Dissenting Radical

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

Slow down, you move to fast.

I’ve had a moment of realisation. What I want out of life is tranquility. Yes, I want to contribute to the world, to use my skills and knowledge to make it a better place, perhaps even to have some influence on actual constitutional developments. But I’d like to do it slowly and gently, with more leisure to read, think and write at my own pace.

I’m not ambitious in the typical sense. I don’t want more. I don’t want luxury, I want secure sufficiency. I’d just like to be able to proceed through life at a more gentle pace. I don’t crave novelty or excitement or – heaven forbid ‘new challenges’; I crave stability, continuity, settledness, and a way of life that is scholarly but also leisurely.

I’d like to be left alone in my library for days at a time – perhaps working, or perhaps playing with model trains. I’d like to emerge occasionally to enjoy some learned conversation over a few ales in a good pub – one without piped music or annoying fruit machines.

I’d like to potter more and rush less. I’m willing to consider the idea of an allotment, but only on the proviso that it doesn’t have to be squeezed in to a busy schedule, and that my time spent there will mostly involve sitting in the shed sipping cider and whittling sticks while listening to Test Match Special.

I feel that much of modern life, especially professional life, is just too fast for my tastes. It’s geared around horrific concepts like ‘performance’, based on lifeless metrics which miss out on so much of what is really important.

Besides, there’s far too much paperwork, admin, online banking, stupid emails, and other nonsense to deal with. I know that it all has to be done. My vain and hopeless protest against busyness is not a complaint; it’s more of a lament.

This is not, it must be emphasised, a product of laziness. Far from it. I believe in hard work – and to do scholarly research and writing well is hard work. But it is also slow work. It needs time to mature, to percolate, to settle. It cannot be rushed.

Someone asked me what I’d do if I had enough money not to need to work again. My answer is that I’d continue doing exactly what I’m doing now, but I’d stop worrying about not doing it fast enough. I’d do it three and a half days a week, forty-two weeks a year. I’d probably do a much better job, too, because I’d be able to be more deliberate and reflective about it.

Many Mansions

There were two strands to my spiritual and religious formation: (1) an evangelical charismatic strand, based on an Alpha-course/Christian Union version of Christianity, and (2) a dissenting, non-conformist strand absorbed at my local Unitarian chapel and through my interaction on the fringes of Quaker circles.

These two stands have often existed in a sort of creative but unsettled tension within me, sometimes pulling in different directions, sometimes working powerfully in harmony if not in unison. Later, I married a Catholic and was exposed to a third, in some ways much deeper, strand of Christianity.

I guess what I gradually learned is that there’s more than one authentic manifestation of Christianity. Christianity is itself a ‘broad church’.

To be a Christian you don’t have to be an orthodox 5-point calvinist, or a conservative evangelical, or open evangelical, or post-evangelical, any sort of evangelical at all, or attend an Alpha course, or be baptised into a specific denomination, or get dunked or infused, or be opposed to same-sex marriage, or have a bishop, or not have a bishop, or be a young earth creationist, or hold to any particular confession or statement of belief, or believe in any particular sacramental theology, or be a biblical inerrantist, or adhere to a ‘penal substitutionary’ interpretation of the atonement, or a ‘christus victor’ interpretation for that matter, or use a King James Bible, or use an organ, or electric guitars, or no instruments at all, or have an all-male clergy, or a gender-balanced clergy, or any clergy at all, or wear ties, or wear shorts, or wear robes, or sing in latin, or sing ‘Power in the Blood’, or sing ‘Oceans’, or celebrate holy days, or ignore holy days, or any of that stuff.

That’s not to say all these things are unimportant (I’m pretty adamant about some of my beliefs) but it does mean that these things are secondary: they are points which sincere Christians may honestly differ, and those who disagree on these points shouldn’t be anathematised.

What you can’t do, though, is be a Christian and turn a blind eye to the poor. Sorry, Theresa May.

On Liberalism

I’ve been thinking more this morning about the meaning of ‘liberalism’. What does it mean to be a ‘liberal’?

I can think of at least 7 definitions:

1. Philosophical liberalism: a philosophical tradition with its roots in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, emphasising the centrality of the individual as a pre-political bearer of natural rights, and state and society as artificial constructs based on consent.

2. Pluralist Liberalism: a belief in tolerance of difference, an open and plural society, the right of people to be themselves and make their own choices in matters of personal concern.

3. Economic (neo-)liberalism: a belief in the ‘free market’, and a set of policy preferences centered on privatisation, tax cuts for the rich, extending property rights and market mechanisms into areas where they did not previously exist (e.g. education, healthcare), reductions in social spending, and corporate-led globalisation.

4. Left-Liberalism / Social Liberalism: a political belief that combines elements of liberalism and elements of socialism, favouring a more active and redistributive state in order to maximise genuine freedom; freedom is understood not as absence of state interference but as the maximisation of opportunities to flourish.

5. Progressive Liberalism: a political belief that emphasizes ‘progressive’ and ‘permissive’ stances on issues such as family structures, gender identity, human reproductive ethnics etc; frequently combined with multi-culturalist or anti-religious views.

6. Partisan Liberalism: adherence to the historical Liberal party and its successors (SDP-Liberal Alliance, Liberal Democrats).

7. Constitutional Liberalism: a belief in constitutional democratic government, civil liberties, judicially enforced rights, checks and balances.

No one holds all these positions simultaneously. Obviously there’s some overlap in these definitions, especially in how they relate to Philosophical Liberalism and Constitutional Liberalism. But there are also difficult tensions: for example, Economic (Neo-)Liberalism and Left-Liberalism are in almost direct opposition to one another on economic, fiscal and regulatory matters. Likewise Pluralist Liberalism and Progressive Liberalism are, or can be, opposed on a range of issues surrounding rights of minorities.

According to these definitions, I’m a Left-Liberal and a Constitutional Liberal, and to some extent a Pluralist Liberal. My guess is that Tim Farron is a Philosophical Liberal, a Pluralist Liberal, a Left-Liberal, a Partisan Liberal, and maybe a Constitutional Liberal.

But it seems the only types of Liberalism that are really permitted and accepted these days are Economic (Neo-) Liberalism on the right and Progressive Liberalism on the left.

Often, these fuse into a sort of Capitalist Progressivism, that, on the one hand, cannot see beyond everyone who refuses to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of same-sex marriage is an ‘evil bigot’, but on the other hand doesn’t mind so much if people are forced by necessity into relying on food banks.

On the Resignation of Tim Farron MP from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats

A lot of people are wondering how an evangelical Christian like Tim Farron could ever be a Liberal Democrat MP, let alone leader of the party.  I suspect that these people:

(i) are forgetting the extent to which the non-conformist evangelical social conscience was a driving moral force behind progressive politics from the Levellers, through the Abolitionists and the suffragettes, to the foundation of the Welfare State;

(ii) would be very surprised to see that most mainstream churches spend a lot more time worrying about poverty, homelessness, peace and disarmament, refugees, the environment, and other ‘left-of-centre’ causes than they do about homosexuality or abortion; and

(iii) haven’t cracked open a bible or listened to a sermon in a while.

Christian Democracy vs Clerico-Fascism

I’m glad that more an more people are starting to reject and oppose neo-liberalism. The ideology of free market fundamentalism that has dominated public discourse and public policy across the West for the last few decades has turned out to be great for the very rich, not so great for the middle, and disastrous for the poor and the environment. Some critics are even coming to see neo-liberalism not only as an economic system that fails to provide for ethically just outcomes, but also for its failure as philosophy which at its root dehumanises us into mere self-interested, utility-maximising economic abstractions.

Neo-liberalism ignores many things that have an importance place in securing the common good and in promoting human flourishing, cannot quantify or commodify them: public duty, civic spirit, honour, tradition, family and faith.

But my fear is that some of the critics of neo-liberalism target their ire too broadly. The popular outrage at neo-liberalism is in danger of turning into an outrage against liberalism itself, giving rise to reactionary, neo-fascist and anti-democratic movements.

The intellectual reaction is also worrying. Under the name of ‘post-liberalism’, a group of influential academics – with ties to the Conservative party and also to certain sections of the Labour party – have turned against liberalism as a whole. They object not only to the neo-liberalism of the last few decades, but to the constitutional liberalism of the last half millennium.

Many of the ideas that are described as ‘post-liberal’, in their ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blue Labour’ guises (I cannot see the difference, except for the label and perhaps a shade of emphasis) are drawn from Christian Democratic thought – which, like civic republicanism, the other emerging challenger of philosophical liberalism, has Aristotelian roots.

I’m very sympathetic to Christian Democracy. It has a better, more sustained, more powerful and convincing ethical and economic critique of neo-liberalism than the secular left has ever come up with. But there’s a big difference between Christian Democracy and Clerico-Fascism. That difference is that Christian Democrats support other elements of liberalism – liberalism in the sense of an open society, separation of church and state, social and political pluralism, a democratic system of government with guaranteed rights, a written constitution, and a system of checks and balances. These elements of the liberal tradition are good. They should be honoured, cherished, nurtured and protected. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Clerico-Fascists do not believe in any of that. They reject the liberating power of the reformation and of the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. They have no time for human rights or genuinely constitutional government in a democratic guise. Essentially reactionary and dripping with the flummery of monarchism, they want to turn the clock back to an imagined romantic medieval fantasy land, with happy serfs mumbling mass under the rule of paternalistic lords and benign abbots. We don’t need that.

10 Principles and Priorities

• A commitment to favouring the poorest and most vulnerable

• Actively redressing social and economic injustices and inequalities

• Welcoming the stranger and valuing displaced and marginalised people

• Seeing people, their dignity and rights as the solution not the problem

• Moving from punitive ‘welfare’ to a society where all can genuinely fare well

• Promoting community and neighbourhood empowerment

• Food, education, health, housing, work and sustainable income for all

• Care for planet and people as the basis for human development

• Investing in nonviolent alternatives to war and force as the basis for security

• Transparency, honesty and accountability in public and economic life


(From http://www.ekklesia.co.uk)

Evil Wicked Tories (with numbers)


Are these figures real? I don’t know. I have no way to independently verify them. It looks like a bit of spurious accounting by the Tories that has been debunked.

But even if these figures were real, they wouldn’t show much. Unless one can identify how the money is spent, they are meaningless. The figures alone say nothing about the quality, the effectiveness, the intent or the direction of the spending. They don’t say who benefits from it. They don’t reflect anything of the legal and policy rules in which the spending is embedded. The only two figures that say something about outcomes are the GDP and unemployment figures, which depend a lot on cyclical economic patterns anyway, and would probably have improved over time under any imaginable government.

More to the point, there are key figures missing that do tell us something useful: poverty rates, especially child poverty and in-work poverty rates, median household incomes, hospital waiting lists, libraries per capita, number of homeless people. On those sorts of measures, Tory policies have been savage. Wantonly, cruelly, unnecessarily and ideologically savage.

You don’t need to be a red flag waving lefty to recognise that while the top 1% of society has done very nicely thank you under the Tories, the vast majority have seen a stagnating squeeze, while those at the bottom have been given an absolute hammering.

Now you might decide that from the perspective of the people you know, that doesn’t matter – plebs will be plebs and are probably used to eating cold beans from a food bank – but I think it does matter, and yes, to ignore that is a kind of evil. Perhaps a mild, passive, kind, but evil nevertheless.

Understanding Constitutions

When one mentions the term ‘written constitution’ to people brought up under the British system, they typically fall into one of three camps.

Firstly, there are those who think that constitutions are at best irrelevant, and who dismiss them as unimportant, even frivolous, documents. These people say: ‘Weimar Germany has a constitution, and a fat lot of good it did them!’

Secondly, there are those who think that constitutions are a dangerous foreign invention, the effect of which is to give old dead white men a sort of veto power from the grave. These people say: ‘But look at America! Look at the right to bear arms!’

Thirdly, there are those who think that the constitution is a panacea, as if merely putting words on a page were enough to transform reality. These people want the constitution to look like a wish list of their progressive ideas, ignoring the fact that not everyone necessarily agrees with those ideas.

All three are wrong. Constitutions are not (assuming a reasonable degree of goodwill and competence in their design) irrelevant, nor dangerous, but neither are they a shortcut to utopia.

What they are is boring. Boring, but important. Boring but necessary. They are full of dry, dull, technical phrases. The job of a good constitution isn’t necessarily to make things better (although that might be a beneficial result over time). Rather more prosaically and less ambitiously, the job of a good Constitution is often to stop things getting worse.

The positive good that a constitution may do is indirect, long-term, abstract and contingent upon many other factors; the harm that it may prevent is real, tangible and immediate.

Increasingly, I’ve come to see sewage pipes as a good analogy for constitutions. For the most part, when they work, you don’t notice them. Only when the get blocked and broken do things start to stink.

A Constitution: Pros and Cons

A constitution is like brakes on a car. There are cons to having brakes. They could overheat. They need to be serviced. There are costs involved. But the alternative is not to have brakes and hope the driver is good at steering around obstacles.

Or a constitution is like a map. There are cons to having a map. Maps are annoying. You have to fold them. The bit you want to get to is always on the edge between two adjoining maps. Sometimes the wind blows the map up in your face. But the alternative is wandering about without a map, relying on native wit and hoping you remember a few landmarks.

Or a constitution is like an indoor toilet. There are cons to having a toilet. It could get clogged. The water in it isn’t safe to brush your teeth with. It takes up space in the bathroom that could be used for something else. But the alternative is to shit in a bucket.

So, yes, there are cons. But the UK has decided that it would rather wander around in the dark, without a map, crashing into things, and shitting in a bucket, than admit to the advantages of having a proper constitution.

The End of British Politics and Labour’s Scottish Dilemma

One of the things that this general election has confirmed is that there’s no longer much of a ‘British’ political system. The last ‘British’ election was in 2010. Since then, there have been separate elections going on north and south of the border, focusing on different issues and with different priorities and options.

For Scotland, independence from the UK remains a viable choice, and that means that any engagement with UK politics is conditional on the continuation of a United Kingdom to which around half of the population (and a clear majority of those of working age and younger) are opposed. At the same time, many of the hot issues in UK politics are really English issues, since in Scotland they are already devolved.

Labour in particular is struggling to come to terms with this situation. From an English perspective, Labour is trying to fight the Tories on economic and social issues, while reassuring British nationalist voters by being constitutionally conservative, pro-Brexit, pro-nukes etc. From a Scottish perspective, this makes them virtually indistinguishable from the Tories. If Labour in Scotland seems two-faced, it’s because the party is caught in a bind, fighting on two quite unrelated fronts.