New Life

I’m sorry but the stream of posts may slow slightly for a week or two whilst I get to grips with matters in the sheep shed. Things kicked off last night with these two fine chaps who initially seemed a bit resistant to enter our modern world and needed a helping hand. Wonder why?

Normal rumination will be restored shortly.

Political Grandstanding and Hubris


In previous posts (here and here) I have discussed the pernicious effect that today’s 24-hour soundbite media has on the quality of our political debate and its contribution to electoral apathy. I don’t want to bang on about this but I was so outraged at the TV coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that I feel compelled to get a few things off my chest so that I can enjoy the rest of my day and eat lots of hay without enduring a bad dose of ruminant indigestion.

For those of you fortunate to miss it, this all-party Parliamentary committee, chaired by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, was taking evidence from HSBC executives on the company’s role in facilitating tax evasion schemes. Now, this is precisely the sort of core business that this committee should be conducting and it is quite right that Parliament investigates any abuse of the tax system. My objections are not to do with the subject matter but the conduct of the MPs during the hearing.

The verbal abuse of Stuart Gulliver and Chris Meares was bad enough but the treatment of Rona Fairhead was an abuse of parliamentary privilege. Unfounded accusations, inappropriate tone, confusing informed comment with personal views, refusing to allow witnesses to answer by talking over them, deliberate rudeness, contrived moral outrage and anger. The list goes on, and it only happened because the proceedings were filmed and presented an opportunity for our parliamentary saviours to grandstand safe in the knowledge that they would get a few moments of glory in the evening news.

The problem with this approach is that the purpose of the proceedings was undermined by the behaviour of the all-party committee members. The idea is to take evidence and report back to parliament, and by behaving in this way the committee members actually reduced the chances that witnesses would provide meaningful evidence and that anything consequential would eventually be reported. Moreover, whilst the MPs may have thought they were courting public opinion with their contrived anger, actually all they were doing was bringing politics further into disrepute and adding to the widespread public impression that they are solely interested in themselves rather than the public good.

It really is time to remove the cameras and have a clear out. I periodically have to do that with my sheep. Distasteful, but occasionally necessary for the benefit of the rest of the flock.

Toxic Policies: Mentioning the Unmentionable


In a previous post called Avoiding the Debate, I mentioned some of the factors that I believe are stifling our political debate and reducing its quality resulting in worrying electoral apathy and a democratic deficit. Today, I thought I would mention another feature that undermines proper discussion, and that is the toxic policy.

The toxic policy is an issue that has become so politically suicidal ever to mention that no MP will even dare to raise the matter for discussion. It is a political no-go zone. A good example is our centralized funding model for the NHS. Now I don’t know if our current model is the best solution or not. But I do know that the NHS costs an extraordinary sum of money and that demand for health services is increasing at an alarming rate. With this in mind, it seems to me that periodically we should at least look at other ways of funding health care even if we subsequently decide that the current model remains appropriate for today’s circumstances. At the very least we should have the courage occasionally to take a look and discuss it.

Making subjects politically impossible to raise is a deliberate tactic employed by those who oppose change and seek to stifle debate. Frequently, those employing the tactic will try to adopt the moral high ground by implying that someone is extreme or despicable if they dare even to open a matter for discussion. At a local level, a good example is the use of the term Nimby to describe someone opposed to a development. The moral implication is that an individual or party is somehow acting selfishly and against the common good for opposing a development even if they are the person most affected by the proposal. The Greens are particularly adept at employing the tactic when wind farm developments are proposed but it is also used to stifle debate on other policy matters. In these instances, contrived moral outrage is often reinforced by accusations that the very fact that a subject has been opened for discussion reveals that a decision for change has already been made.

The problem with such political correctness is that questions that need to be asked remain buried, change becomes impossible to achieve and political orthodoxy becomes dogma. Now you might think that a politician that is unwilling to tackle the toxic policy lacks bravery and that would be true to some extent, but in the face of the likely adverse media coverage it becomes much easier to bury a subject rather than to raise it.

This is ultimately bad for all us in my view. How will we ever get better if we don’t look at all the options?

Pick and Mix Policies for the Politically Homeless


The problem with tribal politics is that politicians and voters are forced into narrow categories where there is little scope for interpretation or shades of grey (no we’re not going there today). Politics has always been tribal to some extent, but the 24 hour scrutiny of a media that is hungry to write stories about internal divisions has made party politics even more partisan and boring. The Whips hold sway, and with some notable and interesting exceptions, politicians rarely put their head above the parapet to challenge their party orthodoxy with interesting and new ideas. I discussed some of this in a previous post, Avoiding the Debate.

Recently, I have started to reflect on which political pigeon hole I should adopt as my home, and I found that I don’t really fit anywhere particularly well. I suppose if I was forced, I would say that I’m socially liberal but economically conservative. I believe that self-reliance should be promoted wherever possible as it enriches lives, but on the other hand I want the State to provide a temporary safety net for those of my fellow citizens that fall on hard times. But, note, a safety net not a means of dogmatically redistributing wealth, and so I would place limits on the extent of taxpayer support (see here for my post on the welfare state). In a similar vein, I think that the State should be as small as possible for efficiency but that does not mean zero state activity as government intervention in some areas is necessary and beneficial. I don’t think governments should run trains but they should run the security services and law enforcement, for example.

Even on other economic matters I do not necessarily adhere to conventional doctrine as whilst I believe in a free market I also think that limits should be placed on its excess. I don’t want higher taxes but I do think Google and the like should pay their way if they expect to trade here. Similarly, I’m not opposed in principle to the private sector providing public services so long as it is properly regulated to ensure the necessary standard. Sometimes, the private sector can do a better job than civil servants, and that can offer value to taxpayers so long as we don’t get ripped off. And, finally, do let the bankers make loads of money so long as its not at our expense, they pay their taxes and they don’t rely on us to bail them out when they cock it up.

On other topical matters, I have decided that on balance I would like the UK to leave the political and legal structures of the EU and to implement proper immigration controls (see post here) for the benefit of all the people living in these Isles. Yet, I also want to protect the rights of our existing immigrant population now that they have settled here. I see them as British as myself. On civil rights, I believe in our democratic rights and legal system but I also think that with citizen rights come responsibilities and that the balance occasionally gets skewed the wrong way by inappropriate laws some of which are imposed from outside the country. On social affairs, what’s wrong with gay marriage, for example? Why should I try to stop someone experiencing the same happiness that I have found in my own union. It affects me, my lifestyle and my country not one jot. It is only religious and extreme political dogma (see post here) that would oppose such ideals and I have no truck with that.

I think a bit of me is also nationalistic in the sense that I believe we should act in the interests of the UK and all its citizens. Now that may sound a bit scary or suggest that I could be a closet EDL or BNP supporter but I could never vote for them because I believe in the equal rights of all British citizens whatever their ethic origins or religious beliefs. I believe that the UK should continue to play a role on the international stage but with our own interests placed at the centre of our approach to diplomacy and international aid, and not necessarily for the benefit of those around us (depending on the issue, they may coincide, of course). In this regard, I would like to see us deploy our overseas aid budget more strategically to support foreign policy.

Above all, I want to feel that I have some kind of influence on what happens around me. That means that I am gravitating away from the centralized Westminster political model towards a more federal system of government. That is the preferred Labour answer for English devolution if I correctly understood their comments following the Scottish Referendum. Following my earlier post on Devolution, blackandwhiteram made some interesting remarks about the US federal system, and on reflection I think that the size of our population could now make a similar system viable for the whole of the UK. A fully federal system would allow the regions to tax and spend (but not borrow) in order to provide services but with a greatly reduced federal government at Westminster providing mainline services such as defence and foreign policy. There are some difficulties with this model which we discussed previously and it would be necessary to design the regions carefully (or come up with an English Barnett formula to reduce regional inequality – see the Devolution post I linked). A federal system needn’t cost a lot more if Whitehall was reduced in size and a layer of local government stripped away to make space for the regional assemblies or whatever you want to call them. Most importantly, it would improve voter representation and influence, and we could get away from this charade that is currently taking place in the run up to the general election.

So I am indeed politically homeless. There are signs of new thinking. I notice that Tim Montgomerie has started to promote a right-leaning initiative that challenges the Conservative orthodoxy by introducing an element of social justice, and maybe this is a sign that some of the dogmatic political boundaries are starting to erode. Its worth a read although its still not quite right for me.

So, homeless for the moment. Good job I’ve got a sheep shed to sleep in.

HR: Confusing Education with Training


It really is tough for kids growing up today. It seems that there is ever greater pressure to cast them into a pre-determined shape at an ever earlier stage. This is especially apparent in the jobs’ market where specifications are written so tightly that there is no room for individuals who are well-educated and adaptable but who lack many of the terribly narrow requirements that you see listed in job adverts.

I absolutely place the blame for this at the Human Resources community’s door. It seems to me like HR has become a monstrosity, extending its tentacles into all areas of corporate life and building an empire that would impress Darth Vader. You only have to look at the multitude of books that have been written on recruitment and applying for jobs to understand that as a cadre, HR has tried extremely hard to develop a rigid science behind something that is otherwise largely common sense. It also leads to companies and organisations deferring to this self-promoted expertise and allowing people without any great understanding of a business to select the job applicants which are crucial for that company’s future wellbeing.

There are wider adverse effects too. Overly tight job and people specifications preclude a whole group of candidates who might well perform better in a job than those that are able to tick the most boxes. It also forces young people to make crucial career decisions at an ever earlier stage so that they then have time to gather the necessary ticks. This is not the way a childhood should be in my opinion. They just don’t know what they want to be when they are growing up and they shouldn’t have to make such weighty decisions until they are mature enough to recognise their path through life. In my experience, individuals can achieve extraordinary things when they love their job but that job can take a bit of finding. On the other hand, if someone has been steered onto a particular path by premature and irreversible decisions then they are likely to be unhappy and will be certainly less productive.

Finally, we hear much from Industry moaning that they can’t find the people with the necessary skills and fingers are pointed to failings in the education system. Now, let me make clear that improvements do need to be made to education, but we need to be clear what schools, universities and companies are responsible for. Schools and Universities do education, firms do training and by trying to confuse the two industry is attempting to drive training costs onto the State. Education should provide the foundations for training which is the last stage in the process before an individual starts work.

If we confuse education and training then we are in danger of weakening those foundations. We will end up producing demotivated automatons who are incapable of creative thought and constructive innovation. Is that what industry really wants? Our industrial leaders need to take charge of their manpower and invest properly and strategically in their businesses if they wish to remain competitive. Crucially, that will involve them taking more responsibility for training their workforce. Maybe this is one reason why the UK’s productivity has been so poor in recent years.

Rant over, do pass me the hay…

Political Leaders: Made of Plastic


In an earlier post, Avoiding the Debate, I discussed some of the reasons why the electorate is increasingly switching off politics and I made the point that some intellectual honesty during political discussions would go a long way to repairing the situation. I would like to develop this theme with a short post for the weekend on the curious incidence of the plastic political leader.

They are all seem to be the same, don’t they? Completely ruled by their media advisors, they all speak the same politico, media-friendly language, and they even wear the same tailored suits. They refuse to acknowledge both sides of the argument, they issue inane and meaningless soundbites and they appear unprincipled shifty, and lacking conviction. Wait for the Leaders’ TV debates if you want to test this theory. Here they are already being prepared for their live TV appearances:


If only they could allow some individual humanity and personality to shine through! We all know what’s required, and it’s not made of plastic. It’s made of real flesh and bone. You can argue about his politics (and I agree that there is probably a degree of political cynicism under the facade) but how is it that Boris is able to win his mayorship twice in a city that votes predominantly labour? Yes, it is probably by appearing eccentric and by by quoting Greek mythology. But the fact of the matter is that people are bored with plastic leaders. At least Boris appears different. He is unconventional and interesting, and this makes people listen to him. Whatever your political leanings, we need to bring back some flawed humanity into the political discourse and a slightly unconventional, offbeat and unpredictable figurehead, so long as he/she was a capable and intelligent manager, would be a good start.

Finally, I don’t wish to endorse any particular politician with this posting and I am sure there would be suitable candidates to replace the plastic Miliband. George Galloway perhaps? Or the maverick Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Now he’s certainly not plastic! Any ideas for Cleggers?

Unpicking the Immigration Debate


Today’s release of the latest ONS quarterly immigration statistics has caused a predictable political storm, so I thought I would dip my toe into this emotive matter. The problem with the immigration debate is that people always start by shouting about EU controls and racism before considering the facts and trying to come to a considered conclusion. I can’t promise I will achieve this but I’ll give it a go. Please also note that when I refer to ‘national interests’ in this essay I mean the interests of all those currently residing here whatever their origins. And, yes, that includes those that arrived here as immigrants. Its a longer post than normal but bear with me.

When we discuss UK immigration policy we do have to distinguish between EU and non-EU migration because the law currently regards each category separately. I will mention both but initially I would like to discuss some general factors.

It would be fair to say that global population movement is becoming ever more straightforward. Improved global communications have made it much easier for potential migrants to learn about possible destinations and to compare their present situation to what they hope might be possible elsewhere. The over-riding desire is for a better life but that may be prompted by a number of drivers including economics, employment, corruption, poverty, war, disease, religious discrimination and any other number of the horrors that we see across our screens each day. In the worst case, these push factors are ruthlessly exploited by organized crime syndicates who traffic people in the most amoral and dangerous ways. Few will fail to be moved by pictures like this one taken near Australia.


The UK is clearly an attractive destination for many, and I was struck by a recent BBC interview of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy, many of whom identified the UK as the place they wanted to go to. It is easy to understand why. The economy is prosperous, we have a solid legal system that protects individuals, by and large, from persecution, crime is low and we protect ourselves collectively with our welfare system (see my previous post on welfare). A key pull factor is the existence of trans-national networks in the form of relatives or friends who have already settled in a country and of course this is certainly the case for multicultural Britain.

The worrying aspect is the number of people that want to move. If you want to judge the potential scale of the problem then have a read of this Gallup paper. It takes a global perspective on migration but there are aspects of it that are startling for the UK. Some key facts are as follows:

* 700m adults worldwide would like to migrate to another country if they could.
* The US is the preferred destination followed by Canada and the UK
* The paper concludes that developed countries such as our own could be overwhelmed if aspirations became intentions.
* The desire to migrate is highest in sub-saharan Africa where 36% or 166m people would migrate if they could.
* In third place, the UK would attract 46m people with France 39m and Germany 26m

It is very hard to know for sure how many people would actually leave their own countries but as transport links and communications improve it will become easier, and if even a small proportion of those who aspire to migrate actually moved, then a great number of people could try to reach our shores. It is worth pondering these two images. The first shows the projected increase in the UK population, and the second redraws the map of the world according to population density. Compare the size of the UK with, say South America or the US. We already have lot of people.


cartogram population map

But does a large and growing population matter? Well it depends on your point of view and what matters to you. A sudden increase could place pressure on services, but if the economy was growing then this could be accommodated so long as there wasn’t a sudden surge. We also have space for new development at the moment but as a countryside dweller I would not wish to see our green spaces become totally covered over with concrete. That said, I am sure that there are many readers who love the city life who would place their cosmopolitan lifestyle high up the wish list of life. There are also the cultural changes that would undoubtedly occur as people from overseas became residents and brought in their own cultural norms. Now personally, I don’t really mind about these either. But I might if cultural diversity started to challenge the fundamental things that make me feel British such as our democracy, legal system and rights. I have touched on one component of this issue in my recent post The Religious State.

One important factor that is often ignored is the security implications of large-scale migration and this seems particularly relevant today. I have mentioned the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa wishing to move and you only have to look at the chaotic scenes in Italy as migrants are rescued, disembark and then disappear from holding camps to make their way illegally across Europe often without documents proving their origins. Whilst I am sure that the majority are just looking to improve their lot in life, it would be relatively straightforward for an organization like ISIS, for example, to deploy sleepers, amongst the throngs who may eventually come to these Isles to do us harm. There is also evidence that ISIS intend to use migrant movements to destabilise Southern Europe and shipping routes in the Mediterranean. This is certainly something that we need to bear in mind without assuming the worst in all those that make the treacherous crossing over the Med.

And then there is the economy. A key advantage of net immigration is that it can fill shortages of skills when the economy is growing fast. Whilst this perpetuates growth and suppresses inflation, it can be a double-edged sword. For example, we currently restrict the number of medical school places available for UK residents whilst bringing in trained foreign doctors to fill jobs in the NHS. There can be doubt that we have loads of bright kids that could fill additional places to study medicine and yet we choose to restrict the numbers to save money. I do like it when we save money, but I don’t like to see our kids stymied in their aspirations. More broadly, the danger is that we save money by outsourcing training and education to other countries who probably can’t afford the costs anyway and who suffer disproportionately when they lose domestically-trained individuals. It is a tricky one; where does the national interest lie, and whose national interest is it? The same applies to low-paid workers. We bring in foreign workers to do jobs on the minimum wage that many of our own people would decline. This keeps industry competitive but it also encourages some to rely on the welfare state which I discussed in the post linked earlier. If the entry of unskilled low-paid foreign workers was restricted then pay would rise and in-work benefits would subside…to the benefit of taxpayers but at a cost to industrial competitiveness.

Looking at these issues, it seems to be a problem of degree. We want migrants to come here but not in such numbers that we are overwhelmed or which disadvantages the people already resident here. Acting in the national interest is why we have countries. On balance, this does mean that we should implement comprehensive border controls. We do have one advantage and that is geography. Our Island status makes it easier to control entry and exit to the country although we would have to spend more than the existing and pitiful 1.7% of our tax revenue to so so. Neither should we distinguish between EU or non-EU migrants. We should judge each application on its merits and only take those immigrants that we have identified as being advantageous to accept according to our needs at that time. Now, that is not to say that we wouldn’t negotiate bilateral agreements that would waive visa requirements with certain countries but, in the case of the EU, it would be on a case by case basis. I have yet to understand why the free movement of people within the EU is such an important component of the internal market and it seems to me to be more of a measure designed to socially engineer economic equality rather than free trade. I will eventually write a post on the EU as I expect there will be no getting away from it, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that the EU is essentially a political structure and therefore all things can be negotiated if there is a will.

Finally, we cannot ignore the components that drive migration. We cannot resolve economic inequality by throwing open our doors but we can try to address some of the less desirable factors by playing a full role in the international community and by directing our overseas aid budget more strategically. And I will post on that too before long. But that is enough for now. Please be polite to me and one another.

Devolution: Who’s Accountable?


Since the Scottish referendum, there has been much discussion about devolving power down to the regions, and the recent announcement by the Government that it intends to devolve a £6 billion health and care budget down to the Greater Manchester area has been largely greeted with approval across the political spectrum. For sure, it gives local authorities the responsibility to set health and care priorities and to shift cash around but does it actually increase accountability and promote value for money for the taxpayer?

Well, I expect that there are few that would disagree that centralized structures are unwieldy and often struggle to get value for money despite the attractions offered by the economics of scale. We’ve heard about the £10 Whitehall paperclip too often for this not to be true. There is also no doubt that a centralised and corrupt political system often directs resources for political purposes rather than on the basis of actual need. Where it is allocated altruistically, it is often misdirected owing to a lack of understanding about particular local conditions and requirements. Local spending also gets better scrutiny and is more transparent as budgets are smaller and easier to inspect than the national versions.

Devolved budgets look attractive then, but in my opinion it is only by owning the right to spend and to raise revenue that proper democratic accountability can be enforced. If it is only the power to spend a budget that is devolved then there is little to stop the spender using up all the cash and then pointing to the central government when it finds it has run out of resources. ‘It’s not our fault, you haven’t given us enough’ will be the excuse. Particularly from a Labour-run council with a Conservative Government (or vice versa). On the other hand, if an authority has to raise the cash that it wishes to spend then it is totally accountable for both sides of the equation. It may decide to raise more revenue through an increase in local taxation and spend a little more but to do this there will have to be a conversation with the local electorate who may see things differently. That is proper democracy at work and a powerful driver for encouraging tax-payer value for money. Moreover, if that conversation takes place at a local level then the debate is often better focussed and able to highlight the real issues rather than a centralized argument that gets lost in all the Westminster noise.

So, it’s an open and shut case: we should devolve the maximum power down from the centre. Well, perhaps not. Whilst a centralised treasury sometimes misdirects resources through corrupt politics or incompetence, it does allow the central authority to at least have a stab at resolving geographically competing needs. If we fully devolved tax-raising and spending powers to small regions then the sparsely-populated or poorer areas would be completely disadvantaged, and it is unlikely they would be able to offer the same standard of services. In extremis, this could encourage significant population movements
to the metropolitan areas which could be destabilising and suddenly increase the pressure on services in particular areas. On a more philosophical note, I suppose one aspect of belonging to a country is that the population has a common interest in looking after each other regardless of location. Isn’t that why we have the Barnett formula for Scotland? That collective insurance would soon disappear as the devolved regions started to become more like autonomous mini states.

I am instinctively against big government and so the devolved solution looks attractive. But it is not a straightforward case and it requires careful thought. It may be that a half-way house solution that partially devolves tax and spending would provide the right balance of efficiency and accountability. In this regard, a locally levied sales tax (with commensurate reduction in VAT) might be one way of devolving tax raising powers without going the full hog. However, our Union has already suffered some shocks recently following the Scottish referendum and I think we need to move cautiously to avoid the unintended effects of any fiscal actions we take too hastily. It is probably a question of scale. The Soviet Union was too big to run from a centralized authority but, on the other hand, we can’t live in little tribes. Thoughts?

Political Leaders’ TV Circus

Bun Fight cartoon

Oh Dear, the TV companies have agreed the dates for our lords and masters to strut their stuff live on the telly. There will be two TV debates where 7 of the party leaders will engage in a political soundbite melee, and a final event where just David Cameron and Ed Miliband will go head to head. They will be screened on 2, 16 and 30 April so my advice would be to attend your pub quiz night on those dates as you are likely come away better educated and, I suspect, a good deal more cheerful.

In my post, Avoiding The Debate I discussed the reasons for the poor quality of the political debate in the UK and the adverse effect it was having on the electorate. Forgive me for sounding cynical but is this really going to help the situation? The media will talk up the programmes and tell us they are bringing politics to the people when in fact all they really want are the viewing figures and the hope that someone trips up so that the story can be kept going for a few days. Forget any idea of a considered discussion on the strategy-led policies of the various parties. Instead it will be a fest of soundbites, faked outrage and manufactured drama. It will be Eastenders meeting Westminster in a Christmas panto special. The audience will boo and hiss, the protagonists will roll their eyes at each other and those at home will think solely about who got the better of who in the war of pre-rehearsed wit and soundbite.

And how could it be otherwise especially in the two debates where there will be seven parties (Con, Lab, Lib/Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru). There will be no time for any detailed argument just the same old inane point scoring that has turned so many people off politics and politicians.

The only hope is that the whole thing falls apart and gets cancelled although the TV companies have said that if anyone pulls out, the programmes will continue with an empty seat on the stage.

Enjoy your quiz.

The Religious State


Today, I would like to write about the interface between religion and the State. Before I start, I would just like to say that it is not my intention to offend anyone that holds strong religious beliefs although I will make some difficult points that reflect my perceptions as an educated non-believer. I will also mention radical Islam, not because I want to single out any particular set of beliefs but because it perhaps represents a threat to our immediate peace, security and community cohesion.

Whilst I personally lack any belief that there is a God or a creator that provides a higher purpose for us in life, I do accept that many religions provide a moral framework with teachings that are sensible and advantageous to follow such as peace, goodwill, forgiveness and respect for our neighbours. It is also interesting that many of these principles are common across the religious spectrum even between religions that are opposed to each other in the manner of their implementation. I also accept that for many people religious beliefs can provide comfort in times of bereavement and inspiration for endeavour. These have immense value for those that embrace the ideals, and I would not wish to denigrate their beliefs or those advantages.


Whilst I acknowledge some of the practical benefits, I have difficulties concerning the implementation of some belief systems. Throughout time, religious leaders have imposed their ideas on people through the fear of retribution, violence and even bribery. Whether it is fear of purgatory, the Inquisition, witch trials, catholic and protestant persecutions or, more recently, the rise of Islamic State, then the common thread is always about the imposition of a belief system on the flock by those that seek to exert control. It is all about, ‘I am the upholder of this religion, I am right and if you don’t agree and conform then x,y and z will happen’. This way of imposing belief systems is apparent within many religious texts which are reinforced by ideas that prophets and religious leaders are qualified and entitled to uphold religious tenets. It is almost as though the authors of these texts wrote their own job specification. There is also the threat of divine retribution against those that demur from the stated ideals. Historically, it is through such certainties that leaders have been able to exert control. It is rule by fear.

Whilst much of this is historical, there are still problems today even though most religious texts were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago. On a positive note (in my view), things are gradually changing. It is interesting that as educated populations and liberal democracies have spread then it has become ever harder for religious zealots to impose their doctrine, and religion in these countries has become more of a voluntary matter. Clerics are still able to influence the public debate but in secular countries it is more by cajoling than enforcement which reflects a distinct and welcome reduction in political power and authority. It is almost certainly why hard-line extremists in places like Afghanistan are so against democracy and threaten to punish people who take part in elections.

And yet we are nowhere near total enlightenment. Some branches of Christianity still issue threats of eternal damnation, and Catholic attitudes towards some matters like contraception are still controlled by an unelected hierarchy in Rome. More worrying are the atrocities that take place in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where religion dominates most functions of the state. Or, even worse, in lawless parts of the world like Syria, Libya, Somalia. In these places effective government has completely collapsed, and ad-hoc groups use religion as the justification for unspeakable acts of violence as a means of exerting control over a terrorized population.


Closer to home, we have no majority group religions that are actively seeking to supplant our system of government. There are some single-issue Christian groups like the pro-life lobby that are vociferous but they are restricted in their objectives and they largely eschew acts of violence even if they can be quite intimidating in the manner of their approach. However, there is a small but growing minority of the Muslim community that is attracted to the ideals put forward by radical clerics originating from non-secular countries and who are willing to use violence to enforce them. In extreme cases, some proponents would replace our whole legal framework by a system of religious law. Religion and the state would become inseparable and, presumably, the arbiters of good taste would be the self-appointed religious leaders. This is not just a cultural variance but a matter that directly challenges our whole way of life, our system of government and our system of rights born out of Magna Carta. Having baldly stated the challenge, I must at this point be at pains to state that such views are attractive to only a tiny portion of our Muslim population which at 7% is itself only a small minority. However, small though it may be, violent Islamic extremism does seem to be a growing problem with security ramifications that need to be addressed if community divisions are to be avoided.

It seems to me that as the problem centres on a radical interpretation of Islam then the problem can only be addressed from within the Muslim community, and this means within homes, mosques and schools (in that order of importance). The problem (and I tread warily of generalizing here) is that within the Moslem community there seems to be a cultural reluctance to challenge religious certainties and teachings. There seems to be much more respect for religious leaders, and this makes it less likely that statements heard in the mosque will be challenged in later discussions around the family dinner table where in my experience most children learn to find their way in life. This religious deference is indeed a weakness being exploited by those that seek to influence opinion, and one that must change if a battle of the cultures is to be avoided. I do sense that were there to be a home-grown outrage then there could be a significant backlash resulting in community divisions and unrest so the matter does need to be addressed urgently. And it can be addressed with Muslim leadership, determination and community action. Witness the heartening photograph on Twitter of a group of moderate Norwegian Muslims surrounding a synagogue to guard it in an act of symbolic unity. Now let’s see a huge march in London for the same ideals.

It is a measure of how difficult the situation has become that I found that last paragraph very difficult to write. Whatever the reasons (and perhaps we will address some of these in my next post on immigration), cultural divisions and misunderstandings really do exist in our society. I am no social scientist, and I have written my perceptions as a white middle-class Englishman but they are only my perceptions and I am very open to counter-arguments. As a result, I would welcome informed Muslim comment if I have misunderstood the situation. It is only by eating our hay together and ruminating that we will increase our peace and mutual understanding.