Sunday, November 23, 2008
They sound such a nice organisation. Don't they have that warmly bearded American with a jovial smile as their President? And don't we all love the countryside. I certainly do and I could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the CPRE on some issues, like the farce that is Labour's misnamed eco-towns, if only the CPRE weren't so damned illiberal.
I'm a liberal because I believe in social justice, for our generation and future ones. That means both taking care of our environment and working hard to overcome the real crisis that exists in affordable housing. These can be in tension, they can need balancing -- but the CPRE, it seems, won't for a minute accept that to be true.
The CPRE are storm-troopers for the Green Belt, not just as a concept but in its every inch as it presently stands. And so, they are glum at the prospect of wind turbines, they are sour-faced at Oxford's Park and Rides, and they are certainly bitterly opposed to any building projects near the city.
They claim that 'all the houses needed [for Oxford] could be built in the City itself on already identified development land.' Let's leave aside the fact that this seriously underestimates the depth of the problem we face. Elsewhere in their bulletin, CPRE celebrate the fact that a meadow in Oxford, near my ward -- Warneford Meadow -- has been saved from development by the curious legal ruse of declaring it a Town Green. Good for the Meadow which would, indeed, be an unwise place to build, but let's remember that that was one of the areas of 'identified development land'. We do need the countryside around the city but we also need green spaces in the city. Is the CPRE really ready to thrust its arm down the city's throat and pull out its green lungs? Their thinking simply does not add up on this.
But, I read, building an urban extension to relieve Oxford's housing crisis is not just unnecessary; it's apparently part of a conspiracy. The CPRE reveals the dastardly truth in their bulletin: 'the City Council's strategy is not to solve the housing problem, but to provide more houses in order to enable commercial development.' In other words, the City -- damn them -- wants to see economic growth. Quite what the CPRE's alternative to sustainable economic growth is, they don't say. I can't avoid sensing that the CPRE would like to stop the world and get off, and, in that eventuality, I'd gladly hold the door open from them.
Protect rural England, yes, we should. But we won't do that with a narrow-minded, inflexible approach which takes no account of the human beings we want to be able to enjoy the countryside. Lord, save our countryside from the CPRE.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Some arbiter elegantiarum in Town Hall circles has decreed that the language of Cicero is not fit for quotidian use. Not, of course, that any councils have emulated the Finnish news station or the Holy Office of the Bishop of Rome and transmitted press releases in the pristine tongue of the ancient Romans. It is the incidental, the minutiae, about which the custodians of our lingua franca are presently concerned. And they have the support of an organisation I have formerly considered the praetorian guard of good sense: the Plain English Campaign, who have not just given it their fiat, they have positively placed their imprimatur on the announcement, citing the example of 'e.g.', which, it is claimed, could be confused with 'egg' and is, ergo, an impediment to simple comprehension.
This leaves me in a quandary. I am accustomed, when speaking in Council, to ad lib impromptu and extempore -- which I realise makes the compilation of a verbatim record difficult. From now on, on such occasions, recourse to a Latin tag will now be no more than a tantalising temptation. I will have to practise self-restraint.
If the zeitgeist is so opposed too classical culture that expressing ourselves without reference to Latin is now de rigueur, I can be sure that aficionados of Council soirees will find there are enough bons mots in a veritable smogasbord of European idioms to let us ridicule this latest idee fixe. And if someone doesn't like it, take it to the ombusdman.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
A couple of months ago, their government effectively gave the green light to an urban extension at Grenoble Road. Let's leave aside that, as I pointed out before, it will only provide well under 2000 units of affordable housing, that it would have been better to have a strategic review of the whole Green Belt, not just one part of it -- this is not the solution to the housing crisis that Labour would like to pretend it might be, but at least there are going to be much-needed houses.
In short, the case is won. But are Labour happy? Rather than follow their government's instructions that the two local authorities who have an interest in this site -- Oxford City Council and South Oxfordshire District Council -- should sit down and work together, Labour seem intent on doing the opposite.
The City Council has put in a request to the Boundary Commission that, in 2009, it review Oxford's boundaries with the aim of bringing in the planned urban extension to the city. Never mind that building is necessarily some years off -- there's a sewage works to move, after all -- and that this is therefore hopelessly premature. This is bound to ratchet up tension with Oxford's neighbours, making it less likely rather than more that the project will move ahead quickly.
Of course, no one is suggesting that working with the Tories of South Oxfordshire will be easy. The Conservatives' first reaction to talk of a housing crisis is 'what crisis', the second 'that's not our problem.' But the situation's changed: as Grenoble Road is going to happen, even a Tory should realise it's in South Oxfordshire's interest to be at the table. That's the only way they can work to minimise the difficulties they fear from an extension. They should be there to get cast-iron guarantees for the rest of the land around the site. And it's in the City's interest to be at the table too: we're going to have to work with our neighbours if we really want to deal with the challenges the new build will necessarily create.
Instead, we have the City Council willing up a stand-off from which no one will win -- least of all the people in dire housing need who should be our first priority.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
One million new homes should be built in Oxford to help the city become an economic power-house of the 21st century, a barmy academic report says today.Not having managed to hide their opinion very well, the article then -- and here it comes -- closes by saying:
The Tories this morning distanced themselves from the report. Chris Grayling, the shadow minister for Liverpool, said it did not reflect arty policy.Masterful. Genius. The paper subtly implies by an 'accident' of typography that the Tories' main concern is the impact of house-building on the lifestyles of the literati. The Shadow Cabinet, one imagines, recoiled in collective shock at the idea of Le Corbusier-inspired architecture -- 'but where is the opera house?' -- leaving no space for ballet-classes or landscape-painting opportunities. You do wonder: who's taking the 'p'?
Sunday, July 27, 2008
The Local Government Association's First magazine this week runs a story with a positive headline: 'Key green role for councils - MPs' based on a survey of the honourable members of Britain's lower house. But read on to the third paragraph: of the 168 MPs surveyed 11% rejected the claim that climate change is occurring. I'm not sure whether that statistic is the most depressing or whether it's that a further 8% of our esteemed legislators ticked the box which said 'I don't know.'
By my reckoning, that survey suggests about 70 MPs are climate-change deniers. And another 50 are even more stupid than that. But the question is: who can list them?
Saturday, July 19, 2008
What has been announced, from what I have seen, is that an estate of 4,000 houses, 40% of them affordable, can be built in that area. If Andrew Smith imagines that that is anywhere near large enough even to dent substantially the housing crisis this city and this county faces, he just doesn't appreciate the magnitude of the problem.
The Secretary of State's response to the Structure Plan was a real opportunity for the government to call for a strategic vision for solving the crisis -- and that must begin a review of the whole Green Belt. But, as so often, they've bungled their chance and missed an open goal.
Those of us who believe in the concept of the Green Belt and want to see it last would have supported a proper, full review. There is nothing worse than a piecemeal removal of one section from the Belt, allowing the argument to be made in the next decade that a precedent has been set and yet one more section should also be removed -- and so it will go, decade after decade. On the other side, of course, are the Tories who stand for no building anywhere: they can't even seen the housing crisis beyond the gates at the end of their manicured lawn. But their attitude that the Green Belt, in its present format, is sacrosanct in every regard is equally unsustainable. Their friends, the developers, will see to that. In the meantime, there are people in desperate need and it should be our first duty to help them. Sadly, once again, the Conservatives have shown they aren't in on it and Labour that they aren't up to it.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Showing their typical sensitivity to those curious species, foreigners, the White House helpfully explained to journos traipsing around after Bush at the G8 who Mr Berlusconi actually is. Translating back from the Italian version, he is, apparently, 'one of the most controversial leaders in a country known for government corruption', 'a dilettante in politics' etc etc.
They could have mentioned his greater strengths: how he's very adept at dodging prison terms by changing the law, how he's a great friend (making his dentist a minister) and how, even in his advanced years, his virility is unabashed -- at least on the phone to his more attractive female ministers. That the White House does not do so is surely a mark of previously hidden leftist sympathies...
The real insult is, of course, not on Berlusconi, but on the Italian nation. Now, some may say they deserve it, as they voted for him, just as Londoners have woken up with a sore head and Boris Johnson right there in their bed. But the implication of the White House's press-pack is that Berlusconi epitomises a country given to corruption, something, of course, which would never happen in the land of Halliburton. It reminds me of the scene in Godfather II when the WASP politician, Senator Geary, rails against Corleone and his whole nation:
I don't like your kind of people. I don't like to see you come out to this clean country in oily hair and dressed up in those silk suits, and try to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I'll do business with you but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family...
And look what happened to him.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Both Tories and Labour in the past have attempted to dent that, but it's been half-hearted compared with the Conservative campaign which is now on show.
The Witney Wonder, delighted to have John Howell as his newest MP, made a point of saying that the LibDems had been nasty during the by-election. Our campaign had pointed out that this self-proclaimed saviour of the Green Belt could have taught lessons to Judas in taking money from the other side -- though they put it in much more temperate language. Personally, I would have liked us to go further and alert people to how this developers' friend seems to imagine there is no housing crisis in Oxfordshire. Be that as it may, apparently Tory high command felt hard-done-by that anyone should imagine Mr Howell's employment to be relevant to his bid to be in Westminster. It was, they cried, a 'dirty trick.'
In the local elections, in my own ward, the Tories similarly ran a campaign on not liking the LibDems. In our leaflets, we always put the bar-chart of the last General Election, to remind people how close it was between Labour and ourselves. In Headington, where the Conservatives are in second place, the Tories pointed to that bar-chart to claim we were lying, since they surely were in a chance. Well, they missed their best shot (with all credit to their candidate, who was far better than such a mean-spirited party deserved). The irony, of course, is that it was in our interest for people to know that the Tories were in second place and fighting hard: it can only help us, in a ward where the vast majority are liberal-minded. I remember the campaign when I got elected, in which the Conservatives stood on an anti-immigration stance ('Oxford is full') -- an attitude which does not go down well with the enlightened people of Headington.
I mention these two instances because they are not disjointed incidents, but surely a mark of a larger campaign, intended not to help our democracy but simply to add to the cynicism which is already there. It's a simple, but sadly effective, technique: lie by calling others liars. It's the most corrosive dirty trick.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
The occasion for the article is the revocation of the 700 year ban on Dante from his home city of Florence (a bit late now some would say). It's caused little interest in Italy. But it's stirred up a British media bored by worries over the economy or military deaths.
'The White Guelphs, among whom Dante counted himself, were the Liberal Democrats of their time. They strove to sit on the fence. They were for the pope, but not very much for him. They thought he should have power, but not too much power.'
That's bad history as well as being bad politics (if you want a sitting-on-the-fence party, look at the Tories over civil liberties, half-for, half-against, epitomised by their former MP, David Davis, with his previously inscrutable smile. As another David, Prof. Starkey, is fond of saying: 'why does the Englishman sit on the fence? Because he enjoys the sensation').
But, the question for us is: would we want the author of the Commedia, the Convivio and -- most worryingly -- De Monarchia? In that last text, you'll remember, he was a Guelf who was a Ghibelline. In the first of them, he honoured Julius Caesar and damned his killers, a judgement itself condemned by Florence's later republicans in the Renaissance.
I'm not convinced he's on our side. But I wait to hear from you the counter-arguments.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Those who have had the privilege to be driven by me often believe it to be an unrepeatable experience. I hope the two-wheeled turn in 2002 was nothing to do with the then passenger, my future ward colleague, standing down six years later.
So, perhaps I'm not qualified to judge other people's driving. And, frankly, if I was asked the old chestnut of Civil Service interviews -- what's the worst invention of the twentieth century -- it would be a toss-up between the car and the television.
But here's an idea that's been suggested to me to change the way we learn to drive: make driving licences time-limited in a meaningful sense. That is, not to a specific age, but for a specific period, say, ten years. Get everyone to be re-tested after a set period -- and give those who choose not to keep their licence a bonus. I pass the idea on, in the spirit of free debate: what do you think?
Friday, June 13, 2008
Somehow that thought came to mind following the news of Mr Davis' latest bid for attention, which John Humphries seems to want to depict as his Hampstead Heath experience -- the 'moment of madness' of Davis without an 'e'.
Mr Davis didn't make a bad fist of the interview. But the headlines aren't good for him. Then again, the news is not much better for the LibDem principled stand of not opposing him because we support him on 42 days.
Support him? Come off it. This is a man who declares he's going to make the taxpayer foot the bill of an ego-trip of a pointless by-election and does so, he says, in the name of civil liberties, when his own personal dream is to bring back hanging. If, during the dark night of the soul (yes, let's assume he has an inner being) following his defeat by the Witney Wonder, a flame was kindled in his breast which was marked 'civil liberty', well, he can start by repenting of his previous errors and apologise for his party's abysmal record. We don't support him or the Tories' attempt to paint themselves as liberal: it's about as convincing as the green face-paint they've taken to wearing.
He'd serve the country much better, if he resigned and stood aside for a candidate from a party which takes all civil liberties seriously, instead of treating them like the sweetie counter in Woolworth's where you can pick 'n' mix. But, instead, we have a prospect of Davis v McKenzie -- of right and righter. What a tedious by-election that would be. Pity the poor people of Haltemprice and Howden: if it's an elongated campaign, they could be suffering their own 42 days of hell.
In recent years, Holywell has been a fight between Greens and the LibDems. This year, in May, it was the Tory party who came a poor second -- how student voting habits change. The Conservatives repeated that this time, with what they must have thought was a stronger candidate, a former councillor who lost his seat in neighbouring Carfax just over a month ago.
The result in full:
Mark Mills 188 (40%)
Tory 112 (24%)
Lab 93 (20%)
Green 72 (15%)
Turnout, on the penultimate day of university term, was low at just under 12%.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
A latterday outspoken rebel (they allow one amongst their ranks), the ubiquitous John McDonnell, is quoted as saying: "There will be widespread consternation among our supporters in the country seeing a Labour government prepared to use every tactic available in its determination to crush essential civil liberties, which have been won by the labour movement over generations."
In early versions of the story, it was immediately followed by a quotation from an outspoken rebel of a former era, Tony Benn, who said something along the lines that he didn't think he'd see the day that Magna Carta was repealed by a Labour government.
Taken together, they imply the Tolpuddle Martyrs were kindred spirits with the lords who loitered around King John at Runymede. It's a tasty mythology of Britain's radical tradition.
Let's face it: Labour have never been strong on civil liberties, and tonight is just another testimony to that. Their commitment to liberty is even weaker than that to social justice. And, of course, they wouldn't admit there's a link between the two.
Monday, June 02, 2008
Obviously, Oxford is a key battleground between Labour and LibDems, and this article attempts to set the parameters of the debate. Labour is presented here as the party of social justice -- yes, that's right, of social justice.
I don't eat cornflakes, so I didn't choke (sorry to disappoint you, Antonia & Ed). But here is the fault-line: I'm sure they joined Labour because they genuinely imagined it could be a party of social justice; I joined the LibDems precisely because I see it as the only party of social justice. How could one or other get it so wrong?
I'd bring to your attention evidence from the recent elections. Labour didn't like us fighting it on wanting a lower Council Tax -- when we did that precisely because that unfair tax hits some of the worst-off hardest. Perhaps Labour's response would be that anyone who can own a house doesn't deserve support, but that would be grossly to overestimate the wealth of some who have struggled to buy and stay in their own home, especially in an over-heated market like Oxford.
The blogs recently have also highlighted another blindspot in Labour's thinking. They attacked one of our candidates by quoting his blog in favour of reform of the drug laws, implicitly presenting themselves as in favour of the present drug regime. How can they imagine this sits with any assertion of support for social justice? I worry that they wouldn't even understand that question.
Labour in Oxford has also seen environmental concerns as somehow a distraction from social justice. True enough, one sets challenges for the other - but we should be finding ways to wed our actions on the environment with helping those worst-off. It's no good saving the planet, if the society left is not worth living in, but it's equally no use planning to build a New Jerusalem if the site is in the flood plain -- in other words, without a planet, there's no society.
These are only a few examples of the ways in which my friends on the opposite benches seem misguided in the claim that they belong to a progressive party. But, frankly, if they really want future elections in Oxford fought on grounds of social justice, rather than the mean-spirited campaign Labour recently run, my response is: bring it on. We will be more than happy to fight you on our home territory.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Interesting, though, that the Tory leader voted to reduce the limit by two weeks. Amazing how he calls other parties indecisive, when he himself acts in such a spineless manner: for goodness' sake, either be in favour of the human right to choose, or make it illegal. Don't dither in the middle, Dave.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
There were two winners in Oxford: the LibDems and Labour. Both parties made a net increase in seats. Both achievements could be said to be remarkable: Labour against the national trend; LibDems against recent local tradition, gaining while in administration -- something Labour never achieved this decade. That said, congratulations to Labour on becoming the even-larger largest party (with proviso as set out below), and good luck. Cllr Bance, in particular, will make a good portfolio holder.
The losers: the small parties. Greens, IWCA -- but, most notably, the Conservative Party (who, for a long time, have been a minority interest in Oxford). In terms of votes, the Tories are now the city's third party, but they failed to turn that into any seats whatsoever, losing the two they had by defections. I don't know who was running their campaign, but whoever it was, they're not doing them any favours.
That said, the Tories did achieve something. Coming a close second in my own ward of Headington (due to Chris Clifford, a candidate more assiduous than that party deserves) was not, for them, a success. What will please them more is that their increase in vote made sure that we could not take seats of Labour in some of the key battlegrounds. It's the Conservative Party to whom some of the new Labour councillors should be sending letters of heartfelt gratitude, for pretending they were contenders when they were only spoilers.
This is not to take away from Labour's campaigning vigour. They're street-fighters again, but it's not a pretty sight. For instance, they knew we were a threat in one ward so made an A3 leaflet about our candidate, quoting from an old blog post his reservations about this country's present drug laws. This would be acceptable if our opponents owned up to being old-style Conservatives, who thought our law-and-order system always worked. But they claim to be progressive -- an assertion already in doubt considering their attitudes on civil liberties or environmental issues, but made all the more problematic when they insinuate that prohibition is, oh yes, working so well. They might bluster that a big cause is worthy a small lie but, then, little sense of cause seems left to them. They're left with tactics and they sum them up: pygmies.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Sceptics might ask: can a groups like this do anything? It's too early to promise success from Low-Carbon Headington, but there are positive signs. There was a real buzz in the room. We had Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, present to frighten us all with predictions of the catastrophes which might follow if we do nothing -- and, indeed, the disasters which will happen even if we do everything we must. Much of the work has to happen at an international level -- and demands real change from politicians, not just slogans (as, to be party-political for a moment, we're getting from the Tories right now). But I came away convinced that there are ideas in the community that can work with local action.
Part of the meeting was a 'post-it' session, where people jotted down their ideas and put them on a board. I had the job of trying to summarise them in 5 minutes -- an impossible task because there were so many, but here are a few of the themes which got repeated mention:
* local campaigns with shops and businesses -- in particular, encouraging an end to free plastic bags and persuading pubs not to have patio heaters
* 'greening Headington' -- especially, more trees in public and private spaces
* low-carbon transport -- car-clubs mentioned, as well as better cycling facilities -- plus Car-Free Headington Day, for which there are already plans
* pressure on government -- a call for carbon-rationing was particularly popular
There were many more ideas on the night -- and I expect there are many more out there among you. Do you have any suggestions we might add to the list and discuss at our next meeting at the Methodist Church Hall at 7:30pm on 2nd June?
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Now, I wouldn't want it to be imagined that an unfavourable comparison of hazardous Hazel to Mr Johnson is some sort of praise for the latter. The point's that there's a way of responding when you've done wrong and Ms Blears' stubborn approach is not it. I doubt the clamours for a visit for her to give an apology in person will die down soon.
The presence of Mr Brown in Andrew Smith's living-room must be seen as endorsement of the present MP for Oxford East by the Prime Minister who was one of the architects of New Labour. I doubt that, though, impresses many people. After all, that endorsement works two ways: it means that Mr Brown can expect Mr Smith to be loyal on contentious issues. That he will, in other words, continue to represent New Labour to the people of Oxford rather than stand up for us in Parliament.
The same old story, then, as has been recently shown not just by Andrew Smith's two-faced approach to Post Office closures but also by his backing for hiking income tax for low earners up from 10%. His argument on income tax is apparently that evidence suggests this hike will only hit the young and single people. Oh, that's OK then.
Of course, there are problems with the 10% rate: LibDems have said for a long time that it would be better to bring more people out of income tax altogether, and that's patently sensible. But, if there is not going to be any really significant uplift in tax thresholds, having a lower rate was an acceptable second choice. But now even that concession to poor working people is going.
Clearly, it's not just Ms Blears who should make a personal apology. Messers Brown and Smith could have used their jamboree the other day to give a joint apology for letting down yet more people deserving of help. Another opportunity missed.
Monday, April 07, 2008
The Conservatives have polled very poorly in all by-elections since 2006. Going back to that year's main elections, when half the city's seats were last contested, they came behind the Greens. But, at least at that point they focussed their resources, fighting seats they thought they could win (like -- oh, dear -- my own Headington); this time, they are attempting the strategy of stretching themselves as thin as skin undergoing cosmetic surgery.
Bad choice, guys.
The electors know it's a sham, an attempt to fool the electorate into imagining the party which once called itself nasty -- probably because it was considered a brand-leader in xenophobia and homophobia -- has some chance in a tolerant city like Oxford. They don't.
The New Tories, who desperately try to be Blairite ten years after that went out of fashion, have written to all Oxford households encouraging them to 'go green'. That's even though the Conservatives locally are not in favour of the city's recycling revolution. But, at least, if Tory voters took their leader's advice, they would be voting for the third-placed party rather than the usual Conservative doldrums of fourth and final place.
It was a Tory Prime Minister who, on achieving that office, proclaimed: 'I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.' His latterday Oxford colleagues are still slithering at its foot.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Mr Smith was not among those yesterday who rebelled against their own government over Post Office closures. It's not really his style: he prefers to be considered a loyalist to the Blair / Brown administrations. When he was in the Cabinet, that was understandable. Quite why he continues -- unless he's the only person who thinks he has a chance to return to the long table in Downing St -- is not so clear. Let's be charitable and say it is out of conviction: he actually believes in the policies for which he votes. There would be something honourable in that.
Problem is: he started the week waving off from Oxford Rail Station a local journalist weighed down with 'Save Our Post Offices' petitions. The journo departed with Smith's endorsement ringing in his ears - and, in return, Mr Smith got the coverage in the local paper, complete with unflattering photo. So, on Monday, Mr Smith was determined to save post offices from cuts imposed by the Labour government; by Thursday, he was voting with the Labour government in favour of those same closures.
Mr Smith has not bothered to explain what made him change his mind, so we can only speculate. Perhaps he baulked at the fact that the motion postponing closures was proposed by the Conservative party -- that's understandable, especially when the Tory tradition of privatizations made the cutting of public services something of a national pastime. They are no doubt hypocrites, but they're left standing on the foothills in comparison to the heights of hypocrisy that Mr Smith has managed to scale so rapidly in one short week.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Smith has slipped up, as he has done time and time again. And only weeks before local elections in Oxford. But, perhaps this is where Andrew Smith's Machiavellian skill truly lies. After all, Labour on the City Council, despite being the largest party, sit comfortably on the opposition benches. They're not very good at it, but it seems to suit them. Indeed, they may well realise that their best way they can assist Mr Smith in his desperate attempt to hold on to his ultra-marginal seat, only 963 ahead of the LibDems, is to stay stuck there, in opposition. They probably judge being in administration a tough challenge -- and they'd be right that it's beyond their competence. So, Mr Smith's singular act of hypocrisy might not be an act of folly by a mediocrity but a skilful move intended to do what it will surely achieve: remind people exactly why they shouldn't vote New Labour in May. Then again, he needn't have bothered. We can do that well enough, thank you very much.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not feted for his deft political touch – nor would he want to be. He has been cursed, by fellow bloggers as well as by print journalists, with the most opprobrious epithet applicable to someone in public life: he’s ‘academic’. And academics, as we know, are out of touch and, worst of all, naïve. So much might be inferred from his reported reaction to the media coverage of his speech last week: he is said to be ‘shocked’ at the backlash. Frustrated, dismayed, perhaps, but surely not ‘shocked’ – that makes him sound wounded and repentant. But he’s got no reason to be queueing in line for the confessional.
Dr Williams has been caught by the unusual weather we’re having: after all, silly season is supposed to be months away from early February. If there had been other news for the journalists to waste words on, his speech would have struggled to win column-inches. As it is, the press-gang must have been straining to squeeze a sound-bite out of a text which, it is true enough, is rather wanting in a certain rhetorical elegance. But it clearly wanted to stir a wide debate – it’s just a pity it has not done so yet.
The headlines and the comment articles to date can hardly consitute an intelligent response to his lecture. But the furore itself will have its use: a speech which otherwise would be forgotten will attract more attention over a period of time and a debate may follow. It may be then that commentators come to terms with what the Archbishop was actually saying.
It seems to me that what Dr Williams was arguing was part of his wider critique of the West’s international policy following the 11th September bombings. It’s an interpretation that, in a softly-spoken matter, sets challenges for liberalism. There are, he emphasises, fundamental rights which no religious morality could trump – but, equally, we should not fool ourselves that those rights add up to a complete code of behaviour. Some rules of conduct are established for ourselves by the communities in which we participate; those rules should not be challenged by the state simply for the sake of having an all-encompassing universal law which would assume all individuals are alike. It is a plea for pluralism, and for a recognition of the limits of what western ‘liberal democracy’ can helpfully export to other cultures. It is argument for everyone being equal before the law, but not the same before it.
However brief a summary this is, it should be clear that, for liberals, what Dr Williams said is problematic – in the best possible sense. He is challenging us to think further about our liberalism in the new context we find ourselves. In suggesting the limits to liberal democracy, he is not denying it has benefits but rather asking us to define its identity more clearly than is usual.
Which all sounds grist for the scholarly seminar, rather than for the public arena. We might pause to wonder how depressing it is that the public arena is thought unsuitable for intellectual discussion. But we might also wonder why Dr Williams said what he did, when he did. It was a challenge not just to governments and to the chattering classes but also to his own church – in the run-up to the General Synod. His picture of pluralism is one in which, it could be argued, the curious position of the Church of England as the church of the state should be in doubt. Perhaps – just perhaps – if the Archbishop has happened to trigger a discussion which will eventually lead to consideration of disestablishment, that might not have been completely unintentional. Though, naturally, the artful politician would claim himself ‘shocked’ when matters turn out to take that course.