Dissenting Radical

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

Month: January, 2018

Idle Thoughts on the Constitution of Samoa

The Constitution of Samoa is an excellent example of what one might call a ‘minimal acceptable constitution’ based on the Westminster Export model:

* a single chamber Parliament elected by First Past the Post for five year terms

* a Prime Minister and Cabinet responsible to Parliament

* an indirectly elected ceremonial Head of State, with narrowly specified reserve powers

* a fairly minimal bill of rights (just ECHR-essentials)

* an independent judiciary headed by a supreme court with powers of constitutional review

* a few ‘fourth branch’ institutions – a public service commission, an auditor-general, an ombudsman, and a judicial service commission (but no electoral commission)

* a fairly simple amendment formula (two-thirds majority in Parliament)

The design is crudely majoritarian. A unicameral Parliament elected by FPTP allows little scope for the representation of minorities. There are few internal checks and balances, since key appointments to the judiciary and fourth branch institutions are made solely by the Prime Minister (and not, as in most other Westminster Export constitutions, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition). Even the Speaker of Parliament, instead of being elected by the House in a secret non-partisan ballot, is in effect chosen by the Prime Minister.  Moreover, many features found in more recent constitutions are absent: there are no provisions on campaign finance regulation, for example, or freedom of information. The result is a very strong executive and a rather weak, reactive Parliament – especially considering the country’s long tradition of one-party dominance.

Nevertheless, the Constitution of Samoa is an elegant and fascinating example of its genre. It is tightly and neatly drafted. It represents both (a) an efficient distillation of the essential principles of the Westminster Model into the form of a written Constitution, and (b) the intelligent adaption of those principles to a very specific context: a thriving traditional, religious, indigenous culture.

Samoa’s odd compromise between a monarchy and a republic is a good example of its adaptation of the Westminster Export model to national culture. The office of Head of State is now elective, being chosen by Parliament, but in practice and by convention one of the country’s four paramount chiefs is invariably elected to that position. Another intriguing adaptation is the electoral system, in which people vote not in their constituency of residence, but in their traditional home villages, with only traditional chiefs being eligible for election.  Two seats are reserved for non-indigenous Samoan citizens, who do not fit within this structure and who have their own electoral roll.

Also notable is how the Constitution’s structural and substantive provisions, which are of a minimal, liberal-procedural nature, are paired with a rhetorical – even theological – preamble which performs some of the nation-defining, identity-proclaiming functions of a Constitution.

A ‘Samoan Model’ for Scotland?

An independent Scotland can do better than this. We need to protect proportional representation, and do more to ensure that ‘fourth branch’ institutions are not captured by the governing party. There’s also scope for more reliance on referendums (especially in the amendment process, as a mechanism of popular sovereignty), a more expansive bill of rights, and greater attention both to the exclusion of money and the inclusion of the public in the policy-making process. Yet, we could also do much worse. With a few relatively minor changes along these lines, the Constitution of Samoa might provide a template for an acceptable ‘starter constitution’ to at least get us through the first years of independence.

The relative modesty of such a Constitution would be its greatest asset, since it would meet those who oppose written Constitutions (whether on principle or through obstinate British ignorance) half way. Rhetorical preamble aside, it is a Constitution with limited ambitions. It does not set out grand sweeping visions. It doesn’t try to change the world through constitutional prescription. It leaves a lot of room for ordinary politics. It simply provides a fairly neutral institutional and legal framework in which parliamentary democracy can take place. Given that not having a written Constitution is simply not an option open to a newly independent state that wishes to be taken seriously in the community of democracies today, that should be something to which even conservatives can agree.


Expanding Brain

My theological journey: 1997 to 2018


Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, 2018

Trump is what the ancients would have called a ‘tyrant’.

We associate tyranny with harsh and repressive rule, but the origins of the word in classical political thought were more nuanced than that. The tyrant is not necessarily a harsh or authoritarian ruler, but a corrupted populist who debases the republic and treats it as if it were his own personal fiefdom.

Tyrants come to power through popularity, and usually sustain themselves in office by winning elections – although often with a fair amount of corruption, nepotism and deceit.

Tyrants claim to rule on behalf of ordinary people, but it is a sham; they rule, in fact, to serve their own personal interests and those of their corrupt little clique.

Tyrants see law not as a heavy club beat people down, but as a subtle, pliable instrument, which can be bent, twisted and selectively applied; law under a tyrant does not necessarily become more harsh, but it loses its impartiality.

Above all, tyrants do not rule by force or fear, but by an appeal to the passions – they are persuaders, communicators, and masters of the sort of vile-lipped sophistry that Plato attacked in Gorgias. Trump is not alone in this.  There are others, too, in other countries closer to home. But, in the English-speaking world, Trump is the virtuoso.

It’s not that Trump merely lies; if he did, we would be called out on it, and would never have been electable. No, he does something far more diabolical: he makes the boundary between truth and untruth appear to disappear. He spins a web of words so dense, so impenetrable, so entangling, that you are caught and devoured before you even know it. All you will remember of Trump in years to come is that he’s a ‘very stable genius’, who beat ‘crooked Hillary’ and ‘low energy’ Bush. He’s a master manipulator of the message, medium and mind.

That should worry anyone who cares about genuine democracy: a democracy not dependent on the popularity of particular persons, but embedded in stable institutions and in fair rules fairly applied; a democracy conducted with decorum, in which we have regard for truth; a democracy with a sense of responsibility, where we seek to reason together through moral argument and to discern and achieve common goods, rather than serving selfish, partisan or short-term interests.

I’m tempted to say, ‘against fake news, Good News’, but that’s probably a bit too simplistic.

Brexit: Democracy at Work?

The Brexit referendum might be ‘old news’ by now, but the need to cultivate good citizens, if we are to have a good democracy, is an ever-present issue of the greatest importance.

Vinoth Ramachandra

I arrived in London the day after the results of the British referendum. I found many of my friends in a state of shock and dismay. The Brexit vote has revealed the deep fissures in British society- between London and the rest of the country, between economic classes, between urban and rural populations, between Scots and English, and even between generations (the young voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU).

The vast majority of non-Europeans are unaffected by what has happened here. But what has been most troubling- indeed horrifying- was the way the political campaign was fought. It mirrored the vicious obscurantism of the current American presidential campaign.

The “Remain” camp, led by the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron, exaggerated the security threats and economic fall-out of leaving the EU. But the “Leave” camp, led by the ambitious Boris Johnson, traded on blatant lies which the tabloid media swallowed…

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Three Quotes: Vinoth Ramachandra

“It is interesting that while the middle-classes of the world resent the populism of politicians who exploit the ignorance of the peasantry, there is little comparable anger at the subversion of democracy by the super-rich.”

“Gross economic inequalities destroy social solidarity, and subvert democratic participation. Wherever we happen to live in the world, we know that those who have more resources are able to manipulate public policy in their favour at the expense of those with fewer.”

“…where people care more about their own sectional interests than the common good, liberal democracy cannot flourish.”


Source: https://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/which-democracy/

Music and Memory

Looking through my father’s music collection, thinking about music and the memories it evokes.

There is lots of Sam Cooke, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Morrison. Then some Gilbert & Sullivan, Handel, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

I have memories of him listening to all this music when I was growing up, especially in the car on long journeys (except when Test Match Special or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue was on the radio, of course) or while he was smoking his pipe – in the study or in the garden – on Sunday afternoons.

Why Church is Difficult (Again)

You know how dogs are supposed to have seven years for our one, so that a dog that’s one year old is equivalent to a seven year old human child?

Well, I think there’s something like that in ‘christian years’. I’ve been a christian for twenty years, but in terms of my actual spiritual maturity I feel about four or five. Not quite a ‘babe in Christ’, but certainly not where I should be at this point.

I’ve had lots of interesting experiences, yes. Lots of philosophising and arguing and exploring, testing, pulling it apart and putting it back together again, going down side roads and getting lost and turning around and retracing steps. But actual growth into christian maturity has been slow. I was pretty clear in my commitment, after a period of real doubts and wavering, when I finally got baptised in 2011 – but even since then I have mostly seen christianity as an intellectual puzzle to be solved, not a life to be lived.

I’m not sure I’d change it. I have broader, deeper, less brittle foundations now, and in that sense it has been worthwhile. But I do think it’s time to bear fruit in some more direct way – to ‘go back to basics’ in developing some rudimentary spiritual discipline and focus in my life: I’m going to aim for daily bible reading and weekly communion in 2018. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, one of my new resolutions is to try to connect again, in a more regular and committed way, with a local church.

Yet still I am wary of getting too relationally involved. The sad truth is that I’ve never really found a church where I can be comfortable and honest. I’ve found that it is best to hang around at the edges, keeping a safe distance and not let one’s guard down. Keep up appearances, don’t draw attention, and don’t – whatever you do – speak your mind.

Part of the problem is that, while I no longer accept the ‘Unitarian’ label, and have moved towards a more orthodox and mainstream Christology (accepting the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ), I’m still quite theologically liberal on lots of issues:

  • I don’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis, accepting modern science and fitting my theology around that framework. 
  • I have very mixed views about the whole homosexuality issue (I certainly don’t see it as straightforwardly ‘wrong’, although I can see both sides of a very complex argument). 
  • I don’t believe in an inerrant view of scripture; I see it more as a record of dialogue between God and his people, in which revelation comes piecemeal and indirectly, amongst particular times and contexts – so it has to be read and applied accordingly. 
  • I believe in universal reconciliation – that God will restore and redeem all things, and that none ultimately will be lost forever. 
  • I don’t understand salvation in the way evangelicals do (much closer to Eastern Orthodox view). I certainly don’t think that the cross, in itself, was what bought salvation; although it was the means by which God declared it. The resurrection is far more central to our salvation than the crucifixion. 
  • I don’t accept the medieval / Platonic view that salvation is about ‘going to heaven when you die’ – I have been convinced by N T Wright’s argument that salvation is about being ‘put right by God now so that you can contribute to God’s work of putting the world right’ – it is intrinsically linked to the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not come so that we could ‘go to heaven’, but to launch the project of ‘creating a new heaven and a new earth’.
  • I’m convinced that the practical response to all of this much necessarily involve Christians in social and political action on behalf of the poor, oppressed and dispossessed. Christianity cannot be just a nice hobby: it invariably puts one against ‘the principalities and the powers’ and against the ‘rulers of this age’. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

I could go on.

So what I have to guard against, in seeking to engage with a local church, is letting any of this out. The result of doing so, I have found to my cost, is almost always to be horribly and sometimes quite brutally rejected. It leads to being ‘anathematised’ or treated as ‘apostate’. Apparently, you are not a ‘real Christian’, in the eyes of many, if you hold such views.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Over the last twenty years, I have learned that there is much more to being a ‘real Christian; than holding to a narrowly conservative-evangelical understanding.

I know I am not alone in that. But I have never found a church where it is actually safe and acceptable to express such views.

There are perhaps two reasons why this should be so. Firstly, for a lot of people Christianity really is a crutch – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. They used to be alcoholics, or homeless, or on drugs, or came from a bad situation – and meeting Jesus turned their life around – but they experienced this within a fairly narrow, hard, brittle framework. They don’t want that framework to be challenged, explored or expanded. To do so is interpreted, often, as a personal attack – it shakes the basis on which their life has been built, and they just cannot engage in an open discussion of these things.

I had a particularly nasty experience of this on Iona, where some guy threatened to punch me, simply because in the course of what had until that point been a relatively civilised conversation I let it slip that I believe in universal reconciliation. This was beyond the pale for him, and he was so angry and confused by it that he became violent.

Secondly, for others Christianity is more like a tradition, a tribal identity, a way things are and have been. This tends to affect those from relatively more privileged and prosperous backgrounds. Often they are not very interested in the radical elements of Jesus’ teaching; they like religion, but are wary of the Kingdom of God. They, too, are difficult to engage in open discussion. They are much more interested in making sure that Things Stay Exactly As They Are.

Between these two extremes, it’s hard to find people who come into the faith with an open and enquiring mind. There are some, of course, but they are the minority in any church. It is easier to interact with them in other settings – like online. I miss the Ship of Fools website for that reason.

As I seek, this year, to develop a more active church connection and a more stable and disciplined spiritual life, I will have to find ways to navigate these difficulties – to keep my views and my questions to myself while just joining in with the worship and the sacraments, or else to find spaces in which they can be explored in relative safety.

England’s New Jerusalem: Imagining a post-WWII ‘Labour Constitution’.

I have spent a happy, wistful afternoon speculatively imagining what the political systems of Britain might look like today had the Labour Government of 1945 been as radical on constitutional reform as on economic policy.

It is not difficult to speculate on the sort of Constitution that Labour might have adopted, had it been so inclined: proportional representation; abolition of the Lords and the monarchy; disestablishment of the Church of England; a written constitution with judicially-enforced rights, some entrenchment of socio-economic principles; and a commitment to the principle of national self-determination.

While in European and even Commonwealth terms this would not have been particularly novel by the middle of the 20th century, it would have been shocklingly radical by Britain’s uniquely antiquated standards. Even today, it would be a step too far for many in Britain: keeping the monarchy, albeit in an attenuated form, seems to be the first condition of being taken seriously outside a small circle of republican purists.

Because I’m committed to the idea of expanding the ‘constitutional imagination’, I have taken the liberty of sketching it out HERE (link downloads .pdf file).

I believe that seeing and reading constitutional texts is vital in helping people who have never lived under a written constitution to grasp and to feel the reality, as well as to intellectually understand the theory, of constitutional democracy.

This particular text is based – quite closely – on the 1948 constitution for Israel which was drafted by Leo Kohn. Kohn, in turn, was influenced by the Constitution of Ireland, which was indirectly influenced by its Westminster progenitor. This text, for all its apparent radicalism, does not actually fall very far from the tree – the basic mechanisms of the Westminster system are preserved, but in a more democratic constitutional form.

Of course, all this is idle speculation. Labour in 1945 – like Labour today – was a party devoid of constitutional imagination. It was content to alter policies, without altering institutions. It left the structures of an oligarchic-aristocratic, and potentially quite authoritarian, state intact – until Blair came along for some half-hearted tinkering.

This unequally yoked union between constitutional conservatism and economic radicalism cannot endure; without a strong concept of republican citizenship, founded upon common right and freedom, it is hard to sustain the moral, ethical and rhetorical foundations of a just economic order. It is hard, without clear constitutional rights and principles, to maintain the institutions of democracy in a healthy state against the insidious incursions of oligarchic power.

The left in Scotland – through the Scottish independence movement – has been thinking about constitutional matters for decades now. It is time for the left in England to do likewise, to break free of its inherited Burkean assumptions, and to recover another tradition – the tradition of the Levellers, of the Radical Whigs, and of Thomas Paine.

Twenty years ago: Remembering 1998.

The thing I miss most about twenty years ago was the sense of optimism.

In the long decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks (2001), we were living in the ‘End of History’.

Liberal democracy had won. It had defeated all authoritarian and totalitarian alternatives. The Free West had won the cold war with nothing more lethal than coca-cola, blue jeans, and rock-n-roll. We’d solved all the big ideological questions, and everything else was just detail.

Democratic capitalism (the words were not then oxymoronic) was working: with just enough regulation and redistribution to make it tolerably fair, free enterprise was going to put a VCR and a PC into every home.

Yes, there were still problems, but we knew how to solve them. We had the answers, and the technology, and the money. It was going to be ok after all. We had figured out the way to the good life, and it involved TV diners and hanging out at the mall. We were going to be safe and free and rich and happy forever. World without end, Amen.

Then it all went to shit.

On a personal note, in 1998 I didn’t have sciatica or hemorrhoids.

Westminster Export Models

The Westminster Model as actually practiced at Westminster is the sort of undocumented pre-release prototype. It’s got a lot of loose ends and historical quirks that have just never been fixed, which make it messy and clunky.

If you want to see the Westminster Model in its advanced form, you have to look at the Export Variants. It would be better to read, say, the Constitution of India or even that of Ireland – which are 20th century systematisations of the key elements of the Westminster system, adapted to different national contexts.

It’s interesting that the Westminster model, in its essentials, can exist with a written constitution, judicially-enforced rights, elected second chamber, federalism, republican head of state, even proportional representation, and yet still be recognisable in its basic functioning and dynamics .