It barely seems possible that only 40 hours ago a young MP was murdered on the streets of a quiet West Yorkshire town known previously for science (Joseph Priestley) and the Brontes. I spent much of the last two days in Birstall, doing media interviews and trying to support the local vicar and church. I make the following brief observations not for the benefit of the wider world (as if…), but in order that I should not lose for myself the impressions of the last couple of days.

  • Jo Cox was an unusual MP because she represented the place she grew up in and the people among whom she grew up. She not only did not forget her roots in Yorkshire grit, she returned to live among them. Hence the emotional impact locally – she was one of them.
  • The thoughts that keep,me awake have little to do with politics and everything to do with her husband and children. This is a grievous loss – an unimaginable cruelty to them as well as to Jo herself.
  • The man charged has now owned in court his far right, nationalist motive: he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Although speculation about motive was unhelpful in the early hours after Jo's death, there was one observation that merited consideration: the political discourse in this country is poisonous – and recognised beyond our borders to be so. To put it bluntly: if the linguistic and cultural pool we swim in is poisoned day after day – with opponents in the Referendum debate being dismissed as dishonest, corrupt, abusable and our European partners being daily written off as corrupt, incompetent and (their real crime) foreign – then we shouldn't be surprised when some people, for whatever broken and destructive reason, push language to consequent action.
  • If you haven't seen it, watch the German film Die Welle ('The Wave').
  • I am so proud of the local church in Birstall and the vicar, Paul Knight, who, never having been faced by anything like this before, did what the Anglican Parish Church is there to do: created space for all-comers to come together and share shock and grief. But, this space was not empty space – the few words spoken by Paul, by me and by the Bishop of Huddersfield were intended to do two things: (a) offer a vocabulary for grief and lament, and (b) to offer a framework for living for a time with unspeakable reflection not only about Jo Cox and her family, but also about our own mortality and fragility. Civilisation is thin. But, it is not bishops who do this day by day in a particular place; it is clergy and their people who, confident that the cross speaks of looking the real world in the eye (with all its brutality, injustice and agony), make space for grief in the context of resurrection. This violence and appalling destructiveness do not and will not have the final word.
  • Many of Jo Cox's fellow MPs were there at St Peter's, Birstall on Thursday evening. I feel strongly for them. For several of them – young parents themselves – the fragility was clear. As I said in the vigil: MPs do not simply curse the darkness, but light a candle to dispel it. They commit themselves to a vision for which they then work amazingly hard. What they get from a public fed by a cynical media is abuse, suspicion and sneering resentment. This must stop. Social media do not help in this, but consideration must now given to the potential legal consequences for those who threaten and abuse on social media.

Enough for now. I have a family celebration to go to in Liverpool. And I am not insensitive to the poignancy of this.

Denis Healey is dead at 98. He was the best leader Labour never had. He was also the last of a generation of politicians who had a hinterland to their political life.

The best (and the first) political autobiography I ever read was Healey's The Time of My Life. In it he prophesies against the trend for career politicians who had never done anything else. He also claimed that politicians who had no experience of war were more likely to send the country into war than those who had endured its realities. Healey had fought – latterly at Anzio – and knew its cost.

He was right. Politicians with amnesia or no cultural/historical hinterland are dangerous. Speaking with very bright Germans in Liverpool today (I am chairing the Meissen Commission), it is worrying that the intellectual and cultural insularity of so much UK politics makes our political discourse so poor. Healey represents the last of a generation who brought to our political life a deep experience of human conflict – one that fired his humanity and political life.

It is only when they have gone that we begin to realise what we have lost.

 

I am about to leave New York City having attended the second meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym IPPFoRB might need a bit of attention…

Convened last year by a small group of parliamentarians from the UK (Baroness Elizabeth Berridge), Norway, Brazil, Germany and Canada, this event brought together a hundred parliamentarians from fifty countries and from every continent – including from Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The Church of England was involved in planning and running the event.

Not only was there informed and passionate discussion of the challenges in many parts of the world – including the naming and numbering of the persecution of Christians – but there was also the telling of stories from particular countries. This was a remarkable meeting, in the shadow of the United Nations and ahead of the meeting shortly of the General Assembly, of politicians (largely) who recognise the challenges across the globe.

Underlying the discourse lies two tough questions that go to the heart of a world that privileges rights: who, and according to which criteria, arbitrates between competing rights? Who, and according to which criteria, establishes the hierarchies of rights and freedoms? So, which takes precedence when freedom of expression collides with freedom of religion or belief? For some people this is an interesting – if challenging – conundrum; for others, it is a daily matter of life and death. There is a lot of work to do on this, and this coalition of parliamentarians from around the globe has engagaed with it with some energy.

There is too much to report here, but reports and the text of the Resolution will be posted on the website in due course. I tweeted through the main session yesterday, so have a look at my timeline to get a taste.

 

It is an interesting week for words. Try these:

1. CLEAR: When will politicians realise that repeatedly using the word ‘clear’ does not actually make their view or policy clear? It is very odd to keep hearing it – in almost every statement. Saying something is clear doesn’t make it clear any more than saying something is good actually makes it good.

2. PLAN: Miliband and Cameron have a ‘plan’. We know this because they keep telling us. We get glimpses of what these and might look like, but we don’t get any idea of what the vision is that will shape their respective plans. On the other hand, it would be a bit weird if they didn’t have a plan, wouldn’t it? But, why do they need to keep telling us they have one?

3. AMORAL: In his Easter message, David Cameron pleads with those who disagree with his policies not to dismiss him as ‘amoral’. Fair enough. But, who has dismissed him as amoral? Disagreement with policies also surely cannot be dismissed as merely dismissive, rather than principled. Bishops seem to be a target, but our recent Pastoral Letter was also theologically and morally driven – and should not be dismissed by politicians who find that moral and theological basis inconvenient or objectionable.

4. EASTER: According to the Prime Minister, “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.” Oh. I thought it was about the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I applaud David Cameron’s defence of the place of faith in the public square, but he can’t escape the cultural and political dynamic that reduces (legitimate) subversive religious vision to some bland appeal for community cohesion.

5. SYMPATHY: This is what I feel for all politicians, especially party leaders. They are partly trapped in a culture that the rest of us either foster or accept – one that expects them to have a view on everything and an ability to perform an act before an audience. Driven by the media we pay for, we don’t allow leaders to change their mind, learn to learn, or develop their thinking-based-on-experience. We are the poorer for it.

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

Just a quickie as I haven’t had time to write anything deep (did I ever?) this last couple of weeks.

Funny old world. The Church of England gets it in the neck from politicians regarding women bishops and gay marriage. The Mother of Democracy makes space for people elected on a fraction of the electorate’s votes to threaten the Church that if we don’t change our polity they will do it for us. In other words, “we don’t like how your people voted, so change the system in such a way that they get it right next time – or we will force you to do it”.

Er… forgive me for being naive, but did any of these guys think through the implications of this ‘advice’? Or the assumptions behind it?

Did the Prime Minister not feel just a tinge of embarrassment in encouraging the Church of England to “get with the programme” (interesting choice of words…) when he had, for example, failed to reform the House of Lords (which the Church still thinks is needed) in Parliament? Pots, kettles, black. And how many u-turns has this government managed in the last couple of years? And they tell the Church how to get the right results by bending the systems?

Then we have a minister stand up in the House of Commons and state that the Church of England will be ‘banned’ (“It will be illegal…”) from allowing the celebration of gay marriages in church under the planned new legislation – without actually talking to us or alerting us first. OK, the established church finds itself in a conundrum about this and other ethical/cultural issues (and with a spread of opinions within the church) and some of the challenge has to do with stuff you simply can’t erase from reality (or law). So, the debate about the Church of England is OK. But, the minister referred to the Church in Wales in the same category – when it was disestablished 92 years ago. That’s 92 years ago.

So, we have politicians who are badly briefed, ignorant of the polity of the matters they are dealing with, change their minds every five minutes, put out ‘consultations’ at the same time as announcing that they “are determined to push this through”, make a false and factually erroneous distinction between ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’ in their consultation paperwork, fail to think through the implications of their proposals, fail to provide evidence of anything other than ad hoc and reactive populist thinking in the proposals they announce prematurely, and then expect to be taken seriously.

I was asked by a radio interviewer this morning how the Church of England will respond to ‘the ban’ on performing gay marriage in church. I wasn’t being entirely facetious in replying that we had probably better wait a while as there might well be an announcement next week changing it all again. Confidence isn’t high.

To make it worse, BBC Question Time last night was embarrassing. Not for the Church for being out of touch or irrelevant or any of the other things levelled at it. No, embarrassing because none of the panellists seemed to be aware of their ignorance, ashamed of their lack of basic research or the least bit open to the remotest hint of a possibility that their confident opinions might be even questionable.

One of the charges against the church is that we are irrelevant and out of touch with contemporary values. This might be true. It is also true that the church always needs to check its hermeneutics against lived reality and have the humility to consider that it might be ‘reading wrong’. But, the principle that the church ought automatically to go along with whatever a particular contemporary culture thinks is ‘right’ or ‘obvious’ is such obvious nonsense that it is embarrassing to have to name it.

Let’s be dramatic – and remember we are talking principle here. What should the church have done when German society in the 1930s colluded with the nasties? How should the Russian church have re-shaped itself during the Communist years? Should the church in England simply let go of some unpopular values because they get widely ridiculed? Should a church’s theological anthropology simply be short-circuited in order to keep trouble away and ‘fit in’?

The Christian scriptures and tradition don’t sit easily with this line. The prophets weren’t popular in the sixth or eighth centuries BC when they saw through the short-term political and military alliances that would ultimately lead to chaos. When life was cheap they didn’t refrain from holding to the inherent value of human life, the common good and the need for justice. Jesus didn’t get nailed for being untrendy – but for daring to challenge the Zeitgeist. His followers weren’t encouraged to blend in to first century pagan culture.

Let’s be clear: it is the principle of automatic collusion with the Zeitgeist that has to be questioned. Drill down then to the issues themselves (gay marriage, etc) and at least the conversation can proceed with mutual respect. Simply writing off those who oppose gay marriage as homophobes without engaging with the fundamental value systems and world views that shape their journey to that conclusion is crass – as is the sneer from the other end that approving of gay relationships automatically writes off all Christian credentials and reduces them to brain-dead liberalism.

The church needs to listen very carefully to what society is saying – and be willing in all humility to contemplate that its tradition on any issue might need to be amended. Sexuality is the big one in this respect at present. But, wider society should not expect an authentically Christian church to simply reflect its surrounding culture or be cowed by sneering ridicule or political pressure.

For the record, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has commissioned work on sexuality (Pilling) and the outcome of this will inevitably have implications for other matters. No bishop is treating this lightly and we are fully aware of the impatience of many people for us to get on with it. But, we will work on it properly and will eventually come to some conclusions. Sneering or ridicule won’t force the issue – however much many of us would like to expedite it to a particular end.

We live in interesting times (again). Italy now has a government without a single elected politician in it. And Italy might not be the last.

Europe has considered itself to be the cradle of democracy – systems of government in which elected politicians set the policy direction and the technocrats do the economic plumbing. Now the impotence of elected politicians has led to the technocrats running the show while the elected representatives watch from the sidelines. Maybe they are relieved. The hard decisions needed in tough times are better taken by people who don’t have to worry about constituencies or getting re-elected by people who are upset with you for spoiling their life.

However, it also calls into question the competence of elected ‘lay’ people to direct highly technically complex financial and governmental organisations. At what point will the technocrats decide that their job is done and power can be handed back to the politicians? It’s an intriguing question.

If the same move was made in the UK, I wonder who might form the government of the technocrats?

One of the benefits of having a bit of a break is that when the tiredness wears off, you get the space to reflect on the past and think things through more clearly than is possible in the cauldron of immediate demand.

But, this also has a worrying, if not slightly depressing, element. I keep remembering things I have done and (more embarrasingly) said that I wish I hadn’t. I wonder how many people I have needlessly offended during my half-century of life. I wonder how often I have been misunderstood because of what I have said or done. And I cringe at things that probably now stick to any memory of me held by people who were on the wrong end of my opinions, judgements or statements. Like the shark in Jaws emerging when you least expect it to (ignore the give-away drumbeat), these memories pop up above the surface and cause me to wince.

However, this only demonstrates that growing up can’t be done without the growing up. The mistakes are what we learn from – and we also gradually learn that we can’t fix everything we have ever got wrong. Yet, recognising the failures at least maintains a degree of humility. Being human means an awful lot of looking back and wincing.

It is this ‘being human’ stuff that’s bothering me during my ‘reflective’ time. Take a couple of examples:

  • Obama makes his first State of the Union address amid the opprobrium of those who know they could do his job better. Critics – some of whom have done nothing for the ‘common good’ other than take other people apart – scream how disappointed they are in him, how all the hopes of a year ago have been dashed.

One year. In the context of eternity that is not… er … a long time. People make unrealistic demands of leaders, then pull them down when they fail in one or two areas. Some of the hopes put into Obama were stupidly unrealistic and he was bound to disappoint before he even started.

  • Inequality between the richest and poorest has grown in the UK in the last forty years. The Tories scorn Labour’s record of the last 13 years, ignoring that the ratio went from 3-4 under Thatcher and the Tories. Harriet Harman went on BBC Radio 4 and made a statement of the blindingly obvious, but ignored by politicians and media: it takes generations to change cultures and behaviours, not a year or two within an electoral cycle that demands short-term gains for political advantage.

Harman is right. Such initiatives as Sure Start have made a massive difference to many children and families, but the benefits will not be seen until the behavioural expectations have run through a generation or two. The problem of getting a young man into meaningful employment when he is the third or fourth generation of unemployed men in his family circle is not one that is merely practical: it means changing a mindset of both community and individual over a long period of time.

This is not a party-political point; rather, it is an expression of frustration that our politics don’t encourage generational policy-making or long-term thinking because the electorate will want instant results and the popular media will encourage them to expect them. And then we are surprised or offended when we find our political leaders apparently making decisions for reasons of political expediency rather than the effective achievement of long-term goals (that might take three, four or even five electoral terms to even begin to work through). Instead, we rubbish those we don’t like, set ourselves up as the competent alternative, then prepare our excuses in advance when the ‘real world’  hits us.

Which is probably why so many people are sceptical of the competence or integrity of all politicians. The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ is more complex than we sometimes like to admit.

What is really scary, however, is the dehumanising of the people involved in politics and public life. Which, perhaps surprisingly, brings us to Brangelina.

I don’t know Brad Pitt and I don’t fancy Angelina Jolie. But I do know that they are married and have six children in their care. Yet international sport dictates that every detail of their private life and marital strife is available for public consumption and entertainment. And all this probably puts more pressure on the marriage.

It appears that we will only be satisfied when the marriage breaks up, Brad goes back to Jen (!), the kids grow up needing psychotherapy (but at least will be able to make a career from telling their story to the world) and we can all pass judgement on the people involved. Then we can move on to the next celebrity disaster and exploit our self-righteous voyeurism again – a sort of anaesthetic against dealing with our own human weaknesses, perhaps?

Call me naive, but I wonder about the human beings caught up in all this. I wonder about the dehumanising abuse we heap on those we can blame for whatever it is we don’t like about our lives or the world we live in. We can project our nastiness onto those we know cannot hit back.

I look back with horror on the cringy things I have said and done throughout my life. And that is only the things I do remember – there is probably much I have forgotten. But I thank God for those who let me make mistakes and forgave me, knowing that you have to take a long-term view and allow people the freedom – the space – to grow up and change and re-shape… and not be nailed to a reputation that belongs to the past.

I think it was Jesus who said that we can only expect forgiveness if we first forgive. And I guess we can only expect kindness and generosity if first we practise the discipline of being kind, generous and spacious to those we know to be failing. If we want a humane society, shouldn’t we first be prepared to live humanely?

Helmut SchmidtWhile in Germany the other day I picked up a copy of Helmut Schmidt‘s latest (and probably last) book, Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz. Basically, it is a collection of ruminations 25 years after leaving office as Bundeskanzler in the Federal Republic of Germany. Schmidt was Bundeskanzler from 1974-1982 and was, to my mind at least, one of the greatest politicians of the post-war years. As well as being probably one of the most intelligent politicians of his generation, he was also a generous and always interesting man. He also managed to keep Margaret Thatcher in check.

In the introduction to his book of reminiscences the chain-smoking 91 year-old (whom I managed to miss when he did a long session at the Kirchentag in Bremen last May – many went to see if he could manage to last a whole two hours in a hall where smoking was banned) says:

Now approaching the end of my life, I simply wanted to put in writing what I believe I have learned politically in the course of the decades I have served.

He left public office in 1987 after three decades as (what we would call in Britain) an MP. So, his reflections and reminiscences bring with them an authority and wisdom that need to be taken seriously. It seems to me that every politician should be forced to read this book … and Denis Healey’s wonderful The Time of my Life.

Here Schmidt discusses the need for politicians to learn the art of compromise and tolerance, observing that the responsibility of a politician is not abstract, but has to be worked out in very real and complex situations. He makes comments about the need for all politicians to do two things before taking public office: (a) travel widely and (b) learn at least two foreign languages. Can you imagine any British or American politician taking that seriously? Yet he is absolutely spot on.

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. Schmidt handled the British media and people like Margaret Thatcher with consummate ease, speaking English with a rare skill for semantic nuance and shaming the linguistically-challenged British by his unshowy facility to understand the British mindset – even when he clearly thought he was dealing with rather limited intellects.

Whenever I am abroad I feel rather ashamed at my weakness in languages. Compared to what it should be, my German is now not very good. But, I cannot forget the experience of learning French from an early age (but never practicing it) and, later, Russian as an adult and professional linguist. As you learn the language and explore the history and culture of a people, you begin to understand why they think the way they do. You begin to loook through their eyes and comprehend why the world looks as it does from their perspective.

So, why, I ask, are languages relegated to the second division of the English school curriculum? Why are we so stupid as to allow children to drop all foreign languages at the age of 14? Do we not realise that not only do they lose the opportunity I have just described of entering into the soul of another people and, therefore, finding a new way of reflecting on their own identity, but they also put themselves at a massive disadvantage when it comes to making their way in the world of work and business? If young children in some of my Croydon schools can have an easy facility with several languages – of which English might be their third – why can’t English children surmount their island mentality and manage at least one foreign language to some degree of articulacy?

Schmidt says this (in my translation):

My many travels have confirmed for me just how important it is to observe your own country from the outside and to compare its institutions and laws with those of another state.

Reading that on the flight back from Berlin last night, I reflected that the same is true of the Church. When I listen to some Christians extolling the virtues of the Reformers in Europe (usually very selectively), I smile to think how they would react if they saw what that reformed tradition actually looks like in reality. We all need to see through the eyes of others and be willing to see our own certainties differently as a result.

But, as Schmidt suggests in his wonderful, wise and very personal book, to see through the eyes of others is dangerous: you might end up being more generous to them and more critical of your own.

And that would never do – would it?

So, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has suggested he thought of resigning along with James Purnell, but decided against it. Then he gets castigated or mocked in the press for having thought about it.

David-MilibandIs this the same press that wants politicians to be honest and tell the truth? Would they prefer it if he had lied and said that the thought of resignation had never crossed his mind?

If we want politicians to be honest and tell the truth and avoid spin, then we as consumers of ‘news’ will have to demand of the press a more mature way of thinking and commenting. If we get the politicians we deserve, surely the same is true of the press. Which isn’t very encouraging.