Monthly Archives: February 2016

We Are Entitled to Proper Government

Schadenfreude is a guilty pleasure of low moral worth. But I can’t help deriving some delight from watching the Tories tear themselves apart over the EU referendum. There are, however, more serious issues at stake: the governance of the country for the next four months.

What Price Good Government?

With key players in the Cabinet expending so much energy on criticising each other, the mere matter of actually running the government is bound to suffer. Few people will be able to withstand the barrage of arguments of the next four months without the reputation of politics – and politicians – sinking still further. The very idea of liberal western democracy will take a further bashing.

It comes as no surprise to see the likes of Gove, Grayling, Duncan Smith, Whittingdale and Patel enthusiastically campaigning for the EU leavers. This is a distraction from their day jobs, but there is no fundamental conflict of interest. There is one important exception to this.

Peace Process Threat

That exception is Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland Secretary. It beggars belief that she has refused to step down from her post whilst campaigning to leave the EU. Her lack of judgment borders on the criminally reckless, for the reasons below.

Theresa Villiers
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers

It took a great deal of very difficult negotiations to achieve the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to bring peace to the streets of Northern Ireland. The Agreement is in two parts. It’s between the various factions in the province; it’s also an international legal agreement between the British and Irish Governments. The UK Government committed to incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into Northern Ireland law. Both governments set up Human Rights Commissions to support this.

The European Parliament produced a report in 2014 which lists the help, support and funding Northern Ireland has received since 1998. This was in recognition of the extra needs the province had following its troubled history. A total of €450 million is being given by the EU under the PEACE III and PEACE IV programmes (2007-2020).

Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Oxford University is a qualified lawyer and an expert in EU and public law, human rights and legal and social theory. She wrote an article last year dealing with the constitutional threats to the UK’s coherence if we were to leave the EU. The section on Northern Ireland is particularly troubling. She describes the UK’s leaving the EU as a “source of great instability”. She says that the Northern Ireland Peace Process has been “unforgivably ignored” in the discussions. She also states “it risks shattering the fragile balance and stability of the UK by threatening the peace settlement in Northern Ireland”. (There’s a message there for Gove, too, in his attempts to rewrite Human Rights law.)

There have been many crises and threats to the stability of the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland since 1998. Villiers would be the Minister responsible for dealing with any such crisis and for keeping the peace. How can she possibly stay in post and campaign to leave the EU?

Cameron, Get a Grip

It was David Cameron’s weakness and inability to manage his own backbenchers that led him to promise an in-out referendum by an arbitrary deadline. He has a responsibility to see that Britain maintains an effective government during the campaign period. This means imposing an appropriate level of discipline on his Ministers. A good start, and a minimum requirement at this stage, would be to sack Villiers from her Ministerial post.

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Why Do We Think We’re So Special?

Many years ago, I had a week’s holiday on the island of Jersey. (This was well before the Jersey authorities had sold their souls completely to international financial institutions. Tourism was still a major part of their economy.) The holiday was very pleasant, the weather warm and fine, as I recall. At yet, after a few days there, I began to feel just a tiny bit uneasy. The people were friendly enough, but something was definitely wrong. It was hard to put a finger on it at the time. But the overall effect was a bit claustrophobic.

Jersy beauty spot
Jersey

I had a similar experience when visiting my then father-in-law in a small country town in Australia. We spent 5 nights there. We then drove to Canberra (think Milton Keynes with a parliament building if you’ve not been). It felt like escaping from prison.

Island Mentality

In retrospect, I think that, in both cases, we were experiencing the effects of a kind of “island mentality”. Yes I know the Australian town wasn’t an island. But, if you colour in blue on a map those parts of Australia which are (virtually) unpopulated, you see the country as an archipelago of islands. The towns and cities are surrounded by a vast, empty “sea” of land.

On the morning after Cameron announced his EU “deal”, the Today programme interviewed a Tory MP from a rural constituency. She was in favour of leaving the EU. She described Britain as a “maritime nation”. I don’t agree with her “leave EU” views or think that Britain is a nation of seafarers, but I do think she was making a similar point to mine above. There does seem to be something about being surrounded by water which affects how people view the world – and not for the better. The smaller the island, the bigger the effect. But I think this is something subconscious which works at an emotional level and helps to explain some of our attitude problems to the EU over the years.

After Empire

The second, and arguably more sinister, factor affecting our national attitudes to “the foreigner” is what I call our post-imperial delusion. I believe the British Empire, which really did cover more of the globe than any other in history, was a very mixed blessing. The subject remains controversial. See, for example, the spat between Niall Ferguson and Johann Hari in the Independent in 2006.

Imperial Pride flagsThere’s certainly quite a lot of material on the internet taking a critical view of the workings and legacy of the British Empire – sometime polemically so. Here are a few examples of varying degrees of neutrality and partisanship:

  1. An article in The Hindu (2012) reprinted from a George Monbiot piece in The Guardian. The discussion posts at the bottom of the page make for interesting reading, mainly of the fervently anti-British nature.
  2. An item by a newly-qualified teacher listing the ”Ten evil crimes” committed by the British Empire. A good starting point to investigate each issue in turn, if that is your idea of fun.
  3. An interesting and reasonably objective item on the British Library website about how the Magna Carta has been used over the years to both justify imperial oppression and to fight it.
  4. The first Wikipedia page I have come across which is practically disowned by Wikipedia itself as unbalanced and polemical. Its subject Is “British War Crimes”.
  5. An academic piece by a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, entitled ”A Moral Audit of the British Empire” (2007).

Yet despite this, and much more, I contend that the dominant narrative in our national discourse is that the British Empire was the most enlightened ever seen and brought benefit and “civilisation” to colonists and colonized alike. I believe the picture is much more mixed. But any attempt to have a mainstream honest debate seems to be stifled at birth. There were probably more benefits than disadvantages to the colonizing power, but almost certainly the reverse for the indigenous colonized peoples. Unlike, for example, Germany and South Africa, we have made no attempt to critically understand our past history. This leaves us with three legacy problems:

  1. An unjustified sense of moral superiority;
  2. An arrogance that flows from this, and
  3. An inability to see ourselves as others see us.

EU Negotiations and Referendum

Which brings me to the topical reason for all this. David Cameron’s states that he’s “battling for Britain” and securing us a “special status”. This may persuade a few otherwise “leave” voters to vote in June to remain in the EU. That, in my view, will, of itself be a good thing. But it plays straight into the 3 weaknesses listed above. That can only defer the day when we begin to take a more honest view of ourselves and our past. That, in turn, damages Britain’s relationship with other counties and our long-term interests as a nation.

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Britain and the EU: All the Wrong Things!

Firstly, my grudging congratulations to David Cameron for getting an agreement with his EU partners in Brussels. This clearly was the better of the two possible outcomes. And at least it makes a positive statement about the man’s stamina! BUT… and it is a big but. When it comes to Britain and the EU, I’m sick and tired of the debate always being about the wrong things.

David Cameron and EuropeThe Wrong Things: EU

The first set of “wrong things” is what the EU leaders talked about this week. Three really key challenges right now are:

  1. The poor state of the EU countries’ economies and the unfinished reforms following the 2007-8 financial crash. Growth in the Eurozone remains pitifully slow and the north/south pressures, typified by the “Germany v. Greece” arguments of the past year, have unresolved issues.
  2. The humanitarian crisis caused by refugee and other migrant flows at levels unseen since the end of the second world war. A fair and sustainable solution is still far from being worked out.
  3. The threat of fundamentalist terrorism and the strains it places on the key principle of free flow of people across borders in the Schengen area.

These three issues at least would have been a very heavy, but necessary, agenda for the EU’s leaders to have discussed this week. Instead, we have had two full days taken up with 28 heads of government discussing an issue which is essentially about managing the tensions inside the British Conservative Party. To 27 out of the 28 leaders, this must have seemed like an awful waste of time.

The Wrong Things: UK

The second set of “wrong things” is the list of what Cameron was “battling” for, on behalf of a grateful British public. None of the items would be on my list of reforms, as I explain below:

  1. The Emergency Brake (4 year freeze on in-work benefits): I’ve worked as a volunteer advisor for a well-known advice agency for over 13 years. In that time, I’ve met very many workers from the newer EU member countries: Poles and Lithuanians above all. I’ve never met a single one who showed any evidence that they came to work in the UK because of our benefits system. Such research as exists shows such workers claim far less in in-work benefits than UK native workers. Expert opinion has stated that the “brake” will have no or marginal effect. No one in the government has ever produced a shred of evidence to show why this measure is needed or will make any difference. So why all the fuss?
  2. Child benefit: the proposal to index child benefit paid to workers in the UK with dependent children abroad would save only a proportion of the £30m p.a. cost. This is a tiny amount roughly equivalent to the saving of £1 from each £350 spent on child benefit. There will be additional administrative costs to handle the more complex payments system, reducing the savings further. A lot of bother over very little.
  3. Non-eurozone protection: there are reports that this was Cameron’s most important requirement. It gives the UK the right to force a debate among EU leaders about any new euro regulation we feel unhappy with. And yet the other EU non-euro countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Sweden) aren’t bothered and haven’t sought it. This sounds strongly like just another case of Cameron confusing the national interest with the special interests of the City financiers – who contribute over half the donations to the Tory Party.
  4. Ever-closer union opt-out: The original 1957 Treaty of Rome in its preamble includes the phrase “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. Similar phrases appear in subsequent Treaties to which the UK was a signatory. Parliament’s own research department has the details here. Controversy has raged over the decades as to its actual meaning and intent. To me, it does not seem to imply a European Superstate. For Cameron and the Tories, it seems a red-flag symbol they cannot live with. It seems to me to be part of a continuation of “British exceptionalism”, about which I plan to write a future blog post.

My own list of priorities would be utterly different. No space to go into detail here, but it would include things like guaranteeing minimum workers’ safeguards against exploitation, stepping away from adding free market fundamentalist ideas (including austerity) into regulations. Also, certain topics lend themselves to supranational collaboration: tackling tax avoidance, fraud and money-laundering, pollution, climate change, energy security, fighting cross-border crime (including terrorism), to name but a few.

Still Battling

My heart sank when, before the start of the summit, Cameron used the phrase “Battling for Britain”. This dog-whistle soundbite designed to appeal to the Tory faithful was clearly intended to recall the glory days of the war when plucky Britain held out for freedom. But the people with whom Cameron was negotiating are supposed to be our allies, not enemies, for f***’s sake! Think of the goodwill towards Britain we have squandered. It just makes us look mean-spirited, confrontational and parochial. It’s some comfort that EU leaders recognise it’s just a game. They all play it for domestic consumption at some time or another. But, more worryingly, it also gives encouragement to the bigots and xenophobes among us.

The Referendum: My Vote

Of course, I shall vote for the UK to remain in the EU in the planned referendum. The EU is a far from perfect institution and I think there are many ways it needs to be improved. But my instincts are always towards engagement and collaboration rather than confrontation (if it can be avoided). Secondly, a rational analysis of the evidence strongly suggests the UK is better off within the EU: socially, economically, our ability to influence world issues and for our own security.

Cameron claimed in a tweet last night that he had secured “special status” for Britain in the EU. Yes, I thought, “special” as in “special needs” and “special measures”. Not forgetting that supplicant, poignant and self-deluding attachment to our “special relationship” with the USA. So I don’t know who in Britain Cameron thinks he’s battling for, but it doesn’t include me.

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It Ain’t Necessarily So

What is the “gospel truth”? It’s an expression we use when we assert something is true with absolute certainty. But hang on a minute… This is a piece about mistranslations in the Bible.

Lost in Translation

First, a bit of background. The most familiar version of the Bible in English is the King James edition of 1611. This was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament), from Greek (New Testament) and from Greek and Latin (Apocrypha – rarely reproduced in modern printings).

Ancient Hebrew, in written form, consists only of consonants. The vowels have to be inferred from the context or prior knowledge of the subject area. Consider this: “th cw jmpd vr th mn”. It’s easily recognized as a line from a well-known nursery rhyme. But suppose you came from a culture unfamiliar with the rhyme. Perhaps you’d think the most likely reading of this would be “the cow jumped over the man”. So we have a potential problem here. The chances that all 593,000 words of the Old Testament were correctly translated seem, well, a bit slim to me.

Secondly, it’s often hard to find a word in translation to convey the exact meaning of the original text. Here’s a famous example: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). The Greek original for “word”: λογος (logos) carries a wide range of meanings. Wikipedia devotes a whole page to it. Logos can be translated as “a ground”, “a plea”, “an opinion”, “an expectation”, “word”, “speech”, “account”, “to reason” or “a premise”. In ancient Greek philosophy (from Heraclitus), it is used as meaning “a principle of order or knowledge”. The King James translators hardly do justice to John’s original. This is just one example out of thousands (around 181,000 in the New Testament).

Camels and Needles

camel and needleOne of the most striking of soundbites attributed to Jesus is the one stating that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24 et al). (A similar phrase can be found in the Quran.) I was once told this is a mistranslation and so I did some research.

Here are four main rival theories I found:

  1. Jesus actually said this (in Aramaic of course, his spoken language). Camels were the largest animals native to Palestine. There are accounts of the phrase being used in other cultures, substituting elephants for camels, as a metaphor for something impossible.
  2. The Gate Theory: a story dating from the 15th century (and possibly as early as the 9th) asserts that the “Eye of the Needle” was a small gate or night door in the walls of Jerusalem used only at night after the main gates to the city were closed. There is no evidence such a gate ever existed.
  3. “Camel” is a mistranslation of “rope”: in Aramaic, the word for “rope” and “camel” are the same (roughly transliterated as “gamla”) and the gospel writers mistranslated this into Greek.
  4. “Camel” is a misspelling for “rope”: in this version, it’s all in the Greek. “Kamelos” means camel, “kamilos” means cable.

There’s an even less plausible 5th version involving mistranslation of “knot”.

So, basically, I just don’t know which version is true, but the implications for the theology between version one and the other three are significant. I’ll leave that to the theologians to thrash out.

Add to all the above the fact that, for the first 1400 years, there was no printing press and copies had to be made by hand. Were these always made without error? I doubt that. So, all in all, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible: don’t treat them as gospel!

Oh, and Mary wasn’t a “virgin”. She was a “young woman”. (Think “maid” in English.)

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Disestablish the Church of England Now!

Last month, a report revealed that weekly attendance at Church of England churches has now fallen below one million – just 1.4% of the population. This continues a long period of remorseless decline. The red line on the graph below shows this.

Church and school attendanceSurvey after survey has shown the proportion of British who say they are “religious” in similar decline. Latest figures put this at around half of us. “No religion”, at 42%, now far exceeds the 31% calling themselves Christian. (This is even lower than the 37% who voted Tory at the last election!)

Out of Touch with Opinion

The Church of England has not exactly shown itself in touch with public opinion recently. Justine Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted himself into a corner by convening a meeting of the so-called “Anglican communion”. This is some kind of post-imperial hangover. It arises from the ashes of the former British Empire and its missionary proselytizing – with a dash of inclusiveness arising from post-imperial guilt.

Welby’s desire to keep this mixed bag of Anglicans “united” resulted in the formal punishment of the most enlightened part of the communion: the Episcopal Church in the USA. And yet the Episcopalians are closest to public opinion, even of the Church’s own members! For example, the 2015 Eurobarometer survey found 71% of Britons in favour of same-sex marriage throughout Europe, with 24% against. The subsequent “apology” by Welby for the “hurt” caused to LGBT people merely reinforced how pathetic the whole sorry episode has been.

Faith Schools

Despite the continuing decline in church attendance, the number of school children attending CofE schools has risen slowly. This means that now more schoolchildren attend CofE schools daily than people worship in their churches each week. The blue line on the graph above illustrates this point. As a secularist, I strongly object to the grip that religious authorities, the CofE in particular, still have in 21st century Britain. What makes it worse is the extent to which faith schools break the law in their admissions policies.

But what makes this truly outrageous is the Government’s response to this widespread law-breaking by faith schools. Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, has taken two actions:

  1. She has issued guidance to schools telling them to ignore the adjudicator’s findings: in effect, to carry on breaking the law. As a school governor, I find this deeply disturbing. To be encouraged by a Government Minister to breach her Department’s own rules is a serious assault on the rule of law, a key foundation of democracy.
  2. She also proposes a change in procedures preventing organisations such as the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign from raising objections to the admissions adjudicator. She refers to the BHA/FAC campaign as “vexatious”. And this is after the adjudicator found over 1000 breaches of the code following their detailed campaign!

We can only hope Morgan will not follow the same career path as her predecessor into the Ministry of Justice. Following the same logic as in point 2, it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate what a Morgan-led justice system would look like. Presumably, the police would not be allowed to investigate murders without a written complaint from the victims!

Nicky Morgan
Morgan: Looking for Divine Inspiration?

It will come as no surprise to note that Morgan is a committed Christian. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. At a parliamentary event last July, she said she’s in parliament not only for her constituents, but “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.

The admissions code breaches by faith schools include multiple cases of discrimination, including religion and gender. Guess who is currently Minister for Women and Equalities? It’s a certain Nicky Morgan MP, who incidentally voted against the same-sex marriage bill. At best, she’s misunderstood her brief. Worse, she appears to be grossly abusing her position to pursue a particular agenda.

Who says irony is dead?

Established Church

With our famously unwritten constitution, changes take place slowly and in a piecemeal way. In many ways, Britain is a socially progressive liberal democracy. But there’s one hell of a load of what I call “feudal detritus”. One is the continuing existence of the Anglican Church as the established church in England. (Note “England”: there is no established church in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.) The map below shows just how strange we are. The coloured areas show countries with an established religion. The string of officially Muslim countries (in green) across a swathe of North Africa and the Middle East will come as no surprise. More surprising is a tiny handful of officially Protestant countries in Scandinavia. But that’s just about it.

Established religion countries
Established religion countries

Oh, and by the way, there are just two countries with clerics as a formal part of the legislature: the UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For those who, like me, feel this is wrong, sign the petition for Parliament to debate the removal of the 26 bishops from the House of Lords.

Disestablish Now!

Modern, liberal, secular democracies understand the need to keep church and state separate. With less than half of Britons religious and less than a third Anglicans, the privileged position of the Church of England makes no sense at all. It’s frankly insulting to the rest of us. What was done for the political and sexual convenience of a womanizing former king – Henry VIII – has no place in modern times.

So let’s continue to clean up the relics of our feudal past. Replace Nicky Morgan with someone who will not abuse their position as Minister for education and who can fill the shoes of Equalities Minister without irony. And, above all, disestablish the Church of England  – with all that that entails!

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