politics


Having returned on Thursday evening from Sudan I left agin in the early hours of Saturday for Jena in Germany. This forms the real beginning of my sabbatical leave and gives the opportunity to read, write, think, meet people and, most importantly, gain a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything. Somehow, being outside the UK, looking through a different lens and listening through a different language and culture, helps to make space for (what I think I want to call) newly refracted lines of looking, seeing and reflecting.

I am staying with a friend who is a professor in the Theologische Fakultät at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena. This is where Hegel taught, and where Schiller met Goethe. Martin Luther spent time here, too. And it is the place where I have already come across thinkers I hadn’t encountered before.

I have on the table before me six books by Manfred Josuttis. Six of them are books of sermons, but it is the title of the other one that grabbed me: ‘Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht’ (‘Peter, the Church and Damned Power’). I am about to start reading it – and, yes, I probably should have read it before writing about it – but it was the title that arrested my attention. Jesus promised to build his church on the rock that was Peter, but the rock turned out to be more limestone than granite. Power might be damnable, but it is unavoidable in the real world … and that means in the real church. The question is: how do we handle power and in whose interests is power exercised?

Although it is good to be away from the UK for a time, the UK does not disappear. Nor does Brexit. Nor does the complex interplay of truth, power, victimhood and exploitation. If Brexit is bringing out the worst in us Brits, Germany is facing challenges with the Alternative für Deutschland and similar abuse of truth, fact and reality. Wherever we see this phenomenon – it is tempting just to shorthand it with the word ‘Trumpian’ – danger lies in waiting.

I recognise that this is a tenuous link, but Jesus’s friend Peter had to undergo a dreadful, world-shattering loss of personal illusion and confidence. After his denial of even knowing Jesus (just prior to the crucifixion), Peter watched his illusions of  brave new world bleed real blood into the dirt of Calvary. He had to live through the emptiness of Saturday … only to find himself bewildered by the events of Easter Day. Subsequently, he was compelled to wrestle with the other friends of Jesus, with public authorities and political leaders, and with questions of how to lead and shape a church made up of people like and unlike himself. If he didn’t welcome power, he certainly had to face responsibility, costly choices, personality clashes and hard decisions that were bound to divide as well as unite.

So it is with politics. Power – to be exercised with responsibility and humility in the interests of the common good – is a hard business. Decisions will always disappoint someone. Leadership can be very lonely, even in the best of teams. But, it always exposes the truth about character. Our handling of power displays the reality of our character. If we merely resort to lies, game-playing and manipulation in the service of ideology, then the truth about our character, virtue and motivation will become evident quickly. And this, I suggest, is worrying. For, the evidence shows that I am usually the last person to see what everybody else sees quickly and clearly.

Looking at the news from a distance, and seeing it through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, it is evident that we in Britain cannot see how we are being perceived from outside. The news that Nissan will not be investing further in Sunderland is terrible; but, the executive who is reported to have said privately that no one is going to be investing in Britain because we are now toxic (or words to that effect) has put his/her finger on the true cost of Brexit for the UK. Regardless of whether I want or do not want Brexit, the process and the people who have been prominent in it have shown that we are a people who are limited in our insight, still maintain dreams of empire, cannot face reality, like to hear what we want to hear (regardless of facts), and cannot be trusted to be competence. If counterparts in EU countries initially couldn’t believe our decision to leave the EU, they have long past that and are now incredulous about our sheer incompetence as a parliamentary democracy.

I can understand the ideological commitment to leave the EU. Questions of sovereignty, EU values and the bureaucratic machine in Brussels and Strasbourg make some sense to those who want some semblance of independence as a nation state. But, this commitment has to be earthed in relationships, processes, agreements, and future-orientated realities. Wanting to “get out” without paying attention to how to do it (and at what cost) is both ridiculous and dangerous. So, we see rich and powerful people leading the charge, making promises to which they will not be held, and knowing that they will not suffer at all if it all goes wrong for the UK. Poor people in challenging communities will pay the price – as they have been doing during the so-called ‘austerity years’ – and the powerful will exercise their power by maximising and protecting their own benefits … all while blaming everyone else for the ills that follow. We can’t all take our businesses to Singapore or Ireland.

Brexit will bring disillusionment – probably on all sides. Brexit won’t lead to economic or social nirvana for Leavers, and Remainers will continue to resist its consequences. Just as Faragistes never accepted the decision to join (what became) the EU, so many will immediately start the campaign to rejoin the EU one day. Brexit has not, could not and will not resolve the issue on these islands. But, it has exposed our deeper divisions (many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or the EU), the poverty of our political culture (how can Labour still be six points behind the Tories in today’s polling?), the weakness of our national character, and our willingness to tell, hear and believe lies.

To return to Peter, his process of disillusionment was bitter, but necessary. Only by going through this and facing the truth about his own self could he grow to be the limestone leader he later became. In this sense, he bids us to do the same collectively: to grow up, lose our need to big ourselves up, see ourselves as we are seen from the outside, and value truth above illusion. The power – however damned – for this lies with us, and we can’t blame anyone else (Tories, Jeremy Corbyn, the EU) if we decline to use it.

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I was asked to preach in chapel at St John’s College, Cambridge, on ‘Populism’ in a series of sermons on ‘Thinking Allowed’. The readings were from Exodus 32:1-9 and Matthew 27:15-26. Here it is:

It’s easy to laugh, isn’t it? A primitive people, out in the desert en route from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt towards a land of promise. Their leader, who had a habit of being somewhat singleminded when it comes to how things should be done, disappeared up a mountain for a while; and, because he didn’t come back down immediately, the people found a more emollient leader who gave them what they wanted: a golden calf to worship. So, that was quick and easy. All they had experienced, all they had learned … and they threw it away in an instant. You have to read the whole book to see that this isn’t a rare experience.

Jesus has proved to be good news to some and very bad news to others. So, when those whose security is threatened by the man from Galilee finally get him before a judge, they know how to whip up the crowd – presumably including those who have seen the transformative things Jesus has done – and “Crucify him” wins the day.

Populism isn’t new; nor are those features of it with which we are becoming more familiar in Europe and beyond today. Human beings don’t really change. Technological sophistication and great learning do not necessarily make us morally stronger or more virtuous. As the Bishop of Hannover made clear in Ripon Cathedral on Remembrance Day, civilisation is thin, order is fragile, and chaos waits for a crack to appear. And when it does, emotional appeal trumps rational argument.

One of the books that made a deep impression on me when I was a student of German politics was called Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb. It was written by Richard Gutteridge and detailed the failure of the German churches to offer opposition to the rise of Hitler in Weimar Germany. It is a painful read … and, like Christopher Clark’s great book on the origins of the First World War, Sleepwalkers, demonstrates how easily people are moved to do and defend terrible things, and how intimidating it is to oppose the powerful mass. But, it also cries out with the Christian need for courage in giving a voice to the voiceless and defying the agencies of violence, destruction and death.

If you find yourself in Berlin, visit the relatively new Topography of Terror museum (built on the site of the Nazi’s Gestapo HQ) and see how it depicts the slow disintegration of civil society as virtues are compromised bit by bit under the chipping away by the populist language and action of people who were good with words and symbols.

Is popular affection always a bad thing? No, of course not. But the word ‘populism’ is normally associated with a negative expression of popular will and the forces that generate division and fear. And it is a word much used and much debated at present – but, it seems to me, only by liberals. As I read somewhere recently: “Populism can sometimes sound like the name that disconcerted liberals give to the kind of politics in which ordinary people don’t do what liberals tell them.”

Well, you decide if that is fair or not. But, while you are doing so, a massive amount of money and effort is being spent by people like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban, the AfD in Germany, and many other movements in Europe that seek to answer complex questions with simplistic solutions (“Take back control”; “Drain the swamp”; “Islam or freedom?”; and so on). Language is key, fear is fundamental, hope is reduced to instant gratification of visceral demand.

Now, we could spend all evening exploring the 2008 global financial crash and its consequences – the apparent lack of accountability on the part of those who caused it and went unpunished, for example – but we don’t have time. We must be satisfied with a few statements which we can argue about later, but will serve here as a shorthand for our reflections just now. Here goes:

  • The language of populism assumes that society is divided between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ (noble, innocent, hard done to and pure) and, on the other hand, ‘the elite’ (corrupt, greedy, unaccountable, ignorant of life on the ground, detached from most people’s reality) – and the elite are always ‘the others’.
  • Populism feeds, and feeds off, emotion, not rational analysis.
  • Populism is more about style than substance – feeling rather than policies.
  • Populist leaders claim the ‘will of the people’ and quickly disregard democratic norms on the grounds that we are in crisis. Disruption is the name of the game: fearmongering, the promotion of conspiracy theories, the undermining of trust (in, for example, media and institutions).
  • Populism generates a culture of victimhood and diminishes resilience.

As our readings this evening have illustrated, the challenges of destructive populism are not new. In a new book (Confronting Religious Violence) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: to gain traction “populism has to identify an enemy”. It then amplifies its claims of victimhood at the hands of the enemy, using language to dehumanise or disrupt. Years before the onset of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke recognised that abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ had the power to move people without enlightening them. Words shape actions – and populists assert by slogan, use street language instead of careful and polite analysis, and corrupt the public discourse with language that defies definition, but hits at the heart of popular emotion.

And here we can move on to think about what the Christian tradition might have to say in our day … in a culture that confuses patriotism with nationalism (see Emmanuel Macron on Sunday) and reduces the public discourse to the trading of competing slogans devoid of substantive vision. As Adrian Pabst wrote in a recent edition of the New Statesman: “The populist insurgency sweeping the West reveals a lack of moral purpose among the main political forces… At present, none of the three main traditions offers a politics of ethical purpose, hope and meaning.”

Now, it could be argued that the Christian tradition in the West has lost its roots. The irony in the USA hardly needs spelling out: three years ago it was thought impossible that anyone could be elected to the Presidency if he or she had been divorced or was an atheist. The Evangelical Right didn’t let that stand in the way of Trump. Here in Europe Christian identity has been appropriated by political movements and associated with a narrow nationalism that threatens to cut it off from a founder who said that we should love (even) our enemy, serve and not be served, wash the feet of the undeserving, and set free those captive to hopelessness, rejection and fear.

The Moses who stayed too long up the mountain in our first reading is the same Moses who had insisted that the land of promise must also be a land of generosity and justice. According to Deuteronomy 26, the people must bring to the priest the first 10% of their harvest and recite a creed that reminded them of their nomadic and dependent origins. Furthermore, they must leave the 10% around the edge of their field so that there would be something for the homeless, the hungry, the migrants and the travellers. The same Jesus they crucified in our second reading is the one who had opened his mouth for those who had no voice and no dignity, and met the populist bloodthirstiness with a bold silence that turned the judge into the judged.

A Christian response to populism (in the negative terms I have used for the purposes of this reflection) must begin with a clear theological anthropology: human beings are made in the image of God and must not be categorised, dehumanised or relativized by language that leads to violence or rejection. But, Christian discipleship goes further – as I will illustrate briefly.

For ten years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at some global interfaith conferences. They did my head in. The greatest aspiration was “mutual tolerance” – particularly on the part of politicians who wanted to anaesthetise potential religious fervour (on the assumption that religions were problematic, basically all the same, but encouraged different dress and diets). Of course, they thought their own worldview was neutral and self-evidently true. Anyway, I grew to loathe the word ‘tolerance’. To tolerate someone need not involve any investment in understanding or empathising with them – the attempt to look through their eyes, hear through their ears or feel through their skin. I got bored repeating the same line year in year out: Christians are called to go beyond tolerance to love.

Now, this is the easy bit. It is easy to ask people to imitate Jesus and love their enemy as well as their friend. It’s just quite hard to do. But, unless we are to be like the German Christians seduced into an elision between the Kingdom of God and the Reich of Adolf Hitler, we have to learn to pay attention to those things in our society that need to be encouraged (kindness, generosity, justice and humaneness) and identify and challenge those that are destructive. Christians are called to be realists, not fantasists – loving truth (even when it is hard to discern but important to plug away at) and resisting lies, misrepresentation, manipulation and subterfuge. Lovers of light and not colluders with darkness.

This means resisting the dualisms being propagated whereby you have to be on one side of a debate or the other, but from which any nuance or subtlety or complexity is expunged. It means creating space for encounter and conversation when it seems that everyone is lobbing grenades from the trenches. It means refusing to accept the polarising premises that the ideologues represent as the only options.

Practically and as a priority, however, we can pay attention to the language we use in shaping the discourse in a collapsing society. I lead for the bishops in the House of Lords on Europe, so have spent a considerable amount of time on Brexit and the fierce debates in Parliament. I have repeatedly pleaded for our legislature to watch its language and do something to redeem our articulated common life. Everyone agrees, then promptly revert to the categorising and mudslinging. I could illustrate this at length.

But, the Christian tradition has something more to offer in these current dangerous circumstances of division and insecurity and growing fear: hope.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs is often quoted: “Without a vision the people perish.” So, what is the vision being offered to the people of our islands, for example, as we prepare to leave the European Union? (Or not. Who knows?) And, if we have a vision, how is it to be expressed? For, if the devil has all the good music, the populists have all the good slogans. The Brexit debate is not about political vision or substance; it is not rational or about reality – just look at the actual consequences already; it is visceral and emotional. Poor people might well get considerably poorer, but many would still vote to leave, anyway.

But, Christians are not driven by fear; we are drawn by hope. A hope that comes to us from the future – resurrection. It is a hope that should not be confused with fantasy. It commits to the life of the present – in all its complexity and muckiness – but refuses to see the present reality as the end or the ultimate. It takes a long-term view with a reckless courage that even dares to sing the songs of Yahweh while sitting in exile on the banks of Babylon’s rivers, being mocked by those whose vision is short. It is a hope that sees ‘now’ in the light of eternity and declines to build – let alone worship – golden calves. It is a hope that, in the face of baying crowds, will still cry out for justice. It is a hope that knows what will be whispered at Christmas: “The light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

There is a desperate need for a younger generation to find the language for a new narrative for our politics and our common life here and in the world. A new narrative rooted in the old story … of God and his people, of the apparent bloody failure of a cross planted in a rubbish tip, and of the haunting whisper of a song of resurrection. It might take some time and we might fail a million times. But, we know there is more to be said before the conversation ends.

Maybe our slogan ought to be: “Let there be light”.

This is the basic text of my sermon at the Commonwealth Service (with civic and multi faith attendance) at Leeds Minster this afternoon:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

This text from the New Testament begs a question. The Apostle Paul writes to the young and fragile Christian community in Philippi and urges them: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

But, what have they learned and received and head and seen in Paul?

Go back in his letter and he urges these Christians to live and behave in a supremely counter-cultural way. In chapter 2 he eyeballs those Christians who uncritically assume that their Roman citizenship gives them security, privileges and rights that other young Christians do not have. And he says to them that there must not be rankings within the Christian community: they need each other, and they need to recognise Christ in each other – which means the privileged and secure looking out for the interests of their deprived brothers and sisters, even if it means that they have to give up their own rights. First he says this:

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Then he goes on to quote a hymn which begins:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” 

I quote this because our reading makes no sense without it. And I believe it enjoins an attitude and behaviour that other faiths will also want to encourage – rooted in selflessness, humility, self-sacrifice and generosity. It means looking after poor and vulnerable people, and it means challenging dominant cultural, social and economic assumptions that place privilege, selfishness and greedy self-fulfilment above all goods.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul’s encouragement recognises the tendency of human beings to lean in the wrong direction; but it also recognises the basic human need for interdependence, mutuality and selfless generosity.

In this context we must recognise the particular challenge of looking to the interests of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the face of the rise in anti-semitism. Half a century ago no one would have believed that we would today be seeing this rise in hatred. We need one another, and we need to look to the best interests of one another.

Unsurprisingly, these are the values and virtues (interdependence, mutuality and selfless generosity) that characterise what we call the Commonwealth of Nations. Unsurprising because, led by Her Majesty the Queen and shaped by a very fallible and complicated Christian history, the Commonwealth was born out of hard-won liberation from colonialism, freedom to choose a new way for nations to belong together, and a generosity of spirit in creating an association of equals in a world of enormous inequalities.

And the purpose of this unique body. The clue is in the title: a commitment to the COMMON good; pursuit of improvement and wealth for all; nations that are independent in polity, but know the need to interdepend with other nations on a small and fragile planet.

The Commonwealth of Nations is a rare and unusual beast. And the Heads of Government who met in London and Windsor this past week consciously belong to an intergovernmental organisation that is probably unique.

Established originally in 1931, it is a voluntary association of 53 sovereign states, most of them former British colonies or dependencies of those colonies. Its developed aim is to promote democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law, individual liberty, free trade, peace, etc. It has a combined population of 2.4 billion people – one third of the world’s population – with 60% of this huge population under the age of 30.

This makes the Commonwealth a future-oriented body: the challenges of tomorrow concern the majority of the population – the young – whose future is at stake. And the decisions made by the Heads of Government this last week address real concerns and opportunities for the future, eschewing complacencies about the present or romanticism about the past.

So, peace, fairness, continuity, stability, mutual respect? Motherhood and apple pie? A gravy train on which politicians can see exotic places around the world and say bland things about the obvious? A club which affords benefits or kudos to small countries who need bigger brothers on whom to lean? Or a unique body of equals who come together to articulate and advocate for a better world – one in which, characterised by realism and mutual respect, nations of different sizes, ethnicities and histories dare to try to look through each others’ eyes and identify common causes and concerns … leading to the formulation of a common vision?

The Commonwealth of Nations is a body that should be proud of its history and constitution: growing out of colonial dominion into independent republics or nation states that recognise the balance between independence and interdependence on a small planet. Bound together by common historical phenomena and relationships, this unique association confers and commits in a way that goes beyond the usual political alliances and stakes a bolder moral claim because of a unique moral interdependence.

Now, some might say this is an idealised representation of a motley group of nations striving with mixed motives to strengthen their own futures. But, I beg to differ. Consider the communique issued yesterday following the meeting of the Heads of Government this last week. It addresses some serious issues under the following headings: a fairer future, a more prosperous future, a more sustainable future, a more secure future.

Fairness, prosperity, sustainability, security.

And what holds these together? There can be no security for me if my neighbour is not also secure. There can be no sustainability if security is compromised by greed, violence or unfairness. Fairness is meaningless without mutual prosperity and mutual security. You get the idea. These virtues – if that is what they are – depend upon mutuality and commonality. They assume that we need each other, and need to look to and to protect the interests of each other.

Look at the communique and we see that the following issues were discussed by the Heads of Government:

A fairer future

Gender equality and inclusion (youth, disability and ICT)

Strengthening democratic institutions and promoting peace

Migration

 

A more prosperous future

Multilateral trading system

Intra-Commonwealth trade and investment

Inclusive and sustainable economic growth

Small and vulnerable states

 

A more sustainable future

Vulnerability and climate change

Natural disasters

Oceans, energy, health, education, sport

 

A more secure future

Cyber

Chemical weapons

Preventing and countering violent extremism

Human trafficking and child exploitation

Serious and transnational organised crime

Urban crime/violence and gun crime

Youth

Commonwealth renewal

 

You see the range of these mutual concerns? And the recognition, both implicit and explicit here, that the big and affluent nations of the world cannot ignore the unique and particular challenges of the small ones: for example, that the industrialised nations, if they ignore their contribution to climate change, are partly responsible for smaller islands disappearing under raised sea levels.

When Her Majesty the Queen ascended the throne and succeeded to the role of Head of the Commonwealth she could not possibly have imagined either the opportunities or challenges of 2018. Cybercrime, for example, belongs to a world inconceivable to the founders of the Commonwealth. The communications revolution has brought the benefits of interconnectivity across the globe and, indeed, the universe; but, it has also led to massive identity issues for children and young people, in too many cases subjecting their self-esteem to the number of likes on Facebook. It could be argued that technological development – our ability to do things – has outpaced our moral capacity to comprehend or cope with new ethical challenges: in other words, just because we can do something does not mean that we should or must do it.

And this demonstrates both the success and importance of the Commonwealth: a community of interconnected and mutually accountable nations that opt into relationships that will stand as the world itself changes. The next meeting of the Heads of Government is scheduled to take place in 2020 in Rwanda – a country that saw the most appalling tribal violence erupt in 1994,  but that has  since then worked its way back into a more civilised world, emerging from a shocking form of hatred into a new relationship that does not ignore the past (or the roots of the genocidal violence), but refuses to be imprisoned by that past and seeks a different future. Of course, the story is not complete, and we should never be complacent in the present about the dangers of some future descent into horror. (Not a challenge simply for Rwanda, but but for any nation that stigmatises certain groups of people, driven by language that dehumanises or simply categorises.)

And the symbol of this continuity, consistency and constancy is the Queen herself. Her own commitment to duty has established a model of leadership that will stand any test of time. And she has used her moral authority, rooted in Christian commitment, to focus attention not on herself or her own virtues, but on what she calls in her letter (at the front of the order of service) the ‘common good’.

The Commonwealth should not be taken for granted. For many nations and peoples it offers hope that there can, indeed, be a future – a future that is not derived simply from the selfishnesses of the past or present, but one that allows for radical newness rooted in mutual dependence.

We celebrate the Commonwealth and the remarkable – probably unique leadership – of the Queen. But, we need today to renew our commitment – as a society, but also as individuals, to a collective ethic of belonging that is planted firmly in a selfless and generous looking to the interests of the other. May God bless us as we face this challenge and invitation today and as we together shape our common future.

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”?

 

A cursory glance at social media makes it clear that there is huge concern – across political and cultural divides – about the degeneration of public life, behaviour and language. It is not hard to see why.

Against the explosion of sexual harassment claims (which exposes decades of ‘normal’ behaviour that went unchallenged because of its normality), we also see an eruption of trial by media. I have little sympathy for those who find themselves caught out, but do worry about those who are innocent, but now find themselves tried and sentenced by allegation. There must surely be implications for what I am calling the integrity of the public discourse.

But, we now have a US President who is a proven liar, misogynist and sexual predator (by his own taped evidence), and he continues in power. The lying and misrepresentation does not appear to disturb those who would have strung up previous presidents for just one faux pas. Lying and misrepresenting have become normalised. And there is no penalty.

Yesterday the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, told a House of Commons committee that the 57 Brexit impact assessment papers do not exist. In October these not only existed, but went into what he described as “excruciating detail”. When Parliament demanded sight of them, a highly secretive bunch of papers was eventually submitted to a limited audience – deemed by readers on all sides to be statements of the obvious. This turn of events should, at the very least, be deeply concerning.

The question here is not about the apparent (or should that be ‘alleged’) incompetence of the government in driving the negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU, but the fact that someone up there is misleading not only Parliament, but the British public. This is not about whether or not we should be leaving the EU; this is not about whether the government is going about its work in the right way or competently; this is not about democracy, parliamentary sovereignty or the legitimate confidentiality demanded by sensitive process; this is about the normalisation of corruption (which, in terms of language, is no less serious than in other ethical matters), the easy acceptance of lying and misrepresentation by a bewildered public, and the implications for civil society (as well as what we teach our children by word and example) of allowing language to be debased, facts to be dismissed in the face of ‘alternative truths’, and for this to be done with such casual impunity.

I have lots of conversations with concerned politicians and journalists about the corruption of the political discourse. I am less sure what to do about it other than to challenge it and try to demonstrate a different way. This goes deeper than “speaking out”.

Any ideas?

The best place to consider what is going on in the UK is somewhere away from the UK. Look through a different lens and listen through distant ears.

So, I am holiday for a week, have read five books (Robert Harris’s Conclave, Sebastian Barry’s excellent and moving Days Without End, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (echoes of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach?), Martin Luther’s Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind – on which I will post later), and am now glancing with incredulity at the Brexit debate back home.

Disclosure first. I voted to remain in the EU. I thought Brexit would be a disaster for the UK, and was not reassured that those leading the Leave campaign had the first idea how to make Brexit actually happen. Maybe it had something to do with the despising of experts, the lack of whom now presents us with something of a challenge? However, 52% of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave. Like it or not, and like the whole farce of a referendum set up (a simple majority to decide a far-reaching constitutional change?) and campaign or not, the outcome committed the UK government to begin a process to leave the EU.

This meant that the country entered a new phase of debate and process – one for which we were totally unprepared and remarkably ill-equipped. Nevertheless, never run away from a challenge, even if the nature of the particular challenge demands levels of competence that do not appear evident.

The thrust of the Brexit argument was that the UK should reclaim its parliamentary sovereignty. Having won the referendum vote, however, parliamentary democracy then fell off the democratic wagon, being seen as a perverse obstruction of the inevitable freedom awaiting us. All arguments about the shaping of actual Brexit are, apparently, simply attempts to thwart the clear will of the British people.

So, what happened to democracy, political argument and parliamentary sovereignty?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the vote had gone the other way, but by the same margin. Then let’s ask some simple questions of the 48% who had lost the argument.

Well, actually, we can’t ask the questions before rejecting the previous sentence. There is a massive difference between losing an argument and losing a vote. It can be argued – without too much brain strain – that the referendum itself threw up more questions than it ever resolved. But, for now, let’s assume for the sake of this game that Remain had won and considered the matter settled once and for all. Here come the questions:

  • Should Leavers have regarded the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU as having been finally settled?
  • Should Leavers have accepted that the argument against EU membership had finally been settled, and then packed up their minds and gone home for a long sleep?
  • Should Leavers have stopped arguing their political points and merely accepted that “the people had spoken” and, therefore, had to be obeyed?
  • Should Leavers have ceased to write newspaper articles and jumped on the BBC every time the Corporation questioned (or gave a voice to those who continued to question) our continuing membership of the EU?

OK, enough for now. But, this is how absurd the situation has become. We might expect the Daily Mail to question the integrity of universities whose academics dare to think for themselves and ask awkward questions; but, we all get it – all the time. If your argument gets wobbly, start going for the person and his/her integrity.

It is the intellectual and moral vacuity of the situation in the UK that is leaving other Europeans with their mouths open in disbelief. Vigorously debate everything, by all means; but suggest that debate should cease once a vote has been recorded, and that is boggling in a modern democracy. (I was going to quote Hegel here, but that will only get me accused of intellectual snobbery again.) Intelligent Europeans – including those known to me who respect the UK’s decision to leave the EU – are simply boggled by the nature of the public discourse in the UK (though never surprised by the Daily Mail and other organs of the press).

OK, some of the responses to ‘threatening’ letters by MPs to universities might be just part of the whole overblown embarrassment we are compelled to endure just now; but if the original arguments for opting out of the EU still hold (restoring parliamentary sovereignty, etc.), then those involved in the democratic process cannot be cut out of the debate or the information required to make intelligent decisions as it proceeds.

Instead of bland assertions that “it’ll be alright on the night”, we need proper, informed argument about the nature, consequences, benefits and costs of the decision made in the referendum. Being slagged off for asking legitimate political, economic and social questions is unworthy of any person or body who wishes to claim democratic credentials.

It is time to grow up.

Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.

We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way. His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Obama for playing golf and taking holidays have not stopped him from exceeding Obama in both. Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.

That is why protest is so important.

Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.But, what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus? Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.

As an Englishman it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But, I am also reading Shashi Tharoor‘s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire. Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world. In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the USA must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.

So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, today David Davis MP described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”. Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?

These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath.)

The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse. The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton, for example) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power. Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.

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