Why I shall be praying for Vote Leave

I shall be praying for the EU Referendum vote to result in a clear decision to leave the European Union – and I’d like to use this article to spell out why.

My most fundamental political instincts are to support the local and particular, and to be sceptical of – and often hostile to – the myriad great schemes that fertile minds can dream up. In saying that, I am conscious of standing in a long line of English political thinking, from Edmund Burke through to Roger Scruton, by way of William Morris and JRR Tolkien.

Such thinkers have tended to stand over against the particular patterns of human life that have come to be associated with modern industrialism, and the best imagined example of that comes when Frodo returns to the Shire following the destruction of the Ring (not a scene that has ever been filmed). In Frodo’s absence, modern industrial practices have come to the Shire through the leadership of the former wizard Saruman, now known as Sharkey, and a bundle of new rules and regulations have been implemented, leading to the dreadful state of “no beer and very little food”.

This pattern of modern industrialism is both an economy and a philosophy. It looks upon human life and considers what might be extracted for economic profit. A good real-life example comes when we consider the impact of a multi-national conglomerate like Monsanto upon local farming practices. Where those local practices are ‘inefficient’ then Monsanto and their ilk will use their market power to drive the opposition out of business before exploiting the subsequent monopoly situation to raise great profits, rather as medieval landlords extracted all the profit from the labour of the serfs.

I see the EU as an embodiment of this mentality. It was formed (with CIA sponsorship) in the 1950s and has always been concerned to maximise the economic interests of member states. As part of that process, and especially since the completion of the single market legislation post-1992, Brussels has become a key headquarters for corporate lobbying. Companies like Monsanto set up dedicated groups to ensure that the single market is structured in such a way as to favour their economic interests. This is why, to bring things back to a smaller scale, we now use metric measures rather than imperial – it meant that manufacturers could enjoy the greater economies of scale that became possible with the larger market. Remember – efficiency is a god that must be worshipped!

More locally, here on Mersea we are very aware of the impact of the common fisheries policy on our local fishermen, and the way in which the various rules and regulations impact on fishing in such a way as to outlaw common sense and prevent this country from taking full control of its own territorial waters.

So my objection to the EU is less to any particular rule or regulation – although there is no shortage of options when considering those – than to the particular ideology and mind-set that the EU embodies. The EU is a creature of industrial capitalism – it cannot help but seek to grow ever larger and accumulate ever more power over its subjects. To those who believe that this will inevitably be benign, I simply point to the experience of Greece in the last few years, when the interests of the residents of what was once a sovereign democratic state were sacrificed in order to ensure that Teutonic bankers were able to maintain their financial balance sheets.

No, it seems to me that we need to take a courageous step towards reclaiming our independence and freedom. There are those who would advocate for the EU in economic terms, who come out with statistics saying that it would cost each household x thousand pounds if we left. Such critics seem to be soulless slaves to the machine, mindlessly pursuing its programming. It is a perfect example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For me, such speculation is baseless, as we are in a state of profound ignorance about what may or may not happen economically to this country in the event of a leave vote. We do not know for certain whether a ‘Norway’ option (which would also involve reviving trade with our historic commonwealth partners) would lead to more jobs here than remaining in the EU market. We do not know how EU partners would react to a Leave vote, or whether such a vote would trigger a wider realignment within the EU itself as other countries realised that it was possible to leave, and so forced through proper measures of democratisation.

What we do know for certain is the character of the EU as a bullying and imperialist force for financial capitalism. We know that it has systematically and progressively gathered more and more power for itself over the last several decades and that it has fully worked out plans for increasing that power in the future. For those who believe that this is a benign state of affairs there is no problem in allowing this process to continue. For those of us who have become increasingly alarmed by the anti-democratic and exploitative practices that have become the overwhelming hallmark of EU governance this Referendum seems to be the once-in-a-generation opportunity to stand against the principalities and powers and say ‘No’.

This may seem to be a wildly romantic gesture, with shades (referencing Tolkien again) of simply saying ‘You shall not pass!’ Yet it is not unrealistic. Whatever the outcome of the vote, almost nothing will change overnight (except, hopefully, the occupant of No 10 Downing Street). We will wake up the following morning and will consider the choice that we have made. This will still be England, and we will doubtless conduct our morning rituals of tea or coffee in the same way that we usually do. Yet I am confident that if we do vote to leave the EU that people will start to walk with a spring in their step as we start to make our independent way in the world once again. Sometimes, as Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel, true life has to begin with a ‘no’. Sometimes we simply have to do the right thing, no matter what the world might think of us. Sometimes we simply have to walk out of the door on an adventure, without knowing where the road will take us.

I pray that we can remember ourselves to ourselves, regain our courage and sense of joy and life and exploration, and vote Leave.

Hillary Clinton – the face of the vampire squid

The Face of the Vampire Squid by Victoria Norton

These so-called progressives do like to tie themselves up in knots. Amidst all the brouhaha about Donald Trump’s successful campaign to be a Republican candidate it seems to be taken for granted that any right-thinking individual will cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton – on the assumption that she is indeed the Democratic Candidate.

Of course, there are some progressives with an admirable commitment to their principles – they’re the ones who keep shouting ‘Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!’ – and a handful of them may well hold fast and refuse to vote for Hillary. Most though, I expect, will hold their nose and vote Democratic simply because they believe that Trump is so awful. It is for those people that I am writing.

After all, Hillary Clinton must qualify as one of the most personally corrupt candidates ever to run for public office in the United States. There are many strands to that corruption, but the most unarguable relates to her use of a private email server on which to carry out government business. That business included email transactions classified as ‘Top Secret’. The primary purpose of Clinton’s deception seems to have been to ensure that her email correspondence could avoid becoming subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Working for the government is all well and good, but anything that might jeopardise her personal income stream has to be given a priority – sod the ethics.

The Clinton’s income stream has been well documented. Of most significance for my purposes here is the amount that Clinton receives from Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs is the single most influential financial institution in the world. It sits at the heart of the economic and political network that makes almost all of the important financial decisions in the Western world. It has been memorably described in these words by the Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibi: “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” (the full article is well worth a read – it is available on line here).

Put simply, Goldman Sachs is the embodiment of contemporary western financial capitalism – in other words, everything that progressive thought is supposed to be against. Cheering for Iceland because they took on the banking system and won, resulting in huge gains for their population? That means you’re against Goldman Sachs. Opposing the new free trade deal between the EU and the US, because it will mean giving huge power to pharmaceutical interests and undermine the NHS? That means you’re opposed to Goldman Sachs. Believe that major industries need to do full Environmental Impact Assessments before changing their activities (like Bradwell)? That means you’re opposed to Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Sachs is the brain and the nervous system that supplies the governing class with their framework of values, and the public face of the government knows when to do its masters bidding. One of the most egregious examples of this came when Gordon Brown as the UK Chancellor decided to sell off 400 tonnes of our gold supply at an absurdly low cost, simply to ensure that Goldman Sachs and its friends did not lose out too much on a ‘short’ bet that had gone wrong. Brown sold the gold at a price of less than $300 an ounce – and gold is presently trading at well over $1200 an ounce – which means that Gordon Brown transferred funds from the British taxpayer to Goldman et al to the tune of some $11,574,268,776. Must be nice having friends in high places.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton, the face of the vampire squid. Hillary Clinton – indeed, both Clintons – are entirely part of the financial establishment. She is paid richly by the financial industry, and she earns that money by doing their bidding. In 2014 and the first three months of 2015 she earned eleven million dollars for ‘speaking’ at various functions. Goldman Sachs specifically pays Clinton more than $200,000 per hour for her ‘talks’.

Is it possible that this degree of connection between politicians and financial organisations is entirely benign and operating in the public interest? Possibly, but if you believe that I have a bridge that I would like to sell you. No, if you have any concern that our civilisation is on the wrong track, that it is too beholden to vested financial interests, that the environment is being strip-mined to generate short-term returns for shareholders, then the idea that voting for Hillary Clinton can advance that cause simply beggars belief. Voting for Hillary Clinton is a vote for maintaining the status quo, for keeping the world safe for rapacious capitalism.

hilary clinton

No, if the system is to be changed then a candidate needs to be elected who is not a creature of the financial system. Given the financial constraints that rest upon anyone who runs for the US Presidency, the only possible candidate is someone independently wealthy, and who can therefore criticise things like the TTIP with impunity. Someone, in short, who looks like Donald Trump.

Teflon Trump: a portent to many

trump baby

Why is Donald Trump so popular? Last night he won the Florida primary for the Republican Party. The spin-meisters in the global media conglomerates – who are terrified of Trump for many reasons, including the fact that he is much better at their jobs than they are – have been pumping up John Kasich’s win in Ohio as some sort of sign that Trump’s momentum is slowing down. As if.

Trump’s margin of victory in the March 15th round of elections was significantly higher than his margin of victory on so-called ‘Super Tuesday’ – his share of the overall Republican vote has risen from 34.6% to 40.3%, and this at a time when the deep pockets of the Republican establishment have been raided in order to fund ‘attack ads’ against him, especially in Florida.

So how does the Donald manage to shrug off all these attacks? How did Teflon Trump manage to become so non-stick to all the fully justified criticisms of his policies and personality?

Put simply, all the criticisms are perceived as coming from the governing establishment – other politicians, the mainstream media, government and academia. The disconnect between the governing establishment and those over whom they rule has been getting wider for decades. The governing establishment has accepted many standards of behaviour that are used to identify a person as either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of that group. Foremost amongst these is political correctness.

Trump, it must be admitted, is not politically correct.

More than this, Trump has explicitly identified himself with those who are outside the establishment. His use of aggressive and inflammatory language is quite clearly ‘not the done thing’ within the governing class. It is, however, how a very large number of people speak in their normal interactions.

These are the people that are voting for Trump. They vote for him because they identify with him. They see him as ‘one of us’. This is immensely potent politically.

When the governing establishment attacks Trump, Trump’s support tends to rise. This is simply because his base of support sees those attacks as being, not simply against Trump as a person, but against Trump as representative of a class. For the first time in several generations, the Trump supporters have someone who can not only represent them on a wider national stage, but someone who can represent them and win in struggles against the governing establishment. This is why they are so fired up.

It would be a mistake to portray this in racial terms. The governing establishment likes to portray Trump supporters as angry white men, rednecks with no education and less breeding. That is simply a portrait of their own shadows – the dark heart of white identity, from which the enlightened ones have been raised, never to go back.

Trump is not a racist, and he is in fact doing well with the Hispanic vote in particular. In the Nevada primary, for example, he gained 44% of the (Republican) Hispanic vote. What is often missed beneath the bold rhetoric that Trump is known for is a hard-headed and pragmatic insistence that the job of the United States president is to protect the interests of United States citizens – and nobody else. The fact that this is the most important part of the job description seems to have been lost by most commentators, and the extreme reaction to Trump’s policy simply shows how warped the mentality of the governing establishment has become. Trump wins votes among Hispanics in particular because they are fully aware of what a lawless society looks like – Mexico. They are fully aware that if they wish to make a better life for themselves – that is, if they wish to pursue the American Dream – it needs to be done lawfully, in the context of and with the support of a robust legal and police system.

This is why Trump is popular. It is also what drives the vitriolic and personalised denunciations of Trump himself. Trump is the living embodiment of all that the governing establishment disdains. What has followed is a perfect example of a religious witch-hunt. The high priests are reacting against the heretic discovered in their midst and are whipping themselves up into a righteous fury, a fury that is likely to have a very particular outcome.

Trump is not Hitler. He is neither racist nor a warmonger, he has a long history of working with unions and opposing corporate subsidies. He is, put simply, a very ‘centrist’ candidate for the US presidency. Yet ‘Hitler’ is the word of choice for all those who oppose him. This is dangerous, for to call a person Hitler – that is, to call them by this name with all seriousness – is to render that person beyond a particular community, and once this has been accepted, then that person is no longer entitled to the protections of that community.

It’s a common question – if you could have stopped Hitler before his rise to power, would you have done so? The media narrative around Trump is channelling a huge amount of psychic pressure towards an assassination attempt. If Trump is assassinated then we really are going to move closer to a second American Civil War.

If Trump lives, and if he is allowed to gain the Republican nomination (not guaranteed, there might still be room for a back-stage stitch-up) I predict that Trump will win in November. Hillary Clinton, his likely opponent, is utterly corrupt – a stooge of Goldman Sachs, implicated in several different ethical and financial scandals, and open to a savage critique on her record in office as Secretary of State, during which time the United States’ foreign policy has been a disaster without precedent in modern times. More than that, no person more embodies the face of the governing establishment than the radical feminist who owes her career to the success of her husband.

No. Trump will win, and will win in a landslide. After that, politics will become interesting again.

UPDATE: just came across this cartoon, which says it all:

trump establishment

What shall we do about the ISIS crisis?

isis barbarity

When we are baffled about what we might do with respect to a particular problem, it can be worthwhile first to consider what not to do. Here are some examples.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has called for compulsory registration of all Muslims in the United States. Here is a perfect example of historical ignorance leading to morally repugnant thinking. Anyone who has any historical sense whatsoever will immediately ask – what next? Shall they be required to wear yellow stars sewn into their clothing? This is how the evils of Nazism began to take root in 1930s Germany. The Holocaust did not happen all at once but rather the human rights of Jewish people were progressively dismantled over time. First the Jews were identified, then they were segregated, then they were shipped in cattle trucks to Auschwitz. We cannot defend an open and tolerant society by disregarding all the human rights that make us who we are. Let us trust that Mr Trump quickly sees the error in his thinking and abandons these evil plans.

Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called for our country to join in with air strikes in Syria. Please remind me: who we are trying to attack at the moment, Mr Cameron? After all, a few years back you were calling for air strikes against the forces of Assad, and supporting what became ISIS. Now we want to support Assad against ISIS? Is that with the Russians or against them? Is that with the Turkish government (presently profiting hugely from the oil sales that come via ISIS) who are our NATO ally or not? Committing our armed forces to an area of conflict, where our past actions bear a significant burden of responsibility for shaping the present fiasco, must surely be based upon extremely clear and convincing reasons, ideally ones which command wide public assent. Without those things a desire to act militarily is just so much knee-jerk posturing.

Earlier this year the Prince of Wales visited Saudi Arabia to pay his personal condolences to the Royal Family following the death of their King. In amongst other matters there was doubtless discussion about the ongoing major arms sales to the Saudi regime. After all, the UK has been selling arms to the Saudis for many years. Some of those sales were even investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, until political pressure forced them to stop. Let’s remember what Saudi Arabia is – it is a feudal monarchy that retains the death penalty for gays and adulterers and from that country came 19 out of the 20 hijackers on 9/11. The particular strain of Islamist nutjobbery which dominates ISIS has clear roots in the Wahhabi ideology which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. This ideology cannot tolerate any compromise with the West – and it is this ideology which is preached in all the mosques financially backed by the Saudis throughout the world, including many in the UK. Perhaps we need to be clearer as to which sorts of ideology help mutual flourishing in our society, and which do not?

If we are to engage constructively with this present crisis we would surely benefit from some clear and honest thinking and conversation about these issues. We face an ideology that is committed to the destruction of our western ways of life. As a minimum, might I propose that we stop financially and militarily supporting that ideology?

The critique of our society which that ideology offers is not entirely without merit. By which I mean that it makes sense to significant numbers of Muslims – for if it did not make any sense, nobody would support it. According to a BBC survey earlier this year, one in four British Muslims “have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris”. Clearly our society is doing a very poor job at assimilating those who come to this country with different values. This is where we need to concentrate our energies – not in some vainglorious foreign adventuring, or in short-term political posturing, or simple money-grubbing obsequiousness to murderous dictators.

The philosopher Karl Popper, writing in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ (written during the Second World War), argued that for a tolerant culture to exist, it must tolerate all things except for intolerance. He wrote, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” This is the situation that we are presently living in.

It is undoubtedly true that most Muslims are not suicide bombers. Most Muslims – as with most human beings – simply want to live a peaceful and prosperous life within which they can love their families and pursue the goods that God has given them to seek. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that most suicide bombers are Muslims and that, in the last fifteen to twenty years, whenever there has been a terrorist attack, the chances of one of the perpetrators being named Muhammed is pretty high.

We simply cannot tolerate this, for if we do then we shall cease to exist. By ‘we’ I am not referring to our biological existence; rather, I am referring to all the things which make up British life. I like the fact that we live in a country where sexual orientation is no longer a matter for legal investigation and blackmail. I like the fact that we live in a country where my daughters can receive a full education alongside their brothers and are enabled to pursue their own interests. I like the fact that we – still, just – enjoy a culture of free speech and open debate in which the pursuit of truth is allowed to proceed without government interference. If we tolerate the intolerant then all these good things, and many more, will come to an end. That is what I mean by saying that ‘we’ shall cease to exist.

I do not believe that we can engage properly with ISIS and all the other strands of Islamic terrorism without properly rooting ourselves in our own deepest traditions. We cannot succeed militarily without engaging intellectually – and that means spiritually. Without it, military means are pointless and self-defeating. Yet we also cannot engage spiritually unless we recognise our own spiritual blindness, the way in which we have turned away from spiritual truth in favour of materialist and utilitarian ends. We have to assert our values, and we can only do that when we have rediscovered them for ourselves.

Gibbon’s analysis of the decline of the Western Roman Empire remains of value for us today. He argued that it was the moral corruption of Rome that rendered it vulnerable and impotent in the face of new challenges. We do not have to suffer the same fate.

Protecting the alien and choosing life

refugeeWhat shall we do about all the refugees? I want to make three points about the present situation, to provide some background context for how a Christian might understand what is happening.

Firstly, there is some clear biblical guidance to draw upon, which is unanimous in saying that we are to be generous and merciful to those who are without a permanent home. In Scripture the refugees are often called the ‘alien’ – in other words, those who are unknown and unfamiliar in a particular context – and so we get texts like these: “You are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.21); “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27.19); and “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23.22). Scripture is insistent that the alien is to be treated with justice, that the alien is not to be abused or exploited, but rather to be fed and clothed and treated with compassion. This, then, must guide our immediate response.

So far, so good. What is not so often referenced when discussing the present plight of refugees is all the other law written out in Scripture, which offers something of a balance for that emphasis upon compassion. For alongside the insistence on compassion comes an even stronger insistence upon the necessity not to worship foreign gods, and for those who are alien to come under the same law as the native. So we have texts like this, from Numbers chapter 15: “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.” This law for the natives is founded in the ten commandments which begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” This stark insistence comes with a promise – from Deuteronomy chapter 30, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” So the second point that I want to make is that, in Biblical terms, compassion for the refugee is set directly alongside the requirement for the refugees to come under the same spiritual and legal framework as the native.

We need to hold both these things in mind today, and not just with respect to the present surge of refugees fleeing from the Middle East. We need to be very clear about what our own values are. Without that, we cannot ensure that anyone who comes to this country as an alien is treated with compassion and justice but also required to accept those values. Some might find this uncomfortable. Isn’t this a form of imperialism? Who are we to say that our values are better than somebody else’s? I find that when I mention such things in polite society it isn’t received very well. I become marked out as some sort of right-wing proto-fascist. After all, who are we to boast of our society, of our values, of our God? For that is what commitment to one set of values over against another – one God over against another – that is what it means: it is to say, we believe that this is better than that.

Well – who are we not to? Is every culture in the world to be accorded dignity and respect except for our own? I believe it is healthy and good to feel proud of our own values. Moreover I believe that it is impossible to be humanly committed to a particular way of life without it, and that it is a form of self-hatred to try to avoid all forms of national pride and celebration. To see those things in other cultures is wonderful – why can we not enjoy the same sense of wonder and celebration at all that makes our own culture distinctive? To do so, however, would mean recognising and honouring the place of our spiritual and religious beliefs within our national life, and the particular debility which we endure is that our dominant narratives are entirely secular, with no place for such things. Our tragedy is that we have blinded ourselves in the belief that it will enable us to see things more clearly.

Which brings me to my third and concluding point. We cannot avoid sharing in the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. We are by no means the principal source of the difficulties there – my view is that each country is largely responsible for its own destiny, and the fact that the Middle East is such a blighted region culturally and economically is best explained by reference to indigenous factors, not the impact of outside agents. Yet we have intervened militarily and culturally, and we have done so on the basis of our own blindness. The critique given of Western society by groups like ISIS are not entirely without merit, however barbarous their methods. Until we learn to engage seriously with the underlying theological analysis that they draw upon, and recognise that such analysis is shared very widely throughout the world, we will not be able to begin making amends for what we have done wrong, and enabling a greater peace in the Middle East.

Human beings live within worlds of story and meaning, in the same way that fish swim within water. It is the medium within which we live and move and have our being. When those aspects of our lives are deliberately scorned and belittled, in the name of another story and another God – secular technocratic science in our society – then it is as if we have started to pour toxic waste into our own water supply. We cease to function properly, and we move blindly from one mess to another, each one worse than the last. If we are to navigate through these crises effectively, we need to draw once more from the deep wisdom of our own spiritual tradition. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Why I want Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour

corbynMy Union has written to me asking me to join the Labour party and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not sure that I will do that, because the Labour party is the only mainstream party for which I have never voted, and I would expect that Harman’s thought police will be actively rooting out new members with a questional political commitment (I’d definitely qualify!) – so why am I interested in who is going to become their leader? Well, in simple terms, Corbyn is someone who might tempt me to change that pattern of voting, and I’d like to explain why.

The first point is simply that Corbyn is so obviously not part of the metropolitan bubble, despite living in Islington. I am guessing that his views have hitherto placed him beyond the pale in terms of internal Labour party politics, and that this has enabled him to have a clearer perspective on the inwardness of the party elite. Whatever the reason, he comes across as authentic, consistent and principled, and that is immediately a huge plus, whatever the specific policy details.

Yet it is the policy details that attract me. I think that he will broaden out our political conversation in some very healthy ways. To begin with, it is very unclear that replacing a state monopoly with a private monopoly in various industries – rail, energy, post and so on – has actually benefited the country, as opposed to the financial industry. It is long past time that we assessed the lived experience of these private monopolies against the promises made, to see whether the politicians involved were wise and prudent or simply distracted by the prospect of generating a quick cash windfall for the Treasury. I also think that emphasising corporate tax avoidance and exploring ways to ensure that, for example, the profits made by the Daily Mail aren’t sent through Bermuda in order to avoid their legal obligations, is a necessary part of a healthy political conversation.

His key pitch, though, is about resisting political measures around austerity, and here I think he has a strong point both politically and morally. The sums involved in trimming back benefits, such as the child credit tax, are truly trivial when compared to either the overall government budget or the sums involved in supporting the financial industry with bail outs. For a society to try and save money by giving less to the weak and vulnerable, whilst turning a blind eye to the vast sums going to those who already have much – this says a very great deal about the sort of society that we are living in, and it doesn’t say anything good.

I believe that for a society to be considered civilised, there must be a certain standard of living below which nobody is allowed to fall. This is not a question of merit, or reward for hard work, or any other form of assessment or ‘means testing’. It is simply to ensure that nobody is thrown overboard as dead weight. This cannot be divorced from a Christian perspective of course – it is rooted in a theology of grace, that ‘all fall short of the glory of God’ and we are all the undeserving beneficiaries of a free hand out in spiritual terms.

Yet it can be defended in purely secular terms as well. To begin with, the notion that hard work is the principal determinant of financial success has been quite thoroughly deconstructed academically. The roles played by accidents of birth, networking, opportunity and simple luck are far larger. Put simply, hard work is not enough – and who is to say that those cleaning toilets work ‘less hard’ than those operating computers in the City? No, the idea that we might ever live in a pure meritocracy is simply a nonsense.

Secondly, the consequence of destroying demand at the lowest end of the income scale, which is what happens when the poor are made poorer, is that the total aggregate demand in an economy shrinks. The conspicous consumption of Louis Vuitton handbags and other luxury items by the super rich cannot compensate for the absence of consistent purchasing on necessities by the poor. To remove the poor from the economic cycle is to shrink the economic cycle itself, and then we are all diminished, both financially and spiritually.

It is because of this that I’m a supporter of a ‘basic income’, which to my mind is the simplest way to ensure that nobody is financially abandoned by the wider society. There are different ways to achieve that, and I’m not sure which method is best, but I believe that this is the sort of conversation that we need to have. The capitulation to the austerity narrative by the Labour party leadership, best exemplified by Harriet Harman’s decision to abstain on the recent package of welfare cuts passed by the government, shows that we need a very different opposition if we are to remain civilised.

I disagree with Corbyn on several things – the top rate of income tax is one of them, as I think it is self-defeating to increase it, it needs to be lowered significantly – but I really want him to lead the Labour party. To my mind the key political question is about how social inclusion is accomplished, not whether, and that leaves lots of room for political disagreements, not least between those who believe that such an aim can only be accomplished by an overmighty centralised state over against those who believe that it can be accomplished by small scale and local cooperative movements. Yet I would emphasise that this is the conversation that we must have. I think that if Corbyn were to be elected leader of the Labour party the quality of our political conversation would significantly improve, and we would all be better for it. So if you are eligible to vote – please vote for Mr Corbyn.

Of Greeks, Barbarians and smooth ball bearings

barbarianI write this a few days after the resounding ‘Oxi’ from the Greek people to the demands from the Troika. In previous years the EU has been able to overturn the results of referenda when they didn’t go in the direction wanted (as with Ireland and Denmark); something tells me that this won’t be possible this time.

Which means that there is every chance that the Greeks will leave the common currency very soon; that will be a glorious and happy day. The setting up of the Euro as a common currency was a politically driven project. It was argued for as a step towards a single state, with a common fiscal and monetary policy. The fact that a common currency wouldn’t be able to function without a central authority implementing those common policies was pointed out at the time, along with predictions of disaster if a single currency was put in place without such a central authority. Sadly such predictions were ignored, and those making them were ridiculed and marginalised, and now we are where it was reasonable to expect us to be.

There is something about a common currency which is akin to a common language. Where there is a common language then the difficulties in communicating are (mostly) removed, and it is possible for speech to flow freely between different people. In the same way, a common currency removes barriers that hinder or prevent trade between different people. Those who share in the common currency share in a common pattern of life, a common civilisation.

The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Ancient Greek usage. It originally referred to a ‘tribal’ people, who were outside the ‘polites’, civilisation (think of it as ‘polite society’). So the barbarians were those who didn’t speek the Greek language and ‘babbled’. Over time it developed the additional meaning of someone who was simply uncivilised or uneducated, and it therefore became a term of abuse within Athenian politics. The barbarian was the person who didn’t share civilised values, who behaved like a monster – hence our inherited meaning of the word ‘barbarian’ today.

Yet who are the barbarians now? I notice, for example, that the cost of a full ‘bail-out’ for the Greek government is estimated at being some 320 billion Euros (I don’t want to say too much about the origin and responsibility for that debt, only to point out that it was accrued in order to save French and German banks, amongst others). Now compare that sum of 320 bn to the sums given in recent memory to the banking system, in order to preserve their private status. The UK government in September 2008 announced a total funding package of 500 billion pounds in order to preserve the financial industry. The US government’s total outlay on a financial rescue package, not including guarantees to institutions, is well over 5 trillion dollars. Barclays Bank alone, which boasted of not having to be bailed out, in the end received over £550 billion pounds of subsidy.

In other words, the actual cost of simply writing off all of the Greek debt would be small change compared to the enormous sums of money that have been used in recent years to prop up the world financial system. The decision on whether to help the Greek government out of its financial distress is a purely political decision, not a financial one. The decision is all about whether the Greek people are part of ‘us’ – the civilised world deserving of civilised care – or whether they are part of ‘them’ – barbarians, best left to their own devices, stewing in their own juice.

Clearly the mood in Northern Europe is to chastise the Greeks for borrowing profligately and spending recklessly, leaving those Northern Europeans to warm themselves with their own sense of pride in their fiscal rectitude. Of course, if we were thinking about proper fiscal virtue then banks that made reckless loans would be required to meet the costs of those loans themselves when they failed. A proper banker would exercise prudence and caution and assess whether someone who was borrowing money was in fact able to pay it back over time. This did not happen, for the simple reason that the Northern European economies did very nicely, thank you, out of an exchange rate that was much lower than it would otherwise have been, because it included less developed economies like Greece.

Surely it is now obvious to even the most obtuse observer that the EU is a system set up to further the interests of global financial capitalism? That it has very little to do with civilised values, and much more to do with making the world safe for the free flow of money? Rather than talking about barbarians, I keep thinking about ball bearings – those small, weight bearing spheres that need to be lubricated in order to keep the machinery working smoothly. That is what modern capitalism requires, to remove all the obstacles and friction that get in the way of the efficient workings of the market. Get rid of different languages, different currencies, different customs in order that the marginal cost of production can be reduced by the extra fraction of a percentage that maximises share holder value!

The suffering that this is causing to the people of Greece is starting to become clear. The people of Greece, not the bankers of Greece or the politicians of Greece, but the people of Greece are the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, deprived of medicines, worrying about where their food is going to come from. So where is civilisation? Do we really want to stay in such a system, that has such contempt for civilised values? Who are the barbarians now?

It amazes me when I hear progressive friends apologising for the barbarity that is the necessary consequence of the way that the EU has been structured. I only hope that enough people can see the truth about the beast that we also say a resounding ‘oxi’ when we get the opportunity.

The principal deceit of the pro-EU campaign

So in the Queen’s speech we have been assured that there will be a referendum on our membership of the European Union by 2017 at the latest. I am delighted that this is going to happen, although I already have grave misgivings about the way in which the debate is going to be framed. The principal deceit as I see it will be to confuse two things which are logically and politically separate – membership in the European Union, and participation in the common market.

We have a history of fair dealing in this country, and my sense of what happened in the previous referendum back in 1975 (the template for which seems to be the one that Cameron is following) is that the British people voted to join a free trade area, a customs union. We had a sense that we would be able to compete within it and earn our way forward. What I suspect was not made clear to the British people, and what I am worried will once again become obscured in the national debate, is that there is a significant difference between a free trade area and the political union that the EU embodies.

There is no excuse for this distinction not to be placed at the forefront of the campaign. The language of the European Union treaties are very clear, not least in the reference to an ‘ever closer union’ in the original Treaty of Rome which set up the European Economic Community, language which has been built upon in all the subsequent treaties. The symbolism of this is straightforward – simply look at a current passport, which demonstrates that British citizens are first and foremost citizens of Europe. That includes our Queen.

It is not essential to be a member of a political union (the EU) in order to benefit from the free trade area. There is another organisation, called EFTA, the European Free Trade Area, which has access to the European Economic Area but which does not require the member nations to concede sovereignty to a supra-national organisation. In addition, the most important elements of global trade are established at a higher level than the EU, through the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. Given that we purchase more from Europe than Europe does from us it is clearly in everyone’s interests that the economic side of our present arrangements is disrupted as little as possible, and that could be done through transferring our membership of the EU to EFTA instead.

No, the real issue at stake in the coming referendum is about national sovereignty. Put simply, do we wish to take charge of our own affairs and work our way in the world as a mature and independent nation? I sometimes feel that our national confidence, at least at the level of the institutional establishment, was at an extremely low ebb in the post-war period, climaxing in the mid-70s, and that this was a factor in the campaign to dissolve our sovereignty. We had infamously ‘lost an Empire and not found a role’. It was as if we could no longer govern ourselves, and looked for a higher authority to take over.

The trouble with that higher authority is that, in the subsequent decades, it has taken on more and more responsibility in more and more areas of our national life, changing everything from how we measure and weigh things to how we fish and how we are able to generate electricity. The true locus of power governing this nation is now off-shore, in Brussels (or, more precisely, in wherever the rolling caravan of ministerial meetings chooses to get together). I do not believe that the British people chose to give up that sovereignty back in 1975 and it is essential that a clear understanding of what is at stake is communicated over the next eighteen months or so, until the referendum itself takes place.

The campaign has already begun, of course, with a salvo of pro-EU businessmen talking about the economic costs of disengaging from the EU. Their actions are what has prompted this article, as I do not wish to see their narrative become the dominant one. If the argument is once again reduced to economics it would represent a deceit about the true nature of the decision that we face. If the argument is centred upon national sovereignty then we will at least be able to say that whatever answer is given is a definitive one. After all, if the British people choose consciously to surrender their sovereignty then that will be that. We will, in practice, become the north-west provice of the European Union, no longer able to make our own choices in the world, which I would see as an immense tragedy and shame – but if that is what people choose, then so be it.

I have two grounds for hope that the national debate will indeed centre on questions of sovereignty, and not on questions of economics. The first is that I believe it to be unlikely that Cameron will be able to get anything substantial from his ‘negotiations’ with other European leaders. It is clear that they are trying to establish a stronger political centre for the EU in order to cope with the stresses and strains caused by the misconceived adoption of the single European Currency. As was predicted at the time, a single currency across different nations could only work if there was also a single political authority with the capacity to require fiscal transfers from one area to another. A currency union without such a political union to reinforce it was simply a recipe for disaster – a disaster that we are now seeing the shape of.

Which leads me to my second ground for hope. I do not believe that the situation in Greece is going to end very well, and it will demonstrate the political nature of the European Union in spectacular fashion. It is unconscionable for the Greek people to be immiserated as a result of decisions made by the political and financial elites in which they had no part. The crisis there – which will likely come to a head in the next few weeks when the Greek government declares bankruptcy – will show the political nature of the EU to anyone watching. It will be the moment when the mask slips and the underlying truth of the EU will emerge.

We need to have a proper debate about the nature of the EU before the referendum, and that proper debate has to centre upon the political nature of the EU, not simply whether we will be better or worse off in a financial sense. We are worth more than that.

The real political earthquake is still to come

Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.

Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.

Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.

This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.

Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.

So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.

We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?

Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.

In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.

The important thing is to vote

I write this the morning after a very lively and well attended General Election Hustings at West Mersea Parish Church. It was good to be involved and to become better acquainted with what the options are for us here on Mersea. If it happens again I will be much stricter about time-keeping, so that we could have more questions – there were several excellent questions that we didn’t have time to take. The character of the candidates became very clear, however, and this helps people to make their decision on who to vote for. That, after all, is the very purpose of hustings. I am convinced that we need a much greater involvement with politics at all levels of our society. It matters not only how we vote, but much more crucially, it matters that we vote.

Somewhere in one of my boxes at home I have a picture of me at secondary school in 1987 campaigning in a mock school election (confession – I was sporting a blue rosette with “I ♥ Maggie” on it). I have always been fascinated by politics and for a long time I had thought about a political career. After university I joined the Civil Service in Whitehall in order to become more fully acquainted with the political process. The role that I had involved changing jobs each year in order to be exposed to the different parts of the Department – I was in the Department of the Environment – and one of my jobs was ‘Radioactive Substances’. That is, I worked closely on the monitoring of nuclear power stations, and learned a very great deal about the science involved. One particular job I had – in 1993 if memory serves – was running a public consultation about the THORP processing plant in Sellafield, which was, at the time, extremely controversial. We knew that any decision reached by the government would immediately be taken through the judicial review process by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so we had to be note perfect in describing the how and why behind the eventual decision. When it came before Parliament I wrote the briefing for John Major, and I have a very fond memory of his hand-written comments thanking me for a ‘perfect’ preparation (please forgive the boast!). What I came away from the Civil Service with was a full appreciation of how politics is just like making sausages, you don’t really want to get too exposed to the detail of how it is done!

It is possible – perhaps it is inevitable – that a cynicism about politics develops. The nature of the political process is such that it is extremely rare for a clear principle to be argued for and then carried out by someone who has not had to make all sorts of compromises along the way. In order to achieve anything in politics it is important to be alert to what is possible at any particular moment in time. In political theory this is called the ‘Overton window’ which describes the range of policies that the public are willing to accept. An average politician will work within that range and seek to advance his cause in incremental fashion, making deals and agreements along the way. A great politician will seek to change the nature of the window itself; that is, they would seek to ‘change the political weather’ in order that what had previously seemed impossible to implement later becomes accepted wisdom. In my lifetime the only politician who might be classed in that category is Margaret Thatcher, who clearly changed the terms of the political debate in this country. Even Thatcher, however, was very willing to compromise and make deals along the way, making tactical retreats on issues when it served her larger purpose.

So the great majority of politicians are average, and they are obliged by the very structure of our politics to make compromises, to accept that their ideals will have to be watered down if they are to make any progress at all. This is a recipe for cynicism. If you approach politics with a sense of idealism, a feel for how things might conceivably be, then it can seem a very brutal environment. More than this, when people on the ground suffer at the hands of a bureaucratic state, when decisions seem to be made without any respect for the human context – something which happens more and more these days – then it is easy to become disillusioned about the whole process and say ‘to hell with the lot of them’, and then disengage completely.

All that happens at that point is that the Overton window becomes much smaller, and the possibility of significant change recedes even further away. The saying goes, “all that is required for bad men to triumph is that good men do nothing” and that applies even to each of us, as we exercise our right to vote. If those of us who are dreamers and idealists, who are unhappy with the existing state of affairs, who are shocked or disgusted by the shabby compromises of the political class – if we disengage and do not vote then the process will only become worse. On the other hand, if all the dreamers and idealists do turn out and vote, then the political class will see that what is possible in this country is greater than they had realised, and the possibility of genuine progress comes that much closer.

To put that in religious terms, cynicism is a sin. To give in to a cynicism about the political process, to argue along the lines that Russell Brand does and think that voting makes no difference in the end, is to give greater power to the established and vested interests. It simply makes things worse. The answer is to follow the advice ‘be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. In other words, do not be under any illusion about the political process, recognise the nature of the beast – but hold on to idealism, hold on to hope, hold on to the sense that things may change – and let that guide your choice as you vote. Whoever it is that we choose to cast our ballot for, it is important that we each exercise that hard-won right. We’d certainly miss it if it was taken away from us.