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
Nigeria is full of energy, enterprise and dynamism. Like most big states it struggles to create national unity from a plethora of cultures and languages. With a total population of 206 million – rising fast - it will soon have the third largest population of English speakers and Christians in the world. At 100 million, roughly the same number as Nigerian Christians, it already has the third largest Muslim population. If Muslims and Christians can’t live together in amity in Nigeria Africa is in even deeper trouble than the troubled Middle East.
When Nigeria became independent in 1960 the population of the British Empire was reduced by more than 50%. Under British rule none of its weaknesses as a political entity had been resolved. Arguably some of the worst had been intensified or created by the British. Nigeria today is fixed in British minds as the land of scams, corruption, and, for my generation, military coups and starving Biafran children. Kidnapping is one the few features to gain international attention, a dark market economy with ransom tariffs set according to the profession of the victims. A professor is worth more than a priest. Big gangs raid schools and charge bulk prices for returns. Banditry and armed robberies afflict several areas. Pastoralists, fighting over land-use, kill agriculturalists and vice-versa. Da’esh-linked terrorists still cause havoc in the North-East and around the northern borders. Inter-ethnic killings are increasing. Nigeria is a fragile state.
You might imagine that the recent amalgamation of Britain’s Foreign Office and Department for International Development would be justified by a coordinated response to Nigeria’s mix of security and developmental problems. You’d be wrong. Discounting its own expertise in humanitarian aid and the training of police and security forces, the British government plans to cut development aid to Nigeria by 58%. This despite thousands of displaced people fleeing violence in Borno State, a Federal army too underequipped and unmotivated to fight terrorism successfully, as well as a police force that needs intensive training. But British support is receding.
Max Siollun, in his recent What Britain did to Nigeria, traces the origin of Nigeria’s ills to the early colonial period, the century of British engagement from the 1820s to the 1920s. Siollun’s treatment is balanced and illuminating but his book will provide fodder for fashionable arguments between academics of the colonialism-bad and the colonialism-good schools - though lack of relevant statues will limit conflict to the seminar room.
Siollun shatters the comfortable assumption that the transition from pre-colonial to colonial government in what became Nigeria avoided the monstrous bloodshed in, say, the Congo under Leopold II of Belgium. In my own online Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire I underestimated the violence of the British takeover. Siollun tells of the racism, brutality and arrogance of many local British ‘Residents’, colonial officers – both civil and military - from the early Royal Niger Company to Lord Lugard’s West African Frontier Force. But because most of the fighting fell on mercenary troops, mainly Hausa, with longstanding inter-ethnic and local animosities, the burnt villages and piles of corpses, after crushed uprisings and punitive raids, belonged to Africans.
The culturally very different North and South of Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, not in some grand imperial vision, but, as Siollun suggests, to save on administrative costs. Indirect Rule was not a British strategic plan - though it divided and ruled with near impunity. Britain just could not afford enough colonial officers. The Colonial Office budget determined governance. And there was the bonus that someone else did dirty work like tax collection and recruitment of forced labour. Punishment of those who saw little difference between this and former enslavement was severe.
Unsurprisingly there was considerable resistance to British rule, much of it caused by repression and extortion but used to justify severe and often disproportionate military response. The Fulani of Sokoto Caliphate in the North-West suffered the most because their structured military force and cavalry encouraged set-piece battles against the British ‘square’ and the unforgiving Maxim gun. The South-East lacked regular fighting forces and local guerrilla warfare was far more effective against British-led troops, especially along its narrow densely forested paths.
‘Dash’ given to chiefs who provided the Royal Niger Company with exclusive rights of trade in palm oil was the prototype of today’s endemic bribery. Treaties that few chiefs could read and understand gave coercion and fraud a veneer of lawfulness. The earliest colonial era scam was to imitate messengers from British-appointed ‘warrant chiefs’ imposed on, for example, Igbo societies. The scammer donned a red fez and insisted on payments of different kinds with the spurious threat that failure to pay would involve heavy punishments from the chief with British support.
There were also mitigating development and reforms. Slavery, twin infanticide, and the burial of servants/slaves with their chief in some South-Eastern societies were gradually eliminated. Colonial provision of roads, railways and education was transformative. Christian missions followed by government schools brought educational change to the South. Today most southern states have high rates of adult literacy. The contrast with some Northern states is striking. According to EduCeleb, a Nigerian educational news agency, in Sokoto 80% of women aged 18-24 are illiterate but only 1.8% in the South East’s Imo state. Nationally the adult literacy rate was 22% at Independence in 1960.
Sixty years on, years when Nigeria stumbled from one disaster to another somehow surviving, somehow holding together, that heritage wears thin as an excuse. The latest crisis looks particularly dangerous. Nigeria’s Catholic Bishops informed by detailed information from their parishes around the country published a formal statement this February. They are not in the habit of crying wolf.
“The very survival of the nation is at stake. The nation is pulling apart. Widespread serious insecurity for long unaddressed has left the sad and dangerous impression that those who have assumed the duty and authority to secure the nation are either unable – or worse still unwilling – to take up the responsibilities of their office. Patience is running out.
The call for self-defense is fast gaining ground. Many ethnic champions are beating loudly the drums of war, calling not only for greater autonomy but even for outright opting out of a nation in which they have lost all trust and sense of belonging. The calls for secession on an ethnic basis from many quarters should not be ignored or taken lightly. Many have given up on the viability and even on the desirability of the Nigeria project as one united country. No wonder many non-state actors are filling the vacuum created by an apparent absence of government. The Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari can no longer delay rising to its obligation to govern the nation; not according to ethnic and religious biases but along the lines of objective and positive principles of fairness, equity and, above all, justice. It is not too much for Nigerians to demand from Mr. President sincerity both in the public and private domain. There are no more excuses”.
Sadly the British Government has plenty of excuses for finding something better to do than worry about the future of what is arguably the most important country on the African continent.
See TheArticle 21/03/2021
If impunity is the handmaid of corruption, scrutiny is corruption’s enemy. Governments shrink from critical examination. The last thing they want is transparency. Getting things done becomes more complicated. When it comes to naming their most disliked piece of legislation, Ministers most likely would plump for Labour’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI) 2000, rued by many who voted for it. That sinking feeling, trying to remember what was said in incautious emails, meetings, or printed within departmental reports, is vice’s compliment to scrutiny. And it was, of course, a 2008 FOI request to the House of Commons, unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court, which revealed the British parliamentary expenses scandal.
The resilience and effectiveness of official procedures and bodies designed to scrutinise the conduct of the Executive and ensure its integrity are a measure of the health of a democracy. A truth-telling Press is vital. Journalists around the world investigate behind the lies, spin and obfuscation that obscure the reality of their governments’ motives and behaviour even if they can’t directly control it. Sometimes it can cost them their lives or imprisonment.
In the USA, Trump’s strategy was to get the highly politicised mass media to convince his supporters that any critical examination of his behaviour and lies was ‘fake-news’ - quite a good translation of the Nazis’ word ‘lügenpresse’ (lying Press) as Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder has pointed out. We saw the ultimate consequences on 6 January in the Capitol. Right-wing bias in newspapers and mass media, as well as social media silos now the sole source of information for many, is a pressing problem for democracies such as our own. Scrutiny of the sensational and the personal cannot replace serious investigation of policy and malfeasance.
Our Parliament has hands-on responsibility for scrutinising the use of Executive power and calling it to account with, in well-defined circumstances, the judiciary as final arbiter. So when the Executive makes efforts to elude parliamentary scrutiny of its integrity and performance, its policies and legislation, and the Right-wing Press attacks the judiciary, alarm bells should start ringing. Parliament, and within its limits the judiciary, are the two institutions that can stop government meandering down the road to corruption with the resultant erosion of democracy and its premise and promise of representation of the people.
There are more ways than one to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. The phrase ‘Henry VIII’s clauses’ recalls Henry’s rule by proclamation referring today to amendments to parliamentary Bills which by means of secondary legislation, that is by Ministerial fiat; such government statutes are intended to expedite implementation of policy but enable parliamentary scrutiny to be bypassed. Parliamentary Select Committees focussed on the work of particular government departments, or on wider issues, can step in here. Since the 1980s, they have become a major vehicle of democratic scrutiny. In recent years the sittings of the Audit Select Committee, overseeing government’s financial reporting and disclosure procedures and performance, have proved particularly revealing.
The Liaison Committee whose members are chairs of Select Committees holds an annual stock-take with whoever is Prime Minister. In August 2019, Boris Johnson highlighted his attitude to accountability by proroguing Parliament to forestall further debate about BREXIT, an act the Supreme Court unanimously found unlawful, a textbook example of the judiciary safeguarding democracy. Johnson also found on three consecutive occasions that he was unable to attend the Liaison Committee, once allegedly because he was kept too busy by BREXIT. Since BREXIT was what the Committee expected to hear about, Dr. Sarah Wollaston accused him from the chair of avoiding accountability. His perfunctory performance in May 2020 when he did appear suggested that perhaps he was too lazy to master his brief on topics the Liaison Committee would examine. The pandemic had made hiding from the public no longer an option.
The Hansard Society, an NGO specialising in research on Westminster and parliamentary democracy, has described ways how Parliament can be marginalised that are difficult to challenge legally. No piece of parliamentary business has been more complex and subject to avoidance of scrutiny than the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Act (TCA). Run the negotiation right up to an internationally agreed deadline and, ‘oh, sorry’, tell Members of Parliament they have only four days over Christmas to read a 1,246 page Treaty. Then, after its publication, allow 24 hours to discuss and pass its Implementation Bill. As the consequences of Johnson’s BREXIT are emerging with minimalist scrutiny, have Mr. Rees-Mogg refuse to extend the life of the ‘BREXIT Select Committee’ beyond 16 January 2021.
Small matter that the TCA agreement, the most important document affecting the future of our country since the declaration of war on Nazi Germany, defines our relationship with our largest trading partner, involving 27 European countries, for years to come. Not that the EU treated its own Parliament any better allowing provisional implementation before the TCA went to the EU Parliament for ratification. But then the EU’s Parliament is in reality often a fig-leaf for rule by summitry, heads of State and the Council of Ministers, with the Commission acting as political and technical Sherpas. In short, our government has taken back control of our own democratic deficit - with great benefit to its donors and friends.
The pandemic has meant urgency has become more plausible as an excuse for short-circuiting Parliament. Everything is urgent or, at least, becomes urgent when indecision, the hallmark of the Prime Minister, repeatedly creates crises requiring immediate action. Parliament and Opposition are required to rubber-stamp legislation and guidance with far-reaching implications for the economy and daily life.
But why not hear from and consult with Parliament upstream when broad strategy ought to be debated? Johnson’s repeated - faux Churchillian - martial language ignores the fact that we faced the enemy with a government of National Unity. Johnson cannot be accused of leadership in uniting the nation: he sees the Opposition as no less his enemy than the EU. For political effect, timely suggestions from Keir Starmer are publically ridiculed only to be implemented days later.
Government pandemic projects have been a pretext for massive misspending of taxpayers’ money. Details of PPE contracts, sometimes redacted, have been withheld until forced into the public domain by intense legal pressure. In a normal government in normal times, Dido Harding’s stewardship of taxpayers’ money would result in resignation. Meg Hiller M.P., chair of the Public Accounts Committee, concluded recently that “despite the unimaginable resources thrown at this project Test and Trace cannot point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic, and the promise on which this huge expense was justified - avoiding another lockdown – has been broken, twice”. In the words of Sir Nicholas Macpherson, a Cross-Bench peer and former Treasury Permanent Secretary to three Chancellors (under Blair, Brown & Cameron), this was “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”. But as he tellingly remarked last week, “the extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked”.
Meanwhile government ‘levels up’ in the North with ‘bungs’ to Conservative constituencies such as Richmond, Yorkshire, the Chancellor’s seat’; 40 out of the 45 areas getting regeneration funding have a Conservative member of Parliament. Government contracts generated by the pandemic disproportionately went to the companies that just happen to be linked to Tory donors and friends. 30,000 laptops for poorer children known to be least equipped for online learning short of their delivery target? A free school meals scandal involving a private company? Cherchez le Tory donor.
To date the slide into unaccountability has been held in check by the strength of our institutions dedicated to the scrutiny of government conduct. This includes NGOs such as the Good Law Project; the High Court recently found that: “the Secretary of State [Health] acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the Transparency Policy” in a case involving COVID contracts. Efforts to avoid such scrutiny have been deliberately, sometimes accidentally, multiplied in the last few years. The consequences are becoming visible.
As Thomas Paine said of the Paris aristocrats prior to the French Revolution: “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody”. Not an ideal state of affairs in a pandemic. Not a good time for Global Britain to challenge China and Russia. Not an ideal state of affairs in a democracy anytime.
Rishi Sunak’s performance last week was dazzling. But a week is a long time in the assessment of a Budget. Not all stay dazzled. Accolades one day after are risky. On the whole the public agreed with commentators' praise . One opinion poll gave the Conservative Party a 13 point lead, a budget boost on top of the vaccination bounce.
Rishi Sunak speaks well, reminiscent of Tony Blair in full flow: verb-less sentences to accentuate his achievements, repeated use of the well-known triple formula from classical rhetoric. Mr. Google says it’s called epizeuxis. Scrabble players please note. Our video star Chancellor’s carefully crafted speech illustrated, if any further illustration were needed, that he intends to be his Party’s choice as leader when Boris Johnson has ceased to be of use to the Conservative Party.
Those of sound mind and lesser aspirations do not delve into Budgets’ small print. The headlines sounded balanced, the tone honest, the measures necessary and, in one instance, incentivising investment, cleverly innovative. On a heavy news day, competing with bloodletting in the SNP, Sir Keir Starmer’s gainsaying got minimal coverage. But when we were allowed to hear from the Leader of the Opposition, he showed that the much admired balance of the Sunak speech was only achieved within a very narrow vision of society and economic recovery.
The great theme of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, now hallowed as immutable tradition, was choice. As we are so often told political leadership means making difficult choices. But you begin to ask ‘difficult for whom’ when the choices made by a particular Party, on close inspection, most often turn out to the detriment of those on low incomes. Particularly after a decade of austerity and static wages with rising numbers of food-banks and shortage of decent housing. The answer to ‘difficult to whom’ should be obvious.
When the difficult choices mean withholding a £20-a-week supplement to Universal Credit benefit just as other pandemic benefits cease in September, when government is offering nurses a 1% ‘pay increase’ knowing next year’s inflation will make it a wage-cut, or proposing savage cuts to aid for countries in desperate need, starving Yemen amongst several examples, you get a clue to the Conservative Party’s vision of economic recovery. When after a pandemic which has shone a spotlight on inequality, the public are told anti-poverty policy is about getting people into work at a time when BREXIT and lock-downs guarantee rising unemployment, you begin to get the picture. And when young people, writing countless job applications are left high and dry, a consistent pattern emerges. Let’s call it ‘a preferential option against the Poor’.
The kind of society found in no political Party’s manifesto is being stealthily created by the triumphant Tory Right. Their preferred option even defeats the purpose of measures designed to stop the economy imploding during the pandemic. Why? Because for months an important reason for infection rates staying dangerously high, and requiring lockdowns, has been that people on low incomes simply cannot afford to quarantine. Infected or not, workers in poorly paid jobs and in the gig economy live with permanent anxiety about making ends meet, and can feel they have no alternative but to go to work. Thanks to the decline in trades union membership there are many unprotected people working under these conditions. Not that quarantine in cramped accommodation housing three generations is likely to be very effective. And not to mention the disgraceful conditions imposed on some asylum seekers, the virus’ soft targets, off the government’s keep-safe radar. Another option taken against the most vulnerable.
The trouble with the ‘we-can’t- afford- it’ defence is that it sounds like common-sense. The retort should be ‘look at the hundreds of billions you could afford? And weren’t billions of it misspent?’ Why is it common sense to declare expenditure unaffordable for public goods supporting the most vulnerable when government can afford to squander £10 billion – and counting - of taxpayers’ money on one tranche of outsourcing to the private sector, on the notorious centralised Track & Trace scheme? It failed. (Without acknowledging such waste bypassing existing local public health networks, responsibility for vaccination services has thank heavens been placed in the hands of the NHS). We are dealing with an ideological problem; the overall aim is to shrink the state. Government will return to this once the pandemic is over.
Current strategy is to keep public scrutiny to a minimum, pursuing policy by stealth, conveniently forgetting, or treating as invisible, for example, social care and the wages of care workers including home care. Vital low paid cleaners and hospital porters also put their lives on the line. Government’s intention to shape or distract public perceptions is demonstrated by spending £2.5 million on a new Press room in Downing Street. This comes with a new White House style Press Secretary who brought us “Eat Out to Help Out” when she worked for the Chancellor.
The BBC has begun timorously questioning ‘government priorities’ - as if, once the North-Eastern Conservative constituencies have had their bungs, it might be time to consider the needs of the many who don’t live in, say, Richmond, Yorkshire the Chancellor’s seat. But when priorities are, as they say, ‘hard-baked’ in ideology and self-interest, those priorities are not going to change – though government may be forced to do something for the nurses because of the public outcry.
The British public now have a fundamental choice to make. The problem is much bigger than the wages of one profession. It is to decide what sort of society we wish our children to live in after the pandemic. If the choice is business as usual, two-nation Toryism, more of the option against the poor, we will get the country we deserve. Save us the shame. It is the responsibility of HM Opposition to offer an alternative.
See TheArticle 09/03/2021
It was a large room, dimly lit, more a shrine than a small museum. You couldn’t help but notice that one or two visitors were crying gently. Your eyes went automatically to the window in the corner. Once a book depository window overlooking a non-descript Dallas highway, now a window onto the lost dreams and hopes of many Americans.
It’s remarkable how the Camelot myth has persisted. Yes, it all happened in the 1960s when celebrities and heroes weren’t ten a penny, the result of many thousands of clicks on a short video, or a hundred circuits of an old soldier’s garden. But today we know so much more about John F. Kennedy. He was no knight in shining armour and the White House no Arthurian castle. But he still retains his fascination.
Believing in your own myth is at the heart of political charisma. And people so seek myths and charisma when it comes to political leadership. Jack Kennedy had that gift.
In Autumn last year, nicely timed for Christmas presents and for lockdown reading, Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Fredrik Logevall published Volume One of his JFK to rave reviews. At almost 800 pages, this Kennedy biography covers his life from 1917 to 1956. It tells the story of the Kennedy family’s influence on JFK’s precocious rise to political fame knitted elegantly into the wider context of internal US history and the external global events of the period. This volume ends with JFK’s decision to run for the Presidency. The book deserves its plaudits.
That JFK was a scion of a supercharged, go-getter Boston-Irish Catholic family - with a clever, pious and politically adept Catholic mother and with a larger than life philandering, very rich and well-connected father, the isolationist wartime US ambassador to London – provides Logevall with his leitmotif. The family mattered a great deal politically. It supplied JFK’s core staff for both mission control and as launch pad into politics: naval war-hero turned bored congressman, widely travelled successful author, sparkling young Senator, failed Vice-Presidential candidate, all oiled by his own charm, astute political judgement, prodigious appeal to women, father Joe’s money, contacts, and burning ambition for his oldest two sons, Ted Sorensen’s draft speeches. And great courage in the face of pain and peril.
Apart from cultivating an Irish-American vote and suffering tragic deaths in the family, how very different from Jo Biden, America’s second Catholic President. Kennedy made it very clear in his pursuit of the Presidency that his Catholicism, like his ethnic background, would be entirely marginal to his conduct as President. You could not say that of Joe Biden. Yet the same universal dilemma in climbing the greasy pole, how to balance a strong sense of right and wrong with the moral compromises necessary for power at a state and national level, faced them both.
JFK had an advantage that Biden missed. Catholicism in the 1950s was strongly and positively associated in the public mind with a major political theme, not the divisive culture wars but the Cold War and anti-communism. This was not unalloyed good luck. Kennedy faced the problem of handling another Irish Catholic politician, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican who weaponised anti-communism. The Wisconsin senator was a close friend of JFK’s father, much liked by brother Bobby and dated two of the Kennedy daughters. He was an early version of Trump able to make big lies stick and manipulate popular fears and hatreds destroying lives and careers. JFK, while privately deploring McCarthy’s tactics, never clearly denounced him even when Eisenhower, a much loved Republican President, openly criticised his methods and conduct.
JFK’s shabby compromise obviously bothered him. During his worst of many illnesses, he gathered together the stories of eight senators who had taken a lonely stand on principle or conscience and isolated themselves politically, precisely what JFK himself had declined to do. The result was a 266 page book Profiles of Courage. Though hurriedly researched, it did Kennedy no harm in the Senate. “Politics is a jungle, torn between doing the right thing and staying in office”, he wrote in his notes “– between the local interest & the national interest – between the private good of the politician and the public good”.
How will Biden react if and when his McCarthy moment comes? Perhaps it already has in the abortion issue. That said it would be preferable if Biden’s Catholic episcopal detractors understood that such moral dilemmas went with the job, and did not encourage single issue voting.
Logevall who is generally non-judgemental allows his overriding respect for JFK to show through here. “Profiles in Courage”, he tells us, “is an ode to the art of politics, to the hard and vital work of governing in a system of conflicting pressures and visions”. And so it is, an antidote to the dismissive clichés ‘all politicians are the same’ and ‘in it for themselves’. But in Profiles JFK tries to make amends for putting his family’s friendship with McCarthy and his Irish Catholic vote in Boston before his conscience. The book is also an ode to a different sort of courage and, in this sense, is a self-affirmation. JFK suffered from acute back pain and Addison’s disease. He nearly died twice, once as a result of a surgical procedure on his back that he was warned would be dangerous. It was. In a coma in 1954 he was given the last sacraments but pulled through and was nursed back to health by Jackie. He compiled and topped and tailed Profiles while convalescing.
Times were different back then. Kennedy could and did use crutches without a telephoto lens capturing his condition and calling in question his health and career. His phenomenal philandering, which he seems to have inherited from his father, was discreetly ignored and kept out of the public eye. Impossible to imagine this happening today.
JFK is a great read. Not salacious, not Camelot with condoms, not an apologia, but a deeply researched and sensitive portrayal of a very complex and courageous man, a book that is itself an ‘ode to the art of politics’ and a profile of courage.
See TheArticle 03/03/2021
“Either we are brothers and sisters or we will destroy each other” said Pope Francis just a year ago. Next week the Pope will visit Iraq where the stark logic of his warning is tragically visible.
Popes began making visits outside Italy only in the 1960s. Such journeys are meticulously planned and tightly organised. But this journey must rate as the most dangerous. Last month in Baghdad where the visit begins two Da’esh suicide bombers attacked a market killing 32 and injuring scores of others. The military base in the airport of the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, also on Francis’ itinerary, recently came under rocket attack from an obscure Shi’a militia group, the Guardians of Blood, killing a contractor and wounding several American coalition forces. The Iraq government has negligible control over sectarian conflict.
Iraq has long been blighted by Sunni-Shi’a violence dating from disputes about leadership in the 7th century. Sunnis make up at least 85% of the world’s Muslim population. The majority of Iraqis, 65% of its 39 million people, are Shi’a. As in Iran, their allegiance is to the family and descendants of the Prophet, Imam Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and Husayn, his martyred grandson. Sunni leadership, though, dates back to Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet considered the first to convert to Islam and the first of the ‘rightly guided Caliphs’, the Rashidun. Over the centuries, further differences in beliefs, law and pious practice developed. Today religious identity still fuels sectarian political conflict throughout the Middle East. It intensified after the 2003 invasion.
For some time, the Middle East, with Iranian, Saudi and Trump’s help, has been shaping up for its own Thirty Years War. Within Iraq the remnants of ISIS have used the pandemic to regroup even calling on adherents to catch the virus and infect the West. They hate Shi’a as much as they hate Yazidis, Jews and Christians. Not surprisingly Iraq’s Christian population, formerly 1.5 million, has been reduced by emigration to possibly as low as 400,000. Those remaining feel like second-class citizens. This is the political and religious minefield into which Pope Francis will shortly be stepping.
What has impelled the Pope to undertake this hazardous journey? First, solidarity with Iraq’s many displaced people and with its dwindling Christian communities. As well as Latin rite Roman Catholics, Iraq is home to ancient Christian Churches in communion with Rome, the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Maronites – who retained the original Aramaic spoken by Christ himself as their liturgical language. In the Bible the Nineveh plain is the location of Abraham’s home in Ur. Ninevah is the Babylon of Jewish exile. Francis is visiting the geography and roots of Christian faith.
Second, the Pope is committed to following the example of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi in working for Muslim-Christian dialogue and reconciliation. A quarter of his foreign visits have been to Muslim majority countries. In Cairo in February 2019 he met with the Sunni Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam and former President of Al-Azhar University. From this meeting, and after much preparation, emerged the joint document Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, a manifesto for ending global conflicts. Given the dangers of sectarian wars, Shi’a leadership is an important element in the process.
So this time the Pope is scheduled to meet with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani in Najaf, the Shi’a equivalent of Rome, a town of some million people south of Baghdad, the site of ‘founding father’ Imam Ali’s tomb. Born in the Iranian town of Mashad, Al-Sistani studied jurisprudence in Iran’s theological centre of Qom and, in 1952, moved to the pilgrimage site of Najaf in Iraq where he taught in the seminary. In 1993 he was formally recognised as a Grand Ayatollah, Marja, one of a tiny number of the most senior and respected clerics in Shi’a Islam. The rank of Marja means ‘emulation of Islam’. Title holders are authoritative guides to understanding the Qu’rān and the Prophet’s sayings, Hadith, and thus to living a fully Muslim life. Al-Sistani could bring many Shi’a Muslims to engage with the vision of Human Fraternity.
The Americans had reason to be grateful to Grand Ayatollah in 2005 when he mediated between them and the Shi’a militia led by the fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr besieging Najaf’s Imam Ali Mosque. Al-Sistani had the personal qualities needed to lower the temperature: he was and is courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions, he leads a simple life in an ordinary house shunning ostentation - not unlike Pope Francis himself. He also rejects violence, does not approve of the velayat-e faqih, the theocratic rule of the jurists in Iran, though he supports state promotion of Shi’a teaching. His interpretation of Qur’ān takes into account, to some degree, the need to understand its historical context and Arab culture. But this does not make Al-Sistani a modern progressive liberal. He shares strict views about the relationships between young men and women with the Shi’a clerical class in general. No dancing outside marriage, modest dress code, plenty of prohibitions. Yet, his 2015 Advice to Believing Youth has more touching, tender and paternal wisdom in it than prohibitions. He is a jurist with deep pastoral concerns. There is clear water between him and the bellicose Iranian Supreme Leader.
Even amongst the Iranian clerics there is, of course, a spectrum of opinion though not a wide one. I remember listening through a translator in Tehran to Ayatollah Emami Kashani, head of Shahid Motahari University, denouncing Iranian youth for lack of piety and thinking this could be my parish priest in Galway in the 1960s. Ayatollah Kashani had initially impressed me, not to say puzzled me, when his translator described how he had talked with a ‘rock-singer’ during his visit to Rome. How very open-minded. The translator had misheard: the meeting had been with Ratzinger, a Cardinal at the time but of course later Pope Benedict XVI.
When Al-Sistani and Pope Francis meet and talk with accurate translation, there could be a profound meeting of minds. Whether Human Fraternity can generate tolerance for and between the many religions of Iraq, including the cruelly persecuted Bahai’s and Yazidis, remains to be seen. But it is clearly Francis’ intention to create an opportunity for the healing of Iraq’s wounds.
The Pope’s schedule – worryingly – has been published well in advance. One of the stops is Mosul, formerly an ISIS stronghold retaken in a bloodbath by US and Iraqi troops but with ISIS remnants, sleeper cells, still lingering. No political leader would risk releasing such a detailed itinerary in Iraq so far in advance. This is a brave Pope. His safety during this journey should feature in bidding prayers in all parishes this Sunday.
See TheArticle 24/02/2021
"Desecration, violation, sacrosanct”, words used to denounce the Trump-inspired invasion of the Capitol in Washington, terms more usually expressing religious sentiment. The Council Chamber where America’s elected representatives cowered as security officers drew their weapons was described in language suited to a secular Holy of Holies. The Capitol was the Temple of Democracy, “hallowed ground” where a civic religion was practised. This was not the capture of the radio station in a tin-pot dictatorship. It was something approaching blasphemy.
Tom Holland in his much praised 2019 Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind charts the persistence of Christian ways of thinking up to and beyond the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion and the triumph of secular scientific certainties. People still respect sacred national spaces, - or perhaps it would be better to say sacred places - buildings, land, monuments set apart. Think of the outrage when in 2010 a pop star’s son swung on the Cenotaph. Just as the chancel of a church is separated from the nave, or in the Catholic Church before the second Vatican Council, altar rails divided the sanctuary from the body of the church, or in an Orthodox church the iconostasis divides priest-celebrants from the congregation, so are some secular buildings and monuments set apart. The idea of sacred space persists.
If a space is sacred the corollary is that only people of a certain standing or condition can enter it and only for specific purposes - prayer and worship, national remembrance, governance. Congregations feel the sacredness of space set apart in churches as if it diffuses outwards into the rest of the building demanding the special kinds of behaviour, and clothing, appropriate to religious buildings. Similarly for national monuments, sombre black in proximity to the Cenotaph marks ceremonial occasions. When a Republican senator shouted “You lie” at President Obama speaking in 2009 to a joint session of Congress in the Capitol Council chamber, though his backers enjoyed it the assembly’s reaction was “not in this setting”.
In secular Britain quite passionate debates are sparked when churches or cathedrals are used for secular purposes. Classical music with its sung masses by famous composers are acceptable. I remember a deeply moving art-work depicting the Holocaust in Chichester cathedral; it would have been hard to find a better place to display it. But what should we make of cathedrals sporting a helter skelter, like Norwich, or an adventure mini-golf course, like Rochester? Defended as an innovative way to draw people in – and most visitors were willing to stop and say, or listen to, the Lord’s Prayer - but greeted with derision by many, these experiments got a bad press. Vaccinating in Lichfield cathedral, an ancient pilgrimage centre for the sick, feels right. Healing and care for the vulnerable is part of the Christian story continuing in a modern secular form. And no one has laughed at the organ music accompanying the vaccinations in Salisbury cathedral. This use of church space as a hub for vaccinations seems to be entirely appropriate to the public.
The sanctity of sacred space in Catholic churches is intensified by the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. In the Septuagint, an early translation of Hebrew Scriptures, the word for ‘tent’ - translated via 3rd century BC koine Greek - becomes in Latin tabernaculum. So sacredness is directly linked to the presence of divinity as the place where God pitches a tent amongst us. A space to which only certain dedicated individuals, priests and their assistants, should have access, by tradition all were men, a tradition enshrined in law. Section 230 of the Church’s legal code, Canon Law, allows laymen called ‘acolytes’ to assist the – male - priest during mass, read the scriptures except the Gospel and to distribute communion. In the absence of any mention of laywomen female presence was deemed to be officially precluded by law. After the Second Vatican Council, a law honoured in the breach. That is until 11 January when Pope Francis amended the legal text to ‘lay persons’.
As in all matters involving changes in Catholic worship this amendment evoked a variety of responses. For some, it was another promising sign that the Pope was cautiously edging the Vatican onto the nursery slopes of gender equality. For others, it was an underwhelming piece of catch-up. Women had for years been present in the sanctuary, happily unaware of canon 230, assisting the priest - who was supposed to have heard of it - by reading the lesson and, as Eucharistic ministers, distributing communion to those in church and to the sick in their homes. The ‘mind of the Church’ was way out in front of the mind of the Vatican. And contrariwise some traditionalists saw the Pope’s intervention as yet another sign of the damage done by the Second Vatican Council to the calm uniformity of the Catholic liturgy.
Sacred spaces with their charge of solemnity can unexpectedly produce the exact opposite. A few years ago a North London parish with a large congregation of African origin was delighted at news of a visit from a conservative African Cardinal. At this church women regularly did all that Canon Law 230 implied they shouldn’t. The Cardinal let it be known that there were to be no women on the sanctuary when he said mass or the visit would have to be cancelled. The priest in charge pleaded for some tolerance of local practice and a negotiation followed. From it came the remarkable compromise that women could be on the sanctuary but they must not move, for example to present the cardinal with the Gospel, if he was able to see them. You might say an ecclesiastical variation on Nelson raising the telescope to his blind eye. But as I said to the priest in charge, there was also an unfortunate similarity to the law controlling nudity in strip-clubs in the 1950s. But all concerned were appeased and the visit was successful.
The sense of the sacred is common to all cultures and goes back to the beginnings of human society. Secular scientific society has not killed it off. It is constitutive of religion. The feeling for the sacred has carried over in varying degrees into contemporary western societies. In others, for example Hindu societies the religious-secular distinction makes little sense, the concept of ‘religions’ being an imperial import. So is any of this of more than passing anthropological interest? Well, yes. In a world in which sacred trust in government is badly eroded and the pandemic has caused widespread anxiety and fear, we need to treasure our places of stillness, calm and symbolic meaning. The crypt of the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay comes to mind, almost dark, full of young people silently praying, a dampness and cool humidity coming from walls saturated with prayer. Whether it is around a national monument, the Capitol in Washington, or in an Anglican cathedral, sacred spaces, secular or religious, should be respected and cherished for the wonder is that we create them.
The United States Senate impeachment proceedings against former President Trump have been many things: a contested Truth Commission, a national political reckoning for the history books, a nunca mas (never again).
I was lamenting seeing so little of the Democrats presenting a coherent, detailed case for finding former President Trump guilty of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ when I received an email from my friend in Oregon.
Here’s one perspective from a Democrat voter in a progressive State:
“I have been sitting glued to the TV for about two days watching the House Democrats present the case against Trump and I must say that I was very impressed by the nine House managers, most of them previously prosecutors I suspect, especially Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin the manager. It was an extremely well organized and well-argued case and all in less than two days. Not that anybody used the word 'coup', they did not except that the word slipped out of Jamie Raskin's mouth once. I think the Democrats learned from the previous failed impeachment to keep it short and sweet and forceful. Trump learned from that experience also; unfortunately the lesson he learned was that he could do anything he wanted.
The case made did not rest solely upon the rally and subsequent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6th. Rather and logically to my mind, the prosecutors returned to the six months prior to the election. You’ll remember before the election actually took place, Trump, supported by Fox News and his followers, kept pushing the idea in hundreds of tweets that the election was 'rigged'. Mark you, this was before anyone actually voted. On election night itself, while votes were still being counted, Trump tweeted at 2:30 am that he had won the election by millions of votes. After the election there were many lawsuits (someone mentioned 62 today) filed by Trump concerning counting of ballots, dead people, boxes of ballots for Biden smuggled in at dead of night and various other nonsense, and they all failed. In some cases a judge just threw the lawsuit out before even hearing it because of the lack of any supporting evidence whatsoever. After a few weeks, in early December, all the states had certified their ballot counts, so then Trump started harassing election officials in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and the like. The family of Raffensberger, the Georgia official who refused to change the election totals to suit Trump, was threatened by armed Trump supporters who turned up at the family house.
So it went on for weeks and weeks with Trump holding more rallies on the theme of 'Stop the Steal', which became the favorite slogan of the Trumpies. There were many threats of violence, not just the ones made and very nearly implemented at the Jan. 6th rally. The irony of all this is that this was not some hidden conspiracy, where all the evidence has to be searched for and assembled, but all took place in plain public view, so it was not difficult for Democrats to collect evidence about Trump's intentions. My personal comment on why nobody was alarmed enough to do anything effective about it: I think by this time everybody was just looking forward to Joe Biden taking over, so most of the mainstream media just ignored what was taking place in Trump-world, suffering from a general Trump fatigue with fresh outrage every day becomes tiring.
So we arrive at the fatal day of Jan.6th, where Trump and his supporters invited any 'patriot' to come to Washington and stop the steal. And in fact people took flights, booked hotels, drove and made their way to Washington by any means they could, often subsidized by a Trump related fund of some kind. I'm sure you have seen videos of the riot in the Capitol, in fact everyone is much too focused on that single event, horrible though it was. An interesting thought is that many Senators had not previously seen the video footage of the riot in full gory detail for the very simple reason that they were part of the event and being hastily hurried off to a safe place. A bit like personally being in an accident, when one is not usually paying much attention to the surroundings. There was a gallows set up outside with signs that said "Hang Mike Pence" (he had told Trump that he could not change the state election results) and a rioter talked about shooting Nancy Pelosi in the head if she could be found. So, as many of the prosecutors have repeated, it is hard to imagine anything worse: if this is not an impeachable offence, what is??
And, if more were needed, the prosecutors detailed the fact that Trump sat in the White House (delighted they say), refused to tell the rioters to stop and did not call in reinforcements for a couple of hours - all a matter of public record.
Yes, Trump has a defence team of lawyers - but definitely a couple from the B team as opposed to the A team who declined to represent Trump and bailed out a few days earlier. On first viewing, one of them got very bad reviews, rambling, disorganized etc. Perhaps it makes no difference and the Senate will not vote to find Trump guilty. This is what most people predict. As the Democrat team points out: "If you do not find Trump guilty, then another future President will feel free to do the same thing again." Which is true of course and one can only hope that the very convincing case presented by the Democrats might change some minds in the Senate”.
Despite defeat the Democrats have achieved important aims. They have told the nation the true story. It’s indelibly on the record. The Republican senators were demonstrably complicit in Trump’s offences. They continue to be so. Seven only voted for conviction. The wily Republican former Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell denounced Trump but voted for acquittal. The majority were never going to admit his guilt because they shared in it. It is more than notable that to avoid the Party splitting and/or a Kamala Harris Presidency they haven’t concluded Trump must be made ineligible to stand again, unable to contest the next Presidential election. Many would have faced deselection at the next Primaries had they done so. They look over their shoulders at the Republican voters for whom belief in and loyalty to Trump was, and remains, paramount. So Trump, diminished, remains a menace to American democracy.
See TheArticle 13/02.2021
“Nature is a blind spot in economics that we ignore at our peril”. Pithy comment from respected Cambridge Professor of Economics, Sir Partha Dasgupta. On 2 February the BBC’s Today programme ran a story about his new report The Economics of Bio-diversity. A supportive response from Sir David Attenborough provided a popular touch. It is not reality that has blind spots. They belong to the economists whose tunnel vision of economic growth as the key measure of progress is increasingly irrational. Professor Dasgupta argues convincingly that a narrow and exclusive focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – meaning the total value of economic activity within a state’s borders in goods and services – is a misleading measure of economic success.
The inadequacy of growth as the unique economic measure has been debated for decades. What has made this report a news story? Has there been a major theoretical breakthrough, a rethinking of economics triggered by the pandemic and climate change? There seem to be three principal reasons that made The Economics of Bio-Diversity newsworthy. First, it was commissioned by H.M. Treasury. Second, its strong and clear injunction that good economics must respect and manage nature better. And third the UK will be hosting and chairing the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 26, in Glasgow this November.
After the Second World War Mark Twain’s old aphorism, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics”, took on a whole new dimension: the economic measurement of progress. Success in the competition between nation-states was measured by a single statistic, the value of Gross National Product (GNP), later recalibrated as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). An annual increase of GDP of several percentage points meant pride and progress; low or negative growth, despondency and decline. As economics, its language, theoreticians, statisticians and beneficiaries, came to dominate political life so for governments economic growth became the overriding proof of political virtue.
But what counted as economic activity? What was excluded from the aggregated calculations that made up GDP? By definition ‘externalities’, such as women’s domestic labour and childrearing and the large ‘informal sector’ in the developing world. On the debit side, the social, health and environmental costs of material production were ignored. And this despite perennial challenges from sociologists, developmentalists, progressive economists, environmentalists, trades unions, religious leaders and feminists all contesting the adequacy of the prevailing economic growth paradigm.
Progress, critics of GDP argued, could be measured in a completely different way: by improvement in the standard of living, by increase in the well-being and happiness of a population, clean air, bio-diversity, leisure time, increase in human capabilities, decrease in the harms of inequality, and so on. In 1972, Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch former farmer, a founding father of the European Union and the fourth President of the European Commission, coined the term "Gross National Happiness (GNH)”. But only tiny Bhutan, which shares borders with India, Nepal and Bangladesh, adopted GNH as a national policy with a strong Buddhist flavour.
Critics of the growth paradigm seem to gain momentum when the stability of the global economy is shaken by crises. In the early 1970s, after the events of 1968, limits to growth became a UN conference topic. After the 1973 oil-shock when OAPEC (Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) raised oil prices fourfold. After the 2008 banking meltdown, fantasies of unlimited natural resources and the benefits of unregulated markets were challenged by reality. Stephen Macekura’s scholarly The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics charts in detail the history from the 1940s of such alternative economics and their failure to gain traction once the crisis has passed.
So Dasgupta and his Treasury report are a continuation of a long tradition that even includes popular writers: Rachel Carson published her readable Silent Spring in 1962 and Ernst Friedrich Schumacher his Small is Beautiful in 1973. During the same period pioneering developmental economists such as Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq and Dudley Seers were grappling with the problems of achieving what they called ‘sustainable development’ and with environmental issues in the newly independent ‘Third World’ countries. Macekura shows that despite the best efforts of the growth critics, the dominant economic ideology never lost its self-confidence and power to convince, even though slowly but unsurely big guns such as the World Bank began to support some aspects of alternative economics and its vision of progress. Human development indexes burgeoned with measures of health, literacy, social inclusion and wellbeing to the fore. The intended beneficiaries of development aid were consulted about what they wanted rather than what governmental donors following the latest economic theory prescribed. But economic growth with GDP as its indicator remained the global orthodoxy, the common sense of Economics and Progress, with a dismissive ‘this-is-the-way-we-measure-things-around-here’ being the last word.
Today we inhabit a deranged world of economic statistics in which, according to the BBC Today programme’s introductory script, Amazon, the company, is valued at $1.6 trillion and Amazon, the river and forests at nothing - unless and until they are cut down for wood and farm-land. Nothing on the debit side, rivers silting up, extreme weather conditions, global warming. And the pandemic has woken us up to just how poorly equipped we are to evaluate statistics, even those which count ‘excess deaths’.
Dasgupta deploys economic language to get his message across. But it grates. He refers to our demands for nature’s “assets”, its “goods and services” have to be balanced against the earth’s capacity “to supply them”. The concept of the earth’s “natural capital” stretches the meaning of words to the limit. Don’t biodiversity and the environment have an incommensurable value? But ‘talking the economic talk’ is the most likely way to convince economists to ‘walk the walk’, heed their critics’ arguments, and avoid catastrophe. The assumption that a technological fix is going to make unnecessary a major change in how we measure economic success and how we conduct our lives, is a dangerous gamble and verges on magical thinking; as far as containing irreversible climate change is concerned current half-measures are set to fail.
One consequence of an emerging conceptual dissonance at the heart of the dominant economics is that we repeatedly hear politicians placing surviving the pandemic in binary opposition to saving our economy. Only an economy that has the nation’s health not as an ‘externality’ but as one of its key measures of success is worthy of being described as rational. Mark Twain was right. The statistics that have embedded economic growth in our minds as the only measure of progress hide a particularly insidious lie. So well done the BBC for giving a heads-up to a report about how we might now move on, at last, to a rational economics.
See TheArticle 05/02.2021