A Year of Protest and Trial: The Saeculum Review of 2019

(L-R Clockwise) Trump’s Impeachment; Maya Forstater’s Trial; Hong Kong Protests; An Extinction Rebellion Sticker; UK Government’s Get Ready for Brexit Notice; Polling Station for the 2019 General Election

Here is my review of four of the biggest events that happened in 2019.

1. Climate Activism

2019 saw the issue of the climate rise to the forefront of UK politics in a major way.

Of course, it had been there throughout the decade in election manifestoes and government policy.

But I think it’s fair to say that 2019 brought with it a more vocal, more active set of actors on the environmental scene.

The most vocal of the climate activist protest groups was Extinction Rebellion who called for the UK parliament to accept that the globe is facing a climate emergency. “The Truth”, as ER see it, is that we are on the brink of a mass extinction.

Among their demands are for the government to recognise this emergency, and, in light of it, to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 (a mere 5 years from now).

Foremost among the climate protest movements was the now-famous, teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. This unlikely hero projected herself to fame by leading and inspiring waves of young protesters across the globe to take to the streets on Fridays. One of the moments of the year was her impassioned speech before the UN Climate Action Summit, in which she levelled her frustration and anger at the inaction of world leaders.

Let me begin with what I take to be the positives from the climate activist movements in the UK.

We need to acknowledge that we are in a significant period when it comes to our future as a planet. Just have a read of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Global Warming and you’ll see what I mean. When it comes to climate activists, more specifically, there is a fearlessness and a desire to tell the truth regardless of how horrific it appears. I find that impulse brave and commendable (even if I disagree with the 2025 target that is being proclaimed).

At the same time, the ER movement has not taken enough care both in terms of the claims it has made and the means by which it seeks to achieve its ends. This is a movement that has, frankly, overstretched itself.

Let’s start with its methods.

This is a movement that has frequently employed questionable means to meet its ends.

I found this out personally over the Summer. Bus routes were not operational due to the protests resulting in tube stations filling to the brim. Faced with no other choice, I taxi’d across town.

I also object to the endangering of people’s lives through trespassing onto airport run ways or using drones to prevent aircraft from flying. And the disruption of public transport, as we saw in Canning Town, was just nonsensical to say the least.

Disruption to major producers of fossil fuels, I can at least understand, even be sympathetic towards. But to obstruct the lives of ordinary citizens (sometimes with tragic results) doesn’t induce my sympathy. To be quite honest, and I know others that I have read and spoken with with feel similarly, it can induce the opposite.

All of this might be excusable if we were facing imminent death. In fact, one would have to applaud ER for its consistency—faced with global mass extinction, the least we could do is endure a bit of mild discomfort to our daily consumption, a scaling-back to our ordinary travel habits, right?

Except, we aren’t.

Which takes us back to to that crucial IPCC Report. Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. But I trust this report. It represents an international consensus of expert climate scientists. Importantly, it advises that governments seek to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments (Oct 2018)

So, we are in a crucial period. But we aren’t facing the apocalyptic doom promised by ER and others. As David Aaronovitch has put it,

Some people, of course, get off on hellfire. But it can frighten or alienate more than it energises. So when we look at what Thunberg claims and compare it with what we know of the science of climate change, we have to conclude that she exaggerates.

Most importantly, and as Peter Franklin has argued, we need to begin discussing solutions. More to the point, we need to start discussing realistic, economically sustainable ways of reducing our carbon emissions. William Hague has compiled a list which will be required reading for policy-makers

We also need to acknowledge that progress is being made. 2019 was the year the UK started producing more renewable energy than fossil fuels.

We’re still far off our 2050 target, though. And so we can’t get complacent. And when it comes to the environment, let that be the lesson we take into the 2020s.

Key Articles

  1. IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments
  2. Ed West, Why Conservatives Should Capture the Green Movement, Unherd
  3. David Aaronovitch, The disturbing spectacle of Greta the Great, The Times
  4. Peter Franklin, Greens Need to Start Talking Solutions, Unherd
  5. William Hague, The time for denial is over. Conservatives have to take the climate crisis seriously, The Telegraph
  6. Simon Evans, Analysis: UK renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels for first time, Carbon Brief

2. The Brexit Election and The Re-Alignment of British Politics

On the Brexit front, 2019 seemed to drag on and on without much resolution.

We had a serious of Meaningful Votes on May’s deal. In the first, May faced the largest ever defeat inflicted on a government. Two further defeats followed along with two votes of confidence. May held on both times. Steely resilience characterised her premiership (and, as Matthew Goodwin has argued, her contribution to Johnson’s win in 2019 should not be downplayed).

Fast-forward to the end of October (a lot happened in between of course–May finally stood down, Boris Johnson won the leadership race, faced a series of parliamentary defeats, moved for parliament to be suspended, successfully got a new deal) and we faced a Christmas (or Advent?) Election.

The results were persuasive (at least as far as England was concerned). Johnson got his “stonking majority” and with it the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Labour crumbled, and nowhere more so than in the northern heartlands. You can read more about that important election night, here.

What I want to dwell on, though, is the fact that this election represents a re-alignment of British politics. As Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others have argued, the Conservatives skilfully read the public mood which, in general, leans slightly left on economics and slightly right on issues of culture.

What it means to lean left on economics is fairly transparent; a commitment to public spending on NHS and the various components that make up the safety net of the welfare state.

The meaning of “leaning right” on culture is less apparent. Cultural conservatism doesn’t equate to Victorian social mores, or an illiberal backlash in terms of civil liberties and freedom of choice.

In fact, both assumptions unhelpfully conflate social conservatism and cultural conservatism. Peter Franklin helpfully distinguishes between them in this way:

social conservatism concerns matters of personal responsibility, while cultural conservatism concerns matters of collective identity — i.e. the former is about behaviour and the latter about belonging.

On social matters, most would agree that each individual is deserving of fair and equal treatment, irrespective of their race, sex or sexual orientation. As Matt Singh points out,

on the specifics, there are points where reasonable, non-bigoted people disagree. Besides the prioritisation there’s the question of what equality means in practice (is that formulation racist, is that advert sexist, and so on), to what extent equality has or hasn’t been achieved, what (more) should be done to achieve it, what happens when the interests of different protected groups conflict, and so on.

Leaning right on culture is similarly nuanced. It often constitutes not a resistance to change but a desire for a slower pace of change. On immigration, to take one issue of culture, this is not a drawing up of the drawbridges, but a plea for a system that takes greater care as to who enters one’s borders with a view to limiting the number of people that do.

The 2019 General Election resulted in an emphatic victory for those who lean right on culture.

One of things this means moving forward is the need for bridge figures on the (cultural) left and the (cultural) right. From personal conversations with those on the cultural and social left, I sense that it is important for those who are culturally right to assure the socially left that we will not be witnessing a backlash against hard-fought civil liberties for minorities. How one acts when in power is absolutely key, here. And the burden lies with those in the political ascendancy to offer important assurances in this regard.

With the cultural and social left, on the other hand, what is required is a greater attentiveness to the trends that have got us to where we are as a nation, and careful consideration of the nuances of the positions of those who have voted differently.

What 2019 (and the three or four years previous to it) have shown us is that issues of culture and belonging urgently require discussion. So far, we have as a nation collectively flunked this test. But there is still the distinct possibility of rapprochement. Conversations across difference are difficult, but the alternative—bitter division—is far worse.

Key Articles

  1. Matthew Goodwin, Nine lessons from the election: Boris was lucky – but he also played his hand right, The Spectator
  2. Matthew Goodwin, Why Labour Lost, Triggernometry Podcast
  3. Peter Franklin, Three Myths About Social Conservatives, Unherd
  4. Matt Singh, What does shifting right on culture actually mean? , CapX (the matters Singh considers to be ones of “culture” are better read as “social” issues, under Franklin’s definition).

3. The Maya Forstater Trial

2019 was, as far as I can remember, the year that the transgender debate came to my attention.

I first became aware of the issue when noticing trans women’s presence in women sports (I suspect that sports is the entry point into the issue for many men). I was and am persuaded by the evidence (see, for a start, here and here) showing that even with hormonal treatment, men who transition to become women possess a variety of advantages that come from the skeleton as shaped at puberty. I fully expect this issue will be one that is discussed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Beyond sports, however, the issue has recently risen to prominence with the case of tax expert Maya Forstater, who lost her job for tweeting that a man cannot change his biological sex and for expressing her concern over self-ID law. Forstater subsequently lost her employment tribunal, after the judge ruled that her “approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

JK Rowling tweeted her support resulting in a major Twitter Storm. She also guaranteed that this is an issue that people can, and will be talking about. And for that she is to be applauded.

At this point, I won’t comment any further, except to say this: the problem isn’t in Forstater’s assertion of biological reality (which seems so obvious as to be banal). Rather the problem, as I see it, lies in arbitrary, erroneous and harmful gender stereotypes promulgated and perpetuated by those on the Petersonian right and the trans-activist left. 

Or, as former Olympic athlete Sharron Davies, more positively puts it:

“Whereas gender today is a social construct, an ideology, a feeling, totally changeable, I believe we cannot change sex but can live happily expressing ourselves outside of any stereotypes.”

Key Articles

  1. Sarah Hilton, A Woman’s Place is on the Podium, A Woman’s Place UK
  2. Tom Chivers, Of Course Biological Reality Exists, Unherd.
  3. Ross Tucker, On Transgender athletes and performance advantages, SportsScientists
  4. Is it fair to allow transwomen to compete in female sport?, Fair Play for Women
  5. David Brown, Maya Forstater: I’ve been abused for my beliefs about trans people, The Times
  6. Maya Forstater, I Lost My Job For Speaking Up About Women’s Rights, Medium.
  7. James Kirkup, In just a few words, JK Rowling has changed the transgender debate, The Spectator.

4. The Impeachment Trial

Objective reality not only took a hit on the issue of biological sex. Donald Trump, a man who has endowed us with phrases like “fake news”, is on trial for requesting a probe into Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky (in return offering him a state visit to Washington).

My take on the whole issue is that Trump appears to have well overstepped the boundaries of his office. Whether that constitutes an impeachable offence will obviously be a matter for the Congress. So far, the House has ruled in favour of impeachment. An overall positive impeachment verdict looks extremely unlikely, however, as the Republican controlled Senate looks set to vote against it sometime in early 2020. With this is mind, the Democrats would do best to reflect on how they might go about winning the hearts and minds of Trump voters ahead of November 5th.

More significant for the Saeculum, is the response of Christian leaders to the Trump impeachment trial. Mark Galli, editor of the evangelical periodical Christianity Today boldly and measuredly called for Trump to be removed from office, either by impeachment or electorally.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

Mark Galli

The response from Trump was swift and revealing. Christianity Today was branded a “far left” periodical. “They would rather a radical left non-believer who wants to take away your religion and your guns”. The President’s reference to “your religion” was, I thought, chilling.

The response from Trump-supporting evangelicals was yet more revealing. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham (a founder of the journal) and hardline Trump supporter, revealed that his father had, in fact, voted for Trump. The very thing Galli had warned evangelical leaders of—the uncritical hitching of the evangelical wagon to that of the Trump administration—was playing out before us.

As Tim Costello of the Australian-based, Centre for Public Christianity notes, “the burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith?”

None of this is to deny that Trump has achieved important domestic and foreign policy objectives—his tough stance on China, to take just one example, is admirable and has proven effective so far. To fail to grant that Trump has scored some important victories for, among other things, the US economy and religious freedom is to be severely unbalanced in judgment.

What I find most disconcerting, however, is the uncritical support “rendered” to Trump by the leaders of the evangelical churches in the States. To fail to even feel even a twinge of inner conflict about the character of President Trump is to be equally unbalanced in judgment.

As Mike Bird puts it, such an ideology—such a Trumpology—is lamentable indeed

because it presents a God with partisan mercy, who expects men and women to ignore their moral compasses, to call the wicked good and the good wicked, in order to keep themselves positioned in the court of earthly power.

Key Articles

  1. Andrew Buncombe, Trump ‘asked former Ukraine president to announce Biden investigation in exchange for state visit’, The Independent.
  2. Tim Costello, Can Christian faith be independent of politics? , The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia).
  3. Mark Galli, Trump Should be Removed From Office, Christianity Today.
  4. Mike Bird, Trump, Grudem and Hermeneutics, Patheos.

Book Review—Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)

To move forward with Brexit as a nation, we need to recognise that both sides of the debate are right in what they affirm, Graham Tomlin suggests.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019).

In this 30 page treatise, Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington) somehow manages to breathe fresh life into how I think about Brexit. He does so not by focussing on the Brexit debate itself as a set of complex political or economic issues. Rather, he looks at how we might begin to heal and move forward as a nation post-Brexit. For my money, three things make his short book worth reading.

  1. The Historical Parallels to the English Reformation

“‘Britain goes it alone’. It’s a headline that could have been written nearly 500 years ago”. Tomlin is speaking, of course, about the English Reformation.

English Christians in the sixteenth century vigorously and often violently debated whether the Church should break away from a different pan-European project—not the EU in Brussels, but the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome.

At the heart of the debate was the tussle between the local and the universal, the decision to create a national church or continue to identify with its centre in Rome.

The English Church, Tomlin explains, took the decision to exist independently of Rome. The Church of England was the result (though the journey to the Elizabethan settlement was by no means a smooth one). Crucially, this national church sought to balance the local and the universal. It did so through the parish system. Here, churches were both local and universal. They were local since they existed as relatively independent congregations tied to a geographical location. And they were universal (or at least national) by dint of sharing creeds and a common form of worship as well as allegiance to bishops and the Monarch. Tomlin emphasises that because congregations existed with relative autonomy, each parish was free to embrace either Protestant or Catholic styles of worship.

It is important to place this mixed form within the context of the Reformation, more generally. On the one hand, the radical reformers sought to establish completely independent parishes with no ties to other structures. These existed almost like independent communes. At the other extreme, the Catholic church existed as a universal project with power centred in Rome and decisions taken and dictated from that centre.

Enter the Church of England. In Tomlin’s words,

The emerging Church of England, tried to hold together the local and the national, the Protestant and the Catholic. There was no attempt to blend them, to make a composite of the two that would blur their identities, but rather a search for unity that would embrace both, allow space for each perspective and expression, and yet hold to a set of common values, hard though it might be…

I found the historical parallel between the English Reformation and Brexit extremely illuminating and helpful. So have others. Giles Fraser has commented lucidly on the English Reformation as a positive case for Brexit, here and here. Diarmaid MacCulloch takes the opposite view to Fraser, here, arguing that the Church of England was a part of the great internationalist religious movement of its day. Both authors are worth reading. They represent exemplary cases that engage critically with the past which they use as a resource for thinking about the present and future.

Tomlin belongs firmly within this group as well. What he offers is something slightly different to Fraser and McCullough, however. He’s not using history to argue for Leave or Remain (which I have no problem with, by the way, so long as it’s done well).

For Tomlin, the English Reformation, and the Elizabethan Settlement in particular, offers a way to think about how we might begin to heal, how we might come together to form a common life after the great decision has been made.

How convincing is Tomlin’s use of this historical example? I agree that the the Church of England was both a movement with strong continental ties (and so universal), while at the same time possessing a strong national identity*. The ties between Cranmer and Calvin (and indeed Edward VI and Calvin, who were pen pals) are well documented. What these links show is an independently functioning national church with an international flavour.

What does this mean for Brexit? For what it’s worth, I think it means that it is very possible for us to be independent of the structures of the EU whilst still sharing links (whether that be trade or security) with nations on the European continent. Just as with the English Reformation, so also with Brexit, it is possible to be independent of a large super-structure whilst at the same time being connected to other like-minded entities existing within that super-structure.

More important is Tomlin’s insightful point about pursuing a common life at a time of great national division. I think he is right in suggesting that the English Reformation offers one example of compromise in a messy world. It’s a realistic model, even if (or perhaps precisely because) it can be extremely difficult to achieve.

*On the point about national identity, and as a slight side note, I would have loved to hear more about English vernacular translations of the bible (Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible and so on) and how this reflected the desire to render the scriptures in the language of the man and woman in the field.

2. The Local and the Universal: What Both Sides Rightly Affirm

I’ve already touched on the local v universal issue but it’s worth a discussion in its own right. Tomlin incisively draws on David Goodhart’s useful heuristic of “somewheres” and “anywheres” (*Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics remains one of the most useful and convincing analyses of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump).

As Goodhart explains, anywheres live portable lives and possess “achieved” identities. They tend to pass school exams, attend residential universities before moving on to jobs in London or even overseas. Somewheres, meanwhile, belong to particular places and tend to have lived there most of their lives. They possess “ascribed” identities (identities given to them by the place and family in which they grow up). In very general terms, somewheres tended to vote Leave, with anywheres casting their ballots for Remain.

Here’s the crucial point: Tomlin argues that both anywheres and somewheres are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

Somewheres stress rootedness in a place with distinct customs, sense of humour, culture, norms, commitments and stories that give that place meaning. As Tomlin explains,

Every society needs to value what makes it distinct. We are born to particular parents, into a specific family and neighbourhood at a certain time in history…we need a common sense of our underlying common bonds.

If a society loses its particular cultural memory, people begin to feel rootless and life can appear shallow.

At the same time, the emphasis on the local or the national can turn poisonous if this is all there is. A lack of cultural or political diversity can lead to the fossilisation of a particular nation or an overweening sense of national pride.

Meanwhile, we find the universal impulse channelling itself into the celebration of other cultures and their achievements and customs. This typically expresses itself in university education, connections with other parts of the world through foreign travel and networks of colleagues and friends. As with the local, so also can the universal impulse turn poisonous and erode a unified sense of identity as it crowds out the distinctive customs of a given place.

Where does this leave us? Tomlin reasons that,

Both are necessary. Every healthy society needs a careful balance of these two impulses. A loss of identity and rootedness leads to a fading of cultural memory, a lack of belonging and a diminishing sense of who we are as a nation…Yet what if we close ourselves off from other cultures, shut the door to neighbours (especially when they are in trouble), fail to play our part in wider conversations about the global future, and show reluctance to change? Such behaviour is dangerous…

Whether or not we like to admit it, and hard as it may to acknowledge due to the heat generated by the arguments of the last few years, both sides of the debate have a point.

And yet, as Tomlin goes on to note, in the referendum we were forced to make a choice between these two impulses. While one impulse might be dominant at any given time, Tomlin is right to note that this choice, insofar as it was permanent and irrevocable, was in many ways a false one.

3. Practicing Love…Even for Our Enemies

The Brexit referendum, Tomlin concludes, also involved “competing loves”. We can either love our nearest and dearest—those “like us”. Or, we can love and treat with dignity those unlike us.

The Christian tradition meets these competing loves head on. For Christians, to present these as competing loves is to offer yet another false choice. At the heart of the Christian tradition which infuses much of Western culture is Jesus’s command to “love your neighbour as yourself”:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-47

Tomlin categorises the loves in this passage into four types:

1. Loving yourself: we are to assume responsibility for ourselves by making sure we obtain adequate food, sleep and maintain good health. But if this is all we aspire to, we are narcissists.

2. Loving the one like you: We are also called to lavish the same benefits we have enjoyed on those immediately around us (family and friends). But this comes naturally to us since we surround ourselves with those “like us”. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says.

3. Loving your neighbour: the neighbour is the one you come into contact with whom you do not necessarily choose and whom you do not necessarily love or have any reason to love.

4. Loving your enemy: Jesus goes beyond neighbourly love to include our enemies.

This is being capable of loving those who make life hard for you…Loving your enemy feels a stretch. It demands much of us to love the person who is after our job, or changing our neighbourhood or nation into something unrecognisable, or taking the opposite view from us on everything—including Brexit.

This is a hard saying! I think I would want to add (and I’m sure Tomlin would affirm this as well) that we can resist those seeking to change our neighbourhood into something we don’t recognise whilst still doing so lovingly and respectfully.

Indeed, Tomlin notes that these are not necessarily competing loves. That we do not need to choose between them. We can love those around us, those like us and that this ‘natural’ love should not be taken for selfishness (or racism), “but as the first stage in learning to love the stranger”. And yet, if we love only those like us, our love is deficient. At the same time, there are times when love for the immigrant or stranger can lead us to ignore the needs of those closest to home. This too, is a failure to love.

Tomlin’s short book ends with a plea for the future in the form of 5 things the nation needs to heal. I won’t end with these (buy the book!). Instead, I want to leave you with his important reminder that the Brexit divide is not simply a political or legal or economic challenge. Of course it is no less than these things. But at heart, it is a spiritual challenge which leaves us with lingering spiritual questions. How can we love our neighbour? How can we love even our enemy?

One final question which is perhaps the most important of all: Will we rise to this spiritual challenge?