944136BD-7FC6-490E-8C9A-8A1AFEC2DF5COn 16 November I will be doing a gig at a pub in Pontefract with the acclaimed author of a new book on Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind fills in all the gaps around Dylan’s three-year three-album Gospel phase. It is detailed, but without ever losing the thread of what was going on for Dylan and those around him at the time.

What comes out of the book very strongly is the discrepancy between the quality of Dylan’s music and the blind prejudice of critics in the media to take it seriously. This prejudice had little or nothing to do with music and everything to do with religion.

What are we to make of music journalists who decline to take seriously the musical or lyrical integrity of their subject simply because they happen not to agree with the musician’s experience or worldview? I found this element of the book (with some faded memories of the time and the three albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) intriguing as well as shocking.

However, the phenomenon itself continues to have relevance. When university students decide to no-platform someone because they don’t agree with their stance on a particular matter, aren’t they simply prioritising their own prejudices over those of the person now barred from speaking? On what basis – intellectually or morally?

OK, the leap from Dylan in 1979-81 to free speech debates in 2017 is a bit of a big one. But, is it not surely incumbent on students and journalists to have an open (not empty) mind, to enjoy the adventure of provocative new thoughts/ideas, and to identify their own prejudices with the honesty they expect from everyone else?

And before anyone suggests that a Christian like me has no leg to stand on, let me just say this: (a) almost every act of Anglican worship begins with a collective “I seriously get stuff wrong” moment – no room for self-righteous arrogance here; (b) curiosity is the key to enjoying life, the universe and everything; and, (c) certainties should always be subject to challenge – as (I think) CS Lewis put it, “if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”.

No fear there. (more…)

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The best place to consider what is going on in the UK is somewhere away from the UK. Look through a different lens and listen through distant ears.

So, I am holiday for a week, have read five books (Robert Harris’s Conclave, Sebastian Barry’s excellent and moving Days Without End, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (echoes of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach?), Martin Luther’s Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind – on which I will post later), and am now glancing with incredulity at the Brexit debate back home.

Disclosure first. I voted to remain in the EU. I thought Brexit would be a disaster for the UK, and was not reassured that those leading the Leave campaign had the first idea how to make Brexit actually happen. Maybe it had something to do with the despising of experts, the lack of whom now presents us with something of a challenge? However, 52% of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave. Like it or not, and like the whole farce of a referendum set up (a simple majority to decide a far-reaching constitutional change?) and campaign or not, the outcome committed the UK government to begin a process to leave the EU.

This meant that the country entered a new phase of debate and process – one for which we were totally unprepared and remarkably ill-equipped. Nevertheless, never run away from a challenge, even if the nature of the particular challenge demands levels of competence that do not appear evident.

The thrust of the Brexit argument was that the UK should reclaim its parliamentary sovereignty. Having won the referendum vote, however, parliamentary democracy then fell off the democratic wagon, being seen as a perverse obstruction of the inevitable freedom awaiting us. All arguments about the shaping of actual Brexit are, apparently, simply attempts to thwart the clear will of the British people.

So, what happened to democracy, political argument and parliamentary sovereignty?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the vote had gone the other way, but by the same margin. Then let’s ask some simple questions of the 48% who had lost the argument.

Well, actually, we can’t ask the questions before rejecting the previous sentence. There is a massive difference between losing an argument and losing a vote. It can be argued – without too much brain strain – that the referendum itself threw up more questions than it ever resolved. But, for now, let’s assume for the sake of this game that Remain had won and considered the matter settled once and for all. Here come the questions:

  • Should Leavers have regarded the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU as having been finally settled?
  • Should Leavers have accepted that the argument against EU membership had finally been settled, and then packed up their minds and gone home for a long sleep?
  • Should Leavers have stopped arguing their political points and merely accepted that “the people had spoken” and, therefore, had to be obeyed?
  • Should Leavers have ceased to write newspaper articles and jumped on the BBC every time the Corporation questioned (or gave a voice to those who continued to question) our continuing membership of the EU?

OK, enough for now. But, this is how absurd the situation has become. We might expect the Daily Mail to question the integrity of universities whose academics dare to think for themselves and ask awkward questions; but, we all get it – all the time. If your argument gets wobbly, start going for the person and his/her integrity.

It is the intellectual and moral vacuity of the situation in the UK that is leaving other Europeans with their mouths open in disbelief. Vigorously debate everything, by all means; but suggest that debate should cease once a vote has been recorded, and that is boggling in a modern democracy. (I was going to quote Hegel here, but that will only get me accused of intellectual snobbery again.) Intelligent Europeans – including those known to me who respect the UK’s decision to leave the EU – are simply boggled by the nature of the public discourse in the UK (though never surprised by the Daily Mail and other organs of the press).

OK, some of the responses to ‘threatening’ letters by MPs to universities might be just part of the whole overblown embarrassment we are compelled to endure just now; but if the original arguments for opting out of the EU still hold (restoring parliamentary sovereignty, etc.), then those involved in the democratic process cannot be cut out of the debate or the information required to make intelligent decisions as it proceeds.

Instead of bland assertions that “it’ll be alright on the night”, we need proper, informed argument about the nature, consequences, benefits and costs of the decision made in the referendum. Being slagged off for asking legitimate political, economic and social questions is unworthy of any person or body who wishes to claim democratic credentials.

It is time to grow up.