Monday, 20 July 2015

Piercing the Secular Veil

There is an episode of the American Presidential drama, The West Wing, called "In God We Trust". It follows the challenges of Arnold Vinick, a liberal Republican, who finds himself in hot water with the religious right of his party, particularly on the question of his stance on abortion. Arnie's religiosity had very noticeably faded with the passing years, but just as in the real world of American politics, the role religion had in public life remained every bit as potent. It emerges, when Reverend Butler, one of his Republican primary candidates invites him to come to his church to pray for divine wisdom, that Vinick had not attended church for quite some time.

Facing down the pressures from within his own party, Vinick eventually provides a robust, if unpopular, response to the media storm that ensues. Responding to those that seek to shoehorn religious debate into politics, he ends a press interview with the totemic rebuke:
"I don't see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government.

So every day until the end of this campaign, I will answer any question on government. But if you have a question on religion, then please, go to church."

As a secular liberal, I have a significant and instinctive affinity with Vinick's sentiment. It feels right that religion should, for the most part, be a private matter, and not something that the state is concerned with. I am also weary of any person or group which seeks to use organised religion for explicitly political purposes.

The American experience is, in many respects, the total reverse of the British one. Despite lacking a separation of church and state, there is a much more limited role for religion in political life. Far from being an electoral asset, publicly professing religious belief is arguably a hindrance to politicians on left and right alike. When Alastair Campbell said of the Blair government that "we don't do God" it was a reflection of British public life. Religion is seen as an unwelcome distraction from broader social issues which transcend the theistic loyalties of the people on this island.

It is against that culture that the storm in the Liberal teacup brewed this week. Tim Farron, the new party leader, is openly a committed, born-again, evangelical Christian, and has been since early on in his adult life. Against a tide of increasing irreligion, and in a political environment where religion is increasingly seen as the preserve of the conservative right, this makes him markedly atypical.

Any secular liberal would see no problem with Tim being a Christian and the leader of a Liberal party. Both of my parents, who are Church of Scotland Ministers, recently joined the Liberal Democrats. The late Charles Kennedy was Catholic. Christianity and Liberalism are not incompatible. The two can exist perfectly constructively. Anyone who suggests otherwise probably doesn't understand secularism or liberalism, and the toleration that binds them together.

There ought not even to be a problem with Tim being an evangelical Christian. Certainly it is easier to reconcile theological liberalism with political liberalism, reading religious texts more as historical documents reflective of the morality of their time than purely and unwaveringly the universal diktats of the relevant deity. Evangelical, or more literalist scriptural interpretation, is more hard-edged in its implications for personal morality, but crucially it does not, in and of itself, necessitate the imposition of one's personal morality upon others. An evangelical Christian might insist on abstinence before marriage, and might privately disapprove of those who do not, but few would call for criminalisation or insist that the rest of society ought in some other way to be held to that moral standard.

Secular liberalism does provide a firewall, or a demarcation, that makes it possible hold yourself to what you see as a "higher" moral standard than you do others. Views can be held privately, and are not "illiberal" except insofar as they impinge upon the freedom of others to do the same. It's harm principle 101.

Where things get difficult is when this firewall breaks-down. Many liberals would like to think that this firewall is impregnable. If people who believe same sex relations are sinful or immoral nonetheless treat those in those relationships equally with others, the argument goes, their liberal credentials are unscathed.

The reality is somewhat more complicated. Religion does not manifest itself as a purely private endeavour. The nature of organised religion, in particular, means that theological views gain a social power. It is this social power that often facilitates, even if unintentionally, the stigma and otherisation and discrimination against certain minority groups, including the LGBT+ community. It also does a great deal of good. Much of th einfrastructure of philanthropy and charitable work is sustained and supported by religious groups, as is the cause of vulnerable and persecuted groups across the world, who get precious little attention elsewhere. The social power of religion and faith is not only negative, but those invoking it have to be mindful that it is a double-edged sword and that scrutiny of it is both expected and necessary in a free society.

Religion is not unique in this respect. Private moral beliefs, when shared or expressed in a community, do carry social power, and serve to "enslave by conformity" to use the traditional Liberal lingo. Organised religion is merely the most potent example of this social power in respect of these kinds of issue. The social effect of knowing or believing that others in your community, be it a political one, a religious one, a sporting one or something else, thinks that acting upon your sexuality is sinful, is significant, especially for young people who are coming to terms with it. They inhabit a world where the historical legacy of parts of organised religion, both in its teachings and its soft power, has shaped a world in which sexual and gender minorities are seen on some level as abnormalities or immoral.

This is why I found it so depressing to see some Liberal Democrats dismiss the concerns of other members as a zealous obsession with gay rights. The cause of liberalism requires us to be a lot more demanding as to what a secular liberal society really is. It's not just about toleration and rights. It is also about parity of esteem. It's not enough simply to be against the gay blood ban and for the legalisation of same sex marriage for liberalism to triumph. We also need individuals to feel empowered in the parts of their lives that legislation cannot touch. Until homosexual relationships are responded to with an indifferent shrug, there remains work to do. When someone says, or implies, that they think that by acting on your sexuality you are in some sense sinful, that makes them feel unwelcome and unnatural. That sets back their liberation and, even if unintentionally, pressures them to conform with traditional gender and sexuality roles.

For what it's worth, I think Tim is conscious of the need for wider social acceptance and I have no doubt that in his personal dealings with members of the LGBT+ community he has been supportive and inclusive in emotional and practical ways. Aspects of his voting record on some social issues remain to be fully explained and might reasonably give people cause for caution as to whether his private views have influenced his public actions, be they his interviews, writings or Parliamentary record. On same sex marriage, we can extend benefit of the doubt given his support at second reading.

But his handling of the God question has been poor, and has upset and alienated a lot of people who feel vulnerable in our society: tolerated but not accepted. There were two options open to him. If he does not believe that homosexual relationships are sinful, he could have just said so. If he does believe it, though, the secular liberal firewall needs to be all the stronger. Talking about everyone being sinners is profoundly unhelpful and did nothing to close off the concerns that his private morality seeps into his public and that there is a tension between what his God demands and what liberalism demands. If the firewall were to hold, his answer needed to be in the spirit of Arnold Vinick:
"Every day I am the leader of this party, I will answer any question on government. But if you have a question on religion, then please, go to church."

Full Disclosure: I self-describe as agnostic, believing the existence of God to be unknown and unknowable and seeing no reason why a deity would be so narcissitic as to demand or expect my loyalty. I was brought up a Christian as the son of two theologically liberal Church of Scotland ministers. I sometimes go to church, out of ties to family and friends and sometimes out of a need for self-exploration. I voted for Norman Lamb, but Tim's religiosity had no bearing on that decision.

Monday, 13 July 2015

When's an English matter no' an English matter?

The SNP have decided that they are going to vote against the efforts of the Conservative Government to relax the hunting ban in England.

This is a significant departure from a self-denying ordinance traditionally adopted by their Westminster representatives, who have committed not to vote on English-only matters. That position was a principled one and perfectly reasonable for them to adopt in the aftermath of devolution, especially given their broader belief that Scotland should be in complete control of its own domestic affairs and that English and Welsh MPs should not be involved in those decisions.

There is also a perfectly principled argument for adopting no such self-denying ordinance. England has declined to demand for itself a Parliament or regional assemblies with the legislative competence to deal with their own domestic affairs. As such, it is no more illegitimate for Scottish MPs to vote on matters only affecting England than it was for English MPs to vote on policy matters affecting Scotland before devolution.

This is not the justification given, however. Angus Robertson is trying, disingenuously, to present this as a response to the government's refusal to entertain opposition amendments in the early stages of the Scotland Bill.

There is a tenuous effort, first and foremost, to suggest that the Tory proposals for the ban south of Gretna have any bearing on the Scottish debate about the same domestic issue. The notion that the English debate would have any bearing on what the Holyrood Parliament can or will do in this area is self-evidently nonsense. The original Hunting legislation for Scotland was actually passed by Holyrood, completely separately from that pushed down South. It is a devolved matter and the law in England will have no bearing whatsoever on it.

This is quite different from a situation where a predominantly English Bill has ancillary effects on issues within the purview of Holyrood. It is not even a case where the Scottish block grant is directly or indirectly affected by a change to English departmental spending. It certainly is not like welfare votes, which relate to reserved matters that affect directly people living in Scotland.

The motivation here seems to be entirely a desire to give the Tories a bloody nose. Now I'm in favour of giving this government as many bloody noses as possible. But in doing so, any Scot who condones Scottish MPs voting on English hunting must also accept that it is perfectly legitimate and reasonable for this government's English MPs to vote on and have some control over the legislative agenda for the Scotland Bill and any amendments made to it. The future settlement for Holyrood has significant constitutional, governmental, and practical implications for UK citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to deny the legitimacy of the House to involve all of its members is really to ignore the necessary implications of Scotland voting No on 18th September 2014

I understand the frustration of the SNP at their total impotency at Westminster, despite having won 56 of Scotland's seats. The solution to that, though, is not to snipe from the sidelines, but to get involved where the business of Parliament is really going to get done in this 5-year term. The House of Lords. Already the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are showing that the Upper Chamber is where real influence will come on government legislation, where the Tories lack a majority. They haven't just been given a bloody nose in "the other place"; actual changes to legislation have happened and look like happening. It was the House of Lords that provided some of the most effective resistance and improvements to government legislation in the last Parliament and already looks likely to trump the Commons Tory majority on votes at 16.

If they are prepared to bend their democratic principles, in their self-denying ordinance on English Votes for English Laws, there is no good reason for them not to do so on putting forward nominees for the Lords. It is perfectly consistent, and principled, to say that you oppose the appointed nature of the Lords, but also to acknowledge in the absence of support for its reform or abolition, that it is necessary or advantageous to work within that system to reform it and other laws.

The SNP have got used to having power without a great deal of effective responsibility. The question they need to answer is whether they actually want responsibility. With effective responsibility comes the power to make some significant changes to the way Britain is governed, and to improve the lives of Scots and the rest of the UK alike in really important ways in the next five years. But responsibility also means accepting the limits of what can be achieved, and it also involves a bit more humility about their own record at Holyrood. If they want to make big and real changes to the way Scotland is governed and to transform the lives of those living in Scotland, the politics of distance, deflection and demonisation has to end.

Their approach at Westminster is only part of the story, but is symptomatic of an approach which prioritises the popularity of the SNP over effective if unpopular policy-making. One day, the SNP is going to have to decide: is it more important to be electorally popular or to do the right thing by Scotland?