Like a refugee dinghy in the Channel with a broken engine and the wind getting up, we are in a perilous political situation. The destabilising Conservative by-election loss of Tiverton to the Liberal Democrats signals a move towards tactical voting and is an indicator of Tory supporters’ disenchantment with Boris Johnson and his government. Trust in the Conservative Party is evaporating to a point where it is not unreasonable for voters to discount the flurries of government announcements. So often what is announced does not happen or, when it does, provides no solution to our current multiple crises, or chips away at national values and institutions.
After twelve years of Conservative government, how many people know elderly relatives stuck in hospital while a social care package is put together? How many are waiting in pain for routine surgery, or can’t find a dentist to take them as an NHS patient, or live with the stress of waiting for a criminal case to come to trial, or have to face the indignity of foodbanks, or have lost hope of owning their own house?
All of these are features of pre-pandemic Britain and some were made worse by the pandemic. “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old”. Neil Kinnock’s words, warning against voting for Margaret Thatcher in the June 1983 election, echo down the years. He might have added “and don’t be leader of the Opposition”.
Effective opposition, setting the agenda, getting policy across to a public that has lost hope in positive political change, is an obstacle race. Opposition Parties struggle to get a fair hearing for their policies and know the cost of lacking caution in their presentations. Social Democracy, even genuine One Nation Toryism, gets scant coverage, drowned out by Johnson’s empty promises and posturing. On cue comes the vox pop response “we don’t know what he stands for” commenting not on Boris Johnson but on Keir Starmer. And the Wakefield result on a turnout of only 39%, although a Labour win, tends to bear this out.
Labour proposals for practical measures to deal with Britain’s growing inequality and acute economic problems qualify for cries of fiscal irresponsibility and profligacy. These get repeated in the Mail and Sun, often the Daily Telegraph, ventriloquized by a government that has wasted billions during the pandemic and during a labour shortage is prepared to spend more than £120 million on sending asylum seekers and migrants to Rwanda. Alternatively, when strong popular support emerges for a Labour idea (Blair’s ‘windfall levy’ from 1997), the Chancellor adopts it and a windfall tax becomes “a temporary, targeted, energy profits levy”.
In Britain we have a distinctive government-media complex characterised by leaking, briefing, instant rebuttals, spinning, gas-lighting and lobbying. But the major problem is a 24-hour news cycle that reduces and fragments political discussion to the latest – transient - single issue whether real, confected or trivial. If the downright lies and routine manipulation of statistics – thank heavens for Radio 4’s More or Less – are effectively countered, the fall-back is interestingly, and often, a technique used by perpetrators of domestic abuse. DARVO is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender based on research by Jennifer Freyd a psychologist at the University of Oregon. The dramatic finger pointing and shouting by Boris Johnson at the dispatch box during Parliamentary Question Time demonstrates how DARVO works. It distorts reality and forces the intended audience, us in this instance, to question our judgement and intuition.
When a form of gas-lighting becomes a dominant mode of political discourse, a number of things follow. Firstly a sense of helplessness. Nothing can be done. Once you have been labelled as the problem, the ‘leftie’ lawyer’, the ‘remoaner’, the ‘scrounger’, the metropolitan elite and ‘woke brigade’, you are on the back foot trying to defend yourself rather than discussing the issue. Secondly the big picture, in which the particular problem needs to be situated, disappears. Under these conditions lessons cannot be learned and incoherent policy initiatives flourish.
Climate change has immense implications for economic social and foreign policy. But, whilst contemporary problems are complex and overlap, climate change is not one in a list of problems. It is self-evidently a pending catastrophe, ‘the big picture’ itself, a picture in which large parts of planet become uninhabitable. Unlike Rishi Sunak, Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has presented - in September 2021 - the outline of a coherent plan for Britain’s essential transition to a Green Economy. When the media noticed, the headlines focussed on cost, £28 billion.
Government response to Putin’s war, pandemics and the economic damage of BREXIT should all be fitted into, and made compatible with, the urgent demands of countering climate change. But the immediate invariably trumps the longer term and the electoral cycle doesn’t help. Any political Party wishing to rebuild public trust has to find some way of taking voters into their confidence and telling the truth about the magnitude of change needed if we are to transition to a Green Economy and a Green Society. If mishandled, a step dangerously close to electoral suicide, well done, an defining act of respect for the public that should be reciprocated.
We need the best scientific brains internationally working together to crack energy storage, carbon capture, how to make transport and agriculture climate friendly. We need at the very least the level of co-operation of the existing scientific network in Horizon Europe from which we may have excluded ourselves by BREXIT. And we need to collaborate at the political level with other States. Disregard for international law, treaties and conventions is an effective way to make our exclusion widespread and permanent.
Andrew Rawnsley wrote last Sunday in the Observer that for Sir Keir Starmer to make a cut through would require more than integrity and competence, he would need an inspiring plan. It was a variation on the need to communicate ‘the vision thing’ and it carried weight. There can be no more important plan or vision than countering climate change and charting the economic road map to transform our economy to do so. That would get the ship of State moving again. But whether Starmer can forge a new consensus, and find a new political settlement, depends on whether a significant number of voters rate good governance and leadership above politics as entertainment.
There are clerical lives that at first follow the beaten track: Hampstead Garden Suburb to Stonyhurst, two years a second lieutenant in the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, seminary training at St. Edmunds College Ware, Brasenose College Oxford for a law degree, ordination in 1958, curacy at Our Lady of Victories, Kensington and just five years later personal secretary to the new Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, John Heenan. Then the unexpected, a path less trodden, not a sudden leap into the unknown, more a developing vocation within a vocation: a priestly life of work for peace and justice including a decade as leader of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND. Such was the extraordinary life of Bruce Kent who has died a few weeks short of his 93rd. birthday.
Both Bruce Kent’s parents were Canadians, his mother a pious Catholic, his father, a Presbyterian with Montreal sectarian views, working in London for the Pennsylvania Armstrong Cork Company. Bruce’s warm look of approval when a cork was pulled may not have been entirely filial respect. His father had been opposed to his becoming a priest. When a Pax Christi member knocked on his door in 1958 and invited him to become its chaplain Bruce happily accepted, the first small step into his lifetime’s work.
Cardinal Heenan, easily irritated by minor lapses in protocol, moved him on to chair the Westminster Diocese Schools Commission, the beginning of Bruce’s lifelong interest in peace education. Generations of school children will remember the charming, amusing and avuncular figure who talked about peace and peace-making, the arms trade and nuclear weapons. In one prolonged burst of activity for a one-year peace education project he spoke to 150 schools. He was a great raconteur and had a gift for communicating with all age-groups addressing causes of problems not just symptoms.
From 1966 –1974, Bruce was chaplain to London University. Like other priests engaging with students during this time of heightened student activism – think of Albert Nolan at Stellenbosch in South Africa and Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru’s National University in Lima – this was a liberating and radicalising experience. Still known as Monsignor Kent, in 1967 he began a long letter-writing career denouncing the naval chaplain in The Times for blessing the new Polaris submarine at its launch on the Clyde. He later conducted an exorcism at the Faslane nuclear submarine base and called on naval personnel to disobey immoral orders. “From the willingness to murder, Good Lord, deliver us.” And he quietly practised the traditional corporal acts of mercy, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. Among the items on his desk at the time he died lay the list of prisoners to whom he was writing regularly. He never gave up.
For Bruce, visiting war-torn and starving Biafra in 1969 and in 1971, the India-Pakistan war zones during a War on Want relief initiative, was an emotional turning point. He became profoundly aware of the horror of war and the hypocrisy of governments permitting the selling of arms to belligerents on both sides. In 1974 he became chairman of War on Want and helped to found the Campaign against the Arms Trade. Cardinal Heenan’s successor, Archbishop Basil Hume, later Cardinal, took a typically softer line on his peace and justice work, while Bishop Victor Guazzelli, auxiliary bishop of East London, was an understanding supporter during Bruce’s time in St. Aloysius parish in Euston.
During the intensification of the Cold War under Thatcher and Reagan the peace movement gained in strength. In 1980 Bruce Kent began taking on leadership roles in the peace movement and, as General Secretary of CND became a national figure, demonstrating his great talent for communication on radio and television. CND under his direction experienced a renaissance, supporting the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common campaigning against the siting of Cruise Missiles at the American airbase. Following ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev in June 1988, the last Ground Launched Cruise Missiles at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991.
Under Bruce’s ten years of leadership CND grew its national membership from 2,000 to 100,000 and increased its 30 active local groups to nearly 1,000. In 1982 he organised lobbying of the UN Second Special Session on Disarmament in New York. From 1985 to 1992 he was President of the International Peace Bureau, one of the oldest international peace organizations founded in 1891. Foreign visits included the Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and USSR. In 1988 he undertook a 1,000 mile walk for peace from Warsaw to Brussels. His prodigious energy sustained him through innumerable journeys by sleeper and endless travels for talks.
In the early 1980s Julian Lewis, later MP and from 2020 chairman of the House of Commons Select Intelligence and Security Committee , at that time research Director of the Coalition for Peace Through Security, an organization promoting government defence policy and opposed to CND, challenged Cardinal Hume to do something about his troublesome priest. Like the anti-apartheid movement, the peace movement did have strong Communist backing. Michael Heseltine once declared all CND members were communists or fellow-travelers warning he had their names. Bruce experienced his share of this kind of calumny even from within the Church. Though, at least superficially, it didn’t seem to bother him. More disturbing was having phones tapped and the shocking revelation that an undercover agent had been planted in the CND office.
On 11 February 1987, Monsignor Kent amicably ended his diocesan employment and, in his own words, retired. He made it clear that he hadn’t stopped being a priest, in other words that he would not seek laicization. Fourteen months later he married Valerie Flessati, a fellow Catholic peace activist whom he had known for many years through Pax Christi. It was a marriage whose happiness was born of love and shared vision, a genuine partnership which brought hope and inspiration to many. He remained an active Mass going catholic for the rest of his life.
Describing this period in an autobiography he summed up his basic difficulty – frequently misinterpreted - with the Church hierarchy:
“If there was a problem for the Church it lay in the contrast between the official idea of what a priest ought to be and what a priest actually was in many parts of the world. Support for Solidarnosc in Poland was priestly. Support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was not. To be Bishop of HM Forces was not political. To be CND Chairman was. My position was an impossible one. Many of my fellow Catholics, and other Christians, told me that what I was doing as a priest gave them hope, though I knew that most of my bishops did not think my work was priestly”.
Throughout his long life Bruce Kent responded to fresh challenges and opportunities speaking out against resort to military force and promoting the United Nations, international law, and other non-violent avenues for conflict resolution. He campaigned unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon in 1992. In debate he could more than hold his own - memorably against Sir Michael Quinlan, Permanent Secretary of State for Defence 1988-1992 and former chairman of The Tablet Trust.
Never afraid to innovate Bruce more recently began bringing environmental concerns into peace and justice issues. He accepted invitations from Muslim organisations, and, notably in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, supported multi-faith initiatives against Islamophobia or religious intolerance of any kind. He often pointed out parallels between the experience of Catholics persecuted in past centuries and the fomenting of suspicion about Muslims.
Much less known is his work with prisoners, visiting them, writing to them in lock-down, helping them. He co-founded and worked in Progressing Prisoners Maintaining Innocence helping prisoners claiming miscarriage of justice. His deep ingrained human sympathy is reflected in the avalanche of tributes on social media after his death – from individual Hiroshima and Nagasaki Hibukusha (atomic bomb survivors) to the Friends of Finsbury Park. Ironically he was IT-phobic and never came to terms with social media himself.
Despite the peace movement’s extensive international links Bruce was essentially a Londoner. His and Valerie’s little flat near Finsbury Park had just enough space between the books, newsletters and pamphlets for their two desks and for entertaining. Valerie, between her writing, her research into local conscientious objectors, planning the next public event or campaign, provided delicious meals from an equally small kitchen.
In 2019 Bruce Kent was awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the International Peace Bureau. In 2021 the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded him, jointly with Valerie Flessati, the Lambeth Cross for Ecumenism. He lived to see the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enter in force the same year.
I shall think of Bruce every time a newsletter from the Movement for Abolition of War, which he founded at the turn of the century, comes through the letter box. Blessed are the peacemakers. But it is sad that that such a beautiful Catholic life should end at the beginning of a terrible European war. In the words of Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool speaking on the Sunday programme: “Bruce was a great gift to the Church and, indeed, to Society”.
Bruce Kent, priest, peace campaigner and friend born London 22 June 1929; died London 8 June 2022
See The Tablet 18/06/2022
Is it wise for Ukrainian civil courts to try Russian soldiers for war crimes? In mid-May, a sergeant from a tank division, Vadim Shishimarin, admitted killing a retired tractor driver, 62- year old Oleksandr Shelipov, outside his house in the small village of Chupakhivka. In his defence Shishimarin alleged that he was obeying an order to shoot Shelipov who was using a mobile phone and assumed to be transmitting to Ukrainian forces the location of the car in which the Russians were fleeing. If true, some might feel that his defence had some strength. The judge sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Television footage of the convicted Russian sergeant in a glass cage and confronted by his victim’s widow, left little doubt that the purpose of this trial was to serve as a warning that the invading Russian troops could not act with impunity. More recently, Aleksandr Ivanov and Alekandr Bobykin were given an eleven years six months sentence for shelling with a Grad multiple-launcher system ‘civilian infrastructure’, hitting notably residential tower blocks and a secondary school, near Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv. The first rape trial of a Russian soldier is pending.
Prosecution of enemy military crimes in civilian courts during hostilities is unusual though not illegal. Guilty verdicts were not in doubt but the location, timing and impartiality of the Ukrainian court’s judgements all are. Another serious problem is that such trials offer Putin an excuse for show-trials of Ukrainian prisoners, including foreign volunteers, in Russian courts. The Ukrainians themselves are systematically gathering evidence of war crimes. At the time of writing, the office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General has over 14,000 instances of alleged war crimes on its books. But, under the circumstances, wouldn’t it be better if an independent international body were to be the prosecutor? In fact, there is one at hand, the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ukraine, though, has had complex legal wrangles in its Constitutional Court over ratifying the Statute of Rome, the 1998 treaty that brought the ICC into being. President Zelensky claims that he intends to ratify the Statute but this has yet to happen.
From 2014, in the context of the annexation of Crimea and the first - covert - Russian invasion of the Donbas region, Ukraine recognised the ad hoc jurisdiction of the ICC for “identifying, prosecuting and judging the authors and accomplices of acts committed on the territory of Ukraine”. In December 2017, State Parties to the ICC – members with obligations to arrest and transfer or provide access to evidence, witnesses and legal support for prosecutions - activated its jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, "the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State”. This would be the only possible approach to prosecuting Putin himself likely to gain traction.
By April 2022, 41 State Parties led by Lithuania had referred the situation after the massive Russian second invasion of Ukraine to the ICC. Currently there is an exceptionally large ICC team in the country coordinating investigations with the Ukrainian government. Britain is supporting their work financially and with legal advice.
But there are longstanding problems with ICC jurisdiction. Both the US and Russia signed the July 1998 Rome Statute in 2000 but neither became a member of the court thereby adopting its moral and legal obligations and providing it political and technical support. Russia pulled out in 2016 shortly after the ICC published a "damning verdict" on Russia's 2014 occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol. The USA is one of seven countries that initially refused to sign alongside such uncomfortable bedfellows as China and Iraq. President Bill Clinton having signed did not allow the treaty to be ratified in the Senate. Obama made some supportive moves and sent observers to the annual meeting of the governing Assembly of States Parties in The Hague. But the Trump administration told the ICC that it would revoke visas for any ICC staff seeking to investigate Americans for war crimes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the same would apply to any staff involved in investigating war crimes committed by Israel or other allied nations.
The ICC currently has 123 Members. Britain is one. No thanks to the USA. I remember a fraught moment in Autumn 1998 when, at a Foreign Office reception, I found myself amongst a small group clustered deferentially around a senior civil servant. In rushed a white-faced - lowlier – official. In the heat of the moment he blurted out that Bill Clinton had just been on the line to Tony Blair trying to talk him out of signing the Rome Statute. Special relationship or not, the Prime Minister held his ground.
The exceptionalism manifested in this US position has damaging implications for future prosecution of war crimes which Fintan O’Toole, discusses with his usual caustic panache in ‘Our Hypocrisy on War Crimes’, 26 May 2022 New York Review of Books. He considers the political background to US conduct during the Vietnam War comparing it with that of the Russian Federation in Ukraine whilst acknowledging the lack of equivalence. But this doesn’t soften his conclusion. “The brutal truth is that the US abandoned its commitment to the ICC not for reasons of legal principle but from the same motive that animated Putin”. In short, neither State wanted to have its military or political leaders prosecuted for war crimes by an international institution. There is a “yawning gap”, he writes, between “Biden’s grandiloquent rhetoric about Putin’s criminality” and US reluctance to give its support to the ICC, the body created by the international community to deal with such criminality.
The Shishimarin trial’s real importance is as testimony that Oleksandr Shepilov matters as an individual and that his right to life shall not be violated with impunity. Prosecuting his killer is not Victor’s Justice, the criticism leveled against the Nuremberg Tribunals: the war in Ukraine continues with no victors. But the trial is open to the challenge that this is not impartial justice. It would have carried greater weight had it been undertaken by the ICC or by another international tribunal such as those created after the Rwandan genocide and the Balkan wars. Future trials of war crimes committed in Ukraine should not be simply exercises in exposing Putin’s brutality or part of the propaganda war fought alongside the bloody armed conflict. They need to show, despite the horror and destruction of war, that the law stands firm as the scaffolding around collapsing civilization.
See TheArticle 09/06/2022
The first casualty of war is truth. Running a good second comes reasoned discussion about a war’s legitimacy, whether it is a just war. Over the years the scale and horror of modern warfare has increasingly called into question the traditional concept of a just war. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has begun to re-surface these doubts. As yet there has been little critical discussion of Britain’s role in it.
Beginning in the 5th century Christian thinkers developed criteria for a war to be just: it must be a last resort, called by a legitimate authority, have a just cause and intention with benefits outweighing the costs (the principle of proportionality), and have a reasonable chance of success. War should be conducted so as to avoid the killing of non-combatants and any actions causing more harm than the injustice combatted. Just war considerations inform the Geneva Conventions and the need for UN approval for military interventions, and apply in practice to the rules governing military targeting. They are the positive products of centuries old attempts to limit the barbarity of war.
In 2020 Pope Francis published his wide-ranging encyclical Fratelli Tutti addressed to ‘brothers and sisters all’ - that’s not just Catholics. Its six paragraphs on war feed into the long just war tradition developed since the time of St. Augustine (354-430). One sentence in Francis’ reflections seems particularly, but not exclusively, applicable to Russia. “War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of alleged humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to manipulation of information’. Even though European secular governments are accustomed to ignoring, or deploring, the advice and statements of Church leaders, the Pope’s thinking may still be of interest to secular readers. Just one caveat, internal debate in wartime can, and does, result in national Bishops’ Conferences taking a different position from that of Rome.
“We do not uphold Augustine’s theory in our own day” writes the Pope in a teasing, unelaborated footnote to his conviction expressed in Fratelli Tutti that the risks of war “will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits”. Weapons of mass destruction, notably tactical nuclear weapons with the threat of a nuclear war, create “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” This is the principle of proportionality, a constraint on military action emphasised by the US Catholic bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace”. Both follow John XXIII who almost 60 years ago in Pacem in Terris wrote that war may no longer be regarded as a “fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice”.
Question NATO’s role in the Ukraine war and you will be given short shrift as a left- wing, or right-wing, fanatic. But was the Pope so wrong when he told Corriere della Sera earlier this month that it would be going too far to say that NATO’s expansion eastwards provoked Putin’s lurch into war but that it perhaps facilitated it? Remember that Francis’ primary concern is peace-making. In a mid-March video conference with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a supporter of Putin’s invasion, Francis, trying to reach out to Kirill while implicitly condemning Putin’s ‘special military operation’, said: “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. Wars are always unjust since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war”.
Is this all just a utopian vision divorced from reality? The Catholic catechism itself acknowledges the right to self-defence encompassing a country’s resistance against an oppressor once “the rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy have been met”. Fratelli Tutti spells out the Christian position in terms I first heard in South Africa during the apartheid struggle of the early 1980s. “True love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use that diminishes his own humanity and that of others”. But how? This, as Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated, the Pope implies and the Christian peace movement advocates, could, and should, be active non-violent resistance. And it calls into question even the courageous self-sacrifice of Ukrainian security forces fighting for their homeland and national identity with imported NATO artillery and anti-tank weapons.
The just war principle that there must be reasonable chance of success should give us, NATO, and our Press, pause. If success means multiple Mariupols, very heavy troop losses and civilian mass graves all over the country, Ukraine destroyed, the question of proportionality becomes decisive and difficult. But can anyone predict what Putin will do – a seemingly sick man conducting a perverse legacy-war – or what the outcome of one highly motivated military force’s fight on home ground against an invading force with superior destructive power will be? Without military supplies from the West, Ukraine would be overwhelmed. Getting questions about our role right is not some abstract moral calculus but a matter of hundreds of thousands of lives potentially lost or saved, and some would argue, a stable world international order.
The only path to follow - other than into relentless destruction and loss of life - is to persevere with diplomacy. President Macron led the way on this. It will mean at some point putting into play with Putin wider and innovative concessions that do not project weakness, nor the dismemberment of Ukraine. And that in turn requires sieving scraps of truth from Putin’s and Russia’s perennial paranoia and nostalgia. If we believe with the Pope that war can no longer be a remedy, then, as Georgetown University’s Eli McCarthy and some other US academics propose, we need to begin now to use a different set of tools to build a just peace long term – not simply react to wars with further militarization.
Advocating such a parallel pathway sounds naïve, defeatist, even a national security risk. But in a world in which national security is also about climate change, famines and pandemics, it is realistic. War divides and holds back common action on such vital issues. However seductive the comparison, and though Putin’s Russia shows many features of fascist rule, this is not 1939 come round again.
As things stand, the most probable outcome of Putin’s invasion is prolonged military conflict drifting eventually into a guerrilla war, Ukrainian partisans against a brutal Russian invader, the only victors arms manufacturers, the wheat fields and cities of Ukraine the latest testing ground for new weapons systems. And these could be the very weapons of mass destruction, chemical or nuclear, whose existence calls in question the possibility of a just war.
See TheArticle 02'06/2022