Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.

 

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I have been in parishes all day today (it’s what bishops do), but managed to catch the news in the car. Two items caught my attention for all the wrong reasons.

The first story was arresting. Murdo Fraser MSP, the frontrunner to lead the Scottish Conservatives has outlined plans to split from the UK party if he wins the leadership election next month. His line is that the values and policies of the party are more important than the institution of the party itself. In other words, if the party cannot get the values propagated for the sake of the country, then another medium will have to be found. The values and policies are more important than the vehicle for delivering them. The vehicle can be changed if the focus is right. It’s about ends and means again.

This caught my attention because I was on my way this afternoon to preach at a Celebration Service in a church that is closing for worship after 170 years. The process for deliberating on potential futures for the building is now about to begin. But, the challenge is not to keep a building going, but to remember what the building was for in the first place (communal worship of God in order to equip Christians to live christianly in their community, serve others, and draw others to Christ and his community). Therefore, the Christians in that small rural town (where there is one other Anglican church as well as other denominations) have to use this sad celebration to focus on what being a Christian body in that place really means.

Recognising this challenge is not easy for some people who fear losing what has mattered to them in the past. I understand that. But, institutions that forget their foundational story, or maintain the vehicle when the fuel has run out, or sit in the car without moving when there is a bus down the road, are doomed. What is required is a recovery of vision for what Christian living and believing is all about – a being grasped by God and the good news of the Kingdom – and then working out what resources are needed for enabling that to happen. I think I met a good deal of that courage this afternoon and evening.

The second story in today’s news is the publication next week of former Chancellor Alistair Darling’s memoirs. Apparently, he and Gordon Brown didn’t get on. That isn’t news, is it? It seems almost no one in the Cabinet got on with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. The relationships appear to have been tortuous and Brown obviously didn’t run a happy ship.

But, why the constant splurging of memoirs? Does anyone in Government ever speak plainly or tell the truth about what they really think? After all, as soon as office is spent, out comes the bile. I can’t help but think that this phenomenon must inhibit honesty and introduce to relationships a degree of suspicious engineering. Surely, if you think that one day everything you say and do will be taken apart by bitter or point-scoring ‘colleagues’ in public, this would impact on how you behave. I’m not sure how healthy this is; it certainly seems pretty narcissistic.

Anyway, this caught my attention not only because it is the latest title to be added to my ‘books I won’t read because life is too short and I really don’t care’, but also because it is yet another demonstration of ‘the means’ compromising ‘the message’ (or the values). New Labour imploded under the force of its own narcissism – where personalities and ambitions overrode the conviction that the country needed what New Labour purported to offer.

As with the judgement on Macbeth, ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself’ takes one’s eyes off the purpose of the enterprise. Once that happens, the plot is well and truly lost.

The same is true in the church. As I have written many times before, the church is called to be a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels – a touching place between God and people. We are called to live in such a way that the presence of God is recognised or glimpsed. We are called to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God. Anything else is a fraud. But, that is the vocation that we must not lose sight of when dealing with buildings, institutions, money and stuff.

The fuel is meant to propel the vehicle. The vehicle is not there to simply ‘house’ some fuel.

There’s no escape. Tony Blair’s memoirs were published this morning and they have dominated the headlines all day. I’ve just been with my son for a curry at the best curry house in the world, the Mirch Masala in Norbury, and even there I could see a billboard with Blair on it.

Those who are convinced Blair is the devil incarnate will not have their view shifted, whatever he might say in his book. And those who think Brown was a disaster won’t have their view changed byanything that doesn’t confirm that judgement. Those to-be-pitied Americans on the telly yesterday who are convinced Obama is both a Muslim and a Communist are not alone in not letting inconvenient facts colour their view of reality.

What interests me about the Blair memoirs, as reported and quoted today, is not all the obvous stuff about Iraq or Gordon Brown or New Labour – was there really anything surprising there at all? – but the question of leadership. He had the chance to fire Gordon Brown some years ago, but, having weighed up the pros and cons for the party, decided  not to do so. It is easy in retrospect to say what a mistake that was – a bit like Gordon Brown’s hesitation over whether to call an election shortly after his accession while he was riding high in the polls. Retrospect is easy when you never had to make a decision under pressure in your life.

Anyone who has exercised leadership of any difficult institution or ‘body’ will know that some decisions cannot be taken after the moment has passed. The circumstances – as well as the phenomenological fact that the indecision or decision not to do something (like fire a key colleague) now becomes a factor in the equation and changes the criteria which now render at worst impossible and at best more difficult the action previously denied – mean that the moment has passed and cannot be reclaimed. This is usually obvious afterwards, but it is never absolutely clear at the time. We don’t know how damaging it might have been had Blair fired Brown early on in his premiership – we can only guess.

Leadership is difficult. Not least because many of the people who comment on your leadership have never led anything in their life, have no understanding of the human reality of the experience, and have no comprehension of the personal cost. Judgement is easy from a distance where the decision of a leader can be sneered at without a shred of understanding of how that decision was made. Any leader will affirm that decisions are often made under pressure, with limited information and limited criteria – often without certainty that the decision is the right one.

Blair is a reasonable target for scrutiny – after all, he was elected by people and should be held to account by the people to whom he is accountable. But he was not elected alone or in isolation for others who bear equal responsibility. Iraq was a disaster and based (at worst) on a fabrication. Blair should have fired Brown early on. Easy to say from here and now. As Blair acknowledges, a leader is held to account for decisions made, even if they were made for reasons rooted in integrity. But the judgements from outside should also be made with the reservation that knowledge of one’s own limitations brings. It’s not my job to defend Blair or Brown or anyone else; but, I am loathe to attack them on some grounds from the safety of my study. That would be like the armchair generals from a safe distance sending their troops blindly into battle .

History will tell, but it can’t be written with any confidence just yet.

That said, can anyone tell me why Cherie Blair has had to put up for years with the sheer sneery personal vilification at the hands of the press? And why, oh why, does William Hague have to broadcast the intimate details of his marriage as if it were a public consumer item? Do none of these shabby whisperers and commentators see this through the eyes of his wife? Or is that just too ‘human’? I feel shabby for being part of a culture that makes this sort of thing to be considered necessary.

I don’t have a very good memory for poetry, but there is one line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which has been playing on my mind in the days since the inconclusive General Election:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other. . . . (Act 1, scene 7, 25-28)

Macbeth intended to kill Duncan, the King, but lacked a motive. The Prime Minister’s ambition tells a different story.

Gordon Brown is leaving office (and, if reports are accurate, politics) amid a mixture of respect and scorn. He craved the top job for so long and yet has only been able to hold on to it for three years. It seems that his dark resentment against Tony Blair blinded him to the limitations of his own abilities. Rather than being content to fulfil his potential in the roles that were suitable for his gifts, his ambition compelled him to manoeuvre his way into a post for which he has always appeared ill-equipped.

Therein lies the tragedy of a good man whose ambition o’erleaped itself and led to a sad departure. Gordon Brown is one of the most eloquently ethical politicians I have ever heard. Intelligent, informed and articulate, he was on his best ground when addressing socio-economic realities through a framework of powerful moral (even biblical) ideals. Those who heard his impassioned appeal to the bishops of the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace in July 2008 will forget the prophetic urgency of his speech – urging the bishops to take seriously their commitment to hold governments to account in relation to the Millenium Development Goals. He was honest not only about the political contraints on politicians, but also about the moral force of bishops (and others, of course) who should keep reminding governments of the commitments they had made.

The best line of the post-election game has been the one about us moving on from the Lib-Lab Pact of the 1970s to the ConDemNation of today. The shenanigans of recent days will soon resolve into some sort of government for next few months. But I suspect that one day the history books will be kinder to Gordon Brown than are the media this week. His policies (under Blair and subsequently) brought many people out of poverty, gave parents a better start and, amid some of the not-so-great elements, treated international aid seriously. He had his weaknesses – but he also had his strengths and these should be recognised.

Perhaps for the first time, he might now get a family life before offering his huge skills and experience to the world in a different capacity. In the meantime, we will no doubt be entertained by other politicians whose ambition is no less than Brown’s. It won’t be an edifying spectacle.

There is little left to say about Gordon Brown’s disaster yesterday. Roy Greenslade has summarised the press coverage this morning and it tells its own story. But, there is one element of this business that bothers me greatly.

In the context of the most personality-driven and presidential general election campaign I can remember, the story is all about Gordon Brown’s hypocrisy and political demise. Immigration is beginning to get more of an airing, but not in substance … only in terms of it being a legitimate topic for concern or debate. That worries me in itself.

But, my main worry has to do with generalisation and categorisation.

We have learned over the years not to categorise people. We should not speak about ‘homosexuals’, but ‘homosexual people’ (in the context of church debates, for example). We refer to ‘disabled people’, not ‘the disabled’. Yet, we have stigmatised politicians (greedy wasters) and bankers (greedy wasters) in a way that is undifferentiated, lazy and even destructive. And now we are doing it with ‘immigrants’.

Forgive the reference (and I am not equating these in terms of the gravity of the phenomena), but whenever we categorise groups of people we run the risk of misrepresenting and misjudging the truth or the reality. Look at the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda… or the Jews in Weimar Germany. (Remember the paediatrician in Portsmouth whose house was targetted by the anti-paedophile mobs?) So, when conducting important discussions about immigration into our small island, the language we use matters.

So, when we speak of ‘immigrants’, to whom are we referring? And when we speak (as yesterday) of ‘Eastern European immigrants’, do we really intend to lump them all together in one negative category? And when we listen to the vox pops from Rochdale estates in which we hear that housing and jobs are going to ‘them’, precisely which houses and jobs are being denied to the English? And would they do these jobs anyway?

Reality is always more complicated than headlines. But, given that we live in a blame culture – in which everything has to be someone else’s fault – anyway, how do we find the language for an intelligent and informed debate about immigration instead of the generalised and (undifferentiatedly) categorised demonisation we see at the moment? Just because lots of people are concerned about immigration (or their perception of it) does not mean we are right to use it as a cheap way of appearing populist or winning votes.

I shrank with embarrassment when I saw Brown’s gaffe. But I also wondered why the gaffe became the story instead of immigration becoming the issue. And I also wondered what it would feel like to be a tax-paying, socially responsible Eastern European immigrant in England this morning – or how our newspapers would handle the news that British emigrants were being demonised in countries where they also were entitled to live.

I guess it depends which Nick we are talking about…

Well, Nick Clegg has changed British politics for ever (according to the newspapers). It’s a bit ironic that the Tories are calling for ‘a change’, but obviously didn’t expect the people to be offered a real change. And, while we are at it, how did they come up with such a contentless slogan – Vote for Change – as if change of itself was a good thing? I always thought that change for the sake of change was unwise.

Meanwhile Labour have sunk into third place, yet Brown is playing the ‘Don’t Change – it’s too risky’ card at the same time as saying that lots of things require urgent and radical change… such as politics and the economy.

But both parties seem to be missing the mark in attacking the Liberal Democrats on the basis of their policies when what is evident is that post-debate Cleggmania has caught a mood – one in which people might prefer a risk and a change just to get away from the old ‘slagging off the opposition’ politics. (I also wonder if it is wise for the politicians to use the language of fear on people who have been living through the banking collapse, a prolonged recession, the threat of climate change and now a nuisance volcano stopping air travel… and yet are still here. Has the elctorate been ‘feared out’ and is now responding to the offer of some positive ‘hope’?)

I have to admit a respect for Clegg, but for an unusual (and probably unpopular) reason. I have written before about Helmut Schmidt‘s belief that no politician should enter Parliament if they don’t speak at least two foreign languages. The 91 year old former German Bundeskanzler says this in his wonderful book Ausser Dienst. His point is that we can only really understand our own culture if we first have looked at it through the lens of another culture. In an earlier post I wrote:

To learn a language is to enter beneath the surface of a people, their history and their culture. It is necessary to learn a language in order to understand how relatively limited is your own culture and understanding of the world.

Nick Clegg speaks fluent Spanish and – apparently – several other languages. This inevitably gives him a cultural and intellectual ‘hinterland’ which will make him more interesting than those who only know English (as a language) and Britain (as a place to live). As Brown becomes more gravely authoritative and Cameron sounds more shrill and hectoring, Clegg might just want to express some breadth and depth.

I know that correlations don’t make for explanations, but I do wonder if Clegg might just offer what people want – just as the other leaders are looking and sounding ‘old’.

Mind you, I still haven’t decided which way I will vote on 6 May. I know which ways I will not be voting. But an election that made me yawn at the beginning has now come alive. And it is possible that the real bonus of a potentially higher turnout than was originally feared will be the marginalisation of the extremist parties (who do well when moderate voters stay at home).

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun. Actually, that is an understatement. I have nothing but contempt for the way people are treated by the British tabloids: dehumanised fodder in ratings wars.

The SunThe big news yesterday was about the ‘scandal’ of the Prime Minister having written an inadequate letter to the mother of a young soldier who died in Afghanistan. Apparently, the Prime Minister wrote by hand a letter of condolence in poor handwriting – a letter that was then found to contain spelling errors. The outrage of the bereaved mother was then caught in newspaper print and in the broadcast media. Gordon Brown was put onto the defensive, having to explain to a watching world what should have been a private matter.

And this is where the Sun comes in. It appears that this ‘newspaper’ has generated a story in order to put political pressure on the Prime Minister and the Labour Government. In other words, this is a political maneouvre aimed at causing embarrassment to the party the paper has decided to oppose in the next election.

So, what happened next? Well, the Prime Minister phoned the bereaved mother – beyond the call of duty? The Sun had provided her with the means to record the private conversation – and now the recording has been made public, is being picked over in the media and yet might invoke sympathy for Brown.

Why do people buy a newspaper that so blatantly abuses a bereaved woman such as Mrs Janes? She is being cynically exploited for the Sun‘s gain. As another bereaved mother put it on the BBC news earlier: this is a private matter and bereaved people should be directing their anger where it is due – not by making political capital for a newspaper by allowing her privacy to be compromised by people you can’t trust.

Whatever you think of Gordon Brown or his Government or his policies in respect of Afghanistan, this behaviour cannot be condoned. The Prime Minister didn’t simply send out a standard letter of condolence with a brief hand-written sentence at the end to ‘personalise’ it; he writes an individual letter to each bereaved family. That should be recognised and applauded … and then left to the confidentiality it deserved.

No one will fail to sympathise with those bereaved through the horror and violence of this conflict. But the Sun is behaving exploitatively and with a dehumanising contempt for the people involved as well as for any notion of privacy or confidentiality.

Can’t the great British public see what is going on here – and how they/we are being manipulated by this stuff?

There is a place where the Sun don’t shine…