Patrick Gray is the Secretary of The Radical Party. Ther rendering of secular orientations into political life may be the more important, in practical terms, parts of enacting secular philosophies.
Here, we talk about his life, work, views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Why was The Radical Party formed?
Patrick Gray: The Radical Party was established to define and promote a fresh, social market vision for the British left of centre, which has virtually disappeared from sight as the Labour Party has fallen under the influence of old style, Marxist inspired, socialism. The Party believes that growing inequality is fundamental to the social ills facing our country and that tackling it demands not just a redistribution of wealth, but also of power through electoral reform (something the Labour Party is unwilling to endorse). This puts the Party firmly in the tradition of the British Radical Movement, which has campaigned to bring about greater equality and individual freedom for much of the last two hundred years.
The efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of the founders of Radicalism helped make Britain, after the war, one of the most democratic and economically egalitarian societies in the world, with laws which provided an effective safety net for the less well off in housing, health care and employment rights. As such, Britain fitted into a group of nations including Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, which combined social market economies with strong democratic institutions and labour legislation. But with the Labour Government of the time crippled by internal disputes and chaotic industrial relations, all that ended abruptly with the election in 1979 of Mrs Thatcher, who came to power armed with a ready-made, neo-conservative agenda imported lock stock and barrel from Ronald Reagan’s US Republican Party.
Since then, the foundations of social Britain have been eroded by successive Conservative Governments, while the Labour Party has oscillated between adopting much of Mrs Thatcher’s agenda under Tony Blair and periods promoting old-style socialism, which no longer has much resonance with working people. As a result, Britain has become a laboratory for policies championed by the Reagan, Trump and those around them. This change has now been crystalized though the decision to leave the European Union, following intense campaigning by the right-wing press motivated by the aim of disengaging the UK from social Europe and integrating our economy with US capitalism.
Jacobsen: How does that change the character of politics in the United Kingdom?
Gray: The decision to leave the EU and the election of Boris Johnson, a right-wing conservative, as Prime Minister with a huge majority in December 2019 has profoundly altered the shape of British politics. This has come about because of our first-past-the post electoral system and the bone-headed tribalism of the leaders of the established progressive parties, who refused to work together to achieve real influence over our future. With an 85 seat majority in Parliament, the Conservatives can now happily ignore the 56% of the electorate who voted against them and continue their long-term drive to reshape society in the interests of big business and the better off. Granted that they are virtually certain to be in opposition until at least 2024, the question for progressives must be what can be done in the meanwhile to prevent the Conservatives consolidating their hold on power for a second five years? Certainly, some sort of alliance to bring about electoral reform will be essential, but so too will be a clear intellectual alternative to neo-conservatism, which at the moment is sorely lacking. In the Radical Party, we believe that such a vision should reflect a modern social market economy along the lines of countries such as Finland and Sweden, which have very successfully combined democratic institutions, egalitarianism and a prosperous market economy.
Jacobsen: Does an understanding of causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union help to identify solutions to the problem of increasing inequality facing ordinary people in Britain and other Western countries?
Gray: It is important to remember that the Soviet Union emerged from a society that was profoundly different from those of Western Europe and North America. Until 1861, almost 40% of the population of Russia were serfs, who could be bought and sold like slaves, and the lives of the people in Russia were tightly controlled by the Orthodox Church and in the future Southern Republics by Islam. Communism triumphed because many millions of people believed that it would bring them freedom, dignity and prosperity. Their hopes were betrayed because Marxist doctrine became a straightjacket and did not reflect fundamental features of human nature, such as the desire for autonomy and the right to be different, to better oneself and to take one’s own decisions as to how one’s children are brought up. And then of course, the whole system became fossilised and dependent for its survival on a huge repressive structure designed to deny the public access to just the kind of new ideas and information which would have been essential if the system were ever to evolve. So, one clear lesson from the demise of the Soviet Union is that a plural media and free exchange of information will be essential if we are to build a dynamic, democratic and open society. This, of course, is extremely relevant in Britain, where and we have just emerged from a disastrous campaign to divorce the UK from our friends and allies in Europe and where 80% of the newspapers that are affordable for people on modest incomes are controlled by six right-wing billionaires.
Jacobsen: In Canadian society, there is growing discussion around gender equality, even among ordinary people. How does the Radical Party orient itself around such issues?
Gray: We recognise that many elements in society are involved in the ongoing struggle against discrimination and in favour of full equality, and these objectives are central to our aims. The demand for full equality in terms of gender, ethnicity and belief goes right back to the origins of Radicalism and developed through the 19th century in the campaign to abolish restrictions in public life and education on people of Catholic and Jewish religion. In the UK, as in Canada and other parts of the World, the last few decades have seen an enormous change in attitudes, which has opened the way to important legislative reforms. Who would have thought, even a few years ago, that a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, would be instrumental in carrying though legislation to permit gay marriage? Popular campaigns and a positive approach from the BBC, in particular, have played a very important role in changing public attitudes and the legislative changes are now pretty much entrenched. The challenge now is to ensure that the law is enforced effectively, not least in areas of life where forms of discrimination (such as denying young people freedom in their choice of life partner), are still widespread and are defended by many religious leaders.
Jacobsen: When you’re looking at the history of the Radical Movement in the United Kingdom, who have been some bright lights in it?
Gray: In the early days, Charles James Fox played a big part in the campaign against the slave trade and for freedom of belief; Mary Wolstenholme championed the rights of women; and Tom Paine opposed colonialism and fought for civil rights for all. More recently, those engaged in the women’s suffrage movement were part of the same drive to bring about real democracy and equal rights through constitutional change, which is at the core of what the Radical Party stands for.
Jacobsen: Do you think income inequality is the centrepiece for many derivative problems that we see around much of the West?
Gray: Yes, particularly in Britain, which has diverged sharply from international best practice over the last 40 years. Indeed, on some measures the UK is now the third most unequal of the major OECD member states after the United States and Singapore. This remarkable change has largely come about as a result of piecemeal changes, whose significance was not properly recognized at the time, even by politicians. The removal from elected local government bodies of the means to provide social housing, the adoption of the US system of tuition-fee funded higher education, cuts in public support for poorer people in the justice system, the soaring prison population are all examples of how both main parties have progressively eroded the social market system since Mrs Thatcher came to power.
Jacobsen: Around the world, we see a clamour for easy answers and short-term solutions expressed through demagoguery and strongman politics. That kind of nationalism is extremely concerning. What hopeful signs can you see in terms of an increase in democratic participation as a means for tackling negative populism and nationalism?
Gray: That’s a very interesting question. It must be said that, in Britain, populist nationalism has largely been expressed through hostility to the European Union rather than through the overt racism that has emerged in some other European countries. That’s partly because our Conservative Party has swung to the right and partly because the explicitly anti-European UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party, have avoided the issue of race to avoid being tarnished the eyes of the electorate through association with thuggish extremists. The Brexit issue has brought people who didn’t previously vote into politics and challenged longstanding loyalties, but what influence they will have in future is hard to predict. On the other hand, opposition to Brexit has also encouraged millions of young people to voice strong opposition to populist nationalism – and they too will be a significant element in future debates on issues such as immigration and our relations with our neighbours. Unfortunately, as Britain leaves the European Union, we will lose a number of important legislative protections against extreme nationalism, which is a matter of deep concern.
Jacobsen: Where do you think things will go in the next 5 years?
Gray: Much will depend on choices made by the incoming Prime Minister, which are currently impossible to predict as he appears to be basically opportunistic and, within the Conservative Party spectrum, to have no very clear and stable views of his own. He has surrounded himself with minsters drawn almost exclusively from the anti-European right wing of his party and appears keen to cuddle up to Donald Trump. But if he maintains this line, he will inevitably run up against the fact that the working class voters who put him into power are very attached to the National Health Service and the remaining elements of the welfare state. He will also be confronted by the fact that Trump’s view of America’s economic interests proses a grave threat to the large positive balance in manufactured goods that the UK currently enjoys in its trade with the US.
Jacobsen: What is the position of the Radical Party on freedom of conscience, freedom of belief and of religion?
Gray: Freedom of belief has been one of the central demands of the Radical Movement, right since its beginnings. As part of that, we strongly believe that the state should not promote one religion or the another. In Britain, we have a state religion in the form of the Church of England. Twenty-two seats in the House of Lords are reserved for Anglican bishops and the law requires all schools to provide education within a “broadly Christian” framework, except for “free schools” which can choose another religious framework – which in practice in almost all cases means either Islam or Judaism. Explicitly secular education is not allowed, whatever parents may feel, though in practice, in a country where only 14% of the population identify with the state religion and over half say they have no religion at all, the legal position has become increasingly irrelevant. The former Prime Minister, Mrs May, appointed education ministers who sought to facilitate the promotion of religion in state schools but on present showing it seems unlikely that the present incumbent will prioritise this approach. In the Radical Party, we believe that parents should decide the philosophical framework in which their young children are brought up and that the public education system should respect diversity of opinion, and not promote any one system of belief or other.
Jacobsen: What rights enshrine this within the United Kingdom and within the European Union that the Radical Party would explicitly affirm and promote?
Gray: We strongly affirm the founding principles of the United Nations and the ideals embodied by the European Union regarding issues such as freedom of belief, equality of opportunity and gender rights and equality. Freedom of movement within the Europe is important for creating a tolerant and open society. We strongly support the strengthening of the international community based on international, democratic structures. We believe that, in future, Britain should re-join the European Union and increase its support for the United Nations and its agencies. A disturbing aspect of elements of the right-wing press and the anti-European movement is a dismissive attitude towards international engagement and the work of the United Nations. It is too early to say whether these attitudes will take root in the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, but I think that it is unlikely that we will see prominent political figures openly promoting such views in the way that Donald Trump regularly does.
Jacobsen: Has the Radical Party worked in any campaigns, activism, or outreach with organizations in the United Kingdom such as Humanists UK or similar organizations internationally but located in the UK such as Humanists International?
Gray: We seek to promote the aims of a number of like-minded organisations, notably The Secular Society, whose policies we strongly support.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time, Mr. Gray.
Gray: It’s been a pleasure.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.