Lying, half-truths, ‘misspeaking’, or obfuscation are now political skills much as was rhetoric in ancient Greece. Honesty and frankness – and there are many honest politicians – come as a welcome surprise. Many blame governments’ general disposition to avoid the truth and cover up how they got us into our current mess. They have certainly contributed to mushrooming belief in conspiracies.
The implausible has becomes plausible. A public accustomed to being hoodwinked and manipulated has become prone to mistrusting the trustworthy as trust in those with power evaporates and the line between truth and falsehood is deliberately blurred. Groups form networks around misinformation shared on the internet. It is not all to governments’ disadvantage. People confused are easier to control.
The internet has accelerated a privatisation of truth creating different worlds, mind-sets and ideologies each with their different certainties. The internet giants now sustain political sub-cultures with targeted flows of information and misinformation alongside targeted advertising. And targeting depends on what the data-brokers know about us, what we think and what we want. In the digital world the idea that the CIA staged 9/11 as well as the type of sweater you like are both passed on in ‘packages’ of data travelling at lightning speed along networks of cables. Someone in the internet’s human infrastructure gets vastly richer in the process. And it is not going to be me or you.
What happens after we lift the lid on our laptop and log on, or pull down the endless tweets on our mobile phone, is hidden from all but the canniest members of the IT aristocracy. Talking heads on TV lying to us risk being exposed in their lies but there is no transparency whatsoever on the internet. There we are plied with cookies and the cookies make our data available, data which is sold on by whom or to whom we know not. This is just one reason I recommend in passing James Ball’s The System: who owns the internet, and how it owns us, published by Bloomsbury last year. It tries to explain to my generation, those who sat at school desks with inkwells not laptops, how it all began, what goes on, why and how something can be done about it, and how the paradox of the ‘privatisation’ of our politics accompanies our loss of privacy.
The overall impact of the internet is ambiguous like that of all epoch-changing technologies. On the one hand it is a tool of direct democracy. People find each other, are alerted to their strength in numbers, decide to act, sometimes to take to the streets against authoritarian rulers. We are beginning to see the impact in Russia. The original dream of Tim Berners-Lee and other founders of the internet - still glimpsed in Jimmy Wales Wikipedia - that they were creating a benign mode of communication and information flow that would defeat the limitations of time and distance, still lingers on. Families and friends can keep in touch, or rather communicate with each other though not ‘in touch’, and whole libraries of information are a few taps away.
On the other hand people in reinforcing cyber-enclaves share and absorb misinformation and pernicious fantasies. The silo syndrome is older than you think. Amongst the earliest users of the nascent internet in the 1980s were US white supremacists and militias. A quarter of a century ago, the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh’s bedroom was reported to be like a computer laboratory. More recently Da’esh online recruitment was famously professional. The 2017 Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville showed how effective online recruitment can be in bringing together disparate groups.
Why this receptiveness to lies? Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder’s believes that the decline of local newspapers ended the kind of reporting that readers could verify for themselves. If you spelt the names right of the winners of the flower show people were going to believe you got the big stories right too. And heaven help you if you didn’t. National newspapers were too distanced for many - and thus a shared local community perception of social reality was lost, replaced by shock-jocks’ ranting, extreme right websites, and whatever Big Lie was circulating nationally or even internationally. Enter far right the heterogeneous mob that attacked the Capitol.
Authoritarian regimes are well aware that the truth is their enemy. We owe the rapid spread of the Coronavirus to an entrenched culture of falsehood and deception within the Chinese Communist Party. At all costs Party officials tried to avoid delivering bad news for fear of the messenger being punished. Putin seems genuinely frightened by Alexei Navalny because he is brave enough to defy the kleptocracy’s terror tactics to the point of repeatedly risking his own life. His courage and ability to survive assassination attempts have inspired Russian youth. The truth may not always set you free but it has got 100,000 people out onto the streets of Russia’s cities.
Against this grim background are there lessons for our own small island? First, democracy cannot thrive if the electorate is routinely misinformed by government and by a partly supportive Press disguising deceit, incompetence or worse. We are becoming aware that democracy cannot be taken for granted. And increasingly citizens are taking action to defend it.
Finally, there is an accepted right to truth. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides a basis for the right of victims of grave human rights violations and their families, as well as society as a whole, to find out the truth. It has not been without results, notably the Truth Commissions. The UN has an annual Right to Truth Day on 24 March chosen to coincide with the date of St. Oscar Romero’s assassination in El Salvador. It is an interesting example of Catholic thinking about human dignity converging with UN thinking about human rights, two approaches often thought of, and presented as, dissonant.
Actually the Catholic tradition also puts truth into a wider human rights context. Pope John XXIII, less than two months before he died of cancer in 1963, writing in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) addressed not just his Church but all people: “before a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth. St. Paul expressed this as follows: ‘Putting away lying speak ye the truth every man with his neighbour for we are members one of the other’. (Ephesians IV.25). Not a bad text for the Republicans in the USA and the Johnson coterie here in the UK to consider.
See TheArticle 01/02/2021
My generation lived through the Cuban missile crisis. Our lives were threatened not by an invisible, spikey, round virus but a nuclear mushroom cloud. Today, 22 January, after many years of campaigning and debate the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, (‘The Ban Treaty’ for short) with 86 signatories, including 51 ‘states-parties’, came into force. It had taken over three years to collect more than the 50 state signatures that were required for implementation of an agreement reached in 2017.
In the summer of 2017, a rolling conference convened by the UN General Assembly produced a legally binding prohibition of nuclear weapons in the hope of their ultimate elimination. Developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory, were all banned. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Treaty’s principal non-governmental mover and shaker, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, later that year. The Vatican celebrated the Treaty with a conference for the forty or so campaigning organisations that had contributed to its creation. But I would guess worldwide few people know of this treaty or its significance.
The existing nuclear powers were and are determined not to sign. So another piece of paper on the shelf of the UN Secretary-General, not even to be honoured in the breach, just ignored? No, far more significant than that, both opponents and supporters would agree. The Treaty represents a growing global legal consensus concerning international humanitarian norms. An international regulatory body for its implementation will be set up – the Austrian government is preparing for a first meeting of states parties in late 2021 - and there is a legally time-limited opportunity for the nine existing nuclear powers to start what they have notably failed to do: negotiate the elimination of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Or, as former President Khatami of Iran replied to my question on the status of nuclear weapons in Shi’a Islam: “Haram, haram (prohibited) for both possession and use”.
Because of their immense destructive power and long term consequences nuclear weapons along with chemical and biological weapons are clearly a unique threat to humanity. But it has to be said that as the Syrian and Iraq governments have demonstrated by using chemical weapons this is no guarantee of future compliance with international law. And here is the rub. While it is just conceivable that public pressure and actual cost might persuade Britain to abandon Trident, neither of these pressures would make North Korea, China or Russia sign up to and become compliant with the Treaty. We have to acknowledge and accept the potentially asymmetric impact of pressure for total elimination of nuclear weapons. It’s a big ask. South Africa did not have any enemy on its doorstep in 1991 when it led the way and dismantled its nuclear warheads the apartheid regime developed with – suspected - Israeli help.
The renunciation of nuclear weapons by any country or countries requires prolonged diplomatic engagement and peace building. The conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers and embroiled in a bitter dispute over Kashmir dating from Britain’s withdrawal, is only one example. For all the BREXIT talk about sovereignty, Britain’s own options are constrained by our membership of a defensive nuclear alliance, NATO. What would be the strategic implications of Britain’s adherence to the UN Treaty? Again decisions about nuclear weapons can only be made in the context of a national discussion about what we want Britain’s role in the world to be, and what we think security and responsible geo-politics should look like in the future. Apart from these questions NATO’s total rejection of the Treaty should stimulate a much wider national discussion than the one intermittently taking place within the peace movements and the military about Trident.
NATO has been deploying powerful arguments. Michael Rühle, the main interlocutor for NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division does not pull his punches. He writes that advocates of the Treaty ‘ignore the international security situation’ , engage in ‘moral grandstanding’ and that it ‘pulls the rug from under’ the 1970 Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Ban Treaty reflects the frustration of many states in the Global South at the failure of the NPT to change the nuclear weapons landscape. It challenges the strategy of mutually-assured destruction. But the Ban Treaty is consistent with Article VI of the NPT which commits states-parties to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’ That more or less covers the process which led to the Treaty.
Religious opinion is increasingly vocal and united. The Pope, the Vatican and the British bishops, both Catholic and Anglican, have clearly called on the British Government to “forsake its nuclear arsenal”. This month the British Catholic bishops stated:
“On Friday 22 January 2021 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force. This is an historic milestone on the path to nuclear disarmament and an opportunity to refocus on genuine peacebuilding rooted in dialogue, justice, respect for human dignity, and care for our planet.
In setting out the ‘moral and humanitarian imperative’ for complete elimination of nuclear weapons, Pope Francis reminded us that ‘international peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation.
We urge support for the Treaty and repeat our call for the UK to forsake its nuclear arsenal. The resources spent on manufacturing, maintaining and upgrading these weapons of mass destruction, should be reinvested to alleviate the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, for the Common Good of all peoples”.
But nuclear disarmament remains the dog that doesn’t bark in British politics.
If the Treaty does its job of making people once more aware of the terrible consequences of nuclear warfare, and if it initiates a national and international debate about a responsible geo-politics, what we mean by security, what sort of alliances we must make in the face of ruthless authoritarian regimes, it will have accomplished a great deal. The nuclear issue has disappeared from the manifestoes of our political Parties. The gulf between the settled opinion of the securocrats and politicians and the clear message coming from the faith communities, peace movements and what used to be called the non-aligned states of the Global South, is daunting.
On 5 February this year the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty New Start which caps each country’s nuclear weapons at 1,550 comes up for renewal or extension. China refuses to engage. Looking back on the near-nuclear disasters of the 1960s, the eventual outcome of an entrenched belief in a strategy of mutually assured destruction will probably be accidental ….mutually assured destruction.
See TheArticle 23/10/2021
An American would be forgiven for feeling as lost in Washington today as the Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff in his song Many Rivers to Cross. The United States may be on the verge of serious civil violence.
There are different contending stories about the 2020 US Presidential election. The comforting one is that Joseph Biden, with his black running mate Kamala Harris, won a popular mandate by seven million votes. The disturbing one is that Donald Trump increased his popular vote by over eleven million. It is estimated that 93% of those who voted Republican in 2016 renewed their support undeterred by the evidence of four years of misrule by a manipulative demagogue consciously cultivating resentful, violent, and what Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder calls pre-fascist movements promoting the politics of white supremacy. Besides the pandemic, four rivers stand out for President Biden to cross.
The first is 74 million voters who chose Trump. What got into almost a quarter of the country’s population? The short answer is fear. There is nothing novel about that. McCarthy knew how to tap into it in the 1950s. But from the beginning US political culture, born in the lonely conquest of an expanding frontier and a violent confrontation with Native Americans was imbued with fear. In the South, slave owners’ own violence was projected onto its black victims. An abiding anxiety that only brutal punishment stood in the way of insurrection and retaliation, was the result. What other country has a powerful and successful lobby persuading families of the need to own guns for protection? And in what other country do gun sales soar when protests take to the streets against unlawful police killings of black people?
A substantial number of angry Americans seem to see, or countenance, white supremacy as a defence against black, or non-white, advancement. Demographic changes in the USA are felt as a zero-sum game. Non-Hispanic Whites make up 60% of America’s population but to many the Obama Presidency, despite his best efforts, looked like a period when the White majority lost control. Trump’s attempt to undo everything Obama had achieved spoke reams to his constituency: he understood their fears and resentments, he was their champion. The Biden team must now promote the traditional promise of the ‘City upon a Hill’, and destroy the lie that equality of opportunity and fairness is an evil un-American force called Socialism. Failing that, Biden may have to fall back on his Catholicism for a coherent counter-narrative.
The second swirling river to cross is the Republican Party itself. Trump drew in a rag-bag of small extremist movements addicted to racism, wild conspiracy stories and hatred of ‘elites’. They now both support and threaten the hundred or so Republican congressmen and perhaps ten senators, shaped by the former Tea Party movement and fearful of their voter base, who went along even after 6 January with what they knew to be Trump’s blatant lies, and particularly his Big Lie of having won the election. Professor Timothy Snyder divides these elected representatives into two categories: the ‘gamers’ who cynically surf the wave of popular feeling rather than lose office and the ‘breakers’, quasi-anarchists bent on destroying ‘the system’. Were the Republican Party to split, the ‘breakers’ would form the core of a Trumpist Party. The Republican Party as it now stands is a huge obstacle in the path of national reconciliation and, while the Senate is so evenly balanced, will make it very difficult for Biden to produce economic gains for his black supporters and the disaffected workers who once would have voted Democrat. Already a daunting task after the pandemic’s damage to the economy.
Democrats will also have to tackle Republican power at a state level. Where Republicans control state legislatures and governorships gerrymandering and voter suppression on a large scale will persist. Frightened people are gullible. In key states voters behaved differently from expectations. For example 18% of the black vote in electorally all-important Florida, voted Republican in addition to the state’s Cubans and Venezuelans, taken in by the portrayal of Biden as a Socialist Front candidate propped up by a female Vice-President who as a public prosecutor had sent a lot of black Americans to jail. In South Texas (along the Mexican border) the Biden Democrats took the Latino and farmworker vote for granted but they fared worse than Hillary Clinton.
A third river to get over for Biden, and crucial to Trump’s success, is the endless flow of misinformation from radio and TV stations which act as echo chambers for his lies presenting him as the leader of victimised white Americans. Equally, until the shock of the storming of the Capitol pushed the great social media platforms to ban Trump, they’d given almost free play to various pre-fascist and conspiracy groups of different kinds. The internet giants then tried to put the genie back in the bottle. Their regulation by government will be a complex task. Curbing the impact of pernicious radio and TV shock-jocks and their popular angry and emotional presentation of politics will be equally difficult. Biden will have to establish some kind of consensus about a regulatory programme consonant with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Fourthly and finally, reversing the flow of foreign policy directed by Trump won’t be simple. Multilateralism has a price tag in domestic approval and dollars. Isolationism is popular. Given domestic pressures, Biden will be disinclined to cut the Gordian knot that is Israel, a knot tightened by Trump. The difficulties of re-opening a peace process based on a serious two-state solution are great. The US needs to support Lebanon in danger of disintegration. Attempts to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran will not be welcomed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards nor by concessions from the Supreme Leader, nor by those pre-occupied by Iran’s proxy militias in the region. The Iranians have already increased uranium enrichment to 20% in retaliation for Trump’s reneging on the international nuclear treaty. China is the key to effective action on climate change, said to be Biden’s priority, and is crucial in blocking North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. But, post-Trump, how can there be any Nixonesque diplomatic demarche towards China given its appalling human rights record which the incoming administration cannot ignore?
Electoral defeat for Trump doesn’t mean that the pursuit of white supremacy and Trumpism will disappear. At last, after the debacle of 6 January, the focus of national security has swung towards the internal threat of armed militias and white supremacist terrorism. Biden has to decide how to clamp down hard on the leadership of such extremist groups without creating martyrs. The currency of white domination is fear and violence. Biden’s greatest immediate task is to stop its circulation. To do so he must make America less angry and less fearful. Many rivers to cross and they run deep and wide and flow fast.
See TheArticle 15/01/2021
People recognise corruption when they see it though they would find it hard to define. The abuse of entrusted power for private gain is a concise definition used by the Berlin-based Transparency International, a not-for-profit authority whose Corruption Perception Index scores and ranks corruption by country across the globe. Transparency International points to poorly regulated financing of political parties as the source of the trouble. Political bribery, bungs, ‘buying influence’ to use Tony Blair’s words, are all part of a wider story. In societies ranked as the worst at the bottom of the table, corruption is endemic reaching beyond the political into business and into access to public services bringing misery to those too poor to bribe. In many countries like Nigeria it is a longstanding feature of the political and economic culture. You wonder when and how it started and became so pervasive.
Forty-five years ago in Nigeria I received my first - and last - bribe, more of a sweetener really, on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, situated in the North. One evening just before the final exams there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was Mr. Chukwuma Onyeme (name changed) a mature Ibo student of mine from the South who had once whispered to me ‘we foreigners must stick together’ - it was not long after the Biafran war of secession. Mr. Onyeme, father of seven children, was bearing a six-pack of Nigerian Guinness as a gift. I graciously accepted.
This transaction could be construed as a bribe. Mr.Onyeme had struggled with the course and I expected him, at best, to get a borderline pass. He probably expected the same. But the six-pack was a bad choice. Nigerian Guinness tasted sweetish to me and looked like brown Windsor soup. I would go to considerable lengths to avoid it. In the event the examination board awarded Mr. Onyeme his degree without my help. His school-teacher salary would rise. The school fees of his children would be paid. In the round a good result but giving a sight of the tip of an iceberg that sank a country’s development despite, or possibly because of, its oil wealth.
Several years’ experience of corruption in Nigeria now prompts the question whether Britain, twelfth from the virtuous top in the Transparency Corruption Index, but dropping points in the last three years, might be too complacent about risking its reputation for probity. In a predominantly service economy respected for its diplomatic, legal, educational and financial services, probity matters. The behaviour of government has consequences and can destroy a country’s international reputation remarkably quickly.
Take as an example our Housing, Communities and Local Government Minister, Robert Jenrick, and the recent saga of Richard Desmond’s £1 billion property development at Westferry Printworks challenged by the Council in London’s Tower Hamlets. To avoid the Council’s £45 million community benefit levy - for health and education – the Minister, lobbied by Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, needed to approve the project before 15 January 2020. On 14th. January, overruling his own civil servants and inspectorate, Mr. Jenrick granted this permission. Two weeks later Mr. Desmond donated the very modest sum of £12,000 to the Conservative Party, in proportion to his reward the equivalent of a six-pack of Guinness. The lobbied Minister should have recused himself. When the story broke in June, Jenrick was obliged to reverse his approval because, in his own words, it looked ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’. He was not sacked nor does he shun the glare of publicity. On the contrary he comes in third or fourth in the batting, read obfuscating, order of ministers led by Mr. Gove on the BBC4 flagship Today programme.
The question whether such behaviour, and tolerance of such behaviour, heralds a general onset of corruption in government became particularly pressing in March and April when, during the first wave of the COVID pandemic, there were shortages of PPE for frontline medical staff. While several European countries began to initiate PPE procurement procedures in late January 2020, it was a month before the British government, in panic mode, set to. Tendering, following the normal rules for getting good value for public money, went out the window and, according to the Treasury, £15 billion was – wastefully - spent on supplying PPE to retrieve the situation. A special pathway was set up for Cabinet Office and VIP contacts – read friends and associates of Tory peers, MPs and councillors - to submit proposals for multimillion contracts. The Good Law Project, a not-for profit membership organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public, is seeking a judicial review and litigation in the absence of any official enquiry into negligence or corruption. They cite remarkably that three of the biggest PPE contracts awarded were to a pest-control company, wholesale confectionary company and a private fund operating out of a tax haven.
Prodigious public spending provides governments with enhanced opportunities to benefit their friends and supporters. Alongside the pressures created by government indecision, the ideological drive to outsource responses to the COVID crisis when there were already competent local public authorities available, opened up another door to the Tory ‘chumocracy’. Isn’t it problematic that an individual can move seamlessly via the Department of Justice from a key position in a company such as SERCO, awarded a whopping Track and Trace contract, to become a Minister of State for Health? Aren’t the perennial Tory fundraisers, private dinners, sustaining a host of questionable relationships and creating potential conflicts of interest, the intricate foreplay to potential corruption? And what does it say about our society when consultants to SERCO’s Track and Trace, drawn from the corporates, are paid up to £7,000 of public money a day, while newly qualified nurses start risking their lives in the NHS on £23,000 a year. How long can our public services survive such dystopian priorities?
From his days as Mayor of London, Mr. Johnson’s approach to conflict of interest has been shown to be, shall we say, casual. Impunity is the handmaid of corruption. But when it comes to his supine coterie Johnson doesn’t do resignations or sackings, and unlike Mrs. Thatcher, doesn’t do God. “Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage”, she told the congregation of St. Lawrence Jewry in March 1978. That’s a warning the libertarian Tory back benches might heed. When breaching international law and treaty becomes part of our negotiating toolkit, you wonder in what sense the Prime Minister is still leading a Conservative Party defending conservative values.
We have too long been watching the misuse of public power with its predictable reputational consequences. It is misplaced complacency to believe we are not wandering down the road to corrupt government.
See TheArticle 4/01/2021
Just over five years ago, in Paris on the evening of Friday 15 November 2015, in three simultaneous attacks terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed 130 French citizens. Ninety died and a hundred were injured at a rock concert in the Bataclan theatre, several died outside the Stade de France where France and Germany were playing a friendly football match and others were maimed in attacks on cafés. Only eleven months had passed since another Da’esh-inspired group attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket taking seventeen lives.
Then came a wave of ‘lone wolf’ atrocities, the worst in 2016 when a 19-tonne truck ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Nice seafront killing 86 and injuring 458. Since November 2019 there have been ten such further attacks some at random, others aimed at Christians, priests and a schoolteacher. France feels that it is a nation whose very identity is threatened by these assaults on its way of life. Over seventy mosques and their sources of finance are now under investigation. In November 2020 President Macron re-affirmed in speeches that laïcité, a radical form of secularism, is the essence of French identity and that the Muslim community must conform to a ‘Charter of Republican values’. But what precisely are these values, and when does laicïté begin to erode the right to religious freedom? And is laïcité as the definition of French identity a solution to the problem of terrorism or a provocation? All questions Christians have reasons to be interested in hearing answered.
“All my life I have held a certain idea of France.” “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”, wrote General Charles de Gaulle in the opening sentence of his first volume of war memoirs, (The Call) L’Appel:1940-1942. The General, reflecting his own heroic martial virtues, was always preoccupied with grandeur. So President Macron’s somewhat grandiose deportment and attempts to muster the French people around the Republican flag against terrorism, is not unprecedented. But he can’t reinvent himself as De Gaulle any more than Johnson can reinvent himself as Churchill. Macron needs his own idea of France. And what he needed was at hand: ‘Republican values’ and laïcité as the backbone of French identity.
A few years ago, at a government interfaith conference in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, I gave a well-received talk which gently suggested that banning the head-scarf, hijab, in State schools was a bad idea. Towards the end of lunch I was informed that the French Ambassador wanted to speak to me. I was escorted to her table where she delivered a long harangue on the oppression of Muslim women. According to the Ambassador Muslim women were oppressed by Islam and did not wish to wear the hijab. Laïcité liberated Muslim women and was civilization’s answer to backward religious practices. No ifs or buts, no room for dialogue or nuance. I’d just encountered ‘une certaine ideé de la France’. A rather different emphasis from de Gaulle’s but foreshadowing Macron’s.
France’s population contains Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority. The Pew Research Foundation puts the number of Muslims in France, mainly from the North Africa but also from the Middle East, at c. 6 million which makes them 8.8% of the population (the CIA estimate is between 7-9%). Of these about 100,000 are converts. Some 76 mosques are due for government inspection and 18, some of which should have closed, will be shut down.
In France the hijab is the subject of long running controversy. President Chirac extended an existing government ban on all wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in State schools to every secondary education establishment and this was quickly voted into law in March 2004. In 2010 full length Burqās and face-concealing Niqābs, which barely left wearers’ eyes visible, were banned from public places. In August 2016 the Mayor of Cannes opened up a beachhead in the apparel-wars with a ban on burkinis, body- concealing swimsuits, a ban upheld by the French Council of State which presumably viewed them as un-Republican and a symbol of separatism. Criticism of this ruling from non-Muslims has been ineffectual.
In the middle of November this year, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), under growing pressure from Macron, announced its proposal for a National Council to vet foreign-born imams. Macron plans additional legislation to ban home-schooling, and to initiate training of imams in State controlled colleges requiring signing on to ‘The Principles of the Republic’. His target is ‘separatism’ and thus taqfiri brands of Salafi and Wahabi thinking and behavior - disavowal and rejection of all who do not share their excluding Puritan ethic - which he seems to see as a precursor to, and breeding ground for, terrorism. All this is laïcité in practice. This is not the procedural secularism, the separation of Church and State, of the USA. And it’s not secular Britain with its established Church where very few would consider the Jewish kippa or a head-scarf or a cross an ‘ostentatious’ religious symbol – though occupational restrictions by employers involving wearing of crosses have been upheld in court. The difference is that French secularism, enshrined legally in law separating Church and State in 1905, has become prescriptive and ideological.
But in September the French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, did attempt to formulate an inclusive female standard of dress ‘de façon républicaine’ (in a republican fashion) for State schools. He condemned both short skirts - indécence - and the wearing of hijabs by mothers accompanying school trips. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution has left its trace in hostility to religion in the public domain with little acknowledgement that culturally the hijab for many Muslims is an expression of modesty just as much as longer skirts.
In France since 9/11 conflict over women’s dress seems to be in step with the growth of terror in the name of Allah. And it is an easy jump to the assumption that ‘conspicuous’ religiously approved clothing is somehow a link in a causal chain leading to violence, as well as being a breach of laïcité undermining the foundations of the Fifth Republic. Such a view may indeed coincide with the social perceptions of French governments. But not with the perceptions of France’s disadvantaged and increasingly alienated Muslim communities, who are daily bombarded with extremist recruitment material on-line, and who protest against their government’s hardline laïcité.
Such a preoccupation with controlling female dress does not easily admit to reasoned distinctions. Seeing the face of a person is a major part of human communication, not just a security concern. In this sense the niqāb and burkā which seclude and exclude women – unlike the hijab - are anti-social and might reasonably be considered a direct challenge to French values, more a form of what Macron calls ‘separatism’ than an expression of modesty and human dignity. France’s adopted Lithuanian Jewish philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), a champion of dialogue, symbolically grounded his idea of ethical human relationships in face-to-face encounters.
The major problem with Macron’s approach is that it does not appear to be evidence based. First, ‘separatism’ is common to all three Abrahamic religions: the Amish, the Jewish Haredi as well as Salafis. It is a response to seeing the world as sinful and a source of potential moral contamination. The vast majority of Salafis are peace-loving and pious. Indeed, because they can talk the talk and walk the walk which has taken a tiny minority into violence and terrorism, some are notably good at de-radicalisation. Some of the first assassinations undertaken by Boko Haram in North East Nigeria were Salafi scholars who opposed the movement’s violence and were seen as an immediate threat. Second, recruitment to jihadism in France takes place predominantly through relationships within families and between friends often in particular banlieues or small towns. If the UK is anything to go by 40% of those recruited have suffered from some form of mental illness. It is often because they have little of the Qur’anic knowledge that might have accrued from mosque attendance that many can be duped. Violent criminality is given a ‘glorious’ religious legitimation. This makes recruitment via social media, manipulating emotional reactions to videos and Qur’anic verses out of context, that much easier.
Britain’s Muslim communities, unlike France’s, trace their roots to the Indian sub-continent and Britain’s approach to cultural differences, multiculturalism, has been less doctrinaire than France’s. But we have had our own tragedies and agonizing failures, the 2017 Manchester bombing in which 22 died still has the power to shock. So we can readily and deeply emphasize with our friends across the Channel. Multi-culturalism is no panacea. There are dangers of social division of tolerating what should not be tolerated. But because, at least in this respect, we aren’t deducing counter-terrorism policy from a rigid set of ideological principles, we are able to see what works and what doesn’t, and, at best, adjust policy to changing circumstances. France’s tragic losses suggest that the answer to the failures of laïcité is not more laïcité.
“Lullay lullay. Thou little tiny child”, the opening words of the Coventry carol composed in the 16th century and sung by millions over the ages. The carol is as much a lament as a lullaby: a mother’s goodbye to a baby to be killed in the net cast around Bethlehem by King Herod, the Romans’ puppet ruler of Judea, in an attempt to kill the baby predicted to become King of the Jews. Holy Innocents day is commemorated on 28 December by the western Christian Churches. This year it falls during the full rigour of government anti-COVID measures. But it’s also a date when Christians – and others too - might turn their thoughts to the rights of children around the world.
Whether in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic or Myanmar – to name only a few of the worst cases -we have become accustomed to children dying or being maimed in wars or as a result of dictatorial regimes’ State terrorism. And in a few African countries militias routinely recruit child soldiers by force. Sometimes the savagery of the war means civilians are deliberately targeted. More often their deaths are described as ‘collateral damage’. Even more frequently children die because war has reduced their families to starvation, flight from home, freezing temperatures, and the breakdown of anything that might be described as a health or education service, or law and order, putting whole populations at the mercy of disease, hunger, warplanes, landmines and militias.
Civilian deaths, the deaths of children are not just some phenomenon of the Global South. The Nazis and the Japanese militarists were defeated in the Second World War. But their strategy of total war won. The Allies appropriated the practice of total war, bombing German cities and dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Korea, the blanket bombing of Eastern Cambodia and massacres in Vietnam are only the best known of the conflicts that have perpetuated the civilian death toll in war into the 1960s. The establishment of international courts, scrutiny by human rights organisations and TV coverage raised the political risks in flouting ethical restrictions on the conduct of war. Today in the western world conformity with strict legal and ethical standards is expected in the conduct of targeting, and in the treatment of civilians, even if these expectations are not always fulfilled. Where there is no accountability as in Syria and Yemen such restraints are generally ignored.
The 2015 movie Eye in the Sky dramatizes the tension between the expedients of war and the demands of ethics, international conventions and law. Colonel Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, must decide whether to execute the firing of a Hellfire missile at a house in Kenya where three key terrorists are preparing a suicide bombing. If the missile is fired, a little girl, Alia, who lives next door and sells bread outside her home will almost certainly die in the blast. We the viewers watch the scene on the ground via surveillance footage from a USAF MQ-9 reaper drone. Should Powell, shouldn’t she, tell the Nevada air-force base to make the strike? When she does the child dies and so do the parents in a second strike aimed at a surviving terrorist. It is gripping cinema. The dilemma, viewers understand, is real and not without precedent. Over recent decades, in the bombings of civilian areas in war torn countries which we undertake or support, or are carried out with weapons supplied by our armaments industry, are we really to believe that ‘due diligence’ is scrupulously observed? Or, when it comes to the big spenders such as Saudi Arabia, isn’t ‘due diligence’ an ethical fig-leaf?
Jus in bello, the ethical constraints that should determine conduct of war once begun, is a key part of just war theory, that common pool of mediaeval ideas and debates largely shared by Christians and Muslims and whose principles inform the Geneva Conventions. The first topic in Shari’a law is who has the authority to declare war, the why, when, and how of jihad. In both faiths the protection of innocents and non-combatants is a fundamental principle of military action. Naming the killing of civilians ‘collateral damage’ is too often the thin edge of a wedge of worse human rights violations to come. Vacuous religious extremist arguments justify terrorist atrocities against democracies by denying any category of innocents amongst ‘the enemies of God’, a case of perversity beyond casuistry.
Whether it is courageous war correspondents filming mutilated children brought into bombed hospitals by the White Helmets in Syria, or Da‘esh videos of children bombed in Afghan villages, the emotional charge of children’s suffering is enormous and evokes empathy. Yet, pilots of different nations continue to unload their ordinance from a safe height and drop their barrel bombs on fleeing refugees. In those Middle East conflicts covered by television, every last vestige of acceptable conduct in war seems to have been abandoned. The consequences are brought into our living rooms. We know that worse horrors take place unseen. Worse, we become accustomed to them.
In November last year on the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See had this to say:
“While the importance of the Convention is unquestionable and its thirtieth anniversary should indeed be celebrated, the Holy See also welcomes the fact that this celebration does not shy away from the reality that despite the near universal ratification of the Convention, many children are not respected nor protected around the world. That any child suffers violence, abuse, exploitation and that any child’s rights are violated, rejected or ignored is unacceptable and among the gravest of injustices.”
Sadly the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors over decades in the Catholic Church saps the moral force of these admirable words.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is celebrated on 20 November. Holy Innocents on 28 December is not just a day when we begin to emerge from the fairy lights into the grey winter dawn of reality. Or if we live in London and the South East don’t emerge at all. It is, though, also an opportunity for Christian Churches to intensify their work for peace, just government and the most basic of all the Rights of the Child: the right to life.
See TheArticle 22/12/20
How widespread is addiction to TV crime series? I suffer from it mildly. Fingers hover on the record button. Not box-sets for Christmas though. Outbreaks of repeats step up the temptation in the pandemic.
You might view crime stories as modern morality tales. Good for you, exploring values. The ‘police procedural’ has certain conventions. You know what to expect: the corpse, the cars with flashing lights, much ducking under police tape, the morgue, the pathologist with the body under the sheet, the red-herring suspect, the fretting Chief Superintendent, the briefing, photos of suspects stuck on the white-board, the rule-breaker detective ‘taken off the case’, and the denouement in which he or she reveals the murderer. With permutations and side-plots, perseverance in adversity has its reward. Emperors are shown to have no clothes. Accolades are given for moral purpose and quality sleuthing. Wickedness is punished. Justice – usually – done. And for the viewer there’s the competition to spot the villain, to demonstrate judgement.
At one end of the dramatic spectrum are Agatha Christie’s immaculate Poirot and Captain Hastings putting the formula into formulaic: all gentility, faux Belgian accent, nice dresses, lovely old cars, posh houses, and the seaside hotels you didn’t go to as a child. At the other is bleak Nordic noir, dress casual, plenty of gore and gloom, wan faces, beards, stubble and angst, super-nasty serial killers, and everyone going about their business in appalling weather conditions. Noir must be written by authors with a grudge against Scandinavian Tourist Boards. In the middle of the spectrum is Morse, well-dressed, owner of a red 24-litre Jaguar Mark 2, one old flame but with currently unsatisfactory, tentative relationships with women, rude and grumpy, working in comfortable Oxford with an ever expanding list of grudges headed by dons, but adept at crossword puzzles, cussedness, complex plots and never buying his round.
In branding a drama series, the detective’s location has become increasingly important. Colin Dexter’s Morse is to Oxford as Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is to Venice: both above the fray, yet good citizens fighting corruption in high places, and for Morse at high table. You need to watch German television, to meet Brunetti’s happy family and devoted wife , Paola (an English literature lecturer as was Donna Leon) and excellent cook – all a marked departure from the usual unhappy, hard-drinking, take-away- snatching, by death, choice or divorce, single detective. And Morse of the liquid lunches does occasionally goes free-range to Australia and Italy with ‘Robby’ Lewis his long-suffering dogsbody sergeant, the nearest Morse gets to a buddy. But what really sets Morse apart, and to a lesser extent Brunetti, is Culture. Morse is a cultured cop. The series starring John Thaw ran from 1987 to 2000, a time when there were few graduates in the police force. Brunetti simply soaks up the Venetian culture around him by osmosis, and revels in its food culture courtesy of Paola.
The relationship between Lewis and Morse carries the series. Lewis, played by Kevin Whately, methodical, even tempered, cricket-lover, respectful of the law and police regulations is a foil to Morse’s brilliant, intuitive and aggressive character. The dynamics of their relationship, hints of the UK’s North-South class divide, reflect cultural and educational difference, the key component of social difference. Whately’s Hexham accent nicely conveys Lewis’ lower-middle class origins in Newcastle. Morse jeers at him for reading the Daily Mirror. But we believe in them; they aren’t just class stereotypes.
Like George Orwell, Morse doesn’t feel comfortable fitting into the social rankings of the – changing – times. On the one hand, he has the Oxford College Masters and some dons who have weaponised their erudition – and are usually up to no good. On the other he has Lewis who is able and thorough but doesn’t know his Donazetti from his Dolcetto, enjoys is fish and chips, and is forever needing to absent himself from police duties to look after ‘my lad’. His boss, Freemason Chief Superintendent Strange is socially insecure, uses ‘matey’ a lot, approves of Lewis, and is somewhat in awe of the Oxford upper classes.
But this is ITV so in case the viewer hadn’t noticed these cultural differences, Morse is frequently seen playing classical music at home, or in ecstasy at concerts and operas. You can read a lot of emotions into John Thaw’s expressive face and the director doesn’t spare the close-ups. If a woman appears who combines singing talent with good looks we know Morse will fall in love, often failing to follow up kisses or notice that the latest Prima Donna has been lying to him. But he also detects fake landscape paintings, quotes from classical literature and fires back Bible references at sinister clergymen.
What makes Morse much more than the run-of-the-mill police procedural is precisely his lack of procedures. He seems to spend a lot of time at home thinking or drinking to get his brain fired up. And he drinks real ales in a pint mug rather than martinis shaken not stirred - even if he rarely pays for them. Nor does he, unlike Poirot, solve the mystery or reveal the criminal before a wealthy and dull audience of suspects in the inevitable set-piece ending. Part of the success of the series is that Morse encounters a wide array of interesting and plausible characters from a variety of backgrounds during his investigations. This is an England we recognise.
Morse reflects the changes in society underway a quarter century ago: Anglican women priests, progressive prison reforms, the sexual revolution. Like Orwell he is inconsistent, telling off a police cadet who is the Chief Superintendent’s pet for an illegal phone tap but letting Lewis walk away from one of his own dodgy searches of premises without a warrant. And like Orwell he responds to a certain type of social integrity and sides with the underdog. Morse displays a wider range of emotion than Orwell ‘s fictional characters. Anger, search for and fear of intimacy, cynicism and fervent truth-telling, loneliness, genuine compassion, meanness, admiration, and sadness. And throughout how you talk, what you read, what you drink, Culture and culture are the great signifiers of class.
Before you ask, Morse today would be ferociously Remain, Lewis tempted by Leave, and socially insecure Strange, an uncertain Brexiteer justifiably fearful of losing access to EU’s store of criminal data.
See TheArticle 17/12/20
The meaning of sovereignty has been argued over for centuries from the divine right of kings to the Queen-in-Parliament. Yet to listen to government’s account of the last ditch EU negotiations, we are about to seriously damage the economy, security, policing, arts, and scientific research of the United Kingdom for an abstract noun. It may be because we long to regain the lonely heroism after Dunkirk of eighty years ago. Or we’ve lost sight of what the future will look like for our children and grandchildren. Or it may simply be that Boris Johnson, looking over his shoulder at his extremist back benches, thinks he has no choice if he is to continue as Prime Minister for a few more months.
Endless repetition of ‘sovereignty’ by government ministers, presented as an inviolable principle to explain why they have failed to engage successfully in the normal give-and-take of negotiations, is an aspect of ‘truth decay’. The growth of interdependence globally, and the success of regional economic markets, of which the European Single Market is a good example, has been the product of sovereign states pooling sovereignty for the Common Good. The question is not a binary choice sovereignty or loss of sovereignty, control or loss of control, but how much sovereignty it is prudent to pool.
The remaining issues blocking a deal with the EU are not huge matters of principle. According to Dominic Raab they are: ‘the most basic democratic principles’. Nor are we “the only country in the world as an independent coastal state without control of our fisheries”, as he claims. Malta will be surprised to learn it is not an independent coastal state. We seek continued tariff free access to the Single Market and that requires accepting its rules. The fisheries disagreement is about negotiable quotas and access to the vast European culinary market for fish caught in UK waters. We can’t be a rule-taker on aspects of common standards, interventionist state aid and subsidies we are told. Why not? The EU rules contain several major categories of exemptions such as for environmental aid already. And we presumably believe in regulations to ensure that markets function efficiently. That’s the level playing field. Or do we want to model ourselves on China? And finally there is the question of what legal authority will decide market disputes now we have left the EU. Sounds an important problem but we already benefit from the conventions, rules and rulings of a number of different supranational courts and bodies such as the UN and NATO, and most notably the European Court of Human Rights - which underpins human rights culture vital for democracy - established by the 47 members of the European Council ( not an EU body). And no deal makes us a rule-taker from the WTO. Why are we behaving as if the EU is asking us to abolish the monarchy before we can have access to the Single Market?
Our increasingly fragile unity as a four-nation country is now in jeopardy. Some 300 years ago in dire economic circumstances Scotland pooled many aspects of its sovereignty with England. The 1998 Scotland Act returned many elements. It turns out that within Britain our government recognises that aspects of national sovereignty are negotiable. As Nicola Sturgeon tweeted on 12 May 2014 in the run-up to the first Independence referendum: “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened". Hard to believe its 15 years since Winnie Ewing said this”. The intention to ‘reconvene’ a Scottish nation state has hardened.
Does the Westminster government fully understand how BREXIT has reinforced the SNP’s position on sovereignty, or more precisely independence, and made the position of Westminster’s opposition to a second referendum increasingly difficult to sustain? If the United Kingdom by democratic vote can decide that it no longer wishes to pool some of its sovereignty with a larger political entity, the EU, what grounds does it have for denying Scotland the same opportunity to review its historical decision to pool most of its national sovereignty with the United Kingdom. Yes, it was a long time ago. And yes its loss of self-determination was much greater. But if we are in the land of inviolable principles it’s the same principle. The profoundest irony is that the Scottish decision in any future referendum will be much influenced by its wish to renew its pooled sovereignty with European states, overruled by the total UK vote of 2016.
All eyes have rightly been on Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement. They will shortly be turning to a growing conflict with Scotland. Is the future of our children and grandchildren really being decided by three score and ten Tory members of Parliament? The right-wing of the Conservative Party has conducted a ruthless campaign holding every Tory Government to ransom for decades. Not the moan of a so-called ‘Remoaner’, merely a simple question: “who is going to take back control from them?
See The Article 12/12/20
After Trump, the natural hope is that America’s second Catholic Presidency may attract some of the Camelot talent of Kennedy’s first. That looks as imaginary as the Arthurian legend. Jo Biden will be surrounded by bright, successful lawyers like Anthony Blinken, an experienced diplomat in the role of new US Secretary of State. Only in television dramas are lawyers noted for thinking outside the box.
Kamala Harris as Vice-President also brings a sharp legal mind to the White House and Linda Thomas Greenfield, an African-American from Louisiana, brings her considerable diplomatic experience in Africa to the role of ambassador to the United Nations. With Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-American, as head of Homeland Security, retired- General Lloyd Austin as first black Secretary of Defence at the Pentagon, John Kerry dealing with Climate Change, and Janet Yellen (Polish Jewish) as treasury secretary, Biden has been awarded an alpha plus for diversity.
Not merited though if this diversity is cosmetic or an end in itself. Nasrine Malik in The Guardian (7 December) makes the point. “When people are hired to make a government ‘look’ a certain way, by governing parties with conservative politics it’s usually a way of making changes so everything stays the same – or gets worse”. How probable is it that some sharp black minds in the Biden Cabinet will link up with Black Lives Matter to initiate deep systemic change in US policing? I wouldn’t bet on it given Republican manipulation of law and order issues.
But the value of diversity is not the only message from Biden’s appointments. The other is that fellow Americans are in safe, predictable, experienced hands, the damage and social wounds visited on the homeland by Trump will be repaired and healed, the trajectory of domestic and foreign policy pursued by Obama will be resumed. America’s time of shame has passed. And all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
Well not quite. Both Anthony Blinken and Kamala Harris supported the invasion of Iraq. Neither is on the radical wing of the Democratic Party. No big thinker such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. - who opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 - will be sitting in the Oval Office. Not that anyone heeded Schlesinger at the time. President Kennedy authorised a CIA plot to overthrow Castro with a small rag-tag Cuban exile force which was shot up, mopped up and defeated. We can be confident that Jo Biden will treat US enemies more rationally than Trump and try to get the nuclear deal with Iran, reneged on by the USA, back up and running. That’s hardly radical. He won’t risk easing the damaging sanctions that are crippling Iran and playing into the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It will be back to traditional US Middle East policy.
For there to be more substantial change, the Democrats will require two terms in office. The first to restore the status quo ante of 2016. The second to reach forwards with vision to 2028. The USA has got rid of Trump. It has not got rid of the causes of Trump.
What is the underlying problem, usually dubbed populism, which the USA has experienced in its direst form? Deep seated inequality, ‘truth decay’ and easily manipulated citizens, fears caused by globalisation, a flawed political culture? We are encountering the same phenomena in the UK where thankfully there aren’t more guns than people, nor a Republican Party demonstrating a prodigious level of cynicism and irresponsibility - though some might fear the right wing of the Conservative Party is fast heading that way.
In a period of overlapping crises business as usual is folly. Crises call for a prophetic pragmatism described in Michael J. Brown’s Hope & Scorn: Eggheads, Experts & Elites in American Politics. Cornel West, the philosopher, American activist, Southern Baptist, black intellectual, used the term in 1989 for an intellectual leader, acting as a ‘critical organic catalyst’ in his community. Anyone called an intellectual instantly falls into the popular category of patronising elites. In the UK as in the USA, there is a perennial tension between academics, experts, Booker Prize winners, public intellectuals imagining different worlds, and the premise on which democracy rests: the people - who should have ‘voice’ - as the source of political authority. When the tension becomes acute and a divisive populism degrades public discourse – Trump at one point bizarrely described the American people as the ‘super-elite’ – anti-intellectualism becomes the common sense of the day, a mark of popular authenticity. The trouble is someone has to think outside the box when the box is increasingly liable to flooding, forest fires, tornadoes, demagogues, religious extremism and malign viruses.
The influential Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci - who took the time to talk to Lancia and Fiat workers in Turin where he studied - introduced the concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ (Prison Notebooks 1926-1937). Such a person as part of an organisation of the people, for example trades unions and women’s organisations, was able to overcome the detached intellectual’s democratic deficit, to guide and represent workers, opening up new horizons. Brazil’s Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, for example, advocated adult education through literacy, drawing out the knowledge that came from poor people’s own experience of oppression, allowing them to decide for themselves what action to take.
But in the UK our days of ‘worker education’ are past. Our popular mass media don’t help and haven’t helped. I remember during the apartheid era taking a group of black South African trades unionists up to the Liverpool docks to meet dockworkers. You could spot those who read the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star), they knew a lot about what was going on, asked insightful questions, while those who read ‘The Sun’ knew almost nothing, hung back and looked sheepish. The Press hasn’t changed much. But today’s social media creates many more silos and walled gardens of the soul while the Mail and the Sun still cultivate resentment. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and Extinction Rebellion have rejected ‘elitist’ leadership structures and rely on social media or ‘assembly spaces’ for generating dialogue, ideas and a fresh view of history. No Martin Luther Kings or Cornel Wests here yet.
Where then should we seek Britain’s organic intellectuals? If the USA is anything to go by, in the Churches, particularly amongst theologians who are women and in the black community. In Latin America the liberation theologians took that role and the Argentinian Pope Francis carried their option for the poor, and popular piety, with him to Rome. In UK, Evangelicals such as Reverend Joel Edwards, director-general of the Evangelical Alliance from 1997-2009, led the way into engagement with key social and geo-political issues. David Lammy, now a forthright Labour Shadow Minister for Justice, carried his formation in the Anglican Church into politics. In the future the black Pentecostal Churches, now so distant from secular culture, may produce some surprises. When it comes to thinking outside the box, black lives matter but so do black minds.
See TheArticle 08/12/20
We are running out of time and out of clichés: level playing field, cliff-edge, car crash, last chance saloon. Boris Johnson has less than a month to choose between possible outcomes of the BREXIT negotiations: No-Deal or Bad Deal presented as a triumph of British bull-dog spirit.
There is no point in deploring political leaders’ conflation of national interest and Party interest at times like these - though they are clearly different. But in weighing up the two interests, assuming he considers interests other than his own, the Prime Minister will be thinking about how he can keep his job. Despite variations in estimates of our GDP loss from BREXIT, he will know the government figures: a further 7.6% decline in our GDP over the next fifteen years in the event of No-Deal or in the event of some sort of ‘fair trade deal’ a 4.9% decline. This is on top of the shorter term, and shocking, projections of a plunge in GDP, and precipitous growth in unemployment, caused by the pandemic.
Some kind of settlement is on the cards. Johnson may well throw enough of ‘our’ fish into EU nets for the French fishermen. There would seem to be enough wriggle-room with existing EU exemptions to allow state aid to parts of the economy. Though Conservative ideology has always shunned such interventions. Johnson will blather about regaining national sovereignty to obscure the lose-lose reality of his deal. He will hope to blame any subsequent economic collapse on the pandemic. His back-benches who want at all costs to curtail economic damage caused by lock-downs have promoted significantly greater damage than the pandemic through hard-line BREXIT lobbying. No Deal means rolling economic decline continuing until the next election, with Johnson’s chances of survival less than Channel cod.
It will be bad enough with an agreed apology for a deal on the table. In addition to economic disaster and burgeoning domestic poverty the UK will have absolutely no say in the workings of the Single Market, the market which geography determines is our principal, largest and most lucrative trading partner. And without the heft of EU membership Britain will be weakened in far more than its economic power.
Would understanding how we got to this position, the history of UK-EU relations, make this act of self-harm less painful and depressing? Not really. But it seems an appropriate moment to look back.
Sir Stephen Wall’s Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to BREXIT gives the reader the intellectual pleasure of good readable prose, unparalleled expertise, and an historian’s gift for narrative. Wall worked on UK-EU relations in a variety of ways with successive Prime Ministers and was in near constant negotiations with the EU as a civil servant for 35 years. He offers telling glimpses behind the curtains of high office, and a balanced, subtle analysis of how governments and negotiations actually work.
Britain was always the odd one out in Europe. We misjudged the importance of the European Economic Community in its early days and it took us a – lost – decade fighting de Gaulle to get in. And when we were in we contrived to be only half in. There was the Commonwealth to consider. New Zealand butter did not grease the wheels of British membership. We rightly thought the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy which swallowed 90% of the EU budget and benefited mainly France was crazy. Ted Heath was our first true Europhile. But then there was our ‘special relationship’ with the USA which Margaret Thatcher notably enhanced, while infuriating the EU Commission with her strident demands for the return of ‘our money’, the budget rebate. Tony Blair, much appreciated in Brussels before the Iraq war, imagined himself as ‘the bridge’ between the EU and the USA, but to all intents and purposes, traffic across the bridge was one way piling up in the Berlayment Building in Brussels, the EU headquarters.
But behind such policy questions lay the fundamental bone of contention, three words that would never go away: ‘ever closer union’. Britain promoted a liberal trading order within a Single/Common Market and consistently pushed its vision of a EEC/EU as an inter-governmental organisation governed by the deliberations of the State leaders within the EU Council. Our commitment to enlargement by admission of newly freed eastern European countries was aimed at supporting their democratisation and the development of a human rights culture. But enlargement also made a federal EU more difficult to imagine and create.
Nonetheless, Britain reluctantly joined in, or was drawn into, the supranational structures as they developed, the EU Commission and EU Parliament. When Blair was prevented from joining the Eurozone by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the dye of British exceptionalism was cast. Britain with its accumulated opt-outs could not lead the EU, or be ‘at its heart’ as it said it wished. Nor had it ever really been able to break the bond between France and Germany to become member of a leadership triumvirate. Hostility to ‘ever closer union’ was the perennial stumbling block.
EU Enlargement came back to savage the UK. Blair’s imprudent acceptance of unrestricted numbers of eastern European EU migrants – they were an overall plus for the economy – alienated those who resented what they saw as interlopers taking their jobs and housing. So UKIP was able to sew the ‘immigrant problem’ into existing hostility to the EU. Antipathy to concepts of shared sovereignty grew into outright rejection of EU membership fed by the Murdoch Press. Wall makes the case that before the referendum vote Cameron brought back a better package of concessions from the EU Commission than the British public were allowed by the Murdoch Press to consider.
Throughout the 2016 referendum ‘Take back control’ and ‘Project Fear’ trounced REMAIN’s repeated warnings about the economic dangers of BREXIT. Clever half-truths, sometimes flagrant lies about the alleged financial deficit that we accrued from EU membership, plus risible threats of massive Turkish immigration did the rest. Reluctant European charts these choppy waters with insight and skill.
We never got to hear about the many positive EU achievements and developments, several led by the UK. Nor the social, scientific, artistic and security benefits of membership. Though, of course, some like the Social Chapter – from which Major got an opt-out - with its advancement of workers’ rights, was not necessarily seen as positive.
Negativity prevailed though the latest polling confirms public opinion has swung away from BREXIT since 2016. What has not changed is the perennial uncertainty. But we are where we are and stuck with the cliché “perfect storm”. Or as Isaiah once put it “our sins blew us away like the wind”.
See TheArticle 02/12/20