March 2018


This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Remember this? “Humpty Dumpty to Alice in ‘Through the Looking Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ he said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” It’s no wonder Humpty ended up having a great fall.

The point of language is to allow for a common comprehension – mutual understanding between different parties. If we all, individually, get to choose what meaning we attribute to particular words, it is not only communication and comprehension that break down – so do relationship and society. Language matters.

Now, the reason that quote comes so readily to mind is that we now seem to live in a world in which comment is king, perception is everything, and meaning has become subject to individual whim. In his response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Donald Trump said this: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Set alleged culpability aside for a moment and what is noticeable here is this novel understanding of what facts are. A fact is a fact, even if, as Mark Twain wryly observed: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”. What can it mean to “agree with the facts”? To disagree with facts is deliberately to choose to ignore reality – and that would prioritise ideological prejudice over reality. As Aldous Huxley put it: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Yes, facts have to be interpreted, but that’s a different question.

Facing reality, however inconvenient, is essential to honest living and the functioning of a reasonable society. The Old Testament prophets told the truth about the danger of short-termist thinking when establishing military and political alliances – and were roundly ignored until their people went into some miserable exile. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but kept talking about carrying crosses and the dangers of gaining the world and losing your soul. I don’t understand how people who think the earth is flat or that a theory of evolution is some satanic conspiracy manage to integrate all this.

There is no alternative but to live in the real world and face the challenges that throws up. Religious faith that has to be kept in some sealed compartment lest reality intrude is, in my view, not a faith worth having. If God can’t cope with the real world as we know and experience it, then what is the point?

As Christians now approach Holy Week we need no reminding about harsh reality. Fantasies of political liberation will soon bleed into the dust beneath a cross. And the disciples will find their world turned upside down as they are confronted by the power of death – an inescapable fact of life, but one which will prove not to have the final word.

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This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I was getting off a bus in London late last night when a bloke standing outside a shop asked me the time. I told him. And he said: “That’s funny. I’ve been asking the same question all day and I keep getting different answers.”

I walked on quickly.

But, it did scratch away at the back of my head. It’s simple, really, isn’t it? The answer you get depends on the question you ask. Put the right answer to the wrong question and you get a mess.

I’ve had to live with this for years. Christians often get caricatured as naive people living in alternative universes. As a TV presenter commented just this week in response to an accusation of religious stupidity: “Of course I believe in dinosaurs. I am a Christian, not a Creationist.”

Well, both the Christian and the Creationist have to live in the real world.
Faith is not the same as fantasy. Fantasy avoids reality; faith inhabits the real world in all its complexity.

For example, the problem many people have with the book of Genesis and the creation stories is that they ask of it the wrong question. The early chapters of Genesis don’t pretend to ask the question “How did the universe come to be? – in terms of mechanics. Rather, the Hebrew poetry sets up really interesting questions about why life is as it is – why human beings get so messed up and, consequently, mess the world up. Now that’s a question of how to read, not a problem between science and religion.

And for me it’s a much more interesting question. Why am I the way I am? Why is the world the way it is? What is it at the heart of our humanity that is capable of cosmic beauty and generosity on the one hand and utterly corrupt cruelty on the other?

As Billy Ocean didn’t say: “When the going gets tough the tough write poetry.” But the job of the poet or the songwriter is to go beyond facts and play around with the ‘whys’ of life. As the Psalmist famously put it: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, who are we that you are mindful of us?”

Good question.

It is obvious why Russia is being blamed for arranging the apparent attack on former double agent (Russian military intelligence office and MI5 spy) – there is a phenomenological association with the case of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006. But, correlations do not make explanations, nor do they imply necessary cause.

As I and others observed in the House of Lords this afternoon, speculation prior to proof is a dangerous thing. Although we seem to be getting increasingly blasé about it, judgement by headline is not a wise way of ensuring that justice ultimately is done.

One or two Russia experts have been urging caution about rushing to judgement. My reason is simple, possibly naive: what does Russia have to gain from this?

  • If revenge for Skripal’s treachery against Russia, why wait until now – he was released and deported to the UK in 2010?
  • If deterrence, why not do it sooner – and why pardon him before his spy-swap?
  • If to stop the “selling” of secrets, that boat sailed many years ago and there will be nothing useful left that hasn’t already been told.

I scanned Russian media and social media this afternoon (briefly) and they have reported the Foreign Secretary’s answers to the Urgent Question in the House of Commons earlier today. However, his typically careless remarks about England possibly withdrawing from the World Cup in Russia this coming summer (which – yet again – had to be clarified by officials later) provided just the distraction from the main matter: possible Russian complicity in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

A couple of very eminent and experienced former diplomats said to me after the debate in the Lords that Putin can gain from this insofar as it boosts his strong-man image in Russia ahead of the elections. He is a shoe-in, but fears a low turnout and the questions of legitimacy that this would raise domestically.

The problem with this line is that it is not clear that Putin would actually gain anything from having a retired and harmless ex-spy bumped off in England. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have established for his domestic audience that he is a strong leader willing and able to defy the aggressive and victimising West. His sanctions-weakened economy has not deterred him from increasing defence spending and strengthening the military with new-technology weapons and a motivated armed force.

Of course, I might be missing something here. It is entirely possible that the security services in the UK know stuff they can’t tell the rest of us. There might be a political rationale that currently eludes my limited mind. But, a simple identification of cause and effect is neither helpful nor wise.

At a meeting a couple of months ago with the Russian ambassador to the UK I was a little surprised by the smooth ease with which he alluded to what we would call “extra-judicial assassination” of Russians who had gone to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria. Killing is clearly not something the Russians are squeamish about … if it gets the job done quickly and effectively.

But, even that does not provide a causal link with the plight of Skripal and his daughter. I am not naive about Russian potential for politically sanctioned violence, but it cannot simply be assumed – even if, in the end, it is proven in this case.

In her great book of essays The Givenness of Things Marilynne Robinson makes an observation that struck me:

Whenever there is talk of decline – as in fact there always is – the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? (Fear, p. 125)

This is the question that haunts the Brexit debate – one in which I am involved, but one that has left me disturbed for reasons I have been trying to work out. I alluded to some of these in my speech in the House of Lords during the EU (Withdrawal) Bill debate Second Reading in February 2018. But, five minutes wasn’t long enough to tease out some of the deeper disturbance.

What Robinson points us to is perhaps the most fundamental feature of the whole debate in the UK since we entered the EEC in the first place: the lack of honesty in appraising the enterprise, characterised by language and rhetoric that assumes much but owns up to little. The costs and benefits of EU membership have not been the subject of honest appraisal, but have been turned into selective ideological footballs suitable only for a damned good kicking.

When during the 2016 referendum the red bus promised £350 million coming back to the NHS, what was not explained was what it paid for: easy travel, common nuclear standards, equivalence of qualifications, to name but three. The polarisation stated incontrovertibly that we paid everything and received nothing other than empty bureaucracy and millions of immigrant people we are not supposed to like.

Equally, after forty years of silence in articulating the benefits (as well as costs) of EU membership, so-called ‘Project Fear’ failed to explain honestly some of the challenges and costs of EU membership. Membership of any group always and inevitably brings compromises and costs as well as benefits; but, these became submerged under the partisan polarisations of politics and dramatic rhetoric.

This lack of honesty in the popular sphere is obvious in hindsight, but this does not help us now. Yet, the lack of honesty persists. We seem to be living in a phoney war in an echo chamber, being compelled to jump fully into one camp rather than the other. And the rhetoric continues to pretend that virtue lies comprehensively and only in one camp – usually the one that satisfies my unarticulated and sometimes ill-informed political prejudices. It feels a bit like the sort of divorce proceedings in which the children have to choose between one completely evil and one uncompromisingly virtuous parent.

The Prime Minister’s speech at the Mansion House on Friday 2 March promised to be honest about the UK’s vision for the future post-Brexit. It promised to lay out a vision around which different sides could coalesce and move forward. What it offered was a statement of the obvious (we are not going to get all we want; negotiations are not going to be easy; etc.) and nothing concrete. It was a speech that could have been written a year ago – the cake-consumption metaphor goes back well before even that. Perhaps the reason it has proved so remarkably uncontroversial is simply that it said nothing new and, in stating the obvious, could hardly be disagreed with.

The problem, again, is language. Two things struck me in the speech: (a) we now assume a presidential polity in which the Prime Minister gets away with speaking solely in the first person singular: “I…”, “my vision”, etc. There is no pretence that there is (or can be?) any collective vision or strategy. How did this personalisation come about? One response might be to say that such language allows government ministers to opt out or in as they please (or find it politically convenient); another might be that it distances Parliament from the need for a collective vision. (b) There was plenty of assertion about “what I want”, but little recognition that the power to get it lies not in our own hands, but also in those of our EU partners.

This language has dogged the whole Brexit business from even before the referendum. Mere assertion escaped any need for argument. Facts became “alternative truths”, depending on one’s position. “We will” avoided the complexities of “we might”. Objections to projections were labelled “treacherous” or “scaremongering” – both sidestepping the need to respond to the case itself. Optimism is simply not enough to survive a potentially negative reality; pessimism is inadequate as a tool for creatively and positively shaping a future that might begin from a hard and unwanted place.

One of the points of consensus I have discerned through many conversations in Parliament – with those of all sides, including the convinced, the dubious, the fearful, the excited, the alarmed, and the deeply depressed – is that the government needs now to be honest with ‘The People’, giving substance to what might be gained by Brexit and what will be lost. The cost is no reason in itself to fear the future, but the cost should be reckoned, set out clearly, and understood. If the benefits will outweigh the costs, then let us see them and then walk into this future with our eyes wide open. Equally, those who see only costs must also set out what they can offer if and when what they warn against actually happens.

Any reading of history tells us that the future is shaped by those who choose to shape it, taking seriously those dynamics over which it does and does not have control. If we leave the EU and face an acknowledged weakening of the UK economy (as well as other non-economic deficits), then we shall over time re-align and re-build. But, the crucial point is that this will be more positive and hopeful only if ‘The People’ (in whose interests this is all being done, apparently – although, given their financial security, none of those advocates in government will suffer much discomfort in contrast with the poorer people and communities of our islands) are clear about the costs as well as the benefits.

I can understand an argument that puts economic distress as a worthwhile consequence of a decision that brings wider and deeper and worthwhile human or social benefits. I cannot understand or accept an argument that pretends and obfuscates and obscures reality. The Prime Minister’s speech acknowledged for the first time that the cake cannot simultaneously be both had and eaten (although the cherries remain stubbornly pickable, apparently); it seemed to identify the cake purely with the economy and trade. It was a statement of faith that once again avoided content.

In Marilynne Robinson’s phrase, what and where is the “meaningful standard of change”?