All-of-us in Blunderland

In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:

“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.

When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.

The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)

  • David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
  • … without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
  • Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
  • Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
  • Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
  • Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
  • Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
  • All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party

And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)

It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?

The Satanic Verses 30 Years On

Somewhere on my bookshelves, I used to have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Its pages slightly browning, because even though I never read it, it must be over 20 years ago that I bought it, and for some of those years it sat on a window sill in the sun. But had it survived the downsizing, and terrible cull of books, that took place when we moved to Thame?

It didn’t take long for me to find it, and yes, it had survived, and is still on my list of Books To Read. Some time. (Being able to find it so quickly, incidentally, is an indicator of how few books remain…)

This search happened after I was reminded of Rushdie’s book by the recent BBC2 documentary, The Satanic Verses 30 Years On. In this film, presenter Mobeen Azhar examines the lasting effect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on the Muslim community and how the events of 1989 continue to have an impact today. Those ‘events’ followed the book’s first publication, when Muslims in Britain were scandalized by Rushdie’s fiction, convinced that it was a blasphemous affront to Islam. Huge demonstrations took place in Britain, where the book was notoriously burned in the public square in Bradford, and in other countries, especially Iran and the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwah calling upon faithful Muslims to assassinate Rushdie, and death threats were also made against the book’s publishers and all the individuals who had been involved in its publication. 59 people lost their lives in the most violent demonstrations around the world.

At the time there were laws against blasphemy in England and Wales, but they only protected the Christian religion. For a time there was some discussion, supported by a number of liberals and Christians, about extending the law to protect Islam and other faiths. In the end this did not happen: instead, the blasphemy law was repealed in its entirety in 2008, and may be considered to have been replaced (in part) by legislation against religious and racial hate crimes.

It was nothing but a good thing for the Blasphemy Law to have been repealed. It was ridiculous and out-dated, had hardly ever been used by Christians in the hundreds of years of its existence, and the possibility of it being used by Muslims in a case such as the Rushdie case, simply appalling. It’s also an unfortunate reality of the differences between the world faiths, that there are passages even in the sacred Scriptures that could be construed as blasphemous by the adherents of other religions. Christians ‘blasphemously’ (to Muslims) believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran ‘blasphemously’ (to Christians) asserts that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that he did not die on the cross. This is just the start of the problem…

Mobeen Azhar’s documentary followed up the events of 1989, interviewing some of the men who had been involved in the protests. His conclusion was that, although the protests had given the Muslim community the opportunity to make a protest which was, as much as anything, about the racial intolerance and disadvantage they had suffered, it had also had many negative consequences. In particular, the caricature of the Muslim bogeyman was born, because of the way the tabloid press reported the riots. Azhar’s final comment:

“It ushered in this age of division, with Muslims being seen as the other. But we’re not outsiders. We’re a really important part of British society. But we have to be able to stomach debates about our culture, and actually our religion as well. Even if we find them offensive, we have to be able to do that. And it’s only when we can do that, that the ghost of The Satanic Verses will truly be put to bed.”

That blasphemy is still considered a crime anywhere in the world, in the 21st century, is a scandal. We only have to look at the terrible way it is used in Pakistan and other Islamist countries, where not only Christians and ‘apostates’ from Islam are routinely lynched or murdered, but also Muslim politicians and justice officials who try to protect them. And this in a country which, as a member of the United Nations, is supposed to subscribe to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, with its protection of Freedom of Religion. (Including guarantees of the freedom to choose one’s religion, to hold to any religion or none, and to change one’s religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.)

Are human beings offended by material insulting to the God they believe in? They need to just get over it. Is God offended? I think God is likely to have a good laugh about the presumption of us thinking that God might be. But even if God is offended, I’m pretty sure God knows how to deal with it. Probably by grace, mercy, and love, and (I hope) opening the blasphemer’s eyes to see the foolishness of insulting the Divine.

Literacy and life expectancy

A new documentary, H is for Harry, to be released in cinemas on 7 March, focuses on the fact that white, working class boys form the demographic that does worst in our education system. It’s said that 1 in 5 children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly. I’ve heard this statistic before, and understood the difference it makes to life chances, employment, and health, but I was especially shocked to read in the Guardian report on this documentary about the difference it also makes to overall life expectancy:

Adults with poor literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid jobs. There is a link between low levels of literacy and shorter life expectancy, depression and obesity. According to the National Literacy Trust (NLT), a boy born in Stockton-on-Tees, which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country, has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in north Oxford.

26 years off a life expectancy of around 80 is 54. Let that sink in.

A couple of days ago I posted about the differences in library funding between the UK and Finland. It’s instructive to note a few other comparisons as well, described in another article in the Guardian. Life expectancy in Finland is rising; in the UK it has stopped rising. Infant mortality is twice as high in the UK as in Finland. Finland has some of the best education in Europe, because it trusts and rewards its teachers, so that professional morale is high. It also provides free school meals for all pupils, so that no child goes through the school day unable to learn because of hunger. And its system is truly comprehensive, with none of the blight caused by our private schools and selective grammars creaming off the most advantaged children. Finland is dealing effectively with homelessness, and its truly preventative health care measures include the provision of genuinely affordable housing for all, so that people can afford good food rather than paying much of their income on the kind of astronomical private sector rents we see in our system. Finland spends a slightly lower proportion of its GDP on health care provision than the UK, but it can afford to because doctors don’t need to be paid as much as they are in the UK, since housing costs are lower. For every 10,000 people in Finland, there are 32 doctors, compared to 28 in the UK, and there are 40 hospital beds for every 10,000 Finns, compared to 26 in the UK.

There’s more: Finland is also seeking to introduce a truly universal basic income. It has the best green credentials in the world, ranking top in the 2016 Environmental Performance Index. Add to this that Finland is one of the most equal societies in the world: the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% is one of the lowest in the world, second only to Japan.

If we’re looking for ways to improve British society in the coming years (if such an aspiration is even possible) we could do a lot worse than look at how Finland does it.

Why do we need libraries, anyway?

I’ve said it before, I may well say it again: inside this retired vicar’s breast there still beats the heart of a librarian – albeit one who is very relieved he didn’t spend his whole life in librarianship, in view of the trials and tribulations libraries have been suffering in this country, for as long as I or probably anyone else can remember. Just a few of the statistics tell it all:

  • In 2016 alone, 105 public libraries closed in the UK.
  • Between 2016 and 2017, public library spending fell by £66 million.
  • Annual UK spending on public libraries is just £14.40 per head of the population.
  • The UK is only the 17th most literate nation in the world.

Meanwhile, in Finland, which the UN declared in 2016 the most literate nation in the world they spend £50.50 per inhabitant on public libraries. Nearly four times as much. They’ve just spent €100 million on a new library in Helsinki, called Oodi, even though there are already 36 public libraries in the city.

I wonder if there could be any connection between these statistics, and the highest rate of literacy?

In a May 2018 story in the Guardian about Finland’s libraries, the report begins with the inspiring story of a young girl named Nasima Razmyar who arrived in Finland from Afghanistan in 1992 as a political refugee and asylum seeker. Her father had been a former Afghan diplomat, forced to flee with his family to seek safety elsewhere.

“A library card was the first thing that was mine, that I had ever owned,” says Nasima Razmyar. … Unable to speak the language, with scant resources, and trying to make sense of the strange new city she found herself in, she was stunned to discover she was entitled to a library card that would grant her books – for free. Her appreciation of the privilege has not faded: “I still have that library card in my wallet today,” she says proudly.

That girl is now the deputy mayor of Helsinki, and justly proud of the new library which provides so much more than most of what we in the UK associate with libraries. The Finns see libraries as the visible symbol of their beliefs in education, equality and citizenship, which make me want to ask hard questions about whether we even mean the same things as they do, when we or our politicians mouth those words.

Public libraries are clearly one of the key providers of equality of opportunity. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why successive cost-cutting Governments have starved them of resources?

The Elephant in the Nave

We’ve been worshipping in our current church for nearly 2½ years now, and I must have lost count of the number of times I’ve been aware of the elephant in the nave. The huge Thing that may not be named, that has almost never been named, that (presumably, for some reason) no one dares to name.

The elephant is called Brexit.

Surely it would have been possible to mention it at least in the intercessions, when we pray for this country. You wouldn’t have to take sides and pray for a swift and brutal no-deal Brexit, or for no Brexit at all; surely you could pray for ‘a successful outcome to the Brexit negotiations, that would ensure the best and most prosperous outcome for all people in this country, and for Europe’. And people could entwine that neutral form of words with whatever meaning they wanted to attach to it. But no, it has barely had a mention of any kind.

This morning our curate, greatly daring, preached on The Politics of Jesus, from Luke 4.14-21.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“I’m not talking about party politics,” he says, “I’m not telling you who to vote for.”

And he goes on, “No one gets left out, or left behind, in Jesus’ kind of politics.”

Disingenuous, I call it. If that’s not telling us at least who not to vote for, I don’t know what would be.

Answering Giles Fraser

Actually, I really want to like Giles Fraser. He has often written insightful, thought-provoking articles in the Church Times and the Guardian. He took a principled stand in the whole affair of Occupy St Paul’s. He seems like an all-round good guy. So I really can’t understand why he is so adamantly pro-Brexit.

Since yesterday’s March for a People’s Vote:

he’s been tweeting and retweeting this kind of message:

What 700,000 said to 17.4 million: “we know best”.

But what do the People’s March have to say to those who voted Leave because they felt profoundly unattended to? Just more of the same?

Less a demo, more a Waitrose queue.

One of his retweets (not Giles himself) describes anti-Brexit argument as

“smug, patronising, neoliberal middle class pish”.

Let’s leave aside the snide gibes about the middle classes. Do they mean anything more than “These are opinions that I don’t like, that are held by some educated people that I want to feel superior to”?

Here’s what I want to say:

Passionately wanting to Stop Brexit does not mean we don’t care about the people who felt the Referendum was their big chance to stick two fingers up at the whole Establishment, the whole political system that has ignored them and simply not worked for them. Yes, these people have been profoundly unattended to; that is a shame and a scandal that ought to be addressed; the Governments of Right and Pseudo-Left that have ignored them for the last 40 years should not be forgiven; the works of those Governments (austerity, privatisation, under-funding of the NHS, failure to regulate banks, or to deal with inequality, or to redistribute wealth through just taxation) should be undone.

But all those things are not the fault of the EU! Indeed, if we had been more like France and Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark and other countries in Europe, instead of constantly bleating and whinging and making out that we were a ‘special case’, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Our country and society and political system are seriously broken and ought to be mended. But you don’t mend a broken leg by cutting it off. We won’t mend a broken United Kingdom by cutting it off from the body of Europe, which is its best chance of health and improvement.

And, “What 700,000 said to 17.4 million: “we know best”?” I think we were saying, “We believe we know better?” So what? Perhaps we do know better? The great idea of democracy is that every person is of equal worth and their vote is equally important. But some things are too important to be left to that kind of a vote. I wouldn’t want the plan for my brain surgery to be determined by a majority vote of the whole hospital staff: I’d want the experts to say and do what needed to be done. I’m not talking about a General Election here: the choice of a Government is relatively trivial in comparison. (Though it beggars belief that, like turkeys voting for Christmas, the majority still votes for Government by the rich, for the rich; and that we cling to First Past The Post, in preference to a system that gives more weight to every vote cast.) Suppose we had a referendum on capital punishment? We won’t have one, for fear the majority would vote to restore the death penalty. The view of the people who are (or have self-appointed themselves as?) people with a better-tuned moral compass, is that that result would be just plain wrong.

I believe the EU referendum was similarly ill-judged and produced a similarly wrong result. When the majority of educated economic opinion (though God knows I’m no lover of the hierocracy of a priesthood of economists), of EU opinion, of world opinion, was that Brexit was / will be catastrophically wrong, a kind of national and economic suicide – then we should let our future be guided by that educated opinion, rather than by people’s general and justified dissatisfaction with how our Governments have been doing.

I think Giles Fraser is wrong about Brexit. Middle class or not, I still believe staying in the EU is the best future for all of us, in the UK and in Europe. And our best hope of establishing a more just, fair, social democratic Commonwealth for our nation.

Robert Peston’s WTF?

WTF?WTF? by Robert Peston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Peston for Prime Minister!

His North London Jewish background is so familiar to me from my own history and native place. He’s my kind of political commentator, too, and in this book (bracketed by a letter to his much-loved late father) he addresses the problem of why the world has gone ‘bonkers’. How come the world’s most successful, wealthy democracies are throwing themselves into the arms of mad populist leaders, and voting for such lunacies as Brexit and Trump?

Peston’s analysis and prescriptions sound totally like common sense; yet in the midst of all this madness which so often leaves me feeling really depressed, he somehow snatches hope, and a degree of optimism, from the jaws of despair.

The key fact is that behind the madness of those 2016 votes, lies the deep dissatisfaction of all those in our societies who feel they have been left far behind in the growing prosperity they see around them. It’s this inequality of wealth, opportunity, prospects, and the fair sharing of the wealth of nations, that we need to address and radically change. It’s a call to the 48% to stop trying to stop Brexit (and if we can’t stop it, at least hoping it will be the unmitigated disaster we’ve all along said it would be), and to work as hard as we can to make it work the best it can. What’s needed is some kind of ‘Brexit mission’ to reunite the country, and mend what’s broken in our economy and politics.

As Peston says, he doesn’t have all the answers, and maybe some of the answers he has are also bonkers. But we at least need to be thinking, and especially talking, about the issues he raises here.

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