This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox and guests: Gabby Logan, Josh Gad and Lianne LaHavas. (There are ten of Liane's song titles and a reference to the work of Josh Gad and Gabby Logan for good measure.)

Well, I might as well announce it to the nation: my daughter has just had a baby. He's called Joseph and he's tiny and I love him. He's got a head of dark hair and he left me tongue-tied.

I nearly cried when I held him. I did get teary when I saw my daughter and son-in-law in the hospital and felt the unstoppable love that gets behind the emotional defences that often protect us from hurt. No room for doubt here: love can be elusive, but it's impossible to forget and you can never get enough of it.

Which bears thinking about when you watch the news and feel the misery. Yet, in the midnight of pain it's the daylight of wonderful love that keeps breaking through, catching us unawares and reminding us of our fragility and challenging our selfishness.

There are people who think that love is something merely romantic or soppy. I mean, it is great when it is romantic; but, love is much more than that. I would give my life for my kids and grandchildren (Joseph completes the hat-trick) because love goes deeper than anything else. When I did my daughter's wedding in Croydon some years ago, I remember looking at the gifts wrapped in paper covered in love hearts. I asked if this is really the best we can do as an icon of love. The icon of love I turn to is a man with his arms stretched out on a cross, embracing a world that couldn't handle him and demonstrating that love is never cheap. Christian faith is born of blood – costly love … as, of course, is the love that leads to a painful labour and childbirth.

I guess my question to myself this morning is this: Is your love big enough? Or do I settle for an imitation that costs less or is more convenient? Anyone who has loved will also bear the scars – because love can sometimes hurt.

Anyway, with a nod to the Beatles, “you can't buy me love”; but, with a nod to Josh Gad, our hearts do not need to be frozen. And that, Gabby, is the final score.


The end is nigh – the new beginning draws close.

Actually, that isn’t an Easter reflection. I managed to lose any internet connection four or five days ago and have now only popped in to my old office to bring all my official computer equipment from home before we move out of the Croydon house… which we do this coming Wednesday.

In the silence I have managed to miss addressing an absurd example of journalistic ignorance in the Independent (I think I might write do similarly by writing a lengthy and passionate piece about something of which I know little – quantum physics, perhaps), the big ‘Church school admissions’ story, and the whole of Easter. Even Liverpool’s thrashing of Birmingham City fell by the wayside.

This has been a pain for me as the writing (and subsequent commenting/debate) always helps me to think more clearly. I am not sure how much such ruminations will have been missed by readers of this blog. But, the enforced silence has been like enforced fasting – probably good for the health and for getting things in perspective – but it plays havoc with the blog stats.

Anyway, now back to radio silence until the end of this week when we will be settling into our new home in Bradford and getting reconnected with the blogosphere.

Lovely weather for humping furniture around…

Preparing to move from Croydon to Bradford at the end of April, I am conscious of the discontinuities that make life interesting. In Rumsfeldian terms, I am moving from a particular set of knowns and unknowns to a different set of known unknowns and straightforward unknowns.

What interests me about this is something that underlies much of the language we use to explain the news. There seems to be an underlying assumption (or desperate hope?) that there is a pattern to be followed, an outcome to be assumed and a ‘plan’ to be conformed to. Somewhere. Somehow.

Human beings seem to be wired for pattern. Maybe part of the notion of the Imago Dei (being made in the image of God) is the instinct to bring order out of chaos – or, at least, to think that order should be brought out of chaos. Whether with telephone numbers (doubles or triples?) or travel directions, we look for pattern and shape and order.

But, the truth of the matter is: despite the best preparation and the fullest briefings, we have no idea what might happen tomorrow. The outcome in Libya will be shaped by decisions and dynamics that can’t be fully predicted because they are made or shaped by people – and people do strange things sometimes. I have little idea of what awaits me in Bradford (other than in structural terms) because it is hard to be categorical where people are concerned – and people change their minds, behave irrationally in certain (unpredictable) circumstances and have an infinite capacity for surprise.

It might be helpful to the rest of us if politicians and journalists (in particular) left a little space for the unpredictability of life and the inconsistency of human agents – especially where the ‘observer’ becomes ‘agent’ and changes the context. Read any political biography and we realise that what was presented as intended outcome was really a jammy confluence of factors that brought a certain ‘orderliness’ to otherwise random events. Utopia is a fantasy – as is the notion that we are masters of our chosen destiny (rather than constantly surprised by events beyond our control).

And the difference between this fantasy and what is known as the Kingdom of God is simply that the latter takes human agency seriously. Wherever order is sought, chaos is not far behind… and chaos can always be wrested from the jaws of order. Equally, however, what looks inevitable can be transformed by the surprise of hope.

In other words, we just have to get on with whatever is presented to us. In my case, I have to work with what I find and (yes, on the basis of previous experience and the wisdom acquired from it) go from where we really are to where we might realistically become… and put up with whatever good or bad stuff shapes the journey. That’s what makes it all so interesting.

This reminds me of the great Bruce Cockburn song Pacing the Cage in which he says:

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend.
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.

Spot on, Bruce. And that reminds me of the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who, after being given a hard time by a group of us in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem some years ago, banged the table and said:

Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.

It was too good to last. Christmas joy, lots of family and celebration, and England win the Ashes in a game I never watch. Then this: Liverpool 0-1 Wolves.

I wouldn’t so much mind Liverpool losing, if they at least played like a team that was interested in being on the pitch in the first place. It’s the lack of passion. I have no idea if it is Roy Hodgson’s fault or if the rot goes deeper. But, we Liverpool fans are not used to being in 12th position at the turn of the year – only three points above the relegation zone. Desperate. And embarrassing when half your mates are Chelsea, Spurs or Man Utd fans.

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my support that is sporting death to any team that claims my affections. Croydon’s own Crystal Palace drew last night and remain stuck in the Championship relegation zone – Bradford City lost 4:0 to Cheltenham Town. With an effect like this, I might just start supporting Man Utd…

It’s just as well I am rooted in a theology of hope. Hope does not depend on particular circumstances, but in being constant whatever the particular circumstances of life might be. Put bluntly, Christian hope is not in God keeping me alive and happy or healthy and fulfilled; rather, it is in the God who has the final word (‘resurrection’) in a world that thinks violence and death have ultimate power. In other words, the circumstances might change – and get better or worse – but I won’t blow in the wind.

I’m even hopeful about Liverpool. I’ll stick with them, come what may. But, I feel like the Hebrew people in exile, hanging on to words that promise a better future. One day.

(I can still be miserable, though!)

One of the things we have to get used to in England is the tedious mantra that so-called ‘faith schools’ are ‘divisive’. The charge is always put, but the evidence is never there to back up the (apparently) self-evident claim. It seems that the conclusion is assumed on the basis of prejudice and then the evidence adduced from the odd anecdote. Well, new research published today – Strong schools for strong communities: Reviewing the impact of Church of England schools in promoting community cohesion – might just force a bit of a re-think. (Dream on…)

The study by Professor David Jesson of the University of York (commissioned by the Church of England) examined the reports of 400 secondary schools inspected between March and June 2009 and 700 primary schools inspected in June this year. According to the press notice:

The data for primary schools, serving relatively small cohorts of pupils, suggested faith schools perform just as well as community schools based on the average grade received for promoting community cohesion. Grades are awarded on a scale of 1 (outstanding) to 4 (inadequate), with both types of school averaging 2.2 at primary level. However, the data for secondary schools indicates “clear evidence that Faith schools were awarded substantially higher inspection gradings for promoting community cohesion than Community schools,” according to Professor Jesson. The data shows that the mean average of grades given to secondary schools with a religious foundation is 1.86, compared to 2.31 for community schools.

In his research paper, Professor Jesson comments:

This finding is particularly relevant to the debate about schools’ contribution to community cohesion – and runs completely counter to those who have argued that because faith schools have a distinctive culture reflecting their faith orientation and are responsible for their admissions that they are ‘divisive’ and so contribute to greater segregation amongst their communities. This is clearly not supported by this most recent Ofsted inspection evidence.

In reaching their judgements on a school’s performance in promoting community cohesion, Ofsted’s inspectors look for evidence that schools have undertaken an analysis of their school population and locality and then created an action plan focused on engaging with under-represented groups outside the school and between different groups within the school itself.

Ofsted also looks for evidence that schools have strategies for promoting participation by learners in all the opportunities that the school provides and strategies for tackling any discriminatory behaviour between groups of learners. Comparing the data on grades awarded for this part of the inspection between different types of secondary school, Professor Jesson writes:

Here again the contrast between Faith schools and Community schools is clear. Faith schools achieve higher gradings on this aspect of their contribution to their pupils and their community.” Community schools received a mean average of 2.03, while schools with a religious foundation received a higher average of 1.68.

But, the response by Jan Ainsworth, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England, in her introduction to the report makes the point usually ignored by commentators:

Schools with a religious foundation have a particular role in modelling how faith and belief can be explored and expressed in ways that bring communities together rather than driving them apart. They can minimise the risks of isolating communities for whom religious belief and practice are core parts of their identity and behaviour. In Church of England schools that means taking all faith seriously and placing a high premium on dialogue, seeking the common ground as well as understanding and respecting difference.

Schools contribute most actively towards nurturing a shared sense of belonging across communities when they are clear about their own distinctive values and how that grounds their engagement with other groups at local, national and global levels. Promoting community cohesion is not about diluting what we believe to create a pallid mush of ‘niceness’.

Our Christian foundation places the strongest obligation onto Church of England schools to help children form relationships of mutual care and affection with people from every creed and background. For church schools, community cohesion is more than ticking a box for the government. It is about acting out the values articulated in the school’s mission statement in ways that serve and strengthen our human relationship with our neighbours.

Not surprisingly, this won’t be good news for some people, as evidence will be seen to have intruded into prejudice.There is more to be said about this latter point and an excellent article in the Church Times by a Croydon headteacher, Richard Parrish, makes a case for distinguishing between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools. I’ll come back to this one anon.

Yesterday I visited two thriving inner-urban churches in Croydon. I don’t often get emotional, but yesterday was different.

CroydonIn the first church I confirmed ten people, including adults who have come from right outside the church and found here that God has found them. They have also found a church that offers beauty in worship, a lively engagement with the good news of Jesus Christ, and a multi-ethnic community of wonderful people who welcome all-comers. After the service everyone went through to the hall for coffee before returning to the (by now cleared) church for a huge lunch – about 100 of us. I didn’t want to leave. I love it there and would happily join the church if I lived there (and wasn’t the bishop).

In the afternoon I went to another parish in a neighbouring area for a formal visit. The Vicar went there nearly four years ago when the church had an average congregation of 15 and was an obvious candidate for closure. I promised her that if she found the job was not do-able, I would look for a good parish for her – for she had at least tried to do the impossible. She told me yesterday that she had asked her congregation what they would like to do on my visit to show the bishop what their church/parish was all about – and they had said they wanted to have a party.

Having had an hour with the vicar in the vicarage, we walked to the church with the possibility that nobody would be there. When we walked in there were in the region of 150 people from dozens of different ethnic origins, of all ages (from babies to very elderly) and all types. There was a brass band to play for the brief Harvest Celebration at the beginning of the party. And there was a huge feast of food and drink to be shared. When I was asked to say something, I got very choked up and struggled to get the words out.

FeastEvery image of heaven in the Bible seems to involve a feast. Jesus was criticised for partying too much – and with the wrong people. Yesterday I glimpsed heaven in two churches with inspired leadership, sacrificial ministry, encouraged people and a generous openness to their parishes.

And all this hides the day-by-day ministry of working quietly in some tough places in tough cirumstances and addressing some tough challenges. The clergy (and others) are fully involved in the life and institutions of their local parish communities. They command huge respect and affection from local people – including those who don’t darken the doors of the church.

I don’t want to identify the parishes as the attention won’t necessarily be helpful. But their clergy have my unmitigated admiration and I am immensely humbled and proud to be their bishop, to learn from them and to be inspired by them.

I realise this sounds a bit cheesy. And, yes, there are lots of parishes like this in South London. But I needed to say it about these two in particular today.

The problem with returning from a stint of incommunicado foreign service – even for just a week and a bit – is that you have to catch up with the news in one go. So, I’ve been whipping through the Church newspapers, glancing off websites and other journals and now find myself wishing I hadn’t bothered. Here’s three examples of what I found that don’t fill me with joy, but do reflect on the posts I published since my return from Zimbabwe on the freedom to think aloud and aspects of criminal justice:

1. A couple of weeks ago Stephen Kuhrt wrote in the Church of England Newspaper about the impact of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans on the Diocese of Southwark. He drew attention to a sermon by a preacher at Fairfield Church (part of Richard Coekin’s Co-Mission network, known locally as the Diocese of Dundonald) inwhihc his church, Christ Church, New Malden, was accused of having lost interest in mission because it had strayed from the Gospel (or words to that effect). In last week’s copy of the CEN the aggrieved preacher retorted with a remarkably either disingenuous or naive counter-complaint. He writes:

Richard [Coekin] is a forward-thinking leader who in the years I’ve known him has never said anything against Stephen or Christ Church, New Malden, despite previous attacks on him, and it wouldn’t occur to him to do so.

Richard certainly is a strong leader, but I am boggled at how people can be so revering of him that they cannot recognise the truth of his failings. I’m afraid Philip Cooper, the said preacher, needs to listen to people who have worked with (as I have in my capacity as Archdeacon of Lambeth from 2000-2003) or related to Richard Coekin locally. Richard criticised Christ Church, New Malden, in precisely the terms used by Mr Cooper to me on more than one occasion. He was also reported to me by a member of a mission team several years ago as having done so on more than one occasion publicly and in a way that made the identification of the church not hard to discern.

Believe it or not, I have a respect for Coekin and his leadership qualities despite my antipathy to the disingenuous way he goes about things in relation to the diocese and his representation of his own victimhood. But it is wilful hagiography of the worst kind to portray Richard as almost infallible on these matters and to not want to hear inconvenient things about him. Why can’t they just admit that he gets things like this wrong, as the rest of us do, and apologise?

Rowan Williams2. Today I read Martin Beckford’s piece in the Telegraph about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s participation in a forthcoming Channel 4 programme about belief. The Archbishop speaks of ‘hell’ as being:

… stuck with myself for ever and with no way out… Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.

The article is fine. But go down to the comments on the online version and then it starts to get scary. Some people – who clearly think of themselves as Christian – clearly need help. Why is it that people outside fo the Church often find Rowan Williams thoughtful, insightful and painfully honest, whereas people inside the Church (who disagree with him) like to denigrate him?

I wrote the other day about the danger of ‘leading’ people (such as politicians) not being free to speak the truth, but constantly to be saying what other people want to hear and always in a very safe way. I remember him saying at a conference: ‘When people ask me to lead, what they really mean is: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear’.’ The Archbishop, albeit quoted briefly and (inevitably) out of context in the article, is at least interesting as well as being honest. Clearly, some of the commentators would prefer him to be dishonest and just tick their boxes in their language. Thank God he doesn’t.

FernandoTorres3. But, if that isn’t enough for one day, I then read on the BBC website that where I live is one of the 20 burglary hotspots in the UK. This is a pity because Croydon is a fantastic place to live – a place of real civic and social ambition. And I haven’t heard a burglar alarm go off on my road in the six years we have lived here…

Oh well. At least Fernando Torres has signed his new contract for Liverpool…

Monday 3 August 2009

Today I leave for just over a week in Zimbabwe. On the phone last night my daughter asked me why I am going there again. Another friend asked me if I ever go anywhere normal. How rude of both of them!

A bit of history might be useful, starting with the recent political and economic situation and following on with the story of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe in the last decade. Then the reason for my visit will make more sense. I will be brief and run the risk of giving an incomplete and subjective survey.

When Robert Mugabe became President of the new Republic of Zimbabwe in 1979 he was a hero. Even Ian Smith, the deposed white Prime Minister of Rhodesia, commented positively on the early days of Mugabe’s rule. As the decades went by, people became frustrated with the lack of progress in some areas of economic life and Mugabe resorted to a disastrous redistribution of land from white farmers to black indigenous ‘war veterans’. The violence and injustice of the methods used (even if the need for the redistribution was acknowledged) turned the world against Mugabe, who then became increasingly extreme in his opposition to the West that was now isolating him politically and economically. Apart from genocidal slaughter of the Ndebele, corrupt fiddling of elections, disastrous economic policies and a victim complex that allowed everybody in Zimbabwe to suffer other than himself and his cronies, he reduced his once thriving country to a ruin. Last year, having stolen the election, he oversaw starvation, cholera, rampant inflation (they stopped counting at 231,000,000%) and almost total unemployment.

Lozane 017The world watched in disgust as this breadbasket of Africa became a basket case. When I was here two years ago inflation was a mere 10,000% and we thought it couldn’t get worse. There were power cuts that went on for days, water stopped being pumped, schools couldn’t function and the economy packed up. Then Mugabe reluctantly acceded to a Unity Government, bringing in the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, as Prime Minister. This was a risky move and invited the suspicion of a worried ZanuPF elite and the charge of treachery from elements of the MDC. Yet this single move is probably responsible for the turn-around in Zimbabwe’s fortunes that is now evident.

The Zim Dollar is dead. Now the main currency is the US Dollar, but other currencies are also legitimate (Sterling, the South African Rand, the Euro). Allowances being paid to workers (instead of salaries) have allowed work to resume. Supermarkets are full of produce, transport is working again, life has re-started for many people. Yes, there are still massive health problems and serious questions about management of the economy; the rule of law has yet to be re-established and justice restored; the life expectancy of this HIV/Aids-devastated country is still in the mid-30s for both men and women; many ordinary people do not find it easy to get hold of US Dollars and food programmes are still needed. But the schools are open again, teachers are teaching, factories are beginning to open again and trade is resuming.

Within that politico-economic context the Anglican Church had a particular role to play. Opposition to Mugabe’s cruelties and insane economic policies was led by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, until he was compromised by the CIO (secret police). The Anglican Church had been rendered impotent by its own internal scandals – principally the election of Nolbert Kunonga as Bishop of Harare in (I think) 2002. Kunonga was a Mugabe henchman who was rewarded for his loyalty with a formerly white-owned farm. Kunonga was a disaster of epic proportions who regarded the Church (and its assets) as his personal property and managed to prevent the Anglican Church offering a coherent opposition voice to Mugabe. It was only in 2007 that Kunonga (and the newly-elected Bishop of Manicaland, Elson Jakazi) made a wrong move, was excommunicated from the Province of Central Africa and regarded as persona non grata by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.

The Church is now re-building its effectiveness across the country, but it is far from out of the woods. Despite numerous court rulings, Kunonga still holds onto the assets of the Diocese of Harare and (although it looks as if this might be changing) is backed by the police.

So, why am I bothered? The Diocese of Southwark is divided into three Episcopal Areas: Kingston, Woolwich and Croydon. Each Episcopal Area is linked with one of the five dioceses in Zimbabwe (Harare being linked with Rochester in England and Masvingo with Southwark Cathedral). When I became Bishop of Croydon in 2003 I walked straight into the link with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe and its bishop, Ishmael Mukuwanda. I visited Gweru with my wife in 2004, then took a group of 20 for a two-week visit in 2007 – a visit that was fraught with difficulties including constant harassment from the secret police and misrepresentation in the Zimbabwean media (and, subsequently, across the world via the Internet).

Zimbabwe mapThe Croydon-Zimbabwe Link Team does fantastic work partnering parishes in my Episcopal Area with parishes in Central Zimbabwe, raising funds for very practical projects in Central Zimbabwe aimed at securing long-term growth and financial self-sufficiency for the diocese. We pray for our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe daily and weekly in our churches and we know that we are prayed for, too. This is a relationship that has grown through testing times – one that has mutual benefits and is carefully trying to avoid being characterised as a donor-receiver relationship.

I am going out to Zimbabwe from 3-11 August to visit the bishop (who is now a very good friend), to catch up on projects and people, to see for myself what is happening in the country, to do whatever I am asked to do while I am there and to discuss future direction and priorities. Maybe the impressions gained during hard times will now be revised – or maybe not. But, at least I will see for myself and not have to rely on third-hand news reports.

I am not sure whether or not I will be able to blog from there or not. I am not sure about broadband internet availability. So, it is entirely possible that I will be publishing a large number of posts in one go when I return. We will see.

It was encouraging to watch the news last night and see that the BBC has been (officially) readmitted to Zimbabwe after several years of (official) absence. I will be in Zimbabwe from Monday 3 – 10 August (i.e. next week) and will be interested to see how deep the apparent renewed optimism goes.

Welcome to ZimbabweWhen I was last there I got stitched up by the government-run media. I had taken a group of 20 people from the Croydon Episcopal Area of the Diocese of Southwark in 2007 and in our second week we were invited to a meeting with the since-retired Governor of the Midlands Province, Cephas Msipa. He was a nice man and was very warm and welcoming to us. I asked if he would mind if we took a few photographs and he said he had no problem with that – as we would have no problem with his people taking a few photos, too.

The ‘few photos’ turned out to be a television crew and a national newspaper journalist (among others). Taken by surprise by this, I tried to make sure that every time the camera was focused on us my arms were crossed, my eyes were down and my head was shaking – all to ensure that I couldn’t be edited in a way that showed me supporting or agreeing with the anti-British propaganda that we would undoubtedly be fed. At the end of a polite-but-frank, useful and substantial exchange of views the Governor brought proceedings to an end, apologising that we had strayed into politics and away from ‘welcome’. And that was when the fun started.

The national journalist (although I did not know at that point that this is who he was) attacked me with accusations of British neo-colonialism, etc – the usual stuff. I countered firmly, but politely. He then went on to accuse the British media of deliberately misrepresenting Zimbabwe for their own political ends and that really annoyed me. I suggested that banning the BBC and other western media organs from Zimbabwe did not help their cause, raised speculation about what they were trying to hide and betrayed great insecurity. However, I then added: “Anyone who deals with the media gets misrepresented or misquoted – even in the UK; but you can deal with it in a democracy by countering or complaining and getting it put right. Zimbabwe can’t ban the BBC and then complain when they get at second or third hand what they feel to be misrepresentation! You can’t have it both ways…” This was followed by  alonger informal conversation after the meeting finished.

The next morning the front page headline of the Herald proclaimed: ‘Clergyman condemns UK media lies’, reporting that I had led a group of 20 clergy [sic] to Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission [sic] and saw no evidence of problems – putting it all down to media lies by a politically motivated British media. I protested directly to the Governor (who had given me his mobile phone number – probably in anticipation of such an event) who got a TV report re-edited and then withdrawn and apologised to me for what he also recognised as deliberate fabrication and misrepresentation of both the meeting we had had and the comments I had made.

However, this didn’t stop the story getting repeated around the world. One amazingly brazen magazine in the UK, New African, even published what purported to be first-hand interview with me in which I reinforced what the Herald had published. I had never heard of New African, had not been approached by them and they refused to print my letter challenging the article – in fact, they never even responded.

I still get what can only be described as ‘hate mail’ on the basis of what I was reported to have said. I followed up this trip with an article in the Church Times (which I cannot now find), but it was also mentioned in an article in the Church Times while we were still out there in Zimbabwe. I understand that the journalist who wrote this later committed suicide, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

I will be back there next week and looking for signs of change. This beautiful country with its wonderful people deserves better than it has experienced during the last years. I hope to find genuine grounds for renewed optimism – but without restoration of the rule of law and a genuinely free media, such optimism will be mere wishful thinking.

Morgan-TsvangiraiIran is in a turmoil that was inconceivable even a month ago. Today Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, was shouted down at Southwark Cathedral whilst urging expatriates to return to their homeland despite a lack of reassurance about their personal safety or prospects for the rule of law. In just over one week I will be back in Kazakhstan for a global inter-religious congress – a country that has moved in under two decades from being a disastrous republic of the Soviet Union into a successful and competitive world player – where admiration for British democracy might be a little tempered by the goings-on at Westminster in recent weeks. And the joyful humiliation of MPs continues in the UK, watched with incredulity from outside and embarrassment from within.

And here I am, at my desk, with Bruce Cockburn angrily singing his critique of western political and militarysupport for dodgy Central American regimes in the 1980s: They call it democracy.

Apparently, everybody in the UK is furiously angry with our profligate, dishonest and greedy politicians. That might be true – in the same way that everybody in the UK is a ‘loyal subject’ of Her Majesty. Maybe I just mix in the wrong circles (ordinary people in ordinary places – this morning with a group made up largely but not exclusively of pensioners), but I don’t see the anger we are being told we are feeling. I do hear expressions of wishing we could move on and wondering about who is doing the really important political stuff at Westminster while the feeding frenzy continues.

ParliamentNow, I realise that I will be told (very firmly and without hint of possible contradiction) that I am out of step with the public mood. Again, that might be true – but who says? And how would they know? If I am out of step with the ‘public mood’, then I am not going to apologise. I hadn’t realised until recently that the ‘public mood’ was the ultimate arbiter of morality and public truth – that to dissent from the ‘public mood’ was to be, by definition, wrong and suspect.

The ‘public moood’ would have lynched suspected paedophiles in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. The ‘public mood’ voted Hitler into power in the 1930s. The ‘public mood’ is probably the least trustworthy guide to moral decision-making that could possibly be found. Ask a random sample of the public if they are angry with MPs and there is little alternative but to concur; ask what people think or feel about MPs and the answer might be a little bit more nuanced.

I am worried about all this, not because I think MPs have behaved well or deserve special treatment outside of normal financial ethics. Abuses of expenses are indefensible – but so is inaccurate and sensational pillorying of particular MPs without adequate explanation of the criteria being cited. For example, do we really expect to be well served by MPs without providing them with office back-up (PA, secretary, stationery, phones, etc)? Yet when these figures are deducted from some of the huge numbers featuring in reports, the figures look less offensive. I object to being told that an MP is ‘a scandal’ for claiming half a million pounds in ‘expenses’ over the last five years when the charge is made in complete ignorance of what is needed by way of office support for our elected representatives to do their job. This is mere sensationalism.

I said I was worried. I am. I am worried about the effects of all this on the sort of people who might now put themselves forward for public office. (There is an awful lot of smug self-righteousness around in propsective parliamentary candidates right now.) Are we going to get the best quality of people (of ability and integrity) to put themselves forward for an office that will evoke scorn, suspicion and potential humiliation?

Is now the time for MPs to have their expenses scrutinised by an independent body, be asked to repay any anomalies, commit to investigation by the police any criminal activity – and then let Parliament get back to doing what we need it to do: govern the country and have MPs scrutinising legislation rather than scrutinising their expenses sheets? Hasn’t the feeding frenzy now gone far enough?

women violenceOr is it just easier to be part of the baying mob, directing our imputed ‘anger’ at someone else, prolonging the embarrassment of ‘privileged’ people and ignoring the consequences to our democracy and its institutions?

Oh, and by the way, is there not something ‘morally dubious’ about my local ‘newspaper’, The Croydon Advertiser, standing on its moral superiority in relation to MPs while taking advertising money from pimps engaged in trafficking women and exploiting them for sex? Just asking…