Posts tagged: politics

What you believe does matter

By , 14 May 2010 6:28 pm

First of all a quick alert or ‘heads up’, as the Americans say. Tyndale are planning to let the digital version (for Kindle ) of Shadow and Night be a free download for a short period (Monday the 17th to May 31). It should be on Amazon.com. This is a fantastic opportunity to get the series kickstarted by alerting your friends, neighbours, etc. If you could get a Kindle in the UK I would almost be tempted to buy one just to get my free download.

And now back to politics. As most of the world probably knows by now the UK has a coalition government. The bulk of it – and the Prime Minister David Cameron – comes from the Conservatives; the remainder – and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – comes from the Liberal Democrats. The authors and supporters of such an unlikely deal claim that a blended government is what we want in Britain and my limited soundings suggest that they are probably right.

On balance I am in favour of coalitions. I tend to agree with the theory that the natural tendency to excess within one party is balanced by the restraint of the other party and vice versa. Certainly Dave and Nick seem to get on very well and the fact that the chill economic winds continue to blow very strongly outside is a strong discouragement to either party to storm out into the night. And has been widely pointed out, much of Europe operates on a coalition basis.

Well I wish our coalition well and its make-up is close to what I had vaguely hoped for. Nevertheless, despite enjoying a national politics in which peace seems to have broken out, deep down I find myself uneasy about coalitions. It seems to me that there is something slightly troubling about the effortlessness with which modern politicians find themselves in coalitions. We have all seen the pattern. First we get an election campaign marked by politicians uttering loud proclamations of the unshakeable principled rightness of their own policies and angry denunciations of the vacuous folly of their opponent’s. Then, after the election, they suddenly kiss and make up and serve together in the same cabinet. Is it that the desire for peace has overridden animosity? Or is it possible that, in this postmodern world, principles aren’t quite as eternal and inflexible as they used to be? After all, if there is no ultimate truth, sharing a ministry with your enemy is hardly the worst of crimes. You cannot be damned for compromise; if there is no damnation. If this is at all true it is yet another reminder of the great principle that what you believe really does make a difference how you live.

On a second European point, my attention was drawn this week to the existence of a group of countries termed by economists PIIGS. This is Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Some people attempt to link the UK with the PIIGS but I understand there is the recognition that we are slightly different; we may be financial sinners too but our sin is of a different nature. The PIIGS are increasingly worrying leading economists who they think are in danger of triggering a collapse within the Eurozone due to their poor fiscal policies, endemic financial disarray and – say it not too loudly – culture of dishonesty, at least as regards paying taxes. Now in the definition of the PIIGS no one can fail to notice the fascinating resurgence of the old Catholic-Protestant faultline that goes back at least 500 years to the Reformation. Cultures run deep, history matters and, let me repeat, what you believe does make a difference.

Interesting times

By , 7 May 2010 6:49 pm

It is difficult to avoid talking about the election at the moment so I may as well go with the flow. As it stands, as I write this on Friday, 7th May the Conservatives have by far and away the largest percentage of the vote but do not have not enough seats to give them an absolute majority. The result is that they are currently seeking the collaboration of the Liberal Democrats in ensuring a working majority in the House of Commons.

Let me make several observations which may or may be new to you.

  1. This really isn’t a stunning victory for David Cameron. After the monumental financial disasters and bunglings of the Labour government you would have thought that the Conservatives should have been able to utterly dominate an election and have something like a 100-seat overall majority. But Cameron comes over as aloof and privileged and has surrounded himself with some ‘advisers’ of dubious merit and morality. Actually, it’s hard to find even a Conservative who doesn’t end up apologising for him. Assuming Cameron does take power, he’s either going to have to shape up very quickly or they will have to find a replacement.
  2. Although you can read the voting various ways it does seem as though it was largely negative and the votes were cast more against than for. A lot of people voted for any candidate that could block Brown’s Labour. Many others voted for Labour simply to avoid the triumph of Cameron’s Conservatives. And most people who voted for the Liberal Democrats voted for them because they were neither Conservative nor Labour. Curiously enough all this doesn’t bother me. Why not? I am becoming very distrustful of political messiahs; it seems to be an inescapable law that the greater you are voted in with enthusiasm, the more rapidly you will be viewed with disillusion. So for any new Prime Minister to start at the bottom is probably not a bad thing.
  3. Although the terms of any political deal between parties would normally be something that was thrashed out over many days the current financial crisis is speeding things up. I suspect no politician wants to risk being held to blame by the public for a slide in the already weak pound. My guess is that by the end of this weekend we will probably have some sort of agreement. It’s an ill wind …
  4. Finally, let’s hear a small round of applause and praise for the Queen whose status as monarch acts as some degree of solidity at this time of fluidity. Since her accession to the throne in 1953 she seen some 12 Prime Ministers and Americans can tell me how many presidents she has outlasted. I was fascinated to read how she played a major role in a particular political crisis when ‘in the absence of a formal mechanism within the Conservative Party for choosing a leader it fell to the Queen to decide whom to commission to form a government’. Which she duly did. When was this? 1956! I am not a strong monarchist but in a democracy a sane and sensible king or queen has a use. Especially in ‘interesting times’.

Have a good week.

On elections and speeches

By , 30 April 2010 6:26 pm

There’s lots of things I could write about, including some to do with writing, but actually the election is dominating almost everything here at the moment. It is a strange thought that in a week from now it is most likely that we will have a new prime minister. It is an even stranger thought that at the moment no one knows who it will be.

In an election campaign that had already been proving fairly interesting a joker was played on Wednesday when Gordon Brown’s microphone stayed on long enough for him to mutter a despairing cry about how he had just been talking with ‘a bigoted woman’. Interestingly enough, the microphone was supplied by Sky (proprietor Rupert Murdoch and supporter of the Conservatives) and apparently there is/was an agreed protocol that such private comments are to be kept private. The matter didn’t do Gordon any good at all, although it was curious to see him talk about himself as a ‘repentant sinner’ as the whole incident was replayed endlessly on British television. The language of Scripture, if little else, is still deeply embedded in the man.

Last night was the third and last of our television debates and I’m afraid I watched it all although at the end I rather wished I could have my time back. I learnt very little although I do have to say that I found Nick Clegg’s performance rather shallow; if I hear him defend his proposed immigration amnesty one more time on the grounds that it ‘will get illegal immigrants out of the hands of gang masters’ I will scream. What was interesting – and is the point of this blog – was with absolutely everything to play for, all three were curiously boring and dull. No one took up high flights of rhetoric, no one seriously strove for wit or humour and there wasn’t even much of an attempt by anyone to skewer their opponent with some deadly barb. The whole thing fumbled and bumbled along in the foothills of rehearsed oratory; the bland faced the bland with theatrical swords and British politics was much the worse for it.

At the end of the debate I asked myself why, with an audience of eight million, no one tried to strive for the heights? Those even more cynical than me suggest that it is because no one really wants to win this election; as a wise commentator pointed out, whichever party wins this election will have to make such unpopular choices as to risk being out of power for a generation. In the end I decided that television has a lot to answer for in reducing the quality of debate and here I return to Brown’s gaffe.

I can’t help but feel that the fact that everything is now recorded means that people are reluctant to take risks. Let’s face it: try and make some stunning attack on your opponent and slip, misjudge your words, bungle that quip and your demise will be endlessly recycled. Slightly misjudge your criticism and you will be pilloried before an infinite number of viewers. There is no forgiveness with television. Stand again in another four years and the same clip will emerge to haunt you. Jesus said ‘But I tell you that people will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken’ (Matthew 12:36). The media have brought that forward from the Last Judgement to the present. In fact, I wonder – and here’s a challenge to you, readers –whether anybody has ever made a truly great speech before a television audience.

We know why you believe what you believe…

By , 23 April 2010 7:16 pm

We are in the middle of the run-up to the general election here and in two weeks’ time we will probably have a new government of some sort installed. Not for us the luxury of a long American interregnum. If you’ve been following what’s going on you will have realised that we in the UK experimented this time round with a series of television debates that has utterly galvanised things. For all my life, the Liberals or the Liberal Democrats have been a mere curiosity in national politics, a harmless irrelevance in what was always a race with two contenders. Now suddenly they seem to be capable of shaping the next government. I shall reserve a fuller judgement on the television debates until after the third one. Even at this stage however I can say that they have been both a good and a bad thing. Positively, they have certainly aroused interest among the general populace (I was gratified to find that most of my students are going to vote). Negatively, they are reducing complex issues to soundbites.

It’s the soundbite thing that worries me. A colleague of mine was pointing out that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who is pro-Europe, seemed to have reduced his opposition on the vexed topic of our European links to a single stereotype. It is that the only people who are anti-Europe are those old-fashioned souls who nostalgically hanker after the days of the Empire, who have no understanding or knowledge of the modern Europe or its languages and who are probably slightly racist. Now, of course Nick Clegg never actually said that but my colleague is I think right: this is how opposition to Europe is portrayed. The reality is, of course, that you can be a Francophile or a lover of German culture (and I would put myself in both categories) but nevertheless have very real questions over the European experiment. My concerns for instance, lie in several areas and racism is not a part of them. One is whether we really need another level of bureaucracy. (I remind you that in Wales we already have some legislation coming from Cardiff and some coming from London; most of us are not vastly enthused about yet another series of bureaucrats issuing forms.) Another is the fact that some European countries are corrupt on a scale which renders our MPs pure amateurs. In business one does not normally enter into partnerships with those who habitually fiddle the books; I see no reason to break this rule at a national level. The third issue is quite simply that I do not see all cultures as being interchangeable and I’m not convinced that the world is much better by creating a single uniform one. There is much that is good in British culture that I would like to encourage and preserve rather than see diluted (or perhaps it is ‘die looted’) through some careless foreign union.

Now the interesting thing is that this type of assumption with respect to one’s enemies is fairly widespread. I can think of many arguments where no attempt has been made to recognise that the reasons for belief or non-belief in a position may actually be really quite complex and varied. If someone is uneasy about immigration, it is assumed that they hold this position simply because they are racist. Or if you want to decrease the prison population, it is assumed it is because you are soft on crime. We have a stereotype of the opposition and we expect them to fit it.

Such smearing – and the word with its connotations of rubbing out detail is very appropriate – is very common. The implied stereotype is actually rarely precisely stated – that of course would give the game away and invite the rebuttal – but it is nevertheless made pretty plain. Of course it happens elsewhere. It is generally assumed that most people who are Christians are Christians because they were ‘brainwashed’ as children and have never really considered the alternatives. The fact that some of us became Christians later in life is a little bit too complex.

Now I could leave this argument exactly there. Nevertheless I suspect it works on the other side of the fence as well. I have no idea what makes atheists atheists but it may well be that I have created my own stereotypes there. So for instance when we hear that someone has lost his or her faith it is all too easy to assume that it is the moral claims of Christianity rather than its intellectual justification that has become a little bit too difficult to bear.

So on the edge of the election let me make a plea for us to be prepared to work to say not just that we hold such a position but why we hold such a position. And at the same time let’s be not assume that those who disagree with us, disagree with us for the reasons that we expect.

The impending election

By , 9 April 2010 7:58 pm

Funny the difference a week can make. Easter weekend was cold and we were definitely on the tail end of winter; from the top of the hill behind our house you could make out white smears of snow on the top of the Brecon Beacons. Yet in the last couple of days the temperature has suddenly risen and we have a nice stable high-pressure hanging over us. Indeed the sound of the lawnmower has been very common. In fact, the weather is so stable that all being well we will go out to Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire tomorrow and do some birdwatching. Ironically the nice weather has coincided with me desperately writing notes for the last six weeks of teaching. So I’ve seen even less of it than if I had been at college. Oh well!

It’s also been a week of change in that we have moved from general election being imminent to it being firmly on the calendar. It’s actually set to be a very interesting battle as it is something of a three-cornered fight and no one is sure whether there will be an overall winner. It is generally agreed that the British political system is fundamentally flawed, as the winning member of parliament in a constituency is elected on the basis of the maximum number of votes. No nonsense like proportional representation or transferable votes! The result is that there is going to be a lot of tactical voting where you vote for someone you don’t like it much on the grounds that he or she is more likely to win than the person you really don’t like at all. It sits ill with the conscience and seems to be a form of lying.

We’ve even had our first politician at the door although he really just wanted to post a leaflet. Fortunately for his sake, he was a Welsh Assembly member for Plaid Cymru who are largely blameless of anything except a naive woolliness about what they really want Wales to be. So I let him be and indeed was moderately polite to him.

Our constituency, Swansea West, is a traditional Labour one, going back to the days when the steel industry ruled the area and Labour actually represented socialism. One of the interesting battles is going to be whether Labour continue to hold the seat. The previous Labour MP, who was much respected, has just retired after an enormously long innings (sorry, do Americans understand the word innings? A long time batting at cricket). He has however been replaced by someone ‘parachuted’ in from outside the area. The newcomer is one Geraint Davies who lost a London suburbs seat in 2005. Much is being made of the fact that he was allegedly the most expensive MP in his last year in Parliament, claiming £176,026 in expenses and costs, and sending £38,750 worth of mail and 130,000 first-class stamps.

And here I’m pleased to report my first genuinely Christian act of the election. When I mentioned him to the Plaid fellow at the door his simple response was ‘Ah yes, the crook.’ At which point I murmured something along the lines of ‘well we don’t really know that do we?’ Not exactly the high point of grace was it? But I think it gives you some idea of the mood in the electorate. This is not only going to be an interesting campaign it’s also going to be pretty nasty.

Have a good week

On the current British political scene

By , 19 February 2010 6:29 pm

In case you are not resident in the UK let me tell you that this has been a long cold winter and even here in normally mild Wales we have seen snow flurries almost every day this week. In many ways the weather seems to be echoing the gloomy political scene.

A general election has to happen in the next few months and I have to say that in all my experience of British elections this is the most dispiriting one I have ever come across. Various people whose opinions I utterly respect have shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to vote.’ I quite sympathise: I will vote but I’m not sure for whom and it’s very much on the basis of the lesser of a number of evils. Let me summarise the contenders as I see them.

First of all, we have the incumbent Labour Party and perpetually glum and scowling Gordon Brown. Even Labour supporters can come up with no enthusiasm for the man who as long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer (and so responsible for the nation’s finances) must be held to blame for the appalling financial state that we find ourselves in. In fact it is difficult to avoid using of Gordon the phrase that I believe C. S. Lewis used of Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary prior to the First World War, that ‘he has done as much harm to the country as one man possibly can do.’ As I write this, I’m trying (and failing) to think of anybody in Gordon’s dreary Cabinet for whom I have anything like respect. The new Labour dream that began so promisingly when Blair came to power has now gone very sour indeed. There is now no desire for reform, but merely the desperate urge to hold onto power. So far the Labour Party has not unveiled any political manifesto for the future but it is essentially ‘We are not the Conservatives’.

Secondly, we have the Conservatives under David Cameron. Unfortunately, no one really seems to know what he believes in and there is some question whether he even believes in himself. As a very English public schoolboy with a very substantial personal fortune he is not someone that the ordinary person identifies with and certainly not here in Wales. He is more a 19th century figure than a 21st. Cameron is widely portrayed by cartoonists as a façade over an empty nothingness and there is something in that. The Conservatives cannot even escape the accusations of financial incompetence that hang over the Labour Party; after all it was their idea under Mrs Thatcher to dismantle British industry in favour of banks and bankers. So far the Conservative party has not unveiled any political manifesto but it is essentially ‘We are not Labour’. So unappealing are Cameron’s Conservatives that they are only just slightly ahead of Labour in the polls which is a pretty remarkable feat.

Thirdly we have the Liberal Democrats under…  Ah, yes, what’s his name? Oh, Nick Clegg, a man whose hallmark seems to be blandness. On the positive side, Nick’s financial spokesman is Vince Cable, who by universal, if grudging agreement, is the only senior politician to have warned of the pending financial catastrophe and who very sensibly wants a way forward that does not involve returning to the bad old days. Yet the Lib Dems’ social agenda, apparently based on a boundless faith in human nature, is alarming. And anyway there is a widespread belief that the Liberal Democrats really don’t want power because they actually like being in that state of permanent opposition which gives them the privilege to make all sorts of promises in the sure and certain knowledge that they will never have to actually implement any.

Here in Swansea we also have the option of voting for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, but given that Wales has no resources other than a boundless supply of rain, sheep and talkative politicians the idea of Welsh independence is far from enchanting.

The problem of choice is multiplied by the fact that there are real and profound issues to do with the future of Britain. You feel that one of the biggest distinctions between Britain and the USA is that Americans have always held to some sort of vision of what they are. In in our own little way we never really got round to the ‘vision thing’; we just kept muddling on in the hope that something would work out. That was never a very good policy and in the midst of a major economic crisis and unravelling multiculturalism it looks particularly bankrupt.

Those who pray, might want to pray!

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