Dissenting Radical

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

Month: May, 2017

The End of British Politics and Labour’s Scottish Dilemma

One of the things that this general election has confirmed is that there’s no longer much of a ‘British’ political system. The last ‘British’ election was in 2010. Since then, there have been separate elections going on north and south of the border, focusing on different issues and with different priorities and options.

For Scotland, independence from the UK remains a viable choice, and that means that any engagement with UK politics is conditional on the continuation of a United Kingdom to which around half of the population (and a clear majority of those of working age and younger) are opposed. At the same time, many of the hot issues in UK politics are really English issues, since in Scotland they are already devolved.

Labour in particular is struggling to come to terms with this situation. From an English perspective, Labour is trying to fight the Tories on economic and social issues, while reassuring British nationalist voters by being constitutionally conservative, pro-Brexit, pro-nukes etc. From a Scottish perspective, this makes them virtually indistinguishable from the Tories. If Labour in Scotland seems two-faced, it’s because the party is caught in a bind, fighting on two quite unrelated fronts.


Ascension Day Sermon

Ascension Day is weird when you think about it. It made a certain degree of sense, in a medieval universe, to think of three physical levels or planes of existence, with earth in the middle, hell below, and heaven above. In such a universe, Jesus’ physical exit from earth would be made literally ‘upwards’ in a vertical direction, through the clouds with little Jesus feet poking out as he floats upward. All of that is totally destroyed by the scientific understandings of the earth and space since the early modern age. Based on what we now know to be true about the physical universe, we must accept that heaven is not ‘above the clouds’ and that the idea of Jesus ‘ascending’ cannot be taken as a literal levitation from one physical place to the next level up.

We are left with three possible responses. One possibility is to reject all the scientific discoveries of modernity, and to double down on a fundamentalist reading of scripture. That’s the approach taken by young earth creationists. I have never regarded that as a viable option. I am committed to an ’empirical theology’ – to a understanding of the Christian faith that takes modern science (as well as literary criticism, history, archaeology and other disciplines of human study) seriously. If Christianity is true, then concepts like the resurrection or miracles might challenge how we see reality, but it cannot contain any doctrine that is directly incompatible with reality.

So that leaves two options. Either: (i) we must dismiss the veracity of the biblical accounts as mere legends, on a par with stories about Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus; or (ii) we accept them as symbolic or metaphorical – reflecting truth, but not necessarily in a literal, physical way.

There are parts of scripture – some of the tales of the Old Testament – that I am willing to accept are legendary. That’s not important, because the bible isn’t (unlike the Quran) pretending to be a dictated divine revelation; it is the archives of the community of God, and those archives contain legends that are meaningful in helping that community understand itself, understand God, and understand the relationship between them. However, I think it’s harder to dismiss the New Testament as legendary – it was written closer in time to the events described, and in the presence of people who were at most two generations distant from them. There might have been some exaggeration and embellishment (in fact, we can see that for example as we go from the earliest to the later gospels) but I think the authors were trying to communicate truth as they experienced it, not legends as they received them.

So I tend towards a more metaphorical understanding: the events described in the NT actually happened, the stories reflect real experiences – but filtered, often, through a metaphorical lens, as if the NT itself was a parable told by the early followers of Jesus to try and show what Jesus was actually like. It helps sometimes to see the gospel accounts as an attempt to express extraordinary events in a way that valued the communication of real meaning through metaphor rather than dispassionate facts. That’s not to deny that supernatural stuff happened (far from it), but it is to say that we need to ask what stories mean rather than getting too hung up about whether they are or are not factually true. Asking, “What was the Samaritan’s name then?” is to miss the point of the story of the Good Samaritan.

In the same way, perhaps asking “So where did Jesus actually go then?” is to miss the point of the story of the Ascension. What it means is that Jesus is in heaven – not a physical place at a measurable distance above a flat earth – but a metaphysical place, beyond and yet overlapping this physical universe. This must be seen in the context of the bible’s one big over-arching narrative: that the separation between heaven and earth is being overcome, and that all things are being restored and reunited in Christ. His physical departure is connected to his ‘preparing a place for us’ – not that we are going to raptured ‘up’ to heaven as some people mistakenly believe, but that – as related in the book of Revelation – that heaven is coming to earth. The important point about the ascension is not whether Jesus’ sandals were hanging in the air or whether people could peek up his tunic to laugh at his pink stripey loincloth; no, the point is that his ascension is a precursor to his return – that the kingdom he commenced, and of which we are a part and which we share in building, will one day be ultimately triumphant. Pain, suffering, war, exploitation and all that will cease. There’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth. That’s pretty exciting stuff.

5 ‘grand tour’ trips to explore Europe

(I reckon each of these would take about 2 – 4 weeks, depending on how much you want to see and do in a day and how much time you want to spend on the move). )

(1) Monks & Moors: Cádiz, Seville, Córdoba, Madrid, Zaragoza, Pamplona, Burgos, León, Santiago de Compostela.

(2) Mitteleuropa mit Sachertorte: Leipzig, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Augsburg, Nuremburg.

(3) North by North East: Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Malbork, Gdynia, Hel.

(4) Classical Civilisation 101: Athens, Rome, Sienna, Florence, Parma, Milan, Venice, Ferrara, San Marino.

(5) The Netherworld: Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Liege, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Trier, Maastrict, Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam.

The SNP has a good record in office, but that’s not the main reason to vote for them in 2017.

Folk easily forget how much the SNP has done to make Scotland a better, more social democratic country.

– Free prescriptions
– Publicly funded university tuition
– Universal free childcare
– Baby boxes, and free vitamins for pregnant women
– Maintained free care for the elderly
– 35,000 new council / housing association houses this parliament
– Big infrastructure investments including the new Forth bridge, M8 completion, rail electrification, and the new Borders railway
– End of workfare, sanctions related to workfare, and Atos assessments for PIP
– Rated the best country in Europe for gay rights
– Saved the steel industry and Ferguson’s shipyard
– Beat our targets for renewable generation and carbon reduction
– Delivered the land reform bill + a land reform commission
– Free school meals for P1-3
– Alleviated the Bedroom Tax and cuts to housing benefit
– Ended bridge tolls, brought in road equivalent tarrif on ferries
– Delivered all this on a balanced budget during a time of imposed austerity
– Doing whatever is possible, this side of independence, to defend Scotland’s place in the Single Market, the rights of EU citizens resident in Scotland, and ECHR protections.

I could go on.

These are good reasons to have confidence in the SNP and in its vision, record and trajectory. They provide good ripostes to those who doubt the SNP’s civic, progressive and social-democratic credentials. They show that it is possible to have policies that bring help the poor and that lighten the burden of ordinary working families, while at the same time promoting a growing, flourishing and entrepreneurial society.

Yet, important and worthy though they are, these achievements relate mainly to the policies of the Scottish Government, not of Scotland’s delegation in Westminster. They are not the primary reasons why we should vote SNP in this 2017 UK General Election.

Westminster elections and Scottish Parliament elections are different. When we vote for the Scottish Parliament, we are voting for those who are going to govern us in those things that most immediately affect our everyday lives – roads, police, schools, hospitals. When we vote for the Westminster Parliament, we are voting for the swords and shields who have to advance Scotland’s cause and defend Scotland’s interests externally.

Scotland faces a harsh choice: an austerity-driven Brexit Britain that will make the worst of the Thatcher years look like a happy picnic, or grasping the thistle of independence. The Tories are already lining up to strip powers from the Scottish Parliament. Scotland’s success under the SNP is a thorn in their side, an embarrassment to them which shows people in England that there is, indeed, an alternative to the Tory agenda (which, sadly for them, the opposition in England cannot credibly articulate), and they are determined to undermine it. So the primary reasons for voting SNP in this election are existential. They are about the survival of Scotland as a distinct place, not just a region of the UK but as a country with its own national voice and an effective national Parliament to advance national interests.

This strong voice for Scotland is needed now more than ever. At a time when the UK faces the biggest economic, political, diplomatic and constitutional crisis of its modern history, we need a strong bloc of SNP members in Westminster to oppose a disastrous Hard Brexit, to mitigate its effects, and to strengthen the SNP’s hand in any future negotiation over Scotland’s future.  Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and the UK Government is trying to take Scotland out of the EU without our consent. That is a scandalous betrayal of democracy that can only lead to more and more people coming to see independence in Europe as the natural, necessary, option for Scotland.


Neoliberalism at it again

Neo-liberalism isn’t just economically inequitable (as the left have been saying for 30 years), but also corrupts and corrodes the institutions, traditions and values on which higher civilsation is built. The marketisation of universities is a case in point. Blinded by economics, it unleashes a sort of new barbarism – a philistine inability to see the value in anything that cannot be bought and sold. The end point, if this prostitution of learning is not stopped, is the eventual destruction of civilisation itself.

Labour’s faustian bargain

Labour’s manifesto on the economy, taxes, public services and social spending is pretty impressive. But Labour still has three big blind spots: Brexit, constitutional issues, and Scotland.

The Labour Party made a strategic bargain with the British establishment in the inter-war period. Labour would be allowed to operate freely as a legitimate political party, would be able to campaign and even to get into office without the establishment stepping in to stop it by force, and would be allowed to make remedial reforms to social and economic policies. In return, Labour agreed to play by the rules of the British establishment: that meant accepting the monarchy, repudiating Irish and Scottish independence, upholding the empire (and later the nuclear deterrent), and defending the existing institutions of the British state, including the bastions of elite power in the army, bureaucracy, BBC and state church.

In other words, the establishment allowed Labour to join them, displacing the Liberals, in return for an agreement that Labour would play constitutional and imperial politics only by the establishment’s own rules. In so doing, they allowed reform within the system, without allowing the system itself to be effectively challenged. This carried the UK through the long 20th century without a revolution or state-breakdown – in itself no small achievement, and a sign of wisdom in comparison to those countries where the establishment sided with far right repressive movements to kill social democracy by force. By the standards of the 1920s and 1930s, it was a sensible deal all round.

But it’s a threadbare bargain and it looks less and less tenable with each passing year. The lid cannot be kept on constitutional politics forever.

Independence and Solidarity

Some people voted No to Scottish independence in 2014 because they thought that Scotland’s presence in the UK would act as a moderating influence; as an act of solidarity towards people south of the border, who would be saved by Scotland from wicked Tory Governments. Others voted No because of a fear that an independent Scotland might not be able to retain membership of the European Union. They were both very wrong. It was obvious to me, even in 2014, that England’s course was a set on a lurch to the anti-European right; that the next step would be a Tory government, and then the European referendum.

Now it appears that Scotland really does have a chance to act in solidarity and to save England from its more destructive and rapacious elements. But to do so, we need independence.

England today is undergoing a profound identity crisis, which it cannot overcome until its English identity is separated from its post-imperial Britishness. Brexit, with all its pleasing fantasies of renewed global dominance, is just one manifestation of this identity crisis, an act of self-harm that reflects the deep and inarticulate inner pain of a imperial identity without an empire.

By becoming a normal European democracy country, and by pursuing a set of social and economic policies that benefit ordinary people rather than a tiny economic elite, Scotland can show a different way of coming to terms with the past. In other words, Scottish independence is not an act of betrayal (as some of the left used to call it), but rather has the capacity to be an act of solidarity with our neighbours south of the border.

For the fact is, while Scotland is not big enough to save England with her votes, Scotland could be brave enough – and good enough – to save England by her example.

Goodbye, Britain.

Britishness was always an imperial thing. It was an identity built for and by empire. Britishness as an idea and an ideal was not forged on the banks of the rivers Tweed and the Severn, but on the banks of the Ganges and the Nile.

All the institutions, the values, the habits, that made up the British state and the British establishment were, in their essence, imperial institutions – not designed for ruling a nation, but for ruling a whole imperial civilisation.

Unlike many on the left, I’m willing to see the good as well as the bad that the British empire did, and on balance I almost mourn its passing. But, good, bad, and indifferent, that empire died a long time ago, and the British state that gave rise to it, and the British institutions that sustained it, suddenly became redundant and absurd.

Today, it makes no sense to feel British as a political identity. One might as well feel Roman. I’m left with a certain nostalgia, with a certain strange longing, perhaps, for a Commonwealth that might have been, but it’s over.

Scotland’s future is European.

So is England’s but they don’t know that yet.

Husband Self-Assessment Questions

1. How are you with chores around the house? Do you tidy up after yourself?

2. Are you up to date with your household administration and finance responsibilities?

3. Are you making sure she gets enough rest and down-time?

4. How can you lighten her emotional load? Are you a listening ear to her? Do you empathize with her stresses and calm her fears?

5. How are you helping to build her up? Are your words encouraging, edifying and uplifting? Do you avoid criticism? Are you helping her to grow in confidence, maturity and virtue?

6. How often do you do things as friends, like going to do something she likes?

7. Do you make an effort to keep your sex life fresh and passionate? Do you make sure that it doesn’t become mechanical or selfish, and that you take care of her pleasure?

8. Are you doing at least your fair share of child care duties? What more could you reasonably do to make things easier for her?

9. Are you romantic with her? Do you make time just to appreciate each other? Do you share your hopes and dreams with her? Do you keep in mind the common purposes that you have together as a couple?

10. Think about the things you do (or don’t do) that annoy her – how are you breaking these habits?

11. Are you being strong for her when she needs you to be strong, gentle when she needs you to be gentle, and firm when she needs you to be firm?

12. Are you praying for and with her regularly?



  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. No attack, no defence.
  3. Assume goodwill.
  4. No-fault apology.
  5. Don’t go to bed angry.