Strange death of Methodist England

The announcement by the President of the Methodist Conference, Rev David Gamble, that he would be pr

Methodism played an invaluable role in the development of Britain's political conscience, and was crucial to the growth of both the Liberal and the Labour parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I have recalled before (as have others) Harold Wilson's view that British socialism owed more to Methodism than to Karl Marx.

And the connection with the politics of the left still exists -- for instance, in the case of the veteran MP Sir Alan Beith, a former deputy leader of the old Liberal Party and of the Liberal Democrats, who is also a Methodist lay preacher.

But only just. For I'm afraid I don't quite believe Rev Gamble's explanation to the Anglican General Synod: "We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission."

The numbers speak for themselves. According to a Telegraph report, there are 265,000 Methodists in Great Britain today. But when I interviewed the then general secretary of the Methodist Church, Rev David Deeks, only five years ago, he told me there were 330,000 members. A generation ago, the figure was above a million.

The trajectory is clear. And Deeks was very frank and open about this when we spoke (the interview appeared in what older journalists would refer to as "another magazine").

"Just in the last three years," he said (this was 2005), "we have had a 30 per cent reduction in the numbers of children and young people attached to the Methodist Church. That is devastating."

He talked of a need to change, but admitted: "Whether we can deliver enough change quickly enough, I'm not sure about. To do it quickly enough when the situation is as urgent as it is, that is a more difficult question."

I do feel some sentimental attachment to the Methodists' history, remembered now only by people like my maternal grandmother. At 90, she still has, next to her piano, the Methodist hymnal she was given as a child. It is not just a matter of a faith passing away -- the theology, really, is incidental now. This is about the unnoticed disappearance of a great, and truly radical, British institution.

Just before my interview with Deeks ended, he said something I found terribly poignant, especially considering the calamitous ignorance so many Britons have of their own past. "I don't want to exaggerate," he said. "But we were something."

Yes, they were.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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