“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
This week in South Africa Albert Nolan OP died peacefully in his sleep. Many will remember him as a hero of the struggle against apartheid, a humble Dominican priest and theologian awarded the national Order of Luthuli by President Thabo Mbeki in 2003. Many more will know his name and have read his 1976 best-seller Jesus Before Christianity about the historical Jesus. I will remember him as an inspiration and spiritual guide when I was Southern Africa Desk Officer at the Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR) during the 1980s when both civic resistance and state repression peaked in South Africa.
Albert, despite a traditional academic training in the Angelicum, the Dominican Pontifical University in Rome, believed that theology should be open to everyone, that it should come from the grassroots and be about discovering where and how to find God in an unjust world. He was later to put his religious journalism into practice as the editor of Challenge, a popular Catholic paper in South Africa. When Albert was Provincial for Southern Africa, the Johannesburg Dominicans abandoned their priory in a posh part of town, so the where of theology was a decrepit building in the ill-named Mayfair, home to down-and-out whites and surprisingly multi-racial. The estate agent couldn’t believe his luck when he was given a description of the building the Dominicans were looking for and got rid of an unsaleable property. And the how was by integrating faith with political commitment.
Albert Nolan chose the right religious name (he was baptised Dennis); like St. Albert the Great, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, he was an inspiring teacher and mentor. The Catholic Student Society chaplain at the largely Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch, he became National Chaplain of the Catholic Federation of Students in 1973. As well as listening and responding to youth seeking how to live in an unjust and divided society – ‘you have to take sides’ was his advice - he was able to compare notes with his counterpart in Peru, fellow priest Gustavo Gutierrez , the father of Liberation Theology and later a Dominican.
Leading up to and into the State of Emergency in South Africa (1985-1990), a time of massive repression and of mass resistance by the United Democratic Front drawing together African National Congress (ANC) front-organisations, church institutions and independent civic bodies, Albert nurtured a group of young Catholics committed to the liberation struggle. By listening to their difficulties, their fears of imminent arrest, their doubts about having children, their problems in handling the violence both of the state and anarchic youth, he was able to encourage a spirituality that both discerned the signs of the times and helped them develop a moral framework within which they could actively resist apartheid. At the Mayfair Priory praying the Magnificat was almost a bidding prayer as each in their different ways was in the business of ‘pulling down the mighty from their thrones’.
For Albert apartheid was ‘sin made visible’. I can hear him saying it now in his strong Cape Town accent. I can also hear his gentle humour coming through hair-raising stories of things nearly going wrong. He was a wonderful companion and pastor. In 1983 he was elected Master-General of the Dominican Order by his confrères. His response was to request that he be allowed to decline so that he could remain in South Africa and fulfil his commitment there. This was put to the vote and agreed so that he had the shortest time in office of any Dominican Master-General.
At the time of his election Albert was working in the Johannesburg Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) begun in 1981, a small ecumenical group that included Rev. Frank Chikane, later the general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches who became President Mbeki’s Chef de Cabinet. The name Contextual Theology did little to protect it from the repression which was certain had it been called the Institute for Liberation Theology. In June 1985 ICT published and distributed the Kairos document, a radical biblical and theological comment on the political crisis in South Africa and a challenge to the Churches to take sides, signed initially by over 150 mainly black Christians. The South African National Security State was taken completely unawares. Many more signatures followed publication and as the document was read out in township churches there was a palpable sense that congregations felt ‘this is what we believe’.
Sweden concluded that leaving support for the ANC solely in the hands of the Communist Party of Soviet Union and the East German Stasi bode ill for the future and was secretly getting money into South Africa to boost non-violent forms of resistance. Much the same group as the ICT, including Albert and the great Dutch Reformed Church dissident pastor, Rev. Beyers Naudé, performed the invaluable and unusual role within South Africa of guiding this funding of the internal movement of the ANC whose base was outside South Africa in Lusaka, Zambia and to a lesser degree in Maputo, Mozambique. For example one of the major requests of the ‘Christian ANC’ group was funding to strengthen leadership amongst black youth. At the time arrests of youths for ‘necklacing’, that is killing suspected collaborators with flaming tyres around the neck, was decapitating the youth movement and creating anarchy in the townships.
Albert saw the movement against apartheid bringing together the different races and Christian denominations as a glimpse of the ‘kingdom of heaven’. He saw no conflict between faith and political commitment and there was something beautiful about the way he and those around him lived out that integrated vision. We should learn from him. May be rest in peace.
When you approach the Ionian island of Ithaca through Yathi’s beautiful natural harbour and moor alongside the undistinguished road leading into town, turn left and tucked away on a high plinth you’ll find a small bust of Odysseus. Given the tourist trade an understated homage to Homer - assuming there was an individual Homer. And Odysseus probably ruled the once-an-island Paliki peninsula on neighbouring Kephalonia. But wherever home for Homer’s hero might be, Greece can make you feel the lack of a classical education, especially if you have never turned a page of the Greek classics. Like the old FT advertising slogan, no Odysseus, no Iliad, no comment.
In the words of Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) - son of Rugby’s reforming headmaster, a major poet, and himself a school inspector - classical education must convey the best that has been thought and ‘’of the best, the classics of Greece and Rome form a very chief portion and the portion most entirely satisfactory”. For some that belief in a classical education lasted another century. In the 1950s my own single-sex Grammar school, with an eye on Oxbridge requirements, taught us Latin. After several years of careful teaching I still believed that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were fiction. Well, in mitigation, I did know Virgil’s Aeniad was an epic poem and I do remember the opening storm at sea. But by the mid-1950s with discoveries such as DNA science was more exciting than the classics.
Better late than never, I recently set to and read Bernard Knox’s excellent introduction to Robert Fagles fine translation of the Iliad, a doorstop of a Penguin classic, and, with their aid and encouragement, dipped into Homer’s glorious poetry. You can imagine a well-feasted Greek gathering, enjoying the rhythms of the verse as the story unfolds. Perhaps with news daily of war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, it was not the best of times to plunge into the gory details of the Greeks’ - Achaeans’ - war with Troy. But the gore, the relish for graphic depictions of butchered bodies in the Iliad, came as a surprise. Homer’s contribution to the classics, at least for me, was not as Arnold would have it “most entirely satisfactory”. A screen-play by Homer would not be family-viewing.
Homer describes a world in which honour and warrior heroism, illustrated and demonstrated by savage killing and savagely being killed, were the true measures of a man. Was this what middle and upper class boys at Rugby and the other English public schools were absorbing at the turn of the twentieth century? Is this why they volunteered as officers in the First World War to slaughter and be slaughtered? Is this where the Greek values of honour and courage led? Or was Homer giving a terrible warning forgotten or ignored in a paroxysm of 20th century patriotism?
Of course there is, and was, vastly more to the Greek contribution to classical education, according to Arnold, than Homer: Saint Paul, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus and the lyric poet Pindar for example. Yet, the Iliad offers insights into the motivations for war beyond male honour, rivalry and personal jealousy. The purpose of war was booty whatever could be taken - Priam, the King of Troy’s treasure. Loot. And, amongst valuable kinds of property, women. Helen was to be restored to her husband and true owner. In agricultural society, the two necessary elements of production were the fertility of women, new generations of labour in the fields, and the fertility of the land itself. Women were ‘prizes’, desired in every sense, the spoils of war for Achilles and Agamemnon to quarrel over.
What has changed? Whether for Trojans, Myrmidons and Achaeans to possess, or for Soviet troops to rape entering Germany in 1945 or, from 2011-December 2017, for ISIS to use as sex-slaves, women are still treated as booty. Rape is a constant in war. Despite declared national, imperial and ideological causes of war, and despite the rules of law in bello that evolved and were finally formulated in the Geneva Conventions, the original purpose of war has burst out down the ages: control of land and women. And sadly some forms of religion, with their own justifications for controlling women, can make matters worse just as Homer’s Gods could play a malign role.
Homer single-mindedly celebrates warrior virtue, heroism in combat, whilst he portrays war as a raid on property. What survives of Homer’s portrayal of warfare is war as control of territory and celebration of warrior heroism. The ease with which we laud from safety the heroism of Ukrainians in defence of their country, should make us uneasy watching the dying, the killing, and the war crimes in what is in many ways our proxy war. We are like ancient Greeks listening in comfort to epic poems of faraway savagery.
The Truss government recently invited a plane-load of journalists to witness military aid sent to Ukraine being delivered to a destination they could not divulge for security reasons. Not exactly gripping breaking-news. So why? Boris Johnson shone briefly on the world stage when sending arms and himself to Ukraine. Does the heroism of the Ukrainian people somehow rub off and refurbish political profiles and the stories politicians tell? Not a story-line Homer or his Greek audience would have countenanced.
See TheArticle 13/10/2022
'Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased. 'Karl Marx ? No, Adam Smith setting out his theory of value in The Wealth of Nations first published in 1776. It became the core text of classical economics, resetting economic theory as the early Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented change and growth in production. To understand why our national wealth is now endangered, we could all, particularly the Chancellor and Prime Minister, do with a crash course in today’s economic theory.
Nowadays, labour is envisioned as partnering capital in the production of wealth. Capital combines with labour to drive economic growth, increasing prosperity, or even causing the reverse, recession, the measure being rise and fall of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), national output per head. Though GDP itself is an inadequate gauge missing out many forms of productive work such as bringing up children and the cost of its destructive consequences. Today both strikes and loss of market confidence demonstrate that the anarcho-libertarians who control the levers of government in England have no idea how to promote a successful combination of capital and labour and the improvements in productivity it can create. They are, in fact, astonishingly bad at capitalism.
Both Government and Opposition, present growth - accompanied by social justice in the case of the Labour Opposition- as the elixir of stability and prosperity, but at the same time as a natural process, like respiration and locomotion. If it’s not happening it must be because something is stopping it happening: labour is refusing to modernize and impeding growth, high taxes are blocking investment in Britain, or we are losing productive minds. In one mighty bound Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and Prime Minister Liz Truss will set free the entrepreneurial spirits too long constrained. Wealth will trickle down onto the poor, cold and hungry. But recent polls indicate the public are more than agnostic about this particular article of misplaced faith. And to avoid losing his job the Chancellor has had to reverse one of his hand-outs for the richest, abolition of the 45p tax rate.
Economic growth, of course, is an important feature of economic policy not an automatic function of the economy. We choose to measure and make our living in a particular way and certain consequences follow. Since World War II the part played by natural resources in growth has become increasingly apparent and with it the realization laissez-faire freedom for economic activity both depletes and destroys our world. The Club of Rome’s – ac group of business and thought leaders - 1972 The Limits of Growth, which sold 30 million copies in 30 languages, gives some indication how long we have been aware of the problem. The climate change crisis with its floods, hurricanes, droughts and out-of-control fires, the quest for rare earths for modern technology, all emphasize the consequences of unregulated growth. When you have emptied a tube of toothpaste you can squeeze as much as you like, nothing comes out; you need to get another one. But when we squeeze the planet there is only the one available and, in the words of the Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect for Promoting Integral Human Development and close to the Pope’s thinking behind Laudato Si, all that we have experienced in the last few years ‘implores us to leave behind the mentality of ‘business as usual’ and the search for incremental, unidimensional economic growth’. The days of perpetual growth powered by carbon-based energy, relying on extraction, are numbered.
Amongst those who want urgent action to prevent climate change destroying human civilization and biodiversity there are two schools of thought. There are those who believe growth must gradually be put into reverse and, less radical, those who hope massive and focused development of renewable forms of energy will reinvigorate both productivity and economic growth. Those who advocate reversing growth have no plausible answer to how this could be compatible with social justice and would not prove to be political suicide. Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, now UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, focusing globally on the private sector and Sir Keir Starmer with his proposed £8 billion GB national energy company fall into the second category. Both promise ‘green growth’ which hopes to sustain our standard of living and to a greater or lesser extent avert the mass migration of more than a billion people to the temperate zones as the heat and rising sea levels make life impossible. Realistically both approaches imply larger or smaller falls in our standard of living if they are to cut emissions enough. So both are threatening politically, requiring in Pope Francis’ words that scarce political virtue: ‘courage’ to bring about what he calls the necessary ‘financial paradigm shift’.
You might wonder why this government seems to think that promotion of indiscriminate economic growth is a necessary policy shift rather than a doomsday formula supposing the rest of the world were to follow. Key elements of the banking world, including the IMF and European Central Bank, and the US military, are fully aware of this threat - see Geoff Mann’s ‘Reversing the Freight Train’ in London Review of Books 18 August 2022.
Is our government in denial? Or does it hold privately a libertarian version of eat drink and be merry whilst assuming some technological innovation will spare our children and grandchildren? So more fracking, at all costs more gas, and ‘temporary’ expansion of exploration and production of North Sea oil. You might conclude that the five-year election cycle encourages the idea that the future can take care of itself.
We need to think about what people want out of life. A secure future for their children is top of the list. But it’s now looking as if, in the name of growth, we’ll dump massive debts on future generations in this country whilst increasing the release of carbon dioxide thus helping to make the planet uninhabitable. We just can’t leave economics to Government and blinkered growth-worshipping economists. We all need to become more economically literate and not think of wealth just in terms of what is measured by GDP. The Human Development Index (HDI), intended as a measure of a country's development and produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), includes life expectancy, education and distribution of income. It expands the meaning of wealth of nations to include important things people and societies value that are left out of GDP. It is moving in the right direction.
The Truss Government’s obsession with economic growth, given what we know about climate change, is misguided in economic terms and morally wrong. It is a government led by people clinging to an outdated ideology who achieved their ambition to strut upon the stage, confident and arrogant, but not up to the job, the natural nemesis not just of their Party and its ageing membership - who alone voted them into power - but of the little England they fashioned. Please God we don’t have two years to wait before they are gone.
See TheArticle 05/10/2022
Ten days of national mourning for the Queen touched and cheered a depressed, divided and anxious country. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the BBC everything that should have been said was said, and heard. In addition, and less noted, the pageantry and media commentary demonstrated to the world the unique nature of British governmental institutions, the complex relationship between Church and State, the subtleties of its constitutional monarchy including royal protocol that placed President Biden in Westminster Abbey fourteen rows back behind the fifteen Commonwealth countries of which the Queen had been Head of State. Heartening as were the shared expressions of genuine grief, the ceremonies concealed certain tensions.
Throughout the period of mourning and her funeral rites the Queen’s ‘servant leadership’ was recognised and applauded, her rigorous compliance with constitutional norms praised. She was acknowledged as the constant focus of togetherness during the transition from empire to commonwealth, a calming, reassuring voice in a changing world. But she was also Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, colonel-in-chief of sixteen British army regiments and many Commonwealth units. A living Britannia as well as a staunch practicing Christian and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The public ceremonies accordingly tried to strike an extraordinary balance between military choreography and Christian liturgy. Yes, it was extraordinary.
The expression of the State’s military power during a British State funeral is very distinct from displays of the latest military technology at, say, a Russian May-Day parade where the threat is overt. Spectators at such parades clearly see what the State is all about: power. But in London and Windsor the dress uniforms, the seductive colours and headgear, the Grenadier Guards, the Royal Company of Archers, the Household Cavalry, the many gun salutes and the Royal Navy’s gun-carriage, the different steps and drum-beat rhythms, all speak of controlled, reassuring power, the strength of restraint, of discipline, soft power with swords. Military power nonetheless.
Before Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher anointed the 25 year-old Elizabeth II with chrism in June 1953, before she became ‘Defender of the Faith’, she had been a member of the Armed Services. Towards the end of World War II she took the first opportunity aged eighteen to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) training as a driver and mechanic and was awarded the rank of captain. One BBC commentator even described her later reign as ‘burnished by war’.
The Queen’s family has intimate connections to the Armed Forces some having been on active service. Prince Andrew’s civilian clothes at the State funeral were a public expression of his disgrace and his family’s disapproval - though he did not ask to wear uniform, it must have pained him not to do so. . A military profile is expected of the monarch and of close members of the royal family. Why this martial identity? Monarchs once led their troops into battle. Today a constitutional monarch represents or embodies the State and the prerogative of the State is sole possession of the means of coercion needed both to defend the realm and to maintain law and order. At the same time, because we have a national established Church, the monarch is Defender of the Faith, a faith which enjoins loving our enemies and worships ‘the Prince of Peace’. We are so accustomed to this dual role we overlook any tension between monarch as head of a national Church and monarch as head of State, between the practice of Christianity and the practice of war.
The Queen’s State funeral service in Westminster Abbey was almost defiantly Christian as if by way of counterweight to the spectacular military display we had seen up to this point. It was, as the Queen had wanted, within the magnificent setting of the Abbey, the ordinary simple Church of England prayer-book service accompanied by wonderful choral music. The Archbishop of Canterbury took the unprecedented opportunity to preach an evangelical sermon to a vast national and global television audience . ‘Jesus – who in our reading does not tell his disciples how to follow, but who to follow – said: “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Her Late Majesty’s example was not set through her position or her ambition, but through whom she followed’. Words spoken a few brief lines into his sermon.
A little after came: “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten”. One wonders how the many leaders attending, the Queen’s former prime ministers and politicians in office, fellow royalty, heads of State and dignitaries, felt as they listened. But around the world around millions of television sets there must have been cheers, or at least silent assent.
See TheArticle 23/09/2022