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.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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