Brexit: Your guess is as good as mine

There are lots of newspaper articles about “what will happen next” with regards to Brexit, mostly written by people whose previous predictions have already turned out to be wrong.

So, on the basis that my guess is as likely to be right as anyone else’s, here’s my prediction of the next stages of the Brexit process. As you can see, each stage is worse than the last.

1. UK government asks EU to extend Article 50.

2. EU refuses to extend Article 50.

3. Parliament again votes against No-Deal, despite having no deal to prevent No-Deal.

4. No-Deal Brexit.

5. Closure of the Irish border.

6. Food shortages.

7. Medicine shortages.

8. Troops on the street.

9. Daily Mail celebrates our new-found freedom.

10. A plague of locusts.

11. The Thames turns to blood.

12. Opening of the Seven Seals.

13. Unleashing of the Four Horsemen.

14. War, plague, famine and death.

15. Appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

On this day in 1661: Religion, rebellion and repression

On this day in 1661, a group of religous and political radicals occupied St Paul’s Cathedral and proclaimed the overthrow of Charles II’s government and the imminent reign of King Jesus. The radicals were known as the Fifth Monarchists.

They took their name from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel suggesting that the four major monarchies of the world would be succeeded by a fifth monarchy, which in the seventeenth century was interpreted as meaning the Kingdom of Jesus.

The group had been more active around a decade earlier, when the overthrow of Charles I encouraged them to believe that more radical political and economic change was possible. They combined passionately apocalyptic language with a commitment to equality and economic justice. Many, perhaps most, of their active members were women.

With Charles II on the throne from 1660, radicals generally were disheartened. Charles II had the most prominent Fifth Monarchist, Thomas Harrison, hung, drawn and quartered as a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant. But the Fifth Monarchists weren’t giving up, and on 6 January 1661, Thomas Venner led a final attempt to overthrow earthly monarchy and bring in the reign of Jesus.

It took the authorities several days to suppress the rising, despite the relatively small numbers involved. The Fifth Monarchists resisted violently, although most of the violence seems to have been carried out against the radicals by the state’s troops . The leaders, including Venner, were hanged for high treason. Over 4,000 other radicals were rounded up and imprisoned without due process. Most of these were Quakers, but they also included Fifth Monarchists and Baptists.

The Venner Rising, as it tends to be called, is generally seen as a footnote to the tumultuous history of mid-seventeenth century England. In Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles II, for example, it takes up only half a sentence. But the rising led to other events of great importance, and probably of greater historical significance than the rising itself.

Firstly, in the wake of the rising there was a crackdown on religious and political dissent. This was a straightforward betrayal of Charles II’s promise the year before that he would respect religious liberty. This promise had been part of the agreement under which he had been invited to take the throne. Now it was abandoned. Over the next few years, a string of laws was passed aimed at the persecution of dissenters.

Secondly, the Quakers responded to the incident by denouncing violent rebellion and producing the first formal statement of Quaker pacifism. This is sometimes seen as an attempt to assure the king that they were not a threat to him. However, the statement was not as straightforward as this. While rejecting violence, it also seemed to reject serviility to earthly kings. After delcaring that they would not fight “with outward weapons” for either “the kingdom of Christ or the kingdoms of this world”, the Quakers went on to say, “As for the kingdoms of this world, we cannot covet them, much less fight for them…”.

There’s a final point of interesting historical confuson about all this. The Quakers’ pacifist declaration is frequently misdated to 1660 rather than 1661. This is because at the time the year was considered to begin on 25th March, not 1st January. Thus what we would call 6th January 1661 was viewed as being 6th January 1660. The date 1660 therefore appears on the Quakers’ statement. A number of reputable books, including many written by Quakers, mistakenly attribute the declaration to 1660. By modern reckoning, however, this is impossible: it followed an incident that took place on what we call 6th January 1661.

Busy but not blogging

I didn’t blog much in 2018. I was very busy – not least with my part-time (but sometimes very intense) job with the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which had a busy year in 2018. I’ve also continued to teach history for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Oxfordshire, as well as doing some occasionaly writing.

I’m determined to blog more in 2019! It helps me clarify my thoughts on all sorts of things, and I hope it’s at least a bit interesting for those who choose to read my blog.

In the meantime, here’s more about the Peace Pledge Union’s recent work. I’ll be teaching two courses for the Workers’ Educational Association this term: in Abingdon (on the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century) and in Goring (on British peace activitsts in the First World War.

The strange case of the DUP and the English left

I never cease to be amazed by just how London-centred the UK media are. As the results came in during the early hours of Friday morning, it became clear that Theresa May was likely to attempt some sort of deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Yet the BBC election programme told its viewers almost nothing about the DUP. Even the election results in Northern Ireland, which saw the DUP increase its number of seats from eight to ten, received little attention.

A friend of mine who is a Scottish political journalist used to challenge Westminster-based political correspondents to name the First Minister of Wales. Most were unable to do so. I suspect that on Friday morning, some of them were desperately typing “Democratic Unionist Party” into Google, as they sought to find out about a party whose candidates all stand in areas further away than London Underground Zone 3.

Of course, many other people were looking up the DUP on Friday – at one point, the party’s website crashed. It’s entirely understandable that many voters in England know little about parties in other parts of the UK, especially when the UK media pays them so little attention. What I’ve found more surprising is the odd reaction on parts of the English left.

Anyone looking up the DUP can find out very quickly that they are viciously homophobic and anti-abortion. Some of their leading members are creationists, fundamentalists and/or climate change deniers. Several have past links with paramilitary groups and they are gung-ho for high military spending and nuclear weapons.

So it’s no surprise that most people on the left don’t want the DUP in government. A number of feminists and left-wing campaigners are writing to Tory MPs to urge them not to do a deal with the DUP.

I can understand why people might do this, but it isn’t something I’ll be joining in.

I accept that the DUP are even worse than the Tories when it comes to human rights – particularly LGBT rights and women’s rights. On economic issues, however, they are slightly less right-wing than the Tories. For example, they oppose the bedroom tax and want to maintain the triple lock on pensions.

This doesn’t for a moment excuse the homophobia, sexism and climate change denial. But it does make me wonder why so many on the left think that the Tories taken alone are any better than the Tories and the DUP added together.

To write to Tories to ask them to reject the DUP seems to suggest that the Tories on their own are not too bad. There is an implication that Tory MP are basically reasonable, liberal-minded people who can be asked not to do deals with bigots. But while many Tory MPs may now support (some) LGBT rights and pay lip-service to environmental issues, this does not make them better than the DUP. Their welfare cuts have literally killed people over the last seven years. Their arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia have added to the blood in which the hands of Tory MPs are so liberally covered.

Of course I would rather have a minority Tory government than a majority Tory-DUP one. A minority government will be easier to defeat. And I would rather see both the Tories and the DUP divided: I don’t want people who are attacking the rights and welfare of millions to be strong or stable.

I fear that those who see the Tories as preferable to the DUP may be influenced by assumptions that religious bigots must be worse than liberal-sounding millionaires or that Northern Ireland must be more extreme than England. Neither of these are helpful or accurate assumptions for people on the left to be making, whether consciously or otherwise.

I do not suggest that Tories are all the same, nor will I waste my energy on personal hatred for Conservatives as people. I instead suggest that we need to continue resisting the Conservative Party as an institution that functions to promote the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us – however liberal some of them may sound when standing next to Democratic Unionists.

Churches should be challenging the Tories at election time

Churches at election time are a sad sight.

Organisations that spend much of their time championing principles of compassion and seeking to serve local communities are suddenly afflicted by an apparent inability to speak when it comes to one of the most important decisions that people around them have to make.

The attitudes adopted by national denominational institutions are particularly disheartening.

Take for example the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). It brings together the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church to comment on political issues. They have produced some great statements over the last few years, challenging welfare cuts that increase poverty and calling for an end to the Trident nuclear weapons system. With an election coming up, you might think they would have something to say about how the choices with which we are faced relate to these issues.

In particular, they could point out that a vote for the Tories is a vote to continue with the very policies that they have been criticising. It is a vote for more poverty, more inequality and more war.

Instead, JPIT’s website declares that, “While we all have political opinions, when the Church gets too involved or too close, it begins to lose the detachment that we need to discern God’s will… Election campaigns make this ever more sensitive.  Notwithstanding the fact that as registered charities the churches must abide by statutory guidance on impartiality, lobbying and campaigning, it is far more important that the Church sees itself not as any other kind of organisation weighing in on its priorities for manifestos or commitments from future MPs.”

This is odd, because JPIT and its member churches frequently speak up for their priorities and call for particular commitments from MPs the rest of the time. Laws that bar charities and churches from expressing preferences should be challenged, not quietly submitted to.

I make these comments about JPIT not because I do not support JPIT but precisely because I value them so highly. This makes it all the more disappointing.

This of course is before I even get on to the Church of England archbishops’ letter, which echoed Tory slogans about “stability” (this has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here).

And up and down the UK, there are local churches cautiously saying very little at a time when their words and actions could have a considerable impact.

Thankfully, there are some variations. A friend of mine who is a Methodist minister said in a sermon that he thought that support for the Conservative Party was incompatible with following the Gospel. He was criticised by several members of his congregation. Some of them disagreed with him; I’m glad they felt able to say so and it’s quite right that they challenged him. Far more worryingly, however, some of them agreed with what he said but thought he should not have said it. This is bizarre and dangerous: suggesting that Christians should hide their deeply held principles as they relate to vital events going on in the world around them.

I am not suggesting that clergy and churches should tell their members who to vote for. Members of churches should think through everything they hear for themselves, including everything preached from the pulpit. Churches in which people are discouraged from disagreeing with preachers are not healthy places.  This does not mean that clergy and other preachers should refrain from addressing difficult and controversial issues, including choices about voting.

Of course churches should not declare that all Christians should vote the same way. Nor should they refuse to engage in dialogue with those who disagree. This should not stop churches from declaring opposition to Tory government and calling on people to vote to remove it.

Of course some Christians will disagree (I’m not saying that they’re not Christians, but simply that I think they’re mistaken). Of course, unjust laws could be used against us; they should be resisted and challenged. Of course we would be misrepresented; Christians are used to that. None of these are reasons not to do it.

Jesus sided with the poor and marginalised. That is a fundamental aspect of the Gospel. There is no Gospel without that reality. The Conservative Party has spent two centuries promoting the interests of the super-rich. That what’s it’s for. These things are not compatible. Let’s say so.

 

 

 

On The Big Questions: Church buildings and drones

I’m pleased to report that I’ll be on The Big Questions on BBC1 at 10.00am tomorrow (Sunday 12th March).

They have three debates per episode. I’ve been asked on to talk about church buildings (in the light of the potential closure of Guildford Cathedral). However, they’ve also asked me to join in on another topic: the ethics of drones.

My main job now is working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacifist network that includes people of many religions and none. Tomorrow, I’ll largely be speaking in a personal capacity, particularly when it comes to church buildings. Of course the topic of drones is very relevant to my work at the PPU (although I’m coming from a Christian pacifist position, the PPU includes many other sorts of pacifists as well).

I’ll be back here in the next few days with some thoughts about the programme. If you want to tweet while watching it, I believe the hashtag is #BBCbq. You can link to me on Twitter at @SymonHill or the PPU at @PPUtoday. Your comments on the issues are also welcome below. Thanks!