Readers of this blog will be aware that I have a long-standing and reasonably frequent exchange of communications with my elected Member of Parliament. My most recent letter to my MP concerned the subject of “democracy” and the governance of the UK, as well as the role of the monarchy in all of this.
Much has been made recently by politicians about democracy. From the opinions voiced it is obvious that various ideas about democracy exist in the UK. However, even the politicians themselves show frailty and confusion about the subject.
It is often stated that the UK is a parliamentary democracy. This is, unfortunately, fallacious, as we are not a constitutional parliamentary democracy after all. The system of government in the UK is that of a constitutional monarchy.
There are distinctive and crucial differences between these two forms of governing and these differences are not generally known by the British electorate. However, it is a personal conviction that there are many amongst those who wish to remove the UK from the EU who are aware of these distinctions and who, whilst normally remaining subtly quiet about it, can be identified as those who voice such slogans as “let us take back control”.
Had this distinction between parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy been known at the time of the EU Referendum it may well have resulted in a different referendum outcome and a change in the subsequent shape of the political and constitutional malaise that the result has caused. This could also be said of other “unknowns” at the time of the EU Referendum.
The reaction by the so-called “right wing” element within the Conservative Party to parliament’s recent actions in the House of Commons suggests to this writer that the group strongly favours the institution of the monarchy, as well as a nationalist form of government for England. It further suggests to me that this element has an extremely biased and false view of the nature of democracy.
There are many in the UK, and not only those involved in politics, who are of the view that the UK’s political system is in urgent need of reform. This reform would include setting clear boundaries between the powers of the government, parliament, judiciary and the head of state. So too, there is a substantial body of opinion who are of the view that the British Constitution should now be put into written form, so that it is available to all and not just to the chosen few who wish to “take back control”!
Further, and consistent with what is expressed in the above, the British Head of State should be elected by the people. This is, surely, a fundamental aspect of what democracy should mean in the UK. In a genuine democracy this office should not be the prerogative of an unelected citizen of the UK and, more specifically, should not reside in any member of a hereditary monarchy who might regard the British people as her/his “subjects” rather than “citizens” of the nation.
The above follows recent reports that the present Conservative government could tell the present Head of State, the unelected Elizabeth Windsor, to block the passage of any Brexit bill of which the Prime Minister doesn’t approve. At this point I am mindful of the fact that it was only some fifty years ago that the British monarch’s representative in Australia, an unelected Australian Governor General, forced the removal of a duly elected Federal Labour government.
Another slogan during the debate on the first EU Referendum was that the people of the UK should return “sovereignty” to these isles. What does it mean to be a sovereign power? The Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore is most apposite in stating:
“In our case, it means having a monarch that legitimates hereditary privilege, the Lords and owning half of Scotland. It means that power is an accident of birth, but God help anyone who disses the Queen. We not only enact our serfdom; we embrace it by accepting that the monarchy is above ordinary politics.”
Whatever the processes and outcomes of the Brexit business, resort to an interference in whatever democratic principles and practices are extant in the Brexit process by an unelected Head of State, who is also a hereditary monarch, is a complete insult to any description of democracy that may have been bandied about by any politician. What, then, of being “a vassal state of Europe”?
It seems ludicrous to vote for a representative in the House of Commons only for decisions of that House to be overridden by a constitutional appeal to the reigning monarch to interfere in its judgements and rulings. That is not the same as the Commons exercising parliamentary sovereignty. I would vote for an MP pursuing the latter, but not the former!
Following the above, let me briefly address those MPs who, in the face of a Brexit that is proving altogether more difficult than it was perceived at the time of the EU Referendum, now insist on leaving the EU with or without a suitable deal. Not only this but also the fact they do so in consequence of a single referendum vote that was divisively narrow in its decision to leave the EU.
Despite a lapse of three years, such MPs continue to believe that they “must respect the will of the people” in pursuing a final Brexit outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum.
Was the will of the people respected in 1975 when the decision was taken for the UK to enter the Common European Market? Since 1975, a group of Conservative MPs, who today nestle under the banner of the European Research Group (ERG), have constantly advocated and agitated for the UK to leave the EU.
The British system of government insists that the will of the people is heard in national elections that are held no more than five years from the previous election. This process recognizes that people can, and often do, change their minds – in politics as with other aspects of life. In the situation where the result of a referendum proves difficult, if not impossible, to institute, then surely it is entirely consistent with the principles of democracy that the people should have the opportunity to change their collective mind – confirming or otherwise a suggested outcome?
When elected, do MPs always follow their party’s manifesto – do they always hold to the promises of a manifesto? From one election to another, do they constantly adhere to the will of the people they represent? Why do so many MP’s now insist on respecting the result of the EU Referendum when it is counter to what they campaigned for, a result they obviously regret and one that, it is generally considered, will be damaging to the national well-being?
What place has their obligation, as elected representatives, to represent to their electors what they and their chosen political party stands for – even where this may be unpopular? Are MPs teachers as well as preachers?
What factors cause them to change their minds in the face of opposition from their electorates? To what extent, in the face of challenge and adversity, do they have the integrity to remain true to the cause they originally campaigned and fought for?
The cries of the Brexiteers to “take back control” and “return sovereignty to these isles” would have more substance if they were accompanied by a determination to reform our political and social institutions and refuse to bow to a feudal system. Again, the words of Suzanne Moore are most apposite: “Yet even sensible people fall for the circus of honours, touches of ermine and empire, while young working-class men get their legs blown off to ‘serve Queen and country’”.
Have we in the UK become, or are in the process of becoming, the authors of our own demise?
Someone said of the legendary Italian maritime explorer, Christopher Columbus: “When he started out he did not know where he was going; when he got there he did not know where he was; when he returned he did not know where he had been.” The comment referred to Columbus’ visits to what later became known as the West Indies. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus did not discover the continent we now call North America.
The comment on Christopher Columbus could be aptly applied to the British Government over the past few years. The government’s Brexit voyage is very much like the sea voyage of the Italian explorer.
When the government called for an election on membership of the European Union it had little idea of where it was going with the matter; when the referendum took place the government had little idea of what to do with the result; several years on from that infamous referendum the government seems as confused as ever as to where it has been and to where it is going with Brexit.
Historians have sorted out the matter of “Columbus’ discovery of America”. What future historians will make of the 2016 Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union remains to be seen!
In relation to the present situation of Britain and Brexit, it is appropriate to turn to the German idealist philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who wrote: “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the present.” These words can be applied to the tortured relationship of the UK with the rest of Europe and how quickly and at what cost we can forget the lessons of history.
It is an eloquent testimony to the state of contemporary British politics to reflect on the fact that there is little greatness that can be attached to either present political processes or politicians. As the debate as to whether the UK should remain within the EU nears the climactic moment, it is noticeable that the government has been most susceptible to a variety of influences – including the power of the conservative press, pressure groups within the Conservative Party, sectional public opinion and a variety of individual political persons.
It is to state the obvious when saying that public opinion can be fickle and that the national and regional press is a major shaper of public opinion, with the power to direct public opinion and debate. In the UK the press is predominantly anti-European – though there are some notable exceptions.
The influence of the Fourth Estate should never be under-estimated, however, and the part it has played in the debate over the UK and the EU is significant and continuous. There have been few at Westminster who have been willing to challenge what one politician has labelled “the constant negativity of the press or even to question whether men who pay no taxes in Britain should have the power to dictate public opinion.”
One of the constant cries of the pro-Brexit press has been that a second referendum – a so-called “Peoples’ Vote” on the matter of the UK leaving the EU – would be anti-democratic. The underlying presumption of this position is that, in giving the people of the UK a referendum in the first place, the result of that referendum should then be adhered to. Little consideration is given to the fact that, faced with such seemingly intractable problems over leaving the EU and the additional fact that the politicians themselves seem unable to agree on the deal underlying the UK leaving the EU, the British public might well wish to change their mind.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister and the one primarily responsible for the deal by which the UK would leave the EU, is quite willing to put her idea of a deal before the House of Commons not once, not twice but, possibly, three times in the hope of her deal being accepted by Parliament. When, however, it comes to a “Peoples’ Vote” on the matter of the UK leaving the EU, it is considered an affront to democracy to allow the people a second chance at a decision.
Mrs May’s position is contradictory, one-sided, self-serving and not in the interests either of Parliament or the British public – especially those younger people who will be required to live the fulness of their lives with the ramifications of Brexit. Clearly, Mrs May shows little awareness of Hegel when he says that “Whatever is reasonable is true; whatever is true is reasonable.” To say that a second EU referendum is undemocratic is to misunderstand democracy itself.
Democratic states have only ever existed as an ideal, even in its state of origin – ancient Greece. It has been said that “Democracy is an abstraction more malleable than is often acknowledged”. The situation whereby, in a constitutional parliamentary democracy, it is permissible for a Prime Minister to hold multiple determinative rounds of votes but permit the public only one on a similar constitutional decision, is to echo another of Hegel’s philosophical sayings; “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Before closing the folio on G.W.F. Hegel, it is instructive to learn that “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion”. This is hardly a description for Theresa May’s words and actions with respect to Brexit – words and actions that have been strong on stubbornness, wilfulness, ambiguity and surrender to the powers of money and ideology, but weak on genuine passion.
More than once during the entire debate on Brexit the question has been asked of the UK, “What state are we in?” It has been said that the first condition of democracy is for all citizens to be sceptical about what those in power do. The truth of this has been all too evident in the history of the UK in recent years, and not only with respect to Brexit.
We are living in a world of constant and rapid change – social, economic, political, military and moral. This change does not happen in a vacuum. It is informed, even engineered by specific interests, outlooks and objectives. Behind each of the categories are human beings – politicians, priests, press barons, educators, generals and royals, and more. Not all of these are benign – witness the rise of terrorism (of which the outrage in Christchurch, New Zealand is the latest manifestation) and global conflict, moral absolutism, climate change detractors, social and economic inequality with the concentration of wealth, and the dilution and diminishing of democracy.
To ask the question, “What state are we in?”, and the corollary question “Who benefits from this state?”, is to believe that what has been written about in the above is not always preordained or inevitable, or to be adopted or adapted. To ask these questions is to relentlessly question and hold to account what we are all too often encouraged, even cajoled, into accepting in an uncritical manner. To ask these questions is to unreservedly believe in and act on the realization that circumstances and situations, possibilities and processes, can be changed.
To ask these questions is to favour the greater good and not the narrow interests of the few. They are questions which exist at the very centre of any democracy. As such, they are at the very heart of the matter – the Brexit debate – and the answers are crucial for the outcomes of that debate.
Growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, during the 1950-60’s, several of my closest friends were fellow immigrants from the UK – in their case from Northern Ireland, with myself a Scot. My friends were non-denominational Protestants, so naturally, one may assume, they had strong views on the situation that was extant in Northern Ireland – as it was in those pre-Belfast Agreement days.
We would often spend a lazy Sunday afternoon listening to various forms of music – from pop and rock n’ roll, to country and western and popular religious. Being Irish, the friends would occasionally listen to and sing-along with that seemingly evergreen and Irish-linked ballad “Danny Boy”. I say “seemingly” because, in my mind, there is now some issues surrounding the origins and development of this ballad.
Further interest in this questionable aspect of the origins of “Danny Boy” was incited by my recent purchase of an album by a long-time favourite singer of mine, the late and lamented American singer Roy Orbison. The album contains many of Orbison’s best known and most played songs. What was different in the presentation of these songs was the fact that they were given the full orchestral backing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
The effects were revelatory and entirely consistent with the album’s title, “Unchained Melodies” (also the title of one of the songs on the album and which, incidentally, came from the 1950’s and was one of the songs that, as rendered by the black American singer Al Hibler, took up the lazy Sunday afternoons enjoyed by my friends and me).
The most important of the songs on this album was “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s arrangement of the song was quite superb, along with the backing of the RPO, and added to the poignancy and beauty of the song’s words and music.
Orbison took the well-known first two verses of the song and made them the central focus of the musical presentation. However, he took the less well known third and fourth verses of “Danny Boy” and used a repetition, reorganization and recapitulation of the words to frame the central section (verses 1 and 2) with two verses each on either side of the central section. The result was the presentation of a genuine, even classical, ballad. “Danny Boy” has never sounded so good nor spoken so emotionally to the listener. A gem!
With Orbison’s rendition of “Danny Boy” reverberating in my mind and senses, I decided that it was time to do a little research on the song. The results of this research were to prove instructive.
The words of “Danny Boy” were written by the English lawyer and lyricist, Frederic Weatherly in Bath, Somerset (England) in 1910. It is believed that initially the tune with which Weatherly accompanied the words was composed by a Scottish piper. In 1913, Weatherly’s Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret (known as Jess) now living in the United States, sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” (an alternative version of the story has her singing the air to him in 1912 with different lyrics).
Weatherly is said to have then modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air” (the melody of which was collected by Jane Ross of the Irish town of Limavady in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered). Weatherly then gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin who made it one of the most popular songs in the new 20th century.
In 1915, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s version of the song with the RPO is the latest version of this much-recorded ballad.
Wikipedia informs that “The 1918 version of the sheet music included alternative lyrics (“Eily Dear”), with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes “Eily Dear”, so that “Danny Boy” is only to be sung by a lady”. In spite of this, it is unclear whether this was Weatherly’s intent “. Whatever the intention, and not surprisingly, the song has been covered by a diverse range of male singers – from Mario Lanza to Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley to Harry Belafonte, as well as Tom Jones, and now most recently, Roy Orbison.
It would seem that, prior to Orbison’s rendition, all others used the original lyrics and traditional structure. It could be claimed, therefore, that Roy Orbison’s version of “Danny Boy” is unique.
The actual interpretation of the words of “Danny Boy” are also open to some serious speculation.
Various suggestions exist as to the true meaning of the song’s words. Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising (as suggested by the reference to “pipes calling glen to glen”) or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
From what has been stated in the foregoing, it seems to me to be as likely as anything, that the actual derivation of the song owes not a little to Scottish influences.
The words of “Danny Boy” are more illustrative of a Scottish geography and the original tune belonged to a Scottish piper. The meaning could satisfactorily be associated with a Scottish boy (Danny’s boy) who left Scotland as part of the migration of both lowland and highland Scots, Protestant and Catholic, to the Province of Ulster during the 17th century – only to be lamented by his mother or, more probably his father (whose name was Danny) and with the hope that, one day, he might return to the meadows, mountains and glens of his native land (an apt description of south-eastern Scotland).
However, it is to the credit of the Irish (North and South) that they have made “Danny Boy” the anthem that today it is. I have my doubts – as this essay will no doubt have shown – as to its suitability to be the national anthem of a particular country (Northern Ireland/Ulster), but its playing as such still elicits, and will in the future, the necessary patriotic evocations – as it did in the lives of several Irish boys on a lazy Sunday afternoon in far-away Melbourne in the middle of the 20th century.
This week, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Theresa May, faced a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom and, by extension, her leadership of the government of the United Kingdom. Her party reaffirmed her leadership and she continues as the Prime Minister of the nation.
A number of those who had opposed her leadership from within the Conservative Party and, in consequence, had called for a vote of confidence in that leadership, refused to accept Mrs. May’s continuing role and openly stated that she should immediately resign from it. She has not.
In particular, opposition to Theresa May’s leadership comes from members of the European Research Group (ERG), a right-wing movement within the Conservative Party implacably opposed to British membership of the European Union and which has, for many years, been lobbying for British withdrawal from that organization.
Interestingly, and perhaps conducive to the decision of Conservative Party to undertake a vote of confidence in Mrs. May, was the fact that, immediately prior to that decision being taken, Theresa May had pulled a vote in the House of Commons on the final deal involving British withdrawal from the EU. Mrs. May herself stated that she had taken this action because she realized that her deal had little chance of being passed by the House of Commons. Such an eventuality would have had hugely important outcomes for Mrs. May – personally and for the government of the UK.
Knowing the weaknesses of her brokered deal with the EU, on the day after its withdrawal from the House of Commons Mrs. May undertook to visit and speak with several important leaders within the EU. Ostensibly, the purpose of such visits was in order to obtain concessions from the EU that would enable her deal to be more palatable to the House of Commons. In the event, such concessions were not forthcoming.
Such an outcome makes it quite probable that Mrs. May’s deal will fail to pass the scrutiny of the House of Commons. This fact was known by Mrs. May herself before she decided to withdraw it when she did. This suggests that, knowing the likely outcome for her deal, Theresa May will simply not present the deal as initially intended.
Should this scenario develop as specified in the above, then it presents a situation of immense importance. Since the due date for the UK to leave the UK is scheduled for March 29, 2019, there would be little time for a new deal to be brokered – even if the political will to do so existed in either the UK or the EU.
In such a situation two major possibilities present themselves in the immediate future. The first is that the UK exits the EU without any deal in place. This is often referred to as the “Hard Brexit” – one that favours the UK’s future economic reliance on the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) rather than those of the EU (but note that it is reliance on the rules of another organization and not economic sovereignty for the UK). The second possibility is that the UK revokes Article 50 of the European Union’s Constitution and decides to remain as a member state of the EU.
It is sobering to note that within the House of Commons it appears that there is presently no particular preference for any one of the options open to the UK’s future relationship with the EU, that is: (1) Mrs. May deal for exiting the EU (the “Soft” Brexit), (2) exiting the EU with no deal (the “Hard” Brexit), (3) remaining as a member state of the EU, or for what are commonly called the “Norway” and “Canadian” options. For reasons stated in the above, options (2) and (3) seem to be the only practical options now available.
Many of those who favour the UK leaving the EU consider that option (3) is illegitimate. They argue that the result of the EU Referendum, put to the British people in 2016, is sacrosanct. It is a once-for-all decision and that to go back on it would be an affront to the rule of democracy. The bulk of senior politicians on the “Leave” side of the argument have depicted, often with glee, that the referendum result was finally decisive in determining the future of the UK.
There have been a number of outrageous or grandiose statements made in opposition to a second referendum. Perhaps the prize should be awarded to a middle-aged man on the BBC’s “Question Time” television programme who stated that there should not be another vote on the matter of the referendum because it would disgrace the memory of all those who voted “Leave” and have since died. He made no reference (though another member of the audience did) to the two million or so young people who, since June 2016, have become eligible to vote. It is generally estimated that 85% of these young adults would vote for the UK to remain in the EU!!
Further, as Dr. Andrew Blick of Kings College, London, the Senior Research Fellow of the Federal Trust, states:
“The referendum result was in no way legally binding, and there are a number of ways in which its political authority and democratic legitimacy can be challenged.
“At the time it took place the public were not – and could not be – fully aware of the nature of the choice that faced them. The binary nature of the question posed was not appropriate to the range of possibilities that the referendum engaged, particularly on the ‘leave’ side. A departure from the EU could lead to a broad spectrum of potential outcomes.
“For these reasons, it is difficult to claim that the vote of 2016 created a precise instruction on behalf of the UK as a whole to exit the UK on any given set of terms. Even if it had done so, it was not fully within the power of the UK to achieve them, since they involved securing the compliance of outside forces, in particular the EU and its 27 remaining member states”.
It is of further interest to observe that despite the fact that many politicians on the “Leave” side of the Brexit argument and, perchance, also members of the ERG, called for the vote of confidence in Theresa May as the leader of the Conservative Party – thereby exercising their democratic prerogative – they would deny the British people their democratic prerogative to vote again on the matter of EU membership.
The first referendum on that question was held before Mrs. May became the leader of the Conservative Party – so the observance of sufficient time between elections was not a consideration for the ERG and many “Leave” politicians in the Conservative Party when it came to the matter of their leadership! Is this a case of a privileged opportunity for a privileged few?
During and since the EU Referendum there were and have been allegations that lies were told by the respective viewpoints. In the case of accusations against the “Leave” campaign it was said (and displayed on the side of a campaign bus), for example, that more money – to the tune 0f £365m per day – would be available for the NHS if the UK did not have to pay-in to the EU budget; that immigrants from Europe were taking jobs away from native Britons and were keeping wages low (an advertisement on the side of a street-touring van invited “illegal” immigrants to return, with government assistance, to their home countries). Accusations against the “Remain” campaign included the claim that economic forecasts following Brexit were manufactured and false and that the campaign was “scare-mongering”.
It would seem to this writer that, if such as the above were the case, then it is a further reason to hold a second referendum – the lies on both sides can be identified and the nation can decide the issue based more on truth and the actual situation facing the country in the event of Brexit taking place. So too, it would seem relevant to also ensure that guidelines, if not rules and regulations, for conducting a referendum should be more stringently followed.
Ira Straus is the Chair of the Center for War-Peace Studies, which examines the use of complex electoral systems in holding plural societies together. In the 1990’s, as Executive Director of The Democracy International, he said:
“Referendum theory, in the spirit of classical direct democracy, indicates there should be a second referendum on the several options. Modern representative democratic theory, and the British constitutional tradition, indicates that Parliament should deliberate on all options and set up its own procedures for choosing among them.
“Either way, all options need to be considered. This immediately raises basic questions: What options count? How to winnow down the options for a process of voting? With what processes to word them, amend them, and aggregate support around them? In what order to vote from among the most serious options available?
“These questions are not unique to this case. For every issue that comes up, these same questions must be deliberated on. This is the main work of parliamentary assemblies: to prepare the terms for voting.
“In the present case, the options are getting winnowed down to three: the PM’s Brexit Deal, No Brexit, or a No-Deal Brexit. The procedure is probably coming down to a Parliamentary vote on the PM’s Brexit, followed, if her deal is rejected, by a popular vote on the remaining two options. There is not yet however a consensus on this, nor the specifics worked out for it; matters discussed below.”
The above comments seem most apposite.
In a prepared speech within the past twelve hours, the former New Labour Party Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has again called for a second referendum. He warned the EU leaders to be prepared for the “probability” of the UK delaying its departure from the EU bloc. He insisted that Article 50 should be extended beyond March 30, 2019, in order for the UK to engage in further negotiations or undertake a second referendum (Blair’s first option).
Mr. Blair’s main argument is the belief that, should the House of Commons be unable to come to a decision about which deal for leaving the EU is acceptable to the UK, then, in order to resolve the impasse, the decision should be put back to the people in a second referendum.
This is what democracy is about. The people of the United Kingdom and Europe should be given the opportunity and be prepared to think again.
In my previous two articles I, firstly, outlined the background behind me joining the National Secular Society (“Ask me why?”), and, secondly, went into some detail about the NSS campaign for no more faith schools (“Power to the public”). In this, the third article in the present series, I wish to comment on some aspects of the recently held AGM of the NSS.
The AGM took place at the NSS headquarters at Conway Hall, in London’s Bloomsbury district. As is usual for an AGM of any organization, the opportunity was taken to review the previous year’s work by the NSS. Much of the detailed work is undertaken by the NSS Council and, especially, by the President, Keith Porteous Wood.
There is much on the NSS agenda that is quite public and well known, if not supported, for example, the No More Faith Schools campaign, the reform of religious education in state schools and the reclamation of religious freedom (see the previous two articles for more discussion of these areas).
However, what is not so publicly visible is the NSS’s focus on Human Rights, both nationally and internationally.
The NSS continues to work with the United Nations, especially with the Committee for the Rights of the Child. in bringing pressure on countries around the world, including England and Wales, to confront clerical abuse and take legislative measures to improve prosecution rates for alleged perpetrators and justice for victims/survivors. The NSS is widely known and respected by abuse survivors for the determination with which it works to ensure that truth, justice and accountability ultimately prevail.
In the UK the exposure of abuse scandals in the churches also highlights wider issues of importance to the secularist cause, for example, the unacceptable constitutional and legal privileges of the Church of England, as well as its corrupt nexus of power with other institutions that resulted in the protection of clerical sex offenders.
Progress is reported in these endeavours, but so is the extent to which UN member states fall short, sometimes totally, of their obligations.
This situation is particularly galling when flagrant breaches of obligations come from countries who consider themselves out to be exemplars. Again, the United Kingdom’s intransigent refusal to enact laws against caste discrimination is such an example, but by no means not the only or, arguably, the most concerning lapse. It is open to speculation if this situation would alter should the UK leave the EU (and takes back its own law-making prerogative!).
As in most areas of British national life, the implications for Human Rights in the event of a British exit from the European Union (Brexit), has been under close examination.
The NSS President is working with parliamentary experts to minimize the dilution of existing Human Rights protection post-Brexit. The focus of this examination has been on finding ways of outlawing caste discrimination – a parliamentary mandate long ignored by the present British government.
Earlier this year a conference was held in Athens, Greece, on religious and secular judgements of the (non-EU) European Court of Human Rights.
At this event the NSS President took the initiative in arranging a systematic monitoring system that enabled the NSS to intervene to encourage the Court to make secular-friendly rulings. As is usual in such environments, the NSS flew the secularist flag and spoke out strongly in several high profile EU events, including representation at the annual European Humanist meeting.
At the national level there have been opportunities for NSS personnel to speak on radio broadcasts and appear on television conveying the good news of the work, and especially the campaigns, of the NSS.
With reference to the above, and as well as the opposition of the NSS to more faith schools, the society has opposed genital cutting; sharia courts; continuation of an established church; homophobic campaigning by fundamentalist Christian groups; the continued growth of fundamentalist Islam; the outrageous attempt to stifle free speech, especially in universities; and attacks on the rights of women to exercize their lawful right to an abortion.
All these issues, and more, demonstrate the extent and importance of NSS campaigning and campaigns as it seeks to fulfil the secularist agenda.
Religious lobbies in the UK know that many of their views are unpopular and discredited. Notwithstanding, they continue to use unjustified legal and social privileges and connections to advance their regressive agenda. So the work of the NSS has never been more necessary or more urgent.
With this mind, the AGM debated the only motion to come before the meeting. The single motion stated: “This General Meeting supports campaigning and campaigns designed to facilitate an individual’s right to seek a medically assisted death, whether through legislative changes or judicial rulings”.
This motion is, of course, supportive of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, of which I am also a member. So it was pleasing that the motion was substantially supported by the AGM and was carried. Crucial to the acceptance of the motion, and most important to me in favouring it, is the fact that most opposition to medically assisted death comes from religious lobbies seeking to enshrine their religious prejudices in secular law.
The AGM of the National Secular Society recognized that there is still much work to be done in order to realize a genuinely secular society in the United Kingdom. However, the meeting was an encouragement to the society’s members to maintain effort and enthusiasm as they seek to be on the alert about, write persuasively in support of, and campaign forcefully on behalf of, those issues of concern to secularists.
In my previous article (128: “Ask me why”) I gave a brief outline of why I became a member of the National Secular Society (NSS). The article expressed how my desire for membership in the society was an outcome of changes in my thinking, beliefs and attitudes – the personal effects of experiences and events that have taken place in my life over a number of years.
The NSS will shortly hold its 2018 Annual General Meeting in London at the Conway Hall, Bloomsbury.
The AGM provides an opportunity for NSS members to participate in the business of the NSS and for meeting with the society’s Council, staff and fellow members. So too, the AGM provides a forum where members have the opportunity to express their views on what the NSS’s campaigning priorities should be.
As a member also of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, it is of significant interest for me to note that one of the motions to come before the NSS AGM this year is the following: “This General Meeting supports campaigning and campaigns designed to facilitate an individual’s right to seek an assisted death whether through legislative changes or judicial rulings.”
It is reassuring to know that the rights of the individual are a primary concern for many people and that the power of the campaign is still being exercized. Closer to the specific concerns of the NSS, however, is its No More Faith Schools campaign.
What, then, is a faith school and what are the specific aims of the No More Faith Schools campaign by the NSS?
A “Faith school” is a description, not a legal definition – it includes all schools that are legally designated has having a religious character or faith ethos. For some people it also includes all schools where a religious organisation has a formal role in the governance of the schools. The variety of faith schools is somewhat difficult, if not disconcerting, to comprehend.
In England and Wales there are two main types of faith schools – voluntary aided (VA) and voluntary controlled (VC) schools.
The former (VA) tend to have a more rigorous religious ethos, less restrictions on discrimination/proselytization and more direct religious control. The Church of England and Church in Wales often insist that ‘their’ schools aren’t faith schools. In England there are also faith based academies, faith ethos academies, VA-converter and VC-converter academies. Religious groups may also run multi-academy trusts (MATs) which control non-faith schools.
Almost all public schooling in Northern Ireland is split along sectarian (Protestant/Catholic) lines. Controlled (legally designated as Protestant) schools are governed in accordance with the Church’s ethos. Maintained (Catholic) schools are controlled by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. There are a small number of Integrated Schools – which seek to offer a balanced curriculum without religious discrimination.
In Scotland there are two types of schools – denominational and non-denominational. The former are mostly Catholic and explicitly religious. The latter were traditionally seen as Protestant, but are meant to serve the whole community.
Faith schools may also be referred to as denominational, religious, sectarian or Church schools.
No matter, whatever their designation, faith schools are solidly situated in the infrastructure of the British education system. One might ask: “Whatever happened to the local education authority school?” Certainly, in a nation that largely regards itself as “secular”, the extent and influence of faith schools is deep-seated and widespread – and worrying!
It is against the above background that the NSS’s campaign No More Faith Schools is being undertaken.
A lot of its work is behind the scenes, for example, helping parents stand up for their rights when they’ve little choice but a faith school, or where children are refused school places due to discriminatory policies, or, perhaps more publicly, sharing stories about the threat faith schools pose to children’s education.
The No More Faith Schools campaign focuses on state schools across the UK. It does not campaign against private faith schools.
However, it does support efforts to ensure children’s rights are protected in the independent sector. In this respect, the NSS (who coordinates the No More Faith Schools campaign) recently reported the first convictions for running an unregistered faith school. The NSS also reported faith schools in the independent sector still open after multiples failures, as well as another ten schools which were issued with warnings by the DfE.
The NSS takes a serious interest in the work of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PES). The core message of the PES is: “Let children make their own minds up about religion.”
In support of this basic belief, the society makes the strong ethical case that directive religious schools undermine children’s freedom of belief. Education should value individual autonomy and give children the tools they need to make informed decisions, including about religion (see my previous article for a similar argument and where in a school curriculum religion could be taught).
One weakness of faith schools that is often overlooked is their inability to successfully teach RSE (relationships and sex education) through a faith ethos. Too often this is euphemism for discrimination, stigmatization and misinformation. It is no coincidence that the government is currently consulting on new RSE guidance for English schools.
The No More Faith Schools campaign is one of fostering action through encouragement.
It has encouraged people to share the petitions generated by the NSS, to write to their MP’s, share the information on social media, and to let the NSS know of new proposals for faith schools. The NSS has resources, including speakers for local groups, that can be used by individuals and groups concerned about existing faith schools and proposals for new ones (see the National Secular Society’s website: https://secularism.org.uk).
The NSS campaign No More Faith Schools is, like the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, an example of the power of the campaign method in raising public awareness and consolidating public power – as necessary today as it ever was.
Readers of this blog will probably have realized that my personal beliefs (philosophy), as well as those associations of which I am a member/supporter because of actions emanating from these beliefs (ethics), are very much in line with the ideas and campaigning strategies of the National Secular Society (NSS).
I joined the National Secular Society (NSS) in April, 2017, following my reception of an NSS campaigning brochure. I view my membership of this movement as an aspect of my general and ongoing thinking and action related to the comprehensive title for this blog, “A site for the examination of and commenting on life and time”.
When I signed-up with the NSS I received a follow-up letter from the then President of the society, Terry Sanderson, requesting that I say something as to why I joined the society. In what follows I have reproduced the contents of the letter sent to the NSS as a response explaining why I joined the society in 2017.
This in turn gave me an opportunity to say something specific not only about the motivation for me joining the NSS but also a chance to clarify my thinking about my general attitude towards secularism.
Prior to 1996 I was an Accredited Minister of Religion with both the Victorian Baptist Union (Australia) and the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My last full-time appointment within the orbit of the Christian Church was as the Manager for Domestic Programmes with World Vision UK. This appointment concluded in 1993.
In 1996 I became a teacher of Humanities at a Northampton Comprehensive school. This included being the Head of Religious Studies (RS). However, my approach to RS in secular schools was that the subject should be taught along the lines of religious philosophy and ethics – as, more or less, a major subject within a course on the “Theory of Knowledge” (studied as “Epistemology” at university level), or as a part of the study of “The History of Ideas”.
In this I felt that my function as a teacher representing any Christian or religious institution was inappropriate. As a consequence of this, as well as recognizing the direction at the time of my general thinking and “spiritual” practice, I “de-frocked” myself, relinquished the title of “Reverend” and, to all intents and purposes, became a secular teacher. I have not worshipped at a Christian church since.
In line with developments from the above-mentioned, that is, as a teacher of humanities – including religious studies, I am firmly against government funding of any form of religious faith or practice. Therefore, government funding for any and all “faith” schools, including those with a Christian basis – especially those with a CofE heritage and/or those historic public schools with a “charitable” status – should be discontinued.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I am also of the belief that, for a variety of “secular” reasons, religious studies – as an aspect of philosophy and ethics in general – is, nevertheless, a legitimate subject for teaching in a secular educational system. However, the specific arguments for me adopting this position on this question, is the subject matter for another article (but see previous and related articles in this blog).
Consistent with the foregoing perspectives, I believe that Church and State should be separate, including the disestablishment of the Church of England and the separation of the British Head of State from any religious office.
It follows that all discussion about religious faith and belief should be unrestricted by religious considerations, as all such discussion is not “divinely” based but is simply an aspect of human cultural and social discourse. This, of course, would seriously imply that all public services and service delivery should be free of religious bias and discrimination of any kind.
The above would also hold that there should be equality for all under one secular law and that the operation of any system of law that seeks to undermine or countermand this with a religious basis is illegal. I feel that this is consistent with both my belief in a strong democracy and a desire to see and protect a stable and meaningful social cohesion, based on secular values, within our national life.
Of course, as the reader will further realize, there are, in addition to the foregoing, further background reasons as to why the principles and actions of the NSS appeal to me. These may be gleaned from a reading of over 100 articles I have written in contributing to this blog and others (e.g. Republic, Sea of Faith, Amazon) in such areas as religion, politics, history, human rights, philosophy, economics, republicanism and general culture.
My membership of the NSS, a well as with other organizations and societies mentioned in this article, links me with those persons of similar persuasion.
They are people and movements that take account of the full array of persons who believe that life is a process in which the question, “Ask me why?” is always relevant; where answers are sought but are never, and can never be, fully satisfying; and where actions are continuous and solutions constantly applied.