Posted in politics

A humanitarian military response???

Part of yesterday’s motion on Syria proposed that the House of Commons:

Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;

The house did not agree. The French have a good word for what happened to the Prime Minister – un camouflet. Originally it meant ‘a mine so charged and placed that its detonation will destroy enemy mining tunnels’ – and now figuratively, an unsuspected explosion destroying someone’s plans. What a perfect picture of that surprising vote.

But better an explosion under the government’s plans than yet another attempt to bring peace by violence. The contradiction is in the section of the motion I quoted. To define death as destruction as any sort of humanitarian response is to push language beyond its limit. It could be argued as just (if you believe in just wars), or politically expedient – but to suggest that there are humanitarian missile attacks is a perversion of the word.

The Syrian tragedy is an appalling on-going disaster, but the natural desire to ‘do something about it’ should be channelled into more genuinely humanitarian responses – like, dare I say it, a more generous response to those who come to us as refugees.

Posted in politics

The fog of war, and of politics

I’ve been trying to work out exactly what it was that made the Prime Minister decide this was the time to make such a crucial move on Europe. So far, he’s been cheered to the rafters by those who hate the EU anyway – and equally denounced by those (few) who think Britain’s future is fully within it. But what exactly was it that he was protecting? What interests me most about all this is that no-one much seems to care. The best reporting, maybe not surprisingly, was in the Financial Times … (sorry, you’ll have to register with them to follow the links)

And even then it appeared that the confusion was shared, even by the parties to the negotiation. The Financial Times‘ reporters put it like this:

“Nobody understood what Cameron wanted – nobody,” said one diplomat from a central European country that might be considered a natural ally of the UK. “We were talking about big things, saving the euro, and he was asking for peanuts. It was not the time or place.”

Eventually I did find a list of the issues at the bottom of this article (the BBC’s summary is here). They might be things that bother those working in the City, but I’m not all clear why the whole politics of the UK is centred around the levels of capital that banks are forced to hold, or why we are quite so upset about the structure of the European financial regulators that we helped to create. Since no-one who has the power seems interested enough to ask the Prime Minister, we may never find out.
So the debate continues at the level of general appeals to that anti-EU mood which is pretty widespread. Even then, it depends how you put it: if a pollster rang you up tomorrow and said ‘Should the UK jettison influence in Europe in order to help the bankers?’ – what would you say? Maybe a different answer than if the question was ‘Should the Prime Minister defend essential UK interests against interference from Brussels?’ And which would be the more accurate question to ask? That’s what I’d really like to know.
Posted in politics

An (Alternative) Autumn Statement

(with apologies for my long absence from the blogosphere) (and also to international readers – this is very UK focused)

Who’d be Chancellor of the Exchequer right now? I may be in a minority, but I do find myself empathising with the several dilemmas George Osborne faces. As the government tries to steer a course through the competing priorities of the two parties, the various electoral promises and the future vote calculations, it can’t be fun trying to work out where to dole out the pain.

Six lean years face us in the UK (at least). Well, that’s one less than the famine in Egypt which Joseph predicted, though I wouldn’t bet against it getting extended. The problem is that we didn’t have a Joseph turning up at the beginning of the fat years now passed, telling us what was going to happen. Or at least, not one that anyone listened to. So we didn’t store up our surplus; instead, we enjoyed it. And more too.

It’s easy (or at least easier) to act ethically when things are going well. It’s times like we’re living through now that really test. When there isn’t much to go round, real core values are exposed by the retreating tide. Money and mouth are in the same place, because there’s no alternative.

So – don’t be a low paid public sector worker, seems to be the clearest message. Two year’ pay freeze already, increases of 1% for the next two years, way below inflation, plus the changes to pensions, plus multiple reductions to tax credits for low paid workers and for children. Oh, and national pay bargaining goes over the next year or two as well.

In a democratic society, there are two clear tests which a government must pass if it is to demonstrate that it is acting justly. The temptation of any system of power is to play the system to increase your power, rather than to use your power for the benefit of the members of the system. In a democracy, you do that by pandering to prejudice, and rewarding your supporters. So the tests are these:

  • Are our policies equally just towards those people no-one cares about much?
  • Are our policies equally just towards those people who still won’t vote for us?

No-one’s expecting much joy from the Chancellor at the moment, but we can still demand justice. I’m sure the coalition would argue that that’s what we’re getting. But if 100,000 more children are going to fall into poverty over the next few years because of the cuts, I’d like to see more evidence of where there’s a vision of social justice lying behind them.

Posted in politics

Made in Britain – what next?

Well, it's what we're good at making.
Just watching Evan Davis’s Made in Britain. Davis visits some of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing successes; he tries to correct the self-flagellation we tend to adopt when talking about our economy. And, yes, I can see his point about the way industry moves on, and the way in which the British economy has kept on moving into the high value areas: design and selling both make loads more money than running the factories. And it is nice to see a programme which isn’t completely downbeat about Britain – but … living in Hackney, it’s all too obvious that the successes he pulls out share one key factor – they don’t need so many people. Again and again, manufacturers wander around their factories pointing out that a process which used to need a small army can now be handled by one person.

Here in Hackney, lots of people are making a good living out of the new economy. Lots more are making no living at all. Britain is making more money, but as today’s numbers tell us, right now average take-home pay is on its way down, not up. My last post suggested that a Christian view of economic life, whatever else it might contain, had to start from looking at how well or how badly the poorest in society are treated. Reading today the Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, I was glad to find I was in reputable company. In the introduction to the second edition he says: ‘If the Bible has an economic preoccupation, it is with the plight of the poorest people’. The globalised economy that Evan Davis describes might not have been a disaster for GB plc, but it has been bad news for many of its now-unnecessary inhabitants.

And I wondered – what next? Right now, service industries do what the factories used to: provide unsatisfying low-paid jobs for a vast number of people. But that won’t last for ever. It was once agriculture, then it was manufacturing, now it’s Starbucks and call centres. If the pattern continues, those jobs too will be replaced – probably not by factories in Shanghai, but through increasing automation. I’m an example myself. I scarcely ever talk to anyone at my bank: I can do it all more easily online.

The what does everyone do? The money will continue to be made, even more of it, but it will flow into even fewer hands. And given the globalised nature of finance and power, it’s unlikely to become easier for governments, even if they want to, to reclaim that income for the poor by taxation. So what next? The other book I’m reading is Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right. Many things I still don’t buy into, but Marx’s vision of human flourishing beyond capitalism is right on the button:

“production” in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savouring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, making a speech, engaging in politics, organising a birthday party for one’s children. It has no muscular, macho implications. When Marx speaks of production as the essence of humanity, he does not mean that the essence of humanity is packing sausages. Labour as we know it is an alienated form of what he calls “praxis”—an ancient Greek word meaning the kind of free, self-realising activity by which we transform the world.

Maybe we will be finally forced to look for something else, which isn’t about the continued increase of wealth – and start to think about what is the point of having it. Maybe we won’t have any choice but to question the ‘latest phase of the Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress’ (Bauckham’s description of globalisation as an ideology). But there are always choices. Dystopia or utopia? I think it’ll be one or the other – the middle way is disappearing ahead of us.

Posted in politics

‘The wages of sin is death’ – finding a life-work balance

Sin doesn’t pay well, but that doesn’t stop us. Setting aside when it’s just our weakness or badness, I’m also becoming more and more aware of the ways we’re caught up in sinful structures. I was talking today to someone who works in government. By definition, as a civil servant she is dedicated to enabling the lawful government fulfil its programme. You can’t get much more blameless than that. But she was telling me that the work she’s doing feels more and more shabby; as if there was no more pretence at a moral dimension to politics except for the purposes of political rhetoric.

We need prophets – to help us find a new balance, a way of living that isn’t taking the wages of sin. We need a new language – a way of talking about society which isn’t caught in the trap of assuming that markets are automatically good, or at worst neutral. You;d have thought we’d have worked that out after 2008, but I don’t think we have. There is no alternative because we haven’t found another way of thinking about how our society should operate.

We need prophets to point out to us the things we would otherwise miss, the ways in which we are still enmeshed in sin. Of course, you then have to know how to tell the true prophet from the false.  Terry Eagleton suggests (in a book entitled, incidentally, Why Marx was Right):

The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, … denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we might well have no future at all.

The prophets of our time are many and various – so many voices clamouring for attention. While I’m not completely convinced by Terry Eagleton’s attempt to rehabilitate Marx, I have become increasingly convinced that Christians should be thinking more critically and creatively about the basic ethical principles which should underlie any society of which we’re happy to be part.

It’s time for us to challenge – to challenge what? In the nineteenth century it was pretty obvious who was making the money, and who was suffering. Now it’s much more international, much more difficult to tie down. Look at Greece: the country has borrowed beyond its means, and now the citizens are being told to pay it back: but as they are saying very loudly, the ordinary people of Greece don’t feel as if they were the ones to benefit from the debts run up in their name.

We don’t need to know all the answers in order to speak prophetically; it’s enough to know that a way of running society which makes the poorest into the victims, which glorifies riches and power, which says there is no alternative to pleasing the financial markets even at the cost of abandoning the poorest and most marginalised: that’s not a Christian way of running a country. There is sin, and there is righteousness, in economics and politics as well as everything else. Economics is too complicated, too boring, too difficult for us to pay attention to. Politics is entertaining, and makes sure it stays that way at a certain knockabout level, but rarely does political debate engage with the deep (= complicated = boring) issues facing us.

Will the Big Society provide a framework for thinking differently? I’m sure that it’s not intended to lead to revolutionary ferment, at least in David Cameron’s mind, but it may be possible to use it that way nevertheless.

Posted in politics

It’s not about Nick Clegg! #Yes2AV for real politics (vote no for more ‘game show politics’)

FPTP: good for television, bad for people.

  • Designed to create a two party system and minimise the scope for representing the true variety of political opinions in the country.
  • Marginalises all minor parties – deliberately under-representing their voters so as to create the majority system.
  • Party leaders become quasi-presidential; party discipline quashes real discussion.
  • Creates climate in which compromise is failure and changing your mind is fatal.

AV: a step towards politics for real people

  • Politics of building consensus among a variety of viewpoints (just like the country as a whole).
  • Representation in Parliament of more diverse perspectives (just like the country as a whole).
  • Politicians who are better at negotiating and less keen on posturing (like the people we’d want to have as our managers).
  • Political recognition that running a country is not like a game show – this is real life, our lives.
Posted in Books, politics

Ill fares the Land, indeed

I’m becoming a bit of a Tony Judt junkie. After The Memory Chalet and Postwar, my eye was inevitably drawn towards Ill fares the Land: and though Postwar was a great book, this is the really timely one. It’s that rare thing, a concentrated outburst of intelligent anger – a true polemic. Judt doesn’t waste emotional energy in trashing his enemies, but rather challenges his friends to get off our collective backsides and do something. No doubt the fact that he was writing after his terminal diagnosis has something to do with it; without ever making the point crassly explicit, he’s saying ‘I won’t be around to do this – but it has to be done’.

It does have to be done – from every direction the call seems to come for a new way of doing politics which creates a new set of possibilities, new disagreements. We’ve had our fling with neo-liberalism, but as yet we don’t know what else to do, how else to look to run our societies. Tony Judt reminds us that the last time people thought the globalisation of trade had carried us beyond nationalism, the First World War was only a few years away. We have real work to do if the latest re-configuration of world power is not to create war – real shooting war – and not just in nasty dusty places a long way away. When people feel threatened, they retreat to where they feel safe, and get violent when that security feels threatened.

The way forward isn’t exactly the way back. The alternative to free market capitalism isn’t state socialism. Remember communitarianism? Tony Blair was pretty keen on it for a while: maybe it was his version of David Cameron’s Big Society – a genuine political idea. Communitarianism soon disappeared under the pressures of day to day politics, and possibly the attractions of the cash cow that the City of London was during the Blair years. Or maybe it was the cynicism that always looks for a base motive in any apparently high ideal – as particularly exhibited by the British press. As with so many things, the media can bring about their own prophecies of doom, gradually wearing down anything which tries to shift the terms of debate away from their preferred territory of deceit and scandal.

We need to change, to find a way of bringing values back into political debate as areas for argument and aspiration. But how do you rebuild trust? Only a common basis of values which it is assumed that all the parties hold, even while disagreeing about much else. Now that would be a really interesting exercise – to get leaders together from all parties and walks of life to try to define genuinely commonly held values. I wonder how many there would be?