Buddhism has neither a god, nor a promised land – for many that is, but not for all: adherents of the Pure Land teachings within the Mahayana tradition believe that by reciting the name of Amithaba Buddha they can achieve rebirth in a western ‘pure land’.
Deriving any kind of political conclusion from spiritual belief is always high risk. But there is a ‘promised land’ mentality abroad at the present time, and curiously it’s taken hold of the right of the political spectrum – the day-dreams, the political unrealities which typified the Left for so long are now the prerogative of the Right.
There is it seems a world out there, beyond the western horizon (beyond the sunset), where we can trade freely, without restriction, without regulation, where self-interest becomes the common interest, where supervisory bodies not least governments touch so lightly that we’re hardly aware they’re there. We in the UK, we’re free traders at heart. Once we set the example for the world by going it alone. Others followed. And they will do so again. We were, we still are, exceptional.
We achieve this by a simple stroke, a referendum, from which there is no turning back.
Our history, our unwritten constitution, is full of errors, U-turns, crises, but the parliamentary system has always allowed for corrections, changes of tack, a self-correction mechanism.
But true belief and true believers allow no compromise.
There is a rigidity to belief systems, and referenda are a classic way of embedding practices and beliefs. Cooperation and compromise become, as we’ve seen over last year, much harder. We are on dangerous ground.
Likewise the USA, where exceptionalism, of the American kind, is also closely woven into the debate. A continuing danger lies in the presidential control over appointments to the Supreme Court, and the way appointments can sway the Court in the ever-more-polarised national debate. The Citizens United decision in 2010 effectively allowed super-PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of political parties or candidates, as long as the money wasn’t paid directly to the candidate. There is now no restriction on what money can buy in American politics, and no limit to the levels of vituperation, and with much of the press in the UK in the hands of over-wealthy men with overt political agendas we are running the same risks here.
The US Congress has many famous examples of cross-party cooperation, of a movement to consensus when the times require it. The UK likewise. But money polarises, and likewise referenda. If one side dig deep to defame the other, if one side claim that a referendum has once and for all and forever decided an issue – what scope can there be for coming together?
The ‘pure land’ mentality belongs in the spiritual sphere. It is pace Dawkins, Dennett el al, a natural aspiration of mankind. But it has no place in politics.
A brief coda. Paul Johnson (director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies), writing in The Times, reminds us how once a big government project (for example, the NHS IT system) is underway ‘its momentum can carry it through almost any amount of evidence it is not working’. He continues:
‘The serial inability of governments to define, manage and deliver big projects can only be sobering in the context of the attempt to deliver Brexit – the biggest project of them all.’
At what point does a promised land become a fool’s paradise?