Dissenting Radical

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

Month: March, 2018

On the neutrality of the state

The problem with government agencies using companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook allegedly to swing the results of the Scottish independence referendum is not that these companies may have employed some subtle and underhand tactics, or that they are alleged to have misused data. That’s worrying in its own way, but its kind of incidental.

The real cause for concern is that the state, in contracting with these companies, may not have acted impartially: the boundary between party-politics and public administratio appears to have been blurred.

When the resources of the state, as distinct from the resources of a party, are put behind a campaign, it’s no longer free and fair. It’s a ‘managed referendum’, of the Napoleonic sort. Our future cannot be determined by such means.

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Gin, Gin, Glorious Gin

For me, gin is always a summer drink. A dog-watch cricket on the Wardroom lawn drink.

I wouldn’t thank you for a gin and tonic on a cold dark northern winter’s night. I want a mellow dark ale, with a balanced sweetness and a faint scent of porridge and caramel – and a steak and chips, please.

But sit me down in the late afternoon, beneath the shady awnings or the swirling ceiling fans in some tropical ex-colonial clime, and I will ask the turbaned bowing bar steward to bring me a gin and tonic every time.

I like it not too strong, over ice (if clean ice is available) and with a very large squeeze of fresh lime. Preferably with a good book (something by Sir Ivor Jennings or S. A. de Smith) and an interesting menu of deliciously spicy local dishes to choose from.

Under such conditions one sweats the calories out.  That’s my excuse.

Anyway, all this to say that yesterday I found out that I’m being sent back to Burma in a few weeks. Not a country I particularly like, but it does have its compensations. As long as the hotel has aircon and a steady supply of Bombay Sapphire, I’ll probably be ok.

England: the UK’s Last Colony

The book I am currently writing, provisionally entitled ‘Reclaiming Britain’s Global Constitution’ argues that the British constitutional tradition is more than just an insular tradition, confined to the British mainland. It is a global-imperial tradition, which finds itself manifested all over the Commonwealth. The UK, rather than being the exemplar, has in fact become the outlier in that tradition. The normal Westminster-derived democracy today has a written constitution, with a judicially enforceable bill of rights, a semi-rigid amendment formula, and a much clearer and more tightly limited statement of the reserve powers of the Head of State. Many also include reformed second chambers, proportional representation and federalism.

My contention is that a modern written constitution – Charter 88’s dream – need not be built out of ‘foreign’ materials, but out of materials which are of British design and origin, which were enacted by the British Parliament, animated by British traditions of parliamentary democracy, and enforced by British-trained judges. In making this point, I’m hoping to normalise the idea of a written constitution and to broaden its appeal, even amongst those who are still locked into a very ‘British’ and somewhat conservative constitutional mindset. I want to show that none of the things on the Charter 88 agenda are terribly radical, novel, or untried – they are mostly standard constitutional practice in many Commonwealth nations.

My difficulty, though, is that I cannot actually bring myself to write about a ‘British Constitution’. I just don’t see the UK – especially if Brexit goes ahead – as something that can be saved, or that is really worth saving. A federal arrangement, even if politically possible, would be clunky, inefficient, and unlikely to satisfy anyone. Sometimes, being independent is just the simpler, easier, cheaper option.

Having in the past written extensively on Scotland, I’m now thinking more in terms of presenting a draft ‘model Constitution for England’. This is motivated in part by a sense that the key to the democratic political renovation which we all so desperately need lies in reawakening in England a sense of itself as a post-colonial country. Perhaps the best hope for all of us, across the UK, is for England to rediscover the civic and political nationhood that was lost in the imperial project of 1707, and to constitute itself anew through a democratic and inclusive constituent process. The project is not, then, to reform the UK, but to replace it – while keeping, of course, the shared Commonwealth heritage and all the opportunities for co-operation and friendship that that entails.

Building on Solid Rock

Today I’ve been nervously pondering Miroslav Volf’s words: “A post-truth world is a post-justice world, and a post-justice world looks either like North Korea or Syria.”

This poses a challenge to those, like me, who have spent a lot of time studying and supporting the structures of democracy.

I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that the structures we have (not in the UK, but in most advanced democracies with modern constitutions) are basically sound, give or take a little tinkering here and there. However, the foundations – the ethical expectations, norms and virtues that make a civic and democratic possible – are being corroded. If unchecked, this corrosion could have disastrous consequences, which no amount of institutional redesign can fix.

This isn’t to say that constitutions, laws and institutions are unimportant. Clearly they do matter. But they must rest upon solid foundations. Unless we value truth, justice, peace, decorum, public service and responsibility then  we are building on sand.

These values are not endogenous to the constitution itself. They come from outside of law and politics, arising from civil society, from education and from religion. They have to be nurtured anew in each generation.