Dissenting Radical

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

Month: January, 2015

Constitutions and Public Ethics

Traditionally (in the 18th and 19th centuries) constitutions were mainly concerned with: (i) fundamental rights [What are the limits of the state?] and (ii) the basic structures of representative government [How is the state to be governed?].

In the 20th century, the scope of constitutionalism was extended to include: (iii) socio-economic rights and principles [What will the State provide for its citizens, and what is the relationship market and the state?] and (iv) statements of identity, nationhood and culture [Who are we, where have we come from, where are we going, and what are the values that unite us?].

We are also discovering another important function of the constitution, which is defining and upholding public ethics [What are the standards of behaviour that we demand of those in public office, and how can we ensure that those in office exercise their powers in a fair, non-corrupt way?].

We see in recent (post-1945) generations of constitutional design, we see a stronger emphasis on institutions like ombudsmen, auditors, independent electoral commissions, public service commissions etc, which seek to ensure that power is used in justifiable, rational, non-partisan, non-corrupt ways.

But I think the time has come to go further; perhaps more constitutions should, for example, regulate campaign finance and political donations, and prohibit conflicts of interest. This would help tackle these problems. It would make clear the boundaries between what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, and provide mechanisms for the enforcement of ethical standards in public life.

Some moves in this direction have already been taken. The 2010 Constitution of Kenya, for example, includes extensive provisions on public ethics, as did the 2013 draft Constitution for Fiji, and the 2009 Constitution of the Solomon Islands. We do not generally find such provisions, however, in the constitutions of established Western democracies, where it was long assumed that active parliamentary politics, backed by a free media and the rule of law, would be sufficient to guard against corruption.

Such hubris and complacency can no longer be entertained. It has become clear, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, that Western democracies are characterised by gross, systemic corruption: the distortion of policy by the interests of corporate financial capitalism and the richest crust of the population. If we are serious about building a democracy that works for everyone, and that serves the common good not the private interests of those in and near to power, then we must tackle these problems.

Strong constitutional rules on matters such as campaign finance and political donations, on public ethics and on conflicts of interest, may a useful tool – alongside others, such institutions of direct and participatory democracy – that the people can use to help recapture the state from narrow, oligarchic elites.

Babylon is Fallen

A splendid rendition of one of my favourite songs:


‘Babylon’ represents the imperial systems of the world – systems of politics and economics that rely on violence and deceit, that deny the common good, that diminish life, and that treat people in an exploitative, dehumanising way. Like the current empires, Babylon is outwardly golden, but rotten to the core; rich, but drenched in poverty and squalor; powerful in terms of military and commercial might, but weak in legitimacy.

The image of the fall of Babylon references the historical liberation of the Jews from the Babylonian exile. It is a story of return, of coming home, of restoration. Yet it also looks forward in hopeful expectation, to a coming day when the ‘Babylonian’ systems of our own time and place will fall, when alienation and exploitation will end, and when peace, justice and freedom will prevail.



Should emergency foodbanks receive public funding?

In a fairer, more just society, there would be little or no need for foodbanks, because the social security system (coupled with an active policy of full employment, through Keynesian demand management, state investment in industry etc.) would provide everyone with an adequate income to meet their needs.

However, the reality at present is that we are stuck with a neo-liberal economic system that thrives on insecure, low-wage employment, and a begrudging and punitive welfare system that relies on social stigma and a harsh and absurd system of ‘sanctions’. This causes real hardship for those who fall through the ever-widening cracks. Foodbanks play a much-needed role in keeping wolves from doors.

However, foodbanks are instruments of private charity. They exist only where there are volunteers, and resources, to support them. Some are struggling to meet demand. The private charity on which existing foodbanks are dependent goes a long way, but simply not far enough. Some foobanks do receive public funding. It is estimated that local authorities across the UK have spent about 3 million pounds on support to foodbanks over the past two years. However, this support is variable, sporadic, and patchy. I do not have figures for Scotland, but two-thirds of Councils in England & Wales provide no support at all – and they have no legal obligation to do so [source]. Given this reality, it seems obvious that the current surge in poverty demands – in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity – a more extensive and coordinated response, backed by a stronger commitment of public money.

The Scottish Government has already committed to providing free school meals for primary-age children: a step that could help to reduce the instances of child malnutrition. But perhaps it would also be a good idea (if only as an interim measure, pending more systemic reform of the social security system) for the Scottish Government to provide direct financial support for foodbanks. Should there be a Foodbank Access Act that would require local authorities to assess the need for foodbanks and to provide funds to support their establishment or expansion in areas where those needs are not being adequately met?

Alternatively, should the Scottish Government adopt a Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (‘food stamp’) system, whereby local authorities would be obliged to provide families in poverty with vouchers, redeemable in local supermarkets, shops and markets, for the purchase of food and essential toiletries? This would extend the effective purchasing power of our poorest fellow-citizens, such that they don’t have to routinely rely on foodbanks (leaving voluntary foodbanks to deal only with the most pressing emergency cases).

These are questions for discussion. I am aware of cost constraints, especially in light of the Scottish Parliament’s inability to control its own sources of finance. I have no clear answers. I’m just trying to think open-endedly and pragmatically about how the Scottish Government could more effectively work with and alongside the charitable sector to meet immediate needs.

Speaking the Truth in Love: Or, How to Act like a Citizen.

Several times recently I have encountered the notion on Scottish political blogs and websites that political opponents of the SNP or of independence are ‘the enemy’. This seems to have come to the fore since the independence referendum, when, in the shadow of defeat, much of the positive attitude of hope gave way to disbelief and despair. I understand these feelings, because I share them, but this trend towards the demonisation of opponents cannot go unchallenged.

The baseline of democratic disagreement is that we are fellow-citizens. Some are honest, others corrupt; some wise, others foolish; some public spirited, others blinded by party-spirit; some worthy of honour, others of blame. As we, in the capacity of citizens, seek the common good together, we may – and must – stand for what we believe to be honest, wise, public-spirited and honourable, and oppose that which we believe to be corrupt, foolish, partisan, and blameworthy. In doing these things, we may heartily and strongly disagree. There are profound and sometimes intractable disagreements about ‘what is good’. We may even dislike one another. But we cannot and must not write off our fellow-citizens as ‘the enemy’: that route leads to very bitter, dark and violent places.

If we are to constitute a free society based on democratic values – which include tolerance, pluralism and understanding, as well as passion and commitment – then we must rise above petty tribal hatreds. Our means of effecting change must reflect the sort of change we wish to see.