Equality

Why I won’t be seeing Ender’s Game


ender's game

Firstly, this hasn‘t been an easy decision to make.

I’m a science-fiction fan. I’m a film fan. On paper, Ender’s Game — a high budget adaptation of a famous and successful military SF book — should be perfect for me. I somehow missed out on Elysium, After Earth was so unanimously panned that I gave it a miss, and Pacific Rim was just too close to Transformers for me to ever get excited about. Idris Elba or not.

So I haven’t really filled my quota of good SF film at the cinemas yet this year. And I’m sure Ender’s Game will be good. It looks it from the trailers, at least. And anything that returns Harrison Ford to science fiction is ticking a whole raft of boxes

But no, I won’t be seeing Ender’s Game. And it’s entirely down to Orson Scott Card.

Read on…

Equal Before the Law


thaddeus stevens lincoln tommy lee jones

I sit watching the House of Commons debating the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which will — God willing — end at last the injustice of the present law on marriage in this country. It has been a showcase of the best and the worst of modern British society, and at various turns infuriating and inspirational.

My view is simple. At its most fundamental level, marriage is — or should be — built on love. Love regardless of gender or sexuality. In 2004 we should have had equal marriage, but flinched at the key moment. Now it is beholden on us to rectify that mistake.

But one thing which has struck me in particular has been Ian Paisley, making the claim that heterosexual and homosexual are not equal in nature, and the government — and thus the lawcannot make them equal.

It recalls to me one of the best moments in Lincoln, in which Thaddeus Stevens (ably portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) — leader of the abolitionist movement in the House of Representatives — expounds on equality before the law to Congressman George Pendleton in relation to racial equality:

How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits impermeable to reason with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood! You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!

Yet even you, Pendleton, who should have been gibbetted for treason long before today, even worthless unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law!

Well quite. Equality must be the rock upon which we build every facet of our society.

A bad day for the Church of England, and for equality


Religion rarely seems to get a look in on this blog. Primarily, that’s because it’s one of the few topics which can be depended on to be more incendiary than politics. It’s also because I believe that religion — or lack thereof — is the most personal of matters, and this is something for the individual and their conscience. But I am a Christian. I am an Anglican. And I have never been afraid of speaking out when I disagree with the Church.

Like today.

For those who haven’t seen the news, the Church’s governing body — the Synod — today voted against the ordination of female bishops. It is, in my opinion, nothing short of a disgrace.

It’s been an issue that’s been bouncing around in the two decades since women were first ordained as priests, except this time the Synod made the wrong decision. All of the same arguments which were wheeled out against women priests have been rehashed, and yet despite being proved utterly wrong the last time (proof: the sky hasn’t in fact fallen in) they have inexplicably won over now.

A lot of the theological argument that women should not be ordained revolves around passages of scripture such as 1 Timothy 2:12:

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

I’m not a theologian. I’m just a loudmouth with a keyboard and and internet connection. But personally, I’ve never gone in for the deification of people. The Catholics do it with Mary, and the whole pantheon of saints. But if you take that God is God, and that Jesus was/is God in human form, then everyone else is just a flawed human being.

Which, valuable though his insights may be, surely includes Saint Paul?

I don’t know, I just don’t see any rational argument for why women can’t do the job every bit as good as men. Unless of course you’re so conservative (small-c) and afraid of change that the idea of women at the pulpit scares you.

The church like the BBC gets  a lot of criticism. As far as I’m concerned, it should do, since it should be holding itself to a higher standard. But like the BBC, it is one of our finest institutions and at its best has done fantastic things. Defeating the slave trade, for instance.

So I was both surprised and disappointed to hear that the change — which the Church badly needs — was not rejected by the bishops or clergy, but by the lay (ordinary) members. Both the outgoing and incoming Archbishops of Canterbury supported the measure, so this was not an establishment block.

This won’t be the end of the matter. Women will become bishops, but sadly after this it won’t be for another few decades. Those who have sulked and thrown their toys out of the pram have allowed a deeply unfair situation to persist, which robs the church of some of its finest talents.

Today has not been a good day for either the Church of England or equality.

The View from the Third Row


image

Ed Miliband introduces Professor Michael Sandel at the Labour Party conference


So I’ve been to my first session of conference, and am already excited. My seat, as a delegate is right at the front of the hall, on only the third row back. The view will be fantastic, come Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday.

And actually, I’ve already had a bit of a sneak preview. When I first walled into the conference hall,.the man himself was just taking to the stage, to introduce the guest speaker Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of political philosophy.

Anyone who says that Ed can’t hack it as a speaker is talking nonsense. The Labour party leader I saw today was confident, articulate and in the ascendent. He seemed more prime ministerial than David Cameron without even trying, whatever Tory polls might say.

And as an introductory figure, Professor Sandel set the scene brilliantly. He gave an excellent audience participation lecture on market thinking in our society. He explained how over the last three decades market thinking has crept from purely economics into areas of society too, without any public debate on the matter.

One particular story he told stood out. In Switzerland, the government were looking for a storage site for nuclear waste. They polled residents of a village near an ideal site on whether they would accept such a site nearby, and 51% said yes. Then they polled again, adding the condition that the government would pay each resident an annual payment. The yes vote plummeted to 25%.

The introduction of money, Professor Sandel said, changed the nature of the transaction, and changed the focus from the common good.

Professor Sandel finished by highlighting the need for debate of this change, asking if we want to live in a society where everything is for sale.

This is what the conference, Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the Labour party is all about. And I think people are starting to realise that. Certainty the Tories are realising, which is why they’re already starting a huge negative campaign against him.

Imagine if the next government was every bit as radical as Margaret Thatcher’s — but following policies of radical fairness and equality. Then you’ll see why I’m so proud to be Labour, and so exited to be here at conference this week.

Why I can’t agree with the Church of England on Gay Marriage


This somewhat witty infographic puts, I feel, the whole debate on gay marriage into perspective.

I am a Christian. Specifically, an Anglican. I was raised in a Church of England family, attending a Church of England church, and was baptised and confirmed into the Church of England.

I’m also in favour of legalising gay marriage. I never really saw any great problem or contradiction with this, but apparently I was wrong. Last week the CofE released a response to the government’s consultation on legalising gay marriage, and my view seems to have been decided for me:

The Church of England cannot support the proposal to enable ‘all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony’.

Which is odd, because I don’t agree with that, and I was under the impression I was part of the Church of England. But whatever, it’s far from the only contradiction in the thirteen page document, so perhaps I should let that one slide in favour of moving onto some of the other problems.

For starters, this particular assertion:

We have supported various legal changes in recent years to remove unjustified discrimination and create greater legal rights for same sex couples and we welcome that fact that previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships have now been satisfactorily addressed.

Which sound lovely. Except it’s not true. For one, the Guardian have already pointed out that the church didn’t support the Civil Partnerships Act — in fact, six bishops in the House of Lords voted against the act, whilst one voted in favour.

I also cry falsehood on the idea that inequalities have been “satisfactorily addressed”. The church may be satisfied, but there are a whole lot of gay couples who aren’t. You see, despite claims to the contrary, civil partnerships aren’t marriages in all but name. There are a number of key differences, which include:

  • No requirement of consummation of a civil partnership (which, actually, was a compromise to placate the Church…).
  • Consequently, a civil partnership can’t be dissolved on the basis of adultery, whereas a divorce could be granted to a married couple.
  • Civil partnerships cannot be conducted as a religious ceremony. Regardless of whether the church/mosque/synagogue/whatever in question wants to provide such a ceremony or not.

And besides that, the terminology matters. The way it is phrased gives an impression that they are different, and unequal. How, precisely, can that be said to have solved inequalities?

The document goes on to say that:

Marriage benefits society…by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.

Which, in itself, is true. But the alternative side of the coin is that for others it does not include the possibility of procreation. For example, those who do not want children, or are unable to have them. For them, presumably, marriage is a celebration and public declaration of love. Will the Church also be pursuing banning of such childless couples from marrying? Or will their marriages be retrospectively annulled?

Moving on, the CofE document makes clear that it thinks the motivations behind the proposed changes are ideological, saying:

We also believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise.

Equal marriage is ideological. But then, so is keeping gay couples excluded from marriage. And, to be honest, as ideologies go I think equality has to be the safest one to go with.

The whole thing builds to a rhetorical climax built around the assertion that:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone…

The church has already established that marriage as it currently stands is a force for good in society. The impression gathered from their argument is that this is primarily because of the ability to produce children. This is the only material difference between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, and honestly I find the idea that the church thinks this is more important to marriage than love utterly laughable.

I’ve already said that I support gay marriage, based upon an underlying principle of inequality. It’s clear that the person (people?) who wrote document already had a view to the contrary to mine. This, presumably, is based around Leviticus 18:22, which forbids homosexual relations. But if I was to go through everything that Leviticus forbids (including shellfish and tattoos) we’d be here all day. Far more important to the country’s premier Christian institution, I would have thought, would be Matthew 7:12:

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.

Which seems, to me, like a pretty strong endorsement of equality.

One thing that I do agree with the Church on is their assertion that a situation where marriage is available to all, but civil partnerships restricted to gay couples, would be legally unsustainable. My preferred solution would be to open both institutions up to anyone. Let people choose which they want. But don’t block their choices based on predjudice on such arbitrary grounds as sexuality.

I would have more sympathy with the church’s opposition, I expect, if there was any chance of churches being forced to marry gay couples. But that isn’t on the cards. That has never been on the cards.

Lastly, I couldn’t leave this alone. One of the reasons the Church of England present in opposition to the proposed legalisation of gay marriage is:

We also note that by no means all LGBT people are in favour of redefining marriage in this way.

The words “pot” “kettle” and “black” spring to mind, given that as I’ve already said, this consultation has been presented as the united view of the Anglican congregation, when it is anything but.

UPDATE: Subsequently to posting this blog this morning, I ran across this poll from YouGov, dated last week. Conducted for Stonewall, it seems to show that actually more religious people in Britain support gay marriage than oppose it. By a ratio of three to two. Yet more evidence suggesting that the Church of England’s response to the consultation does not represent the majority, let alone the settled, view of its members.

No Win, No fee, No Access


The cuts to legal aid, and proposed restrictions on No Win No Fee represent an assault on democracy, and a real threat to justice in the United Kingdom

I’m currently deep in the studies for my final year exams, so I had decided I wasn’t going to blog until those were done. But life is unpredictable, and occasionally something will come along that outrages me so much that I have to rant about it, just so I don’t have a coronary.

Some background first. I’m a third year law student (studying at the University of Sussex, if you really want to know). I’m also a left winger, a Labour Party member, and a keen believer in equality and justice (of the social and legal variety). And I have a keen interest in politics, hence why I was watching the Budget on Wednesday afternoon.

And it was there that I heard George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in a government increasingly dedicated to social and economic vandalism, announce that No Win No Fee cases were to be restricted, as part of a “growth” strategy to free small businesses from, I’m guessing, frivolous cases. This is part of a larger assault on the rights of employees, but that’s not where I’m coming from with this.

I’m not an ardent supporter of No Win No Fee (otherwise known as Conditional Fee), because it does have the potential to encourage both ambulance chasing on the part of law firms, and frivolous cases by claimants. However, the background and context of Conditional Fees should be considered.

They were introduced in 1990, in the Courts and Legal Services Act, as a part of the reduction in the scope of legal aid. The idea was that instead of the state paying large sums in legal aid, lawyers could be allowed to charge no fee to their client, except upon victory. Not a particularly positive move in my view, but you can see where it was coming from.

The current proposal to restrict Conditional Fees comes in a climate of heavy cuts. The Legal Aid bill has not escaped this. Legal Aid is being removed for matters of family law, clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt and housing. Which is a fairly sweeping attack on the civil law.

The cynics amongst you may notice that certain of these areas are subject to cuts and “reform” in themselves, and that the cuts to legal aid in these areas will reduce the number of challenges the government will face on those matters. Whether or not you want to think that is deliberate is up to you, but it certainly seems suspicious to me.

But the really chilling aspect of this is just how many people will now be unable to access the courts in search of justice. One of the key principles of a free and democratic society is that the courts should be open to all, and that justice should be for everyone. Or at least, that’s what I believe is essential in a free and democratic society. Apparently the government disagrees. Restricting Conditional Fees is one thing, but when it excludes thousands of people from pursuing just cases simply because they don’t have the money, it becomes a disgrace and a repression of justice.

Please note, when I say “poor”, I don’t in fact mean poor. Lawyers are expensive. Very expensive. Whatever you think of that is irrelevant, because it’s how the situation stands. Only the richest can afford to pay lawyers to fight their case in the courts- anyone on middle, low or no incomes will not be able to afford it.

This will, no doubt, be lost in a squall of other arguments. The rest of the budget was far from exclusively good news, and I expect that arguing over tax cuts, cuts to inheritance tax, and economic growth will take precedence, but this is essentially important. The whole concept of the rule of law requires that unlawful behaviour and unjust acts can be challenged in the courts. These measures threaten that ability, and represent a chilling, terrifying assault on justice and democracy. This needs to be seen for what it really is.

Tuition Fees and Broken Promises


"We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so that everyone has the chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents' income" The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, p32

Does anyone else remember the Lib Dem manifesto?  I know hardly anyone read it, but presumably most of you were aware of it’s existence? Well, even if you weren’t, you won’t be surprised to hear that it contained this particular gem on page 32: “We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so that everyone has the chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents’ income”.

This has been a staple of Liberal Democrat policy for years. They have built their voter base on it, attracting idealistic students who don’t want to graduate university in mountains of debt. Everyone knows this, just as everyone knows that the Conservatives attracts the rich, and the working classes vote Labour.

It seems, however, that the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten this. In anticipation of the Browne Review publishing its findings tomorrow, speculation is rife that it will recommend that tuition fees be dramatically raised. The current figure that seems to be being batted around at the moment is somewhere in the region of £7,000. Now, I realise that whilst I may be many things (a law student, a writer, a lay political ranter and Labour Party member), I am not a mathematician. So if I’m wrong on this, someone please correct me, but I don’t think that raising them to £7,000 constitutes “scrapping unfair university tuition fees”.

The obvious ramifications on this are those for the Lib Dems. It was their one policy that won serious support. Students are a massive voting sector, who on mass tend to swing towards the Lib Dems. And now they have, as part of the coalition, agreed to allow those people to take a massive hit.

But this runs deeper than that. Very few people at the moment are arguing that free university education is possible. But what is clear is that the increasing debt that graduates are leaving university with are not a good thing. More than doubling that debt is going to radically alter the educational landscape, and be a serious dissuading factor for those from poorer backgrounds, against going to university.

The rich will still be able to attend, and get their degrees. They can afford to shoulder the debt, if not the hiked tuition fees themselves. And when you add to this the speculation that universities will be able to charge over that amount, for those who can pay it.

Which is just brilliant, don’t you think? All the progress we’ve made towards equality, away from elitism, away from the idea that those with money deserve better than those without. All the progress we’ve made towards a fairer society, and the Lib Dems get into government at it’s immediately started to be unpicked.

So here it is. This is what we’re faced with. If students thought that they were going to be immune from the cuts and chaos that’s going around at the moment, we were wrong. We need to find our voices and stand up. We need to tell the world that, no, we’re not just a drain on society, we’re going to be contributing to the economy by paying higher rate tax after we graduate and get jobs. We need to say that education shouldn’t be the purview of the rich, it shouldn’t be exclusive to the privileged.

And to Clegg, Cable, and the other Lib Dems who sold their souls for seats at the Cabinet table, know this: the British electorate will not be forgetting your broken promises any time soon. You keep justifying your cooperation with the Tories as “liberalising” what would otherwise be a harsh conservative government. So do some goddamn liberalising.