A new societal aim?

Many small light bulbs equal big one

How inspiring is this as a political statement, published in New Statesman, 25-31 October 2013?

Our political leaders are using the economic downturn to push through a neoliberal agenda that will dismantle the welfare state, privatise public services and extend the huge inequality of wealth and power that scars our society. It’s no accident that those responsible for the crash have greatly increased their wealth over the past few years while half a million people across the country now have to use food banks to survive and a third of disabled people live in poverty.

Under the banner of austerity, welfare claimants are demonised as lazy scroungers and disabled people are stereotyped as burdens on the state. Aided by the corporate press, the government is stoking up hate and anger as we are encouraged to turn against each other rather than identify the true source of our problem: a corrupt and increasingly undemocratic system that has replaced the principle of one person, one vote with one pound, one vote.

We need a new societal aim, one that respects the limits of the natural world and places human well-being at its centre. The prevailing ethos has been one of greed, competition and inequality, and we must build a new society driven by the goals of sustain-ability, compassion and equality.

We need to democratise workplaces, dramatically increase investment to create “green jobs”, tax carbon emissions, raise corporate taxes and increase regulation, reform the financial sector and adopt a raft of other common-sense policies. We need a revolution of our ideas, and an explosion of hope, creativity and co-operation. We need to build a society in which every person is free to live with dignity. We need to pull together as one species and protect this beautiful piece of rock that we call home.

Sadly though, it wasn’t written by a politician but comedian Francesca Martinez. That’s genuinely one reason that I love so much comedy: it often cuts through to the heart of the matter.

To sign Francesca’s War on Welfare petition, visit: wowpetition.com.

Words and Scotland’s future

Scotland's Future - your guide to an independent Scotland
Scotland’s Future is available to download, read online or order a copy.

As I have been thinking about the issues surrounding the question of Scottish independence I keep finding myself thinking about language and words. I keep finding myself wondering what relationship these words have with reality.

Words, words, words.

I hear language that suggests us vs them. I hear words about strength and security. I hear accusations of fear and scaremongering.

As Fr Pip Blackledge also said in a recent blog post, I don’t hear much listening. I hear a lot of broadcasting, and threats and posturing, bordering at times on aggression. I don’t hear much listening.

The Scottish government white paper Scotland’s Future: your guide to an independent Scotland opens with this vision:

With independence we can make Scotland the fairer and more successful country we all know it should be. We can make Scotland’s vast wealth and resources work much better for everyone in our country, creating a society that reflects our hopes and ambition. Being independent means we will have a government that we choose – a government that always puts the people of Scotland first. (page i)

Now is the time we need to be living out the society we want to become, regardless of which side of the argument we find ourselves on. Already we need to be demonstrating the kind of society that puts one another first, that understands fairness and demonstrates respect and care.

Before I was ordained Fr Gian Tellini told me that if I wasn’t a priest when I went up the aisle at the start of the service then I certainly wouldn’t be one when I walked back down the aisle at the end.

If a majority of Scots vote yes in September then it will still be the same people (those who voted yes and those who voted no) living side by side trying to figure out how we adjust and get on with it. We need to be listening now, and building bridges and developing an understanding and caring of one another’s points of view now, because that is the society we’re going to need after the referendum, regardless of the outcome.

There’s lots more I want to say but I’m going to keep this short and end with this short passage from one of my favourite books, Awareness by Anthony de Mello (Zondervan, 1990) which talks about how we identify with words.

Mark Twain put it very nicely when he said, “It was so cold that if the thermometer had been an inch longer, we would have frozen to death.” We do freeze to death on words. It’s not the cold outside that matters, but the thermometer.

It’s not reality that matters, but what you’re saying to yourself about it.

I was told a lovely story about a farmer in Finland. When they were drawing up the Russian-Finnish border, the farmer had to decide whether he wanted to be in Russia or Finland. After a long time he said he wanted to be in Finland, but he didn’t want to offend the Russian officials. These came to him and wanted to know why he wanted to be in Finland. The farmer replied, “It has always been my desire to live in Mother Russia, but at my age I wouldn’t be able to survive another Russian winter.”

Russia and Finland are only words, concepts, but not for human beings, not for crazy human beings. We’re almost never looking at reality.

[…]

Words, words, words, words, how imprisoning they are if they’re not used properly.

That farmer didn’t move! Even if he had decided to label his patch of land ‘Russia’ the winter would not, in reality, have been any more severe than any of the previous he’d experienced there. All that would have changed was the label. But in his mind that label meant harsh winters.

I wonder, what does it really mean to label myself Scottish? Or half-Scottish, half-English (which is what I am)? Or British? Or even northern British? What difference do these labels make to my perception of myself? What difference do these make to how I act and behave? What difference do they make to the reality of who I am: the I, the subjective knower, as opposed to the objective me?

What difference will it actually make whether Scotland is an independent country or remains part of the United Kingdom?

This is a challenge for me, I think, to be careful with my words, to listen more, to understand what others think and feel and fear (and to acknowledge that fear is also a valid response to this situation), and to be on the lookout for the reality behind the labels.

The adventure continues…

Why I will be engaging with politics this year

Debating chamber, Scottish Parliament
Debating chamber, Scottish Parliament (Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

I’ve never really considered myself as someone who is terribly interested in politics. That has changed this year as we rapidly approach Thursday 18 September 2014, the date set for Scotland’s Referendum where the country will be asked “should Scotland be an independent country?”

My first awareness of party politics was while walking home from primary school one day, probably in 1979; I would have been seven years old. I was walking along Selkirk high street when a friendly lady invited my friends and I into what is now the British Red Cross shop. It had been turned into a shop front for the Liberal Party (before it merged with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the current Liberal Democrats).

I wandered home proudly clutching a handful of Liberal Party stickers and leaflets about our local candidate David Steel. I simply remember my parents’ disapproval. My stickers probably went in the bin.

Of course the Conservative Party won the 1979 election, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, and as well as my stickers I also lost my bottle of milk each morning at school. The country lost a whole lot more.

I watched the miners’ strikes on the television. I didn’t understand much of it at the time, but I knew that something was wrong, and that these men in black donkey jackets and white helmets with lights on them were protesting against what the government was telling them. That seemed brave to me, but I was also somewhat confused. As a child I was brought up to obey those in charge, and how much more in charge could the government be? It all seemed so distant.

The first general election in which I was eligible to vote was 1992; I voted for David Steel (Liberal Democrat). Next was 1997, I was living in Bermondsey in south London; I voted for Simon Hughes (Liberal Democrat). At the next general election in 2001 I was living in Inverness; I voted for Charles Kennedy (Liberal Democrat). Do you see a pattern? In 2005 I was living in Edinburgh; I voted for (I think) John Barrett (Liberal Democrat). By the 2010 general election I was here in Fife; I voted for Menzies Campbell (Liberal Democrat).

If you were to have asked me why I voted Liberal Democrat, what they stood for, what attracted me to their manifesto compared with the other major parties I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I voted for them because they were familiar. I voted for them because that’s what I knew growing up. I voted for them because a kind lady gave me a roll of stickers when I was seven.

It has concerned me for many years that I haven’t engaged with politics more. That I haven’t read the party manifestos before voting, that I haven’t engaged in meaningful conversations with party candidates on my doorstep. Or even better, that I’ve not gone out to engage with them. Because in many ways politics is presented as being very much “out there”.

It still all seems so distant. It feels like our politicians are telling us, “Don’t you worry about any of this politics stuff, we’ll deal with it.” And we have. And we’ve become distanced from it, numbed to what it going on, until all of a sudden we discover that MPs have been claiming expenses for all sorts of things and then we’re up in arms. Until it blows over and we once again lose interest.

We have a professionalisation of politics that has made democracy feel so much less representative; no wonder people like Russell Brand don’t vote. We’ve de-skilled ourselves in so many areas over the last few decades. We’ve handed over these really important issues of how we behave in a civil society to professional politicians, just as we hand over our cars to professional mechanics, and our health to professional doctors.

We are now being encouraged by the health profession (see, there’s that word again) to become partners with our doctors in managing our own health. I think we need to start doing the same with politics too. It’s for this reason that comedian Rufus Hound is planning to run for election in the European parliament because he is passionate about the NHS and what it stands for and he’s appalled by what the current UK government are doing to it. As was reported in The Independent:

The comedian said the NHS was “one of the single greatest achievements of any civilisation, ever, anywhere in the history of the world”.

And he hit out at the “millionaires that currently run things… the politico douchebags who are taking away your kids access to medicine”.

One of my primary goals this year is to engage more fully in politics, and particularly in the issues surrounding the Scottish referendum debate. This is a really important question that will shape our country for centuries to come. I owe it to myself and to my children to engage in this so that I when I step into the voting booth in September, in the building where Isaac’s playgroup meets every morning, I will know why I am marking an X in the box that I choose.

I am currently reading more than I have ever done about politics, about the UK, about Scotland, about history, about the construction of social reality, about the creation of money. I intend to blog about it here. (I’ve even created my first new blog category in about six or seven years: politics.)

And for the record, this half-Scottish, half-English boy (you could just say ‘British’ boy) is intending on voting NO on Thursday 18 September.

My next task is to begin to unpack just exactly why.

Strike action called for 31 October #fairpayinHE

Unite newsflash email: Strike action in Higher Education 31 October
Unite newsflash email: Strike action in Higher Education 31 October

Yesterday I received an email from Unite the Union. of which I am a member, calling me out to strike in favour of fair pay on Thursday 31 October.

I joined Amicus (MSF Clergy and Churchworkers branch) in 2003 which later merged with the TGWU and became Unite the Union. My reason for joining a union began with a letter I received on 11 January 2003 which gave me six weeks to leave my then position as assistant curate, a post that according to canon law requires me to be given three months’ notice. I felt wonderfully supported by the union and their advice was really helpful even if I was made to be felt like a trouble-maker by getting involved with the unions. When I moved from full-time church employment to the university in 2006 I kept my union membership up and simply moved branches from churchworkers to higher education.

A few years ago while the University of St Andrews was merging two units (Business Improvements and IT Services) the three main unions that support those working in higher education: UCU, Unison and Unite were a very present help to those of us caught up in the uncertainty of the restructure.

For the last few years these three unions have been working collaboratively to negotiate better annual pay rises for university employees, with little success. Over the last four years the following offers have been made, to the best of my knowledge:

  • 2009: 0.5%
  • 2010: 0.4%
  • 2011: 0.5%
  • 2012: 1.0%

This year, I believe, the offer was again for a 1.0% pay increase. According to the email from Unite that means “in real terms [pay] has been cut by 13%” during the past five years while the salaries of UK university principals and vice-chancellors has very often gone up. (I received a PDF of vice-chancellors’ remuneration 2011-2012 which showed that while some VCs’ salaries decreased by up to 42%, some had increased by as much as 111%!)

Over the last few years I’ve received ballot papers from Unite asking it we wanted to accept these low pay offers, and if all unions rejected the offer would we be prepared to take matters further with work-to-rule directives or strike action. Each year the vote has returned a ‘no’ to strike action from my union. Until now.

On Thursday 31 October (a week today) the members of Unite, UCU and Unison have been recommended to take strike action at universities across the UK.

There is more information about the strike on the following unions’ websites:

You can also sign the petition.

Given that strike action is such a serious sanction the unions recommend that all members observe the strike. Not doing so rather undermines the bargaining power that the unions have and makes it harder to protect its members.

The union has supported me tremendously over the last ten years, time for me to support them supporting me. So, it looks like I’m going on strike next week.