Tag Archives: House of Lords

Radical christianity and tolerance

[n.b. I had this prepared prior to the events in France last week. If anything I think it is more pertinent now when discussing the backgrounds of the perpetrators of the violence witnessed and some media commentators have used the word ‘radical’ in what I believe to be a misguided sense]

During the Christmas holidays, I found myself (as one does) watching repeats of debates in the House of Lords on BBC Parliament. One that caught my attention was from the 27th of November, entitled the role of religion  in British public life. The comments varied in quality, though it was mostly positive and civilised. Standing out though was this statement by Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, reflecting on the modern tendency to misuse the word ‘radical’:

I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this vital debate. This has been a difficult week, in which we had the report on the activities of Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, and the radicalism, as the Home Secretary referred to it, of their lives, which brought about the tragic and evil death of Lee Rigby.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to do two things. First, I want to recapture the word radical—and radicalism—from being seen as negative. It enters the lexicon of common understanding as something we despise. As a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that the lifestyle he promoted and spoke of was radical. People criticised him for being associated with those who society despised. He made it clear that if you want to find life you must choose to give it away. He made it clear that the obsession of our day, which is the relentless pursuit of materialism, ought to be focused on the pursuit of the kingdom of God. These are radical truths, and if radicalism is to be seen as a negative and religion is to become known—and if I dare say so particularly Church of England Christianity, of which I am very grateful to be at times a member—for its tolerance and its mediocrity, then we have lost something profoundly essential. The very nature of faith allegiance, belief, and the love relationship that followers have with the one they follow requires radical living.

Radicalism, in our modern society, is seen as extreme. If you hold strong views—if you believe distinctly in certain values—that puts you on the edge of unreasonableness. However, that is exactly what would have been said of Jesus, and many of us are happy to line up with him. That radicalism is the pursuit of justice, the sharing of the commitment of one’s life, and the giving away of oneself. That is the radicalism that we need to discover in our century.

When I think of radical people I am delighted to mention two people who live in the noble and right reverend Lord’s own area of Oxford: two very dear friends of mine, Tom and Jane Benyon. In the last three years, these two people—one in their 60s, one in their mid-70s—have walked 1,500 miles to raise £2 million for the poorest people of the broken communities of Zimbabwe. Why does a former Conservative MP from another place choose to commit himself to the task of walking around England when he needs a hip replacement, in order to raise money for the people of Zimbabwe, for which he gets no gratitude from the British Government, let alone the Zimbabwean Government? It is because of his radical pursuit of the conviction that he says Jesus has placed on him and on his wife—the founder of the first food bank in Oxford, now a network of food banks; it is because the radical pursuit of Jesus, of belief, of conviction, leads you to defined and distinct actions.

The embrace of people on the outside is not about a tolerant place in which we can all feel easily comfortable, it has to be about a radical place in which we make distinct decisions to help those on the margins, to choose to act with justice, to receive those who have little and to give to them, even from our little. The Economist, just a few weeks ago, had an amazing report on the growth of the church in China—fascinating: 300 million committed believers, followers of Jesus, in China. It is amazing—almost more people than the population of the United States. However, the Economist concluded with a very interesting reflection: what, it asked, would kill this church dead? The answer was: if it becomes institutionalised, if it becomes a state-accepted church. In that case it will accept the tolerance required by the state and the system; it will lose its edge; it will give way to being simply an accepted mediocrity. It will no longer challenge its society. And so it will die. Let us get radicalism back into the agenda of our faith.

It is worth noting a later comment from Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve on the matter of toleration, whose views are more similar to my own:

I want to make three points. First, this right [freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as stated in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights] is the successor to the great traditions that established the importance of religious toleration in north-western Europe, above all in Britain and the Low Countries in and following the Reformation. Today, toleration is often interpreted in a tepid way as no more than a matter of putting up with something, so as to demand no more than mere indifference. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hastings I take a more radical and classical view of toleration. Nothing could have been further from the view of the early protagonists of religious toleration than the thought that it was something tepid or mere indifference. They thought of it as a profoundly, excruciatingly difficult virtue—a duty not to repress belief or to persecute others, even when their beliefs were taken to be profoundly wrong and subversive.

When Oliver Cromwell famously wrote in 1650 to the Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland with the words:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”,

he was acknowledging that tolerating others’ beliefs can be enormously hard because we may find it impossible to imagine that our own beliefs could be mistaken. Toleration became central to the history of Europe and, subsequently, of human rights, not because it was a matter of indifference but because it was profoundly difficult and yet a duty.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such informed comments on matters of religion be uttered in Parliament. You may find the full debate in the Parliamentary record, Hansard, here (scroll down to 11:53am).

One of the offshoots of this is a question that’s troubled me for some time. We often hear that the fastest growing church in the world is the Chinese, as testified to above, but I never hear of any Chinese school of thought in theology. Are they producing a generation of theologians to inform their congregations and the servant leadership? If not, from where do they draw their theology? If you know what shape the answer may take, then please let me know.

A Voter’s Manifesto (part 1 of 5)

With the general election not terribly far away, it seems like the right time to think through who to vote for. The main parties have yet to publish their official manifestos, though the rhetoric and negative campaigning has already begun. I have tended to be a tactical voter, depending on what constituency I have lived in over the last few general elections. This is not my preference, however. I would want to vote for someone I can believe in, whose policies I can endorse and who I could trust to fulfil their promises and be of sound judgment to make the right decisions as and when they are necessary, but which cannot be anticipated.

So what would I want to see in a manifesto? This got me thinking. Why not just write a voter’s manifesto? I’m not aiming to have anything the length of an actual party manifesto, so this is more a sketch than a detailed proposal. No doubt I will have made some omissions which may be close to someone else’s heart. That is why this is a voter’s manifesto, not the voter’s manifesto.

I had planned to get this posted before the party conference season, but as you may find, it has gotten rather long. So while most of it was drafted before they got underway, I will admit that the section on tobacco was influenced by the Labour party conference. Any other similarities are purely coincidental, though you may well see some policy areas that would not be out of place in a Conservative, Green, Labour or Liberal Democrat manifesto (and yes, there is one area where I agree with UKIP – see if you can spot it).

My aim is not to present a panacea, but to start a conversation so that others may take up the plan I outline here and expand on bits, put some more flesh on the specifics and, if they so wish, disagree with my points and present alternatives of their own. I do this because of a belief. It is a belief that the people, the demos, are those who should set the agenda in a democracy. We should not wait for the political elite to tell us what they think and then ask us to vote for them. We should be telling them what we think and ask if they will fairly represent us.

Because of the length this has expanded to, I will spread this out over 5 days. After the opening 2 sections below the plan is as follows:

Wednesday: Environment, Employment, Inflation, Transport and Healthcare

Thursday: Company Law, Corporate Tax, Personal Tax, Loan Sharks and Regionalisation

Friday: Welfare, Europe, International Aid, Housing and Utility Costs

Saturday: Education, Immigration, Tobacco & Gambling, Culture and Defence

There is no strict rationale for the ordering. Some sections depend on others, so I’ve tried to include the more foundational first, but as ever, I may well have made mistakes. So without further ado, let us begin…

Democratic reform

I include this first because it has become one of the hot topics following the referendum on Scottish independence. I make no bones about the fact that I supported the AV referendum, but the fact that we voted no on that issue should not be taken as an indication that there is no appetite for electoral reform. So while the current first past the post system should remain in place for the election of the House of Commons, I would advocate decreasing the minimum voting age in all elections to 16.

Party whips will be made illegal. I have made the case on that before, so shan’t expand here.

Funding for political parties will be made more transparent, with all donations greater than £100 being declared and made available in a public register. Any donations made on behalf of a democratically elected body must disclose the number of people represented by that body and what proportion of the membership voted to approve the donation. Any donations made by a limited company, limited liability partnership, trust fund, charity or other similar corporate body must disclose the names of the directors and/or those individuals responsible for instigating and authorising the donation.

MPs should be dedicated to their role as a representative of their constituents. As such, they should not hold 2nd jobs, with a 6 month grace period after taking their seat in Parliament. This includes any directorships or non-executive appointments. They should also be prohibited from holding shares (pension funds exempted) during their time in office so as to minimise the risk that they could be compromised by acting in Parliament in such a way that benefits their commercial interests. They shall also declare any and all commercial interests they had in the 5 years prior to their taking their seat in Parliament, which shall be a matter of a public record. If there arises any possibility favouring any of these previous commercial interests, then they shall be deemed ineligible to vote. For any matter which does favour a commercial interest (e.g. a transport infrastructure project which uses a private company) then any MP shall be banned from taking up employment or acting as an advisor to that company for a period of no less than 5 years after leaving Parliament.

Similar restrictions will also apply to members of the House of Lords. However, this will apply after the Lords has been made a wholly elected chamber, elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Debt, Deficit & Austerity

There must be an open and honest recognition of the responsibilities held by successive governments and of the private sector which was subject to inadequate regulation from October 1986 onwards which contributed to the banking crisis, which was part of a global problem caused by laissez faire fundamentalist economics.

To reduce the deficit and bring down debt levels require some level of austerity. The coalition’s measures to attempt to reduce these, which have largely failed, have been misdirected on the grounds of an ideological attack upon the poorest in society, while letting off those who were most at fault for causing the crisis.

As a matter of principle, then, measures to reduce the debt and deficit should be borne by those who bear the most responsibility. This is not to victimise portions of society or to engage in any kind of “banker bashing”. Rather it is about restoring a balance to the economy through restitution levied upon those who created the imbalance.

Many of the measures elsewhere in this manifesto are directed towards this. Some spending will have to be pared back and further taxes raised. Anyone who tries to sing a different hymn is selling a fairy tale. Spending on those who are in need will not be subject to austerity measures, for those who cannot afford to lose more should not lose more. Instead, the spending on areas which cause harm must be pared back.

Tax revenues must be raised, with a marked differentiation needed to distinguish between small business owners and large corporations, which is not currently recognised to a suitable extent in the tax system. Some of the details of this will come later, but there will be a reduction in taxation for the smallest business, but this will be more than countered by a large increase in the taxation on large corporations. This is not to be punitive, but to ensure that those organisations which have historically enjoyed the privilege of paying less than their fair share shall begin to do so. Yet measures will be put in place to ensure that corporations cannot reduce the size of their workforce in order to preserve or grow their profits. Taxation must also not be passed on to the consumer.

Bishops and Lords reform

On an almost seasonal basis, there are calls for the end of bishops in the House of Lords (HoL). At present, there are 26 Church of England (CoE) bishops who have places reserved for them in the upper house of Parliament. In total, there are786 members of the HoL (as of the 1st of April this year, according to Wikipedia), so the bishops only make up 3.3%. Opponents of the bishops posit that there should be no place for religious privilege and that therefore they should be kicked out. Such is the position of the British Humanist Association (BHA).

While I largely agree with the BHA on this issue, I think it misses the point. As I understand it, the historical reason for the bishops was that they could represent the people of their respective dioceses. So while members of the House of Commons would be elected on a regional basis, the bishops would have that same regional sense via their presence in the HoL, albeit their geographical areas spanned much larger regions than constituencies. This may once have been a reasonable basis, but it is now just one of the many aspects of the upper house which is outdated.

Since I started to become more politically aware of things in the early/mid 90s, I have heard talk of “Lord’s reform” crop up on a regular basis. While Tony Blair’s government instigated some changes, I don’t think they went anywhere near enough. The very existence of an appointed HoL flies is evidence which contradicts the claim that Parliament is a democracy. For that reason, I would welcome the proposal in the queen’s speech to reform its make-up.

My proposal to change the HoL would involve removing the places that are specially reserved for the bishops, but not to necessarily remove the bishops themselves. That is, they should not be given any place of special privilege but neither should they be discriminated against on the basis of the “religion”. But this would only be one tiny part of the reform and which I think the BHA focuses on far more keenly than an organisation which claims to value ‘reason’ ought to. As I have pointed out above, the bishops are very few in number, do not exercise their votes uniformly and the amount of influence they have is massively exaggerated by most of those who simply want to rid Parliament of them, without having a positive agenda for Parliamentary reform.

My view is that the whole HoL needs to be overhauled in the way that its members are determined. There are a few different ways this way be done and to be honest, I’ve not made up my mind on which would be better. I don’t have a complete hypothesis of how each would work, but I am confident that it would be an improvement on the modern system.

1) Wholly elected 2nd chamber. The number of members of the Lords should be fixed and then elections should take place as per elections for the House of Commons. To try to ensure independence (though by no means an absolute guarantee, that would be impossible) candidates who are or have been members of a political party would be barred from standing.

2) Mirror the jury system. Anyone who is on the electoral register may be called up for service. Each member would have to serve for a set period of time (maybe a year?). Again, anyone who had been a member of a political party would be exempted from selection.

3) Proportional representation. You may recall that I advocated the AV system in last year’s referendum on electoral reform, outlining why the first past the post system is not the best way of determining democratic will in an election with more than 2 candidates. So if we could not ban members of the Lords from having membership of or association with political parties, we could at least ensure that the proportional make-up of the Lords reflected the proportional casting of votes.

To take a hypothetical (and admittedly, slightly unrealistic) example let’s say that at the next election, where Labour were to win seats, they would them by a small majority, but the Conservatives win their seats by a large majority. On a constituency by constituency basis, Labour may win 55% of the seats in the Commons, but it’s conceivable that they might have only achieved 45% of the total votes cast. In such an instance, Labour would only be allowed 45% of the seats in the Lords.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other possibilities, or even have a combination of measures. Yet either alone or together, these proposals would make the upper house more democratic than it is now. Some commentators in the wake of the queen’s speech were arguing that making the upper house democratic would put it on a par with the lower house and so undermine the authority of that latter house.

I don’t think this is a wholly bad thing. The idea of the upper house should be, in my opinion, the place where the lower house is challenged and held to account on individual bills. The act which enables the Commons to push through legislation regardless of the Lords abhors my sense of democratic fairness. Of course, the lower house is accountable in general elections, but these only occur once every 4 or 5 years, thus negating the idea that we actually live in a democracy. In truth, democracy is only a sporadic visitor to these shores, while hegemony is ordinarily resident.

What would then become of the bishops? Well, I don’t think an awful lot would change. Because when I had a flick through Hansard, what we find is that they don’t really participate much (though they are by no means unique in this). While they kicked up a fuss, and rightly so, about the government’s victimisation of the disabled in the form of the Welfare Reform Bill, even had those bishops who voted against the bill voted the other way, the result would have been the same. There were also many more secular peers who voted against the bill.

For those that may have spent some time in the Lords, taking them back to their local areas would allow them more time to do the job with they are tasked: making disciples, baptising them and teaching them about the life and work of Jesus.

The argument of needing them as a moral voice is a void one, as bishops are only representative of one denomination of one religion (however we might define that), and as I have argued before, religions do not have a monopoly on morality.

So by backing a reform of the House of Lords, my hope would be that we can make Parliament more closely resemble a democracy and free up the bishops to preach the gospel.

Of course, whether any change will actually occur is a wholly different matter…