Brexit – here we go again

Sadly, no-one seemed to read my previous thoughts on how to break the Brexit log-jam.  I can understand the reluctance of MPs to countenance another referendum on the issue – yes, it is more delay and has the potential to turn tumultuous. However, given last night’s astonishing events where May’s deal was voted down by a historic margin of 230 votes, Parliament needs to seek a fresh mandate from the people to deal with this monumental issue.

In effect, MPs should “test the will” of the people and confirm if they really want to leave the EU on the only feasible terms – May’s painstakingly negotiated deal. Personally, I believe they will reject this Brexit but, even if they say vote to Leave again, at least we can all unite behind that and our MPs will have no excuse to vote it down. It’s surely the only way out of this deadlock.

This is not a second referendum per se because we would actually know exactly what we are voting for (or against!). Of course, maybe some sort of deal will emerge that commands a majority in the House of Commons but that seems highly unlikely. That means it’s either a General Election (which would be folly – would the result really be that much different?) or a fresh referendum on the EU.  I also think that this could establish a positive precedent whereby major constitutional changes – such as Scottish independence – cannot be decided on the basis of one referendum. Such upheavals should be only allowed based on a confirmatory ballot once the full terms of the deal are known.

To be honest, if I was in Parliament, I would have voted for May’s deal as a way out of the log-jam. However, if as is frequently stated by May it is that or “no deal” or “no Brexit”, then she should have the courage to go to the country and put that choice to us, given the huge ramifications. Brexit has sucked so much energy from fixing our public services, leading to a host of problems piling-up in the governmental in-tray. Do we really want to be responsible for “lost generation” where all political energies are consumed by this incredibly complex issue?

We have seen that the EU is more concerned with protecting the unity of the 27 and making Britain pay a price for trying to Leave, which from their point of view makes sense. Is the UK really ready to endure that suffering – job losses, reduced prosperity, public services slashed further – for a poorly-understood point of principle about sovereignty? Given that Leavers promised us we could “have our cake and eat it” and that we would frolic in “sunlit uplands”, no MP can make that assumption. A referendum would establish exactly how committed the people who will be most impacted by Brexit really feel about this whole project.

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Christmas – it’s all about love actually

As Natalie once memorably said in that famous 2003 film “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?”  Well, she might have been referring to her love for the Prime Minister but surely there is a much greater truth that needs to be shared all year round, but is especially appropriate to dwell on at this particular time of year.

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You see, love did not magically appear out of some primordial soup.  Love is not some evolutionary trick to aid our survival.  Love is summed-up in the Good News: our heavenly Father, who created each one of us and placed us on this planet, did not want to see us destroys ourselves in orgies of violence, debauchery and reckless over-consumption.  No, He saw the mess that we made of the freedom He gifted us and knew the only solution was to send His precious Son.

Jesus Christ left the glorious riches of heaven, where He was worshipped and adored by countless angels.  He willingly chose to enter the darkness of a virgin’s womb, the divine becoming human and being born into the grotty squalor of stable.  You could not make this up.  Our sin problem was so serious but God’s rescue plan was even more audacious – the only way our world could be saved.  Yet the price He paid was everything, a lifetime of sacrifice, humility and toil culminating in the cross.

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That is the real love at the heart of Christmas, which we must never lose sight of and must always be ready to share.

 

Breaking the Brexit-jam

Whilst many are quick to mock those who offer only “thoughts and prayers” when another tragedy unfolds, I believe they deride what they do not understand and dismiss the one weapon that has won countless seemingly impossible battles.

The apostle Paul urges us to offer-up “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” for “all people” with his first specific example being “those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

As we survey the seething mess that is Brexit and Westminster at the moment, all I can offer is prayer: may the LORD God Almighty guide our politicians to a way forward that is just, beneficial for everyone and promotes peace across our nation.  May our MPs be given grace and wisdom to work together, putting aside petty rivalries and sacrificing egos for the sake of our society.  May Westminster serve as an example of how democracy and compromise can break an impasse.  May Britain be able to move forward together and focus on fixing the numerous problems that blight communities.  O Lord Jesus please have mercy on the United Kingdom, rescuing us from crisis and leading us to a place of stability and positive relationships with our neighbours.

I was encouraged to read recently of Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s words to the American public on D-Day, the invasion of continental Europe to overthrow Nazi tyranny: “because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.”  

Many people today look back at the heroism of our ancestors, wondering how their towering achievements were made possible.  Surely, the answer must be their faith in the One and Only LORD God Almighty and their earnest prayers for His blessing.

Of course, Brexit is very different from D-Day but I’m struck by that call to prayer from the leader of a great country, just as I was to hear of the Bishops of the Church of England releasing this statement: “In the light of this week’s turbulent events, the bishops of the Church of England pray for national unity – and courage, integrity and clarity for our politicians…”  Amen.

Lord Jesus, please help our political representatives to agree the best possible way forward, so we can live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  I thank you that you are able to do “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesian 3:20).  I trust that you will deliver us.

Next steps for Brexit?

This is the perplexing question of our time and I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject.

1) To claim that the UK should not be permitted a second referendum because the will of the people was clearly expressed in June 2016 is just plain wrong.  We know that the Leave campaign was riddled with dodgy claims, such as the ludicrously misleading £350 million per week claim that (as of 29th September 2018) apparently 42% of the British public still believed!  There is also the issue of Russian influence and interference, which is repeatedly swept under the carpet but must have been significant with such a close referendum result.

Most significantly, the 52% did not know exactly what they were voting for and were promised dazzling, bright “sunlit uplands“, a land flowing with the milk and honey of freedom from constraints and a trade bonanza.  Just take a look at these claims, which have been exposed as utterly hollow.

So, that’s why we should have another vote to confirm the will of the people.  We can clearly see now how complicated and costly untangling ourselves from the EU will be.  In terms of the price paid, please note that already we have lost the equivalent of £500 million per week due to the decision made on 26th June 2016 and our actions since.  Government forecasts suggest that the UK economy would be 9.3% smaller under a “no deal” best case scenario after 15 years, than if we stayed in the EU.  Surely, very few people voted to be poorer and those who did were certainly not considering the interests of those are most vulnerable in our society and subsist on the breadline.

2) Nevertheless, I can see the merits to accept May’s Brexit deal for now, working towards “near-frictionless trade” with the EU and keeping the “Norway-style” option as a “Plan B” if a bespoke arrangement does not emerge from the negotiations.  There are clear benefits to leaving the EU in terms of fishing and agriculture, which are hardly being mentioned at the moment but are important to many communities across the UK.

We have probably lost so much already in terms of EU agencies and bank HQs that have relocated away from the EU, maybe we should persist on a sensible, gradual uncoupling from Brussels and pursue the opportunities this bring, whilst seeking to maintain as much of our trading relationship as possible.  I can see that a second referendum would be very disruptive, though if Parliament is deadlocked then that will become the best way out of the impasse.

Mind you, how much of the current Westminster inertia is based on lack of an overall majority for any one party and what chance is there of a General Election delivering a more decisive, satisfactory result?  There is also some doubt about whether the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 and easily maintain our current EU membership.  Moreover, if there the first referendum result was reversed, would too many people feel betrayed and disillusioned by British politics, sowing the seeds of future discord.  Yet again, we can see the merits of May’s Brexit deal and only wish that she was better able to sell this across party lines…

3) Whatever happens, we must learn from this shambles.  Referendums are complex, emotive and divisive.  They do not solve issues but simply unleash mayhem.  They are a distraction from the serious and important business of government.  Think of how much could have been accomplished in the last 30 months if we were not so distracted by Brexit.  Is the price of a spurious vision, “Britannia Unchained”, truly worth the uncertainty and chaos.

The case of the much-maligned Samaritan’s Purse

Why do people trust the truth so little that they feel the need to distort the facts in order to “win” a case or promote their agenda? Case in point is Toynbee’s broadside entitled “This Christmas, beware evangelical Christians bearing gifts”. Admittedly the headline was quite intriguing but the argument was frustratingly flimsy.

Firstly, why does it matter that Samaritan’s Purse has a monthly income of £16 million? Don’t you think every single penny is being used to promote the charity’s aims and objectives? Oxfam, recently rocked by a child abuse scandal, still managed to accrue a monthly income of £34.5 million (2017).

Secondly, wouldn’t Christians be abject hypocrites if we just doled out goodies and said nothing about our reason for doing so? We believe our Lord Jesus Christ’s ultimate act of grace — leaving the glories of heaven to enter the cesspit of earth for the sake of our salvation — is the greatest possible motivation for any human being to show love. In fact, why should humanists even bother to be charitable if they believe this life, so scarred by suffering, irrationality and unfairness, is all there is?

As we know the source of grace and truth, we are obligated and motivated to share this treasure. There’s no point in talking about love without also displaying kindness. Individuals and communities have physical and spiritual needs — Samaritan’s Purse aims to meet both, but recognises that what makes Christian charity unique is Christ Jesus the One who created us to care.

Thirdly, why would we not send boxes to the most needy people who, yes, live in Muslim countries? The sad fact is the West is woefully under-informed about Islam — please take time to read-up on what the Koran actually says and how this directly influences the beliefs and behaviours of millions.

For example, although Muhammad did not envisage modern terrorism, some of his instructions and actions can be used to justify such. For example, Q 8:12: I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.

Islamic tradition (namely the hadith, which is said to record Muhammad’s sayings) also justifies spreading fear: “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Bukhari 4.52.220)

Just look at the desperate plight of Asia Bibi in Pakistan where mobs are baying for her blood after she was accused of maligning Muhammad.  Despite that country’s highest court ruling that she is “innocent”, she is in hiding and refused asylum by a UK government that appear desperate to avoid a violent Islamic backlash.  How can anyone objective seriously give any credence to the claim that this is a “religion of peace” when its followers direct so much animosity against those who refuse to “submit” to Allah’s rule?

Now listen to Jesus: “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” — statements found nowhere in the teaching of Islam. Jesus never killed anyone, and criticised Peter for taking up a sword in his defence. Instead of killing and maiming, the Messiah healed people and even raised some from the dead.

Truthfully, we do a grave disservice if we only pack a shoebox, or send-off a tenner for “Children in Need”. Surely, everyone deserves to know the reason for the hope that we have.

In following-up Toynbee’s hyperlinks, I noted that the origins of this article seem to be from a website, “Wales Online“.  You can see again the misrepresentation: the author claims to present the case “for and against”, implying a degree of objectivity, but nearly every point is very much antagonistic, concluding with a link for a letter template to write to schools demanding they reconsider their support of Samaritan’s Purse. What a travesty. “Bah humbug” Scrooge would be proud of such efforts but who does the Humanist Society’s invective really help?

Rather than the legal eagle who walked by on the other side of the road, I’d rather be the compassionate Samaritan, getting stuck in to assist the man badly injured at the side of the road and share the Good News of great joy.

“Austerity isn’t over” – but you should at least get your facts right

Long-standing Guardian journalist and commentator Polly Toynbee just wrote an article that encapsulates why mainstream media have such a trust deficit.  To be fair, I actually agree with many of her central propositions about the damage radical Tory cuts have wrought on our social fabric but that’s no excuse for such a serious misunderstanding of the Resolution Foundation‘s figures, on which she bases her latest broadside against the government.

She fails to grasp the reality of the cuts to various government departments as a result of austerity.  All the figures Toynbee quotes, such as “Local authorities face another 57% cut in grant”, are actually “real-terms per capita RDEL cuts between 2009-10 and 2023-24”.  It is woefully inaccurate to portray these as a further, majorly worrying reductions – i.e. “a walloping cut in subsidy [for Transport and railways], presumably a gap that will be filled with fare rises.”

In a different misreading, Toynbee writes that Gavin Williamson’s “Ministry of Defence” gets a 12% cut when, in fact, the Budget marks an increase and improvement.  Yes, of course, we will not somehow be able to magically return to spending levels that could be expected if there was never a financial crash (a crisis that happened on Labour’s watch). The way these figures are repeatedly misrepresented as “ANOTHER” cut, in addition to everything that has gone before, is deeply disingenuous.

Yes, commentators are right to point out that the government still plans to make spending cuts in certain departments but Toynbee’s economic illiteracy is deeply alarming and incomprehensible for a media organisation that proudly boasts “Facts are sacred”.  If the Daily Mail or Donald Trump was bandying around similar figures in such a misleading way, they would be the first to complain and shine a light to embarrass them into a correction, so I hope they will act accordingly to sort out their own “fake news” problem.  I wrote to the Guardian’s editor earlier today and I sincerely hope that this news outlet, which has many great features, fixes this issue soon.

MPs are not exempt from austerity

The proposals to cut the UK Parliament down in size from 650 to 600 MPs must not be abandoned.  Money has already been spent painstakingly redrawing the constituency boundaries so they are each of a similar size.  In the long term, this change would reduce costs (an expected £12.2 million saving) and why should MPs be exempt from austerity?  If the police have to tackle rising levels of crime with fewer officers, is there any justification for Labour and The Guardian’s arguments against the reform?

Yes, of course, I would like to see a more comprehensive electoral revolution with no wasted votes or safe seats but don’t let the best become an enemy of the good.  This re-adjustment has been completed fairly and impartially, so if (as predicted) Labour would lose out, they should be thinking how to appeal to a much broader range of voters, not bemoaning their lot.

There is only seating capacity in the House of Commons for 427 MPs, so even with the proposed reductions we will still have a packed Parliament.  Opponents argue that 23% of MPs will have some sort of government position and be dependent on patronage but Parliament could easily introduce a measure to limit how many of its members can work with the executive branch.  This could be tabled as an amendment to the bill, a condition for cross-party support.

There is no excuse for MPs to duck out of the unpleasant but necessary task that is cutting down Parliament to size.  This is a chance to actually make change happen, so please lobby your MP and make sure they don’t duck out.

A SMART teaching assistant

Technology should be all about enhancing what human beings can offer, not replacing them. As I am about to start another academic year as a lecturer, I wish the astonishing developments in voice recognition and artificial intelligence would be applied to the classroom.

Imagine a smart assistant for teachers that works around the slides you have already prepared. The app, which would hopefully interface with the likes of PowerPoint and Prezi, listens to what you are saying and brings up slides, as well as wider information from the Internet, as appropriate.

Behind the scenes, this technology could record and summarise key points of what was discussed, which are then presented to the teacher for review and upload to the school or College’s Virtual Learning Environment.

This sort of system would enable more dynamic and learning-focused lessons, following the needs of students, rather than the predetermined teacher script. There are so many times in a lesson when I wish it was easier to follow spontaneous lines of enquiry or even just change the order of what is covered, based on where the learners currently are. Such tangents or re-routes could be seamlessly incorporated into teaching, if the tech gurus focused on this issue, rather than silly distractions like Juicero or Washboard.

Guardians of the Galaxy – what does “redemption” actually mean?

The open letter released by the “Guardians of the Galaxy” stars, petitioning Disney to reinstate James Gunn as the director of the third installment of this blockbuster franchise, raises interesting questions about what redemption actually means.

Gunn has admitted posting tweets from 2008-11 in which he joked about the Holocaust, AIDS, rape and paedophilia. The BBC declined to publish all the details but quoted two: “I like when little boys touch me in my silly place.” and “The best thing about being raped is when you’re done being raped and it’s like, ‘whew this feels great, not being raped!'”

Now, I don’t think these are just examples of “inappropriate jokes” (as described by Chris Pratt) – they are, in fact, deeply troubling and reflect attitudes that family-friendly Disney understandably wants to completely disown.  It was the right decision to sack Gunn because, as we need to realise and acknowledge, our actions and words have consequences.  I would be more alarmed if we just shrugged and laughed such tweets off as just a bit of risque humour.  They are not.

However, I do believe in redemption.  James Gunn should not be blacklisted or become the latest victim of humanity’s “mob mentality” – he has apologised and is a tremendous talent.  He should be allowed to work on further project, hopefully tackling with wisdom, grace and truth his past misdemeanours and present maturing.  This should not be the end of his story.

Redemption always comes at a cost.  I believe Christ Jesus paid the ultimate “once for all” price on cross, freeing us from the eternal penalty for our sins, our wrong-doing.  When we come to Him in contrition and repentance, He welcomes us with open arms.  Nevertheless, this does not mean he sweeps our transgressions under the carpet – there will still be earthly consequences but, crucially, we can change and overcome through the power of His Holy Spirit.  We can grow beyond our, often self-inflicted, wounds because of His amazing grace.

I hope Disney will stand by their decision to sanction Gunn and I pray that more people will see what redemption really means.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

…become a comedian on “Mock the Week” and slag-off any public figure perceived to put a foot wrong! Whilst this kind of comedy can seem alluring, harmless fun, I think it is important to dig more deeply into this issue.

Satire was first discussed critically in Ancient Rome where a distinction was set-up between Juvenalian and Horatian forms. The former encompassed any bitter and ironic criticism of contemporary persons and institutions that was filled with personal invective, angry moral indignation, and pessimism. Meanwhile, the latter was seen to provoke a wry smile by being indulgent, tolerant and witty, holding up to gentle ridicule the absurdities and follies of human beings. Personally, I much prefer the more whimsical version.

Fast-forward about 1700 years and Jane Austen’s fictional Emma learns an oft-repeated lesson for would-be satirists when she insensitively mocks the relatively impoverished spinster Miss Bates – never belittle those less fortunate than yourself. Despite the fact this character is garrulous, sustaining an apparently endless flow of trivial speech, she does not deserve to be insulted and her mistreatment exposes the heroine’s impatient pride, which can then be corrected.

What is missing from so much of today’s satire is the lack of any positive, redeeming features. Everything is focused on deflating perceived pomposity and ridiculing stupidity with no attempt to even hint at a better alternative. It is easy to point-out the faults but very few are willing to actually correct them.

On turning to satire in the Bible, we always see a balance. Prophets like Isaiah mock the idols of Babylon, inanimate so they must be carried, made by human hands and thus unable to save anyone (Isaiah 44:9-20 & 46). However, he also holds out hope, proclaiming in beautiful poetry the One who is all-powerful: “those who trust in the LORD will find new strength: they will soar high on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint” (40:31).

Similarly, Jesus satirises the punctilious rule-keeping of the self-righteous Pharisees. They would “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23), meaning they carefully filter their drinking water through a cloth, so they do not swallow even the smallest of ceremonially unclean animals. Yet they ignore much more glaring and obvious character flaws, such as covetous greed or orchestrating the execution by crucifixion of an innocent man. Jesus, wonderfully, moves beyond the critique to point people to the solution: “whoever drinks the water that I give him will never be thirsty again… the water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life” (John 4:14). Not just a diagnosis of the problem but also an unbeatable offer. What is the point of knocking down a house of cards unless you are planning to help build something better?

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