Dissenting Radical

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

Month: March, 2016

A Constitution for Ankh-Morpork

As a Discworld fan, it seems to me that Ankh-Morpork desperately needs a constitution.

The Discworld books tell us a surprising amount about the law, governance and politics of the city. After the expulsion of the kings, Ankh-Morpork was ruled by a series of Patricians. The Patrician was informally chosen by a council of the great and good, mostly consisting of the guild leaders and the old aristocracy. The same council seems to have some recognised, if limited and occasional, role in the government of the City, as it is shown in several books as advising the Patrician. Moreover, although the Patrician has a near-autocratic power over public policy, he has to keep this council of guild leaders and aristocracy more or less on side; on at least one occasion we see the council attempt to depose a Patrician. There are also some well-respected limits on the Patrician’s power: the autonomy of the Unseen University is well-established, and day-to-day civil and criminal law is enforced according to a written set of codified laws that seem to be quite impartially applied. Ankh-Morpork is, moreover, a remarkably liberal society: there is freedom of movement and trade, freedom of expression, and a tolerant inclusion of different races and lifestyles. The guilds play a central role in Ankh-Morpork’s life: they not only organise and regulate economic activity, but also act as social institutions, providing education and a form of social security for their members. In all, we can see Ankh-Morpork as a sort of mixture between an elective monarchy and an oligarchic republic.

This arrangement is portrayed in the Discworld books as working remarkably well. The current Patrician, Havelock Vetinari, is the very model of the enlightened despot and renaissance prince; he rules with a light, subtle and cunning hand. However, as we dig into the history of Ankh-Morpork, we see that for most of the time this system has worked quite badly. Most previous Patricians have been bullies, madmen or incompetents. The turnover of power has often been achieved by means of coups and assassinations. Until Vetinari sorts things out, the city has been experiencing a long period of decay – all its institutions are decrepit until Vetinari comes along and rebuilds a working professional police force, a post office, a mint and a central bank. Even by its the standards of its own time, the system fails because it depends too much on the skills and character of one person – the Patrician – and it doesn’t generally guarantee a good one.

Secondly, the system has become woefully outdated. In the later books, we see profound technological changes, such as the invention of the printing press, the clacks, and the railway. We also see social and economic changes, such as mass immigration from Sto Lat and Uberwald, the entrance of Golems, Goblins and Dwarves into the workforce, and the decline in the importance of the guilds (because of new industries operating outside of the guild system) and of the aristocracy (because of new money). The old council of guildsmen and aristocrats used to represent the actual social structure of the City at the beginning of the series of books; it no longer does so at the end. Many Ankh-Morporkians (including a new bourgeoisie and a new industrial proletariat) are totally excluded from the institutions of government.

The all-encompassing prowess of Vetinari as a ruler, combined with the decline in the relevance of the council in a changing social and economic environment, cause Ankh-Morpork to become less republican, and more monarchical, over time. In the later books, Vetinari begins to style himself more self-consciously as a ‘Prince’ (that is, someone who has sovereignty over a city) rather than as ‘Patrician’ (that is, someone holding chief executive office in a sovereign city). The council also atrophies. Although we never hear of it being abolished, it is never mentioned and appears to have fallen into disuse.

So it seems that the time is ripe for Ankh-Morpork to adopt a new constitution that would, on the one hand, make the continuity of the City’s success less dependent on the skills of one rare person, and, on the other hand, incorporate new citizens and the previously excluded classes into public affairs. The obvious way to do this would be: (i) to replace the old council with a new one based solely or primarily on popular election, with a stronger mandate and greater powers; and (ii) for the Patrician to be elected for fixed terms. Something like the arrangement contained in the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act (two-thirds Councillors elected by the rate-payers for three-year terms, one-third co-opted Aldermen serving for six-year terms, and a Mayor chosen annually by the Councillors and Aldermen together) would do the trick. The inclusion of the Aldermen – who might be selected from the guild leaders and aristocracy – would be a balancing compromise to existing interests. By embodying these institutional arrangements, as well as certain already accepted fundamental principles such as freedom of expression and non-discrimination, in a constitutional charter, Vetinari could entrench his legacy and go down in history not only as the best Patrician Ankh-Morpork ever had, but also as the great reformer who laid the foundations for future generations.

A discworld book exploring the constitution making process would have made for very interesting reading – and not just for the world’s small handful of constitution geeks like me. The issues involved get to the root of Ankh-Morporkian society and I think Pratchett would have handled them very well. It would have ended the series nicely, retiring Vetinari as a central character and at the same time taking Ankh-Morpork from its origins in faux-medieval fantasy and bringing it up to a sort of steampunk modernity.

It would be even better if the book were to go as far as the first elections. I can imagine Moist von Lipwig as the leader of the ‘Whig’ party: brash, rich, populist, modernising, running on his record as the man who gets things done. Lord Rust would be a good ‘Tory’ challenger: physically courageous, honest in a gruff and tactless way, with a certain sense of public duty that never stops for a moment to think about anything so insubstantial as an idea. It would be a great read.


Childhood, Hobbies, and things that are Mildly to Moderately Interesting

There are certain things that I’m passionate about. Things that have, for many years now, dominated my scholarship and research, my reading, my writing, my teaching, my public engagement, and much of my professional work.

Most of these passions have a constitutional core. So much of my life and work revolves around constitutional theory, comparative constitutional law, constitutional history, constitutional design, civic engagement in constitutional processes, and so forth. In a typical working weekday, I probably spend upwards of twelve hours reading or writing about constitutions in one form or another, or doing administrative or communication work that is somehow related to constitutional design.

When I’m not thinking about strictly constitutional matters, I’m generally thinking about law, politics, political ideas, public administration, policy and social issues in one form or another. My most eager, sometimes all-consuming concern is for the development of an intellectually credible and electorally attractive form of 21st century Social Democracy. I want to help build a new Social Democracy that draws fully and freely on Aristotelian, Christian Democratic, Civic Republican, Left-Liberal and Ecologist ideas, rooting Social Democracy in a clear moral commitment to the Common Good. Only such a renewed Social Democracy – rejecting dull ‘Fabian managerialism’ and the impersonal rigor of ‘Utilitarian statism’ – can convincingly challenge the hegemony of neo-liberalism,  oligarchy and austerity, and can produce practical, viable policy proposals to share the wealth more equally, to lift up the poor, to provide genuine economic security for all.

One could say that I’m obsessed, and perhaps I am. Certainly, I feel that the practical study of constitutions – and of the politics of the Common Good – is something that the world needs and benefits from, and that I am called to do.

All this started more than twenty years ago. One day in Lower Sixth, a teacher set us the essay question, ‘Should the British Constitution be reformed, and if so how?’ That question sent me to the dusty parts of the library – and I’ve pretty much been there, trying to answer this question and all of the many other related questions that came after it, ever since.

However, during the last seven weeks since my daughter was born, I’ve hardly thought about constitutions. Some days, I haven’t thought about constitutions or politics at all. I’ve also done next to no reading on the subject. It’s been very refreshing.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood. I had, in many ways, an idyllic childhood – a Boys’ Own childhood – of the sort that probably wouldn’t be permitted today. I spent many happy days camping out in the fields, making dens in barns, clay pigeon and target rifle shooting, fishing, sailing, swimming, rowing, cycling, hiking up mountains, building radio control model aeroplanes and model boats, tinkering with early home computers, acting, and generally doing all sorts of active, creative, messy, educational things.

That isn’t to say I haven’t had other hobbies and interests since then. Far from it. As an undergraduate I continued with drama, fencing and sailing. In the navy I took up rowing and clay pigeon shooting again. Even when doing my PhD I managed a few banjo lessons, and I had the folk club and the real ale appreciation society (SNP branch). Since moving to the Netherlands I’ve started swimming regularly and doing amateur dramatics again. I’ve even started to develop a minor interest in American Football, and of course I now have my model railway.

But in recent years extra-curricular activities have seemed like illicit indulgences in a terribly earnest grown up world – a world of proper jobs, of sudden trips to Iraq, Ukraine or Myanmar, of mortgages and life insurance and publishers’ deadlines. Once one is not only a fully fledged adult, but also half way into middle age, is there still any legitimate purpose to such seemingly pointless things? In a world where there is so much to be done, can a mere hobby ever be good stewardship of precious time, energy and resources?

Having a child has made me think again about these things. Over the last seven weeks, in reflecting on childhood and in taking a break from my usual preoccupations, I have realised that my need for a balanced, grounded, rounded life is now probably stronger than ever. Play, which is so essential for a child’s development, is also healthy for an adult’s well-being.

At the moment I am on paternity leave (two months paid: thanks, social democracy!). In between the usual routine of looking after a baby, I have had the time to step away from the constitutional coal-face and to reflect a little on life, to take stock of where I am, who I am, and where I’m going.

This process of reflection has reminded me of the importance of having a varied, balanced life, with interests and activities outside of work or immediate household duties. It is perfectly ok  to read a book that’s not about constitutions and to spend time, between bottles and nappies, thinking about different things – things that might not be ‘core’ interests and passions, but might be described as ‘peripheral’ ones.

These peripheral things are those that I find mildly to moderately interesting, fun, diverting or pleasant. Not things that I would dedicate my life and work to, but things that, nevertheless things that I quite like – things that add pleasure, interest, richness, breadth and depth to life. I would not want to spend 12 hours a day thinking about or doing these things, but I might like them enough to spend, maybe, a half day a month on them when the occasion arises, or an hour a week if the mood so takes me.

Mainly for my own reference, I thought it might be fun to make a list of these things, so that I can remember amongst the busyness of life to spend a bit more time, now and then, doing, learning about, experiencing or enjoying them.

  • Food (cooking and eating), especially Scottish fusion, traditional British, Italian, Greek / Eastern Mediterranean, Spanish, Mexican, Iranian and Indian.
  • Cheese – all sorts of types of interesting, weird and wonderful cheese, preferably with a glass of port.
  • Real ale: golden session ales, interesting micro brews, IPAs, porters and stouts.
  • The social history and sociology of the pub.
  • Pub games, especially skittles and pub quizzes.
  • Live music, especially bluegrass and folk.
  • Playing the banjo (badly).
  • Model railways, boats and aircraft.
  • Rowing, sailing, and canoeing (although I haven’t tried any of these for many years, and I suspect I am less willing to put up with the cold and discomfort than I once was).
  • Cricket (watching / listening), especially Test Match Special on the Radio.
  • American football (watching), especially university football, and especially if the Edinburgh Predators, Stirling Clansmen or Glasgow Tigers are playing.
  • Medieval European history, including the history of the Crusader States.
  • Alternative history fiction, fantasy fiction, utopian fiction (reading and occasionally writing).
  • Poetry.
  • Swimming.
  • Hiking / Rambling.
  • [Probably more, but that’s all I can think of for now].

I’m going to try to make more room in my life for these things.





Happy Easter

It is easy to live in the world of Good Friday. The evidence for it is always before our eyes. It is a world where armies occupy, where rapacious governors rule, and corrupt elites collude. It is world where justice is bought and sold, might triumphs over right, and the innocent are tortured and killed. It is world where religion is repressive – where zealots attack, bigots condemn, and priests fleece the credulous. It’s a world were the wicked are in palaces and the virtuous are, all too often, in chains.

It is so much harder to live in the world of Easter Sunday – a world that has been turned upside down, a world where the first are last and the last first. An new Eden in the making, where none turned away from the table.

And yet, in the resurrection story, this remarkable alternative reality is presented to us. For all its present groanings, for all its injustices and corruptions, the resurrection declares that the world has been, is being, and ultimately will be redeemed. We see a hope that can die, but refuses to stay dead for long. It is on the basis of this resurrection story that we can have confidence that, no matter how dark the present might seem, there is a light that shines in the darkness – and, remarkably, the darkness has not overcome it.

To me, the essence of Christianity is to live as if that story were true. Because, if it is true, then there is a joyous and transformative hope in the world that no empire, no army, no death, can ever destroy. That means we are going to be ok. It means our simple efforts are not in vain. It means that the ultimate restoration and redemption of the whole cosmos is closer today than it has ever been.

Happy Easter.

Doing my civic cybernatic duty.

This morning I had to rebuke someone for being a British imperialist, an idolatrous fawning monarchist, and an unrepentant Tory of the most wicked and evil sort. He had pictures of that horrible Windsor woman with the silly hat and strange strangulated voice all over the place. He even had one of those despicable ‘Proud to be Scottish, delighted to be united’ banners, compared the SNP to Donald Trump, and spat out the word ‘separatism’ as if the right of a nation to democratically govern itself were a bad thing. I smote him with a verbal rod fashioned from his own smug arrogance and conceit. Then I sent him homeward to think again. I hope when independence does come my unstinting efforts will be rewarded with a medal or something, because all I really wanted to do was drink my coffee in peace.

[Note: This post contains a large dose of self-satirical mockery. I’m not really that much of a Crazy Cybernat.]


Setting Out the Stall

Ranting against Evil Wicked Tories and the iniquities of their heartless oligarchic agenda – opposing cuts here, exposing corrupt stealth privatisations there – is all well and good, but it does not get us very far. It’s always opposing, always negative, and always reactive. It allows the right wingers to determine the narrative and to choose the field on which politics is played, and we have to respond to their moves rather than setting out own alternative stall.

Likewise, fissiparous lefty posturing doesn’t achieve much either; it just makes us look like a bunch of student radicals with nothing better to do than stroke our unwashed beards. It doesn’t appeal to voters who are not already in our camp.

So I’m much more interested in putting forward practical and pragmatic policy solutions that will make a real difference in the lives of ordinary working people.

I believe that people – not just a coterie of self-confessed lefties, but a majority of voters, including those who might be relatively conservative but still see a case for giving ordinary folks like themselves a fair go. The American Constitutional Law theorist Cass Sunstein has written of ‘incompletely theorised agreements’, which are practical agreements on policies or laws between people who use very different reasoning to get to the same point. A good example of this would be the construction of welfare states in continental Europe, where Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Left Liberals – although differing in their overall ideological aims, were able to agree on practical policy measures. In the same way, I am convinced that our best hope of ending austerity and neo-liberalism is to build a majority consensus around a practical set of policies, regardless of the partisan and ideological labels.

I don’t know exactly what these policy proposals would look like, but I do have some initial ideas. One sensible policy might be to eliminate zero hours contracts, which do much to trap people in a cycle of low-pay and no-pay, and make people financially precarious and vulnerable to debt and homelessness. Another might be to rise the minimum wage to the level of a living wage, in conjunction with an active industrial policy that uses the powers of a nationalised Public Investment and Development Bank to promote a policy of full employment. One of the things I’d like to see most is a commitment to genuine social security, which I’ve written about elsewhere. There are also some very sensible ideas in Anthony Atkinson’s book on Inequality, which is an excellent contribution to this practical debate. 


How to be a right wing populist

(1) Evoke the legitimate fears and justifiable anger of the working class and the lower middle class, who see themselves as struggling to get by under an economic system that is stacked against them.

(2) Use authoritarian versions of nationalism, religion and ‘traditional values’ to redirect this ire and fear away from its true cause to those who are outsiders and outcasts (the very poor, the disabled, minorities, refugees, foreigners).

(3) Court the support of the rich and powerful, presenting oneself as the best guarantor of their vested interests against an angry populace who might otherwise be tempted by more socialistic solutions.

(4) Once in power, invest in the military and the police, restrict civil liberties, present opponents as ‘weak’, ‘soft’ or ‘unpatriotic’, and use a combination of selective internal repression and ‘managed democracy’ to establish a hegemony of power while maintaining just enough (crudely majoritarian) democratic legitimacy to avoid being an obvious dictator.

12 Thoughts: Three Weeks into Fatherhood

1. So far, it’s been tough, but not as bad as I was expecting. I’ve had worse periods of three weeks. I’ve probably had a more chilled and relaxing time in the last few weeks – with more downtime – than when I was working in Kiev and Yangon, for example. But I am aware of the relentlessness – I need to keep this up for an indeterminately large number of months, not just a few weeks. So pacing oneself is the key.

2. My wife and I instigated a watchkeeping routine which is – so far – working well. Sticking to it rigorously means that, barring emergencies, we can each get about eight hours sleep in 24, albeit in the form of one 5-6 hour sleep and one 2-3 hour nap.  This sanity-saving watch routine is only possible because my employer gives me four months of paternity leave – which I think is wonderful and should be the norm for everyone.

3. It is tedious. It’s not boring, exactly, because there’s a learning curve, but a lot of the actual tasks when you are on-watch with the baby are, in themselves, dull and repetitive. So far, fatherhood is mostly a set of simple mental puzzles and fiddly practical tasks. Like a really dull version of The Crystal Maze.

4. I expected having a child to be, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘chargeable and inconvenient’. I expected it to be tedious and tiring. It is too early to say whether my expectations in those areas have been met (so far it has been much easier and less unpleasant than I had thought it would be, but I am aware it is still very early days). I was not expecting, however, to be bowled over by a wee critter who is so cute and adorable. I’ve never really liked babies, but I like this one a lot. Maybe nature works after all! The baby is actually quite cute. And she smells nice. There’s definitely a sort of ‘oh look, it’s my own flesh and blood’ connection.

5. I didn’t have any problem with poo or vomit. I thought I might. I’m the sort of person who likes to keep his hands clean and I’ve always shied away from alien bodily fluids. But it’s true what they say – you really don’t mind when it’s your own child.

6. I have nothing but praise for the Dutch maternity care system. After leaving the hospital ward, we spent two days in a supervised training environment (‘Birth hotel’ with a nurse on 24 hr call) where they went through all the basics with us. They put us through an intensive parenting boot-camp, but it instilled a certain degree of initial confidence. So far I haven’t had a situation that I felt I wasn’t able to handle, because I’d already been shown what to do by a nurse. Feeding, changing, how to put her to sleep, how to use hot water bottles – they teach you and drill you in everything you need to know to get through the first few weeks. And then when they sent us home, our home was taken over by the Kraamzorg (cradle care) nurse, who supervises us and assists us in the home, especially with feeding.

7. On the subject of feeding, the most precious commodity in our household right now is breast milk. Every drop of it has to be carefully harvested, stored and deployed to maximum effect. It’s like liquid gold. Because me wife is excused from night feeds owing to the watch system, I have to have enough pumped breast milk to cover the nights. That means furious pumping during her on-watch and standby periods.

8. The most stressful part so far was losing a folder containing my passport, me wife’s passport, our marriage certificate, and our Dutch residence documents, on the way from the hospital to register the birth at the City Hall. Thankfully, it was handed in without incident. I was able to obtain a Birth Certificate on the fourth attempt.

9. My wife has taken to motherhood well. She is as thorough, conscientious and committed to this as she is with everything that she does. She does nothing by halves. There have been one or two moments of discouragement (mainly involving the infernal breast pump that is now such a central feature of our lives), but these have been swiftly overcome. And, so far, she’s thriving on the watchkeeping routine, which gives her clearly demarcated on-time and off-time.

10. I feel really sorry for anyone doing this in worse circumstances – on their own, or with little money. Having a child has, if anything, increased the intensity of my left-wing economic convictions. I want a world in which no child has to do without, and no parent has to suffer through lack of support and resources. The idea of a cradle to grave welfare state in which we each contribute according to our ability and each take according to our need is now, for me, more valuable than ever. The living wage, full employment, guaranteed holiday time, parental leave etc – all these are more important than ever when a child is brought into the mix. They are no longer luxuries, but necessities if we are to have a flourishing, dignified and humane existence. Likewise when it comes to refugees, the homeless etc, people in jail: everyone is some mother’s kid, and should be treated with a certain degree of care and compassion.

11. Much as I moaned griped about the Navy, much as I wanted to leave and had had enough when I left, it taught me a lot. I wasn’t a particularly gifted or natural naval officer, but I learned a lot about leadership, teamwork and organisation that has served me well since – and especially in the last week. Running the household like a ship in defence watches has meant that instead of the baby’s care being a constant burden to us both, it only an intermittent set of activities to be completed. It’s like rounds, fridge temperature checks and tank dips. There is an order and a routine to it that continues calmly, no matter who is on watch. No matter how bad things get, you know that in at most six hours time it will be over, and you can get your head down and not worry about it (unless we have to go to action stations, but so far that’s only happened once).

12. I was a bit worried that having a baby would diminish our sex life. But without being too blunt about it, a good quickie takes no more than twenty minutes, and a longer more involved session doesn’t take more than forty minutes. So you can have sex on a regular twice-a-week schedule and it still only takes an hour of your time. A good healthy sex life is important for the maintenance of morale and for sustaining the connection on which the working relationship and the emotional relationship between us. We agreed from the outset that for the sake of an hour a week – less time, probably, than one spends mindlessly browsing the internet in a day – it can be made a priority. Actual penetration is off-limits for the first six weeks, but we’ve been able to maintain a healthy sexual connection from the first week after the birth. All it takes is a little dedication and imagination!

Now I’d better go. I have an hour and a half of potential stand-down before the next set of feeding drills has to be completed