Friday, 3 December 2010

Does hockey stick graph indicate climate change?

It certainly seems to me to be uncommonly cold for this time of year.

(Thanks to Boilerjuice for that.)

Friday, 5 November 2010

US congressional election - some trends

I've always been fascinated by elections and election results, and so the recent American 'mid-term' elections caught my eye.

I think that the most significant results are the ones for the House of Representatives - for two reasons. First, because the whole of the US votes in these elections (as it does every two years), whereas the elections for the Senate and for governorships only involved some states. Secondly, because there are 435 different races - as opposed to only 37 for Senate and gubernatorial elections - they are a much larger sample of political views.

If one graphs the performance of the Democrats and the Republicans over the past 40 years, it looks something like this:

(In fact, the 2010 results are not yet finalised. It is expected that 193 Democrats and 242 Republicans will be elected - but that might vary by one or two.)

There are two things that interest me.

The first is that over the past 40 years, the general trend seems to have been for the Republicans to have gained in numbers. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Democrats always had significant majorities, and even when Republican presidential candidates won 'landslide' victories in 1972 and 1984, it didn't translate into great results for the Republicans in the House. The Reagan years (1980-88) may be remembered as great years for the Republican party, but in some ways, they weren't. Americans seem to be much less likely simply to vote for the party than British voters; Americans tend to look at the individual they are voting for.

The first is that the last three elections (2006, 2008, and 2010) have seen very sharp swings - first to the Democrats, then back to the Republicans - with the Republicans doing rather poorly in the 2006 (largely because of the Iraq war) and 2008 (a combination of war, the economy, and the Obama factor) - and the Democrats doing poorly in 2010 (because, I suppose, of, er, well, the war, the economy and the Obama factor).

And the fact that the Republicans have had their best House election since 1946 (when they won 246 seats) does seem to indicate that either the trend is going their way, or that the Tea Party movement has not put the voters off, or both.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Great Repeal Bill wish list 4: Public Order Act - section 5

Andy Stephenson and Kathryn Sloane feel fairly strongly about abortion. So strongly, that they decided to mount a (peaceful) public protest outside an abortion clinic in Brighton. Their method of making their case was to display a large (7ft by 5 ft) graphic banner which showed a picture of an aborted human embryo. Police were called by a member of staff concerned that patients entering the clinic felt traumatised and upset. The Police arrived and told Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane to take down their banner. They did so, replacing it with another similar banner. The police then arrested the pair, and took them to the police station. And there they held them for 14 hours before finally releasing them at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane were released on police bail, and are due to return to court tomorrow to hear if they will be prosecuted under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. (Thanks to Gary Benfold for bringing this story to my notice.)

The issue, of course, is freedom of speech. I was somewhat amused by the comments of Ann Furedi, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who said she fully supported the right of pro-life activists to demonstrate against abortion clinics - but who then added: "There is a distinction between freedom of expression and actions that are designed to distress people who are accessing legal, medical services." Actually, there isn’t. And it’s not as if Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane simply wanted to distress people for the fun of it. They were trying to make the point that what abortion does to an embryo is something very distressing.

A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

Section 5 was also the legislation under which Dale McAlpine was arrested.

It seems to me that Section 5 is a piece of legislation in need of repealing. I’ve asked before, but I’ll ask again: “Why do we have a law on our statute book which means that someone can be guilty of a crime simply for using "insulting" words within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused "distress"?” The words “abusive or insulting” should go. In fact, the whole section should go - since the matter of threatening behaviour is covered by Section 4 of the Act.

Now, to be honest, I don’t like the pictures that Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane displayed. They would put me right off my cocoa and buns. But that’s not the point, is it?

So let’s hope that Section 5 is included in Mr. Clegg’s Great Repeal Act.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Paying people to have children?

In many parts of Africa, parents take the view that it is a good idea to have several children, as they are good investment for the future.

In China, the government has, in certain places, adopted a two-child policy, and even a one-child policy.

In Britain, and many other western nations, we have, since the passing of the Family Allowances Act 1945, had a policy of paying people to have children. This has recently become rather expensive, with the result that the government has decided to pay certain people to have children, but not others. (Basically, if either parent earns over £44,000 per year, they will not be paid to have children.) The logic of this has been lost on some people, and it is generally not considered one of the government's better decisions.

However, it is not the details of what the government has proposed that I want to write about - it's the concept of child benefit. What fascinates me is that just about everybody these days (at least in Europe) seems to think that taking tax-payers' money to pay people to have children is a good idea. This idea is a fairly novel one - and does not seem to have occured to many Europeans before the beginning of the 20th century. It still doesn't seem to have caught on with many people in the USA or in Africa - or for that matter in China.

Yes, I know that child benefit is an easy way of providing tax-payer's money to people who might just need it, and I'm not a Malthusian, but this idea of paying people to have children seems distinctly odd to me.

Of course, if you believe that the state is really your parent, then you'll probably think this is fair enough. But the idea that the state is your parent also strikes me as not just odd, but also dangerous.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The state, tax-payers’ money, and religion - Chinese style

This is not a new story - the BBC reported it in August - but I just found it.

Christianity is growing in China as never before - and doing so supported by millions of dollars of government funding. . . . On the outskirts of Nanjing, a building site illustrates the scale of the communist state's commitment to supporting the development of Christianity. Local officials say that the building under construction will become China's largest state-sanctioned church - with space for 5,000 worshippers. The land - and 20% of the building costs - are being provided not by local Christians, but by the municipal government. It represents state financial support worth millions of dollars - just one example of the strategy to encourage the development of religion in China.”

Yes, you read that right. It wouldn’t happen in the UK. It certainly wouldn’t happen in the USA. But the Chinese government uses tax-payers’ money to build Christian churches.

Why? According to the director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuo An,

"Such growth is unprecedented in the history of Christianity in China. Christianity is enjoying its best period of growth in China. Our goal in supporting these religions in developing religious education is that we hope they can train qualified clergy members so that their religions can enjoy better development. . . . . We are making laws and regulations to better guarantee religious belief in China."

What exactly does he mean by “better guarantee religious belief”? The words “laws and regulations” make one wonder. Since when did one need laws and regulations to better guarantee religious belief ? The answer is not in the article, but you can probably guess. It means helping religious bodies which say what the government wants them to say.

Because in China, there are two kinds of Christian churches - state registered churches and unofficial churches. Leaders of unofficial churches are often harassed, and sometimes imprisoned. So why don’t they just become state registered? Quite simply because there are long list of things that preachers in state registered churches are simply not allowed to speak about. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Of course, in China, the government has been calling the tune in state registered churches for decades - so I guess it’s nice for them when the government starts giving tax-payers’ money to the piper.

There remains an interesting question. Mr Wang told the BBC "On the question of whether there is God, the Chinese Communist Party believes there is no God in the world." Isn’t it very strange that the Chinese Communist Party still takes a view on the question of the existence of God?

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Pope, the state, and freedom: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Since the Pope’s visit was a state visit by a head of state, it was natural that, in a speech to political leaders, he should turn to relations between the United Kingdom and the Vatican, and to areas in which the British Government “has been engaged with the Holy See.” And so he did.
I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

Your readiness to do so is already implied in the unprecedented invitation extended to me today. And it finds expression in the fields of concern in which your Government has been engaged with the Holy See. In the area of peace, there have been exchanges regarding the elaboration of an international arms trade treaty; regarding human rights, the Holy See and the United Kingdom have welcomed the spread of democracy, especially in the last sixty-five years; in the field of development, there has been collaboration on debt relief, fair trade and financing for development, particularly through the International Finance Facility, the International Immunization Bond, and the Advanced Market Commitment. The Holy See also looks forward to exploring with the United Kingdom new ways to promote environmental responsibility, to the benefit of all.

I also note that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013. In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed “too big to fail”. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly “too big to fail”.
It is no surprise that when it came down to specific areas of government policy, the fields that the Pope wished to speak about were the fairly uncontroversial areas of motherhood and appl peace, human rights, development (i.e. the relief of global poverty), and the environment. The Pope highlighted several specifics including the advance of democracy in the past 65 years (an odd thing for the Pope to welcome, since the Vatican is not, as far as I know, itself a democracy) - but (again, not surprisingly) his concern was largely about what governments could do help poor people in other countries.

In particular, the Pope notes “that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013.” All three main parties in the UK have had made this commitment, and it is generally considered something that all people of goodwill should support, but I do not believe that it is the duty of government to be charitable with other people’s money - and, to be honest, I don’t see anything particularly virtuous about it either.

The Pope also makes the point that if governments are willing and able to spend huge quantities of tax-payer’s money to bail out large corporations, that they should be able to do the same for poor people in poor countries. One gets the impression that the Pope’s view is that the government was not necessarily wrong to do the former, and should certainly be prepared to do the latter. In other words, when it comes to the extent and role of the state, it seems that the Pope is not just happy enough to go along with the current British political consensus - but that he also probably supports it. So, not much encouragement for libertarian principles there.

The Pope continued:
This overview of recent cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Holy See illustrates well how much progress has been made, in the years that have passed since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, in promoting throughout the world the many core values that we share. I hope and pray that this relationship will continue to bear fruit, and that it will be mirrored in a growing acceptance of the need for dialogue and respect at every level of society between the world of reason and the world of faith. I am convinced that, within this country too, there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens, in harmony with this Parliament’s historic practice of invoking the Spirit’s guidance upon those who seek to improve the conditions of all mankind. For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed. ”
Having spoken about relations between the UK and the Vatican, the Pope returned the theme of the necessity of “dialogue between the world of reason and the world of faith”. Personally, I think that this is an odd thing to say, as it implies that these are two different worlds - and possibly even that it is not possible to be a person of both reason and faith. I can see Richard Dawkins taking the view that if you have faith, then you are irrational, but I know the Pope doesn’t, so I think that he could have chosen his words better.

And finally, the Pope comes back to his earlier point, and to effectively end his address by again stating the need for such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association to be guaranteed. This was clearly the Pope’s great concern, for it comes out at the beginning of his address (third paragraph: “Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law”) the middle of his address (seventh paragraph: “These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion . . . . .”) and the conclusion of his address. And that is good.

However, there is one thing that strikes me as particularly odd about it. The Pope, in his address, repeatedly refers to Sir Thomas More.
As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.”
Thomas More was a faithful Catholic and a man of courage and principle, as depicted in the film A Man for all Seasons. But that is not all that he was. Thomas More was also a firm believer in the burning of heretics.

Some people might say that this was an unexceptional belief for a 16th century man, and that he should not be judged by 20th century standards. There is some truth in that. But even by the standards of the 16th century, More was remarkably enthusiastic about burning heretics. When John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller found guilty of having a copy of William Tyndale’s book The Parable of the Wicked Mammon was sentenced to burning for refusing to recant, More declared: he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy." There were very few other major theological writers in 16th century Europe whose words show such eagerness to have their religious opponents burned.

So, in his address, the Pope spoke passionately in favour of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience - while praising a man who was militantly opposed to both. Thomas More believed that the Roman Catholic Church was right, that everybody else was wrong, and that it was the duty of the state to burn those who were heretics. He believed that heresy should be excluded from the public square. In short, More’s policy was precisely that of those who (to use the Pope’s words) “would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced.” It seems to me that for the Pope to use Thomas More as his starting point in an address that pleaded for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience was, to put it mildly, somewhat ironic.

That Pope Benedict should choose to focus on several aspects of freedom (freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, freedom of political affiliation and freedom of religion) in the major political speech of his visit to the UK was good news for lovers of freedom. Many religious leaders would, I suspect, not have chosen to emphasise freedom to the same extent - if at all. That he chose to speak about these freedoms as things that we in Britain need to keep valuing is particularly welcome. However, the Pope is clearly not a libertarian yet.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Pope, the state, and freedom: Part 1

The recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI was a state visit to the United Kingdom, and so it is not surprising that the Pope did not merely address the faithful, but also spoke to political leaders at Westminster Hall. And, it seems to me, if we are interested in the Pope’s views on matters of state, it is to his address at this meeting that we need to look. Here are some of my thoughts.

The third paragraph set the tone:
This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.
In his third paragraph, the Pope considers the limits of state power, and says that “decisive steps have been taken at several points in [Britain’s] history to place limits on the exercise of power,” and this is something that he seems to approve of - as do libertarians, of course. There is more common ground with libertarians here: the Pope used the word “freedom” twice in this paragraph - and freedom was to be a major theme in the address, as he was to use the word a further five times. He spoke of Britain as “as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.” That sums up our political tradition well, and this is something that libertarians are happy with.

The Pope also said “While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.” The interesting word here is ‘much.’ Catholic social teaching has ‘much’ in common with the British tradition - but how much? He didn’t say - but his comment about using different language is interesting. The most important features of Catholic social teaching would appear, from the Pope’s words, to be ‘safeguarding the unique dignity of every human person’ and ‘fostering the common good’ - rather than safeguarding freedom and the rule of law. So how do we safeguard the unique dignity of every human person? How do we foster the common good? One suspects that the Pope would agree that the rule of law, the equality of everyone before the law, and freedom of speech are important - but how important?

In paragraphs 5 and 6, the Pope spoke of the importance of ethics in public life.
There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.”
It is about what we believe is right and wrong. And I suppose nobody is going to disagree. All political philosophy follows from beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Libertarians, or example, believe that it is wrong for the state to deny people certain basic freedoms. Slavery, which the Pope mentioned, is an example of something that libertarians believe is wrong.

What about economics? The Pope said “There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.” So - to what extent was the credit crunch caused by dishonesty? No doubt some Rothbardian will rush in and say that the Pope is quite right - that fractional reserve banking is fraud - but I don’t pretend to know about these things! Some people will say that it was caused to a large extent by greed, but greed is somewhat difficult to define. And to what extent was it caused by selfishness - i.e. a lack of care and concern for other people? If any economists are reading this, feel free to share your thoughts.

And so the Pope asked “Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”, and replied that the answer is ‘reason’: “The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.” And the Pope went on to say that where we had religion without the corrective of reason or reason without the corrective of religion, things tended to go wrong - in both the political and religious sphere. “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.

This begs the question “Which religion?” Because they don’t all say the same things. Christianity, Islam, and Aztec religion all have rather different things to say. But it also raises further questions in my mind. Is the Pope basically suggesting that legislators, even though they may be basically secular people, need to listen more to the pronouncements of the Catholic Bishops, and the General Synod, and the Chief Rabbi, and other religious groups?

Because if that is what he is saying, it sounds very different to what I find in the Bible. The Bible tells of Old Testament prophets speaking to kings, and (perhaps more relevantly for our day) it tells us of the apostle Paul speaking to individuals in the political realm - such as Sergius Paulus, Festus and Felix (all of whom were Roman governors) and King Agrippa. I simply cannot imagine that the apostle Paul would have said to Sergius Paulus “You need to listen to what the priests at the temple of Aphrodite, and the rabbis of the synagogues, and the presbyters of the churches, and hear what they are saying.” Paul did not encourage rulers who were secularly minded people to listen to faith communities - he encouraged them to become Christians - presumably with the expectation that they would try to govern in accordance with the teaching of Jesus. It seems to me that the Pope’s approach is quite different.

And at this point, the Pope comes to one of his main points - the marginalization of religion:
In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.”
By the way, living, as I do, in a country where Christmas was not a public holiday until 1958, I can’t see why any Christian would be worried about whether or not we publicly celebrate Christmas. Scotland was at least as Christian in the first half of the 20th century as it is today.

And this brings us to two more of the Pope’s seven references to freedom.
“And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”
I’m not quite sure what the Pope meant when he spoke of Christians in public roles being required at times to act against their conscience. What does he mean by “acting against their conscience?” I suspect that he doesn’t mean doing something illegal or dishonest - but rather something that a Christian might believe is wrong, but that would be regarded by most people in Britain as quite acceptable. Employers have rights, too - and that should include the right to dismiss people who are not doing their job properly. A Christian who doesn’t like it should find alternative work. The problem arises when it is difficult to find alternative work - because one employer has a virtual monopoly in certain fields. And that situation most often arises when the employer is the state. If the roll of the state in modern Britain was rolled back, discrimination against Christians would cease to be a problem - and freedom would be extended.

(To be continued)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Thou shalt love the state thy God . . .

There has been rather a lot in the news recently about the coming cuts in government expenditure, in particular with regard to the possibility of civil unrest that might result.

And while the ASI blog and Jeff Randal and many others have pointed out that these cuts are actually not as deep as some people would have you believe, anyone involved in local government will tell you that difficult decisions will have to be made, the result of which will be some very unhappy people.

Public sector trade unions are particularly concerned, and are speaking of the need to defend jobs and services. My gut feeling is that they are more concerned about the former than the latter. What really worries people is losing their jobs. For the unions, the state sector exists to protect jobs.

This has been brought home to me by a couple of recent conversations that I have had. One was a with a politician. He told me that many rural communities simply cannot survive on the private sector, because the private sector will never create enough jobs. These communities need a substantial state sector in order to provide employment.

The other conversation was with the head teacher of a primary school. We chatted about the huge growth in the number of people employed in small rural schools in recent decades. She admitted that it was a waste of money, but said (with great feeling) “At least it provides jobs. Where would these people find employment if it were not for these jobs?” In other words, she felt that the jobs didn’t really need doing - but creating jobs, even if those jobs are somewhat pointless, is a reasonable use of tax-payers’ money. The state is there to provide us with a living.

But is that what the state exists for?

And then there is the case of a young man I know called Ben. Ben is a very nice chap. He could, potentially, get a job - though he doesn’t have one at the moment. In fact, because of a hereditary condition, he might have difficulty getting one - and his condition means that he will never be able to be completely independent. He could stay at home with his parents, but, in order to be less dependent on them, he stays in a house with some friends, who would also have difficulties looking after themselves. Ben’s rent is paid by the state, and he lives on state benefits. This is, obviously, a great relief to his parents, for whom his condition has been a great worry over the years.

When I think about Ben, and about my two recent conversations, it is not difficult to see why many people in Britain today greatly appreciate the state. Indeed, we don’t just appreciate the state, we love it - because we depend on it. We look to it to step in and solve our problems, in a way that nobody would have dreamed of doing 100 years ago. It has become our saviour.

But it has become more than that. Ben has relatives who are reasonably well off. They do not, however, give anything to him. They have been advised not to include Ben in their wills. And the reason, of course, is that Ben has everything he needs at the moment, and any additional wealth that comes his way will simply lead to a loss of state benefits. Ben will not benefit from any money that is given to him. The state is, in this case, encouraging people not to provide for their relatives. And that bothers me. Surely people should be encouraged to make financial provision for their relatives?

The state, in other words, is becoming our provider and our life - that which we simply cannot survive without. The state has become not simply a safety net, if everything else fails - it is our first port of call. This is not, of course, the state as people conceived of it 300 years ago, or 200 years ago, or even 100 or years ago - but the modern, welfare state.

To many, it sounds good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just mean wasting money, creating dependency, and discouraging responsibility. Because the state doesn’t just give. It also takes, for it has nothing of its own, and can only give what it takes from others. But the real problem is not the fact that it takes our money. The real problem is that the state finds it very difficult not to tell us what we can and cannot do - and when we are totally dependent on it, we will have little inclination to defend our freedoms.

The state was designed to be servant. But as it has increasingly become our all powerful provider, it looks like it has become our god. Is the state one of the great idols of modern Britain?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

50 funny people write to the Guardian

50 people, some of whom I have heard of, have written a letter to the Guardian to express the view that the Pope should not be given the honour of a state visit to Britain.

What an odd letter.

I could see the point if they said "Look, we know that technically speaking he is a head of state, but we all know that the Vatican isn't really a proper country, and that he is really the head of religious body - so surely a state visit isn't really appropriate."

Or, to put it another way, if they had just sent in their first two sentences and (most of) the last sentence, their letter would have been reasonable.
We, the undersigned, share the view that Pope Ratzinger should not be given the honour of a state visit to this country. We believe that the pope, as a citizen of Europe and the leader of a religion with many adherents in the UK, is of course free to enter and tour our country. We reject the masquerading of the Holy See as a state and the pope as a head of state as merely a convenient fiction to amplify the international influence of the Vatican.
But they seem to be saying "If he held progressive opinions, we wouldn't have a problem with the Pope being accorded the honour of a state visit*, but we really don't like the Roman Catholic Church and its beliefs - and it has made some major mistakes in the past - so we think that a state visit is inappropriate."

However, even the second sentence managed to amuse me. "We believe that the pope, as a citizen of Europe and the leader of a religion with many adherents in the UK, is of course free to enter and tour our country."

Yes, it's that phrase "a citizen of Europe". I'd heard of European citizenship, but I thought that meant "a citizen of a country that was part of the European Union." To refer to the Pope as "a citizen of Europe" implies, to me at least, that Europe is a nation state.

(*And they would probably feel that the £12 million cost of the visit to the tax-payer would be money well spent if the Pope was using his visit to advocate progressive opinions!)

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reflections on "9/11"

Since I arrived at Paddington Station just over half a century ago, there have been three events that, it seems to me, have, more than any other, changed and shaped the political world.

The world as it was then

The political world at that time - the world of the 1950s, 60s and 70s - was dominated by the Cold War - the ideological conflict in which the west found itself threatened by revolutionary socialism inspired by the thought of Karl Marx. Wars involving the UK, France, and the USA (and other western states) were fought in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1955-75). And several other wars and revolutions were inspired in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And then there were Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Middle Eastern conflicts in those days were seen as part of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union backing Syria and Egypt, and the USA backing Israel. And most significantly, socialism was the ideology that inspired discontented Arabs. Nasser, Arafat, and the Baathists of Syria and Iraq all used the language of socialism. They were political secularists. And among the more extreme Palestinian factions, like the PFLP, it was Marx rather than Mohammed who inspired the leadership. George Habbash, the leader of the PFLP was not even Muslim. He was Greek Orthodox.

Event 1: The Iranian Revolution

Then along came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Militant Islam, which had been a fairly insignificant force in the 1960s and 70s, now became a major force among the discontented people of the Middle East. Socialism had not delivered the goods. Perhaps Islam could. And anyway, socialism was essentially western, and Marx was European, and the communism’s preference for atheism had never been particularly popular in the Middle East. As the Lebanese Civil War raged, Hezbollah emerged as a major force. And a few years later, an Islamic Palestinian group called Hamas came into being. And the west started to worry about militant Islam - even if it was still more worried about Marxist socialism.

Event 2: The collapse of the Soviet Union.

As a result of changes in domestic and foreign policy in the Soviet Union brought in under Gorbachev’s leadership, the Cold War came to a fairly sudden end. In 1989, the Soviet backed regimes in Eastern Europe effectively collapsed. In 1990 Germany was reunited. In 1991 the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union came to an end. Civil wars broke out in what had been Yugoslavia, but the world seemed to be a less threatening place. And among the discontented in the Middle East, secular socialism’s credibility as a revolutionary force dwindled further. All the time, the power and influence of militant Islam was growing.

Event 3: The September 11 attacks

Nine months into the new century, the world changed again. It wasn’t just that the Turks were at the gates of Vienna. They were now at the gates of every city in the western world. And Islam was every bit as terrifying as communism had been in the Cold War era.

And so it remains today. Furthermore, the Cold War era seems like ancient history. Brezhnev has been dead for nearly 30 years, and it is a quarter of a century ago that Gorbachev began his program which was to lead to the winding up of the Soviet empire. It is not just that Islam is the great threat to Western civilisation; it feels like it has always been that way.

And it seems to me that this has had two major effects in the way people in Britain think. The first, and most obvious, is that there is a real and widespread fear of Muslims, and of also fear of Islam per se. There were those in Britain who feared Muslims and Islam 10 years ago - but the levels of concern are far higher today. The rise of Islamic militancy has changed the way that we see Muslims. Islamic militancy, however, is a phenomenon that was virtually unknown 40 years ago, and that a large proportion of the world’s Muslims don’t have much enthusiasm for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Muslims do vary considerably. I would differentiate, by the way, between how we view Muslims, and how we view Islam per se. I don’t judge Islam (or any other faith) by its adherents, but by what I know of its founder and of its teachings.

It seems to me that the 9/11 attacks have had another effect on the way some people in Britain think. Many people are increasingly suspicious not just of Islam, but of all religion. After all, for decades now, I have been hearing people saying that all religions are basically the same. We’ve all heard it. (Remember Steve Turner’s satirical poem, Creed?) And if they are all basically the same, it follows that Christianity is as dangerous as Islam. Since 9/11, it has become common to hear people in Britain claiming that religion is the cause of most wars. Very few people would have made such a claim 15 years ago. 50 years ago it would have been almost unthinkable for someone in Britain to have made such an idiotic assertion.

There is one other thing that, as a Christian, I find interesting. Both the old threat to the west (revolutionary communism) and the new threat (revolutionary Islam), have one thing in common. Not just in theory, but also in practice, both have proved to be strongly hostile to Christianity.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Gloria mundi

According to Total Politics, this blog has been voted one of the top 50 Scottish blogs for 2010. In fact, it managed to place at number 30 - which is a bit of a surprise. I must confess that while it is very nice to be accorded such an honour, the really nice thing is that some people must have made the effort to vote for it. Thank you very much, whoever you are. I am very touched.

I suppose the funny thing is that Stewart Cowan actually got to the story and mentioned it 10 days before I did. (Thanks, Stewart! It's good to see that your blog made the list as well.) I've not been spending much time in the blogosphere recently, and I'm not the only one. Quite a few bloggers seem to be giving up, or going into abeyance - though I see that Tom Paine is back, and even Cranmer has risen from the dead. (I must confess considerable curiosity about the latter, who has made many enigmatic comments about his struggles.)

I also notice that quite a few of the blogs that I read have already appeared on the Total Politics "top blogs" lists, and I hope that several more will do so over the next few weeks as the lists are released.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Freedom of the Press. Yes, but . . . .

Today is the 9th anniversary of what Americans generally refer to as 9/11. The events of the day were shocking, and what shocked me most at the time was the ease with which the attackers were able to launch their devastating attack on the World Trade Center. Security procedures obviously needed to be tightened up. And they were - probably rather more than was necessary.

Alas, that was not all that happened. The war on terror was launched, which was to include the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. (For my thoughts, see here.) And the British and American governments passed legislation which seriously (and, in my opinion, unnecessarily) curtailed basic freedoms.

However, this year, 9/11 is particularly dismal. This is because, for the past few days, Terry Jones has been constantly in the headlines, because he planned to hold a Burn-a-Koran day. Mr. Jones, is the pastor of an independent congregation in Gainesville, Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center. The BBC says that it has about 50 members. (The DWOC website refers to him as Dr. Jones, and describes him as President of Dove Charismatic Ministries.)

Now it seems to me that the interesting thing about all this is not Mr. Jones’ plan to burn a few copies of Koran. The interesting thing is the amount of media attention that his plan received. And it struck me that if Mr. Jones could become instantly famous for announcing that he was going to hold a Burn-a-Koran day, so could I. Needless to say, I have no such plans, and nor to most other Christians in Britain - or the USA. But Mr. Jones does, because (not to put too fine a point on it) Mr. Jones is a nutter. (There are plenty of them around, no matter where in the world you go, and I'm not convinced that American Christians are, on the whole, any nuttier, on average, than other people.) But Mr. Jones has managed to become rather better known than most nutters, and to have worried a lot more people. Which is quite understandable, because it was felt that his action would probably lead to a rather extreme reaction from some other nutters. (Though if I’m being honest, I have to say that his planned response to the 9/11 incidents is actually fairly mild compared to that of some leading politicians . . . . )

Anyway, the point of the matter is that this nutter should simply have been ignored. He should have been allowed to get on with his book burning. The media should have realised that his plans were rather incendiary, and should have given them no publicity at all. That way I would not have heard of them, and nor would you, and nor would the Muslim world. Alas, the media failed to do what they should have done, and as a result, Mr. Jones is famous.

When Herostratus burned the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus in the year 356 B.C. in an effort to achieve fame, the authorities in the city of Ephesus, in order to discourage copy-cat incidents from fame-seekers, banned the mention of his name. You can see why.

It would have been utterly wrong for the authorities to ban the mention of Mr. Jones or his plans. Freedom of the press is important. But with freedom comes responsibility. And in my view, the behaviour of the press in this instance has been irresponsible. And the problem with that is that irresponsible behaviour brings freedom into disrepute.

Freedom-lovers, take note.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The strange justice of Sexual Offences Prevention Orders

Well, my holiday turned out to be rather a long one, with the result that my blog has become rather neglected. However, I was reading a story recently that disturbed me, and I thought that I ought to raise my disquiet.

It concerns the case of a 22 year old man who was jailed for a total of 14 months for the crime of . . . twice in the space of two days being in the same room as a young girl.

My eyes widened. It seemed like an odd thing to be sent to jail for, even in 21st century Britain. Apparently the man had breached the terms of a Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO), which was made following his conviction for a sexual offence in November 2005 - when he would have been about 17 years old. The SOPO banned him from remaining or residing in any home which was also occupied by young girls. He was also forbidden from approaching, speaking to or communicating with girls aged under 16.

However, he recently became friendly with a local teenage boy who had two young school-age sisters. This friendship caused concern to his supervising team and at a meeting it was decided to disclose his background to the girls' parents to ensure he was kept away from them."

And so a social worker and police inspector called at the home to see the mother. They were invited into the property and on entering the kitchen found the accused sitting there along with a number of teenagers, one of them being an underage girl. It turned out that two days earlier he had been present in the house in the company of the other sister. No one has ever suggested that anything sexual occurred, simply that the order was breached.

But it gets worse. In court, the defence provided further details on the case - which were not challenged by the prosecution. On the first occasion, the 22 year old went to visit his friend after learning that he was alone in his mother's house. While he was there, one of his friend's sisters got off the school bus and went into the kitchen where the two men were sitting. There was a fleeting conversation before the girl went into her bedroom and that was the extent of the contact.

The second meeting was even innocuous. The 22 year old again arrived at the house in question along with his friend, but refused to go inside because he knew one of the girls was present. He eventually went inside on the insistence of his friend's mother, because it was raining. She then was going to supply food. While the man was in the house, the police called. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, there is no question that the 22 year old man was warned. He knew about his SOPO, and he knew about the consequences of breaching it. But 14 months in jail for sitting in a group of teenagers, one of whom was a girl under 16? It seems somewhat disproportionate to me. And it seems to me that the terms of the SOPO were extreme - especially as it seems that the man was probably 17 when the first offence was carried out. In fact, at the recent court case, the man’s defence stated that a psychologist's report on her client deemed him to be at a low risk of re-offending sexually but at a high risk of breaching the SOPO.

I don’t even know the full facts of this case. I do not know the anything about the man, or about the original offence he was convicted of. I have no doubt that what he did was wrong, and was very serious. (I may be wrong, but I would assume that since he was not in prison when breaches of the SOPO took place earlier this year, that whatever he did was consensual.) OK, it could be argued that he was lucky that in 2005 he was given a SOPO instead of a long jail sentence. But it still seems to me that this SOPO was ridiculously wide ranging. Sexual crimes against young girls are serious. But has society’s horror at such crimes led our politicians to take measures that are completely disproportionate?

SOPOs, by the way, were introduced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, section 104. Why is it that the first decade of the 21st century seems to excel all others for dubious legislation?

Monday, 5 July 2010

How times have changed...

Jonathan and Judy are home from school, so we are off to the seaside for a few days. Before I grab my bucket and spade, though, here's an interesting bit of nostalgia.

For over 40 years, there's been a book entitled the How and Why Wonder Book of Weather on the bookshelves of Number 32. It's part of a very worthy and educational series of books for children. I've not looked at it for years, but the other day, for some reason, it came off the shelf.

And at the end of the book, I found this very interesting experiment.

Sigh. You don't get stuff like that in children's books these days.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Eigg on their faces?

The 95 people of the Isle of Eigg had much to be happy about a few months ago. They had just won £300,000 in a competition called "The Big Green Challenge." This was all a result of their new (2008) electricity system, based on 'renewable energy'. (Before this, there was no mains electricty on Eigg.) To quote Wikipedia:
"The new system incorporates a 9.9 kWp PV [photovoltaic] system, three hydro generation systems (totalling 112 kW) and a 24 kW wind farm supported by stand-by diesel generation and batteries to guarantee continuous availability of power. A load management system has been installed to provide optimal use of the renewables. This combination of solar, wind and hydro power should provide a network that is self sufficient and powered 98% from renewable sources. The system was switched on, on 1 February 2008."
You will note that the 'renewable' sources are able to produce, in theory, 146 kilowatts. The two diesel generators are able to produce 160 kilowatts - 80 each.

Graeme Downie of Nesta was impressed:
"You only have to look around you here on Eigg to see what the community here has managed to achieve - a 32% reduction in carbon emissions in just one year. That's remarkable when you consider that the Scottish government's target for 2020 is a 42% reduction."
A few months later, it's not quite so rosy. The doubters have long been asking the question - what if the wind doesn't blow? And in Eigg, it didn't. It didn't even rain much, which meant that there wasn't enough water for hydro-electric generation to take place.

(And here, it needs to be remembered that while hydro-electric generation using dams and reservoirs is a reliable method of generating electricity, the scheme on Eigg used run-of-river generators, which means there was no reservoir, and hence the whole scheme was vulnerable to water shortages.)

Luckily, the lights have not gone off - thanks to the standby diesel generators. But people are having to reduce their electricity use - going back to boiling kettles by gas and doing their washing at night. And deep fat fryers, apparently, "are a definite no-no.”

Of course, it's no great hardship for people who didn't have mains electricity at all until two years ago, but it does raise questions.

For example, I'd like to know how much electricity the wind turbines have actually contributed to the system. In theory, they can produce up to 24 kilowatts - but what have they actually produced in practice?

I'd also like to know why rationing is having to go on if the diesel backup generators are actually capable of producing more electricity than all the renewable sources put together.

But the big question is about what this says about the national grid depending on wind power (and run-of-river hydroelectricity). On a national scale, the consequences of weather dependent fluctuations could be serious. I think we should take this as a gentle reminder that it will be a very long time before the national grid is able to put any great dependence on 'renewable energy'.

H/T The Devil's Knife.

p.s. Am I the only one who thinks that the wind turbines in the picture are not exactly attractive?

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Politics, establishment religion, & outsider religion

(I'm afraid this post is rather long. In fact, it should keep readers going until the middle of July. Before reading it, make sure you are sitting comfortably, preferably with a mug of cocoa and a supply of buns.)

I’m still on the subject of the way that Christians in Britain see political issues, with particular reference to the recent election. This post follows from my last post, in which I considered the list of questions that the Rev. Guy Davies, a Baptist pastor, put to the candidates in his constituency.

One of the things that interested me about the questions that Mr. Davies chose to ask was that his concerns were remarkably similar to those that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales expressed in their leaflet “Some issues and questions for Parliamentary Candidates.”

While Mr. Davies had 12 questions for candidates, and the bishops dealt with five areas, both basically had nine areas of concern, and of these nine, six were common to both.

Common concerns

1. Secularisation and the place of religion in society.
Guy Davis: Do you believe that Christian values have a beneficial role to play in contemporary society?
CBCEW: What do you think is the place of religion in society?

Notice the difference in phrasing. The Catholic bishops speak about the place of religion, Mr Davies about Christian values. I think that bishops have asked the better question. It is more open ended, and more likely to get a candidate thinking. It also has the potential to get a more interesting response.

But I suspect that the underlying concern is the same. Both clearly feel that the Church and the Christian faith are being marginalised in modern Britain by aggressive secularism (and also, perhaps, ‘multi-faithism’). The Archbishop of Canterbury has the same feeling. In his recent sermon for the new parliament, he spoke about the way our society has been “regarding religious communities with the mixture of patronage and nervousness that has become uncomfortably common of late.”

This is not just a question of Christians to ask of politicians. It is also one that we Christians need to ask ourselves. What should be the place of religion, and specifically Christianity, in our society? Should Christianity have a privileged position? Does Luke 6:22 have anything at all to say to us on this subject?

2. Religious freedom
GD: Do you accept that people who believe that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for a sexual expression should be free to say so without falling foul of the law or loosing their jobs? Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with Christian teaching?
CBCEW: Religious belief is not just something private: it helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. It has a contribution to make and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings.

This is closely related to the first point. Indeed, the words “and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings” come just before the question “What do you think is the place of religion in society?” bishops’ leaflet.

Notice that both Mr. Davies and the bishops use similar forms of words about religious groups being allowed to operate in accordance with their teachings. Mr. Davies only asks about freedom for Christian churches, the bishops (in rather curious phrasing), say that “religious belief” must be allowed to make its contribution in accordance with its teachings. While that is rather inelegant, I like the fact that they request this freedom for all religions, not just one. (If you want freedom for yourself, you should be prepared to give it to others, on the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” principle.) In addition, I feel that it might have been wiser for Mr. Davies to ask “Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with their teaching?” After all, different people have different views about what constitutes “Christian teaching”.

3. The place of marriage
GD: Do you believe that is the duty of the State to do all it can to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage?
CBCEW: Families are the basic building block of any stable society. Marriage provides the best context for bringing up children and must have the clear support and encouragement of Government. What will you do for marriage and the family? What practical measures will you take to encourage and support stable family life and the institution of marriage?

The phrasing is remarkably similar. But why do they believe that it is the duty of the State to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage? What is the particular concern? The rising divorce rate? The rise in cohabitation? Do they really believe that anything that the state is likely to do will have any significant effect on divorce or cohabitation rates? The Labour government abolished the married couples’ tax allowance in 1999, but cohabitation and divorce rates was rising long before that. (Of course, it would be completely wrong to have a tax and benefit system that actually penalised married couples.)

4. Abortion
GD: Do you believe that the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?
CBCEW: valuing life. That means opposing abortion ....What does respect for life mean to you? Do all lives have the same value? ... the unborn?

It’s no surprise that abortion is a political issue for Christians. The bishops, however, are careful to avoid being seen as single issue fanatics, and put opposing abortion together with opposing euthanasia, and life-cramping poverty, and the neglect of the elderly.

5. Euthanasia
GD: Do you think that the law on euthanasia should be changed?
CBCEW: valuing life. That means opposing ...euthanasia

Again, no surprise.

6. The environment

GD: How does your Party propose to protect the environment both at the local and international level?

CBCEW: Our care for each other is also shown in how ...we use – or abuse – the environment we share. We must be good stewards of God’s creation, not selfish exploiters of it. What is our responsibility to safeguard and protect the environment?"

This is an interesting one. It is something that Christians speak about a lot these days - but which, historically speaking, has not been a major concern of Christians. This, of course, is because during the 20th century, people have become a lot more aware of the potential for pollution to permanently damage the earth. Over the past 50 years, the environment has become a major political issue, and curbs have been put on air and water pollution in the western world.

I have a problem with this issue. It is summed up by the way Mr. Davies begins his question. “How does your party propose...?” Mr. Davies’s first seven questions are all “Yes or No” questions. They all begin with “Do you believe?” or “Do you accept?” or something like that. This one doesn’t. And I suspect Mr. Davies knows the answer that he is looking for in the first seven questions. He knows what he wants the law to say about abortion and euthanasia and freedom of religion. I suspect that when it comes to the environment, he doesn’t know what legislation he wants. He knows that protecting the environment is important, and so he includes a question on it. I even have my doubts that the Catholic Bishops know exactly what sort of environmental protection legislation they want. So I guess if Mr. Davies were to ask me, as a hypothetical libertarian candidate, how my party proposed to protect the environment both at the local and international level, I’d probably want to return the question and ask him what exactly he thought should be done, and why.

Other concerns

In addition to the 6 common concerns, Mr Davies and the bishops each had three additional concerns.

In the case of the bishops these were the treatment of immigrants (an issue that was clearly very important to the bishops judging by the amount of space they gave it), neglect of the elderly (this was covered very briefly), and poverty (both nationally and globally). In my opinion, the issue of poverty is like the question of the environment. We all know it’s an important issue - it’s just that we don’t know what to do about it. (And anyone who thinks they do know how to solve the problem of poverty is, in my view, hopelessly deluded.)

In the case of Mr. Davies, the three additional concerns were homosexuality (in particular the recognition of homosexual marriage), sex education in schools, and the local issues concerning hospital and swimming pool closures.

Should we expect so much common ground?

As I say, I was interested that there was so much agreement between Mr. Davies and the Catholic bishops in the concerns that they raised. One might say that this isn’t so odd, since these are issues that one would expect Christians to be concerned about. But we should bear in mind that there are two big differences between Mr. Davies and the bishops. First, they are Roman Catholic, and Mr. Davies is a staunch Protestant - he works part time for the Protestant Truth Society. Second, the bishops are a collection of people with a large organisation behind them, which includes people with political expertise, who have the resources to put together a carefully crafted and thought out document. Mr Davies is simply an individual with, as far as I am aware, no particular expertise in politics. And yet he and the bishops came up with a very similar list of concerns.

(By the way, if we wanted to compare like with like, and were looking for a large Protestant organisation which reflects the theological viewpoint of Mr. Davies, one could do worse than looking at the Christian Institute. They produced an election briefing, which Mr. Davies recommended on his blog, in which they stated “The Christian Institute believes that there are three touchstone issues for Christians in 2010: religious liberty, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life.” In other words, they share four of the 6 concerns common to Mr. Davies and the Catholic bishops: freedom of religion, the place of marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. The two that are missing are the place of religion in modern society - probably because they felt that this was simply too general a point - and, very interestingly, the environment.)

The outlook of the ecclesiastical establishment

And what makes this even more interesting is that when I looked at the political concerns raised by members of the ecclesiastical establishment in Scotland in the run up to the election, the picture was entirely different. Not one of the six figures from the ecclesiastical establishment mentioned abortion. Not one mentioned euthanasia. Not one mentioned marriage. Not one mentioned the place of religion in society. And, note this, not one mentioned concerns about the erosion of freedom (religious or otherwise) in Britain. (The four issues that they particularly highlighted, by the way, were the treatment of immigrants, poverty, disarmament, and the environment.)

I find this interesting. Mr. Davies, as a Baptist pastor, has far more in common with the Catholic bishops of England and Wales than he does with his six fellow-Protestants from Scotland. And it seems to me that this is because he and the bishops are outside the establishment, whereas the six Scots are part of the establishment. It could be argued the difference is actually that Mr. Davies and the bishops stand for traditional Christianity, whereas the six Scots do not. But surely traditional Christianity is not so completely marginalised in the Church of Scotland that not a single traditional Christian was selected when six people were to be asked about their thoughts on the election?

Which is why I propose an alternative way of categorising Christians - those who follow establishment Christianity and those who are outside the establishment. The six Scots are comfortable in modern Britain, and one of the reasons they are able to feel comfortable is that they see no signs that our traditional freedoms are disappearing. They are basically optimistic about the political future of British society. Mr. Davies and the bishops are not comfortable in modern Britain. They appear to have a feeling of foreboding about the future. And one of the reasons for that is that they have at least some awareness that freedoms long taken for granted are being taken away by our political leaders. Whatever you may think of their theological views, at least they have their eyes open.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Christians and political issues - a Baptist perspective

Before the General Election, I blogged a bit on the way that various church leaders saw the election, and in particular, what they saw as the main issues. (People from the Scottish ecclesiastical establishment here, here and here, and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales here.)

Well, the election is over, but the matter of how Christians in Britain see the political landscape at the moment remains an interesting and important one. So I trust that no-one will mind me returning to this subject, and going back a couple of months.

The Rev. Guy Davies, a Baptist Pastor and blogger, came up with a list of questions about political issues, and sent them to the candidates of the three main parties in the constituency of Westbury. Interestingly enough, he only sent his quiz to the candidates of the three main parties.

Anyway, here are
1) the questions
2) the answers that I would have given if a) I been the Libertarian Party candidate in Westbury and b) I was trying to be brief, and
3) my comments on the questions.

1. Do you believe that Christian values have a beneficial role to play in contemporary society?

Answer: Absolutely.
Comments: "Values" is a slightly odd word. Furthermore, people might not agree about what constitute Christian values. If we mean things like honesty and integrity and compassion, I don’t think anyone is going to disagree. In fact I find it difficult to imagine anyone saying no. Even Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins would probably have answered “yes” to this one - had they been candidates in the election.

2. Do you believe that marriage is for a man and a woman alone and that it is the duty of the State to do all it can to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage?

Answer: Yes to the first question, No to the second.
Comments: Two fairly straightforward questions. The first, it seems to me, is about personal opinions, the answer to which doesn’t actually tell us about the policies favoured by the candidate - the second is, however, definitely about policies.

3. Do you accept that people who believe that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for a sexual expression should be free to say so without falling foul of the law or loosing their jobs?

Answer: Yes to the first question. To the second, I would say that I think that an employer in the private sector should have the freedom to fire someone for expressing such a view. That is the necessary corollary to my answer to the next question.
Comments: Again, straightforward questions - and ones that would not have been on anyone’s list of questions for candidates 20 years ago. Who would have thought that our freedoms would have gone so quickly?

4. Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with Christian teaching?

Answer: Absolutely.
Comments: An important question. It’s about a very important freedom.

5. Should school governors be given discretion over the contents of sex education lessons and should the concerns of parents be taken into account when deciding what children are taught?

Answer: Absolutely.
Comments: The education of children is the business of parents, not the state.

6. Do you believe that the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?

Answer: Too lax.
Comments: That’s my personal answer. In this matter, libertarians have a huge variety of views, generally passionately held.

7. Do you think that the law on euthanasia should be changed?

Answer: Not really. There’s undoubtedly room for improvement, but I think it’s about right.
Comments: Again, not all libertarians agree with me. However, I’m not completely alone. Tom Paine wrote a piece on his blog that I liked so much that I cross-posted it.

8. Given the closure of the Westbury Hospital and the mooted closure of the Westbury Swimming Pool, what more can be done to promote the health and wellbeing of the people of this town?

Answer: Quite a bit, I’m sure, but not much of it is the business of the state. If you, as a citizen, have ideas on promoting health and wellbeing, then I’d encourage you to put them into practice.
Comments: Health policy is big issue. And in the end, it isn’t realistic to expect there to expect there to be a big hospital (or swimming pool) in every town in the country. I don’t doubt that swimming pools do contribute to the health and wellbeing of people, but many people manage to get exercise and stay healthy without going near one. It must be 30 years since I was last in one.

9. How does your Party propose to protect the environment both at the local and international level?

Answer: Actually, my party’s manifesto doesn’t say anything about that.
Comments: That’s a dreadful answer, isn’t it? But it’s true, and Mr Davies did ask what my party proposed. Hopefully that will be remedied in the near future. In the meantime, I’d have to give my opinion, which is: “With respect to the local level, our policy is that we will maintain waste disposal services, and if it can be established beyond reasonable doubt that someone polluted someone else’s property, we will prosecute them and fine them for the damage that they have caused. With respect to international level, it is effectively impossible to do anything - though I believe that if it can be established beyond reasonable doubt that an individual or a business operating in Britain polluted the territory of another nations, the British state should penalise the guilty individual.
Edit: I've had further thoughts on this, and hope to post them in the near future.

10. Is British society broken, and if so how does your Party hope fix it?

Answer: British society is deeply flawed because of the fall of man and human sin, and I suppose that as such, one could describe it as ‘broken’. However, it is not within the power of a political party or the state to fix it. As you sir, should know.
Comments: Odd question!

11. Why should the people of Westbury give you their votes at this General Election?

Answer: Because they are concerned about the erosion of freedoms that has been taking place in our country.
Comments: It's useful to include a general question like that. A candidate might give an interesting or revealing answer.

By the way, if you want to know how the candidates replied to Mr. Davies's questions, see here for Labour, here for the Conservative, and here for the LibDem.)

p.s. I hope to follow this up with another post on the subject.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Spend, spend, spend!

A couple of weeks ago, I wondered if the government would really cut public spending.

Well, we now have the budget. And according to the Telegraph's report on the budget,
-Government spending will be £637bn in 2010/11
-Government spending will be £711bn in 2015/16
That compares with an estimate for £631 bn for 2009/10, and an actual figure of £575 bn for 2008/09 (according to UK Public Spending).

So it looks like overall public spending is not going to be cut (though the budgets of several departments and programmes, of course will). Spending will rise in 2010/11 by 0.95% over the previous year, and by an average of 2.2% a year over the next 5 years.

Of course, inflation (CPI) is currently running at 3.4%, so if that rate continues and if public spending actually does turn out to be what the government intends, then, in real terms, public spending will be cut - though not exactly drastically. But I'm not sure whether or not government spending projections take inflation into account.

Edit: Thanks to Burning Our Money, this handy graph explains all. I think.

Edit 2: The Wall Street Journal says "In real terms spending is actually projected to carry on going up—from £637 billion in 2010-11 to £711 billion in 2015-16—but that still represents the biggest squeeze since World War II."

Real terms? That is simply amazing.

(Thanks to Tim Worstall, who also appears to be surprised.)

The length of blog posts

When I published my last post, I was surprised by how long it looked. I checked, and it was (excluding title) 1,203 words long. Oh dear. My previous one was a more manageable 339, but the one before that came to 1,763. I'm beginning to wonder if my posts are getting too long. It's partly that they are taking me too long to research and write, but also because I'm aware that some people take one look at a long post, and their heart sinks.

I know. Kevin at Anna Raccoon wrote a very good post recently about the situation in Thailand. 9,081 words! What I saw the length of it, I despaired, and my first inclination was to go away. I was sufficiently curious about Thailand that I stayed, and I am now somewhat better informed. And then there are the amazing and learned discussions between Albert and Indigomyth (and others) to be found in some comment sections of this blog....

Of course, some people can get away with it. Leg-Iron's last 5 averaged 1,351 words (and one was up to 2,493). But then not many people can write like Leg-Iron.

Phil Walker writes beautifully brief posts. His last 5 average only 208 words, though the one before that was a little longer at 681.

Patently is also good at brief posts. His most recent 5 posts average only 214 words. He did once write a post of 1,689 - but it was prefaced with "Warning: long discursive post. Go and get a cup of tea."

I feel that I really ought to keep my posts brief. But I just don't seem to be able to say the things I want to say in 500 words.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Bloody Sunday: unanswered questions

Well, I didn't intend to write anything more about Bloody Sunday, but I found that I couldn't get it out of my mind. For a start, I was fascinated that while freedom-loving bloggers like Daniel Hannan and Raedwald and Blue Eyes, generally considered to be well to the right of centre, welcomed the conclusions of the Saville Report, most right-of-centre people (i.e. the ones who post comments on Daily Telegraph blogs) really didn't like it. Mr. Hannan didn't seem to be very popular with his regular readers.

So I started reading the report's summary of the events of the day. (Yes, I know. I said that I wasn't going to study it closely. But I paid for it. And if I pay for something, I want my money's worth.)

The report seemed to me to be fair and balanced - unlike Wikipedia's articles on subjects related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (Is it just me, or are Wikipedia articles on politically contentious subjects often biassed?)

Anyway, the Saville Report made interesting, if depressing, reading. Paragraph I.2.6 for example:
The situation in Londonderry in January 1972 was serious. By this stage the nationalist community had largely turned against the soldiers, many believing that the Army, as well as the RUC, were agents of an oppressive regime. Parts of the city to the west of the Foyle lay in ruins, as the result of the activities of the IRA and of rioting young men (some members of the IRA or its junior wing, the Fianna) known to soldiers and some others as the “Derry Young Hooligans”. A large part of the nationalist area of the city was a “no go” area, which was dominated by the IRA, where ordinary policing could not be conducted and where even the Army ventured only by using large numbers of soldiers.
In other words, the city was being slowly destroyed. Which, I suppose meant that the police and the army couldn't stand back and do nothing. But they were also viewed as agents of an oppressive regime, so anything they tried to do was likely to further inflame feelings.

Could things have been different? Well, just suppose that libertarian principles had been used in governing Northern Ireland. For example, the Libertarian Party manifesto calls for "Chief Constables to be locally elected, and given a large amount of autonomy." (Would much of the city have been a "no go" area for the police if the Chief Constable of the city of Londonderry in 1972 had been elected by the people of that city?) The LPUK manifesto also affirms the 9 Peelian principles of policing. Go and read them. If they had been adhered to, the situation on the ground in Stroke City would have been very different that day.

Another bit of the report that struck me was paragraph I.4.3:
In our view the organisers of the civil rights march bear no responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday. Although those who organised the march must have realised that there was probably going to be trouble from rioters, they had no reason to believe and did not believe that this was likely to result in death or injury from unjustified firing by soldiers.
The march had been banned. The organisers of the march - the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) - decided however, to go ahead, knowing that there would probably be trouble, and that a number of people who would participate in the march would be looking for trouble. So they expected trouble - and must bear some responsibility for it. Nevertheless, they can hardly be blamed in any way for the deaths that took place. However, I found myself wishing that they had never bothered organising the march.

BUT. The banning of the march was an infringement of freedom of association. (All marches in Northern Ireland were banned by the government at that time - IV.2.8 - and it's not difficult to see why the government had done so.)

And the march was to protest against internment without trial, which had been introduced the previous August. And internment without trial was (and is) a breach of the ancient liberty given by the writ of Habeas Corpus. (It's all a bit like the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005). And furthermore, it was widely believed (correctly) that many of those who were interned without trial had no involvement in the violence, and (again, correctly) that some of those who were interned without trial were being mistreated by the security forces. To make matters worse, the interned were "almost without exception Catholics from the nationalist community." (IV.2.10) In other words, the government was not acting according to libertarian principles, to put it mildly. With the result that many nationalists had come to the conclusion that the state was not their friend.

But there is something else about the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association that is important. Why were they so angry? What were the grievances of the nationalist community? One of the great grievances was the allocation of council housing. That was the issue that brought about the first civil rights march, which took place in August 1968. That march was sparked by the allocation of a council house in the village of Caledon to a teenage Protestant single girl. Catholics were understandably incensed that she had been given priority over Catholic families.

And at this point, the libertarian in me says "You see what happens when politicians and their appointees start deciding who gets housing?" If only the state had not taken away the money of Catholic taxpayers to build these houses. If they had allowed the Catholic taxpayers of Caledon to keep their money, they could have used it to start their own housing association and build their own houses and decide themselves who should be housed in them. But it was not to be, because Northern Ireland was not a libertarian state. If only the founding fathers of the Northern Irish state had been staunch minarchists, none of this would ever have happened.

Oh, and the unanswered questions about Bloody Sunday? Well, the rest of you probably all thinking about Martin McGuinness. But I'm not. History is not just about politicians and soldiers and movers and shakers. It's also about ordinary, rather apolitical people. What was Bloody Sunday like for them?

On the afternoon of Sunday 30th January, Colonel Derek Wilford, the Parachute Regiment's top officer on the ground, had taken up a position close to Great James Street Presbyterian Church. One of the first shots fired that Sunday afternoon, by a member of the Official IRA, actually hit a drainpipe running down the side of the church building.

My curiosity is about how this affected ordinary people going to that church that Sunday. What was the morning service at Great James Street Presbyterian Church like that morning - just 4 or 5 hours before the shootings occurred? Was there an atmosphere of foreboding because of the planned march? Did people stay away? Or were things fairly normal? And would I be right in thinking that the evening service was cancelled that day?

Those are the questions I want to know the answers to.