Dissenting Radical

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

Not worth the paper it isn’t written on

In the words of one of my friends, in relation to the bombing of Syria: “We are dragged into a war by a weak prime minister, without a majority, without evidence, without debate and without a clear end-game.”

Of course the same could be said for Brexit – and for much else besides: decisions made without knowledge, without proper debate and scrutiny, without being forced to think through the consequences.

We are dealing here with a failure of institutions – and ultimately of constitutionalism. At its core, democratic constitutionalism is simply a matter of ensuring that decision-making processes are legitimate, inclusive, deliberative and accountable. A good constitution does not prescribe policy outcomes, but it should ensure – through its rules, procedures and institutional balance of powers – that decisions are made with a mandate, with a majority, with evidence, with debate, and with clear overall objectives. 

The unwritten British system, which hides absolutism beneath a pile of absurdities and anachronisms, fails to achieve that. It fails in matters of domestic policy like the grotesque mishandling of Universal Credit and benefits sanctions, which affect the everyday lives of the poorest citizens. It also fails in matters of defence and foreign policy, where the overall standing and reputation of the state is at risk.

Those who defend the unwritten (some would say ‘non-existent’) constitution, on the grounds that ‘it works in practice’ are on ever-shakier ground.


More thoughts on the Liberal Democrats

I find the Liberal Democrats a very interesting party, in terms of their role and positioning in British politics. It seems they are caught between three different, often contradictory positions.

Firstly, they try to be a ‘centre’ party, seeking moderation and compromise, looking for the middle ground, avoiding extremes, and taking an ‘equidistant’ position between Labour and the Conservatives.

Secondly, they try to be a ‘liberal’ party, taking an ideologically liberal view on policies based on a philosophy of individualism, choice, freedom and ‘small government’. Sometimes, this leads them into territory that is ‘left’ on social and civil liberties issues, and sometimes it leads them into territory that is to the ‘right’ on economic issues. But in neither case can their position be said to be ‘centrist’. Liberalism is not the middle ground between socialism and capitalism; liberalism is the ideology of capitalism. 

Thirdly, they try to be a ‘radical’ party, which appeals to the outsiders, the misfits, and those who are dissatisfied with the political system as a whole. They try to put things on to the political agenda and to change the basis of politics, and in so doing to deal with the issues that the other parties will not touch, or to represent interests that are otherwise. For a long time, they were the only champions of environmentalism. They are the only party to really think about major constitutional change. There’s a strong left-learning stream within the party, people who care about poverty and economic inequality, and who would be nearly socialists, but for the fact that they also value civil liberties and decentralisation, and rightly hate the corrupt, centralising and authoritarian ways of the Labour machine.

All three of these positions are deeply ingrained in the party’s history, culture and identity. But the contradictions between them are never resolved. As the party jostles for some sort of electoral success and political relevance, it is forced to move between these positions – presenting itself as a safe, moderate ‘centre’ party here, an ideologically liberal party there, and a radical challenger of the status quo elsewhere. All this just makes it seem, to the outside observer, fickle, opportunist and untrustworthy.

A Day in the Life of Elias Blum

I’ve been up since 0830 (should have been up at 0730, but slept through my alarm).

Managed to get my daughter to daycare and myself to work by 0930.

Spent most of the morning working mainly on an academic article about constitutions and stuff. Had a quick but surprisingly good lunch, then returned to my article.

At 1745 I went to pick up my daughter, and on the way did shopping – arriving home around 1900.

Discovered my wife was still sick (some bug, but she’s had it for a week and it’s not shaking off easily) and functioning at about 35% capacity.

Sorted out finances – I’d made a double payment by mistake from my Dutch to my UK account – while also somehow playing peek-a-boo.

By that time it was 2000. Time for supper. Ate. Was looking forward to it (steak), but it tasted funny and I think it was a bit off. Ate most of it but felt a bit queasy afterwards. My daughter tucked into banana, yoghurt, Wheetabix and sweetcorn – and seemed to have had a more satisfactory culinary experience.

More playing in the nursery. Tried to encourage and reassure my wife, who gets anxious and depressed when not well.

2130, put daughter to bed. She finally slept at 2245. It horrifies other Northern Europeans, but we are very Spanish about bedtimes.

Put the bins out (many, because last week I overslept and forgot, and they were a bit smelly because the temperature has picked up a bit).

Finally, at 2310, I was able to sit down and have a nice hot cup of tea in peace. And now I need to squeeze in an hour’s writing before bed.

Tomorrow I need to be up at 0700 because I have an early call with Myanmar. So plan on getting at best around 6, maybe nearly 7, hours of sleep.

None of this is either a brag or a complaint. It’s an insight into a typical day.

Towards a Scottish Strategic Defence Review

If Scotland were independent, it would need its own navy. But what sort of Navy would it need?

Looking at countries with similar size, population, wealth and situation:

  • Option A (‘Irish Navy’) basically a coast guard with very limited capability beyond offshore patrol / fishery protection duties.
  • Option B: (‘Norwegian Navy’), limited reach but heavy punch; bristling with missile-armed attack boats to keep the Russians out of the North Sea.
  • Option C: (‘New Zealand Navy’), limited punch but some ‘blue water’ reach, including some heavy lift and littoral warfare capability.

Of course, materiel requirements stem from strategic policy priorities. So perhaps the first step towards an independent Scottish Navy would be to conduct a Scottish Strategic Defence Review, in an attempt to build a well-informed and forward-looking cross-party political consensus on national defence priorities in the medium term.

Someone, somewhere, should be doing this thinking.



On the corruption of Cricket

When I went to Tuvalu, I took amongst my reading material Sir Arthur Grimble’s ‘A Pattern of Islands’. Grimble joined the Colonial Office in 1913 and began his career as a District Officer in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu). He ended up as Governor of Jamaica. He recounts how, in his early days in the Colonial Service, junior officers were expected to spend a couple of hours a day ‘in nets’ – that is, practicing their batting and bowling.

On station, one of the first jobs was to create a cricket ground and to teach the natives cricket. They drilled the locally recruited police, clerks and the native magistrates in cricket.

Grimble describes this in some detail. He is of the opinion that the game is a giant teaching exercise – to teach people the value of fair play, sportsmanship and justice. The whole enterprise of training them for self-government, in his view, requires a mastery not only of cricket, but more importantly of the spirit of the game.

In a system that relies on unwritten rules, convention, social norms, traditions etc, this made a certain amount of sense. You cannot operate – or understand – the ‘British constitution’ unless you have a keen sense of what is ‘cricket’ and ‘not cricket’. It’s the same process of gradual acculturation into unwritten rules that underlies cricket, the conventions of parliamentary government, and the operation of the legal system and civil service.

It’s mostly nonsense, of course. The unwritten rules privilege those who know them and exclude those who don’t. They are a barrier to entry. They are vague enough that those in positions of power can choose to ignore them – while pretending not to. I don’t know why I could always see through the sham, when others seemed to be enchanted by it. Perhaps it is a product of having been educated at Edinburgh and Glasgow, not Oxford or Cambridge – I don’t know. But it always seemed to me to be a wholly unsatisfactory way of doing business. It so much better, when it comes to the constitution of the state, the system of government and the rights of citizens, to write it down, be clear and honest, and stick to it.

Yet perhaps there’s a connection – albeit a tenuous one – between the corruption of cricket and the corruption of the polity. I’m not suggesting one causes the other. But ball tampering and political scandals (from ‘cash for questions’  to the recent allegations surrounding Cambridge Analytica) seem to have the same underlying cause: a retreat away from ‘gentlemanly restraint’ as a guide to conduct and a renewed shameless embrace of ‘doing whatever it takes to win’.

We seem to be in an even worse state, under shameless oligarchy than we were under pompous aristocracy.

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.

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.

Wise words

‘Parliamentary democracy is a compelling ideal. But it is a fragile institution. It cannot be imposed and it is only too easily destroyed. It needs the positive dedication of the people as a whole and of their elected representatives to make it work.’