WHO WOULD BE A LEADER?
Enoch Powell once observed that all political careers end in tears. Whilst this might not be literally and universally true there is sufficient evidence to confirm its relevance. Margaret Thatcher literally left Downing Street in tears, even though she led her party for eleven years and to three successive election victories. Tony Blair left office with a similar record but now the very mention of his name in the House of Commons evokes boos from some in his own party. Gordon Brown walked away from Number 10 with sighs of relief and little respect and his successor, Ed Miliband, was scorned for two years until his party pulled ahead in the polls.
Is David Cameron now heading for a similar fate? If followers of the Conservative Home website are any guide, he is. Under fire from the Europhobes for not leading Britain out of the European Union, he is regularly abused as a traitor to his party and not a true Conservative. His Government’s failure to secure economic growth, however unrealistic some of the expectations are, is a second cause of disaffection. His commitment to legalising same-sex marriage is a further cause for grumbling. Emma Pilling, Chair of the party’s National Convention is worried that traditional Conservatives will not vote for the party in 2015 because they are hostile to this policy.
There are also rumours of a campaign to replace Cameron as the leader. Whilst some MPs would probably back this, the rumours are coming from two sources outside Parliament. One is the City where there is frustration with Cameron and Osborne for their failure to stimulate the economy. The second is Rupert Murdoch who is reputed to want to see Cameron replaced by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London who is not even an MP. Evidence of this is seen in the Sun newspaper which has labelled Boris as a hero and regularly criticises Osborne, and Cameron by association.
The media, for which bad news is the only good news, are well known for building people’s reputation up, only to pull them down again as soon as they make a mistake. In this they strike a chord with many of their readers. No institution is safe from this treatment. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee evoked republican vitriol. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games attracted lots of positive reviews but also abusive ones. For better or worse, that is Britain. So how should a leader who comes in on a wave of support surf it long enough to make a difference?
Listening to their party is the most obvious and too often Prime Ministers forget this. Offering a compelling vision and persevering with it is another. Cameron offered the Big Society, but where is it today? Earning and keeping our trust is crucial, which means telling the truth and keeping political spin to a minimum. They also need our prayers, regardless of party loyalties, for the good of the nation.
2nd August 2012
WHAT PLACE DOES RELIGION HAVE IN PUBLIC LIFE?
Sociologists of religion forecasted that religion would gradually fade away and no longer have influence in public life. That is plainly not true in most countries outside Europe, but how true is it in Britain? The Christian think tank, Theos, has organised a series of debates on this question. The last one this week featured Tony Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph editor. The debate was chaired by Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary who is now the Visiting Professor of Politics and Faith at Lancaster University.
The debate considered what part religion should play in a democratic society and how that society should respond to the challenges that faith bring to it. In his characteristically scholarly way, the Archbishop acknowledged that a few high profile cases had created an impression that people of faith are now marginalised but reminded the audience that the roots of the human rights movement were religious. The dignity of human beings is not self-evident or a modern idea but a biblical value from the creation narrative. This should keep us from jumping too quickly into a victim posture.
Despite Alistair Campbell’s “we don’t do God”, Mr Blair’s interest in religion is no secret. On Tuesday he stated his faith bluntly, “I am a Christian. I believe in salvation through Jesus Christ” but conceded that in a plural democracy political decisions must sometimes override religious convictions. His critics would say that happened far too often when he was in office. The same criticism is thrown at David Cameron. Last December he celebrated the King James Bible for its influence on British culture and the way it motivates believers to care for needy people, but then proposed a re-definition of marriage that is incompatible with biblical teaching.
Wherein lies the reality of religious faith and the influence it has on our lives and society? Is it what we think, our beliefs and doctrines, or what we feel about our relationship with our Triune God in worship and fellowship with other believers, or what we do in our daily lives. The Reformation rightly stressed that salvation is by faith alone but St James cautions us that faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26). Politics is about how a society chooses the values that should shape public policy so we should welcome political leaders who attempt to integrate their religious faith into their politics but remind them that they cannot with any integrity pick the bits of the religion they like and ignore the bits they do not like.
Of course that is true for all of us who profess a faith. Christians who take no part in the political process, or engage in an un-Christian manner, are as wrong as those who claim to be Christians but advocate unchristian policies and practices. Religion has a place in public life as long as believers are willing to actively live their faith.
31st July 2012
UK POPULATION GROWS FASTER THAN EVER BEFORE
The population figures from the 2011 Census were published yesterday. They reveal that the population of England and Wales has grown by 7.1% to 56.1 million, which is a growth of nearly 4 million. Add the population of Scotland and Northern Ireland and the UK population now stand at 63.1 million. This represents the fastest growth rate since the first Census in 1801.
Three causes of this growth stand out. First, 55% of the growth is the result of immigration, 2/3rds of whom came from non-EU countries. Second, there has been a baby boom, with the number of children under five rising by 13% over the last decade. This boom is largely attributed to immigrant workers who tend to be younger people. Third, we are living longer. More than 9 million people in England and Wales are over 65 and the number will increase by another 2 million as the ‘baby boomer’ generation retires. 100 years ago there were 13,000 people over 90, today there are 430,000.
The social and political significance of these figures cannot be underestimated. They translate into larger class sizes, longer waiting times for an appointment with a GP and an increase in the demand for housing. These pressures are unevenly distributed. London, the South East and the East of England have experienced the largest growth, whilst population growth in Northern England and Wales has been negligible.
The statistics will give fresh impetus to debates about the level of immigration. The growth happened during the time of the last Labour Government and Frank Field has criticised his own party for allowing it to happen and then failing to plan for its consequences.
The Coalition Government is committed to reducing immigration but there is little evidence of the numbers falling so far. Economists suggest that the growth will slow recovery from the recession and make it harder for many to sustain reasonable living standards. With 2.6 million people unemployed, competing with immigrants for jobs will be a divisive issue, especially if the IMF’s downgraded expectations of growth in the UK economy are realised.
Demonising immigrants is not a Christian option. Exodus 22:21 counselled Israel, “do not ill-treat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt”. Similarly, Jesus taught his disciples to love their neighbours and his Good Samaritan parable, and his own dealings with Samaritans, reached beyond Israel to include foreigners. The Creation narrative indicates that all people bear the image of God, regardless of their national and ethnic origins. So there is a Christian duty to relate to immigrants with respect and neighbourliness. Care and respect for the elderly members of the population is also a Christian duty (Leviticus 19:32) and a pastoral responsibility for churches.
A densely populated island needs reasonable population policies in order to plan and deliver the right level of public services but immigration should not be made into an excuse for racist rants by anyone in a civilised society.
20th July 2012
I am not a fan of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, which regularly resembles the Tom and Jerry show. However, this week PMQs included one positive and unexpected surprise. David Davis asked a question about the Nadia Eweida case, to be heard in the European Court of Human Rights on 4th September.
Miss Eweida was a British Airways check-in worker at Heathrow, who was told in 2006 that she could not wear a cross at work. She unsuccessfully fought for the right to do so at an Industrial Tribunal and then through the English Courts and has now appealed to the ECHR. Mr Davis described the British Airways behaviour as “a disgraceful piece of political correctness” and asked why the Government was resisting her appeal. Premier has an interest in this case because we have intervened in her support and will have a barrister at the hearing.
The surprise was Mr Cameron’s reply. He said he was fully supportive of employees’ right to wear religious symbols at work and considered this “an absolutely vital freedom”. More significantly, he then pledged that if the Court finds against Miss Eweida, the Government will legislate “to change the law and make clear that people can wear religious symbols at work”.
This is a more complex issue than it might first appear. Miss Eweida is a Christian and wears a cross to express her faith but many women wear crosses as a piece of jewellery without that motive. Presumably, British Airways serving travellers of many faiths and none wanted to avoid causing offence to its customers. There is no evidence that people are offended and the airline has now changed its policy and allows the wearing of crosses and other religious symbols.
Miss Eweida thinks she was the victim of religious discrimination driven by secular thinking that religious faith is a purely private matter that has no place in public life and roles. It was also argued in the Courts that the wearing of crosses is a personal choice and not an obligation in the way that Sikh males have to wear turbans. The Davis-Cameron exchange pushes the boundaries on both counts but legislating to give everyone the legal right to wear their religious symbol will not be as straight forward as Cameron’s reply might suggest.
For example, Muslim women are encouraged to cover their hair and neck with a hijab but some go further and wear a niqab that covers their whole body except for a slit for their eyes. If the law is to allow the wearing of religious symbols, Muslim women would be allowed to wear a niqab if they so choose but that could present problems if, for example, they seek work as teachers or doctors in a non-Muslim context. Before we rush to judgement on this Christians should read 1 Corinthians 11:3-10. The right to wear religious symbols may not be as simple a matter as it at first seems.
13th July 2012
THE COST OF DEMOCRACY
Regular readers of this blog will recall my enthusiasm for active citizenship and a more participatory form of democracy. The basis of this is a biblical view of humanness. Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God and given a mandate to care for his creation. Concentrating power and responsibility in the hands of the few and denying the many opportunities to fulfil this mandate runs counter to our Maker’s design. It breeds a ‘them and us’ divide that produces frustration, and cynicism. Evidence of this is found in a ComRes poll published this week that reveals the alarming levels of distrust of many elites – bankers and business leaders, ministers and politicians, journalists and the police.
Recent scandals partially explain this but restoring trust and social cohesion will require a deeper analysis. Outrage at huge bonuses is understandable but how many of us would refuse one if it was offered? Tax avoidance is anti-social but who does not use legal loopholes to minimise their tax liability? Journalists only write what they think readers want to read so that we continue to buy their papers. Some MPs claimed excessive expenses but are they the only ones to do this? A biblical view of humanness also reminds us of a universal propensity to sin. Our culture is overwhelmingly relativist; there are numerous examples of everyone wanting to do what is right in their own eyes. Real democracy means an equal concern for our neighbours’ welfare and putting the common good before selfish and sectional interests.
Active participation in the public square requires some understanding of the often complex issues confronting the nation. How many of us understand what the Libor scandal was about? How well do those who clamour for Britain to leave the EU understand the implications for exports and jobs? “It’s the economy, stupid” was a clever headline but ignorance about the economy spells disaster. The centralisation of government in Whitehall and Westminster over the last century has nurtured ignorance and shifting appropriate responsibilities back to local authorities and communities where citizens understand the issues directly affecting them, would create a seedbed for active citizenship and democratic participation.
A crucial question is whether people really want to be active citizens? When a policy affects us or a decision offends our prejudices, the newspapers are full of indignant letters, but when the Education Secretary invited citizens to start ‘free schools’ those letters said it is the State’s job to provide schools. We work the second longest hours of any European country, so who has time to engage in politics and public policy?
Government of the people, for the people and by the people is a slick cliché but making it happen involves significant costs. A lot has to change in our political system to inform and equip ‘the people’ to play our part, not least in our own attitudes, values and priorities, but it is our creation mandate.
6th July 2012
WHO WANTS LORDS REFORM?
This week Nick Clegg introduced a Bill to reform the House of Lords. 826 peers are currently entitled to sit in the House and speak and vote on legislation. It is proposed to reduce this number to 360 elected members and 90 appointed by an independent Appointments Commission. The number of Bishops in the Lords would be reduced from 26 to 12. Whilst the upper House would retain its present name, members would not be called Lords. They would not be salaried but paid a tax free allowance, probably £300 per day.
Elections would be held every five years, at the same time as a General Election. Members would serve for 15 year terms, one third retiring every five years. Elections would be conducted with a form of proportional representation called the ‘semi-open list’ system, allowing electors to vote either for an individual or for a party. This has two probable consequences. First it means that it is unlikely that any party would have an overall majority. Critics say this means the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power. It probably also means that the power of the political parties would be increased because they would dominate the selection of candidates.
Lords reform has been debated for at least a century. Modest changes were made with the creation of Life Peers and the removal of all but 92 hereditary peers, who ironically are elected by their fellow hereditary peers, not the public. Changes of the order now proposed have been aired many times but opposed by some interesting coalitions. In 1969 Michael Foot and Enoch Powell combined in an ‘unholy alliance’ to block Lords reform. As a Conservative, Powell wanted to prevent what he thought would damage the Constitution, whilst left-winger Foot did not want an upper House that could challenge the superiority of the Commons. Both perspectives remain relevant to today’s debate.
Mr Clegg advocates reform to make the Lords more democratic but does the election process necessarily achieve this? Turnout in elections is embarrassingly low. We are all asked to vote in local, parliamentary and European Parliament elections and in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London there are also Assembly elections. Before another set of elections, with a different voting system, are added should the focus be on creating a more participatory political culture at the grass roots level, to avoid putting the cart before the horse?
Conservative MPs will not be whipped for this Bill and at least a hundred are threatening to vote against it. The other parties also include critics of the Bill so it could be defeated. Even if it is passed by a small majority, the Lords could throw it out or demand a referendum before it is implemented. Those who are unemployed, homeless or struggling to pay the bills might be forgiven for asking if this Bill really is the right priority and best use of Parliament’s time.
29th June 2012
FAILING OUR YOUNG PEOPLE
Last November, the scientist and surgeon, Lord Winston, famous for his television series 'Child of our Time' and 'The Human Body' acknowledged that nurturing the next generation “is the single most important thing we can do as a society”. Recalling the UK’s 21st position in UNICEF’s report on children’s well-being, he commented “it is really worrying that a country like ours with one of the highest GDPs and the best universities and research does so badly with our children; it really is a national shame”. These comments came to mind this week as I pondered several pieces of evidence that demonstrate how relevant his conclusion is.
The first is the statistics for youth unemployment. More than a million young people aged 16-24 are unemployed, which is 39% of the jobless total and 1.8 million children belong to work-less families. Of course they are part of the bigger problem of being in a recession but the figures provoke questions about the quality of education both at school and home. Even more serious is the 55.9% of young black people who are unemployed. What does this teach them about their worth in our society?
The quality of home life is an important factor shaping their attitudes and perceptions but those living in broken families, with absent fathers or parents working all hours they can to make ends meet, may not be helped to feel loved and valued as they should. That is even truer for the 631 cases of girls in care being groomed and exploited for sex by networks of depraved men. That abuse is only possible because those charged with their care appear to fail completely to establish an environment in which they feel loved and valued, so they fall prey to men who pretend friendship and ply them with drugs and alcohol. Parents who fail to protect their children from accessing internet porn are also guilty of neglect. However poor or prosperous their parents, the relational poverty so many children experience does lasting harm.
The high levels of household and national debt is another cause for shame because the lifestyles which that debt funded will be paid for by the next generation. In his Reith Lecture this week, Niall Ferguson quoted Edmund Burke’s observation that “the state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but also between those who are dead and those who are to be born”. The reality of that applies not only to debt but also to the state of the planet that succeeding generations will inherit. Our bequest to them includes climate change, rising sea levels, pollution and exhausted natural resources.
The Bible, that so few people now respect, places a high value on parents teaching and nurturing their children in the way they should think and live, with a balance of love and discipline that requires a regular time commitment. The evidence suggests that not enough of us make this a high priority.
20th June 2012
MARRIAGE DEBATE ENTERS CRUCIAL PHASE
This week the same-sex marriage debate comes to the boil. The Home Office consultation ends, half a million signatures opposing the proposed change have been presented to the Home Secretary and, more significantly, the Church of England has told the Government that legalising same-sex marriage would be a first step towards its own disestablishment. This is not an attack on same-sex couples but a defence of its own place in the British constitution.
The Church of England, like the Roman Catholic Church, follows the biblical teaching that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Anglican clergy are registrars for marriages on behalf of the State and if Parliament redefines marriage to include same-sex unions, they could not continue to perform this role and remain faithful to that teaching. The Churches anticipate that if they marry heterosexual couples but not same-sex couples they will eventually be sued for denying the latter their human rights. This is a complex matter, disputed by some, but the Church is acting on the advice of its own lawyers, some of whom are experienced members of their profession.
The politics of the Government’s position are curious. None of the party manifestos in 2010 mentioned this change, so what makes it so urgent to deliver it? Support for same-sex marriage in the country is mostly amongst younger people, which a poll commissioned by Premier found even amongst younger Christians. Stonewall claims 70% support the change but that is not credible. Opposition on the Conservative benches is such that Mr Cameron has conceded a free vote when the issue comes to Parliament. Whatever the statistics say this is clearly not at the forefront of most people’s minds in the way that the economy and austerity measures are.
Opponents have argued that legalising same sex marriage means redefining ‘marriage’ and it has been noticed that in countries that have already done so have had to remove such words as ‘husband and wife’, ‘mother and father’ from their laws. In other words this constitutes a significant cultural change. Its supporters say this is exactly what they want in order to treat homosexual couples just like heterosexual couples. To suggestions that this will undermine the institution of marriage, they respond that divorce and adultery have already done that without their help.
Conservatives like to blame this agenda on the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition. Whilst the Minister responsible, Lynne Featherstone, is a Liberal Democrat, there can be no doubt from David Cameron’s conference speech last year that he firmly nailed his Conservative colours to the change. It is a big risk and, depending on how opponents vote in 2015, could lose him the election. It may be that he thinks this is a risk worth taking in order to win the support of the younger generation for the long term. The challenge for his Christian opponents is how to persuade their sons and daughters to think again.
14th June 2012
After four days of celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, that is the obvious subject for this week’s blog. The Jubilee has dominated the media and millions of people have spent hours watching the events live or on television. Given that Queen Elizabeth is only our second monarch to reign for 60 years this is not surprising but at a risk of boring you it is worth digging a bit deeper to analyse the meaning and significance of an event that caused even the American President to send his warmest congratulations.
A jubilee has come to mean little more than a special anniversary that merits celebration but its ancient roots in Old Testament Israel gave it a different meaning. Leviticus 25 established a jubilee every 50 years, when property was restored to its ancestral owners, slaves were released and debts forgiven. In the light of today’s trafficking people into slavery and high levels of personal indebtedness, that definition could still be relevant, however unlikely it is to be applied.
The Archbishop of Canterbury focused on St Paul rather than the Old Testament to make a most profound point. Speaking of the Queen’s dedication he did so in the classical biblical sense, to highlight her commitment to serve the common good of the British people. She is no mere celebrity seeking to maximise her own well-being but someone who has “no goals that are not the goals of this community”. Finding her own happiness in seeking the happiness of her people for 60 years is a biblical model that our individualistic,‘me-centred’ society needs to recover.
Inevitably republicans wanted no part in the celebrations except to protest against the monarchy. Recent polls indicate that they have the support of about 20% of Britons who want an elected Head of State chosen by the people for a limited period, not for life. Quite apart from the crowds flocking to see the Queen this week, the turnout at local and parliamentary elections suggest that this is not a popular option. That could change if a future King or Queen proves deeply unpopular but it is difficult to see that an election is the best way to select somone who posseses the qualities spelt out by the Archbishop.
Anyone who remembers the death of Princess Diana will know that the Queen has not always been so popular but she learnt from that experience, recognising how society was changing and adapting to meet popular expectations without appearing to change at all. That was possible because there are powerful constants in her life, her Christian faith especially. Britain includes people of many faiths and none and she relates well to them all without compromising her own commitment to Christ. It is surely this that equips and empowers her to be a servant Queen.
If the Jubilee is to have lasting significance it will be because those who cheered the Queen follow her example of service for the good of others, not just ourselves.
7th June 2012
IS LISTENING ENOUGH?
This week has seen the Government rethink a number of its policy decisions. Taxing hot pasties and static caravans was about plugging VAT loopholes. Allowing the security services to give evidence in closed sessions of court cases was to preserve the identity of their personnel and sources. A rational case could be made for all these decisions but the response of interested parties, the media and backbenchers left the Government looking shambolic. The Opposition disparages the changes as ‘U-turns’ whilst Ministers claim credit for being a listening Government.
Rumours have also leaked out that the Prime Minister is consulting senior Ministers about whether or not to promise to include a referendum on UK membership of the EU in its manifesto for the 2015 election. Is this another example of listening or a tactic to stem the pressure for a referendum from backbenchers and europhobic party members. There has been talk of the latter voting for UKIP in 2015. If so it is a risky ploy because it will upset the Liberal Democrats and potentially destabilise the Coalition. Similarly, europhile Conservatives like Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will not want a referendum they might lose, creating the possibility of intra-party strife such as undermined John Major’s Government. That would make the party appear divided and increase the likelyhood of defeat in 2015.
So, who the Government listens to, and when, are sensitive matters. Nobody wants an intransigent Government that never listens but we surely do need competent Government that bases its policies on reliable information and careful analysis. Sometimes that can produce unpopular outcomes, such as the austerity measures introduced in 2010. The challenge is to communicate effectively the compelling case for these policies that persuades us to live with them. A majority did this in 2010 but public opinion was not convinced by the case for the pasty tax and other, more serious measures this year. The cumulative impact of austerity, rising unemployment and reduced services may have made public opinion harder to persuade but the Government may also have failed to listen before they decided these policies.
There is also an impression that Government has become too cliquish. Senior Ministers each have a parliamentary private secretary, an MP whose job is to be the Minister’s ears, listening to and reporting backbench opinion on Government policy. Backbench critics may then be invited to discuss their concerns with the appropriate Minister but the most popular and effective Ministers make time to socialise with their MPs in the tea rooms. Backbench disquiet with the current Government suggests that the Prime Minister and his colleagues are not doing this enough.
Listening is a two-way business. Most of us have probably stopped listening to our political leaders because they are failing to carry us with them by setting forth a compelling vision which wins our support and gives them a framework and rationale for detailed policies. This would do far more for democracy than reforming the House of Lords.
30th May 2012
I am shocked to discover that 30% of Britons have a criminal record and we lock up more offenders than most other West European contries. The 139 prisons in England and Wales currently hold approximately 88,000 people, of whom only 4,635 are women. 61% will re-offend within two years of their release suggesting the need for some radical rethinking about how we tackle crime.
Sending convicted offenders to prison has four objectives: to punish them, to deter others from committing crime, to protect the public from dangerous criminals, and to reform offenders so that they ‘go straight’ when released back into the community. Obviously, Category A prisoners, deemed to be dangerous, do need to be incarcerated but that certainly does not apply to Category D, low risk prisoners. Moreover, there is insufficient time to do anything with those imprisoned for less than a year that might turn them into law-abiding citizens. So what alternatives are there?
Timpsons, the company that repairs shoes, cuts keys, repairs watches and other things actively recruits ex-offenders and even has a training workshop in one prison. 5% of their workforce were recruited directly from prison and only 4.5% of those recruited have reoffended whilst some have gone on to become branch managers. The logic is obvious. Give an ex-offender a job with a salary and an opportunity to gain self-respect and it helps him to ‘go straight’. Release him with no job, no money and no stable relationships and re-offending is very likely.
The alternative to prison for low risk offenders is non-custodial sentences but too often this means unpaid and demeaning work, wearing high-visibility clothing to emphasise punishment. This satisfies the public’s desire to punish but does nothing to reintegrate the offender back into the community. A relational approach would place him in demanding and useful work that involves interaction with the local community and its values. It would not be easy to do this when large numbers of honest people are unemployed but it will pay off in the long run if it prevents re-offending and reduces the prison budget.
Another significant scheme, pioneered in Brixton prison, has seen prisoners close to release, spending time with their wives or partners in the prison chapel, participating in workshops designed to renew their family relationships so that they stay away from crime when released. Imprisoning those given custodial sentences as close as possible to their families may also contribute to this. It also reduces the ‘punishment’ felt by the offender’s innocent family.
It is understandable that honest citizens want to see criminals punished but there is a need to consider the bigger picture. This emphasis has not prevented a spiralling increase in crime and has not transformed a majority of offenders into law abiding citizens. It has also wasted tax payers’ hard earned money. Timpsons have shown us an alternative that merits wider development. If “proclaiming freedom for the prisoners” was good for Jesus, so should it be for his disciples.
23rd May 2012
The Eurozone is heading into a new crisis that could affect Britain even though we are not members. The immediate flashpoint is Greece, which is like a rudderless ship, with no Government at the helm. The Greeks voted to abandon austerity policies but want to remain in the Eurozone. They are being told that they have to choose – honour the austerity agreement or lose the bail out. If they choose to abandon the austerity measures they will be forced out of the Eurozone and will almost certainly renege or their debts to other nations
The markets anticipate this and are panicking. The cost of borrowing to cover the national debts in Spain and Italy shot up yesterday to the highest rates this year. Germany’s 10 year bond yields crashed to their lowest level and European stock markets also slumped yesterday. The new French president, inaugurated on Tuesday, promises to abandon his predecessor’s austerity measures and part company with Chancellor Merkel’s strategy for the Eurozone.
The UK is not in the Eurozone but is not immune to the impact of the crisis. On Monday £28.5 billion was wiped off the value of leading shares. The value of sterling reached a three year high against the Euro but more than half of UK exports are to European countries and this will make our exports more expensive. A Eurozone crisis will damage our exports and lead to increased unemployment. 2.65 million people (8.3% of the workforce) are already out of work and that number could grow.
So what can be done to protect our economy and help those worst affected by a crisis? First, the Government may have to temporarily cut taxes to stimulate domestic consumption and ease the pressures on hard pressed households. Second the Bank of England may need to cut the already low interest rates and pump more money into the economy through its quantative easing tactic. Third, the Government can create jobs by initiating new infrastructure projects. The Chancellor will be very reluctant to do the latter because it will increase national debt and it is the Labour party’s answer. There is a G8 conference of leaders at Camp David in the USA on Friday but little hope that it will produce a consensus to head off the Eurozone crisis.
Locally, we ordinary folk can play our part. We can contribute to food banks to help put food on the tables of desperate families. More directly we can also support our needy neighbours, out of work though no fault of their own, expressing the neighbour love that Jesus taught. The words of James spring to mind, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” As James concludes, “faith by itself , if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
16th May 2012
This week has seen the Lords debating a Bill to suspend restrictions on Sunday trading for the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Bill is being rushed through to give retailers an opportunity to increase sales and consumers, especially tourists, to shop when it suits them. It applies to all of England and Wales, not just localities hosting Olympic and Paralympic events. The Opposition will seek amendments but not oppose the Bill so it will become law.
Most people are enthusiastic about having the Games in London but most Lords debating the Bill expressed serious reservations about it. Keeping Sunday special is obviously an issue for Christians but these reservations were not exclusively or even primarily religious. Everyone needs a day off to rest from the stresses of work, to spend time with family and friends and engage in hobbies. This is important for health, relationships and community life.
Concern was expressed for shop workers. A poll of 20,000 of them, conducted by USDAW, their trade union, revealed that 78% were opposed to more Sunday work. They can give notice that they do not wish to work on Sundays but 73% expected increased pressure to do so, with possible consequences for their future employment if they do not.
Another cause for concern is the impact of the Bill on small shops. The 1994 Shops Act limits stores with a trading area of more than 3000 square feet to six hours trading on Sundays but sets no limits on smaller shops. The sales of the latter increase when the big stores are closed. A cursory survey of most high streets shows how many of the small sole-trader shops have already closed and the Bill’s critics fear that this temporary deregulation could push even more out of business. This has wider consequences than for those traders alone because they were much more likely than the big stores to source the goods they sold and to re-invest their profits locally.
Doubts have also been cast about the expectation that this measure will increase sales and profits. Visitors to areas where Olympic events are held may well spend money on souvenirs, boosting local sales and profits but elsewhere extended shopping trading could mean the usual sales spread over longer hours. This would yield the same income but increased labour costs. Tired workers might also mean lower productivity. The economic case for this Bill is seriously open to question.
The Bill includes a ‘sunset clause’ that automatically repeals it on 9th September. The Minister also assured the Lords that the measure is not a Trojan Horse for permanent deregulation of Sunday trading but most of the Peers who spoke this week were not totally convinced whilst Baroness Deech hoped that this is exactly what will happen. However, enabling everyone to have one day off each week for rest and relationships is important for us all – employees, employers, family and community life as well as worship and church activities.
27th April 2012
WHERE IS THE VISION?
I have been involved in politics for nearly 50 years, first as a lecturer, then as political analyst and lobbyist, now as writer and broadcaster. For most of that time I have tried to integrate my Christian faith and values with my politics, working for a society that reflected those values of justice, compassion, truth, community and fairness for all. From time to time I heard individual politicians saying things that also reflected those values and longed, perhaps naively, for a political movement to unite the nation behind a vision to deliver them. Never in those 50 years has this seemed less likely.
The economic situation does not help. The Coalition Government inherited such a huge soveriegn debt that it had no choice but to adopt an austerity programme. That is understood by anyone with a grasp of economics but it does not justify some of the dafter decisions coming out of the Treasury. More may have been made of the Granny tax than the facts justify but it was handled with the subtlety and sensitivity of an angry rhinocerous. Being seen to tax the rich more than the poor makes political sense but failing to take account of the effects on charities does not. On this and a growing list of policies the Government is at odds with its own backbenchers, let alone the Opposition.
After the Budget in March Labour’s lead over the Conservatives was 10%, fell to 6% and is rising again in reaction to Government unpopularity. Given the growing number of Government gaffes , in defence purchasing,cuts in child benefit, proposals for secret trials and snooping on emails and internet use, it is surprising that the Opposition lead is not greater. Their leader’s lack of charisma and the party’s failure to acknowledge its past mismanagement of the economy are the reasons for this.
It was predictable that once in Government the Liberal Democrats would seek to reform the political system in which they have been marginalised for a generation but ,aking reform of the House of Lords a priority was surely a mistake. It is the one institution that is functioning as it is supposed to, bringing maturity and experience to the legislative process and sorting out the oversights of the lower House.
More serious than all these failings, though, is the absence of that uniting vision for which I have yearned for so long. I wondered if Cameron’s Big Society might become that, contracting the role of Central Government and transfering responsibility to local communities to create a more participative type of democracy appropriate to people made in God’s image and given responsibility to care for his creation. Sadly the idea was poorly communicated and appears lost. But where is Labour’s vision for a more just and fair society that seeks one’s neighbours’ wellbeing before one’s own? The Bible warns that where there is no vision the people perish. So dear people, are we perishing or flourishing?
17th April 2012
ARE CHRISTIANS GOOD NEWS?
Media comment suggests that the answer is ‘no’. Christians are perceived to be the most intolerant people in the country, better known for what we are against than what we are for. Whilst pondering this perception I came across an article in the Evening Standard this week, headed “Mice plague is God’s reply to Tesco’s gay gift” Apparently Tesco’s Metro shop in Covent Garden is to close because of an infestation of mice. A Christian leader has suggested that the infestation was God’s response toTesco’s £30,000 contribution in support of Gay Pride. Whilst believing what St Paul says about gay sex in Romans 1, I wonder if this comment is the best way to conduct Christian mission and influence non-believers? However nominal some of them may be, a majority of Britons still define themselves in the Census as Christians. Moreover, as I have observed in previous blogs, Christians are to be found living with and working amongst the most needy and marginalised people in society. So why are we dismissed as intolerant, to be shut out of the public square?
I suggest it has a lot to do with changing notions of tolerance and intolerance. In the past tolerance was about respecting other people’s right to express their point of view even if we disagreed with them. Postmodern relativism has changed that because it has no room for absolutes and meta-narratives such as the Bible. Today every point of view is considered valid and it is the height of intolerance to say that anyone is wrong. Thus to argue that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry, or abortion and euthanasia are wrong, exhibits an intolerance that is the ultimate sin in today’s culture. We can believe what we like but should keep it to ourselves. Religion is considered a private matter that has no place in the public square, so Britain becomes a secular society, intolerant of religion in the name of tolerance!
How do we respond to this situation? I suggest that there are three things all Christians might do. The first is to humbly celebrate the many ways in which Christians are good news, instead of attacking the impact of secular atheism. The second is to practically show the impact on our lives of our relationship with our Lord and the good news he represents to us. The third is to understand the changing nature of British culture and learn how best to manifest our faith and Christian understanding in this culture. Most churches include teachers, doctors and other professional people who have to cope with secular pressures in their work. What can they teach us? If our church does not have such people there are organisations like the Institute for Contemporary Christianity and the Evangelical Alliance, which will gladly help.
Britain today is no tougher a mission field than Israel of Jesus’ day. It is time to prayerfully ponder the relevance of Jeremiah 29:7 to our situation.
5th April 2012
CASH FOR ACCESS
The cash for access scandal raises some challenging issues. Peter Cruddas, the Conservative Party’s co-treasurer, was secretly recorded suggesting that generous donors to party funds would be invited to private dinners at Downing Street or Chequers. David Cameron confirmed that a small number of such dinners had been held but denied that public money was involved or that they had resulted in policy changes. It was tactless of Cruddas to ‘sell’ access in this way and he has resigned but these meetings were not secret and were well known within the party as part of its fundraising strategy.
Go back six years and the Blair Government faced a similar scandal when Lord Levy was accused of operating a cash for honours scheme on behalf of the Labour Party. Political campaigns are expensive and all parties depend on donations to fight them. The Labour Party receives most of its funds from the trade unions affiliated to the party. Ed Miliband’s election as leader, rather than his brother David, was widely attributed to the votes of the unions. The Conservatives have used that in their attempts to undermine the Leader of the Opposition and he is now taking his revenge by exploiting the ‘cash for access’ scandal.
Political parties play a central role in our system of representative democracy. There are one or two exceptions but anyone who wants to be a member of Parliament normally joins a party. The parties offer alternative manifestos, fund advertising campaigns and organise the Government and Opposition after the election, publicising what they consider each other’s successes and failures for public information. Voters mostly cast their votes on the basis of this information and personal values. Someone has to pay for all this.
Party memberships are falling and individual membership subscriptions are inadequate to pay the full costs of party activities. The only obvious alternative to the present method is to fund parties out of public funds but this would not be popular with tax payers, especially in the present period of austerity. The MPs expenses scandal exposed how unpopular politicians are as a category. They are stereotyped as self-seeking and dishonest because they do not always give straight answers to questions to avoid giving opponents a basis for attacking their party.
Without parties democracy and government would be chaotic. The idea of a parliament of independents is a nonsense in the 21st century. Parties bring order to parliamentary proceedings and accountability. Elections are a choice between the Government and the Opposition parties on the basis of their record and everything that happens between elections prepares us for this choice. That is what this and every other political scandal is about.
The only lesson Peter Cruddas’ misjudgement teaches is to never say anything that the media or an opponent could use to damage one’s party’s prospects in the next election. Transparency is important in democratic politics, but so is thinking before saying or doing anything that could lose that election.
29th March 2012
APPRAISING THE BUDGET
I confess to being mystified, not about the budget but about the media responses to it. This is not because I am uncritical of the budget but I do not understand Thursday’s headlines attacking Mr Osborne for his ‘raid on pensioners’. His budget raised the basic State pension by £5.39 a week, the biggest single increase in history. On top of that pensioners also benefit from the raised income tax threshold that will take the poorest out of this tax system altogether. Only pensioners with substantial incomes will loose as a result of the removal of age-related tax allowances. In any case, their removal will simplify a complex aspect of the tax system which most pensioners will surely welcome.
A second issue that has evoked howls of protest is the reduction in the top rate of income tax from 50p in £ to 45p. The 50p rate has yielded only a third of what was forecast when it was introduced. The rate cut loses £100 million but the measures to tax the wealthiest will bring in five times that sum. These measures block loopholes whereby people buying properties for £2 million or more avoid paying stamp duty by making their purchase through an overseas company. In future they will pay a 15% Stamp Duty Land Tax and wealthy non-residents will pay a capital gains tax on properties bought and sold in this way.
This is not to be uncritical of the budget. Unemployment remains high and is expected to rise to 8.7% this year before slowly falling as new jobs are created. However, a projected rate of economic growth of 0.8% does not suggest that unemployment will fall fast enough to satisfy the electorate in 2015. Admittedly this is a better rate than that in some of our European neighbours, which will make it tougher to export to them. Reducing Corporation tax to 22% to make Britain more competative will help but much more needs to be done to create jobs, especially for graduates and young people whose talents and energy are being wasted.
Mr Osborne has gone some way to reduce the injustice in last year’s projected changes to child benefit entitlement. He had planned to remove this benefit from anyone earning more than £42,745, but a couple both earning just below this figure would keep Child benefit even with a combined income of £80,000. Now he has raised the bar to £50,000 and introduced a sliding scale so that only those with incomes of £60,000 lose Child benefit altogether. This is still unfair but affects fewer people.
Managing the economy, especially one with a huge national debt, is a tough responsibility. The defecit is falling but the Chancellor’s target of eliminating it by 2015 has now slipped to 2016-7. This meant that any give-aways had to be matched by claw-backs elsewhere. There is room for criticising the Chancellor but not all of it has been fair or well-informed.
23rd March 2012
UNDERSTANDING A CHANGING CULTURE
Effective communication requires one to understand one’s audience sufficiently well to be able to craft a message that is intelligible to them. That is as true of Christian mission as it is of broadcasting. Missionaries who go overseas have to learn the local language before they can fulfil their mission. This is equally true for Christian influence in this country.
I guess most Christians would want our laws and public policies to be shaped by biblical values but recognise that on an increasing range of issues that is no longer the case. The current consultation on same-sex marriage is likely to become one example. I choose it because it illustrates the problem of communicating effectively.
When the “Clearing the Ground” inquiry into the marginalisation of Christians in Britain was published, Andrew Brown, a Guardian journalist, commented on it in his blog. He was generally positive about the report but less so about evangelical Christians. The really shocking thing was not the blog but the 696 comments posted in response. The vast majority of them took the line that marginalising Christians was a good idea and should be pursued with greater vigour. “This is not the time to slacken off but go for the (metaphoric) kill”, was one of the milder comments. Nor was this hostility exclusive to Guardian readers. Similar responses were made to a Daily Telegraph article.
If Christians want to influence UK politics and legislation we have understand what is driving this venom. It has a lot to do with changing notions of tolerance and intolerance. In the past tolerance was about respecting other people’s right to express their point of view even if we disagreed with them. Postmodern relativism has changed that because it has no room for absolutes and meta-narratives such as the Bible. Every point of view is valid and it is the height of intolerance to say that anyone is wrong. Thus to argue that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry, or abortion and euthanasia are wrong, exhibits an intolerance that is the ultimate sin in today’s culture.
How Parliament and the media handle the marriage issue will show how typical were the responses to Brown’s blog but they constitute a challenge we should not duck. This is not to suggest that we cave in to relativism and compromise on our beliefs but it is to urge that we find more effective ways of communicating the good news that we want to share. There are many ways in which Christians are serving some of the poorest and most powerless people with debt, drug and alcohol problems, disabilities, homelessness, family breakdown and bereavement. Such loving activity communicates more effectively what we believe than angry attacks on those with whom we disagree. There will be times when we want to articulate our views on public policy but we are more likely to be heeded if we have earned our audience’s respect in such ways.
15th March 2012
How does one stay positive and hopeful when everything seems to be falling apart? Yes, it is possible to concentrate on the good news but it is naïve to ignore bad news, particularly in politics, because it is the bad news that needs to be addressed in a credible manner. One cannot pretend it is not there and hope it goes away. This is especially true of the pressures on family life in Britain.
The family is a key institution and building block of society. When families malfunction and fail it is not a private matter of concern only to those directly involved. It usually adds to the benefits bill that all taxpayers have to pay, and sometimes adversely affects the family’s children, potentially causing under-achievement at school and in their own future relationships. Thus a report that UK families typically spend too much money on, but not enough time with, their children is worrying.
The study conducted by Ipsos MORI for UNICEF compared British families with those in Sweden and Spain. It found that UK parents buy their children high status brands of trainers, mobiles and other things to protect them from brand bullying by their peers. Swedish and Spanish parents were much more likely to say ‘no’ to their children’s demands. It is no wonder that so many British families have debt problems.
A possible reason for this is that we work longer hours than these other countries and have less time to spend with our offspring. For those on low incomes this is understandable but it is also true of middle class professionals who need two incomes to sustain their huge mortgages and affluent lifestyles. Children pick up on this materialism and accept it as the norm and those who cannot run the risk of being bullied.
This is neither a good way to prepare young people for adulthood, nor good for Britain’s future, but the politicians are unlikely to do anything. The churches are the obvious people to address the issue but how much influence do they have?
This brings me to another example of things falling apart. Analysis of the support in Parliament and public opinion for legalising same sex marriage suggests that it will happen. Moreover, support is strongest amongst younger people, even young Christians. If one believes that same-sex marriage is contrary to biblical teaching one has to wonder how this has come about. How has Britain lost its Christian heritage and so many of our children turned their back on the faith? Is it down to this generation of parents or the influence of cultural forces from whose influence we should have protected our children?
Lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, the ‘Second Coming’, spring to mind. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
9th March 2012
CLEARING THE GROUND
A fortnight ago I questioned whether or not David Cameron was right to say “Britain is a Christian country”. There has been a steady trickle of cases of Christians being prosecuted or sacked for wearing a cross to work, offering to pray with a patient, refusing to work on Sundays, conduct civil partnership ceremonies or offer a double room in their B&B to a gay couple. Whilst this is not persecution like they have in North Korea, it does suggest that Christianity is being marginalised. Now the Equalities Minister wants to legislate to allow same sex couples to marry and is telling the Churches that they are wrong to oppose this. So is Christianity part of Britain’s past that is gradually being dumped?
“Clearing the Ground” is a report by an all-party group of Christian MPs and Peers who have sought to clarify what Christians actually experience, identify the challenges we face and the changes that could be made to address them, whilst encouraging us to continue contributing to all aspects of society. Their preliminary report was published this week and is to be followed by detailed investigations. They conclude that the cases referred to above are not evidence of a systematic attack on Christianity but do “indicate a narrowing of the space for the articulation, expression and demonstration of Christian belief”. They suggest that some of the Christian responses have been unwise and even counter-productive.
The core problem the group identifies is society’s religious illiteracy. Too often situations arise because people in government and business do not understand religious belief and the role of faith in the life of believers. This leads to restrictions on the way faith is expressed. They criticise the Equality Act 2010 for failing to balance the different strands of equality policy. Some Court decisions have created a hierarchy of rights in which religion counts for less than other factors, especially sexual orientation.
The report suggests that many of the problem cases could have been avoided if reasonable accommodation had been made to take account of the genuine beliefs of those involved. Laws relating to public preaching and insulting behaviour need clarifying. Government departments, business and professional organisations need guidance about how to relate to faith groups. The Government could better coordinate how public policy takes account of religious sensitivities and tackle the religious illiteracy problem. The way the Equalities and Human Rights Commission handles religious belief also requires attention.
At the same time, the parliamentarians also call on the Churches to take responsibility when their actions may have exaggerated the scale of discrimination against Christians and over-reacted. They urge litigious Christian organisations to consider the impact that numerous court cases have on public opinion and the confidence of other Christians. “Too often the Church is defined by what it opposes rather than what it stands for.” If this report persuades those who want to rehabilitate Britain’s Christian heritage to change that we just might achieve our goal.
1st March 2012
One of the few absolutes left in our increasingly relativist society is the importance of protecting
children from anything they are not ready to handle and that might harm them. Opinions about
what constitutes a threat differ and none more so than their access to the Internet. It is an
invaluable source of information and schools rightly teach pupils how to find and use this
responsibly. Computer skills will be essential for many when they move into employment.
Unfortunately, the Internet can also be used to access harmful pornography.
99% of 12‐15 year olds, 93% of 8‐11 year olds and 75% of 5‐7 year olds access the Internet regularly.
The problem is that the single largest group of Internet pornography consumers is children aged 5‐
15. Psychologies Magazine reported in 2010 that 81% of 14‐16 year olds regularly access explicit
material. Worse, one in three 10 year olds has viewed pornography online.
Sex is an aspect of life that our Creator gave us and we should value, not abuse it. Abuse is what
pornography does, with potentially damaging consequences. There is evidence that pornography
portrays women as objects to be used, not valued and respected. It can make it harder for
consumers to make and sustain healthy and sustainable relationships and in some cases lead to
pathological and illegal behaviour.
Parents can install filters on their children’s computers to block pornographic material but only 39%
of households with internet access and a child aged 5‐15 have done so. Partly this is because they do
not recognise the need or find the installation too difficult. Blocking access to pornography on
mobile phones is even more baffling. That is why the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, suggested that
ISPs should block this material at source and only make it available to adults who ask to receive it.
They already block child porn so it is technically possible but they are reluctant for three reasons.
First, opinions as to what is pornographic differ. The extreme stuff is obvious but some people
thought that a plaque carried in Pioneer 10, the first space probe to go beyond the solar system, was
pornographic because it included nude human figures. The criteria used to classify films is the
simplest solution but it will not satisfy everyone. The second issue is the volume of pornographic
material online and the scale and cost of identifying and blocking it. The third issue is the sensitivity
of Internet users towards anything they perceive as censorship. That is what totalitarian regimes do,
The primary responsibility for protecting children lies with their parents but in this matter they need
help and it is right for politicians to persuade or require ISPs to render that help. To that end Premier
has launched a Safety Net Campaign to persuade ISPs to voluntarily adopt the Vaizey proposal. This
is not censorship for adults but it is protection for children at a formative stage of their moral
24th February 2012
CHRISTIAN COUNTRY OR NOT?
Last December, in a speech celebrating the King James’ Bible, David Cameron declared “Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so”. Last week, High Court Judge Mr Justice Ousley ruled that local authorities have no power to say prayers at their Council meetings. Was this evidence of a determined campaign to prove the Prime Minister wrong?
The Judge’s ruling merits close scrutiny. He did not rule that prayers breach human rights or equality legislation. His judgement hung on a technical point that the 1972 Local Government Act does not include prayer as one of the duties of Local Authorities. However, anticipating the inevitable controversy this would stimulate, he gave Bideford Council, the Authority at the centre of the case, the right to appeal his judgement. An alternative response came from Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government, who advised that his Localism Bill would give Councils a general power to do whatever is in the interests of their community. This could include Christian prayers but it could also include prayers of any other religion represented in their community or even humanist reflections.
The case was brought by a former Councillor, an atheist who objected to having Christian prayers imposed on him. I have noted several times in my blog St Paul’s instruction in his first letter to Timothy (2:1-2) that believers should pray for those in authority. The National Secular Society, which backed him, stressed that they had no objection to anyone praying but religious faith is a private matter that has no place in the public sphere. That is the nub of the matter. If Britain really is a Christian country, the NSS is wrong, public prayer does have a place in Council meetings but if we are now a secular society it does not, though there is nothing to prevent Councillors praying privately before the meeting starts.
The Judge’s ruling does not, in itself, justify the hysterical newspaper headlines that Parliament might have to abandon prayers before their proceedings or the Coronation Oath might have to be abolished. Neither of these activities is dependent on statutory authority. On the other hand, if this case heralds a wider campaign to secularise public life, it constitutes a ‘wake up’ call for the Christian community. There are three possible responses. Christians can roll over and let it happen. Alternatively, we can adopt a victim culture and retreat into a Christian ghetto. Hopefully we will do neither of these but rather accept the challenge to engage in our society as ‘salt and light’ (Matthew 5:13-16), working for spiritual and social change in a nation that is losing its way. Secular thinking has gained ground and will go on gaining ground until people of faith confidently but graciously challenge those who are leading Britain towards a moral, spiritual and social precipice. Humanist and atheists are not our real problem; our own failure to stand up to them is!
14th February 2012
When in February 1952 Elizabeth Windsor became our Queen she also became Head of State of 16 other nations. She has served conscientiously for longer than any other monarch than Queen Victoria who reigned for 63 years and 7 months, though she may well surpass that in time. A majority will celebrate her national service but a small minority, about 18% in this country but many more in Australia, will not.
As Head of State the Queen is a symbol of national identity, fulfilling ceremonial roles such as opening new sessions of Parliament and bestowing honours. 44 nation states have a monarch, including the 16 for whom our Queen is Head of State. Others have a President, in most cases elected or imposed following a coup. Republicans see monarchy as a feudal institution and want it replaced by an elected Head of State. Monarchists point to the virtue of the Queen being above politics, unlike an American President who is opposed by those in the other party.
The Queen gives continuity to government without being partisan. Twelve Prime Ministers have reported weekly on their policies and problems and her long experience has been a valued resource for all of them. She has no formal power over government but can advise and caution Ministers. She appoints the Prime Minister but normally this means the leader of the majority party in Parliament. It is only when there is no majority, as in 2010, or no obvious leader, as when Macmillan resigned from hospital in 1963, that this becomes more than a formality. Constitutionally she acts on advice from her Government who accept responsibility for their advice in Parliament.
Republicans dismiss monarchy as inherited privilege and complain about its cost, which they estimate to be£184 million p.a. The official figure is only in the region of £40 million but that does not include such costs as policing and security. Until 1760 the monarchy met all its costs from the revenues of the Crown Estate but surrendered these in return for a Civil List grant. The Civil List is to be replaced next year by a single Sovereign Grant, which will be 15% of the profits from the Crown Estate. Estimates of the Queen’s personal wealth vary wildly but are probably in the region of £20 million rather than in the billionaire league. The Queen and Prince of Wales do not pay tax on their personal income but the rest of the Royals do.
The prophet Samuel warned Israel against wanting a King like other nations because this would undermine their dependence on God (Samuel 8:5-7). The context for that is different to our own but dependence on God remains important. The Queen’s Christmas broadcasts manifest a personal Christian faith. Whether or not she should still be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England is open to debate but our prayers should be that her successors share her faith and commitment to a life of public service.
9th February 2012
Debates on the Welfare Reform Bill offer insights into the complexity of policy making. The Bill is intended to fulfil several objectives. It is part of the Government’s drive to cut public expenditure and reduce the national debt it inherited. The benefit budget has grown by 45% in the last decade to £192 billion p.a. Necessary as he considers the cuts, the Work and Pensions Secretary wants to apply them in a way that makes the benefit system fairer and more sustainable. He wants to remove the situation whereby people can be better off living on benefits than working for a living.
A central plank of the Bill is to cap the level of benefits that households can receive at £26,000 p.a. which is the equivalent of a £35,000 gross salary. Claimants with large families were receiving much more than this and Duncan Smith considers it unfair that people earning £20,000 p.a. have to pay for this through their taxes. He also thinks that anyone paying the top rate of income tax should not receive Child Benefit.
The Bill had a rough ride in the Lords where the Government was defeated seven times in votes on individual clauses, with the Bishops leading the revolt against the benefit cap. Peers ignored the Government’s strategic objective and focussed on the potential impact of the measures on specific groups. For example, they highlighted the implications for claimants with large families who would have to move from large houses that they could no longer afford. They also noticed that two working parents could earn £84,950 before losing child benefit whereas a single working parent would lose the benefit if earning more than £42,475, in effect penalising ‘stay at home’ mothers.
Bills must be passed in identical terms by both Houses and, as I forecast a fortnight ago, the Commons rejected the Lords’ amendments this week with large majorities. To ensure this, Ministers offered two concessions. Claimants, who have recently lost jobs after paying National Insurance for a year, will not immediately fall under the cap and may continue to claim unlimited benefits for up to nine months. Families forced to move because they could no longer afford to rent their expensive property once the benefit cap is applied will receive some help with the moving costs.
The Labour party supported the benefit cap in principle but argued that rather than a single national cap there should be local caps set by an independent commission, to take account of local variations in incomes and housing costs.
The Lords have been prevented from resurrecting their amendments because Ministers will apply the ‘financial privilege’ rule that gives the Commons the last word on legislation that has tax and spending provisions.
It is easy for neutrals to see merit in both sides of this debate. St Paul urged the Christians of Thessalonica to “warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone”. That balance is still necessary.
2nd February 2012
Wednesday was the 253rd anniversary of Robbie Burns’ birth, an event that all true Scots celebrate in style. It was no surprise that Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, chose this day to advance his campaign to persuade Scots to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent nation. Once the Scottish National Party (SNP) won an overall majority in the Scottish parliament last year it was inevitable that Mr Salmond would work towards a referendum on independence.
There is no guarantee that he will succeed. A recent poll of Scottish voters for Channel 4 News revealed that 61% of Scots are opposed to separation from the UK. There are obvious economic reasons for questioning whether a small nation of 5 million people can flourish in today’s complex world. The Royal Bank of Scotland had to be rescued by the UK Government during the 2008-9 banking crisis. The Scottish economy would lose the funds paid under the Barnett formula from the UK Treasury and a number of Scottish communities would lose the civilian jobs and trade if UK air force and naval bases are closed. It would levy its own taxes and gain revenues from offshore oil but this is running out. Leaving the UK would surely mean Scots paying higher taxes and University fees or losing other subsidised public services.
The polls explain the recent spat between Mr Salmond and David Cameron. The latter wanted a referendum soon whilst the First Minister favours a delay until 2014. Cameron also wants a single question, ‘should Scotland leave the UK?’ whereas Salmond wants two questions on the ballot. His first question would be, ‘do you agree that Scotland should be an independent nation?’ Pollsters criticise this for being loaded in favour of eliciting a ‘yes’ vote, without highlighting that this would mean leaving the UK. Usually the Electoral Commission rules on the wording of questions on the ballot paper but Mr Salmond wants to block this because he sees this as a private matter for Scots, to be settled by them.
That is certainly not how his opponents see the issue. Scotland leaving the UK would have some major consequences for other parts of the UK, which is why Peter Robinson, First Minister of Northern Ireland, has urged the Scots not to go. Ironically, the removal of the 59 Scottish MPs from the Westminster Parliament would, in the short term at least, advantage the Conservative Party because 41 of them are Labour members. The partial breakup of the UK might also mean losing its permanent membership of the UN Security Council. These possible consequences cause some non-Scots to demand a vote in the referendum. This includes people born in Scotland or of Scottish ancestry but now living in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Ultimately, it is for the people of Scotland to democratically decide their future but we should pray that they do so wisely, prayerfully and without any electoral ploys that distort the result.
26th January 2012
THE LORDS BITE
Recent debates in the House of Lords on the Welfare Reform Bill demonstrate the value of the second chamber. In the last week the Government has been defeated three times and narrowly avoided a fourth. The Bill seeks to modernise the benefits paid to people with disabilities and reduce the budget for this by £5 billion. Prominent amongst those opposing these measures is Lady Grey Thompson, the disabled athlete who won eleven gold medals in Paralympic Games. She has been supported by Lord Low of Dalston who is blind and reads his speeches from braille. Another less critical contributor to the debate has been Lady Browning, a Minister who resigned to spend more time caring for her autistic son.
These details reveal several significant facts about the House of Lords to be borne in mind as we consider proposals for its reform. First, it is a revising chamber that can compel the Government to think again about their legislation. Second, they bring to this task a range of expertise and experience that is under represented in the elected lower House. Third, the peers are not puppets of the party system they have political teeth and are not afraid to use them. No party has a majority there because of the presence of cross-bench peers like Lady Grey Thompson.
Critics of the second chamber say that it is undemocratic because it is not elected but election does not necessarily mean that every sector of society is adequately represented. These debates show that appointed peers can and do represent people usually overlooked in elections and party politics. A wholly elected upper House would inevitably be dominated by party politics and, if elected at the same time as the Commons, would become a mirror image of the lower House. If elected at a different time or by a different electoral system, the second chamber could challenge the authority of the Commons to have the last word. Gridlock, like what sometimes happens in the American Congress, could become a problem. Perhaps a partially elected and partially appointed second Chamber would be a better idea.
As a professional observer of both Houses of Parliament I know that Lords’ debates are almost always of a higher standard than those in ‘the other place’. That is because peers bring invaluable and relevant expertise to their work. Some are former MPs but most bring years of experience in business, the professions, the Services, academia, the public services, sport and the arts to inform their contributions to debates. Would it be wise to lose this simply because they were appointed, not elected? This week’s debates show that appointed peers can bite and require the Government to reconsider their policy. Of course the Government will ask the Commons to reject Lord’s amendments and the Salisbury convention will eventually oblige the Lords to back down. However, the Government will have had to justify its policy in the full gaze of public opinion. That’s democratic.
20th January 2012
In 2007 Britain was ranked last in a league table of how 21 developed countries care for the well-being of their children. David Cameron’s response was to vow to take Britain to the top of that table. The Conservative manifesto in 2010 included the pledge to make us the most family friendly nation in Europe. Notwithstanding statements to that effect by Sarah Teather, the Minister for family policy, there is little evidence of action to achieve this goal. A report from the Relationships Foundation last year found that the pressures on family were heavier in Britain than in any of 27 European countries except Bulgaria and Romania.
The Relationships Foundation used 25 official indicators of pressures on family. These covered pressures relating to finance, work, caring and living environments. The financial pressures are those of household debt, inflation, tax and benefit changes and child care costs. 1.5 million UK households (20.9% of the population) with dependent children struggle financially and 14% have serious debt problems. 23.5% of their family income is spent on child care, twice the percentage for French families and four times that for Swedish families.
Long working hours add to these pressures. Britons work an average of 43 hours per week, longer than all but two European countries and 25% of men and 7% of women work much longer hours, including weekend and night work. This limits the time they can spend with their partners and children. The impact is exacerbated when couples both have to work long or atypical hours with pressures on their relationship as well as their health and well-being. At the other end of the employment spectrum, high levels of unemployment and numbers in part-time jobs experience different but equally severe pressures.
Pressures from the living environment takes into account the impact of poor housing and the insecurity caused by the high incidence of crime in some neighbourhoods. It also includes the impact of alcohol and drug abuse and the psychological pressures of deviant sub-cultures and teenage pregnancies. Britain ranks near the top of tables for adolescent drinking and pregnancies.
This is a brief summary but the full version is available from < firstname.lastname@example.org=""> The family is a basic building block in society. The August riots showed what happens when families are dysfunctional or overwhelmed by these pressures. More needs to be done to prepare adults for parenthood and to support them when these pressures become too great. Much of this would be better done locally but the Government should give a lead and honour its fine words.
13th January 2012
WHICH VALUES SHAPE PUBLIC POLICY?
Parliament is in recess for Christmas but two recent speeches have raised challenging questions about which values shape public policy that merit reflection and prayer as we celebrate God’s coming in Christ to dwell on earth. The first speech was delivered by the Prime Minister to mark the end of the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible. It was a more forthright statement about the significance of the Bible than one has come to expect from Prime Ministers.
He celebrated the King James Bible for its influence on British culture and heritage, our literature, music and art. He also drew attention to its impact on politics, particularly the concern for human rights and the churches contributions to welfare provision for needy citizens. More controversially, he said that even though Britain is home to people of many faiths and none, it remains a Christian country because the Bible has given the nation a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. He dismissed the idea of moral neutrality as ‘not an option’. Specifically he recognised the almost thirty thousand faith based charities and thousands of individuals, organisations and churches inspired by the Bible to do ‘extraordinary things to help build a bigger, richer, stronger, more prosperous and more generous society’.
In sharp contrast was a second speech by the Deputy Prime Minister attacking the idea of a £150 value transferable tax allowance for couples who marry. He takes the liberal view that marriage is a private matter that is no business of the State. People should be free to choose how they conduct their private lives and marriage should not be privileged over other forms of relationship. He is probably right that such a small sum is unlikely to motivate anyone to marry, but is that the point? If politics is about how a society chooses the values that should shape public policy, the proposed tax allowance is not a bribe but a symbolic recognition of the importance of stable, long term couple relationships.
Which values do we want to shape our public policies, biblical or secular ones? This is a bigger question than one about which pattern of family relationship we choose. That is important but I have written about it before. The question also relates to how we relate to our neighbours. Does loving our neighbours as ourselves have any place in Britain today? Does it have any place in the negotiations about pensions between the Government and the public sector employees? What values guide our bankers when they demand exorbitant bonuses, or MPs when they fill in their expenses claims? Which values shape Britain’s foreign policies and our attitudes to overseas aid?
It is not enough to applaud Mr Cameron’s speech and deprecate his Deputy’s. If Christian ‘salt and light’ were more in evidence secularism and moral relativism would have had less influence. Those biblical values have to be lived, not just talked about.
23rd December 2011
THE VETO: RIGHT OR WRONG?
David Cameron’s decision to reject Britain’s participation in the treaty proposed by other EU leaders last week continues to be the biggest headline issue. He recognised the need for Eurozone states to exercise the same fiscal discipline that his Government has adopted but thought it contrary to our national interest to surrender control over British fiscal policy to an unelected EU body. He particularly sought to protect our financial sector to a financial transfer tax that could undermine the City’s leading role in world finance.
The Opposition portrayed the decision as a disaster that will leave Britain without a voice in EU decision making. Liberal Democrats took a similar view but Conservative backbenchers applauded their leader’s ‘bull dog spirit’. Polls found 57% of the public supporting and only 14% opposing the veto. 49% of Liberal Democrats and many Labour supporters were in the former group. Business responses were divided. Significantly, UKIP replaced the Lib Dems in third place in the polls.
Neutral analysis challenges some of these responses. First, the veto might not mean isolation. A close ally of Chancellor Merkel sees no reason why Britain should be isolated within the EU. Nor are we likely to be alone in opting out. Sweden looks likely to join us and voices in the Czech Parliament are also sceptical about the treaty. President Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent in next year’s Presidential election is another sceptic. Domestically, Labour advisers hint that Ed Miliband would have made the same decision.
The case for a veto is not purely party-political. Submitting to EU supervision of fiscal policy – that is tax and public expenditure decisions – would mean a massive move towards a Euro state. The EU already has a President, a bureaucracy and a central bank. Control of fiscal policy would have meant a further transfer of power to Brussels. The EU has a serious democratic deficit. Its Parliament has very limited powers in relation to economic policy. The unelected Commission would have been able to vet our budget and demand changes to fit Euro criteria.
This analysis is not intended to be Europhobic but to pose questions about the future development of the EU. It was founded in the aftermath of two European wars that killed 40 million people. The aim was to handle conflicts between nations through politics not fighting. Trade is a common factor and the Common Market was a practical development. For some nations a single currency helped to simplify trading but with that goes the need to manage national economies in a manner that sustains the Euro as a credible currency. Profligate spending by some members has jeopardised this, hence the need for greater fiscal discipline.
Britain’s opting out of the Euro and the new treaty prompts questions about the future of the EU. Is it to become a single state or a union of independent sovereign states? Whether the veto was right or wrong depends on the answer to that question.
16th December 2011
DOES MARRIAGE HAVE A FUTURE?
Is marriage no more than a social convention going out of fashion? The evidence seems to suggest this is true. In the mid 1960’s only 5% of women lived with a man before marrying him. By 2001 76% of couples lived together before they married. They might have expected to marry eventually but 12% of them did not. In 2007 only 49% of couples married and projections to 2031 suggest that this will fall to 41%. Cohabitation is also a more temporary arrangement. Hayward and Brandon report that the average (mean) length of a cohabiting relationship is just 37 months, compared with 11.5 years for the average marriage.
Divorce rates in England and Wales are the second highest in Europe and the media increasingly portrays divorce as normal and marriage as irrelevant. The popular soap opera East Enders reflects this, as do novels like Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy”. It is becoming conventional wisdom to accept a variety of different models of family, including lone-parent households, gay and lesbian families, unmarried partners and their offspring, as well as the traditional model of a married couple with their children. Agony Aunts tell their readers that divorce does less harm to the children than endless parental rows. Thus 48% of children under the age of 16 experience the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
Against that kind of background it is unsurprising if young couples question the need to marry if the relationship is so temporary. This view would be reinforced by the ridiculously high cost of weddings. UK Wedding belles estimate the average cost as £18,605, which is beyond the means of the million unemployed youngsters and anyone with a typical student loan to repay. Of course this is unnecessary but it reflects the material values that prevail in our consumerist culture, not the relational values of the Christian faith.
There is an urgent need to expose the myths generating and sustaining this trend away from marriage. Tony Watkins, writing for Christianity magazine in February 2000, noted that almost a third of children caught up in divorces were under five years old and over 70% were under ten. Whilst some of them will have coped unscathed, there is abundant evidence that children of divorced parents are twice as likely as those in enduring families to manifest behavioural problems, underachieve at school, experience depression, become sexually active at an early age and are more likely to use illegal drugs or alcohol.
A second myth is that divorce is preferable to marital discord. Numerous court cases between divorced couples about access to their children suggest the opposite. Poverty is a common feature of lone-parent households and children’s relationships with step-parents are not always as satisfactory as those with their birth parents. The case for helping couples to make marriage work has surely to be stronger than these alternatives. Doing so would be good for the couple, their children and reduce public expenditure on benefits.
9th December 2011
TOUGH TIMES AHEAD
The British economy may not be in recession but it is certainly not growing fast enough to create the jobs that the increasing number of unemployed workers need. In March the annual growth forecast for this year was 1.7%. This week it was reduced to 0.9%. Worse still the 2.5% growth forecast for next year has been cut to 0.7% and even that might not be achieved if the Eurozone – our biggest export market – fails to put its house in order. This made the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement a gloomy one for the Government because it means that the structural debt that he aimed to eradicate before the 2015 general election will take longer, possibly until 2016/17. Fighting the election with high unemployment and austerity measures still in place is not a happy prospect for him.
He gave three reasons for the poor growth. The Eurozone crisis was one, the unexpected rises in energy prices and global agricultural commodity prices was another. The third was the continuing impact of the previous Government’s unsustainable boom that left us with more structural debt than was previously recognised. This is debt that will not disappear even when the economy recovers.
The measures announced to stimulate growth included £6.3 billion additional infrastructure spending on roads, railways and ‘super-connected broadband to stimulate demand and create jobs. A National Loan Guarantee Scheme will enable banks to lend to small firms at the low interest rate at which the government borrows, which should enable them to expand and employ more people. Other measures included deferring until August the 3p additional fuel duty due in January and cancelling the 5p increase scheduled for August. The bank levy has been increased and more money allocated to help unemployed young people into work. The basic state pension will be increased next April by to £107.45 but the state pension age will be raised to 67 between2026 and 2028. The Government will fund a reduction in the increase in train, tube and bus fares to RPI plus 1%.
The Opposition focused on the poor growth forecasts and saw them as evidence of the Chancellor’s failure. They believe that his severe austerity measures have hindered growth. The Chancellor’s response is that the only alternative was higher borrowing which would have meant higher interest rates, increasing mortgages and taxes to pay our creditors. However if unemployment continues to grow by another 100,000 that would be bad for the people laid off, bad for the economy and bad for the Government’s electoral prospects, so the Chancellor will be hoping that his Statement will help to restore confidence that triggers increased investment. The market’s initial response was positive but that could easily be reversed by bad news from Europe.
These are tough times but they offer opportunities to care about and for our neediest neighbours, rebuilding confidence from the grass roots up. The Chancellor cannot do that but we can. Tough times call for tough love.
2th December 2011
Next Wednesday (30th November) will see the biggest strike in Britain for many years, involving at least 24 trade unions with more than three million members employed in the public sector. The strikes are in response to a Government decision to switch public sector pensions from a ‘final salary’ to a ‘career average’ basis, which would mean smaller pensions for public servants, more in line with those in the private sector. The decision, which was recommended by Lord Hutton, the former Labour Minister, is designed to take account of the increasing cost of pensions as people live longer. The age at which pensions become payable will also be raised.
The strikers want to preserve their ‘final salary’ pensions and see private sector pensions improved. The CBI argues back that, “it is unfair for businesses and families struggling in the downturn to pay higher taxes to fund pensions that they cannot afford for themselves and their employees”. The Taxpayers’ Alliance takes a similar view. Shadow Ministers have also conceded that a Labour Government would have had to do something similar and Ed Miliband has not supported the strike so far. Public opinion seems to be evenly divided with 47% backing the strike and 47% opposing it.
This strike is for one day only but that is unlikely to be the end of the story. If it is to be more than a token gesture, it will almost certainly be followed by further and probably longer strikes if the unions have the funds to sustain them. This would create serious problems for the Government. This strike will close many schools on Wednesday, leaving working parents with child minding problems. The Prime Minister’s suggestion that they take their children to work is inappropriate for some. Manning border controls will be another problem. Civil servants are being asked to cover ports and airports but illegal immigrants and terrorists might see this as a good time to attempt entry.
Aware of these consequences Conservative backbenchers are calling for changes to the law to require strike ballots to be supported by at least 50% of a union’s membership before it goes ahead. An average of 78% voted for the strike in the 24 unions but the average turnout was only 44%. Turnout in the largest union, Unison, was only 29%. The unions reject the inference that the abstainers should be counted as ‘no’ votes because if they were really opposed to the strike they would have voted accordingly.
The right to strike is important but it must not be abused. In essence this is a political strike because it is against Government policy and the taxpayer will have to foot the bill. That is not the case with private sector strikes. At a time of economic downturn when we are all tightening our belts, why shouldn’t public sector employees do the same? With people living longer, pension policy has to be rethought and it makes no sense to react like King Canute.
25th November 2011
IN SEARCH OF A CIVIL SOCIETY
Plans to legalise same-sex marriage, that I discussed last week, provoked the question as to how far we should expect biblical teaching to shape our laws and public policy. Because Christians look to the Bible as our authority on all matters of doctrine and morality it makes sense to us to follow our Maker’s instructions. The Old Testament prophets promised destruction for those who do not but is this relevant and appropriate in a democracy? On the other hand, the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance is recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights (article 9) and the 1998 Human Rights Act (Schedule 1). So, how do we handle this situation in a Christ-like manner?
There is another minority, committed to a secular worldview, who argue that religion is a private matter that has no place in the public square. They want the Bishops removed from the House of Lords, faith-based schools abolished and laws, such as those that stipulate that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, amended or repealed. What believers think and do in their private lives is their business but they have no right to impose their beliefs and morality on the rest of society. They brand those who take the opposite view as fundamentalist bigots. The latter respond by organising campaigns that build a victim culture amongst Christians and convey the impression that we are united more by what we are against than what we are for. Grace and love are obscured by bitterness and court cases. Is this how Christ would have us manifest our faith?
Jesus was willing to be controversial in responding to the Pharisees and the early Church disobeyed the authorities when they tried to silence them. Conforming to worldly ideas and values is not the answer, nor is privatising one’s faith in pietistic escapism. Jesus’ disciples are to be ‘salt and light’ but how can we be agents of change in an increasingly diverse society that does not believe in God and wants no part in his Kingdom? Let me suggest three thoughts.
First, we have to recognise that Christians are now a relatively small minority and we live in a ‘post-Christendom era. However convinced we are that Christian values are universally applicable, we cannot impose them. The sacred public square belongs in the past. That does not mean that we have to acquiesce in the establishment of a secular public square. A third option is the civil public square that accommodates people of all faiths and none, tolerantly accepting each other’s right to hold their particular beliefs, however misguided they consider those beliefs. Being civil does not require one to agree with a point of view, only to respect the right of the other to express their deeply held convictions in a civil manner. Are we sufficiently confident about our faith to build that sort of society?
18th November 2011
SAME-SEX TIME BOMB
At this year’s party conference David Cameron set the time bomb ticking and it could go off in 2015. In his closing speech he said, “We are consulting on legalising gay marriage. To anyone who has reservations, I say, yes, it’s about equality, but it is also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
A poll of 544 Christians conducted in October by ComRes for Premier found 83% of them hostile to Mr Cameron’s statement to the extent that 57% said that it made them less likely to vote Conservative if it was translated into legislative action. 85% were concerned that it would undermine the value of marriage. 88% were concerned that schools would be required to teach that same-sex relationships are on an equal footing with heterosexual relationships. 93% were concerned that ministers would be made to conduct same-sex marriages against their conscience and 78% thought that redefining marriage between a man and a woman could open the door to other types of relationship, such as polygamy. 96% of the respondents voted in last year’s election and 99% are regular churchgoers. They were selected in line with the denominational pattern revealed in the 2005 Church survey.
Do these responses reflect a Canute-like attitude to the issue? Fewer than half of couples now wed before living together. Cohabiting is the fastest growing family type in the country. The 2001 Census recorded more than 2 million cohabiting couples and the 2011 Census is likely to show an increase. 46% of children are now born to unmarried mothers and 48% of children under the age of 16 experience the breakup of their parent’s relationship. The average length of a British marriage is only 11 years and 6 months. Mr Cameron is right that commitment is important but should he concentrate on restoring the historic institution of marriage before changing its definition to include same sex couples?
The Defence Minister, Gerald Howarth MP, disagrees with his leader. “Some of my best friends are in civil partnerships, which are fine, but I think it would be a step too far to suggest that this (same-sex) is marriage. The Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone takes the opposite view and says same-sex marriage will be legal by 2015. Christians who look to the Bible as their authority on all matters of doctrine and morality will be aghast at this but we face some challenging questions. How far are we entitled to expect biblical teaching to shape laws when a majority clearly do not respect that teaching? Even 26% of young Christians, aged 18-34, polled by ComRes, actively supported same-sex marriage. What are we doing to restore a biblical model of marriage in our families, communities and the nation? Or is it too late?
11th November 2011
ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE
This week’s events outside St Paul’s Cathedral have reminded me of Shakespeare’s line in ‘As You Like It’, “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances”. Unfortunately, the players seem to have badly fluffed their lines. The Cathedral’s first reaction was to welcome the protesters. Then they were advised to close the cathedral for health and safety reasons. A few days later they opened again and asked the protesters to pack up. At that Canon Giles Fraser resigned because he expected violence when the protesters refuse to budge and the police come to move them. His resignation made the Church the issue, rather than the protest, and the Dean quit because he deemed his position untenable.
The protesters did no better. Heat detectors found most of the tents uninhabited at night, suggesting that the protest was half-hearted. More serious was the protester’s failure to articulate a positive purpose. They were against the capitalism that sees top city salaries rising steeply whilst many employees struggle to make ends meet in the current economic climate. The nation has had to bail out the banks but bankers are still paid huge bonuses. This is outrageous but the protesters have failed to advocate alternatives.
Socialism and centrally planned economies are already discredited. The market has been shown to be the most efficient mechanism for allocating resources and creating wealth, but it too is far from perfect. Big long term projects, such as the building of nuclear power stations or the new HS2 rail service to the north of England, take so long to return a profit that markets do not work as well as investors expect. Nor do they handle artistic, aesthetic and moral undertakings well. On the other hand, market economies are typically more associated with freedom than centrally controlled economies, though it does not seem so to the poor.
So, how can the unacceptable faces of capitalism be curbed and why have the protesters not told us? They could have advocated the inclusion of a few ordinary employees in the remuneration committees that recommend Director salaries. They could have argued for an expansion of credit unions, micro-financing schemes and City Bond projects to serve those to whom the banks will not lend. Until they do they might as well exit the stage.
But where in this is the Christian voice that one might have expected from the Cathedral? It is not as if Jesus had nothing to say about the love of money or biblical values and priorities. If the Cathedral has potential influence in the City perhaps its reluctance to identify with the protesters is understandable but this should not have been given a higher priority than its witness through the media to society as a whole. Let’s pray that those who participate in the debate promised by the Bishop make good entrances and don’t fluff their lines.
4th November 2011
THE EUROPEAN DILEMMA
The Commons’ debate on a referendum about British membership of the Europe Union exposed a national dilemma. 111 MPs (17%) voted for such a referendum and the polls tell us that they represent a substantial slice of public opinion. The vote itself changed nothing but it will probably have motivated the Europhobic members of the population to work harder for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
There is no doubt that many people resent the overbearing nature of the European Commission that seems determined to extend its power and interfere in more and more aspects of life. I can no longer buy the powder I have previously used to kill the greenflies that infest my runner beans because the EC have banned it. It is a trivial matter but symptomatic of many more serious issues. Moreover, the EU has a substantial democratic deficit. An irony of Monday’s debate is that it was the result of an e-petition signed by 120,000 citizens, one of the Government’s attempts to give citizens a voice on public policy matters.
Few would deny that the EU is a flawed structure but do we need it any less than when we voted to be a member? Its founders were primarily concerned to create the means for European nations to resolve their differences through political debate and negotiation rather than killing one another. 44 million Europeans were killed in wars in the 20th century alone. There had to be a better way, but is this still relevant? European nations no longer lead the world. China, India and Brazil are overtaking us economically. Post USSR Russia has recovered its confidence and under Mr Putin has shown a willingness to throw its weight around. We can no longer count on the USA to fight our battles for us. Our military capacity as individual nations is limited, so much so that Britain and France have had to pool their naval resources.
There are other issues which individual states cannot successfully cope alone, including international drug and crime rings, climate control, fisheries, and people trafficking. Common trade policies also make sense if we are to have a European single market. Given that 60% of British overseas trade is with EU member states, a common market still makes sense, though whether that should include a completely open labour market is debateable.
Social welfare policies do need to be framed and managed closer to the people served. Indeed Cameron’s Big Society vision is to put them under local and not even national control. Agriculture and the energy industry may also be best handled nationally for security reasons. Immigration policies fall into this category, though some cooperation is needed when large scale people movements happen as a result of wars and climate change.
There is no consensus about the validity and seriousness of these perspectives and they should be open to national debate. It is a sad comment on Monday’s debate that they were not addressed.
28th October 2011
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Please forgive the angry tone of this blog. I have just come from the House of Commons where I have witnessed Parliament at its best and also its worst. The expenses scandal damaged the authority and credibility of the lower House and one would have expected MPs to be doing their best to restore trust in this central institution of our Parliamentary democracy. Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.
The ‘good’ was a statement by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and the way MPs responded. Secretary Clarke was laying a Justice and Security Green Paper before the House, for consultation. This deals with the delicate issue of how sensitive material relating to the work of the Security and Intelligence agencies is handled in judicial proceedings. If this material is withheld, justice may not be done but if it is made available, national security may be jeopardised. The number of such cases is increasing and he is proposing ways of overcoming the problem.
Lots of MPs spoke, many of them former Ministers and experienced lawyers. Relevant questions were asked and genuine concerns expressed but the proceedings were constructive and intelligent, with little or no partisanship. When legislation is brought forward on the completion of consultation, the prospects of a good law emanating from reasoned debate seem strong. If only the Commons could behave like this more often.
Questions to the Prime Minister preceded this business and a statement on the Cabinet Secretary’s report on the Fox/Werritty affair followed it. This was the bad and the ugly. With 2.5 million people unemployed, an inflation rate of 5.2%, energy prices rising as winter breaks upon us and the nation deeply in debt, there are big policy issues to debate but the House prefers to behave like a ‘Punch and Judy’ show. The party leaders seem to think that childish attacks on each other will inform the electorate about their respective personal and policy weaknesses. Sometimes the jeering from the backbenches makes it impossible to hear the questions and answers. MPs need to understand that this behaviour only appals voters and discourages them from any interest in politics. That is surely why turnout at elections is so poor.
On the Fox/Werritty affair, it is now clear from Gus O’Donnell’s report that Dr Fox did breach the Ministerial Code, as I suggested last week. He received no money from his dealings with Mr Werrity and there was no breach of national security, but he was right to resign. The Opposition will try to prolong discussion of the affair to generally smear the Government but the state of the economy and its social consequences will hopefully displace it in the headlines sooner rather than later.
It is the Opposition’s role to hold the Government to account but they will do that effectively if they give us reasoned analysis of the policies with which they disagree, compelling the Government to reply in the same way. That might restore our respect.
21th October 2011
BATTLE FOR THE HEADLINES
Some very different stories competing for headlines this week challenge us to ask what really matters. Is Liam Fox’s Ministerial conduct more important than the worst unemployment figures for 17 years or the killing of 26 Egyptian Christians? Should this bad news overshadow the Archbishop of Canterbury’s courageous visit to Zimbabwe or the moves to protect children from exposure to internet pornography?
The Defence Secretary is accused of breaking the Ministerial Code, a 24 page document intended to guide the behaviour of Government Ministers. He is accused of breaching chapter 7, which addresses potential conflicts of private and professional interests. He has travelled abroad more frequently than previous Defence Secretaries and been accompanied by a friend who had no formal status or role in the MoD on 18 occasions in 16 months. His friend has also seen him 22 times in that period at the Ministry. Why was this necessary, and who paid for the friend?
More serious is the suggestion that Dr Fox was operating his own foreign policy in Sri Lanka, without reference to the Foreign Office. Calls for his dismissal have been ignored so far, probably because of the damage this could do to party unity. Dr Fox is a leading right winger who could be a focus for disaffected backbenchers who consider the Government too liberal.
The unemployment figures are bad news for the 2.5 million people out of work but also for the Chancellor. Government measures to eliminate the national debt and rebalance the economy have bitten deep into the public sector but jobs lost here were expected to be offset by new jobs in the private sector. This is not happening because the demand for goods and services is not growing. Foreign markets in Europe and America are flat and domestic consumers are trying to reduce their credit card debts. Measures to stimulate economic growth are needed but the Chancellor has limited funds to apply. If he borrows to create jobs, the debt will grow, lenders will demand higher interest rates and increasing mortgage rates will hurt the unemployed even more.
Since President Mubarak resigned Egypt has been governed by the military, supposedly on an interim basis. They blame the 26 deaths on “enemies of the revolution”, implying that these are Christians. Since 1953 Egypt has been governed by three soldiers and one air force general. Egypt’s political culture is not democratic and the real enemies of the revolution are not the Christians but those who would lose out in a democratic society. Disorder now, whoever created it, gives the military an excuse to hang on to power.
Archbishop Williams took a big risk in going to Zimbabwe to challenge President Mugabe for persecuting Christians. He deserves thanks and respect for doing so. David Cameron also deserves praise for attempting to protect children from exposure to internet pornography. Bad news is not the only news and this week we can be thankful that good news grabbed some headlines too.
14th October 2011
It is a fortnight since I last blogged. Attending three party conferences in successive weeks, living away from home and office, with little time to reflect and write, defeated my best intentions. In the past conferences were held in pleasant seaside resorts, allowing short breaks for fresh air, a brisk walk and time to think. City centre locations do not encourage these brief escapes so one moves from one fringe event to another.
I reported on the Liberal Democrat conference in my last blog so I will concentrate here on the Labour and Conservative gatherings. They were as different as chalk and cheese. In office, the Conservatives had lots to report. In opposition, Labour could only criticise. Conservatives heaped blame on their opponents for the state of the economy they inherited and the evidence of waste and even fraud they had uncovered. Some Labour speeches confessed to previous mistakes but most preferred to criticise the Coalition for its broken promises, the severity of the public expenditure cuts and its failure so far to stimulate economic growth.
It is part of Labour rhetoric to dismiss the Conservatives as an elitist party, unconcerned about the condition and needs of the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens. Had they been at Manchester they would have been shocked by Michael Gove’s education speech. He targeted the injustice and wasted potential that results from attending failing inner city schools. He introduced two head teachers who had turned around such schools and a sixth former from one of them.
Quddas Akinwale, from Burlington Danes Academy, told conference that when he started at the school it was chaotic. “Most classes were a riot and no-one really saw the point of being there. We all knew it was a poor school, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go.” The school became an academy and changed: discipline, quality teaching and aspiration became normal. 68% of all GCSE grades were A-C and 100% of foreign language grades were A-C. Almost all this year’s upper sixth went to university and Quddas plans to follow them next year. When he started at Burlington Danes there was no sixth form. Gove’s ambition is for every failing school to be transformed like this. He described this as a moral duty.
The conferences confirmed the biggest difference between the two parties is their attitudes to the role of the State. Labour believes in centralisation, the Conservatives in localism. John Healey illustrated this in his attack on Coalition plans to shift responsibility for a comprehensive health service from the Secretary of State to 250 local commissioning groups. “This will make the government both unaccountable for what health services are provided and unable to guarantee patients a universal service.” The Conservatives expect the local commissioning groups to be accountable to their publics and provide the service that they want. Yes, there will be diversity, not standardisation, if that is what the people want.
7th October 2011
THE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT DILEMMA
Party conferences are for the committed activists. For mere reporters and political analysts the party season is a part of the job one would gladly miss. The activists only have to attend one conference, reporters have to be at all of them, to feel the political pulse and interpret proceedings to those we serve.
This week’s Liberal Democrat conference has exposed the party’s dilemma. Speaker after speaker recognised the rightness of the party being in government. Their members accept this now, more readily than they did last year. The electorate gave no party a majority so a coalition was inevitable. The previous Government had left the economy in a mess so a Lab/Lib Dem coalition was not a credible option, but working with the Conservatives involved the risk of damaging the latter’s claim to be progressive.
The party’s problem is that the public have not rewarded its responsible choice. It continues to trail well behind the other parties in opinion polls. Any hope that being in government would invalidate the idea that voting for them was a wasted vote seems to have been dashed. The challenge for party leaders now is to present the image of being capable Ministers, working harmoniously with their Conservative colleagues whilst distancing themselves from them in public perceptions.
The result was some curious speeches this week. The party president, Tim Farron MP, dismissed as ‘reactionary drivel’ Conservative statements about the August riots. Chris Huhne attacked the Tory ‘Tea Party Tendency’ whilst concluding with George Osborne’s line about ‘all being in this together’. Nick Clegg was more diplomatic, reserving his venom for the Labour party. Vince Cable and Steve Webb both acknowledged the contributions of the Conservative colleagues, whilst doing all they could to emphasise the Liberal Democrat impact on the Government. The best speech for me was Webb’s. However important for our futures, pensions are not a subject to stir much passion but his intelligent and highly informative speech, delivered without notes, moved the conference to more than polite applause.
Predictably, the media had to find a hidden agenda in speculation about Clegg’s future as leader, interpreting various speeches as the speaker’s opening bid to succeed him. Gossip suggests that Clegg will stand down before 2015 to become an EU Commissioner. Cable, Huhne and even Farron were trailed as candidates for his job. It is difficult to take this seriously. Cable was some people’s choice last time but at 68 he is unlikely to be next time. Huhne has outstanding personal issues and Farron, an articulate Christian, does not yet have sufficient experience to be the Deputy Prime Minister. His sermon, on the resurrection, at the Lib Dem Christian Forum conference service, was the other high point of the week for me.
My concluding impression of the conference was of increasing maturity amongst activists. They know their party has taken a responsible risk and they now have to persuade the voters to respect them for doing so.
23rd September 2011
MAKING EVERY VOTE COUNT
Our votes are not of equal value. The Parliamentary constituency of the Isle of Wight has an electorate of 109,966 whilst that of Orkney and Shetland has only 33,085 electors. These are extreme examples but differences in constituency size are widespread. Some MPs are returned with huge majorities giving them safe seats but a lot of those votes are wasted in the sense that a majority of one is all that is needed to win the seat.
This is the reason why we have an independent Boundary Commission to review constituency boundaries and equalise the number of electors. The Commission’s current brief is for every constituency to have no less than 72,610 electors and no more than 80,473. Island constituencies present an obvious difficulty and two exceptions to these guidelines have been accepted.
The Commission’s task has been complicated by the Government’s decision to reduce the number of MPs and constituencies by 50. In part this is a response to the transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also a reaction to public anger about MPs expenses and a wish to restore the credibility of Parliament.
Changing the constituency map makes sense but is politically risky. A large number of sitting MPs will examine the Commission’s proposals with an understandable concern for the implications for their own careers. Redrawn boundaries could make their constituency less winnable. In some cases two sitting Members will be competing for the same new seat. This seems likely to be true, for example, for George Osborne and Graham Evans, for Ed Balls and Hilary Benn, and for Ken Clark and Andrew Brigden. The political heavyweights are unlikely to lose out but humble backbenchers could find themselves without a seat. Fifty fewer seats make this inevitable. The Commission’s proposals require Parliamentary approval and it is not out of the question for backbenchers to defy the Whips and vote against them.
Aware of this, the Prime Minister is said to have told his backbenchers that any of them left without a seat once the review is completed will be ‘looked after’. Presumably this means finding them a seat in the House of Lords. Given that reform of the upper House, including making it partially or wholly elected, is also on the Coalition’s agenda, this might not placate potential losers.
The changes will increase the influence of local party selection committees. Christians interested in politics should consider joining the party they support and become sufficiently active to play a part in the selection process. The process is often in the hands of a small number of members and is the stage in the political process where ordinary members can exert real influence for good or ill.
So, what at first looks like a technical change, of interest only to political anoraks, could become a major political issue for Government, Parliament and the electorate.
16th September 2011
ABORTION AMENDMENT FAILS
Those who supported Nadine Dorries’ bid to secure “independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy” will be disappointed by the outcome of Wednesday’s vote in the House of Commons. There are lessons to be learnt from this episode and anyone with strong views about abortion should ponder them before taking further action.
This was one of the worst debates I have observed in the Commons. Ms Dorries has been subjected to numerous vicious attacks on her motives and integrity in recent weeks and she allowed her understandable anger to permeate her 58-minute speech. Given that only 90 minutes had been allocated for this amendment this was a tactical mistake. It left only 32 minutes for everyone else, which was not well received. Even her co-sponsor, Frank Field, urged her to bring her speech to an early conclusion.
To be fair to Ms Dorries, she was constantly interrupted by challenges from her opponents questioning statements she made. Abortion is a highly emotive subject and she might have avoided some of these interventions by adopting a less anecdotal and more systematic evidence based approach. The amendment might have been defeated anyway but the result could have been closer if the case for it had been made more skilfully.
It is noteworthy that her critics included not only the pro-choice lobby but also the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. The former saw the amendment as an attempt to reduce the number of abortions and attack existing agencies that carry out terminations and also offer counselling. Ms Dorries argued that these agencies have a vested interest in advising women to have an abortion and cannot offer genuinely independent counselling. SPUC briefed against the amendment because they do not want statutory bodies involved. They also recognised that Ms Dorries is pro-choice, not anti-abortion like them, something she confirmed in the debate.
The amendment was defeated 188 votes to 368 but all may not be lost. First, the 188 MPs who voted for the amendment included three Cabinet Ministers and a number of senior backbenchers from all parties. More important was the speech by Health Minister Anne Milton. She understood the aim of the amendment but thought that it was not the best way to achieve it.
The provision of independent counselling seems an obvious and desirable objective but on an issue like abortion is anyone genuinely independent? There may be professional non-directive counsellors sufficiently trained and experienced to do this but are there enough to be available at short notice, in every part of the country, to counsel worried women who find themselves pregnant and do not know what to do about this? An alternative approach that the Minister offered is to produce quality standards for any body or individual that undertakes pregnancy counselling, after extensive consultation amongst women. These standards would apply to all bodies, regardless of their stance on abortion. It remains to be seen how such standards would be policed?
9th September 2011
NO PLACE TO CALL HOME
Once the riots and their consequences slipped out of the headlines, the political scene has been seasonally quiet. However, a new problem has loomed over the horizon to exercise MPs when they return to Westminster next week. The nation is faced with a housing crisis as fewer people can afford to buy a home, rents are rocketing and incomes are not.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the population is growing. Almost half a million were added in 2009-10 and the population is expected to reach 65 million this year. This growth is attributed to the highest birth rate for 20 years and net migration of 230,000, which includes women of childbearing age. The need for additional housing is also increased by the break up of existing households. On average cohabiters stay together for 6.9 years and married couples for 11 years. When couples split they need somewhere to live.
Another factor is the slow growth in the housing stock. In the last year only 105,000 new homes were built in England, the lowest number since 1923. Moreover, some developers have built more for the top end of the market, when the greatest need is for affordable properties for first time buyers. The Government has made more land available and the 2011 Budget included £4.5 billion for affordable homes with a target of 170,000 over the next four years.
Stricter lending rules and higher minimum deposits have made mortgages harder to obtain. Negative equity resulting from falling house prices over the past two years has reduced the number of properties coming onto the market. Prices are expected to rise gradually over the next few years but this will not help those who cannot obtain a mortgage. Home ownership has fallen to 67% and is expected to continue falling over the next few years. The alternative is to rent but rents are forecast to rise by 20% over the next five years. The 2011 Budget included £250 million to help first time buyers by lending them the sum required for a deposit. That sum will not go very far in relation to the need but the national debt limited the Government’s scope.
A rod with which the Opposition will attempt to beat the Government is the decision to cap the housing benefit budget to save £1.8 billion. They will argue that the majority of claimants are not unemployed but people on low incomes, pensioners and those caring for a disabled relative. The Government will counter that the cost of the benefit had grown by 50% to £21 billion a year over the last decade and some claimants were receiving £104,000 a year. The discretionary budget for hardship cases had also been increased by £40 million.
A home is part of what it means to be a citizen. It engenders a sense of belonging to the community. A weak response to this situation would damage the Government electorally.
2nd September 2011
THE NOT SO SILLY SEASON
This time of the year is usually known as the silly season. With Parliament in recess and the politicians on holiday, headlines are harder to find and trivia takes the place of serious news. This year is different. The riots, the economic state of Britain, Europe and America, and a continuing dribble of hacking stories give journalists substance to work on.
The Chancellor’s tough measures have earned the markets’ confidence. Interest rates remain low but slow growth threatens his goal of eradicating the debt by 2015. Labour politicians argue for a relaxation of the austerity measures to stimulate growth but polls suggest that public opinion understands the Chancellor’s strategy. Whatever the pain, a national debt of £1 trillion, and daily interest payments of £120 million, makes this strategy credible. Just as important, though, are measures to stimulate growth. With the creation of 10 more Enterprise Zones, with tax breaks and other measures to help businesses setting up in them, the Government aims to create 30,000 new jobs. Will these stimuli work better than the tax cuts Labour advocates?
The Prime Minister took a tough line on the rioters in his press conference this week. Looking for causes underlying the criminal acts of arson and looting he spoke of “a slow motion moral collapse, of reward with out effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities and communities without control”. He declared war on gangs and threatened the withdrawal of benefits and social housing from the offenders.
Whilst this undoubtedly chimed with public opinion, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians were less content. Withdrawal of benefits and housing would punish whole families as well as their delinquent members. Parents who did not know what their teenagers were doing are culpable but younger siblings probably were not. Making them homeless and desperately poor would surely be disproportionate and possibly drive them to crime too. Bringing the offenders face to face with their victims so that they see the consequences of their crimes seems an obvious step. Custodial sentences for the more serious crimes are justified but properly enforced community sentences for lesser crimes, that shame the offenders and make them clear up the damage they have done, making reparation to the community, might be more effective ways of preventing recurrences.
From a Christian but non-party perspective, Cameron’s focus on the moral climate is surely right. The moral consensus rooted in the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage has been dumped but nothing better has been put in its place. Evidence of this is seen in the statistics of family breakdown, teenage pregnancies, and births outside wedlock. None of this is new but the scale is, and so is the fact that these trends are now accepted as nothing to be concerned about. What are we doing to challenge these trends in our own communities and the nation? The churches surely have a responsibility here, both to help the victims but also to help prevent the moral anarchy we saw last week.
19th August 2011
This week’s riots in London and other cities provoke some big and challenging questions. What made large numbers of young people wreck their own communities, loot and burn down shops and offices and intimidate their neighbours? The shooting in Tottenham of Mark Duggan was given as the initial justification but the rash of riots in other London boroughs and cities that knew nothing of Mr Duggan proved that wrong. The degree of organisation of these incidents also suggests other factors were involved.
Until we can answer the ‘why’ question, we won’t know what to do to prevent a recurrence and keep the culprits from wrecking their own lives as well as their communities. The search for answers has to begin with their parents and families. What happened at home to produce this scale of criminal behaviour? Is the fact that 48% of children experience the break up of their family before their 16th birthday a contributory factor? Couples break up for a variety of reasons. The point is not to judge them but to understand the consequences of their decision for their children.
Even couples that stay together may work long hours and weekends to make ends meet so they, too, may be absent when their children need them most. When parents are unable to spend quality time with their offspring it is not surprising if the youngsters look to their peer group for relational support and join a local gang. The way the riots were so well organised suggests gang activity.
A total disrespect for all authority characterised the riots. Children learn respect for authority at home and at school. Are the riots evidence that society has made parental and teacher discipline such a politically correct minefield that the rioters have not learnt that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions? Have we produced a generation let down by their parents and spoiled by a culture that confers rights without responsibilities?
Recalling Parliament for a debate was right but smart speeches will not stop youth gangs smashing up their communities. We need to identify and address the causes of the riots and frame policies to deal with them. This will take time, intelligence and research. Meanwhile the Courts have to deal with the culprits and the police have to develop ways of preventing such incidents in the future. The use of water cannon and baton rounds have been suggested but neither would have been effective this week. Water cannon worked in Northern Ireland against large crowds but would not be effective against small, mobile groups.
To date, more than 500 arrests have been made. What is to be done with them? If sending them to prison reinforces their anti-social orientation, it could create further problems in the future, but a soft response would reinforce the perception that they are not responsible for the consequences of their actions. Could community service, helping to mend what they trashed, be made to work?
12th August 2011
AGENTS FOR CHANGE
Society is more than the sum total of its individual citizens. We are all members of social structures that influence how we interpret and respond to our experiences. Our families, schools, peer groups and the mass media all play a part in shaping our attitudes and values. Parents who send their children to faith-based schools recognise this. Conversely, prisons are seen to be academies of crime that turn first-time offenders into hardened criminals. This is not to say we have no choice in, and responsibility for, what we think and how we behave, but it is to recognise that we do not live in a vacuum and we are all susceptible to influence by our social environment. At the same time, we may influence others for good or ill.
The Bible portrays humans as social beings who need each other to be whole and fulfilled. It reveals God as three persons in perfect community. The significance of this becomes clear when we read that human beings were created in the image of God. Part of what that means is that we are social beings with a capacity for forming personal relationships, both with God and each other. God looked at Adam and observed that it was not good for him to be alone. Although the image of God in human beings was distorted by the Fall, there is still a sense of community: we are all one in Adam, all alienated from God and needful of a Saviour.
None of this diminishes the value and significance of individuals but it suggests that the individual is not complete in him or herself. We see the outworking of this in the story of Israel. The OT law required God’s people to care for their neighbours and the Prophets condemned Israel’s neglect of the poor. Community and society are important in a biblical worldview but what matters is whether or not they honour God and obey him.
Even though the central theme of the Gospel is about individuals being born again into a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ, those individuals are born again into a community of the redeemed. But this community is not to be a closed ghetto. The parables of the Good Samaritan and of the sheep and goats and Jesus’ injunction that his disciples should love their neighbours and render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s make this clear. God’s people should be a community but also be active in the wider society in his service. The metaphors of salt and light and of yeast express the sort of transforming influence Jesus wanted his disciples to have in society.
That influence is desperately needed today in every community, profession and work place. Britain has been damaged by selfish individualism, greed and moral relativism. The place of God’s transformed people is in the world, serving him as agents of change wherever he has placed us.
5th August 2011
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the most important indicator of our economy’s health. It is the value of all the goods and services produced by all parts of the economy. Thus the news that GDP increased by only 0.2% between April and June is a cause for concern. In his Budget, the Chancellor forecast an annual growth of 1.7%. The actual growth over the last twelve months has been only 0.7% so this forecast is unlikely to be realised.
This is much more than a technical issue for economists. Sluggish growth out of a recession is experienced as continuing high levels of unemployment because there is little or no cause for new employees to be recruited. That rate is currently 7.7%, which means tough times for the people behind the statistic and public expenditure on benefits.
The principal reasons for the slow growth are the rise in world commodity prices, especially fuel, and higher than expected inflation. The additional Bank holiday for the royal wedding and sunny weather in May and June have both been blamed. More credible is the impact of the Japanese earthquake on the supply chains of car, motorbike and electrical goods manufacturers.
The deficit reduction programme remains the first priority of economic policy. Although we had a bigger deficit than Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, it is funded at 3.6%, whilst they are paying much higher rates. This would not be so if the Chancellor had failed to convince the markets of his determination to eliminate the deficit by 2015.
Ed Balls, who continues to be in denial about Labour’s responsibility for creating the deficit, wants the Government to cut VAT to stimulate demand and revive the economy. The Taxpayers Alliance’s solution is to cut corporation tax and the 50p income tax rate sooner than the Chancellor intended. Bringing forward the planned increase in the personal tax allowance to £10,000 is another suggestion. Several bodies have advocated repealing or exempting small firms from employment legislation that discourages them from employing more workers. Reducing the cost to the state of family breakdown is another idea.
Whatever the merits of these suggestions they have to pass two tests. Will they work soon enough and do so without making it more difficult to eliminate the deficit? Cutting taxes is the simplest option but can we be sure that people will spend the extra money that leaves in their wallets? Saving may be wise from a personal perspective but the economy needs us to spend to create jobs. Tax cuts could mean more job losses in the public sector and the associated redundancy and benefit costs.
The Chancellor has some tough choices to make and, regardless of party politics, should be in our prayers. There is a lesson for us all in this situation. It came about because as a nation, and as individuals, we spent too much and took no thought to the consequences. Meanwhile, millions of Africans are dying of hunger.
29th July 2011
The hacking scandal rolls on ad nauseam and it is time that it stopped. Of course there are real issues to be addressed but some people seem determined to keep stirring instead of moving on to other, even more serious issues. They have either lost a proper sense of perspective or are pursuing this agenda for their own ends, not the nation’s best interests.
The Government has set up the Judicial Inquiry under Lord Justice Levenson, with a panel of independent experts in the media, policing and politics to help him. A competently led police investigation is delving into the details of the hacking and other illegal acts. Corrupt police and journalists will be brought to trial. The Prime Minister has published a full record of all Ministerial meetings with the media since the 2010 General Election. He has also admitted that with hindsight he would not have employed Mr Coulson as his Communications Director and he has learned a hard lesson. This should surely be enough until the various investigators report.
It is foolish for politicians to try to use this controversy to score partisan points. It is clear that both the major parties have had cosy relations with News International. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown met regularly with the Murdoch family and their senior executives, whatever Brown may now say. Cameron has simply followed a well- trodden track to their doors because the media is the most effective conduit to the voters. This has to change and transparency about these meetings is a first step in the right direction.
It may also be foolish for News International’s competitors to continue stoking the controversy in the hope of increasing their circulation figures. The reader letters in both the Times and the Telegraph today overwhelmingly call for an end to the preoccupation with the scandal. The BBC is also criticised for the biased way it is reporting it.
It does not diminish the seriousness of the hacking and other illegal practices to suggest that it is time to focus attention on other, even more pressing issues. Millions are dying of hunger in East Africa. The debt crisis in the eurozone poses a huge threat to the British economy. The real possibility of the USA defaulting on its even bigger debt could take us closer to a financial and economic meltdown. British involvement in Afghanistan and Libya also need the close attention of the Government.
It is time to move on from raking over the details to focus on the causes. What needs to change in our police forces to minimise the possibility of corruption? How can the culture of the press be changed to make journalists and editors all behave ethically? How can communications between politicians and their electors be made less dependent on media friends? Trust in these institutions has been lost and restoring that trust should now be our top priority. The continuing preoccupation with the symptoms makes this more difficult.
22nd July 2011
WHAT PRICE THE NEWS?
The current scandal filling the headlines ironically concerns the newspapers that carry them and how they obtained the information they are selling us. The details have been reported in the newspapers for weeks but what is a Christian analysis and response to them. We may feel that the press is so powerful and remote from anything we might think and do that this is not our problem, but that would be wrong.
These papers only exist because we buy them. So do we have the quality of press we deserve? If we are not satisfied with the paper we read do we tell the editor and stop buying it if we see no change? We are not as powerless as we might think. The relationship between newspapers and their readers is two-way. To some extent they shape our thinking about events and people but they mostly give us what they think we want, so that we continue to buy them.
Nor do we have any grounds for standing smugly aloof of the present scandal. First, God’s people have a responsibility for mission in society, as the salt and light in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our nation has abandoned the Judeo-Christian moral framework that has shaped most of our history but has failed to put anything better in its place. So lying, cheating and a focus on rights without responsibilities are now common. How did this happen? Did the Christian salt remain in the saltcellar? Have we retreated into a private ghetto and stopped trying to influence our culture and society?
I have argued before that one of the Church’s few political roles is a prophetic one. Before we pour scorn on journalists for their unethical behaviour, we should first repent of the Church’s failure to speak clearly about the loss of a moral consensus that underlies this scandal? Everyone does what is right in their own eyes and the only sin is to be caught breaking the law. Where is the evidence of the Church speaking prophetically to the nation about its confused morality and demonstrating a better way?
There are other important issues to be addressed. Self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission has clearly not worked. The scandal started in 2007 when the Royal Editor of the News of the World and a private investigator were jailed for intercepting the voice-mail messages of members of the Royal family. That should have been the trigger for the PCC to look in depth at the culture of the press and the management failures that made that crime possible.
The public inquiry by Lord Justice Levenson is an opportunity to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press and suggest a more effective form of regulation. What matters though is what is done once the Judge reports. Democracy requires a free, independent press with high ethical standards but press culture will only change if editors and journalists make it happen.
15th July 2011
PRAY FOR EGYPT
I am writing this later than usual because I have been in Egypt for the last week. I was invited to lead a seminar for Church leaders about how to engage in public affairs in Egypt’s new political climate. On January 25th demonstrations in the large cities called for the resignation of President Mubarak and the creation of a free, democratic society. Church leaders asked how Christians should participate in this revolution?
Egypt has a political culture strong on control that has demanded obedience and dependence on its rulers. In 1952 a group of army officers overthrew the monarchy and established an authoritarian, military backed government. Colonel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who governed Egypt thereafter, were all serving officers. Egypt is the most powerful Arab nation in North Africa and they each played significant roles in Middle Eastern politics, especially in relation to Israel but at home they tolerated little opposition.
The Security Police were the principal means of enforcement and became an early target for the revolution. When the Army refused to shoot demonstrators, the police did so. They also released 23,000 prisoners from the jails, including some dangerous criminals and terrorists, to intimidate the population. At least 1000 innocent civilians were killed.
President Mubarak resigned on 12th February and the Army High Command, supported by a civil administration, carries on the government until Parliamentary elections in September and Presidential elections in November. Once elected a committee of the new Parliament will begin drafting a new constitution. New parties have emerged, two of which bring together moderates from the faith communities seeking a civil state. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists want an Islamic state but are divided from each other and within their own ranks.
Egypt’s future is shrouded in uncertainty. The army has vowed to transfer power to the elected President but no obvious popular candidate has emerged yet. Egyptian culture and history have denied the liberal and democratic groups leading the revolution experience of politics and government. Police officers, businessmen who looted public funds and corrupt politicians, who have been the losers in the revolution, will seek to claw back their former power. Other Middle East governments watch nervously lest their own people catch the revolutionary bug, and are probably backing the counter-revolutionary factions.
The best hope for Egypt is a new political arrangement built around checks and balances that prevent any one individual or institution becoming too powerful. A popularly elected president, working with a parliament that has some independence and power, with the military in the background, respecting civilian government, and the faith communities working together in a civil state, is the ideal outcome for this stage in Egypt’s history. This history and biblical anthropology both teach that power corrupts and should never be concentrated in a few hands. Positively, all people made in God’s image share a mandate to rule over his creation, not the few. The people of Egypt need our prayers.
12th July 2011
WAKE UP BRITAIN
This week I went to a conference on the state of family life in Britain today. It was a wake up call because we seem to have lost the plot in relation to family and its impact on our children. 48% of children will experience before their 16th birthdays the trauma of their parents’ relationship breaking down. Not only will this mean an immediate emotional upheaval but could also mean the poverty that is common in single parent households. The experience also correlates with underachievement at school, difficulties in sustaining relationships and even drug and alcohol problems in later life.
How have we come to this state? Changing attitudes have eroded key conditions for stable family life. Adultery and promiscuity are no longer considered shameful. Stable, long term relationships are no longer seen as the normal context for sexual activity, the goal of which is personal pleasure. Once this ceases it is time for the ‘consumer’ to move on and no fault divorce makes this easy and relatively cheap.
Marriage is going out of fashion. The number of cohabiting couples has increased by 65% in the last ten years and by 2014 it is expected that married couples will account for fewer than half of all British families. The problem is that the average length of cohabitation is only three years. The idea that a couple stay together for life, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, is no longer normative. Is it any wonder that in 2007 UNICEF observed that Britain is the worst country for children in the western world?
So what is a Christian response to this desperate situation? It begins with recognition that there are still many exceptions but that will not reverse these trends unless we are willing to act at three levels. Christian families can invest time and effort in our own marriages and family life so that we do not join the trend but stand out as positive advertisements for fidelity and responsible parenthood. Churches can make marriage preparation and crisis counselling a priority. The HTB Marriage Course is an excellent tool for this ministry.
The third response is political. There is a penalty for marriage in the tax system. Our politicians are more sensitive about the rights of gay couples and single parent families than about heterosexual married couples. Without denying the rights of others we can put pressure on our MPs to wake up to the implications for society of the erosion of one of its central building blocks, and especially the consequences for our children. David Cameron promised that his party would make Britain the most family friendly nation in the world. It is time to hold him and his Government to that pledge.
Our nation is heading in the wrong direction. It is time to wake up to the consequences and change direction, not least for the sake of our children.
1st July 2011
EQUALITY AND FAITH
A curious little spat has hit the headlines this week. It was started last Sunday by an interview in the Telegraph with Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. His subject was the place of religion in Britain today. He observed that many people of faith in this country feel under siege and think that the Commission is not interested in their rights and tried to prove the opposite
He attacked the fashionable view that religion is a private matter. “Faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view” The Commission would “support believers who suffer discrimination because of their faith”.
That drew an angry response from the British Humanist Association, who accused him of bias towards religious people and against non-religious people and belittled people like them. They have lodged a formal complaint and called for an apology. In stark contrast the Evangelical Alliance, while welcoming Phillips’ recognition that the Commission’s responsibilities include religious rights, wondered why it has taken him so long to do this.
However, Phillips went on to warn religious organisations that they have to obey the law. Charities offering public services and receiving public funding “have to play by the rules”. He criticised Christian organisations that make exaggerated claims about persecution when what they are really doing is not defending Christian values but picking a political fight. His particular target was the attitudes to homosexuality found amongst Afro-Caribbean churches. “If you come from an Afro-Caribbean background the attitudes to homosexuality are unambiguous, they are undiluted, they are nasty and in some cases homicidal”. That upset the Evangelical Alliance who described his comments as patronising and disparaging.
Mr Phillips’ comments are in line with current mainstream thinking across the political spectrum and therein lies a real issue for the Christian community. The churches contributions to society are valued but not the views on homosexuality held by an outspoken minority. The Bible inspires those views even if the language in which they are expressed sometimes lacks the grace and love that should characterise Christian communication. Christians have dual citizenship, of the UK and the Kingdom of God. What we ‘render to Caesar’ should always bear the marks of the Kingdom, which includes showing respect to everyone made in the image of God even though that image is seriously blurred in all of us.
When believers exercise their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, affirmed in the 1998 Human Rights Act, they may say things that others do not like but that is not the real issue. Nor are secular humanists the real problem. The real threat comes from government and public bodies that do not understand the meaning of faith in the lives of believers and make laws and policies that offend their beliefs and consciences and expect us to tamely acquiesce.
24th June 2011
THE CHURCH AND POLITICS
The Archbishop of Canterbury is in hot water. As guest editor of this month’s New Statesman he made a controversial attack on the Coalition Government, convincing some that the Church should stay out of politics. Christians who observe a tendency for political involvement to displace the church’s proper concern with personal redemption and sanctification share this view. Too often, they see the church sanctifying non-Christian ideas and losing its distinctiveness. They find the church’s social comment embarrassingly amateurish and naïve about human sin. Moreover, when the church takes sides in politics, it runs the risk of alienating those in other parties from the Gospel.
Nevertheless, the Church does have four special roles in the public square. The first is a prophetic ministry in society. As Kenneth Kaunda, the former President of Zambia, suggests, “what a nation needs more than anything else is not a Christian ruler in the palace but a Christian prophet within earshot”. When the church speaks prophetically, it must not be seen to be grinding a partisan axe against the Government of the day, which his critics think the Archbishop was doing.
A second role for the church is as an agent of reconciliation in a divided society. Jesus brought together people like Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. He not only reconciled people to God, he also reconciled them to each other. We all have a reconciliation role in our personal relationships but the church can have an influence at the national level that individuals cannot. Politics frequently involves division and conflicts of interest. As a body that cares for people on all sides of a dispute, the church can use its neutrality to bring the parties together and find a basis for compromise and reconciliation.
Thirdly, the church has a ministry of prayer for the nation. Again, we should all be praying individually but it is important and biblical that there should also be corporate intercession for the nation in our churches. This is something that most churches do very infrequently and half-heartedly.
Finally, the church has a prime responsibility to teach its members and this should include our duties as citizens of the nation as well as of the Kingdom of God. If churches pay little attention to this aspect of Christian discipleship, is it any wonder that Christian influences in politics and government are limited and society is becoming increasingly secularised. Moreover, the tendency for churches to hold many meetings during the week make it very unlikely that their members will engage in politics.
Whilst the political role of the church is best limited to these four activities, there need be no such constraints on Christian individuals and campaigning groups provided we participate in a manner consistent with our Christian faith and identity. The Archbishop could say that was all he was doing in his New Statesman editorial but he was heard as the voice of the Church of England, not as an individual.
17th June 2011
IS OVERSEAS AID STILL NECESSARY?
Giving aid to other countries when our economy is deeply in debt and we are all asked to tighten our belts has come under the spotlight this week. The Government not only plans to continue giving aid but also intends to increase the aid budget to the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income. The last decade has seen the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, not to forget Live Aid and Comic Relief, to achieve this target but public opinion is now questioning whether it is still right or necessary?
Financial austerity and public service cuts at home are only one reason for this hostility towards overseas aid. We have a three-year aid package to India worth £1billion even though their economy is 50% larger than ours and is still growing fast. India is a nuclear power with its own space programme. Why are we still giving them so much? Yes, there are millions of Indians living in dire poverty but critics ask whether that should that be their Government’s priority, not ours. They are also outraged that we give China £40million a year even though it is emerging as a new super power rivalling the USA.
What critics of overseas aid overlook is that there are reasons, other than humanitarian altruism, for giving aid. Aid may signal diplomatic approval and help sustain strategic relationships. That is why we still give aid to Pakistan, despite doubts about their commitment to destroying al Qaeda. Our generosity buys influence with its government. Some of their intelligence and military community are thought to be sympathetic towards the Taliban and Islamist hardliners. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If UK aid helps to prevent those weapons falling into Taliban or al Qaeda hands that would surely be money well spent.
It is also argued that aid helps us to gain commercial access to recipient markets. The problem, opponents of aid argue, is that too much of our money goes into private bank accounts and does not reach those who really need help. Para-church aid agencies, such as Tearfund, overcome this by working in partnership with indigenous groups close to their aid targets, whose reliability and integrity they have established. Does the International Development Department audit how aid money is spent and try to prevent the corrupt misuse of funds?
Whilst it is legitimate to ask such questions, from a Christian perspective the case for continuing to give aid to countries in genuine need remains strong. However tough we find the current period of austerity, few Britons are living with the deep poverty, poor education and health services experienced by many in the two-thirds world. Dave Bookless writes in “God Doesn’t Do Waste” that if everyone in the world enjoyed our standard of living, it would require three planets to produce enough for us all. To cancel aid to the most needy would be to behave like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable.
10th June 2011
TREATMENT OF CHRISTIANS
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. This is article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into English Law by the 1998 Human Rights Act. It closely follows the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations that should apply to all its member states. Sadly, it does not apply in many of them.
That was the theme of a parliamentary debate on 24th May, initiated by David Simpson MP. He acknowledged atrocities perpetrated by Christians, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and modern child abuse cases, but sought to highlight the violent treatment of Christians in many nations today. Eleven other members, including two frontbenchers, joined him in this debate and between them they named a long list of countries where Christians face violence, imprisonment and even death for their commitment to Jesus Christ.
This should not surprise us. “No servant is greater than his master, if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also,” Jesus warned his disciples, but that is not an excuse for doing nothing about the horrendous treatment of Christians in North Korea and numerous other countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Two billion Christians live on one of these continents and at least several million suffer for their faith. As individuals we can pray for them, write to them and tell their Governments that their evil conduct is known and unacceptable.
Speakers in this debate went further. Many of the culprit nations receive aid from Britain. Surely this gives our Government enormous potential influence, said Edward Leigh MP. Should not that aid be contingent on respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion? It seems an obvious question but the Minister ducked it in his response to the debate. Sure, the Government strongly support the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the effective promotion of human rights is at the heart of our foreign policy but if we withdraw aid it will not be the persecutors who will suffer but their poor and powerless neighbours.
Pakistan is a good example. As one speaker observed, “it is our largest recipient of aid” and has a terrible human rights record. Its Blasphemy Law is used as pretext for persecuting Christians, such as Asia Bibi. It makes no difference that she says she is innocent; the mere suggestion that she might have made blasphemous remarks about the Koran was enough for her to be tried and convicted. Two senior political figures spoke up for her and both were assassinated. The Pakistani Government is powerless to prevent the persecution of its Christian citizens so threatening to withhold aid would achieve nothing. Policymaking is seldom as simple and straightforward as we might think.
3rd June 2011
WHO MAKES THE LAW?
There has always been more than one answer to that question in Britain. Parliament is the obvious one. The MPs we elect are the legislature, with the House of Lords as a safety net, finding and filling gaps in Bills left by the lower House. The Courts also make law when they interpret legislation in relation to specific cases and create precedents. Precedent is always important when consistency is expected and it is especially significant in the British Constitution, which is found in numerous statutes and Common Law precedents.
The question became topical this week because of controversy over super-injunctions. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into English law by the 1998 Human Rights Act, gives us all the right to a private life and Judges have issued injunctions to preserve this right in specific cases, where individuals had reason to think the press would breach the right. Sadly, most of these cases involved adulterous behaviour by those applying for an injunction. The real victims of publicity are their families, whose lives would be tormented by media attention. It is not genuinely in the public interest to know about the sordid, sexual behaviour of footballers but it sells newspapers to prurient readers.
Very reluctantly, the English newspapers obeyed the injunctions but those who ‘Twitter’ did not and the identity of those covered by injunctions lost their right to privacy and the very important rule of law was breached. Two Parliamentarians, an MP and a Peer, used their Parliamentary privilege to name two of those covered by injunctions, enabling the press to do the same.
This scenario exposes some deeply disturbing questions. First, have we succumbed to mob rule, when Tweeters can ride roughshod over the law because they are too numerous to be prosecuted? Second, does the demand for titillation in our newspapers outrank respect for human rights? Whatever we think about the evils of adultery, should we not have concern, even compassion for the culprits’ families, especially their children? Third, has something happened to the relationship between Parliament and the Judiciary that upsets the balance of power in our Constitution?
Various developments have widened the gulf between these institutions. The creation of the Supreme Court and the removal of the Law Lords from Parliament and that fewer MPs are also barristers have created a social distance between them. More important is the impact of the Human Rights Act. Judges are now able to tell the Government and Parliament that a particular decision is unlawful. For example, neither the Government or a majority of MPs want to give prisoners the right to vote but if they do not, when those prisoners sue the Government for denying them their human right to vote, the Courts will find for them and award compensation amounting to millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
So, this week’s stories about adulterous celebrities involves much bigger issues of principle that really are in the public interest.
27th May 2011