Friday, February 08, 2008


Rowan Williams In Detail: Deceitful, Demented or Naïve to the Point of Idiocy?

Individual Muslims often complain that the press slavishly report the views of unelected, unaccountable “community leaders” – elderly men out of touch with the real world and unrepresentative of most of the people they claim to speak for. Today, many members of the Church of England will be similarly embarrassed by their unelected, unaccountable ‘community leader’ (though at least Muslim “leaders” don’t get free seats in Parliament to boss the rest of us around). The Archbishop of Canterbury’s nonsense has also allowed the Labour Government to pose as defenders of the Rule of Law, when they’re the main threat to it.

Gordon Brown Would Be a More Credible Defender of the Rule of Law If He’d Ever Done It Before…

When every newspaper and politicians of all three main parties line up to agree on something, it’s always wise to watch your liberties and check your wallet. For once, they’re right, though they may not all be right for the right reasons: defending the Rule of Law that treats everyone equally; hanging on to your power rather than let someone else make the laws; bashing Muslims… Take your pick as to the motivations of each commentator that shoots their mouth off.

Still, every now and again it’s good to be reminded that most of us agree on some of the fundamentals, though it’s off-putting that Gordon Brown’s defence of the Rule of Law was based not on everyone being held to account without fear or favour but on wrapping himself in the flag, and that David Blunkett this morning blamed “well-meaning liberals” when the threat is, in fact, from would-be theocrats, while Liberals are the people who seek to stop bullies and limit arbitrary power. Unlike Mr Blunkett, who glories in it. Well, let me take those as my ‘get out of being nice to Labour free card’, as this week of all weeks their posturing as defenders of the law should stick in their throats. Funny how they only do it when it’s their own interests being threatened, isn’t it? Rowan Williams wants an alternative centre of power to the Labour Party – and suddenly the Party of crooked coroners corruption spouts about the Rule of Law. Where was that concern, exactly, when they were introducing legislation to fix inquests at the desire of a Labour Minister, not an equal law? Where was it when they decided that bribing coroners was the way to get the best results? Labour are not defenders of the Rule of Law, because they don’t believe any law applies to them at all. It’s simply that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s attack on the Rule of Law coincides with an attack on the Rule of Labour, and that would never do.

The Reaction To Rowan Williams

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of all of this, it’s that most of the country is now as hostile about a mealy-mouthed religious buffoon as I usually am when listening to Vacuous Platitude for the Day. For another, it’s always a relief when, of all the different stances being taken, the person whose comment most nails the issue – setting out that the Rule of Law is all about equality before the law – is my own Party Leader. Step forward, Nick Clegg:
“Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another.
“There is a huge difference between respecting people's right to follow their own beliefs and allowing them to excuse themselves from the rule of law.”
Rowan Williams made a point of starting his speech with an in-depth and occasionally informative discussion of Sharia Law, perhaps in order to distract attention from his argument for special religious rights in general. I’m not going to discuss Sharia Law in detail, because it’s the more general threat to the Rule of Law that I wish to illuminate. I’m not a fan of Sharia Law; of all the theocratic legal systems operating in the world today, the strict Sharia implementation of Iran is the one I would least like to live under, because after they chopped my head off I wouldn’t live very long. However, that’s not a particularly likely legal code to be enforced on me or other people in Britain, so while much of the press coverage and political posturings are rooted in dislike of Sharia rather than support for the Rule of Law – most blatantly in today’s front page of the Daily Diana: ‘MUSLIM LAWS MUST COME TO BRITAIN,’ subtly accompanied in the completely separate secondary front-page story by a picture of Abu Hamza – my wariness is of what the more mealy-mouthed, ‘moderate’ religious power-grabbers like the Archbishop of Canterbury would do to the law if they got their beringed fingers on it. Well, any more than they already do by being seated in the House of Lords without anyone having the power to choose them or kick them out.

So what is there to worry about? First, that this is all an excuse for religion having more of a say, not through the ballot box but through ghettoisation and through holes in the law punched by unelected bishops. Both threats are serious. Leading Christian churches in Britain have form about their desire to get special treatment for themselves in the law and their even greater desire to discriminate against other people. I wrote last year about the Church of England’s sanctimonious hypocrisy as they begged for bigotry, about them backing Catholic bishops’ demands to punish vulnerable kids, and about just why everyone has an interest in saying discrimination in the public sphere just isn’t on. The threat of ghettoisation is different, but just as serious. It will entrench social division and inflame social – and racial – tensions, by increasing the extent to which communities lead separate lives and see each other as having special privileges. It will make pick-and-choose legal systems common and unworkable, as people go to whichever they think will get them the best result. And it gets into a terrible muddle about arbitration. I’ll come to the speech in a minute, but – as it’s so careful not to say anything definite – it can be taken to mean that people should have the right to choose religious authorities to go to as arbiters when the real courts ask parties to reach an agreement. The trouble with all his fuss about a “secular government” forbidding such things is that, er, it already happens under the current laws on civil arbitration. So was he just saying ‘carry on as is’ and making an incredible hash of it? To paraphrase a comment by Will Howells, why call that “Sharia Law” when it’s just voluntary arbitration – we don’t talk about ‘Judge Judy Law’. Then there are Islamic mortgages, for example, which are clearly a useful extension of choice that both buyer and lender are advantaged, to their lights, by agreeing to. The problem comes when parties disagree. So was Rowan Williams calling for entrenched, enforced, ghettoised religious power? He talks in his speech about choice and protection, but if some parallel legal system is set above a community, what idiot doesn’t consider that community pressure may make it impossible to refuse the ‘choice’ of a religious alternative – even if it judges on an entirely different basis to both sides’ equality before the law? That is not a route to voluntarism, but to theocracy, patriarchy and social exclusion.

That “Misunderstood” Interview

You might expect this sort of debate to have started in a rarefied atmosphere of academic rigour, religious conviction and revealed truth, conducted by holy men – funny, I must have missed the legions of women queuing up to support the Archbishop – and only to have flared up into unseemly accusations when the squalid press and politicians intruded.


The Church of England bishops are just as arrogant and deceitful a bunch of spin doctors as anyone in the Labour Party. They’re just more rubbish at it. The key piece of spin coming from the Church establishment is that people haven’t read or listened to Rowan Williams’ interview, and if they have, then they haven’t read or listened to his speech. Yesterday afternoon, as the row was erupting over all the stupid things he’d said, rather than take responsibility for them we heard on the PM Programme a report that the Archbishop knew when he gave his interview that it would be “misunderstood”. No, you patronising pillock, we pea-brained commoners haven’t failed to grasp your mighty wisdom; we disagree with you. You aren’t “misunderstood”; you’re wrong. And then switching to an argument that you can’t criticise his interview if you haven’t seen his speech, all still before he gave the speech last night – yes, the oh so honest and holy Archbishop of Canterbury did an interview before he delivered a speech in order to spin the speech’s content, then complained that people aren’t entitled to complain because they’ve not read his speech. The flagrant dishonesty and buck-passing is pure Alastair Campbell.

It’s tough, then, that these days us proles can read it all on the Internet and see exactly what he said. Among many gobsmacking moments of moral self-serving and philosophical ineptitude, he said that an approach to law which simply stated:
“there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that's a bit of a danger.”
It’s at moments like that that everyone else thinks your lot is a bit of a danger, Archbishop. The whole basis of the Rule of Law is that it treats everyone equally. You don’t get off through special courts for the clergy any longer. You don’t get let off a crime because it’s traditional, or your family does it, or God told you to do it. And the law still applies just the same to you if you’re a minister – whether a Church of England one or a Labour Government one, even though both groups want one law for the rest of us and their own special privileges for themselves. “Cultural loyalty versus state loyalty” is a false choice – obeying the Rule of Law is not about loyalty to the state. It is about everyone being treated the same, so they can choose to put their loyalties wherever they like.

It’s fascinating, too, to compare his speech to his spin. Another thing he said in his interview yesterday on The World At One, the spinning to set the tone, was that:
“Very often traditional forms of mediation can disadvantage vulnerable groups, such as women, within a community.
“I'm concerned about how much choice the weaker party would have in submitting to the governance of these alternative forums.”
So isn’t it an astonishing oversight when, delivering a speech of whatever he likes that runs to well over six thousand words, rather than being pressed (not very hard) by a journalist over a mere few minutes, he neglects to consider that? Then he claims, successfully diverting the attention to Sharia Law rather than his own special privileges, that “Nobody in their right mind I think would want to see” the sort of extreme punishments or attitudes to women that often characterise Sharia; but where do you draw the line, once you say religion or tradition are an equal legal path? What is the philosophical line between ‘nice theocracy’ and ‘nasty theocracy’, other than knowing ‘I am nice; they are reasonable; others are mad’? It’s striking that people who disagree with his view of religion are characterised as insane, just as people who disagreed with him were later characterised as ignorant. Bear in mind, then, that it’s this nice holy man who opened up his spin by name-calling. Add to that the arrogant pomposity and contempt for anyone else’s views when he claimed that a Sharia system was “unavoidable”. No room for argument, then; so much for the claim since then that he was merely “opening a debate”.

What his interview boiled down to was that he was advocating several established religions, as long as none of them were too ‘extreme’, which would protect his position as head of an established but tottering religion (no longer even the main Christian denomination). I’ve an alternative suggestion. How about none? Oh, and the really priceless contribution, yes, you heard right, was that it will “promote social cohesion” to have different laws for different ‘communities’. And black is white, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.

The Bishop of Hulme described his boss on today’s edition of The World At One as “One of the finest minds of our nation” putting forward “a serious piece of academic work” and repeated the outrageously pompous lying spin that people who disagree with its assertions – you can hardly say it has a conclusion, if you’ve read it – haven’t read it.

If you read the speech, you’ll find that he assembles an enormous pile of learned texts and references in order to discuss them at length and allow himself as much internal contradiction as possible rather than bring the big picture into harsh focus. It poses as a serious piece of academic work, but rather than being so intelligent that it’s impenetrable to mere mortals, it’s an enormous ill-argued muddle with an impressive bibliography (well, it would have if he acted like a proper academic and listed it). In his repeated wish to take us back to a kindler, gentler Middle Ages, saying we can have all the cosiness of medieval theocracy without the unfortunate parts, I can’t decide if he’s deceitful, demented or merely naïve to the point of idiocy. If you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor, can he not see the wood for the trees, or is this a Trojan Horse?

Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective – The Speech

Like James Graham, I’ve read the Archbishop of Inconsistency’s entire speech – lest he carry on accusing his detractors of not wading through his arguments in all their glutinous obscurity – so I feel it’s well within my competence to take apart some of the more egregious platitudes there. Probably the most dangerous is that he tries to stand his whole argument on the claim that
“our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging,”
which is an obvious truism, and the syllogistic follow-up that
“secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity,”
which can only be the most dishonest of straw men. Who argues that we do have only one “mode of belonging”? Not the state, that’s for sure, and I’m as suspicious of the state as anyone. People are part of families, neighbourhoods, clubs, teams, countries, ethnic groups, workplaces and all manner of “social identities,” and liberal democratic states do very little to interfere with any of that, nor to pick just one identity and say that’s the only one that counts. But what about religious “community leaders” who claim that they speak on behalf of their congregations, as if anyone belonging to a church is of exactly the same mind, never mind what other “social identities” they might have? Absolutely.

What a “secular” state has to do is not meddle or boss people around – and I’m happy to give it a kicking when it does – but to act as a referee that treats everyone equally, allows everyone to choose their own social identities, and makes everyone subject to the same rules, rules that do not favour any one group, and that apply equally to the government and other established power. That is a key Liberal idea. Perhaps the first and most important. And it is no coincidence that most continental Liberal parties began as challenges to clerical power, while in Britain the Tories were seen as the party of the established church along with other established interests, while to this day the Liberal Democrats want to see the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Archbishop Williams touches on “The 'forced marriage' question” – but instantly elides it into
“custom and culture rather than directly binding enactments by religious authority,”
dodging the issue of whether “custom and culture” might force people into accepting a binding religious authority. And that’s one of the biggest problems with his concept of “supplementary” legal systems. He pays great attention to the letter of quasi-legal structures, looking to give legal recognition to them within ‘safeguards’:
“allowing scope for a minority group to administer its affairs according to its own convictions… can hardly admit or 'license' protocols that effectively take away the rights it acknowledges as generally valid… no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”
What he fails to deal with is the effect of social pressure, that once an alternative legal system is in place for “a community,” whatever it happens to be, people will be forced to accede to it not by official sanction but by “custom and culture”. It’s back to those unelected, unaccountable “community leaders” holding sway, for which they will think Rowan Williams but few other people will. Every club has its own rules, but when you live your whole life among members of the same club, sub-letting the law to club officials and pretending that you have complete free choice which system to be ruled over is insanity. More mealy-mouthed windbaggery:
“making sure that we do not collude with unexamined systems that have oppressive effect or allow shared public liberties to be decisively taken away… Once again, there are no blank cheques.”
Once again, this offers no guarantees at all, and spot the caveats “unexamined” and “decisively”. He describes the issue of “the right” to inflict punishment on a convert as a “sensitive area” in terms “not only [of] legal practice but also in interfaith relations”. Ah, the good old days when the Church of England was founded on clear principles about conversion and punishment, that famous irregular verbiage: ‘I am a convert to the Church of England and the path of righteousness; you are a renegade papist heretic whose soul can only be purified by burning’. Religions love proselytising to convert others, but hate apostates who turn from them, in short. Tell us something we don’t know… And, again, this isn’t something he explores in any detail for fear of admitting that all religions believe their club is right and all the others are wrong. Which would be a bit of a problem for his argument, and for the continuing project espoused here for all the religious establishments to band together in support of each others’ hanging on to as much influence as possible to stop most of the population making their own decisions and as much authority as possible over their smaller and smaller bands of adherents.

He has two separate passages where he deals with the Enlightenment, backhandedly praising it in order to say that we don’t need it any more. To paraphrase one, he argues that we’ve outgrown the privilege and despotism that the Enlightenment railed against, so it’s safe to go back to Medievalism. In the other, he smugly attests that
“a universal principle of legal right requires both a certain valuation of the human as such”
is rooted in Christian theology, reducing the contribution of the Enlightenment to human rights to merely “a necessary wake-up call to religion,” and only mentioned in brackets at that! Mmm, do I smell martyr burning? Either way, you see, we don’t need such Enlightened concepts as a secular state that allows everyone a level playing field and stops religion being able to boss them about.

It’s that Enlightenment-founded level playing field that leads to his most self-contradictory wriggles, as he both admits what the Rule of Law is there to do and twists round to say it does the opposite. He recognises that
“The most positive aspect of this moment in our cultural history was its focus on equal levels of accountability for all and equal levels of access for all to legal process.”
But he immediately erects the straw man that
“it is not enough to say that citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability is either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation.”
Well, that expands on the founding con-job on which his whole edifice of pretend argument totters, as I criticised above. No-one does say that citizenship is “either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation”. No-one. The whole point of equality under the law is that that permits you to find your own form of “social identity and personal motivation,” without all the many people and institutions who want to police your social identity and personal motivation being able to boss you about and force you to comply with their view of you. His absurd view of equality before the law is that it makes a level playing field into the limit of aspiration. The whole point of a playing field is that all the action takes place on top of it. He then goes on to pull out of a hat the brilliant idea that rather than “specific community understandings” being “'superseded' by this universal principle… they all need to be undergirded by it.” It’s unclear from his argument, twisting all over the place as it is, whether he’s now arguing that this is how it is – thereby contradicting his contention of a few paragraphs earlier – or whether he’s claiming that “specific community understandings” are necessary to make a “universal principle” mean anything. Either way, he’s talking rubbish, and when he solemnly condemns the way
“a narrowly rights-based culture fosters… a manically litigious atmosphere,”
it’s difficult not to tell him to take the beam out of his own eye, or the cross off his own BA uniform. What he is arguing for is not an end to a “rights-based culture,” but that the religious should have special rights and privileges from the top rather than going to the bother of wasting people’s time by suing for them.

Another straw man is that he pummels at great length is that having a right must not be the same as a legal compulsion to practise it or assist others in theirs. Well, gawrsh, what a revelation. I have a right to marry a woman (but not a man, thanks to the likes of the Archbishop), and to join the Church of England if I want to see my religion have a guaranteed voice on my laws (but not any other religion, nor none). I choose not to exercise those rights, strangely enough. He argues that one person’s right doesn’t mean you have a duty to help others exercise it, raising the case of medical professionals who don’t have to perform abortions, which again is perfectly fine.
“It is difficult to see quite why the principle cannot be extended in other areas,”
he continues… Then stops. Well, goodness me. Over six thousand words dancing around the issues in minute detail – which makes even my articles seem skimpy – yet he can’t find a sentence to give an example of where he thinks religious rights might encroach. Forgive me for being suspicious but, based on the voting and speaking record of Church of England bishops, I can only conclude that what he wants is not freedom from compulsion to assist in others’ rights, but freedom to prevent other people exercising their rights, with a religious right to ‘take offence’ allowing other people’s choices to be trampled by the pick-and-choose law.

Far from leading to the greater powers for religion that he is calling for, outside the Church of England mealy-mouthed, ill-thought-out, dangerous pronouncements like this will strengthen the case for it to be disestablished and the bishops removed from power over us in the House of Lords. Inside the Church of England, mealy-mouthed, ill-thought-out, dangerous pronouncements like this probably scare them off support for disestablishment, because if the C of E is left to its own devices it’ll mean they can no longer blame Parliament for interfering in their decisions and have to face up to their own prats like Rowan Williams taking responsibility.

6pm Update: The Archbishop of Canterbury is letting it be known through his spin doctors that he is “in shock” at the criticism. Apparently he’s also upset that several of the twenty-six other bishops given a free ride to the House of Lords with him have pointedly refused to back him. Lucky for him, then, that the Bishop of Hulme has added to the spin that people who disagree with his boss are variously ignorant and insane and that there’s no possibility that he’s wrong, this evening tarring every person who’s commented by saying we’ve made a “Knee-jerk reaction which has elements of racist overtones”. Well, that’s me and Bishop Michael Nazir Ali – not a combination I’ve previously typed – told.

Lib Dem Robert Shaw has also sprung to the Archbishop’s defence, calling me “childish” and “inaccurate”; as he forgot to link to this article, or to the Archbishop’s speech, why not read for yourself his in-depth rebuttal of my arguments [NB: he later deleted his article, I would like to think from belated shame though more probably through cowardice and his inability to answer the critical comments his piece drew. Obviously, it was easier for him to bear false witness, like the Archbishop’s other spin doctors and shills, by not dealing with a single one of my actual arguments, not quoting or linking to me, but merely mounting vacuous ad hominem attacks until he was caught out. As usual, self-styled ‘Christians’ can only defend their extreme views by vicious smears on their opponents and run away when their lies are exposed. Unlike such Pharisaic hypocrites, though, I was willing to link to his piece, because I believe the truth sets you free and so am not afraid of it. Ironically, the Archbisop himself has since deleted both his interview and his speech from his own website, too, as I found when much later clicking on my links above. I’ve left them in place to bear witness that I fairly quoted the people I criticise – even if they then try to cover up what they said]?

Saturday Morning Update: proclamations from the Bishop bunker are still trying to redefine what he said, but that’ll probably go on for a while; meanwhile, I’ve contributed to an ongoing Lib Dem Voice thread, which includes a round-up of Lib Dem blog links. There’s a good piece, too, by Matthew Parris in today’s Times.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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I generally just read your bog rather than comment, but that's the best response to the AoC's nonsensical warblings I've seen anywhere.
Great piece Alex. Every time I've tried wading through his prose I've got bogged down in the quagmire. Regardless of the content, as someone who manages interns fresh out of university and thus on a daily basis attempts a losing battle to get them to unlearn all the worst habits of academic essay writing, reading this speech was a kind of personal Hell. But you've managed to steer a course through it admirably and said much of what I was trying to get my head around.
Thanks, Stuart (I shall have to look out for the wine-soaked Holmes adventures you mention on your blog!), and thanks, James.

Meanwhile, Tom Papworth has written rather a thoughtful philosophical post on the subject, while Ripplestone Review hits the jugular with 0.5% of my word count :-)
Thank you for the link Alex apologies for not doing likewise.
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