From Friday 27 January a Yemeni family tuning in to the BBC World Service Arabic broadcasts would be disappointed. To save £28 million towards a shortfall caused by inflation and freezing of the license fee, BBC radio’s ten language services are being shut down and several hundred staff made redundant. It’s digital or TV now for those who can afford it.
Yemen is a destitute, hungry, war-torn country. Few will have the money to buy a mobile phone to catch the only independent news on-line. This unseen discrimination against the poorest in the world may seem a minor, distant matter. But it is small part of a bigger picture. And we should be concerned.
For the last few years, the UK has been behaving as if it didn’t have enough money to pursue a coherent Foreign, Commonwealth and Development policy (FCDO). Yet we were one of the 19 founder signatories of the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) in 1960. It numbers 38 democracies today. Its mandate is to promote ‘a collaboration in policy standards to promote sustainable growth”. It describes development assistance as directed at “economic development and welfare of developing countries”. Do we really share these goals? There is growing evidence we don’t.
In 2021 the aid budget was ‘temporarily’ (weasel words – it is likely to stay that way until the end of the decade) reduced from the UN target of 0.7% of GNP (Gross National Product) to 0.5%. This amounted to a cut of 21% from £14.5 billion to c.£11.4 billion of which c.£7.14 billion (62.6%) was in the form of direct bilateral aid to individual countries, some of it via the World Food Programme, for example feeding the starving in Yemen. The overall budget for Yemen was halved in 2021 from £221 million to £114 million. Yet need continued to grow.
Cuts in spending for Lebanon are another egregious example. In July 2021, a year after a huge explosion in a port warehouse caused extensive devastation in Beirut, and on top of Lebanon’s economic collapse, the incoming British ambassador, Ian Collard, inherited an aid budget of £140 million cut from £260 million for the period 2019-2020. According to the newspaper L’Orient Today a further 2021-2022 cut was scheduled to reduce the budget to c. £32 million. Lebanon hosts 2.2 million Syrian refugees and over 200, 000 Palestinians. Its total population is 5.6 million, 40% of whom now require humanitarian assistance. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict the impact of across-the-board cuts of this magnitude on British embassies’ capacity to promote ‘economic development and welfare’. You might have thought that Lebanon, a failed State, tucked perilously between Israel and Syria, would fall within the Foreign and Development Office priority category, alongside Syria and Afghanistan. Not so.
In June 2020 Boris Johnson described the aid budget as a “giant cashpoint in the sky” and amalgamated our development ministry with the Foreign Office. But who is making the withdrawals and for what purpose? The Home Office for one. A more accurate description is the budget for plugging holes - of which there are many such as the rising cost of housing and feeding refugees in this country.
We have an aid ceiling in the UK. So payment of hotels, for food and other burgeoning refugee expenses cannot be covered by adding to the overall budget which is fixed. An interesting set of submissions to a December 2022 Parliamentary Select Committee on International Aid on the funding of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in UK, (on-line thanks to the Washington and London based Global Center for Development), provides detailed evidence. 12% of the UK aid budget is being used to meet some of the current Treasury shortfall. And the sum could double. Just as the effects of climate change are being felt, this means drastic cuts in life-saving humanitarian aid let alone development aid. £700 million went to East Africa to mitigate the consequences of the 2016-2018 droughts. £156 million was budgeted for last year’s continuing and no less severe drought.
Over 150,000 thousand applicants for asylum in Britain are waiting for a decision on their status, tens of thousands have been waiting for over three years. In Germany, using a UNHCR triage system, the wait is on average 6-7 months. We are dealing with far fewer Ukrainian refugees than Germany which has issued six times the number of UK visas, or neighbouring Poland which has accepted 1.26 million. Yet, here in the UK the arrival of 45,750 people in small boats in 2022 is treated as a national crisis while the inefficiency and waste of the Home Office is covered by money taken from the world’s hungry.
The Home Office under Priti Patel and Suella Braverman appears incapable of managing, timely processing and integrating any arrivals. Part of the problem is the plethora of un-coordinated special programmes for select categories of refugees from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Syria. Home Office staff don’t even have an adequate data-base and rely on spreadsheets. But at the root is a dysfunctional Home Office led since July 2018, the date of Priti Patel’s appointment, by Ministers simply not up to the job. They have played to the Conservative back benches while expenditure and backlog soared, rhetoric rather than action. Pre-Covid, 2018, the government was spending £370 million on refugee costs in the UK. Today it is projected to be c. £2.7 billion. And this will come out of the aid budget.
The OECD does acknowledge that members may want to fund refugees from their aid budgets for the first year after their arrival [my italics]. But none of the G7 countries are funding most of what are called ‘in-donor costs’ from aid in the way Britain does. This expedient is not illegal, simply unethical. It is condemned by a wide range of British NGOs concerned with human rights, the plight of refugees and international development aid.
Dipping into the aid budget began in a small way in 2009 under Gordon Brown and expanded under David Cameron. It reached unacceptable proportions under Johnson, Truss and Sunak. Priti Patel’s more than £120 million Migration and Economic Development Partnership, a deportation scheme in collaboration with an authoritarian African State, Rwanda, further championed by Suella Braverman, is the embodiment of the way our former vision of development assistance, and that of the OECD, has been deliberately degraded.
So no surprise. ‘Global Britain’ is an empty slogan put about in 2016 to provide Brexit with the illusion of grand purpose. “The whole idea of having a coherent, consistent portfolio of development action has disappeared”, in the words of Geography Professor Michael Collyer of Sussex University. By 2030 it is reckoned conflict and fragile States will be home to 85% of the world’s poor. We neglect them at our peril.
Britain does not need empty slogans. We need to nurture clear foreign and development policy objectives, to pursue them and to hold out for an ethical dimension within a coherent FCDO strategy. We should not be making the poor of the world pay for the failures of incompetent Ministers.
See TheArticle 14/02/2023
In The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis - then Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio - portray two very different personalities but also a touching, indeed charming, relationship between the two. The Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s film is taken up with their - obviously imagined - conversations and discussions. Who might know to what degree screenplay and reality coincide? Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s private secretary, for one.
After Francis became Pope in February 2013, Gänswein retained his role as prefect to the papal household but moved to the monastery in the Vatican gardens where he cared for the Pope Emeritus for the next ten years. On 12 January, with Benedict interred in the crypt of St. Peter’s, and with the help of an Italian journalist, Archbishop Gänswein published Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI.
His story is of Benedict’s exemplary papacy. He clearly has a filial love for Benedict. But this is no feel-good story. Not quite as contentious as Spare, the Duke of Sussex, Harry’s tell-all, but a detailed memoir revealing a lot more than Vatican decorum would normally permit, some of it petty.
Previews of Gänswein’s book revealed written exchanges which showed important unresolved disagreements and tensions between the two Popes. There was, it seems, disagreement over Pope Francis curbing the growing celebration of the Latin Mass, his opening up of debate on the question of priestly celibacy in the context of the 2019 Synod on the Church in the Amazon, and his openness to considering the plight of couples divorced but in a civil marriage and not allowed to receive communion. Add to that Francis’ Synodale Weg (Synodal Path), his innovative rolling global consultation on the future of the Church focused on mission, participation and communion. During 2022 the consultation surfaced more neuralgic issues: the ordination of women – entirely off piste for John Paul II - and the blessing of same-sex marriages. The message from his opponents: Pope Francis was capitulating to the ‘modern zeitgeist’.
Publishing Nothing but the Truth, with the moderating and restraining presence of Benedict gone, Gänswein is expressing the views of a minority of bishops. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger, the intellectual German Professor who became Pope Benedict XVI was the ‘continuity’ candidate. But Cardinal Bergoglio, the ‘Italian’ Argentine who personified a global Church and reflected the Latin American origins of ‘the preferential option for the poor’ offered a different compass bearing. He won the second largest number of votes from the assembled cardinals in 2005 and a majority in 2013.
The two Popes shared common concerns and commitments but embodied two different and apparently incompatible visions of the needs and future of the Church, as well as having two different personalities and priorities. Popes don’t just live in an ecclesiastical or theological world. The context in which they grow up, the historical moment, their experience of life differs and matters.
As an adolescent during the Second World War Joseph Ratzinger, forced into membership of Hitler Youth and conscripted into the army, was forming his views of the world. He saw National Socialism, a rag-bag of fascist and racist ideas, reduce his country to an unimaginable nightmare of destruction and genocide. In 1968 as a theology professor in Tubingen he witnessed another rag-bag of political ideas, this time from the student Left, and supported by lecturers, disrupting the university’s intellectual life. He was deeply, perhaps disproportionately, upset. I once asked his fellow German Cardinal Walter Kasper if accounts of the impact of this experience hadn’t been exaggerated. But he confirmed their accuracy. The events at Tubingen had a lasting effect.
After 1968, Rev. Professor Ratzinger turned from contributing to and championing the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council to worrying about to what extremes its ideas might lead. Whilst serving as Pope John Paul II’s head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he censored and silenced theologians, notably proponents of the theology of liberation. Was it for fear of what their ideas might develop into and where they might end up? Is it too much to suggest such anxieties might have had their origins in 1940s Germany?
On the other hand, many would say that it was during the Guerra Sucia, Argentina’s Dirty War, that the future Pope Francis went through his most critical experiences. Between 1974 and 1983 when he was Jesuit Superior, the military regime murdered and tortured at least ten thousand of its opponents. Two of his Jesuits who refused to leave their work amongst the poor were taken and tortured by the military. Reflecting on these events – and others agreed - Francis concluded that he had let his brethren down by failing to confront the regime and by overestimating the effect of quiet influence.
Different formative experiences at different stages of their lives undoubtedly influenced the different leadership styles, personal behaviour, teaching and ecclesiastical priorities of the two Popes. We all have our comfort zones. To all appearances Pope Benedict’s natural environment was a theological seminar, faith seeking knowledge. Pope Francis is naturally at home meeting people, modelling respect for the individual and the simple demands of justice. In 2017 I was amazed to see him, after a grueling day and a long conference, shaking hands with, and being photographed with, each person emerging from the packed aula. His theology is as much about ‘show’ as ‘tell’.
Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and loyal servant to John Paul II, nurtured and enforced unity in the Church. German and Polish experience had taught them that unity based on strength and solidarity was the necessary bulwark against first fascism then bureaucratic communism. Divisive questioning was not to be tolerated. Pope Francis believes in resolving questions that beset the universal Church by opening them up even when they are creating divisions. He is treated with disdain and disloyalty by those who disagree with him.
For the last decade, the whole of Francis’ papacy, there have been not just two sources of authority in the Vatican, but two narratives mapped onto their personalities, mind-sets and teaching. This is not about to stop. The absence of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s restraining influence will, most likely, sharpen the disagreements and intensify disloyalty to Francis. The divisive issues are real and important, but as The Two Popes shows, dialogue in friendship with mutual respect and a shared sense of responsibility is always possible.
Already battle lines are being drawn up over the election of the next Pope. It is time passionate partisans find the words “I am right but you’re not wrong”, and for all to acknowledge that the principle “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” may apply to the papacy as well as to physics.
See The Article 16/01/2023
The delayed UK 2021 Census showed that the number of those identifying themselves as Christian had continued to fall and was now less than half of the overall population. A flurry of news stories brought tidings of secular joy at further evidence of Christianity’s decline, and variations on ‘oh dear’ from the different Churches.
British politicians still generally don’t ‘do God’, nor are they likely to. In this sense they may reflect public opinion, though the present Prime Minister does Diwali. Pan to President Trump outside St. John’s Episcopal church parish house, Washington, Bible in hand. US politicians, predominantly Republicans, for a variety of reasons increasingly do God.
The US Democrats might look enviously at Britain’s comfortable secularity. Evangelicals make up almost a quarter of the US population of 332 million and dominate American Protestantism. They share related commitments and attitudes: to biblical literalism, rejection of ideas other than their own, and for many, strange ideas about the end of the world alongside core Christian beliefs. In November 2020, White evangelical Christians voted 84% for Trump - up from 77% in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. The USA is in fact becoming more secular like the UK. Of people born in the US between 1981 and 1996 the respected Pew Foundation reported that 40% said they had no religion. Yet US politics are becoming more religious.
Since Reagan (1981-1989), Republicanism has increasingly appropriated the themes of its powerful evangelical backers. Thanks to the Republicans a package of religious issues, notably abortion, gay marriage, and gender, forced their way into Congress and the Supreme Court. In the 1970s abortion, Roe versus Wade, was essentially a Catholic issue. It had become a central evangelical concern by the 2020 Presidential election arousing passionate responses on both sides of the argument.
Both the leading British Parties in their pursuit of electoral advantage look over their shoulder at the tactics of the two American Parties. Both have used data collection and targeted campaigning. The Conservative Party has picked up a trick or two from the Republican Party, its wrecking ball tactics, its voter suppression. The Elections Act 2022 demands visual ID on the spurious grounds eliminating virtually non-existent identity fraud. It will have the effect of discouraging minority, younger and poorer voters.
Much of our contemporary insecurity derives from the rise and increased threat of unaccountable, authoritarian regimes, but also from the undermining of democracy by the politics of irrationality, by culture wars, lies and deceit. The takeover of American Protestantism by evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity decoupled faith from reason providing a religious antechamber to QAnon. US democracy itself barely survived the stress-test set by Trump. America’s slide in the last decade into near insurrection at the beginning of 2021, the British government’s rapid descent into the politics of factional farce, give a whole new meaning to the ‘special relationship’.
David Hollinger in his recently published Christianity’s American Fate presents US Christianity as a religious ‘two party’ system mapped onto the two political Parties. He labels the old mainstream Churches ‘ecumenical’: open to multi-culturalism and dialogue, at ease with enlightenment and science, committed to social justice - yet finding its congregations drifting away. The alternative - well-defended, populist, aggressive and burgeoning - Christian communities are immersed in culture wars set on winning at all costs. Reality is, of course, more nuanced with Jim Wallis’ evangelical Sojourners notable for its ‘social Gospel’. Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback mega-church has charted new territory (see the success of his book A Purpose Driven Life) helping minorities and outsiders and working on AIDS and recovery from addiction.
Roman Catholics like the evangelicals now make up nearly a quarter of the US population thanks to the growing number of Hispanic Americans. According to the Pew Foundation, the largely Catholic 32 million Hispanic voters split one third Republican two-thirds Democrat. But interestingly six out of ten White Catholics who attend mass monthly, or more often, voted for Trump in 2020 against 36% for their fellow Catholic Jo Biden. At this time there were 22 Catholic senators of whom 10 were Republican and 12 Democrat compared to 1965 when all but two of the then 14 Catholic senators were Democrats.
Because of the size and wealth of the US Church, the Catholic Church globally has felt the backwash from this growing politicisation. The movement against the present Pope, motivated both by the style and inclusive openness of his papacy, outside the Vatican is primarily US-based. In August 2018 Archbishop Carlo Viganò the Apostolic Nuncio (Vatican ambassador) to the USA from 2011-2016, led attempts to discredit Francis and push him to resign. Viganò was supported by some two dozen US bishops.
The recently elected leading officials of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) give some idea of the Pope’s problem. The President is Timothy Broglio, Archbishop to the military services, who in contradiction to the Pope’s message to get vaccinated called for a waiver for troops not wanting COVID vaccination. Broglio has also linked clerical homosexuality to sex abuse scandals, a widely rejected assertion.
The Vice-President is Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore chairman of the committee on Pro-Life Activities. Victims of the Maryland clerical sex abuse have called for his resignation. Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma is chairman of the key Committee on Priorities and Plans and current Secretary to the Conference. He has spoken out in favour of abolishing the death penalty but has also expressed “deepest respect for Archbishop Viganò and his personal integrity."
The former President of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Coakley both hold advisory roles to a wealthy business association, NAPA (founded in a late 19th century in a small North California town of that name), which attracts super-rich members with strong right- wing views and Republican sympathies. It promotes in sympathy with powerful figures in the US hierarchy an ecclesial-political agenda opposed in most ways to Pope Francis' vision for the Church and Society, expressed in his speeches and encyclicals and shared to a great extent here in Britain by the Anglican and Catholic leaderships.
The late Pope Benedict who died on New Year’s Eve will perhaps best be remembered in Britain for his Westminster Hall speech on 17 December 2010 about the moral underpinnings of democracy. He found sympathetic listeners. “I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization”. A message the USA Republicans would do well to heed.
Thanks to the theological common-sense and caution of the Evangelical Alliance in Britain, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales as well as the Scottish Bishops, we have avoided the dangerous ecclesial-political convergence of the USA. Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism remain wedded to both faith and reason and have an important contribution to make to our weakened democracies.
The New Year holds many problems for both President Biden and Pope Francis who face heavy pressures that are related but different. The erosion of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic needs urgent remedy. And in 2023 commentators should resolve to remember that while numbers matter when it comes to church membership, numbers, vide the USA, are not necessarily a sign of good health.
See TheArticle 04/01/2023
How are Israel and Iran to avoid war? Israel is an ally of the USA. Iran is now an ally of Russia. Iran is a theocracy with a regime-controlled press, all serious opposition candidates barred from elections. Israel is a democracy with a free press and hotly contested elections. Iran is in civil turmoil. Israel and Palestine are in perennial conflict. The enmity between Iran and Israel means that for years they have been on the brink of war.
Whilst the political dynamics in each are, of course, very different the influence of religious extremism displays an odd recent convergence. The well-known Shi’a extremism of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij volunteers remains the force sustaining Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s theocratic tyranny in Iran against a persistent popular revolt. But now in Israel the Prime Minister-elect, Benjamin Netanyahu is also beholden to Right-wing and Ultra-Orthodox extremists. After the recent election he is head of a governing coalition holding only 64 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.
In both Iran and Israel, domestic politics and internal pressures encourage belligerent rhetoric so easily a prelude to military action. In both countries, recent developments are pushing religious and political extremists to the fore as powerful arbiters of their countries’ future. Religion in Iran, resting on the Qur’an, is the mainstay of unaccountable tyranny. Religion in Israel, resting on the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, is used by some Jewish settlers to justify the dispossession of Palestinians. Control of women or possession of land: both purposes considered divinely mandated. And the problem with divine injunctions is that they brook no negotiation or compromise.
In Britain, there has been extensive coverage of the situation in Iran. Israel has been receiving far less attention. For that reason the focus here will be on recent political changes in Israel and the rise of religious extremism.
After another round of inconclusive elections, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, gave Netanyahu an extension until 21 December to pull together a viable coalition government. The slim majority he has built gives exceptional negotiating power to three extreme Right-wing and two Ultra-Orthodox Parties. Here are some details drawn from Israel’s Press.
The most notable figure in the new government is Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the small Otzma Yehudit Party, hero of the West Bank settlers, a Jewish supremacist with national celebrity status. In 2007 an Israeli court convicted him of incitement to racism. At the time he was associated with a youth movement declared a terrorist organisation by the Israeli government. Ben-Gvir is now slated to head a new National Security Agency which will control Israel West Bank Border police. It requires little imagination to predict his effect on the West Bank’s Palestinian population.
Ben-Gvir teamed up with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party to win 225,000 votes in the March 2021 elections doubling to half a million in the November 2022 elections. Smotrich campaigned to become Minister of Justice with the aim of restoring ‘the Torah justice system’, but failed. Smotrich is a hardliner with an overtly anti-Arab and a homophobic track record. Such are his extreme views that on a visit to UK this year the British Board of Jewish Deputies told him to go home. He believes ‘following the Torah will lead to financial abundance’. Netanyahu has appointed him Minister of Finance for the next two years. The Religious Zionist deal with Netanyahu, just concluded, opens up the possibility of a creeping annexation of the West Bank.
Then there is Avigdor Maoz, a former civil servant and former director of the Ministries of Housing and the Interior. He is to be a Deputy Minister with responsibility for school curricula and for a new portfolio on Jewish National Identity. What this means is not clear though for ‘Avi’ Maoz it entails opposition to Reform Judaism, Arabs, secularism and LGBTQ Israelis. In 2019 he founded Noam, the Pleasantness Party! which holds a single seat, his own. Another Ultra-Orthodox group led by Yitzchak Goldknopf, the United Torah Judaism Party, will hold the Construction and Housing portfolio.
There is more. Netanyahu has just concluded a deal with Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas Party, making him Deputy Prime Minister. He is the least extreme of the Orthodox minority Party figures, an experienced politician and fixer. But he has a suspended sentence for criminal tax charges hanging over him. There will have to be enabling legislation before he can take up ministerial positions. If Netanyahu succeeds in getting this through, the two top political posts will be held by men facing longstanding corruption charges.
The Shas party holds eleven seats in the Knesset. Deri is also appointed Health and Interior Minister before replacing Smoltrich when his two years as Finance Minister are up. This leaves Netanyahu’s Likud with twelve Ministries, most notably Defence, Foreign Affairs and Justice.
Not surprisingly this future Israeli government has sounded alarm bells in the Biden administration. But it is also clearly not to the liking of Israel’s military leadership nor, most probably, to its powerful Intelligence services. The rolling dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by Jewish settlers, the immiseration of Gaza, was presented by former Israeli governments, including those led by Netanyahu, as in the interests of National Security. Henceforth an extreme right wing government may openly justify the settler onslaught on Palestinian land as Scriptural.
How has this happened? Israel has long been able to deal with external threats. It is the perception of an internal threat that has given the extreme-Right a head of steam. This fear took firmer hold after the May 2021 melt-down beginning with Arab evictions from East Jerusalem and police-worshipper skirmishes around the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Street conflict between Jews and Arabs spread around Israel’s major towns. In turn this set off attacks and counterattacks from Gaza and the West Bank. Over 250 Arabs were killed but also ten synagogues went up in flames, 112 Jewish homes burned and thirteen Jews were reported killed. The level of civil conflict and deaths this year remains high. Such violence lends credence to the extreme-Right narrative of the enemy within.
Both Israel and Iran have entered a new period of instability with new pressures liable to split their political elites and enhance the sense of threat. Commentators now believe Iran has probably enough enriched uranium for an atomic warhead and it continues to project its military power in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Israel has wanted to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity since well before the signing of the defunct nuclear accords in 2015. With Iran providing Russia with drones used to attack Ukraine the staying hand of the USA may loosen its grip on Israel.
Were Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, however, Tehran’s likely response would be the blockage of the three kilometre wide shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz (33 kilometres wide at narrowest point). Shipping of over one third of the world’s natural gas and over a sixth of its oil production could stop overnight with catastrophic consequences for the global economy.
The present situation is not one in which peacemakers could gain traction. But that makes it all the more imperative for moderate leadership of Shi’a Islam and Judaism globally to speak out and intervene at the highest levels possible before it is too late. The Iranian centrifuges are spinning. Events are raising the risks of an Iran-Israel war by the day.
See TheArticle 12/12/2022
“This is your captain speaking. We are just leaving Iranian airspace”. Instant removal of headscarves. That was twenty years ago flying out of Tehran.
This September it was the mandatory hijab worn, I imagine, pushed back, perhaps with a suggestion of defiance, that led to the arrest and murder of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran at the hands of the Gasht-e-Ershad, the ‘morality police’, custodians of Islamic women’s dress code.
Mahsa Amini lived in Kurdistan Province in the North West of Iran and was visiting her brother in the capital. According to those detained with her, she was beaten in the police van and lapsed into coma. Her death triggered national demonstrations that still continue.
There have been major, but intermittent, demonstrations against Iran’s theocratic regime since the disputed Presidential election of 2009 brought almost two millions onto the streets. Each outbreak violently suppressed. But the embers of former protest were still hot this September. Mahsa Amini’s death was enough to breathe life into them. The blaze has been unexpectedly uncontrollable.
Street protests both in Mahsa Amini’s home town in Kurdistan and in Tehran spread rapidly to provincial towns, gaining in numbers. A rolling youth rebellion at first led by women and girls, students and school children, picked up support across age-groups including university teachers and professionals - reminiscent in some ways of the Soweto 1976 youth uprising. Strikes in many sectors, including oil, followed. As Jonathan Friedland wrote in a passionate article in The Guardian (26 November) it wasn’t just about mandatory wearing of the hijab – anymore than Soweto 1976 was just about compulsory Afrikaans in schools - it was about liberty.
The Iranian regime, led by the 83-year old Ayatollah Khamenei, supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), taken by surprise responded brutally. There was nothing unusual about State violence but this outbreak of protest didn’t peter out and displayed new features. Rebellion in Kurdistan had secessionist potential. Throughout the Middle East the Kurds – a population of some 35 million - have been denied national sovereignty, a state of their own. Iranian Kurds are no exception.
The revolt’s feminist dimension wrong-footed the regime. They had expected to suppress protests as easily as they had the 2017 and 2019 demonstrations in working class areas against the rising cost of living and unemployment - created at least in part by Western economic sanctions. Instead the protests took on a counter-cultural life of their own. Women, Life, Freedom banners became a permanent challenge on the streets. Hijabs were burnt, a news broadcast was hacked with attacks on Khamenei appearing, young girls pelted a Ministry of Education official with water bottles and chased him out of their school, women blocked CCTV cameras with sanitary-towels – none of the security forces would want to handle them.
Iranian singer, Shevin Hajipour’s, poignant Baraye (For) has become the theme song of national protest. It is a litany of what over years the protestors feared or hoped: “for an ordinary life”, “for changing these rusted minds”, “for fear of kissing (in public)” and so on. Years ago I walked the ski-slopes north of Tehran and saw approaching hand-holding couples spring apart then laugh when they realised I was a foreigner.
More worrying for the regime should be the results of encrypted opinion polls by GAMAAN (Group for Analysing & Measuring Attitudes in Iran), a Dutch non-profit organisation following punctilious sampling methodology - funded over 70% by North American and European foundations. The old divisions, between south Tehran, working class conservative, and wealthy north Tehran’s progressives, between urban anti-regime and rural pro-regime, between pious elderly, and irreligious youth, are breaking down if the hijab is a yardstick. 74% of women polled were against the mandatory dress code but also 71% of men, with little difference in attitudes according to age, urban or rural backgrounds. 84% were in favour of the mullahs getting out of politics. The Tony Blair Institute for Gobal Change paper ‘Protests and Polling Insights From the Streets of Iran: How Removal of the Hijab Became a Symbol of Regime Change’ (22 November 2022) interprets these findings, along with a reduced level of praying five times a day, as a sign of secularisation. Less religiosity perhaps but a widespread loss of Shi’a identity? I doubt it.
Similarly, it is too early to see the current revolt as comparable to the events leading up to the end of the Shah’s rule in 1979. The protesters have no leader waiting in the wings, no organisational centre. They are rallied by social media, but so are the regime’s agencies of repression, with intelligence on the protesters’ next moves provided for free by the internet. Death sentences have already been imposed on street demonstrators for alleged crimes such as ‘enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. An estimated 450 protesters have been killed on the streets - some 10% of them children- deaths in custody are unknown. The IRSC have been entering the mainly Sunni areas of Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchestan in the south-east, in vehicles with mounted machine-guns and using them.
Revolutions succeed when cracks in the political elite widen and the armed forces split. But Iran has lived with cracks in its elite for a long time. Plenty of mullahs, even in the religious heartland of Qom thought, and think, that political life is corrupting true religion. The former Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, refuted Khamenei’s claims that the hijab protests were not home-grown but engineered by Iran’s enemy the USA. Yet Khamenei has held onto to power and, in every sense, stuck to his guns.
Recently the government asked prestigious families help to calm things down. They – notably former president Hashemi Rafsanjani – preferred to keep their counsel. A split within the regime and, within the military, armed opposition to the IRSC and its Basij volunteers would probably cause a Syrian-style civil war; Khamenei pointedly warns of the consequences.
The duration of this protest movement, now often called a revolution, is itself a significant turning point. In the past fear of reprisals conquered. But women and youth are releasing the brake of fear and keeping resistance to the regime moving. They seem to be winning on the hijab, many women are ignoring the code. But as the distinguished Iran commentator, Christopher de Bellaigue, points out (‘Khamenei’s Dilemma’ New York Review of Books 24 November 2022) the present Supreme Leader Khamenei lived through the Shah’s collapse, saw the consequences of the Shah’s indecision and will not repeat his mistakes. The present President, Ebrahim Raisi, is accused of involvement in the 1988 hangings of thousands of dissidents on orders from Ayatollah Khomenei. Khamenei will double-down. There are already an estimated 14,000 imprisoned. A majority in parliament supported a letter to the judiciary calling for harsh punishments of protesters – this can include the death penalty already being imposed. From now on it will be live rounds and draconian sentences.
It was almost a decade after the Soweto uprising before the apartheid regime decided on compromise and another five years before they decided to negotiate. The Iranian regime is not likely to change much faster than this even if they decide change is inevitable. The nuclear deal, scuppered by Trump, is dead. Iran is hardening its position and increasing its uranium enrichment in Fordow and Netanz towards 60%. We are not looking at a regime about to crumble.
The removal of the hijab is a symbol of liberty. It will be a long time before it is a symbol of regime change.
See TheArticle 28/11/2022
All rights are equal but some rights are more equal than others. FIFA and the Qatar authorities are justly under fire for restrictions on LGBT rights and their treatment of migrant labourers. But nothing is said about the abuse of rights to religious freedom, a world-wide problem as well as one local to Qatar and other gulf states where many migrant workers, especially those in domestic service, are Christians from the Philippines.
Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights spells out what the right to religious freedom - violated around the world - means in detail. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. This means little in practice today, neither globally nor in Qatar which hosts big interfaith gatherings but where, even at Easter, Christian servants are refused time off to attend religious services.
Worldwide harassment and persecution of people because of their faith, from verbal abuse and hate speech, to arson and murder, is rising steadily. Only eight of 198 countries monitored by the Evangelical Christian organisation Open Doors get a clean bill of health. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organisation which works in over 140 countries, is currently running a ‘Break the Silence’ campaign to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians and all faiths [my italics] with a day of special events this Wednesday in London’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. Aid to the Church in Need has also renewed focus on Nigeria, where attacks on Christian churches have risen from 18 in 2019 to 31 in 2020 and 23 in just the first six months of this year.
Religious freedom, a touchstone of human rights around the world, is not ignored in Britain but tends to be mainly a Conservative Party concern. The UK has a special envoy for Freedom of Religious Belief (FoRB), Fiona Bruce MP, an evangelical Christian. Both the Commons and Lords, the latter with 26 Church of England bishops, the Lords Spiritual, do lobby and speak out on FoRB issues. But with the exception of the Uighers and Rohingya, the cases they raise rarely are deemed newsworthy, can be complex, and seldom evoke large-scale sympathy.
Take the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian. When she offered water to a Muslim co-worker it was refused; her ‘Christian hands’ rendered it haram, forbidden. She was told to convert to Islam to cleanse her impurity. An altercation ensued in which she allegedly blasphemed against the Prophet and the Qur’ān. Eventually Asia Bibi was convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and spent eight years on death row before being acquitted in a High Court judgement in October 2018. Here was a named individual, a fruit-picker, a working woman with whom we could empathise. Public opinion was aroused.
According to Open Doors, of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christians suffer from some degree of harassment and persecution in 145 of the world’s 198 States, Muslims in 139, and Jews in 88. But is discrimination always based on faith alone? In India the Modi government for its own purposes is promoting Hindu-based cultural nationalism against Muslims. Are the Hazara in Afghanistan persecuted because they are not Pashtun or because they are Shi’a or both?
Particularly in Africa some ethnicities, minority and occupational groups are identified by their religious beliefs. Bloody clashes over land-use in parts of northern Nigeria between pastoralists, who are broadly-speaking Muslim, and farmers, broadly speaking Christian, are perceived as religious conflict. From one perspective these aren’t important distinctions. In all cases human rights are grievously violated. And as my old Nigerian friend Matthew Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto, once said: ‘What do you call these people? I call them criminals”.
In 1971 a Synod of the world’s Catholic bishops declared: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” A wordy way of saying that for Catholics working for justice is a religious obligation, an integral part of Christian practice and observance – so politics and religion can’t neatly be separated. In the repressive states of Southern Africa and Latin America where I worked resistance by Christians qualified them for persecution, imprisonment, torture and death. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, gunned down at the altar in 1980, made a saint of the Catholic Church, became an icon of this kind of martyrdom.
A little discussed feature of the Cold War is the way the global political and ideological division penetrated the Catholic Church itself. In Moscow I had the unnerving experience of listening to devout Catholics whose little church opposite the KGB’s Lubyanka headquarters had cameras trained on the door, dismiss the late Cardinal Paolo Arns as a communist. Arns, a Cardinal committed to the poor, was a tireless campaigner against human rights violations by Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship.
From 1960-1990, in Latin America, Philippines and South Africa, opposition to military dictatorships, oligarchies and apartheid, produced martyrs killed for following the simple demands of justice. Opposition to Communist Party repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had the similar consequences. But because of the ideological barrier of the Cold War, never did these victims of tyranny engage with each other in serious dialogue. Religious Orders with members from both parts of the world experienced this same division within their own ranks. Catholic charities worked on different sides of the divide, Aid to the Church in Need in the Communist world, the Catholic Institute for International Relations in Latin America, Philippines, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique. There was no coming together around the shared experience of persecution and the terrifying ordeals of those who resisted tyranny.
Today there are new violations of religious freedom. Christians pursuing environmental causes are experiencing martyrdom in Latin America. The question arises who is responsible for such persecution? The actions of the State or the inaction of the State? A former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, reared a Christian and a leading opponent of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated by his bodyguard for supporting Asia Bibi. An unholy amalgam of State and Society at work.
There is no lack of information. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom publishes a factual annual global report. The Mormons in Utah have a comprehensive archive of FoRB legal cases. In 2019 the Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro produced for the Foreign Secretary, an independent review entitled Support for the Persecuted Church. It contains a fine summary of the plight of Christians around the world and suggests what might be done about it. But nothing much changes for the better.
We in the UK have no right to be complacent. Antisemitism alongside Islamophobia remains a rallying theme of extreme Right organisations. I have listened to black Pentecostals who believed Muslims worship the devil. Ahmadis experience the disdain, and sometimes worse, of their Muslim neighbours. Anti-Catholicism bubbles up from the depths of social media. The Labour Party was investigated and castigated for its failure to deal adequately with antisemitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and a question mark hangs over the level of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Conservative Party. Muslim-Hindu tensions have surfaced in Leicester.
Do not expect such symptoms of hostility and prejudice to improve as poverty and social dislocation, the recruiting sergeants for intolerance and discrimination, increase in Britain, and in the rest of the world.
See TheArticle 22/11/2022
“Complete and utter rubbish” (Tony Blair). “A barrel-load of malicious nonsense”(John Major). These are comments from political heavyweights on the fifth series of The Crown, now in the news. Netflix must be laughing all the way to the bank. But I don’t think we should laugh. What is called “fictional dramatisation” is feeding a culture of misinformation. Truth is becoming the collateral damage of the communications revolution and the quest for power and profit.
Perhaps we should be grateful to Kellyane Conway, campaign manager and adviser to President Trump, speaking two days after his inauguration in January 2017. Trump had been claiming that more people turned out in Washington DC to celebrate his victory than they did for President Obama’s. Photographs of the two events left no doubt that this was nonsense — in fact, a straightforward lie. Conway explained in a NBC Meet the Press interview that the President was simply providing “alternative facts”.
We all jeered. But she was alerting everyone that the USA was now tuning in to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the sinister perversion of language he dubbed “Newspeak”. Believing that Trump was cheated out of the last presidential election is an example of today’s “Goodthink”. Nothing to laugh at.
The worrying thing is that the cultural elite who laughed at Kellyanne Conway have now embraced her “alternative facts” under its newly assumed guise of “re-imagining”. In The Crown, for instance, Prince Charles sounds out John Major after an opinion poll has shown that the British public favour abdication. Following Tony Blair’s election in May 1997 Prince Charles meets the new Prime Minister, hoping to find a way to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, then his “secret companion”, now his wife and Queen Consort. Neither of these meetings happened.
It is fine within drama documentaries to imagine conversations between real people, provided these conversations convey a truth. The late Queen loved horses, so imagined conversations with her trainer can convey a truth. When drama-documentaries imagine such private conversations, or present the results of hard-won investigative journalism, rather than audience-thrilling inventions, they stand up to scrutiny.
The Crown, though, deliberately mixes and blurs fact and fiction, using archive footage to reinforce its story-lines. Such “re-imagining” joins the tidal wave of misinformation that characterises our postmodern era. In this post-truth world, disclaimers are overlooked and cultural leaders seem to be parting company with facts in search of ratings.
Another king has recently come into focus: Richard III in Steve Coogan’s The Lost King. The film, released in the UK this October, follows a pattern to which audiences are accustomed and which they enjoy, the story of the amateur who gets it right. In The Dig (2021) a self-taught archaeologist played by Ralph Fiennes finds the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ship, resists discouragement and shares in the triumph. In real life he was marginalised by the professionals. The Lost King has a similar story – an amateur finds the body of a king, rather than a boat. The screenplay shoehorns the story into the same template, with truth the first casualty.
Sally Hawkins plays the amateur historian Philippa Langley, who gets it right about Richard III’s burial place despite the University of Leicester’s and its Archeological Services’ attempt to sideline her. Richard Taylor, the University’s deputy-registrar, describes his portrayal in the film as derisive, obstructive, manipulative, amused at the king’s disability, and even rather sexist, bordering on defamation. He has no redress. This raises the question: does misrepresenting a character only matter if he or she is alive to suffer the consequences?
How about two centuries ago? Frances O’Connor’s newly-released biopic Emily raises a further problem. The Reverend Patrick Brontë’s evangelical curate, William Weightman, appears as the film’s guilt-stricken, hypocritical sex interest. Emily and Weightman have a passionate affair with sex scenes in the hay. But the lives of the Brontës are exceptionally well-documented and researched; there is no historical evidence that Emily Brontë had an affair with anyone.
The Rev. William Weightman was in reality a pious evangelical who died in 1842 from cholera, which he probably caught while visiting the sick in Haworth parish. Much loved by his parishioners, he is honoured in Haworth church by a plaque that describes him as a man of “orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning and affability”.
Weightman did indeed, as in the movie, send each of the Brontë sisters a Valentine and there is some evidence that there were warmer feelings between him and Emily’s younger sister Anne, but he was clearly no clerical sexual predator or hypocrite. Does traducing the long-dead Emily Brontë and Weightman matter? Is Frances O’Connor entitled to “re-imagine” the truth about them for our entertainment?
"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” as Winston Smith obediently says in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And as Stalin allegedly once said: “It’s difficult to predict the past” — though Putin’s Russia is doing its best. Newspeak has clamped down on the people of China. The Democrats are in an electoral struggle to keep crazy conspiracy theories at bay in the USA. Here in the UK we should not be complacent: a high percentage of Tory Party membership is more than relaxed about a man accused of being an inveterate, compulsive liar holding the highest office of State. There is real danger that fictional dramatisation is the soft power of the contemporary beast devouring the concept of truth.
When the difference between fact and fiction is deliberately blurred, when we can’t distinguish between the two, or can’t be bothered to, we end up accustomed to and reconciled to “re-imagining”, to “alternative facts”, and to falsehoods. Drama-docs, biopics and fictional dramatisations certainly provide one of the three Reithian principles for the BBC: they entertain. But we should not forget the other two: it is worth being vigilant to ensure that these art forms also inform and educate, rather than contribute to a culture of misinformation.
See TheArticle 15/11/2022
It looks as if Britain has two Chancellors of the Exchequer at work. Three if you count the unhidden hand of the financial markets. But have we got a Prime Minister focussed on his job? Rishi Sunak’s initial excuse for not attending the Climate Change COP27 conference was that he was too busy - with what everyone assumed to be the difficulty he has with ‘balancing the books’. If dealing with the economy, whatever its difficulties, is going to get Sunak’s undivided attention, you might even feel a bit sorry for Jeremy Hunt, whose job it is to be Chancellor. And you might wonder if Sunak grasps the breadth and depth of prime ministerial responsibilities.
Next the Prime Minister lets it be known that, if he’s got time, he might go to COP27. Then he announces he really is going. Bravo. The ability to U-turn, preferably avoiding ridicule, has become a qualification for high office. To be charitable, Sunak reversing his decision does imply willingness to listen, to heed good advice, to respond to criticism and parliamentary shaming. But the frequency of U-turns is a sign of instincts out of tune with the world beyond money-making and neo-liberal ideology.
Rishi Sunak’s has at least fifteen years’ experience in financial services, in hedge fund management and venture capital companies, starting with an investment bank, Goldman Sachs, and ending as director of his immensely rich father-in-law’s Catamaran Ventures. He knows what successful small and big companies look like and how to make money out of his own and other people’s money. His winning the leadership of the Conservative Party on the second attempt should come as some relief to the City of London. But it is little preparation for the complex, interlocked problems of the 2020s when the interests of international capital must come second if not third when responding to extreme weather events, movements of population, mass starvation, globalised epidemics and war.
Even when the Prime Minister seems to be lifting his head from the books of ‘UK plc’, his vision is narrow. He sees renewable energy sources as a requirement of ‘energy security’. He presents dealing with the huge global issue of climate change as essential to achieving the ‘long-term prosperity’ of which he talks, and which he finally gave as his explanation for going to Sharm-el-Sheikh. And it is a good reason. But there is so much more needs saying and doing. Achieving ‘long term prosperity’ does not necessarily commit Sunak to anything in particular, for example, the pledge of a $100 billion per year support to developing nations made at COP 26 in Glasgow chaired by Alok Sharma then a Cabinet Minister (a pledge first made 13 years ago at COP 15 in Copenhagen but never honoured), or halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation, while delivering sustainable development. Sharma is clearly dedicated to making international progress on drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions so appealed to Sunak to drop plans for opening a coking coal mine in West Cumbria. Sunak dropped him from the Cabinet.
After William Pitt the Younger (first term aged 24), Sunak is our youngest ever Prime Minister. His political instincts seem undeveloped. He may learn. But he has to carry the fractious Conservative Party with him whilst facing a confident Opposition and multiple, intractable problems. And he has Parliament’s European Research Group (ERGs) lying in wait. No wonder Conservative MPs are looking for their next job. Meanwhile we seem no longer to wish to provide some kind of leadership in the world’s slow march towards reduction in carbon emissions. The ‘windfall tax’ on oil companies is linked to 90% tax relief on investments in exploration for more oil and gas. To date we have heard nothing from this government about how to achieve carbon emissions targets by mid-century. Youthful stamina and all the personal wealth in the world will not solve such problems.
Sunak has not been to see King Charles to tell him to ignore previous advice not to attend COP27, nor told him that Britain is proud of his decades of work building awareness of the rolling catastrophe that is global warming. Nor indicated that most of the British people would want the King to continue his work. Curbing climate change is a global imperative which he has been speaking about for many years, not a personal campaign like the one against architecture he didn’t like.
Treating the struggle to achieve a global consensus on combatting fossil fuel emissions as a contentious matter of party politics or ideology is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even extreme libertarians must want a planet liveable enough for their descendants to be libertarian in, though some of the ERGs, the back-seat drivers of Tory policy, behave like closet climate change deniers. As the constitutional monarch of a supposedly ‘global Britain’, Charles should go beyond the limitations of traditional monarchical duties, always being the passive symbol of past glories, a figurehead, a fig-leaf hiding disunity. He has more than the right, he has the conviction to speak for the future of every man, woman and child on the planet.
Other voices have been raised. Before last year’s Glasgow COP 26, Cardinal Vincent Nichols wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the UK to ‘lead in championing green energy solutions’, ‘support poorer and vulnerable communities’, and lead in creating international partnerships to the same end. A revised edition of ‘The Call of Creation’, written by the English and Welsh Catholic Bishops, now twenty years old, was issued calling for a ‘profound internal conversion’. Bishop John Arnold, the lead Catholic bishop on the environment, followed up the publication in a podcast this October saying: “Pakistan – 33 million people directly affected by climate change. We’ve got Japan with Typhoon Nanmadol – three million people evacuated; the Puerto Rico typhoon; Alaskan storms; the west states of the United States with their wildfires; Kentucky with its ongoing flood damage. Really, it’s an appalling state of affairs. When are we going to make it urgent to be effective in our response?”
“The COP 26 summit must not be allowed to fail through governments’ refusal to take decisive action because they think public opinion is against them”, ‘The Call of Creation’ warned last year. The government must know that the same warning should be heeded this year but with even greater urgency. It would be an instructive read for Rishi Sunak on his forthcoming flight to Egypt. Before appearing at COP27 he might also find time for the 2009 Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.
See TheArticle 05/11/22
At PMQs last Wednesday Member of Parliament after Member of Parliament stood up to commend the appointment of the first person of South Asian heritage as our Prime Minister. Conservative MPs rejoiced in Rishi Sunak as a proof of the country’s and the Tory Party’s commitment to diversity. Meanwhile, they have been reciting a litany of further abstract nouns: continuity, unity, delivery, stability, and even integrity, accountability and legitimacy. These await proof that they are more than just words as well as evidence of Tory compassion and belief in social justice.
Sunak’s appointment is symbolically important and in some ways a good sign. But why was the strikingly multi-racial membership of the Tory front bench not equally matched on the Labour side. Was the taunt true? ‘Labour talks a lot about diversity but the Conservatives act’.
Compared to the Labour Party, the Conservative Party has been ahead in appointing women as well as minorities to Shadow and Government high office. And they are proud of it. And it is a question for the Labour Party - though Keir Starmer now has a convincingly diverse front bench as far as women are concerned. But if you take a closer look at the current senior Cabinet Ministers from ethnic minorities they share - with the exception of Sajid Javid, a former Chancellor and Health Secretary - a privileged background. Kwasi Kwarteng is the son of wealthy parents and educated at Eton. Nadeem Zahawi’s grandfather was a government minister in Iraq, his father a businessman, director of Balshore Investments. Rishi Sunak was educated at Winchester College and is now the wealthiest Prime Minister in modern times. They join a resurgent Jeremy Hunt who was the richest man in Theresa May’s cabinet. The language of class seems to have disappeared from politics though the reality is alive and well in the UK. Identity politics have distracted us from divisions based on class and wealth.
People may simply reject Rishi Sunak out of envy, but they may also admire him and those who manage to get on in the world. Talent for climbing is assumed. Once having gained political power unwritten rules apply to women and ethnic minority politicians. But near the top of the greasy pole you must sound and perform as much like any other successful middle to upper-class Tory politician as possible. Mrs. Thatcher was a master at this. Famously indifferent to women’s issues, she chose an all-male cabinet, deepened her voice, and demonstrated military prowess by ruthlessly sinking the Belgrano, yet practised traditional house-wifely virtues by cooking for her favourite colleagues. Poor Theresa May wasn’t ‘man enough’ to counter Brexiteer extremism and the Ulster DUP (Democratic Unionists). And Liz Truss was, well, Liz Truss, trying to sound tough and looking weak. But at least she sacked Suella Braverman.
When it comes to ethnic minorities in top political positions, should we be looking at the significance of class rather than race? Surely both. My own perceptions are influenced by rearing a family in both Central and West Africa and observing awareness of race and class develop in children. When there is nothing minority about being black, and you are one of the few white kids, if you want to describe somebody, skin colour doesn’t help you identify who you are talking about. Here is a conversation in Africa that really happened.
“Why are Africans all poor?” that from a very young white child.
“Simon’s not poor. He’s got a sports car” (Simon was a black Zimbabwean)
“He’s not an African.”.
It was a class analysis of sorts.
Unless they are avid readers of Marx, today most people perceive class difference as cultural difference, different ways of living, different customs and manners of speaking. Living for two years in the mid-1960s USA in a New York apartment with a Colombian family crammed into the flat one floor above was difficult. The children played indoor football. The noise rarely abated as different shifts came and went to work. Their music was not to my taste. It wasn’t easy to accept and accommodate. But being anti-immigrant when you are a recent immigrant yourself is a stretch. Absence of sympathy for immigrants when you are an immigrant yourself, or the child of immigrants, does not come naturally even with the help of misinformation from an irresponsible Press. Yet Sunak, Braverman and Patel are remarkably adept at it.
Remember 65 year-old Gillian Duffy from Rochdale during the 2010 election campaign, and the notorious Gordon Brown outburst calling her a ‘bigot’, probably contributing to him losing his majority? In an early protest against ‘political correctness’ she said: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants… all the eastern Europeans what are coming in where are they flocking from?” She was not talking about immigrants who had been to Eton and/or lived in large detached houses in leafy suburbs, or had a well-paid professional occupation. She also happened to be a Labour Party supporter. You don’t have to look much further than this interaction to see the roots of populism and BREXIT along with their contribution to our current economic distress.
In Britain when it comes to opportunity the composite term ‘ethnic minorities’ hides more than it reveals. There are significant differences in social mobility within and between the different ethnicities. Even for example between different groups of Hindu immigrants. Those who came from East Africa, and that includes Sunak’s family, being notably successful. Ironically, the most disadvantaged today, those who fare worst at school, are white working class boys. It might be said they are represented on the Labour front bench by the eloquent Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting.
The Labour Party do have some ground to make up when it comes to who is available for, and chosen for, the top jobs. Talent is already there as Sadiq Khan, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves, for example - all products of a comprehensive school education - have demonstrated. But as Black Lives Matter insists – with good reason - there remain structures of discrimination and institutional racism in British society. The primary task is to remove them creating a society where opportunity is evenly spread between men and women, faiths and ethnicities, and social mobility does not mean climbing up a limited number of ladders out of poverty. A tiny number of those ladders may lead to high political office in each Party but they are no substitute for racial justice and genuine equality of opportunity.
See TheArticle 28/10/22
Tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery? (The painting was protected by glass, but the protestors are being prosecuted for damaging its frame.) You can agree with the goal, ending our global addiction to fossil fuels, but wonder at the methods of achieving it. And not just because, environmentally speaking, beef consommé would carry more symbolic charge. Nor because such protests provide another excuse for the authoritarian provisions of the Public Order Bill courtesy of Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and her predecessor Priti Patel.
What is the Just Stop Oil activists’ theory of change at work here? It seems unwise to alienate those who maybe agree with your goal or who are open to persuasion, those who enjoy what John Stuart Mill called the ‘higher pleasures’ of viewing great art or are tired and infuriated Londoners trying to get to work. Yet, such newsworthy public protest is understandable. Just Stop Oil attempted to block UK oil terminals and shifted tactics after injunctions brought risk of court convictions for contempt. Parliament, they argue, has failed to date to combat climate change effectively, a reason some environmental groups conclude that only direct action can save the planet. But civil resistance needs to educate, recruit and internationalise rather than just disrupt and irritate. Some shared understanding of precisely who, where and what needs worldwide resistance, what those seeking to curb carbon emissions are up against, would help.
Few of us, for example, grasp the dynamics of the oil/fossil fuel juggernaut, both the profit-seeking private sector and income-generating nationally owned oil companies; the magnitude of their operations and infrastructure, the geopolitical significance of fracking, now in the news, the future of shale deposits, the energy demands of the massive economies of the Asia-Pacific. The Canadian Professor, David A. Detomasi teaches a course on this subject at the Business School of Queen’s University’s Toronto campus. His Profits and Power: Navigating the Politics and Geo-Politics of Oil, (University of Toronto Press), offers enlightening figures.
We are accustomed to flattering self-portraits painted by private sector oil companies showing themselves mutating into responsible energy companies The ‘supermajors’ for example Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron presenting themselves as if they were the commercial wing of the Green movement. Detomasi’s figures are revealing. The costly advertising messages only weakly relate to reality. Whatever the official investment targets, in 2018 only 1-5% of overall expenditure went on increasing the proportion of renewables within their energy offering. Targets for renewable investment have since risen. But few believe they will be achieved. In contrast, in 2016 exploration and drilling expenditures were: ExxonMobil $19 billion, Shell $25 billion, Chevron $26 billion – and this was down considerably on 2014. And the six largest supermajors are only responsible for about 15% of global production. The national or nationally-directed giants, Saudi- Aramco, Rosnet, and those of Iran, Kuwait and China produce the majority of the world’s oil.
For the period 2016-2019, total ‘upstream’ expenditure by oil producers globally, including the national companies, supermajors and smaller players is estimated as $400-500 billion dollars. These are not sums you’d expect if serious reductions in production and use in the 2020s were planned. They appear more indicative of a future in which deadly amounts of fossil fuel will be found, shipped, sold, refined and used. And this can be seen as the response to the Paris COP21 conference’s legally binding treaty to limit greenhouse gas warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably 1.5C, signed on 12 December 2015 by 196 countries.
Profits and Power is a telling title for Detomasi’s book. He is indicating that oil companies’ behaviour will continue to be determined by calculations of costs and returns on barrels of oil extracted and sold. Global annual oil production rose from 64.8 million barrels a day (mbd) in 1980 to 99.2mpd in 2019 with the USA alone consuming 20% of the total, 20.5mbd, and the EU less per capita but 14mbd. India with a current population of 1.4 billion consumes 3.7mbd a figure set to increase to 10mbd by 2040. Power comes out of oil barrels as well as guns.
Oil profits depend on ease of extraction and, of course, demand. Overproduction glutting the market lowers the price. Government reserves and income influence the amount of oil being extracted. Saudi-Aramco, sitting on fields discovered in 1948 whose oil is still relatively easily extracted, is calculated to be worth today two trillion dollars, the second highest market capitalisation of any company in the world after Apple. So Saudi Arabia is the most able to ride out global reductions in oil price and can safely cut production to push up price. Highly efficient oil companies such as Chevron make profits even when oil price slumps; in the fourth quarter of 2014, after months during which the oil price had halved, Chevron recorded a $3.5 billion profit.
Tax revenues from oil production and consumption are politically significant whatever the government. Taxes on Russia’s oil and gas revenue have been accounting for over a third of Putin’s federal budget. For every $1 dollar increase in the global oil price it has been calculated that c. $1.9 billion flowed into the Russian exchequer, with at least some of it going into offshore bank deposits of Putin and his oligarchs. He is now being forced to raise taxation with unpredictable consequences in a population already showing signs of war weariness. This is another powerful player in the complex global behemoth against which Just Stop Oil pitches itself calling for a complete halt to licensing, development and production of fossil fuel exploration in the UK.
As Putin has demonstrated it is the power of oil-rich governments, trapped in the ‘oil curse’ of corruption and failure to diversify that is the major problem. The USA is amongst the top three producers with 33 of its 50 states rich in oil and gas plus some drilling in the Gulf of Mexico providing wriggle room. President Biden has felt able to throw his weight behind the latest COP climate change conferences. Cheap and flexible fracking – easy to shut down and restart - almost halved US oil imports in the last two decades and this has facilitated the swing in foreign policy focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. It has given the US Democrats a degree of immunity to Putin’s energy blackmail that currently besets Europe.
By way of a conclusion Detomasi presents climate change not as an existential threat to human civilisation, a qualitatively different level danger, but just one of many forthcoming problems confronting a world economy dominated by oil and gas. Doubtless the dominant view from the oil industry, an informed one, but clearly not the assessment of climate scientists.
Governments and States through their economies and national oil companies are heralding the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This does not exculpate the supermajors. They too are going to have to change quickly and move fast and with far more determination and money. They need to demonstrate to the world that commitment to renewable energy sources is not a path to bankruptcy. Meanwhile a substantial UK windfall tax on their profits should go straight into a sovereign wealth fund to protect the poor from debilitating energy costs with funds set aside for subsidising research on renewables and carbon capture.
So far the desperate young people of Just Stop Oil have been getting arrested in their hundreds with discrepant effects on public opinion. Perhaps the world faiths can find a better way to persuade us all that we must change our habits of consumption, shun fossil fuels and end blinkered promotion of indiscriminate economic growth. The global religions are in a unique position to transcend the lethally narrow vision of national interest and national security that prevails, and have much to say about both profits and power. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si provided a foundational document for fundamental change. But it needs serious attention and political action not dismissal as naive and utopian.
See TheArticle 21/10/22