Friday, 30 August 2013

The Royal Prerogative is Dead! Long Live Parliament?

 After yesterday’s Parliamentary vote for the first time for many years the United Kingdom will be opting out of joint military action with the United States.  There are two separate issues here – whether we should launch air strikes, covered in the previous blog and secondly, who should be responsible for the decision.  Many worry about the consequences for the Special Relationship and whether Assad’s regime has been bolstered.  It is largely because, following historic precedent, the Government took the lead on foreign affairs rather than Parliament, leading to an impression of support for the United States from Britain.  For reasons of the need for flexibility in changing circumstances, our Government makes use of the Royal Prerogative in foreign affairs.  Things are not as simple as they were though; constitutionally we are in a new area.  In 2003 Mr Blair set a new precedent by bringing an executive decision to go to war to the legislature.  Endorsement by the Commons provided a fig leaf for war on trumped-up claims. Ironically, the new convention of consulting Parliament was established by a Prime Minister who spent most of his tenure in Number 10 arrogantly ignoring longstanding conventions.  Now this new convention has meant that the legislature has frustrated the executive on an executive decision over Syria.

Last night an interesting exchange took place between two Conservative MPs.  Douglas Carswell MP, who may be said to represent the Whiggish tendency in the modern Conservative Party, was agonising as to what he thought the consequences of military intervention might be.  He was interrupted by an intervention from his parliamentary colleague, Benard Jenkin MP, who made the Tory point that the uncertain deliberations in the Commons were evidence of why deciding whether to execute a war should be a decision for the executive.

The blogger has many doubts as to whether intervention is wise.  The British public is extremely sceptical.  Parliament opposed the timetable for action before the weapons inspectors had reported back.  The Prime Minister reacted by taking military intervention off the agenda entirely.  As stated elsewhere on this site, much of the doubt about action was because of the way Tony Blair had taken the country to war in 2003.  It is indeed possible many MPs voted the way they did to put right the mistake they made in 2003 – they took the opportunity to vote against action in 2013, because they wished they had voted no in 2003. 

Be that as it may, there is surely a strong argument that the executive must make the decision on military action.  It is not the same thing as accepting military action was right, to say that exercise of the Royal Prerogative is a better way to decide whether to go to war.  The Government made an executive decision to send more planes to Cyprus, without consulting Parliament – so it still regards the Royal Prerogative as a live concept.

It is difficult for MPs to make an informed decision without full access to intelligence and without being part of an ongoing discussion with our international allies.   It is the Government that has a relationship with foreign governments, not Parliament.  To an extent, as per Mr Carswell’s concerned vacillating in the debate, MPs were deciding in the dark, without all the facts before them.  Consequences that MPs have not foreseen are now coming into play.  The United States will go ahead without us.  The Special Relationship is weakened.  The Prime Minister has been politically damaged.  Assad and his regime feels bolstered, at least for now.  Britain will no longer be at the table to discuss what the international community should do.

Of course the executive will make mistakes and its plans on Syria might have been such an example, but the Royal Prerogative is exercised by a prime minister who is a member of the legislature and heads a government that cannot survive without the support of the Commons - That in itself must be an important factor weighing on any government’s decision processes.   It means the executive remains accountable even if Parliament does not have a vote on the decision.

The vote in the Commons did not stop Tony Blair, due to the tribal party loyalty of the Commons (which has its place in passing legislation, when a government must deliver a programme) coming into play.  Combined with this, the internal politics of the Conservative Party meant it supported Blair.  All this gave the decision a greater air of legitimacy, despite many now regarding Iraq as one of our greatest foreign policy errors.

In the same way party politics cam into play yesterday, whereby a pressurised Labour Leader was desperately looking for an immediate victory.  A Parliamentary Conservative Party that feels neglected by its leader produced thirty rebels.  Does parliamentary politics really give greater legitimacy to executive decisions?

It seems rather that for good or ill the Royal Prerogative as exercised by elected politicians must be the mechanism for decisions of peace and war.  Blair had to face the voters in 2005 and they could have turned him out of office. David Cameron would have had to face the voters if he had made a mistake on Syria.  Instead we now see a situation where Britain has potentially damaged its relationship with its closest ally having initially been a driving force for air strikes, at a time when the Oval Office’s current occupant has little emotional connection with Europe and sees America’s future in the Asia-Pacific.   Meanwhile, Assad has recently launched another brutal attack and Britain may have inadvertently put itself on the sidelines of international affairs. 

I am not arguing that we should have attacked Syria, but that the Prime Minister was best placed to be responsible for that decision.  The fact that it is now not clear who is responsible for the decision means that the Prime Minister built up expectations with our allies only now to disappoint them, with all the consequences for our interests and credibility abroad that will bring

The armed forces serve the Queen, not Parliament.  That is not just because historically when Parliament had an army in the 1600s it committed abuses, it is also because in terms of exigent national emergencies, quick decisions, flexibility and access to intelligence the executive is best placed to decide.  Our constitution evolved that way because that worked best.  This involvement of Parliament in decisions of war and peace is yet another constitutional innovation from the Blair years that is proving to have unforeseen consequences.    

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Does the British Public want to abandon its Nation’s Historic World Role? If so blame Tony Blair!

The British public no longer trusts its politicians on foreign wars since being led to war by Prime Minister Tony Blair.  Tony Blair staked the reputation of British politics, British intelligence services and the Special Relationship on his assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the British public has not forgotten.  When no weapons were discovered, he was left looking like a charlatan who had taken the country to war on false pretences.  Thousands died, the region was destabilised and the dark forces of Islamic extremism were able to manipulate events for propaganda purposes against the West and to influence the weak-minded.

There are many reasons why David Cameron should fear being regarded as the “Heir to Blair”, but no more so than in his need to gain public support for military action in Syria.    David Cameron is of course a very different man from Tony Blair, to start with he is a member of a different political party.  His reasons for wishing to launch air strikes in Syria are not because of uncertain intelligence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction that are alleged to be an imminent threat to the U.K.  No, his reasons are humanitarian and are because chemical weapons have already been used.

David Cameron is however faced with very similar problems to Tony Blair – a close vote in Parliament, unpopularity of military action in the country and Security Council members opposed to action (with poor human-rights records of their own).  The UK, the US and France are relying on the duty to protect that falls to the UN since the Rwandan genocide and the UK government has legal advice to the effect that to intervene for humanitarian reasons is legal even without a UN resolution.

It is not clear whether Assad’s regime at the highest level was responsible for using chemical weapons while UN weapons inspectors were in the country and near to the site of the attack.  It is of course possible a rogue commander on the ground acted unilaterally.  It has also been alleged that some rebel groups are trying to get hold of chemical weapons.  It is not at all predictable what the fallout would be of Western air strikes and whether retaliation would result in a strike on Israel and then a conflagration across the region (Lebanon is already being pulled into Syria’s War).

What is clear is that the British public has lost its faith in the political class when it comes to going to war.  Politically it is not feasible that David Cameron would act as he can legally in British law and simply launch strikes by use of the Royal Prerogative.  Since Blair held the vote on Iraq, Parliament will now always be consulted.  That may not be enough to reassure the British public. 

You do not have to be an expert in Middle Eastern politics to understand that removing that hideous tyrant Saddam Hussein destabilised Iraq and the region, giving a foothold to Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda-in-Iraq in rebellion against the new pro-Iranian Shi’ite government.  Many voters will feel we are again heading down the same road.  It is clear even to the most casual observer that the removal of secular military tyrants in the Middle East does not mean an alternative of liberally-democratic parties taking power, rather political Islam is moving in, whether in Egypt or Tunisia. In Syria minorities, including Christians, depend upon the Ba’athist regime to protect them from Islamism.

Of course, there is a case to be made that the purpose of military action is to send a message that the use of chemical weapons is a moral Rubicon that should not be crossed.  The Government is proposing joining air-strikes as a punitive response to the chemical attack, not as the beginning of a process towards regime change. The British public though will be very hard to convince.  If air strikes lead to a worsening of the situation and a chain reaction, ending in the replacement of Bashar al-Assad’s regime with an Islamist government with control of chemical weapons, then the British public will not forgive the political class and the level of distance between the nation’s politicians and the nation will become even more of a chasm.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Pugin versus Portcullis

In so many ways the cold, metal and glass structure of Portcullis House, where MPs now have their offices is an affront to all that Augustus Pugin stood for.  The author of “Contrasts”, where he argued for a return to the Gothic in architecture, was the man who designed the inside of Sir Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament, after the ancient building was destroyed by fire.  He saw in his work the opportunity to reassert mediaevalism and the sublime beauty of the Gothic.

As one walks around the Victorian interior of the cockpit of our democracy, one can gain an impression of the complicated and reserved character of Pugin, the Roman Catholic draughtsman of French descent (whose family had escaped the brutal Jacobin revolution).  There is such intricacy to the design and so many historical references.  Everything is full of meaning and emphasises tradition and history.  For a nation with no written constitution, where precedent and convention shape our government, this emphasis is so important. 

Walter Bagehot spoke of the dignified and efficient parts of the English constitution, where the efficient was the democratic workings of real government and the dignified part that which gave our government its aura of ancient legitimacy.  Thus the Monarchy is the apogee of the dignified side of the constitution, with all its ritual and ceremony, while the real political power is exercised by the democratically-elected politicians who are the efficient part of the constitution.  Bagehot termed the phrase “veiled republic” for our system of government.   Pugin, through his work, ensured that veil was indeed intricate and beautiful.  It surely not only gives a greater sense of history to our democratic proceedings, but also sends a message to politicians that they are the transient part of a longstanding institution.  By making the Palace itself intricate and awe-inspiring, the politicians are forever reminded of their own smallness in history.  No wonder so many career politicians prefer being able to swagger through the emptiness of Portcullis House, our generation’s answer to Pugin’s skill and vision!

Perhaps the key point about Augustus Pugin’s and Sir Charles Barry’s combined effort is that they turned to the Gothic rather than the Classical style.  Whereas the Gothic with its vaulting arches looks to the Divine and the Ancient of Days, the Classical it seems to me puts man himself at the centre.  In a classical setting politicians would be tempted to see themselves as modern-day Ciceros, rather than heirs to the Christian Anglo-Saxons and Mediaeval Catholic Kings.  So there is something that informs the atmosphere of our Parliamentary building that requires the residents to look up to God and back to history, rather than to look to themselves as the centre of it all.  Surely for a Christian society it is more inspiring to have a feel of the church about our legislature rather than to look to the Romans and Greeks, whose peccable gods showed all the foibles of corrupt human nature?

There is so much of the detail in Pugin’s work that can be missed. Some little detail may suddenly be spotted, such a small-stained glass window or the coat hooks and ink wells in the House of Lords.  It is rather like a metaphor for old precedents or ancient rights that MPs stumble across as they endlessly churn out new laws.

Portcullis House on the other hand seems not to look to any era at all.  It is the structure of a hubristic, secular age, with man at the centre.  We no longer even claim that the gods are simply like us.  In Portcullis House the politicians are at the centre, tradition and ritual is cast aside and hubristically politicians can strut the stage, asserting that all that went before no longer matters; this is their day and they are not bound by what went before.  Tony Blair was the nadir of this sort of politician – a man who did not understand history and therefore treated so much of our constitution with contempt.

Of course, not all politicians are of this ilk.  The decent type that springs to mind are those MPs, including a majority of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, who voted against Nick Clegg’s vandalising plans for the House of Lords.  Some politicians do live up to the architecture all around them!

Portcullis House is suited to the modern, career-politician, who is removed from tradition.  For this is a political class where the Speaker dispenses with the trappings of office thus diminishing the office and aggrandising himself.  This is a political class that follows the shibboleth of “modernisation” because by throwing out the old means that what you are doing is far more important.

A salutary parable against this modernisation could perhaps be the cause of the fire that led to Sir Charles Barry’s and Augustus Pugin’s commission.  The tidying up exercise of the tallies from a different era led to the conflagration that destroyed everything bar Westminster Hall.  The lesson being that throwing away what no longer seems necessary can lead to unforeseen and disastrous consequences!

Pugin was worried about the paganism of the classical.  I am sure he would be even more concerned about the atheism of modern architecture.  Whereas the Gothic teaches us to look to the heavens, today’s architecture tells us we are at the pinnacle of nature and not bound by the old or the religious.  The contrast between the Palace of Westminster and Portcullis House speaks loudly of the difference between Pugin’s ideals and today’s political class.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

In this blog I am not going to be so presumptuous as to suggest solutions to the Gordian Knot of Egypt’s current political troubles.  Neither am I going to claim any in-depth knowledge about Egyptian politics.  All I intend to do is draw some general conclusions from looking at Egypt through the perspective of our own political system and find lessons that we can learn.

It is very striking that a key difference between our stable democracy and Egypt’s current turmoil, is longstanding institutions.  It is not democracy alone that leads to our stability, but the fact that our democracy has developed through institutions that have not been overturned.  Democracy, our history must teach us, is a gradual process and cannot be introduced overnight and expected to endure.

It seems that so much of our involvement in the Middle East has gone wrong because we have made the mistake of believing democracy can be achieved by overturning an existing system and replacing it with a new, democratic, Western society.

Perhaps the reason we act in this ideological and revolutionary way in our Middle Eastern and Asian interventions is that part of the United States’ understanding of itself is that it gained its freedom through a revolution.  I am going to be so bold as to say that is wrong.  I think that the United States was able to set up a political system based on freedom and stability because it emerged from an existing system, which to be blunt was our system.  The founding fathers were able to look to the common law developed for centuries, developed by Henry II and the Magna Carta signed by King John.  They also looked at an existing representative system across the ocean, to which they had paid for through taxation as subjects, although not being represented themselves.  The United States, I contend, did not achieve its nationhood through a revolution, it was rather through a war of independence to allow it to enjoy the same existing freedoms and rule of law as the home country.  It carried on its journey based on its Anglo-Saxon heritage, a millennium of political evolution.

Unfortunately, this belief that democracy can be achieved by revolutionary war has informed the foreign policy of the most powerful Western power.  Our intervention in Iraq was based on this mistaken premise and our hopes for Egypt when we turned against our erstwhile ally President Mubarak were likewise based on this revolutionary premise.

Unfortunately for Egypt its institutions are not of longstanding and the vacuum is filled either by the army or religious extremists.  It is a Hobson’s choice, but I am not going so far as to argue that the decadent King Farouk and the 150 years old Muhammad Ali dynasty was an admirable institution.  Rather, as disliking the extravagances of the Eighteenth Century French court does not imply support for Robespierre, so having strong reservations about King Farouk does not mean one favours the military coup d’etat of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Socialists. 

Once institutions are dissolved however, then there is little to restrain abuse of power or nurture progress.  Just as the French Revolution ended in the Terror, so the military revolution led to Nasser’s brutal oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. Two examples of how power is inevitably abused when the rule of law and institutions have been cast aside.

The current situation in Egypt, with military government on the one hand and revolutionary religious zealots on the other is I believe a result of there being no institutions and tradition to contain power and curtail abuses.  No system is perfect, but gradualist reform and piecemeal change leads to more stable government than revolutionary overthrow.

The ousted government was elected, but it was also revolutionary.  The President was moving to claim absolutist powers and he represented radical and left wing religion, rather than conservative and institutional religion.

It is worth commenting that the Muslim Brotherhood, with its more radical approach to Islam should not be described as a conservative force.  Rather Political Islam is about a radical return to the original teachings and a rejection of the accumulated wisdom of generations of teachers.  Sayyid Qutb, one of the first leaders of the Brotherhood (imprisoned and executed under Colonel Nasser’s regime) looked to a radical form of Islam that returned to original teaching; this political Islam is about revolution, not a conservation of centuries of teaching.  It is therefore radical and extreme.

Institutional religion inevitably contains and restrains its more zealous adherents and counteracts the individual interpretation with an accumulation of wisdom and teaching.  Without the institution, religion can become radical. 

Looking then at our own system again, we can be grateful for our political stability and freedom, but the chaos of Egypt teaches us why our democracy is stable.  It is democracy within ancient but evolving institutions.  It is democracy in the context of rule of law – a rule of law based on precedent and the accumulation of case law.  Our religion is manifested in an established church that as an institution contains the radical, while, as a Protestant church, giving room to individual interpretation.

Thus we must value that which underpins our democracy and makes it stable and secure – precedent-based common law, an ancient representative Parliament, a constitutional monarchy and an established church. 

My latest blog for Conservative Home can be found here

Friday, 23 August 2013

My latest blog for Respublica can be found here:

A Story of ”the Church Militant here on earth” and the Usurers? There’s more to it than that!

The Church of England’s contribution to the controversial debate over payday loan companies has received a good deal of media coverage.  This is of course an issue that has troubled politicians and even professional football players (in the case of Papiss Cisse and his Newcastle shirt!).  During these difficult economic times, the thought of ruthless lenders preying on those falling into debt is a worrying and emotive subject.
It is therefore important to emphasise that the Archbishop of Canterbury has not simply leapt into this debate reactively.  There has been a long process of his concern about this area of high-interest lending developing.  I understand that the Archbishop has spoken out on this matter because of his own financial expertise, developed in a business career and demonstrated in his knowledgeable contributions to the Parliamentary Commission on
- See more at:

Thursday, 22 August 2013

No separation of powers please, we're British!

This blog will now make a bold and iconoclastic claim, which is that Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu, was wrong.  This Anglophile French aristocrat admiringly described our constitution as being based upon the principle of separation of powers (a concept that he defined).  I want to argue that it is not based on this principle; it is rather based upon parliamentary sovereignty and government by the Queen in Parliament.

The theory of separation of powers is that the system of government works more justly and efficaciously if the three branches are distinct institutions.  These three branches are the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.  In the United States, which relied on Montesquieu’s theory for its constitution, this principle is most clearly manifested.  In the U. S. the executive is a distinct office: the presidency.  The legislature is also distinct as the two houses of Congress and then the judiciary separate again, with the highest court being the Supreme Court.  If you are member of one you cannot be members of the other branches.

In the United Kingdom, however, our system is very different.  The ministers of the Queen, who exercise executive power of the Royal Prerogative are members of the legislature.  Recently, in adherence to Montesquieu’s theory, the Law Lords, our most senior judges were taken out of Parliament and a new American-style Supreme Court was created.

I believe that this reform to our judicial system was a mistake, because our system does not work as Montesquieu thought and we do not have the same system as America.  Rather than the Law Lords being an anomaly, the Supreme Court is now the anomaly in our constitution.  It brings with it new problems to which our constitution is not suited, such as activist judges who make the law.  This risks opening a can of worms as to whether our judges should be elected if they are making law.  That brings with it the issue of party politics creeping into justice.

The whole principle of our system of government depends on the unity of two institutions -–Monarchy (the executive and fount of justice) and Parliament (the legislature).  When these two institutions are in synthesis our system is stable.  Civil strife, whether between De Montfort and Henry III or Charles I and Oliver Cromwell occurs when these two ancient institutions are out of kilter.

Since William of Orange, stability has reigned and monarchy and parliament have been synthesised.  Thus while the Queen’s bishops, ministers and until very recently, judges sit in Parliament, the Royal Prerogative is exercised by ministers who are elected Members of Parliament.  And this system works, not because some founding fathers sat down and wrote out a constitution based on all their learning, but it works through organic evolution.

We have a system where ministers of the Crown are not disconnected from the man-on the-street and the local community.  This is because, even the Prime Minister still has constituency matters to attend to as an MP.  Ministers remain grounded and rooted in the country because they are not only appointed by the Queen (through the Prime Minister’s exercise of the Royal Prerogative), but are also elected by a local constituency.

For those overly squeamish about the Law Lords sitting in the upper house of Parliament, it should be remembered that by convention they did not vote on legislation, but their expertise was there for the upper house to call upon as it revised legislation.

Indeed convention is all-important in our unwritten constitution.  In law the Queen has the power to exercise her prerogative, by convention it is exercised by her first minister, who is an MP.

This Parliamentary system of constitutional monarchy works because it is flexible.  There is not the gridlock between executive and legislature found in the American system.  The trouble is that too many of our politicians remember vaguely from their PPE degrees that separation of powers was a Good Thing and therefore, ignoring the evidence of their eyes that our organic system works, they cannot resist tinkering.  That is why we have a downgraded Lord Chancellor and have expelled the Law Lords from Parliament. And we are worse off for it.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Tolerance not Relativism

I have touched elsewhere in this site on the corrosiveness of a relativism that chips away at our country’s foundational values.  When we were confident as a nation and had a stronger sense of personal character, we also had firmer and perhaps less questioning beliefs. 

Two devastating world wars, the atom bomb, mass immigration of people from very different cultures have all challenged our confidence in the Judaeo-Christian values that held us together.  Instead, people cling to secularism to counter new challenges such as political Islam.  We look more to the Enlightenment than patriotism and the Church.

I think there is a danger here.  You cannot vacate the realm of belief and create some sort of neutral, vacuous public square, if you want to challenge the fanaticism we fear and saw manifested on the streets of Woolwich recently.  Rather, we must be confident in our own values and beliefs.

This lack of confidence can be traced to the damaging doctrine of multiculturalism, which tried to claim all ideas and beliefs were equally valid.  It then becomes very difficult to challenge any concepts we are definitely repelled by, across the political spectrum, such as forced marriage.  Most now acknowledge that for too long this problem was overlooked, because of the fear of imposing our own values on cultures new to these islands.  If we no longer know what we believe though, how can we argue against those who are all too sure?

Secularism, Pontius-Pilate like, doubts the existence of Truth and tries to wash its hands of judging between different views.  This is no way to counter views we all know to be wrong.

Rather we need our own concept of Truth and it is there for us, a baton from our ancestors held out to us.  Our values were not secularism.  We have not had a Revolution when Monarchy and Church were overturned and the state was declared secular.  Our constitution is instilled with the values of our Christian heritage.

Many on the Left will be uncomfortable with this.  They believe that it is somehow wrong to claim one belief system holds pre-eminence.  However, it is the attempt to claim all beliefs are equal that has led to the corrosive relativism, whereby we no longer have any foundations to our moral life other than individual freedom, for which read individual satisfaction of desires.

To reassert our own values with confidence does not mean oppressing those of other faiths, rather it means rediscovering the virtue of tolerance.  Tolerance means accepting people even if you disagree with them, it does not mean accepting that their views or lifestyle are right.  It can find its basis in Christian teaching, although often the Church has fallen short.  It is the principle that runs through the story of our Parliamentary democracy, where freedom of speech is prized and the established Church learnt to come to terms with dissenting denominations as they were given a voice in Parliament.

The relativism of liberalism, on the other hand, falls into the trap of condoning behaviour that is clearly wrong, by refusing to acknowledge things can be wrong.  Tolerance starts from a position whereby there is right and wrong, but you have patience and compassion not to persecute those who are wrong and rely rather on gentle persuasion, example or even minding our own business in our personal dealings, depending on the situation.  It gives society the moral authority to argue against that which is clearly unacceptable in terms of our common values.

Many will be aware of the danger of a sort of exceptionalism, which claims my faith, my nation, my beliefs are somehow singled out as right and special.  This nervousness about conviction leads many to opt for the easy neutrality of secularist, liberal abdication.

It all depends though on what belief system is being held up as exceptional.  We disagree with militant Islam not only because it claims to be right, but because we disagree with its specific tenets.  Our own values, however, do not mean the aggressive attack on the Other.  Rather, we look to a heritage of democracy and free speech, a tolerant religion with a place in the public square, which learnt to accommodate its own dissenting wings and a concept of the rule of law that cannot be overturned by political or religious fanaticism.  If we have confidence in those values, then people of different beliefs need not fear and we can restore an underpinning of values to our society.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Marriage and Motherhood - Chief Rabbi Sachs has criticised David Cameron's government

The outgoing Chief Rabbi has criticised David Cameron for not supporting marriage.  Marriage is indeed under pressure; as the Centre for Social Justice has demonstrated that for those who are in financial difficulties, the tax advantages of cohabiting discourage the commitment to marriage.

If a government were to support marriage it would need to have a clear idea of what marriage actually means.  To the secularist liberal it is reduced to a mere contract between two consenting adults to remain faithful to one another.  To the Church of England it is about the three virtues of mutuality, fidelity and complementarity.  The third of these is particularly relevant to understanding marriage when one also looks at the etymological origins of the word “marriage”.

It is always helpful to go back to the actual meaning of the word as a means of seeing clearly through the obfuscation of politicians.  Marriage as many will be aware comes from the Latin maritare and matrimony from the Latin matrimonium, which are linked with the Latin word marita for married lady.  All these words can be linked etymologically with mater, which of course means “mother”. Therefore marriage in its meaning is intrinsically linked with the idea of motherhood.

It is not a major leap from this to argue that to support marriage governments should be supporting motherhood.  That is why Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs is right to express his concern that the Government seems to have prioritised women in the workplace over the stay-at-home mother.  To be in favour of the stay-at-home mother does not mean that women should not be allowed in the workplace, just as being in favour of marriage does not mean other forms of commitment are invalid. 

The Conservative Party itself has made the argument that to be in favour of marriage is not to condemn other forms of relationship.  Marriage, as the empirical evidence and our Christian heritage demonstrate, is simply the optimal form of relationship for family life.  In the same way being brought up by a stay-at-home mother is the optimal way to be brought up, but that does not mean that other ways of being brought up are bad.

So if the Government can support marriage by supporting motherhood, how is it doing?  There has been a repeated pledge to amend the tax system to support those who make the commitment of marriage, yet this policy has still not been implemented.  Meanwhile the Government has attempted to change the very definition of marriage from its intrinsic link with motherhood by asserting that marriage now encompasses same-sex union.

The latest controversy has been the exclusion of stay-at-home mothers from tax-free child-care costs.  So once again, whatever the rhetoric, the government simply does not seem to believe that supporting marriage is about supporting motherhood.  By all means give the support to mothers who have to work; but, surely the stay-at-home mother, who has made such a socially positive commitment, should be included in this tax-free scheme? 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

This Year's A Level results - Character or "Damned Merit"?

In response to the publication of this year’s A level results, there has been some comment about the slight downward shift in the number of top grades achieved.  This comment is in the context of Governments of both parties having placed emphasis on qualifications that are directly applicable to getting a job and thereby useful to the economy.  It would therefore be safe to say that the political class takes a utilitarian view of education.

It was not always thus.  Our public schools and oldest universities placed emphasis on the development of character rather than simply teaching to the test.  There was a belief that teaching the liberal arts and games strengthened the virtues and nurtured a class of gentlemen to govern an empire.

To many that may seem a hopelessly romantic and outdated view for surviving in today’s competitive global economy.  If a moment is taken to reflect however, it is not at all clear cut that an approach that only emphasises success in measurable academic targets in so-called “relevant” subjects is beneficial socially or economically.

Before I go any further, I must make clear that I support a shift from coursework to exams and I support transparency in school results being published, so parents can make an informed choice.  This is only one side of the coin though. 

It is not just about achieving targets and that is precisely because the workplace, in both the public and private sector has become dominated by such an approach.  If we neglect character and focus on achieving targets by whatever means, then we will be at risk producing another generation that will produce another banking crisis.  The bankers, it seems to most of us, looked simply at achieving targets to gain bonuses and forgot about integrity and ethics.  Many feel, with some justification, it was this dishonesty that led to the whole charade collapsing.

We rather need to nurture a generation that places value on ethics and virtues.  This is why religious education and studies are so important and should be included as part of the baccalaureate.  In parenthesis, it should be mentioned that the multiculturalist approach to religious education is not necessarily helpful in giving our young a firm grounding in our culture’s values.  Perhaps more would be achieved for treating other cultures fairly by teaching that the one who taught the story of the Good Samaritan was the speaker of absolute truth rather than muddying the waters by suggesting all beliefs are equally valid.  That however is for another blog!

The reason the Western economies have historically been strong is not just because they are competitive, but because they are known to be predictable and not corrupt.  Contracts are honoured, bribery does not distort the market and the law is enforced impartially.  It is not by encouraging a ruthless pursuit of success and hitting targets that perpetuates such values.  It is rather by having an education system that strengthens values, such as honesty and integrity.  The more we erode our values, the less of an edge the Western economies will have in this competitive world.

The message should be that achieving an exam result fairly and without cheating is more valuable than the result itself in many ways.  Character is developed through failures as well as successes and it is often a better man who does not achieve so much academically, but is a more rounded person and is able to relate well to others than someone who focuses only on achieving the result at the expense of the other areas of developing their person.

The virtues are emphasised through learning the liberal arts.  For example literature and drama help students to empathise and understand how other people might think, through learning about an imaginary world of people’s feelings and thoughts.

To some this may seem hopelessly woolly thinking, but this nation was at its greatest in worldly terms when it had a firm foundation in its own faith and an education system based around the liberal arts.

Lord Melbourne snobbishly dismissed “damned merit” in relation to the honours system, but perhaps today, with our emphasis on meritocracy - suggesting that succeeding alone is what counts morally - we ought to reconsider whether we have fallen into the trap of a new type of snobbery?  This snobbery is one that suggests ability alone is morally valuable and has forgotten about integrity and character.

So perhaps at the time of year when exam results are being published, it is worth reminding the younger generation that it is not simply the winning, but it is how you win that counts.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Reverting to the Whigs' History?

A Reversion to the Whig Historians and their View of Progress?

Michael Gove’s determination to restore history as the genuine teaching of our island story should be applauded.   In the teeth of resistance from left wing teachers who see controlling history as a means of preaching a politically correct outlook, he is fighting to ensure our next generation learns the narrative history that helps us understand who we are and invigorates patriotism.

The ideologues who resist this seem to think that the next generation will be inspired to virtue by having the guilt piled on about who they are.  Generations have been taught a distorted view of this nation as being an oppressive and imperialist force in the world.  To give the benefit of the doubt to the education establishment perhaps they believe that this will lead to future generations of virtuous citizens.  More likely it will lead to an embittered nation that sees itself as guilty without any values to live up to.

Far better to teach the truth – that Britain has been, for the most part, a force for good in the world.  When the facts, rather than politically correct interpretation, are taught then that conclusion will be difficult to resist.  Great Britain abolished slavery and the Royal Navy policed the seas to impose a ban on slave trading.  Great Britain defeated Nazism and the Kaiser, also saving Europe from Napoleon’s attempt to create one polity for the whole continent.

When we are taught what we have done in the world for good, this will act as an inspiration to true patriotism and as an inspiration to live up to those values.  It does not mean distorting the truth to give an overly rosy picture of our nation’s history, in the mould of some despotic regime.  Rather, it means teaching what actually happened rather than interpreting facts through the prism of a left-wing, semi-Marxist outlook that sees history as being the struggle for power between the oppressor and the oppressed.  Teach history as a narrative and that interpretation crumbles away.  This is why the Left wing ideologues fear Gove’s reforms for the teaching of history so much.

It is na├»ve though, to assume that even with the restoration of teaching history as a narrative all interpretation can be avoided.  The great temptation will be to adopt a Whiggish view of the inevitability of progress.  That would be a mistake and just as damaging as the Left Wing view of history now predominant in our nation’s schools.

If the history of our nation teaches us anything at all, it is that progress is not inevitable and history can take wrong turns and go down cul-de-sacs.  The Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, when two great institutions, the Monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished is the most glaring example of this.  This was not progress, as demonstrated by the fact that both those institutions are still with us in the Twenty-First Century and certainly the former is held in higher respect by the public than the House of Commons of which Oliver Cromwell MP was a member.

Further the possibility of decline is demonstrated all around us:  Great Britain now is threatened with dissolution thanks to the mischief of Alex Salmond.  Its world stature has declined, its empire gone and its economy is smaller.  Mass immigration has taken its toll, diluting our common values and leading to the corrosive relativism of multiculturalism that only now the political class is waking up to.  Politicians are now more removed from the public than ever before, moving in a separate world, with different values and ideas from the people who vote them into power.  Progress is by no means inevitable and there is always a high risk of decline.

No, if history teaches us anything at all it is that when we looked back we took our greatest leaps forward.  The introduction of trial by jury under Henry II came from a looking back to Anglo-Saxon twelve thanes of the Wapentake.  The same king’s development of common law relied on case law, which looks to precedent, reinterpreting it for each new situation.  The Magna Carta was a reassertion of existing liberties and rights.  Parliament itself looked back to Anglo Saxon times.  Simon DeMontfort did not think he was innovating when he fought Parliament’s cause against Henry III, rather he thought he was fighting for ancient rights and privileges. 

It is worth mentioning though that unlike common law, dominated by precedent, only Parliament violates this principle of looking back because of its power to pass statutes, laws that can be entirely new and overrule common law.  Precedent and conventions dominate our constitution and our Parliamentarians would do well to respect precedent, rather than fall into the temptation of the novel and innovative.  With the power to pass Acts of Parliament it can be seen why the political class falls into this temptation.

Our rights and liberties rely on the past for their legitimacy.  We do not have to call on the flimsiness of abstract theory, with all the innate dangers that involves.  We have precedent and we can rely on it because as a nation we have on the whole avoided disruptive revolutions. 

With a legal system that relies on precedent and an island story that demonstrates that all our greatest moves forward were through looking back,  it seems that the Whiggish view of history, with its emphasis on the inevitability of progress will not stand up to the facts.  Rather, perhaps by restoring a narrative view of history we will see the development of a Tory view of history that emphasises change only working in the context of respect for the past.  Forgetting the past can lead the nation into error.

If history teaches us anything at all it is that we do best to learn from the past and not forget it.  That is why the teaching of history is so important.


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change (originally published on Conservative Home on 31st January 2013)

Conservatism is more of an attitude than a political dogma.  While there are many in the modern Conservative Party who adhere to political creeds such as libertarianism or liberal conservatism, surely a desire to conserve and a scepticism about sudden change is more about values and attachment to the tried-and-tested than ideology or political theory.  And that is a good thing.  I still believe that while the majority of the British public are not necessarily overly enamoured with the concept of the invisible hand of the market or shrinking the state, they do possess an innate conservatism.  It is that commonsense sceptism about political theories that kept the ancient institutions of state, the monarchy, the established church and the House of Lords intact in the turbulence of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries and saw the Conservative Party flourish in the era of universal suffrage in the last Century.  Lose touch with that conservative attitude and the Party loses the foundations of its support.
That is why it is deeply worrying that the Conservative Party seems to have developed an enthusiasm to be seen to be doing and changing.  My suspicion is that most people would prefer it if politicians did less not more.  The trouble with politics is that it can attract the sort of person who wants to make their name and usually a name is gained by changing something, whether or not the change is good – Edward Heath taking Britain into the Commonmarket or Nick Clegg’s abortive attempt to destroy the House of Lords spring to mind.  The Conservative Party should be the natural foil to this – it represents the attitude so pithily summed up by the second Viscount Falkland:  “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.”
It seems that many of the areas of policy where the Conservative Party has been perceived as vulnerable in recent times are where they have been more radical.  It is people’s natural conservatism that leads them to resent the growth of the supermarket at the expense of the local high street and it is again conservatism that leads people to resist development in their backyard; indeed the whole urge to protect the environment is a sort of conservatism – the conservation movement.

I believe Mr Cameron got it right when he realised that much of the alleged toxification of the Conservative brand could be cured while remaining true to Conservative values.  It is right that we are now a party of conservation and a party of localism.  Localism, despite its being given a name like a dogma is fundamentally conservative - as Edmund Burke pointed out patriotism springs from people’s membership of the little platoons rather than loyalty to a large, overweening state.  The Big Society is truly conservative – it is about voluntary organisations holding society together rather than that same overweening state the Socialists look to.
Unfortunately, the Coalition I believe obscures the clarity of who the Conservatives are.  What could be more un-conservative than attempting to unravel the constitution by abolishing the House of Lords or attacking marriage by changing its definition to include same-sex partnerships?  It is very worrying to many voters with a conservative outlook to see the Party that should represent them allowing the Liberal Democrats to run away with policies that attack institutions far more important to a conservative outlook than deregulation of the market.
What is also disconcerting is when MPs seem to rush headlong enthusiastically into reform.  Those reforms may well be justified, but if conservatism is more of an attitude of scepticism than political dogma, much as elected police commissioners may fit in with Localism, should we not have approached the policy with more of a sceptical try-it-and- see, piecemeal approach?  Instead there seems to be something almost zealous about the Party’s approach to change.
A case in point is the reform of the laws of succession, being rushed through Parliament in one day.  To a Liberal Democrat such as Nick Clegg the longstanding nature of primogeniture is a reason to overthrow it.  Surely to conservatives the approach is one of not rushing, but thinking through the implications.  Of course, it probably will be better for the survival of the monarchy if primogeniture is abolished, but there will be unforeseen implications and that is exactly why the conservative response should be to carry out this reform in a slower and more considered way.
One is reminded of the Church of England being disconcerted by the enthusiasm of Methodism.  The Anglican Church reacted in a conservative way; it exhibited an attitude of scepticism about the enthusiastic hymn-singing and evangelism.  Now in the long run it was probably a good idea for the congregation to sing hymns, but the conservative attitude is to take these things step-by-step and not to rush people who might be uncomfortable about change.  So please let’s have a little less enthusiasm and a bit more English reserve!

A Right to Live in Suburbia (originally published as part of a Localis pamphlet)

The topic of social housing is particularly relevant to the Localist agenda. Central Government has pushed through its own agenda by a means of financial sticks and carrots. It has been very difficult for local housing authorities to follow their own local policy in this arrangement favouring centralized control.
Whatever the merits of councils as landlords as opposed to registered social landlords, the Government has not allowed a proper competition of social-housing models. Financially it has penalized those councils that retain their stock and placed the councils under pressure to transfer the stock.
Whereas housing associations can access other forms of private funding to meet the standard, the Government restricts the sources of funding local authorities can access and it can be very difficult to draw down government grants. Housing portfolio holders I have talked to have expressed their frustration at having no option but to transfer the stock, because of the way the Government funds councils.
Furthermore, social landlords must meet centrally determined targets regarding repairs and improvements. These targets can differ from the wishes of tenants. For example, whereas the Government’s Decent Homes Standard requires new bathrooms, tenants might actually be concerned about dilapidated fences and gates. Because of the funding arrangements the Central Government’s wishes will normally trump the wishes of local tenants or indeed local members.
“Negative subsidy can no longer be defended on grounds of
redistributive justice”
Government subsidy is calculated according to what a local authority should be charging in rent and then by calculating how much the authority should receive from or pay to Government if that notional rent were charged. A percentage of rental income is taken by Central Government if it is calculated that were the “correct” rent charged would lead to a surplus. Thereby well managed housing revenue accounts are penalized. This system is known as negative subsidy.  Negative subsidy is entirely contrary to the principles of localism. Working against the concept of ideas being tested at a local level, it perversely encourages failure and discourages success. In such a set-up, where successful landlords must pay for the failing landlords, there is no incentive to manage effectively and innovatively.
Furthermore, negative subsidy can no longer be defended even on the grounds of redistributive justice. Most of the money collected from councils now goes into general government expenditure, rather than supporting other councils, which have a housing revenue account in deficit. Waverley Council is taking a lead in campaigning against this inequitable funding system.
“The Localist concept of different local solutions being found is potentially being suppressed”
The Government has recently suspended another controversial policy: rent convergence. This required local authorities to converge their rents with housing association rents, thereby significantly reducing one of the main attractions of remaining as a local authority tenant, that being the lower rents. Failure to converge can be punished by the Government funding system.
Because of the credit-crunch, the Government will no longer be forcing through this convergence.  It is clearly desirable that tenants should be enabled to take responsibility for their own lives, exercise choice and follow their aspirations. It would be wrong to prevent tenants from being able to move out of council housing or councils from transferring their stock.
Notwithstanding this, it cannot be right that competition of ideas is being suppressed and local solutions not being implemented because of pressure from the Centre. It is important that local authorities are able to respond to the local demands made upon them, whether
that be a demand to transfer the housing stock or to remain with the Council as the landlord.
Tandridge District Council is on target to meet the decent homes standard and because of the overwhelming wishes of its tenants to remain with the council as landlord, unusually it has been able to exercise the so-called fourth option, and retain its stock. However, because of negative subsidy and capital receipts legislation, it would not be able to finance the
debt to launch a project of building new council houses, whatever the wishes of local members or those on the housing list might be. Once again the localist concept of
different local solutions being found is potentially being suppressed.
One important change in policy direction must therefore be a genuine devolution of decision making to local authorities that are directly answerable to their tenants. This should mean that tenants’ wishes are genuinely responded to, rather than the Whitehall bureaucrat’s
concept of what the tenant would wish.
Another important change should be to increase the tenants’ choice. Choice-based letting is a new system that allows those on the housing list to bid for a limited number of properties available. Because the stock available is fairly limited, although this shift in power away from the bureaucrat to the tenant has proved popular, it is not as radical a shift as might have been hoped.
From the policies being implemented or being discussed in the realm of ideas, it is clear that there are genuine Centre-Right solutions that would both devolve power and give tenants more choice. Local solutions are still being found, despite the straitjacket the Government
has imposed on local housing authorities. If local authorities and people were to be given greater freedom to test out local projects, the opportunity for new and innovative solutions would be even greater.

Please find the fulll pamphlet here: