Dissenting Radical

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

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.’

Definitely not a Unitarian anymore…

One of the things I have finally come to embrace about Christianity is that we have a messy God. The God proclaimed by historic orthodox Christianity does not stand apart from the world in splendid, perfect, detached isolation. Instead we recognise a God who is inherently relational: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and yet is not three gods, but one God in three persons. The trinity is, like us, messy, contradictory, and unfathomable. It transcends mere reason and breaks neat taxonomic categories. God is Spirit, and yet became Flesh; Jesus Christ, so the accepted creeds of the universal church teach us, is both fully human and fully divine.

Heaven and earth are not separate. There is no Platonic or Gnostic division between matter and spirit, body and soul. In Christ, all is knitted together. All the mess, the tangle, the confusion of our existence finds its answer in a God who is like us, because we are made in His image.

All this is a great and wonderful mystery. I don’t get it. I can’t fully understand it. But I have come to love it and to find a certain hope and comfort in it: in our mess, our confusion, our self-alienation, our yearning for relationality and community and wholeness, this God who is like us is incarnationally present with us – even in stuff like red wine and bits of bread.

That’s not all. The messiness continues. In a world of darkness, sorrow and pain the Kingdom of God is already amongst us and within us; God is present, working, in little acts of justice, mercy and charity carried out by human hands. God is present with and amongst humanity. We bear the divine image and we are co-builders through our lives of a divine order.

And all of this is leading somewhere. In the same way as the trinity and the incarnation represent the marriage of heaven and earth, so the who arc of the biblical story doesn’t point to a gospel of ‘going to heaven when you die’, as if this world were irredeemably evil and could only be escaped from; no, it points to the final union, the consummation of the ‘marriage supper of the lamb’, when in the new heaven and the new earth every tear is wiped away.

Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t that blow your little cotton socks off?

Right ingredients, wrong order

As a Christian Democrat, I’m a liberal on constitutional matters, left-wing on economics, fiscal policy and public services, and conservative on social, cultural and moral issues.

Successive British governments have been conservative on constitutional matters, (neo)liberal on economics, fiscal policy and public services, and left-wing on social, cultural and moral issues.

The Death of Stalin

Nye Bevan News published a story earlier today in which they praised Stalin and the Red Army as ‘triumphs of socialism’. I’m sorry, but that’s the point at which they lose me.

The socialism I support abhors and rejects Stalin, Bolshevism, Soviet Communism, one-party states, show trials, purges and gulags. These things are not the logical extension of socialism (as some would falsely say) but the negation of it by dark, twisted parody.

A democratic, parliamentary socialism – a socialism that is founded upon human rights and constitutional freedom, a socialism that is rooted in Christian values and respects the inherent dignity and worth of every human being – that’s what I’m striving for.

If you are going to hero-worship Stalin, if you are going to see what happened in Soviet Russia as anything to do with the kind of socialism you support, then we are on opposite sides of a very important line.

(The same goes for idiots with Lenin badges, Trotsky t-shirts etc. It’s not cool.)

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/