No wasted votes

It seems that it’s only the prospect of significant political upheaval that has the power to boot me up the butt and get me on the old blog.

I wish I was motivated and disciplined enough to write more regularly – I really do – but I think for now I’m content just to write whenever I feel the pressing need to.

And I’m not writing as a political expert – far from it! – but the winds of politics seem to be buffeting us Brits every which-way at the moment, and the narrative – which appeared to be destined to unfold in only one possible way just a few short months ago – has fractured into possibilities rather than certainty. I’m left with my jaw hanging open, wondering what on Earth is going to happen next…

Which brings me nicely here, to my blog that is all about questions; a little online space I have carved out for myself for whenever the pressure of such wonderings becomes so great that I have to release it by expressing them to a wider audience than just my long-suffering husband.

The most immediate, pertinent question to me at the moment is one that a friend of mine posed at the weekend: if you are voting in a safe seat against the candidate that will almost certainly win, what is the point or value of your vote? This question came out of a genuine weight of concern that voting with her conscience would have no effect. It’s one I’ve asked myself in the past, and for once, I feel like it’s a question that I have at least a partial answer for.

My response at the time was to point out to my friend that even if the same MP is returned again this time, if everyone who wants to vote for another candidate does so, there will be firm evidence of whether political opinion has remained the same or shifted at all. If the voting data records a shift, that’s worth noting and will be noted.

After she left, and I thought about it some more, as I felt as though that answer required further development. Voters may not, after all, see the value in recording shifts in opinion. So if there is a value, what is it?

Very simply, if the results of an election show a shift in public opinion, whoever wins said election has to take note, or they risk losing the support of the electorate. A swing in voting tells our country’s leaders the proportion of people who care about certain policies. If it’s enough of a swing, it will change the focus and direction of political debate, and give the opposition more power to oppose policies that the public views as harmful.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound like much, and I know there isn’t a huge proportion of the electorate that follows political debate closely between elections, but believe me, there is power in political conversation. No general election happens in a vacuum. The ongoing debate is filtered through the media, and more than ever, thanks to social media, involves the rest of us if we are able and willing to engage. As the discussion evolves opinions can change, and policy needs to be re-shaped accordingly.

So, if you’re considering not voting because you don’t feel there’s any point in your own consistency, take note. Your voice is heard, and filtered into the ongoing political narrative, if enough of you get out and vote. It will not be a waste of your time or your political voice. So do it – get out there – and be a part of the unfolding story!

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Dear Mr Cameron,

A month is a very long time in politics, as I’m sure you know better than I do. To me the speed with which the media has dispatched your resignation and flown on to newer things is quite remarkable. You were the Prime Minister for goodness sake, and all the newspapers seem to care about now is how brilliantly Theresa May is doing, or how quickly the Labour Party is going to fall apart. To be fair, there is still a remarkable amount of attention-grabbing news going on, so perhaps it’s no wonder that they’re not looking at you any more.

My suspicion is that you’re pretty relieved about that. After all, let’s face it, you had a lot to do with the earth-shaking political events that have been going on in the last couple of months. You were our leader, after all. You enacted policies during your premiership that can quite clearly be identified as root causes of our current political difficulties. You forgot that the economy ought to be the servant of the people, not the other way round; you stripped vulnerable people of their safety net; you have gradually eroded workers’ rights; you have brought about economic instability for many of the British public; and you fed the lie that all the resulting fear and insecurity are caused by people moving to our country to live and work here. Heavy charges indeed, I am aware.

I do however have some sympathy for you. The culture of politics is always shifting according to where the power is more focused, in the UK at least, and in you we seemed to reach the pinnacle of ‘professional politician’. I’m not trotting down the old worn-out line of ‘oh, he’s never had any real life experience because he’s never worked outside of politics’. That’s utter nonsense, since you clearly have a wealth of life experience both within politics and within your own family life. No, my concern is more that there was a very confined image of what a politician ought to be by the time you stepped into power, and you were unable – perhaps through lack of inclination, or lack of self-awareness – to challenge that concept. But contorting yourself to fit a pre-determined role simply shuts down imaginative and visionary capacities, and I wonder if that’s why you seemed to lose the energy and passion you began with when you first took up leadership of the Conservative Party.

And so we come to the subject I particularly wanted to address: the EU referendum. I suppose anyone with any sense ought to have seen the outcome months before the vote took place. The problem was that we had managed to convince ourselves that in Britain, on balance, the public prefers the status quo. We had the Scottish referendum as evidence, after all. Nobody properly understood just how deeply dissatisfied the public has become. I don’t think I could convey to you my own sense of the country’s mood during your premiership, because I’m not sure you could understand it. It has felt as though you have been turning the screw tighter and tighter, like a child wanting to see how tight it will go before it snaps. It has been contraction, gloom, increasingly pressured public services (though still somehow able to deliver above and beyond what you resource them to do), increasing stress around working hours and working rights. I know, I know there are some good things you have done, but overall they don’t shine brightly enough to overshadow the tendrils of stress and fear that have been groping their way into society. If I was to summarise it simply, you failed to give us hope. And I can’t help but think that the referendum result was a direct consequence of that very fact.

I do struggle with having trust in politicians, I will admit it. Twenty years of following politics to a greater or lesser degree has left me a bit tired and cynical, I guess. But do you know, the one time I have truly felt that you were talking about something you actually believed in was when you were campaigning to remain in the European Union. It felt as though you were actually concerned for the people who live in this country if we were to vote to leave. Before that, you seemed so wrapped up in your ideological state-shrinking project that people, on the whole, weren’t that important. It’s such a shame that it took such a drastic moment for you to show that integrity. It’s such a shame that it was a crisis that you had such a hand in creating, too. It wasn’t just about your role in creating national anxiety, it was also about you lacking the courage to face the conflict over Europe within your own party, and handing the problem over to the public to decide instead. I do see the reasoning behind your decision to do so, but I happen to think that your actions were shameful. You played a very dangerous game, and I hope – I really hope – that if nothing else, you feel some remorse for the state you have left us in.

I realise I have criticised you thoroughly in this letter, and my own shame is that I don’t know whether I would feel comfortable in discussing these things with you face to face. How easy it is to hide behind a keyboard and computer screen! As I write, I am trying to practice an awareness of how my words will impact you, a fellow human being, should you ever read this. And I know I would find it difficult to read such words if they were written about me. But you were after all in a position of enormous responsibility, and such responsibility needs to be held to account. The media has generally left you alone for now, but I wonder how long it will be before attention comes back to you and you are asked to account for your actions – and how ready you will be to answer.

Dear Britain,

You have very recently been through a fairly traumatic event. Granted, not an earthquake or hurricane; not drought or a famine; not a terrorist attack or a war on your doorstep; but threats do not always come from external sources, and it is sometimes the internal threats that are more insidious and root their destruction more deeply into a society, causing cracks in the foundations. The EU referendum posed a question that strikes at the very core of your identity, and the circus around it ensured that you would be left with a burden of stress and anxiety. You’re anxious because you voted to remain, and now you worry for your future after exiting the EU. You’re anxious because you voted to leave – what if the decision is kicked into the long grass, smothered in the notorious red tape of the EU machine? You were manipulated into a state of fear by the main referendum campaigns, and it doesn’t look as though those fears are going to be allayed any time soon.

I suspect that short-sighted politicians thought that they could whip up this fear and then tell you ‘it’s all right’ like a soothing mamma, and you would go back to sleep. Not this time. Westminster has driven you a step too far to reassure you with well-meaning platitudes, and you have become far too used to politicians who make promises and then conveniently forget them a few months or years down the line.

I think that the anger towards your political leaders has been growing for some time. Anger that curled for a while in its lair, present but dormant while you were still able to pretend to yourself that the next government would have the answers. Anger that woke slowly and found its voice in that huge and unexpected vote against ‘the establishment’. And then it didn’t take long after the referendum for the whole edifice to come crumbling down – how quickly those campaign promises were reneged on! So much for triggering article 50 immediately after the referendum if that was the will of the people. So much for the extra £350 million a year for the NHS. So much for stopping the free movement of labour.

No wonder your anger sprang from its lair and pounced. Yes, you have directed it towards many different culprits, and expressed it in many different ways – you are after all an entity of multiple personalities – but I believe that there is a unity in that anger; that it springs from a sense of being betrayed, and a deep insecurity. After all, who is there left to trust?

You cannot thrive while you are insecure. And I believe that insecurity runs throughout the entirety of you: whether politician or constituent, public or private sector worker, Royal family member or Benefits Street family member. It runs deep into the core of your establishment, as it navigates its way through a changing global landscape of terrorism, Middle Eastern unrest and an uncertain global economy. No easy task, but those with public influence nevertheless have a huge responsibility to recognise their power to influence your mood, and to exert that power with caution and delicacy.

Dear Britain, I believe that you can thrive again. I believe that you can learn courage in the face of fear, courage that enables you to confront your own inadequacies and learn from them. I believe it is possible for you to rebuild trust, with patience and time. It will require you to question yourself over and over and over again, holding yourself to account for every decision made, and examining claims made through your media carefully before deciding for yourself whether they are true. You will need to be alert to the powerful influence of the private sector, and you will need to raise up a new generation of politicians who will not bow to its demands. Above all, you will need to believe that a better future is possible, one in which political honesty is no longer considered a weakness; one in which you don’t simply consume soundbites, but question the ways in which you are being influenced; one in which you are truly able to listen to and help those who are afraid or vulnerable. I believe you can become all of this – do you?

 

Dear World,

I don’t think us British have much of a sense of what effect our recent domestic wranglings have had – and will have – on the global stage. Some of us do, but I suspect not enough, or we wouldn’t have got ourselves into the state we’re now in. So we’ve got ourselves into this massive political tangle, our economy has crashed and needed some quite fancy footwork to get back on its feet, and that small element of our society who thinks racial hatred is OK has felt validated in its actions. Add to that the economic and political shockwaves felt in many other countries by our decision, and to me it feels like we’ve got a lot to apologise for.

For a start, our ruling party has unleashed a beast that they had little idea of the size of, and next to no idea of how to contain. The beast is fear, conceived in an uncertain economic climate born of too many years of austerity, that have made the poor poorer, and are now rocking the economic stability of the middle classes.

And so we, as a nation, voted to raise the drawbridge and seal ourselves off from having to confront the politics of difference any more. Those who are already here can stay – they’re just about OK – but no more foreigners for us, thank you. It’s dreadful indictment on our political classes that they managed to sell us the lie that immigration has caused our economic vulnerability. Not just because of the rift such discourse opens up in our own society, but also because it has a huge impact on our interactions with the rest of you.

My burning question in the midst of all this mess is whether our political establishment will ever apologise for its role in all of this. Sadly, I’m not sure it even recognises the full extent of its culpability.

To begin with, a referendum should never have even been held on British membership of the EU. I realise that a lot of fellow Brits will now stand up and shout ‘oi! We had a right to reclaim our sovereignty!’ But the fact is that until David Cameron decided to placate the small but powerful right-wing element of his party by holding a ‘safe’ referendum, most of us didn’t know what on earth the EU was or what our relationship was with it. Most of us probably still don’t have much of a clue even now. What we were fed in the campaign was an indigestible mess of spin, propaganda and ideology that bore very little relevance to the actual costs and benefits of EU membership. Costs and benefits that we exercised our sovereignty in agreeing to.

So in effect, David Cameron placed a bet on a sure thing in order to unify his party, only to find that his horse fell at the last jump. Boris Johnson also thought he was quids in, expecting to raise up a large army of disappointed leave campaigners to support his bid to become the next prime minister. His morning-after face on June 24th was very telling indeed. Then, of course, every Tory MP who went along with this charade is also held culpable, if they placed more importance on their own position and power than on the welfare of those their actions have an impact on.

And talking of placing more importance on one’s own position and power than on anything else brings us neatly to the Labour Party. Imagine what they could have achieved, if they had made even the slightest effort at some kind of unity. Jeremy Corbyn, adept as he is at opening up dialogue in conflict situations, could not sway the intransigence of the Labour right. It seems clear now that from the beginning of his leadership, minds were set against him despite his strong mandate from Labour party members. What we’re seeing now is rank opportunism at its absolute worst, played out at a time when Britain desperately needs a strong and unified opposition party. I shouldn’t need to point out that unity does not require all members to agree on everything, it simply needs the grace to concede with one another and to compromise. I had hoped for so much better from the Labour Party.

And there you have it. Our political establishment in all its glory. Its campaigning on both sides of the argument was breathtakingly inward-focused, appealing predominantly to British self-interest. It didn’t seem to matter what the rest of the world thought or felt, even though plenty of politicians knew that a decision to leave would create economic shockwaves across the globe. Nor did it matter if we sent a message about the strength of fear and xenophobia, because whose business is it what we get up to? Well I believe we have as much global responsibility as we do local, and so you, dear world, have my apology, for what it’s worth. I’m just not sure you’ll ever get one from the people most responsible for bringing all of this about.

The Return

It’s been a while, I know. I’m afraid I had to let this blog lapse whilst I did the whole returning to work after kids thing, which involved a great deal of puzzling out as to what I could do that would fit in with all the other things that I already did.

I think I may have come up with a working solution, which is in its early stages but nevertheless is looking hopeful. However just as I begin to establish a new career, of course, we happen to experience political upheaval in Britain such as I have never known before. Whilst on the one hand vaguely hoping that the outcome of the referendum won’t affect my business plan (such as it is), on the other I am acutely aware of the shock experienced by a political establishment whose complacent expectations were proved so misguided given the referendum result.

So that is why I am here again. There are so many, many questions raised in the wake of what you might call a cataclysmic event, and I want this to be a place where I and anyone else can ask those questions. It is in many ways a selfish project, since for me it is therapeutic to launch my thoughts into a public space, but I hope whoever ends up reading this will find it helpful in opening up and exploring their own questions as well. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has experienced restless nights and stress-infused days since the result came out. Nor am I the only one who wants to see a stronger, more compassionate and courageous Britain emerge from the chaos of what has just happened. Perhaps this blog can, in some small way, help to bring that about. I look forward to giving it a try, at any rate.

Should the West intervene in Syria?

The Syrian conflict has gone on for far too long. I could fling out the dreadful figures of how many have died, how many are refugees, how many are internally displaced, but the trouble is they have become only that – figures, not unique representations of the human beings that have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of Assad and militant groups jostling for power over the opposition. These real people, who bleed, and break, and burn, and choke on the lethally poisonous gases fired at them by – as the media reports it – almost certainly the Syrian regime.

Something must be done. Or should it? Here is where I come up against a startling brick wall built by people whose opinions I usually understand and agree with; that actually, intervention by the West ought to be a complete no-no. Is this an ideological principle, or is it rooted in the fear that we will have another Iraq all over again? Does it stem from the belief that our governments are incapable of acting out of a sense of responsibility towards those who are suffering, that there always has to be self-interest involved?

The indignant comments I read mostly compare potential intervention in Syria with our invasion of Iraq, the obvious motives of greed and the spurious reasons of Saddam’s WMDs which were squirrelled away so expertly we never could find them. It’s a good thing to consider the motives of our governments for such interventions, but there is danger in this particular comparison. Danger because, first of all, we assume exactly the same motives spur our governments on to intervention in Syria (if there were economic benefits to entering into this mess, would the West not have dived in to the fray many months ago?). Secondly, and more significantly, there is the danger inherent in our automatic judgement that, just as with Iraq, our governments are creating evidence for atrocity where there is none. If we unquestioningly judge that the whole chemical weapons event in Ghouta was staged because WMDs in Iraq were a red herring, we are at risk of denying real, horrific suffering.

What particularly chills me to the bone is the opinion I have read more than once, that we ought to leave Syria to sort out its own problems. Not because I think the West ought to have influence over the political outcome of the conflict, but because I imagine what might happen if the roles were reversed, and I was one of those on the receiving end of a Sarin attack. Would another country then come to my aid? Yes, there might be political and economic gains for them to do so, and that begs the much bigger question of how the international community is regulated. But how would I feel about a world that never came to help? We ought to be concerned about what the consequences will be for international relations if we sit back and do nothing. Already, there are a million Syrian child refugees. When they grow up, how will they view the world that left them to ‘sort it out for themselves’? What precedent are we setting if we ignore the terrible human cost of the chemical weapons attack at Ghouta? Isn’t that the kind of soil that nourishes bitterness and hatred?

I don’t have answers to the question of what intervention could look like. I would simply like to open the debate a little on whether there ought to be intervention or not. At tho moment, those who are traditionally the voice for the voiceless in the large part seem to have closed that debate completely, along with any creative engagement in possibilities other than military force.

The undeserving poor..?

I hear the expression ‘the undeserving poor’ a lot lately. For some reason it never fails to get under my skin, but I never really stopped to think about why until quite recently.  They don’t bother working, don’t pay tax, leech off the State and spend all their benefits on satellite dishes and Nintendo Wiis.

But the question I ask myself is, even if this massive generalisation is true (and I doubt it), who are we to say how people on benefits spend their money? Would I like it if I was judged on how I spend my money? Not likely.

It is a big question, I must admit, and one that a welfare state will always need to address: what do we do about welfare that benefits those who give nothing back to the State? They don’t deserve the money they get, because they don’t contribute anything.

But then, that also begs the question, does anyone deserve the money they get, whether wealthy, poor or in between?

Having been thinking about it recently, a couple of days ago I strayed across this excerpt from the book of Proverbs;

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy. (Proverbs 31:4-9, NRSV).

Advice from a mother to a son, a queen mother to her king.

I expect this principle could be taken too far, generosity taken advantage of even more than now (though I’d hardly call it generosity from those who are so begrudging that some of their tax money goes to those who have so little). I shouldn’t think King Lemuel’s mother was advocating carelessness about budgets.

And if I’m to be consistent with how I read the bible, I need to be aware that the queen mother was speaking into a particular social and economic context, which may or may not resonate with British society today. Unfortunately, I cannot find any other reference to King Lemuel in the Old Testament which leaves me to work with the text in Proverbs. Is there a timelessness to the truth King Lemuel wrote down in his mother’s words? I think there is.

It remains true that poverty is harsh and difficult.

It remains true that poverty can bring misery.

It remains true that alcohol can indeed help people to forget their troubles – though we also know now, if we didn’t then, about the physical damage too much drinking can do!

But if we take the principle behind the suggestion, which is to give to those in poverty whether it seems they can use what they are given to help themselves or not, this to me sounds like an outworking of grace. Grace doesn’t try to contain us, teach us a moral code, or control us with a strict set of behaviours. Grace accepts us freely as we are, and its power to transform is within that unconditional freedom we are offered. Grace is the difficult way, giving people choice rather than limiting what we offer to them. Grace is sublimating our own judgement so that God’s judgement – which is steeped in grace – can work itself out.

It can of course be argued that it is not the State’s responsibility to be an outworking of God’s grace, and perhaps that is so. But it must be remembered that much of the social reform in Britain since the industrial revolution has been brought about by religious groups working to change government policy. And it remains the responsibility of christians to bear witness to God’s teaching in our society.

And one final question to end on: who on earth is capable of making the moral judgement on whether someone ‘deserves’ welfare or not? Me? Certainly not. And a quick glance at our Cabinet doesn’t reassure me…