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.


One of the things that winds me up is when people say that it's actions, not words, that matter. It assumes that words are somehow not actions. They are. Much language is performative: it makes happen what it says.

I have been sitting in the decisive House of Bishops meeting in Oxford discussing (seriously, constructively, intelligently and eirenically) the proposed wording of an amendment to the wording of the draft legislation to allow women to become bishops. The consensus on the way ahead was overwhelming and this will be evident in the statements being issued shortly. I don't want to preempt that, but I only have a few minutes to write this and then go to my next engagement. However, we leave Oxford having taken words apart and debated meanings. Words matter – as is evident if you ever get them wrong or use the wrong ones.

But, what shares my mental and emotional space today is not bishops, but Liverpool. The Hillsborough Inquiry has reported (excellent work led by the excellent Bishop of Liverpool) and it is deeply shocking. The gracious and poignant dignity, perseverance and faithfulness of those family members bereaved at Hillsborough stands in remarkable contrast to the cover up by police, emergency services, politicians and others. The then editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, must have made his position worse with a statement of such vacuous blame-throwing insincerity that I read it with incredulity.

The cry for justice has now been heard. But why did it take 23 years?

Simple words of apology from the Prime Minister matter. He has admitted the offence and has, therefore, performed a vital act for the families and the rest of us: he has articulated and set the course for the next period of life. At last.

23 years.

23 years.

23 years for words to be uttered that might just allow the beginning of healing.

23 years.

It is eight years since Boris Johnson commented so helpfully on the Liverpudlian psyche. I suggest a moment's silence while we consider it and await his apology.

More anon.

I was driving over to a primary school in Ilkley this morning (dribbly rain and mist over the wild moors) and listening to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was being interviewed about the British Government’s apparent approval of the idea of a new London airport (after Heathrow, Gatwick and City – Luton and Stansted don’t count as they are nowhere near London). The wisdom and feasibility of such a new venture will continue to be debated, but that isn’t what grabbed my attention.

Boris responded to an insinuation that it would take decades to build the thing and would, therefore, not be worth starting. He said that just because it might take a long time didn’t mean it shouldn’t be started. And this reminded me of something else: cathedrals.

When the architects and builders of our great cathedrals began their work – driven by imagination and a vision for a future – they knew they probably would never see the finished article. They would be dead – the building would take generations. Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) was started in 1904 and almost everybody involved in imagining, designing and building it was dead by the time it was finally completed at the back end of the twentieth century.

Or think of gardens. Capability Brown designed some of Britain’s most glorious gardens, but knew he would never see what he had designed because by the time the trees and plants had grown, he would be long gone. This didn’t stop him doing it.

I took a couple of academic friends to the pub this evening to talk about a range of matters. At one point the conversation ran onto the shortsighted utilitarianism of current university funding methods in England. It seems as if the ‘now’ is all that matters and the Market will control all our destinies. Any idea of vision (what should a university actually be – and for whom and for what end?) or long-term constructiveness gets lost under the pressing immediacy of instant financial viability. Yet, I guess this is just one more example of a pragmatic culture which has lost track of its guiding narrative, its traditions and memory – living in and for the ‘now’ and hesitant about building for someone else’s future that can’t be guaranteed anyway.

Pessimistic? Maybe. But, any culture needs people who imagine a future, invest in it, know why they are doing it and who it is for. They must be driven by a vision for a society that doesn’t confuse ends (people/society) with means (the Market).

I don’t know if Boris is right about the airport. But, he has the right perspective on time and investment.

It didn’t take long, did it?

Despite the financial disaster of the last two years, and against the wishes of their European partners (particularly the Germans and the French), the Labour Government has refused to get tough with bankers over bonuses and irrationally high pay. The argument seems to be that if you disincentivise high earners, they will all scoot off to the USA and earn their fat salaries there instead. Whereas the argument advanced this week by the Tories is that if you squeeze the poorest or most disabled people, this will incentivise them to ‘get out and work’.

Boris JohnsonBrazen Boris Johnson (great character – but which pre-election promises has he actually delivered on in London?) stoutly and admirably defended the bankers at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester the other day, guaranteeing favour by claiming that to do so would turn everyone against him. What great rhetoric! Everybody loves Boris and David Cameron probably (a) fears him or (b) wishes he would go away.

But, am I alone in hearing the defence of bankers set against a squeeze on the poor or disabled and wondering where these priorities derive from?

I’d like to believe that the Tories could offer something radically new that would offer a clear alternative to Labour and bring some dignity back into politics – especially into the values that underlie economic policy-making. But, I don’t see it. All we get is the same old stuff dressed up in new language. ‘Let’s help the poorest (or most vulnerable)  in our society – by making them poorer if they don’t play our way. And let’s not disturb the richest in our society – by making them invulnerable to the consequences of their decisions.’

It doesn’t look great, does it?

Let’s get this straight. Some of my friends are bankers. I don’t have a problem with bankers getting paid for the work they do. Some bankers should get paid more than others. Big bankers should get paid big salaries. But bonuses should be rationalised and spread about the people who work at all levels of the business. How do you justify a single individual getting a one-off (almost guaranteed each year) payment amounting to many multiples of what the ordinary bank staff earn in  several years? And whose money is it that they are playing with anyway?

My problem with this is that this nettle still appears not to have been grasped. We are afraid to impose limits – even when ‘we’ own the banks by virtue of having bailed them out of the mire of their own making.

goodwinAnd when we hear about the ‘poor’ or the ‘disabled’, we are not talking about ‘shirkers’, ‘blaggers’ and ‘spongers’. But, even if we were, couldn’t we describe the failure of the banks and their subsequent cap-in-hand rescue by the taxpayers as ‘sponging’ (claiming money that isn’t theirs), ‘shirking’ (responsibilities to those they damaged) and ‘blagging’ (claiming special rights and threatening government against squeezing with arguments about ‘incentives’ that only apply to them and not those at the bottom of society who don’t have the voice or the power to claim the same)?

It’s the values underlying the policies that need questioning, not just the apparent policies. And the double-standards need to be exposed wherever they seek to hide.

Any chance we’ll hear something useful this week from Manchester other than the blindingly obvious or the obviously blind?