Does the United Kingdom Have a Future?

The Problem of Unionism

This week, Teresa May condemned the SNP for what she described as their ‘tunnel vision’ nationalism. Addressing the Conservative Party conference in Glasgow she noted:

I wanted to make clear that strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us is a personal priority for me. I am confident about the future of our United Kingdom and optimistic about what we can achieve together as a country. The fundamental strengths of our Union, and the benefits it brings to all of its constituent parts are clear. But we all know that the SNP will never stop twisting the truth and distorting reality in their effort to denigrate our United Kingdom and further their obsession of independence. It is their single purpose in political life. We need to be equally determined to ensure that the truth about our United Kingdom is heard loudly and clearly. As Britain leaves the European Union and we forge a new role for ourselves in the world, the strength and stability of our Union will become even more important. We must take this opportunity to bring our United Kingdom closer together.

But there is one thorny problem committed Unionists like May have. They don’t seem to be able to directly answer the question: what exactly is the Union for? They often talk about economic prosperity and opportunity. These generic goals are hard to generate enthusiasm for at the best of times. Yet after seven years of public sector cuts and rising in-work poverty, they are doubly difficult to sell. But the problem runs deeper. It is not only that Unionists can’t sell their generalised slogans, they are not certain what these slogans amount to. This lack of a positive and coherent vision became blatantly obvious during the Scottish Referendum in 2014. It included the extraordinary sight of an impeccably English PM admitting how much ordinary Scottish voters ‘effing hated his party. He looked like a Persian general at Marathon who had just been handed over to the Greeks. This wasn’t his country anymore. Consequently, the Unionist side wrestled over what they loved about modern Britain (or more specifically what contemporary Scots should love). In the end, the British establishment fell back on Project Fear. It was easier for the No Campaign to imagine Scotland covered in a plague of post-Referendum locusts than it was for them to conjure some new sunny uplands for Scotland inside the Union. And why was this?  Primarily, because the tried and tested symbols Unionists habitually used in previous decades to bolster their story of a single ‘Realm of nations’, had been exhausted by the march of political circumstances. Every declaration of patriotism sounded like an old, slightly grubby cliche.

The Decline of Identity: The Lightning Bolt of Thatcherism

1945 was the height of Unionism in the UK. National solidarity was at its zenith. Britain had a whole series of shared institutions. Not just the BBC and the NHS, but the great nationalized industries which bound communities together from North Yorkshire to Strathclyde. And while the Conservative government remained a dominant electoral force in the post-war world, many Conservative politicians (including Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, and Iain Macleod) understood that to keep Britain united, the Party needed to respect the Social Democratic values of many parts of the country. They couldn’t go imposing a rigid ideological plan without consultation and sensitive application. In this respect, Keynesianism was not merely good economics for these centrist Conservatives, but a method of sustaining a stable national community. But these bonds began to come under strain in the 1970s as economic instability caused the politics of full employment and social moderation to unravel.

The Union was always a state-sponsored creation and as large parts of the state withered in the late 1970s and early 80s) people began to associate themselves more with regional and local identities and less with something called the United Kingdom.  This process predated the emergence of Thatcherism, but its formal adoption by State elites after 1981 certainly accelerated the process. Thatcher’s repeal of the Scottish Devolution Bill early on in her tenure was a signal that she would not compromise like her predecessors, but it was also a sign that she was uncomprehending about the need to renew the Union. Her inattentiveness to this issue eventually decimated the Conservative Party in Scotland and secured the rise and rise of Scottish nationalism. With every laid-off pit worker and every industrial closure, Thatcherism shot bolts of high-voltage electricity through the weak heart of the Union. The Welsh story is a slightly different one (without the surge in nationalism) but with similar outcomes. While there is no overwhelming appetite for a formal separation in Wales, there is little love for Westminster and the apparently shared symbols of Britishness. One thing Mrs Thatcher never seemed to understand was the extent to which her political project of markets and deregulation was in many ways toxic to the cross-national, cross-regional connections which continued to make the Union possible in a post-imperial setting.  This was compounded by her petite bourgeois snobbishness which made few concessions to local identities and customs not infused with the mores of Middle England. These peculiarities would be bent to her policy objectives or else they would be bulldozed.

The Forces of Change

Rapid de-industrialisation and the rise of mass unemployment in the Thatcher era raised key questions for national solidarity which were not answered by the ministers who implemented the Thatcher revolution. As old identities and occupations died out, the government did relatively little to generate new identities and shared occupations. Anonymous, low-skilled service-sector jobs replaced employment rooted in a language civic pride and communal effort. This left behind a bitter resentment and bewilderment of which the political and social symptoms in Britain are still legion. It is principally expressed, however, by a bitter assertiveness with voters talking about a loss of national pride expressed in the decay of their local areas. Scottish nationalists similarly draw on a narrative of mismanagement and decline inflicted by politicians in London.

And what part has the Labour Party played in this sorry tale? At every turn, Labour has been outwitted and outpaced by the forces of change, and found it hard to develop its own reason for the Union. With its own political heartlands now gutted, the old industrial and class symbols which once made sense of Britannia for 20th century Social Democrats has died a pitiful death. And with the destruction of such a symbolic framework, has come the demise of the Left’s deep love affair with the Union.  In 1997, Labour believed it could rediscover its political soul by embarking on the experiment of devolution for Scotland. But in the end, it merely compounded Labour’s modern identity problems. Scottish Labour now feels pulled between a Scottish identity it feels uncomfortable defining, and its instinctive desire to oppose the Nationalists. Suffice to say these conflicting impulses have caused Scottish Labour politicians into a series of undignified contortions which frequently end with them saying very little at the podium. This haziness underlies the reason for Labour’s electoral decline in Scotland. No-one knows what the point of Labour is anymore. Like Unionism more generally, the flame of progressive Britishness has been reduced to a mere ember.

Does Unionism Have a Future?  

These new conditions of dislocation point to a deep and abiding emptiness- a lack of something shared emanating from the imaginary heart of the country. But human beings are by nature story-telling animals and won’t tolerate narrative emptiness forever. They soon start telling new stories which are more closely aligned with their experiences. The problem with May’s Unionism is that she has no definite vision for developing a new story nor a  new set of institutions to embody that story. This fact is made more curious given that her speech this week identifies exactly this task. She noted:

[The] Union which we all care about is not simply a constitutional artefact. It is a union of people, affections, and loyalties. It is characterised by sharing together as a country the challenges which we all face, and freely pooling the resources we have to tackle them. The existence of our Union rests on some simple but powerful principles: solidarity, unity, family.

How does she envision these values working in practice? Like many modern managerial politicians, the Prime Minister talks about issues to be fixed but is less able to articulate what all this fixing is in aid of.  She seems as unclear about the essential glue of the Union as she is about the mechanics of Brexit. Her struggle lies in the fact that she evidently finds it hard to summon up a deep and abiding symbolic language. She is captured by the banality of political prose when she really needs more poetry, more emotion, and more understanding of the images that make many ordinary Scots feel proud. This is not an existential problem faced by Nicola Sturgeon. Despite losing the Referendum campaign, the SNP has a much stronger sense of what it is, and the kind of future it wants to build. In the long-run, it seems that this sense of vision will have a greater effect on the future of Britishness than any Conservative bluster about the Union at the level of the abstract.

The problem for the modern Conservative Party is that they mistake antagonism for a positive project. This is also a legacy of Margret Thatcher, who was defined more by what she was against (state-dependency, socialism, overmighty trade unions) than what she was for. But the Union cannot be conjured into existence by merely bashing the SNP as ‘the enemy within’. Making the Union work takes courage, imagination, and vision.  Yet, it seems that the present government hasn’t the faintest idea about how to accomplish that. Their plates are too full with the complexities of European disentanglement to be seriously engaged in the task of domestic political renewal. Indeed, the Westminster government appears to be continuing with the same shallow politics of divide and rule which will doubtless benefit it electorally in the short-run, but drive the United Kingdom further apart. Should we resist this process? I used to think so, but now I wonder what the point would be. So, these lands can be dragged further down a heartless neo-liberal rabbit hole? So we can have more customers and fewer citizens? Here’s the blunt truth. If Unionism is going to survive, it needs a guiding reason to exist. If Unionist politicians are incapable of telling a new and convincing story about what Britain is and what it could be, it would better for the Union (and 1945 Britishness) to be left to die. The United Kingdom has no God-given right to exist, and Unionists, in particular, should remember that.


The Unhappy Ghost of American Identity: Hauerwas, Bannon and the ‘Emptiness’ of National Promise

Hauerwas and American Identity

For U.S. Christians, the election of Donald Trump has been the cause of a bitter war of words in and between Churches about the nature of the new administration. Many white Evangelicals supported the Trump campaign, galvanized by his promise to appoint a Supreme Court judge who would overturn Rowe V. Wade. Auxiliary to this, there are some on the Religious Right, like Jerry Falwell Jr, who believe that the arrival of the Trump team will herald a new era of Evangelical influence in the White House. Falwell was asked back in January to head a White House task force on reforming the U.S. higher education system.Perhaps such an appointment are a sign of things to come. Likewise, Trump’s policy strategist Steve Bannon has spoken extensively about a return to America’s religious roots and what he refers to as ‘traditionalism’. On the other side of the religious and cultural divide, many Churches have been involved in demonstrations against Trump’s hardline immigration policies. As the Quaker blogger Micah Bales asks:

With the rise of Trump and his proto-fascist movement, I and many other followers of Jesus are asking: What does it look like for the church to become mobilized in the struggle for justice – not just as individuals, but as whole communities? How do we muster the courage and energy to live in solidarity with the many people who may be marginalized, ostracized, and terrorized under this new administration?

While my own sympathies are with Micah, the thought strikes me that both Christian accommodationism and Gospel-inspired resistance might actually circumvent some of the more important issues Christian communities need to wrestle with in relation to Trump. That is because both positions are in danger of assuming that it is the role of Christians to invest the public sphere with morality or decency, whether that is supporting civil rights legislation or opposing abortion. Yet such activism is always to the detriment of first order questions including, what is the proper relationship between faith and public life? And what is the moral and political structure of America? Answer these questions satisfactorily, then you will have a model of Christian faithfulness which transcends the often poisonous debate beyond the occupant of the White House, his policies, and agenda, and forces people to consider deeper issues of American Christian identity. The danger of not asking these sorts of questions is that Christians become sucked into the partisan political systems of democracy, rather than developing their own voice and practice. It is not the responsibility of Christians to make sure liberal democracy works well. It is the responsibility of the Church to be faithful to the God found in Jesus.

Image result for Stanley HauerwasWhat might such Christian authenticity look like? Stanley Hauerwas, the contrarian Texan theologian is an insightful voice in the midst of his country’s political upheaval.  His analysis of the sources of American self-identity provides a valuable cipher through which to decode the often bewildering character of present U.S. politics. At the core of his analysis is a sensitivity to the stories ‘good Americans’ tell themselves about who and what they are. Central to these narratives of ‘freedom. ‘destiny’ and ‘exceptionalism’ is a paradox. The strange thing about America is that Americans are said to ‘have no story’. As Hauerwas put in an article for the Guardian in 2010:

America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be “free”, which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their “freedom.”

Thus, according to Hauerwas, American political identities are always inherently ‘liquid’ because American public institutions are intent on protecting the premise that story-less ‘freedom’ is of absolute and overriding value. What is it like to live under these conditions? For Hauerwas, to be American is to be projected perpetually into the progressing future, erasing all notion of past, custom, particularity, and roots. If America has a public philosophy for Hauerwas, it is a steely technological universalism, which cherishes the individual above the communities to which that individual belongs. While such a social order is flecked through with beguiling choice and playful excess, it ultimately leads to a monotone world where human experience is forced into a single techno-libertarian pattern. As Hauerwas puts it elsewhere: ‘To be sure America has a history, but we see our history as an outworking of our ideals, which are available to anyone, anywhere. America is, of course, a country, with a diverse and extraordinary geography that invites a sense of place. Yet as the most advanced capitalist social order our history and geography…are increasingly subject to the processes of modernity that require standardization. You have to be able to build a WallMart and sell MacDonald’s everywhere’ (War and the American Difference, p. 153).

This logic of standardization and rootlessness is always to be contrasted for Hauerwas, with the rootedness of the Church. While the Gospel can never be identified with any national community or secular political creed, it invites people into a community and a politics. It is a community and a politics ordered by a particular story: the narrative of the God of Isreal and his outworking in Jesus Christ.  At the core of this narrative is not ‘freedom’ but character. God wants to enter our lives, to shape and enrich them. If freedom exists at all in the Gospel, it does so in relation to a God which longs for human life to take on a particular shape and direction.  Life is not self-created but is ‘created’, to serve as a mirror of the divine life. God gives freely so that we might share in a transformed sense of ourselves and others. This doesn’t mean that local identity is of no significance. It only means that social labels like ‘British’, ‘American’, or ‘Korean’ must be ordered according to the shape and direction of the Christian story.  Thus, the Church cannot properly know what ‘America’ means’ divorced from the component parts of the story that keep people Christian. To attempt an interpretation of national identity apart from the Gospel is liable to tempt Christians into a peculiar kind of ethnocentric idolatry.

Bannon and the ‘Nation’

Steve Bannon 2010.jpgHauerwas’ analysis flowed back to me as I watched Steve Bannon’s contribution to Conservative Political Action Conference on the 23rd of February. As the closest thing Donald Trump has to be a paid-up ‘public philosopher’  Bannon provides a vivid (and at tines troubling) articulation of the aims and ethos of the new administration. At the heart of his public vision is the assertion of the ‘nation’ in the midst of the fluidity and unpredictability of the globalized world. “We’re a nation with an economy,” says Bannon, “not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” But what does “the nation” mean for Bannon? What is fascinating is that it is easier for Bannon to say who does not belong to ‘the nation’. He rejects the ‘corporatist, globalist media’, ‘the administrative state’, ‘Muslims’, and the meddling of ‘Progressives’. According to Bannon, the nation will be formed when there is a genuine ‘a fight’ with vested interests.  Why is Bannon so keen on defining his vision in negative terms? In part, the answer may lie in the Hauerwasian contention that the American project is inherently about a story-less future. Consequently, most of Bannon’s claims are less to do with cultural essence and more to do with economic freedom of the nation ‘to do things’ (‘sovereignty’, ‘bringing back jobs, and ‘supporting deregulation’). But these are merely conditions of American choice. They don’t actually tell us what it means to be an American. It is almost as if what is being suggested is that America is what a Trump administration does. But if you think about it for a second, that’s all a story-less politics can really do. It can only talk about conditions of action, it has no account of what actions should be preferred and why. Beyond the defense of doing and choosing, it has little substance.

In this respect, Bannon’s deployment of the ‘nation’ seems to be something of an empty signifier. But this is exactly what we should expect if Hauerwas is right about the structure of American identity. Bannon cannot go beyond the logic of exclusion because deep down he does not know what to include. This is despite all his bluster about how capitalism depends on the presence of “Judeo-Christian values.” How could his analysis not contain this problem of substance? If Hauerwas is right it is not some ‘cultural other’ that has led to a crisis in American identity, but the modern project itself. Sure, the U.S. contains many ‘local cultures’, but “the Idea of America” has always been about universalist liberalism (America is a cosmopolitan country offering a refuge to ‘the poor, hungry and tired of the earth’. So in one sense ‘Americanism’ is the philosophy of universal citizenship so that to live in America is to live ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ at the same time. America has never been a nation like the organic political identities of Europe, built on ancient linguistic, tribal, geographical and religious ties. It is a political experiment in Lockean liberalism. Thus, the most such a politics can do is promise is defend freedom from outside interference. It cannot really build any kind of community with common bonds because there is no real direction at the heart of political life. Conservative activists may try to fill this gap with ‘getting the right guy’ on the Supreme Court bench’ or the assertion of ‘family values’, but most of these reflexes either boil down to procedural issues or turn out to predicated on hating some ‘nebulous’ political other. Of course the same can also be said of the dynamics of much of American Leftism today.  They only know what they are by what they are against (racism, sexism, homophobia) yet they lack a coherent account of what a good life together really consists of. On both sides, the issue of ‘the point of being American’ is scarcely addressed.

This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the fact that ‘American civilization has increasingly re-made the world in its own image. There is now a very real sense in which America’s liberal vision is now the world’s default culture through the power of the U.S. media, military power and corporations. That was the great irony of Trump’s policy of the Wall. It was a measure to keep the world out, but the world increasingly looks and feels like America. This, in turn, raises a thorny question. If America sits enthroned at the heart of a global culture, what exactly is Bannon trying to protect? And how does this nationalist agenda relate to America’s liberal founding myths? Perhaps the election of Trump is fundamentally about a deep recognition of American ’emptiness’ among its citizens. Such has been the relentlessness of American liberalism that it caused the world to ‘melt into air’. By recycling the language of ‘America First’ Trump’s election attempts to reassure us that there really is ‘something called America’ in modernity’s hall of mirrors. The fact that many American Christians have found solace in such assurance would suggest to someone like Hauerwas, that they are not looking to their story, or to put it another way, it is more important to such folk that they remain loyal Americans, rather than loyal Christians.

Standing in the Midst of Emptiness

Of course, it is likely that the politics of America is far more complex than Hauerwas’ analysis first supposes. Not all forms of liberal politics are rootless, nor is there simply one way to be modern. But Hauerwas does seem to have put his finger on the profound hollowness at the core of American public life. If Trump’s election represents a moment of unmasking (the moment when the idea of ‘America’ is revealed as a ‘ghost’) how should Christians led by their story proceed? In his book America (1986), the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard suggests that:

America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, yet it is the stuff of dreams too. It may be the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum – that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the mode.

Richard B. Spencer in 2016.jpgThis description offers an excellent hint about the urgent tasks of U.S. Christians in the age of Trump. In the years ahead the simulations of ‘America’ (its destiny and its enemies) will doubtless grow in noise and intensity, in order to fill the hollowness of the body politic. Public discourse will likely become more bitter as participants continue with the fiction that they ‘believe in something’ no matter how dark or brutal such belief turns out to be. The chilling possibilities of such logic appeared soon after Trump’s election in the form of the White Supremacist Richard Spencer who declared that ‘Donald Trump’s movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people.’ In times of crisis,  the idols of blood, soil, and nation can be a tempting way to the fill the political void. Instead of allowing such clay gods to stand, U.S. Christians need to remind their fellow citizens of the ephemeral nature of political platforms, party machines and even America itself. They must unmask the illusion of national greatness and subject their country’s  most cherished myths to heated criticism. Above all, they must steer clear of those like Bannon who talk about something called “Judeo-Christian values” which are divorced from stories Christian tell about hospitality towards the stranger, strength through weakness, and justice for the poor.

All that being so, should American Christians ignore the political cycle and cocoon themselves in insular piety? No, Micah is right. The Church must stand against unjust policies. It cannot just sit back and watch people being scapegoated. But alongside a willingness to act, Christians need to always place political activity in a proper theological context. Augustine of Hippo, writing of another civilization in crisis observed that while Christians should cherish the brilliance of temporal life as created by God, earthly peace and happiness is like the ‘fragile brilliance of glass’ (4.3).  While ‘sojourning’ on earth, Christians may ‘make use’ of this peace, as long as they do not mistake it for the final peace found in God alone. The task of U.S. Christians should not to ‘make America great again’ nor ‘save the Republic’,  but, to follow the example of their Teacher.  As Paul defines this political task:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12: 12-18)

‘Be faithful in prayer’ says Paul, but what should we pray for? If we take our cue from Trump at the Washington Prayer Breakfast last month, we might suppose that we should pray for the ratings of the President’s media enemies, or maybe even for robust U.S. trade figures in the Spring. But Trump’s bizarre behavior at this event merely underscores the confused state of Christianity in America, where prayer has been confused with the lure of the American dream, akin to some secret mode of positive thinking. But this is all wrong. Prayer, as Paul understood was about service and not about accomplishment. The prophet Jeremiah puts it this way: ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jeremiah 29:7). But this isn’t just any kind of peace or any kind of prosperity (just enough peace and prosperity for Sales figures to tick over) but the kind of prosperity and peace which is governed by the imperatives of justice and care. Such an imperative is not identical with any one political tribe or platform, but it does force us into the public square to contend for both peace and justice. In doing so there is always the temptation that Christians start talking in political accents they have inherited from the wider culture (the language of Progress, markets, redistribution, or liberty) and forget their own story.

What are the key plot points of this narrative? “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). But such a living invitation is not about a sentimental self-satisfied kind of love because as Scripture says, ‘your God is a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24).God desires that his love should burn up all before it, everything in ourselves and in our world which resists his shattering light. This includes political structures which have grown too big for their boots, or else actively hide from view the ‘created’ nature of the world and its gifts. In this mold, Christian political activism is about recalling to the world its deep meaning. The trick for Christians (myself included) to keep their distinctive Jesus-shaped reasons for being political always before them, testing the applicability of diverse political claims to the Good News they seek to proclaim. But such a practice often feels like walking a tightrope without a safety net. If we move too far in any given direction we will be in danger of tumbling flat on our face.  If we immerse ourselves in a particular political theory or movement, we are in danger of submerging the Gospel in an agenda not its own. If we are too keen to separate the Gospel from concrete political situations people face, our faith becomes insular, twee and sentimental. The early Christians were not persecuted by the Roman state because they ‘told people to be nice to one another’, but because they made a political claim about the nature of power and authority. If ‘Jesus is Lord’ (kyrios Iesous) this means that Caesar and his successors aren’t.

The Gospel puts all political parties and ideologies on notice. This is because the Incarnation shows us that the methods of Pharoah and Herod are a perverted shadow of the beloved commonwealth God really intends. The model of public life inaugurated by Jesus is the source of the fullest politics and polis. Unlike its secular counterparts, which are always extensions of coercion and violence, the politics of Jesus is guided by the ethic of love, sacrifice, and service. This is where for the early Church, true community is found. There are times when this radical politics is best served by a pragmatic use of existing institutions and processes to serve God’s peace in the world, just as Paul appeals to the justice of Caesar (Acts 22:22-23:11), but such pragmatism is never an end in itself.We might join a political party or a protest movement, but such an act does not have saving power in itself. It may help to keep us faithful to the Good News we seek to live out, but it can never be a substitute for it. In the midst of the political turmoil, this perspective may help American Christians to continue to tell their story of God’s love faithfully.

Citizens of Nowhere: A Plea for a ‘Red Tory’ Synthesis

As this year shuffles towards its end, I keep on returning to Teresa May’s controversial comments back in September that:“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” I continue to struggle with these remarks, in part because they seem to diagnose a profound truth about the world we live in, but opt for the wrong remedy. True, the processes of Global Capital have left many feeling nomadic, without stability or a distinctive common life. Many of our corporations feel no loyalty to the country in which they reside, but instead, attempt to increase their advantage in a race for profits, a race which leaves an increasing number of their workers underpaid and poor. May’s answer is to reassert the ‘nation’ to the detriment of those in the nation who feel that they owe no allegiance to national flags and borders. These are the untrustworthy ‘liberal elites’ of populist rhetoric who care more about international trade deals, saving the rainforests or the goings-on at the latest EU summit, rather than the single parent in Barnsley struggling to the pay the bills. May’s use of this kind of duality was perhaps an understandable rhetorical flourish after the bolt of nativism unleashed during the Referendum campaign, but it reveals a potentially dangerous fissure which now defines our politics. We are being forced to choose between the world and our own shores, compelled to either root in our own soil or set ourselves adrift. Those readers who are sensitive to historical precedent might notice the striking similarity between such a poisonous choice and demagogic public discourse of Europe in the 1930s. In that long decade before the storm, political opinion was continually being pushed towards clear-cut solutions, in the form of the International revolution or a racist/nationalist revival. History records the outcome of that experiment in extremes. The nationalist and communist utopias were models of the same nightmare. And why? Because any genuinely humane politics i.e. one which can sustain the full diversity of human experience and character is one in which the cosmopolitan and the nativist impulses are aligned. Both represent deep needs in the human psyche and both must be sustained if politics is to be elastic enough to meet the abiding needs of people.

What might such a politics look like? A few years ago, I was convening a conference at the University of Manchester on the hot topic of post-liberalism. In the audience, there were many who were tired of the bland centrism of modern British politics. In a society of rapid change, they hungered for a politics which adequately expressed people’s need to belong. Amid a seemingly faceless world, there was the acknowledgment that many had been stripped of security and dignity. Some participants stressed the need to curb immigration, others to ‘throw out’ the language of human rights. But did such reflexes, really offer the prospect of something better? In the evening, we had the pleasure of welcoming to the conference via Skype, Professor Ron Dart and Dr. Brad Jersek, both prolific apologists of the Canadian Tory tradition. ‘Red’ because like the Left, such a politics seeks the promulgation of social and economic justice. ‘Tory’ because it upholds community, tradition, and locality as key ingredients of a flourishing human life.  While Ron and Brad were clear that Red Toryism was an emergent property of Canadian Anglicanism, it was not a sectarian or overly chauvinistic creed. Rather, it attempted to combine the longing for the cosmopolitan (the search for a universal justice) with the recurrent human need for roots and belonging.  In this formulation, one is a citizen of a given state but also a citizen of the world. Behind this synthesis was Ron and Brad’s practice of seeing politics sub species aeternitatis. As Ron puts it:

(Red) Tories are convinced that the foundation stones of a good state are built with bricks of ethical firmness and religious depth. The religious institutions that bear the ancient myths, memories and symbols of the community past and present are imperfect, but to negate, ignore or destroy such institutions is to cut ourselves off from the deeper wisdom of the past. The Anglicans have often been called the Tories at prayer, and there might be much more in this cryptic statement than has been probed…. Just as the spirit of historic religion needs the ship of the institution to carry it, so the Tory vision of politics needs the ship of the political party to bring the philosophic vision into being. In short, Tories do not spurn the old institutions that carry their ideas into material form. Those who separate ideals and ideas from the institutions that embody such ideas are most short sighted and doomed to unfulfilled longings.

Image result for Ron DartAccording to their account, political institutions are not Hobbesian contrivances for meeting immediate needs, but cultural attempts to participate in the life and order of eternity. For Ron and Brad, a Red Tory is chiefly someone who seeks the deep unity between cultural institutions and eternal values. This attitude has a long philosophical pedigree, from Plato’s correspondence between the structure of the righteous soul and the organisation of the just city to Simone Weil’s ‘declaration of duties towards mankind’. Here the world of time is understood as a mirror of God’s timeless presence. History is not merely a series of unhappy accidents, but the way in which the world of Spirit becomes concrete.  Anything we build here in the temporal world has its analog in another realm of divine mercy: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18). Per this reading of public life, whenever a given cultural form seeks general justice, peace, and nobility of purpose, it transcends its own historical location and becomes a vessel for the souls of the citizenry to communicate with the Creator who is in love with the world of time.  In this vein, it is not a matter of embracing what is universal at the expense of particularity (or shunning the native at the expense of the cosmopolitan). It is rather a matter of bringing these forces together in a single national life. It is for this reason that Red Toryism, both assured us, celebrates Canada’s rich tradition of multiculturalism. The Canadian government’s decision earlier this year to resettle some 39,000 Syrian refugees seems very much in the spirit of such a theological politics. To seek eternity in the collider scope of temporality means seeking unity in difference, and welcoming the stranger as the face of Christ. By opening up their borders to those in need, people became better Canadians, their moral values on a firmer footing.

Image result for Jesus icon refugeeThis is precisely the kind of generous national vision which animates the progressive politics of modern Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party in the British Isles. While the British National Party and the UK Independence Party premise their political activity upon multiple exclusions (based on ethnic, political or continental identity) for progressive nationalists, radical hospitality doesn’t mean losing one’s national story. Rather, it means opening a new chapter in a community’s story, a community growing towards unity and liberality. As the former’s party constitution puts it, the goal of Plaid is to ‘build a national community based on equal citizenship, respect for different traditions and cultures and the equal worth of all individuals, whatever their race, nationality, gender, colour, creed, sexuality, age, ability or social background’ (2.3). In such a generous settlement there is no question of affirming what is universal while denying the role of what is historical and contingent. Both are to be held in perfect balance. Just as a universal God is made known in the life of a specific community (Israel) and person (Jesus Christ), so the contours of human culture should be a conduit for what is shared and eternal. Any mode of national or ethnic experience which glorifies itself is merely a phantom which has forgotten its vocation of service to creation.  We are one world and should never pull up the drawbridge against those who are brothers and sisters, estranged by distance, but equal in dignity. Conversely, it is unrealistic, and even destructive to attempt to dismantle specific institutions that people have built up over the centuries. Refusal of contingency is a fertile soil for insensitivities of all kinds, everything from cultural chauvinism (shown to those who are insufficiently cosmopolitan) to the erasure of beauty and character from our environment. The world becomes a giant shop-window, peppered with car-parks and clone towns. People are stripped of their unique stories (their loyalties, affections, and homes) and become nothing but one-dimensional consumers.

Today, these are the true citizens of nowhere, but it seems unlikely that May’s Blue Tory Party is going to challenge such dispossession. This is the party that directs its bile towards an undemocratic, bossy, and rootless Europe, yet it is quite content to see people sink into homegrown rootlessness, through poverty and meaningless. Such conservatives dislike the thought of power-hungry European officials overburdening British businesses with regulation, but are altogether more relaxed about the burdens carried by those on zero-hours contracts. There seems little evidence that May’s political imagination extends far enough to fully appreciate this contradiction.  If she does see it, there is an equal lack of evidence that she wishes to do a great deal about it (except a few fine words). There is plentiful evidence however that she is willing to exploit anti-cosmopolitan sentiment to connect with electors and her party.

This may be smart politics but it will do little to heal the country after the referendum result. It may even push us further down the post-truth rabbit-hole, a world in which poisons bigotry becomes the unquestioned dogma of our time. But we must resist such siren calls, no matter how ‘respectable’ they may become in the year ahead. It is certain that 2017 will bring fresh exhortations to turn our backs on the world.  But if we are to build a humane politics of roots and hospitality, we must resist the tide. Instead of allowing ourselves to fall into an extreme posture which merely puts the native up against the cosmopolitan, we must seek out a just politics of synthesis. What we need to do through own language, practices, and traditions, is to give space to multiple ‘others’ (living a life which can make the world kinder, more just, ever more worthy of our most cherished ideals). Instead of giving up on universal human rights, multiculturalism, or European co-operation we need to enculturate these things in terms of our own story. We need to apply these concepts so that it gives citizens a stake in a shared destiny, a destiny which serves more than ourselves.  If we diminish either particularity or universality in our search for the Good, we will continually find ourselves in difficulty. We need both a sense of home and a radical welcome to the world beyond our walls. This is the core insight of the Red Tory tradition. We serve our own culture’s interests best when we are hospitable, and look beyond our shores. We become people of ‘somewhere’ when we acknowledge our duty to everywhere. We build up a sublime form of citizenship when we understand our belonging in the context of the human family and eternal love from which we spring.  When done in the context of prayerful openness to God and fellow, our desire for roots becomes a springboard for a deeper kind of unity. In the practice of building a home for ourselves, we long that all should be at home.

The Toxic Contradictions of Trump’s America: On Past Mistakes and Possible Futures

Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpgThe election of Donald Trump was greeted with jubilation in the rust belt of the American Midwest. As a glum-faced Hillary Clinton conceded defeat on election night, whole swathes of working-class America let out a yelp of joy. Finally, said the Trump camp, the country would have someone capable of representing the interests of ‘ordinary people’. But why would once solidly Democratic areas (like coal country in Pennsylvania) vote for a crass opportunistic plutocrat like Trump? Take a closer look at recent history the mystery is soon solved. As an article in The Economist last year noted, in 1970 employment in manufacturing in America accounted for about a third of the labour force. Since then its share has dropped continuously until, in 2010, it accounted for around a tenth of workers.  In April, last year unemployment in the Pennsylvania coal region reached 8.1 % (compared to a national average of 5%). It is this backdrop of despair which offers us the key to understanding much of the appeal of the Trump campaign. As the President-Elect said in front of a Pittsburgh audience earlier this month:

America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy on federal lands and hundreds of years of coal energy reserves. I’m going to lift restrictions on American energy and allow this wealth to pour into our communities, including right here in the state of Pennsylvania, which we love.

While Democrats have recently fashioned themselves as the party of ‘responsible realists’, Trump has no such qualms. He appeals directly to people who have felt kicked around and ignored by globalised elites. Trump promised to give them back their stable communities and they offered him their votes gratefully. But as many commentators have recognised, this desire for a return to stability soon developed and dark cancerous underbelly, a shadow side which Trump gleefully endorsed. The problem with legitimate cries of anger is that they are common lightning rods for cultural misanthropy of all kinds, who tell those with legitimate grievances to go after mistaken or illegitimate targets. Whether these targets are in the form of faceless elites (add your favorite conspiracy theories here) or racial and sexual minorities the strategy is clear. But such theories of the scapegoat have one massive hole in them. They cannot confront complexity. What is always conveniently lost in such easily digestible myths is the fact that social and economic change is complex, and cannot be halted simply by having a trade war with China, deporting Mexicans or clipping LGBT rights. And why is this? Two words, liberal Capitalism. The liberal-democratic culture of the United States has been so dynamic precisely because it has assumed the continual desirability of personal, cultural, and economic ‘progress’. For Americans, change has generally been understood as something ‘good’ and transformation the iron law of history. In the expansive decades of the 18th and 19th century (when settlers expended their energy on taking a continent), this principle of progress felt benign, at least for white settlers.  The land was plentiful, technological progress swift, and culture vibrant. There was a future to be grasped and America was a new Eden in which to build it.  Yet it was soon clear that the Gospel of progress throw up all kinds of contradictions, with which the fledgling Republic had to deal.

 When Progress Stops in a Progressive Nation

Image result for FDRThe first great blip in the American story of progress came with the civil war (1861-1865) when a prosperous industrial north was pitted against a largely agrarian south.  This conflict pointed to a deep division in the American psyche. There were two Americas, one which embraced a faith in the philosophy of perpetual change, and the other which sought refuge in the security of protectionist mercantilism.  The war and the question of slavery had been resolved but the contradiction at the heart of American politics remained. Was the Republic like the older nations of Europe (a civilization in need of consolidation) or a place where bold experiments could take place? If the latter, what would become of those inevitable victims of progress? Could they be absorbed into a neat historical march? Or must they be left behind, smoldering with resentment? The social and economic devastation experienced by Europe in the early part of the 20th century pressed this question on the minds of the American public. What good was progress if it could not deliver human happiness? Of what good was great wealth, if it could build stable conditions? People needed a certain degree of solidity, to make change work for them. Continual economic upheaval could undermine the very community networks upon which trade ultimately depends. There must be an accommodation, points where the liberal-capitalist order must concede something to the old agrarian. This fact came to a head in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929, when the American economic juggernaut came to a shuddering halt. How could there be progress with millions out of work and millions more displaced? Was the Gospel of progress at an end?

Was America about to admit defeat? It turned out such defeat was premature. The election in 1932 of Franklin D. Roosevelt saw one of the most audacious political experiments ever attempted in a democracy. To resolve the contradiction between stability and progress, the Roosevelt administration expanded the activity of the Federal government by investing in national infrastructure. These New Deal reforms offered millions of jobs for the unemployed which eventually helped to revive the U.S economy. Central to the success of these public programs, were their comprehensiveness and clear emphasis upon access to work and training for those left economically inactive by the crash. This strategy was epitomised by 1945 Full Employment Act which guaranteed that ‘all Americans able to work and seeking work have the right to useful, ruminative, regular, full-time employment.’ Capitalist productiveness was to be combined with social and economic stability. And while not all the New Deal reforms remained, they set the framework for U.S economic policy until the late 1970s. For sure the agrarian/progressive divide still raged on the cultural scene (the continuing impact of the civil rights and feminist movement for instance) but they did not represent an existential threat to the creed of American progress as the Civil War and Great Depression had done.

The Reappearance of the Contradiction

Aficionados of modern American history know the next bit of this story. For the Left, it is a tale of defeat and tears; de-regulation, the smashing, and decline of labour, unions and the slashing of public welfare. But for our purposes, the story of the American Right is much more interesting. Interesting, because, although the protagonists in this narrative call themselves Conservative, they do very little conserving and a great deal of uprooting. When Ronald Reagan ascended to the Presidency in 1980, his advisors had a crystal-clear analysis of the systematic failures they wished to address. The agrarian and embedded character of the New Deal settlement, in its desire to slow down and plan for change, had strangled innovation, produced an unenterprising population and kept American enterprise back. Although the New Right was supported by a cluster of religious conservatives, Reagan’s agenda was anything but.As Richard Gamble notes:

Reagan’s speeches abounded with themes that were anything but conservative. He aligned the Republican crusader more closely with America’s expansive liberal temperament. In particular, his brand of evangelical Christianity, combined with fragments of Puritanism, enlightenment optimism, and romantic liberalism, set Reagan apart in key ways from historic conservatism. “How Right Was Reagan?”

Reagan’s program of economic rebalancing reignited the churning rootless forces of economic progress against the embedded institutions which sought to hold it back. Government stimulus was out (unless it was electorally advantageous) and privatisation was in. Nothing should stand in the way of the power of the market. But it was only a matter of time before the agrarian spirits in the body politic would fight back. But as history so often shows, political fight back often comes from unforeseen, and sometimes undesirable quarters. Pushback can be wild and intolerant, just as it can be enlivening and inspiring. The closest the Left came to such a fight back was the unsuccessful candidacy of Bernie Sanders, but in the end, it was Donald Trump (the establishment outsider of the Right) who became the rallying point for the agrarian spirit in America’s body politic at the polls. Yet, unlike FDR’s pragmatic practice of building up institutions to re-embed people (Sanders’ platform to the letter) Donald Trump’s agrarian rhetoric has courted older and nastier elements of America’s past. The scapegoating of ethnic minorities has possessed ugly traces of Jim Crow and the past dehumanisation of Native Americans.

Image result for RONALD REAGANOn the campaign trail, Trump has frequently developed a theory of re-rooting which is focused primarily on excluding rather than building up (tariffs against foreign competition, walls against foreigners, trade sanctions against other nations who refuse to benefit American business). Trump’s instincts are not those of the workmanlike FDR. Trump does not want to plan for change, nor make America more resilient in the face of challenges. Like that old reactionary Herbert Hoover, he wishes to block change by attempting to price non-American goods and services out of the market. Yet, as Hoover’s rather limp time in office amply demonstrates, blanket protectionism rarely heralds the resolution of the industrial/agrarian contradiction. In Hoover’s case, the imposition of tariffs did not herald an America reborn, but a country bedeviled by poverty and recession. Trump is attempting to solve a dangerous disease with failed medicine. And this latter fact should concern us all, who care about the future of American politics. Because failure in addressing the tension between consolidation and progress will merely set in train further tensions that an 18th-century political architecture may be unable to solve. Unless something is built to replace the dysfunction and hopelessness which now blight many communities (like those in the Midwest) cynicism and rage will grow beyond the power of institutional politics to contain. And once that happens the social fabric of America may begin to unravel irreversibly. Democracy, after all, does not rest on institutional arrangements alone but ultimately rests on people’s often unconscious commitment to the virtues of democratic governance (those of tolerance, respect, and faith in public deliberation). If commitment to these virtues fragments, no amount of institutional tinkering can stop a process of political decline. We may not witness this terminal phase during a Trump administration, but unless the decay is addressed within the next decade, the trend towards political apathy and ill-directed rage may be irreversible. The fact that we have gone from the realist liberal Obama to the protectionist authoritarian Trump in just eight years should force Americans of all stripes to take a long hard look at their public culture.

An Alternative American Future: Retrieving Equality

The question that faces a troubled American citizenry is this: is there a way out of America’s present institutional malaise and ideological polarisation? My answer for what it is worth is, not immediately. Trump may be in charge but he faces sizable contradictions of his own. He is an authoritarian and protectionist leading a political party possessing a sizable free-market and libertarian contingent. Such Republicans are very unlikely to cooperate with Trump’s trashing of trade deals and the imposition of tariffs. All we are likely to get from a Trump presidency are only those xenophobic and reactionary elements of the campaign that can be easily squared with more roundly libertarian impulses. This is likely to result in a dogs’ breakfast of measures which will simultaneously deepen racial and ethnic divides in America, while at the same time, make many of Trump’s core supporters poorer and even more rootless. The voting record of the previous Republican congress speaks volumes about the priorities of the contemporary GOP. Congressional Republicans under the Obama administration voted for cuts in food stamps, a reduction in tax for the wealthiest American households and a reduction or privatisation of state-funded healthcare. Any theoretical breathing-space for the American poor supplied by Trump’s much-vaunted stimulus package is likely to be resisted or watered-down by congressional Republicans. Change is coming, but the kind of change few ordinary Americans will find particularly palatable.

But is there a medium-term alternative to this poisonous cocktail? I think there is. The truth that so many commentators have conveniently forgotten in the wake of this seismic election result is that Bernie Sanders tapped into many of the same constituencies as Donald Trump, but if we reflect keenly on the makeup of Sander’s supporters, it is notable that his campaign was eminently capable of attracting both the blue-collar vote and the mainstream liberal kids from college campuses. From where I’m sitting, the Sanders campaign demonstrated the potential for a broad-based political movement, centred around planned change, a moderation of economic excesses and a focus on rebuilding communities through stable jobs, more affordable homes and greater collective provision of healthcare. In short, Sanders wanted to re-root communities decimated by economic change, not by tariffs and walls, but by creating a generous social safety net and strong collective buffers against sudden shocks. Capital would be allowed to flow into such an America, but owners of such Capital would be required to give over a greater portion of it for the public good (roads, schools, hospitals, care of the poor). Through these moves, argued Sanders, American could again become dynamic, but a channeled dynamism based on justice rather than the logic of winner takes all.  Per this narrative, American Capitalism could be turned away from blind, useless growth, towards genuine social development (as we have seen in Denmark and Norway). Sanders’ focus on economic regeneration through a new low-carbon economy was a stunning case in point. But in the wake of the last two weeks, many who were energised by Sanders have become unfocused, fearful and sombre. But this isn’t the time for the democratic movement Sanders galvanised to shrink from the task of renewing the country. As Sanders’ noted on the night of his defeat:

Election days come and go. But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end. They continue every day, every week and every month in the fight to create a nation of social and economic justice. That’s what the trade union movement is about. That’s what the civil rights movement is about. That’s what the women’s movement is about. That’s what the gay rights movement is about. That’s what the environmental movement is about.

Just because Trump has now won the election does not mean that Sanders’ campaign did not have the right analysis regarding the likely terminal contradictions from which the American demos now suffers.  Although Sanders’ progressive politics appears roundly social-democratic to European ears, his philosophy is in fact rooted in a controlling theme in the American political story, one which transcends the tension between roots and change. That theme is equality. By equality, Americans have generally not meant an absolute sameness of material condition (an impoverished communistic uniformity) but rather an atmosphere of fair play, dignity and civic participation which has the power to permeate every social grouping. As the great chronicler of the American character Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America (1835/1840): ‘Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions. I discovered without difficulty the enormous influence that this primary fact exerts on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and habits to the governed.’  And what are the chief ornaments of this disposition towards equality? In Tocqueville’s account, this spirit of equality often manifested as a desire for cooperation, association, and fraternity. Americans may be great individualists, thought Tocqueville, but such individualism always tended to be infused with intimacy, openness and giving. In American statements of rights and self-assertion, there was always something of the ethic of the camp-fire.

Alexis de tocqueville cropped.jpgIn this myth of American community one is accorded the space to go walking, but when one returns to the camp at nightfall, one is expected to be a good neighbour and help wash the dishes. In this political conception, one is not reduced to a mere cog, nor is one free to wander in antinomian bliss. A sense of public obligation is part of citizenship, but such obligation is placed on a person lightly, combined with sensitivity to people’s circumstances and a good dose of generosity.  If Sanders’ ‘democratic socialism’ means anything it is fundamentally about finding a space for the spirit of the campfire in the age of 3D printers and Facebook. It is about building up structures to help people rub along, help one another, and feel secure as citizens. While Sanders’ most virulent ideological opponents charge him with a  ‘European’ handout culture, what is actually being offered is a translation of American equality into modern post-industrial conditions. There is no more West to be won, no more land to conquer. The United States is energetic but crowded by people and history, its resources limited, its power constrained. Now the energy of American progress must be directed towards making the Republic livable for all its citizens. Equality must mean dignity, a hand up when times are hard, and shared institutions which guarantee the basics of a common future. Trump and the reactionaries in Congress will undoubtedly frustrate these aspirations, but a lot can happen in four years. It is up to the Sanders movement and similar social forces to provide a credible alternative to libertarian dispossession and authoritarian cruelty. Only then can America’s internal contradictions be resolved.

Radical and Conservative: In Defence of the Green Party

‘An insane coalition of Trotskyists and Druids’?

In the aftermath of the Green Party’s 2015 Spring Conference, members were denounced by the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley as a cluster of romantic extremists with no genuine interest in the environment. The Greens are not true conservationists Stanley argued because they are not truly conservative. Denouncing the Green Party as an insane coalition of Trotskyists and Druids, Stanley suggested that: ‘[a] true conservationist wants to preserve the environment that they’ve inherited, along with its traditions, farming, heritage, old architecture and ancient ways of living’. By contrast, the Green Party wants to reshape the environment to reflect a socialist purpose.’ Stacey’s rhetorical stance is loaded with the kind of deep tensions which are painfully common in Telegraph journalism. Chief among these is his condemnation of a fictionalized ever-erasing socialism; this from a paper which continues to provide good employ to free market revolutionaries. These articulate men and women are the same cohort who (with all the zeal of the Maoist) introduced market disciplines into every aspect of life.

Stanley himself put his rhetorical flair behind the Republican Presidential nomination of Mitt Romney on the basis that the former Governor of Massachusetts would ‘get the government out-of-the-way’.  Yet these libertarian impulses, far from regenerating the character of nations, have left many countries in a poor state of repair. In Britain, such was the ferocity of the Thatcherite wave that every pre-Capitalist or non-commercial institution was to be judged according to market criteria; from universities and the NHS to the BBC and the national parks. Thirty years on from the triumph of these free-market insurgents, even Stanley’s beloved English countryside is not immune from the relentless logic of market discipline. When Clement Attlee created Britain’s wonderful national parks in the 1940s, he did so in order to fulfill a core tenet of democratic socialism. Citizens needed spiritual, artistic and cultural refreshment. Following in the footsteps of the Arts and Crafts movement (and romantic Toryism of John Ruskin) Attlee saw them as a sign of the end of Capitalist oppression. Society would now be governed by a different set of values. In words few politicians would dare utter today, he argued in 1935:

One of the heaviest indictments against the Capitalist system is that it is destructive of beauty. The widespread ugliness in Britain is the result of putting profits first. Socialists regard economic activities only as the foundation of a full life of the spirit. It is not surprising that many artists and poets are found in the Socialist ranks. They realize that, until the pressure of material needs, it is difficult to get people to think about life in terms of beauty.

Today, the government speaks of nature in altogether less glowing terms. Official White Papers now routinely speak of the countryside as a source of environmental Capital and the provider of ‘eco-system services’. Nature is now packaged, weighed and measure, not for the purposes of a Trotskyist revolution, but in the name of market efficiency. The State (once the guardian of non-market values like civic duty and love of place) has allowed the very earth we walk on and the air we breathe to come under the thrall of the utilitarian money-men. As the website of the government’s National UK Ecological Assessment expresses such transactional logic:

 Examples of ecosystem services include products such as food and water, regulation of floods, soil erosion and disease outbreaks, and non-material benefits such as recreational and spiritual benefits in natural areas. The term ‘services’ is usually used to encompass the tangible and intangible benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems, which are sometimes separated into ‘goods’ and ‘services’.

What is so stinging about the ‘ecosystem services’ concept is its unremitting dedication to a vision of nature which is nothing but an economic organism; churning out ‘goodies’ for clusters of acquisitive consumers. While there are hints of another vision of our world trying to be born (expressed by the glib phrase ‘spiritual benefits’) any trace of Wordsworthian exhilaration is drowned in the cold and unappealing ink of the balance-sheet. Within such a worldview there is no space for the incalculable, the poetic, the romantic, indeed any affection which calls the suffusing reality of the market into question. Such irrational incommunicables must be brushed aside for the sake of the smooth-running of an economic machine. In such a cold universe traditions and old ways may survive but only if they are eminently translatable into the sharp-elbowed vernacular of the ‘useful’ and the ‘productive’. What Stanley is unable to comprehend about the Greens is that by standing against these dominant economic forces the Party is not merely acting in a socialist way, but actively retrieving a conservative impulse. By arguing for a concerted push-back against the supremacy of the profit motive in our politics, Green policies offer space for the reassertion of a venerable vision of human life which acknowledges loyalties older and more abiding than the cash-nexus. The present slogan of the Green Party is ‘For the Common Good’ aptly expresses this ancient instinct in a party often castigated as merely a Hard Left remnant.

Exploring the Common Good

 It is the Green party that now embodies the natural political expression of the more progressive traditions found in dissenting movements such as Quakerism and radical Catholicism. (Jonathan Batley)

Image result for Thomas aquinas

What does such language tell us about the Green Party of England and Wales? To speak of the Common Good is to inherit the rich soils of thought watered by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Burke, and Marx. To ask what goods are common is to depart fundamentally from the arid myths of the money-men for new sunlit uplands (for a new richer story about selves). In this Green story (animated by a desire to love and conserve) happiness does not emerge from the individual alone. Ultimately, happiness is sustained by invisible webs of familiarities, friendships,  and affections: those things which make a house a home, those connections which make a neighbourhood, the participation that makes a community capable of politics. A politics of the Common Good considers how our institutions can meet these deep and abiding needs without severing us from each other or the soil on which we depend. A politics which has lost sight of these goals has ceased to be politics in the strictest sense. Disconnected from notions of the Common Good (which contain many interlocking individual goods) the community flies apart into antagonizing interest groups which are incapable of conceiving of a wider justice. This is the trap in which our culture is presently ensnared. In this roundly Socialist call for sustainable communities, the Green Party nonetheless remains faithful to the Burkean vision of society as a contact ‘between the living, dead, and unborn‘. Yet, in our conservatism, British Greens are always radical. In  this, Greens follow in the footsteps of John Maynard Keynes (a very Tory kind of liberal). In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, Keynes argued that the challenge of modern politics was to produce enough for all so that humanity would never need to worry about money ever again.

 When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

For Keynes, this disengagement of human life from the idolatrous lure of money will finally allow Western civilization to reassert some of its highest spiritual values, forgotten after three centuries of Capitalist expansion. As Keynes reflected in the same essay, ‘[we] shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin’. This, and not the abstruse puritanism of Trotskyism, is the object of the Green Party. We don’t want a world of regimented blocks or party workers but a world of beauty and plenty, which nonetheless respects the needs of the future. In short, Greens possess the longing for a society capable of meeting our physical and spiritual needs. We not only want food and shelter but time for laughter, joy, and contemplation. Our ideal is that of preserving a society, one where each has enough to flourish. This future ideal is expressed through the party’s commitment to a Basic Income for all UK citizens. In this way, Green politics is about diverting us away from the rat-race of merely ‘getting more’ and towards the nurture and enrichment of social and cultural lives. It is about conserving and not just producing, caring, not just amassing.

Toryism as Socialism

“You see in such a world as this, an idealist or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist-must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable. He haunts them at their golf.” ― Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End

Yet, if Green politics is in some sense deeply Tory, how can we reconcile the ecological need to conserve our environment with the fact that Green politics is itself a creature of the churning forces of industrialism and democracy? As Stanley notes scornfully: ‘It is no mistake that the Green Party flourishes in urban areas with a young, often highly educated population and very little agriculture. It is a townie’s movement with a townie’s view on what the countryside should look, function and even taste like. It is bourgeois.’ At least in part, Stanley’s irritation here appears to stem from his belief that one cannot be both a conservative and radical. If Stanley is right, one cannot accept some bourgeois values like human rights and freedom of movement, while seeking to protect the environment (including national culture). Yet, such a binary between rural and bourgeois signifies to my mind, a drastic a misreading of the notion of conservatism in the English setting. If one keeps Toryism to the confines of mediaeval social orders and spacious country houses, one’s politics will always be led to the stiff confines of Brideshead Revisited. In this paleolithic form, Conservatism is always reactive and never constructive, always bitter and never life-affirming. Yet, there has always existed a deeper form of Toryism running through the English political imagination. Its chief representative in the 19th century was Benjamin Disraeli. While Disraeli was a creature of the city  (he was born in London) he believed that the democratic spirit of the urban powerhouse could be harmonised with the concrete traditions and intimacies of the countryside. Indeed, his first coherent foray into politics under the banner of Young England was a conscious fusion of traditionalism and reform. No Tory government since the 1830s has believed that large parts of the country must be left as lifeless museum pieces. Traditions and community must be conserved but they must also serve a notion of public good. As Disraeli put it in 1832: ‘I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad’. Tory Democracy was an attempt to rescue the best of the feudal, the small-scale and the ancient, so it might a restless liberal age, seeking identity, beauty, and belonging.

Image result for ToryismThis political imaginary continued in the 20th century in the work of the novelist Ford Madox Ford. In his Parades End Tetralogy (1924–28). Ford argues that Toryism is more than a creed of titles and country houses. It is a spiritual ideal where land, art, and life combine to form a satisfying unity in the minds of a particular people. Thus for Ford’s protagonist, the virtuous aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, Toryism represents the deep bonds of affection between people, bonds which are of eternal significance. Treating his beloved Groby estate as reflecting a piece of heaven, Ford has Christopher muse:

[The] Almighty as, on a colossal scale, a great English Landowner, benevolently awful, a colossal duke who never left his study and was thus invisible, but knowing all about the estate down to the last hind at the home farm and the last oak; Christ, an almost too benevolent Land-Steward, son of the Owner, knowing all about the estate down to the last child at the porter’s lodge, apt to be got round by the more detrimental tenants; the Third Person of the Trinity, the spirit of the estate, the Game as it were, as distinct from the players of the game; the atmosphere of the estate, that of the interior of Winchester Cathedral just after a Handel anthem has been finished, a perpetual Sunday, with, probably, a little cricket for the young men.

Image result for ford madox fordYet, because such a vision intersects with eternity, it is not dependent upon one set of social relations. Ford could just as easily imagine small-scale socialism or anarchism as appropriate vehicles for his radical Toryism. What really concerned Ford, in the end, was not matters of ancient privilege, but the preservation of a community based on bonds other than market exchange or state-power. What Ford desires (which Parades End attempts to elucidate) is an ethic of community, crossing every occupation and class. To make the point, throughout the books, Ford has Tietjens frequently mistaken for a socialist on account of being ‘a Tory of such an extinct type’. In part, this misjudgment relates to Tietjens’ developing hatred towards England’s ruling class and his siding with the proletariat. As Tietjens laments in Some Do Not: “The lower classes are becoming vocal. Why shouldn’t they? They’re the only people in this country who are sound in wind and limb. They’ll save the country if the country’s to be saved.”  But must be saved for Tietjens? In a word service; a society in which the strong  serve the weak, and where a sense of place binds people together from dell to mill town, from city to hamlet. It is this overriding impulse of solidarity that has caused some commentators like  Alan Judd to argue that Ford’s Toryism means socialism but without the state.  What is true and vital in Toryism for Ford, is not the perpetual rule of gentlemen, but a certain shared relationship between the land, the people, and its past. The people should inherit their birthright (a home, a land of beauty and peace) yet such an inheritance should never be blackened by commercialism or greed. The land of England should be left free to form citizens of virtue and inward nobility.  This latter hope is wonderfully expressed in the final novel of Ford’s Tetralogy  The Last Post. The old oak tree on the estate is torn down by Christopher’s estranged wife Sylvia, an event which serves as a mournful prophecy. Now, says Ford, ‘God had changed sides’.  Next, will come the ‘American invasion’ and the eternal disinheritance of England’s ruling class from its ancestral homes. Yet in the midst of this modern disintegration Ford rings a defiant note:

 Christopher presumably believed in England as he believed in Provvy- because the land was pleasant, green and comely. It would breed true.  In spite of showers of Americans….and the end of the industrial system and the statistics of the shipping trade, England with its pleasant green comeliness would go on breeding George Herberts with Gunnings to look after them…. of course with Gunnings!

Here, Ford suggests that Toryism lies in the land itself, not in any one doctrine of government (much less any abstruse economic dogma of laissez-faire). Indeed,  as long as people love their land and take joy in the little things of life an organic Tory flame will continue to burn. This is why Ford mentions the Anglican poet George Hebert (1593 –1633). This now little-known country priest was a Tory in Ford’s generous sense because he loved his parish, its customs and the rhythms of the seasons. His religion, although sometimes metaphysical, was always infused with the beautiful things of life. At this level of thought, poetry is politics and politics is poetry.  The Green Party of England and Wales is a custodian of this tradition as much as the Tory Party (and is arguably a better guardian). Perhaps most modern Greens would cringe at the mention of ‘dukes’ and ‘land-stewards’ but most would not be deaf to the familiar cultural cadences of English cricket, the slowness of rural life and the close-knit bonds between people at work on the land. Yet, in modernity , these affections are reworked to sustain democratic conditions. If previous generations had sought to defend the things they loved through Magna Carta and the more humane elements of lordly privilege, our instruments are the ballot box and the protest.  Ours is a creed both radical and conservative. Something of this dual impulse can be found in our present co-leader,  Jonathan Bartley. A Christian and an activist,  Jonathan says he has been formed by the radicalism of his Quaker ancestor Elizabeth Fry, and yet he is baptised in the Church of England. He is rooted and yet he is unruly. Yet these tendencies are not Jonathan’s gift alone. Such a synthesis reflects a deep truth at the heart of human life that Greens are well placed to give expression to. Most people want a sense of future without giving up the past. People desire stability without sterility. If the Green Party has such a thing as a right-wing (perhaps I am one of a small number?) this fusion must surely summarise its political philosophy.

Given the above remarks, what might be the future of Green politics in these islands? If the pages of the Daily Telegraph are any judge, the omens are good. After all his highly charged invective towards the Green Party, Stanley is perhaps coming around to our way of thinking. This liberal metropolitan  jet setter (who defines himself as an anarcho-Catholic) now seems to have become attached to the notion of roots. In a recent article for the Telegraph praising Teresa May’s performance at the Conservative’s annual conference, he suggested that May’s policies represented the end of a liberal era in which war, corruption, and money predominated and the formation of a new politics. As Stanley rightly laments: ‘There have been too many wars. Too much hypercapitalism. Too little of the local, of the familiar, of building the kinds of bonds that you get when people know each other and take responsibility for each other. Far too little Christian socialism – which, in the British context, was always more Christian than socialist.’  I suggest that our dear commentator takes a closer look at the Green Party website. He may find in our policies on localism, cooperative enterprise and a just welfare state the kind of Christian socialist politics he is seeking. Teresa May might have articulated a ‘Corporatist [politics] heavy on national solidarity, meritocratic’ and ‘tolerant’ but I believe it is the Green Party which is best placed to deliver this. How will we accomplish this? Not by setting ordinary folk against an imagine metropolitan liberal elite or natives against immigrants, but by protecting the things people love. Perhaps the final word should go to George Herbert: ‘When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by; Let us (said he) pour on him all we can: Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span. So strength first made a way; Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure: When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that alone of all his treasure; Rest in the bottom lay.

Žižek and Orwell in a Divided England: Some Philosophical Reflections on Brexit

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots.

In the weeks following the UK-wide referendum, I felt a series of powerful emotions I can only now express in words. In the aftermath of the vote, I recall being hunched over the radio, listening to a procession of BBC announcers in a state of utter incredulity. After the longest political campaign in my lifetime, Britain was set to leave the European Union. The questions were immediate and searing.  How could my country (the island of Mill, Blake, Shelley and Paine) turn its back on the European project? Did most of us really want a shrunken Albion, receding into resolutely blanketed mists? As the days went on, my mood grew darker still. In the wake of news reports of the most disgusting xenophobia in the open street, I found myself feeling angrily hopeless.  I just didn’t want to be part of this country anymore. ‘Is this what it meant to be English?’ I asked. The liberal cosmopolitan in me shivered at such a question. Yet this stinging query persisted. I needed answers. These were not the rather dry factual answers offered by political pundits and economists, but answers of a more existential kind. I needed to know what kind of country I was really part of, so I could decide whether to remain part of it. My constant companions in these reveries were the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the father of English political prose George Orwell. Both thinkers, it seems to me, offer us the tools for a daring analysis of the present situation, and offer us hope, that a resolution to our predicament might be found. The following discussion is premised on the highly unfashionable claim that there is something in the British (and specifically the English) national character which in part explains our woes, and perhaps how to overcome them.

 The Anatomy of a Nation

The first problem to be tackled in this regard is the matter of nationhood itself. What makes for a nation and what keeps nations together? In a fascinating discussion of political history through the searing gaze of Hegelian theory, Žižek concludes in The Fragile Absolute that nationhood frequently depends upon an artful balance between a sense of particularity (one’s native stories, rituals and institutions) and the degree to which a country believes that these specifics participate in some ideal of universal truth (the peculiarities of a nation that have something to offer mankind as a whole). If humanity were an orchestra, what instrument would we the English play? This is what we might call the gage of national coherence, the two ingredients that allow a country to talk cogently about itself and its role. To illustrate this dynamic tension at the heart of the nation, Žižek chooses the story of ancient Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Here he says is the vivid epitome of a polity constantly wrestling (yet doing so successfully) with the strain between particularity and universality.  What does Žižek conclude? In order for the universal to have its fullest expression in the fractured and plural domain of history, Ideal must first be mediated through particularity.  Universal values (depicted as by Isaiah as Yahweh summoning the nations to Zion) cannot be undertaken as an exercise in uncovering rights which are self-evident (as in the Declaration of Independence) nor can do they appear unbidden from some Platonic sphere of the Real. They must be observed, cherished and solidified within the context of a distinct community of persons who serve as vessels, protectors and diviners of the universal. In this context, Abraham is the ‘father of the nations’ (Gen 17:5) because his faithfulness reveals a single moral order where God rules irrespective of nationality, religion or language. Yet such universal sovereignty could not have been recognised without the individual known as Abraham who made his life an instrument of the universal. As Žižek notes:

 Judaism stands for paradox of Universalism which maintains its universal dimension precisely by its ‘passionate attachment’ to the strain of particularity that serves as its unacknowledged foundation. Judaism thus not only bellies the commonsense notion that the price to be paid for access to universality is to renounce one’s particularity; it also demonstrates the strain of unacknowledged stain of unacknowledgeable particularity of the gesture that generates the Universal is the ultimate source of the Universal’s vitality.

The eastern part of the City of London, seen from the south bank of the Thames in February 2016Yet, what happens when universality and particularity no longer sit in sympathetic balance? Moreover, what happens when one tries to actively erase the other? We have an object lesson about the erasure of universality by particularity in the nativist experiment of Nazism in the twentieth century. Here ‘socialism’ (normally associated with the world community of workers) is emptied of universality by the German nation becoming a violent expression of blood and soil, to the exclusion of ‘the nations’. This is why Nazism was similarly hostile to Christianity, Liberalism and Marxism because all three creeds proposed a universal emancipatory alternative to the nihilistic insular paganism of the Leader. In this spirit, Žižek suggests that ‘Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onslaught of new spiritualisms’ (new manifestations of blood and soil) on the grounds that ‘the authentic Christian legacy is far too precious to left to fundamentalists and freaks.’ What needs to be preserved is the Christian insistence that history is not driven by a predetermined cage of race or nation, but rather is left radically open, a state of continual ‘becoming’. What rightly worried liberals and leftists after Brexit was precisely this; the fear that something called ‘the individual’ or ‘humanity’ was becoming lost a deluge of national drum beating. Yet, any dispassionate appraisal of the situation that Britain finds itself in the second decade of the twenty-first century cannot conclude that nativism is erasing universality ala 1939. Instances of spasmodic disquiet about immigration and Europhobia are symptomatic, not of the dominance of the particularism, but a reaction to the dominance of universalism at the level of economic structures and political institutions. Talk of Britain as a global business ‘hub’ or as the more noxious UK PLC, suggests a stripping away of the notion of countries as clusters of particularism and the subordination of culture to the universal rules of market exchange.Yet as  Simone Weil  reminds us in her book The Need for Roots, an overemphasis upon market-exchange poisons belonging and strips us of identity. As Weil notes:

Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate, by turning desire for gain into the sole motive. It easily manages to outweigh all other motives, because the effort it demands of the mind is so very much less. Nothing is so clear and so simple as a row of figures. There are social conditions in which an absolute and continuous dependence on money prevails — those of the wage-earning class, especially now that piece-work obliges each workman to have his attention continually taken up with the subject of his pay. It is in these social conditions that the disease of uprootedness is most acute.

To a degree, it is this erosion of local identity which has driven so much of the EU debate. In this vein, ‘keeping England England’ might mean nothing more threatening than keeping the post office open, making sure there is a good school nearby and plenty of jobs when the kids leave school. For such folk, the glittering prospect of great European markets feels as remote as a tennis match on Mars. Freedom of trade and movement may have attractions for liberals with the educational and economic capital to compete, but rings hollow to those who seek stability in shared forms of life, the local and personal. If the European Union is merely a showroom full of tantalising unaffordable luxuries, many in England’s little towns have concluded that Europe is not for people like them.  How should we understand such a rejection?  This is where George Orwell becomes a useful (if uncomfortable) companion in our search both for analysis of our present situation and its resolution.

 Orwell: Particularity and Discontents

File:George Orwell press photo.jpgAn important contribution to this discussion can be found in Orwell’s 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.  The first thing to strike a reader of this much-underrated work of Orwell’s is his Janus-faced account of the English spirit: both generous and reactionary, descent yet bigoted, very much like Orwell himself. What might this strange contradiction reveal about Britain’s present situation? At first Orwell’s vivid discussion of the politics of Englishness seems like a prophecy of despair for those who desperately wanted Britain to remain inside the Union. Perhaps one of Orwell’s most painful assertions in this regard, is his claim that while liberal intellectuals (like me) always gravitate towards grand schemes and abstract internationalism, the English in general, gravitate towards something far more earthen realities of ‘solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields, and red pillar-boxes’. At the heart of this valorisation of small, familiar and every day, says Orwell, is a quiet patriotism which has ‘a horror of abstract thought’.

No tidy arrangement of imported Human Rights, international organisation or grand ideas, will ever fully satisfy the ordinary English person. Only an understated love of country combined with a stern dose of common sense will do. This is a land where people are quite satisfied with their muddled solutions to local problems and their own contradictory opinions. What the English can’t stand, says Orwell, is having their problems and opinions subjected to some logic-chopping exercise which might attempt to impose a regimented external order. And for the English, this kind of rationalisation has always been seen as a suspicious interloper from the continent; from Napoleon to Jacques Delors. What do these reflexes mean for English identity? Above all, they express the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon virtue of ‘being bloody minded’ and refusing to fit into any pre-defined plan. As a consequence, the average English citizen is content to keep themselves to themselves (and most importantly go their own way.) They don’t want to ignore the world, but at the same time don’t feel called upon to be overly fraternal or chummy. As Orwell reflects on these pronounced tendencies among the English working-class:

In the working class, patriotism is profound, but it is unconscious. The working man’s heart does not leap when he sees a Union Jack. But the famous ‘insularity’ and ‘xenophobia’ of the English is far stronger in the working class than in the bourgeoisie. In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits.

In good times, such sentiments are mostly constructive; the healthy English scorn of busy bodies and  arbitrary power. Taking pot-shots at sometimes self-obsessed EU commissioners is a profoundly constructive exercise which only makes a seemingly faceless organisation a little bit ridiculous and therefore a little more human. The British are the best ambassadors of liberal democracy the world has yet known, not because we are always faithful users of the ballot box, but because of our generalised contempt for everything which demands we treat it with dewy-eyed reverence. Viewed in this light, the anti-European reflexes of the Times and the Telegraph can be greeted with a spirit affection.  Yet virtues need the proper soils to grow in, to keep them strong and healthy. Yet our national soil has been parched of late. In times like these, once noble reflexes have become raw and heated. They have become immune to reasonableness, perspective and most of all moderation. In this fraught state, people feel trapped and robbed of power. They feel degraded and lied to as they watch other doing well out of their misery. When all else fails, patriotism becomes the last line of defence.  This was a notable feature of the Referendum debate, yet it was frequently misunderstood or even ignored by some ‘bourgeois’ liberals at the BBC, the Guardian and Number 10. The attractions of Europe could not compensate for decaying seaside towns, run down city-centres and de-industrialised urban wastes. Europe was a lightning rod for all that and more. Many people wanted their pride and dignity back but their leaders were not listening. Voters no longer felt at home in their homeland. They accordingly opted to ‘take back control’.

PhotographYet, as Orwell knew, this intense insularity exists as part of a paradox. While the Britons of 1941 were trenchantly inward-looking, Britain still ran an empire, that administered commodity markets, bureaucracies and governments over more than half the globe. Yet even in the post-war world, this painful fissure between a  generally universalist elite and a traditionalist public remained- a divide given a voice by figures as divergent as Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. While it is true that the ambitions of Britain’s cosmopolitans slowed and even froze for some of the post-war 1945 period (with a focus on full employment and public welfare at home) the process sped up again after 1980 as globalisation increasingly superseded traditional sovereignties. This led to some new and pervasive social contradictions in our island home. Britain under Thatcherism became a pioneer of a new global order in which capital was no longer rooted to any single country. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the free flow of wealth. Consequently, nationalised industries were disbanded, labour rules liberalised and state measures to boost employment were abandoned. Many communities were thrown to the wolves. Now we are living with the consequences of that political philosophy. Thatcherism and its New Labour successor nurtured a country divided between North and South, rich and poor, the inner cities and the suburbs. What a missed opportunity the Blair government turned out to be.  Instead of uprooting the divide between the rooted and the rootless, the disjunction has deepened, between regions, classes, and generations. Cosmopolitan are now so estranged from the nativists that they appear to inhabit two different worlds. The two nations of Disraeli have morphed from the country houses versus the slums to the dead-end towns versus and optimistic gap-year graduates of Cameron’s sickly Albion. The vote to exit the European Union is merely the latest manifestation of this internal imbalance between the universal and the particular in our national life.  The European project was too much the international construct, remote from people’s lives and alien to their experience. For someone like Orwell (steeped in the particularism of the Englishmen) such an enterprise would always have fitted uncomfortably with the nation’s character. In times of dissent against elites of all kinds, such an institution becomes unbearable. Can we forge a new settlement which appropriately reigns in the excesses of the universal?

 Orwell’s Answer: The Politics of Decency

Image result for unemployment wiki imagesDeveloping a new balance between universality and particularity is an exercise fraught with dangers (as recent debates about multiculturalism in Europe have shown). It is all too easy to condemn an out of touch liberal elite. It is altogether much harder preventing oneself from becoming a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump in English clothes. In seeking to address a legitimate grievance, says the liberal, aren’t we in danger of throwing the cosmopolitan baby out with the bath-water? There has been much talk in the left-wing press over the last few weeks about the rise of racist sentiments and a worsening of public attitudes towards outsiders. And despite their variation in the headline, they seem to be asking the same set of horrified questions. Don’t Britons want European shared institutions? Don’t they want Greek barbers and Polish newspaper sellers? Do they really want ‘England for the English?’ Some advocates of the particular (the extreme nativists) would answer in the affirmative, but I am willing to bet this is not the majority of my fellow patriots. There are well-documented instances of people abusing immigrants for personal woes, yet we shouldn’t let that ugliness distract us from the real problems people are facing: lack of decent housing, stagnant wages, insecure work and poor public services. As the commentator Paul Mason pointed out a few days before the vote:

Working-class people, especially those on low pay in the private sector, worry that in conditions of austerity, housing shortages, wage stagnation and an unlimited supply of migrant labour from Europe has a negative effect on their living standards. For some, that is true.They are right, too, to worry about the cultural impact. In a big, multi-ethnic city, absorbing a lot of migrants is easy. In small towns, where social capital is already meagre, the migrant population can feel unabsorbed. The structure of temporary migration from Europe means many of those who come don’t vote, or don’t have the right to – which feels unsettling if you understand that it is only by voting that the workforce ever achieved progress.

Given this context, it is hardly surprising that when surveyed,  the majority of Leave voters saw Europe’s backers as rich and well-connected. Predictably, the right-wing press, both before and after the referendum exploited this feeling of class division brilliantly. The Sun’s headline of the 27th of June, Pro-EU celebrity luvvies like Kate Beckinsale and Jamie Oliver join chorus of super-rich Remainers bemoaning Brexit is an excellent impression by metropolitan plutocrats of genuine working-class unease. What lies at the root of this judgement? Doubtless many statistics can be thrown into the pot, but I suspect the key problem is more existential. At the heart of it, there is a lack of hope across vast swathes of the country. There is precious little trust between politicians and the electorate and little love lost between the upwardly mobile and those left behind.   There is the fear that nothing will get better and that everything is getting steadily worse. This atmosphere of despair is being fed by cynical politicians, manipulative newspaper editors, irresponsive public servants and an irresponsible plutocrat class. Sadly, European immigrants are frequently caught in the cross-fire of these home-grown turf-wars.  What is the answer to these woes? For the Orwell of the 1940s, the answer to undignified political systems (devoid of care and patriotism) is socialism. By socialism, Orwell did not mean some abstruse philosophy of insurrection and barricades, but a focus on upholding the principle of justice in ordinary life. As Orwell reflects in Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

[It] must be remembered that a working man, as long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist, in the complete logical, and consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour or Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of Socialism is quite different from that of the book-trained Socialist higher-ups. To the ordinary man, the sort you meet in any pub on a Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter and hours and no-one bossing you about…. Often in my opinion, he is a truer socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember….that Socialism means justice, and common decency.

Using Orwell as a starting point, we can see that is what is sadly lacking in Britain today; an erosion of decency, in everything from providing good affordable housing, to offering a measure of job security. Through the seductions of universalists and their consumer utopias, we have duped ourselves into accepting a dilapidated country where hopelessness has become endemic. The way back to hope seems increasingly littered with obstacles. I must confess that I cannot share the enthusiasm of Vote Leave for an isolationist Shangri-La, built on the mirage of free-trade and the systematic exploitation of fears over immigration. I think it doubtful that such politics can heal the deep wounds from which the country is now suffering.Of course, the same people who have for decades advocated rip-roaring markets and for the State to ‘get out the way’ are now the same people who bemoan what has happened to Britain’s sinking working class. For instance, the Spectator‘s Toby Young (a Tory libertarian of sorts) now suggests after 30 years of labour market deregulation and stagnant wages, ‘the metropolitan elite must take some responsibility for the residents of England’s depressed seaside towns, not scorn them’. Sadly, Young fails to see the link between the decimation of such places and the trickle-down economics arrogantly peddled at every election since 1979. This cognitive dissidence between philosophy and practice does not bode well as these representatives of the self-styled ‘people’s army’ push the country closer to the exit door. But there’s still hope. Like a good Hegelian, I perceive the flip side of the dialectic. While the UK vote to leave the European Union leaves the dreams of liberal cosmopolitan in tatters, it may yet redress (if perversely) our over-reliance on an unfeeling universalist politics, drawing the debate closer to the concerns of the people.  Is it just possible that the British (those historical muddlers) can find a way through which clears the ground for a new settlement? Can we leave the EU but remain in the EEA? Will the language of endless austerity give way to a more generous politics? Time will tell on these specifics, yet I suggest that as pieces of the collider scope settle, new pressure points will emerge, which may yet nurture the decency most British people crave.  And while the immediate future appears uncertain, the contours of a more livable synthesis can already be glimpsed.

A New Synthesis: Equality, Liberty, Locality

The doctrine of laissezfaire will not work in the material world. It has led to the black market and the capitalist jungle…On the other hand, the doctrine of laissezfaire is the only which seems to work in the world of the spirit; if you plan and control men’s minds you stunt them, you get censorship, the secret police, the road to serfdom, the community of slaves. We want the New Economy with the Old Morality. We want planning for the body but not the spirit. E.M. Forster, The Challenge of Our Time

What are the constituent parts of this new politics trying to be born? Perhaps the best political formulation of this balanced settlement I have ever come across is to be found in the work of the American philosopher Daniel Bell. In his Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, (1978) Bell describes himself as ‘a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture’. This I believe is precisely the landscape which our fractious politics is confusingly groping for at present. Any political party willing and able to tap into this implicit dimension of the national mood would be the most significant electoral force since the 1945 landslide. Such synthesis would be ‘socialist’ in precisely Orwell’s sense. It would recognise the fact that the majority of Britons react with the horror in the face of avoidable cruelty, are scandalised by unjustified wealth and desire to be treated fairly.  Yet such a national conscience is also liberal because it ultimately depends upon that wellspring of English irreverence for authority and a dislike of power grabs. As Orwell observed in 1941:

The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.

How might Orwell’s portrait of the free Englishmen help us in the present situation? I believe this time-honoured respect for liberty will continue to protect us after Brexit, in particular from the lure of authoritarianism and reaction of all kinds. Doubtless, there will continue to be worrying calls for some kind of clamp-down (the rounding-up of migrants, the immediate closing of our borders and the cutting of international ties). Yet our propensity to respect the rights of others will I believe inoculate us from the most thuggish of the nativists. The English may be  remarkably insular, but they do not, by enlarge hate the outside world. Similarly, our respect for the rule of law is unlikely to be compatible with those zealous persons in the Leave Campaign who want to expunge EU legislation on employment and human rights from the statute book, in a desperate bid to recast the country in their own image. No one party or cluster of politicians has the right to rewrite the social contract. Such a task should be undertaken by a cross-section of the people’s representatives or it should not be undertaken at all.  If hardline Conservatives attempt such an unceremonious slash and burn, they must be fought and fought with vigour. Any new politics we wish to construct will be formed in an attempt to preserve the best of Britain’s European experience. Yes to social protections, yes to common labour standards, yes to Human Rights, yes to increased LGBT rights, yes to environmental protection. Yes to liberalism with a gritty British flavour.

Image result for urban decay UKWhat of the last ingredient of my national synthesis?  What can ‘cultural conservatism’ gift England after Brexit?  By cultural conservatism, I don’t mean a politics which would need to violate either socialism or liberalism. I don’t mean the return of old hierarchies or the reinvention of deference. I don’t mean the snobbishness of the landed squire or the petty prejudices of bourgeois society. Downton Abbey is best left in Julian Fellow’s paternalistic imagination. By cultural conservatism, I mean a love of place, land, and common endeavour. I mean a tenderness for the past and a joy in the little things.  It has often been said that someone who feels at ‘home somewhere, feels at home everywhere’.  In a country now bitterly divided, we need to work hard to renew our sense of belonging (the civic pride of our cities and towns) so that we can again feel at home. We need to be just as intolerant of squalor and decay of some of our town centres as we are of anti-social behaviour. We need to be impatient with soulless clone cities full of people who hate living there. We need to be courageous in the defence of beloved national institutions like the NHS, left to wither by unscrupulous politicians. We need to rediscover the sense that the country has a future worth inhabiting. In this respect, there is something to be said for people like Roger Scruton or Peter Hitchens (at their grimmest) because they can recall for us the language of tradition, community,  and place, which has been too long subordinated to the demands of Capital. They press on us the question inherent in all forms of cultural conservatism, ‘Are we just a shop window for the world, or are we a nation, with common institutions, habits, and affections?’ Answering this question is as vital for socialists as it for conservatives. In the end, this is the existential quandary of Brexit and it will define us long after we have left the European Union.

How shall we wait out the interregnum between contradiction and synthesis? I suppose Hegel might have suggested a beer (a perfect blend of the universal and particular?). For those of us who have less confidence in the iron law of History, we need to start getting organised. The country will have many rougher days ahead, so we need to put our best foot forward and attempt to build a better future after Brexit. As Žižek wrote in a recent article about the Brexit result: ‘Although crises are painful and dangerous, they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won.’ On balance, I still think that exit from the European Union will be a tragedy for Britain. Yet, with every tragedy, there might come  new opportunities. Perhaps the EU has made we liberal cosmopolitans lazy in our politics. Instead of fighting door by door, street by street, for a politics openness and pluralism we hoped that the European Union would bring about such a culture through the backdoor one directive at a time.  The referendum in June offered a conclusive verdict on that strategy. If we want a more humane politics we will have to fight for it here and now. If we want to tackle xenophobia and fear at the root, we need to ensure decent lives for our fellow citizens. The cynical politics of the Conservative Party or the insurgency of UKIP cannot do it, but those inflamed by Orwell’s virtue of decency can. Let’s really take back control of our country, not through slogans and fear by rediscovering what is our culture offers the world. What is our distinctive spin on the particular yet universal mission of nations? Perhaps Billy Bragg put it best ‘Sweet moderation, heart of this nation, desert us not, we are between the wars.’ This is still the country I want to be part of.

For love’s sake vote Remain

Some great thoughts from Roger on the EU Referendum

Roger Haydon Mitchell's Blog

For love’s sake vote Remain!

In my view the greatest deep-structural delusion of the western world is that peace comes through the exercise of sovereign power. There is another way, peace through love, which an exciting network of my friends and fellow activists call kenarchy and this blog is all about. Kenarchy attempts to outwork the kind of love characterised by the life of Jesus and defined by Thomas Jay Oord in his book The Nature of Love as “to act intentionally, out of empathetic, sympathetic, response to God and others, to promote overall well-being”.

Nationalism, imperialism and the nation state are all forms of sovereignty that uphold the western delusion of peace through sovereign power. This is why, for me, it’s a no-brainer to see that the best place to outwork kenarchy is within a wider situation than a single national institution of sovereign power. Much better to be…

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Would Augustine Bake a Cake for a Gay Couple?

What are the precise rules of the liberal-secular state? To what degree should Christians accept these rules? And what theological sources should Christians use to find a way forward? These thorny questions have come into stark relief in the last decade through a series of high profile cases in both Britain and the United States involving legal standoffs between conservative Christians and citizens in same-sex relationships. These ‘Culture wars’ over ‘religious liberties’ were exemplified in 2013, when the owners of an Oregon bakery denied service to a same-sex couple. The ensuing protests, fines and recriminations, revealed a a deep conflict of world-views: Should the consciences of religious believers be left unmolested by the secular state, or should tax-paying citizens be compelled to follow a rule of neutral equanimity- regardless of their fundamental convictions? A similar case in Northern Ireland in 2015 merely restated the same conundrum. As the judge in the case noted:

“The defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others.”

Behind the formulation of this ruling is an age-old controversy between Christianity and the public sphere. In the end, the conflict comes down to whether Christians feel they can accept the existence of a realm of moral deliberation beyond the authority of the Church. In the following post, I want to offer one possible answer to this these quandaries through the voice of the Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354 –430). I will suggest that Augustine provides support for what we might regard as a secular state, and that this framework should cause those Christians who rally against liberal secularism to be cautious. At the heart of this plea is an examination of Augustine’s double-edged repudiation of a publicly sponsored Paganism and a politicised Christianity. Within both these critiques Augustine develops a vision of civil society and government, which, I suggest, challenges Christians to look at issues of secularism, pluralism and tolerance in a fresh way. Firstly, let’s consider what Augustine thought about the role of religion in public life through a consideration of his attitudes towards Roman ancestral religion.

The Problem of Religion and the Secular

In recent decades, some have suggested that among early Christians writers, Augustine is the great collaborator; a theological architect for the corruption of the Church by the State. As John Howard Yoder articulates the problem, Augustine can be seen as a learned gentleman, who acclimatizes the Church to the rules of Roman public life. Such acclimatization emerges for Yoder graphically when we consider the issue of Christian ‘public influence’. The fact that Augustine thought Christianity should be a player in reconstructing society through an alliance with civil interests, proves for Yoder that Christianity in Augustine has become captured by motives other than those of the Gospel. Looking at this portrait in the round, one can certainly understand where Yoder’s disquiet comes from. Take for instance Augustine’s attitudes towards ancient Roman religion. Here, Augustine stands in the tradition of his mentor Ambrose of Milan, in detesting the old conservative cults of family, tribe and war which still dominated the civil and mental architecture of fourth-century Rome.

Ambrose’s plea in 383 to the emperor Valentinian II against the reinstatement of the Altar of Victory in the Senate House was not merely a repudiation of idolatry in the abstract, but a vivid expression of a developed theological politics. By rejecting the cult of Victory, Ambrose expressed a desire to disinvest the mystical and absolutist qualities of the state- fostered by Imperial decree since Augustus. The blood and cruelty of the governing powers must stand without providential justification, argued Ambrose; a secularisation which is paradoxically achieved by the judgment of Christ. Such a radical de-sanctification of state action has far-reaching consequences for the offices of Empire by subjecting them to invasive new values which disrupt the moral immunities offered by Roman Paganism. Such disorder was vividly illustrated in 390, when Ambrose forced the emperor Theodosius to perform public penance for his bloody conduct in Thessalonika.

Incorporated into a new theology of peace over victory, Ambrose was clearly determined that Theodosius would no longer act as his pagan predecessors had done. Following in Ambrose’s footsteps, Augustine attempts to unmask the destructive political dynamics of civil religion through a sustained analysis of traditional Roman institutions, rituals and attitudes. Augustine concludes that key sites of cultural education- from public games and theatrical performances to the rhetorical schools- were all contaminated by a civil theology which inculcates viciousness and moral license in the lives of citizens. As John Milbank observes:

In the story which Rome tells about its own foundations, the principle of a prior violence ‘stayed’ and limited by a single violent hand is firmly enshrined. Romulus, the founder, is the murderer of his brother and rival Remus; he is also the enslaver of the clienteles to whom he offered protection against foreign enemies. In battle, Romulus invoked the staying hand of Jupiter, who then received the title stator. The supreme God, therefore, like the founding hero, arises merely as the limiter of a preceding disorder… Mythical beginnings of legal order are therefore traced back to the arbitrary limitation of violence by violence, to victory over rivals, and to the usurpation of fathers by sons. And, according to Augustine, the Romans continued to ‘live out’ the mythos: within the city gates the goddess most celebrated was Bellona; the virtues most crowned with glory were military ones.

Pluralism and Roman Violence

What sustains this predilection to cruelty in the Roman story? Recent attempts to understand Augustine’s reception of Paganism through Milbank’s prism of primordial violence have tended to focus on the internal plurality of pagan theological praxis. As Graham Ward suggests, Augustine’s combat with Paganism in the fourth-century is ultimately about the nature of truth- possessing equivalence with the Church’s confrontation with radical postmodernity today. While such a reading has plausibility, it confuses our present anxieties about pluralism (namely relativism) with Augustine’s cultural concerns. While the post-Christian plurality of contemporary societies hinges upon liquidity and atomisation, the non-Christian plurality encountered by Augustine is explicitly allied with forces of cultural hegemony which wholly envelopes the public space.

While the Roman pantheon offered an image of radical pluralism to its worshippers, Augustine realized that these personalities were illusionary, not merely because they were idols, but because their personalities epitomised a single tendency- the quest for power. Much earlier in the Western tradition, Plato had suggested that collective strife among the Olympian gods deprives the pagan theologian of the ability to give a coherent account of piety. As Socrates pointedly observes in Plato’s Euthyphro, how can one decide what is just or unjust on divine example, if ‘different gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good and bad’? Radicalising this Platonic claim, Augustine suggests that the anarchy of polytheism does more than deprive human beings of a consensual conception of divine justice. It deprives human culture of the ability to sustain commitments to virtue, good order and peace as well. In the vindictiveness of Juno the Stoic apatheia of the semi-divine Aeneas and the adultery of Venus, Augustine observes the hard and fast exclusion of compassion, righteousness and affection from public life. In turn this leads to a uniformity of morally degenerate characters- which passively imitate the objects of their worship. As Augustine observes in a letter to Nectarius:

‘[You] might object, ‘all the old written traditions about the gods’ lives and characters ought to be understood and interpreted by wise readers in a quite different way.’ Yes indeed; just yesterday or the day before, we heard a wholesome interpretation of this sought being read out in the temples to the assembled people. I ask you: is the human race so blinded that it cannot grasp such clear facts? Jupiter is celebrated everywhere committing his acts of adultery; in paintings, in statues-cast, hammered or sculptured- in writing, in public readings, on the stage, in song, in dance. Why could he not have been described as prohibiting such behaviour, at least in his own Capitol? If such wicked, such completely shameless and impious acts are allowed to blaze without prohibition among the people; if they are worshipped in the temple and laughed at in the theatres; if even the poor man’s herds are wiped out as his animals become their sacrificial victims; and if the rich man’s inheritance is squandered on actors to imitate in plays and dances- then, how can you say the cities are ‘flourishing’?

Augustine: The Pluralistic State

What then is Augustine’s definition of civic flourishing? It is certainly not a monochrome and inflexible conception of the good. Such mirror images of a permissive polytheism have their own risks-namely the confusion between social conformity and genuine righteousness. Indeed, as Augustine reminds us, if one judges the worth of an individual according to the metric of social condemnation alone, then one would have agreed with the Roman persecution of the Apostles. Consensus is not always the same as goodness Augustine warns. In place of an uncritical adoration of unity, Augustine is sensitive to the far-reaching consequences of Christianity’s affirmation of a Triune God. Just as the harmony of the Trinity consists of a loving relationship between distinct yet interrelated Persons, the Christian practice of loving-kindness invites the disciples of Jesus to find unity in their differences. Consequently, the Christian who searches after love can live variously- as a married householder, a public rhetorician, or even a desert hermit ‘without any texts of the scriptures.’ This tentative Augustinian account of vocation is significantly strengthened when we consider the distinctive character of his hermeneutics. In place of a purely literalistic reading of the Scriptures, Augustine suggests that since the Word came into the world to communicate the love of God for human beings (1 John 4:8) any interpretation of the ‘words’ of Scripture which prompt us to charitable action must be consistent with divine revelation. As Augustine notes in On Christian Teaching:

Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to understand what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error . . . Anyone with an interpretation of the scriptures that differs from that of the writer is misled, but not because the scriptures are lying. If as I began by saying he is misled by an idea that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field.

Of course this did not mean an infinite elasticity of meaning. Like Plato before him, Augustine understands true love as consisting of a will directed towards the good. Yet, regardless of such Platonic qualifications, Augustine affirmed the value of social pluralism- not in a multitude of gods, but in the multiplication of good lives lived. Yet, such pluralism of virtue could not truly take root while the false plurality of Latin polytheism held sway in the public square. There must be room to imagine another moral universe beyond the squabbling Olympians- a culture in which Christ could be heard and heeded in acts of healing and justice. Yet, as Robert Dodaro has pointed out, such acts were not intended to undercut the role of the appointed magistrates. While Christians can advice, support, even condemn, Augustine did not envisage Christians as the final arbiters of public space. Indeed, as Dodaro observes; ‘Augustine demonstrates ‘underlying respect for the authority and legitimacy of the public sphere (res publica)’ in despite of its evident flaws.

What does this respect mean for Augustine’s understanding of civil society? Augustine’s desire to remain a petitioner in relation to secular power rather than its director is illustrative of a significant difference between himself and Ambrose. Despite the failures of the Emperors to live as Christians, Ambrose still held out hope for the Constantinian settlement in which the peace of the Empire was identical with the peace of Christ. According to this latter-day civil theology, Rome’s conquering armies were guided by divine Providence, while the power struggles of the emperors were the vulgar manifestation of a titanic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. In the midst of this ordered universe, Augustine introduces a rupture which Ambrose cannot cross. For all his condemnation of Roman Paganism, Augustine does not seem to believe that counter-absorption of the public space by Christianity is the answer to violence and or immorality.

Indeed, any kind forceful alliance between religion and the state is merely an invitation to corruption; whether such corruption is pagan or Christian. In both cases, Augustine repudiates a conception of the sacred which is made subservient to the demands of public power. It is for this reason that Augustine is so keen to break the link between Christianity and civic stability in City of God. Augustine is certainly not sympathetic to the Constantinian suggestion that Imperial Power and the Church should be identical. The Church must be free to be the Church. Yet, at the same time, the Church should not  attempt to become a counter power to the state. In this way, the church should accept secular institutions of justice when it can be shown that such institutions serve the object of ‘general peace’. To accept such a settlement is also to accept that individual Christians or church-communities will not always be ‘winners’. This is the price of refusing the idolatry of state-power. This does not bar Christians from mediation, protest and campaigning- but it does bar them from condemning the whole secular order. This is the tightrope which Augustine believes the Church in order to be authentic to itself. Behind this nuanced position is probably Augustine’s own reading of Romans 13: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves’.

Would Augustine Bake the cake?

This brief mention of Romans 13 brings us to another question; what kind of state might Augustine have prefered given his theological starting-point? In many respects what Augustine is arguing for in City of God (and earlier) is something remarkably similar to the pluralistic public space supported by the liberal theorist John Rawls. The public sphere must be a space where those of different lives can meet together, dialogue and find peaceful solutions to common problems. And as Dodaro’s mention of the appointed magistrates alerts us, there must be mechanisms for dealing with conflict which extend beyond the wishes of this community or that. There must be retraint and trade-off. Of course, the Church will not always agree with the way secular opinion-formers think, but it must trust that there are aspects of secular neutrality that serve the interests of the Church; supremely, the space for the Gospel to be proclaimed, for prayers to be given and the Church to act. To throw these goods away for some illusive vision of purity is at the very least theologically problematic. This was a hot issue in Augustine’s own life-time, when sectarian Christians (the Donatists) broke away from their local Churches, in their quest for absolute moral conformity.  Yet, as Augustine consistently pointed out, on this side of the fall, no Christian can hope for complete purity in the moral realm. The Church was not called to be absolutely good, but to rather proclaim the goodness of God. The final moral status of Christian entanglements will be decided, not by the partial understanding of individual Christians, but by the judgment of God. If the world is a field, we who grow in it, do not know which crop God prefers from this side of eternity. What is currently wheat can become a weed, and what is a weed can still become wheat “and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.” Where the cake shop owner and the gay client will be- no one but God knows. In the meantime, a pluralistic state permits the Church to do its best and for the state to be unhypocritical. This is perhaps the best we can hope for in the ‘earthly city’.

There are costs to this generous settlement to be sure. The culture which has given up on a unified mythology of faith and state maybe less idealistic and more cynical, yet it is more likely to be persuaded of the necessity for change. A society devoid of a single narrative is in this sense more susceptible to the transformative, loving narrative that Christianity at its best offers. If there is only one narrative, only one perspective can be heard. This is not a basis for peace and love. Augustine’s affirmation of exegetical plurality, suggests that he thought the Christian life always had to be larger than a single interpretation of any given issue would allow. Given these hospitable features, would Augustine bake a cake for a gay couple? A trivial question perhaps, but it brings so much into focus. We might answer this question by posing a series of other questions. Would Augustine expect everyone to assent to his interpretation of public ethics? Either within the Church or without? Does baking the cake amount to negating the ultimate goods that the Church proclaims? Is it equal perhaps to the worship of those false gods which promote violence? Augustine’s pluralistic conception of love suggest a negative answer to both these subsequent queries. To render a service to one with whom one disagrees does not mean one necessarily jepodises the truth of one’s position. What if one did it out of love, despite profound reservations?

Perhaps this is all down to the same kind of issue addressed by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Here he speaks of two different kinds of Christian; the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ bretheren. The ‘weak’ brethren are still ‘recovering pagans’- their minds still captured by the notion of ‘purity’. They would not eat food sacrificed to pagan gods for fear that their use somehow tainted the food with the sin of idolatry. The ‘strong’ Christian on the other hand realized that these images had no power- and the food sacrificed to idols was just that- food. These sacrifices had no corrupting power. As Paul concludes, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience’ (1 Corinthians 10:25). To draw a modern comparison, conservative Christians’ objections to baking wedding cakes for same-sex couples have the same feeling of obsessive purity about them. There is the implicit assumption that by baking the cake they are condoning what they do not believe in. But as Paul might have said; “it’s just cake”; it does not tell us anything about the purity of the agent that bakes it. Augustine, a good Pauline theologian is equally keen to detoxify Christians of the notion that they must seperate themselves wholly from the world around them; even when baking a cake! It turns out then that this matter is far from trivial; encompassing as it does matters of conscience, purity and Christian wordliness. Much is at stake here from the perspective Christian ethics, not least Paul’s insistence in the neighboring passage in Romans 12 that: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’. By baking the cake one affirms both the above imperative of coexistence and the fact that God desires an autonomous public sphere which is not polluted by a conflict between public and sacred interests. For therein the temptations of idolatry and insinereity are averted. By refusing to separate ourselves from our neighbours (from those who walk a different path from ourselves) and by conforming peacably to public authority (within limitted bounds) we walk the tightrope Augustine and  Paul believe is at the heart of the Christian life.

The Tory Left: A Politics of Community (Part 2.)

Macmillan’s Model of Economic Justice 

Image result for harold MacmillanWhat were the significant implications of Macmillan’s Anglo-Catholic politics? Remaining faithful to the idealistic politics he had known at Oxford, a chastened post-war Macmillian would publish two books in the 1930s while a fledgling member of Parliament, Reconstruction (1934) and The Middle Way (1938). In both texts, Macmillan demonstrates his debt to the same rich culture of public Christianity which had produced Sligger Urquhart’s fascination with Catholic socialism. While neither text is explicitly theological, both are rooted in recognizable Christian premises. Political commentators on Macmillan in the last half century have made much of the polarized era, noting his aversion to the destabilizing effects of both State-Socialism and unregulated Capitalism. Indeed as Macmillan notes in The Middle Way, ‘…the secure bulwark against reaction or revolution is an economic system they can satisfy the moderate needs of men for material welfare and security, while preserving at the same time the intellectual, social and political liberty essential to human progress in a wider field.’ Yet, what has often been overlooked by the commentators, are the theological roots of this position. Such a deep grammar can be uncovered however if we are attentive to Macmillan’s account of the human person. Framed by the optimistic Edwardian liberalism of his childhood, the postwar Macmillan not only that human beings had a spiritual destiny and essence, but such an essence was built in the first instance by satisfying basic material needs. Macmillan reflected on the nature of poverty in The Middle Way:

This poverty is accompanied by its twin evil, insecurity; a social disease which spreads its malevolent effects over a much wider area than actual poverty. Insecurity hangs like a black cloud over the lives of an overwhelming majority of the people of all classes. It eats away the very basis of personal confidence and ease of mind. It creates and perpetuates a morbid preoccupation with material needs, it centres a great part of the attention of the individual upon his own and his dependents’ elementary physical requirements; it gives rise to fears which curbs the development of generosity of spirit; it fosters self-interest; it limits and restricts the intellectual and social interests of the individual to a narrow concentration upon his own welfare; it is a social disease which militates against every forward impulse of mental, moral and spiritual development.

What we have here is not merely a humanitarian plea to deal with poverty on a purely utilitarian basis, but a plea which encompasses a particular view of human nature. Poverty is not merely an evil because it causes suffering (of this first fact Macmillan was in no doubt) it was an evil because it prevented people from cultivating the kinds of virtues which Macmillian’s developing Christian faith regarded as essential. How could the negotiations of poverty be reduced? Macmillan’s answer was economic moderation; to seek the just distribution of material resources. This could be accomplished not merely by the careful application of Keynesian economics (the staple of the post-war British state) but by building up institutions within the state to encourage the coordination of economic life and the sharing of wealth and power. Advocating forms of economic oversight in the form of Industrial Councils, Macmillan advocates extensive state intervention in order to guarantee maxim coordination between large-scale private enterprises. Yet, as Macmillan insisted, such harmonization was not aimed at the abolition of private enterprise, but rather its general improvement. Yet, ever the moralist and not merely the economist, Macmillan suggests a noble end in view; the abolition of the chief economic sin of old Christendom. As he notes in the concluding chapter of Reconstruction:

Usury and speculation in the evil sense would be eliminated and the rewards of productive effort more evenly distributed. The status of labour in the industrial life of the community could be progressively changed by co-operation of all classes in a common effort to construct a rational, intelligibly managed system in which the welfare of every section of the community would be considered, not in relation to preconceived notions of rights and privileges, but in accordance with wise representative institutions based their conclusions upon facts.

If Macmillan had believed that many of his ideas would come to the fore after 1945, he was not entirely disappointed. His work on various reconstruction committees with Labour ministers had at the very least guaranteed the survival of his Middle Way, although as the Attlee government proceeded, he saw a marked timidity among his Labour colleagues. Instead of advancing the judicious socialization of industry, he witnessed ministers weigh industry down with ill-advised central control and unnecessary bureaucracy. Speaking in the debate on the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill in 1946, Macmillan observed (with more than a hint of mischief):

This Bill vests the ownership of all the colliery undertakings in a board of nine men – nine men not elected by, or even containing a single elected representative of, the mining community. It is not nationalisation in the old sense of the word….This is not Socialism; it is State capitalism. There is not too much participation by the mineworkers in the affairs of the industry; there is far too little. There is not too much syndicalism; there is none at all.

This tentativeness on the part of the Labour Party sits in contrast to the hopes of many miners, with whom Macmillan’s words probably, struck a chord.

The Point at Issue: Socialism versus Social Capitalism 

Harold Macmillan number 10 official.jpgFor contemporary Left wing Tories seeking new points of departure, Macmillan provides an enduring template; a politics which calls for moderation and ambition in equal measure. Organic Toryism as Macmillan conceived it frequently required the collectivization of portions of economic life. The market must be moderated through social enterprise and government oversight. There must be careful regulation of economic activity to ensure that consumers and workers are not left at the mercy of a capitalistic or public monopoly. For Macmillan such Tory propositions should always be contrasted with the socialist creed epitomized by the Fabianism of the late 19th century was for Macmillan unimaginative as well as economically suspect.

Once in government after 1951, Macmillan had the opportunity of putting his new radical centrism into practice; turning his attention to the postwar housing crisis as well as consolidating Tory statism within the Conservative Party. His work with Edward Heath and Ian McLeod under the banner of the One Nation group after 1945 did much to set the philosophical mood for his own premiership in 1957. While the second Churchill administration and (the brief Eden government which followed it) had left the new conserving apparatus intact, Macmillan was perhaps the first post-war Prime Minister to fulfill Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s dictum: ‘reform that you may preserve’. He not merely accepted Labour’s reforms, but sought to improve upon them. The key aim of Macmillan’s social philosophy was the construction of a social Capitalism which would provide prosperity, but also offer opportunities for workers to direct and shape their own industries. The formation of structures like the Economic Development Council in 1962 (bringing together unions, government, and industrialists) was an apt expression of Macmillan determination to find a generous middle path between political and ideological extremes. If discussed on different soils, we might say that Macmillan was an ardent Christian Democrat. It is not necessary to offer a litany of Macmillan’s policy achievements, but it is worth pointing out the following. Popular memory recalls Macmillan as a prosperity prime minister. Yet, this is an unfair and reductive portrait. Unlike some neo-liberal Conservatives who eclipsed the One Nation tradition in the 1980s, prosperity was never an end in itself and was understand within the framework of moral duties and theological postulates. The Thatcherite proposition that the market should be left to its own devices was as ridiculous to Macmillan as the suggestion that wealth was a self-evident good in all circumstances. What concerned Macmillan was the human degradation caused by an unfettered market system. Indeed, it was Macmillan’s suggestion that the economy was made for man and not man for the economy.

A Model for the Tory Left?

What lessons or ideas can be drawn from Macmillian’s politics for a contemporary revival of the Tory Left? Below are a few sketchy policy proposals, intended to recapture something of the spirit of Tory Democracy:

a) No to anti-social usury:

For Macmillan, it was a key task of a conservative government to ensure that the economy was productive for everyone, not merely a system to benefit a few at the very top. In a Britain of low growth, high in-work poverty and increasing levels of personal debt, what might a progressive conservative suggest?   

  1. The introduction of rent controls in high-cost areas of the UK
  2. The implementation of a new prices and incomes policy (covering transport, energy, and other utilities) to ensure that the minimum wage is a living wage.
  3. The introduction of strict dividend control to ensure that companies prioritize investment over payouts.
  4.  The introduction of a British ‘Florange law’- automatically granting shareholders in UK-listed companies double voting rights if they are held for two years or more. This policy is intended to discourage investor short-termism.
  5. Create a state-investment bank (to prioritize infrastructure and technological modernisation).
  6. The renewed public ownership of rail.
  7. The renewed public ownership of water companies.

b) A Better Deal for Workers

At present productivity turning out to be the great puzzle of the British economy. A new report by the IPA argues that involving employees at work is essential for boosting productivity in the UK. It highlights a wealth of evidence from a variety of experts, all showing that when employees are given a say at work, productivity is higher. Wouldn’t Macmillian have agreed?  

  1. The representation of workers on the board of large British companies.
  2. An introduction of a British framework of co-determination with employees taking part in elections for company directors.
  3. The representation of consumers on the boards of British companies.
  4. An Economic Council for the 21st century, bringing together unions, government, academics, and employers).

c) Sharing the Proceeds of Growth

 This was a phrase used by David Cameron and George Osborne to describe the direction of their early economic policies before the 2008 financial crisis. The aim is a good one and should continue to be a mantra of the Tory Left: 

  1. Make it a legal requirement for large companies to offer profit-sharing schemes to their workforce.
  2. Strengthen the tax incentives to set up co-operative enterprises.
  3. Peg the national minimum wage to economic growth in order to limit the impact of price rises on low earners.

The Tory Left: A Politics of Community (Part I.)

A ‘Thin’ Tory Left

In a recent blog post on ConservativeHome Paul Goodman has heralded the revival of ‘the Tory Left’ with the launch of the ‘compassionate Conservative caucus’- a group of Tory MPs who seek to promote greater social justice and reduce poverty. What is so intriguing about this launch is the way in which religion underwrites many of the group’s key aims and ambitions. Comprising many practicing Christians among its number (Colin Bloom of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, Gary Streeter, Caroline Spelman, Fiona Bruce, John Glen, Alistair Burt and Lord Bates) the caucus seeks nothing less than social and moral renewal, ‘[placing] less stress on markets than the moral framework that makes them possible, and is more disposed to take a positive view of government intervention and of the state itself.’. The visible presence of Church-going politicians (particularly Anglicans) among caucus members should in no way surprise us- given the group’s conscious borrowing of the High Church One Nation tradition. Pro-European, public spirited and community-focused, these advocates of Tory Democracy have always seen Christian teaching (and by extension a philanthropic national church) as the bedrock of Conservative politics. But if one looks at the rather scant aims of the group, they seem a long way from the intellectually rigorous theologically rooted politics of many of the great postwar Conservatives. Among its jumble of aims the caucus supports:

  1. More support for marriage in the tax system.
  2. Companies being strongly discouraged and perhaps barred from paying their highest-paid employees more than X times the salary of their lowest-paid employees.
  3. Higher levels of housebuilding so that more young people can own their own homes.
  4. Caps on donations to political parties and mandatory voting.

Worthy aims they maybe, but a vision for a new Tory Left this is not, particularly when compared to the sheer idealism and ambition of one of the Prime Ministers heroes,  the radical One Nation Tory, Harold Macmillan. The first thing to note about Macmillan was his extreme moral distate of either markets or profits without social or moral limit. Thus, unlike many latter-day Conservatives, who favour privatization and deregulation, Tory Democrats like Macmillan wanted to see the construction of a vibrant and active  state, able to lift people out of material and spiritual decay. As a result Macmillan did not just want to use state-power to merely tinker around the edges of Capitalism; he wanted a wholesale transformation of economic life, so it might serve, not hinder, the needs of communities. At the heart of this seemingly un-Tory appetite for reform was a deep Tory critique of an economic system which is too eager to sacrifice individuals, communities and tradition in favor standardization, utility and profit. How might this critique help contemporary left-wing Tories re-animate their tradition? Before we can answer this question, it is worth considering both the roots and the shape of Macmillan’s politics.

Toryism as Double-Refusal


A lucid window into Macmillian’s politics can be found in the former prime minister’s first maiden speech to the House of Lords in November 1984. Mindful of the Miners’ strike of that same year, Macmillan lamented:

 It breaks my heart to see – and I cannot interfere – what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in. It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing….Then there is the growing division of comparative prosperity in the south and an ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows, but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different kinds of people (Hansard, House of Lords, 13 November 1984; Vol. 457, c. 240).

Macmillan’s conclusion to his speech is significant. Moving from the external events of Britain’s economic crisis to a set of spiritual solutions, Macmillan exhorts his listeners:

If some of the dreadful, wicked systems which have crept into our lives are replaced, if we abandon cynicism, criticism and hatred for each other, and if we take up the great theme which St. Paul gave to us—to rely more upon faith, hope and charity, but above all upon charity—then I foresee the young men and women from every home in England setting out with confidence on a new phase along the long road which we call Man’s pilgrimage here on earth.


Here we see Macmillan as the quiet Anglo-Catholic- determined to unite the nation around the kernel of Christian ethics. In an era of conflict between an old industrial culture and a new financial economy, Macmillan wanted to call his country back to ‘the old way’ – rooted in the organic conception national community, which bowed before the collective wisdom of Christian morality. In this move, Macmillan refuted two dehumanizing materialisms of his political age. The first was Scargill’s appeal to the dialectical materialism of Marxian socialism which reduced all public questions to diabolical class-interests. The second was the barren materialism of the Thatcherite monetarists who reduced moral questions to matters of profit and loss. In both cases, thought Macmillan, such systems are destructive of the community (those chains of common sentiment and common interest upon which civilization depends).

The Roots of Macmillan’s Toryism

The formation of this religious politics undoubtedly began for Macmillan before the first world war under the private tutorledge of the Anglo-Catholic Ronald Knox, then Sligger Urquhard, the first Catholic don at Balliol College since the Reformation. Knox had been inspired by Cardinal Newman’s Tractarian movement. Possessed of great intellectual power and literary skill, Knox impressed upon Macmillan the way in which old Catholicism was bound up with the material output of British culture. The spires and other monuments were not merely remnants of a Catholic past- they were expressions of a particular type of community, one in which Christians (like the stones of a mighty Cathedral) fitted into a whole. In this scheme, the formation of stable community was one of the highest moral aims, not because it accomplished any political purpose in itself, but because life together was the rock upon which the moral unity of the ecclesia was built. Such a robust conception of a shared life meant a radical criticism of all that negated it: hedonism, commercialism, and unrestrained Capitalism. Such a mood of generalized rejection of modern political ideology was wholly consistent with the general temper of intellectual English Catholicism in the early twentieth century, and the doctrine of distributionism favored by converts like Waugh and Belloc.

Harold Macmillan number 10 official.jpgSuch fertile seeds of a theo-political conception were much extended not merely by Urquhard’s personal interest but by the religious and political atmosphere of Balliol prior to the earth-shock of 1914. As the scholar of English Toryism E.E.H Green notes, by the late 19th century Balliol had become the centre of a new strand of Idealist-Collectivist politics, which, with more than a touch of Hegelianism, had re-imagined the State as an ethical organism with responsibilities of Christian love towards its citizens. One result of the enthronement of this new social philosophy at the heart of 19th century Oxford was the emergence of new templates for early twentieth strands of socialist and liberal thought, but also offered new paths for an English Toryism tired of classical laissez-faire. Such developments  accorded well with Urquhard’s own social Catholicism which blended advocacy of the Catholic Workers movement with a  desire to see the social and theological renewal of English Protestantism. On both matters, Urquhard was convinced that many of the problems that faced Britain at the end of the 19th century had their roots in a spiritual crisis. How did these reflexes shape the young Macmillan? Something of influence of both men can be gleaned from the fact that as Macmillan headed off to war in 1914 to witness the death of an old Europe, he took the New Testament and Augustine’s Confessions with him to the trenches. We can only guess how the energetic Captain interpreted Augustine and Monica’s heavenly vision at Ostia or understood the sublime consolations of the Sermon on the Mount midst the horror, yet it was undoubtedly true that the war changed him, not by making him more worldly (as it did for many men of his generation) but intensify his horror of materialism. As he reflected years later:

[Whatever] your views happen to be about practical theology, I don’t think a nation can live without religion….If you don’t pray every night and if you don’t believe in God and if you don’t think you can serve God eventually, you can’t serve all these problems and you can’t even survive them….When you give up religion you give up on idealism….