As the Labour leadership ballots arrive this week, Momentum is still managing to steer the holed Labour Party back onto the rocks. Sir Keir Starmer features in this dreary saga like a dragging anchor. Tony Blair is right that root and branch change is needed. Starmer probably agrees. But despite demonstrable survival and strategic skills, and consistently side-stepping the worst excesses of Corbynism, he can’t yet safely speak of repositioning the Labour Party.
Political commentary now reads like political psychoanalysis. What has got into the mind of, and remains entrenched in, a Party that once won three consecutive general elections? Had the anointed one, Rebecca Long-Bailey, no choice but to assume the role of Corbyn continuity candidate embracing abject failure and political self-harm? If elected will Starmer be able to beat Johnson while engaged, one arm tied behind his back, in a struggle to return the Party to winning ways?
One theory is that socialist secularism has much in common with religious thinking. A residue of religious virtue seems to have jumped ship from the Churches to the Labour Party. Not the already acknowledged Methodist variety but signs of something more Catholic. Sixty years ago traditional Catholic schools taught that an action could be good in itself; what made a good act good was that it was pleasing to God. It didn’t have to have an outcome, ending homelessness, bringing about equality, ending discrimination. Eating your hated cabbage in a school dinner, renouncing yourself by performing ‘cabbage Acts’, did not help starving babies - who stood like a reproachful African chorus on the moral high ground. But the self-denial was pleasing to God. Similarly, many Labour members refuse to recognise that political actions must be effective; standing for Socialism is good in itself and a precious part of a virtuous identity.
The idealistic young, and old, who saw Corbyn as a secular Guide to the Promised Land and Socialism as a redemptive power were often uninterested in how to achieve effective outcomes from good policies. The policies themselves were the outcome, the more the merrier, virtue piled on virtue, bracing brassicas adding to the health and self-confidence of the Party. The recently coined phrase ‘virtue signalling’ – pejoratively and often unfairly - acknowledges an aspect of this emergent reality, but the phrase misses Labour Party members’ refusal to accept that politics demands a particular cluster of skills. Denouncing all and sundry is not a substitute for the absence of these skills. If it is to have an impact on Society, contemporary politics has to be about good outcomes, effective implementation of policies, and, of course, convincing the public they want your Party to form a government. Good words, pledges and good actions, however pleasing to Socialist values, do not cut it, and the public knows it.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is still narrowly Starmer’s chief rival for the Labour leadership, though massive constituency support for Starmer suggests that the current influence of Momentum in the Party may be less than usually perceived. Her position on equality and discrimination is more than virtue-signalling to Socialism. But take her recent stance on the counter-terrorism PREVENT programme. Last week speaking at the Kensington al-Manaar Mosque Rebecca Long-Bailey rubbished the PREVENT programme on grounds of discrimination. This put her in the company of - some - Muslim communities, the N.U.T and UNITE.
Here her weaknesses and that of her backers were evident. Evidence-based policy making does not get a look-in. The government’s counter-terrorism strategy was “clearly failing”, she said. PREVENT alienated “Muslim communities”, “set back our freedoms” and had “not made us safer”. She wanted it scrapped and something new, but vague, to come out of a consultative process which would include Muslim leaders. Any facts explaining this blanket denunciation did not seem important.
For a start there are now more Right-Wing extremists admitted to the key Channel de-radicalisation part of PREVENT than Islamists. Nor is there any sense of a balanced assessment of the magnitude of the terrorist threat: according to Intelligence chiefs some 3,000 people “of interest” are being monitored and 800 live investigations going on. At least 24 planned attacks have been thwarted since the killing on Westminster Bridge in March 2017. Surveillance is massively labour intensive.
Prevention can only achieve so much. At the end of 2019, the annual number of referrals to PREVENT dropped to 5,738, their lowest since statistics were collected in 2016, but with the highest number yet deemed in need mentoring, 254 for Right-Wing extremism, 210 for Islamist extremism, participating in the Channel mentoring programme. Many others are given local authority support of one sort or another. About a third of referrals arose in the education sector, a third from the police, after reporting safeguarding concerns related to terrorism under the 2015 Statutory Duty provisions; they were mostly males, and mostly under twenty.
Labour Party policy is only to review PREVENT. Government has a statutory obligation to produce a review by August 2020. Statistics do not stand up Long-Bailey’s claims nor justify her intention to scrap a programme that is currently being improved. They might just as well be used to claim discrimination against the white working class of the West Midlands and North-West England, the main regions troubled with the right-wing extremism reported to the programme.
The Labour Party set up a PREVENT programme in 2003 as part of a broader counter-terrorism strategy. Not enough subsequent effort went into explaining the programme to teachers and gaining support from Muslim communities – which incidentally are far from united in their ‘alienation’. Its past flaws have been widely publicised. But the way forward is to improve understanding and community buy-in and the quality of support and de-radicalisation mentoring undertaken. Instead the loudest voices are heeded and PREVENT is added to the usual Momentum refrain that nothing good could possibly have come out of the Labour Party pre-Corbyn. Historical humility is not their strongest point.
Labour Party members should heed Tony Blair’s recent intervention as have the general public. Weber and Troeltsch made a useful distinction between a Church and a Sect. It can be applied profitably to the choice facing the Labour Party.
See also TheArticle 26/02/2020
“Viewers may find some images distressing”. Whether Idlib, Yemen, Afghanistan or Libya, journalists will probably have risked their lives to film what follows. Why forewarn us that we may be distressed by reports of terrible human suffering? No such warning that an episode of Love Island may be depressing. Or a clip of the Johnson Cabinet laughable. Must we always be protected from distress?
Perhaps our patrician TV protectors mean “viewers ought to be distressed by the following images, but we understand you will be getting up to make tea, or may even switch channels”. A foreign correspondent says to camera “this is the worst humanitarian crisis I have ever encountered”, but then we move smoothly on to the next – domestic - news item.
The horror of war is brought into our sitting rooms with stunning immediacy, often via mobile phones in the shaking hands of the victims themselves, unlike newspaper reports of former times - and so should be more influential. Apparently not so. The Battle of Solferino (1859) left 23,000 dying or wounded untended on the battlefield. Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman and activist, saw the pain and carnage and was duly distressed. Out of his distress came the Red Cross and, in the 1860s, the first Geneva Conventions limiting the barbarity of war. Recent images from Idlib Province in Syria and Yemen result in no such comparable reaction, and these show civilians dying.
Professional foreign correspondents struggle to engage us because you can’t imagine refugees fleeing in their millions, nations where most of the population are malnourished or dying of starvation because of war. So they focus on particular families or individuals and their travails. We watch towns bombed to rubble around them while snipers and drones target them as they flee. Yet our fleeting empathy leads nowhere.
The sheer numbers of refugees are unimaginable. There are 3.66 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey, a third in camps near the border. 1.8 million are in Jordan. The 1.5 million Syrians who fled to Lebanon live amongst a Lebanese population of only 5.9 million. Hundreds of thousands of children would be without a future without State and NGO attempts to provide education. CARITAS Lebanon, for example, provides after-school schooling for both Lebanese children at risk of dropping out of the overwhelmed State schools and for Syrian refugees.
Since Assad’s December Idlib offensive, some 900,000 people have fled north towards the sealed Turkish border. Besides the external agencies trying to meet this prodigious humanitarian challenge, the resilience and coping mechanisms of local actors are extraordinary. But humanitarian efforts are fast being overwhelmed.
And yet Syria and Yemen remain distant countries with little in common with the UK. Yemen is a semi-desert and desert land, desperately poor before the Saudis and Houthis made it a war zone. Over three quarters of the country’s vital food imports pass through one contested port, Hodeidah, alongside arms for the Houthi rebels whom the Saudis, and United Arab Emirates (UAE), hope to interdict and defeat. Over five million children, and 80% of the population, who depend on these food supplies face starvation. UNICEF is struggling to get food aid into the country, despite increasing obstacles erected by both sides, and the UN has warned of “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”.
My memory of the people and the land is still vivid. As a visiting CEO of a development agency, I spent time in a remote village high in the beautiful Raymah mountains where we were training midwives. These mountains may be unique; the higher you climb the noisier it gets. The poverty is as striking as the beauty.
You meet shepherds herding their flocks, climbing at a punishing rate, or skipping downwards irrespective of age, men and donkeys carrying impossible loads and incongruous items, a television set, a Kalashnikov, two big status symbols. You mount via uneven steps, passing narrow terraces where food crops and qat are grown. At the top there is the buzz of human voices: houses, villages, dirt roads, beat-up cars. You don’t climb mountains in Yemen seeking solitude.
Has the inaccessibility of the Raymah mountains protected people from the worst ravages of war? I don’t know. Idlib in Syria, the final sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing war, certainly hasn’t. In Idlib refugees are the targets of the Assad regime’s barbarism supported by Russia. The evidence of the deliberate targeting of hospitals, ambulances and schools, innocent civilians or ‘white helmets’ tending the wounded, is overwhelming. Barrel bombs fall on markets and areas of high population density. As drones pick off individuals, a new high-tech chapter in man’s inhumanity has opened up. We have come a long way from Solferino where soldiers bore the brunt of war. Now it is the civilian populations whose agony is reported.
The Geneva Conventions built on a tradition of ethics. Christianity and Islam both developed a theory of just war from a shared set of mediaeval principles. Many pages in Sharia Law dwell on what is not permissible in jihad, most notably the killing of innocents and non-combatants. Similar constraints on targeting, inherited from the Christian past, are part of an ethical code taught and generally implemented by British Forces. But, lest we claim some inherent sense of superiority, last week was the 75th anniversary of the indiscriminate, and unnecessary, bombing of Dresden, in which an estimated 24,000 Germans died.
A concerted international effort is needed to re-establish the laws of war, rebuild compliance with international conventions, and end complicity with their systematic undermining. It will be no easy matter. Diplomatic or commercial reasons for ignoring the increasing destruction of international order can always be found. It is time we - and complicit heads of state - began to “find some images distressing” and acted decisively upon our distress. As the head of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, said in Davos: “Welcome to the Age of Impunity”.
See TheArticle 20/02/20
Fierce debates about Catholicism’s place in public life invariably omit the positive contribution that Catholic social teaching could make to our politics. Discussion gets stuck – understandably but with much sound and fury - on contemporary issues, the beginning and end of life and sexuality, a minefield for politicians. But the Catholic tradition is wider and richer than that. And, after a period when the content of politics was reduced to Leave or Remain, could Catholicism provide ideas about the kind of society we might wish to live in?
Catholic social teaching developed in the 19th century in response to the condition of the European working class, revolutionary threats, the rise of Marxist analysis, and the emergence of Communist Parties and trades unions. In his 1839 pamphlet On Modern Slavery, the French Abbé, Félicité de Lamennais highlighted the damaging dependence of what he called ‘the proletariat’ on Capital. Whilst the young Marx was studying the history of philosophy, a Catholic priest was already placing the ‘proletariat’ politically centre-stage.
In June 1869, the Bavarian Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler preaching at a pilgrimage chapel in Hesse to 10,000 workers, denounced “anti-christian liberalism” and advocated worker associations on the model of British trades unions. His sermon was part of his committed engagement with social democracy and contemporary political debates. Ketteler anticipated the key themes of later Vatican social pronouncements: he introduced the term ‘subsidiarity’ - meaning that central government should only do that which local government was unable to do effectively.
A line can be drawn from Lamennais’ passionate tracts, through Ketteler, to Pope Leo XIII. The Pope’s Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour) published in 1891, was the first of a series of papal encyclicals, a self-consciously organic tradition leading to today and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si on the threat of climate change. In the 1880s Cardinal Henry Manning, concerned about the Irish migrants living rough around the Liverpool docks, was a further influence. Manning openly sympathized with striking dockers and mediated between unions and employers in the 1889 Dock Strike. The foundations of a living teaching tradition, open to development in new and different socio-economic contexts, were laid in the 19th. century.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and an inter-governmental conference on trade and development held in Geneva in 1964. Two speakers received a standing ovation. One was Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Argentinian hero of the Cuban Revolution. The other was Louis-Joseph Lebret, a Dominican priest from St. Malo where he experienced the poverty and struggles of the small Breton fishing community.
The conference established a new UN agency, UNCTAD. Lebret helped Pope Paul VI write his farsighted 1967 encyclical on trade and development, Populorum Progressio, the Progress of Peoples. Benefitting from the prestige of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Catholicism was again engaging authoritatively with contemporary problems and politics. Over 55 years later Populorum Progressio stands the test of time.
Ferment in Catholic thinking about poverty jumped from Europe to the developing world, notably Latin America where social movements were reacting to the brutality of military dictatorships and oligarchies supported by the CIA. From this revolutionary crucible came renewed interest in the Bible, with its themes of justice, and the birth of Liberation Theology.
Several core social principles from Latin America were cautiously adopted by Pope John Paul II, always suspicious of the bureaucratic communism he experienced in Poland. That seeking justice was fundamental to the Church’s mandate to evangelize just as much as charity, that solidarity with the poor was a central Christian virtue, that the poor should ‘make their own history’, rather than be its collateral damage, were ideas which entered the bloodstream of the global Church. Implementing these ideas in practical action and policies in Europe proved difficult.
The Catholic Church has been engaged in a long-running political conversation with socialism for over 175 years, at a Vatican level for 150 years. In 1990 when I talked with Gorbachev’s religious advisers as the Soviet Union was crumbling, they were acutely aware of the coming vacuum. “Our communist ethics are dead”, they bemoaned, “Christianity will have to provide the moral cement for society”. They had not foreseen the future role of the - State - Russian Orthodox Church.
Today some Chinese universities are very interested in the political ideas of the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, ideas he inherited from Aristotle. Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae, his teaching manual, devoted many pages to justice. Thomism seemed to map out a possible path to the harmonious society.
Catholic social teaching promotes several priorities: first to uphold the value of work, vocational labour, and worker rights, sometimes honoured in the breach, other times, in dramatic interventions, such as Solidarność in Poland; second, a critical distinction between “productive” and “savage” Capitalism. In short, the priority of human dignity, the Common Good, People over Profit. Too bad if Britain finds this politically uncomfortable.
Such general prescriptions and axioms, human dignity, the common good, social justice, require down-to-earth detailed policy implementation to take on socio-economic life. The political theorist, Professor Maurice Glasman, claims post-war Germany took this path: subsidiarity reflected in federalism with considerable devolution to the Länder, and in regional and local banks; non-conflictual industrial structures embodying co-partnership between employers and workers (Mitbestimmung); more recently, reflecting Catholic concern for migrants, the appointment of city integration commissioners for immigrant communities. Britain went its own way.
One caveat: Catholic Social Teaching is not a holistic get-yourself-out-of-moral-bankruptcy card when playing Monopoly Capitalism. As post-war Germany illustrates, it can give direction to society and economics. General de Gaulle tried to adopt a policy of ‘association’ and then ‘participation’ for workers in industrial management but failed. Britain’s economy, skewed heavily towards finance capital, and stuck after Empire with the dominance of the City of London, has barely tried.
This socio-economic vision which Catholicism proposes informed the early days of the European Union whose founding fathers were disproportionately Catholic. Whether they like it or not, British Catholics are part of this story. Not an ideal identity for drawing a needy audience to Catholic social thinking in a secular Britain, officially Protestant, having rejected membership of the European Union.
See TheArticle 14/02/2020
Explaining the Trump-Netanyahu ‘Peace-to-Prosperity’ plan last week, the White House made a revealing point: past failure to recognise political reality distorts contemporary perceptions. Hence the call for everyone to wake up and acknowledge the real state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. Or, more succinctly, to agree Might is Right. What seemed surreal in this travesty of a peace plan was simply ‘the new real’ of Realpolitik.
We inhabit a global landscape in which considerations of morality or international order are being discarded as utopian visions. The flagrant disregard of the rights of Palestinians to genuine self-determination, to anything resembling normal statehood, the legalising and entrenchment of Israeli contempt for UN Resolutions and international law, are today barely considered worthy of comment by Western governments, let alone robustly denounced. Have we become inured to injustice, terrified of the charge of anti-Semitism, guilty bystanders, watching the values shoring up the infrastructure of our international order daily eroded?
Not so the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, a body including the region’s Roman Catholic bishops and patriarchs of the ancient Christian Rites in communion with Rome. Their reaction to the plan was straightforward. “It does not give dignity and rights to the Palestinians. It is to be considered a unilateral initiative, since it endorses almost all the demands of one side, the Israeli one, and its political agenda. On the other hand, this plan does not really take into considerations the just demands of the Palestinian people for their homeland, their rights and dignified life”. They foresaw the consequences no less clearly: “The plan will bring no solution but rather will create more tensions and probably more violence and bloodshed”. That is the truth of Might is Right.
Trump doubtless learnt at his father’s feet that Might, understood as money plus power, is Right. And when it comes to the Palestinians, “losers” in his vocabulary, Trump the Peacemaker presents it as “the deal of the century”. Of course the mature political Trump would also be hearing the voice of a core element of his voter base: 81% of US Evangelicals who support him, many of whom espouse Christian Zionism, the belief that the State of Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecies, and, for some, the sign of the End Times. A much smaller percentage of American Jewish voters support Trump’s current policy and are uncritical of Israel’s human rights record.
Trump’s motivations are complex. But he thinks like a politician who knows from experience how important big blocs of ethnic and religious votes can be in winning the next Presidential election. He may even have hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize. That Obama got there first will rankle with him.
The Trump-Netanyahu double-act in Washington on 28 January was a chilling performance. Netanyahu gloating and thundering that the USA not only rejected the illegality of Israeli settlements in contravention of UN resolutions, but that the legality of his “facts on the ground” were now recognised in a formal peace plan.
The Arab League meeting in Cairo on Saturday rejected the plan; it did “not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people”. In the words of B’Tselem, the Jerusalem and Washington-based Human Rights Group, Palestine was to be reduced to the structure of a Swiss cheese: “the cheese being offered to the Israelis and the holes to the Palestinians”. The annexations would become permanent features enabling the total encirclement of 15 Palestinian enclaves by the exclusive Jewish Religious/Ethnic State and its military. Job done for Netanyahu.
Peace, it is often said, is in everyone’s interests. But peace in this ‘peace plan’ means that the Palestinians, in exchange for a promise of a large cash injection, would have to accept greater fragmentation of their territory than the Bantustans of former apartheid South Africa It is well known to most peace negotiators that offering money, $50 billion apparently on the table, in exchange for compromising core religious values, in this case the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome on the Rock, and Jerusalem itself – not some grubby suburb - as the Palestinian capital, will be regarded as a profound insult. People’s religious values are not for sale. Far from this being a peace plan, it is a knock-out blow to future dialogue, and most likely the beginning of a prolonged insurgency in the fashion of South Africa from the 1960s to 1990s, resulting in a single rather than a two-state ‘solution’ as the outcome.
Sometimes an event sharpens our perception of a whole period. It is a truism that domestic politics are always a dimension of foreign policy decisions. Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in the 1930s was a direct response to British public opinion as much as an expression of British government concern for international order. But it is rare for a major piece of foreign/international policy to be entirely for domestic consumption in the manner of this Trumpian ‘peace-to-prosperity plan’. This does not stop it doing irreparable damage to future peace processes in the region. As the Catholic bishops wrote, to ignore the human dignity and the rights of the Palestinian people is not a peace plan but a recipe for growing violence.
See also TheArticle 05/02/20