Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sides of the Argument

An interesting interview from John Harris with Nick Clegg in today's Guardian. I say interesting, but only because Nick's answers are genuinely illuminating and honest compared to the kind of soundbite he tries to offer on TV. But, as usual, the interview suffers from some silly assumptions from the interviewer. I don't think I can sum it up any better than Harris's final comment:
a new kind of Lib Dem, but a leader still in thrall to their old habit of taking contributions from both sides of the argument. You might like to think of it as the political equivalent of going Dutch.
Harris is completely unable to escape from the idea that there are two "sides", and that saying things that superficially align, in certain places, with both "sides" means you are suspicious.

While I'm here, a "B-, must do better" to dear old Kettle for this week's piece of transparently silly shit-stirring.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Senior Moment

My RSS feed of the BBC News Politics page currently has this as the top item:

Too many short sentences - Straw

Should I be worried that I then clicked on this, out of curiosity as to why Straw was making an intervention on the nation's prose style? Perhaps, I thought, it was a comment on someone's speech.

What is wrong with me?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dale Has Dug Up A Slide Show, Cue Sarcastic Applause

Cast your mind back to March 2007. Ming is leading the party, Brown has yet to take power, and Spring Conference has just taken place. The one where, afterwards, people wrote things like
Sir Menzies Campbell steered the Liberal Democrats towards a coalition with Labour yesterday, effectively laying out the terms of trade by setting Gordon Brown five tests he would have to pass as prime minister.
Would it surprise you in the least to discover that the parliamentary party had been discussing this before hand? No, me neither. Still, it is a mark of how frightened of us the Tories are, and Iain Dale in particular, that he has posted quite extensively (for him) about this today, here and here.

Apparently, we are supposed to feel it is some kind of revelation that most Lib Dem voters would prefer a coalition with Labour to one with the Tories. Apparently, "gives the lie" to our position that we are not in politics to be an annex to another party, because our parliamentary party was looking at the possibilities.

Perhaps most desperate, Iain is trying to rake up some kind of scandal over the use of Henley Management College, because Chief Executive Chris Bones is a supporter of the party. He presents no evidence that anything improper has gone on, simply asserting that "his colleagues, ... are growing uncomfortable with the Centre being used for party political purposes". This use for party political purposes, it turns out in the next sentence, means four weekends over the space of a year. Which were in all likelihood paid for in the proper manner.

Dale tries to imply that there is something controversial in the following:
The PowerPoint presentation used in the Henley sessions is a substantial document of 50 pages and fully branded by Henley. So if Bones did this in his private capacity why is it branded ‘Henley’?. As it is branded 'Henley' it seems likely that Henley wish to be associated with it and that the College is claiming ownership of the work.
My reactions are twofold:

1. Is it not quite likely that this is Bones's default slide format, and he just didn't change it?
2. Is there any problem with it being associated with the college? There is nothing in the presentation, at least that Iain has shown us, that is in the least bit damaging to the college, or in any way a departure from the sort of very sensible judgment anybody could have displayed on the issues. Telling us that speculating about hung parliaments doesn't help us in an election, you say! My goodness, that's damaging!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Atheist Delusion

John Gray has written in the Guardian today, about the athiestic books recently published by Dawkins, Hitchens, and a few others. Far be it from me to suggest I know more than such a learned person as Gray, but after all, that's what blogging is here for. I feel a fisking coming on:
An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future. The intellectual traffic is not all one-way. There have been counterblasts for believers, such as The Dawkins Delusion? by the British theologian Alister McGrath and The Secular Age by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. On the whole, however, the anti-God squad has dominated the sales charts, and it is worth asking why.The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image. And there are some who view the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a danger comparable with the worst that were faced by liberal societies in the 20th century.
Several false contrasts here. The worst is the idea that "the anti-god squad has dominated the sales charts". Yes, sure, there have been a few big selling books by atheists in the last few years. But that's a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of religious books by thousands of authors which are sold around the world every year. The fact that the religious don't have any star authors making a ton of money and being visible doesn't mean they don't exist, and to try to argue that the anti-god people have been dominant in the debate which has followed their books, rather than the position adopted by most of the reviews and most of the comment pieces on them (a wafty, faux moderation), is daft.

The other false contrast from the opening paragraph which deserves an honourable mention is the claim that "[religion] is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils." It always was. That's not an idea that Dawkins et al popularised, it is a thought many people had before. Yes, the assumption that religion would naturally die off has been challenged, but that doesn't mean that something else has to have replaced it.
For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day. The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase. In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.
This paragraph starts well, but then realises it hasn't said anything obviously insulting to the anti-god people yet, so wedges in a sly remark that they "may" believe something, and if they do then it is now "an article of faith". Well fine, but they don't believe that. That's why they are writing their polemics now: because the "tide" seems to be turning.
It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian. However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible, or that it is potentially universal. The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago, when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity. The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat, and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.
OK, this seems fair enough, but why mention elusively that "the mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed" and then not elaborate on it at all? Is it just to sound clever?
As in the past, this is a type of atheism that mirrors the faith it rejects. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights - a subtly allusive, multilayered allegory, recently adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster, The Golden Compass - is a good example. Pullman's parable concerns far more than the dangers of authoritarianism. The issues it raises are essentially religious, and it is deeply indebted to the faith it attacks. Pullman has stated that his atheism was formed in the Anglican tradition, and there are many echoes of Milton and Blake in his work. His largest debt to this tradition is the notion of free will. The central thread of the story is the assertion of free will against faith. The young heroine Lyra Belacqua sets out to thwart the Magisterium - Pullman's metaphor for Christianity - because it aims to deprive humans of their ability to choose their own course in life, which she believes would destroy what is most human in them. But the idea of free will that informs liberal notions of personal autonomy is biblical in origin (think of the Genesis story). The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman's is a derivative of Christianity.
As a criticism of Pullman's allegory, this is fine. But interesting that, in an article purporting to take on the anti-god squad, Gray starts out with an attack on a particularly weak opponent: one whose criticism is delivered in an allegorical adventure yarn.

As for the point that most of the varieties of Atheism today are derived from Christianity, this is a facile point. The only countries where speech is free enough happen at the moment to be mostly Christian countries. There are equally sound atheist blasts to be published from muslim authors, indeed, a few are in print already, from people such as Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (both included in Hitchens extensive compendium "The Portable Atheist", which is highly recommended). One only has to read those authors' wikipedia entries to see why more of their fellow ex-muslims would not want to join them just now.
Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.
The problem is that most of the tenets of humanism which are being continually contravened at any moment in the world are being contravened by the religious (it has to be said, mostly by muslims). A program of secularlisation, as Gray points out with reference to the US, does not help if your population has a large component of people prepared to accept religious authority for their demonisation of others. Therefore, this is indeed a battle of conversion, not because we feel everyone must agree with us, but because we believe that religion is doing damage to the societies we wish to see built; or rather, we believe that unreason is. It's not that everyone religious is a problem - they're not, most C of E members are more part of the solution and make admirable humanists too - but that religion has inherant problems, and those people who are not problems too are not because they have learnt to subordinate religion to their own reason. They do not accept homosexuals because the Bible tells them to - it doesn't - they do it because they recognised that this was the only tenable position in today's moral zeitgeist. But there is a fundamental itellectual dishonesty in this approach, and ultimately it is an exercise in protecting the name of religion which the anti-god people (as Gray labels us) believe to be harmful to the fight against fundamentalism. After all, you hear a lot more criticism (in the national media, anyway) from moderate Christians of atheism than you do of fundamentalist Christians.
A curious feature of this kind of atheism is that some of its most fervent missionaries are philosophers. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon claims to sketch a general theory of religion. In fact, it is mostly a polemic against American Christianity. This parochial focus is reflected in Dennett's view of religion, which for him means the belief that some kind of supernatural agency (whose approval believers seek) is needed to explain the way things are in the world. For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better - they are rudimentary or abortive theories, or else nonsense. "The proposition that God exists," he writes severely, "is not even a theory." But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories. The incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity, while in Orthodox Judaism practice tends to have priority over doctrine. Buddhism has always recognised that in spiritual matters truth is ineffable, as do Sufi traditions in Islam. Hinduism has never defined itself by anything as simplistic as a creed. It is only some western Christian traditions, under the influence of Greek philosophy, which have tried to turn religion into an explanatory theory.
Evasive waffle. Either religions make statements which are helpful to us in our lives, or they do not. How can they be helpful? By telling us things which we didn't otherwise know, or by giving us reasons to behave in ways we want to behave in. Both depend on the truth value of the religion's claims (the latter because otherwise they aren't good reasons). It doesn't matter if the religion is "trying" to make itself into an explanatory theory; either it is built on something that is true and makes sense (and "true" needn't mean "scientifically proven" - ask a philosopher), or it isn't. Incidentally, here is an article by Dennett where the quote from him is fleshed out a little.
The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century in JG Frazer's survey of the myths of primitive peoples, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked. Rooted in fear and ignorance, they were vestiges of human infancy that would disappear with the advance of knowledge. Dennett's atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer's positivism. The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication - in their day, canals and the telegraph - irrational thinking would wither way, along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same. In an interview that appears on the website of the Edge Foundation ( under the title "The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion", he predicts that "in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does today". He is confident that this will come about, he tells us, mainly because of "the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television)". The philosopher has evidently not reflected on the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Taliban, or the emergence of a virtual al-Qaida on the web.
A fair point about communication not necessarily breaking down religion, though it is worth pointing out that the language barrier makes the breakdown of Islam by the internet rather slower than it otherwise would be. But it is important to think for a moment about how Dennett's view is different from Frazer's. It is this: where Frazer felt religion would die out, Dennett only predicts, as Gray quotes, that religion will "have evolved". What people like Dennett and Dawkins have found, much to their frusration, is that faced with a reasoned rebuttal of religion, people do not let their religion fall away, they wall it away in an irrational part of their mind where it is not allowed to be challenged. How much of their actions are then allowed to be driven by religion is a different matter, but this building a protective wall of mysterious virtue in "faith" is something which almost all theists today must do. Breaking down this wall is one of Dawkins's central aims.
The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world, but it does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs - in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths - hollowed-out religious narratives translated into pseudo-science. Dennett's notion that new communications technologies will fundamentally alter the way human beings think is just such a myth.
Possibly. Note that none of that means religions are true.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to explain the appeal of religion in terms of the theory of memes, vaguely defined conceptual units that compete with one another in a parody of natural selection. He recognises that, because humans have a universal tendency to religious belief, it must have had some evolutionary advantage, but today, he argues, it is perpetuated mainly through bad education. From a Darwinian standpoint, the crucial role Dawkins gives to education is puzzling. Human biology has not changed greatly over recorded history, and if religion is hardwired in the species, it is difficult to see how a different kind of education could alter this. Yet Dawkins seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families, religion would die out. This is a view that has more in common with a certain type of fundamentalist theology than with Darwinian theory, and I cannot help being reminded of the evangelical Christian who assured me that children reared in a chaste environment would grow up without illicit sexual impulses.
A careful reading of Dawkins's chapter on this in the God Delusion will clear this up. It isn't (in Dawkins's theory) that religion itself is biologically specified because it was adaptively advantageous, it's that many of the traits in humans led us to adopt religions, for exactly the reasons Gray has already hinted at - a search for meaning and patterns, etc. One cannot escape the sense that Gray is wilfully misreading Dawkins here. It's also worth pointing out that memetics is a completely separate thing from biological evolution, one which attempts to export the basic principle of natural selection into a different realm altogether. The idea that religion is a meme is not in the least bit incompatible with the idea that religion is being propped up by education; indeed, the two sit together quite nicely if you believe, like atheists, that religions are not all that strong a set of memes nowadays, but they are being reliably propagated because they are, for some reason, artificially propped up.
Dawkins's "memetic theory of religion" is a classic example of the nonsense that is spawned when Darwinian thinking is applied outside its proper sphere. Along with Dennett, who also holds to a version of the theory, Dawkins maintains that religious ideas survive because they would be able to survive in any "meme pool", or else because they are part of a "memeplex" that includes similar memes, such as the idea that, if you die as a martyr, you will enjoy 72 virgins. Unfortunately, the theory of memes is science only in the sense that Intelligent Design is science. Strictly speaking, it is not even a theory. Talk of memes is just the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors.
Fair enough. This is the real point Gray was trying to make in the above paragraph: he doesn't like memes. And why should he? They are not a widely held theory, indeed, nobody claims memtics is a theory, really; simply an approach, an analogy which may or may not shed some light.
Dawkins compares religion to a virus: religious ideas are memes that infect vulnerable minds, especially those of children. Biological metaphors may have their uses - the minds of evangelical atheists seem particularly prone to infection by religious memes, for example. At the same time, analogies of this kind are fraught with peril. Dawkins makes much of the oppression perpetrated by religion, which is real enough. He gives less attention to the fact that some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes. Nazi "scientific racism" and Soviet "dialectical materialism" reduced the unfathomable complexity of human lives to the deadly simplicity of a scientific formula. In each case, the science was bogus, but it was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question. Science is as liable to be used for inhumane purposes as any other human institution. Indeed, given the enormous authority science enjoys, the risk of it being used in this way is greater.
Christopher Hitchens responds to exactly these points in "God Is Not Great", Chapter 17: "An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch 'Case' Against Secularism". He needs no help from me in doing so. I will simply remark that it is a shame Gray doesn't even acknowledge that this point is dealt with by Hitchens (for whom history is a rather stronger suit than with Dawkins or Harris), instead choosing to belabour the point with salvos against Harris and Dawkins, as follows.
Contemporary opponents of religion display a marked lack of interest in the historical record of atheist regimes. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, the American writer Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of "scientific atheism" - what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies. But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom? It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan "Religion is poison", would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies. It is true he was worshipped as a semi-divine figure - as Stalin was in the Soviet Union. But in developing these cults, communist Russia and China were not backsliding from atheism. They were demonstrating what happens when atheism becomes a political project. The invariable result is an ersatz religion that can only be maintained by tyrannical means.
A point that could almost be plagiarised from Hitchens, but dressed up as if it's an argument for religion, rather than (as Hitch sees it) an argument that religion is simply following unquestioningly any figure who sets themselves up as your messiah, whether or not they march under the banner of atheism.
Something like this occurred in Nazi Germany. Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. "What matters," he declares in The God Delusion, "is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does." This is simple-minded reasoning. Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler's world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.
I think Dawkins's point was that Hitler is an example of a person who did bad things, but that his basic motivation was racist. He would have shored up his argument with any supporting arguments he could find, and drawn support wherever it came from - after all, it is at the very least debatable that the Vatican reached an "accommodation" with Nazism quite early.
Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want - so they will tell you - is not an atheist regime, but a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America's secular constitution has not ensured a secular politics. Christian fundamentalism is more powerful in the US than in any other country, while it has very little influence in Britain, which has an established church. Contemporary critics of religion go much further than demanding disestablishment. It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions. Awkwardly, many of the concepts he deploys - including the idea of religion itself - have been shaped by monotheism. Lying behind secular fundamentalism is a conception of history that derives from religion.
They believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline because they will have the freedom to make rational arguments against it. Setting about them for therefore taking up their responsibility to do so is ridiculous.

A monotheism-heavy view of religion is excusable, I would say, in a world where the majority of people adhere to a monotheistic religion.

And frankly, in a world where the archbishop of Canterbury has a special status accorded him by the state, from which he is allowed not simply to preach Christianity, but to argue for special treatment for all religions, it is quite understandable that the anti-religion people should seek disestablishment even in a fairly secular country.
AC Grayling provides an example of the persistence of religious categories in secular thinking in his Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. As the title indicates, Grayling's book is a type of sermon. Its aim is to reaffirm what he calls "a Whig view of the history of the modern west", the core of which is that "the west displays progress". The Whigs were pious Christians, who believed divine providence arranged history to culminate in English institutions, and Grayling too believes history is "moving in the right direction". No doubt there have been setbacks - he mentions nazism and communism in passing, devoting a few sentences to them. But these disasters were peripheral. They do not reflect on the central tradition of the modern west, which has always been devoted to liberty, and which - Grayling asserts - is inherently antagonistic to religion. "The history of liberty," he writes, "is another chapter - and perhaps the most important of all - in the great quarrel between religion and secularism." The possibility that radical versions of secular thinking may have contributed to the development of nazism and communism is not mentioned. More even than the 18th-century Whigs, who were shaken by French Terror, Grayling has no doubt as to the direction of history.
A cheap point about Whigs being religious. The word has had several meanings encompassing all sorts of sides of various arguments.
But the belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal - a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species. In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.
The belief in "goals" is not the same thing as belief in an "ultimate goal" which is the purpose of history. Nor it the idea that history has a "goal" the same thing as the idea that it has a direction of travel. Liberalism is about the direction of travel as much as the goal.
The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
Gray is quite correct that in many versions of secular narrative, progress is not inevitable. It certainly isn't in the view of most of the authors who Gray pretends to be fighting with - why would they so tirelessly be taking up this fight, if it was, in the grand scheme of things, inevitably won anyway?
Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today's secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values - on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms - rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.
It doesn't matter that religion had a part in creating some of them, if religion is now seeking to curtain others, such as our freedoms to speak out against religion. And it is one of the most recurrent themes amongst opponents of the new Atheists that they are not more like Nietzsche. Nietzsche was nice, they knew how to deal with Nietzsche.
Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray's In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject. Refreshingly, Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: "Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy." More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism. The key liberal theorists of toleration are John Locke, who defended religious freedom in explicitly Christian terms, and Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic. Yet Onfray has nothing but contempt for the traditions from which these thinkers emerged - particularly Jewish monotheism: "We do not possess an official certificate of birth for worship of one God," he writes. "But the family line is clear: the Jews invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people." Here Onfray passes over an important distinction. It may be true that Jews first developed monotheism, but Judaism has never been a missionary faith. In seeking universal conversion, evangelical atheism belongs with Christianity and Islam.
A bit of picking and choosing the philosophers, here. Suddenly, it becomes clear why Onfray was the only name we didn't recognise back up at the top: He is more like what Gray wants, so he gets a leg-up even though we've not heard of him. So, too, liberalism is to be defined as it suits Gray, as the product of the work of Locke and Spinoza (whose pantheism isn't mentioned), but not the work of any of the other people generally thought of as founders of liberalism: certainly not Hume, or Mill. And anyway, it doesn't matter if some of the people who came up with liberalism were theists, it only matters that liberalism has no real connection to the debate between atheists and theists. Where it becomes relevant, as Gray sees it, is in that many of the new Atheists profess to liberalism because they think that under it, religion will die away. I argue that this is because they believe they are right and that with freedom of speech they should be able to win the argument.

As for atheism being a missionary faith because it seeks conversion, well, yes. If all "missionary faiths" are defined by is the characteristic that they want to persuade other people they are right, then so too are all political parties "missionary faiths". The point, contrary to Gray's suggestion here, is not that atheism seeks conversion, but that it seeks to bring people back down to the default state of belief (ie. none), as it were. Faiths require the building of a complex set of propositions which are held true in the mind of the believer (I have a soul, it will live after my body dies, there is a God, what happens to my soul after I die depends on what God thinks of me, etc...). Atheism requires none of this. It simply tries to persuade people that one or more of these tenets that they have accepted as part of their religion is false. It doesn't seek to put anything in their place, least of all a morality or a system of government (atheism is not liberalism, as I hope we all agree).
In today's anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature. To some extent, this is also true of the current wave of terrorism. Islamism is a patchwork of movements, not all violently jihadist and some strongly opposed to al-Qaida, most of them partly fundamentalist and aiming to recover the lost purity of Islamic traditions, while at the same time taking some of their guiding ideas from radical secular ideology. There is a deal of fashionable talk of Islamo-fascism, and Islamist parties have some features in common with interwar fascist movements, including antisemitism. But Islamists owe as much, if not more, to the far left, and it would be more accurate to describe many of them as Islamo-Leninists. Islamist techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements. The executions of hostages in Iraq are copied in exact theatrical detail from European "revolutionary tribunals" in the 1970s, such as that staged by the Red Brigades when they murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
Interesting. OK.
The influence of secular revolutionary movements on terrorism extends well beyond Islamists. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder". He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island's Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties. Tiger suicide bombers do not go to certain death in the belief that they will be rewarded in any postmortem paradise. Nor did the suicide bombers who drove American and French forces out of Lebanon in the 80s, most of whom belonged to organisations of the left such as the Lebanese communist party. These secular terrorists believed they were expediting a historical process from which will come a world better than any that has ever existed. It is a view of things more remote from human realities, and more reliably lethal in its consequences, than most religious myths.
Is Gray saying that suicide bombing in general is nothing to do with theism? Because that's going to be a hard sell. Anyway, Hitchens does indeed omit to spell out that the Tamil Tigers are atheistic, but that doesn't matter. What drove them to blow themselves and others up was not atheism, but ethnic strife. If you want to see what Hitchens said on the subject, it's in chapter 14, page 199 of the hardback.
It is not necessary to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth resolutely defending. No one can doubt that they are superior to the tyranny imposed by the Taliban on Afghanistan, for example. The issue is one of proportion. Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century. A greater menace is posed by North Korea, which far surpasses any Islamist regime in its record of repression and clearly does possess some kind of nuclear capability. Evangelical atheists rarely mention it. Hitchens is an exception, but when he describes his visit to the country, it is only to conclude that the regime embodies "a debased yet refined form of Confucianism and ancestor worship". As in Russia and China, the noble humanist philosophy of Marxist-Leninism is innocent of any responsibility.
1. "It isn't necessary to believe... etc." Oh, so what was much of the last few paragraphs about, then, John?
2. North Korea isn't a threat. No North Korean terrorists threaten us, their nuclear capability, such as it is, is a deterrent just like ours is - we all know that nobody wants to ever use nukes, for the simple reason that it will likely mean their death too. I'm sure I don't need to go over this.
3. Once again, the point is not whether the regime of North Korea is religious, but whether its motivation is specifically atheistic.
Writing of the Trotskyite-Luxemburgist sect to which he once belonged, Hitchens confesses sadly: "There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb." He need not worry. His record on Iraq shows he has not lost the will to believe. The effect of the American-led invasion has been to deliver most of the country outside the Kurdish zone into the hands of an Islamist elective theocracy, in which women, gays and religious minorities are more oppressed than at any time in Iraq's history. The idea that Iraq could become a secular democracy - which Hitchens ardently promoted - was possible only as an act of faith.
I am not about to defend Hitchens on Iraq. It's a cheap shot, but Gray can have that one.
In The Second Plane, Martin Amis writes: "Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally." Amis is sure religion is a bad thing, and that it has no future in the west. In the author of Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million - a forensic examination of self-delusion in the pro-Soviet western intelligentsia - such confidence is surprising. The intellectuals whose folly Amis dissects turned to communism in some sense as a surrogate for religion, and ended up making excuses for Stalin. Are there really no comparable follies today? Some neocons - such as Tony Blair, who will soon be teaching religion and politics at Yale - combine their belligerent progressivism with religious belief, though of a kind Augustine and Pascal might find hard to recognise. Most are secular utopians, who justify pre-emptive war and excuse torture as leading to a radiant future in which democracy will be adopted universally. Even on the high ground of the west, messianic politics has not lost its dangerous appeal.
I think we've already covered this. "Messianism", as Gray puts it, is essentially a form of religion - it is a surrender to unreason, and therefore exactly what Dawkins and Hitchens and the rest rail against.
Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise. In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism. Today, the result is a climate of hysteria. Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.
1. No comments in the above paragraph on the validity or otherwise of religious belied, only pessimism about arguing against it.
2. I would severely object to the idea that the Earth is here to "serve humans", and I think it is probably simply untrue to say this is a view held by "most secular humanists".
3. More "these people self-defined as being on your side, so you must be wrong because they were". Dawkins, Hitchens et al. do not seek to curtail freedom in these ways, so in an essay rebutting them, why bring this up?
The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.
And thus we conclude with a charicature of an argument that none of Dawkins, Hitchens or Grayling have made, nor any of the others quoted, I shouldn't wonder.

Throughout the article, he tries to suggest people's error, not by engaging with the substance of their arguments, but by lumping them in with other people and then declaring that grouping to be wrong. He thinks that the liberalism of people like Dawkins is undermined because other liberals were religious. How so? Were the ideas they imparted fundamentally religious? Or is it simply that they arrived at them in part because of their religion? If the latter, how does that matter? If Mill had arrived at his general principle of "You may do as you wish, as long as it harms nobody else" through frustration with the religious people around him, what of it? Does that make it a fundamentally atheist idea? Does it bollocks.

This is a shoddy piece of argument which Gray should be ashamed of. Sadly, though, it is all too typical of the apologetics which has served as rebuttal of the "new atheists". It doesn't deal with their fundamental point: that religious belief is irrational and often opens the door to all sorts of other unpleasant irrationalities. It simply nit-picks, often pretty ineffectually, and slings counter examples which aren't counter examples.

I don't know how Dawkins finds the energy.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Nigel Kneale: Do We Owe Him That Much?

Loz Miles has posted this interesting piece challenging the received wisdom on Nigel Kneale. OK, I know, not obviously Lib Dem, but there is undeniably a Doctor Who fan audience to be found here! Quote from the article:
The Quatermass serials have left us with a vague sense of superiority, without prompting us to question their meaning. And it's a poor sort of television that only inspires mistrust. Kneale's vision is an insular, mean-spirited one, in which everything unfamiliar is a threat; all human endeavour is worthless, if not actively dangerous; and anything which goes against the principles of old-school Britishness must be destroyed.
Intrigued? Irritated? Go read.

Whilst I'm plugging Lawrence, I will also point out that the updates to his bizarre new fictional blog seem to have started flowing again, too. Hurrah!

Clegg's Speech: My Reaction

So, now that I have shaped my thoughts by reorganising the speech itself, what do I make of it?

Well, the delivery (which you can see here) was interesting. It showed great promise, but I suspect that the audience didn't get as fired up as it might have done owing to what sounds to me like a rather acoustically cavernous hall
(picture here: ). Occasionally Nick seemed to expect the audience to applaud when they didn't, and conversely, sometimes they applauded when he didn't expect it. His improvised "Hang on, it's my speech" in response to some unintended audience participation was funny by itself, but had the effect of divorcing the "No." from the rhetorical question it answered. He could have solved this by simply repeating the question. All in all, a good start, but I expect that, like Ming, his speech-making will improve with time.

Style is all very well, but what about substance? Well, here, I will break into lists, since they are as fast a way as any of saying what you liked and what you didn't.

Things I Liked

-Obliquely mentioning the Europe debacle early in the speech, and going on to say quite firmly "You can expect more of this approach from me" about the walkout, whilst maintaining a contrite silence on the Three-Line Whip, but going on to describe himself as "a passionate promoter of the European Union and Britain's place at its heart."

-The featuring political reform prominently. Those of us who always felt we should never stop making noise about PR have plenty to be happy about here.

-Recall elections.

-The "vested interest" analysis of politics, from his characterisation of Labour as trade unions and Tories as big business when he joined the party, to the later reasoning on why they other parties will never truly change the system now. It is a much neglected way of thinking, in my view - probably because we, as liberals, like to think that we hold our ground for rationally argued reasons and not because they are in our interests; not everyone is like that.

-Contrasting Vince with George Osborne.

-The life-expectancy tube journey.

-The importance of mental health.

-The marvellously liberal section on giving people second chances and caring for people as we punish them. I hope some awful Tory somewhere had a seizure at this point.

- The urgency of climate change.

- A trenchant line on foreign policy.

- Anti-cynicism.

Things I Wholly Disagree With

-Err.... not a lot. Oh:

-His comment that "When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, buying a wormery or going organic seems like a luxury for someone else." I have no problems with wormeries, I should make clear. But I do have a problem with the suggestion that the organic movement and the wider environmental movement are necessarily bedfellows of any description. Climate change is not going to be helped at all by inefficient farming practices motivated by an ignorant fear of "chemicals" (as if everything weren't a "chemical" of some description). And yes, I know, pesticides, water table, blah blah. But this is about priorities. All concerns about the biosphere more generally are secondary to combating climate change, and we should be happy to say so. Sounding like some dopey middle class eejit seeking to bring the wonders of organic sun dried tomatoes and wormeries to the great unhosed isn't going to help at all.

Niggles - Could Be Improved

-The section about maybe possibly lowering the overall tax take if we don't need the money for our plans at the next election. Anyone paying attention will have realised that this was nothing but mood music to attract disaffected Tories, containing as it did no actual policy commitments, and as such could probably have been shorter. As it was, it sounded as if he was trying to make it sound like more than it was.

So all in all, rather more to like than not, but then, I am in his party for a reason, and after all, isn't that what conference is there to persuade us?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Clegg's Speech in Full

For those who find that one line paragraphs are a bit much, I have taken the transcript from the Lib Dem website and turned it into the following, for ease of reading. Nothing has been changed about the content, but I have attempted to make it sit a little more naturally as printed word.

My grandmother was a Russian exile; she fled the Russian revolution as a child, escaping through Europe and finally settling here in Britain. My mother spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. My mother and my grandmother's lives were torn and reshaped by the great wars and upheavals of the twentieth century. And they found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion. And what they taught me the extraordinary, precious value of those beliefs. They understood that beliefs matter, they make all the difference between war and peace. Beliefs shape our world, for better and for worse.

My family taught me never to give up on problems, and no matter what the odds or opposition, always to seek to do what’s right. And there are problems in Britain today, too many: Families stuck in grinding poverty, liberty taken and abused by government officials, climate change starting to tighten its deathly grip. But they aren’t problems with the British people, they’re problems faced by the British people. We are not the problem, it’s the system that’s the problem.

That’s what gives me hope, because there is nothing we cannot change. Our party is growing, we're going from strength to strength: more supporters, more members, more MPs. It's not that long ago that if 13 MPs wanted to rebel, we'd have had to borrow some from the other parties.

You want to know the great political story of our generation? It isn’t New Labour. It isn’t New Conservatives. Those are just the dying sparks of a fire that’s running out of fuel. No, the great political story of our time is the story of the vast and growing army of people who look at the two main parties and say “no thanks.” People who, like me, like you, want something different. In 1951, only 2% of voters chose someone other than Labour or the Tories; at the last general election, it was 32%.

A gimmick here, or a lucky break there may boost Labour or Conservative poll ratings for a few weeks or months, but it cannot, and will not reverse the trend. Who seriously believes that the British people, offered so much choice in every aspect of our daily lives, will ever again settle for a two-party system? If you have two parties, you only ever have two ideas - on a good day. Most of the time they can’t even rustle up a single good idea between them. No wonder people are tired of politics, of a system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties, of the same old politicians, the same old fake choices, the same old feeling that nothing ever changes.

But this isn’t a story of indifference. People do care about issues: climate change, poverty, their local school or hospital. There are marches and campaigns and petitions launched every day of the week. People care, they just don’t care about politicians. So this is the end of the line for politics-as-usual.

If we want a political system that works for the future, we need to start again, from scratch. I am not just talking about electoral reform; a change in our voting system is a vital part of what we need, but it isn’t enough.

First, let’s clean up politics; scandals over pay and expenses have shattered confidence. Thousands of voters have seen their MP exposed for corruption – and been told there’s nothing they can do about it. I want a Derek Conway Clause, so if an MP is suspended for serious misconduct there is an automatic recall ballot so people can call for a by-election. If your MP lets you down, you should have the power to fire them.

Second, let’s give people the say they deserve. I hold town hall meetings up and down the country every couple of weeks – where I answer any question, on any topic, and anyone can come along. I say to Gordon Brown and David Cameron: do the same. Today I'm writing to invite them to join me at any one of the town hall meetings coming up - not as a media stunt, but a direct conversation with people – no spin, no hand-picked audiences, no planted questions.

Our plans for the NHS, approved this weekend, would give every citizen an even more direct say. The power to run their local health service, by standing for election to their local health board, is real democracy in action. Giving local people the chance to run services which really matter to them, and being held accountable at the ballot box by their own communities. It's our health service - it's time to put it back in our hands.

Third, let’s design a new political system for the 21st century. It shouldn’t be hammered out in secret, smoke-filled rooms, by the powers that be. I want a citizens’ jury of 100 people to sit in a Constitutional Convention with all the political parties, churches, civil society groups and more - to look across the board, and redesign the way Britain is governed. I wrote to David Cameron and Gordon Brown proposing such a Convention just after Christmas; their replies were laughable: Dave suggested he and I gang up on Gordon, Gordon sent me six pages of legalistic waffle (Willie Goodhart, Anthony Lester and the rest of our top legal experts are still locked in a Committee room trying to decipher it).

You see, only the Liberal Democrats will ever champion the sort of change we need. Only we can transform the system, because we aren’t part of it. I joined the Liberal Democrats because we’re independent. When I was a teenager, Labour were in the pockets of the trade unions, Conservatives in the pockets of big business. What drew me to the Liberal Democrats was that we weren’t in anyone’s pocket. It’s still the same.

The establishment parties will manipulate the system to get the power they want, but they’ll never change it - they like having power and privilege sewn up between a few chums in the Westminster bubble. That’s why they won’t do what’s needed and get the money out of politics. They don’t see we’re heading for the skids: if we don’t act, Britain will end up like America, where political influence is all about cash. That's why I want a universal £25,000 cap on donations, a real cap on spending, and yes, an end to big union donations, and an end to offshore finance from Belize. Transparency, openness, a new constitutional settlement, and an end to big money politics: that’s what Britain needs and we will get it done.

I’m not shy about doing whatever it takes. If it means walking out of Parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say: fine. If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes, like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say: so be it. If it means risking court, and refusing to sign up for an Identity Card, I say: bring it on. And you can expect more - much more - of that from me. It’s a high-risk strategy, and I warn you, we can only make it work if we are united and disciplined in the face of attacks from the establishment parties and the establishment media.

If we are not the radical force in British politics, who will be? Not Gordon Brown. Until last summer, we all thought we knew what Gordon Brown was all about: we knew he’d signed the cheques for Iraq, we knew he had an arrogant, centralising obsession with controlling everything, and a steely determination to get his hands on the keys to Downing Street, but at least people thought he would be able to manage things with a little competence. Then look what happened: a bottled election, Northern Rock, party funding scandals, and data losses. This government had the audacity to advise every family in Britain to get a paper shredder, to protect them from identity fraud, and then proceeded to lose more of our personal data than any government in the history of the world.

Worse, remember last autumn, after the election-that-never-was? Alistair Darling stole a policy from the Tories and announced an inheritance tax cut that will help only the richest 6% of people. Do you know where they found the money? If the reports are true, they scrapped a plan they'd been developing all summer - a plan to cut child poverty. The future of hundreds of thousands of children sold down the river because the Labour party sold its soul and became the second Conservative party: money taken from the poorest kids and given to the richest adults, no questions asked. Gutless, heartless, and incompetent.

Gordon Cameron. David Brown. What's the difference any more?

I’ve actually found out why it’s going so wrong for Gordon. I’ve got my hands on a secret memo, drafted by Ed Miliband, redrafted by Ed Balls, leaked by Charlie Whelan. Gordon Brown’s masterplan:

Number one: get into Downing Street.

Number two: don’t leave.

Number three: errr, that's it.

No vision, no agenda, no hope.

The Conservatives are just the same: they’re in favour of winning, they’re against losing, and that’s it. David Cameron has taken a conscious, strategic decision not to have any policies. They have commissions, and papers, and ideas, and possibilities, but not one concrete promise. This is sham politics from a party bereft of belief, that will say anything to get elected – and Britain deserves more. You know, their proposals for tax breaks for marriage are so ill-thought out, they would even give cash to a man who’s ditched his stay-at-home-wife and shacked up with his secretary.

Think about the alternatives to Alistair Darling. In the yellow corner, Vince Cable, former chief economist at Shell, and in the blue corner, George Osborne, former Tory research assistant. On tax, Vince Cable has carefully costed plans for a fairer, greener Britain, and George Osborne has a review by Lord Howe, famously described as a dead sheep. On Northern Rock, Vince Cable had a sensible plan for temporary national ownership, and George Osborne has had more positions than the Kama Sutra. On every issue, Vince is streets ahead, the Liberal Democrats are streets ahead of the Conservatives.

But have you heard the latest wheeze from the Tories? It's the extraordinary claim that David Cameron wants to mimic Barack Obama and be “anti-establishment”. That’s like Margaret Thatcher claiming to be the champion of the unions, or Boris Johnson giving a master-class in the art of diplomacy - this is a man who's still not welcome in the great city of Liverpool, or Portsmouth, or Papua New Guinea, and we must keep him out of City Hall too.

Ken Livingstone has let London down and the only man fit to replace him is Brian Paddick, an outstanding candidate who will transform London. It's not just in London where we're facing elections in May; there are three thousand seats to be won, so let's campaign as we've never campaigned before, win more votes and more seats so even more British people can have the opportunity of a Liberal Democrat council.

The day before I was elected leader, Mr Cameron suggested we join them, he talked about a “progressive alliance”. This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government? No. Will I ever join a Labour government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party's agenda.

But am I interested in building a new type of government? Yes. Based on pluralism instead of one party rule? Yes. A new system, that empowers people not parties? Yes. We want a new, more liberal Britain, and the Liberal Democrats will be the gathering point for everyone who wants that liberal Britain too – no matter their background, no matter their party, so for anyone who shares our ambitions I have two words: join us.

What will it look like, this new Britain? First the great monoliths of centrally-run bureaucracies must be opened up – and run for the sake of the people, the patients, the pupils. These days individuals are powerless in the face of the rules and regulations that run everything, every sensible request is met with a mindless “Computer Says No”. Who hasn’t got stuck in the nightmarish world of an automatic phone service they laughably call a “helpline”? The lift music. The menus. The mechanical voice that tells you “your call is important to us”.

It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sort out your gas bill, but what if that helpline’s your only route to getting money for food, heating, clothes for your kids? That’s what happened to Hayley Sandford, a young single mum from Camborne, in Cornwall. She didn’t want to be stuck on benefits, so she took a job over the summer; she and her friend Donna spent six weeks doing face-painting for kids, but the season ended, the crowds went home, and the job stopped. Hayley’s tax credits had been mistakenly stopped too, and now she had no wages either.

Just imagine: No money, and a young son to feed. She was desperate, tipped into financial chaos because the system couldn’t keep up, because bureaucrats were interested only in forms and rules, they couldn’t see the human tragedy emerging in front of them. In the end, Hayley was lucky: her MP, Julia Goldsworthy, stepped in and helped sort out the chaos. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, we can’t all rely on Julia. We want services that are human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people. We don’t want these services handed down by the faceless state.

Gordon Brown is obsessed with building bigger and bigger database systems. I sometimes wonder if it’s a mid-life crisis thing: you know, instead of buying a Porsche or trying to climb Everest. It’s an international game of “mine’s bigger than yours”. They’re actually proud of the fact Britain has more innocent people’s DNA on file than any other country in the world, proud that Britain is leading the world in fingerprinting children at school, proud that the Identity Card database will be the biggest and most complex the world has ever seen. They shouldn’t be proud, they should be ashamed. Our civil liberties are a hard-won inheritance from our forefathers who fought and died for our freedom, and our party will defend them to the end.

It’s a funny thing, freedom: it ought to belong to everyone, in equal measure, but in Britain today, some people are still freer than others. Pensioners spending a whole winter in the bedroom, because it’s the only room they can afford to heat: that isn’t freedom. Children shunted from one damp, temporary flat to another, sharing a bed with their parents because there’s no space for a room of their own: that isn’t freedom. Teenagers trapped in a cycle of drink and drugs and crime, because they have never known anything different: that isn’t freedom.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A better Britain would put education and opportunity at its very heart so no child, no parent, is ever trapped in poverty. These days, a clever, but poor child, will be overtaken at school by a less clever, but wealthier child by the age of six - just two thousand days old, and already let down by the system. We cannot let this go on.

I met a remarkable young man a couple of months ago in Southwark. Ashley had the kind of drive and charisma that fills you with hope – and the kind of childhood that makes you want to weep, passed about from one set of foster parents to another. These days, the government calls kids in care “looked-after children”; too often, “looked-after” is just a painful euphemism for a childhood on the scrap heap. You know how many looked-after children go to university? Five percent.

But Ashley defied the system, defied the statistics, and got into Cambridge. By sheer force of personality, and with the help of a good school, he has conquered circumstance - but it shouldn’t be so hard. The system should pave the way for people like Ashley, not set up roadblocks. That’s why our idea for a Pupil Premium is so important, to get investment in education for the poorest children up to the levels of private schools. And I will find the £2.5 billion it will cost.

I want to build an education system where the people who need the most help get the most help, where schools that take on children who are harder to teach get extra cash to fund catch up classes, Saturday school, one-to-one tuition, whatever it takes. I’ve seen it work: in the Netherlands, classes in deprived areas are half the size of classes in more affluent areas, and as a result everyone gets a good education, no matter what their background. We can have that here. We can have a better education system, and through it a better Britain.

But, inequality today isn’t just about what happens at school. The crisis reaches so deep that where you are born, and who your parents are, affects everything about how your life will pan out. It even affects how long that life will be. Some day, if you’re in London, get on the tube at Westminster, on the Jubilee line. Take an eastbound train towards the Docklands. Every station you pass, every time the train stops, every time the doors open and close, for every stop you travel east, life expectancy drops by a year.

It’s the same across Britain. In Sheffield, a child born in the poorest neighbourhood will live 14 years less than a child born just a few miles away. The NHS is a great national institution, but it isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough when the very number of days you will spend on this planet are determined by the place and circumstances of your birth. So let us build a new NHS – a People’s NHS.

That’s why this week we’ve committed ourselves to a patient guarantee: treatment within a specified waiting time, or we’ll pay for you to go private. That’s the way it works in Denmark – not to undermine the public health system, but to guarantee patients’ rights. And patients should have more control over their care – with budgets in their own hands to treat long term and chronic conditions.

Nowhere is this more important than in mental health. People are waiting for literally years for help. In Plymouth you’ll be stranded for three and a half years before you even get to see a therapist. So people languish on incapacity benefit, and stuff themselves with pills that might not even work, and sometimes, help never comes.

Like for Petra Blanksby. A childhood of sexual abuse, beatings from her mother, repeatedly locked with her twin sister in a cupboard with the dogs. In a last desperate cry for help, she set fire to her own mattress. Instead of receiving help, she was convicted of arson and sent to prison where she tied a ligature around her neck and hanged herself. She was 19. What makes the tragedy even more agonizing is that her twin sister, locked as a child in the same cupboard, but given help and therapy in her teens, is OK. That’s how it should be. People should get a second, a third, a fourth chance at life – however many chances it takes.

Take our criminal justice system. It doesn’t have to be just a dustbin for people who’ve been failed by everyone else. It should be a place where people and communities come together to tackle crime and deal with problems, where criminals are punished, of course, but also steered away from crime. I visited a great drugs court in West London last year run by a Judge called Justin Philips. He wants the drug addicts he sees to really feel they’ve achieved something when they’re staying away from drugs and crime. He cajoles, encourages, admonishes, and praises the offenders as if they were from his own family, and it makes such a difference.

I met a young man called Aaron. His story was like that of almost every drug addict: Stealing to buy drugs, failed attempts at rehab, a never-ending cycle of crime, punishment, cold turkey, falling off the wagon. And then he was sent to Judge Justin, who – quite literally – held his hand through the huge task of getting clean, and keeping clean. Aaron told me – “Justin was the first person I ever met, my whole life, who cared about what happened to me.” It makes a difference when you treat a human being like a human being. And it can be this way.

We don’t have to have to have tens of thousands of young people hooked on drugs, we don’t have to have women selling themselves on the streets to fund their desperate need for a hit, and we can care for people as we punish them, not only for their sake but to make British communities safer too. Change the system, and we can change Britain. Education, health and crime: the top three concerns of the British people, they have been for decades.

But I want us to get the environment up there too. Our planet is sick, and we will only heal it if people – if millions of people – demand action. Climate scientists trade all sorts of terrifying numbers and statistics: degrees of warming, metres rise in sea levels, numbers of people who’ll be driven from their homes, but there’s one number that worries me most: Just one in fourteen people thinks the environment is a big problem.

Everyone in this room knows the Liberal Democrats have the best policies on tackling climate change, but I am not content to sit around, burnishing our policy credentials so that, some time in the future – if the apocalypse comes – we can say “I told you so”. We’ve got to make concern about the environment a mass movement, now. We must provide an optimistic, empowering case for action to tackle climate change; you can't hector people, they must be motivated and inspired, especially when they’re already struggling to meet their council tax bills, the gas, the electric, and childcare. When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, buying a wormery or going organic seems like a luxury for someone else.

We all need to feel like the system is on our side. There are too many rules, too many blockages, too many obstacles to making life greener. It's even difficult to make small steps: it actually took me a year – a whole year – to get the Labour council in Sheffield to put a recycling bin in the playground of a primary school in my constituency. Now, I’m an MP, it’s my job to campaign for this sort of thing sometimes, but how many parents are there, across the country, who had the same idea – "let’s get a recycling bin at school" – and gave up?

By changing the system, to support people who want to do their bit, we can get business, government and people to act together. If we all begin today, we can still save the planet, we can harness environmental leadership to drive our economy too. We will need it, if we’re to withstand the global downturn that’s on the doorstep. Britain is in no fit state to endure the impact of a recession in the US; our government has created a system propped up on cheap credit. We’ve been building castles on the sand. And the tide is coming in. Poor Alistair Darling has become the chief mourner at his own political funeral.

But outside Westminster, we all know who will suffer first, and most. It isn’t the hedge fund managers. It isn’t the wealthy tax exiles. It’s ordinary families, already struggling with rising council tax, soaring gas and electricity bills, and the merciless upwards creep of the price of food. Why is it that those ordinary families still pay more tax than the richest people in Britain today? What kind of messed-up system is that?

If we want a better Britain, with opportunity for everyone, we’ve got to have fair taxes. Cutting income tax by 4p in the pound is a great start, but we must never stop thinking about how we make taxes fairer, greener and, if possible, lower. Not loopholes for people with clever tax accountants and offshore trusts, but lifting the burden on ordinary families. We mustn’t be a party that taxes for the sake of it; I have no interest in taxing people to “send a message”.

Taxes should be fair, and they should be green. They should raise the money we need and not a penny more. So if, before the General Election, we find we can deliver our objectives with money to spare, we shouldn’t look for new ways to spend it, we should look for new ways to hand it back, especially to those who need it most.

We have called for tax rises in the past, when investment in our public services was intolerably low; we were right to do so. But after a decade of unprecedented increases in spending the problem now is not “how much” – it’s “how”. We need to think radically about how we improve our public services, change funding systems so there’s fair access for everyone, and deliver services efficiently, instead of wasting money on massive centralised systems that do more harm than good. And devolve control to councils, communities, families, parents, patients and pupils.

Change will upset some people, I know. Change always does. There are vested interests at play, in the establishment parties, in the big central bureaucracies that run things in Britain today. Someone’s got to take on the vested interests.
Someone’s got to challenge the established order of things. And it’s got to be us, it can only be us. I don’t just mean vested interests determining government policy here at home. Our whole international political system – and Britain’s role within it - is twisted and warped by powerful people determined to promote their own interests.

What better example is there than Iraq? If there is one thing this illegal war has taught us, it is this: that when others choose to ride their tanks over the top of international law, our government must not roll over or join in. Iraq was Bush’s war – and supporting it is Labour’s greatest shame. Our whole political establishment is in thrall to the might of the Pentagon and the White House; only the Liberal Democrats say no. Britain must embrace our relationship with other allies – especially Europe: that's why I will always be a passionate promoter of the European Union and Britain's place at its heart.

But the Bush administration is coming to an end, at last. We have a real chance now to break with the past, set priorities here in Britain, not in the Pentagon. No more nods and winks to the abuse of human rights. No more secretive deals to host American missile systems on British soil. No more neo-con wars. Now is the time for change.

Of course there will be times when military action is necessary. We supported, and continue to support, the intervention in Afghanistan – and we must do more to make it a success. But Britain’s response to threats must always be ethical, measured and legal. Under Labour, quite simply, it isn’t any of those things. This is a government which identifies twenty 'major countries of concern' for human rights abuses, then exports record levels of arms to nineteen of them. This is a government which cancels an investigation into corrupt arms sales to Saudi, then rolls out the red carpet for a state visit from its king. This is a Prime Minister who refuses to speak up on human rights abuses in China, then picks up his reward in the form of special trade deals.

For too long, vested interests have triumphed over doing what’s right and it’s got to stop. Sometimes it makes you feel so helpless, and yes, angry too, when there’s so much you want to change. I bet you’ve all felt like that once in a while: like there’s a mountain to climb, and it’s just too much to do alone. The cynicism of so much public debate doesn’t help; a cynicism that mocks anyone with the nerve to speak with sincerity about what they believe, a cynicism that’s given up believing in hope.

But I am not embarrassed by sincerity. I am not ashamed of believing in things. I want to believe in a better Britain. Every one of us is here today because we believe in a better Britain. It’s time for a party that isn’t cowed by the system, or afraid to challenge it, because the chance for change is there – within our reach - the chance to prise open, once and for all, the rotten old system, and build something new. The chance is there, it’s ours to take.

So let’s seize it.

Clegg's Speech: Key Message for the Lib Dem Bloggers

I'm just watching Nick Clegg's leadership speech on the BBC website. Generally good stuff, and I'll post a more extensive discussion once I've finished listening. But one section really jumped out at me, and made me want to draw attention to it right now:
If it means walking out of parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say "fine". If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say "quite right". And if it means risking court refusing to sign up for an identity card, I say "so be it". And you can expect more, much more of that from me.

Of course it's a high risk strategy. But I warn you, we can only make it work if we are united, and if we are disciplined. United and disciplined in the face of attacks from the establishment parties and the establishment media.
This is as relevant to the Lib Dem blogosphere, in my view, as it is to anyone else. Of course nobody should gag themselves when they feel they have a point to make about the party. But it is imperative to the success of the Lib Dems that we start to think more like a party and less like a congregation of trenchant view-holders. We need to collectively turn outwards and be united in our scorn for the other parties.

RETRACTION: Mark Littlewood, Rentacritic

Following a response by Mark Littlewood on this post, I have been persuaded that the opinions I expressed in the post below were wrong. I do not believe that Mark is motivated to make appearances by the possibility to cause damage to the party, and it was incorrect for me to suggest that his appearances are always critical. I would like to apologise for these comments.

I will not be removing the post or any of the comments it attracted, because I do not believe that it is a healthy or desirable mode of discourse for bloggers to do so when their posts attract criticism.


Just watched last night's Newsnight, in which Nick Clegg was given a good sneering at by Paxman. Nick did OK, I thought, though he would have done well to get in the point that the constitution was an amalgamtion of Maastricht, Nice, Lisbon, etc., and not just Lisbon. Paxman becomes ever more impossible on subjects where he clearly thinks his subjective judgments on things are facts.

But what irked me most was the fact that Mark Littlewood was once again used by a news programme as their "he-used-to-work-for-them-so-if-HE-feels-this-way-it-MUST-mean-something" interviewee. I can't remember how many times I have now seen him featured on programmes like Newsnight, always making comments critical of the party's position or strategy. But no matter how many appearances he has made, I cannot ever remember it being pointed out that he left the party under something of a cloud.

Can anybody point me in the direction of a single media intervention he has made since "resigning" from his job which has been helpful to the party?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Message for Ed Davey

Ed, by now, the UN Secretary General has managed to comment very sensibly on the fairly appalling actions of Israel in recent days. Why have we said nothing on this? In 2006, when the Lebanon business flared up, Ming took a very sensible and proactive stance in calling for Israel to call off its grossly disproportionate and aggressive campaign. Surely this is an equally obvious situation in which we can be pretty clear in opposing the cosy consensus view of Labour and the Tories, which broadly supports the (typically fatuous) US-Israeli line that goes something like the following quote.

The Observer:
Last night, the US called for an end to the violence and said it regretted the loss of life in the Gaza Strip. 'There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self defence,' White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Actually, when you have responded to 1 death and 5 injuries at the hands of terrorist rockets from Gaza with bombs that have killed over 100, and many innocent children and other civilians amongst them, as well as denying medical care to many innocent Palestinians, I don't see the distinction Mr. Johndroe is trying to make. Only an amazingly militaristic, aggressive and paranoid mind could call this "self defence". This becomes obvious when you listen to the statements of some within the ruling Kadima party who are presumably driving this, for instance:
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit: "The heads of Hamas must pay the price. Hamas doesn't understand any other language; the problem is we are talking to them in English instead of in Arabic. They only understand [the language of force]. The situation at present doesn't make sense; every other country faced with rockets on its citizens would go in and destroy the area. We should warn the [Arabs in Gaza] in advance, give them a day's notice, and then wipe out a neighborhood. We should also hit their leaders, regardless of who or what they are.”
Opposing this kind of thinking looks like a no brainer to me, especially in light of Israel's bomb attack on the office of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Whatever we may think of this man, his party was democratically elected by the people of Gaza, and it is not Israel's place to remove him by force. Isn't the word "Democrat" in our name?

When Ming was leader, we all welcomed calls for him to be "the pinstripe radical", for our party to "rattle the cage of British politics". It seems perfectly in line with that aspiration to me to speak up about this issue. And yet I see no comment from you (or anyone else) about this at all on the party website. I know you are busy with the Lisbon treaty stuff right now, as you told some of my fellow bloggers the other day. But this shouldn't be a difficult issue. I, and I'm sure many others would appreciate it if you could make a bit of noise about this. After all, the Lisbon treaty circus is all very well, but it's not likely to actually sway many voters. This might.