Dear Thérese Coffey,
As you will remember, it takes 15% of the Parliamentary Conservative Party to write to the backbench 1922 Committee for a vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister to be called. Only 55 Conservative MPs would be enough. You might say that the future of this country for the next three years rests on 55 people.
You will think this is a strange time to raise such a possibility after the Conservative Party did so well in the 6 May elections. And it might seem misguided for a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter to even discuss it with you, a Cabinet member. Again you would be right. For Mr. Rishi Sunak would be a more formidable rival for Sir Keir Starmer than the current incumbent, and Mrs. Sunak would not need a loan from a Tory donor to buy her wallpaper.
But in crisis times like these we all realise that Liam Byrne’s jokey note after the 2010 elections ‘I’m afraid there’s no money’ is now actually true. Britain is economically damaged today reminiscent of our indebtdness on “VE” day 1945 – which fell this year on Saturday 8 May. Even the most curmudgeonly of cosmopolitans has patriotic thoughts. I would like to suggest, and such thoughts are perhaps shared by some Conservative MPs even if pushed to the back of their minds, that it is not in the national interest for Mr. Boris Johnson to go on much longer. He has been, and is, damaging this country’s standing in the world. If the aim is for a ‘Global Britain’ of good repute then cutting Aid budgets and breaking international agreements we have just signed is no way to achieve it.
Even the most thick-skinned of your Cabinet colleagues must be increasingly embarrassed by Wednesday PMQs watching Sir Keir Starmer’s disbelieving, controlled and dignified countenance while he systematically demolishes a ranting Prime Minister. The Speaker would do well to point out that Parliamentary Questions were intended to be answered. Last Wednesday Mr. Johnson had a tantrum, shouting, red-in-the-face and poking his finger at the Leader of the Opposition across the dispatch box. Yes, a tantrum. Like a baggily dressed tousled toddler who has been reprimanded. You’ll perhaps say the public don’t watch or seem to care. And you may be right. Maybe the toddler look and behaviour bring out the public’s maternal/paternal instincts. When Johnson’s indecision last year was condemned for resulting in multiple unnecessary COVID deaths ‘he’s doing his best’ was a common public response. The sort of defence an adult might make of a young child.
There is also something childish about Johnson’s repeated lying. I remember seeing a weasel crossing the road as I was driving a car full of grandchildren in your own Suffolk constituency, a long black streak, tail continuous with body. ‘Did you see the weasel?’ Some had. ‘Aren’t they amazing, so fast and vicious’ ‘Yes, and he had a chicken in his mouth’ came back a voice from the back seat. It didn’t matter that it was untrue. The vicious weasel ought to have caught a poor chicken - so it had. For this little boy the border between truth and childish imagination was still fluid. The story was much better with a chicken and the toddler who made the claim got admiring looks. Mr. Johnson has a toddler’s imagination for a better story together with the more calculated kind of adult lying.
The Prime Minister’s lies prompted both Peter Oborne’s meticulously researched The Assault on Truth and Peter Stefanovic’s on-line fact-checking video seen by over 15 million viewers. The lies are not unnoticed occasional mistakes. Lying, rule-breaking and a lack of interest in factual accuracy and truth on this scale have debilitating consequences. The most notable is that trust evaporates. You don’t believe what the man is saying even when he’s telling the truth. Breaking international law and treaties means that Britain as a State becomes doubly disliked and distrusted at any negotiating table. It also means in tribal politics that colleagues have to stay on message and talk nonsense, ‘a farrago of nonsense’ as Johnson likes to say, to distract from what is happening. Sometimes his distance for the actualité simply means he can’t be bothered to learn his brief - as the Foreign Office and Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe discovered to their cost while Mr. Johnson was Foreign Secretary.
For some the Prime Minister’s repeated lying is a national joke. But laughing about it simply plays into his self-confected image as the jolly-joker. So does the use of the first name, or Bojo, both creating a national brand, conferring a sort of fake intimacy. Mr. Johnson inhabits a social class accustomed to getting away with things, his sense of privilege honed at Eton. Most of us are as warmly intimate with this class as is the chicken with the weasel.
It is for Johnson’s own good, not only the national interest, that he should go. The falsity and hypocrisy, their sheer daily burden, must leave a terrible emptiness. He can’t do the job competently. He doesn’t even look as if he likes the job. He is heading for deep trouble as the costs of the pandemic and BREXIT become more visible. If he were to resign after Hartlepool in the bag, his big victory, he would be leaving on a relative high. With his libertarian tendencies and shortage of cash he would be much happier at liberty making a fortune performing on the lecture circuits with perhaps a touch of lobbying.
Britain is a divided, damaged country but President Biden in the USA is showing that healing is possible. Patriotism is a term often abused. But I imagine all your fellow 363 Conservative MPs would wish to be seen and considered as patriots. The patriotic thing to do would be to return Boris Johnson to the back benches and install a Prime Minister who could restore Britain’s standing and influence in the world and set about the task of healing the country’s divisions. Or must Party always come before Country?
See TheArticle 08/05/2021
The Super-League fiasco with its pleasing echo of David defeating Goliath bears thinking about. Fans spoke eloquently about the values that would be trampled if the club owners got their way. But why don’t we find the same values referred to in vox pop about next week’s elections?
TV and Radio’s vox pop, long-stemmed microphone shoved under the nose of citizens going about their lawful occasions, is mostly depressing and irritating. A cheap substitute for the experts and their analysis? Media folk virtue signalling by listening to the public? “How do you feel about 20% of the young people in your town being unemployed? Ask a silly question and you’ll get a silly answer as my mother-in-law used to say. Yet ‘how do you feel about the Super-League’ uncorked passionate responses, thoughtful, lengthy, essentially moral and political – with a small ‘p’.
The responders’ reactions were not of shock or surprise at the venal nature of Premier League football. Since at least the 1980s when investigative journalist, Geoff Seed’s World in Action documentary on Manchester United had shown how, in anticipation of the forthcoming massive commercialisation of club football, Manchester United’s owners were dubiously buying up shares like they bought up boy footballers. The greed-led failings of UEFA and FIFA are also well known. But to the indignant fans the Super-League was a step too far. And it helped that the step was being taken by multi-millionaire owners, who happened not to be British.
Geoff Seed, third of five generations of Manchester City fans, reflecting on the public outcry, shared his own memories of what football had meant to working class communities. Supporting your local club had cemented relationships between the generations in families. Shared experiences and memories built community. In the 1930s his Great Aunt was given lifts to away-matches by first team players. Difficult to imagine today. In the late 1950s Burnley’s chairman Bob Lord – known by some as the ‘Khrushchev of Burnley’ - who epitomised the mill-owner mentality of football chairmen tried to peg players’ salaries to £20 a week. Football as a sport had changed almost beyond recognition but the old values were being demonstrated by fans outside glittering stadiums home to the six British clubs who proposed to join the Super-League.
Community, though, was not the only value asserted by protesting crowds. There was the threat to the relationship between the minnows and sharks of football. The Super-League spelt an end to redistribution of wealth from TV rights and merchandising, from the world of players on £200,000 a week to the struggling little clubs. And a sharp reduction to support for the promotion of football amongst young amateur footballers. Making a different point, fans complained that sealing off the elite teams within a new League would kill football’s drama. There would be no more giant killers like Leicester City. Where would be the rewards for courage, skill and dedication? Where the punishment for their absence? What would happen to the merit in football’s meritocracy?
The contrast between the top football club owners and fans was stark. Local versus international, ‘somewhere’ people versus ‘nowhere’ people, the football born in traditional working class culture – now a part of national identity - against that of international elites, sharing versus greedy exclusion. It was as if the dilemmas at the heart of British politics had been prised open, the choices laid bare. Yet the angry interlocutors who understood and defended their values within competitive sport did not seem to relate such values to wider society and to the possibility that such values might be voted for and inform government.
The recent protests were not the first time aroused fans had taken decisive action against greedy owners. The reaction to Malcolm Glazer’s take-over of Manchester United in 2005, landing the club with responsibility for loans he had taken out to buy it, resulted in the formation by the ‘Red Rebels’ and of the break-away FC United of Manchester. The new club was fan-led and fan owned.
For some overt politics you need to go north of the border to Celtic’s ‘Green Brigade’. The club’s origins in the 1880s were charitable, helping the underdog, the newly arrived Irish immigrants. Palestinian flags appeared during a 2016 match against the Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Shiva in protest at Israeli government human rights violations, incurring a UEFA fine for illicit use of banners. Fans reacted by crowd-funding two Palestinian relief organisations, matching the fine. Then there was the reaction to the Lazio ‘Ultras’ and the Lazio-Celtic match of 24 October 2019. Fascist salutes and rival mocking of Mussolini in Glasgow streets and on the terraces brought back 1930s-style confrontations. Wider politics has always passed through the Celtic turnstiles.
The Super-League fiasco does seem to show that popular culture in Britain is not politically inert, not a kind of ethical desert of indifference and inaction. The current national campaign boycotting social media carrying racist comment on matches shows the wider influence of Black Lives Matter - and clubs and players seeking some moral credibility. We may want to keep politics with a big ‘P’ out of sport – though boycotting South African teams during apartheid did undermine the assurance of white supremacy - but sport is too important a part of national life for it not to be a channel for the expression of values. The question is: why aren’t the values we’ve seen popping up about the Super-League in vox pop also surfacing as people disclose their voting intentions for the elections this May? And, as our democracy is eroded, why are these values not transferred to electoral engagement, judgement and action?
One answer might be that throughout all the different forms of media sport is reported in great detail, factually and analytically. Fans can verify coverage and reporting itself benefits from the willingness of fans to digest and share complex information which can be fitted into explanatory frameworks that have real meaning. On the other hand access to politicians for political journalists is limited. On the job, they are met with ‘gaslighting’, obfuscation, and refusal to answer questions. Facts are in short supply; instead there is the latest spin, lies, scandal and cover-up. In the face of instances of downright biased reporting the public begin to doubt their own perceptions, memories and understanding of events. Many are reduced to simple propositions. “Voting makes no difference”. “Politicians? They’re all the same”. But are footballers, coaches, managers, referees and owners all the same? The crowds of rejoicing fans last week indicated that the public doesn’t seem to think so. And they’d vote out the owners if they had the chance.
See TheArticle 28/04/2021
The pandemic has shed a revealing light on the way we organise society and international relations. The global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19 presents a sorry tale of nationalism versus globalisation. The death toll amongst the poor and vulnerable in Britain starkly reveals the underlying values of our political culture.
The production of vaccines, as in most realms of scientific endeavour, has been an international effort, one that has shown the value – and one of the drawbacks - of public-private partnerships. The iron law of the market is that those who pay most for scarce resources acquire them, or at least get them first. Pharmaceutical companies can and do work effectively for shared aims with national governments but that does not mean the profit motive and markets have magically disappeared. That said the rigours of the market do not excuse what is now called ‘vaccine nationalism’.
Economic globalisation has created transnational supply chains, allowing goods to be sourced where labour is cheap with just-in-time delivery giving competitive advantage. But if you run out of essentials for manufacturing a vaccine in bulk, for example vials to put the vaccine in, plus stoppers, needles and syringes to inject it, or even lipid components of the serum, you can be as nationalist as you like, there will be delays in vaccinating your people and more will die. Quite apart from the oft repeated and obvious truth, highlighted by the plight of India and Brazil, that with a mutating lethal virus that easily crosses borders ‘until everyone is safe, no-one is safe’, vaccine nationalism is delusional.
Vaccine nationalism is well described as common nonsense, a useful term invented by the Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. He wrote that common sense “commonly feels itself omni-competent in practical affairs, commonly is blind to the long-term consequences of policies and courses of action, commonly is unaware of the admixture of common nonsense in its more cherished convictions and slogans.” Governments taking no responsibility for the plight of those beyond their borders claim they must fulfil their primary duty to protect their people, deliberately ignoring the interdependence of both lives and livelihoods in the 21st. century and the last three decades of the 20th, our most recent phase of globalisation. Classic common nonsense.
Britain as a nation trading globally, London as a transport hub, means that our borders are permeable to the virus and to the people who may transmit it. What does ‘take back control’ mean in this context? We can thank the clever snake-oil salesmen of BREXIT in part for this particular common-nonsense slogan. Britain’s population is aging and part of growing old is the onset of different ailments and declining strength. Who in that age-group would not wish to ‘take back control’? Tune in to bus conversations about what the nurse said and which medicine does the job best. Transpose to fears about the NHS ‘being swamped’ by foreigners and hey-presto you’ve got a Wizard- of- Oz grade slogan particularly appealing to the old. But it’s still common nonsense.
BREXIT nationalism expressed in ‘taking back control’ is not just, as Peter Oborne, calls it, ‘an assault on truth’, it is plausible because it contains a grain of truth. Our success with mass vaccine distribution is in striking contrast to the mistakes made by the European Union. The Commission’s own mess is compounded by the ponderous national regulatory procedures of each member state. Warnings about alleged dangers have created widespread distrust in AstraZeneca, producing one of the most easily distributed, safe and effective vaccines on the market. Vaccine nationalism is not uniquely British.
Current conflicts can be viewed in ways other than through the prism of nationalism. The principle of subsidiarity, action should not be taken at a higher level unless it cannot be taken effectively at a lower level, offers an alternative way of looking at them. This sounds all very Catholic and what my old Professor at the University of Galway would call ‘amorphous’. In fact the term was first used to describe the principle of Calvinist Church governance, or so claimed the Cellule de Prospective (Forward-Planning Unit) set up by Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission in the early 1990s. Article 5 of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 states that the ‘EU does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level’. That’s subsidiarity though you may not have noticed. The UK would have done well to have heeded the principle instead of creating a centralized Track and Trace system bypassing existing local public health systems of infection control.
The other political principle highly relevant to the tension between nationalism and globalization has also become central to Catholic Social Teaching. It is solidarity, a commitment to the common good of all that transcends national frontiers. Both the pandemic and climate change show that solidarity is not just a utopian concept or a counsel of perfection in an imperfect world but an urgent necessity. Vaccines and vaccination are a global common good for all humanity. Globalisation, and many of its features, may not be the last word but its present reality requires nothing less than the application of the two principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. They must inform any new social contract.
Two news stories emerged around the Ides of March this year. The first about a project near Whitehaven in the Borough of Copeland in West Cumbria. The second about developments on the Clyde of special interest to residents of Argyll and Bute. Both in their different ways had implications for the future of the planet. Both also illustrated the delusional quality of current ideas of national sovereignty.
The first, you may have guessed, was about Woodhouse colliery, a project of West Cumbria Mining owned by the Australian Company EMR Capital. In 2019 Cumbria Council granted planning permission for the first deep coal-mine since 1987, to extract from under the Irish Sea an estimated 3.3 million tons of high quality coking coal used in steel manufacture but producing carbon emissions equivalent to that created by a million households per annum not to mention worries about its proximity to Sellafield nuclear power station and pockets of undersea methane. Difficult to square with Britain’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and the Paris Treaty to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, you might say and you would not be alone.
Not surprisingly with the COP26 International Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow chaired by Boris Johnson in the offing, the Woodhouse colliery decision caused considerable controversy. Keep Cumbrian Coal in a Hole, a campaigning NGO, threatened a legal challenge. South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC), a community-based environmental charity, was thinking along the same lines. The local controversy was breaking as a national story.
Then the project bounced up to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick. Not noted for trouble-free decisions, he pushed the decision back to Cumbria County Council. Though hardly an issue on a par with how often the bin men would visit, it would be for the County Council to decide. There were new jobs at stake in Whitehaven, in Teesside - from where 80% of the coal was going to be exported (so the emissions would not count as Britain’s) - the need for 6.6 million tons of coking coal imported from Australia and the USA would be reduced.
Enter the US Special Envoy on Climate Issues, 2004 Presidential candidate Mr. John Kerry, on a visit to Europe. Post-Trump, the USA was very much back in the game when it came to limiting Climate Change. Kerry made it abundantly and volubly clear that Woodhouse Colliery was a non-starter. The Conservative mayor of the Borough of Copeland, Mike Starkie, fought back. “I take no lessons from John Kerry”, he said “given that the UK is miles in front of the States in the reduction of the use of coal for fuel”. This was a misunderstanding of the situation. Britain was a lesson-taker. On 11 March Mr. Jenrick “called in” the planning application, he would hold a public enquiry, the West Cumbria mine would be kicked into the long grass, or rather the long seaweed. For HMG’s principled decision read HMV, His Master’s Voice – coming from Washington.
The second such story, all true Scots will have spotted, was the announcement within the Integrated Defence Review released on 16 March 2021 that the slow build-up in the Royal Naval Armaments Depot of nuclear warheads for the submarines at Faslane on the Clyde was deliberate. Britain, we were informed, was changing its self-imposed cap of 225 nuclear warheads to a new cap of 260. Its current target for reduction of nuclear weapons to 180 by the mid-2020s was presumably abandoned, a worrying volte-face for the post-Cold War period. The decision just happened to coincide with the lobbying of Congressional Committee leaders by the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace over funding approval for a new US, W93, warhead programme. The nuclear proliferation team in Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI), not known for leftist rhetoric, described this ‘co-incidence’ in Going Ballistic: The UK’s Proposed Nuclear Build-Up as “a clear indication of the degree of UK dependence on that [the USA’s] programme”. In other words our Independent Nuclear Deterrent was becoming even less independent. And our future nuclear deterrent is viewed, at least in design terms, as a joint project.
The point is that the first task of a State, the security of its citizens, for Britain supposedly based on nuclear deterrence, is shared with, and is becoming more controlled by, another State. If this doesn’t amount to sharing important aspects of sovereignty, what does?
In the mid-2000s Britain led the world in methods of verification of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. To quote RUSI, our volte-face on nuclear weapons was “unequivocally damaging to diplomacy”. It also made the “use of low-yield weapons more possible”, a clear and present danger in the context of conflicts such as in eastern Ukraine. In short we left the EU only to become – inevitably - more dependent on the USA.
Worse, the Prime Minister has a penchant for Trump-lite policies, damaging the soft power of British diplomacy and idevelopment aid, breaking international treaties, toying with a British form of culture wars, playing elites against people, sacking top civil servants and arousing the sectarian demons of Northern Ireland. So the current influence of the USA may not be such a bad thing. Importing some of Biden’s Climate Change vision, commitment and integrity may be salutary as Kerry demonstrated. But the moral is we must give up the consoling claim to “punch above our weight”. As a declining State we have been losing weight for many years. We must also leave behind the fantasy of “taking back control”. In a globalised world the best, the only, realistic way to control our destiny and “punch above our weight” is within strategic alliances. And that requires some degree of shared sovereignty.
The basic snag with presenting national sovereignty as the exercise of some kind of glorious, autonomous agency is that it flies in the face of reality. National sovereignty requires ‘sovereign capability’ which for better or for worse we, like most other nations, now lack in several respects, not least we don’t feed ourselves and we certainly don't rule the waves. It is time we rejected the infantilism of Boris Johnson and developed some historical, corporate self-knowledge and purposive strategy for the future. By the next Ides of March the knives may be out.
See TheArticle 15/04/2021
Parents in Britain are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their children’s education and future. But at the back of our minds we know that the human damage of COVID is global, far more severe beyond wealthy countries like ours. Our anxieties are as nothing compared with the fears of refugees living in poverty-stricken limbo who see no future for their children.
Lebanon with a population of 6.8 million shelters at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees, not counting the Palestinians who arrived much earlier. Transposed to the UK these figures would amount to a doubling in the populations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus a 50% increase in that of Greater London. Britain meanwhile sees taking in 20,000 Syrians through the UK Vulnerable Persons Settlement Scheme as a source of pride.
When we think of refugees’ plight, or are reminded of it by TV coverage and the appeals of development agencies, usually shelter, clean water, nutrition and medical supplies come to mind, the vital immediate necessities to keep people alive. But we all know that in today’s global economy, if we take education away from their children, refugees may live to see another day, may even one day be able to return to their homeland, but the future without an educated younger generation will be one of unremitting poverty, despair and possible conflict. For international donors humanitarian aid or provision of education should not be an either-or decision. Yet how often do we hear about the collapse of the educational systems in conflict countries such as Yemen, Somalia, and Syria and its inevitable results?
In 2019 and 2020, the economic situation in Lebanon went from bad to worse. The situation continues to deteriorate. Unemployment now is sky-high. The Lebanese pound has dropped in value by more than 90 percent since 2019, bringing angry protesters no longer able to afford basic necessities back on the streets. Recent surveys put more than 50 per cent of the population below the poverty line. For Syrian refugees, the figure is even higher, with 83% living below the extreme poverty line. The Covid-19 pandemic and Beirut port explosion which killed more than 200 people - wounded more than 6,000 and displaced around 300,000 - added to an already disastrous economic and political situation. Large-scale popular protests led to the Prime Minister’s and government’s resignation.
Save the Children’s recent report Spotlight on Lebanon puts the number of Lebanese school-age children at 660,000. Before COVID when schools were open only 21% of 15-17 teenagers attended school, 69% of the 6-14 age group. Among Syrian refugee children the numbers are worse; fewer than half of the 631,000 in the country have had access to formal, adequate education; unofficial figures indicate that some 180,000 children are working to support their families. The impact on what was formerly a modern private school system with high levels of attainment in science and mathematics, alongside a comprehensive state provision, has been catastrophic.
Before the pandemic, state schools dealt with overwhelming numbers by organizing morning and afternoon shifts with refugee children mainly attending in the afternoons. Since March 2020 schools, with short breaks, have been shut. And since then, at its best, Lebanese children have received eleven weeks of education, refugee children much fewer. Refugee families with very few exceptions can neither pay for Internet access nor laptops so absence from formal schooling, apart from NGO interventions, has meant no education at all. The first three months of 2021 have perpetuated and deepened the continuing educational crisis.
Leaks of Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office budgetary plans suggest that an 88% cut to aid for Lebanon is being considered – with the vague possibility of some extra money possible from other UK government budgets. Given Lebanon’s strategic importance in the Middle East, such cuts would at best be remarkably short-sighted.
It was once true that the thriving private sector, dominated by Church-run schools, eased the pressure on the public sector. But no more. The impoverishment of Lebanon’s middle-class has drawn large numbers of children into already oversubscribed state schools. The strain on the system has in its turn pushed up the drop-out rate amongst vulnerable Lebanese children. So they join the children of Syrian refugees in whatever the charitable sector can provide by way of ‘after-school schooling’.
What is to become of the two past UK funding interventions in Lebanese education, started 2016-2017, the Reaching all Children with Education programme and the No Lost Generation Initiative? The former provided a grant of £106 million to the Ministry of Education & Higher Education. The latter a more innovative £93 million grant “to support the delivery of non-formal education and child protection for the most vulnerable out of school refugee children and children from host communities aged 3-18”. The kind of project that was, and is, desperately needed but now under threat from drastic cuts.
Public skepticism about overseas aid - and this is often forgotten by donor governments - springs partly from the public perception that aid is essentially Ministry to Ministry, government to government support. When a recipient government is in crisis, known to be failing, understandably pressures to cut aid ratchet up. But the non-governmental sector, NGOs and international NGOs, as in Lebanon often play a major role in education as well as humanitarian aid. Caritas Lebanon, for example, working through its Church network plays a vital role in the country. Smaller bodies offering a range of expertise, sometimes dismissed as ‘sticking plaster’ to highlight the higher profile strategic plans of government, can, and do play an important role. Better funding would enable this sector to increase their capacity. And despite last year’s scandals, confidence in the probity of NGOs remains relatively high.
Strategic plans for the educational system are not the only part of the country’s institutions that begin to fall apart in economic crisis. Banking comes to mind. But banking can be regulated and can soon be back in business. After a certain time, the blighted futures of a lost generation cannot be restored.
Lebanon now has an urgent need for the world to step up and help a country that has taken the greatest responsibility for helping refugees driven across their border by a terrible war. Countries whose youth are without hope for the future are prone to instability and conflict. The Middle-East and North Africa cannot afford another country with a lost generation.
See TheArticle 09/04/2021
Vacuous worn-out words and phrases are a telling feature of our contemporary political pathology. The saddest, often poured like ketchup on shallow relationships, is ‘community’. Saddest because community is a deep human need. Humiliation, alienation and lack of belonging are poorly disguised behind frequent use of ‘community’. A true understanding of community, and therefore how to nurture it, is essential for a healthy political culture.
Today, almost any grouping of people with a single common characteristic is at risk of being called a community: the scientific community, the BAME community, the community of plastic bag manufacturers, the help save the hedgehog community (I must declare an interest here), the European Economic Community (before it became a somewhat disunited Union). Any group can become a victim of stereotyping. It is a short step to treating their common character trait as inherent or to make sweeping negative generalizations about a particular group; this is what is generally meant by racism.
Even if we resign ourselves to the portmanteau nature of that word ‘community’ we encounter a second problem: group identities obscure the many individual differences found amongst members of a group. I remember a Muslim friend whispering to me during an interfaith discussion: “I wish sometimes I could just be me and not always the Muslim woman”. I imagine a Catholic bishop might secretly feel the same. And if we view cultural difference in a pluralist society only in monochrome rather than in its technicolour reality, community relations will remain stuck in a black and white picture of exclusion/inclusion and integration/separation.
But perhaps we make things worse by asking the wrong questions. People talking about community, however vaguely, are usually referring to a good thing, something desirable. But we are aware of exceptions. Not all communities are a good thing and we know they can be oppressive, coercively enclosed, violent places. So why not, as the stereotyped Irishman is credited with saying, start from somewhere else? Ask instead what kind of behaviour, which virtues are required to create good community, the sort of community we want to create when we emerge from Covid and its restrictions.
What constitutes and creates good community? Working together for the common good is one key. Sociability flows most easily from hands to heart to head. Schools and universities require much professional expertise and organisation for the flow to be in the opposite direction: head to heart to hands. To be recognised and acknowledged, above all to contribute and to be needed, are fundamental human needs that, when realised, build community.
The loss of community felt by being made unemployed is so intense euphemisms are used. People are ‘let go’. ‘Made redundant’ too accurately describes the painful reality. The devaluation of low paid labour is deeply divisive. As the American political philosopher, Michael Sandel says there is a deep problem when the idea of the common good we carry in our heads, and how to achieve it, is defined by market mechanisms. No wonder that societies and nations rooted in individualism and consumerism, its citizens striving for self-sufficiency and self-mastery, find the creation of a common life so difficult.
Another key to community is historical humility, shared memory and the disposition to learn from the past. Is there anything we might learn from past conscious efforts to create community? Rowan Williams in his recently published The Way of St. Benedict, about the founder of western monasticism, looks as far back as the sixth century for guidance. It’s a short book with long sentences; in a chapter on ‘Benedict and the Future of Europe’ he asks. “In the half-secularized, morally confused and culturally diverse continent we now inhabit, does the Holy Rule still provide a beacon for common life?” And then the former Archbishop of Canterbury argues cogently that it does have something to say to us. A not so surprising conclusion for viewers of ‘The Monastery’, the memorable 2005 TV reality series which followed a group of people – several without any religious convictions - spending time with the monks of Worth Abbey.
Benedict’s Rule, aimed at building and sustaining community, picks out honesty, accountability, transparency, the peaceful resolution of inevitable conflicts, and stability as the necessary virtues and features of monastic life and the characteristics of a good Abbot. Lord Williams argues for their contemporary salience as political virtues for governance. For instance honesty “is not simply the matter of being transparent about your expenses (although that helps). It has something to do with whether or not society expects in its political class a degree of self-criticism and self-questioning”. He also underlines the responsibility of civil society. “An honest society ought to be able to guarantee the possibility for those in public life to acknowledge fallibility or uncertainty”, he writes. And in political leadership Rowan Williams seeks ‘stable and nurturing habits’ omitting - with Christian charity - to add how alien these political virtues seem to the present Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
Remarkably St. Benedict’s guidelines do still speak to our contemporary condition. “Good governance and government”, Rowan Williams writes “is always about engagement with the other, a developing relation that is neither static confrontation nor competition, but an interaction producing some sort of common language and vision that could not have been defined in advance of the encounter.” Where are dialogue and constructive interaction to be found?” The grim reality is that our political culture seems the antithesis of what Benedict proposes for sustaining a harmonious, stable community.
The Way of St. Benedict was published last year. It performs an important task by invigorating and making meaningful the worn-out but essential word ‘community’. And as our intellectual horizons disappear in a haze of slogans, deceit and half-truths, perhaps we can learn from the sixth century how to restore them.
See TheArticle 01/04.2021
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