For a “Christian country”, ours seems to have an awful lot of hoarded wealth

David Cameron has recently taken to declaring with an unprecedented frequency and vigour that “we” are a Christian country. Some people are upset about this.

Personally, I’m not all that upset. I don’t tend to get upset about these kinds of religious disputes anyway – my analysis is that religion is pretty much irrelevant to almost everyone’s daily life, so I can see little reason to get involved. As I’ve mentioned before, I may be a secularist, but my mind boggles slightly at the idea that anyone could regard campaigning for secularism as any kind of urgent priority. The Prime Minister is pursuing policies that have made nigh-on a million people dependent on charity if they want to eat, but it’s some obviously self-serving guff about his own and others’ Christian faith that’s worth sending a letter to the papers over?

Because of course that’s the other reason I’m not upset about this – it’s so obviously politicking. His support for marriage equality has allowed Cameron’s enemies on the right (i.e., UKIP) to portray him as hostile to “traditional values”, and the emphasis on religion is an absolutely blatant attempt to counter that. It’s a low- to zero-cost way of signalling “I’m one of you” to his erstwhile base (and hopefully picking up a handful of positive headlines in the rightwing press – especially if it seems to be getting push back from a “liberal elite”). Although, actually, he needs to be careful how far he takes it – overtly religious politicians tend not to impress the electorate, in part because it makes them seem alien to the great bulk of the population, who don’t do church, even if they feel in a vague way that it’s right and proper other people do.

Now, I’m not going to write one of those poorly-researched comment pieces which argues that Britain or the UK is a Christian country as a matter of literal fact, because the Church of England is an established church. The CoE is only in England (you’d hope the name was a clue, frankly), and the arrangements are different elsewhere. You can make the argument that England is a Christian country as a matter of constitutional fact, but since the official state churches have been disestablished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland you cannot make the case that the UK or Britain is constitutionally Christian. (In the year of the Scottish independence referendum, you might hope that English columnists would have finally got out of their bad habit of assuming that England makes up the whole of Britain and the UK, but apparently not.)

But I do think that Cameron can make a rational defence of his claim that the UK is a Christian country in another way. The most recent census indicated that 59.5% of the UK population define themselves as Christian, as do a majority of the population in each of the constituent nations (ranging from 82.3% Christian in Northern Ireland to 53.8% in Scotland). Of course, this census when compared with the previous one also indicated a rapid downward trend in the number of Christians (a fall from 72% to 59% in England & Wales, for example), which suggests that the UK may not be a Christian country for very much longer. Clearly, as well, there’s a difference between declaring yourself a Christian on a census form and actually practising the religion – at least one survey suggests that the number of people who regularly attend Christian worship is in long-term decline, and currently stands at around 6% of the population.

So much for number crunching. There’s something else that ought to be true of a Christian nation, of course, which is that – by and large, and on balance – the people who live there ought to conduct themselves in accordance with the teachings of Christ. You know, teachings like this:

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Posted in Political commentary, Religion, Secularism, Social commentary, The benefit system | Tagged , ,

Nicky Morgan: the Minister for Women who doesn’t believe in equality for all women

Ok, let’s start with a very short bit of modern history.

The UK government role of Minister for Women and Equality was created in 2007 (superseding the previous role of Minister for Women). The position was renamed Minister for Women and Equalities in 2010. Under both titles – and in keeping with the established pattern with the Minister for Women – the portfolio had always been combined with another cabinet-level post. Until today, all three positions had always been held by women.

The first Minister for Women and Equality was Harriet Harman. She was replaced, following the election in 2010, by Theresa May as Minister for Women and Equalities. That appointment was quite heavily criticised by LGBT people because the Equalities role meant that May was responsible for LGBT equality when her House of Commons voting record showed she had either abstained or voted against many LGBT rights measures.

It seems likely this criticism – together with his determination to press ahead with marriage equality – lay behind David Cameron’s decision to remove the Women and Equalities portfolio from Theresa May in 2012 and hand it to Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary. Miller’s own voting record on LGBT issues was ambiguous, but at least the substitution meant that the legislation to allow English & Welsh same-sex couples to marry would be piloted through the Commons by someone who had voted in favour of civil partnerships.

That brings us up to the present day – as in, literally, today. This morning, Maria Miller resigned from all her Ministerial positions. She has been replaced, as Culture Secretary, by Sajid Javid. Javid is a man, and as such it would have been politically difficult to appoint him as Minister for Women. As a result, David Cameron took the decision to appoint Nicky Morgan as Minister for Women.

You’ll note that’s just Minister for Women, not Minister for Women and Equalities. This is because Cameron took the decision to split the Women and Equalities portfolio, appointing Javid as Minister for Equalities and Morgan as Minister for Women, with both reporting directly to him. Why the split, you may be wondering. Clearly Javid couldn’t be appointed Minister for Women (not without a great deal of controversy, anyway), but why not hand the entire Women and Equalities portfolio to Morgan?

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Posted in Political commentary, Sexuality, Stuff I've read | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Do straight people still need straight bars?

Let me guess. If you’re straight, you’re currently thinking to yourself, “What’s a straight bar?” Well, allow me to explain.

A straight bar is a bar which is probably (but not always) owned and run by straight people. The employees of a straight bar are mainly (but not exclusively) straight. And most (but not all) of the clientèle are straight.

Let me have another guess. You’re now thinking to yourself. “That’s not a straight bar, silly. That’s just a bar.”

I don’t blame you for thinking like that, if you are. We’re all of us – whatever our own sexual orientation – raised to think that this is just the way things are, and that things are this way because that’s how they should be. The idea that straight people will socialise in spaces in which they will mainly mingle with people who share their sexual orientation is natural, obvious, automatic, not-to-be-questioned. The question I raise in the title to this post seems patently ridiculous. How could anyone plausibly propose, even for a second, a state of affairs in which straight people didn’t socialise with their fellow straights?

Logically, the question should be equally ridiculous when it’s asked of gay people. What earthly reason could there be, after all, to think that gay and bi people would feel differently about our social lives than straights do about theirs? Yet no less an organisation than the BBC posed precisely this question last week: ‘Do gay people still need gay bars?’

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Posted in About me, Media commentary, Sexuality, Stuff I've read | Tagged , , , , ,

10 songs to explain the 1980s

The Guardian recently posed what it called a ‘Playlist challenge’: to select 10 songs that would ‘explain the 1980s’ to people who were too young to experience them first hand. [Oh, ok, it's not actually recent at all. The truth is I've been wrestling with this for ages, both drawing up the list, and getting the damn thing written – I currently seem to have the concentration span of a small gnat, and a lot of anxiety swirling around the idea of posting anything at all.] The five best attempts (in the view of the Guardian staff…) were featured on the site last Friday aeons ago.

Now, this is pretty much an impossible task. The idea that a decade can be summarised by its music is absurd to begin with – most things that really matter in the world don’t come with a soundtrack (or, if they do, it’s coincidental: the songs that happened to be around at the time the important thing happened). Complicating that further by trying to include everything that a decade comprises – its politics, economics, history, industrial relations, sociology, culture, etc. – in only 10 songs takes the absurdity to fever pitch.

Despite all this, I decided that this was the kind of absurd, impossible task that it would be fun to try my hand at. So that’s what this post is: my suggestion for 10 songs that (wholly inadequately) explain (some bits of) the 1980s. You should keep in mind, by the way, that these are songs that I think reflect important aspects of the 1980s, not necessarily my favourite songs of the decade – that list would overlap with this one, but not entirely.

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Posted in About me, Music, Political commentary, Stuff I've listened to, Stuff I've read | Tagged ,

Equilux

Twice a year, as you know, there’s a day when the hours of darkness and the hours of light are equivalent. One of those days is in the autumn, and marks a point of transition as the year dwindles down to its nadir at the winter solstice – the shortest day. The other is in the spring, and marks the opposite point of transition as the year surges towards its apotheosis at the summer solstice – the longest day. One of those transitional days – the spring one, here in the northern hemisphere; the autumn one in the south – is today.

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Posted in About me, Cheerful stuff | Tagged , ,

A cough in the night

My upstairs neighbour goes to bed at 10-30, and gets up at 5-30. I know this because I live in a 1960s high-rise block, and in the 1960s the phrase “sound insulation” would have seemed like the phrase “heat wrapping” does to us now – a bizarre juxtaposition of two words that have no relationship to each other, not a desirable thing to install when you’re building flats. The ceiling above my head is the floor beneath my neighbour’s feet: a single layer of concrete, through which sound is readily transmitted. This means that I hear more of his life than I ever wanted to.

One of the things I hear is his smokers’ cough. I hear him take his first cigarette of the day, at 5-30, and I hear him take the last, at 10-30. I know a smokers’ cough when I hear one, because I lived with a smoker for the first 19 years of my life – my dad was a 40-a-day man from the age of 14 until his death at the age of 68.

His smoking killed him, probably, since he suffered a fatal heart attack. Heart disease is a consequence of smoking in its own right, of course, but the smoking had also given my dad Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and the steroids that made it possible for him to breathe had the side effect of increasing his risk of heart attack.

The smoking got him coming, and it got him going, and he never stopped, not even on the day he died. My mum found his last cigarette in the ashtray – by then it was just a long column of ash attached to a filter, ready to crumple to nothing the moment it was touched. It had burnt out hours before, but it was probably still burning when he died. Cigarettes killed him, and a cigarette outlived him.

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Posted in About me, Depression

Mind are to be congratulated for their work with benefits claimants

I have a habit, on this blog, of criticising the major mental health charities when they undertake activities with which I disagree. I did so most recently a little over a month ago. On that occasion, I expressed disappointment and irritation that Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, through their front organisation Time To Change, had decided to hijack a political speech addressing one of the real, substantive problems faced by those of us who are mentally ill – the impossibility of accessing good quality, timely treatment. They had selected this rare-as-hen’s-teeth chance to get the mainstream media talking about something that blights the lives of many of us (and thus the equally rare-as-hen’s-teeth chance of getting instinctively sympathetic but oblivious members of the public on our side) as the perfect opportunity to issue yet another press release about the relatively (that’s relatively) minor problem of stigma. This had the effect of derailing the media coverage, and so indirectly (and probably inadvertently) working against the interests of mentally ill people.

(For the record, I take the view that mentally ill people require, first and foremost, food, clothing, shelter and access to the treatments we need – and that stigma, while it is unquestionably a problem, is relatively minor in comparison. And, futhermore, I think that charities that claim to work for our interests ought to prioritise the problems we face in order of severity – and thus get to the relatively minor matter of stigma only once mentally ill people are no longer sleeping rough, or starving half to death in inadequate accommodation that damages physical health, and only once mental health services receive a level of funding appropriate to the level of need in the population. I’m not unsympathetic to the problem of stigma, or unaware of the fact that it damages the lives of many of us, but it doesn’t damage our lives as much as the other stuff.)

So, for these reasons, I was very pleased to see a news story placed reasonably prominently on The Guardian‘s homepage which drew attention to some excellent work being done by Oxfordshire Mind (one of the local branches of the national charity).

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Posted in Media commentary, Political commentary, Social commentary, The benefit system | Tagged , , ,