Sunday, 26 August 2012

Maybe I Don't Need A Miracle

The dog was there, in the shadows, along Pointout Path on Southampton Common, Friday evening, as I was making my way to Trago's for a friend's 25th birthday celebrations- where part of the discussion was on why you shouldn't (even if a man) walk across the Common on your own at night.

In the dusk, there it was clearly. Would it attack if I moved? Should I make a detour? Slowly, I made my way down the path, hoping that maybe other walkers would come along. Walked along- dog not moving, clearly biding its time. Closer, closer- and then past the tree trunk with bits of wood and flowers around it.

If it had been daylight, of course, I would have seen it for what it really was, and simply walked on without thinking. What can appear to be dangers and fearful situations in half-light, become things we don't even think about in the light.

Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105). When we carry a lamp and have our path lit, then we don't even notice these things that in the dusk look like dogs about the strike. How many times have we- in the light- have passed things that would have made us go back, take a different path, if we did not have that light?

Friday was a difficult day- actually the past few weeks have been stressful for various reasons. When I woke up I had chest pains, quite strong, and was so scared that I thought about getting out of bed and going outside and calling for help. Realised that if I did someone would phone 999 and say "Police? There's a man over there dressed like Prince Harry".

As I lay there. the chest pains subsided, so I slowly went about my normal breakfast and washing routine, and then made my way to Southampton Central railway station. When I got there, I started to feel sick and dizzy, with my chest aching again. As I got up, had to sit down again, feeling that something was pressing down all over me. Called one of the station staff, explained how I felt and asked for a first aider.

He told me that as I had chest pains, he would call a paramedic. This got me worried. Apparently, I was looking very pale and my skin was clammy. I was also muttering "I'm scared"

The first paramedic arrived. He did the usual tests- a clip on my finger which measures oxygen levels, a 4-lead ECG (which allows the patient to keep his T-shirt on, unlike the full 12-lead one), and a blood sugar test. He mentioned that some people say that this one hurts, and he thinks they're wimps. I said I'm not a wimp- I'm a total wuss.

The other two paramedics arrived. Now, one thing about me is, as Doctor Who once said, "I may be serious about what I do, not necessarily about how I do it" (or words along those lines). I have a dark sense of humour. So did they. I was asked about my job, and I said I dealt with insurance complaints- leading to the mock earnest question whether I dealt with medical negligence complaints. Nope. "Oh Good" was the reply.

The first paramedic started removing the electrode pads. The ECG machine was going "Beep, beep, beep", like in medical dramas. Then "BEEEEEEEE" and flatlining, leading me to say "Oh, I seem to have died."

We walked out to the ambulance, where I had my blood pressure done several times and I was given a 12-lead ECG. Nothing out of the ordinary. One of the paramedics suggested I had had an anxiety attack, as I was under loads of stress, and urged me to see my doctor as soon as possible. Then blood pressure monitor disconnected, the electrode pads removed painlessly (a time when I am grateful that God didn't create me with chest hair), I could get up, put my T-shirt on and go.

One thing about the paramedics was that were all people one could trust. Not just the uniforms they were wearing and the equipment they were carrying. Their attitude, their manner, inspired trust. There was a reassurance with power and authority behind it.

Sometimes people try to reassure with the simple "there there, it'll be alright" as one might with a little child. Just think nice thoughts. Think of the Sun shining in the sky, the wind blowing through the trees, the water babbling in the brook, the little bunny rabbits jumping through the fields....

This isn't what we get with Jesus. He speaks words of reassurance, but with genuine power and authority behind them.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?". For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25-34).

Now, somewhere in my parents' home is a copy of the Deposited Book, which my great uncle bought when he was in Jerusalem at some point in the 1930s. And in it, I remember this lovely picture of the blond, blue-eyed, bearded, white robed Jesus (probably floating a few centimetres above the ground- cannot remember) addressing a collection of Western European children (maybe bussed in to the Promised Land to listen to Him), and just saying "Consider the lilies". Nice, agricultural scene on a summer's day, as if it were a Constable painting.

Is this what it's about. A nice, pat-on-head, "keep smiling" message to give us the warm fuzzies?

Or is it- You. Will. Not. Worry.- ?

If we really accept Jesus is Lord of all, that He is sovereign, then surely being anxious is actually a sign that we don't deep down believe this? I will be the first to hold my hands up and say that I sin badly in this respect.

What I need isn't the soothing "there, there, I know you've got a lot on your plate at the moment" from God. Maybe it's the "Sorry Lord, I have shown I don't trust you enough by being anxious" from me.

Jesus's reassurances to us are with His power and His authority behind them.

Please note what I'm not saying. I am not taking the approach which one sometimes comes across- "Problems? Problems? What are they? Oh, they're what Christians get when they don't pray enough..."

I became a Christian at Oxford University, and I recall there was one popular song that would not be sung at the CU- with the line "And in His presence our problems disappear". I have heard it sung elsewhere with that line replaced by "And in His presence the darkness disappears". Years later I related this, and one lady said she didn't see what the issue was- if we have faith we never have problems.

I remember correspondence with one man I had met on a Love Europe event. His letters starting taking a different tone when he started at a new church, and in one he mentioned that God really wanted to send revival to England. What was holding Him back? Well, until the churches taught that Spirit-filled Christians will be healed of any illness if they have enough faith, God was unable to send revival.

This was around the time when a young curate I knew had lost her battle with cancer. What I saw was a woman of strong faith who encouraged many as she approached the end. What he must have seen was a woman of weak faith who was unable to claim the healing of cancer.

Pity the Christian who has never had their faith tested, or who has a theology which will send them to the wall when trouble comes. We should never seek to grow stunted Christians, who have their faith bound like the old Chinese practice of binding girls' feet- for "their own good", of course.

Sadly, there are people who make a virtue out of being anxious and worrying and fretting, and this impacts on others. The parents who, if they phone and there's no reply, don't assume that you are out doing something, but that something terrible has happened to you and if they don't hear from you the next day, turn up in a state of worry wondering if you're OK.

Ever remember class assemblies at primary school and during preparation, when the teacher asks if anyone has any questions, someone has to ask "Mrs Southwell, what if the roof falls in?"- or did that only happen in Hythe?

There is this attitude that unless you are expecting the very worst, then you are not being prepared properly, not taking it seriously. This leads to parents who feel other parents are irresponsible for letting teenage children do DIY ("what if he saws his thumb off?") or gardening ("what if she loses control of the mower?"), not realising that these are actually the sensible parents preparing their children for the time they leave home. Or who warn against sport, by triumphantly holding up a newspaper story about another middle-aged fatso who dies while jogging. And the best way to avoid these minor-chance disasters is to play safe and do nothing.

The Bible speaks of this attitude in Proverbs 22:13- The .... says, "There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!"

Who says this? Yhe prudent person? The person who is sensible and doesn't take risks. Interestingly, it is the sluggard. Anxiety can become an excuse for not doing what should be done.

One final point about anxiety, which brings me back to the non-dog I saw. There is an incident (you can read it in 2 Kings 6:8-23) where Elisha and his servant see an army around where they are. It looks like a moment for anxiety. For God to pull off a miracle.

And Elisha's prayer? That his servant would see what is really there. See God's army there.

The next few weeks will be times of great changes for me. Maybe I should be asking for a miracle. Or maybe, I should ask to- like Elisha's servant- see things as they really are. In the full light, things that were scary in the half-dark are seen as what they really are, and are things that you walk on by without thinking about.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Just A Little Bit

This week has seen the harsh prison sentence handed down against Pussy Riot for their protest in Russia.

There was once a time when the Russian Orthodox Church stood firm against the State, and we heard the stories of persecution of Christians. Now the relationship is nice and cozy. What a difference 22 years makes. That is a generation- actually, a bit less.

When the persecuted church becomes the persecuting church, then it has a very short memory. When we prayed for the church in Russia back in the days when the USSR existed, I doubt any of us wanted what we saw today. It is not enough just for us to want our own freedom and not care about anyone else's. Even worse if we use freedom we have gained to deny freedom to others.

There was probably no big compromise. The Rubicon is either ahead of us (this decision is not the big "crossing the Rubicon" one) or behind us (well, you should have thought of this before you "crossed the Rubicon").

It is easy for the church to justify compromise with modern society. We have to be relevant or else people won't listen to us. The world has moved on. Let's jump on the bandwagon that passed by a few years back and give ourselves a round of applause for being so radical. Nothing could be worse than a harsh editorial in The Guardian- that's real proper persecution.

Recently there is one thing that has had been laying awake at night. It is an awkward question- at what point would I make the decision between comfort and Christ? What level of persecution would lead me to deny Him?

As I reflected on this, I realised that often Christianity is about the little things, not the big. We can pray over the big decisions- what job? Should I marry and if so, who? Where ahall I live?

But in every decision, big or small, there is the decision behind every decision- does this choice follow God or not?

Beyond the price tag, the questions whether people exploited? As this section from the Doctor Who episode Planet of the Ood has it.

DONNA: A great big empire built on slavery.

THE DOCTOR: It's not so different from your time.

DONNA: Oi! I haven't got slaves.

THE DOCTOR: Who do you think made your clothes?

One of Jesus' parables is that of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13), which interestingly enough is where Jesus tells us we cannot serve two masters.

But Jesus also tells us that those who are dishonest in little things are dishonest in the big things. Those who are honest in little things are honest in the big things. The idea that minor misdemeanours are OK as long as you don't do anything major has no place in Christianity.

This attitude can crop up in "folk Christianity". I am thinking of one old lady who likes to emphasise that she is, as she is fond of describing herself as, "such a good Christian". To be a Christian is simply about being of the right social status, being British, and the occasional tickboxing acts- go to church Easter (and make sure one puts on one's Sunday best- nothing worse than these "disrespectful young people" who turn up Sunday after Sunday in jeans and T-shirts unaware that this is not how one dresses "in the house of God"), give up chocolate for Lent, put a few pence in a charity tin, make sure one's children and grandchildren are christened in the Church of England, and as long as one does nothing majorly wrong, then you're in. When you listen to her, you realise that in her mind she has lived such a good life the last thing she needs is a Saviour. I am always struck by her deep faith in how she has earned her place in Heaven.

We see this attitude. Sin is doing something majorly major, rather than failing to put God first. And it is in the little decisions that we decide whether to put God first. But it goes deeper than that- it is our decisions that reflect our attitudes. To make the right decisions- the ones for God- we need to have the right attitude towards Him.

If we realise just how much sin offends God, we are more grateful that He sent Jesus to die for us. It went through my mind that the one prayer I should pray isn't "Show me more of Your love", or "Show me more of Your power", but "Show me how much my sin offends You, so I will be more thankful for Your love and power."

I would like to think that if I had a major Christ versus comfort decision to make, then I would choose Christ. But that is missing the point somewhat, as if we can bumble along and come across those big moments when we need to get God involved, with Him out of the way in those long years in-between. That we can look back proudly and say "yep, I had big moments and I put God first."

Instead every day we face those little decisions where we need to put God first. Get faithful in the small things and we will have the character that helps us be faithful in the big things.

At what point do I deny Christ? In the little things.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Although You Cannot Download Fellowship

One thing I have noticed when surfing is that now oodles of churches put their sermons in downloadable, audible, format. I am old enough to remember when you would have to order a sermon on cassette tape if you wanted to listen to it again.

I can see the benefits of this. You get a range of topics, and can get a range of opinions on the same topic, which can be useful for research. I guess if you're preaching on a topic, you can see what others have said, and if you're lucky get some anecdotes (I have this image in my mind that up and down the country this morning, preachers were giving sermons of how it doesn't matter how strong your belief is if it's wrong, and saying "And recently we went to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff and my ticket wouldn't scan....")

OK- hands up. Has anyone ever used in a sermon an anecdote that happened to someone else and said it happened to themselves?

One danger is that we could end up, with such a smorgasboard of sermons, just concentrate on the bits we like, and assume things like "Leviticus? Nah. Booor-ing!" or "A sermon on pride? I don't have a problem with that. What else is there to listen to?" like someone channel-hopping on digital TV.

I would suggest if you choose to listen to a church's sermons, listen to them. Pick a particular service and decide you will download all the ones for that and listen to them. Don't do sermon-hopping.

Another danger is that we can hear sermons from elsewhere, maybe from high-profile churches, and then compare with our own. But you cannot download fellowship from a church over the internet- you cannot even download the coffee.

There is the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But the Good Shepherd of the flock has put us on this particular patch of grass- don't dream of what it'll be like elsewhere just because you hear sermons from there. Like thinking that Songs of Praise is a substitute for church, there is the danger that downloaded sermons can be seen as a substitute to regular attendance at church.

One question- and that is up to the individual to decide on- is when to listen? Have specific days for each? Listen to a series on a weekly basis, or wait till listen to a series in one go?

So, which church's downloaded sermons do you like to listen to? And why?

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Just The Ticket

Beep. Big red cross. Invalid.

Beep. Big red cross. Invalid.

No matter how many times the lady at the Doctor Who Experience waved her scanner over the barcode of the e-ticket I had bought and printed out, the same message appears.

£14.50 for a ticket. About £39 for a return to Cardiff. I had paid nearly £55 for the privilege of having a red Dalek shriek "Exterminate" at me.

I had bought it in good faith. I believed- and not only that sincerely believed- that the piece of paper in my grubby little paw entitled me to access.

It didn't matter how hard I believed, how much faith I had, how sincere my faith was- no amount of faith would alter the reality that what I was holding was an invalid ticket, and would not allow me access.

Just as the lady behind the counter at Burger King earlier that day sincerely believed that I had ordered a chicken burger, and no amount of faith on her part could alter the reality that I had ordered a sausage butty. [OK Graham, let it go]

It might seem odd for an evangelical Christian to be negative about faith, but what gives faith its value is not so much how much, but where is our faith placed?

It seems spiritual and tolerant to write, as one lady I know did on her Facebook wall, that it is cool for people to have a religion as faith is important, but faith isn't of value if it is placed in something untrue. Our faith, our beliefs, are reflected in how we live our lives.

Sadly many people believe, sincerely believe, that what they have in their hand is a ticket that gains them admission to Heaven. Paid for by things they have done. Maybe with the logic that their good deeds outweigh their bad. Or a little checklist of good things to tick off which get you in. One day they will wave their little ticket and will be told- this ticket is invalid, it doesn't allow you access to Heaven. When that happens it doesn't matter how sincerely they think that it's valid, whether they bought it from someone they thought was licenced to sell them. Their sincerity and faith will not alter the fact it is invalid.

Beep. Big red cross. Invalid.

Beep. Cross of Jesus. Valid.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Life On Mars

NASA's Curiosity craft is now safely on the surface of Mars, and the search for whether life did, or maybe today does, exist on Mars, begins.

Although, bear in mind that biological matter on Mars could have been brought from Earth via meteorites.

Even non-discovery of life on Mars is important, and it is instructive to listen to Monica Grady give a talk on this at the Society for Popular Astronomy, especially having to deal with an someone who asks awkward questions (at 01:09:05- people like that have no place in a civilised society, IMHO).

Of course, one question that the discovery, or non-discovery, of life on Mars, raises is the theological one- does it prove/disprove Christianity, or is totally irrelevant?

First, take a step back. I am an evangelical Christian, and have the background of an MSc and a PhD in Astronomy. At no point did I see a clash between Christianity and science. Sadly, there are people who think that Richard Dawkins used science to disprove religion. Similarly, there are Christians who take two interesting views on science- firstly that science and Christianity are bitter enemies, whilst secondly, at the same, time there is something called "true science" which PROVES Christianity (the stage beyond simply proving Christianity).

So, you will get zealous young Christians who will on one hand urge you, if you sincerely love God, to take the step of obedience by withdrawing from a science PhD, while on the other hand shoving magazines in your hand that use science to PROVE a certain interpretation of parts of the Bible. And of course, the proofs show a misunderstanding of basic science.

Alongside that are the supposed little apologetics argument that use "true science" in evangelism. The Sun is shrinking. The Sun is not producing enough neutrinos. The Apollo capsules would have sunk if the Moon were more than a few thousands years old. Scientists PROVED that the decay of comets meant the solar system was a few thousands years old so INVENTED the idea of the Oort Cloud to get an old solar system. The speed of light is decaying- as long as we alter the early results to fit this nice downward curve we've got.

This line of argument often produces the "God-of-the-gaps" as the definitive, knockdown, cannot-be-argued-against proof of Christianity. The problem is that the gaps close up. Even worse is when the "scientists cannot explain X, therefore God" is used for things which were explained ages ago.

I do not lie awake at night worrying that tomorrow some scientist will make The Discovery that brings Christianity crashing to its foundations, and leaves a Cross lying on the ground as meaningless fragments of wood.

Sometimes there will be confusion though. I remember years ago, a new curate (now with the Lord after a battle with cancer) informed she was concerned as she'd been told I was into astrology- someone else had got the two confused. Although one friend likes to get them deliberately confused and is fond of telling me that the best bit of the Old Testament is when the King of Babylon has all the astronomers put to death.

I remember the discovery of what, at the time, were considered to be possible Martian microbes, and recall a statement from one denomination that the Bible teaches that there is no life on other planets. Hmm, where exactly?

So, what are the theological implications of the discovery, or non-discovery, of life on Mars?

One argument given is that the discovery of life would prove that we are not alone, that life appearing spontaneously in two different places would indicate a universe teeming with life. Therefore, there would be nothing special about humanity, and any religion that survived would be Eastern-style with the emphasis on the whole of creation, rather than the religions that arose in the Middle East with their emphasis on humanity.

Leave aside for the moment whether the Eastern religions concentrate on creation and the Middle Eastern ones don't.

There is an interesting question about whether life can appear spontaneously in two or more places. Why do these have to be on different planets? Why not the same planet? Suppose life fairly easily appeared- which would lead to the universe being filled with life. Then surely, we would expect it to have appeared more than once on the Earth, and unless all- except one- of these primitive lifeforms had all their descendants wiped out, then somewhere there would be one lifeform for which we would say "This does not share a common ancestor with anything else". Of course, it is possible that such a lifeform exists and we haven't found it yet.

If no such lifeform exists- and for the moment take a Creator out of the picture and rely on evolutionary theory- then we do not have life appearing all over the place, or if it does, not lasting long and all traces of existence vanishing.

Don't worry at the moment about removing a Creator- I am dealing with the idea that the existence of aliens disproves religions that have a personal Creator.

The fact that there is only one common ancestor on Earth implies that (without a Creator) life is rare in the universe. The existence of life on Mars would strengthen the idea that life is common.

In 1835, the New York Sun ran its famous moon hoax, with the claim that John Herschel had discovered aliens living on the Moon from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Now, what is interesting is the Christian response. There is the urban myth that a missionary society in Missouri looked into sending missionaries to the Moon.

OK, urban myth, but even urban myths tell us something- Christians were not going around panicking that the discovery of selenes was damaging to Christianity. The urban myth is Christians asking how aliens could be evangelised.

What has changed? I think in part, this is Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Rather than see aliens as an example of God's creative activity, is there a danger that modern evangelicals see them as a proof of a theory they hold to be anti-Christian?

We should- if alien life, or relics of it, are found- welcome this as another thing that God has created.

By the way, if you want to know what to do if you see a spaceman, my answer is "Park in it, man".

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Cut Whitehall, Then Westminster

One reform that now seems out the window is the reduction in size of the House of Commons from the current 650 to 600.

It is interesting to note that for much of the 19th century, there were more MPs than at present- the general elections from November/December 1885 to December 1910 saw 670 MPs elected, and the zenith was reached in December 1918 with 707 MPs elected.

With 1918 though, we need to enter a couple of caveats:

  • Technically if you are elected for two constituencies, you didn't have to choose until you took your seat- the 4 elected for two constituencies (Eamon de Valera, Clare East, Mayo East; Arthur Griffith, Cavan East, Tyrone North West; Eoin MacNeill, Londonderry City, National University of Ireland; Liam Mellows, Galway East, Meath North) were from Sinn Fein and didn't take their seats, so never had to choose- so there wrre 703 MPs elected
  • Apart from de Valera, Griffith, MacNeill and Mellows, there were a further 65 Sinn Feiners, so only 634 MPs took their seats
  • The subsequent election, November 1922, was held after the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922, which stated, among other things, that no writ would be issued for an election to the House of Commons from any constituency in Southern Ireland (which became the Irish Free State upon the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 in December 1922) leading to the odd situation that the 1922 general election did not cover all of the United Kingdom, and for 3 weeks Southern Ireland was part of the UK but with no MPs. This brought the House of Commons down to 615 MPs.

    It is interesting to look at the Cabinet of 100 years ago, which was comprised of:

  • Prime Minister/Leader of the House of Commons
  • Lord Chancellor
  • Lord President of the Council
  • Lord Privy Seal/Leader of the House of Lords
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Foreign Secretary
  • Home Secretary
  • First Lord of the Admiralty
  • President of the Board of Agriculture & Fisheries
  • Colonies Secretary
  • President of the Board of Education
  • India Secretary
  • Chief Secretary for Ireland
  • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • President of the Local Government Board
  • Postmaster-General
  • Scottish Secretary
  • President of the Board of Trade
  • War Secretary
  • First Commmissioner of Works
  • Attorney-General
  • So that is 21 Cabinet members- a bit smaller than the present Cabinet, which has 23 (although Sayeeda Warsi, the Minister Without Portfolio, does not draw a Government salary).

    What has changed is the increase in the numbers of Ministers of State, Under-Secretaries of State and other junior members of the Government. Then there are the non-Governmental members of the "payroll vote"- the Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who are not members of the Government, but have their foot on the rung below the Government, and are hoping the climb the greasy pole.

    One concern about a decrease in the number of MPs is that it increases the proportion of MPs who are on the payroll vote.

    Of course, it could be argued that the payroll vote should be zero, and all MPs should aspire to be hard-working constituency MPs sitting on the backbenches. A separation between the Executive and the Legislative would be a radical step beyond anything any mainstream party is suggesting.

    One flaw with this is that there would still be preferment- just not from the Prime Minister. The House of Commons would look at ways of holding the Government to account, and logically one way would be through strengthening up Select Committees. As the American system shows, even in a Congressional, rather than a Parliamentary system, there is someone (House Majority Leader, Senate Majority Leader) who decide who gets to sit on committees and who doesn't. There will always be someone you have to keep on the right side of- in one system a Prime Minister who has been elected as party leader by the party membership and who has led their party to an election victory (or near-victory) and in the other system a Leader of the House of Commons elected by that party's MPs.

    The only way to keep the proportion of MPs who are on the payroll vote the same is to shed about 10% of ministers. One way could be for there to be a slow reduction as the Parliament goes on- an Under-Secretary of State here and there not being replaced in a reshuffle.

    Or there could be whole departments disappearing. Business, Innovation & Skills could be split with training, universities and science going back to Education (& Science), employment relations going to Work & Pensions, trade going to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or to International Development. Bringing Trasnport back into Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, and/or bringing Energy & Climate Change there

    Sort out reducing the size of Whitehall first.

    Tuesday, 7 August 2012

    A Plague On Both Your Houses

    For supporters of political reform, this has been a discouraging week, with it appearing that both reform of the House of Lords and the constituency reform dead in the water.

    By making it clear that the Liberal Democrats will not back the new constituency boundaries, is it really a case that Nick Clegg, the Lord President of the Council, is having a hissy fit, is being childish, is throwing his toys out of the pram etc?.

    What does the coalition agreement actually say?

    We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.

    We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.

    From the Conservative side, there seems to be two arguments:

  • The boundary changes were connected with the referendum on switching from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote
  • The party has gone beyond the letter of the agreement by allowing Clegg to introduce a Bill for reforming the House of Lords
  • Unfortunately, two can play that game. The agreement only committed the Liberal Democrats to supporing the Parliamentary Voting Systems & Constituencies Act 2011 and technically the actual introduction of the new boundaries is through a Statutory Instrument which the Liberal Democrats have not committed themselves to backing.

    Are the boundary changes unconnected to reform of the House of Lords? In the agreement, the boundary changes are mentioned in the same breath as the AV referendum. One valid criticism that the Conservatives made of the last Labour Government's constitutional and parliamentary reforms was that they were done piecemeal and without thinking of the implications in other areas.

    My concern is that the Conservatives have fallen into the same trap Labour did- yes, the constitutional and parliamentary reforms in the agreement are in separate paragraphs, but I would veer to the Liberal Democrat side in seeing them as a holistic package- boundary changes, improving accountability of the Government by Westminster, House of Lords reform, recall elections etc. are all aspects of the same thing, and you can't pick and choose.

    So, where is the path forwards? Like anything in politics, to see the path ahead of us, we need to see where we came from.

    The Wakeham Commission produced its report in January 2000, in the wake of the House of Lords Act 1999. It suggested a House of Lords of about 550 members, with some of them being "regional members"- i.e. members chosen to represent the non-English nations within the United Kingdom and the regions within England. In addition, the House of Lords Appointment Commission should be responsible for ensuring that the House of Lords is representative (to avoid the Prime Minister of the day having a say in the size and composition of the House of Lords), and ensure that around 20% are Crossbenchers. The Commission's preference was for 87 regional members (equal to the number of Members of the European Parliament that the United Kingdom elected in June 1999) to serve for 15 years, elected by the d'Hondt system used in European elections. These would be elected in thirds.

    Sometimes, one criticism of the Government's (now-defunct) plans for House of Lords reform are that they were devised in a historical vacuum to keep the Liberal Democrats happy. However, from the Wakeham Commission, we get the 15 year terms, the 20% of members being Crossbenchers and the election by d'Hondt in thirds.

    In November 2000, the Labour Government produced a response to the Wakeham Commission. This proposed a 600-member House of Lords (although larger for the transitional period) with 20% of them Crossbenchers, 20% (i.e. 120) directly-elected on a regional basis and the remaining 60% chosen by the parties, but with the Appointments Commission (put on a statutory footing) deciding how many appointed members each party was entitled to.

    In addition, the Government was attrached to the idea that the elected element be elected in thirds at the same time as elections to the House of Commons, but noted that 15-year terms were longer than those in any democracy. However, the then-Government also noted that existing members of the House of Lords generally serve for life, and the Canadian Senate has appointed Senators who serve until age 75.

    In February 2007, the Labour Government produced another report followed by a vote in the House of Commons the following month where an 80% elected House of Lords got a majority of 38, while an all-elected House of Lords got a majority of 113.

    Rather than the House of Lords being an obession for the Liberal Democrats, reform of it has been the subject of 3 major reports in the past 13 years, and the House of Commons has expressed its preference for a mainly- or fully-elected House of Lords.

    So, what is the way forward? The Bill that Clegg introduced saw reform in three phases, with the first "transitional" House of Lords from May 2015 to May 2020. That saw the House of Lords for that session being:

  • 120 directly-elected members for a 15-year term
  • 30 Crossbenchers appointed by the Appointments Commission for a 15-year term
  • The Archbishops of Canterbury and York; the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester; and 16 other diocesan Bishops
  • Ministerial members
  • Transitional members
  • The Bill set the transitional members to be two-thirds of the number of peers in receipt of a writ of summons at 27 June 2012. The numbers for 2 July 2012 (which is unchanged from 27 June) is here. What we have are:

  • Labour- 226
  • Conservative- 213
  • Crossbench- 177
  • Liberal Democrat- 90
  • Minor parties & non-aligned- 33 (includes 4 Ulster Unionist Party, 4 Democratic Unionist Party, 2 UK Independence Party, 2 Plaid Cymru, 2 Independent Labour, 1 Independent Conservative, 1 Independent Liberal Democrat)
  • Bishops- 26
  • That gives 765 peers, so under the Clegg proposals the House of Lords would have elected 510 to serve in the 2015-2020 session. If the method of election for hereditary peers is followed, we should expect around 156 Labour, 147 Conservative, 145 Crossbench & Others and 62 Liberal Democrats.

    So, if we use this method of election, and just the 120 directly-elcted members, then a House of Lords with 630 members would have the following properties:

  • 120 of them (19%) would be elected- close to the figures in previous reports
  • 145 of them (23%) would be not aligned to a major politcal party- just above the figures in previous reports
  • To get the 316 needed for an overall majority, Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them would need to get 98 of the elected members (that is 82% of them)
  • Even if the largest party in the House of Lords- Labour- won all the elected members, then it would still be 40 members short of an overall majority
  • Such a House of Lords would thus be close to what has been proposed in previous reports. And it can be introduced with minor tinkering with Clegg's Bill.

    Now to a more technical matter- what happens with the 120 elected members? If just 40 were elected, then the regional allocation would be:

  • South East England- 5
  • London- 5
  • North West England- 5
  • Eastern England- 4
  • West Midlands- 4
  • South West England- 3
  • Scotland- 3
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 3
  • East Midlands- 3
  • Wales- 2
  • North East England- 2
  • Northern Ireland- 1
  • While if 80 were elected, then the regional allocation would be:

  • South East England- 11
  • London- 9
  • North West England- 9
  • Eastern England- 8
  • West Midlands- 7
  • South West England- 7
  • Scotland- 7
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 7
  • East Midlands- 6
  • Wales- 4
  • North East England- 3
  • Northern Ireland- 2
  • While if 120 were elected, then the regional allocation would be:

  • South East England- 16
  • London- 14
  • North West England- 14
  • Eastern England- 11
  • West Midlands- 11
  • South West England- 11
  • Scotland- 10
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 10
  • East Midlands- 9
  • Wales- 6
  • North East England- 5
  • Northern Ireland- 3
  • How could this be used? If 120 are elected in thirds, then 40 are elected each time. When the US Senate was set up, its members were allocated by lot into Class I, II and III Senators, with some serving for 2 years, others 4 and others 6, while from then on the Senate has been elected in thirds for 6-year terms (equal to 3 terms of the House of Representatives).

    We could use the d'Hondt system to elect 120 initial members, and then allocate some to serve 5, 10 and 15 years. Take South East England for example. The first 5 elected (corresponding to having 40 elected members) could serve to 2030. The next 6 (corresponding to the 41st to 80th elected members) could serve to 2025. While the last 5 could serve to 2020.

    While the initial election could be by d'Hondt, elections from 2020 could be by Single Transferable Vote- the largest number to be elected in one go would be 6 from South East England in 2025, 2040, and every 15 years from then, and experience of using STV in the Northern Ireland Assembly shows that it can be used with a constituency as large as a 6-seater.

    When a region or nation returns 1 member, then STV would become AV.

    Onto the other aspect, the House of Commons constiuency boundaries. For the Liberal Democrats, the reduction in size of the House of Commons would be balanced out by the election of members of the House of Lords. But does the May 2015 election have to be fought on the same boundaries? What if the Government were to make the Boundary Commissions draw up new constituencies based on equal-sized 650 seats?:

  • South East England- 90 (up 6), including two seats on the Isle of Wight under the special provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System & Constituencies Act 2011
  • London- 74 (up 1)
  • North West England- 74 (down 1)
  • Eastern England- 61 (up 3)
  • West Midlands- 58 (down 1)
  • South West England- 57 (up 2)
  • Scotland- 57 (down 2), including Na hEileanan An Iar and Orkney & Shetland, which are preserved under the Parliamentary Voting System & Constituencies Act 2011
  • Yorkshire & Humberside- 54 (unchanged)
  • East Midlands- 48 (up 2)
  • Wales- 32 (down 8)
  • North East England- 28 (down 1)
  • Northern Ireland- 17 (down 1)
  • The Boundary Commissions would be capable of producing new, fairer, constituencies in a short timescale.

    Reform of the House of Lords and redrawing the boundaries are salvagable.

    Sunday, 5 August 2012

    This House Is Technocratic

    If reports are accurate, then Prime Minister David Cameron is rowing back from reform of the House of Lords that was introduced under the House of Lords Reform Bill, simply because he cannot get the Conservatives to support him.

    From the manifesto (here) we have the words:

    We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence

    OK, that does not commit to House of Lords reform, but does commit to working to build a consensus- so a mainly-elected House of Lords is not a "Liberal Democrat obsession" but rather something we have accepted in principle. But the details...

    It does appear that the consensus Cameron cannot build is with his own party, so looks like we have the U-turn. Again. You turn if you want to, Prime Minister.

    I was struck by this letter from Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East, as he presents a false choice:

  • An elected chamber with the Liberal Democrats probably holding the balance of power (which I have already dealt with)
  • Reform which would also lose the improvements to legislation which experts, who have reached the top of their profession, bring to the process of legislation
  • Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The yah-boo politics of the House of Commons with its political parties, and then the Bill goes to the House of Lords where experts look at it, as if it's a council of wise men and women, free from any party loyalty, only thinking about whether the legislation is good or not.

    But that isn't the reality. Around three-quarters of the House of Lords are chosen for party loyalty, not for being an expert, whatever that is.

    Students of European Union history will know it has its origins in the European Coal & Steel Community, with decisions in its competencies to be made by technocrats- in other words people considered to be experts in that area, who could make decisions unrestrained by political ideology or national identity. The 78-member Assembly was thrown in as an afterthought.

    There was this interesting article by Matthew Parris in The Times, in which he states:

    Mine was the first generation after the Second World War. It is hard now to credit how mainstream then was the idea and what high hopes were then invested in the dream that the world was coming together and a new age of reason was dawning. Internationalism was the coming thing. We were entering an epoch, we speculated, of which the nascent UN was the most potent early symbol and something like world government was the final destination. We saw as a noble prospect the possible withering away of the nation state. Global action headed by multilateral organisations would assume responsibility for all those problems better tackled globally than nationally. Which was, surely, almost everything?

    Confidence in science was key. Science meant reason as well as knowhow. Science would banish prejudice as well as disease and want. Politics (in the national, political party, sense) would become old-fashioned as, across the globe, men and women of goodwill, expertise and common sense established the habits and institutions of co-operation. We thought it would be somehow obvious to them what needed to be done and reasonable people would increasingly reach out across national boundaries and join forces to do it. And maybe there would be no more war.

    What Parris is describing is technocratism- that political philosophy which sees itself as:

  • the solution to our problems
  • not a political philosophy
  • It is, writ large, the idea that the gentleman in Whitehall knows what's best for you. The cleverest philosophies, the ones that get under your skin, are those that convincingly trumpet that they are not a philosophy- for example, the way secularism succesfully portrays itself as not being a belief system but the neutral territory which should form the public square.

    Although the creation of the ECSC Assembly was an afterthought, it expresses an important idea- even when experts make their decisions, they have to be answerable to men and women chosen by the people for the people.

    Is too much misty-eyed emphasis being put on "experts" who are supposedly beyond politics and who will just do what's best? And why should being an expert in one area make you one of these wise people? After all, if I suddenly got to wear ermine then, yes, there are areas I could bring knowledge to, but would that give me the right to hurry along to a debate on an issue that I am a complete ignoramus on, calling out, "Let me through! I'm an expert"?

    Also note that until the Life Peerages Act 1958- which extended life peerages to men (and for the first time, women) who were not Law Lords (there had been some life peers around before 1958)- a man would be in the House of Lords if his late father had been, or if he were a hereditary peer of the first creation. A woman would be in the House of Lords if she had to do the dusting of red benches.

    This House of Non-Political Experts cannot be dated back more than 54 years. Well, to be precise, the House of Non-Political Experts exists only as part of the anti-reform campaign. I think it goes next to the Australian-style counting machines that the Australians don't use.

    Don't get me wrong. I am not knocking the Crossbenchers, who are generally beyond party politics. Just don't get dewy-eyed about a House of Lords that doesn't exist.