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.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bloody Sunday killings and public sector employees.

The Saville Report is out. I'm not going to study it closely. Nor am I going to say anything about the £191 million pounds that it cost the tax-payer. I'm just going to comment on one thing.

The Telegraph report said that the report "blamed the 10 minutes of chaos on 20 individual paratroopers who “lost their self-control” and shot civilians in the back as they tried to flee."

Now, it seems to me that it would not be helpful to prosecute the soldiers concerned - especially since members of the paramilitary organisations have been given amnesties. But the relatives of the victims do have a genuine grievance, and part of the cause of that grievance is that the soldiers were allowed to get away with doing something that they would not have been allowed to get away with if they had not been government employees. Or, to put it another way, the impression was given that if you work for the state, you can treat the public as you like.

I thought of the way that the police treated Dale McAlpine. An innocent man was dragged away and put in the cells for 7 hours. What the police did was wrong, but the police constables involved could be fairly sure that they would not suffer any serious consequences because they worked for the state.

I'm not saying that there is an equivalence between their actions and those of the soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings. But there are parallels.

And it's not just soldiers and police officers. A lot of people who work for the state have the ability to make life difficult for people they deal with - whether through malevolence, incompetence, or simply a love of pushing people around - in a way that they would not get away with if they worked for private companies.

If the Saville Report tells us one thing, it is that employees of the state have often been unduly protected from having to take the consequences of their actions.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon for the new parliament

Last Tuesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached the sermon at the Service for the New Parliament at St Margaret's Church. So I hurried over to read it, to see what he had to say.

As I read, my eyes got bigger and bigger. It all sounded very grand, but I wasn’t always exactly sure what he was trying to say, and I did wish that he could have spoken in ordinary, plain English.

General observations

He took as his text: “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God, ” and you will get a good idea of what he was saying (and how he was saying it) from his concluding words: “For a social model more clearly focused on the flourishing of committed and creative citizens, we need a strong ground for the affirmation of fixed and non-negotiable dignity in all human beings. You may or may not as an individual share the perspective of faith; but in the difficult years ahead it will be worth remembering that giving God what belongs to God is something that is not a matter of dry and unwelcome duty but a release of human possibilities that we all need to witness and in some degree share. May this Parliament mark a new level of enthusiasm and imagination around the call to honour God-given dignities by creating strong citizens of our nation and of the world; may the work of our elected leaders be for the sake of gathering and not scattering; and may the divine image in men and women, recognised or unrecognised, be the vision that directs us towards a fresh political energy and moral vision.”

His general theme is clear enough. He was speaking about the importance of dignity. (I know this, because he used the word 19 times in the course of the sermon.) More specifically, he was advocating ‘shared dignity’. (He used this unusual phrase three times.) I think that what he meant was that it was most important that we all valued other people and treated everybody with respect. I don’t imagine that anyone is going to argue with that, because it’s all very vague.

In terms of specific application, what we got was: “a political renewal that looks for a vital, decisive commitment to human dignity and social trust will not get far without a capacity to tune in to the themes of religious practice, the narratives and rhythms of embodied faith, not least, though not exclusively, in the life of the established Church.” In other words “Politicians ought to listen more to what religious people are saying, and in particular, the religious establishment.” To which the obvious response is “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” But the reason is obvious. The Archbishop thinks that religion is being marginalised these days. 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.”

Political reflections.

Some bits of what he was saying sounded politically interesting. He said “If you are profiting from Caesar's government, don't grumble about paying Caesar's taxes.” And I wanted to say “But what if Caesar is burning your money?”

He said “But never forget that the ultimate point of any human political order is giving God what belongs to God – setting human agents free, acknowledging and reinforcing the dignity in which God has clothed them.” And I wondered if he really meant that the ultimate point of government was to set people free - because I would certainly like to see a government that was dedicated to doing just that.

He said “And of course it is trust that has in the last couple of years been one of the most signal casualties of our national and international politics. It isn't only that people have felt they have not been told the whole truth about some matters; much more importantly, they have felt that those who hold both financial and political power have exercised it for self-interest not for the common interest.”

OK. But those who hold financial and political power always will tend to exercise it for self-interest, rather than for the common interest. That is simply human nature. The solution is that the size and scope of the state power should be strictly limited so that the amount of power that politicians have will be limited. And, for that matter, when the scope of the state grows to the point where government spending accounts for a major proportion of the nation’s economy, the result is that those who have political power also have huge financial power, which is a very worrying concentration of power in a small number of people. The solution, again, is that the scope of the state needs to be curtailed so that government does not control a high proportion of national spending.

And in a most interesting paragraph, the archbishop said “We react against certain kinds of strong government or 'big' government on the grounds that we don't want to be patronised or bullied or stripped of the fruits of our own work.”[And rightly so, Your Grace!] And the mistake is then to hand over all responsibility to non-state agents – which in practice often means non-accountable interests. [Absolutely, Your Grace! The Government shouldn’t hand over its responsibilities to private companies or Quangos or charities. It should hand responsibility back to the people!] Or, on the other hand, we try to make sure that government controls all outcomes and averts all risks by law and regulation. And this produces a culture of obsessional legislation, paralysis of initiative and pervasive anxiety.” [Well said, Your Grace! Libertarians will all say a hearty ‘Amen’ to that.]

Biblical and theological assessment.

The Archbishop, of course, was not giving a political talk, but preaching a sermon. And the way that he got from his text (“Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God”) to his conclusion struck me as very curious. He began with the words: “Give Caesar what belongs to him, says Jesus. And how do we know what belongs to him? It has his image on it. Then: give God what belongs to God. The implication isn't spelled out, but it's clear enough. What belongs to God can be identified in the same way; it has his image on it.”

Note the words “it’s clear enough”. The Archbishop is, in fact, completely wrong here. It isn’t clear at all. Most Christians, reading about the incident in which Jesus said these words (see Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26) would not jump to that conclusion. Readers might well ask “What does belong to God?”, but Jesus assumes that his listeners will know the answer to that question - and it has nothing to do with the coin or the image.

And it isn’t just ordinary Christians and other readers who will not think that it is at all clear. Biblical scholars have been reflecting on these words of Jesus for 2,000 years - and very view have taken the view that the implication of Jesus’ words is that what belongs to God is that which bears God’s image. I suspect that none have thought that this implication is “clear enough”.

Craig Evans, in his commentary on Mark (2001) says “The precise meaning of Jesus’ statement is not obvious.” He goes on to say that Justin Martyr (a leader in the Christian Church about 100 years after the time of Christ) “understood Jesus’ pronouncement to mean that tax was to be paid to Caesar, but worship was to be given to God alone, and not Caesar,” and Dr. Evans thinks that Justin is probably correct. Howard Marshall, in his commentary on Luke (1978), writes “There may [note that word!] be the thought that men as bearers of God’s image, should recognise his authority over them,” and tells us that this view is put forward by G√ľnther Bornkamm, in his book Jesus of Nazareth. And R.T. France, commenting on Mark (2002) writes that the pronouncement ‘...and to God what belongs to God’ “is entirely open-ended, and must be filled out by the reader’s understanding of God’s claim on his people,” and in a footnote adds “The thought that as the coin bears Caesar’s image so a person bears God’s image, and that therefore what is owed to God is ourselves, attractive as it may be, is certainly not explicit in the text and is not required to make sense of Jesus’ pronouncement.”

So the Archbishop is wrong in saying that it is clear that what belongs to God is that which has his image on it. In fact, most New Testament scholars would suspect that he is probably wrong in thinking that this is what Jesus had in mind.

From this shaky start, the Archbishop’s methodology does not get better. He goes on to speak of how, according to the Bible, human beings bear the image of God - which is fair enough. The obvious implication, you would think, is that when Jesus says “give God what belongs to God”, he means we should give ourselves to God. But no, that is not where the Archbishop goes. He discourses on the image of God, and tells us that it basically refers to “a particular kind of liberty and dignity,” but he doesn’t tell us where he gets this.

From here, we get another massive logical jump: “So perhaps to give God what belongs to God is to set human beings free to relate to God and to fulfil their calling to be creative in the world.” Perhaps. But it seems very unlikely - to put it mildly. However, it allows the Archbishop to arrive at his desired starting point for his political thoughts: “the ultimate point of any human political order is giving God what belongs to God – setting human agents free, acknowledging and reinforcing the dignity in which God has clothed them.” Even this, however, involves another logical jump: where did he get the idea that “the ultimate point of any human political order is giving God what belongs to God”? He didn’t explain that one either.

And my conclusion? The sermon is an interesting example of how the ecclesiastical establishment in modern Britain attempts to speak to the nation about the issues of the day. I'm not much the wiser about whether the Archbishop has a good grasp of politics, but I think that his grasp of the Bible and of preaching is definitely rather shaky.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Will the government really cut public spending?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the cuts in public spending that the government will, apparently, have to implement, in order to deal with the budget deficit.

I'm wondering if it is really going to happen. You see, I am old enough to remember the last time time that the government were making savage cuts. It was back in the early years of Mrs. Thatcher's administration. I remember the loud protests and the cries of pain. But Mrs. Thatcher was made of stern stuff, and was not about to be deflected.

Except that she never actually managed to cut public spending. Oh, some savings were made, but overall public spending just went on rising. Don't believe me?

Here's the graph to prove it - taken from UK Public Spending.

And if you want to see it adjusted for inflation, the blue line on graph below (courtesy of the Institute for Fiscal Studies) represents Total Managed Expenditure (TME) in real terms from 1948 to the present. (TME comprises expenditure by the entire public sector – namely, the central government, local authorities and public corporations.)

OK, the Conservatives did cut public expenditure in real terms in 1985/86 and 1988/89 - but it took them several years to do it, and even after these cuts, it was higher in real terms than it was when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979.

If Mrs. Thatcher's administration didn't cut spending, do you really believe that a government led by Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg will?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Great Repeal Bill wish list 3: Section 44 Police Powers

In the last 13 years, parliament has passed a lot of acts dealing with the threat of terrorism. The first of these was the Terrorism Act 2000. Section 44 of of the said Act, which gave police powers to stop and search people who might be involved in terrorist activity, has proved to be the most controversial, because it gave them the power to randomly stop someone without reasonable suspicion, providing the area has been designated a likely target for an attack.

The uses that these police have found for these powers have been many and varied.

There was the detention of Walter Wolfgang. Mr Wolfgang was ejected from the 2005 Labour Party Conference for heckling, and when he attempted to re-enter the conference, he was detained and held by the police under Section 44 powers.

Then there was Phil Smith. Mr Smith was planning to take some pictures at the turning on of the Christmas lights in Ipswich. He was challenged by a police officer who asked if he had a licence for the camera. After explaining he didn't need one, he was taken down a side-street for a formal "stop and search", then asked to delete the photos and ordered not take any more.

And of course there are the train spotters. Last year Mr. Norman Baker, who is now Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Department for Transport, discovered that Section 44 powers had been used to stop 62,584 people at railway stations. At the time he commented “The anti-terror laws allow officers to stop people for taking photographs and I know this has led to innocent trainspotters being stopped. This is an abuse of anti-terrorism powers and a worrying sign that we are sliding towards a police state.”

I know of no evidence that Section 44 is actually necessary. The police would probably claim that it is, but I’m not sure why I should believe them. The evidence I see suggests that while the police like to have these powers, they are simply not able to use them properly - and are regularly using them improperly.

So Mr. Clegg, please repeal Sections 44 to 47 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They aren't necessary, and they are taking away our freedom.

Correction: Mr Phil Smith was not actually stopped under Section 44. He was stopped for "unauthorised photography." (I bet you didn't know that the police in this country can stop you from taking pictures of Christmas lights on the grounds that you are "unauthorised".) Other photographers, however, have been stopped under Section 44 powers.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Do the poor do better under Labour?

From Burning our Money, this interesting graph.

We regularly hear about how the gap between rich and poor is growing in the UK (See also here). But it seems to me that surely the important thing (at least if one is motivated by concern for the less well off rather than ideological egalitarianism) is not the size of the gap between rich and poor, but how well the less well off are doing in real terms. And figures released by the Institute of Fiscal Studies show that, in real terms, they have been getting richer rather than poorer over the past 50 years.

The graph shows that households at the 25th percentile point for Before Housing Costs income (i.e. those that earn less than the richest 75% but more than the poorest 25%) have seen their income rise by 89% in real terms between 1961 and 2009. (The figures for those at the 5th and 15th percentile point are 80% and 88% respectively, while for those at the 50th percentile point it is 109%.)

Interesting stuff, and Wat Tyler has discoursed thoughtfully on the meaning of poverty.

However, I found myself wondering about something else. Do these less-well-off people (i.e. those at the 25th percentile point) do better under Labour governments or under Conservative governments. Accordingly, I adjusted the graph.

Upon studying it, I was not much the wiser, so I crunched the numbers, and made some interesting discoveries. I calculated that over the 25 years the Conservatives were in power, the people at the 25 percentile point increased their income by, on average, 0.987% per annum, while over the over the 23 years Labour were in power they increased their income by, on average, 1.714% per annum.

And so I might have concluded that the poor do better under Labour.

But I didn't, because there are three obvious problems with the methodology I employed.

1. Britain isn’t isolated from the outside world - and the prosperity of people in Britain is affected by events over which our government has no control.

2. The household income of people in Britain at any given time is affected by where we are in the boom and bust cycle.

3. The economic policies of a new government don’t start having an effect the day they take office - it takes months, perhaps even years. So surely it would be fairer to assume that the prosperity of the country in the first year of a new administration is actually the result of the policies of the outgoing rather than incoming administration.

I don't have the data to take into account the first two factors, but it was easy enough to recalculate the figures on this basis of the third, and so I did so.

The results were very, very different. Under Labour, the average rise in household income for these folk was 1.289% per annum, while under the Conservatives, it was 1.373% per annum*. And the reason is largely that there was such a huge jump in basic household income for people at the 25 percentile point between 1964 and 1965 (I have no idea why) that whichever party gets the credit for this jump comes out ahead.

And so the conclusion that I would be inclined to draw is that over the past 50 years, at least as far as household income of the less well off is concerned, it really didn’t make much difference which party was in power.

*(Incidentally, the figures indicate that the most successful administration was that of Mr. Heath in the early 1970s; the least successful were the Wilson administrations of the 1960s and 1970s.)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Great Repeal Bill wish list 2: The Knife Ban

The Criminal Justice Act 1988 introduced, at Section 139, the new offence of having an article with a blade or point in public place. It makes interesting reading, but the gist of it is that any person who has an article with a blade or sharp point (other than a folding pocket knife with a blade less than 3 inches long) in a public place is guilty of an offence - unless a) the person is able to prove that a) he had good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him in a public place or b) he had the article with him for use at work or c) he had it with him for religious reasons or d) he had it with him as part of a national costume - any national costume would do.

It is very difficult not to laugh. This one is utterly, utterly ridiculous, and would have puzzled most of our ancestors thoroughly. I find it very odd to think that if I were to pick up one of Mrs. Bird’s bread knives in the kitchen, walk out the door, up the path, and out the garden gate, and on to Windsor Gardens, without a good reason, I would become guilty of a criminal offence. However, thanks to the wisdom of our politicians, that is exactly what would happen.

Actually, I don’t tend to do this, so I don’t think that this one affects me personally. But then I imagine that Rodney Knowles and Brian Seaton thought that it didn’t affect them, either. And even if one is not charged, one could well end up (like Dale McAlpine) spending a few hours in the cells if a police constable doesn’t think that your reason for carrying a knife is good enough.

Now I know that some people are going to say “Aaaargh! We’ll all be murdered in our beds if the knife ban is repealed!” I must confess to grave scepticism. I certainly don’t remember feeling any safer in on the streets in 1989 than I was in 1987. And Austria, where the knife laws are considerably less restrictive than those of the UK, is not known for particularly dangerous streets. (In fact, Vienna is reputed to have a pretty good quality of life.) I know of no evidence to suggest that the 1988 knife ban has done anything to reduce violent crime in Britain. (See discussion here and here.)

I’ll say it again: 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. Carrying a knife hurts no one. So it should not be a criminal offence. And banning the carrying of knives does not stop malicious people carrying knives. So what is the point?

In the grand scale of things, repealing Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 is not that important. But it would be a sign that the government is moving away from knee-jerk responses to problems and from the obsessive desire that politicians seem to have for banning things.

(Yes, I know, I know. “If retaining this legislation saves the life of just one young person in Britain . . . .” Sigh.)