Thursday, 28 June 2012

Roman Circus

Two thousand Catholics turned up to support a major prayer rally a few days ago in support of their bishops' "Fortnight of Faith", a highly political campaign against the Obama administration's health mandate. That's the one that would force employers to offer comprehensive medical coverage, including contraception, to female workers, even if the employers happened to be Catholics. This is apparently the greatest threat to religious liberty in the entire history of the United States. Or, indeed, since Henry VIII had Thomas More's head chopped off for objecting to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

I don't know how many the organisers were expecting, but that doesn't sound a lot to me. Presumably most rank and file Catholics, most of whom don't agree with official church policy on this issue, had better things to do with their time. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, appeared to acknowledge this when he declared that "The call is not just for priests to preach, but for the laity to respond."

If the laity aren't responding, the bishops have only themselves to blame. Has there ever been a campaign more delusional and lacking in self awareness than the "Fortnight for Freedom"? With hypocritical hyperbole, the bishops denounce any interference with their privileges, with their desire to discriminate or to impose their views on sexuality on the rest of society, as fundamental assaults on their freedom of religion. But when Catholics - nuns, for example - start to think for themselves, they are told to either shut up or leave.

The bishops' message is a simple one. Religious freedom isn't for individuals; it's for the church. It's not the right to exercise their conscience they seek, it's the power to impose their conscience on others. If you are a woman working for a Catholic school or hospital - or even, on the bishops' most extravagant demands, for a secular employer who happens to be a devout Catholic - then you sacrifice your right to the health benefits enjoyed by women working for non-Catholic employers. It is frankly offensive, in a world where Christians are every day persecuted or subjected to communal violence - in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, in China, in North Korea, in Nigeria - for pampered and sanctimonious American bishops to bleat about how they are disadvantaged by laws and regulations whose only intention is to extend equal treatment to everyone.

The Catholic Church likes to think of itself as being above puny human laws and always has. Thomas More, who tortured and burned heretics in the name of the church he gave his life to defend, makes an especially fitting patron for the Fortnight of Faith. Another of its English martyrs, Thomas Becket, who refused to accept the jurisdiction of the ordinary criminal law over anyone who could claim "benefit of clergy", has his legacy in the slow and grudging response to the sex abuse scandals in many countries, the foot-dragging and obstruction, the refusal to share information with police, the shielding of offenders. Just last week a senior Catholic, Mgr William Lynn, was convicted of child endangerment in Philadelphia for covering up for paedophile priests. There will, no doubt, be others.

It would be almost understandable (if still wrong) if this were taking place in Europe, where secularism sometimes does trump religious privilege. But the First Amendment of the US Constitution - as interpreted by the Supreme Court - already gives religious bodies extraordinary exemptions from laws that apply to other Americans. Other than the Vatican itself, there is nowhere in the world where the Catholic Church is quite so feather-bedded. Yet still they complain. Still they exaggerate. Still they act like they're about to be fed to the lions in the Roman arena.

Tim Stanley gives a good insight into the traditionalist Catholic mindset when he lays into the American nuns whose liberal ideas have caused such consternation at the Vatican:

The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions left in the West that simply cannot change. Its theology is like a delicate spider’s web: remove one strand and the entire structure would collapse. It can’t be done.

If, for example, the Church permitted female priests, two possible conclusions would be drawn. First, that God can change his mind. That’s patently absurd, as it undermines faith in the Almighty – God can’t make mistakes. Alternatively, if an exclusively male priesthood was never really part of God’s plan, then perhaps the Church got God wrong?... And without any doctrinal yardstick to measure things by, might female priesthood be an error, too? Is it time for a mature debate about ordaining parrots?

Yes. If the Roman Catholic Church altered its rules to allow women to be priests, nothing could prevent the ordination of parrots. Because a woman is just like a parrot, isn't she? Both squawk, and neither has a penis. That an intelligent observer like Tim Stanley can even think such a thought, let alone imagine it is a sensible contribution to a debate, shows just how seriously screwed up traditional Catholicism is, at least in the minds of its champions.

But of course the Catholic Church has changed its mind repeatedly over the course of the centuries, hasn't it? Not so, says Stanley: on matters of doctrine at least, it has never changed its mind, "never been proven theologically wrong." Hmm. How would you even begin to prove something theologically wrong. Or even right. All theological statements are opinions.

Does Stanley imagine that - to take one obvious example - the Church's opposition to Galileo was purely scientific? Of course not: it was theological. Galileo's heliocentric view of the solar system was unacceptable because the Bible and Catholic tradition insisted that the earth was the centre of the universe. It was of great theological - moral, eschatological - significance that this should be so. Galileo prosed a huge challenge to the authority of the church that had little or nothing to do with the question of who was right, scientifically; one that struck at the root of the Christian scheme of salvation.

A later pope eventually offered Galileo a half-hearted apology. In 1992. But the church had long before tacitly accepted the truth about the universe and revised the theology accordingly.

"If this is obvious to a layman," asks Stanley, "then why do the American nuns persist with their theological innovation? Alas, the answer is that some of them simply aren’t very Catholic. Or, at least, their Catholicity takes a second place to their political liberalism."

Or maybe, just maybe, their understanding of their faith has moved on slightly from the sort of adolescent rhetorical games Tim Stanley feels the need to indulge in. To be fair, though, the theological conservatives are now in the ascendant in the instituions of the Catholic church. The liberals - like the US nuns - are sidelined, besieged, dwindling in numbers, even dying off. Stanley is right about that. Congregations are down overall in Western countries, but within those congregations a hard core of traditionalists is increasingly vocal and influential. Liberal priests, nuns and even bishops look like yesterday's people. Hence the triumphalism regularly on display at, for example, the Catholic Herald.

But the liberals haven't gone away, and their complaints are getting louder. There's a big row brewing, for example, over the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, which conservatives are attempting to spin as an antidote to liberalisation rather than an embrace of it, as most people thought at the time. There are millions of Christians who feel an emotional and cultural attachment to the Catholic Church, who believe in Jesus Christ, but who feel alienated from the current reactionary leadership. Diarmaid MacCulloch, the distinguished historian of Christianity has recently suggested that the Roman Catholic Church "seems on the verge of a very great split over the Vatican's failure to listen to European Catholics." A failure to listen to American Catholics too, of course. Who knows? Few people in 1500 would have predicted the Reformation.
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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Turing Joke Test

This past week we've been celebrating the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing. In Cambridge there have been several lectures and events culminating in the unveiling of a blue plaque outside King's College, where he was a student and then fellow for many years. Turing is remembered for various things: for his mathematical theories that led him to be hailed as the father of modern computing; for his wartime work at Bletchley Park; as a victim of prejudice on account of his sexuality. Like I suspect many people, though, I first encountered his name as the eponym of the Turing Test. In a famous thought experiment, Turing asked how true artificial intelligence might be identified. His answer: if a machine could respond to questions in such a way that its interlocutor is unable to detect that it is a machine rather than a human being. An artificially intelligent device ought to be able to think, or at least react, like a normal person.

I doubt that the English justice system would be able to pass the Turing Test. Celebrated as the guarantor of our ancient liberties - a barrister with the unfortunate name of Harry Potter described it in a recent BBC Four documentary as the country's greatest gift to the world - English law is also capable of bovine stupidity, lack of perspective, literal mindedness, rigid adherence to procedures and a remorseless (but quite logical) following up of an initial flawed premise to an absurd and unjust conclusion. All characteristics of machine intelligence. Added to this, recent years have increasingly seen an eschewing of discretion in favour of procedural regularity and unthinking conformity to rules and guidelines.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of the culmination of the Twitter Joke Trial, as for the second time the Divisional Court considers the legal principles on which Paul Chambers was convicted for sending a Tweet. Two high court judges having failed to agree earlier this year, a new panel of three will convene, headed by the Lord Chief Justice, no less. Do I need to rehearse the facts? Probably not, but it's worth remembering that it is now almost two-and-a-half years since Chambers, frustrated by the closure of Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, sarcastically offered to blow it "sky high". The Tweet was discovered by an airport manager, who instantly recognised it for the joke that it was but felt that the rules required him to pass it to the police.

The police also instantly recognised it for the joke that it was but felt that the rules required them to arrest and question Paul Chambers and later to pass a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS recognised it for the joke that it was but felt that the rules required them to bring a prosecution "in the public interest"; and after much searching, they found a then obscure law that enabled them to do so.

A magistrate, who recognised the Tweet for the joke that it was, thought nevertheless that it was "menacing" within the meaning of s.127 of the Communications Act 2003. Chambers was fined, charged costs and lost his job. A crown court judge upheld the conviction, while recognising the Tweet for the joke that it was. That exhausted any avenues for appeal on the grounds of fact or justice - for example, the plain absurdity of regarding as menacing a statement that no-one, at any point in the proceedings, regarded as anything other than what it was, a humorous expression of a natural frustration. Instead Paul's legal team, among whom David Allen Green has long been prominent, must identify a bug in the system. They believe they have found one, and will argue that the lower courts were wrong to look up the word "menacing" in dictionaries, and should instead have consulted their law books, where a special, more restrictive definition may be found.

This may just work. Whether or not it does may come down to how the court decides to balance justice in a particular case (which would require the conviction to be set aside) against the general usefulness of Section 127. If "menacing" were to be defined too narrowly, it might set too high a bar to allow for the conviction of trolls, racists and bullies who have in recent months been the target of increasing police and prosecutorial activity. At least, I suspect the court will need to be persuaded that this would not be the case. Formally, this is a technical issue of legal definition. In practice, the implications are much wider.

The current CPS guidance states that s. 127:

- targets false messages and persistent misuse intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety [my italics]

- can be used as an alternative offence to such crimes for example as hate crime (including race, religion, disability, homophobic, sexual orientation, and transphobic crime), hacking offences, cyber bullying, cyber stalking, amongst others.

Such issues have achieved a much higher public profile in the past few months, which have seen (among others) the conviction of Sean Duffy for posting an offensive, doctored image of a teenage shooting victim; Frank Zimmerman for making threats aimed at Louise Mensch MP and her children; and Liam Stacey for making racist comments on Twitter about Fabrice Muamba (though he was charged under the Public Order Act). Likewise, in the wake of last year's riots, people who posted incitements on Facebook received draconian custodial sentences despite no actual damage being caused as a result of the postings.

None of these cases - do I even need to say this? - were in any sense comparable to Paul Chambers', who had (as everyone has always accepted) no malicious intent. Nevertheless, the readiness of the authorities to prosecute, and the severe (some think excessive) penalties that have been handed down, are indicative of a strong official desire to crack down hard on abuses of social media. The past year has also seen the outbreak of some particularly violent and vindictive Twitter wars, sometimes with real-world consequences, in which the police, willingly or otherwise, are increasingly becoming involved.

It would, though, be wrong to describe Paul Chambers as a victim of this mentality. His case long predates the recent ones. So rapid is evolution in electronic media, indeed, that two and a half years seems an awfully long time. The Twitter Joke Trial is really a relic of an already bygone age, when many people (including many involved in the justice system) had never heard of Twitter and even some of its users didn't know quite what to make of it. The problem then was that judges didn't really understand social media. Now, by contrast, the problem might be that they think they understand it only too well.

Paul Chambers was prosecuted under a little-known and underused provision, largely untried in practice, essentially because the CPS needed to justify their and the police's use of resources by charging him with something. Since then, s.127 has proved all too useful. But not in his kind of case: there have been no more Twitter Joke Trials, though there have been trials of people who claimed to be joking. Most human beings have no trouble telling the difference. Getting the law to make such obvious and (to us) intuitive distinctions of context and nuance is a real test, but one that we should all expect a truly intelligent legal system to pass.
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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Replacing GCSEs

When O levels were first devised, they were designed to be the principal academic qualification taken by most pupils who had a demonstrable academic ability. CSEs were for those that didn't. The system expressed the division between grammar schools and secondary modern and scarcely made sense without it. So when the new, unified GCSE was introduced in 1988 it was generally seen as long overdue.

Unfortunately, before long it became clear that the GCSE really meant CSEs for everyone. It's astonishing to learn that the proportion of students now obtaining top grades is three times what it was when they were introduced - astonishing, that is, to anyone aware of how dumbed down they were to begin with. Michael Gove's apparent determination to ditch GCSEs in favour of a restored O level-type qualification is somewhat idealistic - rather like his beautiful suggestion the other day that children should be made to learn poetry by heart. I doubt the latest scheme would survive the inevitable mauling it would face from the educational establishment even if the Lib Dems weren't dead set against it. But it's a nice idea.

It raises an inevitable conundrum, of course. Any exam that possesses sufficient rigour to be worthwhile - not just on its own terms, but also in the face of international competition, which is what really matters - will by definition be too difficult for a minority of pupils to pass. That would be true whatever improvements are made in teaching. That doesn't mean that they need be aimed at a fairly narrow elite, as the old O levels were. But it does mean that some different provision would have to be made for those who are incapable of academic rigour. Such a thought terrifies many educationalists, soggy liberals and sentimentalists - which is why Gove's plan may be stillborn.

Something must be done. GCSEs are discredited. Their grades inflated into meaninglessness, they have become like scout badges, laborious to collect yet almost entirely pointless. They are not even "too easy". If only they were, the more able students would have to waste less time on them and would have more opportunity to stretch their minds. What they are is insipid.

So GCSEs should obviously go. Is the best solution, though, to replace them with a new lot of exams that would, in a few years' time, fall victim to exactly the same process of grade inflation and declining confidence? Far better just to get rid of them. Their abolition would help to solve another of the ills besetting secondary education in Britain, the proliferation of testing and examinations. Post-16 qualifications make sense only in a system where 16 is the normal school leaving age. Where the usual leaving age is 18 it is far more logical for the main assessment of academic achievement to be coincide with the final year of school.

And then there are AS levels, a generally pointless qualification designed principally (it always seemed to me) to prevent Sixth Formers from having too much fun in their lower year. With GCSEs out of the picture, they would at last have a proper purpose as a staging post on the way to A-levels - or, in subjects where the student doesn't intend to pursue a full A-level, as a final qualification. AS levels might not be quite so rigorous as O levels used to be, but they are already in existence, teachers are familiar with them and they are integrated with A-levels in a way that GCSEs have never been. They could be introduced to slightly younger students with minimum disruption and cost.
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Monday, 18 June 2012

The Masque of the Red Death

A story that has long haunted me is Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. It's a story about denial, about the lengths people will go to to evade reality and about how such attempts can produce a kind of deranged ecstasy and can even seem, for a surprisingly long time, to have worked. But the party can't last forever.

The tale is set in an unidentified Medieval land that has been ravaged by a plague, the "Red Death." The country's ruler Prince Prospero, "happy and dauntless and sagacious", attempts to escape the pestilence by hiding out in an abbey with a thousand of his retainers.

This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

No-one is allowed in; but significantly, no-one is allowed out, either. The implication is that if any of the guests fell victim to an overwhelming desire to escape, to finally look the Red Death in the face, to get it all over with, it would mean not only their destruction but that of those who remained inside the fortress.

The courtiers embark on a mammoth party in a set of decadently appointed chambers. They almost manage to shut out the memory of the plague, except that in one of the rooms there is a rather sinister clock:

Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

The clock is an excellent touch, I think. It represents reality periodically breaking through the consensus of denial. Everyone starts worrying as the enormity of their predicament bears down on them. There are some sounds you can't ignore, even if you're determined to put your fingers in your ears. Maybe this time. But the clock falls silent, the mood passes and the dance resumes again. I can't help thinking, though, that each time the smiles are a little more fixed, the jollity more forced and the conviction that the Red Death can be kept out just a little less impregnable.

When the clock finally strikes midnight the revellers become aware of an uninvited guest, wearing a skull-like mask and a blood-bespattered robe. Challenged, he reveals himself to be the Red Death himself; and everyone drops down dead. "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."
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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Total war on crime means total war on privacy

The Home Office, having administered Theresa May what looks like a fatal dose of Kool-Aid (would even David Davis have been able to resist the securocrats for ever?), are powering ahead with plans to monitor and store details of every email, every Skype call, every contact on Facebook or Twitter, made by everyone in the country. It'll cost almost two billion pounds (surely an underestimate; look what happened to the Olympics budget), but hey, you're paying for it through your taxes, or through your broadband bills, or probably both, so who cares?

Announcing it on the same day that David Cameron is having an amicable chat with Lord Leveson might strikes some as a way of trying to bury the story, except that the Home Office put up their tame secretary of state to make the case on this morning's radio. And in the press Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe is busily plugging the case, absurdly claiming that for the police to have these powers is "a matter of life and death." Didn't his predecessor Ian Blair say exactly the same about the Blair government's proposals for 90 days pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects? That, too, was vital to protect the public. Until it never happened. Even the Met aren't demanding that any more, at least not loudly.

They really want, of course, to make your flesh creep. It's all about stopping terrorists, paedophiles, big organised criminal gangs, they say: it's not about monitoring the whole population at al. It's just that the whole population needs to be monitored in order that the terrorists, the paedophiles and the big organised crime gangs know that they can't avoid detection just by being on the internet. They have to be sneaky.

Not that they aren't sneaky already, of course: using proxy servers, setting up fake accounts, using false identities and all the rest of it comes naturally to the terrorist/paedophile/organised criminal mind. And the police already have dedicated teams of expert anti-sneaks who seem to have been able successfully to hunt down many such malefactors, despite the absence of these supposedly vital new powers, even though the "new methods of communication" that the Home Office and police are so concerned about have already been around for years. Oh look, here's a story about "dozens" of suspected paedophiles arrested in a big swoop, with "some 80 children removed from harm". How on earth did they manage that without these shiny new powers?

So it can't be about that.

How surpising is it that a Coalition government, both of whose constituent parties stood for election promising to roll back the surveillance state, is now enthusiastically endorsing those very policies? Not surprising at all! As Henry Porter prophesied in 2009:

We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government. They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government.

That's a real cut-out and keep quote.

What was the Intercept Modernisation Programme has now been renamed the Communications Capabilities Development Programme, which sounds so, well, technical and harmless. And the draft bill published today does offer a few sops to campaigners in terms of access and authorisation - though the main benefit of that may just be to avoid embarrassing headlines about local councils snooping on parents taking their children to school. Credit is due to the principled Tories and Lib Dems who have wrung these concessions from the Home Office. Special honours to Dominic Raab(C) and Julian Huppert (LD). The basic philosophical problem remains, however.

Storing data about everyone just in case the police might take an interest in someone at a later date reflects a fundamental paradigm shift in the way in which authorities think about threat. A clue lies in Hogan-Howe's choice of words. Today he promised "total war on crime". Recently, the Met has changed its motto from the touchy-feely "working together for a safer London" to the scary-sounding "total policing". Just as in a total war there are no civilians, so under "total policing" there are no non-suspects. The net must trap everyone to stop anyone from getting away. Every member of society, after all, may be a paedophile or a terrorist, or at least one of the more mundane criminals who were the targets of most of the half-a-million applications made every year under Labour's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, most of which would have been unaffected by the new bill.

The purpose is supposed to be the protection of the public. But given the costs involved, costs borne by the public, it must be asked if the cost is worth it for the unquantified benefit of catching some criminals with greater ease. The Home Office seems unfazed by the technical challenges involved in monitoring every web communication to determine the identity of people being contacted without accessing the content of the message. After all, it's the public, who are so in need of protection, who will be paying for it. As for who benefits, you don't need to look too far.

As Stephen Graham noted back in March, assessing the securityfest that is the London Olympics, "amid a global economic crash, so-called homeland security industries – a loose confederation of defence, IT and biotechnology industries – are in bonanza mode." As governments in the developed world lose sight of traditional ideas of proportionality and acceptable risk in favour of "total security", there are fortunes to be made. Creating and maintaining fear of terrorists and paedophiles (curious how often the two are linked) is immensely to the benefit of security contractors and (in this case) IT consultants ever-ready to offer custom-built and strikingly expensive solutions.

Never mind the potential for abuse, the inevitable intrusion into the lives of innocent people whose computer use produces a false-positive, the likelihood of surveillance powers being used to keep tabs on political activists. Never mind that criminals will find other methods of communicating to get round the new surveillance. Never mind the chilling effect of knowing that everything you type might be read by a police officer. Just think of it as a fashionable way of boosting the economy.
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Sunday, 10 June 2012

Gay marriages and the Church

This is a guest post by Julian Mann

(Same sex-marriage in church may be coming to Denmark. What implications are there for the Church of England? Image: Rick Friedman, from here)

Archbishop Cranmer has unpicked confusing media reports that churches in Denmark are to be required to conduct gay marriages. He reports that the legislation just passed by the Danish parliament applies to the established church in Denmark, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, not to all churches.

Clearly, this sounds very ominous for the Church by law established in England if Coalition plans to legalise same-sex marriage come to fruition. However, there is a significant difference between the status of Danish clergy and their Church of England counterparts.

According to the website of the Lutheran Church of Denmark, its pastors are employed by the government's Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs. Their status as government employees thus makes them uniquely vulnerable to a legalised same-sex marriage regime.

By God's grace, British clergy in the established churches - the Church of England and the Church of Scotland - are not on the government pay-roll. So, the application of the Danish same-sex marriage regime to the British national churches is not as straightforward as might appear.

The news from Denmark still raises disturbing issues for religious liberty and freedom of conscience in a fellow EU country. Under the Danish law, a Lutheran minister may refuse to conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony but his or her local bishop is obliged to arrange a replacement to take the service.

As Cranmer points out, the law assumes that the bishop will have no conscientious difficulty over same-sex marriage. But what would happen if he or she did? A jail sentence? A fine? Furthermore, what happens if the members of the local Lutheran church required to host the ceremony object? Will they be allowed the right of peaceful protest outside the church building?

One could imagine the UK Public Order Act being used to prevent parishioners from protesting if same-sex marriage were introduced here and the Danish model were imposed on the established churches of Britain.

Some Church of England bishops would have no difficulty in arranging liberal replacements for Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic clergy refusing to conduct gay marriages. But other bishops certainly would have a problem.

Under such a regime, faithful servants of Jesus Christ in the Church of England would need to brace themselves to pay the cost of conscience. Some clergy might consider the UK too hostile a place for Christian ministry. They might choose to shake the dust off their feet and preach the gospel elsewhere.

It would indeed be ironic if we saw Church of England ministers seeking asylum in the former Eastern Bloc countries, which are significantly less enthusiastic about gay marriage than the politically correct establishment of the UK. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 8 June 2012

Nun writes sensible book; Vatican horrified

The Index of Prohibited Books maintained by Rome's Holy Inquisition was for centuries a useful guide to what was worth reading in European literature. The works of Kepler and Galileo, Kant and Hume, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, Milton and the Marquis de Sade, right down to Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, all were placed out of bounds for good and faithful Catholics. Most, no doubt, enjoyed a boost in sales as a result.

The Index was abolished in 1966, but its spirit lives on. So when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith earlier this week warned the faithful about theological errors contained in a book about sex written by a leading American theologian and nun (and a feminist to boot), a whole lot of people thought, "Wow! A book about sex! By a Nun! This must be worth a look, esepcially if it's been condemned by the Vatican". Professor Sister Margaret Farley's book Just Love became an instant Amazon hit. There must be other literary nuns out there whose publishers are even now sending their books to Rome with all the vaguely controversial bits underlined in red in the hope of a similar result.

Farley's book came out in 2006, so the CDF can scarcely be criticised for a knee-jerk reaction. It's worth noting, though, that out of more than 300 pages the assessors singled out only three short passages for criticism. In these, Sr Farley tackled the hot-button issues of masturbation, divorce and homosexuality. And I have to tell you that what she wrote was truly, truly shocking.

On masturbation, she wrote:

Masturbation… usually does not raise any moral questions at all. … It is surely the case that many women… have found great good in self-pleasuring – perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure – something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers. In this way, it could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.

On homosexuality, she wrote:

My own view… is that same-sex relationships and activities can be justified according to the same sexual ethic as heterosexual relationships and activities. Therefore, same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected whether or not they have a choice to be otherwise

and, further, that

Legislation for nondiscrimination against homosexuals, but also for domestic partnerships, civil unions, and gay marriage, can also be important in transforming the hatred, rejection, and stigmatization of gays and lesbians that is still being reinforced by teachings of ‘unnatural’ sex, disordered desire, and dangerous love. … Presently one of the most urgent issues before the U.S. public is marriage for same-sex partners

And on marriage she pointed out that

My own position is that a marriage commitment is subject to release on the same ultimate grounds that any extremely serious, nearly unconditional, permanent commitment may cease to bind. This implies that there can indeed be situations in which too much has changed – one or both partners have changed, the relationship has changed, the original reason for commitment seems altogether gone. The point of a permanent commitment, of course, is to bind those who make it in spite of any changes that may come. But can it always hold? Can it hold absolutely, in the face of radical and unexpected change? My answer: sometimes it cannot. Sometimes the obligation must be released, and the commitment can be justifiably changed.

Farley's controversial positions can thus be summed up as follows. Masturbation does no harm, is pleasurable and can be good for you. Gay people are capable of having faithful relationships and the law should recognise that. Some marriages break down; it's sad, but sometimes the best thing is for the partners to move on.

Scarcely earth-shaking stuff, you might think. It's what the vast majority of normal human beings in the modern world, including most Catholics, already think. Farley offered these reflections in the course of a book that attempts to produce a coherent theory of sex and relationships, based on the concept of justice and in keeping with the general principles of what she calls "a moral view of human and Christian life." In its review, the Church Times praised "an excellent work... written with flair, clarity, and absence of jargon."

The CDF is worried, however, that the passages quoted contain doctrinal errors and that therefore the book's "publication has been a cause of confusion among the faithful". So, anxious to steer the faithful out of that confusion, the theological watchdog helpfully points out precisely where the errors are.

The first error is that Farley "does not present a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scripture and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition." In other words, she has the temerity to venture her own opinion even where that conflicts with official Catholic doctrine. That is, of course, very much not the way a nun is supposed to behave.

The notion that masturbation may have some sort of place in normal sexuality, notes the CDF, "does not conform to Catholic teaching", which has always "firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." For Farley to state as "my own view" that same sex relationships are worthy of respect is "not acceptable", because "tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law... Under no circumstances can they be approved"

This, incidentally, ought to leave one in no doubt that, despite recent suggestions that the Church's objection to same-sex marriage is simply definitional, its opposition to legally recognised civil partnerships is as strong as ever. As the CDF document goes on,

Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.

It was equally wrong for Farley to question the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage or the ban on the remarriage of divorcees.

By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. ...If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists.

It's slightly misleading to describe this Vatican statement as "censorship". Farley's order, the Sisters of Mercy, is supporting her: their president, Patricia McDermott, expressed "profound regret" at the treatment of a "highly respected and valued" colleague who has "enlivened the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and enriched the entire Church." Farley herself admitted that not everything in her book was in accord with "hierarchical Church teaching" and stressed that it "was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching."

The censuring of Farley fits neatly into the recent narrative of a Vatican clamping down on dissent, with American nuns and dissident Irish and Austrian priests all facing disciplinary measures after questioning traditional teachings or showing insufficient deference to bishops (although it seems that members of the the far-right Society of St Pius X might be welcomed back into the Catholic fold without having to sign up to the hated Vatican II: go figure). The modern Inquisition has no real way of imposing its views on rank-and-file Catholics. The groups and individuals who have been targeted hold positions within the Church organisation. One common response to claims of a clampdown runs somewhat as follows: the Church's teaching is clear, no-one is forced to believe it, but you can't expect the Vatican to stand idly by while people who claim to speak in its name dissent from core doctrines (core doctrines like, for example, the evilness of masturbation).

The trouble with this argument is that it amounts to a claim that the Church belongs to the Pope and the central bureaucracy. They define what Catholics are supposed to believe. The job of priests and nuns is to obediently teach the official line and the job of ordinary Catholics is to believe what they're told to believe. Vatican sympathisers tend to put the problem down to "inadequate catechesis of the laity"; in other words, Church teachings on matters such as contraception are widely ignored by Catholics because the priests and nuns are either unable or unwilling to explain it properly. If only liberal clergy would get out of the way things could get back to how they were at the height of the counter-reformation.

The main issue is more fundamental. When the Vatican condemns Farley's entirely commonplace ideas it looks silly. Ordinary educated Catholics laugh at the obscurantism of the celibate men in frocks, who have in any event lost most of their remaining moral authority through their mishandling of the sexual abuse scandals, and go out and buy Farley's book. Or campaign on behalf of the disciplined nuns. Or just stop going to mass. There are many millions of people in Western countries who consider themselves Catholic, who believe in the basic points of Christian doctrine, who feel a connection to the church but who increasingly can't take seriously the kind of nonsense contained in this CDF document. No amount of catechesis is going to change that.

In past centuries, the central organs of the Catholic Church could enforce their dogmas because they had access to the instruments of temporal power. They had thumbscrews. Dissidents were frightened into submission or else burned at the stake. When in the early 16th century dissidents arose, first of all Martin Luther, who were able to gain the protection of secular princes, the result was the Protestant Reformation. Today's Catholic dissidents look to the New York Times rather than the Elector of Saxony for support, but the Vatican is equally powerless to stop them.
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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Tolerance and diversity

"Diversity" is a much abused word. In its modern political sense it has come to mean anything but. Diversity of appearance, diversity defined as a number of officially-defined, externally-validated "characteristics" is to be tolerated, celebrated and legally enforced. Diversity of thought and opinion, on the other hand, attracts suspicion and censure, sometimes official, often moral, always self-righteous. Intolerance of dissent has become the hallmark of a "diverse" society.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the matter of free speech. John Stuart Mill wrote that "all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility." Today lip-service is paid to the principle of free speech but belief in its value can be remarkably shallow. It is enough for a group or its self-appointed representatives to claim offence for propopents of an unfashionable, minority or merely controversial opinion to be thrown onto the defensive. Censors invariably begin their remarks with the pat phrase "I believe in free speech, but..." If you believe in "free speech, but", you don't believe in free speech. Or as Mill also wrote,

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme", not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.

And increasingly, it is not merely in "extreme" cases - overt racism, say, or Holocaust denial - that opponents of free speech have successfully closed down debate, prevented people from speaking and discussing in public ideas with which campaigners happen not to agree. Merely offending - or being held to offend - against the sacred principle of "diversity" is enough.

Two recent cases. Last month, Christian Concern and the World Congress of Families wished to hold a mini-conference on the subject of marriage (and in opposition to government plans to "redefine" marriage so as to allow same-sex couples to contract civil marriages). Originally they had booked the Law Society as a venue. A similar event went ahead on the same premises last year without incident. This year, however, the Law Society cancelled the booking, citing "diversity" considerations. Even though one of the speakers was a high court judge, the venue decreed that the conference was "contrary to our diversity policy, espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same sex marriage."

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre then agreed to host the event. But this booking, too, was cancelled the day before the conference was due to take place, leaving the organisers scrabbling around to find somewhere to meet.

Next it was announced that a group of radical feminists planned to hold a conference at Conway Hall in London, the spiritual home of British humanism. The prospect caused great offence to transsexual activists and their allies, for two main reasons. First, because attendance was to be limited to "women born and living as women", thus excluding transsexuals of both genders. And secondly, because one of the speakers announced was Sheila Jeffries, an Australian academic who has been highly critical of what she likes to call "the practice of transsexualism". According to Roz Kaveny writing for Comment is Free, Jeffries' opinion of transsexuality "constitutes hate speech".

Following a Twitter storm and heavy pressure from activists, Conway Hall first banned Jeffries from speaking at the venue and then cancelled the booking altogether on the grounds that the RadFem organisers refused to "allow access to all". The venue cited both its own "ethos regarding issues of discrimination" and fears that allowing the conference to proceed might breach the 2010 Equality Act.

Conway Hall was not always so censorious when it came to the political views of those using its premises. In the 1970s, such was its commitment to free speech that it hosted meetings of the National Front (the casually violent predecessor of the BNP) and the Paedophile Information Exchange.

In both recent cases, venues have banned conferences in which like-minded people planned to come together to discuss issues of public importance, apparently because the opinions to be aired and shared offended against the current orthodoxy. Worryingly, in both cases the venues invoked "diversity", not merely as a moral or political principle but as a legal standard that they felt themselves bound to uphold. In their view, fulfilling their duty to promote "diversity" required them to censor entirely legal speech and the enunciation of perfectly legal ideas.

There is irony, of course, in the fact that both conservative Christians and radical feminists regularly call for the censorship of things, such as porn, which for different reasons they themselves find objectionable. That they may want to ban things does not, however, mean that they themselves deserve to be banned. You do not win arguments by silencing your opponents. Nor do you demonstrate the moral superiority or superior logic of your own opinions by the loudness with which you howl down those who disagree with you.

Roz Kaveney singled out RadFem's promise that "Space will not be given to anti-feminist sentiments", which she considered "another way of saying that, on most crucial issues, the party line is predetermined and that any dissent from correct radical feminist thinking will be stigmatised and driven out." But that is to mistake the nature of a radical feminist gathering, which is by its nature a bringing-together of women whose minds are already largely made up.

A distinction may be drawn between banning someone from saying something and merely refusing to provide a venue for them to say it in. It's Christian Concern's right to argue against equal marriage rights, you might think, but it's equally the Law Society's right to assert its pro-diversity credentials by denying them access to its premises. I find that a very dangerous approach. Free speech is about far more than just a legal right to speak without being arrested: it's also about access. When free speech is denied because a public venue takes a political stance, or is afraid of being targeted by extremists, or feels it has no option under Equality law, then those who wish to speak are discriminated against no less surely than a disabled person who can't access the building or a black person subject to an illegal colour bar.

Under the Equality Act and its predecessor legislation, guest-house owners have been sued for refusing to refusing same-sex couples a double bed, on the grounds that service providers have an obligation to provide their services equally to all. Yet such an obligation does not seem to extend to conference venues when the object discrimination is not a person with "protected characteristics" but someone in possession of a currently controversial idea.

This, I think, is quite revealing. It shows a blindspot in the law. It's not just that equalities law is being interpreted in ways that can have a chilling effect on free speech. More fundamentally, it demonstrates the low position free expression now operates in the hierarchy of values, especially those values that are officially endorsed and protected. The law goes out of its way to promote and protect the most superficial type of diversity, the diversity of "characteristic", whether of race, gender or sexuality. But when it comes to diversity of opinion, you're on your own.
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Monday, 4 June 2012

It's a Royal Washout

Why was the BBC's coverage of the Jubilee boat pageant quite so godawful?

But let's be fair for a moment. Almost all the coverage, on television and in print, has been pretty dire. Too many pictures of the Queen, too few pictures of the other boats, too much saccharine forelock-tugging, above all a central, contaminating untruth. That being, of course, that the whole thing was not ruined by the weather. The conspiracy of denial about this obvious fact, the deluded consensus of commentators, of people sitting at home, even of the drenched spectators themselves, that the monsoon-like downpour didn't "dampen spirits" or spoil the spectacle in any meaningful way, was worthy of Hans Christian Andersen.

So let me be the small boy. The Thames Jubilee pageant, a thousand (plus or minus) boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing along the river through London, as though in recreation of a canvas by Canaletto, was a charming idea. To turn the Thames for an afternoon into a musical and nautical spectacle, a Venetian-style regatta worthy of some renaissance potentate but with a democratic twist and a nod to Britain's own maritime heritage, might have proved a stroke of dramaturgic genius. On the one hand a specially-created Royal Barge, like a burnished throne or a quinquerime of Nineveh (or, let's be frank, like an overdone corporate hospitality tent); on the other narrowboats, tugboats and dirty British coasters. Peals of bells, renditions of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and, needless to say, Handel, gaily strung flags and bunting, all of London en fete... what could possibly go wrong?

In a word, of course, the rain. In dim light it was difficult to make out the boats. Most of the music would have wasted its sweetness on the aurally polluted London air even had the sun been shining; but in the pouring rain it was all but inaudible. Why was the whole thing not cancelled, or at least postponed till a finer day? I lost count of how many times we were reminded that (this being almost the only thing that the British genuinely do better, or at least more punctiliously, than anyone else in the world) stringent health-and-safety checks had been applied to all the boats taking part. But what of the health-and-safety of the spectators? How many cases of pneumonia or even death will have been brought on by all that standing in the rain?

Yet how typically British that we should celebrate the longevity of an 86 year old woman and her 91 year old husband by making them stand for five hours, in inadequate clothing, getting wet. How even more typically British that no-one is allowed to suggest that the soggy spectacle was anything other than a triumph. I suppose this is what is meant when people praise the Queen's sense of "duty". It means standing in the rain, peering through the mist at a whole lot of boats passing by, affecting enjoyment. (At least we were told that she was enjoying it; she looked pretty grim-faced to me most of the time, but not being a BBC commentator I wouldn't know.) It means reinforcing the self-delusion of the crowd that this was a sensible way of spending an afternoon.

Queen Victoria, an altogether more self-interested monarch, would surely have stayed at home.

Oh for a monarch who is less dutiful, less passively compliant. If Brenda had said, "sod it, I'm not going out in this weather" the whole show would have been rescheduled and a gorgeous pageant might have been played out some other time, in glorious sunshine, as it was supposed to be, as it needed. Instead it was a washout. And the worst of it is that no-one is allowed to say so. Instead the fact that it rained, and that the populace from the monarch downwards contrived to pretend that nothing was in any way spoiled by this, is seen as proof that the event was a "quintessentially British" triumph. Even as an enhancement. "The rain, far from ruining the event, made it even more memorable" writes Fraser Nelson. Absurd.

But to return to my opening question. Why was the BBC's coverage, in particular, quite so godawful? I couldn't bear to watch more than a few minutes. Sky News managed to be far more restrained, less sycophantic and altogether better judged. You also got to see some of the other boats. On the BBC all you got was endless shots of the Queen looking at what the viewers weren't being allowed to see, alternating with grinning, smarmy presenters talking with each other in the studio.

Jan Moir contends that the BBC's "reputation as a peerless television broadcaster of royal events" might have been fatally undermined by yesterday's drivel. But was that reputation ever truly deserved? The faux solemnity we used to get from the Dimblebys or Tom Fleming was certainly preferable to today's inane commentary but it fulfilled essentially the same function, which was to instill in the audience the conviction that whatever royal event was happening was uniquely thrilling and marvellous, not just when it occasionally was but when it more often wasn't. In 2002, the same buttoned up style that was a perfect match for the profound and moving spectacle of the Queen Mother's funeral was applied a few weeks later to the embarrassingly naff and insubstantial celebrations for the Golden Jubilee, which culminated in Brian May prostituting his talent on the roof of Buck House.

I suspect that the BBC increasingly loses the plot when it comes to royal events, though, because of a sort of cognitive dissonance. At times like this it feels most heavily its responsibility as a national broadcaster, yet many of its personnel, signed up to a particular liberal consensus, are instinctively repelled by the monarchy and all it stands for. The result is wild overcompensation. Naturally ironic of mind, BBC presenters have to fake sincerity. Naturally metropolitan, they have to address a provincial audience which they hold in deep contempt. To BBC journalists, the monarchy's popularity with ordinary people renders both it and the general public objects of suspicion, a suspicion that manifests itself in talking down. Assuming that people who want to watch royal pageants are dumb, they respond by treating the audience like educationally subnormal infants.

But let's be realistic. Yesterday's sodden fiasco on the Thames didn't call for a Dimbleby. It called for Graham Norton. Or, better still, Terry Wogan.
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Friday, 1 June 2012

Why the Left should love the monarchy, and the Right shouldn't

The rational arguments for the monarchy - the supposed stability it confers, the advantage of having for a head of state a unifying symbol entirely "above" party politics, the historical continuity - are seriously undermined by the sheer tide of sycophantic drivel occasions like this jubilee or last year's royal wedding inevitably unleash. Today we've had Rowan Williams waxing lyrical about how exceptionally lucky we Brits are to have a head of state with "real personality" and the Chief Rabbi assuring the nation on Thought For The Day that "Jews are intensely loyal to the Queen". All of them? How many has he actually consulted?

But then what and who can anti-monarchists muster at a time like this? Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, of course, complaining about how having a royal family "subjugates the national imagination, infantilising us with false imaginings and a bogus heritage of our island story." That's half-right. But as I've argued elsewhere, the exaggerated role that the monarchy plays in modern British consciousness has less to do with self-abasement before heritary privilege than a desire to feel important and special and to differentiate ourselves from the Americans. Almost by default, the monarchy has become the centrepiece of "Brand Britain". It's more about flag-waving and false pride, about singing patriotic songs and telling ourselves and others we still matter as a nation than about forelock-tugging. It's a show of empty pomp put on to impress gullible foreigners and delude ourselves.

How much any of this actually helps the country punch above its weight internationally and how much it merely confirms an anachronistic image of theme park Britain, all beefeaters and fog, is not an easy question to answer. Because it's almost certainly both. But the fawning, infantilising media coverage, the colour supplements and emetic tributes from politicians, all these are secondary. They, like Prince Charles's idiotic pronouncements on alternative medicine, spirituality and the environment, are part of the price that must be paid for the bejewelled confidence trick that we as a nation play on ourselves and attempt to play on the world.

To that extent, most of the left-wing arguments against having a monarchy are beside the point. Yes, it is undemocratic, it's based on hereditary privilege and entrenched class divisions and all the rest of it. But the notion that the monarch is there to keep the peasants in their place is as anachronistic as the institution of monarchy itself. It's also disproved (I'd say) by the persistence of monarchy in the relatively egalitarian societies of Scandanavia, the Netherlands and Japan and by its absence in the notoriously unequal society of the United States. Britain is not unequal because of its monarchy but in spite of it.

In a monarchy, royalty aside, everyone is equal. Everyone, from billionaire banker to cleaining lady, is equally a subject, equally unable to ascend to the highest position in the state. That makes it a radically egalitarian institution. You can of course marry into it. Ironically, being royal, or properly aristocratic, is in this day and age a positive disadvantage for anyone hoping to marry the heir to the throne. Hence Prince William's choice of a first generation posh girl rather than the German relation his grandmother married or the pedigree brood-mare who was foisted on his father.

If it is anything, the institution of monarchy is vaguely socialist. It owes its survival to fostering a sense of social cohesion and to downplaying or undermining divisions. Every honours list offers gongs to school governors and beloved postmistresses along with the semi-obligatory knighthoods and peerages for bankers. Most royal engagements are charitable in nature. It's said that - with the exception of Tony Blair - the Queen's personal relationships with her Labour prime ministers have tended to be warmer than with her Conservative ones. The one time her political views became a matter of debate was during the 1980s, when she was said to be out of sympathy with Thatcherism.

Although they are rich, the royal family do not represent "money", still less capitalism - the monarchy is pre-capitalist in origin and anti-capitalist in tone. In modern Britain, it belongs with the BBC, the NHS and the Church of England in being saturated in politically-correct liberalism and evoking nostalgia for a gentler, less cash-dominated era. Look at how the egregious Speaker Bercow hailed Elizabeth II as the "kalaidoscope queen". And well he might: like other parts of the liberal establishment, the royal family now enthusiastically preaches the gospel of diversity, successfully disguising the fact that it remains entirely white and has no openly gay members. What, if you're Polly Toynbee, is not to like?

But look, here's Sunder Katwala making my case for me:

From the mass enfranchisement of 1918, the monarchy proved an effective midwife to British democracy. It co-operated with the rise of the Labour Party, smoothing its path to being a trusted party of government. This helped to secure the allegiance of every Labour leader to the Crown, so that the monarchy faced no serious challenge at all from the New Jerusalem of Beveridge Britain.

Quite so. So what about a right-wing argument for republicanism? It's not hard to make. The monarchy is after all anti-meritocratic and anti-aspirational. It is expensive and not obviously cost-effective. Like its counterparts the NHS and the BBC, it is a complacent and unreformed part of the public sector, a relic of the postwar era, possessed of undeserved sense of entitlement to unlimited state handouts.

And let's be quite frank: the Queen and members of her family live off the hard-pressed taxpayer no less than the most abject benefit claimant or most pampered and useless quangocrat. They just cost more. Like celebrity culture, monarchy is bad for the work ethic, not because the royals do no work but because the work they do is essentially unproductive. Indeed it is anti-productive, given how much time and effort are wasted (by companies as much as by public authorities) preparing for royal visits that could be spent doing something useful. Next week's jubilee alone is likely to prolong the recession into a third quarter, costing the UK up to £5bn of GDP.

Having a monarchy makes a country backward-looking and complacent. It offers a warm bath of nostalgia at a time when the transformation of the world economy makes such complacency dangerous. It frustrates, or at least impedes, the development of a log-cabin-to-White-House style American dream that produced a far more dynamic (and richer) society across the Atlantic. It promotes wishful thinking. It's surely no coincidence that the royal family are so keen on homeopathy. The monarchy itself is a homeopathic remedy, sustained by belief alone, purest water but presenting itself as bottled history, stability, symbolism or national cohesion. It is a fantasy we can ill afford.
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