The nature of our Brexit

The quirks of editorial deadlines mean that I write this article just two days after Theresa May has forged enough of an consensus with the EU to enable talks about an eventual trade agreement.

I’m mostly extremely happy about what Theresa May has agreed. The financial settlement is the first element, which might end up being around £40bn spread over several years. Given the scale of our contributions to the EU, and the amount that will actually be reimbursed back to us (our rebate is going to continue) this amounts to a net transfer of around two years worth of our prior EU member state contributions. So not a lot in the overall scheme of things. This will then end, at which point we are free of all financial obligations and in a position to enjoy something of a windfall. Excellent.

The second element is about citizenship. It always seemed to me transparently obvious that both sides have an interest in a civilised settlement that preserves all the accrued rights enjoyed by our respective citizens, and that seems to have been accomplished. Again, ongoing recourse to the ECJ is time-limited and will cease after eight years. So: also excellent.

The third element, which has risen in both prominence and political temperature, relates to the Irish border. Any eventual solution will have to be integrated into whatever trading agreement is eventually adopted – there is no way of answering the border question separately. I’m glad that the talks were not fully derailed by this issue but I also have a strong suspicion that the Irish Taoiseach has overreached himself.

Although it was Arlene Foster’s phone call that disrupted Mrs May’s planned announcement of a deal – leading to a week of frantic diplomacy – the essential Unionist point, that there can be no internal barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, is widely accepted. This simply had to be spelled out in extremely clear terms, hence the reiteration in the text of the agreement that the UK as a whole is leaving the EU’s internal market (‘single market’) and the customs union, and that there will be no .

However, in order to get this agreed, there was also inserted into the agreement a text that will continue to cause problems between now and March 2019. The crucial paragraph in the text is this one: “The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

In essence, Mrs May’s strategy with respect to Ireland is to aim for a wider EU-UK trade agreement that solves the border problem itself. If that isn’t possible then she has agreed to seek ‘specific solutions’ to the border problem, which will be some form of technological and pragmatic compromise.

The kicker comes with the third option, which is what Mrs May has agreed to (in principle – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed). In the absence of a wider EU-UK deal which solves things, or a technological solution, then the UK as a whole is committing itself to ‘full alignment’ with the regulatory system of the EU.

This is a potential disaster, and not something that any Leaver could willingly countenance. Full alignment for the UK would mean that we would track the EU’s internal market regulations without having any say in how they are developed. This is a worse situation than we are in at the moment. Tactically, for the negotiations, it gives the EU an incentive to be uncompromising on the question of the border, as they would benefit from the UK remaining aligned. Strategically it compromises all the most exciting elements of Brexit, involving the pursuit of free trade deals with other countries around the world.

So I see this element as the most problematic. However, I recognise that giving this concession was pragmatically necessary, as it has allowed the movement through to trade discussions. I would see two priorities for the UK negotiators over the coming year. The first is that any trade agreement has to include services, which maintains the existing recognition of UK institutions by the EU. I am hopeful that this will be included as it is in the EU’s interest as a whole, even if not in the interests of all members of the EU, such as those cities like Frankfurt and Paris which seek to take some business away from the city. The second is that the UK needs to be set free to negotiate trade deals for itself from March 2019, even if such deals cannot take effect until the end of the transition period.

I am extremely keen that we move quickly to have an effective CANZUK agreement; that is, a open trading system between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. We have so much in common already – a shared head of state, a shared language, a shared common law tradition, alongside all of our shared history and familial connections. I would give this the highest priority – certainly higher than an agreement with the United States, attractive though that would be.

On the whole, I think that Mrs May has done rather a good job, certainly enough to ensure that she stays in post until this process is complete. There is still a very long way to go, but I am now much more confident than I was that there will be an eventual free trade agreement with the EU, and that our exit from that structure will be well managed.

On hoping that the Conservatives might become more conservative

I_Daniel_Blake_Photo
I recently watched, and greatly enjoyed, the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. This is a deeply moving portrait of a good man crushed by an inhumane and incomprehensible system. It might seem strange that a conservative is so sympathetic to such a classically socialist visionary as Loach – but that is because conservatism is generally greatly misunderstood, not least by the Conservative party itself!

To be a conservative is to be concerned above all with the husbanding of resources. I prefer that phrase to one that means something very similar – ‘the preservation of capital’ – because it is not only a more traditional expression, it is also one that is less likely to trigger premature associations with the word capitalism, with all the things that go with it.

The resources that need to be husbanded fall into four principal areas.

The first is economic, that is, all the various forms of financial wealth and property that our society values. This form is most easily associated with a conservative point of view, and runs alongside a respect for the rule of law and a high regard for private property and the rights associated with it. This approach, when taken to an extreme, shades into forms of libertarianism, whereby the state is only deployed in order to ensure the rule of law and such other elements as are essential to the continuity of the rule of law (such as the police and the armed forces). Libertarianism and conservatism are not the same, principally because conservatism also values three more forms of resource.

The second resource which conservatives seek to husband is ecological. Under this heading would come all the shared physical goods that a community enjoys that aren’t owned privately (or that only have private consequences). Much that comes under the heading of ‘green concerns’ has a natural connection with this area of conservatism, that is, everything which seeks to conserve our natural environment and preserve it in good repair. So a bias against pollution, a recognition of the need to preserve clean air and water, the preservation of species and biodiversity, all of this and more is conservative.

A third resource is social, and my favourite way to think of this form of resource is to think of Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’. These are all the ways in which human beings gather in order to seek mutual enrichment, and together these make up the very real and important human good which is called society. Under this heading would come things like the MICA centre, or the Lions, or Blindspot – activities and organisations and institutions which bind people together with mutual support. Much of what makes human life worth living falls into this section.

The last resource is human; that is, individual human beings, in all their glory and potential. Things like health care and education are important not principally because it keeps the economic wheels turning but rather because they enable individual human beings to thrive.

In the conservative vision, all of these forms of resource can be husbanded harmoniously together – so the preservation of our natural environment enables human beings to thrive and contribute to the social organisations which strengthen mutual trust and thereby ease the commercial endeavours that enable our prosperity – which then helps to pay for better care of the natural environment and so on. In a healthy society these things all work together in a virtuous circle, each one reinforcing the other.

Given this, how has Conservatism come to be seen as ‘nasty’ and uncaring? In many ways – as portrayed in the Loach film – the consequences of Conservative policies have indeed been despicable, but that is because they have been deeply anti-conservative, and have manifestly failed to husband the sorts of resources that I have described above.

I understand this through the use of my estate agent metaphor. I mean no offence to estate agents in using this (the estate agents I have had to deal with have always been very civilised people) but merely to bring home a clear distinction. If you sell your home then you are also letting go of a place which contains all sorts of sentimental attachments, memories and meanings. None of these are relevant to the price that an estate agent will place upon the property, for they are not relevant to the person who will be purchasing it.

In the same way, the problem with so much Conservative policy in the last few decades has been an over-emphasis upon the first form of resource described – financial – at the expense of all the others. The Conservative party was taken over by cynics who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing – or at least, not the value of the other three forms of resource described above. One tragedy of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was that ‘One nation’ conservatism became identified with a ‘wet’ economic perspective. I rather suspect that if the Conservative party is to regain its strength and morale that it will need a strong voice that is both deeply ‘dry’ and strongly ‘one nation’.

At the heart of a properly conservative outlook, then, is a particular vision of what it means for human beings to flourish – human beings that are situated in a particular place at a particular time within a particular society – and a recognition that such flourishing can only take place when all the resources that enable that flourishing are husbanded properly.

The tragedy of Daniel Blake was that he was caught up in a system that did not recognise the human and social resource that he was; he was not valued and the rejection killed him. A naturally conservative response to such a situation would be to call for a universal basic income – in order to properly value, nurture and affirm all the human beings in our society. To not do so is to conduct our common life in the manner of a transactional estate agent – such an approach might be Conservative, but it is a long way from being conservative. It doesn’t simply fail, it deserves to fail.

Men are made of flesh

men womenIf you take the food bowl away from your dog once it has started eating, it will probably resist. It might even bite. Sane dog owners recognise that to do such a thing is not just stupid, it’s cruel.

Imagine a conscientious vegetarian – someone who has always enjoyed red meat but who has become convinced by the moral arguments that killing animals for sustenance cannot be right. Now imagine someone that knows this person well sitting down in front of them with a perfectly prepared steak. I would imagine the vegetarian would not bite, but it would still be a potentially cruel and insensitive thing to do.

So what of men, who have distinct bodily appetites, and in the best of whom there is a wrestling with those appetites in order to function well in society and generally be a blessing to women not a curse?

In a perfect world all men would be in such control of their appetites and drives that women could say or do whatever they wished without risk of any adverse consequences of the relevant sort. That especially applies to what is worn.

However, we do not live in such a perfect world. We men are simple creatures of flesh and blood, and will therefore tend to react in certain very obvious and understandable ways when our buttons are pressed.

As with the dog food and the vegetarian, this can sometimes be manipulated for cruel purposes.

For my part, I actually think that Mike Pence has a good point. In the context of an increased awareness of safeguarding issues, this sort of chaperoning is clearly the way forward. More than this, I suspect that the medium-term answer – that is, for so long as men struggle with their own sinful desires – is to segregate sinful men from all possible temptations. We need a return to male-only spaces, within which men can do their work without any risks to women.

First they came for the white man

Many will be familiar with the message shared by Martin Niemoller, a German Pastor who spent seven years imprisoned by the Nazis:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller’s point is a profound one. If we allow a society to develop which victimises a particular class of people, then a dynamic is established which will end in our own destruction. A system that requires sacrifices and scapegoats will slowly work its way threw a list. In the Nazi society, the scapegoats were principally the Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals and handicapped. We now view such a society with utter horror. Yet have we gone too far in the other direction?

Consider briefly the story of James Damore, a former employee of the internet company Google. Google is officially committed to diversity and inclusion, that is, they are concerned to ensure that they are not prejudiced in how they recruit people to work for them. There has been discussion within the company as to why, despite their best efforts, the ratio of male to female amongst their employees was heavily skewed towards men.

Damore wrote a memo drawing on research in the human sciences which indicates that there are significant differences between men and women. These show up not just in terms of intellectual capacity for certain tasks, but also in terms of interests. Damore argued that whilst there were things that could be done by Google to make it a more welcoming environment for women, there may be certain innate constraints that would mean Google would never gain a perfectly balanced ratio of male and female employees – and that this was OK. He called for a conversation around these topics.

For this, Damore was fired from his post.

To my mind, this story sounds like a description of a witch-hunt. The modern gods of diversity and inclusion were offended, and so the source of the heresies needed to be hunted out and expelled from the community. Doubtless there are now many employees of Google enjoying warm fuzzy feelings of self-righteousness – “we’re the good guys”!

What happens when perfectly calm and rational debate is silenced in this way? As Tyrion Lannister put it, “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” Acting in this way simply gives fuel to those who are much less calm and rational, such as those who recently gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to march for ‘white supremacy’. Whenever I see such a situation I am reminded of the words of Kahlil Gibran, “for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters”.

James Damore is a white man, and that means he is – to use the contemporary jargon – writing from a position of utmost privilege, and as a consequence his words do not need to be considered on their own merits. When there is a struggle for power within a community the different tribes within that community will use all sorts of ways to signal their membership of one tribe or another, and that signalling will serve for the deployment of various sorts of power.

So, James Damore, who is both white and a man (two strikes against him) articulates views that threaten to disrupt the pursuit of what are seen as the highest goods (diversity and inclusion) and is thus deprived of his employment.

The pursuit of diversity and inclusion, what might be thought of as a programme of ‘anti-Nazism’, or a Niemoller manifesto – include those who were excluded! – is now embarked upon the same path as Nazism itself. It has found a scapegoat to embody all that is evil, and will work with all the forms of power available to it in order to victimise and expel that evil. The evil, of course, is the white man.

The challenge is not simply to avoid the manifest evils of Nazism but to engage much more radically in interrogating the human desires which gave rise to such evil. Without this, one form of Nazism (white race is all good!) is simply replaced by its inverse and equal (white race is all bad!). We need to shift away from thinking of human beings as members of categories at all.

What I have in mind is Martin Luther King’s vision of people being judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. Whenever we treat a person as a member of a category we go wrong. That category can be anything we choose – black or white, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight or otherwise engaged – but when we treat a person simply as a member of a class, rather than treating them as a unique individual with their own identity and character – then we are on the dark road that leads to the industrial elimination of that class.

We have to be more creative, honest and open in our search for improving our world, and not rely upon the lazy virtue signalling of the politically correct establishment.

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.

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?

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.

The dilemma facing British Muslims after Westminster

isis barbarity
I write these words the day after the horrific terrorist atrocity in Westminster. Khalid Masood was a person who subscribed to a militant form of Islamic thought. As such, the attack on the civilians walking along Westminster Bridge fits with the pattern of other recent ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ in Berlin and Nice.

The British Council of Muslims released a statement saying “We are shocked and saddened by the incident at Westminster. We condemn this attack and while it is still too early to speculate on the motives, our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and those affected. We pay tribute too to the police and emergency services who handled this with bravery. The Palace of Westminster is the centre of our democracy and we must all ensure that it continues to serve our country and its people with safety and security.” The head of the Council, Harun Khan, said: “This attack was cowardly and depraved. There is no justification for this act whatsoever.”

There are no grounds for doubting the sincerity of these words. From the earliest times of Islamic military conquest there have been clear guidelines prohibiting the use of force against non-combatants. The companion of Mohammed and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, taught the Muslim army “You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man.”

Even more than this, surprise attacks – which the attack in Westminster certainly was – are explicitly forbidden. Does this mean, then, that we can share in the liberal consensus as articulated by Western leaders like George W Bush and trust that Islam is a religion of peace? That those who commit ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ simply do not understand what it is that they are claiming to protect?

I believe that the situation is more complex than this and that British Muslims are slowly being impaled upon a painful dilemma.

In August 1996, Osama bin Laden was careful to issue a declaration of war against the United States, which was published in the London newspaper Al Quds al Arabi; bin Laden knew his theology! This fatwa (religious proclamation) can be seen as initiating our present experience of ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’. It was followed two years later by a further fatwa issued by bin Laden and co-signed by several others, amplifying and expanding the declaration of war, and including the following sentence: “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…”

Given that bin Laden was scrupulously trying to keep to Islamic law and theology, how could he come up with such a conclusion? His answer, when pressed on this, was to say that killing of innocent lives was legitimate if it was understood as retaliation for the killing of innocents by the United States. The Koran is quite clear that proportionate retaliation is fully acceptable, surah 2.178 stating “O believers! retaliation for bloodshedding is prescribed to you: the free man for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the woman for the woman”.

There is therefore a debate within Islam about whether bin Laden and those who have followed in his footsteps are in fact theologically justified to apply the rule of retaliation to the question of murdering innocent civilians. It is surely beyond dispute that the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom) have been killing innocent people across the Middle East, most recently through the extensive use of drones. Where this situation obtains, what is the response of a faithful Muslim to be?

Some Muslims believe that bin Laden is not justified in applying the rule of retaliation in this situation, some do. Within Britain, according to the most thorough recent survey (ICM for Channel 4, April-May 2015) some 4% of British Muslims believe that it is acceptable to use terrorism for political ends, including suicide bombing. This works out to around 100,000 people.

Khalid Masood was one of them.

The dilemma that British Muslims face is that the theological debate is not some abstract matter without practical consequence; rather it is one that will govern their relationship with the wider British society. Moreover, the need for that community to make a very clear decision and act on it will only become stronger over time, as more and more terrorist atrocities take place.

When the ICM poll results were announced, Trevor Phillips, former head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, wrote this: “There is a life-and-death struggle for the soul of British Islam — and this is not a battle that the rest of us can afford to sit out. We need to take sides… There is one truly terrifying finding [of the ICM poll]. Muslims who have separatist views about how they want to live in Britain are far more likely to support terrorism than those who do not. And there are far too many of the former for us to feel that we can gradually defeat the threat… Muslims want to be part of Britain — but many do not accept the values and behaviors that make Britain what it is; they believe that Islam offers a better future. And a small number feel that these sincerely held beliefs justify attempts to destroy our democracy. Britain’s liberal Muslims are crying out for this challenge to be confronted. The complacency we’ve displayed so far is leaving them to fight alone, and putting our society in danger. We cannot continue to sit on the fence in the hope that the problem will go away.”

If we wish to fully address the problem of our home-grown terrorism we need to be much more robust in the assertion of our values. That will mean saying that some values are better than others, and therefore some belief systems – those systems through which values are taught and embodied – are better than others. We cannot combat terrorism without a vigorous reassertion of our own inherited beliefs and values. Ultimately, that means Christianity. It is a sign of the painful nature of the dilemma facing British Muslims that the peaceful majority will only be able to root out the violent minority if the wider community becomes much more devoted to a non-Islamic faith.