Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

United Kingdom and European Union

Britain and the European Union – the future

Well, the future remains uncertain.  (I remain dismayed by the referendum result.)

The background.

Many UK voters have been expressed worry about, even opposition to, high levels of immigration.   (Many live in areas of low immigration!)  Some politicians have responded to this by supporting the worried voters.   The alternative approach is to deal with social needs vigorously.

Are we witnessing the result of long-term scapegoating of non-Britons and the EU?  Doesn’t nationalist populism rise in times of economic depression?

What have immigrants done for us?  Well, the Huguenots, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, etc, etc, have helped to build Britain and make it what it is, eg by starting businesses, working in the public sector, etc.

Surely, the shortages in social goods (access to General Practitioners, social housing, etc) are the result of government policies (bad decisions), continued over many years.  These policies should be reversed.

“Affordable” housing = rented housing- well, it should be.  Build, build – fund, fund.  A good investment, a social good.  Make renting respectable, a genuine alternative to buying with a mortgage.

The private rented sector has grown exponentially.  Rents are high and going higher.  The public bill for rent support climbs too.  The money that goes into landlords’ pockets could be put into bricks and mortar.  And the quality of private sector properties varies a lot.

Another social evil is 21st century poverty.  The job market has changed.  Many jobs nowadays are insecure.  Many people draw benefit payments while working hard in low-paid jobs.  Much pay goes on rent, which makes for a low disposable income.

UK and EU

At the moment, the British Government is on the horns of a dilemma: access to the single market versus control over immigration (ie from the EU and non-EU countries).  We can’t have one without the other.

The options.

1 Parliament delays UK departure from the EU, to such a point where the idea fizzles out.

2 The UK rejoins the European Free Trade Association and stays in the European Economic Area, and negotiates with the EU and third parties, as required.

3 Chaos: uncertainty, decline, divisions in society.

Conclusion

We in the UK have been badly led and poorly served by our elected representatives.  The school report reads: “Could do better.”

Quakers in Britain – Statement on Equality

“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.”   

Quaker faith and practice 23.21
 

A commitment to equality is a hallmark of the world’s great religions and a foundation of our Quaker faith . We are called by our experience of equality to voice deep concern over the widening gulf between rich and poor. Equality is the heart of good relationships. It is about our right to equal respect, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, health, disability, nationality, age or social class. It is the cornerstone of a society that affirms our common humanity and recognises wellbeing and human fulfilment as the desire of us all. A society that values equality cannot restrict the goods and benefits of society to any one country, caste or class.

We applaud progress that has been made towards equality in some parts of the world but lament the gross disparity between the life chances of those born in the wealthier countries and those born in the poorer countries, and the continued widespread poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition in many parts of the world. Quakers in Britain deplore the increasing concentration of economic authority and the social stratification that transmits inequality across generations. We are angered that the UK now has a greater disparity in income than at any time since the Second World War and are compelled to speak out against government policy that makes cuts in spending that promote inequality. We challenge the culture and ethos that enable the leaders of finance and industry to take salaries and bonuses that are many hundreds of times larger than those of their employees. Deepening economic inequality cannot continue indefinitely without a risk of violence and oppression. We are dismayed that the government is giving so little consideration to the long term impacts of spending cuts on whole communities. Under-investment and short term accounting are putting the wellbeing of future generations at risk. 
 
Quakers strive to uphold the values of justice and equality in the face of spending cuts that increase poverty and have a disproportionate impact on the poorest among us. Sacrifices shared can strengthen our society. We urge policy makers to address the deficit through a fairer tax system and measures that increase solidarity.

“…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6.8

New International Version

Approved by Meeting for Sufferings by minute S/12/03/3, 31 March 2012.

 I approve

David R Harries