Have Conservative hopes gone up in smoke?

The appalling tragedy of Grenfell tower has come very rapidly to symbolise all that is wrong with right-wing beliefs. Here was a tower block that had no water-sprinklers installed, that had the wrong sort of cladding, that was overcrowded – and it was in the one local authority that best epitomises excess wealth. Here the obvious story is one of heartless landlords pruning back their costs and the iniquities that follow from handing over to private capitalists the responsibility to ensure that public housing is safe. In short, this is what happens when you let rapacious right-wingers run the system for private profit – death, horrible, horrible death.

All this as the cherry on top of the cake which was the 2017 election – I suppose that the only thing that Conservatives can feel grateful for is that it didn’t happen immediately before the election, otherwise it would be Jeremy Corbyn grimacing outside number 10. He, after all, was the beneficiary of ‘the big mo’ – momentum – and enjoyed a huge swing of support amongst younger voters. There is clearly something remarkable about Corbyn, a premium upon authenticity, which allows him to engage with groups that have previously had little interest in the political process.

So are the Conservatives now completely stuffed? Brexit seems to be going wrong, the Prime Minister has been stripped of all her authority and most of her dignity, and public opinion appears to have settled on the idea that Conservatives are selfish and wicked. Is there any way back?

I rather think there is. More than that, slightly dependent on when it takes place, I would put good money on the Conservatives winning an outright majority at the next election. Why would I say that?

Well, in the first instance, this last election campaign had to be one of the most atrociously led and managed of any conducted by a major party since the war. To turn an opinion poll lead of over 20% into a hung parliament six weeks later takes a quite phenomenal level of incompetence. The fact that it began by focussing exclusively upon the personal qualities of the Prime Minister herself means that she has to bear much of the burden of blame. Yet what that also means is that she will not be allowed to lead the Conservatives into the next election, and it is therefore reasonable to expect that the outcome will be better for them.

Secondly, in the light of the popularity of the Labour manifesto’s commitments, and the opposite situation with the Conservative, we can anticipate that the policy platform proposed from the right will be both more coherent and more attractive than what was offered this time. Again, this can only help.

Third, there is a good chance that the recommendations of the boundary review commission will be implemented in the life-time of this new parliament, which would be worth around twenty seats or so, dependent on all sorts of assumptions (many of which, admittedly, were shown to be foolish by the last results).

More than all this, however, I suspect that the Conservative party will remember what it is that has made it (reputedly) the most successful political party in the Western world: that is, it will remember how to be ruthless in the pursuit of power. By this I don’t simply mean that our present Prime Minister is living on borrowed time. I mean that there will be a thorough investigation of what the Conservatives have done wrong and what Labour did right, and there will be shameless stealing of both programmes and methods as the Conservatives seek to entrench their hold on power.

What I would expect is that, in a few years time – once Theresa May has absorbed as much public hostility as possible and become our Lady of Sorrows – she is elegantly replaced by a leader who knows how to emote in public in an engaging way; someone who can use social media effectively; and someone who can sell whatever Brexit compromise has been reached by that point.

I suspect that whoever that person is will be a socially-liberal Tory. Since the seventies there has been an increasing tension within the Conservative party between the more traditional social conservatives with values that might be thought of as ‘country’ – call these the ‘Tories’ – and those who are more concerned with free-market economics, with values that might be thought of as being more financially focussed – for now, call these the ‘Conservatives’.

What Grenfell has crystallised, I believe, is a thorough rejection of ‘Conservative’ values in the sense just described. That is, in a society which well remembers billions of pounds being handed over to subsidise incompetent bankers and preserve their bonuses, voters simply will not believe that there is not enough money to pay for adequate housing for every member of this nation. Rather, arguing for the benefits of a private sector approach simply comes across as heartless and grasping, a ploy to preserve benefits for the elite whilst ignoring the plight of the poor. There is no future for that approach.

However, looking at the larger picture and the wider political movements (of which Brexit itself is a prominent part) there is clearly a place for a politics which emphasises the values of a community. Not an abstract community defined from above but the natural and organic sort of community that spontaneously develops amongst people of good will who live in close proximity to each other – that which has been seen most vividly in the streets of North Kensington as the community there has rallied around to support those who have lost their homes at Grenfell. Those sorts of values fall very naturally into the ‘Tory’ framework I mentioned above.

I said ‘socially liberal Tory above’, by which I simply mean someone who is comfortable with the main elements of the sexual revolution and gender equality as I can’t see any mainstream leader being successful if they try to go against those things. It would be best if such an acceptance was unquestionable, and could not be portrayed as a purely political gesture.

Does such a creature as a socially-liberal Tory exist, or is this just a product of fevered and wishful thinking? Well, this isn’t a prediction for her future career trajectory, but Ruth Davidson really does seem to tick most of these boxes… Watch that space.

Deal or no deal?

deal no deal
With all the language flying around about whether “‘no deal’ is in fact a bad deal. It is the worst of all deals” (Corbyn) or “no deal is better than a bad deal” (May) we need to be a little clearer about what is being discussed.

There is the existing acquis with the EU; this will come to an end at the end of March 2019.

After that, there are actually (at least) two distinct things that need to be done.

The first is the setting up of all the normal agreements that apply between sovereign states, as regards air transport for example. The second is what falls under the heading of a ‘free trade agreement’.

To be clear about the difference, consider that Canadian airlines happily flew to EU destinations prior to a free trade agreement being put into place last year.

Setting up the first sort of agreement will be a lot of work but need not provide any insuperable problems, so long as there is sufficient political will. After all, it is essentially about a re-branding exercise, rather than having to change what is presently happening. Setting up the second sort of agreement is much harder, for a free trade agreement is much, much more complicated.

Much of the doom-mongering about Brexit rests upon a conflation of these two agreements. So visions of air travel coming to a halt are based upon the notion that the first sort of agreement will not be implemented. I consider this quite a remote possibility – not impossible, just very unlikely. There will be dozens of civil servants on both sides whose sole job rests upon making sure that the world doesn’t come to an end in March 2017. I have every confidence that all the small details will be considered and an agreement signed.

With regard to a free trade agreement, I believe that the UK could *survive* without one, if need be, and I am philosophically inclined towards a more radical ‘unilateral free trade’ option, with some safeguards (eg to protect the NHS against predatory US health industries). Again, there could be a free trade agreement, as all the necessary elements are already in place – it’s a question of preserving something that already exists rather than creating something new out of nothing. However, I do remain sceptical that sufficient political will be generated in good time, so we do need to prepare for the hardest of Brexits. (Although, if in February 2019 Theresa May changes her mind and applies to join EFTA, I’m not sure what the EU could do to stop her!)

The reason why I used the word ‘survive’ above is because I am now much clearer about the costs that will come when we come out of the single market. Those costs will be real. However, they don’t make me regret supporting Brexit. I rather look towards where we shall be – as a sovereign state once again – in twenty, thirty, fifty years time. The EU will have gone through a ruinous time and may well not exist in that time frame, and even if it does, it will struggle with all sorts of financial and social catastrophes. We as a nation will be much better off outside that vortex rather than inside.

With a hard Brexit there will be five to ten years of significant economic pain (assuming the no-free-trade position remains). Those parts of our economy that have been most thoroughly integrated into the single market will bear the principal cost, and will be forced to adjust or die. Yet over the longer term, exposure to larger worldwide markets that are growing more quickly is a recipe for faster growth and more secure jobs.

This is the case that Theresa May needs to be making, rather than simple counter-productive sound-jibes against Jeremy Corbyn (whom I like). May has led an appalling campaign, revealing her own worst tendencies (that have been known about for some time). She needs to raise her game, and we as a nation need to raise our game. We are about to be launched from the side of a large passenger liner into choppy seas. Whether that liner is about to sink or not is no longer the most important question; rather, we need to steer a very clear course to ensure that we navigate our own waters successfully.

The tightrope we must walk

tightropeI write this article a few days after the latest terrorist atrocity in Manchester, and I wonder what is the right word to describe what has happened. Clearly there is a link between this barbarity and previous barbarities in Stockholm and Paris and Nice and Westminster and Florida and the rest. Should they be called ‘Islamic terrorist acts’? I would say that there is a lot of justification for doing so, for such acts draw upon a long tradition within Islamic thought going back to Muhammed himself.

To do so, would, however, open myself up to all sorts of problems that might make my main points irrelevant; or, if not irrelevant, at least unheard. For as soon as the word ‘Islamic’ is deployed in this context, then the clouds of politically-correct opprobrium descend, accusations of Islamophobia and fascism are made, and all rational considerations depart.

Yet this is also why the police force in Rotherham turned a blind eye to the systematic child abuse perpetrated by those of a particular community in that town. They were afraid of being called racist. As a result thousands of girls suffered horror. Perhaps the only courageous path is also the only honest path – we have to start using the most accurate language to describe the problems that we face. In Manchester, as with Westminster and all the other atrocities, what we face is a form of Islam.

How might we engage with and overcome such a problem? There is a tightrope here that we must walk across with great care.

The recent election in France, to my mind, portrayed the two sides of the tightrope, each one representing a fall into the abyss, two equal and opposite catastrophes. The first catastrophe is Macron, representing an unfettered globalism, where nation states are simply inefficiencies to be overcome by technocratic capitalism. Human beings, both individually and as persons bearing particular cultures, are simply resources to be deployed in the great march towards making more money. Such an approach is both dehumanising and ecocidal, a last flourish for the 1% before the deluge.

Yet Le Pen also offered a catastrophe, one of dehumanising nationalism coupled with a near-imbecilic economic policy. Human beings, when threatened, have a long-studied tendency to scapegoat others when confronted with challenges to their well-being and their world-view. When all that has been held sacred by a community is laid waste, and insult is added to such injury by the suppression of truthful discussion, then the subsequent anger seizes upon the closest available victims on which to vent their furies.

The Macron catastrophe leads to an abolition of meaning, where all are dehumanised in order to worship Mammon. The Le Pen catastrophe leads to a moral collapse, where all are dehumanised in order to worship a reactionary fantasy.

There is a tightrope to be walked between these two options, and we cannot walk upon that tightrope without an honest and truthful account of what is actually happening in our society.

Which means, to my mind, that we have to speak openly about several things. The first is that we have to say that there is a problem with the Islamic community. It does not affect the whole community but it does represent a significant part – a part which is convinced of the inferiority of Western ways of life, and the need to attack such ways using violence. There needs to be an honest conversation about the roots of such attitudes within broader Islamic patterns of thought. Without this discussion, without this ‘bringing to light things now hidden in darkness’, the control of this conversation simply passes to the most extreme voices, and that serves nobody’s best interests.

We also, however, need to talk honestly about the nations, about England and Britain, and about what it means to become a part of such a nation. Much of the contemporary secular mentality is premised on the notion that nations are, as such, obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of a better life. This doesn’t just apply to economics, where the expansion of ‘single markets’ reduces the role for national governments in order to maximise profits. Rather, the nation as a source of stability and identity, a focus for loyalty and thereby a ground for community cohesion, needs to be affirmed explicitly and confidently by the whole range of our leadership.

Lastly, we need to talk about religion. Most especially we need to understand the way in which discussion of religious issues in our society are bedevilled by our own peculiar history. We need to understand that our professed ‘enlightenment’ and release from traditional religious beliefs has served merely to blindfold and handcuff us in this present crisis. Without a coherent understanding of the role of religion within our national life, and most especially within the life of those who wish to destroy our culture, we will forever be compelled to robotically reiterate moronic mantras like ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’ and we shall suffer the inevitable consequences.

We are so much better than this. We need to avoid such politically correct platitudes that avoid addressing our crisis; we also need to avoid all forms of scapegoating and victimising that pretend to wash our hands of any role in what has gone wrong.

Rather we must engage forthrightly, honestly and courageously with our present predicaments, naming truthfully what is presently happening and yet not collapsing into a reactionary fantasy seeking a restoration of what has been.

We have a tightrope to walk. It is a tightrope made of truth, a tightrope that leads to a hopeful future for all who live in this land, where all give their active consent to a form of life that preserves the peace between all our communities, where we no longer fear to wake up to headlines announcing yet another slaughter of the innocents.

May our political leaders find their proper balance as they seek to carry us across the abyss.

Seeking an obedient via media

In the light of what is happening in Newcastle, I have started longing for a clearly articulated and authoritative Anglicanism – an obedient via media.

What I am thinking is that the con-evangelical position on the Bible is not sustainably Anglican (as it denies the present authority of the church) and the trad-catholic position on women in ministry is not sustainably Anglican (as it also denies the present authority of the church).

We won’t get anywhere until we understand what the authority of the church both is and is for.

If we believe – as I believe – that Christ granted authority to the church in many matters, and that the Church of England truly bears witness to the gospel (which is what clergy stand up and say in public before they get started in any ministry) then a key part of bearing witness to the gospel within the context of the Church of England involves offering due obedience to church authorities – on matters of interpretation of Scripture, the ordination of women, and indeed anything else that they may choose.

The situation in Jesmond could not be more egotistical if it tried. It is pride, with all that that implies, including the consequences both temporal and spiritual.

I rather think we need a restoration of classical Anglicanism. Hmm – where do I go to find that?

Living with illusions

juncker maySo Juncker has said of May that she is living within an illusion.

He may be right. It may well be that the British government has not yet fully appreciated the sheer technical difficulties involved in trying to remove ourselves from the EU whilst simultaneously trying to form a decent trade deal (decent for both sides).

And yet… I rather think that there are illusions on the EU side too, the largest being the very idea that a nation can flourish outside of the EU, that such a nation might be, not just politically and spiritually but materially better off – this cuts at the very heart of the EU’s raison d’etre.

What was it Mark Twain said about not being able to convince a man of something if he is paid not to believe it? And who pays Juncker?

Catholic order is now optional for the Church of England

By way of further thoughts…

Forward in Faith see a distinction between order and office. That is, someone can carry out (truly and legally) the office of a Bishop even if she is not – because cannot – be a member of the order of Bishops.

This means, at present, under the five guiding principles, the Church of England envisages Diocesan Bishops not sharing in the shared sacramental life of all their clergy.

I do not understand how the more Catholic members of the church can accept this.

Making Catholic order optional paves the way for lay presidency. It also radically undermines those for whom Catholic order is important but who accept the decision of the Church of England on women’s ministry.

There is, as Martyn Percy originally argued, no integrity here. It’s taken me a while to fully catch up with the implications of his argument. I don’t like what they are.

Yet another voice in my mind simply says ‘whatever’. Are we simply arguing over custody of a corpse?

We need to plan for the hardest Brexit

gib eu

So the EU have thrown the future of Gibraltar into the Brexit negotiations. What a googly (curve ball for readers from across the pond). I trust that the British government will not give any ground on Gibraltar’s sovereignty – how to revive UKIP in one easy move!

If there is a mutually satisfactory and fully agreed settlement between the EU and Britain within the next two years then I will see it as a contender for the greatest diplomatic triumph in human history. Theresa May would deserve any and all accolades that would come her way.

Which is another way of saying – this is very unlikely to happen. To agree a trade deal with the EU – who don’t have a good track record of agreeing free trade deals – alongside settlement of bills and agreements on defence co-operation and all the rest of it – and then to get that deal agreed in each of the 27 nations (including sub-nation elements like Wallonia) – and to get the substance agreed within the next 18 months (so that there is time to get it legally ratified before the deadline kicks in) – I can’t see it happening.

Which means we need to start actively planning and preparing to shift to trading with the EU on the basis of WTO rules (which is what the United States does, for example).

This doesn’t actually worry me. I see this as being a much greater shock in the short-term, but probably much better for our national future, and economy, in the long term. Let’s get on with agreeing trade deals with the Anglophone community, India and Africa – there’s a very big world out there that we can now start playing in.

It will also add to the pile of burdens on the existing EU. Will it cause a final collapse? Probably not – but at some point there will be a straw added to the camel’s back. Britain is, at least, getting a head start on learning to live without the EU which will hold us in good stead and help us help other nations pick up the pieces when the collapse comes.

Let my people go

There are three theological concepts which hold together indissolubly from an Anglo-Catholic point of view. The first is the incarnation, in which human flesh became divine. The second is the sacramental life, in which creatures of bread and wine become bearers of the divine. The third is social justice, in which we commit ourselves to work for the revealing of the divine in the human.

These are all aspects of what it means to talk about the Body of Christ – Jesus, the host, the church as a whole – working in the world.

For the Anglo-Catholic, the way in which we gain some assurance on these things is by talking about proper order within the church – so, valid ordination of priests for example, and also a prohibition on lay presidency. These things are not abstract and arcane, however much they may appear to be so to outsiders. Rather, an acceptance of proper order is how those three theological concepts are given practical effect – right doctrine, right worship, right behaviour.

What is increasingly concerning me is that this entire understanding of the faith has been quietly set aside in order to pursue unity between different factions of our church. Sadly, the political compromise that has been reached – the five guiding principles – destroys this understanding not simply for those who are opposed to women’s ministry, but for those who support it.

The Church of England, as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church has, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the authority to ordain priests. The Roman Catholic church, for one, denies that the Church of England has such authority which is why I (and many others) could never become Roman Catholics – to do so would mean accepting that the sacraments that we have celebrated have not had validity. I cannot fathom the internal anguish that would enable a priest to accept such a verdict.

At the moment the Church of England is processing questions about women’s ordination and consecration. I believe that the Church of England has authority to make a decision in these matters. That is, when the Church of England says that women can be priests, and puts that decision into effect, it is acting in a way that does not jeopardise proper order. Women priests ordained after such a decision are validly ordained and so on.

There are those within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion who disagree with this, for various reasons, including questions of proper order. However, those who do not believe that the Church of England has authority to make this decision are committed to an alternative path of church order. We have seen the implications of this with regard to Philip North’s prospective ministry in Sheffield. A crucial question has been whether, as a Diocesan Bishop, Philip North could accept the ministry of women priests in the Sheffield Diocese (and by ‘accept’ I mean be sacramentally efficacious, ie act within the ‘proper order’ outlined above).

I do not see how this is possible. That is, I do not see how a Diocesan who rejects the authority of the Church of England on this question can then exercise a Diocesan ministry within that same Church. This is, of course, the point that Martyn Percy has made so forcibly. I am starting to believe that the only way forward for those who reject the decision made by the Church of England on this matter is to walk separately in some way – more on this below.

The House of Bishops has been concerned to prevent such a separation, in order to preserve some form of unity. I have my suspicions that this is driven by several unholy reasons as well as – or possibly instead of – the more respectable desire for unity. I am quite certain that there are elements within the House of Bishops which are simply playing a long game and hoping for the Forward in Faith group to die out.

Yet my concern now is as much for those who take an Anglo-Catholic perspective who have accepted (on good Anglo-Catholic grounds) the authority of the Church on this question, and who choose to remain. The political compromise of the five Guiding Principles does not just place Forward in Faith into an impossible position; it also undermines those Anglo-Catholics who remain. It does this because it does not take sacramental life seriously. This is why I believe that it paves the way for lay presidency at some point in the future. If the proper order of the church can be set aside in this situation, if it becomes simply another part of the political negotiations, then from an Anglo-Catholic perspective that proper order no longer exists. It can only exist if it is taken as of the essence of the church; that is, where it is absent, there the apostolic church has also been removed.

(This is not to put boundaries around God’s grace, or even to say that this is the wrong development – it is simply to say that, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, it is impossible to hold on to proper order whilst at the same time accepting the five Guiding Principles. They contradict each other.)

The House of Bishops has become a house of low virtue, possibly because it has become animated by a fear of death in the form of numerical decline and financial ruin. I do not believe that the five Guiding Principles can in any way provide a way forward for the church. What is most important is that the House begins to cultivate some stronger virtues.

The first one is simply honour. Beneath all the theological gloss we need to accept that this has been a long and bruising political fight and as with all genuine fights there are winners and losers. What is essential now is for the victors to act with honour and magnanimity, and not succumb to a desire to force ‘scorched earth’ upon those who have lost the debate.

This could take the form of a generous dispensation for those who are opposed, not in the form of individual payments to individual clergy that object (how we have fallen for that modern idolatry!) but rather that the Church of England should divest itself of those parishes and properties associated with Forward in Faith; that is, to recognise that in this divorce, some of the marital assets belong to each partner.

The Church of England has too many churches and following an honourable path might allow for two things to happen – far friendlier relations with those who would then leave, who would not then see themselves in a fight to the death with those who simply wish to exterminate them, and also an opening for the Gamaliel principle to operate – that is, if the rejection of women’s ordained and consecrated ministry is against the will of God, then time will tell.

In order for this to work, the second virtue that the House needs to cultivate is honesty. Bishops need to be set free to speak clearly and openly and honestly with each other and with the wider church over which they exercise oversight. The burial of dissent has led simply to monstrosities and we need to bring things out into the open. Most especially the integrity of the church as a decision making body has been embarrassingly compromised and the church has brought itself into disrepute. We need to remove the bandage from the infected wound in order to properly cleanse it and heal.

The third virtue is humility. The Church of England as such is not an eternal institution. It had a particular worldly birth and it may yet have a particular worldly death. It may well be that this process of divestment is how the Church of England should come to an end – setting out many different lifeboats and leaving behind a sinking shell for the state to continue to manage.

If this happens, the chances are that the conservative evangelicals may well follow Forward in Faith out of the door. After all, what trust can they possibly have in the processes of the Church of England now, especially with one eye towards the ongoing argument around equal marriage?

The truth is that there are many different Anglicanisms that are presently sharing the structure of the inherited, established church. Is there anything which binds them together beyond institutional inertia, is there any place of theological integrity, congruent with our inheritance, on which we might all stand? I rather hope that there is such a place, and the the house of Anglicanism can keep many rooms. I have learnt a great deal from those whose expression of faith is not Anglo-Catholic, and I remain of the view that there is a distinct vocation for the Anglican theological vision.

Yet in order to find out what binds us together it is imperative that we cast out the spirit of timidity from the House of Bishops. In this as in so many other areas we act like a vessel that has been holed below the waterline but the officers on deck act like a people who do not know how we have been struck – let alone what to do about it! I reiterate that in making these criticisms of the House of Bishops I am not criticising particular individuals but rather the culture has embedded itself within it – it is a fallen principality that stands in need of redemption.

We need to recognise that unity as such can become a false idol, and that it can become opposed to the truth that sets us free. We need to risk dying, for only by doing so might we also be born again – and renewed to preach the gospel effectively in this time and in this nation.