Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Journal of Ecclesiastical History: vol. 66/2

Volume 66/2, the April 2015 number of JEH, has been out for a few weeks now, so I am sure you’ve all already read it. But for the laggards,  my I-hope-regular editor’s service underlining personal highlights.

Apologies as ever to those not mentioned: picking out individuals is unjust, but not doing so is dull, and that’s worse. So I’ve no space to talk about other highlights, such as Nazi church architecture, or the wonderfully entrepreneurial eighteenth-century English cleric John Trusler – who made a fine living publishing sermons which were printed to look handwritten, so that time-pressed clergy could take them into the pulpit and still look as if they were penning their own improving thoughts.
The eye-opener for me is Stewart J. Brown’s article, ‘W. T. Stead and the Civic Church, 1886-1895: the vision behind “If Christ Came to Chicago!”’, on the British journalist, social activist and idiosyncratic religious liberal, W. T. Stead. After a conversion experience in 1885, in which he heard a ‘distinct and clear’ voice calling him to ‘be no longer a Christian, be a Christ’, Stead began pushing for what he called a Civic Church. This would be an inter-faith public betterment and civic renewal project whose only membership qualification would be love for humanity. This is what he meant by ‘being a Christ’.
He was most famous for the 1894 pamphlet If Christ Came to Chicago, in which that shockingly modern and godless city was used to imagine just such a spiritual-social renewal, and which sold over 300,000 copies on both sides of the Atlantic. In it he wrote:

How we believe in Christ ... is shown not by what we say about Him, not by the temples which we build in His honour, nor by the hymns which we sing in His praise, but by the extent to which we succeed in restoring in man the lost image of God.

That’s a lovely polemical manoeuvre: to begin with a classic Protestant attack on formalism and hypocrisy, and then slip that radically novel idea of what it means to be a Christian into the end, almost beneath the radar.
It didn’t work, of course. Other social reformers disliked both the implicit totalitarianism of his vision and the religious terms in which it was still couched. And church establishments naturally, and correctly, concluded that this had virtually abandoned Christianity as normally understood. One liberal Presbyterian replied with a pamphlet titled ‘If Chicago came to Christ’.
So what? It means that the wonderfully idealistic, tragically self-defeating 1960s notion of ‘religionless Christianity’ was already at work a lifetime earlier, and suggests, again, how difficult it was and remains for the liberal Protestant project to stay anchored. But of course, Stead’s opponents look as unappealing and sectarian as he himself looks impractical and ideological. Protestantism has been trying to steer a way through that one for at least a century and a half now. Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Coalition jaundice

Now that the scale of the damage done on Thursday is sinking in, some less cheery reflections. The emerging consensus seems to be that the Lib Dems' decision to enter the coalition in 2010 was inherently suicidal - an act which Tories are calling noble, as they swipe the seats, and Labour are calling a betrayal, as they swipe some (but only a very few) of the votes. And the emerging lesson is: no small party should ever again enter a coalition.

I don't buy it. Partly because it wasn't a 'decision' in 2010 - the arithmetic made the decision to pursue a coalition inevitable, especially once the Tories had publicly offered it. But also because I think what destroyed the Lib Dems wasn't the coalition as such, but a series of specific mistakes made before and during it.

Easy to say now, of course, but I'm a historian and so am allowed to show 20/20 hindsight. The mistakes were, I think:

1. The biggie, the absolute king of them all: that recklessly stupid pledge on tuition fees before the 2010 election. It is one thing to say you are against them, but this pledge was ramped up higher than any I can ever remember, at least before the Labour pledge-gravestone of last week. It was very specific. Individual MPs and candidates individually swore that they would definitely vote against attempts to raise tuition fees. There were no let-out clauses or weasel words. The point is not so much that the reversal on that particular policy was unpopular. It was that it set the whole framework through which the country then saw the Lib Dems: they had apparently thrown away their single clearest pledge for a chance of power, or, hardly less damagingly, they were so feeble they couldn't defend their one key principle when their new Tory owners said no. I can see why they did it. For decades the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties had been in the habit of making airy pledges which they had little risk of having to implement, and this one was undoubtedly popular. But the damage it did and will, for a while, continue to do is unspeakable. Don't make unbreakable promises unless you are really willing to refuse to enter government rather than break them.

2. The determination to show that coalition could work. Again very understandable in 2010, but the Lib Dems felt it was peculiarly incumbent on them to demonstrate this. Hence, especially at the start, not pushing too hard on key issues. Like, for example, tuition fees. And therefore looking as if their main purpose was to keep the Tories in power.

3. Linked to this: my guess is that Nick Clegg's decision not to take on a government department was a mistake. Deputy PM is an invisible role, and too easily becomes seen as spokesman for / lapdog of the entire Tory-led government, rather than a distinct voice within it. If he'd been Home Secretary he'd have had a very bumpy ride - Home Secretaries always do - but he'd have had the chance to impress and would in any case have actually been doing things, and, amongst it all, would have been being attacked by Tories for much of what he was doing. Which would have helped.

4. A bad shopping list in 2010. I don't mean that what the Lib Dems actually did in coalition was bad. The tax-allowance thing was a brilliant wheeze, though the enthusiasm with which the Tories have nicked the idea is a little disheartening. The 'pupil premium', prioritising mental health, ending detention of underage migrants ... all excellent stuff. But all a bit second-order. The big-ticket items were voting reform and Lords reform, and both of them failed, in both cases essentially because only a minority favoured them and that wasn't enough. So they were left with nothing. Lesson: have at least one really big, clearly visible thing that will be an unmistakable contribution, and that doesn't depend on the outcome of a referendum.

5. No shopping list in 2015. Actually, I rather liked the 'give the Tories a heart or give Labour a head' angle, but it's a bit vague. What, specifically, would a government in coalition with the Lib Dems have had to do that it would otherwise not have had to do? The risk is that you are basically asking people to vote for a dose of centrist Establishment good sense, and that's quite a hard sell.

If they'd done all that ... well, they could plausibly have kept a hold of a many as half of the people who voted for them in 2010. And that would still have looked like a disaster and we'd be asking what went wrong.

Which also makes me think: it could, actually, have been worse. In first-past-the-post systems, especially with multiple parties, parties have been almost or wholly exterminated before (bye-bye, Canada's Progressive Conservatives in 1993). Eight MPs is obviously very bad but, hey, it's eight MPs. And the Scots Lib Dems held up much better against the SNP onslaught than Labour did, generally fighting their seats to a much closer finish. Perhaps the question is: given the experience of the last five years, how have we clung on to life at all?

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reasons to be cheerful

As a paid-up Liberal Democrat, I am a little in need of these after the massacre in the UK general election last night. But as a paid-up Panglossian, I can find some.

1.       Nigel Farage failed to win his seat, and UKIP only won one.

2.       George Galloway lost his seat.

3.       The British National Party secured less than two thousand votes across the whole country.

4.       On all three of those counts: the far right remains as marginal in British politics as it ever has been. This is very, very good news and could easily have been different. It shows that the Tories are still fulfilling their historical purpose of squeezing out right-wing populism.

5.       Apparently the British political system isn’t broken after all. We seem to be back to something like two-party politics (in England and Wales, anyway), not the multi-party melange of recent commentary, and we are evidently still capable of translating a decent lead in votes into a workable governing majority.

6.       Therefore: the political prize remains the centre ground. With only a little luck, a post-Miliband and post-Balls Labour will now elect a leadership which is willing to make a serious bid for that centre ground, and no more 35% strategies.

7.       In which case, the new government will need to keep fighting for that same centre, and will not feel the need to pander to the right-wing threat. So, for example, we can reasonably hope that, like last time, the Chancellor will not cut at the rate he feels the need to claim that he will.

8.       The SNP result … ok, as a unionist I need to work this one a little harder for a good news angle, but here goes. First, this is undoubtedly the SNP’s high-water mark: only one way to go from here. Second, the scale of the result is such that the Tories do seem so far to be taking seriously the crisis of legitimacy that this gives them north of the Border. Conceivably they will do something courageous about it.

9.       The EU referendum which is now coming: again this is a bit scary. But: (a) It would probably have to happen sooner or later anyway. (b) With UKIP a busted flush, it looks a bit more winnable than yesterday. Maybe this is the time to do it.

10.   And whatever the result of the referendum, it will finish UKIP, who would be as undone by a ‘out’ vote as by an ‘in’ one.

11.   And liberalism? Well, I suppose the likeliest path is that in a post-UKIP world the Lib Dems rebuild as a party of protest once again, which is a little depressing – especially as it turns out so many ex-Lib Dem voters have gone to UKIP. Alternatively, the Tories are tugged in a Borisite-modernising direction and become the old Liberal party in all but name, and Labour embrace the centre and become the SDP in all but name. But perhaps now my sleep-deprivation is catching up with me.

PS. One more ... Now we have a government which, unlike its predecessor, doesn't have a built-in House of Lords majority. It will, therefore, be harder for them to get away with doing stupid stuff.