Soul and inspiration

Being a resident of the United Kingdom, I have not had the opportunity of either attending a concert, or, in the absence of a discography, any other way or listening to music performed by the “Australian World Orchestra” (AWO).
The AWO was established in 2011 by Australian conductor Alexander Biger and his sister, the film-maker Gabrielle Thompson. The inaugural patron of the orchestra was Sir Charles Mackerras, the great Australian conductor who died in July, 2010. He was the uncle of Biger and Thompson.
As the name implies, the Australian World Orchestra is an orchestra composed of world-class musicians who perform with other major orchestras around the world – elite musicians from the international stage who make music with orchestras such as the London and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as from Australia’s own accomplished state orchestras.
A number of critics world-wide consider the AWO to be one of the world’s great orchestras.  Following an AWO concert conducted by the renowned British Conductor Sir Simon Rattle, one commentator went so far as to say, “Sir Simon Rattle shows the Australian World Orchestra’s in a class of its own”. This is, indeed, lavish praise and is echoed in the work with the AWO associated with other conductors, such as the Italian Riccardo Muti and the Indian Zubin Mehta.
Being effectively a guest ensemble, the AWO is limited in the time available for concert performances and opportunities to record its music. Therefore, and unfortunately for local (Australian) music lovers, it gathers only for a week every year, and plays just three concerts in Sydney and Melbourne. World tours by this orchestra are a rarity.
In the interests of the lovers of classical music around the globe, it is to be hoped that available time and circumstances will permit the music of the Australian World Orchestra to be more widely accessible and known.
It was in reading an article about the work of the AWO and its conductor, Alexander Briger, that I was reminded of a classical music concert that went out on British TV last year. The orchestra brought together an invited guest ensemble of internationally acclaimed musicians and, whilst not being the AWO, it contained a number of Australian musicians. For me, the highlight of the aforementioned concert was the rapt performance of Gustav Mahler’s sublime 9th Symphony.
As a leading musicologist, Professor Robert Greenberg, the Music Historian-in-Residence with the San Francisco Performance and a former Instructor with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has stated: “Mahler’s music focuses on the lonely, isolated individual, the struggle between hope and despair, the questions of death and redemption, and the grieving process.” In many ways, the music of Mahler is about the experiences of every human being.
As you, the reader, may be aware, the 9th Symphony, the composer’s last completed symphony, is about Gustav Mahler seeking of some form of resolution of his life experiences. These experiences included a lack of public acceptance – he was an Austrian-born Jew; the trauma of tragedy – the deaths of a close brother and a much-loved daughter, as well as the adultery of his wife.
Mahler was a conductor and composer who suffered at the hands of the prejudices that went along with being at the close of one era, “Romanticism” – the 18th century literary, artistic, and philosophical movement that emphasized emotion and imagination and an appreciation of external nature, and the beginning of another era, “Expressionism” – the early 20th century art movement that celebrates inner reality as the only reality, the importance of emotional experience over physical reality.
Coincidentally, the development of Mahler’s music, as with other composers of the Expressionist movement, took place at a time in history that witnessed the rise of Existentialism, “the tradition of philosophical enquiry that held the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject – not just the thinking subject but the acting, feeling, living and authentic human being”. The “Existentialist Attitude” was first brought to the attention of the philosophical world by the Danish Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.
Human beings live an existence that is characterized by disorientation, confusion or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world – a tragic world. In this world the individual is responsible to give meaning to life and living it with passion and sincerity, with “authenticity”. Through his sublime symphonies and songs, this is what Gustav Mahler sought to do and express, and to inspire others to do the same. His is the music of soul and inspiration.
After listening to the Australian World Orchestra performing the “life affirming” 4th Symphony of the paramount Russian composer, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky – another major composer whose music expresses tragedy (observe his 6th Symphony), one commentator was moved to quote the following words of Tchaikovsky: “If you cannot find reasons for happiness in yourself, look at others. Get out among the people… Oh, how happy they are! Life is bearable after all.”
It is the music-making of orchestras such as the Australian World Orchestra, the music of great composers like Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, and the thoughts and writings of philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard and the Existentialists, that do, indeed, help to make life bearable… and much more!
RSC
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Meltdown in more than snow

This week sees the gathering for the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss non-profit foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. It is funded by a membership of 1,000 top companies, typically wealthy global enterprises that play a leading role in shaping the future of their industry and/or region. The WEF mission is cited as being ‘committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas’.
The WEF is best known for its annual meeting at the end of January in the snow-bound Swiss Alps region of Davos. This meeting brings together, by selection and invitation only, some 2,500 top business leaders, international political leaders, economists, celebrities and journalists for up to four days to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world. It could be said that it is a meeting of the rich and the powerful, the movers and shakers, the owners and the bestowers. The Davos forum, a ‘jolly’ of excessive proportions and great expectations, is limited, however, by the constricted view of its committed cohort and the exigent nature of its economic environment.
What takes place at Davos, or purported to have done so, is selectively reported to the world (not all journalists are given access to all events at the forum). Inevitably, the foundation hosting the Davos forum produces a series of research reports and engages its members in sector-specific initiatives. Just as inevitably, however, these reports and initiatives rarely make their way into the public forum. The WEF and its annual escapade in Davos is a vision of capitalism in action, whilst the stated mission of the WEF is often difficult to square with its proposed or actual outcomes.
Davos 2018 is being held against the backdrop of the collapse of the Carillion Construction and Services Company in the UK. The Carillion affair has exposed how ‘government outsourcing is failing the public by delivering poor quality public services, exploiting workers and relying on the tax-payer to prop up unsustainable business models.’
One editorial opined that ‘the scandal (of the Carillion collapse) goes to the heart of state-aided casino capitalism which profits hedge fund speculators when firms fail and subsidizes stock market gambles with public cash – and taxpayers pick up the bills when it fails’. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called it ‘a watershed moment’. The 2007-08 collapse of banks should have been a turning point – sadly it was not. One wonders to what extent this form of outcome, with its roots in the kind of capitalism championed by the WEF, is ever on the agenda at the Davos forum!
One author who had a keen insight into  matters related to the foregoing – and possessed the background and expertise to justify that insight – was Professor Stephen Haseler.
Professor Stephen Haseler died in July, 2017. He was a prolific author – writing on issues of law, politics and political parties, international relations, democracy, economics and inequality, powerful and wealthy elites, and, increasingly in his later years, the UK’s role in the European Community. Prior to his sudden death, Stephen Haseler was the Director of the Global Policy Institute at the London Metropolitan University. He was a social democrat and a republican.
In 2010, Professor Haseler published a book called Meltdown UK: There is Another Way. This book had precedents in two previous publications, The Super-Rich (2001) and Meltdown (2008). In many ways, these two books were prescient warnings of what was to come. The central focus of the 2010 book is the great financial crash of 2007-8, an event of world-changing implications.
Professor Haseler tells the story of how Britain’s leaders – from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair – through arrogance and recklessness turned Britain into an ‘island experiment’ for global finance and ‘market madness’. The great banking crisis in 2007-08 caused economic turmoil, the price for which the UK, amongst other economies, is now paying. He considers that the UK was the laboratory for the whole global neoliberal revolution.
Despite government action in 2008 following the Wall Street crash, emerging changes in the financial system – including bail-outs, part-nationalization, initial stimulus packages – though necessary at that time, have not worked. Banks remain largely unreformed and recovery is proving to be elusive, even to the extent that, at the time of the publication of the book, the West stood on the brink of another, the ‘double-dip’, recession. The cause of this is that the 2008 measures did not break sufficiently with the thinking of the governing market consensus. It is sobering to realize that there have been some seven Davos forums since 2010 and the publication of Meltdown UK: There is Another Way.
Professor Haseler’s standpoint is that Britain’s contemporary economy is unbalanced, service-based, financialized and highly globalized. The UK is a low-tax-haven, servicing off-shore economies. Further, and precariously, Britain’s political and financial class is ill-prepared to deal with the new and oncoming crisis.
In support of the foregoing, the argument of the book leads from the unbounded power of the City of London, through the route of free trade and global capital, to the attractions of these directions to leaders such as Thatcher and Blair. Then, following the financial crash of 2007-8, the British faced a crisis in jobs, debt disaster, broken British capitalism and a ‘socially useless system’.
In a telling postscript, Stephen Haseler indicates that the end result of this is that ‘the UK would enter a self-defeating and self-lacerating downward spiral, with increasing unemployment, threadbare welfare services, dashed expectations and low morale – possibly even social conflict.’ It can be left to the reader’s observations and judgment as to whether any of this has transpired in the UK since the book was written – in 2010. Notwithstanding, Professor Haseler suggests a bundle of remedies for the situation.
The government should use public spending in order to eventually eradicate national debt. In the event, he suggests, this process would threaten to destroy British national life. The solution to this threat would be to re-engage, re-embrace, social democracy – rejecting the neoliberal model – with the objectives of job priority, growth and the extension of wealth in the West. This will require a stronger state that grapples with inequality, as well as radical democratic reform and, as expected of a convinced pro-European, deeper European coordination.
Further, Professor Haseler believes that Wall Street and the City of London are no longer in the position where they can lecture on financial management. Both seem to be oblivious to the damage they have caused, and are still causing, to the world economy – the UK including. They should make way for a new course to be charted and followed by the financial institutions.
A central contention of this book, Meltdown UK: There is Another Way, is that the UK’s economic crisis is the result of the obsession of Britain’s elites with a ‘global role’. Allied to ‘market extremism’ this becomes a ‘pathology’. There are those within the British establishment who still harbour imperialistic illusions – undiminished during the thirty year period of increasing British weakness and vulnerability under the leadership of Thatcher, Major and Blair.
This is a book that clears away the haze of those years, a book that deserves to be read.
One commentator gave a short and sharp review of the book when stating that… ‘This is a well written, excellent book that tells the truth about the greedy bankers who caused the financial crash and the politicians who let them do so – most of which has been swept under the carpet by mainstream media.’ One might also add that that the reality of the situation is unlikely to be intimately discussed at the Davos forum – in January, 2018, or any other year!

RSC

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Not as a stranger

On Monday, January 15, 2018, an important meeting is to be held of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Choice at the end of life. The meeting will take place in the afternoon of January 15 in Committee Room 15 of the House of Commons, the home of the British parliamentary system of democracy.
The meeting will be an opportunity for Parliamentarians to hear evidence from an important piece of research recently published by the Campaign for Dignity in Dying. The research is entitled The True Cost: How the UK outsources death to Dignitas. This important new research was launched in November of 2017.
According to Sarah Wotton, the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, the new research “exposes how damaging our current law is for dying people and their loved ones.”
In the published research, nineteen people gave their personal account of trying to achieve choice at the end of life. As Sarah Wotton further comments: “Individually these stories are moving, together they form the most robust and compelling case for change we’ve seen to date. We need every decision-maker in the country to be aware of how damaging our current law is”.
Dignitas is a Swiss non-profit members’ society providing assisted/accompanied suicide to those members of the organisation who suffer from terminal illness and/or severe physical and/or mental illnesses. Based in Zurich, the organisation is supported by qualified Swiss doctors.
In the UK it is currently illegal to assist someone to die. As a result, many people travel to Switzerland to arrange an assisted death.
All MPs have been invited to the meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee for Choice at the end of life on January 15. The nature of this meeting is, therefore, one that I would expect a significant number of MPs to prioritize – despite their busy timetables. It is surely incumbent on all MPs to consider all viewpoints and not just their personal views or those of their political party. This is an important aspect of our parliamentary system.
Furthermore, as a member of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, I believe that this meeting is a crucial one for all MPs to attend. I do so for the following reasons:
  • It will provide an opportunity to hear about recent research (as contained in the above  -mentioned report) of the experience of those who have travelled abroad for an assisted death.
  • There will be the opportunity to ask questions, respond to the research and hear first-hand from some of those with experience of travelling to Switzerland.
Amongst other things, the research to be presented will show that:
  • One British person travels to Dignitas to die every 8 days.
  • Two thirds of Britons would consider helping a terminally ill loved one to travel to Switzerland for an assisted death.
  • The cost of an assisted death in Switzerland is, on average, £10,000. This denies the option to the majority of people in the UK.
  • Instead, terminally ill people are taking matters into their own hands by attempting to end their lives in unenviable circumstances.
  • This is despite the UK having some of the best ranked palliative care in the world.
As a former minister of religion, I have personally experienced a number of persons, including my own mother, who have died from long, painful and debilitating illnesses. For such persons and where requested an assisted dying would have been merciful, humane and loving. To my great regret this is presently not an option in the UK.
Surely, it should be considered of the utmost importance that suffering souls can choose when to die and to do so in their own country and not as strangers in another? It was this strength of feeling that motivated me to write to my MP that he attend the meeting of the All-Party Group for Choice at the end of life on January 15, 2018.
It may well be that my MP does not share my views on the matter under discussion and parliamentary review – it would not be the first time in my experience of my constituency! However, if such is the case, it is important that, as my parliamentary representative, the MP concerned at least attends a meeting where my views are expressed by others.
After all, it is not as if the purpose of the gathering of MPs in Committee Room 15 – to become more and better informed about The True Cost: How the UK outsources death to Dignitas – is unimportant!
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No grace or favour

Since commencing BA studies with the university in the mid-1970’s until the last PGCE (History) assignment was completed and the last examination negotiated in 1996, The Open University (OU) has been something of a constant personal companion.
Studies with the OU have crossed continents with me, opened-up further opportunities for tertiary study, seriously stretched my commitment and endeavour, and paved the way for a complete mid-life change of career.
During this extended period of study with OU, I have remained grateful for the academic opportunities it has afforded me. So too, I have remained on the OU’s contact list, keeping in touch with the university’s course offerings, organisation and methods, not to mention the cultural programmes with which the OU is associated on television.
Most years since completing my final studies with the OU I have donated to one or the other of the OU’s appeals in order that the university may maintain its particular approach to tertiary education. Essentially, this focuses on the OU providing opportunities and second chances to persons, such as myself, who missed out on taking a degree earlier in life. As such, the OU has been described as one of the UK’s finest public institutions, “a powerful engine of economic mobility”.
Personal donations to the OU have always been given with the understanding that the university’s finances are being wisely administered and maximized for the benefit of students.
It was with some interest, therefore, that I recently read a short newspaper article with the heading Top marks for Open Uni’s selfless boss. The article opened with the following salutation: “Let’s doff a mortarboard at Open University vice-chancellor Pete Horrocks for volunteering to give up the grace and favour residence that comes with his job”.
Now, this information came as somewhat of a surprise, specifically, to think that any British university should provide such accommodation for its executives, especially in the light of the criticism attracted to the news that one university in south-west England had paid its vice-chancellor £808,000 in her final year of service.
However, with respect to the situation with the OU, it is reported that, in “selling Wednesden House in Aspley Guise outside Milton Keynes, the OU will raise about £2million and save another £25,000 a year to spend on students”. These sums represent a huge number of donations offered by former students such as myself.
So, at a time when university budgets are being strained in consequence of Government cuts and higher tuition fees, increased student borrowing and debt, Pete Horrocks considers it to be financially inappropriate for the OU to provide lavish accommodation for its vice-chancellor – for himself. Take a bow, Pete Horrocks!
It would be encouraging to think that his selfless example would be copied by university executives around the UK, but I am not expecting a stampede any day soon.
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Think what you say; say what you think

It is often difficult to think with the utmost clarity and then to say what you actually think. I was reminded of this recently on reading an article, published in the Australian Daily Review, about the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO).
There is to be a forthcoming postal survey in Australia on the matter of same-sex marriage. The Board of the SSO informed staff that the Board had decided not to publicly support the ‘yes’ campaign in the postal survey. The reason the SSO Board gave for this directive was that it did not want to politicize music. In taking this stance, the Board of the SSO was, in the words of one critic, “defying the palpable solidarity of the arts community and its manifold supporters.” The latter included the vast majority of major performing arts companies in Australia.
It would seem, however, that the SSO Board’s desire not to politicize music has not always been consistent. It has performed in countries and for organisations that would counteract a consistent position on the matter. Yes, indeed, it is often difficult to think with the utmost clarity and then to say what you actually think.
We live in an age of rapid change: in social philosophy and societal trends, expression and communications (of these changes); the desire for personal freedoms that co-exist with the relics of community conservatism (still a major component of Australian life, as it is of life in the UK, and not to be confused with genuine liberalism – politicians take note); the frustration of living in that ‘in-between time’ when ideology, morality and levels of social awareness of the ‘other’ are struggling to catch-up with and maintain its co-existence with the realities of contemporary living.
This is true whether we talk about political persuasion, human rights, religious beliefs or social equality. It is true also of the life we live within the confines of our own personal and individual cosmos as it is of the community or the nation. But this is not new to those who have lived longer than a single generation.
Many of yesterday’s intellectual and practical causes are today’s living realities. Today’s praxis forms the basis for the arguments and eventual realities of tomorrow. Therefore, it is to be celebrated that human freedoms have been extended, in the area of human identity as much as in any other field.
However, the value of continuing deliberation about, even opposition to, those ideals and practices we now hold dear and consider to be a further liberation of the human being, is that we are forced to maintain the practical and intellectual efforts we have made in order to consolidate the gains that have been won, the efforts that form the basis of further advances. Time moves on, and with it opinion and further challenges to the evolution of the human spirit.
Perhaps the SSO (and its existential views) has purposes beyond merely making marvellous music in which to be immersed. In this event, it is to be noted that an update from the SSO Board stated the following: “It has always been the case that the SSO has engendered organisational initiatives and performances that reflect an abiding commitment to inclusiveness, fairness and acceptance and that the company has at its core a commitment to everyone in our community – regardless of gender, orientation, cultural background or religious belief – of performing music to the highest calibre for which the orchestra is celebrated around the world.”
In making this further statement it seems that the company came to the view that it did not have the right to take a position that would commit its stakeholders to one side or another of the debate. Therefore, the Board of the SSO has decided that it should remain neutral. However, it also stated its desire that all Australians should “respect the democratic process of the majority decision, one way or another, in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation towards each other in a peaceful resolution.”
Australians have yet to vote in the national market research project ‘referendum’ on same-sex marriage and, in so doing, to decide as to whether or not it will join the twenty-two other countries that have legislated for same-sex marriage. This is an opportunity for Australian to think with clarity and then to speak what they actually think.
In the meantime, Leo Schofield (a former chairman of the SSO Board), considers that the Board has indicated that, at least, it will not align the organisation with “the antediluvian Catholic Archbishops of Sydney and Brisbane, the ginned-up contributors to the skewed letter pages of The Australian, the smoke-screening nonentities of the Christian right and those parliamentarians too cowardly to put the issues to a vote on the floor of the House.”
The Board of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has decided its position in the matter of same-sex marriage. In changing its initial stance from one of not publicly supporting the ‘yes’ campaign in the postal survey to its present position of neutrality, it has shown that it is often difficult to think with the utmost clarity and then to say what you think. What is true of the world of music is mirrored in life generally.

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A relic ripe for reform

Many of those who voted in the referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union did so in order to ‘restore democracy’ to the British people. What specific shape this restoration of British democracy would take was only loosely stated, but for the supporters of this argument it meant that we would no longer have to live with what is wrongly considered to be an un-democratic EU system.
What is not realized, or is conveniently forgotten, by too many zealous anti-Europeans is the actual political constitution of the EU.
The main legislative body of the EU is the European Parliament. This is an institution composed of members who have been democratically elected by their home countries, including the UK.  The European Parliament has equal legislative and budgetary power with the European Council. The latter is made up of the leaders of the EU member states, once again inclusive of the UK. It defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities but does not pass laws.
A third constituent part of the EU is the European Commission. This is the EU’s politically independent executive arm. It is alone responsible for drawing up proposals for new EU legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. It is responsible to the European Parliament.
The whole of the above EU organization represents the second largest democratic electorate in the world (after the Parliament of India). It is interesting and instructive, therefore, to compare the relative political institutions of the EU with the British Parliament.
The UK House of Commons (the ‘lower house’) is directly elected by the people, as is the European Parliament. The UK House of Lords (the ‘upper house’) is composed of ‘selected’ persons and is not directly elected by the people. The nearest equivalent in the EU is the European Council. The Cabinet of the British Government in Parliament, made up of elected political representatives of the government of the day, is effectively the executive body in Parliament and, being responsible to Parliament (though, in recent years, not always seeing itself as such), could be viewed as the equivalent of the European Commission.
Therefore, to those opponents of the EU who utter the anti-democratic chant, it could be stated that the British system of governance is not as democratic as may be popularly believed, and the EU is not as undemocratic as it is critically thought to be. These equivocal viewpoints again came to mind when I recently read about what has been called ‘the cash for no questions scandal’ in the British House of Lords.
It seems that as many as seventeen members of the House of Lords have been claiming as much as £400K of taxpayer’s money ‘for doing nothing’.
These members turn up to the House of Lords, do nothing by way of business in the chamber or its committee system, nor submit a written question to the house, and then claim thousands of pounds of expenses for doing so – or not, as the case may be! One tabloid editorial considered the House of Lords to be ‘the exclusive club for cronies and former Cabinet ministers’. Harsh, but no less true for being so and, it would seem, that there is little appetite amongst club members to change the club constitution. No surprise there, then!
It is sobering to be reminded that, generally speaking, these so-called ‘peers of the realm’ have been appointed by the monarch – under advisement by an outgoing Prime Minister . They have been selected from, amongst others, former House of Commons MPs, business leaders, philanthropists, sports and entertainment personalities, old public school buddies, and persons from the fields of art and culture. Add to this array the ‘presence by right’ of the bishops of the Church of England, the institutional State Church of the UK, but no formal representatives of any of the other religious faiths operative in the UK, and what is on show can hardly be called ‘democratic’.
Of course, the inclusion of the bishops is sanctified by the official full name of the house: The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament Assembled. Historically, this assembly has been dominated by men and it is only since 1958 that women have been selected for a seat in the House of Lords. Women members of the house are given the title of Baroness, not Lord, and their numbers in the House of Lords are substantially fewer than those of their male counterparts. It is to be further noted that it was not until 2015 that the first woman bishop of the Church of England took her seat as a ‘Lord Spiritual’.
It is an interesting, even illustrative, statistic, that the House of Lords is the only upper house of any bicameral parliament to be larger than its respective lower house. In the UK there is a movement afoot to reduce the number of elected MP’s in the House of Commons, but there is no present intention to reduce the excessive numbers of members in the selected House of Lords.
Under normal circumstances, it is quite unlikely, though not impossible, that these ‘pillars of British society’ who compose the House of Lords would ever have been financially insolvent. Yet, here we go again, another indefensible financial scandal at the heart of British government. Though memory can be fleeting, I cannot recall any similar situation at the centre of the European Union – singularly or in multiples.
Surely, and financial scandals notwithstanding, the UK Parliament’s House of Lords is ‘a relic ripe for reform’. The British people have had enough – financial scandals, rip-off merchants who cheapen the values of parliamentary democracy, and political hucksters hitching a ride on the back of past achievements, the British taxpayer, social privilege and favouritism. That, of course, is not to discount the energetic and devoted work done by the few, if not the many, who wear the ermine.
Notwithstanding, it is time that genuine British democracy had an elected upper house, a legitimate and fit-for-purpose chamber of review within government that, as with the House of Commons, has been chosen by and would be responsible to, the people of the UK. Along with its unelected privilege would go its anachronistic nomenclature, the ‘House of Lords’, and the bogus status of its individual members being addressed, in private life as well as in government, as ‘Lord’ or ‘Baroness’.
The only genuine ‘peers of the realm’ are those considered to be so by the citizens of the state – the peers of those elected to political office. So too, it is quite evident that those who favoured an exit from the EU on the grounds of the UK restoring its democracy, should make sure that their own house is in order before casting political, economic, social and anti-democratic aspersions at the wider European community, its political institutions and the practice of democratic government.
There is an old saying that ‘people who live in glass houses should not throw stones’. There is another which states: ‘If the cap fits, then wear it’. The ‘relic ripe for reform’ cap that sits neatly on the Westminster Parliament’s House of Lords, does not have a ‘Made in Europe’ label.
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The time is now

The United Kingdom is no longer a Christian country. There are British people who will say that this has been an evident fact for some time; others will consider this to be a statement just short of blasphemy; still others will simply respond with ‘who cares?’ Well, for those who, one way or another, do care, it is instructive to report on the findings of a new study carried out by the National Centre of Social Research.
According to the data researched by the NCSR in 2016, 53% of British people now say they have ‘no religion’. This statistic comes from the results of the NCSR’s highly-respected British Social Attitudes Survey and shows that the figure of those stating that they have ‘no religion’ has risen from 48% in 2015. It was 31% in 1983. It is now at a record high.
In particular, the findings of the BSA survey shows that affiliation to the Church of England – the so-called ‘state church’ – is in decline. Just 15% of respondents called themselves Anglican – half the proportion who said the same thing in 2000. Even more startlingly, only 3% of 18-24 year olds said the same thing. This will have worrying implications for the Anglican hierarchy.
The BSA study suggests a number of speculative conclusions, for example, will tomorrow’s parents have ‘the desire to entrust their children’s education to the church?’ Will the Anglican Church’s schools be ‘an attractive, even acceptable, option for tomorrow’s parents?’ So too, it calls into question ‘the appropriateness and sustainability of the Church of England’s role in running our publicly funded schools’.
It is to be noted that, going forward, the de-sacralization and further secularization of the British population will inevitably have a major effect on other religious denominations and faiths. The findings of the BSA survey are consistent with a recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey which found that 58% of Scots have ‘no religion’.
It is indubitable that Christianity has played a major historical role in shaping the life and times of the British people, but it has been only one influence amongst others. The UK is no longer, however, the homogenous social, cultural and religious nation it may once have been. Indeed, the UK is now one of the most religiously diverse – even non-religious – nations in the world. This is a fact much-lamented by some, but, nevertheless, is unarguable.
Moreover, the fact of the matter is that this massive change has not been recognized by the nation’s political structures. There needs to be a further evolution that significantly advances the secular democracy that the UK has become, a nation where religion and the state are separate.
Earlier this year, I became a member of the National Secular Society. This move to the NSS seemed to me to be natural progression from where I stood as a member of the Sea of Faith movement
Briefly, the Sea of Faith is a movement where belief in God, and all religion that follows from this belief, is a human construct, an invention of the human imagination, or, as Hector Garcia has persuasively argued in his book Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression, religion has its genesis in our primate origins. This is a philosophical position called ‘non-realism’ and is the virtual opposite of the ‘realist’ position that asserts that God is an actual being – as believed by most, if not all, of the world’s major religious faiths.
It follows from this 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.
In summary, therefore, recent research and surveys have uncovered the dramatic changes in the religion and belief landscape of the UK and, in the view of the National Secular Society, these changes demand a policy response. In being of this view, the NSS goes well beyond where the Sea of Faith movement is presently at.
The NSS recognizes that the UK has an incredible religious diversity and, for the first time, a non-religious majority. These findings should ‘prompt an urgent rethink about religion’s public role and the relationship between church and state. Britain isn’t a Christian nation, and we shouldn’t have a state church. Of course, people should have freedom of religion, but it should end when it infringes on others’ rights and freedoms’.
To set out its vision for a secular Britain, a vision which I share, the NSS recently published a comprehensive report, Rethinking religion and belief in public life: a manifesto for change (http://tinyurl.com/natsecsoc). In the words of the NSS: “This outlines constructive and specific proposals to reform the role of religion in public life…it works towards a society in which all citizens, regardless of religious belief or lack of it, can live together fairly and cohesively”.
In its manifesto, the NSS considers how the state should respond to the fundamental demographic changes as outlined in the above, particularly in our institutions and policy responses. It seeks to make known its message across national and local media, but especially to make its case before the nation’s policy makers. For this purpose, a copy of the NSS manifesto was sent to all MPs at Westminster.
The manifesto sets out proposals to reforms in education, public services, institutions and public ceremonies needed to ensure fairness for all regardless of their religion or belief. It also evaluates the state of the law on human rights and freedom of expression where it concerns religion. It is a manifesto for its time and place – the place is Britain; the time is now!
Now is the ideal time to focus on the nature of the UK as a secular democracy – to celebrate the fact and work towards its further realization.
RSC
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