Dissenting Radical

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

Month: November, 2017

Democracy in the early 21st century

My concerns are the following:

(i) That the moral, ethical, cultural foundations of democracy in the West are being eroded by ‘post-truth’ politics and by culture divided between relativist individualism  and silly gatekeeping, purity-testing, SJW identity politics – both of which have little regard for real civic virtue or for a sense of public duty, without which free institutions cannot be maintained.

(ii) That the economic foundations of democracy (based on a broad middle class and general prosperity) have been undermined by neoliberal doctrines, increasing poverty and inequality.

(iii) That the legal-institutional and constitutional foundations of democracy are being ignored and undervalued, while precious and hard-won civil liberties are curtailed.

(iv) That democracy in its current form is failing to respond to the existential challenge of climate change and other long-term slow-burn environmental and technological challenges.

I therefore foresee four main areas of work for any democracy support programme:

(i) Democratic values, public ethos and strong citizenship;

(ii) Shared prosperity, economic democracy and effective public services;

(iii) Constitutional government, checks & balances, and human rights; and

(iv) Democratic sustainability, environmental stewardship and resilience.


A Halloween Tale

In so far as neoliberalism was the economic elite’s ideological reaction against social democracy, it has achieved its aims in full. After two generations of neoliberalism, we have recreated the absolute poverty, the gross inequality, the social immobility and the plutocratic domination of politics and society which existed a century ago.

I’ve just read a harrowing story about a five year old child in the UK who had not eaten for three days and was picking through bins for food, because his mother had had her Universal Credit payments delayed. That is the reality of the abyss we have reached. And it is never morally acceptable.

Such poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is a product of ideological, political choices. More than that, it is a product of a deep ethical malaise in those who govern us – those who nurse their offshore accounts and their corporate donors, while caring so little for the poor and for the common good.

We must start our first works over: create a country for all its people, in which everyone has a stake, where everyone is protected and can live in moderate comfort and dignity.

To achieve that, we have to break out of labels and tribes. In much of continental Europe the welfare state was not built by one party, but by pragmatic agreements between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in coalition. These people came from very different political ‘tribes’ and different ideological traditions, with different ultimate goals. Some were motivated primarily by Christian compassion, other by a fear that if nothing was done revolution would break out, others by hopes of advancing towards a utopia of scientific socialism – but they were able to work together to address pressing issues of poverty and inequality.

I’m not, never have been, and probably never would be, a member of the Labour Party.  Labour is not my tribe. There is a lot about the Labour Party and its culture that just doesn’t sit well with me – its constitutional blindness, its unwillingness to understand Scotland’s unique position in the territorial politics of the UK, its indifference to civil liberties and parliamentary reform, and its willingess to embrace neo-imperalist wars as an instrument of foreign policy.  But I would be very willing to work with Labour in a great crusade against the evils that William Beveridge (an old Liberal, by the way) identified in his 1942 report that laid the foundations for the Welfare State: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

To rid the land of these evils again, we need to develop a platform of workable policies that could be agreed in principle across party lines, with commitment and support by Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Likewise, I am no friend of the Tories, but I still hope that there are some moderate, good-hearted Tories out there who feel the same revulsion that I do, and who are willing to accept that things have gone too far; and, if such moderate Tories exist, I’d be willing to work with them, too, and perhaps to secure their support for some of these policies.

In taking on this challenge, our aim should not be to achieve an ideological unanimity of position, but to develop five or six key policies that are acceptable, viable and workable. These would be embodied in five or six pieces of landmark legislation, the like of which has not been seen since the 1940s. Perhaps it could start with a new National Insurance Act.

A final point is that this is not merely a policy issue. It is at root a constitutional one, which goes to the core of the relationship between citizens and the state and the nature of our social contract. Although we have slain these evils once, they have come back. The Labour Government of 1945 introduced a new policy dispensation, but never sought to entrench this dispensation in a new constitutional order in which a strong sense of citizenship would underpin socio-economic rights. Legislative policy alone may kill these vampires, which suck the blood of the poor, but only a new constitutional order which enthrones the common good can drive a stake through them and prevent them rising like the undead to haunt the land again.

Much belated book reviews

Facebook has just reminded of the fact that 5 years ago today I posted about a bunch of books that I had ordered. So let’s have a look at what I bought, whether I actually read them, and what impact they had on my thought and action.

“What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” (Michael Sandel). Read it cover to cover. Thought it made a very good argument. Helped me to distinguish between a ‘market economy’ (qualified good) and a ‘marketsociety’ (bad). Raises the question of which areas of life should, and which shouldn’t, be open to market forces, and which areas should be reserved for other means of distribution (state provision, familial communality, social co-operatives etc).

“Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet” (Tim Jackson). Read most of it. Bottom line is that we cannot expect unending growth on a finite planet. There comes a point where economic theories that focus on making a ‘bigger pie’ fall apart, and we have to think about how the pie is cut.

“The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicanism” (William Everdell). Read it cover to cover, several times, and still dip into it occasionally. It became for a while one of my favourite books. Strongly recommended as an introduction to how civic republican thought maps onto questions of institutional design.

“Dialogue on the Government of Florence” (Francesco Guicciardini, translated by Biancamaria Fontana). Read it cover to cover, many times. There’s something so immediate, and yet also strangely distant and other-worldly, about these Italian civic-republican dialogues. We live in a very different world, with very different institutions and assumptions, yet the problems are the same – and we are less well equipped to deal with them, than Florentines were 500 years ago.

“Distributism” (Anthony Cooney). I have not really done this book justice. I think it has sat on my shelf for 5 years, never really appreciated. So I’m going to dust it off and add it to my ‘bedside’ pile.

New Atheism and the Alt-Right

I have, for many years, been a regular listener to the ‘Non-Prophets Radio’ – an atheist podcast – as well as to podcasts like ‘A Christian and an Atheist’ and ‘Unbelievable?’ I do this because I don’t want to be locked in a Christian mental bubble. I believe that a faith worth having is a faith worth questioning and examining. Sometimes it has caused me to doubt and waver, but always to come back with a deeper and more mature understanding.

But I’ve noticed something very strange in what I might loosely call ‘online new atheist subculture’. A decade ago, this subculture leaned centre-left. It was responding to the G. W. Bush era, when a heavy cloak of evangelical religiosity pervaded the US Government’s foreign policy.

Of course, that was before the financial crisis really it, and before the momentous political changes which have shaken Western democracies on both sides of the Atlantic.  Now it seems there’s a trend in ‘New Atheist’ communities to shift away from the centre-left and to embrace the alt-right. It seems there are three lines of argument to which atheists are particularly attracted and which lead them into an alt-right space.

One line of argument goes something like this: (a) religion is evil and the cause of all violence, ignorance, oppression, and out-dated values; (b) the worst religion is Islam, which poses a particular threat to Enlightenment civilisation; (c) ‘the left’, broadly defined, is soft on Islam, whereas the alt-right treats Islam as the threat it is; (d) therefore, although the far right might be a bit distasteful in some respects, they are the best option – they are keeping us free from burkas and terrorists.

The second line of argument goes something like this: (a) religion is for stupid people, and because I’m an atheist I’m obviously very smart; (b) smart people are the ones who produce everything and generate all the wealth and they should get to keep it; (c) because I am very smart, I should be rich; if I’m not, its because leeches and unproductive drones are stealing it from me; (d) the alt-right want to cut taxes, deregulate markets, and let all the stupid people fail like they should, so that I can succeed and be rich!

The third line argument is as follows: (a) atheism is about cold hard truth, regardless of what is comfortable or socially conventional – there is no God, it’s all just material forces; (b) there are other cold hard truths that society is forgetting, but which a neo-Darwinian worldview makes abundantly clear; (c) for a start, life is all about sex and death, and competition for opportunities to mate, and all the gender politics nonsense just obscures the fact that women are basically for breeding; (d) also, there are biological racial differences – get over it; (e) it is not politically correct to say these things, but they are true, and the alt-right are therefore champions of free speech and defenders of liberty.

So what does all this amount to? Essentially, that the alt-right appeals to freedom (a word, incidentally, which crops up in the names of many European alt-right and far-right parties). It might be a debased, angry, individualised and immature version of freedom, but it is a version of freedom. If we put the three lines of argument outlined above together, the alt-right can present itself as guaranteeing the freedom to live in an open, secular society, against militant Islam, the freedom to make money and get rich, against social democratic policies, and the freedom to speak the truth as they see it against a culture in which some things (like sexism and racism) are no longer socially acceptable.

We cannot begin to understand or to confront the alt-right unless we see it for what it is: not a species of fascism (which was, after all, a collectivist and teleological ideology), but as a species of neo-liberalism – an individualist, nihilistic and amoral ideology. The alt-right is ‘New Atheism’ in action.

Secure Foundations: Laying the constitutional groundwork of a Scottish State.

The First Minister has indicated that she wishes to re-boot the independence movement – to shift the debate away from tactics, such as the timing of the next referendum, and back onto the high ground of making the case for independence. In making that case, it is important to begin with a clear understanding of what independence is, what independence is for, and why it matters.

Independence is nothing less than the creation of a Scottish state – a state which, recognised as sovereign in international law, will take its equal place in Europe, the Commonwealth and the world. The Scottish independence movement is therefore, necessarily, a state-building movement. Its purpose is to enable the people of Scotland to exercise democratic control over the government of Scotland, in order to pursue policies that meet our needs and aspirations. It matters because policies imposed by the UK in a range of areas – from austerity and punitive sanctions against the poorest to the war in Iraq and hard Brexit – have not generally met our needs and aspirations.

It is no coincidence that the ‘arc of prosperity’ and ‘arc of democracy’ so closely align. The countries routinely topping international Human Development indices are also those with the best rankings for quality of democracy. The distribution of the tax burden and the quality of public services are reflections, above all, of democratic performance. Likewise, the question of whether laws and policies are tailored to favour the privileged few or the common good depends on whether the government is effectively held accountable to the people, or whether it is in the pockets of rich donors and corporate and financial interests. That is why arguing about GERS figures is irrelevant. Independence is a question of democracy, not accountancy.

The whole case for independence rests on one key assumption: that the workaday lives of the people of Scotland will be improved by the creation of a democratic Scottish State – a State that represents the interests and meets the demands of the people. The problem with the UK is not that it is ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’, but that its ossified, hierarchical and profoundly oligarchic structures cannot be reformed in a way that would make them responsive to Scotland’s interests and demands.

Unfortunately, independence itself is no guarantee that things will turn out well. Many countries have become independent only to fall into authoritarianism, corruption and misrule. Often, they put all their efforts into independence and had little thought for how they would govern themselves democratically afterwards. In the words of a senior Kenyan politician: ‘In 1963, we wanted independence. We did not think about building institutions of good governance. We just thought independence was the main thing, and we’d worry about all that constitutional business later. So we became independent, and the KANU party took office, closed down the democratic space and centralised power until we had become a one-party dictatorship.’

Of course Scotland is not Kenya. We are starting from a much more favourable position in terms of both democratic experience and overall development. Yet the point stands. The countries that have prospered and developed after independence are precisely those in which politics has rested upon stable and broadly agreed constitutional foundations. It is not enough to free ourselves from Westminster. To reap the benefits and mitigate the risks of independence, we have to build consensus, in advance, around robust institutions of democracy.

The constitution is therefore central to the case for independence. A constitution (as the word is understood in almost every democracy except the UK) is a fundamental law that defines the state, establishes and regulates its institutions, protects the rights of citizens, and in general provides an overarching legal framework for the conduct of politics. Crucially, a constitution has a special procedure for amendment – typically a two-thirds majority or other supermajority in Parliament, often coupled with a referendum. This means that the government cannot unilaterally change the ground rules of politics. Our rights and democratic institutions are protected from hasty or partisan change.

The principle that there should be a written Constitution has been longstanding SNP policy. Much good work has been done on this front. Neil MacCormick authored a text formally adopted by the SNP, most recently in 2002, which although perhaps not perfect, represented the essence of a viable and acceptable Constitution for Scotland. However, the draft interim constitution proposed in 2014 was a disappointing effort. While it contained some promising principles, such as a commitment to both popular sovereignty and the European Convention on Human Rights, it contained little of the basic institutional detail require of a constitution, and would have been deficient even as an interim measure.

In part, this is because the Scottish Government misunderstood the nature of a constitution and misjudged its centrality to the independence case. They saw it as a way of constitutionalising certain policy proposals, and not as a basic charter that would provide the institutional frameworks and safeguards for democratic government. The 2014 draft included a commitment to the removal of nuclear weapons, but said nothing about the building blocks of democracy, like how Parliament was to be elected, the First Minister chosen, or the independence of the judiciary and civil service protected. Yet it is on such dry, dull, mechanical details that the success of a Scottish Constitution – and in consequence the success of Scottish independence – rests. Only by developing a Constitution that safeguards democracy and human rights can the independence movement provide reassurance to waverers.

That need for reassurance demands that a provisional constitution be developed before the next referendum. The homework should be done in advance of the vote, as it was by the Constitutional Convention before the 1997 referendum. The constitution has to be a national, and not a partisan, document, and perhaps the best way of proceeding would be to appoint a Commission, with a broad membership and wide consultative remit, to develop a text. That text, which will reflect a certain consensus about specific institutions  – and not the abstract idea of independence – should be the subject of the next referendum.

This approach (which was adopted, for example, in Malta in 1964) has several advantages. On the one hand, it provides small-c conservatives with the certainty and reassurance that an independent Scotland will not be the next Cuba or Zimbabwe. On the other hand, protecting human rights and democratic processes may attract small-l liberals disenchanted by the UK’s authoritarian drift.

Developing a minimal but robust and sufficient constitution need not be difficult. It is a well-worn path. Although the UK has no written constitution, it has been the midwife of many. Dozens of the world’s constitutions were drafted with the assistance of British officials at Lancaster House. As a provisional measure, a constitution conforming to that tried and tested ‘Lancaster House’ model, but reflecting the existing provisions of the Scotland Act such as proportional representation, fixed term parliaments, and the election of the First Minister by Parliament, would be a great step forwards.

That provisional constitution would come into effect immediately on independence day and would see Scotland safely through the first years of independence. There would then be scope, during the first session of an independent Parliament for a more participatory constitution-building process which, if the people so desire, and if there is a sufficiently broad consensus, might lead to a more progressive and transformative constitution. Alternatively, we might find that a good provisional constitution is sufficient, that it becomes hallowed by practice, and that – like the French Constitution of 1875 and the German Constitution of 1949 – it loses its provisional character over time. Either way, a sound constitution foundation is necessary for the construction of a new Scottish state.