Perspective Unlimited

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Christmas Fog

This is probably the last year I am in the UK. This Christmas, my wife Grace had planned to bring the family - including baby Elena - on a pilgrimage to Rome. She had booked the tickets and accommodation. More importantly, she had secured the tickets to the midnight Mass at St Peter's.

The big fog on the 23rd Dec however put paid to these carefully laid out plans. We were stuck for 7 hours at the Heathrow airport (including 4 hours in the plane sitting on the tarmac) before the flight was officially cancelled. So we find ourselves, back in our little apartment, just the three of us, eating a Marks and Spencer pre-prepared Christmas dinner.

Some flights managed to leave. Some friends travelling on another flight arrived in Rome and texted us last night when they were heading to the mass. We are naturally disappointed and frustrated, asking the inevitable question "Why us?" But during this important season for Christainity, we hold on tightly to our faith and trust that God has His reasons for this too.

Tony Blair's Conversion

Besides the big fog, one of the more interesting piece of news that emerged during this festive season was the conversion of former prime minister Tony Blair to Catholicism (and here). Of course, what religion he chooses is entirely a private matter, but such is his stature that his religious views have become national news. Most catholics welcomed his conversion, but there were some who were less generous even during this festive season.

Among them was a Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe (herself a Catholic), "If you look at Tony Blair's voting record in the House of Commons, he's gone against Church teaching on more than one occasion. On things, for example, like abortion," she said. "My question would be, 'has he changed his mind on that?'"

Not only on the issue of abortion had Tony Blair gone against the teaching of the Church. He supported stem cell research. He too supported civil unions for gay couples, and his government had passed an anti-discrimination legislation that granted gay couples equal rights to adoption despite the Church's loud protestations. Mr Blair famously said he was sick of "effing prelates getting involved in politics and pretending it was nothing to do with politics".

Separate Religion and Politics

Ms Widdecombe however glossed over perhaps what I thought was the most important point: many catholics support the separation of Church from politics. Even though I am personally aghast at the idea of abortion, I recognise that it is on balance better to keep abortion legal than to criminalise it and drive it underground. Likewise, though homosexuality is against the Church's teaching, many catholics are strongly against homophobia.

The Church is the guardian of Christian morality, it rightly has to take a public stand on many issues. But the prime minister has to care about the good of all citizens. Public policy should be made with public interest in mind, which includes the interest of atheists and agnostics, and not be pigeon-holed into the doctrines of any religious groups. Tony Blair should not have to apologise (not to us anyway) for policies that are against the Church's teaching.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Post-Bureaucratic Age

When I first returned to London in late September for the new school term, the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown was still riding the crest of a wave of popular support. It was the so-called honeymoon period for the new office holder. Since then, he has become the subject of much political ridicule.

Brown's Troubles

First, Brown prepared for a surprise election to cash in on his popularity. Except that the surprise was how he “bottled it”, after it emerged that the Conservatives’ promise to cut inheritance tax made them popular with voters. The opposition leader David Cameron threw down the gauntlet and Brown blinked.

Second, there was the case of the government miscounting immigrants. What was more shocking was that it emerged that illegal immigrants were even contracted to work for the government security services such as the police. Brown’s car was in fact guarded by an illegal immigrant. Then came another shocking announcement that the personal data and bank account details of 25 million child support recipients were lost (including mine!). Last week, I received a letter from the British government to apologise. The letter said that they suspected, but could not confirm, that the data discs to be still within some government office. The government is now putting up a reward of 20,000 pounds for the missing discs, which in my opinion is ill-advised. Given how easily data can now be transferred, downloaded and uploaded, this reward simply creates for more temptation for mischief.

All these occurred while the economy was deteriorating, house prices falling, and the bailout of Northern Rock swelling with no resolution in sight. The bailout of Northern Rock is costing the British government almost 30 billion pounds (or 90 billion Singapore dollars). It is an astonishingly large number, which means that every man, woman and child in the UK has incurred a debt of 500 pounds to bail the bank. There is no guarantee that this loan to the bank will ever be repaid.

Finally, there was this political scandal where the Labour party and Labour ministers were found taking campaign contributions without properly declaring the source, thereby breaking the very laws they themselves wrote. Last week, the acting leader of the Liberals almost brought the roof of parliament down when he likened Gordon Brown to Mr Bean. According to the polls, Conservatives’ support rose to the highest level since Margaret Thatcher.

But do all these really constitute a sea change in British politics?

A New Philosophy?

The fact that the government is in a rut does not necessarily mean that the opposition is ready to govern, or that people would trust the opposition enough to vote for it. David Cameron has often been branded as a policy lightweight. However, Brown’s troubles have presented Cameron with an opportunity to shake off his timidity. In recent weeks, the Conservatives are announcing more policies, and a political and governing philosophy is gradually emerging.

Cameron calls it the Post-Bureaucratic Age (here, here and here). This is his indictment of the Labour government, "No longer committed to nationalisation of the economy, Labour instead devoted their energy to the nationalisation of our society. No social problem, no public service was considered immune to the magic touch of the master bureaucrats. Everything would be achieved through the benign intervention of a new army of technocrats, equipped with the latest in bureaucratic weaponry, initiatives, units, tsars, strategies, partnerships, pilot programmes, roll-outs, co-ordination and evaluation. At the head of this army of interventionism was the bureaucrat-in-chief, Gordon Brown."

My instinct is that Cameron is right. Blair, as the chief of New Labour, probably understands how the world, the economy and people's aspirations have changed while Brown doesn't.

The New Third Way

In style, what Cameron is now doing very much reminds people how Clinton and Blair wrapped themselves in the Third Way agenda to break out of the left vs right ideological logjam of that era. In short, David Cameron is styling himself to be Blair’s heir – constructing a political narrative to fundamentally change the relationship between the state and citizens. The government is essentially a network of bureaucracies, and bureaucracies do not improve people’s lives in the long run. While Brown wants more power to the state to help change your life, Cameron will cut back the state to let you change yours.

Though Cameron has yet to give enough policy substance to this ideology or done enough to convince the voters to trust him, I suggest that the political pendulum in Britain – after years of rising taxation and ever greater interference of government in daily lives – might just be ready for the turning. There is a good chance this chap Cameron will become the next British Prime Minister.

[This post was discussed with, and approved by Grace.]