Christianity and its parables can enlighten us – but it’s prelates have no automatic right to be listened to.

That the preposterous Woke v Non Woke war in Britain should have a battlefield in the Church of England is hardly surprising – it’s everywhere. But in reality there is an inverse relationship between the Church’s propensity to pontificate and the likelihood of them being listened to.

That we have an “Established Church” is an anachronism but in truth it doesn’t really matter. That there are Bishops in the House of Lords is illustrative of the unsuitability of that ludicrous , unelected and overblown institution. That these prelates can actually vote is absurd. But it’s Gilbert and Sullivan pomp and self regard rather than anything more venal.

There is no temporal subject on which normal people’s first thought is “I wonder what the Archbishop thinks”. He’s less significant than Marcus Rashford in public debate. Our society is overwhelmingly secular and the church’s role is for many of us confined to the provision of a bit of structure and pageantry to national events. For example a secular Remembrance Sunday event or one with multi religion content would be unthinkable. You don’t have to be a Christian to support the style and structure of how we remember the fallen.

You don’t have to be a Christian either to appreciate Cathedrals and Churches and to find solace in them if you’re seeking it. Or to enjoy religious music and Art. The spiritual rather than the dogmatic aspect of a beautiful building or (say) the St Matthew Passion.

But words can of course matter if they inspire you even if the context is a religion which, overall, you reject. It’s hard to fault the Sermon on the Mount as a life template. You don’t have to buy into the “Word of God” meme. One of my favourite passages about religious belief is in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited between Sebastian and Charles:

Charles: I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense.”

Sebastian: Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

But I do,” Sebastian replies. “That’s how I believe.”

I’m recently returned from a brief visit to the Holy Land – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth. Like Sebastian Flyte I know the “lovely ideas”. To stand on the Mount of Olives or see Christ’s birthplace was moving despite rational me knowing that the whole shebang from the manger to Calvary is a complex and extended parable.

Jerusalem

Like arch atheist Christopher Hitchens I found value in the twice daily religious services in the 1960s in the Chapel of The Leys School which we both attended. I can’t quite explain that but in a way we are back in Brideshead territory. “Lovely ideas” as well as terrible ones in fiction can move us and teach us even though we know that they are inventions. But to believe that an Archbishop has a right to be listened to purely because of his job is nonsense.

Transition is an act of changing perceptions, not an act of changing fact.

James Morris became increasingly uncomfortable that his immutable biology was male and transitioned to Jan Morris

When proud parents put their new baby in either blue or pink baby clothes they are not performing a terrorist act but recording a fact. The same when they register the child. At birth the physical characteristics of a child are in 99.9% of cases indisputable. Not only that but those characteristics change over time as the child becomes an adult but they change only within the birth gender.

EmotIonally, however, a very small number of people feel uncomfortable with their gender and some seek to change other people’s perception of it. This is the crucial point. Transition is an act of changing perceptions, not an act of changing fact. If James wants to be seen as Jan he is entitled to request it and the law permits it. When he becomes she the new She gets a new name, a new wardrobe and a new persona. But beneath these externalities the biology doesn’t change. Even hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery cannot alter the given biology.

To be transphobic is to deny the right that we have to change how others perceive our gender. And that is as unkind and offensive as it is wrong. But to argue the fact, as I have here, that physical biology does not change does not make me transphobic, just informed

Should human rights be determined by the serendipity of location ?

The principle of subsidiarity, enshrined in the European Union’s treaties, says that decisions should be taken at the lowest level possible practicable. It’s arguably an essential component of trans-national agreements and bolsters national sovereignty. In general nation states should take their own decisions and in the EU, despite the moaning of hard line Brexiteers, they do.

Which brings me to federal nations and other countries, like the United Kingdom, which have elements of federalism about them. Let’s deal with the latter first. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do some things differently but are, arguably, no less British for it. The Scottish legal system is different to the English. Since devolution and the setting up of parliaments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff subsidiarity in the U.K. has increased.

Federal republics are premised on a voluntary association of separate states. This, nominally at least, gives these states the freedom to be the different. In Germany, for example, the differences between, say the states of, Prussia and Bavaria are minor. It’s a federal republic but the nation is more important than the state.

Which brings us to the United States where there are few more contentious issues that “States’ Rights”. The founding fathers seeking to find a way of binding different ex-colonies together created a Constitution which enshrined a high degree of subsidiarity in their governance. Less than a hundred years later this led to Civil War.

The American Civil War was a conflict about States’ Rights – in particular the right of individual states to keep slavery. South of the Mason-Dixon line eleven states seceded from the Union over the matter leading to war.

Slavery is a Human Rights issue and for Abraham Lincoln no member state of the Union could have the option to do their own thing on human rights. After the War the Constitution was amended to recognise this – at least as far as slavery was concerned.

But what is a nation if it is not consistent across its territory on human rights? Let’s predicate an imaginary situation where a murder is committed in one state and just down the road, across the state line, an identical murder takes place in an adjoining state. One guilty murderer could face the death penalty whereas the other would not because his offence was committed in a state that had abolished capital punishment.

Should individual states really have the freedom judicially to execute someone – surely, like slavery, this is an area where national consistency should apply ? Which brings us to Roe v Wade.

In 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled that the right to have an abortion is a human right that should be applied consistently across the country. It was an issue where, like slavery before it, States’ Rights should be subordinate to federal law. Recently changes to the composition of the Supreme Court thanks to Donald Trump’s appointments are such that it looks like Roe v Wade will be overturned. As with capital punishment your human rights will be determined by which side of a state line something happens.

Subsidiarity is limited in most jurisdictions for practical and sometimes cultural reasons. But in a nation, and arguably at a higher level, surely human rights are a constant? Should one American state be liberal whilst an adjoining state is conservative? Should human rights, especially in the case of abortion womens’ rights , be determined by the serendipity of location ? Surely not.

Slavery and the Empire are not things to glorify but to be honest and contrite about.

Douglas Murray is an apologist for slavery in The Times today – his arguments are unconvincing.

For Britons the issue is less about slavery as an evil but about Empire. Yes it is true that owning slaves was not an exclusively Anglo-Saxon amorality nor even only a second Millennium phenomenon. But imperialism was arguably an even greater evil and our British ancestors were the prime movers in that.

Barbados – the birthplace of British slave society and the most ruthlessly colonized by Britain’s ruling elites.

The conceit that a developed nation has the right to venture abroad, set up camp, exploit natural resources and dominate and enslave native peoples is about as venal as it gets. And still, astonishingly, we praise this venality by singing “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be spread” at least once a year!

Empire and Slavery are inextricably interlinked. When British adventurers found natural resources to exploit, but without the indigenous labour to do so, they imported people to do it. Slavery was always driven by commercial ambition and the slaves were property – a factor of production rather than human beings.

To our modern sensibilities imperialism and slavery are abominations, though far from vanished. Putin’s attempt to enlarge the Russian Empire, the Chinese in Tibet, the mistreatment by Israel of Palestinians and all too many other examples are imperialism by another name. As was Hitler’s search for “Lebensraum”.

In short the British Empire was built by slaves and none of us should be sanguine about this. I commend Susan Neiman’s fine book “Learning from the Germans”. The Empire is not something to glorify but to be honest and, yes, contrite about.

A windfall tax on Multinational energy companies would be highly complex

Shell and BP are multinational corporations each of them operating in over 100 countries. Sources of revenue are diverse and whilst the U.K. is significant it is far from crucial to either company’s future. Both Shell and BP have chosen to be U.K. registered and they are major FTSE members. But they don’t have to be.

One of Shell’s drilling and production platforms in the Southern North Sea

Both Shell and BP have upstream assets and are gas and oil producers in the U.K. but neither refines crude oil in Britain any more. Their downstream business – branded petrol stations included – are useful brand symbols but not major contributors to global revenues.

In short Shell and BP’s significance to the U.K. is exaggerated other than that they choose to be registered here. Both corporations have large tax departments whose primary responsibility is to minimise tax liabilities – e.g. by generating and/or posting profits in lower tax jurisdictions. Tax was a factor in Shell choosing to relocate corporately from The Netherlands to the U.K. So there will always be a close focus on tax and if for whatever reason the U.K. became less attractive then both companies have alternatives.

Production of hydrocarbons, mostly offshore at present, is carried out by companies like Shell and BP on strictly commercial terms. They pay Government for licences and then spend huge amounts of capital and revenue on the exploration and production initiatives. An adequate return on capital employed is required. Anything that raises costs, tax included, makes marginal fields less attractive.

A windfall tax on Multinational energy companies is far from straightforward given their very diverse sources of income and complex accounting arrangements. It’s not a magic solution.

The rise in the electability of outsiders is a function of political failure by traditional politicians.

Maybe some voters have always voted against rather than for things. But surely around the world there has never been such a time when electorates know what they don’t like rather than what they are for.

The feeling that all is not well and that “something needs to be done” is endemic in the West. It gave us Trump. It gives us Johnson. It might even have given us Le Pen or Corbyn. Note that for us to vote in such a way there has to be a candidate.

The rise in the electability of outsiders is partly a function of perceived political failure by traditional politicians. Hillary Clinton was as traditional establishment as they come and was punished for it. In the French presidential elections of 2017 and 2022 the traditional parties of Left and Right were annihilated. Macron was an outsider in 2017 and hardly mainstream in 2022.

The electoral system in France permitted in 2017 a man with little or no political background to be elected. In Britain that would be almost impossible. But in a binary choice plebiscite in 2016 the British electorate did air its dissatisfaction with the establishment as America was to do later that year and France the following one.

In 2019 the electorate in Britain felt empowered to go for the unconventional as they had in 2016 and almost had in 2017. “Leave” and its reworked message “Get Brexit Done” were votes against the political norms – the enemy was foreigners and the establishment. Easy targets not requiring cerebral logic.

One has to be very careful with Third Reich comparisons but National Socialism was built on being against the Weimar establishment parties as much (maybe more) than it was for Hitler’s policies. The Nazis enemies were the political establishment and those who were cerebral. The anti Woke movements of today are not dissimilar.

Time to end this obsession with GOATS

It was Muhammad Ali who started it. “I am the Greatest” he announced as a personal brand signature and the world, pretty much, bought it. Whether he was “The Greatest” was a subjective call – it always is. But we still do it, all the time.

There is now a mnemonic for it – the Greatest Of All Time or “GOAT” . And newspapers actually have serious articles as to whether somebody is the “GOAT”. Take football. There is a debate as to whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the GOAT. This daft discourse conveniently ignores the fact that before these two modern players appeared on the scene there were a few decent kickers of the ball around – Pele, Maradona, Bobby Charlton anyone?

And it is the historical comparison that makes the GOAT invalid. We might debate whether Messi or Ronaldo is the greatest of our times . A pretty sterile debate in my view but at least there’s a context. But Ronaldo versus, say, his countryman Eusebio? They played in different eras and you just can’t make a qualitative judgment. Even when you try and get quantitative (goals scored per game, for example) there’s no real credible comparative measure. Times change.

A few years ago a music magazine asked top conductors to name the “Greatest Symphony”. They chose Beethoven’s 3rd, the “Eroica” – but, in my view, this is just as defective as comparing footballers. I can tell you my favourite Symphony (Rachmaninov’s 2nd actually) but it would be silly for me to claim that it’s the greatest of all time.

Back to sport and to cricket. The statistics suggest that the GOAT batsman was Donald Bradman. His average in Test Matches was 99.94 and the next highest is 61.87. Conclusive surely? but according to this survey he was only the seventh greatest and the GOAT was Sachin Tendulkar. You see the problem ? It’s subjective and recent players, ones we’ve actually seen, are magnified whilst more distant individuals are reduced in size.

In British politics the “Greatest Prime Minister” game is often played and Winston Churchill usually wins. Well he did lead Britain with distinction in Wartime of course. But he was actually for four years – 1951-1955 – a pretty dreadful peacetime PM.

The problem with all this GOAT nonsense is that when we seek to be objective the statistics are only part of the story and when we acknowledge the subjectivity we recognise that it’s all personal opinion. The other problem is that it’s a waste of time!

It’s good that sexual taboos are broken – but there’s still room for old fashioned romance

Many years ago now I stayed in a four star hotel in Cyprus. It had a pleasant swimming pool surrounded by loungers. On one of the loungers a couple was having sex. Now whether there was actual penetration wasn’t clear but there was certainly some enthusiastic humping. When a waiter brought me a drink I asked him about the couple’s exhibitionism. “Russians” he replied, as if that was an explanation.

My point is that what in my youth would be inconceivable (not just lounger activity) is now quite common. How we explain this to children I’ve no idea. As soon as they are able to use a tablet or a smartphone they can find their way to a porn site. On television they can watch explicit simulated (presumably) sex on the BBC no less – “Normal People” for example which was at times full frontal as well as almost soft porn. “Sex Education” on Netflix is similar – it opens with what I understand is some “Classic Cowgirl” action.

I doubt that there’s more sex today than there was in the past or more extramarital for that matter. We’re just more open about it. On balance that seems to me to be a good thing. “Normal People” is actually both a moral and a loving story despite (maybe because of) the bonking. “Sex Education” is very funny and, I thought, harmless.

Sally (not her real name) a good female friend of mine half my age talked openly about her sex life to me as, I think, a sort of therapy – for her! Her love life was entirely recreational and remarkably varied. Fifty years ago that fabulous film “The Graduate” had the following exchange between Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and the husband of Mrs Robinson (his much older lover):

  • Benjamin : Listen to me. What happened between Mrs. Robinson and me was nothing. It didn’t mean anything. We might just as well have been shaking hands.
  • Mr. Robinson : Shaking hands? Well, that’s not saying much for my wife, is it?

This is hilariously funny but like my friend it recorded the recreational nature of many sexual experiences. In “Normal People” the relationship between Connell and Marianne is much deeper than the purely physical almost from the start. The sex aside we are almost in Jane Austen country. I found it utterly charming and a remarkable mix of modern sexual freedoms and timeless romance.

So what am I saying? Well that it’s good that the taboos are broken and that there is openness. Back to Sally. She fell in love, got married and now lives a monogamous life. I make no value judgment about this but she said to me “Sex with someone you love is different, and better”. Call me a big softie but that brought a tear to my eye.

In the absence of “honour” and without written rules we are ungovernable

Yes Johnson is on trial, and so he should be. But the key point is that the assumptions on which our unwritten constitution has always been based are no longer valid. Pompous though it may sound a key assumption was goodwill, honour and a bias towards the truth by our elected representatives both inside and outside Parliament. That bias no longer exists.

Yes the truth always has many faces and a belief in it has been under question and tested before. Saddam Hussain did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction but we were told by the Prime Minister that he did and a war was fought on that premise. A Foreign Secretary resigned because of an honest disagreement over Iraq as earlier one had over what he saw as his personal failure over The Falklands.

Today Minsters only seem to resign if they are photographed groping a colleague in a cupboard. Failure to tell the truth is no longer a resigning offence. Which brings one back to the constitution. If precedents are not followed, if the sort of “case law” that precedent is is not applied and if there are no written rules – no statutes – then those in charge today feel empowered to do what they like.

A written constitution is a legally applicable document that has to be followed unless amended. Without one we rely on people to be “Honourable” and even refer to them in Parliament by this designator. In the past they mostly were. And when they weren’t and lied (it happened) they went. No longer.

The Rwanda scheme is as delinquent as Putin’s attack on Ukraine, morally anyway

“Brexit was about taking back control. About asserting our own sovereignty and deciding our own destiny. The freedoms of Brexit should be about innovations justifying British exceptionalism on the basis of moral leadership, not moral delinquency.” David Davis in “The Times” today.

And there you have the fraud of Brexit neatly described by a Brexiteer for once honest enough to tell, the truth. Sure he might say that one bit of moral delinquency doesn’t make the whole project delinquent. He would be wrong to do so.

At this time we can see the horrors of nationalism in sharp relief as Putin and his gang murderously try to assert their will on Ukraine. But let’s be under no illusion. Russia’s drivers are part of the same narrow nationalism that drove the “Leave” campaign and drives Britain’s populist government today.

The reality of the modern world is that unless we build alliances, participate in cooperative treaties, recognise the international element in most of what we do we will blunder into an isolated faux-freedom state which we may call “deciding our destiny” but in reality is nothing of the sort. Russia is largely “free” to do as it wants so long as it has a thick enough skin. Britain thinks it can do the same. We can’t.

The Rwanda scheme is as delinquent as Putin’s attack on Ukraine, morally anyway. It’s wrong not because most of us, including Mr Davis, see that it is. It’s wrong because the civilised world condemns this “exceptionalism” as much as it condemns Putin. Nice company we keep.