Dissenting Radical

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

Month: August, 2014

Wizards, Fairies and Dragons

“You guy still have royalty?! How embarrassing is that? You have queens and dukes and princesses… …do you have wizards and fairies and dragons? For god’s stake, is this a country or a renaissance festival? What kind of Dungeons & Dragons bullshit is that?”

 

I have consistently opposed the current form of monarchy in the UK, operating without a clear, legitimate and enforceable set of  constitutional rules to restrain it. My principal objections focus on the unaccountable prerogative powers of the Crown, the ambiguous and secretive relationship between the palace and the Prime Minister, and the presence of an undemocratic keystone of power at the apex of the state.

I have also always opposed the pomp and circumstance of monarchy, the gilded coaches and the silly robes. Besides that, I find the hero-worship and adulation of the royals – the bowing, the scraping, the doffing and the deferring – to be immature, unseemly, idolatrous, and unworthy of a free and self-respecting people.

Besides, there’s not a single member of the royal family who appears to me to possess the qualities of character and ability that would qualify them for even the lowest public office (except perhaps for Charlie, who I think would make a reasonably good chairman of a County Council somewhere in an English shire).

Yet, for all that, I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about monarchy as such. Indeed, some of the world’s best parliamentary democracies (Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, etc) have figurehead monarchs, whose job, narrowly defined and constrained by their respective written Constitutions, is to smile, wave, cut ribbons and make speeches. They perform a symbolic and ceremonial function, representing the identity and unity of the country in a way that is non-partisan. It seems harmless, and maybe even benign – if only because it prevents a Prime Minister, or any politician, identifying themselves with the state-as-such.

These European democratic monarchies address the problems associated with the British monarchy in a pragmatic, sensible, democratic way. When the Grand Duke of Luxembourg tried to refuse assent to legislation, the power was swiftly taken away by constitutional amendment. The King of Sweden does not even nominate the Prime Minister; that task falls to the Speaker of Parliament. The degree of pomp and circumstance varies, but nowhere does it reach British levels of idolatry. The Norwegians, when they celebrate their nationhood, celebrate the Constitution that grounds and establishes their democracy, not the King who presides powerlessly over it.

In a Scottish democracy, with a written Constitution clearly limiting the powers and role of the monarchy, such an arrangement (not so much a hereditary ruler, as a hereditary national mascot) seems acceptable.  Indeed, in the context of a newly independent Scotland, keeping the monarchy, at least for an interim period, is probably a wise move. It maintains a link, valued by many Scots, with a wider ‘British’ and ‘Commonwealth’ identity; it reassures those of conservative and unionist sympathies that not all they have known and loved is lost, and that they too have a place in an independent Scotland; it provides a source of legitimacy to the Scottish state in the eyes of those who voted against its formation. After all, an independent Scotland cannot be a Scotland just for Scottish nationalists or for Yes-voters; it has to be a Scotland for everyone.

Recently, however, I have becoming increasingly uncomfortable with hereditary monarchy as such. This is, in part, a reaction to the whole Will, Kate and George soap opera, and the sycophancy of royalism that surrounds it. Even if we eliminate its unacceptable and non-constitutional powers, even if we treat monarchs with ordinary respect rather than fawning adulation, and even if we make them live in smaller places and ride bicycles (all of which I would be in favour of) the basic problem of heredity still remains. Why should Charlie, Billy and Georgie be marked out from birth to a life of privilege? Why should the office of head of state, even if it is a purely symbolic and ceremonial office, be held by the members of one family, and not be open to any citizen? Wouldn’t it make more sense to periodically elect a retired ambassador, or some such good and worthy citizen, to perform these duties? Wouldn’t such a person, crowned by election, better represent and symbolise the country, its people and its values?

If we vote YES for independence, these are just some of the questions that the constitutional convention, outlined in Section 33 of the draft interim constitution, will have the opportunity to address.

Heretics for Evangelical Love!

Progressive Christians are used to being misunderstood by our more conservative and evangelical fellow-followers. It goes with the territory. But beyond misunderstanding, many of us have also experienced hatred, aggression, exclusion and ridicule. To give just two minor and incidental personal examples,  I once had my offer to help out with charity work conducted by a local church rejected because of my adherence to ‘heretical doctrines’, and a long-awaited and much needed week of ecumenical Christian retreat was ruined by an evangelical man who threatened to punch me in the face because I denied hell, substitutionary atonement and the inerrancy of the bible!  Anyway, for anyone who has been at the receiving end of that sort of treatment, this is quite a heart-warming story.

 

 

Scripture: A Guide for Readers

If we are going to bring ancient sacred texts into our ethical thinking and our political argument, we should at least try to read, study and understand those texts, to read them critically, and to shift out that which is good and enduring in them from those things that are wrong or not applicable. Those who look to Jesus as a teacher and exemplar would do well to consider his way of engaging with scripture. If you notice all the ‘you have heard that it is written, but I say unto you’ statements, you see that he was not a fundamentalist. He did not take it all literally or at face value. He recognised the value of scripture, but was willing to challenge it and even to disagree with it. He tried to read it through a lens of love and compassion, not rules and condemnation.

 

The Constitution and the Common Good: the case for Social Rights.

The Scottish National Party has been committed to a written constitution for a very long time. This commitment is not unique: it has traditionally been shared (albeit in a UK-wide, rather than Scottish, context) with the Liberal Democrats, some Labour members, Charter 88, and many other groups who oppose the centralisation of power and monopolisation of privilege in the British State.

A liberal-democratic constitution will necessarily, almost by definition, include provisions for the protection of fundamental legal and civil rights. These rights, broadly covered by the European Convention, are essential to allow the development of a thriving, open, and pluralistic society, and to protect individuals from outright oppression. They include such staples as freedom of speech, publication, assembly, association, and religion, as well as freedom from slavery and torture, and a guarantee of legality, due process, and the right to a fair trial. There will be, I predict, little dispute about the importance of these rights, or the importance of embodying them in the supreme constitutional law of the country.

Potentially more controversial are ‘second generation’, ‘social’, or ‘socio-economic’ rights. It is on this issue that individualist market-liberals and those with a more communitarian approach to democracy will differ. Market-liberals will argue, firstly, that these rights – such as the right to public healthcare, a living wage, fair working conditions, or education – are not ‘constitutional’ in nature, secondly, that their enforcement is likely to be drag judges into policy-making, and thirdly, that the inclusion of such rights turns the Constitution into a manifesto, unduly narrowing the legislature’s freedom of action.

The first of these objections – that these rights are not truly constitutional – can be dismissed. Socio-economic conditions are ‘constitutional matters’, in the widest sense of the term, because they concern the distribution of power, influence, wealth, prestige and opportunity in society. In an Aristotelian sense, they distinguish polity from oligarchy. 

What sort of democracy is it, if the rich are able to dominate public life, and the poor are  excluded? What sort of liberty is there, if many do not have the basic resources, security or dignity of life and condition necessary to be full members of society? Where is the ‘common good’, if ‘the least of these my brethren’ are marginalised, exploited or dehumanised? What sort of ‘commonwealth’ is it, if wealth is engrossed by a tiny minority, and if the common people are left to shift for themselves?

Besides, a Constitution is not just a legal document that defines justiciable rights. It is also – I’d say more so – a political document that defines the values and aims of a state. Liberal-neutralists may shudder at the idea of a state having any values and aims, but for a civic-republican or Christian democrat this is less problematic, especially as these values and aims may be grounded in widespread agreements and updated from time to time by amendment. It is entirely appropriate to make certain constitutional commitments on matters of principle, which, being widely shared amongst the political community, proclaim what a country stands for, and what it will not stand for.  Having a commitment in principle to universal public education, for example, could fit in this category.

The second objection is more problematic. There is, indeed, a danger that judges become too much involved in questions of policy if they are called upon to enforce socio-economic rights. In so doing, their purported independence may be compromised. The delivery of socio-economic rights often requires funding, and elected Parliaments, not courts, should be the primary forum for determining the allocation of funds and the prioritisation of competing, possibly conflicting, demands. Moreover, a Constitution is supposed to be an enduring document, intended to last for decades and generations to come, while specifics of socio-economic policy will have to change with changing times.

However, it is not impossible to overcome this objection. Constitutional commitments to socio-economic principles need not bind Parliaments too tightly, and can be framed in ways that make it clear that Parliaments, and not the courts, are responsible for their translation into policy.

One option is to put socio-economic rights in the preamble, rather than in the main body of the Constitution. The preamble to the French Constitution of 1946 was deliberately intended to be a statement of principles, without legally binding the legislature or transferring authority to the Courts (although, under the Fifth Republic, this preamble is now deemed to be justiciable).

In some countries, including Malta, Ireland and India, fundamental civil-legal ‘rights’, which are justiciable (enforced by the courts), are distinguished from socio-economic ‘directive principles’ which are only morally binding on Parliament. These directive principles therefore belong to the political, rather than legal, part of the Constitution – they politically proclaim, but do not legally enforce, a commitment to social values.

Another solution is to list socio-economic rights alongside other, civil-legal rights, and not to exclude them from ultimate judicially enforcement, but still to word them in such a way as to make it clear that they really bind Parliament. These provisions are framed in ways that make it clear that courts are ordinarily expected to defer to parliamentary discretion. The SNP’s 2002 draft Constitution takes this second approach. Sections 14 (property rights), 15 (working conditions), 18 (restriction of monopolies), 20 (housing), 21 (healthcare) and 22 (education) of Article VI are framed in terms of obligations on Parliament to enact appropriate legislation to give practical effect to socio-economic rights.

The third objection is that the inclusion of socio-economic rights turns the Constitution into a mere manifesto, a wish-list, rather than something enduring, unifying, and truly fundamental to the governance of a state. Certainly, it is important that a constitution does not over-reach itself. There’s no point in having a Constitution that reads like the manifesto of the Radical Green Left Collective – it would not be acceptable to the broad mainstream of Scottish society. Constitutions that work and last cannot be ideologically tied to one ‘side’ of public opinion, but must remain rooted in the broadest possible general consensus of society.

That said, a constitution that entrenches neo-liberalism, or that results in progressive legislation intended to tackle economic inequalities being struck down by the courts, would not be legitimate either – at least not in Scotland, which sees itself (mythologically or otherwise) as a progressive, communitarian, egalitarian country. 

A Constitution within the broad mainstream of Scottish public opinion might therefore acknowledge and protect the basic principles of a ‘social’ democracy – the welfare system, the NHS, public education, the regulation of monopolies, land access rights, progressive taxation, and so forth. It could do this while still leaving room for differences of opinion on the relative importance, ordering, and means of delivery, of these rights, to be argued over by different parties.

I, for one, would take pride in the idea that the Constitution of my country enshrines universal access to health care, free at the point of delivery. I see it as a commitment to civilised, humane, values – a commitment to the common good. Yet whether this commitment is delivered by a single public provider (UK, Spain), a single public payer (France, Canada), or a universal state-assisted insurance (Germany, Netherlands) model is, as far as I am concerned, is a pragmatic issue of ordinary politics.

To summarise, the inclusion of socio-economic rights is necessary and practicable – they reflect values and principles that are genuinely ‘constitutional’ and fundamental to our society. Yet it is important to prescribe these rights only at the level of principle, while leaving Parliament free to implement and enforce these rights, and to balance and deconflict them, according to the usual processes of ordinary politics, in which different parties will have different aims and priorities.

Foodbanks, Justice and Charity

The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life.” (The Constitution of Ireland, Art. 45)

 

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Justice and charity are both necessary. Both contribute, hand in hand, to ‘tikkun olem’ (the repairing of the world) and to ‘shalom’ (the establishment of righteous peace). Charity meets immediate needs; justice rectifies a broken legal-political order. Charity helps the world as it is; justices changes the world into what it should be. As it was illustrated to me as a child, charity is helping people out of the river, whereas justice is putting fences along the banks so they do not fall in – or, sometimes, stopping people from doing the pushing.

I think that we are all called, in our different ways, to do both acts of justice and charity. Not many of us can rightfully say, “oh, I only care about charity, so I’ll donate to the local foodbank, but not be politically active”, or, on the other hand, “I only care about justice, so I’ll write books and get involved in campaigns, but not do anything about immediate needs.”

But that’s not to say we should all be doing the same things. There are a myriad of problems to be solved, needs to be met, and injustices to be rectified, and we cannot all carry the weight of the world: we just need to find the corner to which we are called and lift that bit. The issues that move me most are in the areas of poverty and inequality, as well as democracy and human rights. My wife, as well as being a much more consistent pacifist, has a stronger calling to help people with special needs, lonely old folks, and animals. One of the issues in our household on which we are still seeking further clarity is whether a portion of our monthly giving should go to an animal welfare charity, or whether all of it should be spent on relieving human needs.

All of which brings me to the subject of foodbanks. As what was once a humane and democratic ‘cradle to grave’ welfare system has reverted to Victorian punitive parsimony, foodbanks have been steadily on the rise. Not only those ‘sanctioned’ for minor infractions of a harsh and inscrutable benefits system are queuing up at their doors, but also the ‘working poor’; as the bedroom tax kicks in, and the prices of privatised utilities rise, ever more people find themselves living in the sort of real, absolute, hopeless poverty that has no place – no place – in a civilised and free nation.

Those who meet these needs are the glue that holds society together. They not only give out tins of cheap (and probably not very nutritious, but that’s a whole other story) soup and beans, but also, in many cases, provide a bit of chat and a friendly face. This opportunity to treat people not as hopeless causes, or as soulless numbers to be processed, but as beloved human beings, with an irrepressible spark of divinity in each one, can go some way to removing the stigma and indignity that adds unnecessary insult to the injury of poverty.

Yet, for all this, foodbanks should not exist. A decent living, without having to beg or depend on charity, ought to be guaranteed to all citizens, not as a favour, but as a right that stems from their membership of the res publica. When democracy, and not plutocracy, controls how economic decisions are made, there will be sufficient for everyone’s needs.

 

 

 

Most of my work to date on this subject has focused on the question of how these covenantal commitments to a country where (in the words of a good old song) ‘all the sons of Adam find breid, barely-bree an paintit rooms’ can be expressed on a constitutional level, as the foundational law of our new state. This is a subject I discuss, in general terms of constitution principle, here and here.

However, I am increasingly keen to take the conversation further into the specifics of policy, at the sub-constitutional level, in order to explore how in practical terms the resurgent evil giants of want (poverty), disease (health inequality), squalor (poor housing), ignorance (lack of education), and idleness (unemployment) can be driven decisively from our land.

I’m particularly interested in opening a discussion on the idea of a basic citizens’ income that would keep everyone – unconditionally – above the poverty line.

 

PS. This is the file that inspired this post. It has very good points in it and is well worth a read: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/FaithInFoodbanks-Signs-of-the-times.pdf

A Chancellor’s Ditty

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 19.25.09

There’s ‘opportunity in Britain’
For the one percent on top
As for you other blighters
You must put up with your lot.

Don’t grumble, but be silent
Even though you work and pay
It’s the oligarchs and plutocrats
Who really rule the day.

And it’s no use you complaining
You ‘poor, wee, stupit jock’
Your ‘wee pretendy parliament’
Is stuck in London’s lock.

For the land is owned by ermined others
Who sit in the House of Lords
And make the laws that rule you
And voted for our wars

But if you vote YES in September
Britain’s glory-days will end
So please, poor jock, remember
That Darling is your friend.

[This is a slightly amended version: I cut two verses that didn’t work. I mean, it’s still pretty poor doggerel verse, but at least the worst excesses of unoriginality and bad scanning have been pruned away. I don’t pretend to be good at this sort of thing.]

Redrawing the lines

Richard Dawkins has accused moderate, ‘nice’ religious folks of aiding and abetting fundamentalism by giving an acceptable outward face to religious modes of thought that are, as he sees it, necessarily irrational and obscure.

Aside from the fact that Dawkins does not seem to understand religion (because he fails to distinguish between fact-claims and wisdom-claims, or between poetry and prose, or between dogma and practice), I struggle with this argument. There is more than a grain of truth in it. When I look at what is going on in the middle east, with the rise of IS and the bombing in Gaza, I wonder how on earth any sane, rational, caring person could have anything to do with religion of any sort. All too often, religion seems to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

But then, on the other hand, I see the real and obvious good done by people who are motivated by their faith. On the other side of Islamic power-crazy fundamentalists shooting and looting their way through Iraq, stand non-violent Christian Peacemaker Teams working silently and unobtrusively amongst people in Iraqi Kurdistan, trying to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Despite all those who have a religion of domination, violence, power, ignorance and hatred, there are others with a religion of love, compassion, care and healing.

It is simplistic and overly reductionist to say that religion as a whole, from its most benign to its most dangerous manifestations, is wholly good or bad. Like politics or art, it is a mixed bag. The real line is not between religion and non-religion, or even between Christianity and Islam, but between fundamentalism  and non-fundamentalism. Non-fundamentalists, whether religious or not, have a common cause against fundamentalists. Rationality and love are allies against the curse of fundamentalism.

Don’t read this post

Read this post instead.

I don’t know who the author is, but he or she sums up the essence of the case better than I can express it myself. Bravo.

How Alex Salmond should have answered the currency question.

“The currency that a country uses is a technical question. We are here to talk about the principle of self-determination: the right to get the government we vote for, and politicians who are accountable to ordinary people – not out of touch like those at Westminster, who have squandered millions of pounds and many valuable lives in pointless and unwinnable wars. We’ve set out a range of currency options that an independent parliament could adopt. Our preference is to maintain a currency union. We are not against unions. We believe in a currency union because it makes sense, and we believe in the European Union too – which is more than you can see for the people that Alasdair Darling is campaigning alongside, who want to pull Scotland out of the EU, weakening our international voice and placing our trade in jeopardy. What we are against is the political union – the union of parliaments that means we cannot make our own decisions – yes, about the currency, but more importantly, about what we do with it – whether we cut taxes for the rich and penalise the most vulnerable, with harmful policies like the bedroom tax and ATOS work capability assessments, or whether we create a good society where we pool our risks and resources, give people the help and opportunities they need to get into education and into well-paying jobs, so that they can then provide for themselves and back to society. Independence not only gives us the ability to protect our own people, but also to build a better world. It gives us the power to decide about war and peace – the stance we take on invading Iraq, or on supporting the sale of arms to Israel, or maintaining weapons of mass destruction. That’s what is at stake here. We can do this with the pound. Despite what is said in the midst of a campaign that seeks only to dredge up negativity, we know that the UK will play ball – they are, if nothing else, pragmatists, and will act in accordance with their interests. And it would be in the rest of the UK’s interest to do so – as Cameron and indeed Darling himself have said. Ireland was independent for half a century in a currency Union, and to this day the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands – even Gibraltar – all use their own pound, although they are fiscally independent and not part of the UK. But we could also do it without a formal currency union. The pound is a freely traded currency. It is our currency. No one can stop us using it, and no one in their right mind would want to.”