When Blue Labour Met the Fabians

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As this blog has mentioned before, the Blue Labour movement is attracting more attention and, inevitably, closer examination.  Tim Horton, Research Director at the Fabian Society, met with Maurice Glasman to debate the currently competing strands of thought in the party and to defend the Fabian record against Glasman’s localist critique.

From a Fabian perspective, I’d agree with Blue Labour and others that rethinking the role of the state should be an important part of Labour’s policy review process. A self-critical party must develop an account of where the state over-reached itself as well as where Labour neglected important non-state vehicles for social justice. And of course there are big future challenges to the role of the state that social democrats must take their heads out of the sand and start to confront.

AV and the Big Society: The Dangers of Introspection

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The entrails of the opposing campaigns for the AV referendum last week will be pored over for weeks to come.  The result was a crushing defeat of AV by a margin of almost 2:1.  The cause of electoral reform has been kicked into the long grass, although some surprising dissenting voices to that thesis are worth hearing.

Already criticism is turning to the failure of the YES campaign to engage the electorate.  The failure which stands out for particular consideration is a question of realism.  Liberal Vision is particularly insightful:

The YES campaign was eminently winnable. But it ended up being run by readers of the Guardian for readers of the Guardian … From the outset, the YES campaign was all about the tiny coterie of people who feel strongly about electoral reform.

The point made in the article is that those leading the campaign addressed it to people like themselves.  The often self-congratulatory tone of the campaign material seemed directed more at cheering on existing supporters than seeking new ones.  Prominent people backing the campaign – including a disproportionate number of actors and celebrities who don’t necessarily bring credibility to a campaign – appealed to voters who were already inclined to vote YES.  There was little serious effort to appeal beyond an existing constituency.  As the result proved, that constituency (despite claims ad nauseum that there is a latent ‘progressive majority’ in Britain) was no way near big enough to win the referendum.

The Bible and Politics

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Nick Spencer from public theology think-tank Theos has written a new book to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible entitled Freedom and Order: History Politics and the English Bible.  It discusses the relationship over history between politics and English politics.

Over on the Theos website, Nick Spencer has sparked some thoughts on tolerance connected with the book which are worth a read.

And on the Biblefresh website can be found an article exploring the Bible’s contribution to politics in Britain.

Cameron: Jesus founded the Big Society

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The Church Times has reported that David Cameron used an Easter reception at Downing Street to welcome the role of Christian organisations in building the Big Society.

Describing himself as a “wishy-washy sort of Christian” he nevertheless spoke of the need for committed involvement of Christian groups in public and civic life.  He said:

“You’ll all say that our Lord was really dealing with, starting, the Big Society two thousand years ago, and you’re absolutely right. I’m not saying we’ve invented some great new idea here.

“What I’m saying is that one of the best things about our country is that people step forward as individuals, as families, as communities, as organisations, as churches, and do extraordinary things in our country in terms of helping others and helping to build a bigger, richer, more prosperous, more generous society; and all I’m saying is wouldn’t it be great if we did even more of that.”

Yet the question which most politically aware Christians are concerned with is not whether their role in “helping others” is welcome or not.  The sheer number of services provided in this country by Christians – both through explicitly Christian organisations, or as private individuals motivated by Christ’s teachings – is staggering.  The question is whether the Church might be allowed to engage in public life as more than a service provider.

On this, the Prime Minister had even more encouraging words:

“I’ve never really understood this argument about ‘Should the Church get involved in politics? Yes or no?’ To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church, is involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions. . .

“So I don’t think we should be frightened about having these debates, and these discussions, and frankly sometimes these arguments about politics in our country and what it means to be a Christian and what faith brings to our politics.”

As some commentators have pointed out, however, it is not clear that we have a sufficiently robust public discourse to allow these arguments.  The fear of appearing sectarian too often means Christians fall for the secularist line that we can only speak to each other in politics through an apparently ‘neutral’ common language.  (You could write at length about this topic here, and others have done so elsewhere.)  Yet language which seeks to be neutral necessarily avoids speaking about the things we feel most ardently about and, therefore, the things which matter most to us.  Values are thrust out of the public square.

This is really a topic for a future blog post (watch this space), but it does shine an interesting light on the PM.  Those who sought to dismiss David Cameron as nothing but a PR man appear to have misread his character.  Of course, his comments might be pandering to an audience.  But they don’t feel like words spoken from a script.  There seems to be a deeper reflection on morality and public life going on here.  The question is whether his words will remain verabl encouragement, or be translated into something more tangible as the Coalition’s policies shaping the Big Society gradually become law.

Demos Launch The Character Inquiry

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Next week on 10th May 2011, the think tank Demos are launching a new pamphlet entitled The Character Inquiry.  This new pamphlet draws together emerging research on how character is formed and developed and explores possible implications of this for public policy.

The launch will be chaired by Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and places can be reserved by emailing  You can find out more about the event on the Demos website.

Bretherton on Blue Labour

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Luke Bretherton, a Fellow of the Contextual Theology Centre, has written an article exploring how Blue Labour welcomes religious belief.  He writes:

The demos is not an ochlos, or crowd, in which each does their own bidding; it is a body of people undertaking common action in pursuit of shared goods. And the only real power democratic citizens have is the power of association or relational power: the ability to turn out and act together. Yet people will only act together on the basis of what they hold dear, what gives them a sense of belonging and that in which they discover purpose and meaning.

It does not, of course, automatically follow that religious affiliation is the only form of association which can provide the basis of common action.  But it is clearly for many in society, still, a place of purpose and belonging.  As such it can provide a powerful ground for action, and a deep source of mutual solidarity.

Unique interfaith event on Scripture & money

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Leading Muslims, Jews and Christians will meet tomorrow to compare the texts of their holy books on money and justice. In a unique event, 150 scholars and community leaders will gather at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster to use the method of ‘scriptural reasoning’ – discussing what their scriptures teach on issues such as the charging of excessive interest on loans and a just wage.

Participants in the event, which forms part of Citizens UK’s 2nd May “Day for Civil Society”, will afterwards join more than 2,000 people in the Hall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Living Wage campaign.

The Scriptural Reasoning event is being organised in association with the Contextual Theology Centre (CTC) and Cambridge University’s Interfaith Programme.  CTC Director Fr Angus Ritchie said:  “The deeper Christians, Muslims and Jews go within their scriptures, the louder they hear the call to justice and mercy. These texts have incredible power and relevance today. They are the foundation of our action for a more just and compassionate economy.”

Dr Muhammad Bari, Chair of East London Mosque said: “This unique event of reading from the scriptures is a testimony of our common root and shared values. In Islam ‘the best of companions with God is the one who is best to his companions and the best of neighbours to God is the one who is the best of them to his neighbour.”

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Rabbi of New North London Synagogue, said: “In a week when we read from the Torah that you shall love your neighbour as yourself it is especially important to be together among our neighbours of different faiths in London discussing our shared values.”

The Recession and Generation Y

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Frog Orr-Ewing of the Millenials Think Tank and Latimer Minster project has written an intriguing article exploring the impact of the recent recession on ‘Generation Y’. Published on their blog, it is entitled The Psychology of Recession & Big Society.

In it, he focuses on the “negative psycho-social effects of recession” which include the feelings of social rejection which come from failing to secure employment.  The problem of deferred and dashed hopes among the younger generation is complex.  It is not simply a story of betrayal but, as Frog rightly points out, also a question of over-inflated and sometimes unrealistic expectations.

The risk being run is mass disengagement.  Frog sums up the problem like this:

The double whammy of recession depression and hope deferred, means that the very individuals who have a lifetime ahead of them and who need to be harnessed effectively to create an economically and socially robust future, are those who feel like they have been saddled with the social and economic ills created by the irresponsibility of the generation above their heads, and have had their perceived contract with society broken.  It is perceived (however incorrectly) almost as if a company who has fired you is asking for your help, or parents who have thrown you out of the home are asking you to pay rent.

The implication of course is that young people who feel betrayed by society are unlikely to want to contribute to it.  There is a certain logic to this position and the Millennials Think Tank are right to flag up the issue.  Yet to do so does beg a number of deeper questions.  Of these the most important is whether a contract is really the best way of describing society?

Perhaps as a descriptive term it is appropriate.  People certainly seem to believe that if they put something in they should get something back.  “But that is what I pay my taxes for”, is a common refrain when complaining about a service not being supplied as expected or desired.  It is preferable, of course, if they get back more than they put in.  Such is the result of politicians promising ever greater returns on an ever smaller investment (the age-old problem in the UK of wanting Scandinavian social services on American taxation levels).

This seems to be the attitude that Frog identifies as affecting young people.  They feel in the midst of a recession that too much is being asked of them.  This feels particularly acute when set against the apparently comfortable existence of the majority of baby-boomers; an argument set out in detail by David Willetts MP and the authors of Jilted Generation.

The challenge, though, is not simply to try and resolve the dilemma of unmet expectations within the existing framework of contractural social relationships.  It is to explore whether other modes of social interaction might be better suited to confronting the problems facing us.

In his excellent article exploring the Big Society, Luke Bretherton argues that a good citizen is not best thought of as a volunteer but as a vow keeper.  Voluntarism, after all, maintains power differentials and builds no relational strength.  Instead, Bretherton argues that the qualities needed among a healthy society are reciprocity, mutuality, and solidarity.  These are the values which should underpin the Big Society.  They offer more chance of success than mere voluntarism because they involve sharing each other’s lives; that requires a much deeper sense of mutual respect than rattling a collection tin or handing out blankets to homeless folk ever could.

Frog suggests that a “fresh social contract needs to be published for the next generation”.  It is certainly true that we need to reimagine what is expected of our young people, and we certainly need to face up to some of their unmet aspirations.  Yet the foundation for doing so may need to be stronger, and deeper, than a contract.  Perhaps it is instead a new covenant of mutual social commitment that is needed.

And if anything has the resources to help us think about what a social covenant might be and how it might differ to a contract, it is going to be religious belief.

Film on Nehemiah 5 Challenge

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Leaders from our Pentecostal partner churches explain the Nehemiah 5 Challenge – a Biblical call to action against exploitative lending – in a film directed and produced by Jellicoe intern Liliana Worth.

The Nehemiah 5 Challenge will be launched by Citizens UK at a service on May 2nd at Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Westminster at 10.30am – before a 2000-person assembly in Methodist Central Hall. This is part of Citizens UK’s Day for Civil Society.

The Contextual Theology Centre has further materials for congregations in Citizens UK on a new website –  These include a booklet on The Bible, Debt and Usury by Dr Sola Fola-Alade (Trinity Chapel, Beckton) and Centre Director Dr Angus Ritchie – and a briefing on Christian teaching on usury by Centre Fellow Dr Luke Bretherton.

Andrew Brown: Behind the Burqa Ban’s Reasoning

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Andrew Brown has posted a characteristically balanced and intelligent article on the Guardian website about the ban on women wearing the burqa or niqab in public just introduced in France.

He is caustic in his argument that the ban is not about free speech as such, but about the state’s right to make and promote value judgements:

This seems to me to be less about speech than about beliefs: it implies a claim that French citizens believe – or at least live as if they believed – in particular values. Is that something that a state can legitimately ask? The question is idiotic. It is something that all states do, in fact, demand. In the case of France, there is a well worked-out set of principles to which all citizens are expected to subscribe. This is more than Charles de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France“: it is a particular idea of being French. Values and people cannot be disentangled. A state that is grounded on particular values demands that its citizens live by them, too.

Though this remark evokes a fair degree of chagrin in the comments section following his article, Andrew Brown’s argument has a touch of the Emperor’s new clothes about it.  It is incredibly hard to sustain a convincing argument that the state can be genuinely neutral. Indeed, Britain may not be the ‘Christian’ society it once was but it remains heavily value-laden. Laws against discrimination – especially when some rights are decided to trump others – or the expression of hatred, for example, clearly express values.

Yet acknowledging that our society remains underpinned by values – however opaque – is an uncomfortable truth for many to hear when set alongside the liberal mantra of free choice. It is a truth which exposes those values to scrutiny. That is not to say they are necessarily wrong, but it does caution us to not see them as immutable.

This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of social cohesion. If we lose sight of the values underpinning the state and therefore stop articulating, justifying and defending them, then we should not be surprised when people ‘turn off’ from politics.  As Andrew rightly observes, a state that rules by force alone is tyranny.

A constant refrain among critics of the current government is that people did not vote for them. That may be true, but it exposes an ignorance of how a plural democracy is supposed to work. Competitive electoral systems like ours often have a fragmentary impact on political and social divisions, breeding a ‘winner takes all’ attitude. In the absence of a shared conception of the common good for which our government should strive, a democracy gives the victor all the power and all the decisions. Opponents feel powerless in response.

Losing a sense of the values underpinning our state may well be a contributory factor feeding the current sense of political discord and disillusionment. The answer to that will not be a change of government. It may be to recognise once more that our state, like any state, is based on values. Identifying, sharing and defending those values might just be a step in the direction of a more consensual system and more empowered electorate. And it might help us think more clearly about what is going on elsewhere in Europe.


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