Park Bench Tales and other writings

Thoughts and writings reflecting the poet within and the activist

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A delusion of diversity and increase in polarity

The procedures that are used to elect a parliament in the United Kingdom are often cited as being an example to developing nations, although in comparison to many other European countries there are clearly alternative procedures that many might see as offering a greater choice and promoting a better form of democracy. In spite of these procedures the United Kingdom has made better progress in terms of increasing diversity among members who are elected. Just over one hundred years ago the parliament was comprised of men, they were likely to be white, they were likely to have received a private school education and to have gone to university, many would be related to the landed gentry, few would have any experience of work in an industrial situation.

Changes came with the rise of socialism in the early part of the twentieth century, men entering parliament from working class backgrounds, with experience of a wide number of trades and professions. Whilst socialism had popular appeal the communist party never really gained a strong foothold. The next change was to allow for the election of women to the parliament, following a long struggle by the suffragettes. This took place in 1918, although we had to wait until 1979 before we saw the first woman as Prime Minister. The first black members were elected in the 1980’s, the first blind person to serve as a cabinet minister in the mid-1990s.

The current parliament (June 2017) is being hailed as one of the most diverse, the progress made is pleasing even if it still does not truly reflect the society in the United Kingdom. Over half of the current parliament have not been to selective or private schools, there are a larger number who are prepared to identify themselves as members of the LGBT community, almost one third of those elected are women, there are more from ethnic minorities. In this sense it is hard to argue that parliament is not moving forward, albeit slowly, to a more diverse make up in terms of gender, ethnicity and education.

The question is, does this mean there is diversity in other ways? Suppose that parliament was made up of half female and half male, that all ethnic minorities were represented in the approximately the same proportion that is found in the wider community, and that the other measures of diversity continue to approve, what does this really tell us? What is not being measured is whether we are seeing an increase in diversity in points of view.

There are a number of ways of looking at this. If we were to consider all the various viewpoints that are offered by over six hundred members then the diversity might appear to be as wide as ever. This might encourage us to give ourselves a small pat of the back and to say that we are doing exceptionally well in our diversity of views. However, views are not represented in this way, and the better way to consider the diversity of views is to consider the different parties, the manifestos that these parties prepare, and the way that the views are expressed in parliament in terms of voting. Only then can we consider whether we have a diversity of views.

Where there are only two parties that dominate, and effectively control the agenda in the parliament, each regards the opposition as ‘an enemy that is there to be beaten’. This position might be understandable during an election campaign, but may also have a disastrous effect on what happens after the election. The pattern in recent years has been to see not simply a divergence of opinion in policy but a form of polarising that makes no sense to the casual observer. Consider the positions of right and left on the elderly and on funding. One might expect that the position of the left would be to say that funding should be fair and distributed according to need and also related to the funds available. On such a basis the needy would be protected and the wealthy would be required to contribute more. In fact, the benefit known as ‘winter fuel allowance’ was being argued by the left as a benefit to be given to all, no matter how wealthy they were, whilst the right was calling for a form of means testing. A policy announced by the right was immediately opposed by the other major party taking the opposite view. This sort of polarity, opposing for the sake of opposing, raises the issue of whether this will always happen in a two party system. The dismembering of healthcare in the United States shows just how damaging two party politics can be for a large section of the population who need assistance.

On other issues we did see the more traditional left and right stances. The left was in favour of free tuition for students at college, and for maintenance grants to be available for the needy, whilst the right was in favour of high tuition fees and loans to cover fees and maintenance. The latter method puts the ‘debt’ in the hands of the student, to be repaid upon starting employment provided the salary is above a minimum level. The left wing view is that the ‘debt’ is paid for by all taxpayers through higher taxes that go across the board. There is a polarity in views, but really the difference is how the debt is to be paid and who pays that debt.

The divide over public ownership of utilities, such as energy production, transport and water , followed the old lines. The left looked to nationalisation whilst the right looked for privatisation. There was some dispute over the possible privatisation of the health service, but the lines were still there. Foreign policy followed a similar pattern of the old divide, the right looking to sell arms and support regimes deemed to be ‘friendly’ or ‘useful’, whilst the left was opposed to the sale of arms. The use of nuclear weapons showed a similar polarity, one party prepared to launch a ‘first strike’, the other reluctant to use the weapons.

The most obvious risk of having this form of divide is that when one party assumes power and enacts legislation to carry out policy then much expenditure is incurred. If the next election produces a change in governing party then legislation is repealed, new legislation put in place, more expenditure is incurred. This could continue for each change in government, resulting in much public expenditure but very little action in terms of long term planning. A lack of long term planning is usually displayed and recognised by a failure to invest in infrastructure, by housing shortages, and a lack of other projects such as those required to meet the demands of action on climate change. These are the symptoms of a country in decline and we may be observing this in the United kingdom at present.

There are at least three ways in which the effects of such polarity can be mitigated and to be effective we really need to see all three of these in action. The first change that would benefit the United Kingdom would be a return to more moderate views when a party is in power, a move towards a centrist position rather than an extreme. This might attract more cross-party support and when there is a change in power perhaps reduce the waste of expenditure that polarisation can produce. However, there is also an argument against this approach, there are some issues that really do not require compromise but need more extreme action and more urgency if we are to make a real change. In part these can be attributed to centrist approaches, so that the need for action on climate change has become more urgent because there has been too much compromise rather than pressing on to promote renewable energy and abandoning of fossil fuels.

The real key to avoiding polarisation is to give better representation of points of view. At present the use of a ‘whip’ system discourages individual party members who are elected from doing anything other than following the party line, rebellions are actually very rare. The best way forward is to progress towards proportional representation, where parties can be represented according to the share of the overall vote that is received by that party. Both major parties in the United Kingdom are opposed to the idea, clinging to the idea that as long as ‘first past the post’ can be maintained we can have two=party politics and there is no need to share power with anyone as long as you win. Such an approach not only makes economic nonsense because of the waste of resources from polarity, but also illustrates a selfishness of those who support the idea. The selfishness comes about because they are never prepared to consider alternative views, to think of the potential benefits that might come about from compromise. Imagine a situation where families were run by only one parent and ask whether that is really likely to promote harmony. Most people would agree that the result is more likely to be an undercurrent of dissent and ignoring the wishes and rights of some family members. Amazingly politicians seem to think you can run a country with such dissent as long as the law lets you have the right to rule.

Proportional representation, rather than alternative voting that only helps reinforce a two party system, would allow minority views to be heard. There might well be an increase in the number of political parties, and so a greater diversity of views. The probable result of any election would be that a number of parties might then have to come together and work together to form a government that is more representative of the electorate. The need to reach a consensus would avoid polarisation and encourage long term investments. The media hype about ‘coalitions of chaos’ is simply not supported by experiences elsewhere.

For the United Kingdom a two party domination has brought both chaos and uncertainty, the possibly of yet another election looming, time and resources wasted, further delays in any consideration of long term planning and no sign of a lessening of polarisation. Diversity of views is being suppressed through the media, through an antiquated voting system and through a lack of funding. Another election and a possible change of government under a two party system is not going to produce solutions, but will further intensify the polarisation and will eventually lead to fewer people becoming actively involved in politics at any level. If we want the benefits of diversity, the security of longer term planning, the promotion of harmony among many different groups then we have to find a way forward that breaks away from the domination of two party politics.

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If not faith then what?

I was never really drawn to the chapel for company, most services that I attended consisted of an elderly couple, an organist and whichever member of the family had brought her that week. The services were taken by local preachers whose sermons could run on for up to an hour, though most were much shorter. There was never too much talk after the services, we went on our way and then assembled again in the same fashion for the following Sunday afternoon. It is hard to say with any certainty what drew me to the little chapel, my father was a local preacher but I rarely heard him. Spending so much time in the countryside, watching animals and watching the changes of the seasons, I was aware of a very beautiful and seemingly organised sequence of events. At school I had learned of Darwin’s theory, the creation story had been abandoned a long time before that and yet there was a sense that all the beauty of nature did not consist of random events. There was another side to my attending the chapel. I had read ‘Cry, the beloved country’ and was shocked at the situation in South Africa, and as interest grew became more aware of inequality at home. The interest led me to become a local preacher until I started work as a teacher. I believed that the church and the opportunity for preaching, and hopefully discussion, might be an opening to bring about change.

I was interested in the form of service in different churches but also aware that ‘faith’ was never really a part of life outside many churches. I often thought of the quote:

‘Whatever you did to one of these brothers of mine, even to the least of them, you did it to me.’

The behaviour inside the chapel or church was controlled, those of us who attended were supposedly ‘converted’ and performing a ritual each Sunday. This no longer made any real sense, the needy were often not in the church but outside on the streets, living in damp, overcrowded conditions, relying on state handouts, starving or being persecuted in some far-off foreign land. So the expression of faith had to be about how you behaved outside the church, how you behaved on the other six days of the week! If you try and isolate your Sunday ‘worship’ from your day to day living then something seems to be amiss. Could you bring the behaviour outside the church into the church in a meaningful way? We would discuss many aspects of life outside of the church, but could we bring the same discussion into the church?

Our activities outside of the church, or of any other religious building, are the actions that define our faith. How we interact with others is the expression of our faith. This, I believe, is true for all religious groups. If a group are wholly occupied with the performance of ritual, with little understanding or awareness of those around them in everyday life then they have nothing to offer, their religion has become rather like a private club with very restricted membership. If there is any faith, then the question arises, ‘faith in what?’ This last question is the first challenge, not the challenge of the atheist who believes there is no God, but the challenge of those who might profess a belief in a God, or Gods, in Goddesses, or Gods and Goddesses.

I have been fortunate that much of my life has brought me into contact with people whose expression of faith outside of church, temple, mosque or other buildings could be seen and admired. Some events obviously stand out more than others. Methodist friends who organised long distance walks to raise money for charities, Quaker friends who generously gave to help my own parents, Wiccans whose friendship and welcoming communities were an example of how we can behave towards others.

In spite of attempts to portray immigrants and ethnic communities in an unfavourable manner in the UK press, I am fortunate to live in a multi-ethnic community and I am always very conscious of the politeness and helpfulness of the Muslim community, aware of hard-working and friendly Poles and others from various Baltic nations. Each day I can be reminded that we behave very differently outside the church, some will show great acts of friendship and kindness and may never attend a service, whilst others may attend regularly but be hard-fisted, prejudiced and entirely selfish for the other six days of the week. I wonder if the latter ever found a faith inside the church, or do they just attend because they feel that it gives them a little extra status in some way? Is this the ‘Holier than thou’ syndrome that is being shown?

I find the alternative face of faith is much harder to accept, and I think that many young people drift away from religion for similar reasons. Anyone who has experienced the dull ritual of a Sunday service at a church for weeks on end and witnessed the same actions over and over again, a congregation muttering its way through a set service, hymns sung so slowly I feel there should be minimum speed limits for organists to overcome this, must surely question how you relate what happens inside a building to actions upon leaving that building. Equally disconcerting are those faiths whose control of entrance to buildings, and often of dress code, seems to present a barrier rather than a welcome.

What of those who profess no faith, and also claim that there is no Deity or deities? One of the interesting parts of the teaching of many faiths is that there is a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and that for many faiths the idea of ‘good’ is associated with a deity and that we should attempt to follow such teaching. Outside of a faith there can also be thinking about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but in such cases these ideas are entirely concepts that exist in the minds of those who express them. Thus, one person’s ideas about what is good and what is evil are not necessarily the same as their neighbour’s. So one neighbour might regard the response to something perceived as evil as deserving of some physical action, whilst another might regard the appropriate response as being to ignore it.

When such ideas, the determining of what is seen as good or evil, fall outside of faith and the consensus is taken rather than guidance from another source, then we can see selfishness and ignorance being expressed and often met with responses of hatred and violence. Many of the early settlers who came to countries and ‘colonised’ those countries did not see their actions as being selfish, or as theft or stealing. Land was settled and often goods were also taken from those living there. Clearly, your idea of what was good or evil depended upon whether you were the settler or the displaced family. I would take issue with the suggestion that these settlers were ‘Christians’. Although some clearly followed a faith those who deliberately supplied indigenous groups with blankets they knew to be contaminated with smallpox were not and their actions came from their own arrogance and selfishness.

We need to see that this idea of good and evil being determined by consensus is still with us. The political leaders of today, Trump, Merkel, May, Macron, Corbyn, Bashar Al-Hassad, Putin, and others clearly have very different ideas about what is considered good and evil, they do not share common aims and that may well be because they have no real idea of faith. Their thinking is founded upon their own ideas about good and evil, not on any faith. Even though all of these may claim to follow a version of an Abrahamic faith there is little that is common in their views on good and evil. Are we acting in a reasonable and sensible manner when we trust our futures to such characters whose ideas on good and evil can be so diverse?

The atheist can always provide the answer that their beliefs exclude a deity, so they cannot be accused of not behaving according to any faith. However, if you have no faith and each of us is to form our own moral compass then we are just as likely to end up with a selfish society as we are to end up with a compassionate one. If we are to suggest that there is a concept of good, or of evil, that is somehow built into our genes, that we are programmed in some way, then does this really make any sense? It might make more sense to say that we acquiring the idea of good or evil as learned patterns of behaviour, at least that suggests that such patterns can be unlearned, that the patterns can change, that we could be reprogrammed in some way.

I do have doubts as to whether the ideas we hold about good and evil are the result of deities, but equally I have even greater doubt as to whether these ideas really are simply the result of learned patterns of behaviour and nothing more. Faiths, and indeed atheism, can be used to provide some sort of protective shell which we use to avoid thinking about such ideas. We justify our actions according to a script that may be thousands of years old, which may have been altered several times, or we justify them using a denial of all these scripts and say we are able to form our own ideas.

Perhaps it is time that those who claim to be leaders of faiths, and those who claim atheism, came together and discussed the nature of good and evil differently. How we continue to behave towards each other, how we use the resources of the planet, how we care for others, are all matters that are related to our views on good and evil. If we are to have any long term future as a species on this planet, and if the planet is to be able to sustain life that we are used to, then we surely need to have a clearer direction. The first step in that progress is surely to break open the shells that we have been surrounding ourselves with.

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Mercy is a part of faith

Following the horrific attacks by terrorists in Manchester and London just before an election we are now faced with the task of determining how we react. For some the reaction is to call for greater security, for greater border control, and greater monitoring of those suspected of being radicalised. All of these reactions are to be expected, and flaws in any system should be examined and, if possible, action taken to make us safer. However, some of the reaction does not seem very logical or sensible to me. Suggestions that we lock up all the suspects seems to be judging and sentencing before any crime has been taken place. Detention and internment simply because somebody was born in a foreign country is equally absurd. I think that most of these reactions probably stem from the immediate anger that many feel after such atrocities.

There are other actions that are more sinister. Groups calling for Muslims to be deported, and the worst for them to be killed as a ‘final solution’. There are groups who masquerade under a ‘Christian’ banner and dressed in paramilitary style who think the answer is to go around and intimidate those living in Muslim areas.

The atrocities are only a small part of a much larger picture, a struggle that is going on across much of the middle east, in many western nations and in places as far away as Indonesia and the Philippines. Remembering those who have been killed and maimed in the many attacks is important, giving support and comfort is a part of our response. Part of this great tragedy is that the nature of conflict has changed and so many of the casualties today are innocent victims. If we pause and think of all of the victims we give ourselves a greater understanding of how we could respond.

Among the victims of the atrocities that are being committed in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries are large numbers of children. Many of these manage to flee to neighbouring states, but for some they continue to flee and seek refuge. Many have lost their homes, their possessions and often other members of their family. They are in desperate need of help, food, shelter, clothing, and a lot more. They are in need of a home, even if only temporary, where they will be loved. They are in need of a safe environment where they can make friends and can play freely. They are in need of an education so they will have the opportunity to live a better life.

What type of response is it to try and devise means to refuse these children any help? What sort of society do we have when we refuse children on the grounds that they are disabled? To refuse to help children who have been maimed, disabled for life, and possibly by arms supplied by developed nations. What sort of society do we have when we refuse those who are deemed to have learning difficulties? This sort of response is no better than kicking someone who is already down and out.

There will be many for whom the answer will be to parrot the words of politicians in response to such challenges. It is so easy to do this, it is easy because it means you can avoid having to think for yourself, you can avoid that little bit of conscience that still niggles at you, you can sweep under the carpet any examination of your own faith.

The essence of Christianity is surely that we show mercy and compassion to the sick, to those in distress, to the poor, the needy, the sufferers. In reality we are doing the opposite, kicking sand in their faces, when we refuse to help these children. As their numbers swell I am listening to the cries of the selfish, telling us we should give them less, claiming they are not our responsibility. I hear what they are really saying. ‘We have the loaves and fishes, but we are not sharing, we are keeping them for ourselves’.

Then I hear an answer that is no better, this goes along the lines of ‘We have our own veterans and disabled to look after, we need to take care of them and cannot take in or help any more’. This is rather like saying, lets give the feed to locals first, the foreigners can go home because we are not going to go to the store to get any more food. Yes, there are plenty of people in great need in the UK, but their needs are not being met either, they are not considered a priority for government expenditure.

I have used as an example children, they are more vulnerable than most. However, if we look at the sheer numbers of those fleeing conflict, trying desperately not to be slaughtered by rebels, or killed by bombs dropped by government forces, or from bombs dropped by drones flown by western nations, then we cannot simply turn around and ignore them. Think of the works of mercy that are a part of the Christian faith, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, comforting the sick, and ask how the behaviour of this wealthy nation is measuring up to those standards.

There is one statement of Jesus that should revive the conscience of any claiming to be a Christian. ‘Whatever you did to one of these brothers of mine, even to the least of them, you did it to me.’ The way in which we treat those fleeing from the most horrific of conflicts in Syria and other nations is a reflection of how we see ourselves and from what I can observe we are falling far short of anything that resembles a Christian.