Dissenting Radical

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

Month: May, 2015

The Crown Imperial

A guest post by Andy Myles:

I find myself contrasting, once again, the Tory constitutional arguments on Europe and on the UK itself. In relationship to the EU they want a Union – but not one that grows “ever closer”. They think the integration has gone too far, and are setting up the phrase “ever closer union” as the bogeyman to be knocked over in their negotiations.

On the other hand, in the UK their half-baked rhetoric says they want a “family of nations” who are “equal partners” in the Union – but they fight to retain current levels of integration at every opportunity – and on the issue of EU membership, the choice of the four nations must be joint and not several.

All this reminds me of Thatcher’s Bruges speech, which contained elements of the same Orwellian double-think. In either case though, the ideal Tory position appears to be that the Crown in Parliament at Westminster is the apogee of constitutional perfection and should not be undermined in any way. In doing so, I fear that they are still the servants of the pernicious doctrine of the Crown Imperial, used by Thomas Cromwell to justify Henry VIII’s divorce – and fine-tuned by the English and British states ever since.

When will they realise that it is an absurdity to base any democratic constitutional argument on the foundation of the of an hereditary monarchy, unless it is one that is prepared to accept that sovereignty lies with the people and not the “Sovereign”, however nice she seems. We really do seem to live in Ruritania!


Belgium: an unlikely role model for Britain?

No-one cares about Belgium. It is often said that the most famous Belgians – TinTin and Poirot – are fictional characters. Brussels has the name of an unpopular winter vegetable and a bad reputation as the centre of faceless grey European bureaucracy. It is too far south for Northern efficiency, too far north for southern charm.

But I’ve always had a certain liking for the place. Anywhere with good steak-frites and good beer is ok by me. I like the slightly surreal humour. I like how it sits on the borderline between the two great cultures of Western Europe, the Gallic and the Germanic, and in many ways takes the best of both.

And, of course, the Belgian Constitution is very interesting.

For the most part, it’s straightforward European parliamentary democracy: proportional representation, a figurehead monarchy, and asymmetric bicameralism. But the most novel – and, as far as I know, unique – feature of the Belgian model is a complex, overlapping, two-layered, system of federalism with both ‘regions’ (which are geographic) and ‘communities’ (which are culturo-linguistic).

Anyone who would suggest that Britain should be more like Belgium would risk ridicule, but such ridicule would perhaps be misplaced. The ‘Belgian model’ might offer a way forward for a confused and disunited Kingdom which has come to a constitutional dead end. We could do worse than to just cut-n-paste the Belgian constitution, with a few minor and necessary alterations to tailor it to our circumstances.

This would not only fix our terrible electoral system, protect human rights, and replace the House of Lords with a more suitable second chamber. It would also allow Scotland, Wales, England, and the two communities of Northern Ireland, each to be a distinct ‘community’, while Scotland, Wales, the English regions, and Northern Ireland as a whole, would be ‘regions’. So Scotland and Wales would each have the full competences of both a ‘region’ and a ‘community’ (as Flanders does) while England as a whole would be a community (for things like education) while the North East, and the South West (etc) would be regions (for things like economic development and transport). The English Parliament would be composed of the members of the English regional assemblies, who would be directly elected.

I’m just floating ideas here, but it would seem to offer a way out of ‘the English Question’ which otherwise would make federalism in the UK difficult. And it would not be the first time Belgium has been a model to the world. Belgium is probably second only to Westminster in being a ‘Mother of Parliaments’. Around half the constitutions of nineteenth century Europe were modeled on the Belgian Constitution of 1831.

[On the other hand, when you have to resort to examples like Belgium or the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a way of patching up the UK and holding it together, it makes you wonder whether we should bother…]

For Labour, the Party is Over.

The traditional parties of the centre-left are in trouble, not only in the UK (where Labour has been wiped out in Scotland and severely knocked in England) but across Europe. These parties are desperately seeking new leaders and new ideas with which to reinvent themselves.

With changing demographics and the decline of the manufacturing working class that gave rise to the Labour movement, the near universal assumption, since the 1990s, has been that to win elections these parties must move towards the centre if they are to win middle class votes and thereby to win elections (towards the centre, that is, of a political spectrum increasingly defined by the right, which means embracing uncritical and doctrinaire neo-liberalism, while demonising the poor, scapegoating the outsider and retreating into authoritarianism).

The parties of the left were supposed to be the ‘salt of the earth’, preserving the common good against the rottenness of private greed, but they have lost their savour, and it is hard to see how they can be made salty again. They have tried to gain the ‘whole world’ of marginal seats in middle England, but have lost their own soul. They are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm and fit only to be spat out by a disgruntled electorate.

Yet behind all this self-destructive march to the right there seems to be a lazy assumption, an assumption that is crippling our politics: namely, that middle class people are all virulent neo-liberal capitalists and that policies of the left are only of interest to the working class and the poor.

That is nonsense. The middle class also suffer from economic insecurity (unemployment does not only affect people in cloth caps), and middle class people also rely on public services. If the middle class, broadly conceived, constitutes about half of the population, then relatively few, and only at the upper end of the middle class, opt out of state provision for healthcare and education.

The essence of a ‘common-weal’ society is that we are all in it together. We all stand to gain from a decent national health service, decent schools, clean streets, living wages, and a system of social security that provides a real safety net against the inevitable and uncontrollable misfortunes of life.

The left should lose the misplaced idea that it needs to ‘move to the centre’ in order to win middle class votes, and start communicating a vision of the common-weal that middle class citizens are attracted by. Just because you have a higher education, a nice house, and a decent career, doesn’t mean you don’t care about the wider well-being of society, especially when your own well-being, your own economic security, and your own access to public services, are also thereby enhanced.

One thing I would propose is to replace a minimalist and punitive benefit system aimed only at the subsistence existence of the very poor with a new system of national unemployment insurance that would compensate people at 75% of lost earnings in the event of redundancy, at least for a transitional period of six months (similar, in general principles, to that which exists in Sweden). This would give middle income households a stake in the system and shake off the stigma associated with the current benefits system. I’d like to see a system that the between-jobs accountant or the temporarily indisposed chartered surveyor would not be ashamed to use.

This is not to say that the Labour Party should ‘go back to its roots’, as some have suggested. Its roots were in the age of the steamship and the electric telegraph. Ed Miliband tried that, but it wouldn’t work. The new wine would not fit into old wineskins.

Indeed, it might even be time to abandon the Labour Party as it is now and has been for a century, and to form a new party of the left (a ‘Common Weal’ party, perhaps), that would incorporate the not only that part of the Labour party that still has some principles left, but also the centre-left rump of the Liberal Democrats and the wider, extra-parliamentary movement of the anti-austerity left, from 38 Degrees and UK-Uncut to Unlock Democracy and the New Economics Foundation.

This new party should ally with the SNP; rather than seeking election in Scotland, it should concentrate on English (or perhaps English and Welsh) politics. It needs to abandon Labour’s ‘constitutional Toryism’ (a strange feature of the British left, not found in most of continental Europe) in favour of rejuvenated democracy. This means dropping Labour’s long-held assumption that solidarity requires centralisation in favour of a post-imperial politics of autonomy and confederation.

This would be a major change to the political landscape, that many Labour stalwarts (who are nothing if not fiercely tribal in their dogged but misplaced loyalties) will oppose. Nevertheless, if a decent, humane and democratic politics is to continue, it might well be a necessary one. Labour supporters will have to choose, and not for the first time, whether to put their professed principles before party tribalism. Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, they make the correct choice.

Can Scotland afford independence?

Let us put this in terms of an analogy. There’s a house, with a householder and a lodger. The lodger has a job, and they pay all their wages to the householder in return for food, board and pocket money. The householder gets a good deal out of this, and sets out to convince the lodger that they are getting a good deal too – mostly by keeping the real accounts under wraps. But the householder is actually taking the lodger’s money, spending it on vanity projects, fancy toys and pointless squabbles, and is making both of them liable for the debts he’s running up. Now the lodger thinks about leaving, and the householder says, “But look at the debts I’ve run up, how can you afford to go?” and “What will you do without your pocket money?” But the lodger shouldn’t fall for that. They do their own work and they’ve got their own job, and they can afford to make their own way – and, they don’t have to waste money keeping up a big old ramshackle house, or spending money on the things that their former householder wanted, but which were of no use to them. And so the lodger moved out, stopped being an awkward tenant, and became a good neighbour.

I’d like to say they all lived happily ever after, but it’s sadly not true. The lodger did well enough, hanging out with his new Scandinavian, Baltic and Beneluxy friends, but the old householder – who was always living in the past, and was a proudful and arrogant man – became a cantankerous loner, and joined UKIP.

Taking a stand for truth

What follows is a statement issued on Facebook by Occupy London. I thought it summed up a key part of our current economic and social debate, and was worth reposting here:

I would just like to clarify some factual misrepresentations made by David Cameron during the special leaders’ BBC Question Time.

1) The welfare bill is not large because of “people leaving home at 18 to claim benefits”. 47% of the welfare bill is spent on state pensions. Only 3% is spent on Jobseekers’ Allowance. There are, in fact, two areas of growing spending: housing benefit, and working tax credits.

To resolve working tax credits, a higher minimum wage is required. This is because, at the moment, these benefits fill in the gap between exploitative low wages and effective pay, simply to save employers money.

To resolve housing benefit, building more social housing is required. This is because, due to the lack of social housing, the government must instead pay rent directly to private landlords. Private landlords currently pocket around 40% of housing benefit. For example, a Tory MP, Richard Benyon, receives more than £625,000 a year from housing benefit alone.

This is how you truly tackle the welfare bill, and help the economy and British people at the same time. Not by scapegoating an underclass, demonising the poor, and using isolated incidents as justification for entirely unfair and inefficient regimes.

2) It is embarrassing to pretend to care about the NHS by utilising personal experiences, whilst having witnessed a top-down reorganisation which cost the jobs of more than 5,000 nurses, shutting down of A&Es, and the severe slashing of social care.

3) To purport that this has been “difficult for everyone” is an outright lie. The 1,000 wealthiest in Britain have seen their wealth double over the past five years. Meanwhile, everyone else has witnessed the biggest decline in real wages since records began. Also, 1 million visited food banks within the past year.

Furthermore, the rich have received massive income and corporate tax cuts during this government, whilst everyone else faced a disproportionate impact under the raise in taxation of goods and services (VAT). This has resulted in a disgustingly regressive tax regime whereby the poorest 10% of households pay more of their income in tax than anyone else. The poorest are literally paying more than the rich in tax.

A regressive tax regime of this kind is a violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Article 2. In essence, a breach of human rights law.

4) “2 million new jobs” is a vague and misleading phrase. It neither connotes the reality that many of these jobs are temporary, nor that they are usually underpaid. Also, due to huge public sector cuts, many of those previously well-employed, will now be settling for far less security in their employment.

5) Repeatedly asserting that we now have “a strong economy” whilst slandering previous Labour spending, is politically dishonest and economically questionable.

Economists have described this as Britain’s slowest economic growth in history. In fact, even that growth has halved during the first quarter of 2015. This means that the slowest economic growth in history, just got slower. This is no surprise given the severe cuts, lack of disposable income, and repression in wages. If you deprive the economy of all stimulus except for the richest 1%, the illusory figures represented will undoubtedly crumble too.

Furthermore, the Conservatives had planned to match Labour’s spending pound for pound until 2008. At one point, they promised to spend more. Hence, retrospectively implicating Labour’s spending plans whilst ignoring the very same view taken by your own party, is no presentation of a better alternative at all.

6) To imply you want a “more accountable government” after curtailing judicial review, cutting legal aid in areas of public law, and levying court fees to prevent access to justice, is laughable at the least. And a display of sad indifference and deliberate dishonesty at best.

– Rabah Jtl

Your choice, Your Majesty…

Unlike more recently constituted stated, the UK stumbled into the wonderful invention of parliamentary democracy more or less by accident, and never bothered to write the rules down in a clear, authoritative and legitimate way.

As long as there were two major parties, one of which was virtually assured to win an overall majority, and each with a clearly designated leader, there were few practical objections to this. Everyone, from the palace to the people, understood that the ‘winner’ became Prime Minister and that was that. The Queen’s role was a merely ceremonial formality – something we might dislike on aesthetic and symbolic grounds, but hardly an affront to democracy.

But in an era of multi-party politics, the discretionary power of the Queen is potentially problematic. Now various  governments might be formed after an election: coalitions of two or more parties, or a minority government with different forms of more or less formal external support, depending in part on the parliamentary arithmetic and in part on the willingness and ability of the parties to work together and put forward a workable budget and programme for government. In such conditions, the government formation process, where ultimately the Queen appoints the Prime Minister at her personal discretion, lacks legitimacy.

It is argued that conventional rules are supposed to guide and constrain the Queen’s decision, but the fact that these conventions are so vague, contested and unenforceable means they are not really binding rules at all. They can be made up on the spot (as Gordon Brown and Gus O’Donnell did before the 2010 election, when the idea that the first opportunity to form a government should rest with the incumbent Prime Minister was written into the Cabinet Manual) and set aside at will (as Nick Clegg did immediately afterwards, when he asserted the right of the largest party to have priority).

Another complication is that there’s no automatic resignation of a Prime Minister after a general election, pending their re-appointment or the appointment of a successor. Unlike in many other parliamentary democracies, the Prime Minister doesn’t serve ‘terms’ of office punctuated by elections, but serves ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. That means an incumbent can, so long as he or she has the confidence of the Palace, remain in office without public or parliamentary support – perhaps from May to the Queen’s speech in the Autumn. It all depends on the will of the Palace, not that of the parliament or people.

This royal power, however delicately used, is unacceptable. This is just one aspect of a system of government that is no longer fit for purpose. Long absurd in principle, it has now become unworkable in practice. If the UK is to hold together (something that I, as a supporter of Scottish independence, am not necessarily in favour of) then we need a new Constitution, and that Constitution should do much more than just try to resolve the ‘territorial problem’ of the UK’s ‘nations and regions’. It should also address the issue of government formation, to remove the discretionary power of the monarch and to place the formation of the government on a democratic basis.

Other countries with figurehead monarchies – Sweden, Spain, and the like – have solved this problem by taking government formation out of the hands of the monarch and allowing parliament to formally elect a Prime Minister. Even in the Netherlands (where the Constitution, which can trace uninterrupted origins back to 1814, is framed in very archaic terms) a change to parliamentary standing orders was made in order to remove the King from the process of government formation and to place that responsibility in the hands of a ‘formateur‘ elected by the Chamber. Scotland and Wales, too, have statutory provision for the election of a First Minister by the Parliament or Assembly.¬† So there are plenty of examples of how it can be done.

In the meantime, it looks like the one vote that will really count in the coming general election is that of the Queen.