Thursday, 27 May 2010

Some social trends in America

I noticed the following from Gallup: “Americans' support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed the symbolic 50% threshold in 2010. At the same time, the percentage calling these relations "morally wrong" dropped to 43%, the lowest in Gallup's decade-long trend.”

2001-2010 Trend: Perceived Moral Acceptability of Gay/Lesbian Relations

What really intrigued me was the findings with regard to religious affiliation (at the bottom of this table).

Percentage Calling Gay/Lesbian Relations Morally Acceptable, by Politics, Religion

Four years ago, the views of Catholics were somewhat less traditional than those of Protestants, with 46% of Catholics saying that homosexual relations were morally acceptable, while only 36% of Protestants said so.

Now, however, the views of Catholics are a lot less traditional than those of Protestants - with 62% saying that such relations were morally acceptable as opposed to only 42% of Protestants.

It’s interesting that Catholics were less traditional in than Protestants in their views four years ago. But the change in outlook in the past four years is even more fascinating. Why the wholesale flight from traditional views among American Catholics over the past four years? Apart from the possibility that the poll is just wrong, the only explanation I can think of is that it is fallout from the publicity about child abuse in the Catholic church. But that's just a guess.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Great Repeal Bill wish list 1: The Smoking Ban

I am not a smoker. I never have been. I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. In fact, I can smell cigarette smoke out of doors 10 or 20 yards away. We bears have sensitive noses. When airlines brought in complete bans on smoking, I rejoiced. (“No-smoking seats” were not much use when someone was puffing away three rows behind you.) And I never had much time for FOREST.

But when the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005 and the Health Act 2006, even I thought that this legislation was excessively draconian.

The words used in the Health Act 2006 are “Premises are smoke-free if they are open to the public.” The problem is that most places open to the public are private property. And people should have a right to do as they wish with their own property. The libertarian principle is that every adult should be free to use their legitimately acquired property in whatever manner they choose, so long as in doing so, they do not harm or infringe upon the freedom of others.

Let me use an example. Over 20 years ago, friends of mine put a “No Smoking” notice on their front door. I commented on it, and they told me how strongly they felt about smoking. They also told me that the reason they put it up was that some visitors felt that they had a basic right to smoke in their house. But the visitors didn’t - because the house belonged to my friends, and it was private property, so my friends had a right to use their property in the manner they chose. If visitors wished to smoke, they were free to leave the property.

So it is with the smoking ban. Just as no-one has a basic right to smoke on someone else’s property, no-one has a right to demand smoke-free air on someone else’s property. If I go into a shop or pub or restaurant and think that it is unpleasantly smoky, I am free to leave.

The great British smoking ban is not something that inconveniences me in the slightest. In fact, it makes my life rather more pleasant. But it also strikes at the freedom of others. And since I value my freedom, I am obliged to value theirs as well. It’s the old “do to others what you would have them do to you” principle. If it would be intrusive for the state to demand that I allowed others the right to smoke on my property, it is also intrusive for the state to demand that I forbid others from smoking on my property.

Nick Clegg said “We will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.” Well, this is intrusive. It inhibits freedom. And since we have had smoking in Britain for several centuries, and managed to survive without the great smoking ban, I submit, Mr. Clegg, that it is clearly unnecessary. I hereby request that you repeal sections 1 to 12 of the Health Act 2006.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Nick Clegg, Freedom, the State, and the Great Repeal Act (1)

Nick Clegg, it seems, gets all the best lines.

At least he did last week, when he gave his speech on political reform. There were absolutely amazing lines in it - things like “This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you,” and “we will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands,” and “This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state.

He promised “sweeping legislation to restore the hard won liberties that have been taken, one by one, from the British people.

He said “you will get more control over ... the schools you send your children to

He said “You know better than I do about how to run your life.”

He said “thousands of criminal offences were created under the previous government.... Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people.”

He said “We will ask you which laws you think should go.”

He even said “So, we'll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they're gone, they won't come back.”

In fact, believe it or not, he said “we will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.” Yes, he used the word “all”.

My eyes opened wide as I listened to all this. And I wasn’t the only one. Apparently Charlotte Gore’s housemate said “This is real? We can really have this?” and Miss Gore felt the same. I’m afraid that I’m clearly in a cynical mood these days, because what I thought was “Frankly, I just don’t believe it.” Again.

So why don’t I believe it?

1. When he said “We will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom,” the crucial word is not “all”, but “unnecessary”. Who is to say what laws are unnecessary? As Tim Carpenter says, in a helpful analysis of Mr. Clegg’s speech, “He will be the one to determine “unnecessary”. I suspect Labour thought all those rules “necessary” for their purposes.

2. I am sure the government will indeed ask us which laws we think should go. But they will be the ones who make the final decisions. Mr. Clegg set out some of the government’s plans in his speech.
So there will be no ID card scheme. No national identity register, a halt to second generation biometric passports. We won't hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so. CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people's DNA. There will be no ContactPoint children's database. Schools will not take children's fingerprints without even asking their parent's consent.”
That is good - but it only scratches the surface.

And, it seems to me, while it promises that, in at least some respects, there will be no advance in the power of the state in the future, it does nothing at all to give back the freedoms that have been taken from British citizens over the past 30 years. The rhetoric in the speech is brilliant - the detailed proposals are, frankly, disappointing.

3. Mr. Clegg states “My starting point is always optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families.” So, is he going to allow us to buy 100w incandescent light bulbs? I rather doubt it. I’m not actually sure that he thinks we should be allowed to buy them. But in any case, Westminster has no power to do so because power has been handed over to the EU, and Mr. Clegg does not want to see any change there. And is he going to allow us a choice about whether we wear seat-belts in cars? Again, I very much doubt it. Because while he may believe that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families, he believes there are some people that will not, so we have to make intrusive rules for everyone.

4. Mr. Clegg says “This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state.” Again, a question is begged. Which advances of the state are illegitimate? Catholic adoption agencies felt that it was an illegitimate advance of the state when the state enacted the 2007 Equality Act banning adoption agencies from discriminating against homosexual prospective parents. Mr. Clegg and his party supported that legislation, and I don’t remember him appearing to be particularly proud when Catholic adoption agencies opposed it. Mr. Clegg spoke of “the repeal of illiberal laws” in his speech, but what does he mean by illiberal laws - does he mean laws that curtail freedom, or laws that he considers ‘unprogressive’?

5. And while we are on the subject of the advancing power of the state, there is plenty of evidence that Mr. Clegg wants the state to have even more power. In his speech last week said “you will get more control over ... the schools you send your children to.” So, does that mean that he wants the state to have less control over schools and what they teach? You might think so, but just a few months ago, in an interview with Attitude magazine, Mr. Clegg apparently saidFaith schools should be legally obliged to teach that homosexuality is "normal and harmless". That sounds like an increase in state power over schools to me.

6. Some of the things that Mr. Clegg promises in his speech actually seem to me to be contradictory. He speaks about the tyranny of vested interests, and then says that he is going to take tax-payers money and give it to one of the favourite vested interests of politicians: the major political parties. This is simply scandalous.

7. Mr. Clegg says “This government is going to break up concentrations of power and hand power back to people.” He also says “We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.” He is quite right in this. Which means that if he wants to devolve power to the people from the state, money must be left in the hands of the people, not put into the hands of the state. That means massive cuts in tax and in public spending, and that has never been LibDem policy. In fact, it hasn’t been Conservative Party policy for a long time.

In short, I’m sure that the coalition will, in some respects, protect the freedoms that we have traditionally enjoyed in this country for generations. However, I’m not hopeful that there will be any great advances. And as for the state giving up power and handing it back to the people? Frankly, I don't believe it.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Urban design can bring people closer to God?

From the April-June 2010 issue of East Asia’s Billions, a magazine of OMF International, comes the following rather surprising quote from a Mr. Paul Robinson, who has been teaching a course on Urban Design to architecture students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Once the students graduate and start working as architects their designs will include a greater awareness of the poor and the natural environment. The result will be a better-designed city, where informed design will create an environment that influences human morality for the good and brings people closer to God through creative and responsible design.”
If he had ended that quote with the word ‘good’ - I’d have thought “Sounds a bit optimistic, but then I don’t know much about this urban design business.” (However, I would found it slightly more convincing if Mr. Robinson had written “an environment that influences human behaviour for the good.”)

But when I am told that a better designed city brings people closer to God, I am utterly baffled. Really? Where in the Bible does he get that? And what does he mean by “closer to God”?

And if a better designed city brings people closer to God, then surely how much more can a centrally planned state? Great utopian visions float before my eyes. It’s amazing what Christian socialists think that they can achieve.

Frankly, I just don’t believe it.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Peter Tatchell, champion of free speech

It seems that charges against Dale McAlpine, the street preacher who was arrested under the Public Order Act 1986 after telling a PCSO that homosexuality was a sin, have been dropped.

I would be very interested to know why the charges were dropped. A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service is quoted as having said "We keep cases under constant review and following a further review of all the evidence in this case we were no longer satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and we have therefore discontinued the proceedings against Mr Mcalpine," but this doesn't tell me much. The crucial words appear to be "no longer satisfied." Why did they initially believe that there was sufficient evidence? What changed their minds? I'd really like to know, but I doubt that we will ever be told.

Peter Tatchell believes that his own intervention might have been a significant factor. Despite the fact that Mr Tatchell strongly (to put it mildly) disagrees with Mr McAlpine's opinion, he offered to testify in defence of his right to free speech. “Although I disagree with Dale McAlpine and support protests against his homophobic views, he should not have been arrested and charged. Criminalisation is a step too far. Despite my opposition to his opinions, I defend his right to freedom of expression. Soon after I offered to appear as a defence witness and to argue in court for Mr McAlpine’s acquittal, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. The sudden withdrawal of charges may have been mere coincidence but perhaps not.

To which I say "Well done, Mr. Tatchell." It's not often these days that we hear of people defending the freedom to express opinions they disagree with. The spirit of the age seems to be much more enthusiastic about banning people from expressing offensive opinions. And this is not the first time that Mr. Tatchell has spoken up for freedom of speech. He recently criticised the fine of £1000 imposed on Shawn Holes, an American street preacher who was convicted of "uttering homophobic remarks" in Glasgow.

There is, however, something else that fascinates me. Mr. McAlpine was charged under the Public Order Act with “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.” Many people will recall an incident in which Mr. Tatchell could conceivably have been charged himself under those terms. In 1998, On Easter Sunday, 12th. April 1998, Peter Tatchell entered the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral during the Archbishop’s sermon, and started addressing the congregation. He was charged with "indecent behaviour in a church", contrary to section 2 of the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, but was aquitted.

Why Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act and the not the Public Order Act? I don't know. I suspect that it is because Mr Tatchell's behaviour undoubtedly caused some distress, he was, careful to ensure that while his words were not "threatening, abusive or insulting."

Which, I guess, means the legal question is "Were Mr McAlpine's words threatening, abusive or insulting?"

The political question, however, is this: 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"?

One for Nick Clegg, I think.

Edit: Thank you to Albert for pointing me toward this fascinating video of Dale McAlpine's arrest.

Note the quote from the constable making the arrest: "It is against the law. Listen mate, we're pretty sure. You're under arrest for a racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence."

Wow. Not just a Section 5 Public Order offence, but a racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence." Oh dear.

Notice, by the way, that Dale McAlpine was aware of Lord Waddington's amendment (attributing it, in the pressure of the moment, to Lord Carey), and of the meaning of the word 'homophobia'. The constables involved don't seem to have been quite as clued up.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The General Election: Numbers Crunched (1)

I've been reflecting on the results of the voting at the General Election, and looking at the numbers*. Here are some of my thoughts.

1. Turnout
Turnout was 65.1%, which was the highest this century. (2001 was 59.4%, 2005 was 61.4%.) However, it is also the 3rd lowest since 1945. The fourth lowest was in 1997 with 71.3%. So it seems that while there has been more interest in this election among the British people than there was for the previous two, levels of political interest and enthusiasm are, historically speaking, low. Why was turnout higher? I don’t know, but I do wonder if the “prime ministerial debates” (which, in my opinion, were not a good thing) were a major contributory factor.

My own opinion is that a low turnout is not, in itself a bad thing, but is a sign of a deeper underlying problem. I don’t think it is a good idea to try to boost turnout by artificial means, since this may treat the symptom, but does nothing about the underlying lack of enthusiasm for the political process.

2. Opinion Polls

The exit poll turned out to be fairly accurate - predicting that the Conservative Party would have 307 MPs elected, Labour 255, and the LibDems 59. In the event, the totals were 306, 258, and 57. The exit poll, was however, widely disbelieved at the time - the LibDems were expected to do considerably better. Dan Hannan’s comment was typical “I’m going to stick my neck out here. I believe the exit poll predictions will move during the night: the Tories and LibDems will do better, Labour worse.” This was largely because most opinion polls had given the impression that the LibDems would do considerably better than that, and might win about 80 seats. However, it turns out that the exit polls were the ones to be believed - they recorded the people who actually voted. Toby Young reckons that many people recorded by the ordinary polls as LibDem supporters in the run up to the election were people who were not actually very committed to voting.

Which brings us to the opinion polls themselves. Here is what the polls were showing. (All figures taken from ukpolling report).
The first column shows an average of the polls taken is the last 3 months of 2009, the second column those taken in the first three months of 2010, the third column shows the state of the polls in the first couple of weeks of April (the opening days of the campaign), before the first “prime ministerial debate”, which led to a surge in support for the LibDems, and the fourth column shows the final 18 polls of the campaign - those that should have been expected to predict the final results most accurately. The actual voting turned out to be somewhere between the figures suggested by the polls at the beginning of the campaign and those at the end. In other words, the campaign had changed minds, but not as far as the polls led people to believe. Or, to put it another way, the LibDem surge was very real - it just wasn’t quite as big as we thought. But on the whole, the polls were (once again) shown to be a fair, if not infallible, guide to how people would vote.

3. The major parties: short term perspective

Which parties had a good election? It depends how one judges. One yardstick is to compare performance with expectations - that is, to compare the actual share of the vote cast for parties on election day with the share of the vote predicted by opinion polls in recent months. But which opinion polls? How recent? Let’s try a variety of approaches.

Very short term (a couple of months): Assuming that opinion polls were basically accurate, the Conservatives were down about 2 percentage points on where they were a couple of months before the election, the Labour were down about 1.5 points, and the LibDems were up about 4 points. In other words, the LibDems had a very good campaign, while Labour and (especially) the Tories had disappointing campaigns.

Medium short term (6 months): Compared to the opinion polls 6 months ago, the Conservatives were down 4 points, Labour up 1, LibDems up 5.5, and minor parties down 2 points. Very disappointing for the Conservatives and the minor parties, not bad for Labour, and again, very good for the LibDems.

Long short term: Over the course of the past few years, if one excludes Gordon Brown’s prime ministerial honeymoon, the Conservatives have averaged about 40% in the polls, Labour 30%,and the LibDems about 17 or 18%. So on that basis, again, disappointing for the Conservatives, respectable for Labour, and very good for the LibDems.

Summary: Looking at things from a short term perspective, the Conservatives had a disappointing election, Labour had a reasonable election, and the LibDems had a very good election. Alas, because the opinion polls had raised expectations to unreasonable heights, it didn’t actually look that good at the time.

4. The major parties: longer term perspective

How well did the parties do compared with previous elections? There are various measures one could use to assess performance. Much of the time, comparisons are made on the basis of the share of the vote received. My opinion is that this assumes either that turnout is the same for every election, or that variations in turnout are meaningless. I don’t accept either assumption. I would expect that if every party fought a poor campaign, turnout would be low - whereas if all parties fought good campaigns, turnout would be high. In other words, the success of a party should not be measured by its share of the vote, but by how many people it can persuade to vote for it. However, just to compare raw numbers is not helpful, since the size of the electorate varies. So the best measure of the success of a party is the proportion of the electorate that it can persuade to vote for it.

Here, then, are the figures for the three main parties since 1970.

Clearly, by this measure, the election was a disaster for the Labour Party - a result even worse than their defeat under Michael Foot in 1983. One crumb of comfort for Labour is that it wasn’t quite as bad as the result the Conservatives had in 2001 under William Hague.

For the Conservatives, the picture is more mixed. It was their best result since the Conservative victory in 1992. However, it was worse than any result the Conservatives achieved between 1945 and 1997. David Cameron may be on the verge of becoming Prime Minister, but these are not good days for the Conservative Party.

For the LibDems, a good result in terms of votes - but not a great one. Not only was it not as good as the performances of the Liberal / SDP Alliance in 1983 and 1987, it actually fell short of the Liberal performance in February 1974.

Summary: No comfort for Labour, a little comfort for the Conservatives, and a fair amount of comfort for the LibDems.

*(Numbers are incomplete, since the constituency of Thirsk and Malton has yet to vote.)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The ecclesiastical establishment and the election: 3

When the Church of Scotland magazine, Life & Work, published the thoughts of the Rt. Rev. William Hewitt and the Rev. Ian Galloway, they also spoke to four other figures who might be described as part of the ecclesiastical establishment. For the sake of completeness, I will report their comments, and give my brief thoughts thereon.

1. The Rev. Iain McLarty, Moderator of the Church of Scotland's Youth Assembly:
“It may be a cliché that youth and idealism go together but youth involvement in politics always seems to peak when there are large moral issues to be dealt with such as civil rights and opposition to war.
“The Obama campaign was successful in gaining the support of young people because it gave them a vision of radical change to support. Politicians need to be aware of these issues that energise young people because they are often the big issues which are given political lip service in manifestos before getting lost among the smaller battles fought every day.
“While nobody would deny that this election is primarily about the economy, we need to make sure that issues such as climate change and global poverty are not ignored, both adversely affected by the economic downturn and needing urgent action if their effects are not to become irreversible.
"These are also issues where the churches are particularly vocal. Perhaps this concurrence is unsurprising given the idealistic message of the Christian faith but it is worth bearing in mind when thinking about how we as a church can
influence the political agenda.”

Much of this is basically praise of idealism - which is good, as long as one remembers that in the political realm idealism is often naive and sometimes seriously misguided. In terms of policy, there is a realisation that the economy is the main issue in the election, but a desire that climate change and global poverty should be further up the agenda of the parties.

2. Betty Dunn, National Convenor, Church of Scotland Guild:
"The Guild’s current Theme is “Called to Act Justly”, and its major concerns have been issues of justice, including human trafficking, prostitution, domestic abuse, conflict and poverty - all issues where faith engages with politics.
Speaking personally, I’d highlight several key areas for which all parties must have clear strategies as we approach the election.
The global financial crisis will have long-term consequences for our children as well as us. As families struggle with debt and unemployment here, we’re also conscious of world debt and the need for fairness for the poorest countries.
Social issues like health care, elderly care, and support for families are priorities in both building a healthy society and addressing the violence and callousness often driven by alcohol and drug abuse. A better way must be found for housing immigrants to our country and quicker processes developed to establish their legal status. Overcrowded detention centres and prisons aren’t helping towards a more just and safe society. And Afghanistan, with its tragic losses, must be a foreign policy priority. Sadly of late, many politicians have been found to be lacking in honesty and integrity in public life and perhaps total transparency in government will be a significant factor as people go to the polls."
A lot of issues covered there, none in any great detail.

3. The Rev Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland:
Christian Aid Scotland is asking people to Vote Global, that is to do all they can to make this General Election count for the world’s poor. These are the questions we’d like to hear answers to. Tax dodging by unscrupulous multinational companies denies poor countries at least $160 billion a year. This is more than one and a half times the amount poor countries receive in aid. With greater transparency in companies financial reporting, developing countries could claw back this money for health, education, and fighting poverty. In line with our Tax Justice Campaign, we’ll be asking ‘What would you do to tackle the tax havens and make sure that everyone pays the taxes they owe, so all countries can continue to invest in vital public services?
A ‘Robin Hood Tax’ of just 0.05% on International Financial Transactions could raise billions to tackle climate change and poverty. Do you back this idea?”
And, along with all organisations concerned with global poverty, we’ll be asking the climate question: Climate change kills 300,000 people every year, mostly in poorer countries. What would your party do to stop further climate change and ensure sufficient funding to help developing countries cope."
This is much more specific. Climate change is a crucial issue, and we are told that it kills 300,000 people every year. Something in me is just instantly sceptical about such a claim, and it turns out that I am not the only one. Mrs. Galloway quotes this statistic as if it is proven fact. Does she know that it is merely a questionable guestimate?

Her other interest is tax. She wants some businesses to pay more. Now, I'm completely opposed to people and businesses using dishonesty to avoid paying taxes. But can I actually believe the facts that she quotes?

And more to the point, the assumption in her argument is that it is better for money to be in the hands of governments (and, in particular, politicians in developing countries) rather than in the hands of employees and shareholders. (After all, where else do profits of multinational companies go?) I think that this assumption is very questionable.

I'm very interested in her use of the term "Robin Hood Tax", by the way. It seems like an admission that such a tax is basically a form of theft.

4. Lynne Paterson, Tearfund Scotland:
"Around a fifth of voters in marginal seats - and many of our campaigning supporters and churches - include climate change in their top priority issues ahead of the General Election. some 85% of the UK population support the use of renewable energy. No party can ignore this when close political battlegrounds will go to the wire on myriad issues - all competing for coverage. In presents an opportunity for UK environmental and development charities to ensure that the demand for tough action on climate change is heard on doorsteps by prospective candidates. We are urging people to ask them the climate question.
Tearfund, as part of the Ask the Climate Question coalition, has been central to campaigning at UK and international levels for the reduction of carbon emissions. Working together with our church partner organisations worldwide we see the effects of catastrophic climate change on the poorest communities.
We can also do our bit to limit the emissions through lifestyle changes. Moreover, when it matters to us that climate change is urgent and candidates of all parties need to prioritise it, it matters considerably more to the 500 million people globally that are currently at risk from climate related disasters.
This isn’t about telling people how to vote. It’s about ensuring that votes count for the urgent issues and that no party avoids the climate question. Make sure you ask it."
So, for Tearfund Scotland, there is basically only one issue at the election: climate change. What can one say? Is Lynne Paterson oblivious to the fact that the science is not actually settled? Is she unaware that a high proportion of the British electorate are sceptical about anthropogenic climate change? Has she followed the debate? Has she read A W Montford's The Hockey Stick Illusion?

In fact Tearfund knows very well that this is a matter for debate. However, it has decided that it knows what the truth is, and has put together a briefing to help supporters respond to the sceptics. In other words, Tearfund is not just in the business of providing development aid and disaster relief, it is also in the business of propaga education. Sadly, many aid agencies seem to take a similar line. It is one thing for Tearfund to believe that anthropogenic climate change is taking place. It is another for it to take upon itself the role of propagandist for that view.

Summary: So that's six voices from the ecclesiastical establishment on the subject of the General Election. Compared to the leaflet produced by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, it's really quite disappointing. Much of what is said is vague, and when specific comments are made, they are often tendentious. The CBCEW leaflet is, by contrast, carefully worded and well thought out - even if I don't agree with all of it. One gets the impression that the Catholic bishops take the General Election more seriously.

And do you notice what's left out? None of the six said anything at all about liberty or freedom. They didn't even hint at it. They either have not noticed the erosion of freedom of speech in modern Britain, or it doesn't concern them at all. The bishops, even though they did not use the words 'liberty' or 'freedom' showed an awareness that there is a problem.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Catholic Bishops and the General Election

(This is a quick post, in response to a request for comment by Albert.)

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) has issued a leaflet entitled “Some issues and questions for Parliamentary Candidates.” It bears the instruction “Please refer to this guidance when canvassers or candidates call,” and says
“Here are some issues and questions which may help inform your decision on who to vote for. They are open questions with no single ‘right’ answer. But from the responses given you may form a better idea of how far any particular candidate will be addressing the needs of the common good. You may well, of course, have other questions of your own to ask. This list is not exhaustive.”
It covers five areas, and in each it makes statements, and then follows them up with questions for candidates.

1) Firstly in valuing life. That means opposing abortion and euthanasia, and life-cramping poverty, and the neglect of the elderly.

What does respect for life mean to you? Do all lives have the same value? Older people and the infirm … the severely disabled … the unborn?

I know what it means to oppose abortion and euthanasia. It means to ban them - though obviously there are questions about exactly how such legislation would be framed. However, I do not know what it means to oppose “life-cramping poverty” and “the neglect of the elderly”? Clearly, it doesn’t mean banning poverty. It also begs the question “What exactly is the role of the state here?”

I find it interesting, by the way, that there is nothing about valuing people’s property. I guess that the CBCEW doesn’t think that it is a political issue at the moment - though nor, to the best of my knowledge is neglect of the elderly.

2) 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?

I agree with the first two statements, but not the third. I cannot see why marriage must have the clear support and encouragement of Government. Christians often make this assumption, but when I think of people I know whose marriages have broken up, I don’t honestly think that anything the government could reasonably have done would have helped at all. Why should the state be involved in marriage?

3) Migration is not about numbers, it is about human beings. Wherever the Government sets the boundary on who can or cannot live here, it must apply its rules with fairness, decency and respect for the individual.

What beliefs and values underpin your approach to migration? And how will you show them in practice?

I completely agree with the statements, and I think that all libertarians would. As stated in my previous post, libertarians believe in the free movement of people - but take the view that this is just not realistic at the moment while Britain a large welfare state which provides generous automatic tax-payer funded benefits to those who are granted asylum. (LPUK policy is as here.)

I think it is interesting that migration is perceived by the CBCEW as one of the 5 major issues in the election. The focus is broader than just the question of the treatment of asylum seekers.

4) Our care for each other is also shown in how we support the development of the world’s poorest people, and how we use – or abuse – the environment we share. We must be good stewards of God’s creation, not selfish exploiters of it.

What do you think is our responsibility to the poor, in this country and overseas? What is our responsibility to safeguard and protect the environment?"

I completely agree with the statements. With regard to the first question, my answer is “Individuals have a moral responsibility to help the poor, both in this country, as does the church. The state has a duty to ensure that its policies do not directly discriminate against the poor. The state likewise has a duty to ensure that those who pollute the land, air and water of others should make appropriate recompense."

5) Our faith is at the heart of our lives. 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.

What do you think is the place of religion in society?

This is an interesting one. The phrasing (“and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings”) indicates that the CBCEW believes that religious freedom is under threat - something which I think is true, but which Church of Scotland leaders like the Rt Rev William Hewitt and the Rev. Ian Galloway do not seem to be concerned about. (That apparent lack of concern is interesting, and worth noting.)

I agree that faith is at the heart of people’s lives, and that religious belief is not something private. However, defining religion is somewhat difficult. (So for that matter, is defining the word ‘faith’.) I do not agree with the statement that religion, per se, helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. I take the view that Jesus Christ is the eternal, incarnate Son of God and that his teachings are objectively true, and that where people try to put them into practice, it is a good thing. I also take the view that religious beliefs which go against the teaching of Jesus Christ are not helpful to society.

Libertarians believe that people should be allowed freedom to express any opinions, whether those opinions are right or wrong. Libertarians believe that people should be free to bring up their children according to their own belief, as long as that does not involve physically harming their children. Libertarians believe that people should be allowed to practise their religion as long as such practice does not involve the initiation of violence against other people. Human sacrifice would be banned.

Summary: All in all, I think that the bishops’ questions are reasonably well balanced. They reflect, of course, the emphases that one would expect the Catholic Church to have: the place of religion in society (which, I suspect, is basically about the freedom of Catholic schools to operate as the Catholic Church wishes), marriage and the family, and abortion - which, while not a major issue as far as the mainstream media are concerned, is very important for the Catholic Church, and for others who regard Britain's abortion laws as seriously flawed. The environment, poverty, and immigration all get a mention as well. There is nothing about the economy, but that does not surprise me much.

The statements and questions are kept fairly vague - keeping to general principles, rather than specific policies, which is probably very wise of the bishops. The words are carefully chosen so as to avoid controversy. And I note that the words “freedom” and “liberty’ are absent!

The ecclesiastical establishment and the election: 2

Following on my previous report on what the ecclesiastical establishment is saying about the election, here are the views of the Rev Ian Galloway. Mr Galloway is Convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council - which effectively means that he is the Church of Scotland’s spokesman on political affairs.
“We want to know what values politicians will use when deciding how best to respond to challenges such as widening inequality and the legacy of the economic downturn. Economic injustices such as debt, homelessness, unemployment, and child poverty are not easily solved, but they should not be ignored.”
Hold on a minute. Debt is an injustice? Surely if I borrow money, then I have incurred a debt. What is injust about that. And homelessness? Let’s imagine that a bear arrives in Britain as a stowaway and managed to get to Paddington Station, armed only with a suitcase and a notice that says “Please look after this bear.” If no one takes m the bear home, then the bear is homeless, which is very unfortunate for the bear. But according to the usual meaning of the word, it isn’t unjust. And the same is true of employment and child poverty. To be unemployed or poor is unfortunate for those concerned - but hardly unfair.
"Politicians need to know that life is really tough for millions of people. The values we want to see in the decisions they take need to put the needs of the poor and the marginalised first."
The values that politicians have are very important. But even more important are effectiveness of the policies. What sort of policies should be implemented to help one parent families in council flats? Patently’s answer might surprise a lot of Scottish voters.
"Amongst the most marginalised are asylum seekers. Justice for them would be an end to the threat of detention for children and families seeking sanctuary from persecution. We want all candidates to know this matters to us."
He’s got a point. Asylum seekers sometimes have a rough time seeking to get into this country, and the processing of applications for asylum is far too slow. Libertarians believe in the free movement of people. Alas, this is just not realistic at the moment while Britain a large welfare state which provides generous automatic tax-payer funded benefits to those who are granted asylum.
"This election will be a key moment in the future of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons. We have invited congregations to send a postcard message to their candidates asking them to scrap Trident if they get the chance. Imagine the difference that could be made to millions of lives if we didn’t spend billions of pounds on nuclear weapons."
Well, if you accept that Trident is utterly pointless and serves no useful purpose in defending this country, fair enough. If you don’t accept that premise, then you might want to imagine the difference that would be made to millions of lives if it turned out that the country did not have adequate resources to defend itself in the event of a real threat.

So, all in all, Mr Galloway seems to have fine ideals. I am less convinced about whether all his views are well thought out. Pretty typical of church leaders, some might say.

Monday, 3 May 2010

An opportunity to make freedom of speech an election issue?

I've been reading the accounts (Telegraph and Mail) of the arrest of Dale McAlpine, a street preacher, in Workington. Mr McAlpine is just the latest in a string of street preachers in Britain to be approached by police for questioning about alleged homophobic remarks. If the story is as reported is is pretty worrying.

Tim Worstall comments
"I have a very strong feeling that the actual crime here is pissing off a policemen. And that might be an even greater problem than the restriction of free speech one. That we’re hiring people into the police force who have such thin skins, are not able to understand that what is illegal and what might hurt a policemen’s fragile ego are not the same thing, that’s a problem."
He may have a point. There has always been a problem of people with an agenda who like a police uniform because it gives them an opportunity to bully people who annoy them. And seven hours in police cells is not minor bullying - it's pretty serious.

But the real issue is freedom of speech, and the blatant abuse of the 1986 Public Order Act. In the context of the latest arrest, the remarks of Lord Dear, former Chief Constable of the West Midlands, speaking on the debate on the Waddington amendment last year, are very interesting.

“ . . . prior to the Waddington amendment, the police regularly received complaints from homosexual groups that exception was taken to remarks that homosexuality was deplored on religious grounds. The police were forced to act. They operated, as we have already heard alluded to, against a background of the Home Office’s guidance notes on how to handle hate crime under the Public Order Act 1986, to which the issue of sexual orientation was added by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

"The so-called guidance notes in fact required rigid adherence. Any complaint of hate crime, by whomsoever made, even a bystander, had to be recorded as such and fully investigated. No exercise of discretion was countenanced. Accordingly, the police, and later the CPS, when faced with a complaint concerning remarks about sexual orientation, would follow the Home Office’s guidance notes, go through the whole procedure of interview, sometimes following arrest—fingerprinting, taking DNA samples, police bail, sometimes charge—even though pretty well everyone in the official process knew that there was little or no chance of a prosecution, much less a conviction, following.”

". . . With the Waddington amendment in place, the police are released from the virtual straitjacket imposed on them previously; they can exercise common sense and good judgment on the day; and they can police with the light touch which is so often sought and required by society.”

Hmmm. Common sense? Good judgment? Light touch? I don't think so.

There is, of course, another issue. The Conservative Party manifesto has sections (p79) entitled "Restore our civil liberties" and "Protect our freedoms". The Liberal Democrat manifesto says (p93) "Liberal Democrats will protect and restore your freedoms." Yet the leadership of both parties have, as far as I am aware, been totally silent on the police harassment of street preachers over the past 13 years.

I realise that they cannot comment specifically on this case, since Mr. McAlpine has been charged, and his case has not yet come to court. However, they have just been handed an opportunity to speak out about the erosion of freedom of speech under successive Labour governments. Somehow, I can't see them taking it. I suspect that they are scared that they'd be accused of being libertarians. Or something like that.