Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Of God and the politicians

Yesterday, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debated the matter of whether it was prepared to accept ministers in same-sex relationships.   According to the Scotsman ,  it "voted to affirm its 'current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality', which stops gay people becoming ministers.  However, under a compromise hammered out during the debate, liberal congregations will be able to opt out of that and appoint gay clergy if they wish."  (The official wording of what the General Assembly agreed is here.)

What happened is interesting, but so is the way it happened.  Initially, the Assembly was presented with two options, set out in a report prepared by a Theological Commission.  One of these options would have had the Church holding to the traditional view, that homosexual activity was, per se, immoral; the other option (described as 'revisionist') would have had the church moving to accept the view that there was nothing wrong with homosexual activity.  The Assembly was given the opportunity to vote on whether it wanted one of these options, or the compromise proposal that was eventually agreed.  According to the Scotsman, 163 people voted for the traditional position, 270 voted for the 'revisionist' position, and 191 voted for the compromise.  Using the mechanism of the alternative vote, the traditional position was eliminated and the Assembly voted again and chose the compromise proposal over the 'revisionist' proposal by 340 votes to 282.

But, perhaps more interesting than what happened, or the way it happened, has been the reaction.  The decision has been described as "theologically incoherent" by Kelvin Holdsworth of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and as "confused and inconsistent" by David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland.  It seems to me that they are both quite correct.

The official reaction, from the Church of Scotland, is, of course, rather different.   The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Lorna Hood said: “This is a massive vote for the peace and unity of the Church.”    John Chalmers, the Church of Scotland's principal clerk, said:  "This has been one way or another, a massive vote for the peace and unity of the church."   Curious that they both used the same words, isn't it?

What strikes me is that Lorna Hood and John Chalmers sound much like party managers.  The Church of Scotland is, in many ways, like the Conservative Party.  Both have seen sharp declines in membership in recent years, both are much divided over certain issues, both are seeing members defecting to other organisations.   And the Church of Scotland seems to be acting increasingly like a political party.  The all important thing is to maintain unity and keep people who disagree sharply together within one institution - for the good of the institution.

The point is that the church is not supposed to behave like a political party.  It is supposed to be focused on listening to God.  The report of the Theological Commission asked the church to listen to God.  Some of its members (the 'revisionists') suggested that God was a loving God who wanted the church to accept that loving same-sex relationships were good things.  Others of its members (the traditionalists) suggested that God was a God who had spoken and made clear in his word that same-sex relationships were sinful and should not be treated as acceptable in the church.  Whatever their disagreements, the 'revisionists' and the traditionalists on the Theological Commission both agreed that the focus should be on God.

Yesterday, at the General Assembly, the politicians came to the fore.  A political compromise was worked out that said "Yes, God doesn't approve of this - but that doesn't really matter.  We'll allow it anyway."   The politicians won the day.  And politically, it was brilliant.  One felt that Messrs. Cameron, Clegg and Milliband could have learned a thing or two from the sheer political brilliance of the decision.   This was in the league of Mr. Blair - the true master of the art.   Of course, Tony Blair didn't do God.  The politicians of the Church of Scotland do.  But one gets the impression that yesterday, God was largely left out of the decision.


Thursday, 16 May 2013

More new criminal offences . . .

In September 2008, it was reported that some 3,600 new criminal offences had been created under Labour.  At the time, the Independent noted that "Critics blamed the frenzy of law-making on "posturing" by an administration keen to win easy headlines and addicted to pushing complicated legislation through Parliament."

Five years later, the desire to create new criminal offences seems to continue unabated.  (Well, perhaps slightly abated.)   According the Telegraph (behind a sort of paywall), "The Prime Minister said he will urgently look at “extending criminal offences” to cover market manipulation in the energy sector, after BP and Shell were raided by European authorities on suspicion of rigging oil prices."  And by extend criminal offences, the Telegraph is referring to a new criminal offence that the government created after the Libor controversy.  "Following that scandal the Government created new laws which made it an offence to manipulate the benchmark mortgage interest rate."

And now we have the astonishing spectacle of an esteemed blogger of apparently libertarian outlook suggesting that we might consider new laws making some marriages between cousins illegal.

Oh dear.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Liberalism, classical and modern.

It is always nice to see a theologian who has some understanding of politics, and in particular, a concern for freedom.

I recently came across this sentence in an article by Dr. Carl Trueman on the distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism: "Their approach was, after all, not that of classical liberalism, where one respects the right of another to be wrong; this is that of modern liberalism, where one is free only to conform to the dominant ideology."

The full article is here, and is worth reading.

The fact that Dr. Trueman, who appears to approve of classical liberalism, is a professor at the institution founded by J. Gresham Machen, a notable Christian libertarian of the early 20th century, is an interesting coincidence.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Multiculturalists for UKIP

The last few days have seen stories in the press about UKIP local council candidates who have controversial views.  In particular, a few candidates hold views described as "extremist", "racist", and "antisemitic".  The leader of the party, Nigel Farage, apparently dislikes their views, and has disassociated himself from such candidates, and the party has suspended them.

There is, apparently, evidence that another political party has been going out of its way to discover UKIP candidates who have "extremist" opinions, who who have been associated with "extremist" organisations.  The reason for this is that they believe that decent voters who do not like the views of the the BNP, the EDL, and such bodies, will see UKIP as being a somehow unsavoury party, and, as a consequence, be less likely to vote for it.

(By the way, am I the only person who thinks that if this is true, it is not very clever?  Every time a candidate with dubious opinions is discovered, UKIP suspends him or her, thereby showing that UKIP are not a "racist party".  However the party which has been working on finding dirt on UKIP in order to paint UKIP as unsavoury comes over as being a rather, well, er, "nasty party.")

What is a bear to do?  More specifically, what is a bear from Darkest Peru, who arrived in England as a stowaway - and who has no time for the BNP and the EDL - to do?

In particular, what is this immigrant bear, who loves freedom and liberty, and is basically in favour of immigration and multiculturalism, to do?

In practice, it seems to me that people of libertarian outlook in British politics are found in three of the major parties - the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP.  (If there are any in the Labour Party, the Greens, or the BNP, I have not noticed them.)  This is not to say that the Conservatives, the LibDems or UKIP are actually libertarian parties - but they do have libertarians in their midst.  When it comes to voting, most libertarians who vote for a major party will probably vote for one of these parties.  Which one?  In my opinion, UKIP is the best of a bad lot the bunch, because, it seems to me, UKIP is more committed to freedom of speech and freedom of association than the others.

What then of UKIP's generally anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism tone - not to mention the rather "extreme" people in their ranks?  Do I really want to be associated with racists?  Do they not put me off voting UKIP?

On the contrary, they don't worry me at all, for the following reasons.

1. As the stories appeared, UKIP has made it clear that it rejected the candidates with "extremist" backgrounds.  While UKIP may contain people with views that I, as a Christian, do not like, UKIP does not like those views either.

2. Racism is treated by progressives as the worst of political sins.   It isn't.  It is just one mistaken belief among many.  It just happens to be the one that in the last 60 or 70 years, the west has had a particular fear of.  UKIP has racists in its midst?  So what.  Other parties contain plenty of people who believe that it is OK for the state to use its power to take money from some people in order to give it to others.

3. In a time when freedom of speech is not valued as much as it should be, the fact that UKIP contains plenty of people who hold politically incorrect views (views which I disagree with) means that they have a vested interest in supporting freedom of speech.

I must confess that even if UKIP were not suspending these people, but simply tolerating them as an eccentric minority, I wouldn't be too worried.  Lack of respect for freedom of speech and freedom of association is a much more serious problem in British politics than racism.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

If you really want a small state . . .

From Ed West in the Telegraph:

"Libertarians think they can get a Victorian-sized state without Victorian attitudes, but they’re deluded. If you really want a small state that doesn’t tell you what to do and gobble up half your income then start going to church, get involved in voluntary activities, tell the vicar or priest to stop droning on about the cuts and climate change and tell him to start shouting about sin and fornication. Repress yourself, you’ll find it’s good for your wallet."

So, if you are serious about libertarianism, you'll start going to church.  

Or continue to do so.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The great god democracy

Robert Colville, in the Telegraph, has written a piece entitled "The Omnishambles is damaging democracy."   In it, he refers to the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement, which shows that "public interest in - and faith in - politics has essentially collapsed.  And he comments that "the impression seeps relentlessly through that politics, politicians and even democracy itself just aren't worth caring about."

The striking phrase is "democracy itself".  Mr Colville's choice of phrasing seems to be saying that it is more important that we care about democracy than that we care about politics.

But surely the important thing is not so much the fact that we method by which we choose our government (i.e. democracy) as the quality of our government, and the actions of our rulers.  One of my favorite comments on the subject is "Democracy is two foxes and a chicken deciding what to have for dinner."  A government chosen by majority vote is not necessarily going to do what is good - and their track record shows that democracies often treat minorities badly.

And yet, for all that, democracy is widely treated as sacred - as something that cannot be questioned.   As a Christian, I find it interesting that while the Bible has quite a lot to say about rulers and about the business of government, it never says anything that suggests that democracy might be a good idea.  (And this is not simply because it would be anachronistic to do so - the New Testament was written in Greek, and most of it took place in a Greek speaking environment, several hundred years after the development of Athenian democracy.  At least some of the writers of the New Testament must have been familiar with the concept of democracy.)

Christian thinkers have attempted to justify democracy.  Probably the best known such justification camne from the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

I personally think that Niebuhr is correct.  If there were not some sort of human capacity for justice, majorities would not respect the rights of minorities.  But much more importantly, the fact that people - and, specifically, rulers - have a tendency to be unjust, means that it is very useful to have a means of getting rid of unjust rulers without bloodshed.

And that is the great thing about democracy.  It is not that it enables the people to choose their own rulers - it is that it enables the people to remove their rulers from power.  

It is does not do this perfectly, for quite often it simply replaces one government which serves a particular sectional interest with another government which serves the same sectional interest.   In modern democracies, the vast majority of the political class, no matter what their party allegiance, often share the same values, outlook, and policies.

It is also true that, in theory, a system could be devised which would enable oppressive governments to be removed from power bloodlessly without having democracy.  But I do not know of any such system ever having been implemented successfully.

in short, Winston Churchill was probably about right when he said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

The point is that democracy tends to serve freedom.  And it is important that it is not the other way around.  Freedom must be the master, democracy must be the servant.  Hence I would have preferred it if Mr Colville had written "the impression seeps relentlessly through that politics, politicians, democracy and even freedom itself just aren't worth caring about."  For that is what concerns me.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ten years ago today

It is ten years since Ron Paul's prediction speech of 24th April, 2012.

It makes interesting listening today.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Teheran Embassy, Ron Paul, & Blowback

Here is a selective timeline of events regarding the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran.

15th May, 2007. At the South Carolina debate between Republican candidates for the US Presidency, Dr. Ron Paul introduces Mr. Rudy Giuliani to the concept of 'blowback', and relates it, among other things, to the invasion of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979:
"I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem."

21st November, 2011. "Britain imposes new financial sanctions on Iran, ordering all UK financial institutions to stop doing business with their Iranian counterparts and with the central bank of Iran." (Daily Telegraph)

28th November, 2011. Dr. Paul issues a remarkably timely warning against the folly of sanctions - and in particular, sanctions against Iran.

29th November, 2011. "Iranians storm the British embassy compound in Tehran and burn documents looted from offices, during a rally to protest against sanctions imposed by Britain, Iranian news agencies report. Britain says it is outraged by the incursion into the embassy grounds." (Daily Telegraph)

It looks to me like Dr. Paul might have a point.

(And yes, this blog remains in hibernation. I keep on meaning to post stuff, but somehow or other, never quite get around to it. Perhaps I'll get one or two more published this year. But I'm not promising. For some reason, I'm really struggling with this blogging business.)

Friday, 6 May 2011

Some thoughts on the LibDems election results

Most of the results are in for the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the English Councils. The results are, to put it mildly, disappointing for the Liberal Democrats.

I wish to make three observations.

1) The LibDems did much worse in Scotland than in Wales. The figures for the elections to the devolved assemblies since 1999 are as follows:

While the LibDem vote in Wales was down about 30% on 2007, in Scotland it was down over 50%. There are probably various reasons for this difference, but I have a hunch as to what the main one was. While the SNP had a very good election in Scotland, Plaid Cymru had a poor one in Wales. In other words, disaffected LibDem voters in Wales looked at the alternatives, and while some did go to other parties, principally Labour, none of the alternatives looked particularly attractive, so the LibDem vote held up reasonably well. In Scotland, by contrast, the SNP looked very attractive, and so disaffected LibDem voters deserted to the SNP in droves, but few, it seems, went to Labour. The SNP have managed to make themselves very attractive across Scotland in a way that Plaid Cymru have never succeeded in doing in Wales.

2. The basic electoral problem the LibDems have is that they are part of a coalition government, and the unhappy electoral consequences of this seem to have come as a bit of a shock to many LibDems.

The Telegraph had a headline that read "Local election results: Lib Dems doing worse than 1980s." Actually, the 1980s were fairly reasonable times for the LibDems and their predecessors in the SDP / Liberal Alliance. Even if they didn't do particularly well in local government elections, in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, they did better than they have done in any elections since, and better than the Liberals did in the four elections of the 1970s. The Telegraph headline, in other words, is misleading in that it gives the impression that the 1980s were bad times for the LibDems.

The truth is, as those with long memories may recall, that the most awful time for the Liberal Party's electoral fortunes in the past 40 years was the Lib-Lab pact between March 1977 and March 1978. In a succession of by-elections, the party had dreadful results, and these were universally attributed to the fact that the Liberal Party was involved in an association with the Labour government, and was punished for its association with that government. The benefits of ending the pact were shown when the Liberals won a spectacular victory in the Liverpool Edge Hill by-election in March 1979.

One hesitates to say that history is repeating itself, but what is happening to the LibDems at the moment is remarkably similar to the events of 1977-78. There is another similarity. Those were years of economic austerity - the government had been forced to go to the IMF for a loan in 1976.

The LibDems should not be at all surprised at the collapse in their share of the vote in the last 12 months. They should have seen it coming.

(I might add that the evidence suggests that for the LibDems to be part of coalition administrations in local councils or devolved assemblies in Cardiff or Edinburgh does not seem to have the same negative electoral consequences.)

3. I find Nick Clegg's blaming memories of the horror of the 1980s for the poor performance of the LibDems rather strange. He has been quoted as saying ''For many families in those parts of the country especially, there are also some very strong memories of what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s and somehow a fear that that is what we are returning to.''

This sounds like nonsense to me. I don't think it has anything to do with memories of what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s. It strikes me as much more likely that many LibDem voters just couldn't stand the thought of supporting a Tory prime minister, and many of those who were able to accept that, just couldn't cope with the concept of cuts in government spending.

But even more basically, I remember what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s. After the fairly tough opening years, it was actually better than life under Labour in the late 1970s. Is Mr. Clegg (who was born in 1967) really too young to appreciate that?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama bin Laden, the Archbishop, and Magna Carta

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has recently said that he was uncomfortable about the way that Osama bin Laden was killed.

According to the Daily Telegraph, when asked at a press conference whether he thought the US had been right to kill bin Laden, he initially declined to respond, but later replied: "I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling, because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances."

I must confess that while my concerns are not exactly the same as the Archbishop's, my belief in due process ["Due process holds the government subservient to the law of the land protecting individual persons from the state. When a government harms a person without following the exact course of the law it constitutes a due process violation which offends against the rule of law." (Wikipedia)] does make me somewhat uncomfortable with the whole business.

According to clause 29 of the Magna Carta, which is, I understand, one of three clauses still in force in English law,
"NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."

OK - I know that Osama bin Laden was not an English Freeman, and that it is generally accepted that he had committed mass murder of hundreds of innocent people, and that what he got was exactly what he gave to others, and was what he deserved, and that it could be said that this happened in the course of fighting a war, and that he was, apparently, resisting arrest.

That last fact, of course, is the key. He was resisting arrest. Had he surrendered, he would have been taken alive. Hence, the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, said:"Let me make something very clear, the operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful. . . . If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate."

Does the fact that he was resisting arrest mean that it was appropriate to kill him? Not, in an of itself, it doesn't. Not in the United Kingdom, nor in the USA. Shooting him dead could only be justified if it was done in self-defence, i.e. if he was a threat to the life of one of the Navy Seals. Resisting arrest does not justify shooting dead a suspect, even if he is a mass murderer.

However, as the Archbishop pointed out, he was unarmed.

Which is why I too, am uncomfortable. I am realise that the US Attorney General knows much more about the law than I do, but it does seem to me that very little effort was made to follow due process.