The pandemic has shed a revealing light on the way we organise society and international relations. The global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19 presents a sorry tale of nationalism versus globalisation. The death toll amongst the poor and vulnerable in Britain starkly reveals the underlying values of our political culture.
The production of vaccines, as in most realms of scientific endeavour, has been an international effort, one that has shown the value – and one of the drawbacks - of public-private partnerships. The iron law of the market is that those who pay most for scarce resources acquire them, or at least get them first. Pharmaceutical companies can and do work effectively for shared aims with national governments but that does not mean the profit motive and markets have magically disappeared. That said the rigours of the market do not excuse what is now called ‘vaccine nationalism’.
Economic globalisation has created transnational supply chains, allowing goods to be sourced where labour is cheap with just-in-time delivery giving competitive advantage. But if you run out of essentials for manufacturing a vaccine in bulk, for example vials to put the vaccine in, plus stoppers, needles and syringes to inject it, or even lipid components of the serum, you can be as nationalist as you like, there will be delays in vaccinating your people and more will die. Quite apart from the oft repeated and obvious truth, highlighted by the plight of India and Brazil, that with a mutating lethal virus that easily crosses borders ‘until everyone is safe, no-one is safe’, vaccine nationalism is delusional.
Vaccine nationalism is well described as common nonsense, a useful term invented by the Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. He wrote that common sense “commonly feels itself omni-competent in practical affairs, commonly is blind to the long-term consequences of policies and courses of action, commonly is unaware of the admixture of common nonsense in its more cherished convictions and slogans.” Governments taking no responsibility for the plight of those beyond their borders claim they must fulfil their primary duty to protect their people, deliberately ignoring the interdependence of both lives and livelihoods in the 21st. century and the last three decades of the 20th, our most recent phase of globalisation. Classic common nonsense.
Britain as a nation trading globally, London as a transport hub, means that our borders are permeable to the virus and to the people who may transmit it. What does ‘take back control’ mean in this context? We can thank the clever snake-oil salesmen of BREXIT in part for this particular common-nonsense slogan. Britain’s population is aging and part of growing old is the onset of different ailments and declining strength. Who in that age-group would not wish to ‘take back control’? Tune in to bus conversations about what the nurse said and which medicine does the job best. Transpose to fears about the NHS ‘being swamped’ by foreigners and hey-presto you’ve got a Wizard- of- Oz grade slogan particularly appealing to the old. But it’s still common nonsense.
BREXIT nationalism expressed in ‘taking back control’ is not just, as Peter Oborne, calls it, ‘an assault on truth’, it is plausible because it contains a grain of truth. Our success with mass vaccine distribution is in striking contrast to the mistakes made by the European Union. The Commission’s own mess is compounded by the ponderous national regulatory procedures of each member state. Warnings about alleged dangers have created widespread distrust in AstraZeneca, producing one of the most easily distributed, safe and effective vaccines on the market. Vaccine nationalism is not uniquely British.
Current conflicts can be viewed in ways other than through the prism of nationalism. The principle of subsidiarity, action should not be taken at a higher level unless it cannot be taken effectively at a lower level, offers an alternative way of looking at them. This sounds all very Catholic and what my old Professor at the University of Galway would call ‘amorphous’. In fact the term was first used to describe the principle of Calvinist Church governance, or so claimed the Cellule de Prospective (Forward-Planning Unit) set up by Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission in the early 1990s. Article 5 of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 states that the ‘EU does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level’. That’s subsidiarity though you may not have noticed. The UK would have done well to have heeded the principle instead of creating a centralized Track and Trace system bypassing existing local public health systems of infection control.
The other political principle highly relevant to the tension between nationalism and globalization has also become central to Catholic Social Teaching. It is solidarity, a commitment to the common good of all that transcends national frontiers. Both the pandemic and climate change show that solidarity is not just a utopian concept or a counsel of perfection in an imperfect world but an urgent necessity. Vaccines and vaccination are a global common good for all humanity. Globalisation, and many of its features, may not be the last word but its present reality requires nothing less than the application of the two principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. They must inform any new social contract.
Two news stories emerged around the Ides of March this year. The first about a project near Whitehaven in the Borough of Copeland in West Cumbria. The second about developments on the Clyde of special interest to residents of Argyll and Bute. Both in their different ways had implications for the future of the planet. Both also illustrated the delusional quality of current ideas of national sovereignty.
The first, you may have guessed, was about Woodhouse colliery, a project of West Cumbria Mining owned by the Australian Company EMR Capital. In 2019 Cumbria Council granted planning permission for the first deep coal-mine since 1987, to extract from under the Irish Sea an estimated 3.3 million tons of high quality coking coal used in steel manufacture but producing carbon emissions equivalent to that created by a million households per annum not to mention worries about its proximity to Sellafield nuclear power station and pockets of undersea methane. Difficult to square with Britain’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and the Paris Treaty to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, you might say and you would not be alone.
Not surprisingly with the COP26 International Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow chaired by Boris Johnson in the offing, the Woodhouse colliery decision caused considerable controversy. Keep Cumbrian Coal in a Hole, a campaigning NGO, threatened a legal challenge. South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC), a community-based environmental charity, was thinking along the same lines. The local controversy was breaking as a national story.
Then the project bounced up to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick. Not noted for trouble-free decisions, he pushed the decision back to Cumbria County Council. Though hardly an issue on a par with how often the bin men would visit, it would be for the County Council to decide. There were new jobs at stake in Whitehaven, in Teesside - from where 80% of the coal was going to be exported (so the emissions would not count as Britain’s) - the need for 6.6 million tons of coking coal imported from Australia and the USA would be reduced.
Enter the US Special Envoy on Climate Issues, 2004 Presidential candidate Mr. John Kerry, on a visit to Europe. Post-Trump, the USA was very much back in the game when it came to limiting Climate Change. Kerry made it abundantly and volubly clear that Woodhouse Colliery was a non-starter. The Conservative mayor of the Borough of Copeland, Mike Starkie, fought back. “I take no lessons from John Kerry”, he said “given that the UK is miles in front of the States in the reduction of the use of coal for fuel”. This was a misunderstanding of the situation. Britain was a lesson-taker. On 11 March Mr. Jenrick “called in” the planning application, he would hold a public enquiry, the West Cumbria mine would be kicked into the long grass, or rather the long seaweed. For HMG’s principled decision read HMV, His Master’s Voice – coming from Washington.
The second such story, all true Scots will have spotted, was the announcement within the Integrated Defence Review released on 16 March 2021 that the slow build-up in the Royal Naval Armaments Depot of nuclear warheads for the submarines at Faslane on the Clyde was deliberate. Britain, we were informed, was changing its self-imposed cap of 225 nuclear warheads to a new cap of 260. Its current target for reduction of nuclear weapons to 180 by the mid-2020s was presumably abandoned, a worrying volte-face for the post-Cold War period. The decision just happened to coincide with the lobbying of Congressional Committee leaders by the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace over funding approval for a new US, W93, warhead programme. The nuclear proliferation team in Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI), not known for leftist rhetoric, described this ‘co-incidence’ in Going Ballistic: The UK’s Proposed Nuclear Build-Up as “a clear indication of the degree of UK dependence on that [the USA’s] programme”. In other words our Independent Nuclear Deterrent was becoming even less independent. And our future nuclear deterrent is viewed, at least in design terms, as a joint project.
The point is that the first task of a State, the security of its citizens, for Britain supposedly based on nuclear deterrence, is shared with, and is becoming more controlled by, another State. If this doesn’t amount to sharing important aspects of sovereignty, what does?
In the mid-2000s Britain led the world in methods of verification of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. To quote RUSI, our volte-face on nuclear weapons was “unequivocally damaging to diplomacy”. It also made the “use of low-yield weapons more possible”, a clear and present danger in the context of conflicts such as in eastern Ukraine. In short we left the EU only to become – inevitably - more dependent on the USA.
Worse, the Prime Minister has a penchant for Trump-lite policies, damaging the soft power of British diplomacy and idevelopment aid, breaking international treaties, toying with a British form of culture wars, playing elites against people, sacking top civil servants and arousing the sectarian demons of Northern Ireland. So the current influence of the USA may not be such a bad thing. Importing some of Biden’s Climate Change vision, commitment and integrity may be salutary as Kerry demonstrated. But the moral is we must give up the consoling claim to “punch above our weight”. As a declining State we have been losing weight for many years. We must also leave behind the fantasy of “taking back control”. In a globalised world the best, the only, realistic way to control our destiny and “punch above our weight” is within strategic alliances. And that requires some degree of shared sovereignty.
The basic snag with presenting national sovereignty as the exercise of some kind of glorious, autonomous agency is that it flies in the face of reality. National sovereignty requires ‘sovereign capability’ which for better or for worse we, like most other nations, now lack in several respects, not least we don’t feed ourselves and we certainly don't rule the waves. It is time we rejected the infantilism of Boris Johnson and developed some historical, corporate self-knowledge and purposive strategy for the future. By the next Ides of March the knives may be out.
See TheArticle 15/04/2021
Parents in Britain are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their children’s education and future. But at the back of our minds we know that the human damage of COVID is global, far more severe beyond wealthy countries like ours. Our anxieties are as nothing compared with the fears of refugees living in poverty-stricken limbo who see no future for their children.
Lebanon with a population of 6.8 million shelters at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees, not counting the Palestinians who arrived much earlier. Transposed to the UK these figures would amount to a doubling in the populations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus a 50% increase in that of Greater London. Britain meanwhile sees taking in 20,000 Syrians through the UK Vulnerable Persons Settlement Scheme as a source of pride.
When we think of refugees’ plight, or are reminded of it by TV coverage and the appeals of development agencies, usually shelter, clean water, nutrition and medical supplies come to mind, the vital immediate necessities to keep people alive. But we all know that in today’s global economy, if we take education away from their children, refugees may live to see another day, may even one day be able to return to their homeland, but the future without an educated younger generation will be one of unremitting poverty, despair and possible conflict. For international donors humanitarian aid or provision of education should not be an either-or decision. Yet how often do we hear about the collapse of the educational systems in conflict countries such as Yemen, Somalia, and Syria and its inevitable results?
In 2019 and 2020, the economic situation in Lebanon went from bad to worse. The situation continues to deteriorate. Unemployment now is sky-high. The Lebanese pound has dropped in value by more than 90 percent since 2019, bringing angry protesters no longer able to afford basic necessities back on the streets. Recent surveys put more than 50 per cent of the population below the poverty line. For Syrian refugees, the figure is even higher, with 83% living below the extreme poverty line. The Covid-19 pandemic and Beirut port explosion which killed more than 200 people - wounded more than 6,000 and displaced around 300,000 - added to an already disastrous economic and political situation. Large-scale popular protests led to the Prime Minister’s and government’s resignation.
Save the Children’s recent report Spotlight on Lebanon puts the number of Lebanese school-age children at 660,000. Before COVID when schools were open only 21% of 15-17 teenagers attended school, 69% of the 6-14 age group. Among Syrian refugee children the numbers are worse; fewer than half of the 631,000 in the country have had access to formal, adequate education; unofficial figures indicate that some 180,000 children are working to support their families. The impact on what was formerly a modern private school system with high levels of attainment in science and mathematics, alongside a comprehensive state provision, has been catastrophic.
Before the pandemic, state schools dealt with overwhelming numbers by organizing morning and afternoon shifts with refugee children mainly attending in the afternoons. Since March 2020 schools, with short breaks, have been shut. And since then, at its best, Lebanese children have received eleven weeks of education, refugee children much fewer. Refugee families with very few exceptions can neither pay for Internet access nor laptops so absence from formal schooling, apart from NGO interventions, has meant no education at all. The first three months of 2021 have perpetuated and deepened the continuing educational crisis.
Leaks of Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office budgetary plans suggest that an 88% cut to aid for Lebanon is being considered – with the vague possibility of some extra money possible from other UK government budgets. Given Lebanon’s strategic importance in the Middle East, such cuts would at best be remarkably short-sighted.
It was once true that the thriving private sector, dominated by Church-run schools, eased the pressure on the public sector. But no more. The impoverishment of Lebanon’s middle-class has drawn large numbers of children into already oversubscribed state schools. The strain on the system has in its turn pushed up the drop-out rate amongst vulnerable Lebanese children. So they join the children of Syrian refugees in whatever the charitable sector can provide by way of ‘after-school schooling’.
What is to become of the two past UK funding interventions in Lebanese education, started 2016-2017, the Reaching all Children with Education programme and the No Lost Generation Initiative? The former provided a grant of £106 million to the Ministry of Education & Higher Education. The latter a more innovative £93 million grant “to support the delivery of non-formal education and child protection for the most vulnerable out of school refugee children and children from host communities aged 3-18”. The kind of project that was, and is, desperately needed but now under threat from drastic cuts.
Public skepticism about overseas aid - and this is often forgotten by donor governments - springs partly from the public perception that aid is essentially Ministry to Ministry, government to government support. When a recipient government is in crisis, known to be failing, understandably pressures to cut aid ratchet up. But the non-governmental sector, NGOs and international NGOs, as in Lebanon often play a major role in education as well as humanitarian aid. Caritas Lebanon, for example, working through its Church network plays a vital role in the country. Smaller bodies offering a range of expertise, sometimes dismissed as ‘sticking plaster’ to highlight the higher profile strategic plans of government, can, and do play an important role. Better funding would enable this sector to increase their capacity. And despite last year’s scandals, confidence in the probity of NGOs remains relatively high.
Strategic plans for the educational system are not the only part of the country’s institutions that begin to fall apart in economic crisis. Banking comes to mind. But banking can be regulated and can soon be back in business. After a certain time, the blighted futures of a lost generation cannot be restored.
Lebanon now has an urgent need for the world to step up and help a country that has taken the greatest responsibility for helping refugees driven across their border by a terrible war. Countries whose youth are without hope for the future are prone to instability and conflict. The Middle-East and North Africa cannot afford another country with a lost generation.
See TheArticle 09/04/2021
Vacuous worn-out words and phrases are a telling feature of our contemporary political pathology. The saddest, often poured like ketchup on shallow relationships, is ‘community’. Saddest because community is a deep human need. Humiliation, alienation and lack of belonging are poorly disguised behind frequent use of ‘community’. A true understanding of community, and therefore how to nurture it, is essential for a healthy political culture.
Today, almost any grouping of people with a single common characteristic is at risk of being called a community: the scientific community, the BAME community, the community of plastic bag manufacturers, the help save the hedgehog community (I must declare an interest here), the European Economic Community (before it became a somewhat disunited Union). Any group can become a victim of stereotyping. It is a short step to treating their common character trait as inherent or to make sweeping negative generalizations about a particular group; this is what is generally meant by racism.
Even if we resign ourselves to the portmanteau nature of that word ‘community’ we encounter a second problem: group identities obscure the many individual differences found amongst members of a group. I remember a Muslim friend whispering to me during an interfaith discussion: “I wish sometimes I could just be me and not always the Muslim woman”. I imagine a Catholic bishop might secretly feel the same. And if we view cultural difference in a pluralist society only in monochrome rather than in its technicolour reality, community relations will remain stuck in a black and white picture of exclusion/inclusion and integration/separation.
But perhaps we make things worse by asking the wrong questions. People talking about community, however vaguely, are usually referring to a good thing, something desirable. But we are aware of exceptions. Not all communities are a good thing and we know they can be oppressive, coercively enclosed, violent places. So why not, as the stereotyped Irishman is credited with saying, start from somewhere else? Ask instead what kind of behaviour, which virtues are required to create good community, the sort of community we want to create when we emerge from Covid and its restrictions.
What constitutes and creates good community? Working together for the common good is one key. Sociability flows most easily from hands to heart to head. Schools and universities require much professional expertise and organisation for the flow to be in the opposite direction: head to heart to hands. To be recognised and acknowledged, above all to contribute and to be needed, are fundamental human needs that, when realised, build community.
The loss of community felt by being made unemployed is so intense euphemisms are used. People are ‘let go’. ‘Made redundant’ too accurately describes the painful reality. The devaluation of low paid labour is deeply divisive. As the American political philosopher, Michael Sandel says there is a deep problem when the idea of the common good we carry in our heads, and how to achieve it, is defined by market mechanisms. No wonder that societies and nations rooted in individualism and consumerism, its citizens striving for self-sufficiency and self-mastery, find the creation of a common life so difficult.
Another key to community is historical humility, shared memory and the disposition to learn from the past. Is there anything we might learn from past conscious efforts to create community? Rowan Williams in his recently published The Way of St. Benedict, about the founder of western monasticism, looks as far back as the sixth century for guidance. It’s a short book with long sentences; in a chapter on ‘Benedict and the Future of Europe’ he asks. “In the half-secularized, morally confused and culturally diverse continent we now inhabit, does the Holy Rule still provide a beacon for common life?” And then the former Archbishop of Canterbury argues cogently that it does have something to say to us. A not so surprising conclusion for viewers of ‘The Monastery’, the memorable 2005 TV reality series which followed a group of people – several without any religious convictions - spending time with the monks of Worth Abbey.
Benedict’s Rule, aimed at building and sustaining community, picks out honesty, accountability, transparency, the peaceful resolution of inevitable conflicts, and stability as the necessary virtues and features of monastic life and the characteristics of a good Abbot. Lord Williams argues for their contemporary salience as political virtues for governance. For instance honesty “is not simply the matter of being transparent about your expenses (although that helps). It has something to do with whether or not society expects in its political class a degree of self-criticism and self-questioning”. He also underlines the responsibility of civil society. “An honest society ought to be able to guarantee the possibility for those in public life to acknowledge fallibility or uncertainty”, he writes. And in political leadership Rowan Williams seeks ‘stable and nurturing habits’ omitting - with Christian charity - to add how alien these political virtues seem to the present Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
Remarkably St. Benedict’s guidelines do still speak to our contemporary condition. “Good governance and government”, Rowan Williams writes “is always about engagement with the other, a developing relation that is neither static confrontation nor competition, but an interaction producing some sort of common language and vision that could not have been defined in advance of the encounter.” Where are dialogue and constructive interaction to be found?” The grim reality is that our political culture seems the antithesis of what Benedict proposes for sustaining a harmonious, stable community.
The Way of St. Benedict was published last year. It performs an important task by invigorating and making meaningful the worn-out but essential word ‘community’. And as our intellectual horizons disappear in a haze of slogans, deceit and half-truths, perhaps we can learn from the sixth century how to restore them.
See TheArticle 01/04.2021