The real reason populism is winning…


There’s a common thread going round the interwebs at the moment, in relation to the sudden upsurge of right-wing populism we’ve seen in Brexit, Trump and the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France. That thread says that it’s mostly the fault of the left, ignoring the concerns of ordinary working people by insisting on mass immigration, too much political correctness, and high state intervention whilst attacking all those who dare to disagree.

This is, of course, simplistic rubbish.

There is another thread doing the rounds. It’s one which suggests that Brexit, Trump, Le Pen voters are idiots, borderline racists, and sheep brainwashed by the right-wing tabloid media. We should ridicule, shout down and ignore these people who are, by siding with such awful people, not worth properly engaging with.

This is, of course, also simplistic rubbish.

Most of those on the left are not members of the fabled “metropolitan liberal elite”, they are ordinary working people as well. Most don’t believe in “mass immigration”, just everybody getting a fair chance, regardless of any accident of birth. Political correctness is not a tool to oppress and beat people with, it’s a way of ensuring that everyone is treated with due respect.

Those who voted for populism did so, not because some of us have differing views, but because the politicians they voted for touched a nerve with them; possibly by saying what they thought, possibly by playing on their fears.

But these voters are not (all) racist. They are not (all) brainwashed Daily Mail and Sun readers. They are not (all) stupid. They are mostly normal people with normal lives, normal jobs, normal problems, hopes, fears, loves and hates.

And they are all human beings and voters. Left and right, they are all human beings and voters.

The problem is that we have totally lost sight of this. We shout and yell (well, tweet… sometimes all in caps) at each other, dividing ourselves into separate camps and resort to ad hominem attacks and name calling; racist, cuck, fascist, snowflake, idiot, libtard… getting precisely nowhere.

And nobody, not one single one of us, is right about everything.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “There can be no compromise with extremism.”

This is true. Sometimes there can’t be any coming together because some views really are unacceptable. When people are motivated by racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia etc. you really cannot and should not compromise.

But you can listen. You can try to understand where views, all views, come from on a personal level.

Then, and this is scary, you can try to persuade.

Most of us hold some sort of political views, but are so politically illiterate and uneducated that we are unable to fully back up those views with evidence, statistics, proper arguments or, well, anything really. We have some basic things in our heads, but we need to educate ourselves more so that we can actually have proper debate and discussion.

One reason for the rise in populism is a disillusionment in politicians, and this is part of the reason. When politics loses sight of principles in the pursuit of style over substance then we lose the leadership we need, the example we need to show us how to debate, persuade and actually try to win people over to your way of thinking.

Yes, this is also pretty simplistic, but we need to start somewhere. We need to talk and listen. To understand that we are dealing with other human beings in issues which affect all human beings. We need to educate ourselves and others.

I mean, it might not work, but we just can’t go on like this. Can we?

Please don’t vote UKIP

  

Yes, it’s another one of those anti-UKIP blog posts telling you all the same stuff again. No doubt it’ll either be ignored (written, as it is, on a blog which has fewer readers than the Lib Dems now have voters), ridiculed or the subject of a police complaint.

I want to start with a bit of background, though. If there’s one thing UKIP are good at it is pointing the finger at it critics and saying that they are clearly art of the “liberal elite establishment” and are “out of touch with the British public” (or if, like me, they live in Scotland, they are “dangerous Scottish nationalists”).

Here’s why I am none of those things.

I was born in an RAF hospital in, what was then, West Germany, to parents who both proudly served with the RAF (and I am also proud of them for doing so). From the ages of 2-11 I lived in East Tilbury, a small town in the parliamentary constituency of Thurrock, one of UKIP’s main targets and the place they chose to launch their manifesto. My parents did rather well during the Thatcher era and even took advantage of her right to buy scheme with the council house we lived in. I went to a boys’ grammar school, something UKIP are keen to bring back into the education system.

When I was 11 we moved to West Malling, in another UKIP target seat, Tonbridge and Malling. I moved on to a higher education college (which is now a university) in Canterbury where I met the woman I would marry and have three children with. Through her I also became another type of person UKIP rather like, a Christian.

Myself and my wife have worked hard through the years to raise a family and pay the bills. My longest period of unemployment in over 20 years is a week and I have had jobs such as washing dishes in a hotel kitchen, working in various shops, lab technician on an inland oilfield, trainee estate agent (I was awful) and have found my place now as a customer service coach at a wealth management company. I have worked some horrible jobs rather than go unemployed and have spent the last 12 years in the financial services industry, an industry Nigel Farage knows all about.

I, too, am thoroughly disaffected by the main three parties and, after being a Labour and Lib Dem member earlier in my life, have recently joined a party on the fringes, away from the establishment. The Scottish Greens. Yes, they campaigned for a yes vote in the independence referendum, but I didn’t. I have no strong views one way or the other on the matter and, being English, am certainly not a nationalist.

I now live, obviously in Scotland. Specifically, I live in UKIP’s main target north of the border, Falkirk, frequented by their larger than life MEP David Coburn.

The point of all of that life history? Well, it’s my way of saying that not only am I not a member of any liberal elite establishment, not only am I not totally out of touch with working people in Britain (with me being one), but I am virtually UKIP’s target audience. I’ve lived most of my life in three of their target seats, have worked hard all my life, I am a Christian and I am proud of my family’s ties to the armed forces.

Yet, I totally oppose almost everything they stand for.

You see, they say they are standing up for the working man and woman, but many of their leadership are from that same elite that they claim to oppose.

They have valid arguments about the EU. It is full of petty bureaucracy and unelected decision makers. However, it has also been a force for peace in a post WWII world, it has opened up trade between EU countries and the chance for all EU citizens, including Britons, to seek new opportunities in other countries. The EU badly needs to change, but to leave it rather than be central to its improvement is horrible short sighted and insular.

They say that they stand  for Christian values, yet seem to be very muddled on what those values are. They talk about fighting people trafficking by, you’ve guessed it, leaving the EU. They talk about putting advisers into foodbanks with no clear strategy on actually ending the need for foodbanks. They talk about freedom to worship, yet I manage along to Church once or more a week totally unhindered (unlike millions around the world). They talk about breaking a dependency on benefits without addressing the issue of those who will always be dependent on them through no fault of their own. 

Most importantly, for a party who claims to be proud of our Judeo-Christian heritage, they don’t speak of the one thing Jesus put at the heart of his teachings. The one thing Paul tells is is the most important gift. Love.

UKIP’s success is not built on love. It is not built on moving forward together, for the common good. It is not built on looking out for the weakest in society. It is not built on one body, working together for a common aim. No, their success is built on fear and hatred.

Their argument on the EU is concentrated on immigration. This is a cause for concern for many, but it’s been greatly caused by the type of rhetoric and language used by UKIP in their campaigning. They talk about immigrants coming over for benefits, despite migrants claiming less in benefits per head than UK citizens. They talk about health tourism, something there is no evidence for. They talk about a strain on public services, services their taxes go towards paying for. They put up posters with fingers pointing at you, telling you that migrants are after your job. They claim to have nothing against migrants themselves, but attract people to the party who want to “send them all home”. Fear of the unknown, tribalism and xenophobia are the staple of UKIP’s tactics.

They find different groups and demonise them, attack them, ridicule them, tell anyone who’ll listen that they are the enemy, the cause of all our ills. Migrants (especially Eastern Europeans), lefties, the BBC, the EU, asylum seekers, Muslims, Scotland (especially the SNP), Greens, pollsters are all out to curb our freedoms, steal our money, shut down debate. Only UKIP can save us!

Divide and conquer. It’s worked well for many and now UKIP are taking advantage. All the while they act as the plucky outsiders, anti-establishment figures (run by ex bankers and ex Tories, and bankrolled by the likes of news magnate and pornographer Richard Desmond) who are scorned by all. They complain, formally, about any slight, bullying people and organisations into compliance. It’s frightening.

I agree with them on the odd point; scrapping the bedroom tax and bringing in voting reform are good policies. However, their fearmongering, paranoia, neo-liberal, xenophobic, insular, populist, empty policies and language are a genuine danger to this country. They are not for the working person, they are for themselves; they are not Christian, they are cynical impostors; they are not patriotic, they are separatist and elitist. And they must be stopped.

Please, whoever you vote for next week, listen to this plea from a man who UKIP see as their type of person (except the whole leftie thin get); don’t make it UKIP. For all their promises and patriotic words they will tear this country apart. Don’t let them.

Reconciling faith and politics

I have recently been asked to explain who I am voting for in the UK general election in May and why, particularly within the context of my Christian faith. It was an interesting excercise to undertake, especially following a tweet I saw recently bemoaning how some Christians appear to talk more passionately about their political allegiances than about Christ. For me, however, the two are very closely intertwined. My faith in Christ and my reading of scripture have a massive influence on my political thinking.

Now, a quick word of comfort for you before you stop reading right now. This will not be one of those “12 reasons why Jesus was a socialist” or “Party X is the only one a true follower of Christ should vote for – and here’s why” pieces. There are far too many of those on the internet and I actually believe they’re all wrong, anyway. Jesus didn’t have a political principle in mind when he taught and he wasn’t minded to form the Galileean Labour Party either. He concentrated on bringing his father’s kingdom to Earth and on his ultimate sacrifice to save us from our own selfish natures.

What this is, though, is an explanation on why the way I have responded to Jesus’ teachings and sacrifice have largely shaped the way I think politically. Politics covers every area of our lives, as, if you have one, does a religious belief, so it’s almost impossible for one not to influence the other. When your faith is based around the most amazing grace imaginable, given by a perfect God to an undeserving world, you want to apply that to how you think the whole world should operate as well.

Grace is a wonderful concept which we sing about so much; Amazing Grace, Outrageous Grace, the triumphs of his grace, he rules the world with truth and grace; it is an integral part of our worship and the reason so many of us are drawn to God. However, it is all too easy to accept that grace for ourselves, but not to extend it to others. We only want to see welfare paid to the right kind of people, let the right sort of immigrants into our country, want to see the right sort of governments in other countries… that isn’t grace. In Matthew 25 Jesus didn’t talk about only feeding the hungry if they had a job, only welcoming strangers if they had the right skills. If we wish to reflect Jesus in our lives then we need to reflect his grace as well. It isn’t a licence to act as a doormat, letting everybody walk all over you and fleece you for every penny, but it is a call to open ourselves up to helping everybody in need. Everybody, whether we think they deserve it or not. Victimising the vulnerable for the ills in society or the economy, cutting their financial lifelines because “we’re all in this together” is not the way, in my opinion. 

It’s not Jesus’ way. 

Jesus healed the centurion’s servant because the centurion had faith that he could, not because the servant deserved to live. He healed the paralysed man on the mat because of the faith of his friends who lowered him through the roof, not because the man was too good a man to be in that situation. Jesus died on the cross because God loved the world so much that he sent his only son so that we wouldn’t die, but have live forever; he didn’t do it because we deserved it. He did it because we didn’t.

Jesus also, famously, told a rich man that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. This wasn’t because having money was a bad thing, but because of the relationship we can develop with money when we have it. Our society is centred around the capitalist ideal of wealth creation, but it is the creation of wealth for the sake of having money and being prosperous. Unfortunately, this means that money is the new god, desired and worshipped by so many that they lose sight of the one true God. The pursuit of material wealth for its own sake can be all consuming and leads to those with money storing it all up and not allowing the “trickle down” part of “trickle down economics”. So we all have to be aspirational; we aspire to a better job so we can get a bigger house or better car or more exciting holidays; satisfaction with your position is simply not acceptable. We even get politicians nowadays speaking out against those who don’t aspire to better themselves, at least in the way they deem to be acceptable.

As I said, having money itself is not a bad thing, but how you deal with it is important. We will always have the rich and the poor, but the rich need to realise that they have a responsibility to ensure that the poor are looked after. So, fair wages that people can actually live on, proper welfare, universal healthcare, fair taxation for all with the better off and corporations paying their fair share have all got to form a part of a fair economy which reflects the way the early Church shared their own money and the way Jesus taught us to support each other. In my opinion,anyway.

The way we treat our environment is important as well. Genesis tells us that God gave us dominion over the rest of the Earth, but this is not him giving us carte blanche to use all of the planet’s resources for our own ends without worrying about the consequences. When you are left in charge of something you have a duty of care, a responsibility to look after it. That is exactly what we haven’t been doing and are still not doing. We are poisoning the air that we breathe, polluting the waters we drink, shattering the earth beneath our feet and mistreating the animals we live alongside. To be somebody who stands up for the environment somehow leads to accusation of “tree-hugging” or putting plants ahead of people. The fact is that it is important that we look after the planet, partly because it’s the only one we have and partly because God has charged us with doing so.

So yes, I am very much on the left of the political spectrum. Yes, I am an environmentalist, politically. Yes, I am anti-capitalist. That’s all because of how I have taken the teachings of Jesus to heart. I also fully accept that, although I disagree with them, there are those on the right who have come to their conclusions also through reasons of faith. I cannot reconcile right-wing, capitalist or neo-liberal politics with Christianity myself, though. So I vote for left-wing parties in elections. I am now the member of a left-wing party and campaign for them because I believe that I am campaigning on issues compatible with my faith and that is why I am so passionate about them. No party will ever fully encompass my personal beliefs, but that’s because human beings are flawed and we will always be wrong about some things. All I can do is do what I think is right. That’s all any of us can do.

Enough is enough – Why I think the Green Surge is happening



It’s spring conference season in the UK. A conference season with the added spice that we are only a couple of months away from a general election which appears to be the most open in living memory, if not of all time. The traditional two party system is under threat by insurgents from both left and right with the Tories and Labour apparently only having the support of a third of the electorate each. Massive gains have been made by the right-wing, populist nutjobs folk from UKIP and the traditional Labour heartland of Scotland looks to be turning totally SNP yellow. 

Amongst these parties is the most left-wing of these political insurgents, the Greens. The party started life as the People Party, changing to the Ecology Party in 1975, then the Green Party of Great Britain in 1985. In 1990 the party split into three to reflect their support for greater autonomy for the constituent parts of the UK; the Green Party of England and Wales (Which contains the autonomous Wales Green Party), the Green Party in Northern Ireland and the Scottish Green Party. They are far from a new party, or group of parties, and even scored some electoral success with 14.9% of the vote and third place in the 1989 Europen Elections (albeit with no MEPs returned due to the first past the post voting system).

What’s the point of going over all of this? Well, we are talking about a Green movement which has been around for 40 years without making any serious impact, barring that one blip on elections or polling. Until recently. The Greens in England now have an MP, Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion, and control the local council in the same town with a minority administration. They are regularly polling 5-7% at the moment, often pushing the Lib Dems into 5th place. They have also seen an enormous increase in membership over the last 12 months.

So, what’s the difference?

I went to the Scottish Green Party spring conference at the University of Dundee this weekend and everybody who was there will tell you what that difference is.

What I encountered in Dundee was the very reason I joined the party last September. I saw ordinary men and women who want to make a change in everyone’s life, but not in the way we normally see from political parties. Gone was the rhetoric of fear and blame. Gone was the talk of Britain’s place at the World’s top table. Gone was the pandering to big business. In its place stood real, practical ideas for making positive changes.

The first session I attended was about Europe. In that session I was involved in a discussion about the hot button issue of the day, the one which every party will address over and over again despite the fact that we are, if some are to be believed, not allowed to talk about it; immigration. What was noticeable immediately was that nobody was discussing immigration as if it was a problem which needs to be tackled. There was no mention of floods of eastern europeans, influxes of asylum seekers, benefits tourism or any of the other inflammatory terms used by many politicians. Instead we discussed a better way to treat asylum seekers, rather than just locking them up for an indefinite period for the crime of wanting to leave a life-threatening situation to live in a free country. We discussed how people are afraid that immigrants will steal their jobs because they are prepared to work for less, and how introducing the Living Wage of £10 per hour would disincentivise companies from actively recruiting abroad and exploiting foreign workers. We discussed how, instead of too much immigration, maybe we don’t have enough as we have a massive shortage of skills in the UK which we need to start addressing urgently within our education system. Gone was the fear and demonisation, in were new answers and new questions.

We looked at new ways for the economy to run. Oxfam’s Katherine Trebeck spoke of economic models which, rather than the failed system of trickle-down, worked for everybody. Businesses which were run by communities, co-operatives and workers whose main objectives aren’t profit for profit’s sake, but successful businesses working for the benefit and prosperity of all those involved and affected by them. An economy whose success isn’t measured by GDP, growth and the share prices of the biggest companies, but by how people’s lives are positively impacted by it. This brings to mind a line used by Bruce Springsteen during some of his live performances,

“Nobody wins unless everybody wins”

This is how an economy should work. Not by driving up profits and prosperity for the few at the top who then rig the rules in their favour, but by ensuring that everybody shares in the prosperity of a community. Everybody has that incentive to work for the good of all.

We heard how the term “fuel poverty” is a nonsense in a country where we have plenty of fuel. Where the term “food poverty”, seeing people rely on foodbanks, is a nonsense in a country where we have plenty of food. The problem is just poverty, pure and simple, and the way our economy and services are being run by repeated neoliberal administrations, with their eyes on graphs and figures rather than lives and people, have meant that poverty and inequality are rife in this, one of the richest countries on the planet. However, to challenge this is consistently attacked by the poltical classes and mainstream media. As Helder Camara said,

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

This is what need to change and it is what the Green Party are desperate to change, to beat the scourge of poverty.

The day was rounded off by a talk by the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie MSP. He did a fantastic job of showing the differences between the Greens and the other main parties. The fact that all of the other parties seem to want you to choose a least worst option, holding your nose in disgust as you put your cross in the box. We hear that if you vote Labour you’ll get UKIP, if you vote UKIP you’ll get Tory, if you vote SNP you’ll get Tory, if you vote Green in Scotland you’ll get Labour (UKIP’s MEP in Scotland, David Coburn’s, even suggested that if you vote Scottish Green you’ll get Sinn Fein, demonstrating a remarkable lack of knowledge of our electoral system). Tactical voting needs to stop. It’s time we actually voted for what we wanted, not what we don’t want the least. Decades of tactical voting, coupled with the unfair FPTP voting system have led to a complacency from the main two parties. He spoke of Ken Baker’s suggestion of a form of coalition between Labour and the Tories in order to keep the SNP from holding the balance of power, a suggestion which flies in the face of the principles of both parties; principles they both gave up many moons ago.

He also spoke of the failure of austerity. The fact that, due to the blind devotion to it, we have seen the slowest recovery on record. The fact that we have seen growing inequality as the poorest, youngest and women have borne the brunt of this. How we are looking to spent billions on the renewal of the morally reprehensible Trident, using that same politics of fear, despite cutting benefits and services where they are most needed. I have heard some defend Trident by saying we leave ourselves open to attack by ISIL or Putin if we scrap it. If this were the case, why have they not attacked Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Canada or many of the other countries without a nuclear deterrent? In Putin’s case, maybe he just doesn’t want to. In ISIL’s case, maybe they don’t have the resources (and if they did, who would we use the missiles on? They aren’t an actual state). Do we really want to waste billions on a deterrent which appears to be deterring nobody, which most other countries don’t see the need for and would not be able to live with ourselves if we actually used it? I say no. So do millions of others. So do the Greens. We say that we need a much less confrontational foreign policy, one where we stop arming groups overseas who end up using those arms on us, one where we stop making enemies of people with a continued sense of self importance. We don’t need Trident, we need a new outlook. And we need to spend that money on maintaining services and benefits for those who need them the most.

He finished off by speaking of “the urgency of removing this austerity coalition, we have to bring it to an end”. And this is why the Greens have seen such growth. They speak with hope rather than fear as a way to deal with business as usual. They don’t, as I heard said about them recently, only care about talking to flowers and climbing oil rigs. The environmental issue is still there, at the heart of the Green movement, of course. However, the main topic of conversation wherever you were yesterday in Dundee was poverty and inequality; bringing people out of hoplessness and despair and empowering everybody to work together for the prosperity of all.

Are all Green policies perfect? No. Do I agree with them all? No. The thing is, these parties, the three UK Green parties, are parties who accept this. They accept their imperfections, they accept dissent within the membership and encourage open and respectful discussion, they accept that working with other parties on areas of common ground is the right thing to do. They also accept that those in power need to be held to account and are, more than anybody, prepared to do just that.

That is why the so-called Green Surge is happening. That is why they… we are getting louder. Something needs to change, for the good of us all. As the campaign slogan of the host branch, the Dundee Greens, says,

“Enough is enough!”

Show up and stand up

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Today the Church of England’s House of Bishops will release a letter which calls on Christians to become more engaged in the political process in the run up to May’s General Election. (Update: The letter has now been published and can be read in full here.)

The bishops will call specifically for debates on nuclear weapons, a very hot topic considering the money being spent on the renewal of Trident during a time of austerity, and the economy. As the article on bbc.com says,

“It is expected to back the concept of a living wage and urge political parties to avoid scapegoating groups such as immigrants and those on benefits.”

This has led to a storm of protest, mainly by Conservative MPs or members, who have criticised the Church for meddling in politics. One contributor to a discussion on BBC 5 Live’s breakfast show referenced the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu’s recent book, On Rock Or Sand, which he stated was political, but not party political. However, the book was praised by Labour leader Ed Miliband, yet criticised by the Tory PM David Cameron, leading to a suggestion that it did have party leanings. This letter is now coming under similar fire.

This is a very odd accusation to level at the body widely seen as “the Conservative Party at prayer”. Such has been the traditionalist ethos at the heart of the established Church that they have been seen as traditionally right leaning.

It is, however, all too easy to take shots at people and accuse them of meddling when they offer differing views to yourself. Indeed, people on the left side of the spectrum lap this kind of pronouncement up when it is made one day, then attack the Church as irrelevant the next when they speak out against equal marriage or assisted suicide. It seems that the Church is great when they agree with you, but an anachronism when they don’t.

One wonderful case in point is Tory MP/reality TV star Nadine Dorries. In the BBC article she says this,

“The Church is always silent when people are seeking its voice and yet seems very keen to dive in on political issues when actually no-one is asking it to”

The issue she means when speaking of the Church being silent is that of abortion, an issue she is passionate about, but hardly one of the red hot issues of the age in the views of the vast majority. What she, and countless others who criticise the Church when they discuss political issues mean is this; why can’t the Church just shut up and go away until such a time as they have something to say which I want to hear?

I’m sorry, but that just isn’t how it works.

The fact is that we are asked to talk about these things, to rail against injustice, to act in the interests of the vulnerable, to speak about peace, tax, money, poverty, foreign affairs, issues of morality, education, health care and so many other issues. These issues aren’t just political, but are social and personal issues which affect us all and Jesus himself spoke about each and every one and gave us instruction, by telling the Church to spread his message, to do the same. He knew fine well that people wouldn’t always like what they heard, but the point isn’t to be liked, but to be right and to act in that righteousness.

Does this mean the Church is always right? Of course not, the Church is, ultimately, a collection of human beings, ones anointed by God, but imperfect, broken human beings all the same. We will make mistakes, but we will also always do what we think is right and just (I hope!).

The Church will be involved in politics in some way because the Church is political. Politics is a part of every aspect of our lives and so is God. Where God goes, so must we.

The group Christians In Politics recently launched the brilliant Show Up campaign, designed to encourage Christians to become more engaged and involved in the political process, regardless of their own particular political leanings. It has been set up because we do have a voice, many voices, all shouting to the same God, but all wanting the best for our world. It is why I joined a political party last year, to make a difference in those areas I get passionate, sometimes angry about.

The Church should never feel ashamed to speak out when it has something to say, especially when told not to meddle in politics. I think a great illustration is the one at the end of this post, a tweet by Robb Sunderland, an Anglican priest from Yorkshire, who said this.

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Update: I’ve read the letter now and agreed with most of the contents. Section 6 and 7 are pretty much saying what I said above, which is nice.

6. Some people, including some in the positions of influence in the media, politics and elsewhere, claim that religion and politics cannot mix. They assert that religion belongs solely to the private sphere and must not trespass into the realm of political or economic life. Although this is often treated as a universal truth, it is a view largely confined to the modern-day European context. In previous centuries, and in most parts of the world today, it has been accepted that religious belief of its nature addresses the whole of life, private and public. It is not possible to separate the way a person perceives his or her place in the created order from their beliefs, religious or otherwise, about how the world’s affairs ought to be arranged.
7. The claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is, in any case, frequently disingenuous – most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the churches to speak on political issues so long as the church agrees with their particular line. But Christian engagement with political issues has to go deeper than aligning the church with one party, policy, or ideology.

Why I agree with the National Secular Society, for once

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The UK Parliament is currently debating the Local Authority (Religious etc. Observances) Bill. It was introduced as a Private Members Bill by the Conservative MP Jake Berry, who recently said that it provided “freedom to pray and to hold prayers at the start of council meetings, should that local authority wish to do so.” at a committee stage debate on the Bill.

He also stated that it was designed to combat “an aggressive and unwelcome secular attack on our core British values.” This is, no doubt, referring in part to a ruling in 2012 that prayers before meetings of Bideford Town Council were unlawful if held as a formal part of the meeting, following a challenge by the National Secular Society and an atheist town councillor.

There have also been a couple of amendments tabled by other Conservative MPs to the Bill. Edward Leigh MP has proposed a close which requires local authorities to “keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundations of the United Kingdom” when religious observances are held. Phillip Davies MP has also proposed that prayer actually be a compulory part of Council business (“the business at a meeting of a local authority in England shall include time for (a) prayers or other religious observance, or (b) observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief.”).

Now, I am a Christian, so you may expect me to wholeheartedly welcome these moves. However, far from welcoming them, I actually fear for the implications of the Bill and the amendments, both socially and theologically.

To legally oblige people to pray during public meetings, or at any time, regardless of their faith or lack of faith is pointless at best and counterproductive and divisive at worst. One of the reasons I’ve heard many times for people’s lack of respect for organised religion is the way they feel it was forced down their throats during compulsory religious observance when they were at school. Making people do something regardless of their will is a sure fire way of turning them off of the thing you are trying to encourage. In fact, more than turning the, off of it, it breeds outright hostility to the act and to those who take part in it.

Also, the clear indication that Christian prayer be the form of prayer which takes place not only alienates atheists, agnostics, humanists etc. but also those of other faiths who play an active and important part of our public life. To do that to anybody is wrong, but to do it to democratically elected officials carrying out their mandated duty is mind boggling. This is especially true when you try to justify the reasoning behind it. There is nothing stopping people praying together before meetings or even silently before it, but does it actually have a place in the business of a local authority? I would say not.

Assuming the reasoning behind this Bill is to allow people to follow Jesus’ teachings, why not look at what Jesus himself had to say,

“While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’” (Luke‬ ‭20‬:‭45-47‬ NIVUK)

“‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew‬ ‭6‬:‭5-6‬ NIVUK)

Now, these verses don’t mean that all forms of public prayer are bad, but do show that an insistence on praying publicly demonstrates a desire to show off one’s own righteousness rather than actually conversing with God, the reason for prayer. Doing these things in private will be rewarded, showing off on public is, in Jesus’ own words, hypocritical.

Nobody has banned prayer or limited our right to do so, but we must realise that there is a time, a place and a method. Putting prayer at the start of business of a secular meeting as a compulsion is none of these things. I don’t often agree with the National Secular Society, but they are spot on here. It is simply not appropriate, especially to enshrine it in law.

If the Conservative Party want to “keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundations of the United Kingdom” then maybe concentrating on justice, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and love for your fellow human being rather than battling a form of persecution which simply isn’t there.

Testing times?

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The picture above has appeared on my Facebook timeline a lot over the past couple of years. It is always there because a friend of mine has Iiked it meaning, by extension, that they agree with the idea of automatic drug testing for welfare claimants.

Now, I’ll start by saying that I have a deal of sympathy with the reasoning behind wanting this. Why would we want state funding for illegal drug use and the illegal drug trade? Why would we want to see money meant to allow people to live when they have fallen on hard times be wasted on drugs?

There is a higher than average proportion of benefit claimants who are problem drug users and an estimated 100,000 of these are not getting any treatment. It is an issue and one which needs to be addressed.

However, is compulsory drug testing of welfare recipients the answer? Let’s assume for a moment that the idea is testing of those on means tested benefits, not universal ones like Child Benefit or State Pension. So, are we testing all those on Tax Credits (which will include most of the people I know who agree with this idea)? They are welfare recipients and “want” to be so as they have voluntarily completed an application for the Tax Credits they receive.

I’ll assume, again, that this is not a form of welfare people are thinking of. I’ll assume that forms of unemployment benefit are the ones meant. So, will that include disability, incapacity, sickness or carers’ benefits? Benefits meant for people who cannot work, rather than those who are able to but, for whatever reason, aren’t working? This would seem rather churlish, especially as many of the people on these benefits are physically or mentally incapable of becoming drug users or, in the case of carers, are actually fulfilling a role which saves the state money.

So, I assume, yet again, that what is really meant is drug testing for those on Income Support or low income benefits. Well, my first question to anybody who suggests this is whether they, if they were unfortunate enough to find themselves out of work, would be happy to undergo compulsory drug testing. I suspect that, although they would go ahead with it, they would feel rather uncomfortable and demeaned further by the insinuation and invasion of the process.

Also, as of the latest figures in May 2014, there are 2.47 million ESA claimants and 5.2 million working age benefit claimants in the UK. Who pays for the testing? Not just the kits, but the human resourcing and facilities for the tests to take place? How often do the tests take place?

And what happens if a test is failed? Do they lose benefits completely and live on… well, nothing? Or do they undergo compulsory rehab? If so, who pays for that?

Suddenly this is frighteningly expensive or frighteningly inhuman. Either way, although the suggestion is borne from genuine concern and a real issue, it is more of a knee-jerk reaction to the current fad of demonising those on benefits than it is of trying to solve a real human problem.

Addiction is an illness. Like all illnesses it requires treatment and work on both sides to overcome. I am no expert in this field, but it seems to me that those who are experts are probably in a much better position to come up with a workable solution than I am. Or people posting a photo on Facebook are. Or politicians who have spent the last five years cutting funding for drug rehab projects are.

Let’s start getting the right people suggesting solutions for problems and stop letting our own prejudices get in the way of that.