In the game of chess, pawns can be promoted into queens when they reach the other side of the board. That is a lot of squares to cross with a high risk of being taken by the other side on the way. Queening doesn’t happen very often: one or other of the players has usually resigned before it gets to the End Game.
In the EU Middle Game, Boris Johnson and David Davis, both knights on the UK side, were lost. A pawn of the DUP and the Tory back benches, Theresa May is lucky to reach the end game. She stands little chance of being transformed into an all-powerful queen. This to my mind is because she has not yet made the speech that she needs to make. Here is a draft ready for the Prime Minister to deliver.
“Good Evening. (Sombre dress, direct to camera)
After much deliberation I have decided to speak to you, fellow citizens, on a matter that deeply troubles us all. On 26 June 2016 those of you eligible to vote chose by a majority to leave the European Union. None of us, and I include myself, a lapsed Remainer (smile), could possibly have known with any assurance what this decision would entail. This is neither shameful nor surprising. The task of disentangling forty years of countless accumulated links, ties, and formal binding arrangements with the European Union was daunting and unprecedented. Yes, I believed the overall effect of those relationships to be mostly beneficial and that inclined me to remain.
I have learnt since I was elected to Parliament in 1997 to be cautious about making policy based on forecasting, even when provided by those who are rightly considered experts in their field (suggestion of a smile). But I am committed to building policy on evidence. The evidence is now overwhelmingly that reaching No Deal is becoming more likely. No Deal means for us and for future generations a dire economic impact, loss of jobs, losses for businesses, losses of businesses moving out of the United Kingdom, losses of tax revenues and therefore further austerity with the poor bearing the burden, and the question of the border between Ireland and the United Kingdom unresolved.
This is not a legacy I wish to leave.
In the past I have often said that No Deal is better than a Bad Deal. As we get closer to the end of this stage of our negotiations with the European Union, the picture is getting clearer: both are unacceptable. As your Prime Minister, I never forget Government works not only for the wellbeing of the present generation but for future generations. It is important to remember that the younger generation, sons, daughters, grandchildren voted by a large majority (emphasize) to remain. Their views must be taken seriously.
Throughout my premiership I have strived for the unity of my Cabinet, Party and Country. But we must not let unity be the enemy of truth, prosperity and justice. Nor should talking about the likely consequences of leaving the Single Market, the single most important market for our goods and services, and the Customs Union, be dismissed as “fear-mongering”. Hard facts as they emerge should be an integral part of our decision-making directed at the good of the country. We have now reached a point in our negotiations when evidence of the damage which leaving the EU will cause our country cannot be brushed aside.
I have worked tirelessly with civil servants and government ministers in negotiations with the EU. We have made some progress. I realise fully that what I am saying to you tonight will displease a significant number of voters and MPs in my own Party. But I cannot continue to conduct negotiations with a mandate that I believe can only lead to stalemate and impasse. The vote of confidence that matters most to me is that coming from you, the British people. Perhaps you will think I should have spoken earlier. I have waited until it became absolutely clear that the leaders of the EU cannot and will not make concessions that they believe undermine the principles which define membership of the European Union. There is no easy time to tell hard truths (rueful look).
For this reason I have asked the Electoral Commission today to prepare for an opportunity for you to consider the new facts as we now see them and choose the way forward. You will be asked to make this vital decision in a fresh vote in a few months time. By then you will have a clearer picture of the options before us than now, much clearer I hope than two years ago.
I have undertaken much reflection and introspection before speaking to you tonight. Saying ‘I have changed my views’ is a very hard decision for a political leader. We must move away from the dangerous idea that leadership is rigidly inflexible. Yes, when the facts change, views on what to do should change. Britain is at a cross roads. Our democracy demands that people when voting have adequate knowledge of the future destination of their society. My pledge to you is to champion truth in the forthcoming debate, both from my lips and those of my colleagues in Parliament. For without truth our democracy is undermined.
(Smile) Thank you and goodnight”.
It was a small paragraph buried in the newspaper this week. The Saudi-led coalition was again, despite international pleas, pushing on with Operation Golden Victory, their attempt to take the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. Yemen is a semi-desert and desert land. Over three quarters of the country’s imported food passes through Hodeidah, as well as arms for the Houthi rebels whom the Saudis and United Arab Emirates (UAE) hope to interdict and defeat. Over five million children depend on these food supplies and already face starvation. UNICEF is struggling to get food aid into the country and the UN has warned of “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”. This is what serious damage to, and complete closure of the port will achieve.
Yemen is desperately poor. From the 1960s, the international aid organization for which I worked had a development programme in Yemen. My memory of the people and the land is still vivid. As visiting CEO of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), I stayed in Ja’fariyah, in a remote village high in the beautiful Raymah mountains. You had to walk to smaller settlements. These mountains may be unique; the higher you climb the noisier it gets. The poverty is as striking as the beauty.
In this terrain your fellow climbers are trying to make a living, mostly climbing up and down rather than along the ridge roads. You meet shepherds herding their flocks in front of them, men and donkeys carrying impossible loads and improbable items, a television set, a Kalashnikov, all moving at a punishing rate upwards, or skipping downwards like fleeing goats. You mount uneven steps, some cut into the basalt, some natural, passing small terraces where food crops and qat are grown. On the mountain top there is a buzz of human occupation: houses, villages, dirt ridge roads. You don’t climb mountains in Yemen to seek solitude.
The CIIR Yemen programme tried to reduce maternal and child mortality. It was called International Cooperation for Development and employed mostly Muslim volunteer development workers. They trained traditional birth attendants building on their experience and knowledge and introducing them to modern midwifery skills and better practice. The time around birth was a privileged period for imparting health – and sometimes feminist – messages. Unable to understand instructions on medical items, the women trainees asked to learn to read and a special course was developed. Women who completed the training and implemented it were the first women to appear on Yemeni television and soon played leadership roles in their villages, and nationally, promoting preventative health care. Fewer women and babies died in childbirth.
But as Yemeni women these trained birth attendants had to struggle. The distinctive Yemeni house, in the shape of a tower, reflects the relationships between men and women. Upstairs in the mafrage, enjoying magnificent views, the men converse and chew qat declining in Roman fashion in a large airy room. The television sets and Kalashnikovs laboriously brought up the mountains adorn these upstairs rooms. Food is placed before the men on floor mats and everyone dips in to common dishes. Downstairs the women cook and live with the children in gloomy rooms lit by windows set in high walls. The trained, literate birth attendants faced the daily challenges of an entrenched social conservatism. Yet this is only a partial picture of life in rural Yemen.
Uthman, one of the volunteers, a former Sudanese Trades Unionist, now a nurse, was something of a Muslim Saint in his dedication to the patients at the local health clinic. Mid-surgery, he once rescued a fellow development worker being operated on for appendicitis and, with a companion, stretchered her some 15 kilometres down the mountain to the regional hospital. He had spotted in time that the incompetent doctor operating on her couldn’t find the infected appendix.
One of CIIR’s development workers had a bad car accident: a well-known Sheikh accompanying her was killed. We feared the worst. Traditional rates of compensation could be considerable for such a locally notable figure. The development worker who had been driving risked a spell in prison until compensation was paid. But news came back from the Sheikh’s wife. “We loved her” she said of our staff member, “we ask only a small token to honour our customs and to show respect”.
Does Ja’fariyah’s inaccessibility still protect it from the worst ravages of war? I don’t know. But when you remember real people, live and loving human beings, reports of the numbers dying catch the eye and catch the heart. Few non-Muslims in UK give to the main Islamic development agencies which, on a much smaller scale, do courageous humanitarian work in these war zones. They need support but they cannot cope with the magnitude of the destruction.
The big international NGOs with the capacity to respond to this pending humanitarian disaster, OXFAM and Save the Children, have seen their funding from the public falling whilst the Tory back benches have succeeded in getting government to punish these Agencies by cutting their funds. A tiny number of male staff grievously abused their position of power and wealth for sexual favours, and this is the outcome. The public rightly expects higher standards of humanitarian agencies whose work is based on idealism. But does this justify walking away?
The question I want to ask when I remember the Yemen of the 1990s and the overseas development workers there is: Which is more important punishing the humanitarian agencies for poor governance and ignoring whistle-blowers, hardly a unique crime, or continuing to donate to enable these big Agencies to save the lives of thousands of children in a country no-one really knows or cares much about? Now the media interest has subsided the question can be, and should be, asked.
Save the Children estimate that up to 50,000 Yemeni children died of war-related hunger and disease in 2017 and some 400,000 were in need of treatment for malnutrition. This is no time to let transient outrage get the better of solidarity and compassion.
“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out "stop!"
When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible.
When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”
Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems
This year is the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years war in Europe, the setting for Brecht’s Mother Courage. A savage and complex war, it pitted Catholics against Protestants and drew in five large national and imperial armies. Some eight million people died, some in battle, or in civilian massacres, most from famine and disease. Europe’s cities were devastated. Some of the German States lost 40% of their population. The horror of religious war is being repeated today, this time within Islam.
The Assad, distantly Shi’a Alawite led regime with its Russian and Iranian (Shi’a Muslim) allies have begun the final systematic destruction of resistance in the Idlib Province of Syria. Villages and towns with their additional refugee population, together making up some three million mainly Sunni inhabitants, will be bombed and the number of civilian casualties will soar. The assault has started. The slaughter of civilians in Syria continues, whether by barrel bombs dropped from Syrian air-force helicopters or the modern rocket technology of Putin’s air-force backed up by Iranian Revolutionary Guards ground-forces. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
Saudi bombing in Yemen, accelerating during August, is similarly indifferent to civilian casualties: children on buses, weddings, funerals, markets and medical centres have been attacked from the air. The Saudi-led largely Sunni Coalition ground forces have also perpetrated war crimes in three years of war against the Houthis, Zaidi Shi’ite Muslims. Naval blockades and attacks on the key port of Houdaydah suggest the aim is to use famine as a weapon of war, a tactic employed in Syria. Meanwhile Houthi forces retaliate and commit their own human rights violations. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
At the same time, within Sunni Saudi Arabia an internal sectarian conflict is in progress. Israa-al-Ghamgham, a 29 year old Shi’a woman, imprisoned since 2015, was tried in the notorious Special Criminal Court in Riyadh for giving support to rioters. (She documented human rights violations and attended funerals of protesters against discrimination). The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty under Royal Decree 44/A for her and four other human rights activists - including her husband. They are all from the Shi’a majority Qatif governorate in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province. Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’a cleric - and forty-seven others - were executed in 2016. He was charged for allegedly leading protests and encouraging sectarian strife. The Qatif Five’s fate will be decided in October. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
We would know next to nothing about these events and crimes were it not for a handful of courageous journalists and humanitarian and human rights organisations. Governments know only too well. They try to hide the level of their complicity and do nothing. Spain has just cancelled an arms deal but is a very minor player compared with the USA, $8 billion, and UK, $2.6 billion, in arms and military sales to Saudi Arabia since 2014. Weapons pour in from Russia, and to a lesser degree from Iran, into Syria. This is a more than generous contribution to the militarization of the region, the entrenchment of sectarian conflict and a state of perpetual warfare.
The sponsorship of this ethnic/religious/national conflict in a strategically vital arena pits five national and “imperial” armies against each other: US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as key belligerents, with the UK and others playing a supporting role. Despite much publicised efforts to mediate truces, more clandestine efforts are made which pour gasoline on the fire by promoting fear and exporting planes, weapons, communications and military transport. President Trump - and Israel - have now clearly taken sides with Sunni forces against Iran and Russia which is backing the Iranian brand of revolutionary Shi’ism. The most powerful military power, and thus potentially diplomatic power in the world, has abdicated any role of peace-maker and mediator to become a proxy or direct belligerent in sectarian wars.
The late UK Foreign Minister, Robin Cook MP, the lonely figure who resigned rather than support the war in Iraq in March 2003, promoted the idea of a foreign policy with an ethical dimension (note not an ethical foreign policy but even so a contentious proposal). It was, at least in intention, a significant adjustment to British foreign policy. He was jeered in Parliament. I doubt if President Trump would even know what Cook was talking about. Prime Minister May is far too busy trying to glue together a fractured Tory Party to conduct any coherent foreign policy. She demonstrated early contempt for the Foreign Office by appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. So nobody is doing anything about the coming decades of war in the Middle East except wring their hands.
The consequences of this burgeoning sectarian conflict will reverberate around the world. The expulsion from the Middle East of Christians and other minority faiths will continue. The flight of refugees will remain a pressing humanitarian concern. Devastated cities will remain havens for extremists. Trump, but not just Trump, is fashioning our very own Thirty Years War. And as the evil doers in Brecht’s poem take centre stage Mother Courage returns as the unheroic heroine of our time.
“Welby Wealth Tax Storm”, the Daily Mail headline, indicates that the Archbishop of Canterbury has gained public attention. Justin Welby in a BBC Today interview placed tax firmly within the Christian concept of a moral economy and the pursuit of justice for the poor. He was promoting a Commission report on economic justice from the IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research, of which he was a member.
Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope was published. The reviews were largely descriptive, respectful, positive, but hardly effusive. Most pointed out how Justin Welby had drawn on Catholic Social Teaching. But he had done more: applied it.
In 1942 Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and the Social Order was read with enthusiasm; some 140,000 copies were quickly sold. It has often been seen as a foundational document for the Welfare State. A reprint with a preface from former Prime Minister, Ted Heath, followed in 1976 showing continuing interest. The comparison says a lot about changes in Britain in the last 75 years.
William Temple was writing in a time of social change. Following the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Britain’s pre-war class structure and the assumptions that went with it, were challenged, leading to a post-war Labour government. The war years proved a social as well as an economic turning point. William Temple, nurtured in an Anglican Christian Socialist tradition and the Labour Party, academic and first president of the Workers’ Educational Association, was in tune politically with popular sentiment.
Archbishop Justin Welby, a former corporate executive with financial experience in the oil industry, leads a Church of England in a very different Britain. Beyond escaping the quicksands of BREXIT, public opinion is only dimly aware of the urgency of social and economic change. As late as 1985, Faith in the City, the report of the 1985 Anglican Commission on inequality and poverty, provoked Tory anger and annoyance from the Methodist-reared Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Reimagining Britain in our contemporary social and political context could not be expected to raise a comparable stir. Nor did it. That is a pity.
Britain needs inspiration and a new vision. It is in the midst of the biggest crisis since 1940-1942. And this crisis is far deeper than the danger of the country’s future being determined by Tory back benchers, the DUP and Momentum. “When changes are especially dramatic”, Archbishop Welby writes, “they call for reimagining on a grand scale, for an interpretation of our ancient meta-narrative that is faithful to the past, that is adapted to the present and that guards the hopes of those to come in the future”. Now is a moment that comes rarely, where great national danger meets great opportunity.
The importance of Reimagining Britain lies in this prophetic insight but also in Justin Welby’s capacity to infuse insight with evidence based on his considerable experience of how things work. He affirms the humility of a bishop friend from the ill-named Democratic Republic of the Congo: “We do what we can, what God enables us to”. What Justin Welby himself has been able to do was to target Wonga, the pay-day lender which recently went into receivership, and to more than hold his own on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where he argued powerfully but unsuccessfully for a review of the costs and benefits of Britain’s overweening financial sector since 1945. Experience matters.
In the mid-1980s I took Rev. Frank Chikane, General-Secretary of the South African Council of Churches from 1987-1994, to meet the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Frank was on the run, and staying with me in London. He lived in fear. One evening he asked us to close the living room curtains; being visible from the street made him nervous. He later nearly died from poisoning in Madison, Wisconsin, in an apartheid regime assassination. He and Archbishop Runcie bonded immediately. Danger, fear and sin made visible were a shared experience. Runcie had been a tank commander surviving the long road from the Normandy beaches to being one of the first to enter Bergen-Belsen. In contrast when Frank Chikane met Cardinal Basil Hume, the warmth, kindness, and sympathy of the monk were manifest but something was missing: the deep empathy of shared personal experience.
Justin Welby is courageous; he risks moving from values and general principles which most people can endorse to proposing practical applications of Catholic Social Teaching to education, housing, health and finance. He proposes that the State should sustain the Common Good during rapid economic change by withholding contracts to corporations unless they pay for university places and apprenticeships in highly skilled jobs; he floats the idea of contact orders enabling grandparents to spend time with grandchildren of divorced families; Housing Associations with performance indicators committed to building community as much as building houses. A less detailed suggestion is the creation of Community Transformation Boards with a responsibility for developing social value. From his experience at Coventry Cathedral he underlines the importance of systems and structures for reconciliation in society. His is an eclectic approach not a grand strategy or a political manifesto.
Reimagining Britain reworks other ideas shared with Catholicism. “Values guide practices and practices build virtue” he writes; “virtues also reinforce practices, and guide our understanding of values”. Archbishop Welby would be as one with Cardinal Vincent Nichols in his 2016 Benedict XVI lecture in wanting these elements at the heart of education. These are the prerequisites for achieving Society’s best aspirations and concerns: democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and equality, what are claimed as British values.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ lecture was entitled “Living as a creative minority in the UK”. He was talking about the Catholic experience. Despite losses from the pews, it is a little more complex for the Church of England, an established Church, to describe itself in this way even if this is the sense of Reimagining Britain. But Archbishop Welby speaks openly of the “barely acknowledged hypocrisy” of what are claimed as British values, and seeks something better.
British values should draw on Catholic Social Teaching and continue to be a joint conversation between the different faiths as should, whenever possible, advocacy of the type of creative actions Justin Welby suggests. Catholic Social Teaching is not some magic bullet for the UK and world’s ills. But, as the Archbishop of Canterbury demonstrates, as an elaborated set of ethical guide lines it looks increasingly like an essential compass providing direction in a time of crisis and political confusion.
During 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, radicalized as a medical student by the poverty of Latin America while touring; the other was Louis-Joseph Lebret, a Dominican priest reared in a small Breton fishing community, radicalized by the poverty of the fishing community in St. Malo.
Planned as a one-off event the conference established a new UN agency, UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Che Guevara went on to be summarily executed by CIA-backed forces in Bolivia and became, for the Left, the political equivalent of Marlon Brando, and finally a wall poster. Jean-Louis Lebret went on to help Pope Paul VI write his most far-sighted encyclical, on trade and development, Populorum Progressio, the progress of peoples, which over 50 years later stands the test of time.
So a hundred years after Marx was writing Das Kapital and the Bavarian Bishop, Wilhelm Ketteler, was publishing his The Worker Question and Christianity, competition between Socialism and Catholicism still saw each converging around a complex of socio-economic questions related to poverty. But for a variety of reasons, poverty was the dog that didn’t bark during the reformist Second Vatican Council. The shift in the context in which thinking about poverty took place was moving to the developing world, notably Latin America where change was supercharged by reaction to the pressures of military dictatorships and oligarchies supported by the CIA.
Out of this revolutionary hotbed came renewed interest in the Bible and the birth of Liberation Theology. The priority of Labour over Capital was widened to ‘a preferential option for the poor’. Projected politically by the Right as infiltration of the Church by communism, Liberation Theology was a continuation of social teaching outside Europe, and a tacit admission that the Reformation had much to teach the Catholic Church about the centrality of the Gospel. In Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution and in the rise of Lula’s Workers Party in Brazil a new political vision was adopted by the Left; themes in a rooted theology found purchase and were implemented politically beyond vague generalities.
Some of these core themes of Liberation Theology, though critiqued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, were adopted cautiously by Pope John Paul II, no stranger to bureaucratic communism in Poland. That the poor should ‘make their own history’, rather than be its collateral damage, that seeking justice was no less the Church’s mandate than charity, with solidarity with the poor a central Christian virtue, were ideas that entered the bloodstream of the global Church. The Bible and the life and practice of the early Church in the first centuries offered an endorsement. What remained unacknowledged was the level of conflict that had to be endured to obtain justice. Implementing these ideas in practical action and policies in Europe was more complex.
How to implement Catholic Social Teaching is the wider problem. Higher level propositions and axioms require down-to-earth detailed policy prescriptions to take on socio-economic life. Post-war Germany had a crack at it: subsidiarity reflected in a federalism with considerable devolution to the Länder, and in regional and local banks, non-conflictual industrial structures of co-partnership between employers and Labour, respect for skilled work, and appointment of city integration commissioners for immigrant communities. The political theorist, Lord Maurice Glasman, sings the praises of this German Christian Democrat dispensation as an example of Catholic Social Teaching in action.
He presents the importance of civil society organisations, mediating institutions between State and Market, as a distinctive contribution of Catholic Social Teaching. True for Latin America where civil society had a strong Catholic component that could act as a counter to dictatorship and oligarchy. Less true for the USA and Europe where the fear was that capitalism would fail in post-Soviet Russia through lack of a connecting infrastructure of civil society organisations to buttress a social market. Enter Civil Society stage right to audience applause, soon to be strangled by a kleptocracy of former KGB agents and their cronies.
Civil society was that which the Soviet Union lacked. When I spoke to Gorbachev’s religious advisers as rapid change was afoot in 1990, 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”.
Glasman is right to present virtue ethics as sewn into the fabric of Catholic Social Teaching. This is an understanding of ethics which approaches moral development as the acquisition of special skills that require practice. Since the 13th. century, both ethics and social teaching have been connected through Aristotelian thinking via Thomas Aquinas. “A symphony and harmony of voices dwindle if everybody sings the same tone”, he wrote. Apposite as a warning to Communism in the Soviet Union and encouragement for multi-culturalism in democracies.
But Catholic Social Teaching is not some holistic how-to-get-yourself-out-of-political-bankruptcy card when playing Monopoly Capitalism. As post-war Germany illustrates it can give a direction to a society and economy. Though, after military defeat in the 1940s, like Japan, Germany had the advantage of starting with an almost clean slate. Britain’s economy, skewed towards finance capital, stuck with the dominance of the City of London as the byproduct of Empire, remains in a more intractable situation. “The denuding of the country and its people of their institutional and productive inheritance by the higher rates of return in the City of London”, Professor Glasman writes, “is the story we confronted in 2008”. Indeed it remains so even though the story most told is about bad, or foolish, bankers behaving badly.
One of the ironies of our time is that our great intermediate institutions - the NHS, the Churches, the international development agencies come to mind - are persistently under fire for the individual moral failings of a few. The damage is amplified institutionally by an inability to understand that reputation, like character, relies on the virtue of prudential judgement: on truth and trust.
The Church needs to focus on teaching its social thought. If we are to have a national curriculum for religious education - and from a Catholic perspective this is a retrograde step towards uniformity, privileging a fear of subsidiarity - it should include virtue ethics. And, without being presumptuous, it should include Catholic Social Teaching.