What is the right balance between authority and autonomy, between prohibition and freedom? This has become the overarching question during Tony Blair's third term.
From ID cards to recreational drugs, the Government has shown its tough side over the last few weeks. Calculated to get the Labour Party back into Little Englanders' good books, the constant refrain of 'respect' is accompanied with crackdowns against those who won't toe the line, be they inner-city kids in hoodies or protesters demanding a fairer world at the G8 summit in Gleneagles. Where once Labour espoused equality and opportunity for all, now it is preoccupied with corralling us into pens from where we can't get in the way of their grand scheme for Britain.
What this suggests is that Blair and Co do not set much store by citizens' ability to make the right decisions for themselves. Perhaps, given the eight years of government responsibility they have now shouldered, Labour have lost sight of the fact that it was precisely this urge to police people's lives, combined with glaring hypocrisy from those at the top, which saw the Tories ousted after 18 years in power.
The trend towards controlling our behaviour is not just confined to government. As Ewart Keep points out in this issue (p14), more and more time is being spent teaching young people how to present themselves properly and keep their emotions and opinions under wraps, and less time teaching actual hands-on skills necessary to carry out a profession. Soft, transferable skills such as 'flexibility' and 'good communication' are now seen by many employers as equally desirable as any actual ability to carry out a job.
Martin Rowson (p21) makes a similar point, noting that new quasi-laws such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) betray a tendency towards wanting to influence our behaviour even when we act within the parameters of the law. 'Respect', it seems, is just a code word for deference.
Establishments of all sorts, whether industrial, political, or religious, like people to 'know their place'. Is this something a humanist-minded person would wish for? Is this one-way relationship compatible with the humanist tenet that 'what you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others'?
Despite widespread criticism, and two rejections, the bill proposing a ban on 'incitement to religious hatred' has been reintroduced by the Home Secretary. A similar law in Australia has already got the different faiths taking each other to court and produced martyrs to fuel sectarian flames. Yet the British government has pledged it will invoke the Parliament Act to push the legislation through.
Our last hope lies with secularist MPs on the government benches. Political journalist Polly Toynbee recently pointed out that: 'Parliamentary convention might consider this bill a matter of conscience for secularists and not something to be pushed through on a party whip. It would be entirely reasonable for secular Labour MPs to plead conscience on this, just as the religious are excused the whip on matters that trespass on their faith.'
Overt religiosity is in vogue in political circles. There is no doubt that prominent figures such as Tony Blair, Michael Howard, Ruth Kelly and even George Galloway are happy to play to the faith gallery.
It is time for the secularists in parliament (there must be some!) to speak out and truly reflect the interests of the UK's largely secular society.
Research has finally confirmed there is no difference between the quality of learning in religious and non-religious schools.
The National Foundation for Education Research studied over 3,000 schools and found that while church-run schools achieve better GCSE results, they do so only because they are allowed to pick the best pupils. Measured in 'value added' terms (ie the relative improvement in pupils' achievements), there is no evidence that faith schools are better. The report's authors say they found 'no significant impact ' which places a question mark against claims that increasing the number of specialist or faith schools is likely to contribute to raising attainment.'
The Government should stop supporting discrimination on the basis of belief and make funding for faith schools conditional on open access for all.