The open society

The humanist view of what constitutes an open sociey

Humanists only seem to hit the headlines when we’re campaigning against something – faith schools, bishops in the House of Lords, faith-based welfare. In fact, these are not negative campaigns – they all stem from a positive position that humanists hold on what sort of society we should live in.

Almost all humanists are believers in the model of an open society and are secularists – people who believe in a society where no one set of religious or non-religious beliefs is given official privilege.

An open and secular society is one in which there is individual freedom of belief and - as a matter of policy - the state does not accord any one religion or philosophy special status.

In fact allowing any one group special status runs contrary to the idea of an open society. Each citizen's status - real and perceived - must be seen as independent of any particular religious or non-religious worldview.

Otherwise people whose beliefs differ from the mainstream can be made to feel isolated or inferior. I’ve had personal experience of this myself when, present at a seminar addressed by the Bishop of Rochester, I felt totally alienated by his account of Britishness that was almost synonymous with Christianity.

For everyone to feel included within public institutions, the neutrality of the public framework must be apparent and genuine. Secularism is a strategy for the establishment of a public sphere in which the negotiations vital to an open society can be held in a way that's accessible to all. Unfortunately our society is far from matching up to the ideal of an open and secular society.

This is true in many ways, but two of the most current are state-funded religious schools and the presence of Church of England bishops as of right in the House of Lords. The presence of Bishops in the Lords is an obvious archaism and one which can hardly be defended (though some try). But state-funded religious schools, though the majority of people in the UK are opposed to them, are more vigorously defended.

Humanists believe that, in the open society, schools should be inclusive of all children in a shared framework that models the wider community in which they must take their place as citizens. So, humanists are opposed to any school being able to discriminate in their admissions and employment policy as ‘faith’ schools are, or to teach an unbalanced curriculum of beliefs and values education. In short, humanists are opposed to faith schools because we believe that inclusive and accommodating community schools are a better way forward for society. Humanists believe in removing the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords because we believe in equality and in democracy, and we believe in a secular society at large because it is the best way to ensure respect and dignity for all.

Andrew works for the British Humanist Association on education and public affairs. As well as campaigning for the inclusion of non-religious philosophies such as humanism in the school curriculum, he has published articles criticising worship in schools.
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.