People recognise corruption when they see it though they would find it hard to define. The abuse of entrusted power for private gain is a concise definition used by the Berlin-based Transparency International, a not-for-profit authority whose Corruption Perception Index scores and ranks corruption by country across the globe. Transparency International points to poorly regulated financing of political parties as the source of the trouble. Political bribery, bungs, ‘buying influence’ to use Tony Blair’s words, are all part of a wider story. In societies ranked as the worst at the bottom of the table, corruption is endemic reaching beyond the political into business and into access to public services bringing misery to those too poor to bribe. In many countries like Nigeria it is a longstanding feature of the political and economic culture. You wonder when and how it started and became so pervasive.
Forty-five years ago in Nigeria I received my first - and last - bribe, more of a sweetener really, on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, situated in the North. One evening just before the final exams there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was Mr. Chukwuma Onyeme (name changed) a mature Ibo student of mine from the South who had once whispered to me ‘we foreigners must stick together’ - it was not long after the Biafran war of secession. Mr. Onyeme, father of seven children, was bearing a six-pack of Nigerian Guinness as a gift. I graciously accepted.
This transaction could be construed as a bribe. Mr.Onyeme had struggled with the course and I expected him, at best, to get a borderline pass. He probably expected the same. But the six-pack was a bad choice. Nigerian Guinness tasted sweetish to me and looked like brown Windsor soup. I would go to considerable lengths to avoid it. In the event the examination board awarded Mr. Onyeme his degree without my help. His school-teacher salary would rise. The school fees of his children would be paid. In the round a good result but giving a sight of the tip of an iceberg that sank a country’s development despite, or possibly because of, its oil wealth.
Several years’ experience of corruption in Nigeria now prompts the question whether Britain, twelfth from the virtuous top in the Transparency Corruption Index, but dropping points in the last three years, might be too complacent about risking its reputation for probity. In a predominantly service economy respected for its diplomatic, legal, educational and financial services, probity matters. The behaviour of government has consequences and can destroy a country’s international reputation remarkably quickly.
Take as an example our Housing, Communities and Local Government Minister, Robert Jenrick, and the recent saga of Richard Desmond’s £1 billion property development at Westferry Printworks challenged by the Council in London’s Tower Hamlets. To avoid the Council’s £45 million community benefit levy - for health and education – the Minister, lobbied by Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, needed to approve the project before 15 January 2020. On 14th. January, overruling his own civil servants and inspectorate, Mr. Jenrick granted this permission. Two weeks later Mr. Desmond donated the very modest sum of £12,000 to the Conservative Party, in proportion to his reward the equivalent of a six-pack of Guinness. The lobbied Minister should have recused himself. When the story broke in June, Jenrick was obliged to reverse his approval because, in his own words, it looked ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’. He was not sacked nor does he shun the glare of publicity. On the contrary he comes in third or fourth in the batting, read obfuscating, order of ministers led by Mr. Gove on the BBC4 flagship Today programme.
The question whether such behaviour, and tolerance of such behaviour, heralds a general onset of corruption in government became particularly pressing in March and April when, during the first wave of the COVID pandemic, there were shortages of PPE for frontline medical staff. While several European countries began to initiate PPE procurement procedures in late January 2020, it was a month before the British government, in panic mode, set to. Tendering, following the normal rules for getting good value for public money, went out the window and, according to the Treasury, £15 billion was – wastefully - spent on supplying PPE to retrieve the situation. A special pathway was set up for Cabinet Office and VIP contacts – read friends and associates of Tory peers, MPs and councillors - to submit proposals for multimillion contracts. The Good Law Project, a not-for profit membership organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public, is seeking a judicial review and litigation in the absence of any official enquiry into negligence or corruption. They cite remarkably that three of the biggest PPE contracts awarded were to a pest-control company, wholesale confectionary company and a private fund operating out of a tax haven.
Prodigious public spending provides governments with enhanced opportunities to benefit their friends and supporters. Alongside the pressures created by government indecision, the ideological drive to outsource responses to the COVID crisis when there were already competent local public authorities available, opened up another door to the Tory ‘chumocracy’. Isn’t it problematic that an individual can move seamlessly via the Department of Justice from a key position in a company such as SERCO, awarded a whopping Track and Trace contract, to become a Minister of State for Health? Aren’t the perennial Tory fundraisers, private dinners, sustaining a host of questionable relationships and creating potential conflicts of interest, the intricate foreplay to potential corruption? And what does it say about our society when consultants to SERCO’s Track and Trace, drawn from the corporates, are paid up to £7,000 of public money a day, while newly qualified nurses start risking their lives in the NHS on £23,000 a year. How long can our public services survive such dystopian priorities?
From his days as Mayor of London, Mr. Johnson’s approach to conflict of interest has been shown to be, shall we say, casual. Impunity is the handmaid of corruption. But when it comes to his supine coterie Johnson doesn’t do resignations or sackings, and unlike Mrs. Thatcher, doesn’t do God. “Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage”, she told the congregation of St. Lawrence Jewry in March 1978. That’s a warning the libertarian Tory back benches might heed. When breaching international law and treaty becomes part of our negotiating toolkit, you wonder in what sense the Prime Minister is still leading a Conservative Party defending conservative values.
We have too long been watching the misuse of public power with its predictable reputational consequences. It is misplaced complacency to believe we are not wandering down the road to corrupt government.
See TheArticle 4/01/2021
Just over five years ago, in Paris on the evening of Friday 15 November 2015, in three simultaneous attacks terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed 130 French citizens. Ninety died and a hundred were injured at a rock concert in the Bataclan theatre, several died outside the Stade de France where France and Germany were playing a friendly football match and others were maimed in attacks on cafés. Only eleven months had passed since another Da’esh-inspired group attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket taking seventeen lives.
Then came a wave of ‘lone wolf’ atrocities, the worst in 2016 when a 19-tonne truck ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Nice seafront killing 86 and injuring 458. Since November 2019 there have been ten such further attacks some at random, others aimed at Christians, priests and a schoolteacher. France feels that it is a nation whose very identity is threatened by these assaults on its way of life. Over seventy mosques and their sources of finance are now under investigation. In November 2020 President Macron re-affirmed in speeches that laïcité, a radical form of secularism, is the essence of French identity and that the Muslim community must conform to a ‘Charter of Republican values’. But what precisely are these values, and when does laicïté begin to erode the right to religious freedom? And is laïcité as the definition of French identity a solution to the problem of terrorism or a provocation? All questions Christians have reasons to be interested in hearing answered.
“All my life I have held a certain idea of France.” “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”, wrote General Charles de Gaulle in the opening sentence of his first volume of war memoirs, (The Call) L’Appel:1940-1942. The General, reflecting his own heroic martial virtues, was always preoccupied with grandeur. So President Macron’s somewhat grandiose deportment and attempts to muster the French people around the Republican flag against terrorism, is not unprecedented. But he can’t reinvent himself as De Gaulle any more than Johnson can reinvent himself as Churchill. Macron needs his own idea of France. And what he needed was at hand: ‘Republican values’ and laïcité as the backbone of French identity.
A few years ago, at a government interfaith conference in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, I gave a well-received talk which gently suggested that banning the head-scarf, hijab, in State schools was a bad idea. Towards the end of lunch I was informed that the French Ambassador wanted to speak to me. I was escorted to her table where she delivered a long harangue on the oppression of Muslim women. According to the Ambassador Muslim women were oppressed by Islam and did not wish to wear the hijab. Laïcité liberated Muslim women and was civilization’s answer to backward religious practices. No ifs or buts, no room for dialogue or nuance. I’d just encountered ‘une certaine ideé de la France’. A rather different emphasis from de Gaulle’s but foreshadowing Macron’s.
France’s population contains Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority. The Pew Research Foundation puts the number of Muslims in France, mainly from the North Africa but also from the Middle East, at c. 6 million which makes them 8.8% of the population (the CIA estimate is between 7-9%). Of these about 100,000 are converts. Some 76 mosques are due for government inspection and 18, some of which should have closed, will be shut down.
In France the hijab is the subject of long running controversy. President Chirac extended an existing government ban on all wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in State schools to every secondary education establishment and this was quickly voted into law in March 2004. In 2010 full length Burqās and face-concealing Niqābs, which barely left wearers’ eyes visible, were banned from public places. In August 2016 the Mayor of Cannes opened up a beachhead in the apparel-wars with a ban on burkinis, body- concealing swimsuits, a ban upheld by the French Council of State which presumably viewed them as un-Republican and a symbol of separatism. Criticism of this ruling from non-Muslims has been ineffectual.
In the middle of November this year, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), under growing pressure from Macron, announced its proposal for a National Council to vet foreign-born imams. Macron plans additional legislation to ban home-schooling, and to initiate training of imams in State controlled colleges requiring signing on to ‘The Principles of the Republic’. His target is ‘separatism’ and thus taqfiri brands of Salafi and Wahabi thinking and behavior - disavowal and rejection of all who do not share their excluding Puritan ethic - which he seems to see as a precursor to, and breeding ground for, terrorism. All this is laïcité in practice. This is not the procedural secularism, the separation of Church and State, of the USA. And it’s not secular Britain with its established Church where very few would consider the Jewish kippa or a head-scarf or a cross an ‘ostentatious’ religious symbol – though occupational restrictions by employers involving wearing of crosses have been upheld in court. The difference is that French secularism, enshrined legally in law separating Church and State in 1905, has become prescriptive and ideological.
But in September the French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, did attempt to formulate an inclusive female standard of dress ‘de façon républicaine’ (in a republican fashion) for State schools. He condemned both short skirts - indécence - and the wearing of hijabs by mothers accompanying school trips. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution has left its trace in hostility to religion in the public domain with little acknowledgement that culturally the hijab for many Muslims is an expression of modesty just as much as longer skirts.
In France since 9/11 conflict over women’s dress seems to be in step with the growth of terror in the name of Allah. And it is an easy jump to the assumption that ‘conspicuous’ religiously approved clothing is somehow a link in a causal chain leading to violence, as well as being a breach of laïcité undermining the foundations of the Fifth Republic. Such a view may indeed coincide with the social perceptions of French governments. But not with the perceptions of France’s disadvantaged and increasingly alienated Muslim communities, who are daily bombarded with extremist recruitment material on-line, and who protest against their government’s hardline laïcité.
Such a preoccupation with controlling female dress does not easily admit to reasoned distinctions. Seeing the face of a person is a major part of human communication, not just a security concern. In this sense the niqāb and burkā which seclude and exclude women – unlike the hijab - are anti-social and might reasonably be considered a direct challenge to French values, more a form of what Macron calls ‘separatism’ than an expression of modesty and human dignity. France’s adopted Lithuanian Jewish philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), a champion of dialogue, symbolically grounded his idea of ethical human relationships in face-to-face encounters.
The major problem with Macron’s approach is that it does not appear to be evidence based. First, ‘separatism’ is common to all three Abrahamic religions: the Amish, the Jewish Haredi as well as Salafis. It is a response to seeing the world as sinful and a source of potential moral contamination. The vast majority of Salafis are peace-loving and pious. Indeed, because they can talk the talk and walk the walk which has taken a tiny minority into violence and terrorism, some are notably good at de-radicalisation. Some of the first assassinations undertaken by Boko Haram in North East Nigeria were Salafi scholars who opposed the movement’s violence and were seen as an immediate threat. Second, recruitment to jihadism in France takes place predominantly through relationships within families and between friends often in particular banlieues or small towns. If the UK is anything to go by 40% of those recruited have suffered from some form of mental illness. It is often because they have little of the Qur’anic knowledge that might have accrued from mosque attendance that many can be duped. Violent criminality is given a ‘glorious’ religious legitimation. This makes recruitment via social media, manipulating emotional reactions to videos and Qur’anic verses out of context, that much easier.
Britain’s Muslim communities, unlike France’s, trace their roots to the Indian sub-continent and Britain’s approach to cultural differences, multiculturalism, has been less doctrinaire than France’s. But we have had our own tragedies and agonizing failures, the 2017 Manchester bombing in which 22 died still has the power to shock. So we can readily and deeply emphasize with our friends across the Channel. Multi-culturalism is no panacea. There are dangers of social division of tolerating what should not be tolerated. But because, at least in this respect, we aren’t deducing counter-terrorism policy from a rigid set of ideological principles, we are able to see what works and what doesn’t, and, at best, adjust policy to changing circumstances. France’s tragic losses suggest that the answer to the failures of laïcité is not more laïcité.
“Lullay lullay. Thou little tiny child”, the opening words of the Coventry carol composed in the 16th century and sung by millions over the ages. The carol is as much a lament as a lullaby: a mother’s goodbye to a baby to be killed in the net cast around Bethlehem by King Herod, the Romans’ puppet ruler of Judea, in an attempt to kill the baby predicted to become King of the Jews. Holy Innocents day is commemorated on 28 December by the western Christian Churches. This year it falls during the full rigour of government anti-COVID measures. But it’s also a date when Christians – and others too - might turn their thoughts to the rights of children around the world.
Whether in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic or Myanmar – to name only a few of the worst cases -we have become accustomed to children dying or being maimed in wars or as a result of dictatorial regimes’ State terrorism. And in a few African countries militias routinely recruit child soldiers by force. Sometimes the savagery of the war means civilians are deliberately targeted. More often their deaths are described as ‘collateral damage’. Even more frequently children die because war has reduced their families to starvation, flight from home, freezing temperatures, and the breakdown of anything that might be described as a health or education service, or law and order, putting whole populations at the mercy of disease, hunger, warplanes, landmines and militias.
Civilian deaths, the deaths of children are not just some phenomenon of the Global South. The Nazis and the Japanese militarists were defeated in the Second World War. But their strategy of total war won. The Allies appropriated the practice of total war, bombing German cities and dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Korea, the blanket bombing of Eastern Cambodia and massacres in Vietnam are only the best known of the conflicts that have perpetuated the civilian death toll in war into the 1960s. The establishment of international courts, scrutiny by human rights organisations and TV coverage raised the political risks in flouting ethical restrictions on the conduct of war. Today in the western world conformity with strict legal and ethical standards is expected in the conduct of targeting, and in the treatment of civilians, even if these expectations are not always fulfilled. Where there is no accountability as in Syria and Yemen such restraints are generally ignored.
The 2015 movie Eye in the Sky dramatizes the tension between the expedients of war and the demands of ethics, international conventions and law. Colonel Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, must decide whether to execute the firing of a Hellfire missile at a house in Kenya where three key terrorists are preparing a suicide bombing. If the missile is fired, a little girl, Alia, who lives next door and sells bread outside her home will almost certainly die in the blast. We the viewers watch the scene on the ground via surveillance footage from a USAF MQ-9 reaper drone. Should Powell, shouldn’t she, tell the Nevada air-force base to make the strike? When she does the child dies and so do the parents in a second strike aimed at a surviving terrorist. It is gripping cinema. The dilemma, viewers understand, is real and not without precedent. Over recent decades, in the bombings of civilian areas in war torn countries which we undertake or support, or are carried out with weapons supplied by our armaments industry, are we really to believe that ‘due diligence’ is scrupulously observed? Or, when it comes to the big spenders such as Saudi Arabia, isn’t ‘due diligence’ an ethical fig-leaf?
Jus in bello, the ethical constraints that should determine conduct of war once begun, is a key part of just war theory, that common pool of mediaeval ideas and debates largely shared by Christians and Muslims and whose principles inform the Geneva Conventions. The first topic in Shari’a law is who has the authority to declare war, the why, when, and how of jihad. In both faiths the protection of innocents and non-combatants is a fundamental principle of military action. Naming the killing of civilians ‘collateral damage’ is too often the thin edge of a wedge of worse human rights violations to come. Vacuous religious extremist arguments justify terrorist atrocities against democracies by denying any category of innocents amongst ‘the enemies of God’, a case of perversity beyond casuistry.
Whether it is courageous war correspondents filming mutilated children brought into bombed hospitals by the White Helmets in Syria, or Da‘esh videos of children bombed in Afghan villages, the emotional charge of children’s suffering is enormous and evokes empathy. Yet, pilots of different nations continue to unload their ordinance from a safe height and drop their barrel bombs on fleeing refugees. In those Middle East conflicts covered by television, every last vestige of acceptable conduct in war seems to have been abandoned. The consequences are brought into our living rooms. We know that worse horrors take place unseen. Worse, we become accustomed to them.
In November last year on the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See had this to say:
“While the importance of the Convention is unquestionable and its thirtieth anniversary should indeed be celebrated, the Holy See also welcomes the fact that this celebration does not shy away from the reality that despite the near universal ratification of the Convention, many children are not respected nor protected around the world. That any child suffers violence, abuse, exploitation and that any child’s rights are violated, rejected or ignored is unacceptable and among the gravest of injustices.”
Sadly the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors over decades in the Catholic Church saps the moral force of these admirable words.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is celebrated on 20 November. Holy Innocents on 28 December is not just a day when we begin to emerge from the fairy lights into the grey winter dawn of reality. Or if we live in London and the South East don’t emerge at all. It is, though, also an opportunity for Christian Churches to intensify their work for peace, just government and the most basic of all the Rights of the Child: the right to life.
See TheArticle 22/12/20
How widespread is addiction to TV crime series? I suffer from it mildly. Fingers hover on the record button. Not box-sets for Christmas though. Outbreaks of repeats step up the temptation in the pandemic.
You might view crime stories as modern morality tales. Good for you, exploring values. The ‘police procedural’ has certain conventions. You know what to expect: the corpse, the cars with flashing lights, much ducking under police tape, the morgue, the pathologist with the body under the sheet, the red-herring suspect, the fretting Chief Superintendent, the briefing, photos of suspects stuck on the white-board, the rule-breaker detective ‘taken off the case’, and the denouement in which he or she reveals the murderer. With permutations and side-plots, perseverance in adversity has its reward. Emperors are shown to have no clothes. Accolades are given for moral purpose and quality sleuthing. Wickedness is punished. Justice – usually – done. And for the viewer there’s the competition to spot the villain, to demonstrate judgement.
At one end of the dramatic spectrum are Agatha Christie’s immaculate Poirot and Captain Hastings putting the formula into formulaic: all gentility, faux Belgian accent, nice dresses, lovely old cars, posh houses, and the seaside hotels you didn’t go to as a child. At the other is bleak Nordic noir, dress casual, plenty of gore and gloom, wan faces, beards, stubble and angst, super-nasty serial killers, and everyone going about their business in appalling weather conditions. Noir must be written by authors with a grudge against Scandinavian Tourist Boards. In the middle of the spectrum is Morse, well-dressed, owner of a red 24-litre Jaguar Mark 2, one old flame but with currently unsatisfactory, tentative relationships with women, rude and grumpy, working in comfortable Oxford with an ever expanding list of grudges headed by dons, but adept at crossword puzzles, cussedness, complex plots and never buying his round.
In branding a drama series, the detective’s location has become increasingly important. Colin Dexter’s Morse is to Oxford as Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is to Venice: both above the fray, yet good citizens fighting corruption in high places, and for Morse at high table. You need to watch German television, to meet Brunetti’s happy family and devoted wife , Paola (an English literature lecturer as was Donna Leon) and excellent cook – all a marked departure from the usual unhappy, hard-drinking, take-away- snatching, by death, choice or divorce, single detective. And Morse of the liquid lunches does occasionally goes free-range to Australia and Italy with ‘Robby’ Lewis his long-suffering dogsbody sergeant, the nearest Morse gets to a buddy. But what really sets Morse apart, and to a lesser extent Brunetti, is Culture. Morse is a cultured cop. The series starring John Thaw ran from 1987 to 2000, a time when there were few graduates in the police force. Brunetti simply soaks up the Venetian culture around him by osmosis, and revels in its food culture courtesy of Paola.
The relationship between Lewis and Morse carries the series. Lewis, played by Kevin Whately, methodical, even tempered, cricket-lover, respectful of the law and police regulations is a foil to Morse’s brilliant, intuitive and aggressive character. The dynamics of their relationship, hints of the UK’s North-South class divide, reflect cultural and educational difference, the key component of social difference. Whately’s Hexham accent nicely conveys Lewis’ lower-middle class origins in Newcastle. Morse jeers at him for reading the Daily Mirror. But we believe in them; they aren’t just class stereotypes.
Like George Orwell, Morse doesn’t feel comfortable fitting into the social rankings of the – changing – times. On the one hand, he has the Oxford College Masters and some dons who have weaponised their erudition – and are usually up to no good. On the other he has Lewis who is able and thorough but doesn’t know his Donazetti from his Dolcetto, enjoys is fish and chips, and is forever needing to absent himself from police duties to look after ‘my lad’. His boss, Freemason Chief Superintendent Strange is socially insecure, uses ‘matey’ a lot, approves of Lewis, and is somewhat in awe of the Oxford upper classes.
But this is ITV so in case the viewer hadn’t noticed these cultural differences, Morse is frequently seen playing classical music at home, or in ecstasy at concerts and operas. You can read a lot of emotions into John Thaw’s expressive face and the director doesn’t spare the close-ups. If a woman appears who combines singing talent with good looks we know Morse will fall in love, often failing to follow up kisses or notice that the latest Prima Donna has been lying to him. But he also detects fake landscape paintings, quotes from classical literature and fires back Bible references at sinister clergymen.
What makes Morse much more than the run-of-the-mill police procedural is precisely his lack of procedures. He seems to spend a lot of time at home thinking or drinking to get his brain fired up. And he drinks real ales in a pint mug rather than martinis shaken not stirred - even if he rarely pays for them. Nor does he, unlike Poirot, solve the mystery or reveal the criminal before a wealthy and dull audience of suspects in the inevitable set-piece ending. Part of the success of the series is that Morse encounters a wide array of interesting and plausible characters from a variety of backgrounds during his investigations. This is an England we recognise.
Morse reflects the changes in society underway a quarter century ago: Anglican women priests, progressive prison reforms, the sexual revolution. Like Orwell he is inconsistent, telling off a police cadet who is the Chief Superintendent’s pet for an illegal phone tap but letting Lewis walk away from one of his own dodgy searches of premises without a warrant. And like Orwell he responds to a certain type of social integrity and sides with the underdog. Morse displays a wider range of emotion than Orwell ‘s fictional characters. Anger, search for and fear of intimacy, cynicism and fervent truth-telling, loneliness, genuine compassion, meanness, admiration, and sadness. And throughout how you talk, what you read, what you drink, Culture and culture are the great signifiers of class.
Before you ask, Morse today would be ferociously Remain, Lewis tempted by Leave, and socially insecure Strange, an uncertain Brexiteer justifiably fearful of losing access to EU’s store of criminal data.
See TheArticle 17/12/20
The meaning of sovereignty has been argued over for centuries from the divine right of kings to the Queen-in-Parliament. Yet to listen to government’s account of the last ditch EU negotiations, we are about to seriously damage the economy, security, policing, arts, and scientific research of the United Kingdom for an abstract noun. It may be because we long to regain the lonely heroism after Dunkirk of eighty years ago. Or we’ve lost sight of what the future will look like for our children and grandchildren. Or it may simply be that Boris Johnson, looking over his shoulder at his extremist back benches, thinks he has no choice if he is to continue as Prime Minister for a few more months.
Endless repetition of ‘sovereignty’ by government ministers, presented as an inviolable principle to explain why they have failed to engage successfully in the normal give-and-take of negotiations, is an aspect of ‘truth decay’. The growth of interdependence globally, and the success of regional economic markets, of which the European Single Market is a good example, has been the product of sovereign states pooling sovereignty for the Common Good. The question is not a binary choice sovereignty or loss of sovereignty, control or loss of control, but how much sovereignty it is prudent to pool.
The remaining issues blocking a deal with the EU are not huge matters of principle. According to Dominic Raab they are: ‘the most basic democratic principles’. Nor are we “the only country in the world as an independent coastal state without control of our fisheries”, as he claims. Malta will be surprised to learn it is not an independent coastal state. We seek continued tariff free access to the Single Market and that requires accepting its rules. The fisheries disagreement is about negotiable quotas and access to the vast European culinary market for fish caught in UK waters. We can’t be a rule-taker on aspects of common standards, interventionist state aid and subsidies we are told. Why not? The EU rules contain several major categories of exemptions such as for environmental aid already. And we presumably believe in regulations to ensure that markets function efficiently. That’s the level playing field. Or do we want to model ourselves on China? And finally there is the question of what legal authority will decide market disputes now we have left the EU. Sounds an important problem but we already benefit from the conventions, rules and rulings of a number of different supranational courts and bodies such as the UN and NATO, and most notably the European Court of Human Rights - which underpins human rights culture vital for democracy - established by the 47 members of the European Council ( not an EU body). And no deal makes us a rule-taker from the WTO. Why are we behaving as if the EU is asking us to abolish the monarchy before we can have access to the Single Market?
Our increasingly fragile unity as a four-nation country is now in jeopardy. Some 300 years ago in dire economic circumstances Scotland pooled many aspects of its sovereignty with England. The 1998 Scotland Act returned many elements. It turns out that within Britain our government recognises that aspects of national sovereignty are negotiable. As Nicola Sturgeon tweeted on 12 May 2014 in the run-up to the first Independence referendum: “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened". Hard to believe its 15 years since Winnie Ewing said this”. The intention to ‘reconvene’ a Scottish nation state has hardened.
Does the Westminster government fully understand how BREXIT has reinforced the SNP’s position on sovereignty, or more precisely independence, and made the position of Westminster’s opposition to a second referendum increasingly difficult to sustain? If the United Kingdom by democratic vote can decide that it no longer wishes to pool some of its sovereignty with a larger political entity, the EU, what grounds does it have for denying Scotland the same opportunity to review its historical decision to pool most of its national sovereignty with the United Kingdom. Yes, it was a long time ago. And yes its loss of self-determination was much greater. But if we are in the land of inviolable principles it’s the same principle. The profoundest irony is that the Scottish decision in any future referendum will be much influenced by its wish to renew its pooled sovereignty with European states, overruled by the total UK vote of 2016.
All eyes have rightly been on Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement. They will shortly be turning to a growing conflict with Scotland. Is the future of our children and grandchildren really being decided by three score and ten Tory members of Parliament? The right-wing of the Conservative Party has conducted a ruthless campaign holding every Tory Government to ransom for decades. Not the moan of a so-called ‘Remoaner’, merely a simple question: “who is going to take back control from them?
See The Article 12/12/20
After Trump, the natural hope is that America’s second Catholic Presidency may attract some of the Camelot talent of Kennedy’s first. That looks as imaginary as the Arthurian legend. Jo Biden will be surrounded by bright, successful lawyers like Anthony Blinken, an experienced diplomat in the role of new US Secretary of State. Only in television dramas are lawyers noted for thinking outside the box.
Kamala Harris as Vice-President also brings a sharp legal mind to the White House and Linda Thomas Greenfield, an African-American from Louisiana, brings her considerable diplomatic experience in Africa to the role of ambassador to the United Nations. With Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-American, as head of Homeland Security, retired- General Lloyd Austin as first black Secretary of Defence at the Pentagon, John Kerry dealing with Climate Change, and Janet Yellen (Polish Jewish) as treasury secretary, Biden has been awarded an alpha plus for diversity.
Not merited though if this diversity is cosmetic or an end in itself. Nasrine Malik in The Guardian (7 December) makes the point. “When people are hired to make a government ‘look’ a certain way, by governing parties with conservative politics it’s usually a way of making changes so everything stays the same – or gets worse”. How probable is it that some sharp black minds in the Biden Cabinet will link up with Black Lives Matter to initiate deep systemic change in US policing? I wouldn’t bet on it given Republican manipulation of law and order issues.
But the value of diversity is not the only message from Biden’s appointments. The other is that fellow Americans are in safe, predictable, experienced hands, the damage and social wounds visited on the homeland by Trump will be repaired and healed, the trajectory of domestic and foreign policy pursued by Obama will be resumed. America’s time of shame has passed. And all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
Well not quite. Both Anthony Blinken and Kamala Harris supported the invasion of Iraq. Neither is on the radical wing of the Democratic Party. No big thinker such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. - who opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 - will be sitting in the Oval Office. Not that anyone heeded Schlesinger at the time. President Kennedy authorised a CIA plot to overthrow Castro with a small rag-tag Cuban exile force which was shot up, mopped up and defeated. We can be confident that Jo Biden will treat US enemies more rationally than Trump and try to get the nuclear deal with Iran, reneged on by the USA, back up and running. That’s hardly radical. He won’t risk easing the damaging sanctions that are crippling Iran and playing into the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It will be back to traditional US Middle East policy.
For there to be more substantial change, the Democrats will require two terms in office. The first to restore the status quo ante of 2016. The second to reach forwards with vision to 2028. The USA has got rid of Trump. It has not got rid of the causes of Trump.
What is the underlying problem, usually dubbed populism, which the USA has experienced in its direst form? Deep seated inequality, ‘truth decay’ and easily manipulated citizens, fears caused by globalisation, a flawed political culture? We are encountering the same phenomena in the UK where thankfully there aren’t more guns than people, nor a Republican Party demonstrating a prodigious level of cynicism and irresponsibility - though some might fear the right wing of the Conservative Party is fast heading that way.
In a period of overlapping crises business as usual is folly. Crises call for a prophetic pragmatism described in Michael J. Brown’s Hope & Scorn: Eggheads, Experts & Elites in American Politics. Cornel West, the philosopher, American activist, Southern Baptist, black intellectual, used the term in 1989 for an intellectual leader, acting as a ‘critical organic catalyst’ in his community. Anyone called an intellectual instantly falls into the popular category of patronising elites. In the UK as in the USA, there is a perennial tension between academics, experts, Booker Prize winners, public intellectuals imagining different worlds, and the premise on which democracy rests: the people - who should have ‘voice’ - as the source of political authority. When the tension becomes acute and a divisive populism degrades public discourse – Trump at one point bizarrely described the American people as the ‘super-elite’ – anti-intellectualism becomes the common sense of the day, a mark of popular authenticity. The trouble is someone has to think outside the box when the box is increasingly liable to flooding, forest fires, tornadoes, demagogues, religious extremism and malign viruses.
The influential Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci - who took the time to talk to Lancia and Fiat workers in Turin where he studied - introduced the concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ (Prison Notebooks 1926-1937). Such a person as part of an organisation of the people, for example trades unions and women’s organisations, was able to overcome the detached intellectual’s democratic deficit, to guide and represent workers, opening up new horizons. Brazil’s Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, for example, advocated adult education through literacy, drawing out the knowledge that came from poor people’s own experience of oppression, allowing them to decide for themselves what action to take.
But in the UK our days of ‘worker education’ are past. Our popular mass media don’t help and haven’t helped. I remember during the apartheid era taking a group of black South African trades unionists up to the Liverpool docks to meet dockworkers. You could spot those who read the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star), they knew a lot about what was going on, asked insightful questions, while those who read ‘The Sun’ knew almost nothing, hung back and looked sheepish. The Press hasn’t changed much. But today’s social media creates many more silos and walled gardens of the soul while the Mail and the Sun still cultivate resentment. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and Extinction Rebellion have rejected ‘elitist’ leadership structures and rely on social media or ‘assembly spaces’ for generating dialogue, ideas and a fresh view of history. No Martin Luther Kings or Cornel Wests here yet.
Where then should we seek Britain’s organic intellectuals? If the USA is anything to go by, in the Churches, particularly amongst theologians who are women and in the black community. In Latin America the liberation theologians took that role and the Argentinian Pope Francis carried their option for the poor, and popular piety, with him to Rome. In UK, Evangelicals such as Reverend Joel Edwards, director-general of the Evangelical Alliance from 1997-2009, led the way into engagement with key social and geo-political issues. David Lammy, now a forthright Labour Shadow Minister for Justice, carried his formation in the Anglican Church into politics. In the future the black Pentecostal Churches, now so distant from secular culture, may produce some surprises. When it comes to thinking outside the box, black lives matter but so do black minds.
See TheArticle 08/12/20
We are running out of time and out of clichés: level playing field, cliff-edge, car crash, last chance saloon. Boris Johnson has less than a month to choose between possible outcomes of the BREXIT negotiations: No-Deal or Bad Deal presented as a triumph of British bull-dog spirit.
There is no point in deploring political leaders’ conflation of national interest and Party interest at times like these - though they are clearly different. But in weighing up the two interests, assuming he considers interests other than his own, the Prime Minister will be thinking about how he can keep his job. Despite variations in estimates of our GDP loss from BREXIT, he will know the government figures: a further 7.6% decline in our GDP over the next fifteen years in the event of No-Deal or in the event of some sort of ‘fair trade deal’ a 4.9% decline. This is on top of the shorter term, and shocking, projections of a plunge in GDP, and precipitous growth in unemployment, caused by the pandemic.
Some kind of settlement is on the cards. Johnson may well throw enough of ‘our’ fish into EU nets for the French fishermen. There would seem to be enough wriggle-room with existing EU exemptions to allow state aid to parts of the economy. Though Conservative ideology has always shunned such interventions. Johnson will blather about regaining national sovereignty to obscure the lose-lose reality of his deal. He will hope to blame any subsequent economic collapse on the pandemic. His back-benches who want at all costs to curtail economic damage caused by lock-downs have promoted significantly greater damage than the pandemic through hard-line BREXIT lobbying. No Deal means rolling economic decline continuing until the next election, with Johnson’s chances of survival less than Channel cod.
It will be bad enough with an agreed apology for a deal on the table. In addition to economic disaster and burgeoning domestic poverty the UK will have absolutely no say in the workings of the Single Market, the market which geography determines is our principal, largest and most lucrative trading partner. And without the heft of EU membership Britain will be weakened in far more than its economic power.
Would understanding how we got to this position, the history of UK-EU relations, make this act of self-harm less painful and depressing? Not really. But it seems an appropriate moment to look back.
Sir Stephen Wall’s Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to BREXIT gives the reader the intellectual pleasure of good readable prose, unparalleled expertise, and an historian’s gift for narrative. Wall worked on UK-EU relations in a variety of ways with successive Prime Ministers and was in near constant negotiations with the EU as a civil servant for 35 years. He offers telling glimpses behind the curtains of high office, and a balanced, subtle analysis of how governments and negotiations actually work.
Britain was always the odd one out in Europe. We misjudged the importance of the European Economic Community in its early days and it took us a – lost – decade fighting de Gaulle to get in. And when we were in we contrived to be only half in. There was the Commonwealth to consider. New Zealand butter did not grease the wheels of British membership. We rightly thought the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy which swallowed 90% of the EU budget and benefited mainly France was crazy. Ted Heath was our first true Europhile. But then there was our ‘special relationship’ with the USA which Margaret Thatcher notably enhanced, while infuriating the EU Commission with her strident demands for the return of ‘our money’, the budget rebate. Tony Blair, much appreciated in Brussels before the Iraq war, imagined himself as ‘the bridge’ between the EU and the USA, but to all intents and purposes, traffic across the bridge was one way piling up in the Berlayment Building in Brussels, the EU headquarters.
But behind such policy questions lay the fundamental bone of contention, three words that would never go away: ‘ever closer union’. Britain promoted a liberal trading order within a Single/Common Market and consistently pushed its vision of a EEC/EU as an inter-governmental organisation governed by the deliberations of the State leaders within the EU Council. Our commitment to enlargement by admission of newly freed eastern European countries was aimed at supporting their democratisation and the development of a human rights culture. But enlargement also made a federal EU more difficult to imagine and create.
Nonetheless, Britain reluctantly joined in, or was drawn into, the supranational structures as they developed, the EU Commission and EU Parliament. When Blair was prevented from joining the Eurozone by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the dye of British exceptionalism was cast. Britain with its accumulated opt-outs could not lead the EU, or be ‘at its heart’ as it said it wished. Nor had it ever really been able to break the bond between France and Germany to become member of a leadership triumvirate. Hostility to ‘ever closer union’ was the perennial stumbling block.
EU Enlargement came back to savage the UK. Blair’s imprudent acceptance of unrestricted numbers of eastern European EU migrants – they were an overall plus for the economy – alienated those who resented what they saw as interlopers taking their jobs and housing. So UKIP was able to sew the ‘immigrant problem’ into existing hostility to the EU. Antipathy to concepts of shared sovereignty grew into outright rejection of EU membership fed by the Murdoch Press. Wall makes the case that before the referendum vote Cameron brought back a better package of concessions from the EU Commission than the British public were allowed by the Murdoch Press to consider.
Throughout the 2016 referendum ‘Take back control’ and ‘Project Fear’ trounced REMAIN’s repeated warnings about the economic dangers of BREXIT. Clever half-truths, sometimes flagrant lies about the alleged financial deficit that we accrued from EU membership, plus risible threats of massive Turkish immigration did the rest. Reluctant European charts these choppy waters with insight and skill.
We never got to hear about the many positive EU achievements and developments, several led by the UK. Nor the social, scientific, artistic and security benefits of membership. Though, of course, some like the Social Chapter – from which Major got an opt-out - with its advancement of workers’ rights, was not necessarily seen as positive.
Negativity prevailed though the latest polling confirms public opinion has swung away from BREXIT since 2016. What has not changed is the perennial uncertainty. But we are where we are and stuck with the cliché “perfect storm”. Or as Isaiah once put it “our sins blew us away like the wind”.
See TheArticle 02/12/20
It was in 2004 during a Commission for Africa consultation set up by Tony Blair to identify the continent’s problems and recommend remedies. I’d been asked to prepare a paper on religion and development. On my left was the then Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, and across from me, Bob Geldof. I think he had his feet up on the table though that may be a false memory. I put what I thought would be an uncontentious proposition that secular Britain’s development aid wouldn’t work if it failed to take into account the importance of religion in Africa. Immediately, and to my surprise, this was contemptuously dismissed by Vince Cable. Geldof, of Live Aid fame and Dublin atheist, no less to my surprise, sat up and vigorously defended me: “he’s absolutely right” or a more expletive-laden version of the same.
I didn’t realise it at the time but I was in the midst of two pivotal changes in development aid. First this involved collaboration between four worlds to tackle global poverty: business, the State, universities, and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) representing the world of philanthropy. Second the growing recognition that whoever was involved the State, academia, business or philanthropy, it paid to listen to the people whom you thought you were helping and to find out their priorities. These are two of the many insights in Paul Vallely’s important new book Philanthropy: from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, a monumental but highly readable study of 18 chapters and 743 pages. It took him six years to research and write.
Philanthropy’s scope is vast. Each chapter ends with an extended interview related to its particular topic (disclaimer: one is with me). Another unusual feature, Vallely diverts online the tidal wave of his academic references. It’s a pity that ‘magisterial’ is a cliché of book blurbs because his comprehensive blending of scholarly historical research, insights from his own and other’s experience, and the challenging questions of a diligent journalist make ‘magisterial’ a tempting description. There are two books here for the price of one: a history of philanthropy and an exploration of the ethics of philanthropy.
Mega-Philanthropy took off after 2004. A year after the Commission for Africa consultations, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged 99% of their Facebook shares, then worth $45 billion, to ‘preventing, curing or managing’ the world’s main diseases. Bill Gates’ Foundation which he founded in 2000, spends each year more than Germany on global health. His total annual budget is greater than each of 70% of the world’s nations. One result has been 2.5 billion children vaccinated against polio and the disease is almost eliminated. When Gates turned to malaria prevention the money available for anti-malaria work globally almost doubled. In 2006 Warren Buffet, one of world’s most successful investors, pledged $30 billion of his shares in Berkshire Hathaway to the Gates Foundation. Wealth of this kind inevitably carries great power and has been called philanthrocapitalism.
According to the 2018 Harvard Philanthropy report, three-quarters of the world’s 260,000 philanthropic Foundations, usually endowed by a single private benefactor or business, were started in the last 25 years. Together they give annually $150 billion from their overall holding of $1.5 trillion though only 10% of the very rich give sums even remotely commensurate with their wealth. While nations agonise about their GDP, this neglected economic reality is worth more than a cursory glance.
Vallely, like a judge clarifying the defence and prosecution cases for a jury, takes the reader through the ethical challenges and strategic issues raised by philanthrocapitalism and the utilitarian calculations of the school of ‘effective altruism’ concerned with what is the most efficient way of responding to poverty. Throughout the book Vallely is concerned to maintain a balance between the charitable giving of time and modest amounts of money by the ‘little platoons’, the response from below, the philanthropy of the heart, and the contribution from the commanding heights of philanthropy, the billionaire captains who prioritise value for money, technological fixes and massive mobilisation, the philanthropy of the head. Wisely he uses this binary opposition sparingly since the distinction between these two kinds of philanthropy is becoming less clear.
Influencing the role of governments in poverty alleviation, for example retaining our 0.7% of GDP commitment to development aid, NGO advocacy, is also a philanthropic endeavour. Vallely probes the merits of trying to get any government to meet their responsibilities to provide adequate health and educational systems for their citizens, and to reduce inequality. Should philanthropy help people to exert effective pressure on governments to defeat national or global poverty and for other worthy aims which may concern them? Does such lobbying provide a longer term solution than simple financial support from the different kinds of civil society organisations? No simple answers. Effective advocacy can promote the transmission of innovative measures to Ministries where political decisions are taken. But the Koch brothers one of the ‘big platoons’ poured millions into think-tanks and pressure groups blocking effective action against climate change and promoting measures which protected their profits from the oil industry.
Context is everything. Training Ugandans to promote social justice during the reign of Idi Amin, for example, would have been training for an early death. In Hungary where democracy is eroding, Prime Minister Viktor Orban rewarded Warren Buffet’s promotion of the ‘Open Society’ by shutting down his European University. NGO support for Gordon Brown to reduce child poverty in the UK and for Tony Blair to make the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in July 2005 a Summit on poverty in Africa, and to leverage debt relief, worked a treat. Though the impact of Bono and Geldof’s Live 8 concerts around the world and their face-to-face lobbying was critical, a prime example of ‘celebrity philanthropy’. The question is what sort of government is it before deciding on what to do to make things better.
Finally Vallely builds on his early chronological chapters about charity in the Middle Ages and does a little advocacy himself; he champions the tradition of religious giving. He puts it in the category ‘reciprocal philanthropy’: at its best “rooted in relationship, mutuality and partnership…focussed on people rather than product…process-driven rather than results oriented”. This approach reappeared in the Victorian charitable benevolence of public benefactors such as Angela Burdett-Coutts, so revered by the London poor that her name became Cockney rhyming slang for ‘boots’. The ‘little platoons’ retain the tradition today. The bigger ones can learn from it.
The relevant moral attitude for reciprocal philanthropy is solidarity, a term much used on the Left and by NGOs, what Pope John Paul II described as “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others” but “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good… because we are all really responsible for all”. Catholic, humanist, socialist or not, that’s the best description of what philanthropy should be all about.
See TheArticle "Faith, Ethics & the Meaning of Philanthropy" 16/11/20
Britain, an island nation with a population density of 275 people per square kilometre and a population of 67 million, has passed one million COVID infections resulting in over 50,000 deaths. Taiwan, an overcrowded island nation off the coast of China with 671 people per square kilometre and a population of over 23 million, has recorded 553 cases and seven deaths. It hasn’t had a ‘domestic infection’ (locally transmitted) for six months. Why the huge difference?
Three main agencies combat the spread of the virus around the world: the State itself, its health system and its citizens. The State introduces measures to inhibit spread with more than an eye to protecting the economy from collapse. Health systems vary according to the role an insurance provision plays in them. But, without coercion — as in China’s authoritarian surveillance state — these measures will only be effective if citizens believe them to be necessary and find it financially feasible to comply. Looked at from another perspective, particularly before a vaccine is found, the intangible qualities of ‘social capital’ and confidence in government are as important as ‘the science’ and the capacity of the health care system to respond effectively to the pandemic.
“The big lesson from Asia”, Will Hutton wrote in a typically thoughtful piece in The Observer (1st November) “is that communitarian, more equal societies have the social capital…” - that allows them to mitigate and curtail the pandemic. He is not comparing authoritarian regimes with democratic societies and regimes. South Korea, for example, a functioning democracy with a population density of 511 people per square kilometre, with 13 million citizens fewer than UK, has recorded only 25,000 cases and 434 deaths at the time of writing.
True, some of the Asian countries Hutton highlights, such as Singapore, have an authoritarian past with some of its characteristics still remaining, and it’s true they derived valuable lessons from the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. It’s also true that they achieved greater economic success than the UK. Is there something in the Asian cultures, perhaps trust in and respect for authority and for the old, perhaps appreciation of the tangible improvements in standards of living, or perhaps that the Enlightenment played a lesser role in their intellectual history, or even that capitalism arrived relatively fast and late compared with Europe which nurtures social cohesion? Hutton’s emphasis on equality and a communitarian spirit in civil society is worth serious consideration.
“We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, Peter Mandelson told executives in Silicon Valley in 1999, adding “provided they pay their taxes”. It was the heyday of New Labour. Twelve years later in the midst of Tory austerity measures post-banking crisis, Mandelson began recanting. In 2016 inequality emerged as the parent of BREXIT. But corporate executives are still on the whole filthy rich and aggressively deploy clever tax experts for tax avoidance. Now COVID infections are known to occur disproportionately, and shamefully, amongst the poor, no political party ought to be intensely relaxed about inequality and its impact on deaths from infections.
Governments whether in Asia or Europe play a role in encouraging or undermining social values. Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there was no such thing as society only families and individuals bettering themselves through hard work heralded a distinct rise in elbows-out individualism and shameless greed. The present Prime Minister’s chosen mode of greeting since his infection, bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, is strangely appropriate. His repeated, almost plaintive appeals, ‘we are all in this together’, only highlights the reality that we aren’t; it is mainly the poor, the aged and the sick who face sickness and premature death.
‘You get the government you deserve’ is by definition more true than false in a democracy. A government that is basically reactive to its own baying back-benches and to upsurges of public anger on neuralgic issues, like the recent schools dinner fiasco, loses public trust. Our culture retains a strong sense of social responsibility towards children, especially if they are sick, hungry, abused or disabled. Even a three-year old knows that “one rule for us, one rule for them’, is unfair, is wrong. And when coupled with a belief that the private sector will invariably make a better job of things than the public, and after months of ignoring local government, public respect for national government evaporates. The practical steps to control the virus require a communitarian mind-set. But the necessary set of values to control COVID are a bad fit with individualism, let alone Johnson’s libertarianism. Thinking that freedom means doing whatever I want when I want becomes disastrous when the health of whole populations is at stake.
Does the communitarian spirit to which Hutton attributes success in the face of COVID, inevitably erode when leadership is weak and vacillating and trust in government is fading? Sadly, it seems to be so. The COVID second wave is evoking less public-spiritedness than the first. Though the faith communities have kept going feeding and helping the poor much as they have always done. The clapping has stopped. Self-assertion is expressed in the rise in speeding offences, increase in alcohol consumption and a cavalier attitude amongst some to social distancing. “We are losing our cherished freedoms”, cry the Tory back-benches.
Catholicism and Islam for historical reasons both sit towards the communitarian end of a line that has individualism at the other end. This can have its obvious downsides: conformity through inertia, defensive tribalism, ‘it’s God’s Will’ fatalism. But faith communities can also have vital insights into the changes, values and future structure of society and economy that will sustain the communitarian spirit and bring about social justice. These are not eccentric ideas outside the mainstream of political thinking. Will Hutton’s secular insights last week tally with Pope Francis’ concept of ‘social friendship’ in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti. As the Asian examples Hutton provides testify, this is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism, it is a matter of life and death during this pandemic. Do we, though, have the ability and humility to learn from the best in other cultures and ways of living?
See TheArticle 05/11/2020 "How can we learn from other cultures?"
“Pope Francis warns us against this phony populism that appeals to the basest and most selfish instinct. He goes on to say politics is more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and bleak cynicism…”
President- Elect Jo Biden
A month ago in Assisi Pope Francis launched his third encyclical Fratelli Tutti. It opens by explaining the significance of the title. “With these words St. Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the Gospel”. The Pope is undertaking the same endeavour for today’s world .
Francis was prompted by discussions in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, which resulted in a joint document on fraternity in February 2019. Timely? Serendipitous? At a time of global pandemic Fratelli Tutti is much more than that.
Most people would agree that 2020 is a major historic turning point. Coronavirus has exposed the failure of contemporary political practice to engage with present reality and the limitations and dangers of how we live in the world with each other (one broad definition of politics). Pope Francis’ letter is long but, compared to most Vatican documents, easy to read though it does take time to digest. Its timing, in the midst of a global crisis, may spur people who are not Catholics to read it and consider what it says.
The world’s a stage on which national leaders strut, too often little people facing big problems by creating bigger ones. By coercing or manipulating their own citizens, the worst turn politics into a vehicle for furthering their own interests, power, and wealth. The corollary to this bleak picture is the commonly expressed opinion that politicians are ‘all the same’, ‘all liars’, ‘all in it for themselves’. It’s not true. But even the word ‘politics’ has become a pejorative term. This has encouraged a fatalistic retreat into private life. Fratelli Tutti is a powerful call to hope and public action.
The Pope’s begins his letter by focusing on values, communication and relationships. Politics, he writes, “often takes forms that hinder progress towards a different world”. “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others”. Inspired by the great 13th. century Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom the purpose of politics is the promotion of justice and the common good.
Francis’ aim is to promote the values and virtues that will create a “better kind of politics”. But the internal structure of the letter comes from a different no less venerable source, St. Augustine, the North African 4th. century bishop of Hippo, his reflections on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Augustine describes living in two worlds, what he called the Earthly City and the City of God; two different but interwoven mind-sets and milieux, with all humanity living in tension between them. Pope Francis describes how he sees these two cities today in a trenchant critique of populism and neo-liberalism and, implicitly, communism. In an encyclical that does not lend itself to headlines, the gulf he portrays between the two cities is more shocking than the openness and gentleness of his style at first suggests.
The encyclical rests on the Catholic concept of the Common Good, how to live with and for others to achieve the fulfillment of all people and ‘the whole person’. The ‘universal destination of goods’ is not a slogan for Amazon’s marketing. It’s Catholic code for saying that the ‘goods of creation’ are meant for all humanity not just the rich. In the 1992 edition of the Catholic catechism private property is to be recognized by the State for the purpose of supporting the common good. It is a secondary natural right. St. Ambrose, a 4th century bishop of Milan, put it more bluntly: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich”.
In Francis’ usual warm and simple style, and in contrast to the Vaticanese of early social encyclicals, Fratelli Tutti sets out a comprehensive and comprehensible account of traditional Catholic social teaching. He also develops some of its fundamental ideas. Damaging, or in Christian terms sinful, systemic economic and social structures that create injustice were discussed in synods of bishops in the 1970s. Apartheid would be a good example of such a system where individuals are not necessarily fully responsible for the suffering caused by legal, economic or social structures. But, internally, there was anxiety that ‘structural sin’ might undermine the Church’s emphasis on individual sinful acts -for which each person is responsible - and, for Catholics, acts or thoughts that required sacramental confession.
Pope Francis refuses any sharp binary division between the individual and the social as expressed in extreme forms of individualism, libertarianism, or in communism. His vision is communitarian and he emphasizes personality-in-relationship. “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person". This enables him to talk about solidarity and, uniquely, ‘social friendship’ his terms for linking change in structures and change of heart, for example towards migrants drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the alien outsider pleasing to God, and moving from a ‘culture of walls’ to ‘a culture of encounter’.
In a letter which discusses peace-making, nationalism and war, inter-religious dialogue, and the impact of technology, Francis queries whether just war theory is still applicable in the 21st.century, and re-iterates the Church’s condemnation of the death penalty. His references to eleven Bishops’ Conferences around the world reflect the reality of a global Church and the beginning of the end for the old Roman Eurocentric model. But he fails to deal adequately with gender equality. As in his second encyclical Laudato Si about responsibility for the planet, the Pope is again addressing all people who ‘share our common home’ whom he wants seen and treated as brothers and sisters. But the sisters have cause to question why not one of the nearly 300 citations in the footnotes of Fratelli Tutti is from a female authority or theologian.
Fratelli Tutti offers a powerful global vision of a moral map of the world, what life, politics and society should be like. Criticism has tended to focus on lack of practical proposals for implementing its radical teaching. Describing a political vision as utopian is usually a way of closing down the conversation. On the contrary, the reconciliation of the ideal with the real is simply the dynamic of working for justice. As we watch a global pandemic undermine a world of secular certainties, and see societies debilitated by conflicts, the Pope’s message is plainly one to which we should listen. As President-Elect Jo Biden said “Pope Francis asked questions that anyone who seeks to lead this nation should be able to answer”.
See TheArticle 19/10/2020