Christian values: what are they?

Genuine question.

A little background: there has been a little storm in a teacup today over a particularly silly article in the Telegraph outing Richard Dawkins as having ancestors who were slave owners in Jamaica. If you’re really interested, you can read Dawkins’s comments about it here.

But what what got my attention was something from a different blog post on the subject:

when abolition of slavery in the colonies was finally put to Parliament in 1833, the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against the bill.

Which struck me as a good fact to bear in mind next time someone argues that Britain is a Christian country built on Christian values.

That in turn had me wondering how the Lords Spiritual voted on other important social issues over the centuries: Catholic emancipation, women’s suffrage, a free press, workers’ rights and so on. Because while it would obviously be unfair to use the upper echelons of the Church of England as a proxy for all Christianity, it would at least be a record of the ‘Christian values’ of the central Christian institution in British public life.

I’m not [just] trying to play Gotcha, I’m genuinely curious. History being what it is, I imagine they’d come out well on some issues and badly on others. But Google has failed me. Annoyingly. I’ll have another go later, but in the meantime, if anyone happens to know a source for detailed voting breakdowns from the House of Lords prior to 1997, let me know.

The chill wind of austerity

Gosh, it’s been a depressing week in British politics. Austerity is such a grey, foggy, Victorian sort of word. They’ll be talking about retrenchment next.

And you don’t have to be an expert in the fine details of the budget to realise that there’s no way the government can cut total spending by 20% without making the country a harder, nastier place in a whole lot of ways, some obvious and some subtle.

I was at a party the other day where parents were swapping tips about places to take young children, and they were commenting that London’s parks all seem rather nice these days. They’re well-maintained, and clean, they have nice facilities, and they’re making an effort to be better for wildlife. Well, with a 30% cut in local government funding, I think it’s a safe bet that those parks are going to become grottier, grimmer, a little bit less of an escape from the city around them. Which seems like a good symbol for what’s going to happen to the whole country.

And since 85% of the debt was run up bailing out the banks, most of this pain is being inflicted in the name of saving the bankers from the consequences of their own incompetence.

But that’s not the really depressing part. It might be possible to take a deep breath and face the cuts as stoically as possible, if I was actually sure that they were going to have the desired effect. If I believed that they were the only thing keeping Britain from becoming the next Greece, if I was sure that the cuts were going to lay the foundation for a more stable and more prosperous economy in the longer term… but meanwhile there are Nobel prize winning economists like Krugman and Stigliz saying that, on the contrary, this is the worst thing the government could possibly be doing. The killer quote from the most recent Stigliz article:

Austerity converts downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions.

Now I don’t know whether they’re right. I suppose I have to hope not. But it really would be the vomit garnish on a shit sandwich if the effect of all these cuts was to take a weak economy and give it a good kicking.

Meanwhile Cameron, Clegg and Osborne seem to be rather enjoying themselves. Partially perhaps because of a pre-existing ideological commitment to the idea of small government, but I think mainly because they’re rather enjoying the vision of themselves as dynamic men of action, men with the leadership qualities to make the hard decisions.  Of course the British economy is where it is because a group of decisive, dynamic go-getters in very expensive suits decisively and dynamically cocked up on a catastrophic scale. The politicians have obviously been watching and learning.

Horsetrading and backroom deals?

We’ve heard a lot in the last fortnight about horsetrading and haggling among our politicians, and some commentators profess to be deeply offended by it all. But surely negotiation and compromise is how policy is always arrived at: it’s just not usually so obvious.

Even within a normal single-party majority government, there must be disagreements about policy; and even when they broadly agree, different ministers must have their own priorities and pet projects. And since most policies cost money, the Treasury has to be involved; and civil servants and advisors will have their own input. In public, all ministers and civil servants are required to stick to the government line, which may give the impression of a Borg-like unity of purpose; but presumably the government line is arrived at in the first place by a process of negotiation, of horsetrading, of deals that take place in back rooms.

If anything, the negotiations between Clegg and Cameron provided a rather greater degree of transparency than normal. We can compare the coalition agreement to the two party manifestos and it becomes apparent exactly what compromises have been made, what deals have been struck. And we can judge for ourselves whether they were good compromises or bad ones. That seems to me like a Good Thing.

» The advert is from the Evanion collection of ephemera in the British Library.

Election debrief

Going in to this election, it became clear that whoever was in government would have to raise taxes and cut spending, but no politician was willing to spell out the details. So the best we voters could hope for was a government which shared our priorities when making those decisions.

On that basis, the result could have been worse. I’m not thrilled to have David Cameron as the new PM, but the Conservative Party in coalition with the Lib Dems is hopefully a slightly different animal than the Conservative Party in the raw.

I do find it encouraging that Cameron seemed genuinely quite keen to form a coalition, rather than fighting on with a minority government. I guess it could be a simple political calculation — he wants the votes — but I still think it says something about his personality. I can’t imagine Margaret Thatcher doing the same.

It also suggests that, when trying to get legislation through the Commons, Cameron would rather be dependent on the Lib Dems than the right wing of his own party and the DUP. Which may go some way to answering the question of whether he really is a centrist and moderniser by instinct, or just the shiny new face of the Nasty Party.

At the very least, anything that reduces the power of sectarian fundamentalist Protestants in parliament has to be a good thing.

And while AV isn’t full blown proportional representation, it does at least eliminate the tactical voting which is my personal bugbear.

So that’s a relatively upbeat assessment of the situation. I’m equally capable of coming up with alternative scenarios where it all gets very messy indeed, but I guess we might as well try to hold on to optimism for as long as possible.

Why I like STV

I’ve been mulling over the various flavours of voting reform available and I’m most tempted by Single Transferable Vote — which is, as it happens, also the system favoured by the Lib Dems at the moment, although that’s not particularly why I like it. No, what I like about it is that it allows you to express some nuance in your vote.

A quick explanation for those of you who haven’t been geeking out over voting reform over the past few weeks.

Rather than the current system with one MP per constituency, STV would have larger multi-member constituencies. So under one particular example that someone came up with, I would be in a constituency called ‘South Central London’, consisting of Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth, which would have 6 MPs. And so each party would have multiple candidates standing in each contistuency. And instead of marking a cross next to one candidate, the voter chooses candidates in order of preference – writing in 1 2 3 4 5 in the boxes.

Since there are 6 MPs, any candidate who is first choice for 1/6th of voters is elected. Let’s pretend here are 600,000 voters to make the maths easy; so 100,000 votes means you’re elected. If you got 120,000 votes, the 20,000 surplus votes would be redistributed to other candidates in the proportion that they were the second choice of all 120,000 votes. So if it was a Labour candidate, it’s quite likely that most of those 20,000 votes would be distributed to other Labour candidates. That process is repeated until all the seats are filled; but if at any time the votes are split such that no-one has 100,000 votes (which is quite likely with a lot of candidates) the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed in the same way.

Notice that the system doesn’t actually attempt to be proportional across the whole country, it is just locally proportional; but that’s good enough, really. Most constituencies would elect at least one representative from each of the major parties, so all the parties would be trying to win votes in all parts of the country; MPs would be tied to a local constituency, though a slightly larger one than we’re currently used to. It also effectively creates a certain minimum threshold for minor parties: for example, the BNP got about 2% of the national vote on Thursday, so strict proportionality would give them 12 MPs; but using STV, they wouldn’t have any MPs unless enough people voted for them in a particular constituency. So in my theoretical example, 100,000 people in South Central London would have to put the BNP as one of their choices for them to win any of the seats. Whether you think that kind of minimum threshold is a good thing or not is another question: it might be more democratic to let the fruitcake parties have a presence in parliament.

But the reason I like STV is that it actually allows you to vote with a bit more nuance. You have a choice of candidates from each party: if you’re an old fashioned socialist, you can try to find a Labour candidate who seems more left wing for your first choice. If you believe in small-government but you’re socially liberal, you might be able to choose Tory candidates who share those views and avoid voting for the ones who seem overly motivated by religion. Or you might want to vote across party lines: my small government socially liberal voter might vote for some combination of Conservative and Lib Dem candidates. If, like me, you don’t necessarily want the Green Party to be running the government but you do want a strongly pro-environment voting bloc in parliament, you could vote Green>Lib Dem>Lib Dem. Because although each voter nominally only has one vote, hence Single Transferable Vote, in practice you have a sort of mixed vote which you can share out among the candidates. You don’t know in advance quite how much of your vote is going to count for which candidates, because the maths is far too unpredictable, but it does at least make some allowance for the fact that most of us don’t completely agree with any of the parties.


Well, I voted Lib-Dem, for several reasons but not least because the higher their share of the national vote, the stronger the case for voting reform.

If a split centre-left vote results in the Tories winning this constituency, I will be kicking myself, but it probably won’t happen here.

And the fact I had to make that calculation is exactly why we need voting reform.

FPTP makes politicians lie to us (hypocrisy update)

Yet another leaflet through the door, this one from the Conservatives, folded so that on one side it says, in great big shouty letters:

Honest Politics?

on the other side, it quotes the Lib Dem leaflet as saying

“Only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here…”

with a big arrow pointing at the quote and in even shoutier all-caps:


The leaflet points out, accurately enough, that it isn’t true, and quotes the Conservative candidate, who is of course outraged by this:

“I got involved in politics because I was tired of dishonest politicians. At a time when we desparately need to restore trust in politics, it is a shame that my opponents seem intent on misleading people and using dirty tactics.”

“What does this say about them? How will they behave if elected?”

All of which would be very reasonable, if she hadn’t put her own leaflet through my door with this quote on it:

“Only the Conservatives can beat Labour here”

Which is exactly the same kind of blatant attempt to mislead the voter. The hypocrisy of it is breathtaking, and frankly they should all be ashamed of themselves.

A pox on all their houses. This kind of crap is exactly why we need electoral reform.

First Past The Post makes politicians lie to us

Here are some direct quotes from leaflets delivered in this constituency:

Labour leaflets: ‘Only Labour can keep the Tories out here’ ‘It’s a straight choice between Labour and the Tories round here’

Lib Dem leaflet: ‘Only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here’

Conservative leaflet: ‘Only the Conservatives can beat Labour here’

All of them accompanied by bar charts that purport to show why their party is the only one that can fend off the dreaded enemy.

It’s not exactly inspiring to have politicians try to win your vote in this way. It doesn’t do much to counteract people’s disenchantment with politics. But more sinister is the fact that at least two of those statements are in direct contradiction with each other. In other words, someone is telling porky pies.

In fact, when you read their explanations carefully, it is hard to pin down any statements of fact which are outright falsehoods; but all of them are, I would say, intentionally misleading.

The actual situation is that this constituency has been a Labour seat since 1992, and at the last election the vote split like this:

45% Labour
24% Lib Dem
22% Conservative
7 % Green

The boundaries have changed slightly, but the best guess is that it won’t make much difference; it is almost certainly a safe Labour seat, but with the Lib Dems and Conservatives pretty much equal in second place.

The statement which comes closest to being true is ‘Only Labour can keep the Tories out here’. If your main priority is keeping out the Tories, then a Labour vote is the safest option. On the other hand, the statement ‘It’s a straight choice between Labour and the Tories round here’ is pretty close to an outright lie. And it is illustrated with a shocker of a graph:

Yup, that’s right, a local election leaflet showing the ‘share of the vote at the last general election’, and it’s not using the votes cast in this constituency, but the national vote share. Classy.

And the Lib Dems and the Conservatives directly contradict each other. So who’s lying? Well, both of them. Since they both got about the same number of votes last time, it is completely unclear who has more chance to overtake Labour this time. The Lib Dems have gained more in the polls since 2005 than the Tories have, but how it is likely to play out in particular constituencies is totally unknown.

And yet both leaflets have clear bar charts showing why they are the ones to vote for! The Conservative leaflet even has the Lib Dems in 4th place behind the Greens:

And when you look closely, that’s because the chart illustrates the vote for each party’s leading candidate in the council elections to one electoral ward in 2006. Only the leading candidate, out of three, in only one ward out of the eight that make up the constituency. The chart is accurately labelled, but incredibly misleading on a leaflet which is mainly about the parliamentary candidate.

The Lib Dem leaflet uses a less ridiculous but still dubious trick: it shows what purports to be a ‘bar chart’ which illustrates the last general election result in this constituency:

But it’s not really a graph in the mathematical sense at all: the length of the bars is not proportional to the number of votes cast. An accurate chart would have the yellow and blue bars almost exactly the same height, both about half the height of the red bar.

What’s most depressing about this is that it is completely normal. This is how British elections are fought, all around the country, every time. Tactical voting is so deeply engrained in our political culture that we expect to have to vote negatively, and candidates consistently bend the truth to present themselves as the tactical vote of choice.

I am sick of it. I just want to make a choice based on policy and vote accordingly.

A permanent swing to the Lib Dems?

There’s a post over at FiveThirtyEight suggesting, basically, that since first past the post tends to lock us into a two-party system, the Lib Dems could take the pragmatic (i.e. deeply cynical) decision to quietly drop the issue of voting reform and instead concentrate on cementing a place as the major left wing party in a two party system. In other words, to do to the Labour party what the Labour party did to them ninety years ago.

Personally I think that, ethics aside, if the LDs actually had a real chance of getting proportional representation and turned it down, it would be a HUGE gamble; the current Lib Dem surge seems just as likely to be a temporary blip as a long-term shift in the political landscape.

It did remind me, though, of having the same line of thought myself as a schoolboy back in the 80s. The Labour party was in the political wilderness and seemed completely out of step with the zeitgeist. The Liberals, or the SDP-Liberal Alliance as they then were, seemed a party on the way up, gaining vote share and seats in parliament — though thanks to FPTP, not very many seats. And I was learning about the history of British electoral reform in history lessons: the 1832 and 1867 Reform Bills, and suffragettes and suffragists and so on. Which I was finding deeply boring.

But in those lessons I learnt about the origins of the Labour Party in the unions, the extension of the franchise to the working class, the Jarrow Crusade and the General Strike, about the campaigns for better working conditions, for state pensions, and education, and the start of the welfare state. And since by the 1980s those historical battles had generally been won — not that it was a workers’ paradise, but we did at least have health and safety laws and a welfare state — it seemed possible that we were at the start of another great shift in British politics, as the Labour party lost its relevance and the Liberals filled the void.

But of course it didn’t happen; the however shambolic the Labour party were, the Liberals never managed to convert their share of the vote into enough MPs to matter. The Tories just kept winning election after election on a minority share of the vote, and in the meantime, the Labour party reinvented itself, explicitly cutting the connection to their old socialist principles and becoming almost exactly the same kind of left-flavoured centrist party as the Liberals. And the Tories eventually became so disliked that Labour won by a massive landslide and even now they are struggling to win an election, after 13 years of Labour government that included an unpopular war and an economic collapse.

The thing is, I still think that my original schoolboy analysis was, largely by chance, quite plausible; traditional socialism was on its way down, free-market economics was going to be the orthodoxy for a couple of decades, and Britain was no longer the largely industrial economy that spawned the Labour movement. Surely it was the logical moment for the Labour party to collapse. Instead, here we are at a time when free-market economics has taken a battering, and really it’s only the accident of history that it is the Labour party that is getting punished. There is no grand historical logic that I can see to this being the Liberal moment.

I don’t say that as an argument that it can’t happen, although I do think it makes it less likely. One way or another it’s just a weird moment in UK politics.

More on voting reform

I think this statistic is very telling (from ten days ago, so the exact number has probably changed… but the point stands):

The Lib Dems climbed to a high of 33% in the voting intention polls this week, and it seems that this figure could be higher if Clegg’s party were perceived by the majority to have a significant chance of winning the General Election come May 6th. Just under half the country (49%) would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they were seen to have a reasonable chance of winning.

Ironically, if those 49% actually voted Lib Dem, they would win by a landslide. So we have a situation where if people actually voted for the party they wanted, the election would have a completely different result; but because they are guessing other people’s votes and trying to play the system, they end up cheating themselves.

It’s particularly stark at the moment because for the first time in decades we have three parties roughly even in the polls. But it’s always true at British elections that millions of people say they won’t be voting for their real first choice party because the electoral system would make their vote worthless.

It has been a fact of life in British politics for so long that we don’t even think it’s odd. And if it was simply an inevitable consequence of all democratic systems, well, fair enough. But since various ingenious people have come up with systems that allow people to vote for their real preference without their vote being wasted… doesn’t that seem like quite a good idea?

#bigotgate & proportional representation

Two passing observations on the election.

Firstly, on Gordon Brown’s little faux pas today. Clearly being caught describing a voter as ‘a bigoted woman’ makes him look like an idiot, especially since she hadn’t actually said anything especially bigoted.

On the other hand, I’m curious about the ethics of the news organisations using a recording of a private conversation which they recorded by accident. I bet that every news broadcaster keeps a store somewhere of the amusing, stupid, unguarded things that politicians say when they are miked up but not yet on air: a blooper reel for their own amusement. So for the sake of fairness, perhaps we should hear all those things. And indeed the things that journalists say between themselves after talking to members of the public.

And secondly, I’ve been thinking a bit about voting reform. I have become increasingly sick of first past the post; quite apart from the national implications of governments getting large majorities with a minority of the vote, I’m personally fed up with tactical voting. I don’t want to have to think about who can win in my constituency; I want to vote for the party I actually want and believe my vote counts for something.

But seems like something where the law of unintended consequences is sure to come into play. Depending on the exact system we switched to, it wouldn’t be a small change. After all, if you just took the last few decades of  election results and converted them to a proportional system, we would have had 25 or 30 years of permanent Lib-Lab coalition; or perhaps the LIb-Dems as permanent kingmakers. And having the same people permanently in power is exactly what we don’t want, I would think.

In fact, what would probably have happened by now is the increasing importance of small parties; the Greens, the BNP, UKIP might well all have MPs. The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Irish parties would probably have more influence. And it’s quite possible that the major parties would have split: both Socialist Labour and New Labour MPs, for example. I have no idea whether all this would have been a good thing or not; but it is certainly a big deal.

The thing is, FPTP is only really suited to a two-party system. Which I think means that the current system is broken. On the other hand, changing to PR would mean a radical change in the political culture of the UK comparable to the great C19th Reform Acts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but we do need to go into it with our eyes open.

Interesting idea in BNP manifesto

I never thought I’d find a thought-provoking idea in the BNP manifesto — it’s not a party of deep, lucid or original thinkers — but I did think this was, if not a good idea, at least an intriguing one:

30. Outlaw the conducting or publication of opinion polls in the last three weeks of an election campaign to prevent manipulation of the democratic process.

I can only assume that this policy has its origins in conspiracy theory — part of the BNP’s ‘New World Order, Jews control the media’ schtick — but it would genuinely be interesting to see what would happen if we tried this. Because it seems quite clear that polling results do feed back into peoples opinions and effect their voting intentions.

To take an example from the current campaign, the single thing which has done most to grant Nick Clegg credibility is the polls showing the Lib Dems overtaking Labour to move into second place. It’s one thing to watch the debate and think that Clegg did well, but quite another to learn that loads of other people thought so to. And everyone likes a winner.

I don’t know what the impact of banning polling would be: would it favour the minor parties? Would it hand more power to the newspapers? Certainly there’s no obvious reason to think it would produce better politics or better results. But it’s an interesting thought experiment. At the very least it would be amusing to watch the pundit class floundering as they tried to divine the public mood without the help of any actual information.

A passing thought on the Nutt business

Politicians are always quick enough to invoke ‘scientific advice’ when they want to deflect responsibility for an unpopular policy decision, like the availability of different treatments on the NHS, or the mass slaughter of animals during a foot and mouth outbreak. And as long as they actually are acting on good scientific advice, fair enough.

But if you’re going to hide behind scientists when it’s convenient… well, the flip side of that is that if you later choose to ignore the advice of your carefully chosen independent scientific advisors, you should have the guts to stand up and explain why.

» If you don’t know what I’m talking about: a government minister sacked an (unpaid) senior drugs advisor, a professor of psychopharmacology called David Nutt, for giving a lecture saying that the government’s drug policy ignored the scientific evidence. You can download the lecture as a PDF here; it is worth reading.

Speaking as a dumbed-down chav…

I am endlessly fascinated by the people who are, by their own account, in a constant state of simmering rage at having to overhear other people’s uncouth language. This comment was in response to an article in the Sunday Times:*

Dave Russell wrote:

Couldn’t agree more abouyt the dumbing down of the nation. Just listen to a conversation between a group of people under the age of 25. It seems to be cool to speak like a complete thicko these days, no longer something to be ashamed of. The one thing that really grates on my nerves is to hear people using the child-like term ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’- the mark of the true dumbed-down chav. The other thing is how some apparently intelligent people think its cool to continually use swear words in public-in bars, buses and trains etc-even at the ‘Train Station!’ Most of the this dumbed down class wouldn’t understabnd a single Monty Python sketch-they simple don’t have the educational background.

OK, this is the usual stuff: the suffering of psychic violence when exposed to casual speech, the fear of the demotic. But the idea that the mark of a ‘true dumbed-down chav’ is that they say ‘train station’? That’s genius.

*admittedly, it’s a Jeremy Clarkson article, but even so.

Some names for IRA splinter groups

Funereal IRA
Ambiguity IRA
Frivolity IRA
Campanology IRA
Imbecility IRA
Diagonal IRA
Confessional IRA
Digressional IRA
Irish Rational Divination Army
Irish Fashionable Celebration Army
Wiry Publican Calibration Army
Fiery Snatching Lubrication Sarnie

A European Obama

There’s an Associated Press article you can read all over the web including, for example, MSNBC, titled Europe has a long wait for its own Obama. I’m not going to comment generally on ‘Europe’, or even in detail on the UK, except to say that the most obvious difference is the relative recentness of large-scale non-white populations in Europe. It’s been 50 or 60 years now, so that excuse is wearing thin, but it’s still somewhat relevant, I think; even in a democracy, most people who reach positions of power and authority do so from a solidly prosperous establishment background, which is not the situation new immigrants are generally in. So with 8% non-white population, most of whom have been here for three generations or less, even if the UK was completely free of racial discrimination (which it obviously isn’t), the odds would probably still be against us having had a non-white Prime Minister by now. As a comparison, 6% of the population is Welsh, and we’ve only had one Welsh Prime Minister in 300 years.

And one point I’d take from the way the US election has panned out is that all votes are cast for an individual. It’s not very long ago that the press was busy asking whether America was ready to vote for a black president; the answer seems to be yes, but that wasn’t necessarily obvious in advance. You can only find out the answer by having the election; and until you have a candidate, no-one can know the answer because it’s impossible to judge your own responses until you have a real person with a name and a face and a set of policies and a campaign. America may not be ready to vote for ‘a black man’, but they are ready to vote for Barack Obama.

Similarly, it might be difficult to imagine a black or Asian prime minister, but then it would have been difficult to imagine a woman in 10 Downing Street until Margaret Thatcher came along. Do I actually think it’s going to happen any time soon? No, absolutely not. In fact, given the way the parliamentary system works, you can pretty much guarantee it won’t happen for at least six or seven years. But would the British public be willing to vote for a dark-skinned candidate for PM? It’s impossible to know, but if, like Obama, they were charismatic, eloquent, unflappable and running against a staggeringly unpopular incumbent, I wouldn’t bet against them.

A ‘Christian nation’.

There was the first of a three-part series on TV tonight called Make Me A Christian. A group of volunteers, including a lap-dancer and a Muslim convert, are given a three-week course in Christianity by four ministers of various denominations. I watched about 20 minutes of it before I lost patience; it’s an idea that could make an interesting piece of television but in practice it both bored and irritated me.

But one particular idea requires comment: that the UK is a ‘Christian nation’ built on ‘Christian principles’. I don’t think it’s true that any of the important principles that the country is built on are particularly Christian, as it happens, but that’s not the point I want to make.

It is true that, for over a thousand years, the vast majority of the inhabitants of these islands have been Christians. A comfortable majority of British people still are. So, historically and demographically, there is an obvious sense in which it is true to say that the UK is ‘a Christian country’.

But you could use exactly the same arguments to say this is a white country. And if someone was to start saying that the UK is a White nation, built on White principles, we would all immediately understand that their intention was to exclude and belittle.

I know the analogy is not perfect. And I’m not going to claim that, as an atheist, I feel like I’m the victim of any terrible prejudice (though if I was Hindu, Muslim or Jewish I might feel differently). But when an evangelical preacher like the presenter of Make Me A Christian describes the UK as a ‘Christian country’, I’m pretty sure he’s suggesting that his claim to Britishness is better than mine.

I do not accept that this is true.

» The picture is of a Christian being burnt by Christians because of his Christian beliefs; an example of the Christian principles so important to British history.

Lies, damn lies and religion

There’s an article in today’s Times about the rapid decline in church attendance in the UK. The particular angle they’ve chosen to take is that within a mere 30 years, the number of people going to mosque every weekend will outnumber those going to church. This is illustrated by a dramatic graph with the Christian line sweeping down at a vertiginous angle and crossing the lines for Muslims and Hindus, which are creeping up a bit slower at the bottom.*

Leaving aside the huge uncertainties involved in extrapolating the trends forward, I can’t help feeling that the graph is missing something important: a line for the vast majority of us who don’t go to any kind of religious service. If they had included us, and changed the scale of the y-axis to accommodate us, all the religious people would be squashed down into a very flat and unimpressive bit at the bottom of the chart.

Of course it’s an interesting and significant demographic shift if the number of churchgoers changes from about 8% to 1% in 45 years, as the graph suggests. But if you say instead that the number of people who don’t go to church/mosque/temple regularly is rising from 90% to 94%, it doesn’t seem quite so dramatic.

As regular readers will know, I’m not about to lose sleep over shrinking congregations; and I certainly don’t believe there’s some kind of essential connection between Britishness and Christianity. But I was mainly annoyed by the use of statistics.

*The graph isn’t available online or I’d link to it. The Times’s consistent habit of having less in the way of pictures and graphics online than in the dead tree edition always seems to be completely missing the point, to me, but hey-ho.

Marginalia on the word ‘cunt’

In a generally interesting post about Obama, Hillary and all that stuff, Sherry says this:

I have to admit it’s true that Hillary Clinton has never been called a nigger but I suspect Barack Obama has never been called a cunt.

I think the difference in the way that word is used on each side of the Atlantic is quite telling. Because if he was British, it would be quite likely that sooner or lately someone would have called him a cunt: I know it has happened to me. Not usually in earnest, but at least once, in a pub in Bristol when I was a student and one of the locals took offence at my green hair.

And that is the norm, I think, in British English: although it is still a coarse slang term for the female genitalia, it’s mainly used to insult men. Not out of any kind of profound sensitivity to gender relations, but just because that’s the way it is. And as a result, although it is regarded as a very offensive word—you can’t exactly use it on daytime telly—it doesn’t have the same kind of edge it clearly has in America. The parallel with ‘nigger’ is interesting: the word ‘cunt’ is taboo in Britain, but I don’t think anyone thinks of it as hate speech.

I guess if you call a woman a cunt you’re attacking her for being a woman, whereas if you call a man a cunt you are… well, doing something different, anyway.

» ABC, posted to Flickr by An amusing sidenote: my computer’s spellcheck flags up the word cunt as a possible spelling mistake, even though it’s in the built-in dictionary. I guess they think it’s important to warn all those people who were trying to write ‘count’ or ‘aunt’. It would be more useful if, every time I typed ‘form’, it asked me whether I really meant ‘from’.

The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

Yay for Blasphemy!

Or, to be more exact, yay for legal blasphemy. We’re not quite there yet, but the House of Lords has voted to abolish the offence of blasphemy in British law.

Virgin and cat

The current situation, with special legal protection for the Church of England, was obviously ludicrous in a modern multicultural society; but then in a country where bishops have seats in parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen by the Prime Minister, ludicrous can never be ruled out.

» Paintings by Cranach and Rousseau.

Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch…

Wales beat England at rugby this afternoon, which (don’t tell my father) I quite enjoyed. I keenly support England when they’re playing South Africa, Australia, New Zealand or France, but against other teams I often find myself rooting for the opposition.

I guess it’s largely support for the underdog (today was Wales’s first win at Twickenham for 20 years, so I don’t think it’s too patronising to call them underdogs), but I never feel the same way when England play soccer. I don’t know why I don’t feel the same emotional connection to the rugby team, but there it is.

Of course if you’re English you have to have flexible sporting loyalties anyway: English during the World Cup but British during the Olympics. And it’s amazing how golf clubs suddenly become hotbeds of European solidarity during the Ryder Cup.

It always seems like it ought to be a healthy model of patriotism. Lots of overlapping loyalties which come to the fore at different times in different contexts, none of which insist that they have to be exclusive. And yet oddly enough British sports fans aren’t known for their flexible, easy-going tolerance and sensitivity to cultural nuance.

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