Wednesday 26 April 2017

The Strategy after a Huge Majority

First of all, what a fat lot of good the Fixed Term Parliament Act turned out to be! No need to repeal it, just bypass it. Once a Prime Minister wants a General Election, no one else in direct competition is going to shy away from the challenge. The Scottish Nationalists of course choose their own path. The only difference then is that dissolving Parliament is no longer a prerogative power of the monarch given to the Prime Minister. Quite rightly, Parliament should decide. Nevertheless, the Government controls the business of the House of Commons. By introducing the legislation, the governing party is whipped into compliance, and the rest follow on. The alternative is losing a vote of confidence, by a simple majority.

The upshot is that the timing still suits the Prime Minister and no one else. And it does suit her. She reached a 20% gap over Labour in the opinion poll ratings. Labour was clearly unsure and compromised with itself about leaving the European Union, and up ahead were French and German elections before which nothing much could be negotiated anyway.

Theresa May's reasoning for calling the General Election, that the country was uniting but Westminster was divided, was disingenuous to say the least. The country is not united any more than it was: opinion is going through phases, but not uniting.
And she might have heard that it is the job of the occupants of the Palace of Westminster to hold the Government to account. She sounds dangerously authoritarian, and the language of "give more authority to me" is not how we elect Members of Parliament in parties to choose a Prime Minister.

The real reason she has called an election is precisely the same reason why we who wish to remain in the European Union have to recalculate what to do. Strategy was to use the coming division in her own party, that which she will remove.

The situation is good for her and bleak for many. With the bleating media doing her job for her, and her repeated catch phrase about "my strong leadership versus the chaos of coalition" (which was quite stable previously, liked it or loathed it) - and people always prepared to be like sheep - we are facing a potential landslide Tory majority.

If little piggies flew and Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister, he would have bestowed upon him the same powers and privileges of all who become Prime Minister. His Cabinet would argue like any other and be subject to unity of presentation. The same bureaucracy would support it. If it needed a coalition for support, it could be as stable as any other. Like coalitions, it would consider the arguments more openly. Even tacit support could do it. Theresa May on the other hand might be telling her Cabinet what to think, ending up with all the mishaps of those Prime Ministers who think they are the only ones that matter, with a kitchen cabinet or the sofa for decision making. You might get one or two Cabinet member identified as restraining, as in the Blair-Brown duopoly.

Nevertheless a poll for Wales gives the Tories a lead, a situation not seen for 180 years. A vox pop effort in the street shows people saying they "won't vote for him", meaning Corbyn. Tim Farron has to say gay sex is not a sin early on in this campaign to try and fill the hole he jumped into since he became Liberal Democrat leader, now fuelled by tabloid journalism. The original question, I think, was from Channel 4 News when the journalist (Cathy Newman?) could see a difference between Liberal Democrat equality views and those of a card-carrying evangelical Christian. Seeing as he could say "not a sin" now, why didn't he say it then? Well, it is not important, but it shows how trivia can undermine: would he be so conflicted on a bigger matter?

For Corbyn to stop digging, he'd have to resign, with a rapid replacement via some emergency rules. It is not going to happen.

Now the first thing is that the first past the post system, and on the old constituencies, gives Labour some protection from outright disaster. However, there is a tipping point in constituencies, and this was seen in Scotland in 2015. It could be so in Wales. Indeed it could be so throughout large parts of England. I hardly think East Hull will be lost to Labour, despite Karl Turner, but it is quite possible that Hessle and Hull West could go Conservative now that Alan Johnson has retired. And such a tipping point activated would, the time next, start to implode in places like East Hull.

This is bleak stuff and I say it as naturally drawn to the Liberal Democrats. This is because the Liberal Democrats also face such a tipping point upwards, and so they are unlikely to achieve it to restore them back to some 60 seats. Indeed it is very difficult to get more seats once lost.

Here is the problem. The phase we are going through now, for EU opinion, is for those who voted Remain to say 'get on with it and see what happens'. Theresa May knows this. Later on, these voters, and those who just tipped over into leave, will start to see that we should stay in. Those, like me, who think we should stay for both idealistic and practical reasons are in a minority.

Our task was going to be to persuade others to realise we are going to be better staying in the EU. It is the fact on the ground, and we trade with it. If you pay for the benefit of it, and abide by the rules, you ought to have representation through the Council of Ministers, be in the Commission and opining through the Parliament. Coming out will be economically damaging, and the best option is to stay where we are. Coming out, we will not have a say on its level of integration in future, and we will be more and more on its outside, more and more having to accept what happens with no input. And staying in gives us our young people travelling all over Europe for work and non-work reasons, so freely and productively in every way, it gives us scientific co-operation, and it keeps us in this growing confederacy of internal negotiation and peace.

By calling an election now, Theresa May jumps the gun on this. Correct for her: she has taken the initiative.

It's not the other parties that are split, it is hers down the line. Here is how it was going to be: if Cameron had won the referendum - we stayed in - the Tory Party would have split there and then. By losing the vote, the Tory Party became nearly united and Labour looked divided and lost. But down the line, at the point of decision on the deal, the Tories would then split between the single market/ customs union side and the wholly out side. And with an effective majority of around twenty, any decision would have lost Theresa May her majority. The Tory Party this is, not the rest, who were either pro-EU or unsure. Because she might well get a decision at home in favour of the single market, she is deemed to be anti-single market. She is deemed to be attempting to get UKIP votes and seen therefore as 'hard Brexit'. Her policy direction seems to be that way, as calculated.

The problem is the rest of it, of course: the Tories and the dreadful funding/ management/ privatising of the NHS, the social care crisis, the education mess, transport inadequacies, the level of underemployment and fake unemployment figures, and people who are having to go to food banks because of the increasingly cruel social security system. This is what makes it so depressing, and why Corbyn is letting us down when he knows he is such a blockage to at least having a decent sized opposition.

This notion that he is 'moving the debate leftwards' is useless if the representation shrinks. Nothing is being moved, other than down a plughole. This idea of not this election but the next, that he loses of course but the troops will re-elect him leader to 'move the debate left', is just more woe for ordinary folk - yes the ordinary folk who are so foolish to vote for an authoritarian leader or, previously (we hope), the various stupidities of UKIP. Why do turkeys vote for Christmas?

The problem of Corbyn is demonstrated in a number of ways recently. For example, the decision making processes of Labour concluded that the Trident missile system is to be renewed. Corbyn cannot stomach it. So in an interview he doesn't support the policy, and immediately afterwards the Party issues a statement about its policy - contradicting its leader. Or Sir Keir Starmer makes a reasoned statement clarifying EU policy for Labour, after which Kwasi Kwarteng can demolish it in 5 seconds, saying this revision is now agreeing with the Tories and not what Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott had said previously (Channel 4 News, 25th April).

The Labour management of its party is a shambles, and it is this lack of governance that suggests he hasn't got a grip. In other words, the man (Corbyn) is a campaigner, not a leader, and he is simply putting people off. Contrast this with the grip Blair's Labour Party showed before 1997, and indeed throughout, and Blair's media presentation as leader in waiting.

So, those of us whose strategy was to 'educate and wait' regarding the EU opinion have been usurped. May has stolen our time, and we have to rethink. Tony Blair, turning up with his own "I'll vote Labour" and then not quite suggesting tactical voting, is vague - because he too has been caught on the hop. Those who would have formed a grouping to reverse the EU decision have all been overidden in strategy by this early General Election.

So it needs a rethink, and my rethink so far goes something like this. Theresa May actually believes in very little: it is her strength and her weakness. Assuming she gets a landslide, she will think she can do what she likes. Her leave position is more likely to seek economic continuation, close co-operation with the EU. She will probably be realistic over immigration. I don't buy it that she necessarily will do the 'hard Brexit', and for me it's not the point anyway. For me, a soft Brexit is stupid enough, because we may as well have representation and support the ideal in its concrete reality and get all its benefits. She was a Remain; her political power rests on slipping into leadership after the leave vote (she'd have done the same when Cameron would have lost power over divisions had he won; then her remain approach would have been via a General Election as well). So with all power she will be able to adjust back into that fairly uncommitted near leave/ near remain position.

So what happens in this scenario? Well, Blair saw this happen with his majorities: a party that is 'big tent' or stretches too far becomes unwieldy, and starts to split. She will have the manifesto mandate and all that, but the realities are still flexible. So the same division will come about. She will still have a majority, but the party will be increasingly undisciplined simply because it does have that majority. She will get her way, with big chunks of dissent among her own ranks.

Unfortunately, it does mean that those of us who would have us stay in the EU are probably stuffed: except for this. That there is likely to be a transition time in removing. That transition time will mark out the real losses that coming out will demonstrate. It may well be that an election happens during that period, one that involves a Tory Party in deep division and disarray, from which there can be a rethink. It is a small prospect, this, but the EU would not turn away a repentant sinner if the 'events dear boy' come about to change people's minds - where those who would have come out and quickly are disappointed, and those who'd have stayed realise that something has to be done to reverse matters.

Plus the other fact that a huge Tory majority will frighten the Scots. They will have about 45 MPs next time or so, with losses including to the Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats). It would serve Nicola Sturgeon to wait: wait until the arrogance of May as authoritarian and with the huge majority, plus powers of the EU to translate to Westminster and not the devolved assemblies (court cases coming up!), where that huge Westminster majority persuades the Scots that their best option is their own sovereignty, to be shared with the European Union.

For when the UK leaves the European Union, and no longer contributes to decisions that directly affect us, we will have lost not gained sovereignty. We will have lost it to a nowhere place, instead of investing it in supranational institutions.

Meanwhile, really, we should be voting in constituency after constituency in the best way to avoid an elected dictatorship. It is the best we can hope for. But the worst is, probably, a longer term best hope, where the Tory Party falls over itself and digs its own grave.

It is bleak. It is bleak because, in this election, all Theresa May has to do is what she is doing. She goes to occasional staged election gatherings, says very little, says the same thing each time, and leaves. She just needs to show her presence. The rest is left to Labour's mismanagement and lack of place in the current British EU situation, and the arithmetic mountain of Liberal Democrat recovery.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Becoming (One) Unitarian Curator

Easter Day I provide the music again as I have done since 14th February 2010. The plan is to do one more. I want a clean break. It never became possible to 'train up' someone to stand in for me, despite an early attempt, and I have never missed even one for illness. Absences have been planned in advance, usually because of doing other Unitarian activity (e.g at Great Hucklow).

My method of music has been to use Unitarian Choir Hymns CDs, downloadable organ music of public domain hymns from the excellent Clyde McLennan, other Unitarian hymn singing put online, occasional other websites with public domain hymns, and You Tube and similar presentations. In addition I have used incidental music sources. They have been edited and saved on an external hard drive, so that every hymn in Hymns for Living is now covered, most hymns from Sing Your Faith, and a selection of 'No Book' hymns and then a number here and there appearing in other books. Now that I am stopping I have offered the external hard drive for copying to another such drive so that these hymns can be used by any others. As well as the longer term gathering, editing and storing, there is the preparation of a CD for each service and then the actual operating of the equipment so each hymn and each piece of music is delivered as required.

I was also responsible for setting up the original music delivery system so that organ music sounded like organ music filling the room from four corner speakers in good stereo. It had the power to be a loud disco, but has never been so used.

It is a matter of some sensitivity to discuss anything local, because I hope that policies go ahead for growth. For example, there will be live played music from a number of musicians: excellent. Nevertheless, one notes the statistics as ever, and we talk of growth but decline goes on nationally.

So all I am going to say here about is my own outlook. I do not describe myself as Christian because I do not believe in the incarnation of God in the person Jesus of Nazareth. I don't describe myself as liberal Christian either, partly because I don't know what it means. Nevertheless, I have an informed theological outlook at the more liberal and radical end of Christian thinking, and I combine this with a Buddhist view of focus and clarity and a humanist view of dominant working and delivering narratives of what is real.

I have an institutional view of religion: this is to say an attempt to understand historical streams, exposing and recognising the role of myth-making in them. These are invented traditions, claims of apparent historical ballast to legitimise something in the present. I would include Pagan continuity, the Unitarian Open Trust Myth, almost anything involving Iolo Morgannwg or Edward Williams (1747-1826), The 'Land of Song' myth with Welsh Methodism, Anglo-Catholicism in its attempt to claim a history that isn't, and 'Unitarian Church founded 1672' etc.. Doing history means realising that (Reformation style) Arianism had more impact in the Church of England than the Presbyterian stream that became Unitarian (Arian Samuel Clarke did influence the new Essex Church, that failed to attract Anglican defectors), and that Socinianism was never really part of the Presbyterian stream at all - when it was acceptable it had morphed into a kind of liberal, biblicist, materialist ideology. It means knowing that Bohemian Jan Huss had nothing to do with Unitarianism or similar, and reading back into that has more to do with nationalism than liberalism.

Doing such history is a continuous intellectual activity, but it is done in order to look forward. If one argues, for example, that Unitarianism and its predecessors were often binary running arguments, then this gives an understanding of where things are going. Thus the later dominant liberalism built into the Unitarian stream was collectively liturgical but individually subjective, and such a clash has distinct postmodern implications, the collective and individualist each collapsing into the other. This, however, is a very different approach than offered by the mirror opposite postliberal direction into postmodernism. For Karl Barth, faith was the Gospel witness, of revelation in the particular, out of which comes biblical narrative (even Church narrative), and therefore the institutional life creates identifiers of legitimate performance (collective and anti-experience). That is postliberalism. For James Martineau, the Gospel witness was but one example of faith, for which one had collective liturgical poetic spirituality and individual conscience (experience), and therefore a much more widespread basis of religious identity.

Some are trying to go back to the Anabaptists and radical revolutionaries and using this 'Spirit' focus to anchor a definition now. It is inadequate on a number of fronts. Too much happened in between. English Presbyterianism onwards like so much nonconformity was very middle class and mercantilist and then capitalistic in reference. It was also born from intolerant Presbyterianism both here and in its export to America (it wanted religious freedom, but did not offer it to others - not until later on). So the roots are hardly the radical Anabaptism of parts of the continent. Nor, as said, are institutional roots here particularly Socinian; after all, even Transylvanian Unitarianism was not Socinian. And the Anglo-Americans had to rediscover Transylvanian Unitarianism, with its different catechism approach, in the 1830s.

What I do dislike is the other trend seen within Unitarianism of becoming 'spiritual but not religious' - in an attempt to grab a perceived contemporary market. Now a lot of this is New Age and related, and some of it is a kind of commercialised second-rate magic or forms of spiritualised psychologism. This is the "we have moved on" argument. What is wrong with, for me, it is that we always talk collectively, and collective talk comes from traditions and understandings. Revolution is always less revolutionary: the Russian Communists ended up producing a modernist Tsarism, for example. This is because we are culture-carrying institutional types. Even the shrinkage down to handfuls gathering on Sundays does not permit 'starting again' because institutions are incredibly persistent. Memories and past inventions persist. We still deal with a Puritan shadow.

Many of those who say they are 'spiritual but not religious' are soon found to be religious. They do it in a Buddhist setting, and what they get then is some kind of Tibetan or Hinayana or Mahayana or combination presentation. Or indeed Pagans invent a continuity based on certain polytheistic principles and sell their Tarot card readings. One can see how traditions continue and change, such as the Old Catholic into Liberal Catholic morphing that happened also on the edges of Unitarianism and Congregationalism: as in the Kings Weigh House in London and the Unitarian Bishop who ordained many there. So, someone tells me that they are spiritual and not religious, and I will tell them their religious context.

And, incidentally, what is interfaith and ecumenical are indeed those: it takes time or receptive periods for crossovers to happen. It is too easy to exploit and violate the religious rituals of others. Misused and misrepresented, they usually turn out to be simplistic, misdirecting and offending. One annoyance of mine in the past was 'The Buddhist Beatitudes'. Another yuck was The Golden Treasury of the Bible. Of course there is change, and adoption with adaptation. So a little bit of Hinduism and Buddhism came into the Liberal Catholics, and of course Unitarians in their plurality have evolved Christian, humanist, Eastern and Pagan outlooks. These are not mini-versions of those religions, and nor should they be. In Unitarian terms, they are the working out of the decline of Christian sufficiency and explanation, plus the rise of romanticism and its clash with inherited reason. So reason is seen in humanism and most of the Eastern methodology, the Christian became more romantic, as is the Pagan with a bit in the Hindu tales. You can see the running argument still running.

So out of the history comes theology, and all of it follows a sociology of institutions: this means memory realised into the present.

I would admit that my personal reference is to several streams: and so one is the Unitarian outcome, Methodist, a little of the Presbyterian reborn, Anglican theology and ritual, and also Independent Sacramental (Liberal Catholic/ Free Catholic) outcomes. Add to this Western Buddhism and the unofficial Liberal Bahai.  I'm going to pursue these in conversation across cyberspace, and in my own reading and writing.

It is quite usual for some folks even near Unitarian congregations to prefer other contacts. Many join the NUF. Some have a choice of congregations with different tendencies. Not so where I live. I don't want to join any Unitarian body.

My liturgical offerings, my reading, my theologising, has a particular institutional sense to it, a reaching back as well as a reaching forward. In the end, institutions are carried in people's heads. When institutions decline, as indeed Unitarianism has now done to chronic levels, the purpose of the memorialising and translating changes.

I remember having an online conversation with an Intersex woman, who was Jewish and she could have no children. She was part of an extremely small Jewish Messianic group for which Jesus as Messiah "forefilled" (not fulfilled) the Kingdom. Rejected by all the main Jewish groups, considered not Christian enough, and definitely not part of the nasty Christian messianic movements of fundamentalists doing Jewish rituals, the movement had drifted. She had become, she said, a curator of documents and the memory that described their faith. The communal memory was that they had wriggled out of various oppressions that we say crushed Jewish Christianity - starting with the first primitive Jesus family Messianic Jews. The Nazis effectively finished her grouping off, and they have been too weak since. In their few hundreds, they are seeing the end.

This is my view regarding the Unitarians. You see the governing institutions effectively collapsing. They are confronting what the URC and Methodists must tackle soon. The recent General Assembly was well-delivered and there are yet more ideas for spreading the message. The profile is going up. But it does not translate into broad recovery, only into more decline as the age imbalance continues to rise.

When people do come along, they can be told all sorts as to what is Unitarianism. It takes a long time to absorb the religious culture. So many have gone away before they do.

So this is how I see it now. Unitarian sympathisers are curators. I'll do a website with stuff on it and write material. All Unitarian websites now ought to contain resources for understanding. When they don't, they are thin and even illusory. But this is how I view my future: Staying connected, I'm going more freelance, but I'm going to work on these memories and what we keep in our heads as we pass culture on, one to each other and each other to one.