You shall possess the gate of your enemies

You shall possess the gate of your enemies

Being a upstanding Christian and a singer (actually, lets be honest, mainly being a singer), I have sent a lot of the last few weeks at carol services. During the many hours spent in candle-lit cathedrals and parish churches, most of my attention has been focussed on the music. But occasionally, I have been awake enough ‘read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God’.

The ubiquitous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (reworked at Coventry as the Dean’s Carols by Candlelight), from which I quoted above, does an excellent job of providing a summary of the Bible’s key events, from the Fall to the Incarnation of the Word, mixed in with some of the most beautiful parts of the prophecies of Isaiah. Yet this beautiful service, almost unchanged since its inception in 1918, leaves something to be desired. Its draws heavily on scripture but leaves no space for a sermon, for a chance to unpack what is spoken. That role falls instead to the music, which often offers allegory and commentary on scripture. Neither is there any space for the ritual which those of us from a more High Church tradition benefit from, to help us inhabit and live the experience. The result is that the scriptures themselves become ritualised, and there is a risk that we accept them without thought.

Such unquestioning acceptance is always likely to lead to error. I am not suggesting that the Bible is not divinely inspired, but I do take issue with the idea that it consistently, literally true. For one thing, to suggest that there are no translation or transcription errors is simply absurd, especially given that much of the Bible existed in oral tradition long before it was written down. But my greatest problem with the idea that the Bible is literally true, is that the presentation of God it offers seems to contradict itself, depending on what you read. Just contrast ‘God is Light, and in Him is no darkness’ (1 John 1:5) and ‘I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me’ (Deuteronomy 32:41).

Such contrasts are common – the general trend is that where the old testament God is one of wrath and vengeance, the new testament God is one of love and forgiveness. I tend to take the view that the understanding of God’s love which was most useful to building loving communities shifted. In an era before strong government, social relations needed regulation to prevent the fragmentation of an already marginalised, and frequently exiled people. A God of war and anger provided justice and defended the interests of a group which saw itself as isolated and alone, and in that way, was loving. He provided the kind of legal paternalism which, by the first century AD, was being provided by Empires and powers (what have the Romans ever done for us…). This meant God’s love could be more fully realised in other ways – in shaping community and human relations, in caritas et amor. 

But amid the hawkish appeals to the power of the Lord, there are still passages which reflect a truer vision of the kingdom of God. Isaiah is awash with them ‘The leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them.’ ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:6, 9). More interesting, though, are those passages which take a second listen, which make your ears prick.

When God and Abraham establish their covenant, Abraham is promised that his children will be a great nation, more numerous than the stars. He is also promised that ‘[his] seed will possess the gate of [their] enemies’ (Genesis 22:17). At first reading, this sounds militant. They will win sieges, and defeat their enemies. But that is only one interpretation. To possess the gate of your enemies means having control, yes, but it need not be warlike. If you control the gate, you control the city, but you need not have taken it by force. I could have given it to you. And in giving it to you, I have placed my life and freedom in your hand. I have put you in a position of trust, giving you the chance to break the cycle of violence, and allowing enemies to become trusted friends.

And that is what God is all about. Helping those of us who struggle with each other to get along, to build communities. Those of us who identify as Christians believe we have been entrusted with that duty. God has given us the gate of our enemies – the chance to change enemies to friends – and it is our duty to make good on His trust in everyone.

Unfortunately, as the lead image for this post illustrates, trust is something we continue to be rather bad at. From Mexico to the Middle East, we build walls to keep people apart. We have a tendency to emphasise the opposite of trust. We emphasise how people differ. What divides us. He looks different. She speaks a different language. They known God by another name. 2015, has seen these divisions emphasised again and again, from a refugee crisis, to foreign wars, and I fear 2016 will only see them grow. But hopefully, together, we can turn fear into trust. We have the power to change the narrative, to make the coming year better.

We may not succeed. The odds are stacked against us. National politics, personal power, community self-interest, all argue against global unity. But we must try. The city of Paris has defined the year, bookending it with divisive attacks in January and November, attacks which sought to heighten divisions, and emphasise the incompatibility of identities. But it also witnessed one of the greatest moments of unity seen for a long time. Less than a month after the city was left in fear and trembling by terrorism, 195 countries met in Paris, and agreed to a convention which would reduce carbon admissions as soon as possible, and limit global warming to well below 2 degrees. While the agreement leaves much to be desired, it is a sign of what we can achieve when we come together. It is not an easy path, but we must try to walk it.

Lords Reform – A Middle Ground

Lords Reform – A Middle Ground

Recent months have seen repeated calls for reform of the House of Lords. This is not a new idea. Calls for reform go back at least a century. The Blair government began what they hoped to be a thorough process of reform when they removed the automatic link between hereditary peerages and a seat in the Lords, while the cause has more recently been spearheaded by the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government. But recent attempts to further reform have not been successful, primarily because of a Conservative resurgence, so the ‘Sewel affair’ was something of an eye opener for many people.

I doubt any of us would want to be judged by the worst thing we have ever done, but Lord Sewel’s very public mistakes cast a shadow over the upper house, lending fuel to the fires of all those who hold it to be an outdated remnant of an undemocratic, patriarchal era. Of course, you can use prostitutes and still be able to contribute positively to society – the two are not mutually exclusive. Lord Sewel’s choices did not inherently make him unsuitable for government, but they did highlight wider issues about the appointment and accountability of our upper house.

The Electoral Reform Society, and many people on the left of the political landscape argue in favour of a directly elected upper chamber, using some form of STV. Others have argued that the Lords should be constituted based on the proportion of votes cast for each party in the General Election. The consensus is that an appointed upper house is filled with governmental cronies who do the bidding of the political establishment (when they do anything at all). Yet it is hard to see how a house which is elected to match the votes cast in the lower house would be any less under the thumb of the government.

In fact, I would argue that there is a strong case to be made for an unelected upper chamber. Clear evidence for this was seen in the recent debate surrounding the Conservative Tax Credits bill. The government was keen to push through reforms to the Tax Credit system, despite opposition from the electorate, civil society organisations and think tanks, which opposed them due to the damage they would do to the least well off in our society. The Lords, which was not packed with Conservatives, voted down the bill, leading the Tories to call for the house to be reformed. One cannot help noting a certain irony to this, given that, in 2012 the Conservatives blocked the Lib Dem’s thorough-going House of Lords Reform Bill, which would have resulted in a much smaller, and mainly elected upper chamber; had those proposals been passed, the outcome of the Tax Credit bill might have been rather different.

The fundamental issue at stake here is the purpose of the upper house. I contend that it is of most use as an oversight house, as a foil to the fickle changes in opinion seen in the Commons, and as a representative of the world outside politics. And that is why I favour an appointed house. An appointed house changes more slowly, as it takes time for old appointments to change. There is certainly no danger of all the Lords being replaced over night once every five years, and this means that a properly regulated house cannot swing from one political extreme to the other. It is not necessarily made up of career politicians, but of people who have made a wide range of contributions to public life. Furthermore, its members need not cow-tow to the will of the government, as loss of party support does not automatically result int he loss of a seat at the next election. Since members do not need to stand for re-election, they can take positions less popular in the short term, but quite possibly better in the long turn.

Some people would argue such a system is undemocratic, but it is simply a less direct form of representative democracy. We elect members of parliament to the house of Commons, and the leader of the winning party is then empowered to appoint people to the Lords. The question, however, is how to regulate appointments to prevent problems. This, I would argue, is where reform is desperately needed.

First and foremost, the upper house is too large. Each successive government is keen to consolidate power, appointing new Lords faster than sitting members die or resign (an option  since 2014). David Cameron appointed more peers in his first term in office than any of his predecessors, and this attitude is simply unsustainable. The first step in reform must therefore be an immediate moratorium on all new appointments to the upper house (with the exception of replacing Lords Spiritual, on which I will say more in due course). That will prevent further expansion, however it is generally accepted that, with 820 eligible members, the Lords is too large to function effectively. Some people have argued in favour of a house of 650 to match the Commons. However, the Commons number is set to allow a decent number of constituencies to represent the people. This is not needed in a house not built on constituencies (although we do want to maximise expertise), so I would favour a figure not higher than 500.

This raises the obvious question of how such a reduction is pursued. First of all, Lords can now retire, so we could just wait it out. This is, however, a clumsy option. Conversely, removing peerages is unlikely to engender positive feelings. I therefore propose that the Lords who vote least frequently have their voting rights removed, leaving only the 500 most active Lords with voting rights. Those non-voting Lords would maintain their title, and could sit on committees or contribute to debates, if formally invited to do so by one of their voting colleagues. This would allow their expertise to be maintained whilst bringing regular sittings of the chamber down to a reasonable size. Indeed I would allow the government to appoint further non-voting peers (who could be promoted to voting status when vacancies arose), to maximise the expertise of the upper house and allow the government some patronage power.

The turnover, however, is still low. Mechanism should therefore be established allowing the removal of a peer in exceptional circumstances (though these should be controlled to prevent abuse), or in cases of non-involvement. Membership should be reviewed every ten years by an independent commission.

The next question is what the ideal make-up of the house should be. I have an inclination towards an entirely cross-bench house, however that seems unrealistic. So instead, I propose that membership gradually moves towards a make-up where no more than 50% of voting peers (i.e.250 people ) are affiliated to the party. Thus no party can gain an outright majority. The other 50% should consist of 210 cross bench peers (appointed by a cross-party commission from the lower house) and 40 Lords Spiritual. The bishops of the Church of England (our established church and still the nation’s largest denomination) would continue to have a major place in this, but should be bolstered by leaders of other denominations (Roman Catholic, Methodist and Free Churches) and by Muslim, Hindu and Sikh leaders, all of whom can represent the views of their faiths.

Retired bishops or other Lords Spiritual would automatically become non-voting members; former Archbishops of Canterbury would have first refusal on voting membership when a vacancy arose (though they would lose that first refusal on all subsequent vacancies). I would not abolish the involvement of hereditary peers. Those peerages still associated with a  seat in the Lords would, when passed to heirs, become non-voting peerages and those holding them could be appointed as voting members when vacancies arose.

The remaining question is that of the cost of the House. At present, members can claim a £300/day attendance allowance, as well as various other benefits. This is obviously extravagant, especially since many Lords are already very well resourced. Assuming a £10/hour living wage, and acknowledging that many debates do run late into the night, the allowance should be reduced to £100/day for attendance. Non-voting member would not receive an allowance, though they would be entitled to use Parliamentary facilities on days when formally invited to attend. These two limitations would result in a major reduction in costs, making a reformed house of Lords far more sustainable.

A cheaper, more practical house, not susceptible to the vicissitudes of the political process is one which can keep healthy disagreement at the heart of our democracy.

On Bombing Syria – Not Another Iraq?

On Bombing Syria – Not Another Iraq?

I have spent much of the last few weeks trying to reach a decision on what role the UK should play in the Syrian conflict. I have not been able to do so. Perhaps if I had been in Parliament today, I would have reached a conclusion, but as it is, on this most important matter, I remain unsure.

This, of course, is why we elect representatives – to speak for us, and to devote time and energy to making decisions on our behalf – and tonight, this is what the representatives that we as nation elected, have done. After long and thorough debate, committee and cabinet discussions and public consultations, the vast majority of MPs, on both sides of the house, have voted in favour of extending the RAF’s bombing of ISIS targets to Syria. (It should not be forgotten that this *is* an extension of our involvement in a a conflict which is already going on in both Syria and Iraq, and which we are already involved in.)

I do not know if this is the right decision – only time will tell that, but it is the decision which has been made, and we must except that.

However, accepting that a decision has been made does not mean we can forget the issue. On the contrary, we should continue to interrogate our role in not only this, but every conflict. I believe that we have a moral duty to intervene if that intervention means fewer people die overall. It does not matter if those people are British or Syrian. In 1948, after the most inhuman war of all time, the world agreed that this was the most fundamental shared truth of humanity: all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

It is this spirit of brotherhood which I believe motivated the words and votes of every person sitting in the houses of parliament today, on either side of the debate. And it is this spirit of brotherhood which we must continue to strive to maintain.

With the UK now committed to bombing ISIS targets in Syria, that spirit of brotherhood must take on a different form.Whilst I am unsure of the merits of bombing specifically, I believe the vote tonight represents a commitment to helping solve the problems of Syria and Iraq. We must reaffirm our commitment to creating a peaceful, stable Syria and Iraq, by whatever means is most appropriate. If that requires the deployment of ground troops, we should do so. If it means playing a peacekeeping role for decades to come, we must do so. If it means curtailing our arms sales, or devoting hundreds of thousands of pounds to rebuilding and meeting humanitarian needs, we must do so. We must take whatever action is moral and serves the best interests of humanity.

These are problems we have of course failed to solve in the past. Whilst the situation tonight is not comparable to 2003 (a war is happening, whether we are involved or not), we must ensure we do not make the same failings we made before. We must do all we can to help rebuild Syria and Iraq. Just because we have failed to do this in the past, does not mean we should not try to do so again. We must learn from our mistakes. We must not repeat them. But that is not the same as avoiding situations because we might fail. We must pick ourselves back up.

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” We have a hard obligation to meet to one another. Some of you will think bombing is not the way to meet it, others will believe it is the best course of action available to us. But I hope all can agree that we, as a nation and as a world, must commit ourselves to fulfilling our shared duty to each other.