While the 24/7 news cycle gorges on the fast-changing developments around Brexit, other issues have been neglected. So, in lieu of trying to comment on a story which is shifting too quickly to keep hold of, I want to discuss another issue, tangentially related to the Brexit debacle. If nothing else, the crises of the past few years have shown us that Britain’s unwritten constitution is a frail and sometimes sinister thing. Whatever one thinks of Boris Johnson’s plan to suspend Parliament, for example, the prerogative powers granted to the Prime Minister under our constitutional monarchy are an affront to democracy.
But I’ve argued elsewhere that we need a democratic republic with a written constitution. Now I want to add ‘secular’ to the words ‘democratic republic’; my ideal political settlement is threefold. And the secular part is perhaps the most important. Given that the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently waded into the Brexit debate, the case for secularism is still relevant.
Britain has never been, officially, a secular country. Even now, when religious belief is in serious decline in this nation, the head of state and commander-in-chief is also head of the Church of England. The CoE is the established church in England, and 26 high-ranking CoE clerics hold seats in the (already undemocratic because unelected) House of Lords by right. Religious privilege is enshrined in our so-called constitution. This would be wrong at any time, but it is especially egregious when most people in Britain are non-religious.
Laws which impose a requirement for daily Christian worship in schools are often ignored, but their existence is an affront to freedom of religion. Parents can opt-out, but the inconvenience of having to remove a child from part of the school day is absurd in a society where families of all religions and none send their children to be educated. These laws can also act as a gateway to proselytisation and evangelism, which have no place in schools.
Meanwhile, a third of publicly funded schools in England and Wales, and many in Scotland, are faith schools. The imposition of religion, whether that of the established Church or otherwise, aided by the state, is inherently coercive, and given the long history of sectarianism in these isles, potentially dangerous – and certainly divisive. It also encourages social and economic segregation. Inclusive, secular schools are much to be preferred to this archaic notion that religion is inherently good and valuable and must be instilled into children.
Finally, and not to exhaust the theocratic nature of our system, blasphemy laws still exist in Scotland. They are never used, of course – but they do provide legitimacy to full-blooded theocracies who can point to these laws in the west and call secularists and liberals, both in their countries and abroad, hypocrites. The threat of backdoor blasphemy laws remains a danger too; under the guise of protecting minorities and religious sensibilities, free speech is under threat. I have also written about the recent proposed definition of ‘Islamophobia’ in this context. No society should put any religion above criticism.
What to do? Well, the utopian in me would like to see Britain become a secular, democratic republic with a written constitution. But progress is often incremental; for now, Britain’s constitutional weaknesses ought to be addressed, democracy should be expanded, and religious privilege should be ended. A secular state is one in which the rights of people of all religions and none are protected. So, let us disestablish the Church of England, secularise our head of state, stop funding faith schools, and protect freedom of speech from religious challenges. If you agree, I recommend you support the great National Secular Society and other such organisations. It is long past time we ended religious privilege in this country, but the task is as urgent as ever.