Savage attacks on peaceful demonstrators have put Zimbabwe in the news again. Hopes of change have been dashed. For the army and police, extreme violence remains the sole recourse for dealing with grave social and economic problems inherited from One Party rule under President Robert Mugabe.
I became acquainted with the Zimbabwe story forty years ago just before Mugabe came to power. In 1978, I went to Salisbury, now Harare, to discover who was killing missionaries from the progressive Bethlehem Mission in Immensee, Switzerland. Of course Bethlehem Fathers were not the only people being killed at that time. Rhodesia was almost at the end of a brutal civil/liberation war. Ian Smith’s security forces had budded off a counter-insurgency unit, the Selous Scouts, which sometimes dressed up as vakomana, Mugabe’s ZANLA (Zimbabwe National Liberation Army) guerrilla forces, in order to catch ZANLA sympathisers. They called it “dragging”. A significant number of the Bethlehem priests supported the liberation struggle. But it was unclear which side in this bitter struggle was responsible for their killings.
Working with the courageous Rhodesian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, we were led a merry chase: we finally discovered that the private detective ‘helping’ us was taking his instructions from Smith’s security forces, so not surprisingly bodies disappeared from wells, and we always seemed to arrive a day or so too late. But you learnt fast. In such wars it is often impossible to know who is on which side. The old man with a bicycle stubbornly standing on your side of the road, refusing to get out of the way, was most likely stopping a mission vehicle going over a mine. The missionaries always put me in the second vehicle on mined roads. Years later it became evident that the missionaries’ deaths were caused by ZANLA commanders many of whom had personal grudges, like being expelled from school, against individual clergy.
The war was terrible with atrocities on both sides; the insurgents should neither be romanticized nor demonised. Elderly women were denounced as witches to the vakomana and summarily executed. Sadistic area commanders could wreak havoc. Even if they were reported to ZANLA headquarters in Mozambique, it could take a long time to get rid of them. Yet support for ZANLA and Mugabe was overwhelming. Bishop Abel Muzorewa, part of the Executive Council of Smith’s short-lived Interim Government 1978-1979, would never be able to win an election or capture the dominant Shona-speaking vote. I told the Foreign Secretary, Dr. David Owen, as much after my visit. He listened.
The offices where I worked in London were a drop-in for exiled Zimbabweans struggling for independence, seemingly idealistic young men and women. I did a television programme with one, Simbi Mubako, a law lecturer at Southampton University, to highlight the human rights abuses in his country and the need for the British government to act. After Independence in 1980, Simbi was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. In January 1983, Mugabe’s North-Korean trained 5th brigade began to eliminate members of ZIPRA, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the largely Ndebele-speaking rival ZAPU, (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union) under the leadership of the old nationalist Joshua Nkomo. This was followed by the killing of suspected ZAPU members. In the Bulawayo area more than 20,000 people were killed and many more detained during a purge lasting from 1983-1987, called Gukurahundi, (the early rain that washes away the chaff).
I wrote to Simbi asking him to speak out against these human rights abuses as he had done in Britain against those committed by the Smith regime. His reply was saddening. I must return to Zimbabwe and he and I would go round Matabeleland together and I would see that all the allegations were either false or exaggerated. I replied that he must know that if we travelled around, as we would, in a government vehicle with an escort, nobody would dare say a word. With the now President Emmerson Mnangagwa as Minister of State Security in charge of the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation), widely believed to be complicit in the massacres, it was probably more than Simbi’s life was worth to respond otherwise. He later became a High Court Judge.
The Mugabe regime illustrated with terrible clarity what political life meant in a one-Party state: the accumulation of wealth. And wealth in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe meant amongst other things extensive land-holding. Politics had very little to do with justice, the wellbeing of citizens, or the electoral promises made at independence. In 1978 I imagined it had. Democracy and elections are supposed to enable citizens to get rid of governments that destroy their economy, society and political life. But Zimbabwe’s birth in violence meant that democracy did not have a chance; with most other institutions, except the Churches, eroded and struggling, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces were, and remain, the country’s unelected rulers wedded to extreme violence.
The words of a pastoral letter from the Zimbabwean Catholic Bishops distributed on 17 January 2019 show that they, at least, have not abandoned hope. “While for many, hope for a better Zimbabwe might appear lost, we reaffirm St. Paul’s message that when all else fails, there are three pillars that remain to hold on to: Faith, Hope and Love. We believe in a God of second chances…” Many also believe that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But Lord Acton’s is not necessarily the last word. He was, incidentally, writing about Popes as well as Kings.
So, on the one side, there’s Acton’s unromantic “certainty of corruption by authority”, on the other the Bishops’ virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. Zimbabwe has to play for its future with this loaded dice. Africa has so often been the graveyard of idealism. And the God of second chances has so often seen them squandered.
Either Parliament, after a second Glorious Revolution, or the public, after a second referendum, will now have to decide about BREXIT. The meaningful vote was meaningful. The Labour confidence motion was duly tabled and lost. There is talk about negotiating a permanent customs union. And there are indications behind the scenes of a Parliamentary revolution against the Executive, cross-Party moves to take control of the BREXIT process. Due consideration of a second referendum option has drawn closer.
Hyperbole about the negative consequences of a second referendum has consequently been cranked up in the last week, and will doubtless be cranked up some more. “Catastrophic”, “Unforgiveable”, “Betrayal” “Damaging our Democracy”, “Divisive and Disappointing”, “Stimulating violent right-wing extremism”, and “Opening the doors to Populism”. Can Dominic Grieve, asking the British public in his QC’s-crystal voice to confirm their June 2016 decision in the light of new information, be talking about the same thing?
In this Orwellian world, every criticism of a future People’s Vote should be applied to the first 2016 referendum. It was unforgiveable of David Cameron to land us in this situation then walk away leaving Theresa May to mop up. BREXIT has tipped the country into a catastrophic constitutional crisis. What has been divisive and disappointing is the inept and inflexible conduct of negotiations, stymied by being a dual negotiation between the Tory back benches and the EU. The tone of the BREXIT debate not only fed into right wing extremism, it created a climate in which the tragic death of a Member of Parliament at extremist hands took place. Phrases such as “red, white and blue BREXIT” and repetition of “the will of the People”, referring to 52% of them, opened the doors to populism. Government felt obliged to adopt, over a long thirty months, a series of sanitized populist appeals to the electorate.
The first referendum was indeed damaging to our democracy. The Leave campaign involved an unprecedented level of calculated deception followed by a litany of mistakes, lies and half-truths that undermined trust. Channel 4’s drama-documentary BREXIT: The Uncivil War confirmed how the Leave Campaign’s new techniques and technology, deployed by Dominic Cummings, directed marginalized voters’ anger towards the EU. ‘Take back control’ was a brilliant appeal to the emotions. I had forgotten ‘Turkey’, the incredible lie that Turkey was going to join the EU so that Izmir and Istanbul were about to decant their Muslim populations into Britain.
Looking back, it was a bad mistake to have a simple majority plebiscite on an immensely complex issue, a betrayal of parliamentary responsibility, to rescue a divided Tory Party. It was a mistake to tell the public that in our representative democracy they should do more than advise their representatives in Parliament. Instructing their elected representatives on an uncharted course of action - which a majority of parliamentarians believed ill-advised - challenged the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. And, it was after all Parliamentary sovereignty which Leave proponents were keen to retrieve from the pooled sovereignty of the European Union.
The subsequent Brexiteer campaign against permitting the British public a genuine democratic choice in a second public vote has been relatively successful. It amounts to saying that the public should not be permitted to act on accumulated information about the salient features of the choice that they were asked to make. The Prime Minister and sundry Brexiteers pretend to know in telepathic detail what 17.4 million voters meant, and intended, when they voted Leave.
It is impossible to have a constructive conversation about a second referendum if you think an informed electorate is irrelevant to the conduct of democracy. Dominic Grieve’s reasoned argument is immediately, and successfully, twisted into “telling the people they got it wrong, making them vote again until they get it right.” In other words, playing one hundred percent into the story of the arrogant elite that doesn’t listen to the people. From another part of the same elite, we are daily given a dog-whistle reminding us that the public must not be allowed second thoughts on BREXIT lest it triggers right-wing violence. This amounts to Project Fear Mark Two: summoning a very dangerous genie out of the bottle. Are we really going to allow the contours of a future Britain to be determined by the blackmail threat of right-wing violence?
A second referendum is understandably presented as a betrayal by those strongly invested in Leave. But in reality Ireland, Denmark and France have adopted the expedient of a second referendum to resolve an EU choice, and in Britain we have done the same for issues involving devolution and the Welsh and Scottish assemblies. None of these second votes have resulted in civil war or fascist tyranny.
So what is Parliament going to do with its sovereignty if the second Glorious Revolution occurs? To wrest the driving wheel from the Tory Executive, Parliament in its present disarray is going to face a dangerous struggle; it may end up ingloriously in a ditch. As for the Executive, doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome is usually taken as a sign of madness. Theresa May’s stubbornly held conviction that she can dictate her red lines to all and sundry while negotiating terms with the EU that go counter to the EU’s foundational principles fits that description.
It may also fit the description of a second referendum as a last resort to confirm democratic legitimacy of the first. But I doubt it. Second referendums statistically have a habit of reversing the outcome of the first. We won’t ever know unless we give it a try. Or unless we are obliged to go to the Electoral Commission as the only way of climbing out of the ditch. Which would mean that attempts to take control and direct events by Parliament had proved more inglorious than glorious.
This is hard to believe. But I’m assured by family members in Canada that the most in-demand present for young children in North America last Christmas was Dookie, the pooping Unicorn. I won’t give away manufacturers’ scatological details only add that it comes with a “squatty potty”. The rest I leave to your imagination or the imagination of the under nines.
My family demographics did not provide me with any equally reliable information on the popularity of pooing Unicorns in Britain. But thoughtful Remainers will instantly see what a wonderful present Dookie would have made for the children and grandchildren of the Tory European Reform Group and their hangers-on. What a great symbol for the Leave campaign as a whole. A large model should go up on a plinth in Parliament Square in time for Tuesday’s vote. And who better than Sir Ian ‘Dookie’ Smith to unveil it?
I should not limit these festive thoughts to the Conservative Party alone. Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, matters are moving beyond darkly funny to car crash serious. I was disturbed to find that Andrew Rawnsley, a commentator who is usually forensically objective, in his last two Observer columns, was beginning to crack and sounding honest-to-goodness angry. Things must be bad.
What also struck me were the latest figures Rawnsley quoted for the current opinion of Labour members and supporters on Leave, and how they would vote in a second referendum were it to be organised. 88% of Labour members and 71% of Labour supporters would vote Remain, assuming it was on the ballot paper. 89% of members and 73% of supporters now thought it would be wrong to vote Leave. The last You-Guv sample of 25,000 Labour voters came plum within this range and also found that 75% favoured a second referendum.
Jeremy Corbyn significantly increased Labour Party membership because he appeared as a radical new voice offering a different sort of politics. As Rawnsley pointed out, his core appeal depended on his being a listener promising that Labour Party policy really would be determined democratically in accordance with the views and priorities of its members. This distinguished Jeremy Corbyn from earlier Labour leaders - who looked to a wider public - and got Labour members chanting his name.
Well, it was all, at best, a bit of a disappointment, at worst a con-trick. Mr. Corbyn only agrees with his base when his base agrees with him. He still inhabits the arguments of the 1970s and has always been ideologically – and stubbornly – opposed to the European Union, seeing it as an international capitalist club. The tortuous presentation, ambiguities and obfuscations of Labour Party policy on BREXIT have served to obscure the simple fact. Pity Sir Keir Starmer. There is a massive THREE QUARTERS majority in his Party for Remain, but Corbyn persists in reneging on his contract with the members and ignoring them on this vital issue.
At least so far. Because there is growing evidence that parts of Labour’s membership have emerged from denial and moved into anger about what they are coming to see as Corbyn’s betrayal of their future. The number of Labour held constituencies with predominantly Leave populations may offer more pragmatic explanations for his behaviour. But there are many courageous Labour MPs who are behaving as leaders of their Leave communities and putting the national interest, and that of their constituents, before their political careers, and calling for a second referendum in the light of the future economic consequences of Brexit in their impoverished regions.
If, in the face of his many young members, Mr. Corbyn pursues his Brexit politics to date, a performance smacking of abject hypocrisy, he will pay the price. And so will the Labour Party. Momentum is not the young ones Corbyn Fan Club of commentators’ myth. It has a more diverse membership. But it has enough youthful followers, with youth’s sensitivity to hypocrisy, for the movement that has kept him in place to fade away as quickly as it coalesced. Those who come up fast usually go down fast.
The irony of the Brexit car crash is that it may be Theresa May who survives to fight another day. But Corbyn’s days are numbered unless he gives up the ideas about the EU he swallowed in the 1970s. He needs to honour his pledge to his membership, and consider the national interest, instead of ineptly finessing his own misguided version of ideological purity.
I am sure, if he tries, Jeremy Corbyn could find a Pink Dookie on e-Bay the better to fulfil grandparental duties to which the hand of history calls him. Meanwhile he should heed a radical who has ideas that might genuinely reinvigorate the Labour Party: Amartya Sen. “While purity is an uncomplicated virtue for olive oil, sea air, and heroines in folk tales,” he wrote, “it is not so for systems of collective choice”*. Shame he left out unicorns.
*Amartya Sen Collective Choice and Social Welfare San Francisco 1970, 200
Five years ago I wrote a review of Rupert Shortt’s book Christianophobia: a Faith under Attack. “This ought to be a major foreign policy issue for governments”, was its conclusion. “That it is not tells us much about a rarely acknowledged hierarchy of victimhood”, he added. He must have been pleased last week when the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, launched an independent global review, led by the new Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, into how government is responding and should respond, to the global wide persecution of Christians.
Yes, delivered during the slow news days between Christmas and New Year, the announcement was probably a carefully timed marker in the forthcoming leadership contest in the Tory Party. But the review is a good thing in its own right. The timing was also appropriate on religious grounds, falling two days before the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s slaughter of baby boys in his efforts to murder the new born Jesus, an early example of collateral damage.
New Year is as good a time as any to make a confession: I was unnecessarily negative about one or two aspects of Christianophobia. “Where one religious minority is persecuted, so are all to varying degrees”, I declared. “Shortt’s striking title might seem to encourage us to champion the rights of our own faith communities rather than to work beside other religious leaders to promote religious freedom for all”. I did admit that these reservations might seem a little precious. In retrospect I think they were.
True, the clunky title Christianophobia could be seen as a religious me-too response to Islamophobia and the more ancient Antisemitism. But this would be to ignore the point Shortt was trying to make that persecution of Christians was somehow treated as less newsworthy, and less of public concern, than the persecution of other religious minorities around the world.
Yet, when you think about it, this neglect of public outcry about the persecution of Christians is puzzling. Religious art is part of the cultural acquis of Europe. Try the Anglo-Saxon Exhibition at the British Library. At Christmas, carol services and other religious events, from Nativity plays to midnight masses, are crowded. The season reveals the residual Christian belief and practice in British society. And all year round hundreds of amateur and professional choirs around the country practice and sing sacred music composed by the great classical composers, often performing in churches. The Christian words they sing, the symbols and paintings, are an integral part of British and European culture and identity. They cannot be wished away by sleight of hand of the National Secular Society. Yet, before the Hunt review, nobody except Church leaders seemed officially too bothered about the Filipina housemaid in the Saudi household refused time off to attend the Easter Liturgy. Or the Christians languishing in jail in Pakistan under trumped up blasphemy charges. Or the repression of evangelical Churches in China, Copts in Egypt, and the wider exodus of Christians from the Middle East. And so on. Indeed being bothered about this persecution has often been associated, rightly or wrongly, with Right Wing political positions.
Shortt suggested the number of Christians currently under threat in 2012 as 200 million. UK government last week gave the figure of 250 Christians killed per month around the world because of their religious identity. It is very difficult to determine which killings are parts of general purges of dissidents or in rampages of militias, or the direct targeting of Christians as a defenseless minority. The figures from the FCO are reliable and paint a shocking picture. So what approach can realistically be taken to curtail these particular human rights violations?
I would still point to the promotion, protection and independent monitoring of the right to religious freedom as the starting point for effective action. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights originated in reaction to secular totalitarianism but notably in the commitment of people of faith to establish the right to religious freedom. It would be a profound irony if religious freedom became the human right that finally fell by the wayside in the 21st. century.
The Anglican Bishop of Truro has undoubtedly a difficult task. But, an evangelical and former head of the Church Mission society, he is unlikely to pull his punches. The case of Asia Bibi is telling. After being released following eight years on death-row on blasphemy charges, the British government failed to offer her asylum in the UK, apparently on the grounds it might endanger consular staff in Pakistan. These are some of the many hard realities and limitations that the Bishop is going to have to face in his future recommendations.