Monday, 22 September 2014

Reformation Studies 2014

A belated report from the Reformation Studies Colloquium in Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (or, as I still instinctively call it, New Hall). I believe I should, for search-engine purposes, add the tag #RefStud.

I don’t think I heard a dud paper, but three of those that I heard stand out.
I am a longstanding fan of Kate Narveson, whose lovely paper on the emotional salience of the doctrine of assurance in English Protestantism had a warmth all too rare in histories of religion and theology. Once again, Kate demonstrates her humane yet rigorous engagement with her subjects. There aren’t many people out there who I’d rather hear speak about Puritan culture: and I don’t say that solely because this was a version of a piece due to be published in a forthcoming book on Puritanism and the emotions edited by Tom Schwanda and myself.

At ERRG, the ‘pre-conference’ for graduate students, I enjoyed a wonderful paper by David de Boer, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Constanz, whose description of Catholic efforts to rescue both images and relics (and to turn images into relics) during the Protestant iconoclasm in the Netherlands in the 1570s was one of the stand-outs of the conference. The issues are horribly complex: David untangled them beautifully. One to watch.
But for me, the stand-out paper of the entire conference (and, thanks to the curse of parallel sessions, I missed lots of them) was from Neil Younger, whom I taught as an undergraduate many years ago. Neil’s account of Christopher Hatton, who was Lord Chancellor under Elizabeth I, was revelatory: we always knew that Hatton was an antipuritan, but the extent of his unmistakably Catholic connections and patronage, including individuals involved in ummistakable plots against the queen, has not I think been revealed like this before. As a glimpse of the ambiguities of the Elizabethan regime and of the compromises forced on all sorts of individuals compelled to be a part of it, this was new to me. I hope we see it in print soon.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The UK: the gift that can keep on giving

In my Panglossian way, I want to cheer an ideal result from the Scottish referendum.

Having spent numerous nights awake worrying about this, I am personally delighted by the result, not because of all the ephemeral fluff about currencies, prices and economies, but because my own instinctive national identity – ‘British’ – has not been voted out of existence.

But I am also glad that it was fairly close; and particularly glad about the promises made about Scottish ‘home rule’ in the campaign’s closing days, promises which must now be fulfilled, and which seem to me to take account of the fact that this minority nation in the British confederation has, for the present at least, a markedly distinct political culture.

That will mean justice for Scotland, and will I think reflect what John Smith used to call the settled will of the Scottish people.

It might be a pathway to full independence at the second referendum which surely will come in due course: though my own private theory, on which I will blog at a calmer moment, is that this is neither the much-threatenened ‘neverenedum’ nor the much-claimed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but rather a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which won’t recede unless and until it is voted down a second time.

But I also think devo-max would mean justice for the English, who will now be forced to recognise that the effortless imperialism of their / our system, and its easygoing centralism and self-satisfaction, is unsustainable. (A 65/35 vote, by contrast, would have entrenched it.) The political upheaval which now beckons south of the Border is delicious to contemplate,

English politics is not corrupt in the classic sense: it is neither seriously venal nor actively murderous, which by either global or British standards makes it unusual. I fear, given the record of pre-Union Scotland and post-Union Ireland, that both of those temptations might have awaited a newly independent Scottish nation.

But if England’s historic contribution to the Union has been due process and the rule of law, Scotland’s contribution has been bloodyminded awkwardness, libertarianism and a willingness to face down oppressive systems no matter how historic their garb. Scotland is the country where tyrants are deposed whatever their tame parliaments say (hello, Mary Stuart), assassinated whatever oppressive splendour they have gathered (hello, James I and James III of Scots), or despised regardless of the powers they have officially accumulated (goodbye, Georges I-IV inclusive).

Each one needs the other. But in the present era, England needs Scotland’s culture more than Scotland needs England’s. What makes Britain worth persisting with is that mixture of order and rebellion: and we are, at present, more likely to be too quiescent than too rebellious.

So here’s the September 19 deal. Scotland remains part of the Union, for the present. But, sometime in the next decade, the UK as a whole will almost certainly vote on whether to remain in the EU or not. English voters (the Northern Irish and Welsh are almost spectators here) need to realise that if they vote the UK out, Scotland will very quickly vote to remain in Europe rather than in the UK.

Which is to say: if everything works out as I hope, the September 18 vote could save Scotland, England and indeed Europe as a whole from the petty-minded, sectional horrors that might otherwise confront them. If you voted no, feel proud. If you voted yes, feel proud too: you have shown the world that a country, Scotland, which values both absolute freedom and the rule of law is not to be taken for granted.

And if, like me and millions of other Scottish Brits and British Scots, you couldn’t vote this time, be patient. Your time will come.