Have Conservative hopes gone up in smoke?

The appalling tragedy of Grenfell tower has come very rapidly to symbolise all that is wrong with right-wing beliefs. Here was a tower block that had no water-sprinklers installed, that had the wrong sort of cladding, that was overcrowded – and it was in the one local authority that best epitomises excess wealth. Here the obvious story is one of heartless landlords pruning back their costs and the iniquities that follow from handing over to private capitalists the responsibility to ensure that public housing is safe. In short, this is what happens when you let rapacious right-wingers run the system for private profit – death, horrible, horrible death.

All this as the cherry on top of the cake which was the 2017 election – I suppose that the only thing that Conservatives can feel grateful for is that it didn’t happen immediately before the election, otherwise it would be Jeremy Corbyn grimacing outside number 10. He, after all, was the beneficiary of ‘the big mo’ – momentum – and enjoyed a huge swing of support amongst younger voters. There is clearly something remarkable about Corbyn, a premium upon authenticity, which allows him to engage with groups that have previously had little interest in the political process.

So are the Conservatives now completely stuffed? Brexit seems to be going wrong, the Prime Minister has been stripped of all her authority and most of her dignity, and public opinion appears to have settled on the idea that Conservatives are selfish and wicked. Is there any way back?

I rather think there is. More than that, slightly dependent on when it takes place, I would put good money on the Conservatives winning an outright majority at the next election. Why would I say that?

Well, in the first instance, this last election campaign had to be one of the most atrociously led and managed of any conducted by a major party since the war. To turn an opinion poll lead of over 20% into a hung parliament six weeks later takes a quite phenomenal level of incompetence. The fact that it began by focussing exclusively upon the personal qualities of the Prime Minister herself means that she has to bear much of the burden of blame. Yet what that also means is that she will not be allowed to lead the Conservatives into the next election, and it is therefore reasonable to expect that the outcome will be better for them.

Secondly, in the light of the popularity of the Labour manifesto’s commitments, and the opposite situation with the Conservative, we can anticipate that the policy platform proposed from the right will be both more coherent and more attractive than what was offered this time. Again, this can only help.

Third, there is a good chance that the recommendations of the boundary review commission will be implemented in the life-time of this new parliament, which would be worth around twenty seats or so, dependent on all sorts of assumptions (many of which, admittedly, were shown to be foolish by the last results).

More than all this, however, I suspect that the Conservative party will remember what it is that has made it (reputedly) the most successful political party in the Western world: that is, it will remember how to be ruthless in the pursuit of power. By this I don’t simply mean that our present Prime Minister is living on borrowed time. I mean that there will be a thorough investigation of what the Conservatives have done wrong and what Labour did right, and there will be shameless stealing of both programmes and methods as the Conservatives seek to entrench their hold on power.

What I would expect is that, in a few years time – once Theresa May has absorbed as much public hostility as possible and become our Lady of Sorrows – she is elegantly replaced by a leader who knows how to emote in public in an engaging way; someone who can use social media effectively; and someone who can sell whatever Brexit compromise has been reached by that point.

I suspect that whoever that person is will be a socially-liberal Tory. Since the seventies there has been an increasing tension within the Conservative party between the more traditional social conservatives with values that might be thought of as ‘country’ – call these the ‘Tories’ – and those who are more concerned with free-market economics, with values that might be thought of as being more financially focussed – for now, call these the ‘Conservatives’.

What Grenfell has crystallised, I believe, is a thorough rejection of ‘Conservative’ values in the sense just described. That is, in a society which well remembers billions of pounds being handed over to subsidise incompetent bankers and preserve their bonuses, voters simply will not believe that there is not enough money to pay for adequate housing for every member of this nation. Rather, arguing for the benefits of a private sector approach simply comes across as heartless and grasping, a ploy to preserve benefits for the elite whilst ignoring the plight of the poor. There is no future for that approach.

However, looking at the larger picture and the wider political movements (of which Brexit itself is a prominent part) there is clearly a place for a politics which emphasises the values of a community. Not an abstract community defined from above but the natural and organic sort of community that spontaneously develops amongst people of good will who live in close proximity to each other – that which has been seen most vividly in the streets of North Kensington as the community there has rallied around to support those who have lost their homes at Grenfell. Those sorts of values fall very naturally into the ‘Tory’ framework I mentioned above.

I said ‘socially liberal Tory above’, by which I simply mean someone who is comfortable with the main elements of the sexual revolution and gender equality as I can’t see any mainstream leader being successful if they try to go against those things. It would be best if such an acceptance was unquestionable, and could not be portrayed as a purely political gesture.

Does such a creature as a socially-liberal Tory exist, or is this just a product of fevered and wishful thinking? Well, this isn’t a prediction for her future career trajectory, but Ruth Davidson really does seem to tick most of these boxes… Watch that space.

The tightrope we must walk

tightropeI write this article a few days after the latest terrorist atrocity in Manchester, and I wonder what is the right word to describe what has happened. Clearly there is a link between this barbarity and previous barbarities in Stockholm and Paris and Nice and Westminster and Florida and the rest. Should they be called ‘Islamic terrorist acts’? I would say that there is a lot of justification for doing so, for such acts draw upon a long tradition within Islamic thought going back to Muhammed himself.

To do so, would, however, open myself up to all sorts of problems that might make my main points irrelevant; or, if not irrelevant, at least unheard. For as soon as the word ‘Islamic’ is deployed in this context, then the clouds of politically-correct opprobrium descend, accusations of Islamophobia and fascism are made, and all rational considerations depart.

Yet this is also why the police force in Rotherham turned a blind eye to the systematic child abuse perpetrated by those of a particular community in that town. They were afraid of being called racist. As a result thousands of girls suffered horror. Perhaps the only courageous path is also the only honest path – we have to start using the most accurate language to describe the problems that we face. In Manchester, as with Westminster and all the other atrocities, what we face is a form of Islam.

How might we engage with and overcome such a problem? There is a tightrope here that we must walk across with great care.

The recent election in France, to my mind, portrayed the two sides of the tightrope, each one representing a fall into the abyss, two equal and opposite catastrophes. The first catastrophe is Macron, representing an unfettered globalism, where nation states are simply inefficiencies to be overcome by technocratic capitalism. Human beings, both individually and as persons bearing particular cultures, are simply resources to be deployed in the great march towards making more money. Such an approach is both dehumanising and ecocidal, a last flourish for the 1% before the deluge.

Yet Le Pen also offered a catastrophe, one of dehumanising nationalism coupled with a near-imbecilic economic policy. Human beings, when threatened, have a long-studied tendency to scapegoat others when confronted with challenges to their well-being and their world-view. When all that has been held sacred by a community is laid waste, and insult is added to such injury by the suppression of truthful discussion, then the subsequent anger seizes upon the closest available victims on which to vent their furies.

The Macron catastrophe leads to an abolition of meaning, where all are dehumanised in order to worship Mammon. The Le Pen catastrophe leads to a moral collapse, where all are dehumanised in order to worship a reactionary fantasy.

There is a tightrope to be walked between these two options, and we cannot walk upon that tightrope without an honest and truthful account of what is actually happening in our society.

Which means, to my mind, that we have to speak openly about several things. The first is that we have to say that there is a problem with the Islamic community. It does not affect the whole community but it does represent a significant part – a part which is convinced of the inferiority of Western ways of life, and the need to attack such ways using violence. There needs to be an honest conversation about the roots of such attitudes within broader Islamic patterns of thought. Without this discussion, without this ‘bringing to light things now hidden in darkness’, the control of this conversation simply passes to the most extreme voices, and that serves nobody’s best interests.

We also, however, need to talk honestly about the nations, about England and Britain, and about what it means to become a part of such a nation. Much of the contemporary secular mentality is premised on the notion that nations are, as such, obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of a better life. This doesn’t just apply to economics, where the expansion of ‘single markets’ reduces the role for national governments in order to maximise profits. Rather, the nation as a source of stability and identity, a focus for loyalty and thereby a ground for community cohesion, needs to be affirmed explicitly and confidently by the whole range of our leadership.

Lastly, we need to talk about religion. Most especially we need to understand the way in which discussion of religious issues in our society are bedevilled by our own peculiar history. We need to understand that our professed ‘enlightenment’ and release from traditional religious beliefs has served merely to blindfold and handcuff us in this present crisis. Without a coherent understanding of the role of religion within our national life, and most especially within the life of those who wish to destroy our culture, we will forever be compelled to robotically reiterate moronic mantras like ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’ and we shall suffer the inevitable consequences.

We are so much better than this. We need to avoid such politically correct platitudes that avoid addressing our crisis; we also need to avoid all forms of scapegoating and victimising that pretend to wash our hands of any role in what has gone wrong.

Rather we must engage forthrightly, honestly and courageously with our present predicaments, naming truthfully what is presently happening and yet not collapsing into a reactionary fantasy seeking a restoration of what has been.

We have a tightrope to walk. It is a tightrope made of truth, a tightrope that leads to a hopeful future for all who live in this land, where all give their active consent to a form of life that preserves the peace between all our communities, where we no longer fear to wake up to headlines announcing yet another slaughter of the innocents.

May our political leaders find their proper balance as they seek to carry us across the abyss.

The dilemma facing British Muslims after Westminster

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I write these words the day after the horrific terrorist atrocity in Westminster. Khalid Masood was a person who subscribed to a militant form of Islamic thought. As such, the attack on the civilians walking along Westminster Bridge fits with the pattern of other recent ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ in Berlin and Nice.

The British Council of Muslims released a statement saying “We are shocked and saddened by the incident at Westminster. We condemn this attack and while it is still too early to speculate on the motives, our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and those affected. We pay tribute too to the police and emergency services who handled this with bravery. The Palace of Westminster is the centre of our democracy and we must all ensure that it continues to serve our country and its people with safety and security.” The head of the Council, Harun Khan, said: “This attack was cowardly and depraved. There is no justification for this act whatsoever.”

There are no grounds for doubting the sincerity of these words. From the earliest times of Islamic military conquest there have been clear guidelines prohibiting the use of force against non-combatants. The companion of Mohammed and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, taught the Muslim army “You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man.”

Even more than this, surprise attacks – which the attack in Westminster certainly was – are explicitly forbidden. Does this mean, then, that we can share in the liberal consensus as articulated by Western leaders like George W Bush and trust that Islam is a religion of peace? That those who commit ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ simply do not understand what it is that they are claiming to protect?

I believe that the situation is more complex than this and that British Muslims are slowly being impaled upon a painful dilemma.

In August 1996, Osama bin Laden was careful to issue a declaration of war against the United States, which was published in the London newspaper Al Quds al Arabi; bin Laden knew his theology! This fatwa (religious proclamation) can be seen as initiating our present experience of ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’. It was followed two years later by a further fatwa issued by bin Laden and co-signed by several others, amplifying and expanding the declaration of war, and including the following sentence: “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…”

Given that bin Laden was scrupulously trying to keep to Islamic law and theology, how could he come up with such a conclusion? His answer, when pressed on this, was to say that killing of innocent lives was legitimate if it was understood as retaliation for the killing of innocents by the United States. The Koran is quite clear that proportionate retaliation is fully acceptable, surah 2.178 stating “O believers! retaliation for bloodshedding is prescribed to you: the free man for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the woman for the woman”.

There is therefore a debate within Islam about whether bin Laden and those who have followed in his footsteps are in fact theologically justified to apply the rule of retaliation to the question of murdering innocent civilians. It is surely beyond dispute that the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom) have been killing innocent people across the Middle East, most recently through the extensive use of drones. Where this situation obtains, what is the response of a faithful Muslim to be?

Some Muslims believe that bin Laden is not justified in applying the rule of retaliation in this situation, some do. Within Britain, according to the most thorough recent survey (ICM for Channel 4, April-May 2015) some 4% of British Muslims believe that it is acceptable to use terrorism for political ends, including suicide bombing. This works out to around 100,000 people.

Khalid Masood was one of them.

The dilemma that British Muslims face is that the theological debate is not some abstract matter without practical consequence; rather it is one that will govern their relationship with the wider British society. Moreover, the need for that community to make a very clear decision and act on it will only become stronger over time, as more and more terrorist atrocities take place.

When the ICM poll results were announced, Trevor Phillips, former head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, wrote this: “There is a life-and-death struggle for the soul of British Islam — and this is not a battle that the rest of us can afford to sit out. We need to take sides… There is one truly terrifying finding [of the ICM poll]. Muslims who have separatist views about how they want to live in Britain are far more likely to support terrorism than those who do not. And there are far too many of the former for us to feel that we can gradually defeat the threat… Muslims want to be part of Britain — but many do not accept the values and behaviors that make Britain what it is; they believe that Islam offers a better future. And a small number feel that these sincerely held beliefs justify attempts to destroy our democracy. Britain’s liberal Muslims are crying out for this challenge to be confronted. The complacency we’ve displayed so far is leaving them to fight alone, and putting our society in danger. We cannot continue to sit on the fence in the hope that the problem will go away.”

If we wish to fully address the problem of our home-grown terrorism we need to be much more robust in the assertion of our values. That will mean saying that some values are better than others, and therefore some belief systems – those systems through which values are taught and embodied – are better than others. We cannot combat terrorism without a vigorous reassertion of our own inherited beliefs and values. Ultimately, that means Christianity. It is a sign of the painful nature of the dilemma facing British Muslims that the peaceful majority will only be able to root out the violent minority if the wider community becomes much more devoted to a non-Islamic faith.

Brexit is about more than economics

The American academic Jonathan Haidt published a book called ‘The Righteous Mind’ in 2012. It performs the remarkably useful task of explaining progressive and conservative outlooks to each other.

At the heart of Haidt’s argument is that there are several different grounds for the human moral ‘sense’. In just the same way that the human sense of taste can be broken down into several different components – sweet, salt, bitter and so on – so can our sense of morality. Haidt specifically advances five different grounds on which human beings base their sense of moral judgement. These five are care, fairness, loyalty authority and sanctity.

Haidt’s book explains how he reaches one particular conclusion (and it is very persuasive) – those on the left of the political spectrum tend to rely heavily upon only two of these five different grounds, those of care and fairness. In contrast to this, those on the conservative end of the political spectrum rely upon all five when reaching their moral judgements.

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To put that differently, both conservatives and progressives see care and fairness as important when it comes to making moral decisions. However, the difference between conservatives and progressives comes when considering issues that relate to the three other grounds for our moral sense: loyalty, authority and sanctity. There are issues which relate to these latter which are of great moral importance to conservatives which simply have very little value to progressives.

One example is the nation.

For a conservative, the nation is a focus for all three grounds of loyalty, authority and sanctity. In the case of the United Kingdom, this is centred on the Queen, to whom all public officials (authority) have to swear an oath (sanctity) of obedience (loyalty). There are equivalents in every other nation – consider how sensitive the question of ‘flag burning’ is in the United States.

However, for the progressive point of view, none of this makes much sense. These things which conservatives value are not seen as having much value at all. Unless these things impinge upon questions of care and fairness then progressives do not have much interest in them.

This difference underlies so much of our political debate, and can be seen most clearly in questions around immigration. To the progressive the most important questions are around care and fairness – how can we take care of the immigrant or refugee? What is a fair response? However, for the conservative, although those questions carry weight, there are other questions relating to loyalty, authority and sanctity. They will perceive significant harm from immigration if those entering into the nation have divergent values on these questions, and this may prove more important in coming to a decision than the questions of fairness or care.

This is why I believe a great deal of the analysis about Brexit has fallen short. Much of the analysis – especially on the left – has treated the question of Brexit as being principally a matter of economics or social justice. That is, there is the question of whether our economy will benefit or be hindered by a Brexit; then there is the question of who might benefit or who might be harmed as a result of no longer being a member of the European Union. This is as far as much analysis has gone.

Yet to the conservative perspective such an analysis is proof of the poverty of progressive thought. The crucial questions have been about ‘sovereignty’ – that is, the independence of the nation on which centre those values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. To the conservative perspective it may well be the case that the economic argument for Brexit is weaker than the economic argument for staying, yet that does not carry much weight when compared to the prospect of a restoration of national sovereignty and independence. The more conservative perspective would be prepared to take a very sizeable economic ‘hit’ in the interests of the other values being affirmed.

The sadness of our time – and the great gift that Haidt’s research offers to us – is that the progressive side of the political divide, which has been dominant for many decades, simply does not see the nature of the conservative perspective. So often the arguments devolve into caricatures, that the conservative is unfeeling and heartless (ie deficient on the ‘care’ and ‘fairness’ criteria for moral judgement). The consequence that flows from denying a healthy respect and affirmation for the moral needs of authority, loyalty and sanctity is that this desire takes on darker and more destructive forms.

We are in an environment now where the progressive emphases of the last few decades are going to be subject to immense scrutiny, as the blowback from progressive over-reach comes home. We need to ensure that those benefits that have been gained are not lost by a return to an over-rigid and authoritarian affirmation of the nation. Yet we will not gain that happy medium by being terrified of all expressions of national pride. On the contrary, without a healthy sense of British national pride, we will end up being subject to unhealthy forms and much that is good would be lost.

Ultimately, we do not have to be afraid of the nation. The twentieth century did show us what happened when national identity was pursued to an evil and absurd extreme, yet it is possible for there to be an equal and opposite error – to pretend that a nation is simply an optional extra, of no significance or moral value. Such a view is dehumanising and a product of a very specific set of cultural circumstances in the modern, technocratic and rationalistic West. That excessive view is what has now reached an end point, and which will die out within the next generation. The challenge that faces us is how to manage that ending without too much collateral damage.

The task that faces us is how to affirm our sense of national identity without at the same time reverting to an authoritarian politics. I believe that we can navigate these waters successfully, but to do so we have to allow an honoured place for the moral sense about what is worth being loyal to, giving authority to, or considering sacred.

Muhammad is the most popular boy’s name in England

The Telegraph has an article with the seemingly innocuous headline “Oliver and Amelia the most popular baby names for the third year running”. Oliver was chosen as a boys name by 6,941 parents.

This is only capable of being the truth because, hidden in the text itself, there is a po-faced admission from the Office of National Statistics: the statistics are “based on the exact spelling of the name given on the birth certificate; grouping names with similar pronunciation would change the rankings”.

Ah, there’s the thing.

If you put together the three variant spellings of Muhammad (Muhammed and Mohammed) then suddenly what is effectively the same name is chosen by 7038 parents.

Why doesn’t the Telegraph lead with that description? I would think it rather more news-worthy.

Mad Men: Bad End (or, how bad it gets when scriptwriters lose the plot)

So – we finished Mad Men last night…

SPOILERS after a picture of Joan and Don

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These last two series or so have been so incredibly frustrating. The writing quality seemed to have declined so much, with no integrity or care for character arcs.

So: Megan chops and changes between liking Don and hating him, with nary an explanation in between as to why she is changing.
Ted got divorced? When did that happen?
Everyone hates Don? Why? Oh, they’re friends again now – why?
Don – let’s give him an affair with a neighbour we’ve hardly seen, obviously his plot line is getting boring.

What seems to have happened is that a bunch of soap opera writers got drafted in with a brief to keep things interesting. In doing that – ie, in bringing in ‘incident’ to the narratives – all coherence and integrity for particular characters was sacrificed.

Grrr. It all started out so well.

What future for faith?

What is the future of Christianity in this country?

The received narrative of secularism – which is the dominant form of understanding in our media and academies – argues that Christianity is simply the local example of the general form of irrationality known as ‘religion’, and that as the world progresses into a brighter future, so the levels of attachment to religious forms of belief will diminish, until all that is left is a memory to be investigated by historians.

That myth of secular progress is now only argued for by those who are ignorant of the true state of affairs. The idea that we all are marching – or being dragged – towards a faith-free future is now recognised to be itself a form of faith, in the sense of something for which there is no evidence but which provides great emotional relief to those who accept it!

The trouble with this narrative is that the contradictions of atheism are all around us, and the atheist/secular world-view is being comprehensively disproven with the headlines each and every day. We are faced with so many challenges that cannot be engaged with at a shallow level, but only at a level that takes religious belief seriously on its own terms, and which sees the religious impulse in human beings as worthy of respect.

This is why it is so essential for schools to teach religious studies – and, I would argue, if we are to preserve our historic culture, with all its benefits, we need to ensure that those studies are principally of Christianity. Without this we will not know who we are.

So I do not see the future as one that belongs to the atheist/secularist point of view. It lacks the capacity to fully engage human beings in a project of shared endeavour, and this is most seen by the correlation with the rate of reproduction of more atheistic societies. Put simply, the future belongs to those who turn up for it – and it’s the religious who are having children.

So if atheism is not the future, what about Islam? After all, if the future belongs to those who are having children now, aren’t we destined to be a much more Muslim nation in the coming decades? I suspect not.

The trouble with Islam is that it cannot cope with modernity. The principal root of Islamic terrorism today, which is the Saudi-based Salafi or Wahhabi form of Islam, has its roots in a reaction to the development of modernity in the West, to which it set itself in opposition. That opposition is what has led to the terrorist atrocities of today, as the fanatics seek to accomplish by terror what they could not accomplish by reason or invention.

Sadly, this form of Islam is inherently self-destructive, and will simply ensure that the Middle East descends into a vortex of violence from which Islamic culture will find it ever more difficult to emerge. The West is already moving away from its dependence upon oil, which is what has propped up the prosperity of the Muslim world for so long (such as it is) and it is unclear to me that there are the intellectual and mercantile resources available upon which an alternative economy might be made to stand. No, I think it much more likely that Islam will suffer an existential crisis and begin a long slow death after its homelands have been destroyed.

So the future for faith lies almost certainly with a form of Christianity. I have no doubt that Christianity will become the majority world faith some time in the next thirty or forty years – I regard that as already ‘baked in’ due to demography and the rapid growth of churches in Asia, especially China (where there are more committed Christians already than in Western Europe).
Where I am more unclear is what that Christianity might look like in this country, for we are far more steeped in secularist thinking that almost anywhere else in the world (Scandinavia might be the only place that ‘beats’ us).

When Rome was breaking down and starting to decay as a culture, it was a small and marginal sect on the edges of that Empire that ended up providing the religious belief structure for the next several centuries. Nobody at the centre of Rome would have predicted it, and it may well be that something similar happens in Western society over the coming decades.

My suspicion is that the faith of the future will be the one that is most able to help people navigate a highly technological and urban society in such a way that their deepest human needs are still met. This will undoubtedly still involve meaningful human (face to face) contact for that is how we have been made, and if we do not participate in such things then we will suffer from an unfulfilled longing all our lives.

People will still need guidance on how to live their lives, and helped to navigate the emotional storms of human living in a way that enables proper integrity and fulfilment. It is because the Western church in general, and the Church of England in particular, has lost sight of this part of religious faith that we have been pushed to the margins and reduced to emotionalism and navel-gazing. This too will pass.

Of one thing I am certain. In a hundred years time there will still be people worshipping at St Peter and St Paul’s, sharing bread and wine and telling the greatest story ever told – simply because it’s true. We have, after all, been there doing it for 1500 years or so thus far, despite all that the world has thrown at us.

On a more personal note I have been writing this Rector’s Reckoning almost without interruption since March 2010, and like all good things it needs to come to an end, so this is the last one. My aim has always been to make people think, in which task I hope I have had some success. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

The grounds of our identity

Have you ever heard Mersea described as the “easternmost inhabited island” in the UK? I know I have. The only trouble with such a statement is that it isn’t true. Horsey Island, in the Walton backwaters, is also inhabited, and is several miles further East from our blessed isle (Horsey is featured in the Arthur Ransome novel Secret Water).

Why mention this? Simply because when Mersea gets described in such a way it seems to be a source of some pride, as if such a geographical feature was important, rather than simply a random fact.

Why is this (false) fact something that gets repeated so often? I wonder if it is because we have lost a sense of what is truly important in our lives, and so we clutch at random bits of information about ourselves to plug the gap.

After all, this is what children do as they grow up. When I was much younger my bedroom wall was plastered with posters, often of Marvel superheroes. The choice of which character to emphasise through such a display felt like a way of asserting my own identity. Such ‘hero-worship’ definitely has a place, as it helps to form a child’s own identity.

Of course, when such adoration persists into adulthood it becomes more of a sign of immaturity. By the time we have reached physical adulthood we are meant to have put away childish things and instead be ready to take part in the shared conversation which is our culture, bringing to it those things which are unique to our own identity.

By that time, all being well, we will have found a sense of who we are that does not depend on trivial, accidental facts – like how tall we are, what hair colour we have, where we were born and so on – but rather on substantial elements of character and virtue, such as a capacity for courage or hard work, or the ability to show mercy and compassion to those in need.

Of course, I am writing this from a Christian point of view. An excellent example of what I am describing was shown recently by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after he discovered that his biological father was not the person that Welby had previously assumed. Welby wrote this, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

Fundamental to the Christian view of the world is the understanding that what the world can offer is of no ultimate importance. Worldly values are for the Christian only ever of intermediate importance, they are means to ends rather than ends in themselves. This includes all forms of material wealth but also all that connects with our material bodies, what St Paul describes as ‘the flesh’ – thus, all the things about ourselves over which we have no control. Rather, what matters for the Christian is who we become through our choices. Do we choose to become more grateful and more gracious, or do we choose to become more cynical and sinful?

As I say regularly when I take a funeral, “We brought nothing in to the world, and we can take nothing out”. What that truth obscures, though, is that our souls do pass on, and our souls bear the indelible marks of our choices in this life. When Christians talk about Heaven and Hell, this is what is meant – that if our choices tend to the good, then our souls will have been enabled to express themselves in this life. If, however, our choices tend to the bad, then in just the same way will our souls have been marred or defaced.

This is one of the most important meanings of the resurrection. All the worldly powers had rejected Jesus – the religious authorities had despised him for his teaching, the political authorities executed him for his insubordination, the crowds cried out for his blood because he had disappointed their hopes. What they then chose to destroy was Jesus’ body. The resurrection is God’s way of saying: the religious authorities are wrong, the political authorities are wrong, the crowd is wrong – Jesus was right! More than this, the resurrection is showing that those who can control the body cannot control the soul, and in the end it is the soul that matters and the soul which is vindicated.

To put that in a different way, it is the soul that determines who we are in the sight of God. The soul is that part of ourselves which is unique, irreplaceable and not subject to decay – that is, it is eternal, it shares in the nature of God, it is the light which draws us on into truth, goodness and beauty.

To walk in the light, for the Christian, means to seek the good, to pursue the Kingdom of God, to combat injustice, to fight oppression, to exercise mercy and forgiveness and seek reconciliation between enemies. These are the things by which we are assessed in eternity. We will not be assessed by how much material wealth we have accumulated but by how much we have shared; we will not be assessed by how famous we are but by how much we have loved.

This is not easy, especially in our present society, which shouts so loudly that the opposite is true – that it is what we own that makes us who we are, that the acclamation of the crowd is what validates us. How then, do Christians gain the strength to pursue the good against such a strong headwind of cultural pressure?

I believe it is because we know for certain that we are loved, loved irrespective of anything we might be able to do or achieve. There is a feeling of absolute safety that can come from being held by God, an assurance that nothing the world can do can touch what is most essential to who we are. More than this, this assurance is bound up with a sense of knowing and being fully known, that all that is most essential to who we are can never be damaged by anyone else.

Our identity, in other words, is found in a relationship with the one who created all things, including us. When that source is acknowledged then we do not need to bolster our identity with random facts about who we are. Rather than identifying Mersea by some spurious geographical locator, let’s instead seek an identity for Mersea which is soulful – that here is a place where we look after each other, where the old are cared for and not left alone, where young people have the opportunity to fully express their talents, where we belong to each other and enable each other to be creative and fully human. That’s something worth working for.

“There’s a sermon in that” – reflections from an independent island

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I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Cuba, a trip taken with three university friends. Some twenty years ago, soon after graduating, we were sat in the living room of the house that we shared in West London, and recognised that our carefree lives were unlikely to stay that way. We agreed that we would put a small amount of money each into a central pot – beginning with £10 a month – in order that, every ten years, we would have enough funds to take a holiday together, to renew our friendships and remember what life was like before career and family commitments took hold. Our first trip was to Mongolia in 2005; this time round it was the turn of Cuba to host our little “Self-Preservation Society” (and yes, it was after one of our regular viewings of The Italian Job that we came up with the idea).

Cuba is a fascinating country, incredibly warm and welcoming, a happy and musical people set in an incredibly green and lush environment. We started our trip in Havana, which is a remarkable city. The architecture was stunning, and it was clear that the city had been incredibly wealthy in the past. Yet it was equally clear that for most of the last fifty years that money had dwindled to effectively zero, and consequently these amazing buildings were often near-derelict. Thankfully, now that the Cuban economy is embracing tourism more thoroughly, there is a new flow of wealth which is allowing the state to slowly renew and repair the built environment in central Havana.
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I said to my friends “There’s a sermon in that” – and yes, the necessary teasing did follow. What I had in mind was simply that I saw a parallel between the architecture in Havana and the church. Like Havana, the church has been immensely ‘wealthy’ in the past, by which I don’t just mean money but also the general affirmation of the faith shared by the community. It was a wonderful building. Yet today it is a pale shadow of what it was – it has suffered from decades of neglect. Just like the buildings in Havana, there has been nothing spent on maintenance, and now there is a desperate need for new investment in order to repair all that has gone wrong. And what does the church need to spend money on, in order to restore the building to its former grandeur? I would say simply: teaching the faith.

Back to Cuba. One of my friends has a medical condition which means that he cannot walk very far, and so he has a collapsible bike that he uses to get around, and which he brought to Cuba. Unfortunately, the day before departure his bike acquired a nasty puncture, and our first morning in Havana was then taken up with trying to find someone who might be able to repair it. After a thorough discussion with our guide, we found a small workshop at the back of garage, who agreed to repair the tyre. My friend (who now lives in Germany) was astonished to watch the craftsmanship with which the mechanic took apart the tyre and manually re-threaded the wires in order to make it robust. My friend exclaimed, “I’m going to take this back to Germany and tell them that this is how you fix things!”
Ingenious Engineers
Havana is famous for all the 1950s cars that are still driven there – a snapshot of how things were before the Revolution. What this little experience brought home to us was the way in which all those old cars were kept going by some incredibly creative and imaginative engineering. The Cubans are clearly capable of making the most of anything at hand. I should add, however, that this did not extend to emissions control – the air in Havana was incredibly polluted, and I developed a hacking cough that didn’t leave me until I was back on Mersea. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the cigars…

That Revolution has clearly defined modern Cuba. I had the sense sometimes that there was very little history for the Cuban people to celebrate. What seem quite small things, such as a particular battle in the Revolutionary War, were blown up into major museums, and the people who were involved in that Revolution – most especially Che Guevara – were raised up in quite hagiographic ways, with all their personal effects treasured like Medieval relics. Of course, the tensions with the United States have only recently begun to ease. It was clear that this conflict had gone a long way to form the Cuban character, and the state had consistently reinforced a message of Cuba being an independent communist island facing off against the behemoth of a radically capitalist United States.

One striking way in which this difference manifested itself, in Havana and more widely, was the almost complete absence of advertising. The only form of acceptable advertising seemed to be revolutionary slogans alongside an image of Fidel Castro. This one, for example, has the charming slogan ‘Socialism or Death!’
Socialism or Death
The state remains overwhelmingly present in Cuba, yet most of the population seemed very happy. In part that must be a result of the excellent health-care for which Cuba is rightly and justly famous. In part it must be a result of everyone having plenty to eat. In addition, all Cubans are educated through a national system and, charmingly, all schools have the same uniform, segregated three ways for the three levels of primary, secondary and tertiary. There were always smartly dressed children to be seen going to and fro.

I could see no trace of any racism whatsoever, and in particular, there seemed to be no sense of ‘shame’ according to different body shapes. I did wonder whether the absence of advertising, coupled with a more general equality, helped to make the Cubans so cheerful. I often saw people who might be regarded in our society as having less than ideal bodies who were clearly very much at home in them, with a strong sense of appropriate style and even ‘swagger’. This was wonderful, and I suspect not having to cope with a constant bombardment of airbrushed-perfect bodies had something to do with it.
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Their happiness might also have something to do with the music that was continually present. However small the restaurant it would not be long before along came a few men (with an occasional woman) with guitars and maracas and the familiar ‘Guantanamera’. For the most part we greatly enjoyed these. We had booked in to see the world famous ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ on our last night in Havana, but I have to say that we found them disappointing compared to others, especially a band that performed regularly in the bar just a little way down from our hotel, that had an amazing flautist. Yet – and perhaps this is simply the projection of a tourist – music seemed to be more deeply embedded into the rhythms of Cuban life than it does here in England. We brought several CDs back with us!

After two weeks we flew to Gatwick, having had long discussions with each other about what was going to happen with the Referendum (mine was the sole voice in favour of Brexit). We arrived back on the morning that the result was announced. I felt that whilst we as a country might have many things to learn from Cuba I was nevertheless very grateful to be back. I am as proud of this country as the Cubans are of theirs, and it felt magical to be returning from one independent island to another that had just determined to reclaim its own independence. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” as Che used to say.
The Four Musketeers
Thanks to Ian for photos

The political fallout from project fear

One of my earliest political memories is of the political “assassination” of Margaret Thatcher. Then, as now, the Conservative Party was convulsed with the question of membership of the European Union. A group of senior cabinet members that were committed to the European project conspired together to bring her down, in order to ensure that the UK joined up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (the precursor to the Euro).

Many of us will remember the consequences of that decision when, under the illustrious leadership of John Major, the UK was forced to quit the ERM having failed to control sterling through the spectacularly incompetent manipulation of interest rates.

The Conservative Party has never properly recovered from that debâcle – yet I wonder if, paradoxically, this Referendum process may just achieve that outcome, and establish a new consensus within the party structured around a consistent and principled Euroscepticism.

David Cameron’s time as party leader, surely, is coming to an end. The Conservative Party itself is significantly more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party, and much more Eurosceptic than the Cabinet. What will cause Cameron the most problems, however, is the way in which he has conducted himself during the Referendum campaign.

This has two parts: first, the way in which elements of the Remain campaign seem to have benefited from the use of excessive government funds, such as through the distribution of leaflets advocating a Remain vote that were circulated to every household in advance of the Referendum. This – whilst doubtless considered legal by the government advisers – clearly constitutes a tilting of the playing field, allowing the Remain campaign to benefit from hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of extra advertising outside of the limits that apply to each of the campaigns proper (I find it interesting that the Leave campaign is rising in the polls now that the spending limits for both sides are equivalent).

More crucial for the Prime Minister’s own political prospects, however, is the second part, that is, the way in which he has criticised and demeaned those who have been campaigning for Vote Leave – those, remember, who form a majority of his own party.

This does not just apply to his criticisms of Boris Johnson – clearly there has never been a healthy relationship between the two of them, and that is not normally an issue for any party, so long as the two individuals concerned can put aside those differences when they need to work together (think Blair/Brown). What is much worse is the way in which Cameron has sought to characterise the Vote Leave campaigners as in various ways immoral and irrational, and – as part of his campaigning – clearly identified himself with the left of the political spectrum in doing so (thus revealing, in my opinion, where his true metropolitan political sympathies lie).

Recently Cameron even claimed “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption” – suggesting that to vote leave is to actively risk another war. This is risible, and will not be forgotten by the Conservative Party.

So what is likely to happen? Lots of noises are being made by the ‘usual suspects’ like Nadine Dorries, but they will not be the people that make the crucial decisions. Much, obviously, will depend on the specific nature of the Referendum result itself.

Should there be a very clear mandate to Remain – in other words, in excess of a 55%-45% split in Remain’s favour – then Cameron’s position will in fact be strengthened and he will be able to choose the time of his departure. On the other hand, if there is an equivalently clear vote to Leave then he will be obliged to resign within days. That much is, I believe, the commonly accepted political wisdom.

However, if the voting is more narrow than that – as presently seems likely – then things become more difficult. There are three scenarios I would like to consider.

The first is a narrow victory for the Leave campaign. I suspect that this will also eventually lead to a Cameron resignation but the process will be more fraught, as he will argue that he is best placed to lead the subsequent Brexit negotiations. Few believe that to be true, but things will be messy.

The second is a narrow victory for the Remain campaign. This, I believe, will simply lead to a re-run of the latter days of the Major administration. The majority of Conservative MPs are Eurosceptic and there will be immense bitterness at the way in which Cameron has behaved. The arguments about manipulation will not go away. Cameron may be able to hang on for some time, but he will be a mortally wounded figure.

The third is a slight tweak on the second: the UK as a whole votes to Remain, but England votes to Leave. This is an outcome I consider quite likely, and the consequences could be profound. The Scottish referendum raised all sorts of questions about the unity of our nation, and if England seeks to move in a different direction to the other home countries then it is not difficult to see the Eurosceptic cause gaining huge encouragement from such an outcome.

The question would then be how far the political right in this country was able to morph in such a way as to harness that latent English nationalist and Eurosceptical sentiment for electoral gain. I could conceive of a situation that saw a rapprochement between the main part of the Conservatives and UKIP leading to a re-alignment of the right – and I could see such a ‘new’ party being electorally immensely successful. It would certainly have my sympathies.

As always, we shall watch and await the outcome with great interest. We live in very interesting times.