July 2018


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

Television does not do justice to the reality of fire. Nor does what we might call ‘reasonable proximity’.

I once played with my children on a beach in Greece whilst watching aircraft try to extinguish a forest fire on the hills beyond the bay. It was interesting to watch – while we played and swam – and only became more than a spectator event when we later saw pictures of the destruction and learned the names of those who had died in the flames.

In his remarkable ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton uses a phrase that has haunted many imaginations through the centuries. He speaks of ‘darkness visible’ – a term that has been used subsequently to depict severe depression, among other things. I think it speaks powerfully here, too. Fire, as it consumes and rages, often beyond control, sucks the light and oxygen to the extent that the dark emptiness it generates is only visible to those who spectate from beyond.

We don’t know who or what started the fires in Greece. There have been suggestions that they were started deliberately – either out of sheer wanton destructiveness or criminality. But, voices are also being raised in favour of climate-change. Who knows?

Whichever proves to be the right explanation in the end, each brings its own moral culpability. Of course, it’s easier to deal with criminality because we can blame the arsonist and distance ourselves from any responsibility for the destructiveness. Climate change, on the other hand, is harder to duck.

None of this is much comfort to those who have lost property, land or loved ones to these terrible conflagrations. It is interesting that newspapers have been describing the fires as ‘biblical’ without anywhere explaining why that word has been chosen or what it might mean. I assume it refers to certain biblical images of the end of the world – the apocalypse, hell or hades. Fire and brimstone, burning and darkness and dust. Darkness visible.

Yet, perhaps the word ‘biblical’ might actually point us to a different meaning. Even if the Greek fires do not presage the end of the world, they certainly represent the end of a world – someone’s world. Family members lost, homes and communities destroyed, businesses consumed. Yet, biblical warnings of fire and loss are always accompanied by defiant words of hope – language that holds out a future beyond the immediate darkness. What one theologian calls ‘newness after loss’ … so that the last word does not belong to destruction.

This is human experience throughout all time. And compassion for those who suffer is what should burn in the hearts of spectators, shaping the collective will of people and nations who seek to end the suffering and open a future.

Advertisements

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

I know it was a week or two ago, but I am still – somewhat perversely – amused by Donald Trump’s ‘mis-speaking’ in a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Do you remember it. He missed the word ‘not’ off. Easily done, obviously.

The funny thing is that as soon as you hear the … er … wrong statement, it makes your mind search for the real thing.

I remember speaking at a dinner for charitable financiers in London and concluding with the words of Jesus: “It is easier to put a needle through your eye than for a rich man to pass a camel.” Silence was followed by laughter as the mental cogs turned in search of what Jesus had actually said.

Or, do you remember Jeremy Thorpe’s famous judgement on Harold Macmillan’s so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives” when he sacked loads of ministers in order to stay in power: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”?

Or Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ where the people at the back of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount think Jesus said: “Blessed are the cheesemakers”?

I love it. Being so familiar with the real thing means we sometimes don’t listen and catch the power of the words or the idea any more. We just hear “blah blah blah”.

It’s a bit like drawing. My wife is an artist and she once tried to get me to draw a chair. I drew it … and it looked terrible. When I showed it to her she told me to go away and this time draw the spaces around the chair. I did it – still badly – but the chair emerged from the spaces and I got the point.

The point here, of course, is that we become surprised and curious when we see and hear things differently. So, if Jesus didn’t bless the cheesemakers, who did he bless? Isn’t the startling truth that love is seen in the sacrifice of my life for my friends?

I think misspeaking can, if handled right, shine a light on something even more powerful and true. Anyway, didn’t Jesus also say: “Let your yea be nay, and your nay be yea?” Didn’t he?

This is the text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon in the debate on the preparations and negotiations for Brexit. It needs to be read in the context of other speeches. The italicised paragraph was omitted for reasons of time.

My Lords, others noble Lords are addressing details … which leaves me to take a step back to look at culture. At Committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill I spoke about such matters as the corruption of the public discourse – asking that we do not lose sight of the end to which Brexit is supposed to be the means. I tried to pose the existential questions of who we think we are and for whom we are doing what we are doing. However, the debate has coarsened, the ideological divide deepened, and poor use of language worsened.

What I have to say has nothing to with Leave or Remain, but where we are now and what shape we might be in the future.

Weren’t we all embarrassed by the mockery in European media at the UK government’s attempts to translate the White Paper into other languages – German being the most obvious?  Were we not aware that professionally you always translate into your native tongue, not out of it? It seems that not only are we islanders hopeless at learning languages, but we still don’t even see or understand the cost of our hopelessness.

Surely, the first requirement of any negotiation is that the negotiators understand the mindset, culture, language and perceptions of the opposite number – get inside their head, look through their eyes and listen through their ears. If I don’t understand what I, we and the world look like through the eyes of my interlocutor, I can’t begin to negotiate intelligently. This goes well beyond figures, facts and tactics; it goes deeper from the superficial to the emotional and subliminal. It is where we discover what actually moves and shapes the mindset, reactions and behaviours of those with whom we seek to trade. Yet, here we are, unable or unwilling to speak the language of those with whom we think we can reach agreement. We just tell them they have to see everything as we do.

The problem, of course, is that most of those with whom we deal in the EU do speak our language, do get behind the words to the mindset, and, therefore, are in a stronger position from the outset.

I labour this point not in order to grind an axe about the poverty of language learning in the UK – seen as a priority in other countries – but because my earlier concerns about the culture generated by Brexit have deepened. How are ‘the people’ to read a former Foreign Secretary who resigns and immediately and unaccountably earns a fortune from a newspaper column? Or an MP for North East Somerset who moves his business investment interests abroad whilst telling the rest of us that we will experience the benefits of Brexit over the next fifty years (which, by my reckoning, means we still have another ten years or so in which to work on the benefits of EU membership)? Neither of these men will suffer the negative consequences of any form of Brexit. And this is not even a party or partisan matter.

This is a moral issue. In the same way that the US President has normalised lies and relativised truth (‘alternative facts’ and all that stuff, for example), we have descended into a non-rational lobbing of slogans and empty promises and damnations from trench to trench. Honesty and integrity – the essential prerequisites of moral culture are being sacrificed on the altar of mere political or personal pragmatism.

And this is at the core of my concern: the sheer dishonesty of much of the language and rhetoric of the last couple of years. If “the will of the people” matters so much, then shouldn’t the people be told the truth about the range of potential consequences of Brexit? If the government sees that the UK (and the EU) will suffer short- or medium term negativity in order to gain nirvana after a couple of decades or so, shouldn’t they actually say that? Explain that it is worth consigning a generation of young people to a poorer life because we need to take a longer-term view of the national good? If ‘the people’ can be trusted with a vote in a referendum, why can’t they be trusted with the truth rather than being patronised with endless polarising rhetoric?

What happens if the ‘will of the people’ turns out not to be ‘in the national interest’. And who defines these terms? Whose interests have priority? If we are attempting to square an unsquarable circle – whoever is PM -, then this should be admitted – not just lobbed back at the EU for them to resolve when they didn’t ask us to leave.

These are not arcane questions. The Prime Minister has said that we now need to “get on with Brexit”. Which, of course,  begs the question as to what we have been doing thus far. The new Brexit Secretary promises “energy, vigour and pragmatism” … as if these were laudable new ideas. But, they remain meaningless and vacuous if they are not underpinned by a respect for and an intelligent learning of the languages of our interlocutors in the EU.

(If we had been as committed to the EU as France is, and France had voted marginally for a Frexit, do we really think we would be taking seriously the flexing of Gallic muscles or belligerent demands for the best deal in the interests of France over against the integrity of the bloc? I think not.)

My Lords, we can talk about a second referendum, a general election, the change of Prime Minister in a party coup, the ‘taking back of control’ and so on. But, the questions of culture, of language, of dealing with the real world rather than some nostalgic fantasy couched in slogans: these will outlast any deal or no deal. Are we paying attention to who we shall be – not only seen through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of our neighbours, and also in the eye of our children, in the months and years to come?

This debate is not neutral.