In 2008, the world’s financial and banking systems, vividly portrayed in the 2015 movie The Big Short, narrowly avoided destroying the global economy. Gordon Brown, our then Prime Minister, assured his place in history by leading a rescue operation. Conservatism under David Cameron was drawn into an ideological reset that would never work. His Big Society required and expected the little platoons – different voluntary associations, ‘families, individuals, charities and communities’ – incidentally not those Edmund Burke meant - to ‘come together to solve problems’. At the same time drastic austerity measures were creating new socio-economic problems and intensifying inequality. Big crises, not surprisingly, require big governments.
The Big Society, and a corresponding commitment to the local, were intended by Cameron to be a defining antidote to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing’ as society while maintaining a belief in the Small State. In practice, the 2011 Localism Act proved to be dysfunctional and incoherent. It gave Local Authorities and local political leaders minimal financial flexibility and control, and therefore minimum room for manoeuvre. By default, the little platoons were drawn into the space opened up by declining public services.
Fast forward to the current global crisis and we again find the little platoons once more battling with the consequences of government policies. The BBC programme More or Less found that it is true that there are more food-banks than McDonalds in Britain, over 2,000, double the number of McDonalds. Many more according to the Anglican Church taking the figure of those they support of nearly 8,000. For some, led by the campaigning Trussell Trust that supports 1,200 centres, the need for food-banks is a national scandal, to others simply a charitable opportunity for active volunteering, to those in need a last resort.
Most Catholic churchgoers will have been given the details of their nearest local food-bank to support, what work they do, information about collection days and what to donate. Few will have heard from their bishops any questioning of how and why an economically developed and wealthy Western European country has thousands of its citizens too poor to buy sufficient food for their families even if they are in work.
Huge sums of money were spent shoring up the British economy during the pandemic, much of it wasted in buying over-priced goods and services or lost by downright fraud. We have ended up with not a small State but with a big State reluctantly addressing problems so pressing it cannot avoid them. Johnson’s precipitate lifting of all COVID regulations signals his sympathy with the small-State faction of Conservative parliamentarians whose support he badly needs.
In contrast to the subdued reaction to food-banks, yet other secular little platoons and faith communities are often openly in conflict with government about national policy towards refugees and migrants. “Welcome, protect, promote, and integrate.” Pope Francis’ four points of guidance go unheeded by the Home Office. But as Angela Merkel discovered, admitting over a million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq between 2015 and 2017, carries significant political penalties. The UK government dealing, or not dealing, with numbers of asylum seekers and migrants that would barely be noticed in Lebanon or Turkey, continues to treat their arrival as a threatening crisis… and to earn an electoral reward.
The past is another country, and after BREXIT so is Europe. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe was awash with displaced people and refugees. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through which came the UN Refugee Convention, which today has 149 State signatories, was set up on 14 December 1950. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), began work in 1951. Initially both were Europe focussed and grew into large global bodies. The British Refugee Council emerged from organisations set up in the UK at the same time. Lord - Alf - Dubs, its director from 1988-1995, who came to Britain from Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport which rescued 10,000 mostly Jewish child refugees from the Nazis between 1938-1940, is a living link with this past.
But, accompanying the growth of the big refugee agencies and before them, what is truly remarkable is the plethora of small local organisations and innovative individuals helping refugees. Not least the contribution of Christians.
Two examples can stand for thousands: The Amazing Story of Alexander Glasberg (Brown Dog Books), written by his great-nephew Nick Lampert, tells one such story. When the UNHCR and IOM were just getting started, Glasberg was already setting up homes in France for asylum seekers, the elderly and disabled. His Paris-based Centre d’orientation sociale des étrangers (Centre for Social Integration of foreigners) came out of his work in the Second World War with both Jewish, Catholic and secular organisations, rescuing and housing Jewish, Polish, Spanish Republican, and anti-Nazi German refugees he had succeeded in getting out of Vichy internment camps.
Glasberg, alias Father Elie, stares out from the book cover, posed for the camera with beret and soutane, round pebble-lens spectacles, cigarette in hand. Fathe Elie turns out to be a Zionist Russian-speaking Jewish Ukrainian, fluent in several languages, a great fixer, social pioneer and, for the last years of the war an active member of the French resistance sought by the Gestapo, hence his cover name. He had converted to Catholicism before the war, was seminary trained, ordained as a priest and dedicated his life to the care of vulnerable refugees. The Amazing Story is biography as a charming textual collage of different verbatim sources including every colleague of Glasberg plus their photograph, and the names of many he helped. Many voices, not just the biographer’s, tell his story.
At the other end of the scale, some of the Church’s mainstream organisations have had a major impact on refugees’ welfare. Fast forward again to 1978-1979 as the Vietnamese boat people come into the headlines. The Superior-General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, asks his local Jesuit leaders to respond to the crisis. A year later he commissions a study of the growing refugee crisis in Africa and sets up the Jesuit Refugee Service. Today it operates from Rome with ten regional offices serving more than 800,000 people in over 50 countries providing everything from advocacy to health-care and education for refugee children.
Social media have opened up new opportunities for organisations and networks to form, find members and expand organisationally. Not all of them are benign. We are developing some ugly associations along the lines of those leading the insurrection in the US Capitol on 6 January 2020, active citizens as threat.
Glasberg’s story is of a man of courage who, both during Nazi occupation and after, worked with the grain of French majority public opinion. For the little platoons and larger organisations supporting today’s asylum seekers and migrants in the UK, it is a different matter.
See TheArticle 14/02.2022