Dissenting Radical

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

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Winning the hard-won fight

I’m not the sort of chap who goes to marches and demos. I see all these pictures from the anti-Trump demonstrations, and the anti-Brexit demonstrations, and the anti-this and the anti-that and the ‘Stop Thatcher’, and it all just turns me off. It’s good to be against these things. They are wicked and harmful, and one should oppose them.

But it all puts us on the back foot. The agenda has been set since the late 1970s by the right – first the neoliberal right and now by the neofascist right (I use the term with caution, but without exaggeration).

We (by which I mean all who believe in world where liberal-democratic freedom is preserved within an economy based on social-democratic justice) have to get out of the habit of opposing, and into the habit of proposing.

We have to do the hard work of building a better future, because the future we otherwise face is pretty grim, and no inflatable balloon is going to fix it. We must be prepared to do the hard intellectual work of understanding problems and developing better alternatives; the hard moral work of calling people to a higher standard of justice, ethics and integrity – and holding ourselves to those standard; the hard organisational work of building movements and coalitions; the hard communicative work of reaching out to people and making those alternatives attractive.

None of that is achieved by a nice day out feeling good about ourselves in the sunshine with an ‘Trump is a fanny’ banner. Those who do that are on the side of the good, and I don’t want to criticise them.

I do, however, want to challenge their methods. When I was at BRNC Dartmouth, I was introduced to the ‘Principles of War’ – a set of guiding principles to be applied to military campaigning, distilled from history. Those principles are equally applicable to any other form of human struggle, from the sporting to the political, where one side must defeat the other to avoid being defeated.

Let no one be under any illusions. We are necessarily engaged in a great struggle for human freedom, justice and dignity – a struggle which echoes that of the 1930s, and which will require a resolute and coordinated effort if we are to avoid catastrophe. I would ask those celebrating their pyrrhic victory over Trump what they have actually achieved – or hope to achieve – in terms of changing policy and winning hearts and minds. How do they look to the people who voted for Trump, or to the people in the UK who want a Trump of their own? I’d ask them to consider whether, in practice, their efforts are the most effective way to help the cause.

I fear that what we are seeing in these marches and demonstrations is the political equivalent to an Arab army: ill-disciplined, badly led, poorly trained, with a dysfunctional or non-existent logistics tail, and riddled with internal tribal factions which prevent it from operating as a coherent whole. They are shooting their guns in the air, making a lot of noise, and having a very fun time of it, while waiting to be annihilated by a better organised and more disciplined adversary.

Democracy is in peril. The achievements of the 20th century are about to be undone, because the lessons of the 20th century are being forgotten. It’s time to stop merely opposing and start building; start preparing to take and hold ground.

Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope in years to come?

Imagine being a Roman pagan in the fourth century AD. The tide of time is against you. The old gods you cling to are shorn of credibility and public honour. The rites seem obscure and arcane, and the old priests who can still practice them are corrupt and dithering. Your temples falling into ruins. Your philosophy and culture are neglected.

To me, that’s sometimes what it feels like being a Christian in 21st century Western Europe. I wonder whether some day soon, people will wander around St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey as we might climb over the ruins of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. Perhaps, for most people, that what these building already are: anachronistic monuments, relics of a former age, reminders of a civilisation that has passed away and of a system of belief that just cannot be believed in any more.

How long can we cling on, as a misunderstood minority whose beliefs seem incredible and whose lay of life seems absurd? Is it really true? Is the Holy Spirit going to turn all this around? Or might we just as well pray to Jupiter and Minerva?

Maybe we really are ‘living in the last days’ – not in a crazy dispensationalist ‘rapture-ready’ sense, but simply in the sense that Christianity is fading out into nothingness, drifting away, and leaving behind just amoral rational egoism, consumerism, and soulless techno-capitalism. That is, if we are not all swept under the merciless hooves of radical Islam first.

That would be a terrible loss for humanity. But sometimes I fear it is almost an inevitable one. And at a time when 81% of White evangelicals in the US voted for Trump – a man whose policy involves ripping children out of the arms of their poor frightened mothers and putting them in cages – one wonders whether saving Christianity is worth the effort. Perhaps Christianity has become so morally lost itself that it deserves to die.

I don’t know how to respond to this. It seems to me that the crisis we are facing is not merely a constitutional crisis, an economic crisis, or a political crisis, but a civilisational and moral crisis – a crisis which ultimately stems from the mass abandonment of the theological roots which held Western civilisation together. Perhaps, without the True Vine, everything withers.

Perhaps I should be doing more to tend that vine. I don’t know. It all seems so terribly bleak.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon us

Thoughts on the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The Spanish-American war of 1898 is perhaps one of the world’s forgotten wars, but it is well worth studying. It took place at an interesting time in the development of military technology, when the rapid firing rifle was beginning to show its destructive power, previewing the conditions of slaughter and stalemate that marked the First World War.

From a PSYOPs/Media Ops perspective it is fascinating, too. It was provoked by means of what is now known to have been a ‘false-flag’ operation, when the explosion on the USS Maine was blamed on the Spanish. Because of developing media technologies, it was the first war to be shown to the public at home through cinema newsreels, and – in an age of mass communications, mass literacy and mass democracy, it was perhaps the first true ‘media war’ (at least from the American side).

More importantly, the ‘War of 1898’ was strategically important for twentieth century history. It was the war which launched the US as an imperial power – giving it dominion over Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines, and opening up the Pacific as well as the Caribbean to US influence.

The loss of those colonies finally ended the Spanish Empire, causing a political shockwave in Spain which, amongst other things, lead to the modern Catalan national movement, the collapse of Spain’s fragile democracy (established under the Constitution of 1874 but never properly consolidated), and a period of political instability which ended in the Civil War and Franco.

One could even argue that the Spanish-American war was responsible for bringing the US into the Second World War (because its presence in the Pacific brought it into tension with Japan) and for keeping Spain out of the Second World War (because it was a defeated, demoralised power, which could only look inwards and backwards).

All of this is to say that by the end of today, I’m supposed to provide an analysis of proposed reforms to the Constitution of the Philippines – a country about which I know nothing, other than the old saying that it spent ‘400 years in a monastery’ (under Spanish rule) and ’50 years in a brothel’ (under American rule).

Some points about the BBC

1. No doubt mid-level staff do take issues of ‘fairness and balance’ seriously, but the question of what is considered ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’ depends very much on your perspective, and what you regard as legitimate vs illegitimate criticism. I suspect that there is quite a lot of implicit, unacknowledged group-think in that regard – not least in terms of who is recruited, and the processes of internal socialisation into the institutional culture. Even when it has tried to be impartial between the main UK-wide political parties, it has always seen its role as defending and promoting a ‘British national interest’ which necessarily means drawing a line between what is, and what is not, in that interest – and that means making political decisions. Look at how it fawns and grovels on royal occasions.

2. There is a reputable study of BBC bias on the Scottish independence referendum – showing how timing, framing and other techniques were used to portray independence in a bad light, without being so obvious as to entirely exclude pro-independence voices. For me, this forever and totally destroyed the BBC’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.

3. This is an institution where the directors are appointed by the government (Secretary of State for Culture last time I checked), overseen by a parliament committee in which the government have a majority, which is ultimately dependent on the government for funding (renewal of license fee), and which is structured on the basis of a Royal Charter which the government can change at will – what about that institutional set up makes one for a moment suspect that such an institution could be capable of being ‘fair and balanced’ even if it wanted to be? It has always been a semi-official organ of the British government, and has always been subject to subtle and non-so-subtle political influence.

4. There is a lot of overlap, at the top levels, between the BBC’s news and current affairs staff and the political elite – mostly Tories these days, but also Blairite Labour in the 1990s, following the political patronage of the day. The ‘revolving door’ between party politics and the BBC is very much open. Like when a certain senior former politician whose name I will not mention was put in charge, and he refused to give up his Conservative party membership.

5. This doesn’t detract from its excellent comedy, light entertainment, cultural and educational output – although one could argue that even much of that promotes a certain view of the world which is Anglo-centric and deferential.

6. For-profit, corporately owned media would probably worse. I’m not one of those ‘abolish the BBC’ types. But changes to its governance structures, to fix points 3 and 4, and perhaps to shift the institutional culture to fix point 1, would be very helpful.

Democracy: Hold the line or defence in Depth?

How does the concept of ‘defence in depth’ apply to the preservation of liberal-democracy in these perilous times?

Does one fight on the front line and give no quarter, at the risk of being overrun by a sudden assault? Or should we retreat into strongholds which may be more resilient and provide the springboard for a strategic counter-offensive?

The former would mean concentrating efforts and resources on defending liberal-democracy in those countries where it is now under direct, imminent attack.

The latter would mean concentrating instead on deepening, strengthening and consolidating liberal-democracy in those places where it is not currently under heavy attack. The aim would be to ensure that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, although overshadowed in some countries for some time, does not perish from the earth; then, it is hoped, when the moment is opportune, we may advance and reconquer the lands which were lost.

To put it in more concrete, historical terms: do we oppose Hitler in, say, 1933 and Mussolini in 1924, and stake all on putting foul tyrannical demagogues out of power as soon as possible? Or do we put our energies into something like Roosevelt’s New Deal, revitalising and reinvigorating democracy in places where it is strained but alive, so that it can ultimately come to the aid of others in restoring the ‘free world’?

T-shirts: 3 for 10 Euros.

They make Che Guevara t-shirts
In Communist China, for profit
The owners get rich
The workers get exploited
And the people who buy the t-shirts
Have no idea what’s wrong
With their stupid pop-culture icons.

Bob Marley’s name crowns a hemp leaf
As if freeing your mind from mental slavery
Demanded nothing more than a puff of smoke
And barely a idle thought wasted
On those toiling in slave-like conditions
To harvest the cotton or weave it sweatshops
Into fashion statements of lazy radicalism.

Donald Trump’s piggy face, saying
‘Make America Great Again’
They don’t say who it’s gonna be great for
But it probably won’t be you
Unless you own a lot of stock
In the instruments of repression
In which case it’s tremendous.

Thoughts from Anywhere

I’ve been reading David Goodhart’s book “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics”.  I highly recommend it.

In gist, his argument is that the main fault line of current politics is not between economic left and right (although that remains important), but between ‘Anywhere’s – the educated, mobile and liberal – and ‘Somewheres’ – the less educated, more rooted and communitarian.

I’m the archetypical ‘Anywhere’. In our home, we speak three languages – but none of them is the language of the country we live in. I have a PhD, my wife an MSc, both from Russell Group universities. We have properties in two countries. We have bank accounts in three countries. If my phone rings, it’s much more likely to be someone from Nairobi, New York, Cape Town or Yangon than someone from down the road. This is reflected in our sense of scale: when I think of ‘the North’, I don’t think of Leeds or Newcastle, but a working trip to our Stockholm office. When I think of the ‘the South’, I mean going down to our holiday home in the South of France. The word ‘local’ means anywhere between Brussels and Amsterdam – anywhere that I can get there and back in a day by train. I know no one in the town where I grew up, but I share an office with a Georgian, a Frenchwoman, an Ethiopian, a Spanish-German, a Hungarian, a Ugandan, two Dutch folks, and one other British passport holder (who does not regard himself as British).

I live in a bubble – personal and professional – where the prevailing values are those of what Goodhart calls ‘double liberalism’; an individualist cast of politics which combines free market economics with progressive views on social and cultural issues.

And yet,  as someone who cares about ordinary working people, I find that Goodhart’s observations resonate with me. I’m not sure why, but  my values and concerns, are essentially those of a Somewhere. I find the prevailing ‘double liberalism’ shallow, self-defeating, anti-democratic and cruelly indifferent to the economic, social and cultural needs of ordinary working people. As someone who has no place, I know better than most how much place matters. Place, family, tradition, faith, community, solidarity – these things, so alien to those around me, are constituent parts of a good, flourishing life. We dismiss them at our peril.

One quick example struck me yesterday. My twitter feed is filled with nice liberal progressive Anywheres complaining about the lack of diversity on the Boards of Directors of big companies – but Goodhart’s observation that ‘most women care less about women on the Board of Directors and more about their man having a steady income so that they can raise a family’ (I’m paraphrasing from memory) rings true. Maybe more, many more, women would actually be helped – and that help more needed – if we could strengthen unions, restrain capital, and increase wages for working men, rather than focusing on women who are already at or near the top of their professions and at the top of the income pyramid. Yet – no matter how true this might be, it would be blasphemy to utter it. The assumption would immediately be that I’m some sort of angry misogynist – when nothing could be further from reality. That’s how far the language, ideology and assumptions of ‘double liberalism’ have overtaken our culture.


Thoughts on the 2013 Constitution of Fiji

Fiji’s Constitutional History

Fiji became independent from the United Kingdom in 1970, and at first adopted a standard ‘Westminster Export Model’ constitution of the type then in vogue. However, unlike other countries – such as India under Nehru’s leadership, which abolished communal electorates when they had the opportunity to forge an independent constitutional future – Fiji retained a system of communal representation. Seats in the House of Representatives were allocated to the Indigenous ( iTaukei), Indo-Fijian and European communities according to a complex formula, while a bloc seats in the Senate were reserved for the nominees of the Great Council of Chiefs.

The constitutional history of Fiji since independence has been turbulent, with ethnic tensions between the iTaukei and Indo-Fijian communities leading to repeated military coups, which have undermined the consolidation of parliamentary liberal-democracy. New constitutions adopted in 1990 and 1997, which maintained systems of communal representation, failed to address the underlying ethnic issues.

The 2013 Constitution

The current Constitution, adopted in 2013, had a shaky start. It was not adopted by an open and participatory process. Indeed, the draft which had been produced by an independent Constitutional Commission, under the leadership of Prof. Yash-Pal Ghai, so displeased the military government that it was seized by the police, and copies of it publicly burned. After that, the government took constitution-making into its own hands, and proclaimed the new Constitution without recourse to a Constituent Assembly, referendum, or any other expression of popular endorsement.

Yet, for all the difficult circumstances of its birth, the 2013 Constitution may be the best yet in Fiji’s history. Whereas all other constitutions had attempted to accommodate ethnic communities through institutionally-engineered consociationalism, the 2013 Constitution adopted a ‘one Fiji’ approach. It did away with communal representation, guaranteed seats, and the Great Council of Chiefs. It embraced the idea of a common, equal citizenship which would – it was hoped – transcend ethnic divisions. In practical terms, this meant the establishment of a unicameral Parliament, proportionally elected, from one national voter roll, in one nationwide constituency (as in the Netherlands and Israel).

The resulting 2013 Constitution is in many ways a nice example of a modern interpretation of the Westminster Export Model, with an extensive bill of rights, proportionally elected parliament, and a full set of independent commissions. Of course it has its imperfections, which have been amply highlighted by the constitution’s critics: the lack of restrictions on the number of ministers, the draconian provisions for enforcing party discipline, wide ‘claw back’ clauses which may allow restrictive limitations on rights, the excessive appointment powers of the PM through the Constitutional Offices Commission, and some unnecessarily messy rules on the premature dissolution of Parliament. However, these are not debilitating flaws. All constitutions are imperfect compromises, and there’s nothing there that falls outside the scope of ‘normality’ compared with the constitutions of other Commonwealth nations, nor that in principle could not be easily fixed by a few minor amendments.

If one were looking for models for, say, an independent Scottish constitution (especially if one is convinced by the ideas of the Republican Left of the independence movement, which favours abolition of the monarchy and extensive socio-economic rights), then Fiji’s supreme law would in many ways not be a bad place to start.

Excessive Rigidity

It does, however, have one major, possibly fatal flaw: the amendment rule. Constitutional amendments require a 3/4 majority in Parliament, followed by a 3/4 majority of the people in a referendum. That’s an absurdly high threshold. It makes it more rigid even than the US constitution.

I spend a lot of time reassuring those who worry about the tendency of constitutions to lock-in past decisions and prevent future progress that their fears are misplaced: constitutions, while rightfully harder to change than ordinary law, are not set in stone.  But the Fijian constitution would confirm the worst of these fears.  Winning a constitutional referendum is always difficult – there is usually an inertial advantage for the status quo; winning a three-fourths majority of the total registered electorate, as required in Fiji, is for most practical purposes impossible. Such excessive rigidity does not produce stability. It creates a brittle constitution which, because it cannot bend, is likely to break.

The SNP’S 2002 draft constitution for Scotland, in contrast, proposed a much simpler and more sensible amendment formula: 3/5 majority in Parliament followed by a simple majority in a referendum. I’m not even sure that a referendum should be required for all amendments; perhaps popular sovereignty should be invoked only for those of a fundamental nature.

Protecting against Destructive Amendments

There’s another way of looking at this, of course. One of the reasons why constitutions have relatively higher amendment thresholds is to prevent regressive, partisan, or self-interested ‘destructive amendments’ – those which would enable one party or leader to consolidate power.

In Hungary, the amendment rule is a two-thirds majority in Parliament – no referendum requirement, no intervening election. Fidesz won a two-thirds majority on a little less than half of the vote (having first changed the electoral law, which is a good reason for electoral laws to be constitutionalised and not subject to change by ordinary legislation); they then proceeded to unilaterally tear-up and replace the 1989 constitutional settlement, consolidating power in a regime which is violating the norms of liberal democracy.

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that the Fijians had opted for an amendment rule like that proposed for Scotland – a three-fifths majority in Parliament followed by a simple majority in a referendum. On the basis of the 2014 general election, the governing party – which won 32 of the 50 seats in Parliament, would have had the ability to re-write the constitution in self-interested, power-consolidating ways, as long as it could get a simple majority backing in a referendum (which could well be played out on ethnic lines). As it is, the constitution places some real limits on the abuse of power – protecting judicial independence, ensuring the regularity of elections, ensuring proportional representation etc – and protects those things against unilateral changes by the government.

Again, on the basis of the 2014 election results, a three-fourths majority necessary to amendment the constitution in Parliament can be achieved if the government and the main opposition party (which between them have 47 of the 50 seats, with just 3 seats having been won by a third party) concur. In practice, this gives both of the major communities in Fiji – the iTaukei and the Indo-Fijians a veto over changes. A lower amendment threshold would not have done that.

I still have reservations about the difficulty of getting amendments passed through a referendum (this has been an issue in other Commonwealth small island states, such as Grenada and in St Vincent & the Grenadines), and I do think there’s a case for minor and technical amendments to be made without a referendum, but perhaps in the Fijian context a three-fourths majority at the parliamentary level is not such a bad idea.

Concluding Reflections

The underlying problem with the Fijian constitution is not so much its content, but the lack of political consensus in support of it. It is a democratic constitution adopted by undemocratic means. Because it was imposed by the military, and not rooted in a genuine cross-party political agreement, it remains a source of dispute and division, rather than being a common foundation for democratic politics. The main opposition party has remained critical of the constitution and has promised, if it wins power in the elections due by September 2018, to restore institutions such as the Great Council of Chiefs which formerly represented the interests of iTaukei.

The challenge for those seeking to consolidate constitutional government and parliamentary democracy in Fiji is therefore two-fold. Firstly, they must allow the constitution to ‘settle’, that is, to become accepted and respected across the political spectrum. Several constitutions of dubiously democratic origin have, over time, achieved broad political and public acceptance. If Fiji’s constitution proves its capacity to deliver stability, democracy, human rights, good governance, development, and other tangible and intangible public goods, then it may eventually overcome the inauspicious circumstances of its birth. The ability of the constitution, through its high amendment threshold, to restrain egregious abuses of power and to prevent regressive amendments, may help in this process – as noted above, it gives both Government and Opposition, and in practice both Indo-Fijians and iTaukei a veto. It thereby establishes a sort of balance between them in which both have something to gain by preserving the constitution.  A crucial test will be whether there is a change of government after the 2018 elections, and whether, if so, the new government will accept in practice the constitution’s authority.

Secondly, they must find ways for the constitution to change and evolve over time to meet changing needs. This may involve creating space for constitutional evolution short of formal amendment (e.g. through statutory provisions, judicial interpretation, and political conventions). For example, some of the decrees from the era of military rule which were preserved by the Constitution could be re-enacted by Parliament in less draconian form. At some point, however, there may come a point at which the clearly written provisions of the constitution pinch, and then the test then will be to see whether an agreement can be reached on amendment, or whether recourse will be had once to illegal and unconstitutional change through the barrel of a gun.

Scotland should join the Commonwealth

This week is a busy one for the Commonwealth, with both the Commonwealth Games coming to a close in Australia and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting being held in London.

The Commonwealth is by any measure a good organisation. It does beneficial work in many different spheres: sport, culture, education, trade, development, and of course in my own field of democracy, good governance and human rights.

The Commonwealth is founded upon a great idea: that nations can achieve sovereignty and equality, while still retaining historical family ties, and while freely co-operating across a wide range of policy areas on matters of common concern. That’s exactly the sort of grown up relationship-of-equals that the Scottish independence movement is trying to create, and the Commonwealth provides a forum and foundation for it.

The Commonwealth’s common values are expressed in the Commonwealth Charter is a fine statement (alongside ECHR) of meta-constitutional principles that should underpin any future Scottish state.

There are moves to make the Commonwealth a slightly stronger and deeper union, or to develop a core ‘Union of Commonwealth Realms’ (the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ, but hopefully also including the Caribbean and South Pacific realms) within it. Potentially, such a Union of Commonwealth Realms could have three pillars: (i) freedom of movement between commonwealth realms, with freedom to live, study and work across in any member states; (ii) a broader free trade arrangement between Commonwealth Realms; and (iii) stronger defence and security co-operation.

All of this is, undoubtedly, a Good Thing.

An independent Scotland should be part of any such arrangement, and those who favour Scottish independence should support such moves. A Union of Commonwealth Realms – alongside other institutions like NATO and EFTA – could help to provide the broader, over-arching framework of free movement, free trade, and collective security, upon which a viable Scottish state depends.

The Commonwealth cannot replace the EU or EFTA They are not the same. They have different purposes. The Commonwealth cannot provide a substitute for free trade with continental Europe. As I have written elsewhere, there are limits to what the Commonwealth can do, and limits to the political acceptability of the idea of deeper Commonwealth union (although that might be changing). But the Commonwealth can be more than a useful adjunct. It can be a forum in which Scottish interests are furthered, through which Scotland can make a beneficial contribution to the world, and in which an independent Scotland can continue to co-operate and share with the rUK.

Those in favour of Scottish independence would be wise to drop their squeamishness about the Commonwealth’s imperial past, and embrace it as an organisation for a better future.

On peace, pacifism and parliamentary democracy.

The absurdity of making the world a better place by bombing people became clear to me at 4am in a tent near the Iraqi border, as I grabbed my gas mask and ran to the Scud bunker. Perhaps, I thought, rather than bombing people to death, we might find other ways to make peace.

That’s not to say that defence is unnecessary – I cannot hold to a position of strict pacifism. Sometimes evil must be defeated and the weak protected, and sometimes that requires the use of force. But it should be a last resort, not the first response.

Decisions to use force should not be taken lightly.

Robin Cook, the former government minister under Tony Blair who resigned over the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, claims to have secured the right of parliament to decide on war-making. Tony Blair was forced to get a formal parliamentary endorsement of his decision to go to war. I remember sitting in the Wardroom ante-room of HMS NEPTUNE listening to the results of the vote coming in – and a few days later I was on a RAF plane to Kuwait.


Sadly, all of Robin Cooks efforts, appear to have been in vain. Theresa May has ordered the bombing of Syria without explicit parliamentary endorsement. It highlights the fact that a mere ‘convention’ – as we call the unwritten rules of the British Parliamentary system – isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on. Even a statutory provision can be changed with relative ease by the government of the day, if they have a well-whipped majority.

If you want to secure something, it needs to be entrenched in a written constitution that governments cannot ignore and ordinary parliamentary majorities cannot change at will.

To bring that about, we need a Constituent Assembly.