Values that unite

A few weeks ago, the House of Commons was presented with the latest Queen’s Speech in which the government, despite the expectation of a General Election, set out its priorities for the coming period of Parliament. It is rare for such speeches at any time to focus on issues of human rights, especially with so much current attention being on the Brexit debate and the ongoing political uncertainty. The latest Queen’s Speech was no exception.
With so much in the political and social worlds that seem to divide the British nation at present, it is timely and helpful to take a step back and focus on the values that unite us – especially the fundamental rights and freedoms we all share.

Amnesty International (AI) is an organisation that exists in order to protect and enhance human rights worldwide. So, in anticipation of the 2019 Queen’s Speech, AI put together an alternative Queen’s Speech in which it listed its seven human rights’ priorities for challenging injustices – both in the UK and around the world.

In what follows I will set out these seven priorities and, with the encouragement of AI, provide a brief explanation of what AI has stated about these priorities.
1. A Bill to embed respect for family life in all immigration and asylum decision making, including enabling more refugee families to be reunited in safety in the UK.
The Government should underline respect for the best interests of children and the importance of family life by extending family reunion rights to child refugees in the UK, so that children have the right to bring their parents here to join them. Adult refugees should be able to sponsor their elderly parents, siblings, and children up to the age of 25.
2. Measures to strengthen support and protection for human rights defenders.
Championing human rights around the world should be at the heart of UK foreign policy – and this must include increasing support for brave human rights defenders who face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse.
Defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things – lawyers, journalists, activists – defending the environment, uncovering corruption, promoting the rights of women and girls. They are the agents of change in their communities, and they need strategic support from the UK which includes access to funding, emergency protection, greater promotion and recognition.
3. A Bill to overhaul the UK’s immigration system to ensure respecting people’s rights is the primary priority of the system.
This must include ending indefinite immigration detention, restoring legal aid for immigration and nationality cases, guaranteeing the best interests of children, and ensuring no one – including EU nationals living in the UK – is unjustly deprived of rights to British citizenship.
4. A Domestic Abuse Bill that gives equal protection to all survivors of domestic abuse.
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill could be a trailblazing piece of legislation, but it will fail unless it meets the needs of migrant women. They must have access to safe reporting systems, without the fear of immigration enforcement, and be able to access public funds and support services. Migrant women should be asked if they are safe, not where they are from.
5. A clear commitment that the UK will remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit.
It is vital that human rights are prioritised and protected throughout and beyond the Brexit process. The Government must also commit to retaining the Human Rights Act and to restoring the domestic rights and protections which UK citizens have lost through the previous Government’s decision to scrap the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the general principles of EU law.
6. Legislation to strengthen the arms export control system to ensure the UK complies fully with its human rights.
The fact that the UK has supplied more than £4 billion of military hardware to Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, despite the clear risk of it being used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law, shows that the current system is not fit for purpose and requires a complete overhaul.
7. Regulations that will enable free, safe, legal and local abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July 2019, decriminalised abortion, provided a moratorium on prosecutions and made abortion lawful – including in cases where there is a risk to health, serious malformation of the foetus and in cases of sexual crime. The Government must now put in place regulations to enable free, safe, legal and local services by 31 March 2020.
As anticipated, the recent Queen’s Speech said little about fundamental human rights and the values that underpins them. Nevertheless, Amnesty International continues its work of protecting people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity is denied.
As a global movement of over 7 million people, AI is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. It is composed of ordinary people from across the world standing up for human rights.
The organisation investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilises the public, and helps transform societies to create a safer, more just world. On reflection, it would have been wiser, more prudent and just, to have spent the time, effort and money involved in mounting a Queen’s Speech on advancing the cause of human rights issues – in this country and elsewhere.
Amnesty International has received the Nobel Peace Prize for its life-saving work.
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Conflicts of interests

The UK is facing a General Election on 12 December. At this election we will choose persons to represent the people as Members of Parliament in the British House of Commons. We choose such persons in the belief that they will devote their time and energies to representing us at Westminster. After all, our system of government in the UK is that of a parliamentary democracy.
Moreover, those elected to this national office will be expected to serve their constituencies in a full-time capacity. To this end their salary (over twice the national average), benefits and pensions are generous. We fondly believe our MPs are dedicated to the interests of their constituents and that these interests, or at least what they think are those of the country, always come first. However, is this really the case? Do tenured members of parliament work exclusively on behalf of their constituents?
We sometimes read stories in our daily newspapers of politicians who abuse their office in order to enhance their financial status, for example, by mis-stating their expenses. So too, during the debates over Brexit we have learned of allegations of politicians being backed by what has been described as ‘dark money’. However, little detail of such machinations has been forthcoming and certainly do not seem to have significantly featured in the debates.
The respected weekend newspaper the Observer recently published an article about a Scottish politician who decided to enlarge her income. The politician was of the view that her job of representing the citizens of her constituency in the east of Scotland would have left her time to also represent a global Public Relations firm. Her income from this latter source would have added substantially to her remuneration as an MP.
The politician in question is regarded as ‘an astute and canny politician’ who, after becoming an MP in 2011, quickly rose to prominence in her party and displayed impressive leadership qualities. Not surprisingly, therefore, this news attracted adverse publicity with the result that the MP subsequently opted to drop the arrangement.
The article did not impute any wrongdoing on the part of the politicians, nor did she try to conceal her consideration of a lucrative second income. The issue raised by the newspaper article isn’t so much that she briefly considered ‘the boost that an additional income would bring to her remuneration as an MP and its effect on her lifestyle, but how this would be understood by voters.’
It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand why it is that private firms are attracted to popular politicians. It is not only their personal characteristics but also the access they provide to corridors of power and decision-making. It would be expected that the politicians would be effective at lobbying for the interests they are paid to represent. Whilst constituents may be able to understand and even appreciate the need for a politician to earn more money, they may also have ‘a problem with the potential for a conflict of interests: theirs and the politician’s new employer’.
There were times in my own professional experience when I undertook two jobs at the same time. The primary reason for this was that no single job specification was sufficiently full to demand a full-time salary. On more than one occasion a primary first job appointment was linked with or dependent upon a second appointment. Sometimes this meant that I took on two appointments which, together, required more time than a single appointment permitted. In this case the job load included weekend work, with only one non-working day per week. In this way I acquired an appropriate single salary.
However, on any occasion when I undertook two appointments, the employers were aware of and in definite agreement with this arrangement. It was a way of serving two conjoint tasks without the need for an employer to provide a single full-time salary for either appointment. The foregoing arrangement generally met with the approval of those who were appointing and those being served by the appointments. Indeed, both parties were approving of opportunities to further the work of either, or both, of these appointments with further academic study and, therefore, the dual appointments could be considered as honest and value for money.
It seems axiomatic, therefore, that most voters would surely consider that all politicians, not only the Scottish MP earlier mentioned, should regard their job as a people’s representative in national government as a sole occupation. They are public servants for the duration of their period of office in parliament and their servanthood should be exclusive.
It is to be acknowledged that ‘the work of an MP can be at the mercy of the public’s capriciousness every few years and that there may be scant long-term security in the job’, but this is offset by an MP’s remuneration package and, as the newspaper article adds, ‘the opportunity to connect with potential future employers.’ An MP’s remuneration should preclude second jobs as, for instance lobbyists for private enterprises, newspaper columnists, professional consultations as medical or law practitioners, or holding official positions in industrial occupations.
The Observer article that carried the story of the Scottish MP seeking employment on top of but outside of her parliamentary duties, concludes by asserting that ‘she is only one of many among our elected representatives across the whole spectrum of party politics who doesn’t seem to have grasped why attempts to maximise their parliamentary experience are regarded dimly by the public’. This is so because the public regards ‘the task of making laws and representing them in the highest chamber in the land as a privilege that requires their exclusive devotion.’
As the 2019 General Election approaches it would do well for politicians who will be elected to the House of Commons, as well as those British citizens who elect them to office, to remembers this. Those elected to Westminster should be happy ‘to forfeit outside financial interests in exchange for an MP’s remuneration package and not expect to be hailed as heroes for their sacrifice.’
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With further reference to the Observer newspaper, 38 Degrees, the British not-for-profit political-activism organisation (to which this writer subscribes and has commented on in this blog), has recently informed the movement’s supporters that:
On Friday, we broke the story that the metropolitan police have passed a file of criminal evidence against Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign to the Crown Prosecution Service.
On Sunday, the Observer newspaper reported that Boris Johnson knew about this illegal overspend and failed to tell the authorities. But here’s the thing. Even if Vote Leave is charged and found guilty, that doesn’t mean that the people who ran and fronted the campaign will face any kind of sanction.
More than three years after Vote Leave broke electoral law, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in Downing Street. And Cummings is now in charge of another massive political campaign – this time to get Johnson elected to run our country.
Whichever political party you support, and however you feel about Brexit, it can’t be right that those who break the laws of our democracy are never held accountable. Right now, you can be charged more for touting tickets at a football match that for breaking electoral law.
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A conflict of interests is ‘a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, and serving one interest could involve working against another.’ (Wikipedia). In public politics, as well as in private affairs, conflicts of interests have the potential to be divisive, demeaning and destructive. They should be avoided.

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Far from over

We hope to reach again a Europe in which men will be proud to say, ‘I am a European.’ We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land – and that without lessening any of their love and loyalty to their home and birthplace. We hope that wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European continent, they will truly feel – Here I am at home, I am a citizen of this country too.” (Winston Churchill, Amsterdam, 1948)
The words of the above quotation come from Dr Denis MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2017). Sad to say but, presently, the answer to this statement remains in the balance.
I am writing these words on the day the self-styled reincarnation of Winston Churchill, that narcissistic, bombastic, duplicitous and opportunistic Old Etonian and presently the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is attempting to get his withdrawal deal with the European Union through the British House of Commons. If passed, the deal will take the UK out of the European Union. The ramifications of this deal are frightening to contemplate.
Clearly, Boris Johnson does not know his Churchill quite as intimately as he seemingly feels he does.
Dr Denis MacShane was a Labour MP serving in Tony Blair’s government as Minister for Europe. He was first elected as MP for Rotherham in 1994 and served until his resignation in 2012. MacShane studied at Oxford and London Universities. He was and remains a prominent commentator on European issues. He is well qualified for this task having lived and worked in different European countries, speaks a range of European languages, and is reported to have “a contact book of politicians and journalists in most European member states.”
Dr MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (see the above reference), is the second of a trilogy of books on the theme of Brexit. The trilogy began with Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2015) and concluded with the recent publication of Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain (I.B. Taurus, 2019).
In the first book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, Dr MacShane examines the issue of whether Britain will leave the EU. He indicates that the question of Brexit – a British exit from the EU – was high on the political agenda in the UK. This situation followed the Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election and the mounting pressure from within the Conservative Party for the UK to exit the EU. MacShane looks at the history of Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe and shows how “the possibility of Brexit had become increasingly more likely.”
He looks at the “key personalities who had shaped Britain’s European policy – from Churchill to Wilson and Heath to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron” – and “the key issues of immigration and the economy” which had heightened Eurosceptic feeling in the UK. In so doing, MacShane touches on one of the “most divisive political issues of our times” as the nation moved towards a referendum on Europe and considered its future place in the world.
In the second book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe, Dr MacShane discusses the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 and the inconclusive election just twelve months later. He asserts that both events “unleashed a wave of chaos and uncertainty.” He argues that “Brexit will not mean full rupture with Europe and that British business will overcome the right-wing forces of the Conservative back-benches and UKIP.” In consequence, both forces were weakened due to the ill-fated election gamble of June 2017 by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Denis MacShane correctly predicts that British negotiations with the EU in the post-Referendum period “will prove to be excruciating.” He considers that Britain cannot and will not divorce itself from the continent of Europe, “Indeed, the European question will remain the defining political issue of our time.”
He further considers that public and political opinion in both the UK and EU member states has never confronted such an issue before – namely “A decision by one of the world’s largest economies and democracies to withdraw from the world’s biggest open-border trading bloc, which has managed to secure peace and the sharing of laws and democracy between more than 30 nations, …as well as those seeking to join.”
Rather alarmingly, MacShane sees Brexit as just “the first step in a bigger nationalist campaign aimed at destroying the EU and returning to a Europe of rival nation states behind closed borders.” To reach this conclusion Dr MacShane first examines the impact of Brexit – in the UK, the EU, with reference also to Donald Trump and the U.S.A, before dissecting why Brexit happened.
Following this, Dr MacShane provides evidence as to why Brexit disrupts Britain from within and will cut off the UK with respect to its near and far neighbours. Finally, he shows how Brexit will change Europe in terms of the requirement for a new politics. His “Afterword” discusses how the UK stays in Europe.
Brigid Loffan (Director, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies) says that the third book in MacShane’s Brexit trilogy Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain, spells out why “Brexit will morph into a Brexiternity.” Loffan is of the view that Denis MacShane’s book rightly argues that the English politics that gave rise to Brexit will result in “years and years of Brexit issues in Britain but also in Ireland (I might add Scotland) and the rest of Europe as well.”
Indeed, as MacShane explains, “Brexit will affect the lives of future generations, deal or no deal, and even threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.” Even as this article is being written two days after the British government has made a deal with the EU, it is clear, as Denis Macshane outlines, that “No matter what happens, a ‘Brexiternity’ of negotiations and internal political wrangling in Britain lies ahead.”
The Guardian newspaper’s Polly Toynbee has said that, “Brexit is far from over. It is a Gordian knot that requires new and strong political leadership in order to be cut.” Referring to the last book in the Denis MacShane trilogy, Jon Snow, the journalist and presenter of the Channel 4 News, considers that “Leavers and Remainers alike will learn from this book as we face a decade in which Brexit will dominate our national life.”
Toynbee and Snow are among a veritable celebrity line-up of journalists, commentators, writers and politicians, amongst others, who have lauded the above trilogy of books about Brexit by Dr Denis MacShane. This writer is no exception.

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Serving a purpose

“Unless secularism’s role in the development of human rights and freedom is well understood, theocrats will be well placed to erode them”. These are the words of the Chief Executive of the National Secular Society (NSS) in the UK, Stephen Evans. He was writing in an article for the Autumn Bulletin of the NSS. The article was called, “We must teach the young how they benefit from secularism”.
The article was a basic introduction to a new initiative of the NSS – the provision of a range of teaching resources for schools under the banner of “Exploring Secularism”. The rational for this initiative is the NSS’s belief that secularism is worth celebrating. This is so because, “Its principles under-pin liberal societies and the political institutions which have been built to protect individual human rights to freedom of thought, speech and expression”.
The implicit assumption in this view is that religious dogma and authority subjugates human reason. Secularism endeavours to liberate human reason from these shackles and, it is proposed, in the process enables human material and health benefits to flourish. Religion is bondage; secularism is freedom. In the view of Stephen Evans, and with reference to schools in England and Wales, “It is bizarre, therefore, that something so significant rarely features in the school curriculum”.
As I read Stephen Evans’ article, I reflected on the content of the religious studies curriculum that I was involved in teaching when I was the Head of Religious Studies (RS) at a Northampton comprehensive school. The teaching of the RS curriculum was as broad as the system at the time would permit, including a substantial proportion of curriculum content and time being devoted to the teaching of both secular and religious philosophy and ethics. This was particularly the case at senior school level.
However, the syllabi for the RS, Philosophy and Ethics courses at the school never involved a specific course on “Secularism”. With hindsight, this situation was regrettable. The RS department of the school would have been the most appropriate location for space to be made for a genuine approach to the topics that Secularism would introduce to the syllabus – and the staff of that department would have been more than adequate for the task of teaching the subject.
It is the view of many involved with both Religious Education (RE) and Secularism in the UK that the approach to RE is outdated and that a new approach is overdue. The latter would mean that RE is broadened out or make substantial way for what the NSS describes as “A new broader civic education that encompasses citizenship and human rights”.
Such an approach would obviously include the exploration of the diverse range of worldviews, practices and beliefs, that currently are studied in RE (otherwise Religious Studies) courses. However, in addition to the role that religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society, would be added the respective role that secularism should play. Secularism has a specific role to play in that exploration.
The NSS article of Stephen Evans strongly suggests that, as emerging citizens of 21st century societies, “pupils should have an awareness of the importance of secular principles”. Amongst other things, this would include the separation of religion and the state, and the way in which secularist principles impact their lives.
Secularist principles should not be taken for granted and it is necessary that steps are taken to ensure that secularism is not misunderstood or wilfully maligned. Again, Stephen Evans is instructive when he states that, “It is not unknown for those eager to impose their religious faith on others have groundlessly portrayed secularism as a threat to religious freedom, promulgating misconceptions – routinely equating it with state-enforced atheism and even totalitarianism”.
A focused role on the educational curriculum would enable students to better understand and appreciate Secularism, as well as counteract the false views its opponents promote. Though it is a bit late for me to make use of the Exploring Secularism resources, it is obvious to me that the package will serve a valuable purpose as a teaching aid – and it is free!
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My wife and me recently spend two enjoyable weeks touring Scotland by car. The focus for this visit was primarily the north-east of the country, using Inverness and Aberdeen as bases. With a current membership of the Scottish Heritage, much of our time was spent visiting the many and varied properties that the trust manages.
A considerable number of these properties were self-entitled as “castles”. Many of them were grand homes that had been extended to become even grander, and safer. We spent many hours listening to guided commentaries on the history of the properties.
Amongst other things, we learned that many of the grand homes and castles, a number of which were located within extensive estates and quite stunning locations, were either built or had been extended by royal personages, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and various other citizens who had accumulated their wealth from successful dealings in war and, more especially and, for me, surprisingly, the slave trade.
Prior to this visit, I was aware that warfare was almost a routine past-time amongst the Scottish clans. However, the association of the country of my birth with the slave trade was something of a shock to my system. This timely visit served its purpose.

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Not what it seems

Tom Mills is a lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. In his short, but most interesting and quite provocative book, “The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service”, Mills relates the story of an incident in the experience of John Reith, the BBC’s founding father.
Mills writes of the day, 12th May, 1926, when, as Reith was reading the news on the BBC’s lunchtime radio news bulletin, he was handed a note telling him that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had called off the UK’s first and only General Strike. The strike was in support of the mine workers and had lasted for nine days.
Reith and the BBC, in supporting the government of the day, were opposed to the strike and, in a later radio announcement, John Reith stated: “Our first feeling on hearing of the termination of the General Strike must be one of profound thankfulness to Almighty God, who has led us through this supreme trial with national health unimpaired.” Clearly, for Reith, God was on the side of the government and the establishment of the day, including the BBC. It was unthinkable that the Almighty could be on the side of the striking workers!
Mills tells us that John Reith, later to become Lord Reith, finished his radio announcement with what he called “his little thing” – a personal contribution to the celebrations. This “little thing” was, in fact, a reading of William Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times”. This poem, in the form of Hubert Parry’s patriotic hymn “Jerusalem”, had become popular during the Great War. As Reith read out the words of this poem, Parry’s hymn played in the background.
When Reith had finished his recital, the BBC choir sung the final verse of Parry’s hymn, “a rousing call to arms for the Christian peoples of England”. One wonders whether they would have been joined in this singing by the “ragged trousered philanthropists”, the poor and downtrodden of Edwardian England,  whose forsaken lives are minutely, intimately and superbly described by Robert Tressell in his book of the same name,
John Reith believed that, during the General Strike, it was the role of the BBC to “announce truth”, to be on the side of law and order, to support the government, therefore, to oppose the mine workers. Blake’s poem and Parry’s Hymn, in the form of the song “Jerusalem”, were subverted and used in order to serve this purpose.
This was not for the first time, as a review by the journalist, Warwick McFadyen, reminds us when he says that “the music, Jerusalem, stands the test of time. It began life in service to its country. It was a soldier for Britain during the First World War…, when the scales of optimism were falling from British eyes to the reality of the horrors, it was felt that the public and the fighting men needed their spirits bolstered.”
It can be argued that, as such, the combination of the poem and the hymn in what is now known as the song, ”Jerusalem”, has been used ever since in the attempt to inspire English, if not British, patriotism, loyalty, service and effort. However, the song is not what it seems.
A glance at the Wikipedia entry for Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” will familiarise the reader with the words of the song. The song-writer Jeff Beck considers that “the song has something for nearly everyone, the patriot, the radical, the loyalist, the rebel, but who all had one defining element: an identity with their country.” But the identity is with England, not the United Kingdom.
Yet, despite its popularity and the lack of protest over its words, the use that has been made of the song – from state funerals to sporting events, even at the London Olympics in 2012 – has never enabled it to become England’s specific national anthem. The English continue to use the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen”, as their anthem.
The words of the song have been described as “pure fantasy”; some might even suggest that they are nonsense. Did Jesus ramble through the green hills of England or be seen on England’s pleasant pastures? Has Christianity ever made any worthwhile or lasting difference to the lives of England’s working classes, during the dark days of the industrial revolution or since? Did John Reith give even minimal thought to the actual words of the song when he thanked the Almighty for the victory of the ruling classes, political and social, over those who worked in the “dark satanic mills” during the early part of the 20th century?
However, attempts at a literal interpretation of Blake’s poem fail to understand its somewhat cryptic nature, its critical comment on the nature and conditions of life in England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. John Reith clearly misunderstood and misapplied Blake’s poem, with or without Parry’s music!
As he recited Blake’s poem against the background of Parry’s hymn, what genuine interest did the future Lord Reith and the BBC have for those who worked in the coal mines of the countryside and the factories of the cities, those who laboured for the wealthy owners of industry and a government which controlled the conditions of that labour?
It is the view of some critics that when he wrote the words of his poem, Blake was “away with the fairies”. Perhaps the same may be said, and more pertinently, of John Reith when he added his “little thing” to his radio broadcast on that fateful day in 1926. It is unequivocal, therefore, that the song, “Jerusalem”, is not what it seems.
It may have varying interpretations and be presented by a variety of artistic talent. In this respect, the words of the electric guitarist Jeff Beck seem apposite, “No doubt this recent resurfacing will fade, the mental fight will ease, the chariot of fire will pass behind the dark satanic mills.” Yet, “like all great works, it stays within one, breathing slowly and quietly in the background. It is part of you” – at least if you are English!

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Bones of contention

This writer is not normally interested in what goes on within the Windsor family. A few days ago, however, my attention was caught by an interview with Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and what he had to say about the current discussion on LGBT concerns.
The Prince was asked how he would react if his children were LGBT. His response was to say that, “I wish we lived in a world where it’s really normal.” He went on to say that, “particularly given their position, his children would face persecution and discrimination.”
It seems that William Windsor’s comments made it big in the social media and were interpreted by some as a major step forward in the cause for LGBT rights. Contrary to the gushing perspective of the BBC (isn’t it always the case with the BBC when reporting the royals), it seems pertinent to ask what decent parent and human being would not support a child who is LGBT?
The media show great interest because William Windsor is the Duke of Cambridge and, under the present constitutional settlement, is second in line to the British throne. Moreover, as the reigning king, William will automatically become the head of the Church of England – the nation’s established church (whose adherents only number around 14% of the British population). The Church of England presently opposes equality for LGBT persons. Such a future position will face William Windsor with a dilemma. Will he respond as a father, or as the Church of England’s CEO?
With thanks to the National Secular Society’s recent Newsline publication (27.06,2019) called “Equality for LGBT people requires a secular head of state” and authored by Chris Sloggett, let me rehearse some of the areas where there is opposition to the Church of England’s influence in British life and how this might influence LGBT matters.
The established church does not allow gay marriage, even though some C of E clergy are in marriage relationships with same-sex spouses. Notwithstanding, when ordained to the priesthood they must pledge not to enter sexually active same-sex relationships.
The C of E bishops have automatic and unearned places in the House of Lords, where their presence is used to oppose bills that would permit greater liberty within the church over sexual matters. Indeed, the presence of elite clergy in the House of Lords is used to try and get Parliament to make decisions for the C of E that the church’s leaders would not risk, or be successful in, making, themselves.
Evidence of the C of E’s homophobia can also be seen in the fact that it does not allow a bishop to bring a same-sex partner to major church conferences.
So, as and when William Windsor ascends the British throne and, thereby, he becomes the “Defender of the Faith”, he will take an oath, as Head of the C of E as well as the Head of the British State, to uphold the privileges of the Church of England in a multi-cultural and multi-faith or no-faith British society. These privileges include, as Chris Sloggett points out, “state patronage, automatic places in the House of Lords, a leading role in our national ceremonies, and control over thousands of state-funded schools.”
It should be added to the previous statement that confessional teaching takes place in these C of E state-funded schools. So too, there is clear evidence that these schools promote anti-gay attitudes and syllabus content that runs counter to the national syllabus specifications related to the teaching of relationships and sex education.
It is relevant to the above to point out that William’s father, Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales, has indicated that he might choose to adopt the title “Defender of Faith” when he becomes, as expected, the next British king. Whilst this might suggest a more overt move towards greater spiritual democracy in the UK and might well be an objective move towards the disestablishment of the C of E, it would no doubt enrage entrenched opinion and privilege within the hierarchy and the pews of the C of E.
In his article Chris Sloggett further states that “All of this means its [the Church of England] anti-gay positions have a significant impact on the wider pursuit of equality for LGBT people.” It is appropriate, therefore, to once again ask the question: At such a time as his responsibilities include being a ruling monarch, will William Windsor’s response to any of his children being LBGT be that of a father, a monarch or the head of an established church? Even now the British public have a right to know more about what this future monarch will do in that role.
His contemporary comments might be good for his family and be regarded as trendy in the present climate of British public opinion. After all, along with his family, he seems to enjoy his apparent celebrity status. Moreover, his comments come across as those expected from any tolerant person in society. How deep, however, do his convictions with respect to LGBT people really go?
In the light of his present convictions would he be prepared to renounce any future leadership claims to become the head of the C of E, the institutionally established church, an institution that undermines and opposes the cause of equality for LGBT people? This situation could become a serious bone of contention, for both himself and the C of E.
Not only does the British public have a right to know about the character of its political leaders; it demands to know the same of its royalty – especially when these royal persons also assume leadership of an established church, a minority institution that has the ongoing audacity to presume such a prominent place in British public life.
Successive reports from the National Secular Society have stated that “arguments for disestablishment are compelling” and that “overt support for establishment remains weak.” The NSS is of the view that “Secularisation, increasing cultural diversity and the divergence between Church leaders’ ethical views and those of wider British society will undermine current justifications for establishment.”
It is pertinent to reflect on the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he says that establishment (of the C of E) “reflects a slightly odd 16th century view of the absolute inseparability of the Church and State, which is realistically not where we are now.”
However, in the UK the voices of religious privilege are loud and their vested interests are strong. Whilst it is hoped that it may be otherwise, in the event of him becoming the head of the British state and the executive leader of the C of E, those same voices and interests may well result in a change of Williams Windsor’s heart and mind on the matter of LGBT rights.
It is incontrovertible that, in the interests of equality, LGBT people require a secular head of state. What is true for LGBT people is true for all persons in the UK. Has there ever been such a just and timely case for the separation of Church and State and the disestablishment of the Church of England as there exists today?

RSC

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Ripe for reinvention

“It certainly does need thinking about, but there will be no referendum on the monarchy’s future anytime soon. There was no mention of republicanism in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto and it is hard to envisage the next one being any different. It would be electoral suicide.”
These were the words of Larry Elliott, an English journalist and author who writings focus on economic issues. He is the economics editor at The Guardian newspaper and has published five books on related issues. The above words were written by Elliot on June 13, 2019, in an article in The Guardian called How the British royal family killed off republicanism.
Elliot’s opinion has its narrative basis in the recent state visit of Donald Trump, the current President of the USA, and the way in which the British monarch, Elizabeth Windsor, dealt with the ceremonies associated with this visit. He prefaces his argument by stating that … “since the Queen came to the throne in 1952, she has had plenty of practice in hosting a state visit for the world’s most powerful man.”
State visits aside, Larry Elliot indicates that events have not always been favourable to the fortunes of Elizabeth Windsor. In particular, he highlights the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a Paris car crash in 1997.
He considers that at that time the monarch was most unprepared to deal with the national outpouring of grief (which he calls a ‘national blubathon’) that followed the death of Diana, and her initial response to this event was generally considered to be cold and insensitive. By way of contrast to this royal response was the somewhat opportunistic and emotive response to Diana’s death from the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He referred in laudatory terms to Diana, the Princess of Wales, as the “Peoples’ Princess”. This approach eventually proved positive for the monarch.
Elliot points out that the New Labour government of Tony Blair was committed to a package of constitutional reforms and that this direction in governance provided an opportunity to have a debate about the role of the monarchy in a modernizing UK. This was an opportunity not taken. Tony Blair was a royalist and would not have countenanced the UK becoming a republic. The idea was certainly about and, in fact, The Guardian newspaper called for a referendum on “what sort of state should Britain have after the Queen’s death?”
The Guardian’s position was that “people ought to able to say whether they would prefer to have an elected head of state or to continue with a monarchy.” The underlying question posed by the newspaper, therefore, was “Do they (the British people) want to be citizens or subjects?”
Larry Elliot is of the view that the contemporary arguments “in favour of turning Britain into a republic are no different from what they were 19 years ago. These arguments would involve democracy, power, governance, class and distribution of wealth.” To a republican such as the present writer, it seems outrageous that, in all of the recent discussion about tackling inequality in the UK, not to mention the arguments, notably the one about democracy, involved in the contemporary debate about Brexit, little has been heard about the role, or otherwise, of the monarchy.
At the turn of the century there was a realistic possibility that such a debate could take place. Since then, however, as referenced by Larry Elliot and others, the world-wide economic downturn and crisis, the recession of 2008-09 that was followed in the UK by the austerity policies of successive Coalition and Conservative governments, and the ongoing debate over Brexit, makes the possibility of a realistic discussion on republicanism in the UK seem quite remote.
The above events were outside of the monarchy’s compass. However, during the same period, the royal family has taken the opportunity to reinvent itself. There has always been strong residual support in the UK for the House of Windsor, after all, the British are basically a conservative nation, and certainly this has been the case during the reign of Elizabeth Windsor. But it is the roles that have been assumed by the younger royals that have made a decisive difference in the way that the House of Windsor has managed itself post 2000.
The Queen’s grandchildren, through their marriages, royal babies, the adoption of celebrity public profiles and the embracing of modern social media, not to mention PR and image consultants, have re-packaged, indeed reinvented, royalty for the 21st century.
When, at the turn of the century, Australia went to a referendum to determine the future of its head of state, the fact that the nation could not decide on what kind of replacement was needed or would be appropriate to replace the British monarch, meant that Australia is still governed as a constitutional monarchy, with a governor general representing the British monarch.
A similar question could be asked about the UK. Who would replace a monarch as the head of state? A member of a political class whose reputation is at a near record low level? An over-hyped or over-paid celebrity who is unable to see beyond his or her self-importance? A person from the world of business whose entire focus in a runaway capitalist society has been on profit and loss and wealth preservation?
Larry Elliot informs us that, in one of his diaries, the late Labour stalwart, Tony Benn, describes watching the establishment gather for the service in St Paul’s cathedral to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. “We haven’t removed the grip of this crowd from British society, far from it, but on the other hand the public accept it all and the press plays it up to divert people from unemployment and the cost of living and the EEC and so on. It is a very important ingredient in British life and it has to be thought about.”
It might well be thought about; it might well also be asked, is the situation any different in 2019? If the pomp and circumstance associated with the recent state visit of Donald Trump to the UK is anything to go by, not to mention the central role played by royalty in that visit and the associated D-Day commemorations, then the immediate future of the British monarchy seems assured. Certainly, there will be no referendum on the future of the monarchy any time soon.
It is certainly true that one of the UK’s world-class industries is heritage. Elliot reminds us that “Tourism is money”. Thank you, Larry Elliot, for a most informative and interesting article in your newspaper. However, in stating that “Trump’s appearance highlighted that the monarchy has made itself virtually impregnable and that the republican cause in Britain has rarely been weaker”, you have made this republican reader a little more depressed. As if Brexit wasn’t enough!

RSC

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