Overlit by Joy

Overlit by Joy

Last weekend, once again, innocent people were killed on British soil, by people driven by an ideology built on hatred and division. Lives were ended prematurely, and others were irrevocably changed.

I have written before about how we respond to acts of terrorism, and after three attacks in three months, it feels like I can say little which has not already been captured by others. I can share stories of people helping out, of little acts of resistance, whether fleeing pint in hand, or returning to settle up the next day. I can point out that acts of terror do little to increase the risks we all face in modern life (though this is no comfort to those directly effected). And I can reaffirm the importance of standing together. Of living boldly.

But there is one thing I can say, which has not, perhaps, been said before.

You see, London Bridge is somewhere I spend a lot of time. I sing at Southwark Cathedral, so this attack felt, in some ways, far closer to me than even the Westminster attack (which led to my boss being stuck in Whitehall). Indeed, just last week I enjoyed a curry and drinks with friends in exactly that part of town.

But on Saturday night I was nowhere near London Bridge. Instead, I was in the Cumbria, at the wedding of two people I love well, Matt (who followed me as an intern at Coventry Cathedral), and Ellen (who lived with us when she came to Coventry, and who was there through some of the worst frustrations of job hunting).

Matt and Ellen are people who live out, perhaps better than any couple I know, an example of love and service. Matt devotes his time to working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers, while helping churches in Coventry improve their interfaith relations. Ellen spends her days supporting children with lives far more complex and painful than I can imagine, as a learning support mentor. They do all this, while building a life together in Coventry, a city which neither of them knew before two years ago. And yet somehow, they always have time for their friends and family.

Their wedding was, then, an occasion which spoke of love at every turn. It spoke of their love, and of God’s love for them and for the world. It is fitting that they met each other as they met God in the waters Baptism. They are from a far more evangelical tradition than me, which meant their wedding was more openly fervent than many I have seen, and everyone I met at their wedding was clearly aware of God’s love for them, and of God working through them.

Put simply, their wedding overflowed with love and light and life. I did not expect to be named as a surrogate brother, nor to feel so very welcome and comfortable, though surrounded by people I didn’t know.

It was shortly after my mum and I got back to our B and B that we heard about the attack at London Bridge. I could barely comprehend the sorrow, full as my head was with love. And that is a great blessing. If, somehow, the joy of that wedding had been pushed aside by the London Bridge attack, I would have lost something immeasurably precious.

For me, the 3rd June 2017 will always be Matt and Ellen’s wedding day. And when other people speak about the London Bridge attack, I will remember their love, and their importance to everyone who is touched by their lives. Their wedding will not be overshadowed by the deaths of innocent people at Borough Market. Rather, those deaths will be made a little less dark by the light they cast.

Because light will always outshine darkness.

Sorrow is overlit by joy.


Dementia Tax…

The 2017 Conservative manifesto includes a commitment to funding social care through individual payments, capped so that nobody is left with less than £100,000.

This policy, widely condemned as a “Dementia tax” is deeply unfair. It would in effect mean that someone with a long term illness would face a tax rate of 100% on assets (including property) over £100,000. Inheritance tax currently stands at 40% on assets above a variable threshold, between £325,000 and £850,000.

In other words, Conservative tax policy will penalise anyone with a long-term, condition.

This, of course, has sparked backlash, as well it should. It is therfore unsurprising that today saw a Conservative u-turn. Theresa May announced that alongside this level of assets below which a person will not have to pay for care, there will be an absolute cap on the contributions any person will be required to make to pay for their social care.

I’ve blogged about u-turns in the past, and continue to believe they can be a public good. I’m glad Theresa May’s Conservatives have realised that their proposals for funding social care were deeply unfair. I’m glad they have announced this policy change, capping the amount anyone will be required to pay (though they have not specified what that cap will be). Im glad they are willing to change their position when flaws are highlighted (if we are going to have another Tory government, I’d rather it were one which changes its mind when presented with new evidence),

But this policy change does not go far enough. A system which makes an individual pay for their own care, regardless of how it is capped, is inherently unfair. Rather than sharing the burden of unforcosts and uncontrollable medical costs fairly across society, it penalises people for being ill. Let me repeat that. The Conservative policy forces ill people to pay for their care. This is entirely antithetical to the principles of the NHS. It is fundamentally unfair that two otherwise identical people will pay vastly different sums due to an accident of health.

A fair system would see everyone contributing to the country’s social care needs, in proportion to their ability to pay (it’s unpopular, but I increasingly see a larger role for inheritance tax in meeting care needs). This system does not do that. It makes some people pay through the nose, while others get away with paying nothing. This is not a way to build a more cohesive society. It may be that we need to use people’s housing wealth to cover care costs, but if that is the case, it should come out of everyone’s houses.

Don’t let the Conservatives fool you. They may have tweaked their policy, but in doing so they have only made it a bit less bad!

Brick By Brick

Brick By Brick

In March I joined the Liberal Democrats. I was optimistic about the path the party was taking, with increased membership, and a position on Brexit which not only set us apart from Labour and the Conservatives, but also spoke to wider liberal values. I felt that, with hard work and a good media operation we could make some real progress. We could focus on showing the country the value of truly Liberal philosophy in a changing world; a world where the biggest threats do not respect borders, where our enemies are fuelled by intolerance, where the old party allegiances are increasingly meaningless.

Then Theresa May called an election.

Initially I was optimistic. The party membership reached a historic high. I thought our message could cut through.

It is clear now, that I was wrong. We haven’t seen a poll surge, fuelled by people who hold liberal values close to their heart. The local election results were at best mediocre. The two main party leaders declined to take part in leader’s debates, meaning that our only hope would be to be the best of the ‘minor’ parties. And, because of the chocolate fireguard of an electoral system which is First Past the Post, Theresa May has been able to shape the election as a choice between herself and Jeremy Corbyn.

Increasingly, I think this election could not have come at a worse time for us. Had it followed straight on the back of the referendum, we could have made far more of opposing Brexit, which now feels, to most people, a foregone conclusion. Conversely, had the election been a few years later (following the fixed term parliament act), we would have had the benefit of a more substantial break from the coalition, which still undermines potential centre-left support, alongside evidence of just how bad Brexit will actually be.

So what now?

We plug away. We build on our increasingly professional media operation, and make the most of any airtime we can get. We throw everything at key seats, and we hope that, come June the 9th, we are not worse off. I’ll be pleased if we make it in to the 20s at this point – if we lose seats we are in real trouble. But regardless, I increasingly see this election as a battle for survival, because we simply don’t have the bandwidth to do more. We are short on time, we are squeezed out of the competition by Labour and the Tories.

Once we are through the next few weeks, the real work will begin.

For too long, our cultural discourse has been high-jacked by illiberal voices, so that we have almost lost sight of what we are missing. The Liberal Democrats must step up and show the word that we can achieve more if we value differences of experience and culture, rather than seeking to impose conformity. That we people should be supported to pursue their own vision of a good life, through excellent education, through real electoral choice, through the freedom to love without consequence. That we can still work with people of different views. That any society relies on the contributions of all its parts, and cannot afford to demonise those who are rich, poor or not from round here. That our greatest challenges do not respect national boundaries.

The world needs Liberalism. Its our job to help it realise this.

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Last week, after much umm-ing and ahh-ing, I joined the Liberal Democrats. Hopefully this will explain why (and might even spur someone else to do the same).

Throughout the majority of my political life, I have held the view the we would be better served if political parties did not exist. It is too easy for voters to get entrenched in voting patterns, without actually assessing policies or candidates. If we were all swing voters, It would ensure candidates actively engaged with their communities, making politics more of a conversation.

The reality, however, is that parties are here to stay, because, consciously or not, we all put ourselves in groups – whether by philosophy, nationality, religious outlook, or some other identity.

So if you want to play an active role in shaping the future, as I do, you must start by working with people who share a given identity. I look around and I am scared for the future; I am scared by our apathetic response to war and famine, by our baseless distrust of difference, by our disregard for the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, by the reckless abandon with which we abuse our planet. These are choices – choices driven by our political discourse which I must condemn. But simply to condemn the status quo is to abdicate responsibility. To live with integrity, I must act positively. I must seize every opportunity to turn things around. That’s why I decided the time had come to join put my money where my mouth is.

But why the #LibDemFightback?

I wrote about identity earlier in this post (and in previous posts on this blog). Indeed, it’s something I care about deeply, and there are few parties with whom I identify. Our two main parties of government seem committed to re-fighting Marxist battles between the workers and owners. True, you get working class Conservative voters, perhaps drawn to the party’s strong stance on law and order, just as you get middle class Labour voters, but those two parties are fundamentally concerned with ideas of wealth and class. Its in the very name of the Labour party – the party of manual labourers.

This division makes little sense to me. I don’t identify as working class, yet neither am I part of the wealthy elite (despite having grown up in the Cotswolds). What matters to me, far less than what rates of tax the Government sets, is what they do, and why they do it. And while there are Labour policies of which I approve (and conceivably even one or two Tory policies – I won’t rule out that possibility, though it seems doubtful), I cannot share their underlying philosophies. Labour requires ‘solidarity’, thus opposing dissent and plurality, while the Conservatives are inherently opposed to change and, consequently, raising the common good.

One other party has, at times appealed to me. The trouble with the Green Party is that it emphasises ecology above all else. That means my partner would be out of a job (no testing on live, non-human subjects, even if they are nematode worms), and more generally, that they have little time for exploring more radical options like geo-engineering.

So, in some ways I am left with the Lib Dems almost by default. But my membership is a positive choice, driven by positive values. One of the more striking things about the Lib Dems is that they put values first and foremost – even in their constitution. Where the conservative party exists “to sustain and promote within the nation the objects and values of the Conservative party”, the Liberal Democrats exist:

“to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

Indeed the preamble to the Constitution goes on to further outline Liberal values, taking about a page of A4, far more than any other major party.

In other words, rather than a specific set of policies, Liberal Democrats start with a set of values are free to build policy on those values, as the needs of the moment dictate. For a policy wonk who wants to change the world, that’s quite a draw. But, when all is said and done, it was those core values which convinced me to join the Party, values nicely summed up by the party slogan. We are Open, Tolerant are United.


The Crown Estates

This is a public service announcement.

Time and again, people criticising Conservative economic policy cite a few choice examples of Government expenditure to prove that austerity is a political choice. They argue that cuts to social care, to housing, to green subsidies, to local government or to the arts (to give a few examples) are not necessary, but are ideologically driven. They point out that the Government could find the money if they wanted to, but instead choose to use simplistic economic arguments to mask the fact that their ideal is a free market economy with minimal state interference. After all, the argument runs, the state bailed out the banks, it is spending vast sums on a new generation of nuclear power stations, on high speed rail, on the Trident successor.

Such arguments are not without value. Certainly austerity is a political choice (contrast current economic policy with that pursued in the post-war period, where, despite huge debts, we built the NHS). However, all too often, these arguments are marred. Alongside Trident, the banks and HS2, the other self-evident waste of money which is routinely cited is the Monarchy. And that is a problem.

In the financial year 2015-16, the Crown received £40m of taxpayer income. in 2016-17, it will receive £42.8m. This is not small change, and could be put to better use than funding one rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

Except that isn’t true. in 2015-16, the Sovereign Grant was £40m, and that did rise to £42.8m in 2016-17, but this is not taxpayer money. It is granted from the Treasury, but funded from the income of the Crown Estates. These are lands which belong to the Crown (rather than to the monarch as an individual) – which have traditionally been used for the administration of the state. Under the current Sovereign Grant scheme, the crown receives 15% of the crown estates’ income, with the other 85% going into Treasury coffers.

This 15% grant is used to fund the royal household. Now remember, the royal household remains a branch of government. This is not (as it is often presented) money going into the Queen’s pockets. It covers staffing, property maintenance and so on. Spending 15% of income on operational costs would give any business very good profit margins. Or, to look at it another way, the crown pays tax at a rate of 85%! It is of course right that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burdens, but even the most redistributive of us would surely agree that 85% is a pretty high rate of tax.

Controversially, it has been agreed that, from 2017 to 2027, the Sovereign Grant will be increased to 25% of Crown Estates income, in order to fund repairs to Buckingham Palace and other Crown properties. In other words, the crown will only be taxed at 75%, so that it can afford to pay for repairs to its most famous properties, which have been put off due to lack of funds. These properties are used for state functions and are huge tourist attractions. Recent repairs have included replacing roofing (so that priceless historical artefacts are not damaged) and removing asbestos (because “Queen Dies of Asbestos Inhalation” is a headline nobody wants). Such repairs are not decadent, and should not be seen as controversial.

I should add that the Sovereign Grant is only one part of the royal income. Royal ceremonies and security are paid for from the public purse, separately to the Sovereign Grant. The Queens’ personal expenses, meanwhile, are funded by the Duchy of Lancaster and from her personal assets. These income streams are primarily inherited, and will be taxed as capital gains. There is an altogether separate discussion to be had about how inherited wealth and capital gains are taxed in this country, but the over-arching point is this:

The Crown voluntarily surrenders the income from the Crown Estates to the state. The state recognises that the Crown is part of it, and so returns a relatively small part of this money to the Crown. This is not unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable that the amount of money should be increased to ensure that the Estates’ property is maintained in an appropriate fashion. To cite the increased in the Sovereign Grant as an example of frivolous spending of taxpayer money is misleading, as the money came only from a single tax payer – the same tax payer who is being given some more of it back. It is disingenuous to present this money as further lining the pockets of an individual born into great wealth. It fails to recognise that the increase in the Sovereign Grant is, in effect, a long term investment in buildings of national importance. And it fails to recognise that, even after the increase, the state will still do pretty well out of the Crown.

In other words, there are far better arguments against austerity to be articulated.





“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This may or not have been said by Joseph Goebbels. Whether he said it is not, on this occasion, what matters. What matters is that, in some ways, its true.

The ‘Big Lie’ will always be just that, but if you repeat it often enough, loudly enough, eventually people stop correcting you, and at that point, you’ve won the argument. Someone, somewhere will hear it without a counter argument; and then, to all intents and purposes, it is the truth. if I have not corrected the lie, I have lost the right to object when it is believed.

The truth matters. We all need to understand the world we live in, and that understanding must be rooted in some commonly agreed and accepted touch-stones. We can disagree on interpretation, but if we don’t agree on the source, we can’t have a meaningful discussion – we can’t have a shared democratic life. If our shared context is distorted, so too is our discourse. That road leads only to autocracy. If you want to know more, just read 1984. Please.

I am lucky enough to live in a society where we can change direction, even when, as now, many things seem to be falling apart. So I must do my part to ensure that such a change can happen. And so must each and every one of you. Your fate, and that of everyone you love, depends upon it.

So whether we are highlighting the fact that President Trump’s list of ‘unreported’ acts of terror includes events which dominated the news and continue to dominate our collective psyche, reminding Prime Minister May that only 38% of the electorate actually voted FOR Brexit, clarifying that claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 US election are baseless, or pointing out that Jeremy Corbyn’s train carriage really wasn’t that busy, we must keep speaking the truth. We must not let truth be twisted. we must highlight and counter lies and mis-information.

We must hold on to truth, just as tightly as we hold on to hope. If you want some help, have a look at this.

Enemies of the People? Why we need strong institutions

Enemies of the People? Why we need strong institutions

It’s a strange sight to see, and not without a certain irony. A head of state, railing against a ‘so-called judge’ whose opinion has ‘taken law enforcement away from [his] country’. Yet this is the new normal in the USA, where the president can question the legitimacy of any judge who questions his rulings, whether they be a lowly district judge or even the most senior jurist in the country.

Worryingly, this new distrust of judges is not limited to the USA. Following the vote to leave the European Union, British judges who interpreted constitutional law (as is their duty), and determined that parliament must approve the UK’s exit from the EU, as it will entail a substantive change to the rights of citizens, have been declared ‘enemies of the people’, ignoring the fact that it is in the interest of the people that these judges have acted.[i]

Judges, of course, interpret the law. This is their job. They are the highest arbiters of the limits of the law. To suggest that a judge has undermined law enforcement in his country, or has sought to divert the will of the people is, therefore, to wilfully misunderstand the role of a judge.

I wish I could pretend that those were the only cases of note where ‘democracies’ rejected the authority of institutions to fulfil their purposes. Yet it is a trend in recent political discourse to reject ‘experts’ and the establishment – to reject the knowledge and experience of people who have devoted their lives’ work to studying certain issues.

This is deeply alarming. Our democracy, and those of many other western states which have traditionally be seen as the most ‘free’,[ii] depends on the strength of certain key institutions which limit the power of individuals. In the United States, the fear of an overweening monarch has such a significance that ‘checks and balances’ are literally written in to the country’s founding document. The argument goes that no one branch of government – neither the executive, legislative or judicial branch – can accrue enough power to act without the consent of the other two branches. In the UK, which has an ‘unwritten constitution’, such arrangements have evolved naturally. The role of the monarch has gradually been eclipsed by Parliament which, as a bicameral body, acts as a check on itself and the government. More recently, the Bank of England has been made independent of Government, and a Supreme Court established, taking on duties once reserved to the upper house.

Such checks and balances developed to stop monarchs and politicians abusing their power; to prevent anyone taking office and acting with reckless disregard for the common weal. The history of the last century provides an ample record of what happens when dictators are allowed to untrammelled control. They disenfranchise the majority. They strip away hard-won rights to secure their own power and wealth. It is a road which leads, by increments, through the ghettos and the hate crimes, to the killing fields and the gas chambers.

The last century shows us, too, that it is an easy road to take. The majority of Germans were not anti-Semites, nor the majority of Serbs anti-Catholic any more than the majority of Americans are islamaphobic. Yet with alarming ease, Turks, Japanese, Germans, Serbs, Hutu, and others were swept up by nationalist rhetoric to support or to ignore the worst acts of inhumanity.

This is the price the world pays when power is not moderated. You may think I am scare mongering, but the stakes really are that high. It may seem, today, that we are still a long way from such horrors, yet look back a fortnight, and ask yourself how much further away we seemed then. Tally up what has changed since the 20th January. And then tell me that the world has not got substantially closer to unleashing hell.

More alarmingly, the two political shifts which scare me most are ones which have upheld the will of the electorate. We have embraced division, isolation, bigotry and small minded-ness, through democratic processes. In the UK and the US, voters have collectively decided to pursue what appears to me to be self-evidently the worse of two paths.

The fundamental problem here is that, while people as individuals are brilliant, engaged, intelligent and hopeful, the same is not always true of groups. Put people in a group and they will sink to the lowest common denominators. Just think about the last time you and a group of friends tried to pick somewhere for drinks!

Of course this is far from a universal truth. Groups often make sensible decisions, in the best interests of the world. But it is clear that they also make mistakes. They can be misinformed. They can give weight to the wrong evidence. They can be swayed by the media or by anecdote. This is why, rather than direct democracy, most nations elect representatives to weigh up information and take decisions on their behalf. This is why we trust people who have devoted their lives to learning about specific issues. We accept that, for practical purposes, the average man on the street does not know enough to make a decision about, for example, who to invade (I am not claiming to be different – I know that my information is at times limited, and I am prepared to accept that I don’t always know what to do).

This is why we need institutions. Strong judiciaries to determine when a populist leader is acting beyond the limits of his power, a representative parliament to challenge the government, a free press to ensure wider accountability and to inform the popular discourse, a vibrant civil society to uphold the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

We need institutions, because people are stupid, because we make mistakes, because we can be misled or swayed by emotion. And when that happens, we need to be shown what we have done, and we need to be given scope to correct our mistakes.

[i] In a representative democracy, the citizens delegate responsibility for decision making to their representatives. Last year, those representatives voted to consult the wider citizenry on our membership of the EU. On June 23rd, we held a consultative, explicitly non-binding referendum to address that issue. Given the nature of that referendum, and given that the government had not set out what an exit from the EU would look like, either during the campaign or in their last manifesto, it is entirely appropriate that the government be required to secure parliamentary approval for any substantive constitutional change.

[ii] For freedom and liberal democracy, see e.g., https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/united-kingdom
and https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/united-states