Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.


Pause, change tape, play...

Following a break from writing, and taking some time to move over most of my posts from my previous blog, I am hopefully now ready to get blogging again.

Please stay tuned...



Whilst we may celebrate the end of the Gaddafi domination system in Libya - and may congratulate the brave men, women and children who have made sacrifices for this cause, from the average Libyan family to the British pilot & his family back home - surely there is no victory to be found in Gaddafi's cold-blooded execution to the chorus of 'God is Great'?


Free Youcef Nadarkhani

The case of Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian facing the death penalty for his ministry, reminds us that the freedoms we enjoy to believe and disbelieve are hard fought - and not yet won the world over. Indeed, it would appear Christians across the world are facing persecution - from Egypt, to China and even in India, a country reknowned for its colourful diversity. Having just finished reading Jean Hatton's biography of George Fox, and the details of how his body was repeatedly battered and broken from persecution, it strikes me that the right to believe, and not believe, is something we take for granted.


Harmless Mujahideen

I've just come across this Guardian article by Theo Hobson (via Stephen Lingwood's Reignite blog) on his sojourn to a Unitarian church.

At the time of writing the article has 433 comments, which could reflect potential interest in Unitarianism - Christian-rooted or otherwise - but may also reflect the popularity of the journalist and/or the controversy he has caused by his portrayal of Christianity as having essentially violent undertones.

Although there are points I'm sure Unitarians would argue with, the article is in many ways a fair general reflection of present-day Unitarianism - 'a harmless radicalism'.

Looking down the comments, I also thought this brutally frank comment was insightful - and reflects in part my frustrations of the church I have often called home:
"I've attended a few Unitarian services, and the problem I have is not that they don't have a creed - i respect that, and the non-assertive nature of their congregation, all are welcome, no questions asked, plus the obvious liberalism. It's more that in their services they seem to borrow the religious element of other religions, almost as if they are playing at being religious, lacking any tradition of their own.
So one week we sang some Buddhist chants, and we all ommed away for a bit, and meditated (or closed our eyes anyway). Another week, we played at being Hindus. It felt very Western, trying on the clothes of various religions in turn, as if we could touch the numinous by proxy, while the sermons were essentially children's stories, Just So Stories."


Quaker Week

I am currently in the process of reading Jean Hatton's biography of George Fox, which is proving to be very interesting not just in her portrayal of this 'English Prophet' but also in her descriptions of the context (the English Civil War period) in which he lived. Glancing from book onto the net, I stumbled across an article I found interesting
which then somehow led me to this:
I'd just been reading about Elizabeth Hooton in the biography mentioned above so this was of interest to me - I do think it's important that the female dissenters and campaigners of the past, at times operating in climate where some men believed that women had no souls, are championed for their audacity of hope (to steal a phrase).
    It had passed me by, but it seems the Religious Society of Friends in Britain are holding a 'National Quaker Week' from the 1st to the 11th of October (or Tenth Month, as traditional Quakers might call it) - this being the fifth event of its kind. I think it's a good idea - the entire community coming together in collective enterprise and opening their doors to the wider public, and in doing so, gaining some local and national media attention.

    It's an initiative that Unitarian & Free Christian churches could perhaps follow.



    "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson


    Martineau's Echo

    I regularly check the blog of Micah Bales, The Lamb's War, and read with interest his summary of community life at Capital Hill Friends. This Quaker community combines traditional silent worship with services of the more traditional church variety. I find something particularly powerful in these two paragraphs, even as an outsider looking in from thousands of miles away:
    "Something new is emerging at Capitol Hill Friends. It does not fit neatly into the old binaries of 20th century Quakerism. Rather than getting bogged down in fights between Liberals and Evangelicals, we are simply trying to follow Jesus. This feels risky, because he leads us to unfamiliar places. But there is freedom here, too.

    Jesus releases us from the culture wars that are tearing at the fabric of the United States, including the Quaker community. Jesus sets us free from dogmatic worldviews that make us feel both secure and terribly afraid. As we lean on Jesus, we are liberated from the need to fit our lives into tidy little boxes - or to confine others to them. He uproots the seeds of war, whose roots have sunk so deep into our hearts that we hardly notice them anymore."
    This sounds a lot like what I hope for when I see the 'Free Christian' part of 'Unitarian & Free Christian'.


    Faithful Liberalism

    If I had to explain my views on faith I would try to come up with something like this...

    What David Usher says is reasonable, plain speaking, gentle, and respectful. And unlike the stereotypical free-thinker, he is not wooly, doesn't go round the houses, and avoids being breathy!

    David Usher has a written version here also.

    God Talk

    Yesterday I was asked by a group of children, out-of-the-blue and on video camera,

    "Do you believe in an after-life?"

    to which responded with, 

    "I don't know."

    End of discussion. It's funny because even with close family and most trusted friends, there is a hesitancy to engage in 'God Talk'. It's become a taboo, a reflection of our secularised culture. And yet in hindsight, I think when you are asked in such a straight-up non-judgemental way, it's liberating - you're left thinking,

    "I wish I'd said more..."

    Had I been feeling more confident - and particularly eloquent - I would have perhaps quoted Hay Quaker quoting Doug Muder:
    "At times like these it is important to remember the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is an expectation of the future, but hope is a way of experiencing the present. Optimism assures us that the oasis we see in the distance is not a mirage, but hope simply inspires us to keep going. Optimism promises specific outcomes, but hope just says that striving is worthwhile, that whether or not good things will happen, creating opportunity is a good thing in itself.
    Optimism often lies, but hope never fails. Optimism argues with the predictions of cynicism and bitterness, and is often proved wrong. Hope rejects cynicism and bitterness as unhelpful, and is perennially proved right.

    Hope cares for the eggs without counting the chickens that might come from them. Hope plants as wisely as it can, knowing that the rains and the harvest are uncertain. Hope is—right here and right now, whatever may happen in the future—a better way to live."
    If I'd had two trees, a shovel, a small plot of land - and a watering can? - I might have even gone one step further.

    I think people of the West today, living in the kind of material luxury our ancestors would have viewed as heaven, yet also existing in societies blighted by depressed and disaffection, do need to pose the bigger questions. We are conditioned into viewing idealistic people as somehow odd - as naive fantasists. Yet I think we all have that quiet nagging sense of something bigger and a need for hopeful answers - no matter what shape they may take. We just tend not to say so.

    Church of The Holy Future?

    I know very little of the substance and services here, but I'm guessing the architectural design of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester - situated on the ground floor of a modern office block - will probably draw 'Marmite responses' from Unitarians and other Christian-types.

    I can already hear the argument that the more ancient Unitarian & Free Christian chapels of the British Isles should be preserved not just for their historic value, but because they were built by our ancestors at considerable cost and have been hallowed by prayer for centuries. There's much truth in this line of thinking.

    That said, I like the simplicity and pragmatic nature of Cross Street Chapel. The chapel inside actually looks very 'Quakeresque' being very plain and with a centrally-focused, circular seating plan. And although I don't know whether it's a rented or an owned space, I would imagine the costs for preserving the chapel are less of a burden than more ancient buildings like Ullet Road Church with its beautiful, tens of thousands of pounds worth of, windows. Ultimately a church building is just another block of bricks and mortar - it's the community inside that counts.


    A Global Prayer

    Today is Global Day of Prayer, and the day before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. There are so many stories from that fateful day - and since then in the thousands of lives changed, and lost, in the aftermath. Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, was there on the day and shares his experiences:

    The Daily Mail also has a moving, thought-provoking piece today about the so-called 'jumpers' from that day.


    Stand in thy lot...

    Today's early morning blog is a re-blog (if such a term exists) of one of the many inspiring posts by Boston Unitarian:
    "Be content to stand in your lot. Whatever it may be, there is work in it enough for one to perform. It is your work, and if done in a Christian spirit there is ample opportunity to build up faith and piety in your own soul, and to bless your fellow-men. If you aspire to what you think a better lot, the way to reach it is by being faithful where you are. But be sure, that no lot to which duty calls you can in its essential nature be excluded from the highest good. A noble spirit ennobles the humblest condition, and a mean spirit alone makes the lot mean. A wonderful fact! It seems as if it had been to disabuse the world, and to exorcise it of its false views of human conditions, that the Saviour of man was born in a manger; that his ministry was in the obscure land of Judaea; that by the way-side, along the lake-shore, among humble men, he subjected himself to poverty; that he washed his disciples' feet; that he died on a cross; and in all places lost not his own divinity, but made the event divine.

    Whatever then your lot may be, so that it come to you in the simple way of duty, do not contemn it, but honor it, and by your fidelity in it make it honorable. All real duties come in the order of a providential appointment, and take their character, not from the measurements of human vanity, but from God who appoints them. He can be worshipped as devoutly in the humble way-side church, as in the great cathedral; and so also he may be served as truly in the obcurest duty as in that whose performance wins the plaudits of the world. Leave to others to labor in their lot, and for yourself be satisfied to stand in your own; fulfilling its duties; enlarging it by your fidelity; contented to stand there while it is your lot; there to serve God, and to be useful among men." --Ephraim Peabody


    Bonza Airways

    And in other news - a paraplegic man has flown from England to Australia in a microlight:


    Brooms not Swords

    Although I was faraway from the UK at the time, the riots did not go unnoticed. I have blogged in the past at what I consider to be 'broken elements' of our society (speaking as someone who has long worked at grassroots level with those people often labelled 'underclass') but never expected such an outpouring of anger - and greed, and malice. 

    Being in China whilst the violent disorder was taking place, a country we in the West so often view as somehow 'backwards', challenged me further. The Chinese state - for all the much-documented political, social and cultural issues - continues to place emphasis on education as a way of improving lives, the stability offered to society from stable families and the need to promote 'harmony' between different cultures and ethnicities.

    Although often misdirected and exploited, seeing these distinctly Confucian values actively used to envision and shape society (new housing, public spaces for families to enjoy together, the restoration of minority city neighbourhoods, the active creation of jobs) got me thinking about the values we hold collectively in the UK. I don't believe the riots were simply about economic poverty - after all, most of the rioters have much more than the average Chinese, Indian, Latin American or African. What we are dealing with is a poverty of morals / ethics ("Who are we to judge?"), poverty of aspiration ("There's nothing out there for me..."), poverty of democratic identity ("I don't do politics. Politicians are useless and corrupt. Nothing will change."), poverty of trust in education ("School did me no good.") and poverty of hope ("Things are only going to get worse...").

    And there is no quick-fix solution. More laws and police won't do it, nor will simply throwing more money at poorer communities (via incompetent Local Authorities and wasteful quangos) do it either. It ultimately comes down to better, braver education of young people, and where necessary, their families. It also comes down to re-establishing the principle of personal responsibility. And the big one - worthwhile jobs (which you cannot simply rely on the market to create).

    I could go on but time constraints due to work, and the fact so many better words have been said and written by others already, leads me to leave it there - with one last note:

    During the moments of despair we may enter when thinking about the situation, we have to remember there are grounds for optimism - seen in the people who worked hard to heal individuals and communities in the aftermath. Stephen Lingwood, a minister working in Bolton (near Manchester), is a fine example of this - "the broom is mightier than the sword..."


    Summer hiatus

    "Seek not happiness too greedily, and be not fearful of happiness."
    --Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

    I'm going away now for a few weeks to take some extended time out from work, blogging, and all other busyness and distractions. I've had twelve months of blessings, the biggest being life with my beautiful significant other - so on that note, I'm off to enjoy the rest of the summer with her in China!


    Plain dressing = plain living?

    Stumbling upon George Fox's biography (which I am currently only reading on and off, as it competes with other things) has once again sparked my interest in the Quaker movement. One thing I have found particularly intriguing is the commitment of some Friends to the practice of 'plain dressing'. It's a discovery that's called me to reflect on my own assumptions about the clothes people wear and the choices behind them.

    I guess, coming from England where religious expression amongst the indigenous population is typically understated, I've always associated overtly-religious dress codes primarily with our Muslim and Orthodox Jewish neighbours.

    The practice of modern Christian plain dressing, from the bits and pieces I've researched on the internet, can be traced back primarily to German, Dutch and English Christian groups which emerged during the Radical Reformation - namely the Quakers, Puritans and Mennonites / Anabaptists. Following persecution, these 'peculiar people' then migrated in large numbers to the 'New World' of North American where the tradition of plain dressing, in varying degrees, continues amongst their descendants - the Amish being the most well-known example.

    It seems there are direct instructions in the Old and New Testament scriptures about clothing - particularly for women - which have been applied in various forms and to various degrees since the Early Christian communities. In this age, application of strict, gender-specific dress codes by Christians would likely be viewed as an over-zealous, antiquated 'quirk' in our oh-so modern and free age.

    But it would seem, at least for modern plain dressing Quakers, that it is not Biblical literalism driving such habits but the Testimony of Simplicity and Testimony of Equality and Community (summed up jokingly by Quakers as, "proud to be a humble Quaker") which commits Friends to live simply, to be a public witness to their faith and to live in solidarity with one another. So in many ways this could be viewed as a progressive, positive step rather than a step backwards.

    And in our increasingly secularised, consumerist, sexualised, image-dominated culture, a further motivation is to adopt plain dressing as a public statement of intent and cultural dissent. This trend (not without controversy) is also evident (mixed in with cultural conservatism) in other faith communities in the West, particularly Muslim communities.

    Running paralell to this you also find the Fairtrade movement, arguably one of the great works of religious groups in recent times, which Christian churches often take the lead in promoting and supporting. There is a growing awareness in our society (fuelled in part by increased media coverage, including one of the BBC's better pieces of programming) of where our clothing comes from, particularly so amongst socially-minded, left-leaning Christians, which is why (rightly or wrongly) we now see the fashion of wearing TOMS shoes amongst Christian youth.

    Speaking personally, all this is quite new and I am left undecided on its ultimate value and credibility. I am certainly attracted to the idea - it appeals to the romantic radical in me - but also cautious of what is often said about Goth subculture and their apparent non-conformity to popular fashions - "...but all you're doing is following another fashion."

    I guess you also have to keep in mind that by adopting a specific dress code, you could run the risk of becoming too focused on outer appearances rather than inner values. The practice of plain dress may represent enlightened values of modesty and simplicity, but what if that unbranded (or ethically branded) pious-looking plain shirt I buy is 1) as costly as other clothing 2) made by an enslaved child?



    This blog post at Harry's Place makes a valid point that for Breivik, Christianity was little more than an 'identity marker' in his hate-filled political outlook rather than a faith he followed dutifully. The argument follows that he should therefore be described as a 'Christianityist' rather than a 'Christian.'

    I guess analogies could also be drawn with the 7/7 bombers - maybe they should be routinely described as Islamists rather than devout Muslims?

    Pacman vs. Pastman

    I watched this encounter between Jeremy Paxman, of BBC Newsnight fame, and Stephen Lennon, a leader of the English Defence League with dismay as it points to some of the bigger issues with politics, and wider society, that we now face in 21st Century Britain.

    Starting with Jeremy Paxman. I don't think he has ever moved out of the shadow of his infamous encounter with Michael Howard. He has become so defined by his aggressive interviewing style that he has in fact become a caricature. A good interview is one that sheds light on the interviewee's opinions, experiences and underlying beliefs - recent viewing of Paxman suggests he repeatedly fails to achieve this. In his focus on the process of interview - namely, playing the condescending, bellicose anchor man role - he loses sight of the product.

    Paxman is in many ways a symptom of the way political debate in this country is pursued generally. The most common mode of debate seems to now involve quoting selective soundbites at your opponent, exaggerating opposing ideas as 'threats' (by implication, to be eliminated) and generally attempting to discredit your opponent personally.

    Moving to Stephen Lennon and the English Defence League, I am hesitant to join in the chorus of voices seeking to simply ostracise him, his group and the views they claim to represent. Firstly, because I follow the George Orwell's line of thinking, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Our democracy needs to remain open to as many voices as possible, no matter how unpalatable or uncouth. I firmly believe the most effective way to challenge extremist, divisive opinions is by exposing their flaws to a healthy dose of facts and reason. Secondly, speaking as a libertarian, because I think this demonisation of the EDL is indicative of how our Establishment systematically silences grassroots movements (of whatever ideology) who challenge their stranglehold on power - and in doing so, exacerbate the sense of alienation and disempowerment amongst the public (particularly the growing underclass), in turn giving rise to even more extreme, anti-democratic forces.

    Having said that, I do take issue with the English Defence League's manifesto and methods. I was once advised that in organisations going through change there are three types of resistance; 
    1. Rational - consisting of arguments as to why a proposed change is idealistically wrong and/or pragmatically unworkable.
    2. Political - opposition to a proposed change by those who risk losing power and privilege if it goes ahead.
    3. Emotional - an instinctive reaction to change based on an (often nostalgic) attachment to the perceived status quo mixed in with a fear of the unknown. 
    Arguably this model can be applied to our public discourse about the rise of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies and the onset of globalisation. It seems to me that the position of EDL is by and large a sectarian and nihilistic one, that for all its protestations of being rational, finds roots primarily in a distorted, fear-ridden view of societal change and a sentimental craving for a mythical England of yesteryear.

    Furthermore, Stephen Lennon and other EDL leaders - for all their talk of peaceful protest - have a clear association with football hooliganism. It's hard not to get the feeling, when you see video footage such as this, this and this, that Lennon et al are organising  EDL marches for a similar 'Saturday buzz' to the one that has driven matchday violence  - rather than any real commitment to ideals. After all, actions speak louder than words.

    Which takes me back to one of the first Quaker meetings I attended where there was discussion (in the peculiar Quaker way) of the spontaneous youth protests for democracy across the Middle East and NUS marches against the socio-economic policies of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government (some of which had involved rioting) - and how inspiring it had been to see young people so passionate about change, "flooding out of their temples to put their beliefs into action." An elderly Quaker gentleman rose from his seat to remind the congregation that the fight for noble ideals and the challenging of the old order ("speaking truth to power"), no matter how passionately pursued, should contain a measure of civility. I think this is a Quaker principle that Britain would benefit from.


    Sacrificial Lambs vs. Sacrilegious Wolves

    Anders Behring Breivik sits in a cell this morning believing he has a committed a sacrificial act in Norway - seemingly convinced he has given himself over to a higher, more noble cause. I do think the stark truth will hit him at some point. He is simply a mass murderer, despite his pretensions.

    Yet across the globe we hear of a young Japanese man, going under the pseudonym Atsushi Watanabe, who has signed himself to working on containing the aftermath of the earthquake-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

    In talking of his job, which is likely to lead to complex health problems which will in turn devastate all aspects of his life from being able to work until his older years, having a wife, having children etc., he simply says:

    "There are only some of us who can do this job... I'm single and young and I feel it's my duty to help settle this problem." 


    Planet Alibhai > No Humans Allowed

    Following the horrific attacks in Norway, something really struck me today on reading Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's column in The Independent.

    Before I go on to explain this though, I will start by saying I have long followed Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's writing. I have found her to be challenging, engaging and progressive. I respect her convictions, and her ability to critically question herself as well as others. She is someone, I feel, who speaks from the heart as well as the head. I once saw a moving documentary about how she has been repeatedly targeted with abuse and threats by extremists, of both Islamist and white nationalist movements, and wrote an email to her in support of her work - and she promptly responded, in person. Again, for someone who writes for a national newspaper and appears on TV etc., I think this is a measure of the character beyond the words.

    Today though, I sat on the train reading her article, Who will stand up for the refugees?, and was left with the feeling that she is (unknowingly) part of the problem in Europe, not someone working towards a solution.

    Looking at the footage and reading through the reporting from the Oslo bombing - and thinking about the 7/7 attacks in London - what shines through is both the human tragedy and human hope amongst the charred pieces of concrete and metal. The human tragedy in that every life taken was a life unfulfilled, a great spark of God-given potential extinguished - and from there, the tragedy that indelibly marks each of that person's loved ones. At the same time, you see the human hope - survivors helped along by strangers, bloodied and bruised, often maimed and always psychologically scarred - yet resolute in their determination to live on. It this common human spirit and experience we all share in. It is what we of this little island often call 'Blitz Spirit' - to sum up the complexity of bravery, fear, heartache, solidarity, loss and relentless optimism in the face of tragedy (and I would guess the peoples of 1940s Dresden and other continental European cities like Sarajevo have coined their own terminology to describe this experience).

    This also leads me to A Confession by Leo Tolstoy, in which he explores his own search for meaning, sifting through the various theological positions of religious, philosophical and scientific schools of thought - driving himself into despairing confusions and depression over the various differences - but eventually finding capital 'T' Truth in simply watching the lives of 'ordinary' people. He concludes that for them, the finer details and debates of their particular belief systems were irrelevant; the realities of human life offered the answers - in this I imagine he was contemplating the experience of loving one another, of romance, of sex, of seeing new life emerge, of building something with our own minds and hands, of life passing away, of nature and its cycle of seasons.

    Which brings me to today. I read through Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's latest piece, an article which it would appear was written with the intention of advocating for the rights of refugees, yet spirals into a directionless diatribe riddled with habitual references to the ethnic and religious identities of the people she is speaking of.  At one point she quite needlessly describes Brevnik as "a handsome Aryan with glassy, blue eyes" and talks of a seemingly minor altercation with a irritable French woman by referring to her as a 'Gallic bat'.

    It struck me that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown inhabits that same racialised, sectarianised, over-intellectualised world as Anders Behring Brevik inhabits - a world we each inhabit to various degrees but which our media often seems to exaggerate.

    Anders Behring Brevik has been described as a 'Christian fundamentalist' and emphasis given to his looks - in much the same way (if not more so by the BBC) that terrorists fighting in the name of Islam are reported as 'Muslims fundamentalists' usually with pictures of furious men in long beards to match.

    First, if we break this term down (somewhat pedantically), we could argue that 'fundamentalist' - in the literal sense of adhering strictly to the fundamentals of a belief system - is not an accurate description for someone who kills in the name of a religious tradition that, when stripped down to basic fundamentals, holds peace and service to a life-giving 'Other' at its heart (this can be said of all the world's major religions). Nor does appearance really give clue to character. Ultimately, Brevnik is quite simply a mass murderer, just as Mohammed Siddique Khan, Hasib Hussein, Germaine Lindsay and Shehzad Tanweer are mass murderers - they are broken, deadened characters who have poured out their pain onto others by attaching themselves to 'The Cause'.

    But second, and most importantly I feel, we should actively move away from this casual day-to-day dividing of people simply into skin-colours and methods of worship. We must pay some attention to this 'thin end of the wedge' and how our national discourse contributes to the raising up of these mass murderers. That is not to deny diversity or to stop celebrating difference, but to stop us making it one of the defining factors in our culture, and in doing so, dehumanising one another.

     What do we see first here? Differences in race? Differences in religion? 
    or a shared grief?


    Ode to Bosnia

    It is roughly a year since I travelled to Bosnia (Mostar & Sarajevo) and I continue to follow its story - stumbling on this moving piece by Haroon Moghul.

    Bosnia is the story of a patchwork people once conquered, once united, once divided, now fragmented into warring tribes. A beautiful, forgotten window on times gone by. A window that has been smashed into shards of glass and scattered - a "failed state."

    We shouldn't forget what has happened in this far flung corner of Europe. Because if you look closely, you will see our own society reflecting back - a dreamy vision of what could be cast against a warning of what might be.


    Fish shooting Fish

    I have no time to blog in-depth tonight - too busy with other things.

    However, I will give a quick mention to Cranmer (a Christian Centre-Right blogger) who provides a different view of today's events in London, our very own Gotham City.


    Renew Labour

    Over a week ago on the Andrew Marr Show, the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, went on record saying:

    "I'm absolutely a leader placing my party firmly in the centre ground but there's a new centre ground in our politics.

    The new centre ground, for example, that means you speak out on these issues of press responsibility, a new centre ground that says that responsibility in the banking system - which we didn't talk about enough when we were in government - is relevant, a new centre ground that says people are worried about concentrations of private power in this country when it leads to abuses.

    And that's the new centre ground."

    Today he went further and said:

    "A few weeks ago I talked about a set of values which are the essence of Britain’s character.

    Working hard.

    Obeying the law.

    Caring for others.

    Knowing the difference between right and wrong.


    These are the values which bind our nation together

    I want my children to grow up in a country where those values are respected.

    The hacking scandal has shown some of the awful consequences of the powerful shirking their responsibility.

    And this is not the first example.

    Indeed, in the space of just a few years, we have now seen three major crises in British public life among people and institutions that wield massive power.

    First the banks.

    Then MPs’ expenses.

    And now in our press.

    Superficially, each might look quite different in its causes.

    But there are common themes running through all three.

    The banker who paid himself millions of pounds for taking the most risky investments which would land his company and the country in the mire.

    The MP who fiddled the expenses system, landing himself, his party and our politics in disgrace.

    The editor of a newspaper which had a culture of illegality not for the public interest but simp ly in the search for sales, landing their paper and the whole industry in the dock.

    All are about the irresponsibility of the powerful.

    People who believed they were untouchable.

    This issue of responsibility is one which must be tackled throughout British society.

    From top to bottom.

    The failure of our country to recognize and encourage responsibility isn't just bad for fairness or people's sense of right and wrong.

    It's also holding Britain back in profound ways."

    I don't think Ed Miliband has the charisma to win an election under the current media climate. I think it is likely he will follow in the footsteps of other 'thinkers' like John Smith and Iain Duncan Smith who helped renew their respective party's intellectual foundations following electoral defeats, to then make way for a 'communicator' who packages it for the public.

    However, I do think he has reinvigorated the 'Libertarian Left' - a position that aims to keep a check on power rather than being seduced by it, a position that seeks a sustainable compassionate society. A similar position to the one that Tony Blair's New Labour movement initially inhabited before their ill-fated 'war on terror' and pursuit of record election wins at all costs, and one which the Liberal Democrats inhabited before becoming the subservient partner in the current coalition government.

    I hope Ed Miliband can continue his good work.


    Happy Birthday UCA

    It would appear that today marks (more or less) the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the Unitarian Christian Association, an affiliate of the Unitarian and Free Christian denomination in the UK.

    The fact that such a group had to be formed to preserve the Christian roots of this denomination is quite sad, because this denomination was once a groundbreaking pioneer of Christianity - it once embodied the Christianities of Priestley, Channing, Emerson, Martineau et al, but now pushes them to one side in favour of seemingly more shinier things (under the mantle of 'post-Christianity').

    However, as the first 'church' I joined since I ejected myself from more mainstream denominations and as one of the few faith groups I have stook with (and they with me) through the ebbs and flows of my spiritual growth, I owe the UCA a lot - for their welcome to the disenchanted and disorientated wannabe-disciple, their theological and liturgical openness and for the body of thought-provoking work they provide periodically via The Herald (one of the first and few places to publish my articles, in turn giving me the confidence to write further).

    So happy birthday UCA, and God Bless.


    Rest in Pieces NOTW

    I'm blogging at speed tonight, having got other priorities to attend to, but wanted to note a few points:
    *Added Monday 11/07/11


      Preventative Cull

      So James Murdoch, heir apparent of News International, has decided to close the News of the World leaving ordinary employees - a great many of whom, so we are told, were not in post during the days of hacking phones of murder victims' families.

      Yet the executives who oversaw such deceit and corruption remain.

      This is ultimately yet another cynical move by the Murdoch Empire, spoofed brilliantly by the News Thump blog.


      "Victoria Becktum"

      That was The Sun's headline this morning.

      Meanwhile, it is now thought that News of the World reporters (close colleagues of Sun reporters, and all servants of the Murdoch Empire) hacked the phones of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman following their murder in Soham and the phones of victims' families who were murdered in the 7/7 London terrorist attacks.

      It is also interesting to note other tabloid headlines:
      • Daily Mail - "PUBLIC SECTOR SALARY MYTH"
      • Daily Express - "NOW SALT IS SAFE TO EAT"
      Only the Daily Mirror, a long-standing rival to The Sun, runs with the hacking scandal as its lead story. And I suspect that is more down to political and commercial expediency than a quest for more ethical journalism.

      We have had a financial crisis caused by cavalier business elites, we have had a political crisis caused by greedy political elites and now the media elites prove themselves to be, by and large, mired in deceit and corruption.

      And all we tend to do is sit waiting for someone brave enough and powerful enough to come along and really turn things upside down -.I guess we're looking a bit like the ancient peoples of Israel crying out in the wildnerness for a prophet...


      Binge Britain

      A timely reminder for us as individuals and as a society: 

      “In our appetite for gossip, we tend to gobble down everything before us, only to find, too late, that it is our ideals we have consumed, and we have not been enlarged by the feasts but only diminished” 

      --Pico Iyer, British Indian novelist

      Backpage Puzzle

      Here's a challenge for you - guess which news item was ignored as a leading story by all of today's tabloids?


      I, Robot MP

      This is what happens when the main political parties in this country elect identikit career politicians as their leaders - where they become so concerned with media-personality, at the expense of substance.

      The Labour movement deserves better than this, the British public deserves better than this.

      There will be no Obama moment in this country until the parties free themselves of the oligarch press and the Westminster electoral system is reformed.


      Back to the Future Britain

      In 1987, during the Thatcher years, the Religious Society of Friends in Britain agreed in session at London Yearly Meeting to issue the following statement:

      "Quakers in Britain have felt called to issue this statement in order to address a matter of urgent national priority to promote debate and to stimulate action.

      We are angered by actions which have knowingly led to the polarisation of our country - into the affluent, who epitomise success according to the values of a materialistic society, and the 'have-leasts', who by the expectations of that same society are oppressed, judged, found wanting and punished.

      We value that of God in each person, and affirm the right of everyone to contribute to society and share in life's good things, beyond the basic necessities.

      We commit ourselves to learning again the spiritual value of each other. We find ourselves utterly at odds with the priorities in our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country. That denial diminishes us all. There must be no 'them' and 'us'.

      We appreciate the stand taken by other churches and we wish to work alongside them.

      As a Religious Society and as individuals we commit ourselves to examine again how we use our personal and financial resources. We will press for change to enable wealth and power to be shared more evenly within our nation. We make this statement publicly at a time of national decision [a general election] in the hope that, following the leadings of the Spirit, each one of us in Britain will take appropriate action."


      Basic Rights, Not Bonuses

      Placing my politics somewhere on the moderate centre (occasionally further rightwards, occasionally further leftwards), I am not not usually inclined to quote the socialist Morning Star

      But today I feel great affinity with the nurses, town hall porters, teachers, civil service admin staff and so on who have bravely taken industrial action, following attempts by the coalition government to force them into shouldering a disproportionate burden of a financial crisis brought on by the political and economic elites - just as every ordinary citizen who depends on public services for their health, education, community services etc. is now expected to pay more tax for less. Whilst failing banks continue to use taxpayer's money to fuel cavalier bonuses.

      This crisis has cast a light on the true nature of our political class. We have seemingly elected a government of aristocratic millionaires and career politicians to 'mend' our economy, people most untouched by the recession and most close to the big business that caused it. They have a vision for how to fix 'Broken Britain', but it is not in keeping with the vision or in the interests of the commoner - and so this will inevitably lead to a polarisation of society, a drift to more radical politics, and the onset of unrest & conflict.

      And whilst the equally-elitist opposition party shamefully dithers as the mainstream press dutifully falls into line with their oligarch owners, the Morning Star is one of the last real voices of opposition standing, calling it right on this occasion:
      "Striking teachers, lecturers and civil servants served notice on politicians today that they will not be sacrificial lambs for capitalism's crisis.

      The workers who took action were defending not only their modest pension schemes but also our hard-won public services.

      Big business and the politicians who defend its interests, irrespective of what party label they wear, are inspired by two motives.

      The first is to force public-sector workers and citizens who depend on the services they deliver to finance the deficit caused by bankers' reckless adventurism.

      They are pulling a classic politicians' fast one by trying to transform in the public consciousness a crisis associated with the private financial sector into a question about the justice or sustainability of the public sector.

      The second is to devalue public-sector workers' pensions arrangements so as to make privatisation more profitable and thus more likely.

      Private-sector vultures intent on tearing into the body of our public services constantly complain to politicians about the cost of maintaining pension schemes when taking over operations from the state.

      They would like to emulate the scandalous treatment in recent years of workers' pensions in the private sector.

      What took place with regard to occupational pensions in the private sector is scandalous, with schemes closed to new entrants and final-salary arrangements all but eradicated.

      Then there's the companies that walked away from their responsibilities, leaving tens of thousands of workers bereft of pensions they had paid for.

      Add to that the history of financial institutions mis-selling private pensions to individuals and it is clear that the private sector is the last area to serve as a model for the public sector.

      When Tory ministers assert that even if they have their way in forcing workers to pay more for longer and for reduced rewards, teachers and civil servants will still have some of the best pensions around, this just emphasises how much damage has already been done to pensions in the private sector.

      The Con-Dem government is encouraging a race to the bottom because it sees workers' pensions as an inconvenient burden on business and the exchequer.

      In fact, pensions for all workers are simply deferred wages, which have to be defended against the government's premeditated, politically motivated windfall tax.

      The only windfall tax meriting support is one on the super-profits of the energy companies' oligopoly, the banking sector and the rapacious supermarkets.

      It beggars belief that the politicians and big-business media can keep a straight face when they unite to denounce public-sector pensions as gold-plated or unaffordable.

      Research group Income Data Services points out that FTSE 100 directors can rely on average pensions of £170,000 a year, while MPs will still have a pension scheme that knocks those for teachers and civil servants into a cocked hat.

      How enlightening it would be if every Mail or Telegraph leader writer and TV commentator who joins the gang-up against public-sector workers' pensions were made to disclose their own salary and pension arrangements.

      The same goes for the front-bench politicians who make a huge song and dance about their marginal differences while uniting in opposition to the justice of the public-sector workers' case and to their reluctant decision to strike to get their voices heard.

      Today's splendid action was the first battle in a long campaign to defend our public sector and those work in it."


      Our Majestic Story

      Tonight I watched the first instalment of the BBC's 'Wonders of the Universe' series with the inspirational Brian Cox (originally of D:Ream fame) - styled, I'm guessing, on Carl Sagan's groundbreaking 'Cosmos' series.

      In short, it was both mind-boggling and moving. Probably the best piece of television I have watched in living memory. This is why we pay a license fee.

      The End of History - Chapter. 432

      The 1917 Russian Revolutions can be traced directly back to 1905, with the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre in St. Petersburg where peaceful protesters were gunned down by the Russian Imperial Guard. What followed was over a decade of protests, strikes and insurgency. The Tsarist government responded with bouts of reform and oppression - offering limited concessions with the one hand, and whilst striking deadly blows with the other.

      All that the Russian people sought were basic civil and economic rights - to have a say in how they were governed, to enjoy protection of the law, to be able to openly express their beliefs and opinions, to have jobs, to have food on the table - to have a measure of justice, freedom and dignity in their lives. The same needs and wants sought by so many others across the ages. What the writers of the Bible term as 'shalom' - complete, all-permeating peace.

      Their struggle against a tyrannical monarchist ideology lasted twelve whole years.

      And what followed this was seventy-four years of domination under the banner of a new idealistic yet equally tyrannical ideology, an ideology that many were seduced by, an ideology that offered a dream of utopia - 'Marxism'.

      Since 1991, the Russian people have continued to struggle for basic civil and economic rights against a new more-pragmatist ideology of oligarchy, capitalism and nationalism - 'United Russia'.

      The point? 

      The struggle for justice, freedom and dignity can take decades, centuries even.

      Revolution is no quick fix.

      Domination systems will fall, but there is always the risk that new ones will emerge in their place.

      The peoples of the Middle East face a long march towards justice, freedom and dignity. If we peoples of Europe and North America are to truly help, then our commitment will have to be long-term and our actions carefully taken with an eye on the past and future.


      "Dear Friend, I choose you..."

      I've always felt Christian, I've always read the Bible and had it read to me. Yet readings from the Bible have never moved me almost to tears, never really hit a nerve.

      But tonight, sat on the back rows in a Methodist church at a prayer and reflection service attended mainly by young Catholics, I quite casually listened to the speaker read these words from John 15:
      Jesus said,
      "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other."
       No sermon. No analysis. Just 119 powerful words, 501 characters. Much much more than a tweet.


      Signs for the Times

      Scott Wells posted yesterday on possible Christian emblems for a new church he is intending to plant. It got me thinking about Christian symbolism.

      For most Christians, the cross is the symbol of the faith. Despite the lingering discomfort I feel about the cross, which at first glance presents itself literally as an imperial instrument used to inflict a torturous death upon our fellow humans, I have come to appreciate the cross for its metaphorical meaning within Christianity - I get it, kind of. The Christian cross, particularly in its most simple form (the empty wooden cross), is a sign of 


                dying to a new way of life,

                     resistance to false gods and their kingdoms,

                          redemption, renewal and return to our true selves through God.

      These are all themes that are found throughout the Torah and the Gospel. However, for many Christians, the cross also symbolises bloody atonement for sins and related doctrine - something which I wholeheartedly reject because I think it points to a cruel, petty God rather than the graceful, mysterious God of the Gospel.

      So in short, I have mixed feelings about the cross.

      Which leads me to the alternatives. I personally find more positive meaning in the Ichthys.

      It is a sign of

           the simplicity of Christian witness - giving to others, regardless


                     the spirit of fraternity 


                              the spirit of resistance

      all lived out by the Early Christians in the shadows of the Roman Empire.

      I also find meaning in the Star of Bethlehem. In thinking about the story of the Magi, it occurs to me that symbolism can be found in the star as a sign of 

           the hope that inspires a long, arduous journey,

                  the realisation, after a long struggle, that "God is with us."

      Lastly, there is the dove as metaphor for the Spirit of God. Years ago, on looking into the Unitarian / UU flaming chalice, I found the following rendition of the dove.

      If I had to pick a symbol of my Christian faith, maybe I would pick this - as a sign of

           the pursuit of pure peace,

                     the freeing and uplifting of the soul through God,

                               love for the world around us, particularly the vulnerable,

      all messages so often expressed by Jesus in his words and actions.

      Ultimately, though, it could be said that Christianity means all these things - and that no symbol will suffice. It is, I feel, a testament to the beauty of the Gospel, that a bunch of ancient (seemingly crackpot) stories can continue to have such rich, powerful and personal resonance for ordinary people today.

      Which is why the Quakers, and their preference for the blank canvas over any emblems, might not be so quirky and far out after all.


      Free Christian Wiki

      I spent an hour this morning trying to clean up the Free Christian wikipedia article which was messy to say the least - I just wish there were more Free Christian churches to talk about.


      Dynasty or Democracy?

      Following the shocking-for-some-but-not-for-republicans news that William Windsor and Kate Middleton plan to move into Kensington Palace and hire servants, Sophia Deboick, writing in the Guardian today, makes some important points about the fundamental nature of monarchy which the British public subjectry seems to have willingly overlooked (or have been cajoled into overlooking by a good media campaign):

      "The wedding itself showed us what we are really dealing with here. This was purely about securing heirs and shoring up the hereditary principle. It was about continuity, not change. Kate being given her mother-in-law's engagement ring could hardly make the point more starkly that William and Kate are just part of the unchanging pattern that defines monarchy. As the patsies in this sordid arrangement, this couple are about as anti-modern as can be imagined. They are willingly accepting that one of their children will be head of state simply through accident of birth – something that defies every principle of modern democracy. If William himself is intending to become our head of state without referring to the will of the British people, he has little grasp of the sort of values that most deem to be fundamental – fairness and justice."

      "Ultimately, there is nothing modern about a hereditary head of state and there is no modern kind of monarchy. Monarchy is always the same – that is its point – and to a younger generation facing bleak economic prospects, the narrative of William and Kate being a modernising force as they go on to employ a legion of personal staff rings hollow indeed."

      If Britain truly aspires to be a fair, just and wholly-democratic society then the stark conclusion we must reach is that there's nothing British about monarchy.


      Ode to 'Ordinary' Things

      “Science and art may invent splendid modes of illuminating 
      the apartments of the opulent: 
      but these are all poor and worthless 
      compared with the common light 
      which the sun sends into all our windows, 
      which pours freely, 
      impartially over hill and valley, 
      which kindles daily the eastern and western sky;
      and so the common lights of reason, and conscience, and love, 
      are of more worth and dignity 
      than the rare endowments which give celebrity to a few.”
       --William Channing, Unitarian Christian clergyman


      Counter-Cultural Christianity

      Today, with the media still dominated by Ryan Giggs' alleged affair with a reality TV show contestant censorship campaign, I cannot help feel a little bit more pessimistic about the state of our nation.

      We have so much to be concerned about in our society; we are involved in wars in foreign countries that leave our young men terribly maimed or but a distant yet ever-present memory to their loved ones left behind, we have a generation of adolescents (known as NEETs) growing up in a society that has effectively said 'university or nothing' (at the cost of skilled trade apprenticeships) before pricing out university for the working and lower middle classes, we have young men and women drinking themselves to an early grave each weekend, we have a small but significant minority of youth who in seeing the ills of mainstream society decide to ally themselves with extremism ("Tear it all down, and get rid of them...") and/or nihilistic gangs ("Live by the sword, thrive by the sword...").

      We have so much to be concerned about in our politics; we have a half-democracy with an unelected head of state that props up a privileged elite (and renders us as subjects not citizens) and an unelected second Parliamentary chamber deciding on laws that govern the people, we have a political class mired in corruption that has caused widespread apathy for democracy and political discourse, we are submitting ourselves to an undemocratic continental superstate.

      We have so much to be concerned about in our economy; we have a huge public spending deficit which now results in cuts to education, health, social services and urban renewal projects, we have giant financial corporations that continue to remain unaccountable for actions that have increased the financial burden on the ordinary taxpayer and triggered a recession, we have a growing underclass of unskilled, welfare-dependent people with no means of self-determination.

      We have so much to be concerned about in the world; the Middle East is in turmoil, Bosnia is quietly falling apart, Kosovo remains violently divided, many African countries continue to experience crippling poverty, the Caucasus (scene of the Beslan school massacre) continues to bubble with hatred, Japan is struggling to contain a nuclear disaster, Pakistan is being torn apart by terrorism, Iran is imprisoning its heretics.

      Yet despite all of this, our politicians, our media, our national conversation all seems to be lost in celebrity comings and goings.

      Maybe their is some truth in the controversial ideas of American Marxist-cum-Radical-Conservative, James Burnham, who argued (something along the lines of) in his famous works The Managerial Revolution, The Suicide of the West and The Machiavellians (which I have admittedly not read page to page) that:
      • Capitalism in its truest sense - as a competitive, dynamic marketplace of entrepreneurs, innovators and grafters - will be replaced by 'managerialism', a system dominated by big business oligarchs and technocrats.
      • Politics will become increasingly closed and bureaucratic despite maintaining 'democratic habits' at surface level. Change within the political system will be limited to a circulation of elites. Movements for radical change will be ostracised, and those that do have some success, will adopt the power-hungry methods and compromised values of the elites - thus becoming the very thing they claim to oppose.
      • Liberalism as a progressive political ideology will become reduced to a vacuous guilt-ridden, contradictory set of positions held in reaction to perceived adversaries and past injustices (begging the question, "What's Left?").
      • Society's consciousness will become chained to the ebbs and flows of pop culture - bogged down in triviality - and in doing so, lose sight of its foundational values and mission.
      Maybe I'm just having a bad day, maybe I'm suffering from pomposity, but as I reflect on the real issues of our times - and this national obsession with the love lives of overpaid footballers who typically earn more in a week than a nurse will in five years - I do see some truth  in these pessimistic narratives. I believe it is the duty of Christians (and by that I do include we of the liberal Christian traditions), where possible working with those of other paths of faith and philosophy, to bear witness to something more hopeful and constructive in our society - in both our words and actions, to become a positive counter-culture. Just as that man Jesus did.


        Reason for Hope - no.198040

        There are so many reasons for hope in a world that often appears broken.

        This is one of them.


        Reality TV Economics

        Luke Johnson makes a good point about The Apprentice in his article for the Daily Mail:

        "The Apprentice is essentially a pantomime, full of circus clowns: since 2005, Sugar has been playing a theatrical villain in a pretend office on a TV stage that is about as authentic as Aladdin’s lamp.

        Genuine companies prosper thanks to teamwork, co-operation and consensus, not by bullying and back-stabbing. And innovative companies encourage experimentation — which inevitably includes mistakes — because that drives progress.

        No real boss has said ‘You’re fired!’ for many years — they know that employment legislation these days is far more serious than that.

        But television needs relentless drama to win big ratings — so it has a tendency to exaggerate and distort. The Apprentice is a prime case.

        Not all reality TV about business is so awful. Undercover Boss is a much more enlightening show, while the classic of the genre was the Bafta-winning Troubleshooter series, a creation of the late British industrialist John Harvey-Jones.

        He ran ICI, a vastly bigger concern than Sugar’s empire ever was. And Harvey-Jones was never much of a fan of Alan. ‘I always thought he was a bully,’ he once commented. ‘His values are, in my view, totally irrelevant to the needs of business.’

        It is disappointing that the BBC can no longer make shows like Troubleshooter, in which Harvey-Jones visited real, struggling, small businesses and offered advice."

        The BBC needs to be showcasing good examples of entrepreneurial leadership and real apprentices making their way in life - not setting up young, naive, brash individuals for a very public fall all in the name of tabloid coverage and TV ratings. This is not what our public service broadcaster was set-up for.

        If we are to establish a more ethical, responsible and meritocratic form of capitalism in this country, then the BBC could help by moving on from this outdated 'reality' TV show and look at more inspiring - and ultimately more interesting - forms of business.

        Channel 4's Jamie's Dream School, although deeply flawed in places, offered a more thought-provoking and watchable drama-documentary. Perhaps something similar - maybe by revamping the Dragon's Den format (with the Prince's Trust and investment bankers on the panel instead of more C-list celebrities) and following bid-winners as they then go through the trials, tribulations and achievements of setting up their own business - would be a better format, and more suited to our current socio-economic times?


        Multi-Sensory Learning

        "If you live inside your head, Science, Art and Religion will appear to contradict one-another. This is because, inside our heads, we build systems of knowledge, and in the name of reason, we demand consistency.

        If you stay inside your head, only science and logic ultimately make sense. Art becomes nice things to look at to make us feel happy, and religion becomes wishful thinking to calm us when we are afraid – especially afraid of death.

        Get outside your head, and Science Art and Religion are things that we do. And we do things differently. Science tells us how best to use the world to meet our needs. Art tells us how best to view the world to find value in it. And religion tells us how best to relate to the world, including and especially to one-another."


        Winston, NHS Guard Dog

        OF THE NHS...

        The Conservatives enjoy quoting Winston Churchill at people on all manner of political matters - sometimes with a bit of selective editing, as in the case of the Alternative Vote Referendum.

        So in today's debate over NHS reform, which saw Mr Clegg finally find a voice in keeping with his party and the general public on the issue, perhaps we also need a bit more of Churchill for Cameron, Osborne and Lansley et al to mull over:
        "The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion. Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available."


        Pause for Arabia

        Having caught the news of Muslim-Christian conflict in Cairo, this Sunday I am giving thought to the plight of the Christian peoples of this region who are now experiencing, just as their Jewish forebears did, exodus and diaspora. Imagine if simply visiting your local house of worship or celebrating your festival openly put your life in danger, if your relatives had been killed because of their faith or if you had to hide your faith completely for fear of arrest & torture - for many Christians in the Middle East, particularly in 'liberated' Iraq and 'close ally' Saudi Arabia, this is their day-to-day existence.

        For other Christians - such as those in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt - it is a case of having to increasingly engage in a tense stand-off with hostile Islamist movements to preserve their minority rights. With Western governments seemingly turning a blind eye in their pursuit of economic and geo-political interests, it is no wonder then that these ancient communities are choosing to uproot in their thousands and flee to a Garden of Exile.

        This is of course all part of the latest chapter in the story of empire & resistance in the Middle East - and the rise of an often intolerant form of Islamism which views these last vestiges of Christianity as the outposts of Western imperialism, just as Israel (which contains many communities originating from neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, who moved their following oppression) is framed purely as a classical European colonialist state.

        And so, whilst pausing to consider the various Christian communities of the Middle East, we must pause further for the Middle East peoples as a whole; that the complexities and conflicts of their societies are not reduced to dangerous black and white (mis)truths - instead, that they will take time to reflect and then work together for non-violent revolution, reconciliation and renewal.


        Lib Dems at the crossroads

        Dave wrote the note, Ed stuck it on him then Rupert told everyone...

        The party I've supported for a few years now, the Lib Dems, are at a crossroads following a damning mid-term electoral result. I switched to them following Labour's sinister treatment of one of their dissenting members and because I believed their platform as social and political progressives had far more substance than Labour's 'spin to win' approach to our country's issues. 

        Unfortunately, as with many parties that move from opposition to government, the Lib Dem's talented leadership have lost their way for the sake of holding onto power. The machinations of government have shackled and bruised them, particularly so because they are the junior partner in a coalition with a Conservative Party far more experienced at such things.

        In the words of fellow Sheffield MP, David Blunkett, today, “Cleggmania” has become “something akin to Clegg pneumonia.” It appears Nick Clegg, as figurehead of his party, has become the convenient scapegoat for the Conservatives as they make whole-scale cuts - cuts which were predicted before the 2010 General Election to make any next governing party overseeing them unpopular and unelectable. Even the Lib Dem party faithful have bought into the 'toxic' label and sought to distance the local election campaigns in his home city of Sheffield from him - just as Labour played on this and distanced themselves from him for the Yes to AV campaign (and the campaign itself). It would also seem that other leading figures in his party are in quiet opposition and maybe even considering a leadership challenge - it could be that the self-declared Westminster interloper now faces a Judas moment.

        So where do the Lib Dems go from here? Where does Nick Clegg go from here?

        First they must dismiss the lie that the Lib Dems have somehow betrayed the socialist-left. For a start, the Lib Dems are not part of the socialist-left tradition - their very founding was a result of Labour members who dissented from their party's increasing militant-socialist stance. The Lib Dems have since developed their own distinct (albeit broad church) tradition, one that is generally liberal-left - favouring a leaner state (though larger and more welfare-minded than the Conservatives), a fairer and more transparent redistributive tax system, support for ethical capitalism, an emphasis on democratic reform, an emphasis on protecting individual liberty, a more pacifist pro-European foreign policy and a focus on environmental conservation.

        Secondly, the stand-out progressive policies such as whole-scale electoral reform, the breaking up of the banks and free university places for all were simply unachievable following the results of the 2010 General Election. The Lib Dems could only have implemented these if they had won a majority or if they entered a more equal coalition partnership with Labour, which again would have required more Lib Dem seats in parliament. In reality, the Conservatives were the largest party in parliament and the Lib Dems did the principled and honourable thing in forming a coalition with them as the victorious party under the first-past-the-post system.

        The question that senior Lib Dems have to answer is whether they can continue to act constructively in government with a Tory apparatchik that is seemingly treating them in an unprincipled and dishonourable way? Will the bitter after-taste of the AV referendum lead to the party returning to minority opposition?

        I think the Lib Dem leadership must first take stock with their MPs and ordinary members - they must re-affirm their unity. They must get behind Nick Clegg (for now at least) rather than getting caught up in Murdoch-Miliband spin. Then they must return to the the terms of the coalition agreement and find their voice again as a robust liberal-left party working in partnership rather than appearing as wide-eyed flunkies. This means using their position as a party in government to push ahead on the following:
        • Democratic reform of the House of Lords
        • Introduction of fixed-term parliaments
        • Establishing powerful committees on devolution with a view to further democratic reform
        • Opposing the almost universal adoption of prohibitive tuition fees by English universities
        • Opposing further marketisation of the NHS
        • Continue working towards full implementation of the Freedom (Great Repeal Bill) which restores rights and personal freedoms following the encroachments of 'War on Terror' legislation
        • Holding the banking sector to account
        They must also draw attention to their achievements so far - their removal of income tax paid on the first £10,000 earnt being one and their role as limiter on Thatcherite-style initiatives such as NHS reform.

        To simply press the ejector seat now would solidify the Lib Dem image as perpetual oppositionalists - nice ideas but too naive and idealistic for government, still not ready for the rough and tumble of Cabinet. The Lib Dem leadership must dust themselves off from this kicking, dust off their principles and get ready for some dust-ups with their Conservatives colleagues in the name of progress. If in another twelve months the Lib Dems are still no further in their agenda, then it will be time to declare the coalition 'unworkable' - and in turn, seek new direction under a new leadership.