church of Scotland in civic life should be maintained, in particular the provision of prison chaplains, the conduct of marriages, and the appointment of Church Representatives on Local Authority Education Committees.’

Taken together, these proposals amount a defence of the status quo, which would serve to maintain the existing double-layer of religious privilege in Scotland. The ‘first layer’ is the the privileged position of the Church of Scotland over other Christian denominations, which is to be defended by special connection between the monarchy and the kirk and by the legal recognition of the kirk as Scotland’s ‘national church’. In the ‘second layer’, the privileged position of Christianity over other religions, and over the non-religious, is to be expressed in the maintenance of chaplaincies and sectarian education (and on this the Monsignor in all his finery and the Minister in his dark Geneva gown combine, to share between them the spoils of their condominium over the minds and souls of children).

I do not wish to portray the Church of Scotland as a villain. Although it has many blind-spots, its record of contribution to Scotland’s public life is, on the whole, quite beneficial.  Its support was instrumental in bringing about a Scottish Parliament, and thereby giving Scotland, for the first time in its history, a popularly elected legislative assembly of its own. Moreover, the kirk stood up for the values of Scottish society, and for humanity, at a time when Thatcher sought to turn us all into selfishly utilitarian economic units. It continues to do so today: the Report of the Special Committee on the purposes of Economic Activity provides an penetrating analysis of our economic woes; its articulation of a ‘Christian Left’ critique of neo-liberal capitalism outstrips anything to emerge from the secular left in the last three or four decades, and is well worth investigating.

The Church of Scotland, unlike the Church of England, can take this critical line against the dominant forces of economic power because of its unique form of establishment. The Church of England cannot do this. From the beginning, the Church of England’s raison d’être has been to prop up the rich and powerful; it has no other purpose but to dowse the throne in incense, to paint a veneer of religious legitimacy over the king and ‘all in authority’, and to whip up the simple into adulation on state occasions. Those who doubt this analysis may contrast the response of the Church of England to the Occupy St Paul’s movement with its response to Thatcher’s funeral. In one, the half-hearted (and ultimately futile) attempt of one brave cleric to support the people against the rich and the rulers was quickly stamped out; in the other, the ‘church’ played its role superbly, bringing all the wiles and pomp of priestcraft to the aid of the establishment.

The Church of Scotland, for all its faults, is spared from such embarrassments. Its established status and legal privileges are combined with – one might almost say alleviated by – the internal liberty of the presbyterian system. And yet, it remains wedded to the idea, intrinsic to all religious establishments, that the only way to exercise influence is to be entwined, at some fundamental legal or constitutional level, with the state. This idea is what motivates the kirk to defend its privileges (its liberty, on the other hand, is in no doubt, provided that we have a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion on equal terms to all). It is terrified that without privilege, without institutional recognition and authority, it will lose its voice, and will no longer be able to speak out on public affairs.

My contention is that this idea is false. A church without such recognition and privilege may still have an beneficial influence in society, when it speaks with genuine authority (and not as ‘the scribes and the pharisees’). To see the truth of this, one must only look at all the good done by non-conformist and dissenting churches, from the Baptists to the Quakers, during the 18th and 19th centuries. They enjoyed only the most limited and grudging toleration. Their members were, until well into the 19th century, excluded from Parliament, from all public and municipal employments, from the universities, and even from ‘polite society’. And yet they acted as the public’s social conscience in the face of slavery, war, child labour, squalor, and all the evils and horrors of industrialisation. They provided the moral foundations of the old Liberal Party and of every progressive movement from Trade Union organisation to Women’s Suffrage. All this was achieved without seats in the House of Lords, or oaths at coronations, or membership of Education Authorities. In insisting that privilege and legal recognition are necessary in order to have beneficial influence on society, the Church of Scotland is displaying a remarkable lack of faith in the authority and transforming potential of its own message.

An independent Scotland needs a written Constitution. It needs clear decision-making structures and authoritative procedural ground-rules for democracy that are endorsed by the people and are binding on the Government and Parliament. Alongside that Constitution, either explicitly as a preamble, or implicit in its substantive provisions, there is a case for ‘covenantal’ declaration: a statement, not of exclusive ideological beliefs, but of basic shared values, which sets out the ethical standards to which we hold one another as fellow-citizens.

What Scotland does not need, though, is a creed. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Church of Scotland’s report, in seeking constitutional recognition of the idea that Scotland is a ‘Christian nation’ with an established national church, is trying to promote. It would divide citizens into those of the first class, who truly belong, since they share the creed of the established church, and those of the second class, who are citizens but not believers.

The kirk is right in recognising that church and state both have their role to play in the creation of a good society. But a good society, as judged by the standards of Christ’s teaching, is not created by having a legally recognised national church, nor by requiring the head of state to be a nominal Protestant, nor by allowing priests and ministers to get their hands on schools. All these things have the forms of godliness, but deny the power thereof. Rather, a good society is created by improving the lives of the ‘least of these’: by showing mercy and compassion to prisoners, by offering dignity and a worthy livelihood to the poor, by ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table of fellowship and a voice in public deliberations. The state’s role is to be the guarantor of freedom, justice and the rule of law, and the ultimate steward of the common good. The church’s role (alongside secular charities, trade unions, guilds, mutual societies, and a host of other organisations and associations in a pluralistic society) is to be a conscientious voice for the voiceless and a practical help to the helpless; the Son of Man, let us remember, came not to be served, but to serve. The service of the church to society requires no privilege, no recognition, no establishment, no entanglement, only freedom.

Independence is not about Identity

The esteemed constitutional expert Prof. Vernon Bogdanor has said that if Scotland becomes independent it will be ‘declaring that British and Scottish identities are incompatible’.

I cannot agree with Bogdanor’s assessment. After independence, Scotland will continue to form the northern third of the landmass of Great Britain. It will continue to have close cultural, social, economic and family ties with the rest of the British Isles, and will continue to co-operate freely with the other jurisdictions of the British Isles through the British-Irish Council (the secretariat of which is already based in Edinburgh).

No doubt there would, as a matter of pragmatic convenience, be shared services in some areas – paid for jointly by the governments north and south of the border under mutually agreed contractual arrangements. The reciprocal arrangements with regard to freedom of travel and dual citizenship which have existed between the UK and Ireland would also be applied, on the same terms, to an independent Scotland.

Moreover, Scotland will continue to be a member of that most British of institutions, the Commonwealth, and will play its part in the development of a family of nations dedicated to the principles of the Commonwealth Charter. Perhaps most importantly, it will continue to maintain (with its own, low-key, distinctly Scottish twist) the traditions of Parliamentary democracy that are shared from Nova Scotia to New South Wales.

On a symbolic level, Scotland and England, together with sixteen other independent nations around the world, will continue to share the same monarch as Head of State (although, with a modern written Constitution in place, the Queen of Scots would have a very narrowly defined ‘ceremonial-only’ role, and much of the pomp and flummery could be done away with).

This is what the Scottish Government and the Yes campaign mean when they speak of replacing the political union with a ‘social union’.

Besides, national identity does not depend solely on state institutions. Nationhood is bigger and more slippery than that. If a majority of Scots have been able to be  ‘both Scottish and British’ for three centuries within a British State, no doubt the same Scots can continue being both Scottish and British within a Scottish State. If in the past a distinct legal system, educational system, national church, and elements of distinct national musical, literary and creative culture, could keep Scottish identity alive and vibrant within the UK, then in the future this social union can keep British identity alive and vibrant, for those who wish to maintain it, within a Scottish State.

The case for independence, then, does not rest upon anti-English, or even anti-British, sentiment. Those who comfortably identify as ‘both Scottish and British’ need not separate or surrender these overlapping identities in voting YES  to bring government home to Scotland.

Instead, the case for independence rests on the prospect of better government. Independence means simply that we will no longer be governed from Westminster, in the interests of the City of London and the South East of England. It means that we will not get Tory governments we did not vote for, or red-rosette crypto-tory governments having to pander to southern voters. Independence means we will have our own democratic Scottish State, which better represents the people, is more responsive to public demands, and more interested in the common good of the people of Scotland. This, in turn, means that we have an opportunity to pursue the economic, social and environmental policies that will help us to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

This sort of renewal can only be achieved in a Scottish State. Westminster and Whitehall, as we have all seen, are too big, too inflexible, too proud, and too old, to change their ways. Only by having a Scottish State can we bring responsibility, democracy and accountability to the way Scotland is governed; if nothing else, independence will end the stagnation of Scottish politics, forcing the Labour Party in Scotland to take responsibility, to recover its principles, and to present itself as an active opposition and future party of government (and that in itself is good reason for any ‘Scottish-and-British’ left-of-centre voter to vote Yes in 2014).

A Yes vote in the independence referendum is not a vote for Alex Salmond, for the SNP, or for nationalism. It is not a vote to change your national identity. It’s a vote for a new state: a better state; a more democratic state; a state that looks like us and cares about us.

What’s not to like?

British History according to Tories

1066 – Glorious Norman rulers (still in charge, still own all the land, fuck off peasant);

1215 – Magna Charta (look, we are ‘free’. NB: applies only to barons, clergy, rich merchants – fuck off peasant, I’ve told you once already)

1588 – Spanish Armada (evil garlic-munching pope-worshipping foreigners defeated, Elizabethans were splendid).

1641-1688 – Civil Wars / Revolution (we tried big ideas, democracy and all that, and it just ends up in a blood-bath. So know your place, don’t get ideas above your station, and above all Don’t Try To Change Things – They Are This Way For A Reason, Even If You Are Too Stupid To Understand It).

1707 Conquest of Scotlandshire.. (…er, I mean Union, yes, that’s right. Not at all a stitch up job by the scottish aristocracy. Wave that Union Jack, jock, and think of the Glorious Empire).

1790-1814 Glorious war. (Lots of people died gloriously in glorious fight against evil frog-munching foreigners whose ideas were too clever by half. Britain is great and glorious. Hurrah. Remember, peasant, that if anyone comes up to you preaching ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, they just want to cut the head off Kate Middleton. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you. Isn’t she lovely in that hat? There’s a good, docile peasant! Have a biscuit.)

1914-18 Glorious war. (Lots of people died gloriously in glorious fight against evil sausage-munching foreigners.)

1939-45 (See above, this time with sillier moustaches and more genuine evil).

1945 – 1979 The dark ages. (Evil Socialists took control of once-mighty Britain, created the NHS, improved quality of life for vast majority of the people, and broke wind in the palaces of the mighty. Thankfully, our good friends in the IMF came to the rescue, leading to the greatest moment in the long march of British History.)

1979 RISE TO POWER OF SUPREME, GLORIOUS AND ETERNAL LEADER, BARONESS THATCHER THE ALL-WISE, THE ALL-KNOWING. (Made valiant war on forces of darkness, but country was already infiltrated by Europe, immigration, gays, lefties, environmentalists, commies, trade unionists, scottish nationalists, and other scum. Lock ’em up. It’s the only language they understand.)

2013. Immortal leader dies. (Nation in mourning. Glorious legacy to be continued through alliance of the City, Westminster, Oxbridge, Church of England, BBC, and various shady right-wing think tanks. Soon we will return to the glorious days of the past, the days of the slum, the sweatshop, the pawnshop and the workhouse, the outdoor toilet and the open sewer, the upstairs downstairs world of gross inequality. And then all will be right with the world. So keep waving the flags and taking the bullets, little peasants, and be glad of the scraps we throw you.)

Elegy by a UKIP Voter

Skid softly, stone
That kicked by boot unpolished
Skips warm on nettle-hedged road
Through cider grove and barley field
As willow beats the butterflies
Behind the Ploughman, near the village green
Where ale-soaked gentlemen, ruddy faced
Roll and bellow in English summer’s jollity
While thin-suited men in Whitehall
Build by-passes to the Multiplex
So that B&Q suburbanites like me
Can drink European lager
And piss away all hope
Of reclaiming our England.

UKIP are not just wrong. They are dangerously wrong. They are a party of the radical, reactionary right: they are not only an anti-European and anti-immigrant party, but also a party whose policies on economic, regulatory, social and fiscal issues make the current crop of Tory ministers look like a bunch of compromising moderates. If  a Tory-LibDem coalition is bad enough, I’d be genuinely alarmed by a Tory-UKIP coalition after  2015. I’m very glad that UKIP have next to no showing in Scotland, and I hope, for all our sakes, that Scotland will be on the road to independence by then. Yet, I’m not unsympathetic to the feelings of loss and dislocation experienced and expressed by UKIP voters. They put the blame in the incorrect place, and their ‘remedies’ would only make matters much, much worse, but I can understand how they must feel. The old certainties are whipped away, the old assurances gone, the old glories faded. There is a sadness, a defeated, angry,  confused sadness, in the reactionary right. They cling to the mast of the British Empire, singing ‘Rule Britannia’, even as that old creaking ship sinks finally and silently beneath the waves of history.

Thatcher is Dead

So, Margaret Thatcher has died.

I’m no fan of Thatcher. She caused terrible, long-term damage to the fabric of our society and to the lives of many people. I am convinced that Thatcher was wrong in her fundamental values and assumptions. A view of life which sees things mainly in terms of an economic struggle for individual gain, and which places mammon on the throne, is in my view wrong, perhaps to the point of being evil. It is certainly inferior to a view of life which sees economics in terms of the common good, prioritising ‘the least of these’, and encouraging us to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ in mutual love, service and edification, such that those who gather much share out of their abundance, and those who gather little have enough.

My first reaction on hearing of her death was to shout for joy. If that sounds bitter, callous and ungracious (and it is), I can excuse it only by noting that she was a hated figure, at least around here. But, excusable or not, my momentary lapse into hatred and anger was wrong.

Here is why. Although we may disagree profoundly about her policies, we must distinguish between our judgment of Thatcherism as a movement or ideology and our treatment of Thatcher as a person. The line between good and evil does not run between people, but right down the middle of every one of us. According to a Christian understanding, Thatcher, like you, me, and everyone else, was both a wretched sinner and a person of infinite worth, possessing an inherent and indestructible status as a deeply loved child of God. The gospel of universal reconciliation claims that God is love: we are accepted already because of God’s love; not because we are perfect, but because it is in God’s perfect nature to love. This includes everybody, even Margaret Thatcher. I can disagree and oppose, but how can I allow myself to hate anyone, if God loves all?

But it is so easy – too easy – to personalise anger and dehumanise people. What we despise in neo-liberalism is its inhumanity, its ability to see people only in the abstract, as ‘consumers’, ‘tax-payers’ or ‘human resources’, and not in the round, as people, parents, children, friends, colleagues, citizens, lovers, and, in short, ‘human beings’. We must not make the same mistake. Thatcher, as a public figure, as an abstract embodiment of an ideology that ripped apart lives, is easily demonised. But when she passed, was just an old and frail woman; she was not a monster, and no longer a threat.

The real, continuing threat is the on-going legacy of neo-liberalism, operating through the entrenched oligarchic power structures of the unreformed UK-state. The answer is not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. Not to fall into hatred and dance on Thatcher’s grave, but to work for the building of a renewed democratic politics which is ethically robust, socially just, and ecologically sustainable. As Patrick Harvie MSP (Scottish Green Party) put it:

“Our vision has at its core the need to put the common good back at the heart of our politics. We see independence as a means to that end, not an end in itself. As long as we remain tied to Westminster we risk those efforts being stymied. Margaret Thatcher famously declared society does not exist. It’s quite clear Scots value society highly and next year’s referendum is an unprecedented opportunity to start shaping the fairer society we want to live in.”

I Am Willing

Today, I am choosing to sustain Hope in the midst of despair. I am choosing to find Light in the cracks of darkness. I am choosing to see the possibilities scattered amongst the obstacles. I’m taking it one song at a time. For these are the work-songs of the Kingdom of Love, the battle hymns of the Republic of Grace. I am choosing, right now, to rejoice in the opportunities ahead, and to work diligently at the things that must be done. Today, I am choosing not to be discouraged by difficulties, nor overwhelmed by my fears, nor kept captive to lethargy. I am choosing to remember that I although I am weak, tired, frustrated and frightened, I am also ‘strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness’. So sing out, my awakened soul, and rejoice! Be encouraged, my heavy heart, and rise! Find strength, my frail hands, and set to your work joyfully. For today I am willing!

Trinitarian Universalists?

Today I learnt that not all Christian Universalists are necessarily Unitarian in their theology.

According to Rev. Eric Stetson of the Universalist Christian Association (UCA), the UCA’s charter is deliberately silent on the question of trinitarianism versus unitarianism, allowing for a variety of views within its ranks.

And, apparently, the Unitarian Universalist Association includes at least one church which maintains an avowedly ‘Trinitarian’ Universalism.

Who’d a thunk it?