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
A new-born baby’s first cry: a sound that signals its triumphant transition from the fluid world of the womb to the air of the outside world, from complete dependence on the placenta for oxygen to independent breathing. A transition, for which nine long months of pregnancy have prepared, achieved during the first seconds and minutes after birth. Almost miraculously the new-born child instantly adapts to life in another world.
Towards the end of pregnancy, the baby increasingly exercises its breathing muscles, taking in and expelling amniotic fluid from its trachea. After the umbilical cord and artery are tied off, with its first breath, the arteries in the baby’s lungs dilate and their air sacs are ventilated as the oxygenated blood flow switches to the pulmonary artery. To change the blood flow, a little flap-valve in the foetal heart, and a small duct between the major pulmonary artery and aorta close, one immediately, the other over a few hours, sending all the blood through the lungs at each heart cycle. To grow and develop successfully, to reach this point, the baby has depended on its surrounding environment.
Peter Nathanielsz has recently updated and expanded his book, Life Before Birth; The Challenges of Foetal Development, (Life Course health Press ISBN: 978-1-7359896-0-0). Professor Nathanielsz is an internationally respected expert in foetal physiology. His original work, translated into fourteen languages received accolades from around the world. Written in clear English with helpful diagrams and illustrations, an excellent glossary and index, the book established a trend making scientific research accessible to the non-specialist, continued today in the BBC’s science broadcasting. He keeps to his promise to avoid speculation and provide only factual information that is backed up by credible and tested research. In this second edition the story of foetal development is filled out with evidence from the last thirty years’ scientific researches. And what a story it is!
The Human Genome Project, unravelling the make-up of our genetic code, our genotype, completed in 2003, was just getting underway in 1992 when the first edition of Life Before Birth was published. This recent edition includes fascinating data from molecular biologists on the complex process of how particular genes are ‘expressed’, that is step by step how they provide instructions for building proteins and the body’s different cells and tissues, controlling and regulating the events that take place during the development of the placenta, embryo, foetus and new-born baby. For example, a single gene, SRY, on the exclusively male Y chromosome provides instructions for the primitive gonad to become a testis.
Experiments on, rats, mice, sheep, and rhesus monkeys have yielded much of the results applicable to human development. Ultrasound, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans and technological advances have played their part. Studies on sheep, for example, have shown the sensitivity of the foetus to sound and light. Foetal response to sound begins and grows at two-thirds through human pregnancy. If a mother whispers in one ear of new-born baby and the father in the other, the baby will invariably turn towards its mother; in utero it has heard her voice most often.
But the core theme of the book is in the title: ‘challenges to foetal development’. We are susceptible to a range of intra-uterine experiences. As a result of current or past environmental changes, conditions in the womb may deviate from a normal range with resulting changes in gene function. Analysis of such changes in gene function are a growing area of study known as epigenetics. And some of these changes predispose the individual foetus to ill-health in later life.
Over the last thirty years, understanding has grown of how responses to challenges experienced in the womb may, as the book says, “alter the development of foetal organs changing their functional capacities in ways that can persist across the life-course”. This alteration of normal development is known as ‘developmental programming’. In other words how our inherited genotype plus environment creates, for better or worse, our phenotype, the sum total of our unique physical and behavioural characteristics.
Smoking, parental obesity or malnutrition, parental age, alcohol, ‘recreational drugs’ can all cause potentially measurable negative changes in foetal development with consequences in later life such as hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems. Changes in developmental programming can even accelerate aging, a remarkable story told in later chapters of the book. Despite being an extraordinary nurturing organ, damaging molecules with potential to harm mothers cross the placenta, and by entering the foetus’ own developing gametes (sperm and eggs), to harm their children and grandchildren. Cocaine in the mother’s blood can harm the foetus by shutting down blood supply to the uterus without having to pass through the placenta.
It is not only the mother’s physical condition which affects the child. For example, recent Canadian research on male mice has shown how paternal obesity acts not only through poor sperm quality but also through the impact of seminal fluid/plasma on the biochemistry of the uterine lining. Mating with high-fat males produces offspring with poorer glucose tolerance in adult life and suggests damage to the energy-generating units in the offspring’s cells, the mitochondria, transmissible to the next generation.
In a final chapter Lucilla Poston, Professor of Maternal and Foetal Health at Kings College London, explains the importance and practical implications of our current knowledge of epigenetics. Economic and social disadvantage affect future as well as present generations. Even from before conception foetal, neonatal and later health all depend to a significant degree on good diet, parental health and fitness. Another powerful reason for government to ‘level up’. No-one pretends that will be easy. But there are more simple, achievable policies such as promoting dietary supplements: in one survey ‘of more than 131,000 women planning pregnancy in the UK, less than one third were taking folate supplements’ (folic acid prevents spina bifida and is essential for the body to make DNA).
Often the stuff of our contemporary ‘culture wars’, discussions about the beginning of life - with all its intricate self-regulation and complex bio-chemistry ignored - are increasingly fraught. Views are mainly expressed in the assertive language of conflictual rights, with little acknowledgement of duties, whether personal or social, and negligible concern for the significance of hard-won medical scientific knowledge on which health and lives depend. Nathanielsz brings four precious assets to his story: a well-honed scientific mind, wisdom, clarity of expression and above all facts.
To say a book is a must-read is a cliché. But Life before Birth really should be widely read. This new edition is a treasure trove of material suitable for inclusion in school curricula. Poston cites as exemplary the University of Southampton’s ‘Life-lab’ project which aims to teach secondary school children about biology and health from womb to tomb.
Finally, no disclaimer this, at secondary school Nathanielsz and I had the same inspiring biology teacher. We can both vouch for the importance of a first-rate science education for everyone. Life before Birth shows how it is done. Our generation owes the next not only good health but the awe and wonder that insights into foetal life evoke.
See TheArticle 09/09/2022
The Vatican is the world’s smallest sovereign State. It would fit easily into Hyde Park. Unlike all other States it has no military, economic or territorial interests to defend; but it does have the safety and wellbeing of 1.36 billion Roman Catholics to consider. The Vatican describes its foreign policy as ‘positive neutrality’.
As the largest non-governmental provider of health care and education around the world, despite being based in Rome, the Catholic Church’s vision today is global rather than a religious version of Western policies. As a journalist and contributor to Foreign Affairs, a respected analytical magazine on US foreign policy, Victor Gaetan describes in God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy and America’s Armageddon (the Middle East) how unwanted tension with the USA comes with the Pope’s job.
The Pontifical Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles – it sounds even grander in Italian – now called the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, was founded in 1701. It trains Vatican diplomats and is, of course, international. Priests in training have to become proficient in two languages other than their own and, thanks to the present Pope, must serve as a missionary for at least a year. From its alumni are drawn the staff of the Vatican Secretariat of State currently led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin with Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with other States, having a hands-on role as interlocutor and trouble-shooter.
Peace-building is a longstanding priority for Catholic diplomacy and there have been important interventions and successes. Thanks to the Sant‘Egidio community based in Trastevere, Catholic leaders played a key role mediating an end to the civil war in Mozambique in 1992. Pope John Paul II himself was directly involved when Argentina nearly went to war with Chile in December 1978 over contested islands in the Beagle Channel. The papal envoy successfully urged restraint on the Argentine military junta. In his efforts to end the civil war in the Central African Republic, Francis himself has made numerous efforts to bring peace, not always successfully, and has taken considerable security risks even visiting in solidarity a mosque besieged by a Christian militia. He is personally involved in an ecumenical effort to mediate peace in South Sudan. In 2019, he invited South Sudan’s rival leaders for an Easter summit in the Vatican, kissing their feet in an extraordinary and dramatic plea for peace.
But the pursuit of positive neutrality has brought Pope Francis some bad Press over Ukraine. The Vatican as an important moral voice is expected to denounce Putin’s brutal aggression. Its diplomats, the papal nuncios (envoys) in different countries are perceived as no different from any other diplomats. But they are different. For a start their priorities, apart importantly from the welfare of local Churches, are focused on peace-making, human rights and more recently climate change. The language of their public pronouncements, framed to serve these longer term goals, is often cautious, sometimes opaque.
Criticisms of Pope Francis over Ukraine often omit inconvenient contradictory evidence or show ignorance of the communications culture of the Vatican. The Pope, for example hasn’t named Putin as the aggressor because the Vatican doesn’t name and shame. Nor has he condemned Russia but here is Archbishop Gallagher speaking in the name of the Holy See in Kyiv on 20 May this year: “My visit is intended to demonstrate the closeness of the Holy See and Pope Francis to the Ukrainian people, particularly in light of Russia's aggression against Ukraine”.
The Vatican’s approach to Russia is entangled with its long term goal of reconciliation with Orthodoxy, and an ending of the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054. This has resulted in an abortive attempt to influence the thoroughly compromised Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Francis met Kirill for the first time on 12 February 2016, a meeting which had taken two years to set up. In the unusual venue of Havana International Airport, they co-signed a bland declaration covering a range of topics. But by March 2022, exasperated at Kirill’s long justification for Russia’s actions on a Zoom call, the tone changed; Francis warned against becoming ‘state clerics’. A month and a half later in an interview with Corriere della Sera, off-guard he forgot protocol saying ‘the Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar-boy’. In a 2 April speech in Valetta, Malta he returned to Vatican ways: “Once again” he said, “some potentate sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests is provoking and fomenting conflicts”. Back in Rome on 6 April Francis kissed a worn Ukrainian flag from Bucha – site of multiple Russian war crimes. Certainly stretching to its limits his Secretary of State’s, Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s, policy of positive neutrality in wars, put before the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015.
Rome has no leverage in Moscow where catholicism appears as an intruder in the land of Orthodoxy. By way of comparison, the success of António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in opening Odessa to grain ships is attributed in part to the considerable number of African and other countries whose support for Russia at the UN was at risk as Putin seemed set on starving their populations.
For diplomacy to work there has to be some leverage other than moral, some confluence of interests between the belligerents. Popes and God’s diplomats have faith but they have no formula for moving mountains. They can and do make mistakes in balancing hope with realism, a radical ‘prophetic voice’ with care for local Churches. And there is always the shadow of Pius XII’s gravely inadequate public response to the Holocaust. When it finally comes, mediation bringing an end to Putin’s war will most likely be in secular hands and, perhaps, led by the Secretary-General of the UN. Meanwhile Press coverage of the Vatican and Putin’s war could do with a little rebalancing and greater understanding.
See TheArticle 25/08/2022
Economic slump, strikes, corruption and sale of honours, trouble in Northern Ireland, Government in a mess, big political changes in the offing. Britain in election year 1922. In April 1923 newly elected Tory MPs, members of a dining group, formed an association – the Conservative Private Members Committee - soon known as the 1922 Committee. It was open to all Tory backbenchers, its purpose to convey rank and file views to the (short-lived) Prime Minister, Bonar Law.
The 1922 Committee organise the ‘men in grey suits’ who visit Tory Prime Ministers signalling that their end is nigh. It is in charge of the Conservative Party’s process for selecting the Party leader and therefore, when in power, Prime Minister. The amiable Salford-born Sir Graham Brady, its chairman, appears from the shadows, reminiscent of a kindly old-fashioned Grammar school headmaster announcing the exam results. Possibly the comparison is deceptive. Here is a man holding a treasure trove of Tory secrets, with authority over a body with unspecified powers.
According to a House of Commons Library briefing paper, there are two stages in the process of selecting a Conservative Party leader. First the 1922 Committee specifies the number of nominations required of candidates, sets the overall timetable, and the Parliamentary Labour Party votes to determine the two finalists. Then a period in which candidates battle it out for votes and lastly a ballot of Conservative Party members who choose between the two.
Boris Johnson resigned on 7 July. Nominations for his successor closed at 18:00 on Tuesday 12 July with candidates needing support from 20 fellow MPs. Eight made the first ballot. The Parliamentary Party finally placed Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Rishi Sunak, formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer on the shortlist. The choice now rests with Party members and will be announced on 5 September in time for the new Prime Minister to prepare for Party Conference.
Given the overlapping crises and catastrophic shambles Johnson was bequeathing to his successor, why didn’t the Committee appoint a competent caretaker and institute a selection procedure that got a new Prime Minister in place as fast as possible? We were, and are, facing a cost of living national emergency. These are experienced politicians who should have had the country’s interest at heart.
The potential effect this winter of soaring energy costs on the poor is such that the Minister of State for Work and Pensions (DWP), Thérèse Coffey, is preventing publication of research on the impact of the benefit cap (£13,400 outside London) and other DWP measures which affect the poorest including 1.3 million children in families already unable to afford basic necessities. Protests from the Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms who chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on Work and Pensions are ignored. As Gordon Brown pointed out in The Guardian on August 11th, universal credit and benefits have to be reprogrammed on the DWP’s computers in the next few days (an 80% increase in energy bills is expected to be announced on 26 August) if help is to reach all who need it when energy prices shoot up again in October.
Thanks to decisions taken by the 1922 Committee, or lack of them, we have what the New York Times calls a ‘power vacuum’ and the Labour Party a ‘Zombie Government’. Cameron, who in his arrogance could not believe he would lose the BREXIT vote, resigned on 24 June 2016 and stepped down on 13 July. Theresa May at a BREXIT impasse, sabotaged by the Ulster Unionists and undermined by disappointing election results as well as Boris Johnson himself, resigned on 7 June 2019 and stepped down on 24 July after a scheduled visit from Donald Trump. Both Cameron and May continued briefly and responsibly in office until a new Prime Minister was appointed.
Boris Johnson agreed to resign after a two day avalanche of resignations by his ministers set off by his repeated lying to Parliament. Now on his second holiday, thanks to the 1922 Committee’s timetable he is taking almost two leisurely months to step down. It took him a month after resigning to focus on the energy crisis and talk to leaders of the sector. Several prominent MPs and former Conservative Ministers called for him to go immediately. And they were quite right.
My suspicion is that the only way the men in grey suits got him to resign at all was by agreeing to his swanning around for a further eight weeks and not suffering the ignominy of being thrown out overnight. It is not hard to imagine the kind of damage he could cause if they had insisted on an immediate departure. Johnson clearly still had a parliamentary following and significant residual support in the Party and the country that could be activated (and is now rearing its head). But a tough stance was the lesser of two evils. Sir Graham Brady, whether considering consequences for Party or country, made a big mistake.
Quite apart from the damage to the nation of eight weeks’ time-out from urgent decisions while crises became worse, the long march through the hustings by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak was, and is, politically an own goal. Candidates believe they have to say what they think their members want to hear regardless of what even Conservative voters may think. Polls suggest the Tory membership is worried about the little dinghies crossing the Channel so each contestant wants a flight full of migrants to get off the ground soonest to Rwanda. Thank heavens the shires don’t want to bring back hanging. Truss will say anything. From her past record she can blithely reverse a policy or position even if very little time has passed since she announced it. Sunak, beginning to regret his theme song of fiscal responsibility, seems frantic as key Tory backers decide their best chance of a front-bench job lies with Truss. The Labour Party and Sir Keir Starmer finally got lucky after twelve years in the wilderness as a degrading and revealing piece of political theatre tours Britain courtesy of the 1922 Committee.
Poor Sir Graham. It could have been different. Headteachers need to be tough and decisive as well as discreet and kindly. He might have noticed that Johnson’s misdemeanours were a little more serious than smoking behind the bicycle sheds and decided that the gravity of the situation, the damage Johnson had done to this country called for prompt as well as drastic action: immediate and permanent exclusion.
See TheArticle 18/08/2022
On Saturday 17 July between 8pm and 9pm the ‘Dunwich Dynamos’ cycled away from their London Fields assembly point. The fastest would reach Dunwich beach on the Suffolk coast at around 5 the next morning. Three friends in their early-20s made good time that night reaching Sudbury and the Suffolk border by 3am. Accelerating down a hill, one hit a pot-hole and was thrown onto the road, badly cut and shaken up. The bike itself was a complete write-off.
Their first call for help was to the ambulance service. There was plenty of blood but it wasn’t spurting. It would be an estimated eleven hours wait for assistance. Their second call was to a taxi company who clearly weren’t interested in picking up three young men by the roadside at that time of night. No turning out if you hadn’t got an address. Things did not look promising.
Then out of the darkness came a homeward-walking party-goer, much the same age as them, definitely the worse for wear. Hearing that their only chance to get some transport to A&E was to be at an address, he phoned his mother: what parents have to put up with! She got out of bed, got in the car, found them in the dark, picked them up and took them all back to her home. A taxi then consented to take them to A&E in Bury St. Edmunds.
A modern day version of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Two services to the public passed by on the other side before an exemplary stranger helped them. There is an important difference. The startling point of the parable was that the Samaritan rescuer was for listeners the ‘enemy’, the despised ‘other’, a member of a neighbouring cult rivalling the Temple in Jerusalem. A contemporary version would perhaps be a kindly Protestant on the Falls Road during the Troubles helping a bleeding Catholic, or a Muslim with ultra-conservative views aiding an unveiled Muslim woman. No, the cyclist who fell by the Suffolk wayside is just a story – a true one involving a family member – about sympathy and kindness.
We are surprised and delighted by personal kindness especially from young people. Yet on public transport far more often than not the young are on their feet, matter-of-factly and immediately, for an elderly person or pregnant women. And they are accepting of difference whatever it is, willing to respect others and include them in their activities. Though it does tend to be older people, not exclusively, who visit the sick and imprisoned, care for the frail and feed the hungry by replenishing food banks.
Actions to further social justice – fairness as it has become known politically – are rarer. Giving to food banks is more common than campaigning to make them redundant by ensuring that wages and benefits cover the costs of nutritious meals. Anyone who has ever fundraised will know how difficult it is to persuade donors to support work upstream to bring about change that will reduce the need for personal charity. This kind of work is so easily seen as ‘politics’, the domain of government while person to person charitable giving, in one form or another, is seen as the true domain of civil society, NGOs and Churches.
The problem with this division of labour is that political parties which believe in small government have of necessity to believe in the ‘big society’. More and more preventable misery and misfortune can then become the responsibility of the personalised domain of charity, the domain that is least equipped to prevent poverty and increasingly unable to act as a government-substitute in dealing with the consequences of poverty.
Our present overlapping crises are destined to remain our reality for the foreseeable future: climate change, inflation in food and energy costs, growing social divisions, mass migration, war in Ukraine, pandemics. In this context a drive for small ‘lean’ government becomes acutely dysfunctional, leaving government unable to respond effectively to the magnitude and urgency of the present need for action.
Once progressive taxation and ‘redistribution’ become toxic ideas liable to damage the electoral chances of political Parties, we begin to give up on the idea that politics is about the advocacy of social justice and the implementation of policies that bring it about. Going back to the story of the cyclist hitting a pothole in the dark, we end up relying on spontaneous acts of kindness to make up for the impossibly overworked public services, including the NHS, when we should be demanding that Government also provide Local Authorities with enough money for all their services, including filling in the potholes.
Politics is not, of course, the domain of personal kindness as those appealing for kinder, gentler politics acknowledge. It should be about working for social justice and fairness. The role of civil society is to exert the kinds of pressure on politicians that oblige government to implement legislation that fulfils this defining purpose. And, pace Mrs. Thatcher, the Samaritan story is not about the Good Samaritan having enough money to pay for lodging and care for the man who had fallen amongst thieves. It is about a politics at ease with difference that strives for a just society, not a them-and-us society that relies on exclusion.
Is the NHS still lifting “the shadow from millions of homes?” The quote comes from Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the post war Attlee government, speaking during the second reading of the NHS Bill, April 1946, against strong opposition from the Conservative Party – which under Churchill voted against the formation of the NHS on 21 occasions during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Times change.
“The NHS is safe in our hands”: Margaret Thatcher claimed in 1982, as would any Prime Ministerial candidate today. The evidence suggests otherwise. Unless safe describes the experience of elderly people at the onset of the COVID pandemic in care homes, or stroke and heart-attack victims waiting hours for an ambulance. The shadow has returned.
A wait of over a year for a major ‘elective’ operation? “Well, perhaps you would like to go private?” Or you can sign up for one of those offers of private insurance that come through the letter-box - about 13% of UK adult population have private health insurance, c. 8 million people, a significant increase since COVID. Need some routine dental work? “I’m afraid you are no longer on our list… but we can take you on as a private patient”. Is there anything more revealing about the nature of our society and politics than where the Conservative Party has taken the NHS in the last twelve years?
During the two televised Tory leadership debates the main contenders had hardly mentioned the NHS until audience questions drew out the customary, vague assertions that the NHS is a great national institution and a top priority. No mention at all in the second debate. Given the age distribution of Tory Party members, and their habit of voting, this omission was a little puzzling. It shouldn’t have been. That phrase “the NHS is safe in our hands” died on contenders’ lips because it was obvious to the studio and TV audience that the NHS had been anything but safe in their hands. It had been in their hands for over a decade; it was falling apart.
Amongst David Cameron’s more disastrous misjudgements on forming a coalition government with the Lib.Dems. in 2010 was to make his Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, Minister of Health then pay minimal attention as Lansley made his mark by strengthening the magic genie of competition in the health system through his 2011 and 2012 Health and Social Care Bills.
Lansley also, and not unreasonably, wanted GPs to take control of NHS budgets for ‘hospital services’ and community health programmes. This could have been done relatively easily by enhancing the role of doctors within the existing Primary Health Care Trusts (PCTs), giving them control over finances and commissioning decisions. Instead Lansley dismantled the PCTs, creating huge numbers of expensive redundancies – many redundant staff were later re-employed under different job descriptions - and building new structures with confusing lines of authority, including consortia of GPs, at a cost of c. £5 billion to the taxpayer.
Implementing the Lansley plan was a massive distraction for NHS staff at a moment when they should have been focussed on modernising services; a huge opportunity cost, that accelerated the decline of our health service. By April 2012, only two years into the Cameron government, 96% of the 497 delegates at a Royal College of Nursing conference were voting no confidence in the Health Minister. There had already been a 3,000 drop in the number of nurses. In June, the doctors in the British Medical Association called for Lansley’s resignation. In September Cameron realised what a mess Lansley was making and moved him to become Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons.
Jeremy Hunt took over and between 2012 and 2018 failed to tackle staff shortages or to resolve the urgent problems in social care. The Nurses Bursary Scheme was scrapped to save the government £800 million, resulting, it is estimated, in a 40% drop in applications and a long term shortage of nurses. Despite health and social care being perennially linked on paper, they remained ‘siloed’ in reality. Local Health and Social Care Committees met but their budgets remained separate with Local Authorities in charge of the vital social care services which were, and are, mostly in private hands. (It took until this July for 42 huge Integrated Care Systems to be put on a full statutory footing after the 2022 Health and Care Act was passed in April). Beds are still being occupied by patients fit to go home awaiting provision of social care. Ambulances stack for hours outside hospitals. Hunt left Britain unprepared for the pandemic in more ways than one.
But has the Opposition better ideas? It seems obvious that ‘bed-blocking’, with all its knock-on effects, can only be resolved when care workers are paid a decent living wage. In an under-reported speech in a January 2022 speech, Sir Keir Starmer presented what he called the Labour Health Contract, breaking the mould in two senses. First he pledged a New Deal for social care workers and a five point plan for the sector. Second, in an attempt to counter the perennial distorting emphasis on hospitals, ( the 40 imaginary, often promised new ones is a perfect example), Starmer spoke extensively about prevention, stopping people getting sick in the first place and moving beyond a ‘National Sickness Service’ towards a National Health Service with an emphasis on health and well-being.
No-one pretends prevention is easy. Behavioural change never is. But it can be achieved. From the Hollywood movies of the 1950s and 60s with everyone puffing away merrily we are down to 14% of adults smoking in the UK today. Government can make significant interventions in improving air quality, more effectively controlling the great corporate pedlars of cholesterol, alcohol and sugar – as Mr. Kellogg has noted - and providing the public with an accurate diagnosis of the real basic problems. For example, it is not that we have an aging population but an aging population bringing to old age a cluster of often preventable disease and disorders. Nor is it families eating cheap, processed, rubbish food; it is widespread poverty and inequality.
One thing is sure: we need a new set of hands to restore the safety of our health service and to lift the shadow over millions of homes that again hangs over us.
See TheArticle 20.07/2022
At 16.30 on 3 August 2021 the massive ship Ever Given weighed anchor at the port of Felixstowe. 200,000 gross tonnage and the length of four football fields, she is one of the world’s thirteen largest container ships owned by a subsidiary of a Japanese shipbuilding company and chartered by Evergreen Maritime shipping based in Taiwan. Ever Given’s voyage had been eventful and became internationally renowned after running aground and blocking the Suez Canal.
She had stubbornly refused to budge and clear the ship-jam: as a result over 300 vessels, including five other container ships, 41 bulk carriers and 24 crude oil tankers, got stuck at both ends of the canal for the over six days it took to re-float her. Once refloated, she was impounded by the Egyptian government and held for three months in Ismaila until compensation was sorted out and paid.
As the Ever Given drew into Felixstowe onlookers came out to see the maritime prodigy. One man though, Julian Wong, was more interested in seeing the crew on board. The Port Chaplain for East Anglia and Haven Ports, who worked for Stella Maris UK, the British branch of an international charity caring for seafarers and those on fishing boats around the world, he had seen plenty of giant container ships. His concern was the crew - who were not permitted to go ashore. Early in the morning after the Ever Given had docked, he went to offer support and brought chocolates for all on board. The captain and first officer sent back a thank-you message with a selfie. The ship was gone the next day, an average turn-around time.
Spending months at sea without setting foot on land is a common experience for the seafarers who come to Britain, many from Asian countries. Bigger ships, smaller crews, more exhausting work. Though some of the most acute welfare needs are found in more modest fishing vessels. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2006 Maritime Labour Convention, ratified by 97 States by 2021, “aims to provide minimum living and working conditions for seafarers that are globally applicable and uniformly enforced, including granting seafarers shore leave”. ‘Aims’ is the operative word. Shore-leave, a critical matter for health and wellbeing, depends on ships’ Masters who have complete control over who can come on board and whether crew can disembark but are themselves under pressure from the shipping companies focussed on profitability and ever faster turn-around times. During the global COVID pandemic hundreds of thousands of seafarers were not allowed to leave their ships at all. Much mental illness resulted. Vital medical needs were more than usually difficult to obtain.
Nine big shipping lines joined in three alliances dominate global container traffic. In 2021 the profits of these shipping lines amounted to £157 billion. Prior to COVID, according to Nick Glynne on Radio 4, managing director of the retail company Buy It Direct, shipping companies were charging c. £2,000 to transport a standard 40 foot container from China. At the peak of COVID infections the charge was anything between £16,000 and £20,000. Shipping a fridge from China pre-COVID, for example, cost the retailer £10. This rose to £100 during COVID whilst the shipping companies’ costs rose c. 15%. Negotiations by the International Transport Workers Federation on the minimum wage for seafarers resulted in an increase: from £6,114 to £6,316 per annum taking effect from January 2023.
Yet, it took P&O ferries’ callous dismissal of its largely British workforce, in order to substitute cheap and non-unionised foreign labour, for the plight of seafarers to gain public attention. The ‘M’ in RMT stands for Maritime but a Filipino seaman is unlikely to be able to join a union during a two day stop in a British port even if he is allowed to disembark within the port precincts.
Stella Maris has 1,000 chaplains and volunteer ship visitors in over 300 ports in 54 countries. Reporting on the last three years work, they list their top three priorities: responding to the impact of COVID, supporting victims of abuse at work, and responding to ‘ship abandonment’, that is the practice of dumping seafarers thousands of miles from home when things go wrong. (Leaving an abandoned ship can be breach of contract - if stranded crew can get home, they may lose their pay).
The problems for seafarers caused by the war in Ukraine have been little reported. Stella Maris provides very tangible emergency help irrespective of nationality. In Odessa, with the help of the Stella Maris Crisis Support Fund, Father Alex Smerechynsky and his assistant Rostik Inzhestoikov care for families of seafarers fleeing Ukraine. Father Edward Pracz, Stella Maris chaplain for the Polish Baltic Sea port of Gdynia located on the western coast of Gdańsk Bay, has converted a retreat centre into a home for some 50 women and children, families of Ukrainian seafarers.
Breaking the isolation of shipboard life is a routine element in Stella Maris’ work. Every year they provide internet access to seafarers and thousands of free sim-cards to contact their families after long periods at sea. There is also a more intangible aspect of their work, making visible the invisible work force of sea-borne international trade – four billion tons of goods transported by sea at the turn of the century increasing to 11 billion today. These are the men and women who literally keep the global economy moving.
In the last couple of weeks, anyone enjoying the sunshine on the Suffolk beach of Dunwich, perhaps thinking it should win the Today Programme favourite beach competition, could see on the horizon two bulky container ships stacking to go into Felixstowe. Giant vessels piled high with the typical 40 foot containers like a floating Lego housing estate. No romance of the restless sea there, just a couple of dozen crew members confined, isolated and separated for months from their families, seemingly close, definitely essential, invisible.