In this week's New Statesman: The God Wars

Richard Dawkins & Bryan Appleyard | Marina Lewychka on Occupy | Amanda Levete on the legacy of the B

god wars

Richard Dawkins: Atheist in memory lapse and slavery shock

Following Richard Dawkins's Today programme exchange with Giles Fraser over the New Testament and Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the evolutionary biologist and former New Statesman guest editor addresses the "smear tactics" used against him over the past week, first of which was the former canon chancellor's attempt on radio:

Far from being a real gotcha, Fraser's diversionary tactic can only be seen as a measure of desperation, designed to conceal the embarrassing ignorance of their holy book shown by 64 per cent of Census Christians [people who self-identified in the 2001 census as "Christian"]. In any case Darwin's Origin, I hope I don't have to add, is nobody's holy book.

Dawkins uses the NS Cover Story to present the results of a large-scale Ipsos MORI poll into Britain's relationship with Christianity. Among initial findings such as that the percentage of the population which describes itself as Christian has dropped from 72 to 54 per cent, Dawkins reports that:

"I try to be a good person" came top of the list of "what being a Christian means to you", but mark the sequel. When the Census Christians were asked explicitly, "When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following, if any, do you most look to for guidance?" only 10 per cent chose "Religious teachings and beliefs". Fifty-four per cent chose "My own inner moral sense" and a quarter chose "Parents, family or friends". Those would be my own top two and, I suspect, yours, too.

Dawkins states that these facts - not negotiable opinions - cannot be changed by smears and irrelevant digressions:

In modern Britain, not even Christians put Christianity anywhere near the heart of their lives, and they don't want it put at the heart of public life either. David Cameron and Baroness Warsi, please take note.

Bryan Appleyard: The God Wars

Also in this week's NS Cover Story, the author Bryan Appleyard explores what drives Dawkins and other rational minds - the "militant neo-atheists" - to such "cultish intolerance" towards religion. Or, as Sayeeda Warsi, the Muslim cabinet minister, puts it to Appleyard, "Why are the followers of reason so unreasonable?"

Darwinism, the "AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops", has been used to argue that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality. Yet the problem with militant neo-atheism, according to Appleyard:

. . . is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion - or, indeed, the human experience - in scientific terms is futile. "It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love," [Alain] de Botton says.

The ultimate futility of neo-atheism, Appleyard argues, is that "religion is not going to go away":

It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been . . . how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown.

Alan Milburn: A radical vision for NHS reform

Writing in the New Statesman, Alan Milburn, health secretary under Tony Blair from 1999 to 2003, challenges Labour to be bolder in its health policies and attacks the coalition parties for their "badly misjudged" NHS reforms, in which, he argues, "they are drowning":

Obsessed with policy tinkering, [Andrew] Lansley ignored the politically inconvenient truth that the Conservatives simply did not have enough public trust on the NHS to inflict change within it. The baggage they carried of being ideologically obsessed with privatisation weighed them down once they hit a wave of opposition to their health reforms. [These reforms] fail to equip the NHS with the tools it needs to re-engineer itself for the new world of permanent austerity it is now entering.

This failure, Milburn writes, carries huge political costs for the Conservatives:

They have forfeited any claim to be the party of NHS reform.

Yet he argues that Labour has permission to make the necessary changes to the health service; what it now needs is the volition to do so:

The public trust Labour enjoys on the NHS is why, as health secretary in Tony Blair's government, I could make radical changes to it.

Milburn calls on Labour to propose its own necessary changes to the NHS, arguing that "a new era of fiscal conservatism and radical reformism beckons":

Labour today has a big opportunity. The failure of the Conservatives' health changes leaves the reform terrain wide open. Ed Miliband should use the hiatus around the government's Health and Social Care Bill to set out a reform blueprint that can make the NHS sustainable for the long term.

Next, the party must explain how a Labour government would balance the books:

This should not just be a case of indicating which areas of public spending would rise and which would fall. It should also indicate how value - getting more out for what is being put in - would be improved across the public services. Clear commitments to major reforms of services will be instrumental to Labour regaining its reputation for economic competence. This will be the central battleground of the next general election.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus a special Photo Essay "Five to a room", in which award-winning photographers document child poverty in the UK today; Mehdi Hasan reports on the plight of Palestine's Bobby Sands; in the NS Interview, the Barbican's new exhibiting artist Song Dong talks to Alice Gribbin about "Olympic tyrannism", living in the middle of an artwork, and his favourite from among the 10,000 everyday objects in his installation "Waste Not"; in Observations Helen Lewis remembers the fearless journalism of the late Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, and in Critics, the architect Amanda Levete writes a hymn to the brutalist vision behind the Barbican on the arts centre's 30th birthday.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University