Dissenting Radical

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

A Provisional Constitution for Scotland

As I’ve been thinking recently about the process of constitutional change in Scotland, I’ve become convinced that there’s a need for a two-stage process.

In the first instance, there should be a Provisional Constitution, which should be put to the people ahead of the independence referendum and which should come into effect on the day of independence. This would be a safe, tried-and-tested constitution that provides stability and reassurance, while building on existing institutional structures and accepted European Human Rights law. 

Secondly, after independence, there would be scope for a more participatory constitution-building mechanism, which (if people so desire, and if there is a sufficient consensus around it) might then lead to a more progressive and transformative constitution.

This is related to another conclusion: that a minimal constitution, as a safeguard and a reassurance, is not optional, but that a maximal constitution, as a transformative and aspirational instrument, is optional. The Provisional Constitution must be sufficient to do service as a minimal constitution. It’s the baseline. If we want to go beyond that, we can, but we need to have that basic guarantee of democracy and human rights in place from the outset.

I’m in the process of writing all this up in a little article that can feed into the policy process, but I have taken the liberty of drafting such a Provisional Constitution – just to provide an example of what such a constitution might look like.  The intention is to be robust and thorough, on a technical level of constitutional drafting, while only deviating from existing institutional models to the extent necessary for the creation of an independent state.

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Been there, done that.

Much of my spiritual formation took place in Unitarian contexts.

I read these ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’ Christian blogs – which are deeply troubling to the brittle certainties of conservative evangelicals – and I’m left with a feeling of “Duh, yes, we’ve been believing and practicing that for several centuries.”

I want to say, “It’s fine. Come on in. The water’s lovely. Help yourself to a fair-trade organic coffee. This week we light our Peace Candle for the Lesbian Tofu-Weavers’ Co-Operative of the Upper Congo, and we invite you to remember them in your prayers as we walk with them in solidarity against patriarcho-imperialist capitalist oppression. Our opening hymn this week is number 94, ‘Bread and Roses’. Please stand if you are able to do so.”

What these progressive Christians are doing, though, is that that they are keeping Jesus, the gospel, the Kingdom of God, and Christian scripture central to the whole. I felt that the Unitarian tradition had drifted a bit too far away from that – away from a liberal, progressive interpretation of Christianity, and into something a bit syncretic and New Age-ish, which was well-meaning and good as far as it went, but ultimately a bit shallow.

On having cake and eating it

“As a federalist, I believe in the federal solution which essentially means that everything domestic comes to Edinburgh, with the exception of foreign affairs, defence, large-scale economics and, I would also say, social security. An independent Scotland, however well motivated and resourced it might be, could never command the clout of the United Kingdom. I want to remain in the European Union and I want to remain in the United Kingdom. We are better together in both places.” <– Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, quoted in Cable Magazine.

Menzies Campbell completely misunderstands the nature of the crisis facing Scotland today – namely, that the possibility of having the ‘best of both worlds’, of being in both the UK and the EU, has been closed to us. If the LibDems had won the 2017 general election on a policy of reversing Brexit and introducing a federal constitution for the UK, then he might have a point, but that’s not what happened and it’s not likely to happen. England is leaving the EU, and heading for a hard and painful Brexit. The only question is whether Scotland does down with it, locked into a state that is doubling down on a unitary vision of parliamentary sovereignty. And of course the irony is that a post-Brexit UK will not have any clout at all.

Union of Commonwealth Realms: A good idea, 100 years too late.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were various ideas circulating for ‘imperial confederation’ of the self-governing dominions. In fact, the kernel of it was arguably already there: an imperial defence council / imperial war cabinet, integration of the armed forces in things like defence procurement and officer training, regular heads of government meetings – with a small permanent secretariat, some common rules on things like merchant shipping, more or less free movement of persons within the empire, and some progress – although not much – towards an imperial free trade zone / customs union.

For some, in a post-Brexit world, the idea of a return to, say, a Union of Commonwealth Realms, holds renewed appeal. I’m not unsympathetic to that. The idea has, in principle, much to commend it: with a common language, similar institutions, shared legal frameworks, and a lot of shared cultural heritage, such a union would be a more ‘natural’ fit, in many ways, than the European Union.

One could imagine, for example, a Commonwealth ‘Schengen’ equivalent, with free movement between the realms. Or a Commonwealth ‘Erasmus’ equivalent, enabling students to study in other countries – and, except in Quebec, they wouldn’t even have to learn another language. With the US cooling in its support for NATO and the EU looking to form a common army, there could be a Commonwealth Defence Alliance. And that’s on top of whatever free trade zone / customs union / single market might be constructed.

The governing institutions managing all this could be simple and intergovernmental: an annual meeting of Heads of Government providing strategic direction, a Council of Permanent Representatives making policy decisions by qualified majority voting, a Secretariat to make it all happen, and that’s about it.

And of course, a Commonwealth Union would provide a solution to the Scottish question: dominion status as an independent Realm within a commonwealth confederation would satisfy the nationalists, because Scotland would have as much independence as Canada or Australia – and rather more independence, in fact, than an EU member state has. The unionists would be happy because Scotland would still be part of a wider political, military and economic space that is loosely ‘British’ – albeit in a global rather than insular sense.

If different decisions had been taken in the 1890s or the 1920s, we might even be in such a world. But it was not to be. We are where we are. Maybe it was a good idea at the time, but we are 100 years too late for that. The British Empire, for good or ill, is over. Attempts to revive it are not only impractical but rather pathetic. The ties that bind us to our cousins across the seas are simply not strong enough to support anything more than the cultural co-operation that exists in the existing Commonwealth. It assuming that the Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Anglophone Caribbeans, South Africans and others would want to be part of a Commonwealth Union. There’s nothing to suggest that they’d be willing to do that, or that it would be on balance advantageous to them. After all, it would separate them from their regionally-bound trade and defence blocs.

There are also pragmatic considerations. Leaving the European Union, which has been six decades in the making, and trying to recreate some sort of Commonwealth Union from scratch would be huge project. All those infamous banana rules would have to be re-written. We’d still need an equivalent to the ‘Social Chapter’ to protect workers’ rights, and an equivalent of the European Health Insurance Card so that, say, Australians and Canadians can use each other’s public healthcare systems without incident. That’s a lot of work. It could take decades.

So a Commonwealth Union or Union of Commonwealth Realms is a nice idea. It has a certain logic and appeal to it. But practically speaking it’s a non-starter. The future is European, not British. The Commonwealth connection will remain valuable, on the cultural level, but it cannot replace the EU as our primary trading bloc.

How to be a Head of State

This is how to be a Head of State: not to get involved in party politics, but to be a moral voice for the best sentiments of the community, and to help lead society through thinking about major issues of the common life with a degree of ethical grounding and long-term perspective. This is a lovely speech on the principles of an inclusive republic.

The Gathering: Voting Rights

I recommend watching this video, for two reasons:

1. Interesting example of how worship, witness and activism are combined by a church that seeks to be a voice of justice and liberation in its community – equipping and encouraging the church to engage in civic life, and at the same time bringing a moral critique to the public square.

2. The portion from 1h32ms to 1h37ms makes clear the connection between political voice and policy choice. Similar principles apply, of course, to arrangements in the UK: if you care about any sort of policy where the interests of ordinary people should matter more and the interests of elites matter less, then you should be interested in constitutional reform. “Fix democracy first.”

 

Politics on the Rails

A guest post by Rick Eling

On a packed train swishing north through England’s summer a stand-off simmers: passengers without seats versus a train manager with several. Just one problem: class.

Standard class is jammed. You can’t even stand. Three lost travellers squeeze into a square metre of floor by the toilet, smells and all. One of them spots that most of first class, a coffee-scented oasis spied through company-branded perspex, is empty. But her attempt to claim an unused seat is blocked by a uniform.

“You haven’t paid. If I let you sit in here it wouldn’t be fair to those who have.”

“But we have paid for a seat. There just aren’t any back there. And these ones are empty.”

“I’m sorry; there’s nothing I can do.”

A choice is made: the dignity and comfort of these toilet-dwelling passengers versus the integrity of the train’s internal class system. Their rights to a seat versus the rights of the first class passengers to feel a bit special. And, above all, a choice to assert that ‘ability-to-pay’ is sovereign.

It’s strange to me that, for all our talk about ‘freedom of choice’, arguments in favour of the status-quo are so often drawn as inevitabilities. We *must* cut government spending. We *must* sell off national assets. We *must* cap public-sector pay. There is no choice. Or else…

The ‘Or else…’ is usually tacit, but the air of bullying remains. Golems are summoned to give the threat claws: inflation, the 70s, the USSR, Venezuela, the twin demons of Debt and Deficit…or something darker, some sense that modern life faithfully reflects an immutable human core, a core obsessed down to its DNA with hierarchy, status, and personal wealth. Challenge this core- runs the logic- and you rip apart human nature.

And you don’t want to rip apart human nature for a seat on a train, do you, madam? Back to the toilets you go. Only three stops to a septic tank change. Thank you for travelling with us.

Their discomfort is not about the supply or availability of seats, or their need to sit in one. It’s a sacrifice, made deliberately, to honour a system. We are told that, without this system, we are doomed. That all possible alternatives have been tried and led to chaos. That no new ideas are conceivable. And this system must be defended at whatever human cost.

Time sitting on trains can be time for imagination; very little of that is needed to get from a door dividing first class and standard to Grenfell Tower, or to food banks, or to rough sleepers, or to vanishing services, or to whatever else. “I have the power to fix this this problem, but I mustn’t. We will all suffer if I try. Amen.”

And yet, back in standard class, a young man stands to let an old lady sit. He’s paid for his seat, too, but his legs can take it. A woman lets a stranger read her finished newspaper: the one she paid for an hour ago but no longer needs. Sips of water are shared in the heat with people who didn’t buy the bottles. Courtesy abounds…and nobody is paid for an ‘excuse me.’

It’s almost as if there are two sets of people on this train: those made of flesh and blood; and some rampaging ghosts conjured in the fuzzy glow of economic theory.

I no longer believe in the second type.

A small point about warships.

What’s better than a heavy cruiser? Look at those sleek, elegant, well-engineered lines. Have you ever seen power, purpose and precision so perfectly combined? Such a beautiful product of human skill, artifice and organisation. And it keeps the West Free.

 

The Common Weal Project

I want to give a shout-out to the Common Weal project.

Common Weal is an emerging movement which is developing a vision for economic and social development in Scotland which is distinct and different from the political orthodoxy that dominates politics and economics in London. It is based on the conviction that we will get better outcomes for both society and individuals if we emphasise mutuality and equity rather than conflict and inequality. All of this can be captured in one simple phrase: to build more we must share more. It comes from the old Scots term, which carries the meanings of both ‘shared wealth’ and ‘our wellbeing is common to us all’. These values are strong both in Scottish history and in contemporary Scottish life.

The Common Weal project identifies six key transitions necessary to bring about a ‘Common weal’ society:

  • There must be tax reform to reduce inequality, ensure strong public services and ensure that domestic industries are competing on an even playing field
  • Redefine welfare as a ‘contract between the people’ which all benefit from, with secure funding and strong social buy-in
  • Radically reform finance to make sure it is providing real investment security for industry and real savings security for citizens
  • Promote more balanced ownership structures in the economy to increase resilience and promote high-quality employment
  • Diversify the economy to move away from the low-pay employment that creates poverty, inequality and contribute to public sector deficits
  • Implement participative democracy practices at all levels to prevent abuse of power by vested interest and better to reflect the public will

The project offers a bold, progressive and ethical alternative to the ‘London Orthodoxy’ of neo-liberalism:

A Common Weal Approach The London Orthodoxy Approach
Assume that mutual and shared working towards mutual and shared goals will produce the best society and the best economy Assume that competition and conflict will allow the strongest to rise and that they alone should shape society and the economy
Keep income and wealth inequality low to grow the economy virtuously, promote high levels of social cohesion and to abolish poverty Do not act to alter income and wealth inequality, never measure the economy in terms of social cohesion and subsidise poverty through benefits
Promote higher pay for all by targeting economic development at industries which create good quality, rewarding jobs and away from industries that create only low-pay, unskilled, unrewarding jobs Promote low pay industries which create poor-quality jobs but generate high corporate profits
Total tax take is higher and this enables significant redistribution and strong public services but without endemic debt and deficit Tax is kept artificially low, especially due to poor collection rates among the rich and global corporations. Public services are eroded and public sector deficits are endemic
Support a strong welfare state with high-quality and extensive public services, well funded and generally universally available The welfare state is constantly under attack with moves to ever-greater means-testing and privatisation with the quality of service being eroded
Make finance a means of sustaining industry and providing financial security for individuals, not as a speculative means of profit maximisation Allow finance to dominate the economy at the expense of everything else, with minimal regulation leading to endemic corruption and customers treated only as sources of profit
Ensure a strong and diverse economy with a balanced portfolio of industry sectors, much more emphasis on product innovation, a much larger medium sized industry sector, a much more diverse ownership profile with many more indigenous companies and more extensive public and community ownership and cooperatives, and a much more mutual and coordinated approach to economic development Take no view about the nature of the economy, allowing the market to dictate, even if it means a grossly unbalanced economy with a continuing process of globally owned corporations forcing out indigenous industries and public or collective ownership opposed
Promote an inclusive society with better equality (gender, race and socioeconomic position) in politics, on boards of governance and in leadership positions etc. View the governance of society as a task for one social class, taking no view of inclusiveness or how much it reflects wider society
Embed active democracy as widely as possible to ensure the best outcomes for all – local democracy, democratic practices in all decision-making, democratic governance, industrial democracy and so on. Limit democracy to a ‘franchise’ role where people get irregular opportunities to ‘franchise’ others to make decisions with little or no opportunity for other democratic engagement with decision-making
View your international role as to work with others to promote global democracy and development to ensure greater global security for all View your international role as to work for the commercial interests of the elite, often under the guise of global security

All of the above is blatantly copied from their website. I’m not trying to claim credit, just to spread the word. This is a really exciting idea, and long overdue. This is the policy agenda I’ve been waiting for. For decades now, the mainstream centre-left has been intellectually and morally bankrupt, and unable to provide a convincing narrative that can overcome neo-liberal dogmatism.

Now we see a new democratic left emerging, rooted in humane and ethical values and connecting with deep intellectual traditions of the common good.

This is very good news indeed.

 

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.