Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

23 May 2013

Gay marriage: a very English muddle

I’m opposed to the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill. I have no problems with gay – or, as the PC term is now, LGBT – equality as a general concept, i.e. that LGBT people should be treated equally to any other citizens and should not be discriminated against. However, I do take issue with some of the ways LGBT equality has been implemented in practice, such as the requirement under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 for adoption agencies to take on gay and lesbian couples on an equal basis to heterosexual couples. That has meant that many Christian adoption agencies – which were generally recognised as providing an excellent service – have had to close, as they took the view that it is in the best interests of the child to be adopted by opposite-sex, preferably married, couples. By holding out for this view and not taking on same-sex couples, they would have run the risk of breaking the law.

Gay, or same-sex, marriage had, and arguably still has, the potential to present similar crises of conscience. If marriage is construed, like adoption, as a service that religious organisations such as churches provide to the public, then once same-sex marriage enters the statute books, those churches could be held to be in breach of the law by not offering marriage to gay couples. Section 2 of the present Bill, which passed its reading at the report stage earlier this week, offers churches and other religions protection against that eventuality by requiring religious organisations to opt in to the right to conduct same-sex marriages. In other words, there is no obligation on such organisations to provide same-sex marriage services if they do not agree with them on grounds of conscience.

So, no problem then? Well, the peculiar problem in England is that the Church of England historically has always had the obligation to marry any persons that requested it to do so, so long as the marriage thus solemnised was legal, e.g. not bigamous or prohibited for some other reason. Hence, introducing gay marriage could have put the Church in the position whereby it uniquely, as the established Church, had to offer gay weddings if gay couples asked it to do so. This is why the Bill has resorted to the drastic measure of actually prohibiting the Church of England (and the Anglican Church in Wales) from celebrating same-sex marriages. If it had not done so, there would have been a serious possibility of a legal challenge from gay couples who had been refused marriage by the Church.

As part of this obligation of the Church to marry those who ask it to do so in good faith (if not always in actual Christian faith), there has hitherto been just a single legal definition of marriage in English Law, i.e. no distinction between civil and religious marriage as exists in many countries in the rest of Europe. The new Bill maintains this tradition of recognising only one form of marriage but extends it to gay couples. Thus a somewhat absurd situation has arisen whereby the Church of England is still obliged to marry opposite-sex couples in church, and a single legal form of marriage (straight and gay) that applies to both religious and civil ceremonies is maintained, but the Church is prohibited from providing that form of marriage to gay couples.

This contradiction is absolutely bound to lead to legal challenges. But the fact that the new law will ban the Church from conducting same-sex weddings is intended to deflect those challenges away from the Church (which will have no option but to refuse gay couples) on to the law itself. Hence, the challenges, when they come, will take the form of judicial reviews or appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is a very English muddle; indeed, one might even characterise it as very Anglican. England’s Church, and indeed English society, is a broad church, tolerating a wide spectrum of faith, ethics and sexuality. In one sense, the big joke in all this is that gay relationships and couples, involving vicars and bishops in many cases, have been quietly tolerated in the Church of England for decades. The real problem, for the Church, is perhaps that the possibilities of being either obliged to celebrate, or prohibited from celebrating, such relationships forces a resolution of the Church’s ambiguities on the morality of homosexuality. It pushes the issue out of the closet and into . . . the church. Will the Church turn down the wish of its gay congregants to marry in their places of worship, or will it utter a collective ‘I do’?

Well, the answer may soon be taken out of its hands, if indeed there are successful legal challenges to the ban on Anglican same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Church of England is perhaps more vulnerable in this area than other churches and faiths, which historically have not had the obligation to offer marriage to allcomers, as has the C of E.

The problem, as I have indicated above, is the single legal definition of marriage in England and Wales, which will now encompass same-sex unions. Over and above the fact that this may ultimately bring about the disestablishment of the Church of England – if it refuses to provide same-sex marriages once the ban on its doing so is overturned by the High Court or the ECtHR – this is the reason why I oppose the Bill.

I wouldn’t have any objection to gay civil marriage if law and practice made a distinction between civil and religious marriage. Indeed, making a split between civil marriage (open to gay and straight couples) and religious marriage (open by default only to straight couples but, at the discretion of each religious organisation, capable of being extended to gay couples) could have been a way to resolve the parallel muddle that has arisen over civil partnerships: the current civil form of recognition of same-sex unions (‘gay marriage’ in all but official documentation), which the Bill in its present form is neither abolishing nor extending to heterosexual couples – hence creating another anomaly and inequality. Indeed, even if a church or other religious organisation did not choose to conduct gay religious marriages, it could be open to them to conduct gay civil marriages within their own premises: equivalent to celebrating civil partnerships now, as civil partnerships would be ‘upgraded’ to ‘civil marriages’, equivalent to straight civil marriages.

But as the law continues to be based on a single definition of marriage – civil and religious, and now gay and straight – this means that what is at issue is not merely LGBT equality in the matter of civil marriage but English society’s collective understanding and formal definition of marriage per se. By legalising gay marriage, the British parliament is declaring that the official meaning and purpose of marriage in England and Wales are no longer as understood by traditional Christianity, which holds that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman, and is the foundation of family life and strong communities. (I’ve written about this extensively in my previous post from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, so won’t go back over this ground here.)

This is what is ultimately at stake for England here: our understanding and beliefs about the meaning and value of human sexuality, and the importance of the traditional family based around the rock of an unshakable union between a husband and a wife committed to each other and their children for life.

Let’s not be under any illusions here. The most ardent and determined LGBT-equality campaigners won’t be content with mere equality under the law: they want society not only to hold and propagate the view that gay sex and marriage are equal to their straight counterparts, but that they are equivalent to them, morally, socially and spiritually. They want to marginalise and stigmatise anyone who stands up for the traditional understanding of marriage, and brand them as bigots and homophobes. Indeed, that’s what they’re already doing. You wait for the challenges against churches, and church and other religious schools and their teachers, to come in.

Now that it’s law, it’ll become mandatory PC speak to acknowledge the ‘equal value’ and importance of gay and straight marriages. And what will inevitably be next is demands for ‘reproductive equality’: the equal ‘right’ for gay couples, especially if they’re married, to access ‘fertility services’ enabling them to have children (which, after all, is what marriage is supposed to be all about, they might say). So fertility clinics will not be allowed to give preference to straight couples having difficulty becoming joint parents in the natural way over gay or lesbian couples requiring treatments such as artificial insemination or surrogacy enabling one of them to become a parent, even though neither could become a parent under any circumstances if left to nature alone. Equal adoption and marriage rights: equal fertility rights – watch this space.

Would it matter if the traditional family disappears under the impact of an increasingly secularised society’s obsession with enabling every individual – gay or straight – to pursue and fulfil the same goals in the name of equal rights? Well, I think it does matter. Society needs people who are prepared to place their commitments to other people – wives, husbands, children, families, communities – above their dedication to pursuing their personal life goals and sexual, or other, destinies. And, I would say, society needs faith: the belief in, and commitment to, some thing or some being higher than oneself. Is this need met by changing society’s understanding of marriage so that it is merely the affirmation of two people’s love and passion for each other, and of their pursuit of personal fulfilment, divorced from the broader social and familial context?

Well, I guess we’ll muddle through. I hope so anyway. Maybe those who want dogmatically to insist we all acknowledge the equal value of gay sex and unions will not in fact win their ultimate victory, and English society will continue to tolerate diversity, even if hypocritically in some contexts, such as the Church.

The fact that the Marriage (Same-Sex) Bill is such an unholy English muddle gives me a sort of desperate hope.

10 June 2011

The head of the Anglican Communion criticises the government’s English policies without saying ‘England’

“A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?”

These are the words with which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, concluded his article in the New Statesman yesterday criticising key coalition government policies on social services and welfare as being without a proper mandate.

My answer to this question would be, ‘how about an English democracy?’

The Archbishop rightly and powerfully articulates some of the central problems about the government’s social agenda with respect to the lack of any real democratic debate, scrutiny and consensus they may have received. Elsewhere in the article, Dr Williams writes: “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”.

It is indeed true that the government’s policies in areas such as education, health, localism and the Big Society were not set out clearly and in detail in either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos at the last election, nor were they explained or debated openly and vigorously throughout the election campaign. And there was one very good reason for that: these policies are English policies.

At the election, none of the three major parties openly acknowledged and explained that their policies for education, health, communities and social services – all of which are devolved matters – related to England alone; indeed, their manifestos contained barely any mention of England (as I analysed at the time here, here and here). And as we know, almost the very raison d’être of the British government and establishment is to suppress the existence of any sort of English-national polity in which policies and laws intended for England are openly and honestly discussed as relating to England.

Accordingly, there’s a very good reason, Dr Williams, why neither the government nor the opposition are adequately explaining the thinking and priorities behind their radical policies, nor explaining what their likely impact will be on the ‘nation’ as a whole. That’s because they can’t even acknowledge the very name of the nation for which those policies are intended. Indeed, the policies themselves – in their actual content – express the drive to abolish any form of English civic nationhood in that they pass on the responsibility for the civic life of, and public services for, the English nation to the private realm: to individuals, small groups, communities, and not-for-profit or for-profit organisations that are now meant to take responsibility for education, health care, local services and amenities, and social services without any overarching national plan and vision.

There’s no national plan or vision because the nation that is being privatised and, as it were, ‘de-nationised’ is completely invisible: England.

And yes, these policies have not been voted for. And that’s not just because they weren’t adequately explained at the election but, more fundamentally, because they were not presented either to or for the nation in which they were to be implemented: no English-national electorate was either addressed or invoked during the election; nor was any English nation acknowledged for which these policies might represent any sort of blueprint for the future. No one voted for these policies, and they weren’t adequately explained, because to do so implies the existence of some sort of national political life in which those policies are a part of the public debate, and a nation for which those policies are intended. But none of that applies to these policies, because they’re English, and England was absent from the election, and is absent from government and the political process in the present.

So the answer to the Archbishop’s question at the end of his article is that these policies will be subjected to the scrutiny they demand, and a more participative democracy holding politicians to account will be brought about, and a positive vision for society and the common good will be developed, only when the nation for which those policies are intended is brought into the process and a vigorous, healthy English polity comes into being.

Why, therefore, did the Archbishop himself not mention the name of the country – England – where these policies are being implemented? Why is even the spiritual head of the Church of England not standing up for ‘England’ as such even where he makes such an impassioned plea for the creation of a more genuinely participative, democratic life in which English policies can be subjected to the scrutiny of the nation as a whole?

England is the great lack and absence at or from the centre of it all. And while politicians, media and archbishops cannot bring themselves to say ‘England’, none of them by definition can ever articulate a shared vision for England.

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

Blog at WordPress.com.