Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why try to answer the West Lothian question?

A footnote to yesterday's reflection on the aftermath of the referendum.

I watched Tam Dalyell on Newsnight last night. He's the instigator of the so-called West Lothian question. It became clear in the course of the conversation he had with Kirsty that he had asked the question originally, not as something that needed to be addressed if devolution went ahead, but as something that in his view scuppered devolution entirely.

The question is unanswerable if you have a devolved assembly within a union of nations. The problem he raises, as I understand it (and please correct me if I am wrong), is that if you devolve certain powers to a regional administration which means that the MPs elected to Westminster from that region are barred from addressing issues devolved there (unless they are members of both assemblies), they should also be barred from discussing and voting on issues in Westminster that apply only to other parts of the union that the said MP does not represent.

So, the answer to the West Lothian question is not the imbecilic 'English votes for English laws' within the current Westminster system or the 'what's good enough for Scotland is good enough for England cry' of John Redwood. The answer is the same arrangement as in Scotland, i.e. an English assembly that has devolved powers similar to those of Scotland with representatives elected to it on the same PR system used in all the other devolved assemblies. English Westminster MPs would, of course, in exactly the same that Scottish MPs currently are, have no say in those English laws (unless they sat in both the English devolved assembly and Westminster).

Merely, having days at Westminster devoted to English business that all other MPs are barred from involvement in, does not replicate the arrangements in other devolved regions in any way equitably.

This suggests that the only way to move forward is to have a federal UK with a number of devolved assemblies around the country - perhaps based on cities or urban conurbations and their surrounding rural areas - with an elected chamber for the UK sitting somewhere in the middle of the country - Northampton or Lincoln - to act as arbitrator when the regions clashed on policies affecting the whole country and foreign policy. I think the NHS would have to be in the UK assembly t ensure that it was genuinely national and remained a public service funded by taxation and delivered by public servants.

This is similar to Gordon Brown's proposal, I think, with his idea of an elected house of Lords or second chamber taking the national and arbitration role. It is, of course similar to the system in the USA which might not be a model of governmental efficiency!

Anything else would not answer the West Lothian question at all. The question remains, of course, whether this would lead to the fragmentation of the UK into a series of competing city states, all out-gunned by London to which the answer is almost certainly, yes.

It's right, as all the headlines this morning suggest, that the union can't survive in its current form. But as the Times banner headline puts it 'Salmond quits as powers for Scotland are blocked' shows, the current government's plans are not going to solve the problem raised by the referendum; they are only going make matters worse. No surprise there, then.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Illuminating our new dark age

I kept out of discussions on the Scottish referendum on social media or here because I didn't have a horse in the race. I have friends on both sides of the debate, not to mention a brother in Aberdeen and other family in the borders. But I didn't have a vote and so any opinion I might have had was somewhat impotent.

I was stirred by some of what I heard - I have to say I was particularly impressed by Gordon Brown's final speech. Perhaps it's true that he can now add saving the union to saving the financial sector that was already on his CV.

Sadly I awoke this morning to the UK's prime minister (not the English one as we don't have one of those yet) reneging on key parts of his promises ahead of the referendum. I guess I shouldn't be surprised but appointing William Hague to chair a cabinet committee to draw up legislation was not part of the offer made last week. At the very least, there needs to be an all-party committee or group tasked with moving devo max forward - Perhaps Gordon should chair it.

But here has to be a lot more than that. I lost count of the number of times over the past few months that I thought 'why can't we have this kind of fundamental conversation about our democracy where I live?' I envied the Scot's their vibrant carnival of democratic renewal and was suitably in awe of the turn-out (over 90% in some parts). I was also delighted by the maturity and engagement of the 16-17 year olds enfranchised for this vote. How can we resist calls for them to be given the vote across all elections?

We need a constitutional conference, a sort of Putney debates for the twenty-first century, where everyone gets a chance to meaningfully contribute to the kind of politics we want across our union. This is not dealt with by solving the west lothian question, which is a best a minor issue and at worst a massive distraction used by miffed little englanders to bash the devolution settlement, and getting on with business as usual.

We need to see democracy cascading down to the level that ordinary people operate at. Politics needs to be taken out of the hands of professionals, those with vested interests in maintaining the tawdry status quo. So let's start talking about the kind of society we'd like to see in our churches and pubs, let's get people together locally to talk about the things that matter to them, to discuss ideas, to dream dreams (and let's not get bogged down in what it'll cost - let's make plans and cost them later).

'In the new dark age no one puts up a fight,' sings Bill Mallonee on the wonderful In the new dark age on his new album, Winnowing. The indy referendum has lit a light hundreds of miles from me - but I can just about make out its glow. We need a lot of lamps being lit everywhere across our land. 'In the new dark age no one trusts anyone,' he sings (how sad but how true); 'the only lamp burning you.'

So step up, step up; come and see what is illuminated when we put all our lamps together.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding renewed confidence

Here's a second random observation from our recent trip to Sri Lanka. I was there partly at the invitation of the Lanka Bible College. So a week of our three week stay was devoted to teaching a course on New Testament social history. I've done this three times before - to different sets of students.

This year I had nine men and women working their way through a masters programme in divinity. It's difficult to gauge what level these students are at compared with students doing a masters course in the UK. My guess is that they are at an equivalent level of second year undergraduate (level 5 I think).

But these guys, after a slow start, proved to be a lively and conversational bunch who by the middle of the week were beginning to make connections between what we were studying and their various ministries in Sri Lanka. We had a number of really good conversations about how we live the good news of Jesus in a way that makes it accessible to others.

The second weekend we were there I was leading a seminar for baptist leaders - lay and ordained. Again, we had a good conversation about how churches needed to be organised to more effectively engage in mission.

Churches on the island still tend to be very hierarchical and ministry is seen as a way of gaining status in a culture where status and honour are still key drivers for people. However, in the course of conversations both in college and at the seminar, I detected what I felt was the stirring of a willingness to explore new ways of being church and new approaches to engaged in mission. I took this to be a moving of the Spirit.

One church talked of using English lessons for Tamils living nearby as a way of making community with those beyond church; another spoke of running a programme for those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. Both were thinking missionally about their context and church life. I've not found this kind of thinking from Baptist church leaders before and it was encouraging. Churches are exploring how they can use their resources (like the building pictured) to engage more creatively in the mission of making Jesus known in sometimes difficult circumstances.

There is a recognition that the church and culture are growing further apart - something that is all too prevalent in the UK - and of the need to leave the comfort of buildings and well-worn programmes to do something new. It is not easy being a Christian in Sri Lanka - especially outside the capital. But opposition is leading to a renewed confidence in the gospel and desire to share it with others.

I came away from my eight days feeling stirred and encouraged. That is not always how I feel when I reach the hotel for my chill out time. Of course, when you find renewed confidence in others, it stirs in you - and that's great. God is good.

Friday, September 12, 2014

We all love a freebie...

Well, it was unexpectedly wonderful to receive U2's back to basics new album as a gift from the mighty iTunes. There have been a lot of churlish remarks from reviewers and others about it being an example of outrageous behaviour from a rock behemoth and a corporate empire.

But I say, quit your whining and get with the music. Whatever the ethics of this marketing ploy (and they do seem a touch suspect), the album itself is refreshingly direct. Songs of Innocence (possibly a nod to William Blake suggesting that its partner album will be called songs of experience when it arrives full price in the near future) is a series of reflections of adolescence and U2's early days in Dublin.

It's interesting to see that the lyrics are all by Bono and the Edge, suggesting that these are collective memories. And they are set to a stripped back sound that seems entirely appropriate. There are some great tunes - notably The Troubles, The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) and Raised by Wolves - and not a duff track in sight.

The liner notes with the digital booklet are surprisingly illuminating and moving. So, find it in your iTunes inbox, download it and enjoy it... You know you want to...

Monday, September 08, 2014

Everywhere the gap is widening

This summer we returned to Sri Lanka, spending almost three weeks on the island. For eight days I was teaching at the Lanka Bible College Graduate Studies Centre and visiting a couple of baptist churches around Colombo; and for ten days we were chilling by a pool in a great hotel in Kalutara (about an hour south of Colombo).

The picture illustrates some of the changes Sri Lanka is undergoing. It's a new block that I have watched being built from my room at the Graduate Studies Centre in Dehiwala.It actually obscures my view of the sea! It's been built for the burgeoning number of urban professionals in the city. As well very comfortably appointed apartments, the complex boasts 24 hours concierge, a gym and a western-style supermarket on the ground floor.

It overlooks the station that will whisk its residents into the centre of the city for their daily grind in financial or legal services, tourism, government administration or commerce of a whole variety of types. It also overlooks the fishing community on the other side of tracks, a community that still bears all the marks of the 2004 tsunami. Indeed it's a community that offers no evidence at all of any money being spent helping the residents to rebuild after the devastation wrought on that Boxing Day ten years ago. Now, one reason for that is possibly that the community was offered housing elsewhere, inland and away from the area they know well. Many of the communities that hugged the coastline on the western side of the island were moved as the government refused to invest in communities with two miles (ish) of the sea. But it's a stark contrast with the wealth that now overlooks it.

We often walked across the tracks onto the beach, via the ramshackle dwellings, so that we could stroll in the sunshine, dipping our toes into the Indian Ocean and head up to our new favourite beach-front bar (left) that serves excellent food and afforded great views of the sunset most evenings.

Following the end of the war in 2012, Sri Lanka is undergoing something of a building boom, with construction happening all across Colombo and the along the Galle Road where hotel developers are trying to meet the government's target of building two million rooms by 2020; tourism is seen as the driver of economic prosperity. It is making a few people comparatively very rich and leaving more and more trapped in poverty, barely able to scratch a living at the bottom of the food chain.

Inequality is a feature of life across the globe; it is all the more stark in this beautiful place.

But the churches that we visited were in good heart and I'll blog about that in a follow-up to this one.