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Sliding from principles to policy

by
18 July 2014

Malcolm Evans finds the devil in the detail of model for society

Belief and the Nation
John Scriven
Wilberforce Publications £11.99
(978-0-9575725-0-8)

THE part played by belief in the life of a nation is an increasingly controversial subject. While this book undoubtedly represents a contribution to the debate on this topic, it is unlikely to render it less so. Indeed, its trenchant assertion of the need for governance and policy to reflect objective truth, coupled with the belief that "Christian thought provides a basis for this truth which works for the benefit of society," and that "there needs to a wholesale repudiation of the relativism in moral values," are decidedly controversial conclusions.

The book itself seeks to provide both a reasoned basis for these positions while exploring their working out in many and varied contexts. An opening part looks at the philosophical foundations of the argument in favour of a prominent part for belief to play in the ordering of society, and the inadequacies of theories of political philosophy which would seek to exclude it.

Underpinning this complex discussion is a theme that recurs throughout the book: human imperfection, and the resultingneed to ensure that we are not anchored to values and approaches that are potentially mired with its consequences. Once it is accepted that there has to be some commonly accepted framework of public truth, there is a need for this to be grounded in something more substantial than fallible human wisdom. The author's preference is that this is filled by Christian values, but the central point is that it does have to be filled since "mankind is imperfect and all political systems should allow for these imperfections".

Taking this theme forward, the second part looks at principles of government, and drawing on the scepticism generated by human imperfection and bearing in mind "God's design that individuals have free will", a Christian model of governance is offered, which seems to come down to minimising the part played by the state and maximising the part played by personal responsibility; and that "The Christian principle is that the relationship between the State and the citizen will be enhanced when they both acknowledge the auth-ority of a higher law."

The remainder of the book, over several parts, sets out the consequences of applying this approach in a broad variety of fields: accountability and democracy, equality and social justice, human life, crime and punishment, education, the family, freedom of expression, community values, business concerns (including markets and debt), nationality and globalisation, environmental concerns, international aid and development, foreign policy, etc.

It may be rash to try to distil a commonality across areas of application so diverse, but it is not as difficult as it may seem. Indeed, a consistent pattern emerges. Thus, social justice is not to be achieved so much by the engine of the state as by personal change: we may have a responsibility to give, but this is thwarted by high taxation - so taxation must be limited.

While the significance of taking responsibility for one's actions is central to theories of punishment, there is some scepticism about restorative justice, and the need for traditional principles of punishment such as deterrence are emphasised. Exactly why this leads to an endorsement of directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners is, however, less clear.

And this is perhaps where the readers who have so far remained sympathetic may start to ask why the general approach outlined in the book must result in policy preferences that are so stark. It is, for example, not obvious why, if "a diversity of distinct national identities . . . are part of God's design in the providential restraint of evil", Scottish independence seems to be considered in some undefined way suspect. By now, it is probably no surprise at all that the European Union is decidedly suspect, as is the transference of power to transnational organisations more generally: it seems as if the configuration of the UK is just as it ought to be from the divine perspective.

That there should be climate-change scepticism may also not surprise; but what seems to be a preference for fracking over renewable energy may. This, however, helps pave the way for the even more unexpectedly sceptical views of government-to-government foreign aid, and free education. We also learn that it is preferable for the Royal Navy to have two aircraft carriers rather than one. In short, by the end of the book, it feels as if one has actually been reading a political manifesto - and perhaps one has.
 

Dr Malcolm D. Evans is Professorof Public International Law at the University of Bristol.

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