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political thought

Liberal Humanists need to rally to the cause

By political thought

Democracies the world over are in deep crisis. Evolution is accelerating bringing huge challenges to advanced societies.  Issues resulting from an aging population, globalisation and new technologies have not been faced; the crises resulting from climate change, pandemics and immigration are piling on additional pressures. Nowhere is this democratic failure felt worse than in the USA.  Decades of political paralysis between the Democratic and Republican parties has resulted in a hugely discontented electorate.

Legions of Trump supporters are turning the Republican party against democracy. Republican Senators and Congressmen are lining up behind Trump in his rejection of the presidential election result. They are condoning his encouragement of rioters who marched on Congress and built gallows for those politicians who stood in their way. According to Johnathon Friedland writing in the Guardian, surveys show that 30% of Republicans say that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” One of the cradles of modern democracy is in danger moving towards authoritarianism and civil conflict.

With their rejection of democratic processes, the Republican party now represents the antithesis of liberal humanist values. Rational judgement is being replaced by patriotic fervour. Egalitarian policies that help the less well-off are being set aside. Freedoms for women, immigrants and the poor are being supressed. Despite all the recent physical proofs, climate change is still being denied. Their rejection of international co-operation in favour of a narrow view of ‘America First’ nationalism would be disastrous for confronting the coming environmental crisis.

rallying to the causeThe old political divisions of left and right are now no longer so important. People have a critical decision to make as to whether they support democracy and liberal humanist values or not. Decades of progress in the health and wealth of citizens of the advanced world are under threat. A battle is coming up for the heart and soul of the electorate. Liberal humanists need to recognise the danger and to rally around the cause. Rejection of liberal humanist values in favour of a narrow tribal nationalism would be disastrous for international co-operation, the environment, and the future of our children

The moral culture of modern Western society is liberal humanism – we need to celebrate its achievements

By political thought

For a country to be stable its citizens have to accept the rule of law and, for laws to be seen as just, they must be underpinned by a common morality. For most of human history this common morality has been determined by priests. Old men consulted sacred texts and divined what they perceived to be God’s will. Religions determined acceptable behaviour: the role of women, crimes and punishments and many other mores of daily life. This moral control even extended to economic crimes such as usuary and to scientific argument on the functioning of the natural world.

After the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the church started to lose its monopoly on determining moral issues. There began in the West a long process of establishing a new moral code based on natural principles. As Barack Obama said in later times:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or (invoke) God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is relevant to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This new ‘universal‘ morality became based on  the liberal ideas of freedom and equality that emerged in Britain and the USA in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alongside natural humanistic ideals of behaviour. It has no recognised name, for want of a better phrase I call it secular liberal humanism. It has transformed our lives.

The natural world is no longer seen as controlled by Gods, demons and spirits. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena, including evolution and the creation of the world, are accepted as truths. The old fatalism of religions is no longer present. During the Covid crisis, no one said that this was a punishment from God- medical solutions were sought and found.

Slavery as an institution no longer exists. Its abolition was inspired by Christians in Britain and America, imbued with liberal ideas. As the poet William Cowper wrote in 1785:

We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free, they touch our country, and their shackles fall.

This change from a rigid religiously inspired morality has accelerated since the Second World War. Women have gained a more important role in society and we have become less judgemental of minorities. No longer are divorcees, unmarried mothers, bastards and homosexuals stigmatised. We have set laws for discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability, race or religion. It is far from perfect but there appears to be a genuine desire to create a kinder, more caring world based on humanistic principles.

At every stage many religious leaders have resisted change, but most of their congregations have embraced the new morality. I have attended several inter-faith groups and It has become apparent to me that many, perhaps most, religious people in the West also de facto support secular liberal humanist ideals.  The same sex marriage vote and abortion vote in Ireland in 2015 and 2018 are the latest example of congregations embracing the new morality against the advice of their priests.

The principles of liberal humanism now determine the morality of all Western countries. Its natural authority allows both religious and non-religious to live together in harmony, sharing the same moral code.  It is certain that it has transformed our lives for the better. However, it is not celebrated as the revolutionary force it is. It has evolved naturally – it doesn’t even have a recognised name. No one prophet has espoused its ideals. No group specifically rallies round its principles. Except humanists, but we are a very small proportion of the population.

Since globalisation and the advent of social media the world has become increasingly fractious. If we are to continue to reap the benefits of  liberal humanism in the West, we need to positively embrace it as our common morality, uniting us across religious and national boundaries.  We need to name it, understand its force, celebrate its success and unite behind its principles. If we do so, we will be stronger together and better able to co-operate to confront the global challenges ahead.

Why democracy is always behind the game

By political thought

Democratic failureOver the past few months, we have seen a glimpse of the future direction that evolution is taking us. Catastrophic destruction of the natural world has resulted in floods, fires and pandemics. We’ve known of this potential outcome for decades. However, precious little has happened to stop it occurring.

Scientists know what needs to be done, technologies have been developed, necessary changes in lifestyle have been identified.  All that is needed is to put these new ideas into effect. Political leaders have, however, failed to react fast enough.

There appears to be a fundamental problem in democracies. They are unable to deal with future risks. Most people are overwhelmingly occupied with day-to- day problems and are naturally less concerned about the long-term. And because only popular politicians get re-elected, democratic leaders are reluctant to propose action ahead of the public consensus. Leaders who have the ability to lead public opinion and inspire the public to alter behaviour, are very rare. Social media and active programmes of disinformation do not help.

Democracies have two main functions, to govern and to represent. At present they are failing on both counts. In terms of governance, they have failed to deal with change in the natural world, resulting in climate change, pandemics, loss of biodiversity.  They have equally failed to deal with changes in the economy, resulting in an insecure workforce, massive wealth discrepancies and an abrogation of power to tech giants. In terms of representation, they have failed to connect with the public and understand how globalisation and new technologies have negatively affected lifestyles. As a consequence, we have seen the growth of the gig-economy, falling life expectancy and a massive change in wealth distribution. In many countries, including the USA and the UK, leaders have reverted to a crude appeal to nationalist sentiment, blaming foreign influence for their problems.

Across the world there is a deep crisis brewing for mankind.  Democratic governments appear unable to react fast enough to the accelerating effects of evolution. They are reacting to change rather than anticipating problems and mitigating their affects. If democracies are to survive, they have to reconsider their operational processes to allow more long-term thinking. However, no democratic government appears able to look critically at its own modus operandi. Procedures once established are rarely changed. Many of the operational rules of the House of Commons were in place three centuries ago. The USA is bound by a constitution established in the eighteenth century.

The crisis is clear. Democracy in its present form appears unable to respond.


Democratic Sclerosis

By political thought

democratic declineA country’s democratic systems of government age over time. It’s operational arteries, unable to adapt to a changing world, become sclerotic, and a cancer of vested interests invades the organs of government. No longer able to function for the good of all, democracies become increasingly distanced from the electorate at large.

This is most apparent in two of the oldest democracies in the world:  those of the USA and Great Britain. The USA’s democratic processes are showing the worst signs of distress. Its carefully structured systems of checks and balances have become gridlocked. Whatever President is elected, because the House of Representatives often has a Democratic majority and the Senate has a natural Republican bias, it is now rare that both Houses of Congress can agree any major legislative programme.

The US Supreme Court, by its Citizens United decision of 2010, gave companies the same electoral rights as ordinary citizens; this effectively allowed lobby groups to legally bribe Congressional candidates. The corruptive influence of money from business and the rich is now so ingrained in the American electoral system that, according to a 2015 poll, 52% of Americans believe that Congressmen are corrupt.

Britain is scarcely any better. In the British system Members of Parliament aspire to become government ministers. Hence, as it is damaging to their career prospects, government MPs rarely vote against their own side. This has given the executive inordinate power over the legislature.  Scrutiny of legislation is poor, allowing Governments to ramrod their bills through the Commons.  Curiously it is the unelected House of Lords which now provides the principal defence against bad legislation in the UK.

In Britain, as well, the wealthy are able to enhance the career prospects of their children by sending them to Private School. This has resulted in the creation of a class-based society based on wealth. For example, according to a Guardian report in 2019, nearly two thirds of Boris Johnson’s first cabinet went to Private School. As only 7 % of the population can afford private school fees, it seems that, as in America, those that have money and influence are able to unduly exercise power for their own benefit.

The result of this democratic sclerosis has been a discontented electorate, poor leadership and abysmal policy making. It is no coincidence that Britain and the USA have some of the worst records of all advanced countries in dealing with the Covid crisis.

The effectiveness of a country’s democracy can be measured by the security, health and wealth of its citizens. During the Covid crisis it has been manifestly clear that East Asian democracies looked after their citizens’ health and wealth much better than the older democracies of Western countries.  It is also clear that Chinese power and influence is growing and poses a major threat to the West.

Western democratic governments need to develop the capability to diagnose the state of health of their systems of government and develop appropriate therapies. They will need to unblock arteries of communication to their electorate and reinvent their organs of administration, if they are to avoid continued decline in world power and influence.


The dark forces almost won

By political thought

It’s depressing, the forces of darkness almost won. Even after 4 years of disorganised, divisive and retrograde government, almost 50% of Americans voted for Donald Trump. It seems they didn’t mind the lies and the irrational, racist and illegal behaviour. Although the less well-off were the back bone of his support, nothing had been done to improve their economic or health prospects. His much-heralded financial reforms, merely made the rich, and particularly Donald Trump, richer; his attacks on Obama Care reduced their access to medical support. Despite this, his appeal to the emotions and prejudices of his supporters remained strong and even grew.

Trump and the Republican party still deny the fact that mankind’s future depends on working in harmony with the natural world. Despite all the physical proofs in the form of storms, droughts, heat waves, ice melts, fires and rising seas, the existence of climate change is still denied. The threat of the Covid -19 virus was never taken seriously. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people died and the economy was excessively disrupted. Environmental protections were slashed and removed, threatening bio-diversity and releasing yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

None of these issues made any difference to his supporters. Like all populists, Trump’s appeal is to primitive emotions of tribal support. By exploiting the natural fear of change and emphasising threats from others he has built up a tribe of true believers. ‘USA’ is the cry of Trump supporters even though they represent only half the country. Threats and violence underpin his movement.

Trump and his tribe threaten all the principles of eco-humanity: liberty, by undermining the forces of law, egality by appealing to white supremacists, rationality by a barrage of lies, and sustainability by the denial of climate change.  They were not humiliated at this election. Their support has grown. This is a warning to us all.  All those who are concerned about the prospects of a sustained and happy life for our children need to take note and act.

The endgame

By political thought

Covid-19 is the latest setback for mankind after a year of forest fires and floods. WeThe end game are entering the end game, when human advance can no longer be taken for granted.

History is evolution in action. Human progress has been driven by individuals and communities striving for success in an evolutionary process. Those communities that thrive, propagate their   technologies, skills, organisational systems, knowledge and culture. The unique habits, language and mores of failed communities are lost forever.

The process is known as memetic (or cultural) evolution, and up to now it has been a fantastic biological success story. World population now exceeds 7.5 billion. Complex multi-tiered societies have been formed, amazing new technologies have been created and science has established an understanding of the workings of the universe. We live 3 times longer than our distant ancestors and have massively more stimulating and enjoyable lives. It is true there have been setbacks along the historical path. There have been devastating wars, life-wasting pandemics, famines due to harvest failures and horrendous natural disasters. But thus far humans have recovered from these events and moved on.

Successful communities have to acquire wealth to thrive. We see the force of the desire to both gain and spend money in our everyday existence. Families aspire to acquire nice homes and flash cars. Charities beg us for contributions. Companies compete to sell us ever-more technically advanced goods. The NHS pleads for more money to keep us all healthy.

In this globally interactive world, the rich are accumulating wealth at a rate never seen before. However, there is a limit to the amount of wealth that the Earth can provide.  It appears that the easy years of thriving are now behind us; for every advance there is a setback. Recent forest fires, cyclones, floods, financial disasters, pandemics and revolutions have all taken their toll.

We have reached a pivotal point in human history; it is now apparent that there are environmental limits to the improvement in the human condition. It is no longer possible to pretend that it will be all right on the night, that all the nations of the world will find ways of co-operating and overcoming the evolutionary dangers ahead. Memetic evolutionary forces are too strong. The national, community and individual desire to act in their own self-interest is too difficult to overcome on a global scale. The fact that Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro and many other climate-change deniers have been elected to power is a testament to the challenges ahead.

We are at the start of the end-game, when global wealth will not advance, life expectancy will deteriorate and humanitarian crises will proliferate. As we cope with the coming emergencies, we have big decisions ahead on the type of society we want to become.  The citizens of those nations who believe in liberal humanist values and the need to preserve the environment, need to reach out across national boundaries and work fervently to protect both our values and societies from the traumas that are coming.

Local Government is in crisis

By political thought

Local democracy is in crisisLocal democracy is in deep crisis. Starved of funds by central government, but still with the same legal responsibilities, it is struggling to cope with the many problems laid at its door.  Disconnected with its electorate (only a third of people vote in local elections), it is failing to provide adequate leadership. Council services are failing across the country. How have we got in this mess?

The BBC asked people why they don’t vote: The responses they received should not be a surprise:

  • Many of the people we speak to feel there is a disconnect between politics and their everyday lives. Everyone has issues they care about, from local planning and leisure facilities to bin collections and schools, but it can be difficult to identify how local councils operate and affect these issues.
  • There is also little national attention paid to the role councils and councillors play in communities. While national politics continues to dominate headlines, it can appear that change can only happen via Westminster – and those making decisions at a local level are neglected of the due attention, and scrutiny, they deserve.
  • When you have one party dominating in an area it can be hugely off-putting, with many people feeling like their votes don’t count and it’s not worth turning out.

We desperately need to re-establish effective local government. The whole political process needs a complete rethink. Reform should be based on three criteria:

  1. Clear accountability- responsibility for many services is divided between central and local government. Local government should have clear areas of responsibility and the powers to raise money to manage them.
  2. A clear distinction between governance and representation- the leaders of those in government should be directly elected with powers to act. In an extension of the local mayor system, local responsibility of individuals should be emphasised. Those who represent should have the power to hold officials to account. The role of national political parties should be minimised.
  3. A need to engender a local community spirit and pride- local government services should be integrated with those of the charity and voluntary sectors to tackle local issues in an innovative, inclusive and cost-effective fashion.

Only when we reconfigure our local political system will we get the active and positive community governance that we need.


By political thought

Optimism - the signpost to disasterBoris Johnson’s recipe for the future of the UK is clearly based on energy and optimism. The belief that if you think something will happen, put aside negative thoughts and stride forward with enthusiasm, you will succeed. However, if the direction is wrong and there is not sufficient analysis and forethought, it is also a recipe for disaster. A splendid piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian warns of the dangers ahead.

He says that too often:

optimism leads to disappointment- attended by its henchmen, bitterness and resentment … If optimism does not produce the desired results, then optimism itself has been sabotaged – not by realists but by the pessimists, otherwise known as traitors.

Optimism and an appeal to national fervour are the building blocks of populism. The belief that if our nation/race/religion all band together we will overcome all obstacles and triumph over others. It is attractive to many because it appeals to deeply held tribal instincts.

However, if we are to seriously address the critical issues of our society such as climate change, an aging population, the gig economy and increasing wealth disparity, optimism alone will not succeed.  It will inevitably lead to further divisions within society, less and less rational action and diminishing international cooperation. We need a more thoughtful approach based on shared human values. Optimism and its cohort populism are dangerous.  They represent the antithesis of the principles of eco-humanity and will inevitably result in a poorer, more divided world that continues to destroy the planet.

The issue of immigration

By political thought

The issue of immigration brings into focus the developing confrontation between liberal humanist values and nationalist instincts.  Increasing levels of immigrants from different cultures have fuelled the rise in populism across the world. As a result, the international cooperation necessary to save the planet is becoming even more difficult to achieve.

The Turk Umut Ozkurmh has been pondering the rise of the far right in Sweden, where he lives. This paragraph from  his article in the Guardian is worth quoting:




I had to understand that the central question is, as the Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh puts it, whether it is possible to resolve the fundamental tension between, on the one side, “universal moral rules founded in notions of human rights”, and on the other, “nationally bounded claims derived from the idea of citizenship in particular nation states”.

My answer is yes, and the formula is simple: emphasise the connection between rights and duties; speed up the process of integration of newcomers (refugees or migrants) without demanding that they fully assimilate into the dominant culture, but asking them to respect the existing social contract; foster a sense of common destiny that does not necessarily require myths of common ancestry; and engage with the demand for recognition in a fair and equal way, without privileging either minorities or majorities.

Governments of the world should listen to his views  and act accordingly to avert future strife.

How can it be morally justified to risk the future lives of our children?

By Climate Change, political thought

How can it be morally justified to risk the future lives of our children? The biological purpose of human existence is the preservation of our species, and yet somehow the threat of climate change doesn’t register as an overwhelming moral issue.  Religious authorities are supposed set moral standards, and yet Evangelical religions and the Catholic Church are much more concerned with today’s unborn children than worrying about the prospects for future generations. How can this be so?

We are suffering a crisis of moral leadership. Our religious and political leaders are overwhelmed by their own issues born of past events. No one is looking at the big picture or is statesman enough to  to lead us safely through the year’s ahead.

We have been told that we should cut back on flying and eating meat if we are to have a chance of reducing carbon emissions to zero. If we had leaders who exercised moral authority and showed their commitment by changing their own lifestyle, then perhaps the public at large would follow.  Right now, we seem to be stuck in a moral abyss and drifting towards ecological tragedy.