Dissenting Radical

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

Month: October, 2014

Why I am not a conservative


In many ways, I am a ‘small-c’ conservative. I am fairly skeptical of utopian social engineering. I recognise the importance to human well-being of rootedness, tradition, locality, family and (to many) faith. I believe that history and culture must be valued and recognised, not ignored (or, at the other extreme, idolised), and that the traditional social fabric and social morality have an important role in sustaining the good life. I have a mostly Aristotelian and organic view of society, that opposes with equal vigour both the centralism associated with certain forms of socialism, and the atomistic rational-egoist individualism of liberalism.

I’m quite culturally and aesthetically conservative too, with a penchant for real ale, folk and sacred music, gothic architecture, and old books. I’m somewhat (although not completely) suspicious of new technologies, and I’d rate an Amish craftsman, who can make things with his hands, above the likes of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs any day. I’m a bit of an amateur medievalist and I reject the pervasive modernism that thinks the past is to be forgotten rather than learned from.

But none of this makes be a Conservative (in the sense that is now meant) politically and economically. Conservatism of the sort peddled since the Thatcher era is utterly corrosive of the good society. It is nothing more than doctrinaire neo-liberalism put into the service of a rapacious, selfish, greedy oligarchy. Nothing destroys society faster, or is more harmful to the good life, than that.

If we had a moderate, centrist Christian Democratic party – one that embraced the major aspects of Christian Social Teaching within the framework of a mixed, regulated, social-market economy, and that took seriously its duties of full employment, social justice, subsidiarity, environmental stewardship, and peace – then I wouldn’t need to be such a ‘raving lefty’. I’m only on the left because the political spectrum has veered so far to the neo-liberal oligarchic and imperialist right.

Likewise, I wouldn’t need to be such a red-bonnetted ‘Tom Paine’, if only we had a decent written constitution (broadly comparable to the constitutions of most other Northern European countries). Such a constitution, founded upon ‘common right and freedom’, would enable our country and our communities to democratically manage themselves for the common good, while protecting the rights that are essential to an open society and to human dignity.

Unfortunately, however, we are not in that position. We are stuck with a grossly oligarchic political and economic system, which, according to its corrupt nature, has no regard for social justice, democracy, or the environment, and which uses its hegemonic power to maintain itself for the benefit of a rich and privileged few. I cannot be content or complacent to live in a society where the lives of so many are scarred by inequality, exclusion, poverty and insecurity.

So, in opposing that oligarchy, I am compelled (in my own small-c conservative, warm beer, village green way) to take my stand on the left. This is not, however, the ineffective ‘Guardianista‘ left of individualist, bourgeois liberalism, with its petty symbolic obsessions, its hotch-potch philosophy of Hobbes and Bentham, and its self-defeating mantra of ‘more choice’. We’ve been there and seen that doesn’t get us anywhere. Although most of those Guardianistas would probably regard me as socially conservative and maybe a bit of a traditionalist dinosaur (I don’t even like much modern art), what I have in mind is much more radical than anything they can imagine.

The left I embrace is a Christian left, perhaps even an ‘Aristotelian-Thomist’ left: a type of left-wing radical politics that says ‘there is such as thing as society’, there is such a thing as the common good, and there is such a thing as ‘righteousness’ in economic life and in politics. It is that righteousness for which I hunger and thirst. Achieving that righteousness embraces political action through democratic means (works of justice) with social action (works of charity), and roots both in a community through which faith, hope and love are sustained. That’s my vision.

(Vive le révolution! Aux barricades, citoyens! And all that.)


Smith Commission

We are faced with many challenges, which often seem to overwhelm us. It seems like the rich and rapacious few are gnawing ever-deeper into our social fabric. It’s important, in confronting this, to get to the root of it all: oligarchy. We are ruled by corrupt institutions that foster and protect greedy interests.

We can oppose policies – like fracking, privatisation, TTIP etc piecemeal – but we will always lose, because they – the oligarchs – have the power. The unifying objective must be democracy: the creation of a state that, because it is under the control of the people, serves the people, and not just the rich and powerful. In a sense, most our problems are ultimately constitutional, in so far as they are a product of the ill-distribution of power.

One of the great things about the independence movement was that it recognised the principle of popular sovereignty and offered a democratic constitutional alternative to the oligarchic UK-state. There seemed to be a window of opportunity for setting the Scottish state on a right foundation of the common good, as opposed to the private interests of a few.

That’s what makes the Scottish Government’s submission to the Smith Commission so disappointing. It’s all about powers, and says nothing about democracy:

“The Parliament should have control of its own affairs, including its electoral system and procedural rules – matters which are currently reserved to Westminster. The Scotland Act 2012 transferred some limited administrative responsibilities and regulation–making powers for Scottish Parliament elections. But this falls far short of full legislative responsibility for its own elections. The Westminster Parliament legislates about its franchise and procedures. The Scottish Parliament should do the same.” (From the Scottish Government’s submission to the Smith Commission).

That leaves me cold. No. No parliament should have that power. It’s then a law unto itself. It provides no guarantee. The fact that westminster can do that is part of what’s wrong with the UK. Last thing in the world we’d want to do is replicate it. It is a complete betrayal of the principle of popular sovereignty.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if independence is, for the time being, off the table, Scotland could still adopt a radically democratic constitutional charter that would help strengthen democracy. The Greens, in their submission to the Smith Commission, have even sketched out some initial ideas about how this might be done.

There is a Day (and it’s coming yet, for a’ that)

I don’t care that the video is a bit glib in places.

And I don’t care that the song is at the sappy end of the soft-rock-pop-worship spectrum.

And I certainly don’t care, right now, about the fact that I interpret 1 Thessalonians 4 quite differently from the way that these folks might.

That’s all by-the-by.

They had me hooked with the picture frame thing. That’s exactly how it seems to me: it’s like we get these little glimpses, through the Spirit, of a different reality hope, wellness, joy, light, freedom, and love. These glimpses show how the world should be and was always meant to be, behind the hopelessness and darkness that otherwise surrounds us.

And that reality is breaking through. It’s in the cracks. It shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not extinguished it. So I still believe that there is a day – and (to switch from Paul to Burns) ‘it’s coming yet, for all that.’

Referendum reflections.

I once heard a story about a man who stood on the side of the people, of the poor, of the dispossessed, of the strangers, of the unjustly accused, of the discriminated against, and of those without much money, land, prestige or power. He and his movement, mostly recruited from amongst labourers and fishermen, went from place to place, speaking truth in uncomfortable ways and calling people to a new way of being, a different order, a realm of justice and equality. And, of course, he upset the rich, the rulers, the priests and the imperialists. In the end, they conspired to kill him, and kill him they did. But the movement did not die. His followers experienced a kind of resurrection: they received a new spirit, a new power, a new hope. They saw his death, and thought all that they had hoped for was lost. But it wasn’t. It was just the start of something else. Not quite, perhaps, what they had expected or hoped for, but good nevertheless. It is with stories like this that I try to console myself today. We lost the referendum. But perhaps not all is lost. We have to look at what can be resurrected from this, and how that resurrection can transform us.

Last post for the Liberal Democrats

Photos from the Liberal Democrat party conference show rows of empty seats. The party that trrid for forty years to cast itself as the reforming voice of British politics, and which, in that time, crept slowly up from about six seats to sixty, is finished.

But I don’t gloat over the demise of the Liberal Democrats. I lament it. I used to support them. I was attracted by their commitment to civil liberties and to electoral and constitutional reform, to peace, to environmentalism, and to pragmatically centre-leftish economic, fiscal and industrial policies. I wanted to see a third force in UK politics that would break the two-party duopoly and offer a real alternative – one with democratic and humane values.

I supported them until about 2007, when they refused to go into coalition with the SNP in the Scottish Parliament – we could have had a three option referendum much sooner. I felt that their refusal to even talk about independence was short-sighted and petty – and I joined the SNP soon after, because they were the only party that combined a centre-left stance with a clear commitment to independence (which by then had become the only realistic option as far as I was concerned, given the inability of the UK to reform itself along democratic lines). 

After Nick Clegg became leader, I saw the LibDems drift to the right and morph into the other two – and squander all its moral authority in the process. The phrase that kept echoing around my mind was ‘if the salt loses its savour, wherewith shall it be made salty again.’ By 2011 it was clear that they were fatally diminished, not only in Scotland but also across northern England.

The liberal democrats – the heirs of names such as Charles James Fox, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge, David Steel and Paddy Ashdown – are finished. They’re done. They’re through. They are balloney without the mayo. And that’s a sad thing. I’m pleased that people have rejected what the liberal democrats have become, but sad for what they were and might have been. It’s worrying that their place as the party of anti-establishment protest has been usurped, in England, by the far-right nutty nutcases of UKIP. That’s what first-past-the-post and a right-wing press will do to you.

Thankfully, in Scotland we have proportional representation, so we have a wider and more effective choice. We have other options – SNP, Greens, SSP etc. But we wouldn’t have had proportional representation, for the Scottish Parliament and for local Councils, were it not for the patient and long-suffering insistence of the Liberal Democrats. For that, at least, we owe them some gratitude.

After the referendum

I’m still too numb and disappointed to write, but I had to share this:

“I keep getting drawn back to the thought that people have some responsibility for not understanding what was at stake and how it could all have been so much better had we produced an astonishingly strong YES vote. However, throughout our lives we’ve been surrounded by that Scottish negativity, caution, diffidence, and paradoxical dogmatism; that unwarranted superiority of denial, of putting our children back in their places, of glorying in the virtue of defeat. We’ve got to overcome these deep-seated psychological problems every bit as much as we’ve got to become considerably stronger in defining the sort of society we are aiming to create and recover. This is not over, but if we do as our ancestors have done before us, we shall just let it all slip through our fingers, and produce some tragic songs about it to console ourselves with the masochism of salting our wounds.”

(Source: some guy on the internet.)