Dissenting Radical

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

Month: June, 2017

A small point about warships.

What’s better than a heavy cruiser? Look at those sleek, elegant, well-engineered lines. Have you ever seen power, purpose and precision so perfectly combined? Such a beautiful product of human skill, artifice and organisation. And it keeps the West Free.



The Common Weal Project

I want to give a shout-out to the Common Weal project.

Common Weal is an emerging movement which is developing a vision for economic and social development in Scotland which is distinct and different from the political orthodoxy that dominates politics and economics in London. It is based on the conviction that we will get better outcomes for both society and individuals if we emphasise mutuality and equity rather than conflict and inequality. All of this can be captured in one simple phrase: to build more we must share more. It comes from the old Scots term, which carries the meanings of both ‘shared wealth’ and ‘our wellbeing is common to us all’. These values are strong both in Scottish history and in contemporary Scottish life.

The Common Weal project identifies six key transitions necessary to bring about a ‘Common weal’ society:

  • There must be tax reform to reduce inequality, ensure strong public services and ensure that domestic industries are competing on an even playing field
  • Redefine welfare as a ‘contract between the people’ which all benefit from, with secure funding and strong social buy-in
  • Radically reform finance to make sure it is providing real investment security for industry and real savings security for citizens
  • Promote more balanced ownership structures in the economy to increase resilience and promote high-quality employment
  • Diversify the economy to move away from the low-pay employment that creates poverty, inequality and contribute to public sector deficits
  • Implement participative democracy practices at all levels to prevent abuse of power by vested interest and better to reflect the public will

The project offers a bold, progressive and ethical alternative to the ‘London Orthodoxy’ of neo-liberalism:

A Common Weal Approach The London Orthodoxy Approach
Assume that mutual and shared working towards mutual and shared goals will produce the best society and the best economy Assume that competition and conflict will allow the strongest to rise and that they alone should shape society and the economy
Keep income and wealth inequality low to grow the economy virtuously, promote high levels of social cohesion and to abolish poverty Do not act to alter income and wealth inequality, never measure the economy in terms of social cohesion and subsidise poverty through benefits
Promote higher pay for all by targeting economic development at industries which create good quality, rewarding jobs and away from industries that create only low-pay, unskilled, unrewarding jobs Promote low pay industries which create poor-quality jobs but generate high corporate profits
Total tax take is higher and this enables significant redistribution and strong public services but without endemic debt and deficit Tax is kept artificially low, especially due to poor collection rates among the rich and global corporations. Public services are eroded and public sector deficits are endemic
Support a strong welfare state with high-quality and extensive public services, well funded and generally universally available The welfare state is constantly under attack with moves to ever-greater means-testing and privatisation with the quality of service being eroded
Make finance a means of sustaining industry and providing financial security for individuals, not as a speculative means of profit maximisation Allow finance to dominate the economy at the expense of everything else, with minimal regulation leading to endemic corruption and customers treated only as sources of profit
Ensure a strong and diverse economy with a balanced portfolio of industry sectors, much more emphasis on product innovation, a much larger medium sized industry sector, a much more diverse ownership profile with many more indigenous companies and more extensive public and community ownership and cooperatives, and a much more mutual and coordinated approach to economic development Take no view about the nature of the economy, allowing the market to dictate, even if it means a grossly unbalanced economy with a continuing process of globally owned corporations forcing out indigenous industries and public or collective ownership opposed
Promote an inclusive society with better equality (gender, race and socioeconomic position) in politics, on boards of governance and in leadership positions etc. View the governance of society as a task for one social class, taking no view of inclusiveness or how much it reflects wider society
Embed active democracy as widely as possible to ensure the best outcomes for all – local democracy, democratic practices in all decision-making, democratic governance, industrial democracy and so on. Limit democracy to a ‘franchise’ role where people get irregular opportunities to ‘franchise’ others to make decisions with little or no opportunity for other democratic engagement with decision-making
View your international role as to work with others to promote global democracy and development to ensure greater global security for all View your international role as to work for the commercial interests of the elite, often under the guise of global security

All of the above is blatantly copied from their website. I’m not trying to claim credit, just to spread the word. This is a really exciting idea, and long overdue. This is the policy agenda I’ve been waiting for. For decades now, the mainstream centre-left has been intellectually and morally bankrupt, and unable to provide a convincing narrative that can overcome neo-liberal dogmatism.

Now we see a new democratic left emerging, rooted in humane and ethical values and connecting with deep intellectual traditions of the common good.

This is very good news indeed.


Slow down, you move to fast.

I’ve had a moment of realisation. What I want out of life is tranquility. Yes, I want to contribute to the world, to use my skills and knowledge to make it a better place, perhaps even to have some influence on actual constitutional developments. But I’d like to do it slowly and gently, with more leisure to read, think and write at my own pace.

I’m not ambitious in the typical sense. I don’t want more. I don’t want luxury, I want secure sufficiency. I’d just like to be able to proceed through life at a more gentle pace. I don’t crave novelty or excitement or – heaven forbid ‘new challenges’; I crave stability, continuity, settledness, and a way of life that is scholarly but also leisurely.

I’d like to be left alone in my library for days at a time – perhaps working, or perhaps playing with model trains. I’d like to emerge occasionally to enjoy some learned conversation over a few ales in a good pub – one without piped music or annoying fruit machines.

I’d like to potter more and rush less. I’m willing to consider the idea of an allotment, but only on the proviso that it doesn’t have to be squeezed in to a busy schedule, and that my time spent there will mostly involve sitting in the shed sipping cider and whittling sticks while listening to Test Match Special.

I feel that much of modern life, especially professional life, is just too fast for my tastes. It’s geared around horrific concepts like ‘performance’, based on lifeless metrics which miss out on so much of what is really important.

Besides, there’s far too much paperwork, admin, online banking, stupid emails, and other nonsense to deal with. I know that it all has to be done. My vain and hopeless protest against busyness is not a complaint; it’s more of a lament.

This is not, it must be emphasised, a product of laziness. Far from it. I believe in hard work – and to do scholarly research and writing well is hard work. But it is also slow work. It needs time to mature, to percolate, to settle. It cannot be rushed.

Someone asked me what I’d do if I had enough money not to need to work again. My answer is that I’d continue doing exactly what I’m doing now, but I’d stop worrying about not doing it fast enough. I’d do it three and a half days a week, forty-two weeks a year. I’d probably do a much better job, too, because I’d be able to be more deliberate and reflective about it.

Many Mansions

There were two strands to my spiritual and religious formation: (1) an evangelical charismatic strand, based on an Alpha-course/Christian Union version of Christianity, and (2) a dissenting, non-conformist strand absorbed at my local Unitarian chapel and through my interaction on the fringes of Quaker circles.

These two stands have often existed in a sort of creative but unsettled tension within me, sometimes pulling in different directions, sometimes working powerfully in harmony if not in unison. Later, I married a Catholic and was exposed to a third, in some ways much deeper, strand of Christianity.

I guess what I gradually learned is that there’s more than one authentic manifestation of Christianity. Christianity is itself a ‘broad church’.

To be a Christian you don’t have to be an orthodox 5-point calvinist, or a conservative evangelical, or open evangelical, or post-evangelical, any sort of evangelical at all, or attend an Alpha course, or be baptised into a specific denomination, or get dunked or infused, or be opposed to same-sex marriage, or have a bishop, or not have a bishop, or be a young earth creationist, or hold to any particular confession or statement of belief, or believe in any particular sacramental theology, or be a biblical inerrantist, or adhere to a ‘penal substitutionary’ interpretation of the atonement, or a ‘christus victor’ interpretation for that matter, or use a King James Bible, or use an organ, or electric guitars, or no instruments at all, or have an all-male clergy, or a gender-balanced clergy, or any clergy at all, or wear ties, or wear shorts, or wear robes, or sing in latin, or sing ‘Power in the Blood’, or sing ‘Oceans’, or celebrate holy days, or ignore holy days, or any of that stuff.

That’s not to say all these things are unimportant (I’m pretty adamant about some of my beliefs) but it does mean that these things are secondary: they are points which sincere Christians may honestly differ, and those who disagree on these points shouldn’t be anathematised.

What you can’t do, though, is be a Christian and turn a blind eye to the poor. Sorry, Theresa May.

On Liberalism

I’ve been thinking more this morning about the meaning of ‘liberalism’. What does it mean to be a ‘liberal’?

I can think of at least 7 definitions:

1. Philosophical liberalism: a philosophical tradition with its roots in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, emphasising the centrality of the individual as a pre-political bearer of natural rights, and state and society as artificial constructs based on consent.

2. Pluralist Liberalism: a belief in tolerance of difference, an open and plural society, the right of people to be themselves and make their own choices in matters of personal concern.

3. Economic (neo-)liberalism: a belief in the ‘free market’, and a set of policy preferences centered on privatisation, tax cuts for the rich, extending property rights and market mechanisms into areas where they did not previously exist (e.g. education, healthcare), reductions in social spending, and corporate-led globalisation.

4. Left-Liberalism / Social Liberalism: a political belief that combines elements of liberalism and elements of socialism, favouring a more active and redistributive state in order to maximise genuine freedom; freedom is understood not as absence of state interference but as the maximisation of opportunities to flourish.

5. Progressive Liberalism: a political belief that emphasizes ‘progressive’ and ‘permissive’ stances on issues such as family structures, gender identity, human reproductive ethnics etc; frequently combined with multi-culturalist or anti-religious views.

6. Partisan Liberalism: adherence to the historical Liberal party and its successors (SDP-Liberal Alliance, Liberal Democrats).

7. Constitutional Liberalism: a belief in constitutional democratic government, civil liberties, judicially enforced rights, checks and balances.

No one holds all these positions simultaneously. Obviously there’s some overlap in these definitions, especially in how they relate to Philosophical Liberalism and Constitutional Liberalism. But there are also difficult tensions: for example, Economic (Neo-)Liberalism and Left-Liberalism are in almost direct opposition to one another on economic, fiscal and regulatory matters. Likewise Pluralist Liberalism and Progressive Liberalism are, or can be, opposed on a range of issues surrounding rights of minorities.

According to these definitions, I’m a Left-Liberal and a Constitutional Liberal, and to some extent a Pluralist Liberal. My guess is that Tim Farron is a Philosophical Liberal, a Pluralist Liberal, a Left-Liberal, a Partisan Liberal, and maybe a Constitutional Liberal.

But it seems the only types of Liberalism that are really permitted and accepted these days are Economic (Neo-) Liberalism on the right and Progressive Liberalism on the left.

Often, these fuse into a sort of Capitalist Progressivism, that, on the one hand, cannot see beyond everyone who refuses to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of same-sex marriage is an ‘evil bigot’, but on the other hand doesn’t mind so much if people are forced by necessity into relying on food banks.

On the Resignation of Tim Farron MP from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats

A lot of people are wondering how an evangelical Christian like Tim Farron could ever be a Liberal Democrat MP, let alone leader of the party.  I suspect that these people:

(i) are forgetting the extent to which the non-conformist evangelical social conscience was a driving moral force behind progressive politics from the Levellers, through the Abolitionists and the suffragettes, to the foundation of the Welfare State;

(ii) would be very surprised to see that most mainstream churches spend a lot more time worrying about poverty, homelessness, peace and disarmament, refugees, the environment, and other ‘left-of-centre’ causes than they do about homosexuality or abortion; and

(iii) haven’t cracked open a bible or listened to a sermon in a while.

Christian Democracy vs Clerico-Fascism

I’m glad that more an more people are starting to reject and oppose neo-liberalism. The ideology of free market fundamentalism that has dominated public discourse and public policy across the West for the last few decades has turned out to be great for the very rich, not so great for the middle, and disastrous for the poor and the environment. Some critics are even coming to see neo-liberalism not only as an economic system that fails to provide for ethically just outcomes, but also for its failure as philosophy which at its root dehumanises us into mere self-interested, utility-maximising economic abstractions.

Neo-liberalism ignores many things that have an importance place in securing the common good and in promoting human flourishing, cannot quantify or commodify them: public duty, civic spirit, honour, tradition, family and faith.

But my fear is that some of the critics of neo-liberalism target their ire too broadly. The popular outrage at neo-liberalism is in danger of turning into an outrage against liberalism itself, giving rise to reactionary, neo-fascist and anti-democratic movements.

The intellectual reaction is also worrying. Under the name of ‘post-liberalism’, a group of influential academics – with ties to the Conservative party and also to certain sections of the Labour party – have turned against liberalism as a whole. They object not only to the neo-liberalism of the last few decades, but to the constitutional liberalism of the last half millennium.

Many of the ideas that are described as ‘post-liberal’, in their ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blue Labour’ guises (I cannot see the difference, except for the label and perhaps a shade of emphasis) are drawn from Christian Democratic thought – which, like civic republicanism, the other emerging challenger of philosophical liberalism, has Aristotelian roots.

I’m very sympathetic to Christian Democracy. It has a better, more sustained, more powerful and convincing ethical and economic critique of neo-liberalism than the secular left has ever come up with. But there’s a big difference between Christian Democracy and Clerico-Fascism. That difference is that Christian Democrats support other elements of liberalism – liberalism in the sense of an open society, separation of church and state, social and political pluralism, a democratic system of government with guaranteed rights, a written constitution, and a system of checks and balances. These elements of the liberal tradition are good. They should be honoured, cherished, nurtured and protected. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Clerico-Fascists do not believe in any of that. They reject the liberating power of the reformation and of the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. They have no time for human rights or genuinely constitutional government in a democratic guise. Essentially reactionary and dripping with the flummery of monarchism, they want to turn the clock back to an imagined romantic medieval fantasy land, with happy serfs mumbling mass under the rule of paternalistic lords and benign abbots. We don’t need that.

10 Principles and Priorities

• A commitment to favouring the poorest and most vulnerable

• Actively redressing social and economic injustices and inequalities

• Welcoming the stranger and valuing displaced and marginalised people

• Seeing people, their dignity and rights as the solution not the problem

• Moving from punitive ‘welfare’ to a society where all can genuinely fare well

• Promoting community and neighbourhood empowerment

• Food, education, health, housing, work and sustainable income for all

• Care for planet and people as the basis for human development

• Investing in nonviolent alternatives to war and force as the basis for security

• Transparency, honesty and accountability in public and economic life


(From http://www.ekklesia.co.uk)

Evil Wicked Tories (with numbers)


Are these figures real? I don’t know. I have no way to independently verify them. It looks like a bit of spurious accounting by the Tories that has been debunked.

But even if these figures were real, they wouldn’t show much. Unless one can identify how the money is spent, they are meaningless. The figures alone say nothing about the quality, the effectiveness, the intent or the direction of the spending. They don’t say who benefits from it. They don’t reflect anything of the legal and policy rules in which the spending is embedded. The only two figures that say something about outcomes are the GDP and unemployment figures, which depend a lot on cyclical economic patterns anyway, and would probably have improved over time under any imaginable government.

More to the point, there are key figures missing that do tell us something useful: poverty rates, especially child poverty and in-work poverty rates, median household incomes, hospital waiting lists, libraries per capita, number of homeless people. On those sorts of measures, Tory policies have been savage. Wantonly, cruelly, unnecessarily and ideologically savage.

You don’t need to be a red flag waving lefty to recognise that while the top 1% of society has done very nicely thank you under the Tories, the vast majority have seen a stagnating squeeze, while those at the bottom have been given an absolute hammering.

Now you might decide that from the perspective of the people you know, that doesn’t matter – plebs will be plebs and are probably used to eating cold beans from a food bank – but I think it does matter, and yes, to ignore that is a kind of evil. Perhaps a mild, passive, kind, but evil nevertheless.

Understanding Constitutions

When one mentions the term ‘written constitution’ to people brought up under the British system, they typically fall into one of three camps.

Firstly, there are those who think that constitutions are at best irrelevant, and who dismiss them as unimportant, even frivolous, documents. These people say: ‘Weimar Germany has a constitution, and a fat lot of good it did them!’

Secondly, there are those who think that constitutions are a dangerous foreign invention, the effect of which is to give old dead white men a sort of veto power from the grave. These people say: ‘But look at America! Look at the right to bear arms!’

Thirdly, there are those who think that the constitution is a panacea, as if merely putting words on a page were enough to transform reality. These people want the constitution to look like a wish list of their progressive ideas, ignoring the fact that not everyone necessarily agrees with those ideas.

All three are wrong. Constitutions are not (assuming a reasonable degree of goodwill and competence in their design) irrelevant, nor dangerous, but neither are they a shortcut to utopia.

What they are is boring. Boring, but important. Boring but necessary. They are full of dry, dull, technical phrases. The job of a good constitution isn’t necessarily to make things better (although that might be a beneficial result over time). Rather more prosaically and less ambitiously, the job of a good Constitution is often to stop things getting worse.

The positive good that a constitution may do is indirect, long-term, abstract and contingent upon many other factors; the harm that it may prevent is real, tangible and immediate.

Increasingly, I’ve come to see sewage pipes as a good analogy for constitutions. For the most part, when they work, you don’t notice them. Only when the get blocked and broken do things start to stink.