Priti Patel’s announcement that Rwanda was to be given £120 million for accepting deported migrants - and refugees - has not gone down well. But undeterred the Prime Minister has said he will get it done. For a moment let’s take at face value the Government’s response to the widespread outcry.
Patel’s defense of her money-for-migrants scheme contains at least three claims. The first is that Britain has a problem: an unacceptable number of migrants and asylum seekers are crossing the channel to Britain in small boats. The second is that criminal gangs of people smugglers make a great deal of money out of organizing these crossings and that deportation to Rwanda of young male ‘illegal migrants’ who adopt this way of entering Britain is the only means of destroying the smugglers’ business model and so to prevent drownings. The third is that the passengers on these unsafe dinghies are mostly economic migrants not genuine refugees. Each of these claims sounds plausible, the second even a form of ‘tough love’. Transnational organized crime and the suffering and tragic deaths it entails are obviously a serious problem. But each claim is based on false assumptions, misinformation or simply ignores what is known from research on migration.
Compared with other European countries, Britain does not have a severe migrant problem. Some two-thirds of those making the Channel crossing turn out to be genuine asylum seekers rather than economic migrants though war, persecution and poverty do go together. If you take the number of asylum claims per 100,000 of population as a measure, Britain ranks 14th in Europe with Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and Switzerland receiving applications at double the rate of Britain’s. Between 2015 and 2016, Angela Merkel’s Germany admitted 1.25 million Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees. By 2018, according to the US Center for Global Development, 72% had gained permission to work. From 1% on arrival 44% had learnt German. By 2021 some 50% had jobs, were in training or had internships. Britain with a similarly ageing population and labour shortage might profitably study how a country can successfully turn migrants into an asset. The real problem is dog-whistling by the political Right and its supportive Press creating fear of ‘swamping’.
People smuggling, sometimes overlapping with sexual trafficking, is now firmly established as large scale transnational crime. The global estimate for 2016 was that c. 2.5 million people paid smugglers between $5.5 and $7 billion to get them across borders. The big transnational criminal gangs and smaller networks operate on the dark web in encrypted sites. Payment often is made through the traditional hawala system (in Arab countries and South Asia, money is paid to an agent who instructs a trusted associate in the relevant country or area to pay the final recipient). Like other profits from international crime, the money can then be laundered through banks. Laundering is an obvious target if the government’s aim is to undermine the business model.
The France to UK sea-crossing lies at the end of a very long and dangerous journey which involves negotiations with ruthless gangs and their collaborators often working on commission within transnational networks from hubs such as Agadez in Niger. In such poor countries the gangs provide employment for a penumbra of independent guides, drivers, recruiters and middle-men, forgers of travel documents, providers of boats and accommodation.
The smuggler’s ‘business model’ is simple: lowest risk with highest profits. The total cost per traveler with the UK as a destination is now 6,000 Euros. The more difficult it gets the higher the price. But demand is not necessarily flattened. Because they have become accustomed to taking life-threatening risks on their journey, and because the Eurotunnel route is now more or less successfully blocked along with lorry traffic being more diligently checked, on the final leg of their journey asylum seekers and migrants are prepared to risk drowning. In good weather, dinghies trucked into France from Germany, and now larger boats, set off together and, given the current maximum available deployment of 800 French police and border control staff on the long French beaches, a percentage will make it across. A year ago, the French were making some 1,500 arrests of people involved in organizing the Channel crossings - but they are soon replaced.
The young men who are most at risk from the Patel plan also have a business model. They are often ‘crowdfunded’ by their village or by relatives, becoming a cross between a human lottery ticket and a living investment made in the expectation of returns through regular remittances home. Many are burdened by the moral responsibility to reach the UK and pay back their investors. They are the product of the corruption and incompetence of their own governments, inadequate debt relief and cuts in development aid. Deportation to Rwanda addresses none of this.
Government talks in terms of supply and demand. But limiting demand for the services of smugglers, if that is the true aim, could be achieved by measures directly under our control such as increasing and broadening the channels for regular migration, simpler checking procedures, making it easier to obtain legitimate travel documents. Opportunities for authorised migration need to increase and be made more accessible in countries of origin as well as from refugee camps. The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian refugees which ended in March 2021 should be continued with increased annual target numbers. Better staffed migration and asylum bureaux in Europe are also necessary. The shambles of the Ukrainian humanitarian visas application system is an example of how to create an incentive to pay people smugglers and risk the Channel crossing. Ratchet up government investment in authorised routes and fewer people would want to pay smugglers.
Finally, if government policy is indeed intended to interdict people smugglers, the £120 million going to Rwanda, plus other attendant transportation and accommodation costs, would be better spent on increasing the staffing of the UK’s National Crime Agency INVIGOR programme which deals with criminally organized immigration. Better liaison and cooperation with France’s OCRIEST, (L’Office central pour la répression de l’immigration irrégulière et de l’emploi d’étrangers sans titre), the French immigration and border police, and with Interpol’s Integrated Border Management Task Force (IBMTF) would also help.
With the Home Office prediction of only 300 deportations to Rwanda annually and with forthcoming legal challenges, Priti Patel’s money-for-migrants partnership seems unlikely to be implemented. The judges and ‘left-wing lawyers’ will be blamed when it is stopped. And Government headline-grabbing will continue, irresponsible, deceptive and shameless.
See TheArticle 09/05/2022
Why did Priti Patel, claiming her aim is to destroy the cross-channel traffickers’ “business model”, choose Rwanda for her recent £120 million Migration and Economic Development Partnership? And from what budget does the funding come? Asylum seekers and migrants seeking a safe or better life in the UK are to be treated like toxic waste to be dumped in foreign lands, a striking illustration of the Johnson Cabinet’s moral bankruptcy. But quite likely here is a Minister playing to the Tory gallery unconcerned that their announcement can’t be implemented. Legal challenges are already being prepared. If this were just another half-baked initiative that will never happen, a Johnson specialty, there wouldn’t be much more to say. But why Rwanda and what’s in it for the Home Secretary?
The announcement provoked widespread and powerful reactions. “We pray that those who seek solutions do so with compassion, and with regard for the dignity which is innate to every human being. This week's policy announcement simply lacks these qualities” Cardinal Vincent Nichols responded. The Archbishop of Canterbury described this “subcontracting” of responsibilities as “the opposite of the nature of God” – more theological but less clear - while the civil servants union called it ‘inhumane’. Matthew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary in the Home Office with a distinguished diplomatic career behind him, wrote to Priti Patel that he was not in a position to conclude there was "a deterrent effect significant enough to make the policy value for money” and therefore needing a Ministerial directive to proceed. In short, the deal was immoral, unworkable, probably illegal, and would likely cost a fortune.
Protest was strong but the choice of Rwanda and its geopolitical implications have aroused negligible in-depth comment. They should have. There is much to be learnt from Rwanda’s tragic history. My Church and Revolution in Rwanda (Manchester University Press 1977) examines the roots of the bitter political and ethnic conflict already happening 45 years ago. Following the 1994 genocide, I wrote about the failure of the international community, the complicity of the French, and the aftermath of the take-over by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Rwanda is much more than the ‘Switzerland of Africa’.
Rwanda today is economically a remarkable success story for which its President Paul Kagame is justly credited. A former military commander, in his mid-60s, trained at Fort Leavenworth, USA, he directed the RPF take-over after the genocide and today leads a tiny, poor, mountainous, densely populated country not much bigger than Wales whose population is 3.17 million. According to the World Bank, 60% of the 13 million Rwandans still survive in extreme poverty on $1.25 a day, but many of the usual poverty indicators are moving in the right direction.
The Kagame government has achieved impressive economic and social progress. 30% of Rwanda’s budget is spent on health and education. There is almost universal primary education along with innovative health measures, though malaria remains prevalent. Life expectancy increased from 49 years to 67 between 2001-2017. Significant efforts have been made to overcome the ethnic divides that lay behind the genocide. In 2008 a law against gender based violence was passed and some 62% of parliamentarians are now women. Inequality in Rwanda as measured by the Gini coefficient (Sweden 0.3, South Africa 0.63) is 0.44. According to Transparency International, Rwanda is the least corrupt country on the African continent. An extraordinary example of national regeneration after the genocide.
Foreign aid accounts for from 30-40% of Rwanda’s annual budget but, poor though the country remains, the government hopes to leap-frog into the cyber-age and make the country a regional ICT hub; 4,000 kilometres of fibre optics have been rolled out and 600,000 laptops distributed. The national university has a course on Artificial Intelligence. Rwanda – formerly Francophone now in the Commonwealth with an English language policy - has become a darling of British Development Aid. What’s not to admire?
The maggot in the apple is Kagame’s violation of individual human rights. Years ago, I was threatened by the head of Rwanda’s official human rights organization for taking too much interest in human rights violations. Opposing Kagame is dangerous. Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum (the German equivalent of the BBC World Service) reports ‘enforced disappearances’ (the official legal name used in a 2006 human rights UN International Convention) of journalists and opponents of the Rwandan government as well as mysterious deaths in South Africa and Mozambique of Rwandan exiles.
You have to be a very courageous to criticize the government. The country is ranked 155 out of 180 for Press Freedom and, placed between Angola at 122 and Zimbabwe at 133, is 128th out of 167 on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. In the 2017 elections, after 22 years in power as President, Paul Kagame allegedly received 99% of the votes achieving a constitutional change that would allow him to stay in power until 2034. Rwanda is now amongst the world’s authoritarian one-party States.
Western governments making decisions about relations with Rwanda face a dilemma. Its work for social and economic rights inspires support and engagement. Its violations of individual rights, rights by which the West officially sets such store, call in question the fundamental opposition the West asserts between democratic governments and the growing number of authoritarian States around the world. The contemporary China-Russia alliance has made the West’s defense of democracy an overriding geopolitical priority. The Cold War between Communist States and Western democracies is resumed with once again the (false) choice between the personal freedoms of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and the economic and social benefits of the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Does achieving the social and economic rights laid out in the 1966 UN International Covenant really depend on suppression of political opposition? Hardly. It’s a counter-factual argument but a democratic Rwanda could have done just as well.
The West sees itself championing democracy and a culture of democracy underpinned by respect for human rights, especially those violated by authoritarian regimes. So what is the UK doing planning to deport asylum seekers for ‘processing’, many of whom will be fleeing one authoritarian regime only to end up in another? This is no-one’s idea of ‘constructive engagement’. Priti Patel in her choice of Rwanda is de facto prioritizing economic rights over individual rights, reversing the West’s longstanding geopolitical position. Perhaps she simply doesn’t notice that there might be a wider problem here in the message she is giving to the world in her migrants for money partnership.
The commercialisation of higher education in Britain is, in part, a by-product of its success. “The proportion of young people in England going to university has passed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time”, the BBC reported in September 2019. “It comes almost exactly 20 years after then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called for half of young people to go into higher education”. He recently called for the level to be pushed up to 70%.
In 1959, less than 4% of university age youth received a university education. In 1963, the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended that university places should be available to all who were qualified by ability and attainment. During the 1960s the number of UK universities doubled, from 22 to 45. Today 130 are receiving funding from government – plus a few private universities - each competing to attract the brightest students. The cost to the tax payer has risen proportionately. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998, £1,000 then £9,250 now, to help with funding, was a crucial stage in attaching monetary value to a university education.
British universities are now large institutions serving on average 18 thousand students. But Government does not give them enough money. UK students’ tuition fees do not cover the cost of their education. For the last two years, as they switched on lap-tops in their rooms for the day’s lectures, students themselves have been clocking up debt. Students from abroad, paying £31,000 per annum, barely keeping the good ship academia afloat, are sought out by academic marketing departments. Universities little by little are turning into businesses to survive, a few of them tottering on the brink.
Universities of course differ in campus position, the ‘old civic red brick’ and Oxbridge versus those situated outside or on the edge of towns, in endowments, in ethos and reputation for a particular academic expertise, as well as their entry standards and research quality. In addition ‘student satisfaction’ is measured and graduate prospects that both feature in their - much criticised – annually published ranking. Many universities are facing significant deficits in pension funds and offering salaries that academic staff do not see as commensurate with their training and workload. Lecturers chafe at demands to shine both in teaching, in student satisfaction ratings, and research increasingly for the income it brings.
Asking what universities are for is an interesting question and the answer has changed over time. By the end of the 19th century the idea that moral and religious education should be an inseparable part of university teaching had weakened. By the end of the 20th century ‘cultivation of the intellect’ as the prime purpose of universities’ was also eclipsed. Far too ‘ivory tower’. Encouraged by government, the main purpose of the British university now is to meet the needs of an advanced economy. Universities cultivate ‘graduate prospects’, meaning the promise, or at least the expectation, of a good job after graduation – defined as a starting salary of at least £30,000-£35,000 - so easy for students to measure the return on their investment . Even the subjects taught in universities are evaluated by students and university management alike as developing, or not, future useful and lucrative professional skills. The mind-set and language of economics has infiltrated many aspects of life and the universities weren’t spared.
During and since the pandemic, much attention has rightly been given to the disruption of school life, the impact on school and pre-school children. Much less attention is given to the current state of Britain’s universities, their staff and their students. The pandemic deprived all students, whatever their age, of the social experience which being in higher education traditionally gives. But this impact on university life came on top of changes transforming the size, ethos and very idea of a university.
Size seems to matter. St. Andrew’s in Scotland and Aberystwyth in Wales have around 10,000 students each. They top the student satisfaction league. Manchester with over 40,000 and University College London (UCL) with over 45,000 – half from overseas - have opted for gigantism in response to demand and in the hope of economies of scale. Both come 104th out of 128 (no figures for Oxbridge) in student satisfaction ranking despite getting good results. Both have experienced strikes by university about pay, pay gaps, pensions, workload and casualization. But so have many others.
The University and College Union (UCU) negotiate staff pay. This year they have been campaigning against zero-hours contracts. According to UCU research, an astonishing 6,500 lecturers working in 46% of universities and 60% of colleges are on zero hours contracts. A further 68,845, many working in research programmes, are on fixed term contracts.
Graduation ceremonies have always been rites of passage. A symbolic event closing ceremonially three years of new – and lasting - friendships and rewarding study, marking entry into the adult world. This year the pandemic back-log meant that double the numbers graduated. At UCL, with its huge numbers, this meant a week of three sets of students a day graduating conveyor belt style in the drab barn-like ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s docklands. Tickets sold at £35 each and gown hire was £47 - if you got the discounted price. A pre-recorded message from UCL’s provost appeared on a large screen. At the same time the ExCel Centre was hosting a business conference and a marine biology conference. A less than grand finale for students who missed a great deal working their passage through a disrupted university system increasingly commercialized and all at sea.
John Henry Newman, Anglican theologian who became a Catholic Cardinal, published his The Idea of a University in 1858, a compilation of nine lectures based upon his experience and thinking as Rector of a new Catholic University in Dublin. It is frankly hard-going. He wanted the university to be a place where “intellect [was] disciplined for its own sake” where ‘inutility’, as he called it, was to be cherished. But he did concede that if the utility of university education was to be considered, it should be to prepare students “to fill their respective posts in life better…. making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society”. Newman also had a prescient word on the dangers of demanding both good teaching and research from lecturers. “He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new”. Many of today’s lecturers would agree.
Learning is not a commercial transaction. Education should not embody the ethics of a business enterprise. The task of universities in national life should not be promoting only the kind of research that makes money, nor make filling the top end of the Labour Market their limited vision. They are being driven in this direction. I like to think of the small university I am associated with, St. Mary’s Twickenham, 30th in the student satisfaction tables and with distinctive Catholic values, as part of the resistance.
Why are the main fights in today’s culture wars about sex, sexuality, gender and the beginning of life? Each, particularly the latter, admittedly weighty moral issues in their own right. And how have the British managed to push BREXIT, something that has nothing to do with sex, into our culture wars making it a marker of identity? Conflicts of opinion about how to reduce climate change, pandemics and respond to Putin’s war - life-threatening both before and after birth - get prolonged public airing but, with the exception of face coverings, which have been politicised, and the anti-vaxxers, appear much less divisive, less about identity. It’s puzzling.
I bumped into these questions whilst thinking about how and why the different Abrahamic faith traditions share views that find their way into the arsenals of the culture wars. The conservative Evangelical from Montana who hates the Washington elite agrees with the traditional views about sex, sexuality and gender held by the Russian Orthodox from Moscow. Both consider that contemporary morality amounts to nothing short of culpable ‘decadence’ and identify their enemies accordingly. Both, deliberately or inadvertently, spend time undermining democracy and both promote a politics of ‘back to the future’. Ultraconservative American evangelicals seem even unwilling to denounce the violent 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol.
By far the best known and most shocking attempted return to an imaginary past is, of course, that of ISIS and the Da’esh Caliphate. But it is telling that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow imagines a former Holy Mother Russia encompassing Ukraine and Belarus, and singles out gay pride marches as evidence of ‘Western decadence’. The war in Ukraine has revealed how far Russian Orthodoxy, in part, has been co-opted, even militarised, by the Russian State. Putin, ostensibly a Russian Orthodox believer, and Patriarch Kirill, almost certainly a KGB asset, inherited a mutually beneficial relationship formed during the post-Brezhnev Soviet era. It seems no accident that extreme forms of ‘back to the future’ religion can spawn violence.
Why is yearning for a fantasy past displacing hope in the future? As in the jihadist imagining of the early Caliphates, there has to be some factual or scriptural basis for the resurgence of these nostalgic dreams. Phrases and stories from sacred writings have to be torn from their context. Text without context becomes pretext. And the pretext can easily be for coercion and violence in a binary world. Those with whom we do not agree, who reject our fantasy, are deliberately culpable, the culpable are enemies, and enemies have to be destroyed before they destroy all we believe in.
Belligerence is not all on one side. ‘Woke’ has become something of a synonym for modernity or, at least, shorthand for a major belligerent in our culture wars. In the West, vocabulary, words in themselves, have become crucial indicators of right beliefs and attitudes. But does a word, maybe an outdated word, betray reprehensible views? Much blame is attached to using or not using the right words, an absence of the required vocabulary supposedly indicating an absence of virtue and sensitivity. But does the wrong word always, or even frequently, indicate an unacceptable ‘ism’ to justify the accusation of thought-crimes? An older generation struggles to ‘curate’ a fast changing vocabulary. I’ve had a good education but it took a grandchild to tell me gently that people with disabilities want to be called just that, not ‘the disabled’. Does calling someone ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’ really unmask the speaker as racist? Words do matter, they can anger and wound, but intention and behaviour matter more. People of good will can find it hard to keep up with what is the right word to use and can feel coerced into silence because of it.
If you are old the past is that other country where you were young, healthy, energetic and probably optimistic, and inevitably things were different. It is a place where you and people like you belonged. The imagined past is a place where you are free from present fears, fear that you are being laughed at by a modern, supercilious elite, treated with contempt, and free of the fear that much you hold dear is being swept away.
Such anxiety is the bread and butter of populism - and a key sentiment of those who violently attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. The ‘Proud Boys’, ‘The Oath Keepers’, all self-revealing titles which reveal the frightening level of conflict and division in American society.
The West – and the world - badly need a cease-fire in the culture wars. Much of them feel like distractions from the potentially catastrophic problems we are now facing. We need respectful dialogue about sex, sexuality, beginning and end of life and gender, not censorious diatribes. A multi-cultural society needs some clear red lines, but it also badly needs to accommodate dissent, agreement to disagree, not coercion forcing people to change their vocabulary or lose any public voice. Above all we need to replace fantasies of the past, or unrealistic optimism, with hope for the future.
Putin’s mother may or may not have been a closet Orthodox Christian who had her son secretly baptized. Metropolitan (head of a major diocese) Tikhon, friend of Putin, first trained as a screenwriter, is known for his ultraconservative nationalist theology, his opposition to democracy and support for censorship as well as his promotion of Orthodoxy as the antidote to ‘Western decadence’. The friendship between Putin and Tikhon dates from the late 1990s and developed into a close relationship as their careers blossomed. Tikhon reached the status of Archimandrite (Grand Abbot) in 1998 and became Rector of the restored Stretensky Seminary in Moscow in 1999. Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2000 in time to oversee the rebuilding of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
I went to Moscow in 1991 to talk to Gorbachev’s religious advisers and to visit a little catholic church and its community in the shadow of the Lubyanka. Two surveillance cameras were trained on the door. The parish priest was a resilient Ukrainian who had spent many years in prison. Catholicism is not Russia’s favourite brand of Christianity.
Gorbachev’s religious advisers wanted to talk about life after communism. They were worried about what would fill the vacuum and hold society together. “Now our communist ethics [sic] have gone what is going to replace it?” Enter Christianity seen by them as the only available solution to providing the glue for Society. I told them things weren’t quite that simple, they would need to accommodate different varieties of Christianity. I wondered privately about the future role of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Thirty years on and Russia is 70% Orthodox with quite a high level of observance. Pentecostals and Plymouth Brethren are given a very hard time and there is little love wasted on the Catholics. Orthodoxy in Russia has largely become a politicised religion.
It is difficult to assess what the Russian Orthodox Church means today for Putin’s life, thinking, imperial ambitions and legitimacy. Until Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent denunciation of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s collusion with the war in Ukraine, Putin’s thinking about religion hardly featured in UK media analysis of his motivations. The question remains unanswered whether Putin is simply using religion as a political tool seeing war as “a mere continuation of policy by other means."
There is nothing exceptional in a Head of State attending a thanksgiving service after their inauguration – in this instance in 2000 - Putin went straight to prayers in the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. We do know that Putin makes diplomatic use of his relationship with Orthodoxy. During a visit to George W. Bush in June 2001 Putin drew attention to the baptismal cross his mother allegedly gave him. “This was a very good meeting”, Bush enthused. “And I look forward to my next meeting with President Putin in July. I very much enjoyed our time together. He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values. I view him as a remarkable leader”. Trump was not the only President to be enamoured. Putin knew which buttons to press.
Archimandrite Tikhon has on several occasions accompanied Putin on foreign visits and Putin has visited the impressive Russian Orthodox monastery of St. Panteleimon on the Greek peninsula of Athos at least twice. The first time was in 2005 and the last in 2016 when, with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, he joined celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of Orthodox monks establishing themselves on Athos. Recently a friend of mine on pilgrimage to Mount Athos saw about thirty men, in a small taverna in the ferry port of Ouranoupolis all in their late 20’s with shaved heads, eating supper in silence. Next day he watched them disembark in orderly fashion at the first Russian monastery on the peninsula. His immediate thought was that they were Russian soldiers from a military academy.
There is other evidence of militarisation of religion. In June 2020, Defence Minister, Sergei Soigu, opened the main church of the Russian Armed Forces on the outskirts of Moscow. The khaki-coloured Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ was dedicated for the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Its metal floor is made from melted down Nazi ordinance and armour. It has icons of martyrs who fought for Russia, most strikingly that of Fyodor Ushakov, ‘righteous commander of the Black Sea Fleet’.
The Ukrainian capital has religious significance for Russians. In 988 Prince Vladimir was baptized in the Crimea. The conversion. of the Rus people began when he returned to Kyiv. An equally significant date for Putin is 1686 when the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was brought under the Moscow Patriarchate, only to split away in 2019 – supported by the then Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko - when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul granted it ‘autocephaly’. Patriach Kirill’s view of Kyiv as the Jerusalem of Russian Orthodoxy might explain why central Kyiv has not been shelled.
According to the Christian Think-tank, Theos, Putin does believe Grand Prince Vladimir’s ‘spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy’ “predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”. And Patriarch Kirill sees his role as being “concerned with the maintaining and strengthening of spiritual ties between people living in these countries for the sake of preserving the system of values which the one Orthodox civilization of Holy Russia reveals to the world.” In short, for Putin, the old canonical boundaries of the Russian Orthodox Church provide the template of Russia’s rightful political boundaries, and after the catastrophe of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, justification for the resurrection of ‘the Russian World’ (Russki Mir) to challenge and defeat the ‘secular political project’ of Ukrainian politicians who are backed by a 'degenerate' Western world.
Does Putin really believe his barbarism in Ukraine is a Holy War promoting a glorious expansive, ethnic vision of Holy Mother Russia? Or is he simply instrumentalising religion? If so there are signs it is backfiring. On 13 March 2022, distinguished members of the Russian Orthodox Church signed and circulated A Declaration declaring Russki Mir a heresy. At time of writing, it has 1,280 signatories including theologians and others from different Christian traditions around the world. Some have compared it to the Declaration of Barmen which described the Nazi ‘Christian Movement’ as a heresy.
Perhaps the secular West should consider that some atavistic part of Putin really does believe in this perverse religious vision. The militarisation of Russian Orthodoxy is obvious and worrying. It has policy implications for the West, Ukraine – and the world.
What does the reaction to Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement indicate? Much stronger national feeling than expected about the poor and disadvantaged being made poorer and more disadvantaged allegedly because of the national debt and its financial pressures. Every Sunak genuflection in the direction of concern beyond a Thatcherite version of fiscal responsibility - and potential support from the Conservative Party for his future bid for the leadership - turns out to offer too little money for those on poverty level incomes. The Treasury’s priorities were duly noted.
Divide the promised millions of tax cuts by several years and by the number of beneficiaries, subtract inflation and energy bills, you end up with derisory amounts allocated to helping those living in poverty, in short their growing impoverishment by default. Too little spread between too many for too long. Yet the Chancellor spends taxpayers’ money that you might suppose would be spent in keeping with the values of the majority of taxpayers.
Since 2010 the relationship of government departments, and cash-strapped local authorities, to needy citizens has increasingly become that of begrudging benefactor to struggling supplicant. The NHS, Education, Justice, and Local Government Services have all been squeezed to the point of breakdown. In each instance the impact of this decline affects people with disability more severely than the rest of the public. Britain’s population is ageing and suffers from a very high level of diabetes. For this reason, a startling figure of some 15 million people are counted as disabled or suffer from long term illness.
Those seeking their due in benefits from different government departments encounter lengthy form-filling, ill-informed assessments down a telephone and general bureaucratic delays reminiscent of the Home Office’s hostile environment aimed at repelling migrants. Too often to get what is their – anyway inadequate - due people with disability have to rely on recourse to the courts. For instance, in 2017 alone some 4,600 claimants with disability were found to have had their Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) incorrectly stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
Government presents employment as the way out of poverty. More than 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) estimate that 27% of people of working age with visual disability live in poverty. Their monthly cost of living is higher than that of the general population. Despite public sympathy, finding employment commensurate with their skills represents one of the biggest barriers to equal participation of the blind and visually impaired in society. According to research commissioned by the RNIB only 1 in 4 blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment, a figure that has worsened in the last decade.
See My Skills, a Vision Foundation (originally the 1921 greater London Fund for the Blind) report published last year, proposes ways to increase employment among the blind and visually impaired. “I’m staggered by the information in the See My Skills report,” Lord Blunkett, the Vision Foundation’s vice president, added. “Just over 25% of blind and partially sighted people of working age have a job. That’s the exact reverse of the population as a whole. It’s a question of perception: understanding what people can and can’t do and then the practicalities of giving them the tools so they can do the job. Not every job is possible, but the vast majority are. I accept I won’t be on the pitch at Wembley tonight, but I know what I can and can’t do!”
Funding for the support and equipment required by the sight-impaired at work depends on dealing successfully with the DWP – which since September 2021 has a Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Chloe Smith MP. The 2010 Equality Act requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to mitigate disability in the workplace. In theory the partially sighted worker can expect DWP funding for these adjustments including an assistant support worker. In reality applying for this assistance can seem like negotiating a deliberately created obstacle course.
A cost benefit analysis by the former Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, a small NGO much cited in the press, concludes that the benefits of government funding enabling the blind and visually impaired to find work and supporting them in the workplace “clearly outweigh costs”. Not a Keynesian argument but simply pointing out the fact that welfare spending would be reduced and tax revenue increased were the visually impaired in work, as they wish to be, rather than claiming benefits. Paying a support worker, if needed, would even create extra employment opportunities for others whilst the need for mental health services would very likely be reduced. The experience of disability and its consequences for the economy could be transformed by a change in priorities and attitude by the DWP and Treasury.
But we must not forget employers, they can also be an obstacle for the visually impaired. Those who do not offer jobs to people with disabilities may be using inaccessible recruitment processes and may well be ignorant of the provisions in Prime Minister John Major’s 1994 Access to Work legislation which provides support for moving the disabled into work. Such employers probably and wrongly assume that the partially sighted can’t operate laptops and are in danger in the workplace. They miss out on a pool of potentially loyal and skilled staff. “Thousands of blind and partially sighted people are being excluded from the workplace because employers see their disability and not their skills”, the See My Skills report concludes.
For a variety of reasons, not least BREXIT and the pandemic, we are suffering from a serious labour shortage. Yet a reservoir of unemployed people with disabilities who want to work is considered a drain on government spending. This does not make sense. By putting economic good sense and well-being above narrow political interest, government has the opportunity to go with the grain of national feeling and respond to what is still today a shocking waste of talent.
See also TheArticle 01/04/202
The security threats of the 21st. century, not least the war in Ukraine, have revealed how naïve we were to think that the interlocking and interdependence of economies was an unqualified good thing. Countries sharing complex economic relationships with each other, we supposed, would not go to war with each other. The global market would be the infrastructure of a peaceable, prosperous world. And if that were true then Fukuyama might have been right about the triumph of liberal capitalism. Images of bombs smashing into Ukrainian supermarkets, hospitals and homes shattered such hopes and the illusion of Fukuyama’s dream.
The triple threat of the pandemic, of accelerating climate change, and of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, have peeled away protective layers of naiveté, short-sightedness and ignorance to reveal the abiding cruelties, inequalities and moral indifference of a fractured world. Russian barbarism has caused a geopolitical earthquake with its resultant economic tsunami. The West found no difficulty in occupying the moral high ground but then had to run for help to the oil rich Middle East. Suddenly all sorts of deals with former pariah State, Iran, became possible. And also time to pay Mohammad al-Salman al-Saud a call, coinciding with the execution of 81 Saudi citizens most of whom had the misfortune to belong to the wrong branch of Islam. These days it takes a strong dose of realpolitik to keep the lights on.
In Britain the poor will be worst hit. This is a political choice. But what happens when the tsunami reaches the shores of the Mediterranean? Lebanon for instance. Lebanon buys 80% of its wheat imports (Egypt 85%) from Russia and Ukraine. According to IFAD, the United Nations Fund for Agricultural Development, recent spikes in the cost of fertiliser have added 30% to food prices. Lebanon is deemed 22% ‘food insecure’, meaning almost a quarter of the population already don’t get enough to eat. Hunger is about to increase and add to existing problems. Already children from poorer families are on one meal a day, often depending on being fed at school.
I am involved with Caritas Lebanon, one of the country’s biggest NGOs, working with the poor and in education and so aware of the country’s accelerating descent into poverty after the end of its civil war in 1990. Peace was achieved by creating a complex political system that shared power between the different religious and ethnic elites, a form of confessionalism. This arrangement turned out to be a formula for government entropy leading to State failure.
The disarray got worse in the wake of a banking crisis in 2019 followed by the pandemic. The Lebanese pound and thus wages lost 90% of their value. Within a few months professionals such as teachers and doctors, suddenly pauperised, began to leave the country in droves. Meanwhile Lebanon remained home to thousands of refugees from Palestine and other countries as well as receiving over a million people fleeing Assad’s Syria.
As if Lebanon’s problems weren’t great enough, in the early evening of 4th August 2020 a warehouse containing an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s main harbour. Ammonium nitrate is used in fertiliser as well as in explosives. A second and massive explosion which registered as far away as Cyprus immediately followed. A quarter of a million people were displaced, thousands wounded and hundreds killed as the blast spread over two miles from its epicentre in the harbour to the northern part of town. 85% of Lebanon’s grain silos were blown to bits and not replaced. Now the nearest port for storing imported grain – and sunflower seed for cooking oil - is Tripoli in the north. Lebanon has only about three weeks of wheat reserves. A Lebanese Carmelite priest told me that on a visit to a Beirut school at lunch time he heard one boy ask another what his mum had put in his sandwich. The boy opened it to show him. There was nothing in it. As prices soar, for many there won’t even be bread.
Rapidly deteriorating living conditions in other countries are likely to spark civil unrest. Egypt and Somalia immediately come to mind. The impact of sanctions on Russia will affect the Central Asian Republics. For example, 31% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP comes from remittances sent by migrants working in Russia, the collapse of the rouble will have dire consequences for their families. In Africa where food makes up the bulk of expenditure for vast numbers, people will be hit three ways: pandemic, climate change, and the knock-on effects from conflict in Ukraine.
Globalisation has obviously not done away with nationalism, its beliefs in a mythical past, and accompanying ideological blinkers. Look at our forthcoming Nationality and Borders Bill and the mind-set behind it. Look at the P&O’s ruthless substitution of foreign labour on pitiful wages for British labour with tolerable pay, a snapshot of global corporate practice. We seem unable to deal with the debilitating inequalities that globalisation has failed to remedy, many would say increased. Worse, economic connectedness has failed to create international solidarity in the face of the greatest of the 21st. century threats, climate change. For governments as for individuals the immediate seems inevitably to banish the demands of the long term. Given the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, when is our response to Russia’s threat to oil and gas energy supplies going to take into account the impact on climate change targets set in Glasgow?
Putin may posture with his finger on the nuclear button, our finger has to be on the domestic and global reset button. World leaders are in denial about the magnitude of the change now essential. Quite literally it can’t go on like this.
Delia Smith’s football team, Norwich City, may not win many matches but she has won my heart. Asked about what she thought of the Home Office demanding visas for Ukrainian asylum seekers on the Radio 4 Today programme (12/03/2022), she compared it to “coldly slamming the door in their face”. The government’s response had been “dreadful” and “unforgiveable”. Delia’s conclusion was we “need leaders who want to care for people”. We should “rid ourselves of dictators and inept leaders”.
In more measured words but with a similar basic critique, on 9 March a group of London leaders of Churches in UK, including Archbishop Nikitas, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Great Britain, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformed, Salvation Army and others wrote to the Prime Minister: “Surely, we feel compassion today for Ukrainian mothers with young children, the elderly and those with disabilities, who have undertaken dangerous and arduous travel, and look to the United Kingdom with hope and are now reaching out to us in Ukraine's greatest hour of need. How can mothers with young children, the elderly and the disabled, who have travelled a thousand miles be expected to complete online application forms in a language foreign to them? Times of war require swift action and flexibility, the easing of normal procedures and the removal of complex bureaucratic obstacles that can easily turn hope into despair and resignation”.
The government response to such widespread criticism was to hoist the moth-eaten flag of National Security. The Home Office couldn’t possibly allow Ukrainian grannies, or mothers with babies, beyond the White Cliffs of Dover without visas and proper checks. The FSB and GRU (former KGB and Russian military Intelligence) would be infiltrating agents disguised as traumatized women. Really? Are we in a lie-of-the-month competition with Putin? Nobody seemed to wonder why 27 other countries, the EU, didn’t block entry in this way and, by inference, didn’t care about their own national security.
We are watching the unsavoury instincts of Priti Patel at work endorsing the Home Office bureaucracy and its ability, by intent or chronic mismanagement, to create a hostile environment for those without a multi-million dollar account in an off-shore bank. Government Ministers have had weeks to make contingency plans for managing refugees from Ukraine and only bestirred themselves under public pressure. Three quarters when polled wanted government to be hospitable to the Ukrainians. As Delia said, commenting on Government’s behavior, “That’s not what Britain is”.
I wanted to believe Delia and turned to one of the most prolific, informed - and kindest - of writers about what Britain once was, Peter Hennessy. His new book, A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After COVID sounded as if it might help. It did. In short, a factual account with plentiful tables and statistics of the rise and fall, impediments and accelerators of our national commitment to the common good. Hennessy takes the October 1942 Beveridge report with its five giants to be slain, Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness, and tracks the struggle to slay them, its reverses and successes, the slings and arrows of outrageous politics, up to September 2021.
“A ready-reckoner way of capturing the statutory paving of the 1940s version of the duty of care” Hennessy says, “is to chart the legislative flow”. He lists two wartime coalition government Bills, the 1944 Education Act and the 1945 Family Allowance Act followed by Atlee’s 1946 National Insurance Act (to give security from ‘cradle to the grave’ to use Churchill’s 1943 phrase), the National Health Service Act, Housing Act, and New Towns Act. Town and Country Planning came in 1947 and, in 1949, the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act, providing greater access to justice for all. The achievements of the Atlee government were prodigious. Nye Bevan believed the indirect benefit of the NHS providing “the best that medical skill can provide” was that Britain would become “more wholesome, more serene and spiritually healthy”. It became a talisman national for national identity and wellbeing.
A duty of care informed social policy in subsequent Conservative as well as Labour governments. Hennessy has a soft spot for Harold MacMillan (Prime Minister 1957-1963), more housing, more schools, the welfare state safe in his Conservative hands. It was the economic crisis of the 1970s and the Thatcher years, 1979 – 1990, that brought in a new political culture in which a duty of care began to disappear from policy. From 2010 its absence was palpable.
From 2010, and part of the Coalition Government’s austerity measures, a 21% Ministry of Justice reduction in funding for Court and Tribunal Services, as well as legislation reducing the scope of civil and family legal aid meant that access to justice was undermined. The backlog in the Crown courts was c. 40,000 cases pre-pandemic and is now 50,000. Whilst living conditions have improved impressively since the Second World War, amongst Beveridge’s giants, Disease, Want and Squalor still show signs of life. From 2020-2018, the number of people in temporary accommodation rose by 74% (for children 69%). According to Professor Michael Marmot, life expectancy outside London fell for women. Thanks mainly to austerity and COVID, with 5.8 million people (the population of Denmark) now on a huge waiting list for treatment and elective surgery, we are more anxious today than serene about the future of the NHS and of our country. Nor did BREXIT bring much serenity and spiritual health. Rather, in Hennessy’s words it “contributed powerfully to a general coarsening of our politics and our national conversation, leaving us in a diminished and psychologically poor state by the time the virus struck”.
What is to be done? Hennessy warns that his manifesto for the 2020s needs a new consensual politics that would ‘run with the grain of our better past’. He speaks of five shared ‘tasks’ for a new Beveridge plan that he hopes could be adopted ‘after COVID’: social care, social housing, technical education, preparation of the economy and society for Artificial Intelligence, combating and mitigating climate change plus a sixth, ‘refreshing the UK constitution’. I would add a seventh: extending government’s duty of care beyond British citizens to refugees.
Putin’s war looks like adding at least four million to the total of Europe’s refugees needing care. Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine as the book was published. If anything it makes Hennessy’s social market prescription for a united, spiritually healthy UK, a kinder Britain, more urgent but demanding even more financial backing to realise it. I think he would agree. For he starts his first chapter by quoting Beveridge: “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. And as R.H. Tawney, whom Hennessy also cites, said in 1917, we need to think in terms ‘not of the least that is essential but the most that can be achieved’.
See TheArticle 16/03/2022
Good Intelligence helps prevent wars and also helps win wars. Intelligence failures quickly get into the public domain but successes are usually slow to emerge. We are unlikely to learn soon how Western Intelligence agencies came to an astonishingly accurate assessment of Russia’ intentions towards Ukraine.
It looks as if there must have been leaks from within the Kremlin about Putin’s plans but why did his coterie of kleptocrats not realise that Russia couldn’t behave in Europe as it did in Chechnya and Syria without a massive reaction? Or were Putin’s advisers simply too frightened to tell him? What was the Intelligence agencies’ understanding of Putin’s psychology? And what was President Biden’s thinking behind his remarkable, detailed revelation of Putin’s intentions?
Analysing the intentions of paranoid autocratic leaders, dictators, is notoriously difficult. It requires HUMINT, agents in place close to the head of State, privy to his thinking. In November 2021, the US Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, visited NATO headquarters to share growing suspicions that Russia was planning to attack Ukraine. After the Iraq WMD (weapons of mass destruction) fiasco in 2003, and the failure to predict how quickly Kabul would fall, there was a degree of scepticism.
By February this year the US, and to a lesser degree British Intelligence agencies, must have had telling IMINT (Imagery Intelligence), clear satellite photographs of troop build-ups and SIGINT, decrypted communications between military and diplomatic personnel, as confirmation of their worst suspicions. A week before the invasion, President Biden took the unprecedented step of revealing - to the day - when Russian troops would move in as well as Putin’s plans for a ‘false-flag’ operation designed as justification for invasion. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, had earlier described Putin’s intentions as ‘catastrophic’. It seems likely that this assessment was the reason for several contacts with Beijing seeking Chinese pressure and mediation to avert the Russian attack.
Biden’s tactics must have taken most Intelligence agencies, built on secrecy, outside of their comfort zone. But modern hybrid conflicts include the important element of ‘information war’, a Russian speciality, and Putin was clearly pushed off balance. He began talking ridiculous and counter-productive nonsense about Ukraine being led by drug-dealers and neo-Nazis, and putting the Russian Federation on high nuclear alert. Meanwhile good spying had given the USA time to develop a strong package of sanctions and to unite NATO member countries around it.
Cambridge Professor and MI5’s official historian, Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence is a doorstop of a book covering everything from advice to rulers in the third century BCE Sanskrit Arthashastra, to US Enquiries into 9/11 and the 2004/2005 Reports into the Iraq WMD intelligence failures. But it is not just an Intelligence encyclopaedia. It has recurrent themes as well as the overarching recommendation to learn from the past and have a long-term perspective on the future.
The Secret World’s first lesson is that the critical issue determining whether Intelligence, once gathered, is used intelligently is the attitude of the Head of State or Prime Minister on whose desk Intelligence briefings land. At the beginning of the Second World War, Stalin, for example, was more preoccupied with the Trotskyite threat than that of the Nazis with whom he’d formed the German-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was more suspicious of Churchill than of Hitler. He dismissed repeated warnings from different agents and sources that a German attack was imminent.
But Churchill was an Intelligence addict. He had good reason to be and supported Britain’s predilection for deception, cryptanalysis (code-breaking) and counter-intelligence. ULTRA, the product of wartime cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park who cracked Axis ‘ultra-secret’ coded communications, exposed German agents sent into Britain and replaced them with agents of their own. In the words of J. C. Masterman, the MI5 chairman of a committee running deception operations, ‘we actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country’.
A second lesson is the danger of group-think and with it unconscious neglect of cultural difference. The West’s enemy in the 1970s was Communism. There was a blank within US National Intelligence Estimates when it came to religion. The danger posed by unrest in Iran was therefore attributed to communist subversion. The USA feared a Lenin might emerge, not a 78 year-old Ayatollah living in exile in Paris. A 1983 report on the Iranian Revolution from senior advisers to the CIA Director is worth quoting at length despite its tortured institutional prose: the basic problem was “to recognize qualitative change and to deal with situations in which trend, continuity and precedent were of marginal, if not counterproductive, value”.
A third insight is that rivalry between different Intelligence agencies causes serious problems. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s and his nephew Ramzi Yousef’s 1993 truck bomb in the basement of one of the twin towers of the New York Trade Centre, meant that the Al-Qaida ‘file’ went to the – domestic - New York FBI and their particularly skilful Arab-American interrogator, Ali Soufan. But competition between the CIA and FBI after the Al-Qaida attack on USS Cole in October 2000 had disastrous consequences. The CIA, took over interrogation of Al-Qaida suspects from the FBI, and tortured them with the result that they clammed up. The different clues pointing to 9/11 held by the two agencies were never brought together. Potential leads to the highjack bombers were missed.
Professor Christopher Andrew was taught by the history don and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in the 1980s, Sir Harry Hinsley. Hinsley had been a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park and Andrew’s book doubles as a history of cryptanalysis through the ages. The Secret World, a world history, contains so much more than the last century of espionage. Sometimes the amount of detail is overwhelming but the effusive laudatory cover blurbs are deserved. It is a book to be taken slowly, one chapter a day, and especially illuminating given the Ukraine tragedy and our pressing current need to assess the geopolitical intentions of today’s totalitarian States.
See TheArticle 11/03/2022
“I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body”, Novak Djokovic declared a couple of weeks ago, back before the world changed on 24 February. Cartesian dualism is alive and well in Serbia you might conclude. Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Djokovic’s body are both in play here, the former putting things, or not putting things, vaccine to be precise, into the latter. In case we missed his claim to ethical probity, Djokovic, speaking in an exclusive interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in the wake of his deportation from Australia, stated that “the principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else”. He went unchallenged.
Amal Rajan, the BBC’s interviewer, persisted for some twenty minutes in probing why Djokovic wouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID despite the cost to his career as the leading star in the tennis firmament. For those not much interested in tennis celebrities it felt like an interminable wait for the real news. But it was – incidentally - a remarkable lesson in how modern ethics rest on the powerful illusion that each man is an island. That long twenty minutes illustrated how celebrity could highlight an unbalanced individualism: the denial of what it is to be a social being, a person whose character and personality are moulded by the social, economic, political and cultural factors which shape our choices. Djokovic seemed oblivious of all this. Nowhere was there any clue that the economics or national politics of elite sport cultivate an obsession with the body or how much Djokovic’s own way of thinking might be socially shaped.
Vaccinations reduce the spread of viral infection and do so most effectively when a high percentage of a given population are vaccinated. Individuals who decline vaccination undermine the protection vaccines afford to everyone. Neither Djokovic nor Rajan gave any sense that to choose to be vaccinated against COVID is to take action for the common good. Discussions about such choices need to be discussed within their social context not decided solely on individualistic grounds and justified by the right to freedom of choice. Though, to be fair, Djokovic did recognise a wider world which was “collectively“ (his words) trying “to find a best possible solution to end the virus”. In short the unchallenged premise of the interview was that moral choice resides in the atomised, autonomous individual deliberating with himself or herself and reaching an unchallengeable personal decision.
Freedom of choice is indeed important but it is also important to recognise how many of our choices are unconsciously collective choices, or, when consciously taken, should keep the common good in mind. Most immediately, it is what lies at the heart of the tragedy of Ukraine. We have watched a people who want to choose their government, who seek to associate for a variety of reasons with other democratic nations, attacked by a dictator using overwhelming military force to impose his will. And we have seen the power of Ukrainians’ collective choice to resist despite the costs and danger to the integrity of their bodies and their individual lives. A stark contrast with Djokovic’s mind-set.
At no point in the interview was the purpose of freedom of choice directed to anything other than the professional interests of Djokovic himself - winning world class tennis matches if he chose to play them. Djokovic assured Rajan that he was willing to sacrifice opportunities to play if they clashed with his individual freedom of choice. There was no indication that anyone might expect him, or any other sporting celebrity for that matter, to consider the wider implications of this stance, his position as a role model and therefore what choice might in this instance serve the common good.
One of the main engines driving the economic growth we have come to expect is the never-ending diversity of things we are offered and which we choose to buy, experience, dominate and own. But this engine has made the amoral freedom of the market the template for thinking about ethical choices and has driven us along a track leading to climate catastrophe. It is almost as if the act of choosing has become the good sought and can be dissociated from the good chosen.
The fashion industry has long ago learned how to manipulate choice and stimulate collective imitation. What you shop for and wear becomes a major expression of identity. And recently BBC listeners have heard that a ‘vibe-shift’ is taking place in which, you can guarantee, a new form of ersatz freedom and self-expression will get the tills ringing with cash extracted from youth.
While their shared choice for many Ukrainians is a matter of life and death and national solidarity, freedom of choice for others, including Djokovic, seems to provide a trivial statement of who you are and want to be. Tellingly, so unbalanced is the contemporary focus on the individual that the faults of collective thinking and action are more readily perceived, labelled and challenged. We have special words available to describe shared choices and those making them: the crowd, the mob, group-think, ‘institutionally racist,’ and with them associated behaviour, impulses to loot, to violence as in ‘joint enterprise to murder’, to discriminate, and to ‘trample on liberal values’.
We are not atomised individuals taking moral decisions in a vacuum. It’s a grand illusion. We are social beings formed in community by our relationships, beliefs and experience. Since we value freedom of choice highly, it is well to be aware of the range of factors that shape our judgement and decisions. Such consciousness would enable us to evaluate how they undermine or contribute to the common good. But to be aware how these factors influence us requires living in a society in which accurate information is available, where there are spaces for deliberation about what constitutes the common good, and with all participants equally valued. That is what democracies aspire to achieve and totalitarian regimes fear.
See TheArticle 01/02/2022