Breaking up is hard to do. So went the song. But, whereas that might apply to love and relationships, it clearly is less so when it comes to politics.

The EU referendum debate has so far been … er … pathetic – the trading of unsubstantiated prophetic claims on both sides, accompanied by ‘selective’ representations of European history and the pursuit of personal vendettas by people who seemed – on other matters, at least – to be on the same side.

But, one aspect has, to my mind, not been adequately explored. It is quick and easy to break down institutions and relationships, but long and difficult to build them up. In recent memory, just witness the collapse of the USSR and the ground it prepared for Vladimir Putin, resurgent nationalism rooted in hurt pride, and a fascism that has fed similar tendencies in Eastern Europe and beyond. The winter of the Arab Spring should teach us something.

In this respect, consideration must be given to how Brexit might well fuel the disturbing nationalist fires in other parts of Europe and how further fragmentation of the EU might lead to new political associations over which we will have no control and even less influence. Remaining in the EU must raise questions about how the resentments, racism and romanticisms of some member states can be resisted with the sort of moral clarity and courage that gave rise to the post-war European project in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago a former Archbishop of Canterbury compared Brexit to Noah leading the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and to freedom in the Promised Land. (I kid you not: I was asked to comment on a draft.) Of course, where the case falls is that the exodus was followed by forty years – a generation of romanticists – in the desert and a good deal of violent ethnic cleansing thereafter. Promises of effortless and cost-free deliverance are usually fantasy, and those who do the promising know this very well.

So, whether one wishes to see the UK remain in the EU or leave it behind, promises of political or economic (to say nothing of diplomatic) nirvana should be placed on the ‘fantasy’ pile – or, as I prefer to think of it, the ‘lying’ pile. (As should the rhetoric that cites only the ‘costs’ to us of UK membership of the EU without asking once what we bring to the European consensus.)

This is pertinent because, as most of Europe looks on in bewilderment at the nature of our debate thus far, we are asking the British people to make a decision that will have both intended and unintended consequences for us. We simply cannot say whether Brexit will make travel and other conveniences less convenient – other EU countries might well help us to recall what membership granted by removing some of the conveniences we have rejected. We simply cannot pretend that the negotiations in which we will hope to engage will end up benefiting us in the way suggested – especially when we will be negotiating (among others) with those whom we have spent many words and gestures insulting and rejecting (either explicitly or implicitly) during this campaign.

The tragedy of the referendum campaign – to my mind, at least – is the appeal to purely national self-interest over against what we might bring to the common good. Democracy – claimed by some to be the primary victim of EU membership – means compromise in the interests of the common good, but only following debate and consensus. Do we really think democracy can be reduced to only being valid when everyone else agrees with us and we guarantee our own interests?

Clearly, remaining will bring challenges. Leaving will bring others. That is reality, and we can’t predict the future. But, we can weigh up the probabilities of each option and vote accordingly on 23 June.

Nevertheless, one thing that has struggled to get through this debate is that the easy conflation of the EU and Europe is less than helpful. The institution is not the same as the continent. The EU is a construct that can be reshaped and reimagined; the continent has seen a constantly changing shaping of cultures, nations and politico-economic allegiances. The question is: will remaining in the EU or leaving it be more likely to shape the continent for the better in the next century, or will it contribute to a disintegration and the unintended consequences this might bring?

After all, the history will only be written a century after the events – something of which we are acutely aware as we commemorate the catastrophe that turned into the First World War a hundred years ago.

(At least the Guardian – probably the only national newspaper that would entertain this – allowed an amusing dispute between Giles Fraser and Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch on whether the Reformation should push us to stay or go. I don’t see a distinctive theological line on the question that is not selective to some extent; but, history too easily becomes a commodity which we trade in the interests of our own arguments or preferences. Yet, more of that sort of intelligent exchange would be welcome – and certainly more enlightening than the hyperbolic lobbing of political grenades from the trenches.)

 

Advertisements

Following my recent visit to Iraq with Christian Aid, I asked five written questions in the House of Lords. The answers were published on 5 April and I reproduce them here:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of the use of chemical weapons by Daesh in Iraq.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: There are credible reports that Daesh has used chemical weapons in Iraq. The Government of Iraq, with support from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), investigated allegations of chemical weapons use in Iraq last year and has concluded that sulphur mustard was used against Peshmerga fighters on 11 August 2015.

Allegations that Daesh attacked the village of Taza on 8 March 2016, possibly with sulphur mustard, are being investigated by the Government of Iraq, along with two other recent allegations of Daesh use of chemical weapons. Such behaviour would be consistent with Daesh’s record of complete disregard for human rights and international norms and values. We welcome the OPCW Director General’s press statement of 23 March offering assistance to the Government of Iraq.

We continue to monitor all allegations of chemical weapon use very closely, and condemn all such attacks by anyone, anywhere.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to record the atrocities that have been committed by Daesh in Iraq so that, in due course, offenders may be brought to justice.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: This Government wants to see accountability for Daesh abuses, and has supported efforts to document them. The UK co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council Resolution in September 2014 mandating the investigation of Daesh abuses.

In Iraq, we are funding training for human rights defenders to improve victim support and case documentation of sexual violence committed by Daesh. It is hoped that this evidence will be able to be used in the future to hold the perpetrators to account.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Iraq about Iraq becoming a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The UK coordinates with other EU member states to promote the universality of the Rome Statute. We offer support to any State that is in the process of ratifying the Rome Statute or needs assistance in adopting the national legislation needed to enact the full implementation of the statute.

Whether Iraq chooses to accede to the Rome Statute is a matter for the Government of Iraq.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Iraq on resolving the budget impasse with the Kurdish Regional Government.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: We regularly raise the importance of securing a new budget agreement between Baghdad and Erbil with senior representatives of the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

During his visit to Iraq in March the Foreign Secretary, my Rt Hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), raised the issue with both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my Hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), underlined the importance of a new agreement with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani in Iraq in December 2015.

Officials at our Embassy in Baghdad and our Consulate General in Erbil continue to highlight the benefits of a united Iraq and the benefits to both sides of agreeing a new oil sharing and budget arrangement.

 

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to establishing new consular premises in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The Government is committed to delivering a permanent, fit-for-purpose Consulate General platform in Erbil at the earliest opportunity.

Significant changes to the security situation in Iraq have necessitated that we review our requirements and plans for the Consulate General platform in order to ensure that we are able to meet our political, security, prosperity and humanitarian objectives, both now and in the future. We continue to offer an uninterrupted service from our current Consulate General platform and continue to explore options for the acquisition of appropriate office accommodation for the future.

 

I will be following these up with further questions.

 

Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

I am not going to find this an easy week. Holy Week, when Christians walk with Jesus and his friends towards what he knows will be a death. Their journey begins with a triumphant entry into the city, proceeds through a celebration meal – the Last Supper – and collapses into betrayal, denial, judgement and execution. Despite having been warned of what was to come, the friends of Jesus just didn't get it.

The 'not easy' bit comes from being asked to walk the story as if I didn't know the ending … although I do know about Good Friday, empty Saturday and the resurrection of Easter Day. It's a bit like trying to experience again the tension you felt when you watched a thriller for the first time … when watching it for the second or third time – when you know what happens.

Well, Holy Week is different for me this year. I have just got back from a week in Iraqi Kurdistan with several colleagues. We listened to the rationales and pleas of politicians and officials, and we visited aid projects in Erbil and Duhok – way up north. We drove within a few miles of Mosul and the Isis lines. But, most powerfully, we met individuals and families whose stories spoke loudly of Good Friday and betrayal and suffering and destruction.

On our second day we drove into the northern Kurdish hills to visit a camp for internally displaced people – people known not by their names, but by their category: IDPs. We trudged through mud and sat in small single-room portakabin 'homes' listening to stories of unimaginable suffering – not only of Yazidis and Christians and Shia Muslims, but also of Sunni Muslims from Syria and Iraq. Isis kill anyone, and they destroy everything.

In the days ahead we met families who lost everything in a moment. When they hear demands that they should return home, they wonder where that might be: their actual home is no longer there, there is no social infrastructure hanging around waiting to be re-kindled, there is no trust left between erstwhile neighbours who have now betrayed or been betrayed in the most brutal fashion.

Add to this picture that fact that only 9% of promised international humanitarian aid has actually been paid in and you can see the difficulty of feeling hopeful – hopeful for the displaced and refugee people, or hopeful for a resurrection of order.

In John's Gospel, as his friends and family watch him die, Jesus commits his mother's care to his friend. If resurrection can only follow crucifixion, then this commitment to hospitality, care and love cannot be ducked. While the situation in Iraq lies rooted in despair, it must surely be the responsibility of those who stand watching to take responsibility for the remarkable humanitarian efforts going on in the distance – to make small steps of hopefulness where grand gestures appear as empty as spent shrapnel.

Our last day in Iraq. We leave Erbil early tomorrow morning. All credit to Christian Aid's Louise Finan and Laura Taylor for putting together and leading an excellent visit to this tragic land. Four days is not long enough to get a grip on things, but the programme shone light on a number of interconnected issues whilst allowing us to put names and faces to the statistics.

For example, this morning we joined Christian Aid's partner REACH to visit two families in the suburbs of Erbil. The first were Syrian refugees from Aleppo. The young woman, holding her very young son, struggled as she described the beheading of her big brother in July 2013. Her two teenage sisters work in a factory in order to bring money in for the family which has no other means of support or sustenance – they are 15 and 17 years old. Her nephew joined us – he had seen the body of his beheaded father and was traumatised. Her husband is missing, presumed dead. Her parents are in poor health and they all live together. They would like to go back to Aleppo, but it looks like there is barely any Aleppo left for them to return to. REACH has enabled the young mother to train as a hairdresser and start a small business. She has considered getting smuggled across the Aegean, but her family insist she would have to leave her young son behind. She is pessimistic about her son's future.

They also believe that Syria is now too fractured for peaceful reconciliation to be possible.

The second family fled from Mosul when Daesh/ISIS moved in. They were clear: Daesh kill anyone and everyone. They destroy everything. What will there be to go back to?

OK, they are the human face of the stuff we see in the news or hear chucked around in tabloid debates about “migrants”. We went from there to meet the Director General of the Kurdistan Ministry of the Interior's Joint Crisis Coordination Centre. His story was consistent with those told by other, more independent interlocutors (including from the UK and UN):

  • Public salaries have not been paid for five months.
  • Only 9% of financial support promised by international partners has so far got through.
  • Baghdad is not passing on the 17% of its budget revenue it has agreed to do.
  • There appears to be no exit strategy for the post-ISIS era.
  • While resources are diminishing, the population in Kurdistan has increased by 30% because of IDPs and refugees.
  • Capacity exists – funding does not.
  • The situation is unsustainable, the infrastructure is under huge pressure, and a bigger crisis might lie ahead.
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government wants people voluntarily to return to their homes, to retain the mix of minorities, and get international help in creating peaceful reconciliation.
  • They need financial and technical assistance from the international community, but if these go via Baghdad, they will never reach Kurdistan.

Our visits concluded as, coincidentally, US Secretary of State John Kerry described ISIS as having “committed genocide” against Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. This is a little bewildering. ISIS – Sunni Muslims – have been murdering Sunnis, too. According to the people we have met this week, ISIS is indiscriminate in their savagery, even though they target Christians, Yazidis and Shia in particular. Genocide is to be legally defined, not politically. What is not in doubt is the sheer horror and destructiveness of what ISIS is doing to ordinary people whose lives were destroyed in the most brutal way.

Now, all this begs wider questions. I will get back to them in due course. But, the dominant question in my own mind just now is what reconstruction in Iraq might look like … and whether Iraq can survive.

Which makes the humanitarian work going on here all the more impressive. No guarantees – just commitment.

 

So, we are about to enter the most explicit exercise of collective faith and we have a few months to get used to the idea. The referendum on Britain remaining in or leaving the European Union will take place on Thursday 23 June. Why 'faith'? Simply because even those who despise the concept of faith (preferring 'fact' – as if that was the antithesis of faith) will have to exercise a huge pile of it in deciding how to vote.

Staying in the EU will demand faith. We do not know how the Union will shape up in the future, given some of the strains inherent in it as an institution. We also don't know how future events or pressures will push for a re-shaping of the relationships that constitute it. Another financial crash will prove testing not only to the euro, but also to the union itself.

However, leaving the EU will also herald a pile of unknowns. We cannot be sure how our trade agreements will hold or how the EU will decide to handle Britain in the future. It seems bizarre, at the very least, that the 'leavers' seem convinced that leaving will bring only benefits to the UK whilst at the same time changing nothing in terms of relationships. Can you imagine if France related to the EU as Britian does and, ultimately, voted to leave? We would make life difficult for them at every turn, wouldn't we?

So, the campaign is about to kick off. I want to hear the arguments before deciding which way to vote on 23 June. My fear, however, is that arguments won't get heard. In a polarised British media 'Europe' is conflated into 'EU' and, in turn, the EU is associated purely with 'immigration' and negativity. This doesn't augur well for an intelligent debate leading to a properly understood outcome.

It is always a surprise that anyone believes any politician who promises anything during an election campaign. It is never a surprise that promises get compromised within days of the real world returning. I am not being cynical here: the world changes constantly, and promises made on one set of premises cannot always be guaranteed to be deliverable when the context changes – which, in this uncertain world, can happen very quickly. So, any election is an act of faith. And a wise electorate expresses its will on the basis of potential and probability, and on the character of the ones who, once in power, might have to adapt to a world they didn't predict or promise.

The referendum campaign should set out both the pros and cons of both staying in or leaving the EU. Emotional and associational manipulation should be minimised. I won't hold my breath.

I offer two starters for ten: (a) don't confuse Europe with the institutions of the EU; (b) we do not have to vote on a polar choice: pro-EU (stay in) or anti-EU (get out), but can offer a third way of wanting to stay in (recognising our place in Europe) while being strongly critical of the institution of the EU and working to see it change. Let's see how that looks in four months time.

In the meantime (because it only occurred to me yesterday to wonder), I would like to know (a) how much British ex-pats living in other EU countries get in benefits from those countries, (b) how they might be affected if rules for migrants living in Britain were imposed in those countries, too, and (c) how the first figure compares with what is paid out to EU immigrants here. Are such figures/comparisons published anywhere?

I think it unlikely that the Church of England will take a view on which way to vote as Christians will, in good conscience, vote differently depending on how they judge the benefits or otherwise of staying or leaving. However, voices rooted in more than economic pragmatism need to be heard and I trust individuals will represent those views, judgements and questions as the debate progresses towards a vote.

If the result turns out to be as close as it would appear at this stage, someone will have to pay attention to the aftermath and how we stick together when half the country is angry or disappointed – probably not only by the outcome, but by the conduct of the campaigns, too. I still hope that the Church's Reimagining Europe blog can offer a safer place for dialogue and debate than will be evident in the British media.

 

I am currently in Sri Lanka with our diocesan link bishop. I hadn't realised when we arrived yesterday in an almighty thunderstorm that this might be the mood left behind in England by the letter from bishops to the Prime Minister about refugees.

The storm is predictable, though some of the response by the commentariat is disappointingly knee-jerk.

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon?

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Our job is not to be popular or to go with the flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument (that I can only witness from a vast distance and with intermittent wifi) should be on the plight of refugees (see previous posts and my article in the Yorkshire Post) and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Colombo yesterday, Kandy today. Tomorrow we move on to the north and Jaffna. Much of the conversation revolves around the recently ended civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

The photo above is of the notice on our hotel window in Kandy. It doesn't spell out whether it is addressed to the guests or simply alerting us to an animal problem.