Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Opinionated Vicar Election Awards

In the seasonal spirit of reviewing the year before it is completely over, here are some interim awards for the 2019 Election Campaign

The Where's Wally Award, for people conspicuous by their absence
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is exercising common sense, following advice and staying in his room.
Emily Thornberry. Apparently she's shadow foreign secretary. It can't look good if Labour think Richard Burgon will do a better job than you.
Diane Abbott. Apparently she's shadow home secretary

The Pinocchio Award
Charlie Cleverley, for the fake 'fact checking' Twitter account
Runners Up
Charlie Cleverley, for the doctored ITV footage
Charlie Cleverley, for the doctored BBC footage

The Who Do You Think You Are? Award, for odd choice of spokesperson
Nicky Morgan, not prepared to stand as an MP on the current manifesto, yet sent in against Piers Morgan to defend it.
Donald Trump, representing the Brexit Party
That Conservative guy on the BBC leaders debate last night. Who was he?

The Side-Of-A-Bus Award for creative mathematics
The Conservative 50,000 nurses pledge, which turns out to be mostly nurses who are already in post.
Labours claim that nobody outside the top 5% of earners will pay more tax. I earn less than the average wage and I will be paying more tax under Labour, because I'm married.

The Theresa May Award for avoiding journalists, and the general public
Boris Johnson, passing up 2 opportunities to appear on TV opposite other political leaders, and trying to wriggle out of the Andrew Neil 30 minute BBQ event.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Labours Race and Faith Manifesto

Fair play to Jeremy Corbyn, at least the Labour party have made a public statement of their policies relating to racial minorities and faith groups. The Conservative strategy, as evidenced by a manifesto roughly half the size of those of the other main parties, is that the less you say, the less you can be tripped up with.

Labours Race and Faith Manifesto, published yesterday under the shadow of the Chief Rabbi (of which more later), is a creditable attempt to analyse a major area of social injustice, and put policies in place to tackle it. Most of the manifesto is about racial inequality, expressed in pay, poverty, under-representation, policing, policies towards immigrants, right through to climate change and how aid money is spent. There is a series of policies aimed both at correcting outcomes, and at influencing culture. The former includes greater investment in mental health, using monitoring and regulation to increase BAME participation in academia and business leadership. The latter includes changes to the education curriculum and policing culture.

On Faith, there isn't quite so much - an early paragraph commends 'the contribution of faith groups in filling the gaps left by austerity Britain', and nearly all of the policy stuff is about supporting freedom of religious expression at home and abroad, and combating hate crime and anti-religious prejudice. Page 5 includes a commitment to "ensure the views of communities with or without faith are respected and protected across our society". That's a big one, if they really mean it: the liberal social agenda expressed elsewhere in Labours programme won't be one supported by faith groups.

Yesterdays spat with the Chief Rabbi, and the response from the Muslim Council of Britain, throw all of this into sharp relief. There should be no tolerance of anti-Jewish racism or anti-Muslim prejudice. However the notion of Islamophobia itself needs some refining, and both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are sometimes used carelessly - someone who criticises the actions of the state of Israel is not necessarily an anti-Semite, and someone who criticises aspects of Islam is not Islamophobic.

Whilst some of the standard antisemitic formulas centre on an imagined global financial conspiracy, there is real evidence of the influence of hard cash elsewhere. Whilst some  Muslim students, among others, don't feel that university is a safe place to be themselves and express their views, academia itself is coming heavily under the influence of oil money from the Middle East. This impacts on the freedom of universities to maintain standards of critical scrutiny of Islam, its sources and its history. This isn't isolated of course - we're seeing universities caving in to China, gender lobbyists, you name it, with 54% actively censoring free speech in some form or another.  But intellectual freedom and free speech are not qualities prized by Muslim governments and their billionaire leaders who finance faculties from Exeter to Edinburgh. The same goes for China - is it possible for a Labour government to 'respect and protect' the views of Chinese students who try to shut down protests about Hong Kong on British campuses?

The Muslim Council of Britain, representing 500 mosques, schools and organisations (for comparison, my own Diocese of Bath and Wells represents over 500 churches, plus dozens of schools and other organisations), not so long ago boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day. Ironically, in a move which parallels the Conservatives decision to broaden their Islamophobia investigation, they once called for the day to be expanded to one covering all forms of genocide.

Just as with the gender and sexuality debates, emotive labelling can be used both to shut down uncomfortable criticism, and to identify real examples of the things it refers to. Most people reading a tweet don't have time, or don't bother, to work out which of these is at play.

 This is a subspecies of the debate over rhetoric and hate speech, and one of the major challenges of making a multi-cultural society work. It is made even more difficult by the lack of an overarching narrative: our current post-Christian liberal Western democracy has evolved from a mishmash of sources. In a postmodern culture which no longer recognises overarching truth or grand narratives, be they Christian, Marxist, Muslim or The American Dream (itself, like Marxism, a heavily morphed version of the Chosen People/Promised Land motifs of the Old Testament). We are left with competing visions of life, sets of 'rights' which keep colliding with each other, and only Tolerance and Respect to hold ourselves together. It may not be enough.

Labour, at least, are trying to address some of the fallout from this. There is no sign of it in the Conservative manifesto at all. Search the document for 'race' and the only return is the word 'embrace'. 'Racism' occurs once, in the mother and apple pie statement 'we will tackle racism', and the most concrete expression of free speech is the scrapping of the Leveson enquiry, which tells you just a little bit more about the malign influence of money on UK life and politics. In respect of the Conservative policy on race, religion, culture, community cohesion and tolerance, how can you blog about and criticise something that doesn't exist?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Coldplay: it's getting crowded in Ed Sheerans boat

This week Ed Sheeran got planning permission to build a giant boat on his property, a space for prayer and contemplation.

Maybe he needs something this size to fit in all the pop collaborators who've put God at the centre of their work. Superstar rappers from both sides of the pond, Stormzy and Kanye West, both wear their faith on their sleeve. 

The latest addition to the congregation is Coldplay, who've been gone a while from it but now...

Everyday Life is wildly uneven, held together only by its thematic obsession with religion: disc one (Sunrise) literally ends with a hymn, disc two (Sunset) with Chris Martin singing “Alleluia, alleluia”. You lose count of the references to God, church and prayer in between. What this signifies remains a mystery: has Chris Martin, a lapsed Christian, rediscovered his faith? Is it intended more in the vein of Nick Cave’s recent line about how “it doesn’t matter whether God exists or not – we must reach as if he does”? The answer remains elusive. As, alas, does the balance between world-beating commercialism and experimentation.

Stormzy and Coldplay both take a leaf from the U2 playbook, who tried to keep their rock credibility by peppering their more religious offerings with regular swearing (e.g. Acrobat, Wake Up Dead Man).  Or maybe that's just how everyone speaks these days and I'm just a reactonary old fuddy duddy. Scatology meet eschatology: ultimately will Jesus be more bothered about how we expressed our faith, or whether we expressed it?

Like ancient Athens, our culture is bursting with attempts to connect with God. More and more of them are outside, rather than inside, the historic churches, but Augustine still holds true "God you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.'

Married Couples Tax Allowance - is it 'Discrimination'?

In the Friday evening leaders questions, Jeremy Corbyn described the marriage tax allowance - currently worth £250 to married couples - as a form of discrimination, which he would abolish*.

Is it?

Is the tax on plastic bags discrimination against people who don't use paper bags, large pockets or cardboard boxes?

Is the tax on petrol and diesel discrimination against people who use cars rather than bicycles?

Is the tax on alcoholic drinks discrimination against people who prefer beer to lemonade?

Is a higher rate of tax on people earning £80,000 or above discrimination against the better paid?

Most of the taxes above are attempts to influence behaviour, and raise/redistribute money at the same time. And there is a very good case for influencing the behaviour of couples towards marriage. People who are married report higher satisfaction in the relationship than cohabitees, and cohabiting parents are 3x more likely than married couples to split up before their children reach 5. The high divorce rate comes a distant second to the breakup rate of cohabiting parents. The relative stability of marriage compared to the alternatives is clear, and consistent.

There are other factors - marriage is still the 'done thing' amongst the middle classes, and those with higher education, so there are cultural factors. Also, the financial barriers to marriage which come with the consumer add-ons now considered normal (dress, reception, gifts to the guests) make it prohibitively expensive, ruling it out for most people on low incomes. But despite this, married couples make a public commitment to stability and faithfulness, which when seen through is of huge benefit to the couple, to their children, and to society. So why shouldn't the tax system give this a little bit of encouragement? It's not discrimination, its encouraging beneficial behaviour.


*(Incidentally, the Labour manifesto doesn't refer to this policy, or at least any search for 'marriage' 'couples' 'tax' 'allowance' etc. doesn't find it, but if you've the time to read the whole thing and I'm wrong, then mea culpa. The Lib Dems have the same policy, and their manifesto has it in print).

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Families - The Lefts Blindspot

Search the Labour and Libdem manifestoes for any mention of family breakdown. Go on, it won't take long.

Disintegrating family life is a blind spot on the left of British politics. Half of British children born today will experience the breakup of their parents by the time they get to 16. This in turn increases the risk of those children experiencing poverty, educational failure, mental illness, drug abuse, early pregnancy, and difficulty sustaining long term relationships. The estimated cost to the UK is £47bn per year in economic terms, never mind the emotional and social cost to all those caught up in the tragedy of family breakdown.

And what has Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson to say about this? Nothing. There is some admirable stuff on reducing poverty, which will alleviate pressure on poorer families. The two policies directly addressing family structure - legislating for no-fault divorce, and removing the Married Couples Allowance - make it a) easier for families to break up or b) harder for those who have entered the most stable adult arrangement, marriage. The renewed investment in Childrens Centres is welcome, it would be even more welcome if they were Parent Centres too, and the system around ante-natal and health visitor support also brought in an element of relationship support for the parents, alongside the current support for the mother. The quality of family life and parenting will be the biggest factor in life chances for any child, but we do absolutely nothing as a country to identify and promote good practice, for fear of being seen as a nanny state, or of 'stigmatising' parents.

We know that Boris Johnson is no fan of family life, having seen off two marriages and several affairs, and is unable to publicly admit to how many children he has. Does he even know? So I'm not expecting much better from the Conservatives. It pains me to say it, but on this David Cameron has the best record of recent prime ministers, initiating the 'Troubled Families Programme' and at least making some effort to do something about family breakdown, rather than ignore it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Manifestos: First Impressions

Having read the Green Party Manifesto, and skimmed the Lib Dem Manifesto (being launched about now), I'm left with one question.

Why are these two groups of people campaigning as different parties?

The Libdems are a slightly paler shade of green than the Greens, but 95% of what is in one of these manifestos would sit quite happily in another. The Green manifesto puts climate change and zero carbon front and centre, and the traditional hot button issues of NHS and schools are buried deep into the document. But both seem to be driven by a very similar core set of convictions: environmentally conscious, fairness, localism and democracy, pro-Europe, liberal on social issues (sexuality, drugs, immigration), education and skills, and protecting the vulnerable.

The main difference is the urgency of climate change. If you think it's a really urgent issue, vote Libdem. If you think it's a really really urgent issue, vote Green.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


We've recently switched over to ITV rather than BBC news at 10 - mainly because Tom Bradby is a more entertaining presenter, but they do also attempt to dish up facts now and again, rather than intrigue.

This evening was a reminder to take it all with a pinch of salt: a heckler of Jeremy Corbyn - which could have led into an explanation of what the heckler was on about (either to nail it as an urban myth or analyse why it was a issue) was dismissed because he had 'posted homophobic tweets'. So what? A broken clock is right twice a day, why is that a reason to dismiss their views on other things? ITV was effectively saying that if you take a certain view on sexuality, it invalidates all your other views too. Really?

The brief clip of Jo Swinson standing alone in a boxing ring trying to look combative looked limp, there is footage of her sparring which looks a lot better, but we didn't see that. And both ITV and the BBC are making a big thing of 1 Lib Dem candidate standing down. One candidate. How about reporting on their policies?

And nothing on food banks. Bring back Paxo.

Food Bank Use Up 23% on last year. (Will this affect your vote?)

The latest Trussell Trust report shows food bank use is accelerating, up 23% year on year. Our local food bank, the Lords Larder, has seen a rise of over 25% in the last 2 years, and is a reminder that Trussell Trust figures cover around 60% of UK food banks. That means over 2 million emergency food parcels are given out each year.
Here's what the Trussell Trust say. Please put this to your local election candidates.

“This is the busiest six months we’ve ever seen – more people than ever are being forced to food banks’ doors. Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty, but currently thousands of women, men and children are not receiving sufficient protection from destitution. This is not right.

“But we know this situation can be fixed – our benefits system could be the key to unlocking people from poverty. This General Election, all political parties must pledge to protect people from hunger by ensuring everyone has enough money for the basics. We’re asking politicians to start working towards a future where no one needs a food bank by ending the five week wait for Universal Credit; ensuring benefit payments cover the cost of living; and investing in local emergency support for people in crisis.

“Together, these three changes will put money back into the pockets of people who most need our support. It’s in our power as a country to end the need for food banks. This can change.”

If you vote for a party which isn't proposing to scrap the 5 week wait for Universal Credit, and thinks benefit levels are fine the way they are, you are voting for this to continue. I'll be watching with interest to see how much airtime this is given today by our well fed journalists (so far the BBC has completely ignored it).

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Calls for National Emergency over Flood of Politicians

There are calls today for the declaration of a National Emergency over the visits of politicians to areas affected by floods.

"We've been absolutely inundated" said Mabel Soggy of Doncaster "its like someone opened the floodgates - Corbyn, Swinson, Miliband, we're just thankful Boris Johnson is so scared to show his face in Yorkshire that he stopped at Matlock. There's been a constant stream of politicians taking our mops to appear in photos, or interrupting volunteers and the emergency services whilst they're trying to do their job."

Local geologist Abdul Strata added a further note of concern: "there is very clear evidence that the ground itself is sinking. Once a political leader turns up, with their entourage of advisors, minders, photographers, reporters and film crews, the combined weight compacts the ground, already softened by flooding. Areas visited by politicians become more vulnerable to floods in the future."

A passing local estate agent sounded a different note. "Fishlake? Clue's in the name son."

Have you experienced a deluge of unhelpful politicians? Have you had to put sandbags across your property to protect it from film crews? If so, don't worry, by next week everyone might have forgotten all about you.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Nigel Farage Negotiating Strategy

We've never seen Nigel Farage in negotiation with the EU, he tends to turn up, criticise, and only stop on the way out for his pay cheque. However we now have an insight into what a master negotiator he truly is:

Step 1: issue an ultimatum to the Conservative Party: drop the current EU withdrawal deal or face Brexit party opposition in every seat. 

Step 2: Conservative Party ignores the ultimatum.

Step 3: unilaterally decide to make life easier for the Conservative party by withdrawing 317 candidates in seats they are most likely to win.

I'm now trying to imagine an EU withdrawal agreement negotiated by Nigel Farage. After an ultimatum to drop freedom of movement, customs union, EU courts, and leave without a financial settlement, he then calls a press conference to declare that we're joining the Euro.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Linguistic Slack

What word can we use today?

15 men from Preston Plucknett, at the time a village of just a few hundred, died in the first world war. 232 men and women from Yeovil died in the 2 wars combined. And that is a drop in the ocean compared to the (literally) countless millions who died across the globe. We simply don't know, it could be 100 million, a few million more, or a few million less.

How do we describe that? Many vicars and service leaders today will be turning to poetry, and all of us will be turning to silence.

Language tends to get hyper-inflated during an election campaign. Add that to our growing culture  of conversing in feelings and interpretations (usually highly personal ones), and that's a toxic brew for anyone who values meaning.

In his TED talk 'How to speak so that other people will want to listen', Julian Treasure asks 'Exaggeration: it demeans our language - if I see something that really is awesome, what do I call it?' A few years earlier, Jesus put it this way: "Let your yes be yes, and let your no be no, anything beyond this comes from the evil one". Embroidering our language, exaggerating for effect, ultimately renders language useless. God is a communicating God, his first act is to speak creation into being, and part of being in God's image is the ability to communicate. Without truthful, clear language, communication, and ultimately relationships, are impossible.

Remembrance Sunday reminds us of lots of things. Maybe it reminds us too to leave ourselves some linguistic slack. Whatever we are tweeting our response to, whatever x or y is supposed to have said or done which cuts across our interests or personal space, it is minor compared to 100 million deaths. We cannot use the same language about it, or its perpetrators. For example, you aren't a fascist or a Stalinist, you're just someone who thinks the state should be slightly less, or slightly more, involved in taxation and spending.

Lets rediscover adjectives which de-escalate strife, rather than those which amplify it. The Great British Understatement deserves a comeback, because there are only a few things which are truly worthy of our most extreme language, and fewer still to which the only true response is silence.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019


I find it impossible to believe that the video of Keir Starmer was doctored within hours of it being originally broadcast. I tried to get doctored last week and the first available appointment was December 4th.