The Gospel According to Saint Theresa

I’ve always tended to reject the ‘ all religion is evil and stupid’ arguments emanating from hyper-rationalists of the left and right, not because I’m particularly religious myself, but because religion can perform many different social roles and functions.  It can, for instance,  be a force for reaction, tyranny and exploitation,  but it can also inspire men and women to fight against oppression.  If religion can reinforce hierarchies of wealth and power, most religions also contain arguments for equality and social justice.

Southern slaveowners once argued that the Bible justified slavery, while opponents of slavery argued that the Bible contained the opposite message.   Religion has been used to justify the most extreme forms of violence, from the massacres carried out by crusaders in Jerusalem, to the crimes of Islamic State and Boko Haram or racist Buddhist monks calling for the extermination of Rohingya. Yet all religions contain traditions and texts that have been used to justify war and which also affirm peace and mercy.

At the most basic level, religion provides millions of people with a sense of meaning and consolation for the material conditions they may be forced to endure, and for the tragedy, suffering and inevitable loss that are intrinsic to the human predicament.  Marx recognized these complexities when he famously observed that ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’ – an observation that too often has been quoted only in relation to the last sentence.

In recent years religion has come to play a very different which I have very little sympathy for.  In 2013 Nigel Farage declared that ‘ We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values.’

Such statements might seem a little outlandish coming from a teenage Nazi sympathiser who went onto become a bigot, a liar and a wealthy former stockbroker who only goes to church four or five times a year.  Farage’s ‘faith’ has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Ghost and everything to do with the construction of a national ‘identity’ that is supposedly being corroded and endangered by ‘multiculturalism’, immigration – and Islam.

The Boozy Bigot isn’t the only one to evoke our ‘Judaeo-Christian heritage’ in this context.  Conservative to far-right politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have doing this for a number of years now.   David Cameron made various high-profile references to Britain’s Christian identity during his catastrophic time in office.  In 2015 he delivered a buttock-clenchingly embarrassing ‘Christmas message’ in which he oozed PR-driven pious drivel about how we must ‘celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace’,  and reminded the nation that ‘ As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope.

This ‘message’ was embarrassing, not only because of the patent insincerity and self-importance of the messenger himself, but also because the two governments that Cameron presided over did nothing – absolutely nothing –  to uphold any of the values that he associated with the ‘ Prince of Peace.’

The same can be said of the woman who has taken his place, who regaled the nation with an ‘Easter message’ yesterday whose brazen indifference to reality is something that we more commonly associate with Donald Trump. Staring into the autocue with a lifeless stare that was easily outshone by her silver necklace,  May told us of her ‘sense’ that the country was ‘coming together’ after the Brexit debate.

Her listless demeanor suggested she could already hear the mocking laughter croaking from millions of throats, but still she went on, robotically reciting clichés about our ‘proud history and bright future’ and the ‘opportunities’ awaiting us outside the EU.   And then, because it was Easter, and a time for reflection, she reflected on our shared ‘values’ and neatly morphed them into an Anne of Green Gables vision of the simple, goodhearted girl she must once have been before she grew up to become the UK’s answer to Cruella de Vil:

‘ This Easter I think of those values that we share – values that I learnt in my own childhood, growing up in a vicarage. Values of compassion, community, citizenship. The sense of obligation we have to one another.  These are values we all hold in common, and values that are visibly lived out everyday by Christians, as well as by people of other faiths or none.’

It’s worth pausing here to remember that the woman who said this presides – as her equally Christian successor did – over a government that forces sick and dying people to work; that is driving the NHS to the wall so that it can sell if off; that has cut funding to social care and the mentally-ill; that drives doctors to suicide and forces nurses into debt; that has driven more than a million people to rely on foodbanks; that makes poor and disabled people pay for having a spare room in their house; that sells truckloads of weapons to any scumbag dictator that needs them.

Yet she still has the incredible gall to speak of ‘those who go out of their way to visit the sick or bereaved, providing comfort and guidance to many in our country at some of the most difficult moments in their lives.’

At least Thatcher, when she spoke about religion, observed that the good Samaritan had to be rich in order to be charitable.  That observation is pretty crass in its own way – and it also ignored the widow who gives her last penny – but at least it had a certain ideological continuity.

In May’s case, the values that she invokes are so glaringly at odds with what her government is actually doing that one can’t help but wonder what part of her Christian education taught the vicarage girl that Jesus would be ok with deporting a nearly-blind migrant on hunger strike, blocking child refugees from entering the country, selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, or using EU nationals as hostages.

As for ‘our obligations to one another’ – May’s transition from Remain politician to celebrating our ‘opportunities’ outside the European Union suggests that she has no obligations to anything except her own career.  Her government is choking the life out of the society that she praises, and transforming the UK into something as callous, mean-spirited and cruel as the Tory Party itself.

If May actually believes what she says, then she is a deluded fool.   If she doesn’t believe it, then she is a fraud and a hypocrite – on a Biblical scale.   But the crux of her ‘Easter message’ is the invocation of Christianity as a marker of cultural and national identity that is somehow under threat, and a country where pious Christians are forced to say ‘Cadbury’s’ instead of ‘Easter’ and whisper a faith that dare not speak its name.

May, like Cameron and Farage before her, is worried about this, and tells us, as they did, that ‘ we should be confident about the role that Christianity has to play in the lives of people in our country.  And we should treasure the strong tradition that we have in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech.  We must continue to ensure that people feel able to speak about their faith, and that absolutely includes their faith in Christ.’

To which one can only say, fine, let Christians be Christian, even though they already are.   But when politicians like May talk about their ‘faith in Christ’ it can’t help but have the distinctly hollow ring, not of a churchbell tolling on a village green that is forever England, but of whitened sepulchres blowing down a barren windswept street named Tory Propaganda Road.

 

 

The House that Brexit Built

With less than a week since HM Government presented the EU with the letter, the lineaments of the new British future are already beginning to emerge out of the fog of incompetence, lies and fading promises, and it isn’t a pretty sight.   Before Article 50 had been triggered, Michael Gove was looking forward to ending the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive,  so that British pharmaceutical companies could sell drugs without clinically testing them.

Even British pharmaceutical companies don’t want this, because if they didn’t meet international standards they wouldn’t be able to sell drugs on the international market. But like his fellow-Brexiters, Gove hates ‘EU red tape’ too much to pay attention to such minutiae.  Gove also wants to get rid of the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, which obliges builders to find alternative green spaces to offset the environmental impact of building within five kilometres of listed green areas.

The need to protect the countryside and the environment ought to be as obvious as the need to test drugs thoroughly before marketing them, but for Gove such regulations are just more red tape that ‘holds back’ business.

Since Gove made these observations the British economy has been sliding ever closer towards gotterdammerung as the government’s shallow and barely-thought through promises unravel, the pound gets weaker,  the price of food goes up, and real incomes decline.   In these circumstances Theresa May has been out frantically touting for business in the Gulf.  Pausing to criticize the fact that the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear in a National Trust advert, even though it does, she was unable to condemn or even mention the fact that Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen ever closer towards famine and societal collapse, even though it is.

On one level such silence is a continuation of the old UK complicity with the Gulf autocracies, in which oil, weapons deals and real estate speculation always trump any other considerations.  Nevertheless it’s difficult not to detect a new whiff of sweaty desperation behind May’s world tour.  She knows – even though she will never admit it – that ‘Global Britain’ is a very weak brand that needs any investors it can possibly find, and she clearly doesn’t care where such investment comes from.

The Gulf States know this too.  That’s why they reportedly have ‘signature ready’ free trade agreements already prepared for the moment the UK leaves the EU, and don’t anyone even think that May’s government will allow reservations about human rights, democracy or gender equality to get in the way of signing them.

If anyone was in any doubt about this, consider Liam Fox’s trip to the Philippines to meet Rodrigo Duterte.  Even in the freakish rogue’s gallery of 21st century ‘populism’, the president of the Philippines is a stand-out monster.  This is a man who has ordered his police to murder thousands of real and suspected drug addicts and drug dealers, and has boasted about throwing people out of helicopters himself.   Yet Fox has no problem having his picture taken with the smirking gangster,  and babbling about the UK’s desire to intensify a ‘ well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests’ with the Philippines.

Fox is not the kind of politician to allow a few thousand extrajudicial executions get in the way of a good deal, and we can expect more of this in the future, a lot more.  In effect, the UK has given up its membership of a community of liberal states – the EU – with which the UK does share some values such as democratic government, a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, to cultivate relationships with politicians who have the same values as Al Pacino’s Scarface, and Arab rulers who are as democratically accountable as the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.

Of course there are contradictions and glaring failures in the practical application of the EU’s values, but at least they exist as an aspiration and a standard that member states are expected to live up to, which is more than you can say about Rodrigo Duterte.

The current direction of UK foreign policy makes it clear that we no longer aspire to have any such values either.  Fox told a Manila newspaper that we are becoming ‘a stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking nation’, but very little in that statement is true, and most of it is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is actually happening.

We are in fact becoming the opposite of all those things: poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, more deregulated, and more divided.  As for ‘fairer’ – this was a week in which thousands of families are set to become even poorer as a result of George Osborne’s ‘three child’ benefit reforms and Theresa May described cutting bereavement benefits as ‘fairness to the taxpayer.’

We are ‘outward-looking’ only in the sense that we are now prepared to do business with any autocrat and sleazeball gangster who wants to do business with us.

None of this should be at all surprising.  Brexit was always going to be like this, but knowing that doesn’t make it any better, and for the time being at least, there is very little that anyone seems able to do to stop it.

 

The Anglo-Spanish War

One thing about political reality – in the end you can’t avoid it.  You can try, as Theresa May and her weird little Brexit government have been doing for the last eight months or so.   You can beat your rhetorical chest and bare your teeth.  You can threaten this and promise that.  You can utter expressions like ‘truly Global Britain’ and ‘we are a great trading nation’ like mantras and hope that millions of people – or at least enough of them to deliver Tory votes – will utter them too.

You can tell the nation that we will have our cake and eat it, because that is what great trading nations do.  You can run off a cliff and keep going at your own momentum for a few steps.  But in the end,  just like Roadrunner and Tom the cartoon cat, you will fall, because countries can’t walk on air any more than cartoon characters can.

For Cruella de May and her Brexit-skinning crazy gang, that moment arrived last Monday when Donald Tusk announced the EU’s negotiating deadlines.  Unlike so many statements that have come out of Cruella’s mouth – to say nothing of those that have come from some of her more outlandish ministers – these guidelines were founded in a very objective concept of reality, rather than the entirely subjective version that we Brits have got used for the last ten months.

As a result the government’s delusions were quietly and effortlessly dismantled. Free trade agreements will not allow the same privileges as single market membership. There will be no cherry picking. The UK will not be able to make deals with individual EU member-states. The UK will be expected to resolve its outstanding financial commitments before negotiations begin.  The UK will not enjoy the same benefits in its future relations with the EU as member states.  Any free trade agreement will have to contain safeguards ‘ against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping.’

All this was written in the kind of calm reasoned tone you might use to try and talk down someone standing on a high bridge about to commit suicide.   Most of it should have been obvious to any British politicians who were prepared to consider what was legal and what was possible in the forthcoming negotiations.  Unfortunately such politicians have been in short supply lately.   And this is the problem with jingoistic arrogance: it makes it difficult, if not impossible to make realistic assessments about the national interest or even consider what your opponents are thinking and planning.  That’s why you are likely to miss little gems like this one,  that also propped up in the guidelines:

‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’

No one should be surprised that Cruella and her team didn’t see that one coming, since they have blatantly ignored all the more obvious things that they should have seen coming.   And no one should be surprised that, faced with Spain’s diplomatic coup, they are responding with the same arrogant and aggressive bluster that has been spewing out of their mouths ever since this ghastly process began.

For reasons that are not exactly clear, the first verbal shot was fired by Lord ‘something of the night’ Howard, who assured Channel 4 News that Theresa May was prepared to go to war over Gibraltar.  Just let that sink in. Howard said that this country would be willing to go to war with a European country that is still technically its ally, and which has some 800,000 Brits living there, if Spain were to do anything contrary to the wishes of Gibraltar’s population, such as insist on co-sovereignty.

Howard describes this as an ‘EU land grab,’ when in fact it’s just another example of the galumphing flatfootedness of Cruella and her team, who really don’t see any iceberg until they hit it.   Howard has noticed that ‘  35 years ago this week another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.’

I love that ‘another Spanish-speaking country’, don’t you?  Reason enough in itself to go to war, Howard seems to feel.   For him, the Falklands isn’t just a coincidence – it has the whiff of imperial destiny.   And he isn’t the only one.  Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has also said that Britain would ‘go all the way’ to ‘protect Gibraltar’.  Boris Johnson – always a good call whenever you need a fatuous stupid statement from anyone – says that British support for Gibraltar will be ‘implacable and rock-like’.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as yet more crowdpleasing Blimpish loose talk from politicians who don’t seem to know any other kind.  That would be bad enough. You don’t need to read Machiavelli to know that it probably isn’t a good idea to go into complex negotiations from which you need a good result babbling about gunboats and war with one of the countries you’re going to be negotiating with.

But there is also another even more disturbing way of looking at this latest fleck-spittled outpouring of indignation towards Johnny Foreigner.   When Thatcher took the country to war in the Falklands her government was in deep trouble politically, the economy was failing and her polls were dropping.  She gambled on war and won, and the jingoistic bubble that she inflated gave her the political power to take on the miners.

The situation that May and co are in is so much worse, even if the polls and the politics don’t reflect it yet.  They are leading the country towards economic disaster.  They have promised things that are impossible, and the things that are possible they have no intention of delivering.  They are already out of their depth and seem to have no idea what they’re doing or what to do.

In these circumstances we can’t be surprised to hear them talk of war.  Because Brexit means never having to say you’re sorry.  It means that you never admit that what you promised was dishonest, impossible and politically and economically nonsensical.   What you do, when things go wrong, is blame other people: the ‘traitors’ at home; ‘Remoaners’; the ‘EU bullies’ – and now,  ‘another Spanish-speaking country’ that thinks it can get the jump on Global Britain when its back is turned.

Such talk brings back warm and pleasant memories: of the Burmese ‘shoe question’; of Palmerston bombing Athens after a British merchant was attacked by a Greek mob; of the Opium Wars…and for a certain type of Tory, it brings back memories of the Falklands and conjures up enticing visions of a united country of patriotic, flagwaving crowds watching our brave boys depart and the sun never setting etc, etc.

All this war chatter took place in a week in which a school here in my new home of Sheffield has just suggested that parents pay £33 each half term to keep their school going.  That’s the kind of government this is.  It won’t even pay to educate its own children but will go ‘all the way’ over Gibraltar.    We should never forget that, when they get their rhetorical sabres out.

And if the likes of Theresa May, Fallon and Johnson have the temerity to even think about taking us to war over this, we should show these lunatics what treason really is, and give them so much of it that they will never be stupid enough to consider such a possibility.

 

 

Liberation Day

No matter what the future may bring, those of us who were lucky enough to be alive and British on March 29 2017 will never forget the glorious day when the United Kingdom finally threw off the yoke of the European Union.  In the years to come, perhaps very soon, we will hold a national holiday to commemorate our liberation from four decades of unrelenting tyranny and near-total darkness, in which we had seen our precious nation brought to its knees by the dictatorship of Brussels.

At last, our emissaries handed over the letter expressing the will of the people,  and we were able to believe that it was really going to happen.   It was the end of a nightmare or the beginning of a dream.  Or the beginning of the beginning or the first birdsong heralding a new dawn or the birthpangs of a truly Global Britain.  For some, it was only comparable to VE Day or the liberation of Paris.  It was a moment that so many of us had dreamed of throughout the years of toil and suffering under the EU’s slippered jackboot.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg was barely able to maintain the stiff upper lip and hold back the tears of joy as the first members of the EU occupying army began to pack their bags, taking their subsidies with them.  Others smiled contentedly as the EU nurses left in the wake of the occupying forces,  at the thought of the NHS that would soon be theirs. Cornwall and Wales let out a sigh of relief at the thought of all the European money that they would no longer receive.  Ukip MEPs, hardened through decades of guerrilla warfare in the belly of the beast on salaries of only £84,000 a year plus expenses, came back from Eurostar with their sten guns and handgrenades, wondering how they would turn swords into ploughshares and forge new careers in a country where their single MP had just turned independent.

Watching the non-existent crowds in the empty streets, Michael Gove felt a lump in his throat at the thought that he would not be prime minister after all, but took consolation from the prospect of all those drugs that could now come onto the UK market without EU clinical trials,  and the green spaces that could now be built over without all that EU red tape to prevent it.  Boris Johnson shambled out into the street with his shirt hanging out over his trousers wondering how long he would have to wait before he could prime minister.

Others dreamed of bigger things. Oceans full of fish.  Selling cows to New Zealand. Factories and coalmines reopening. Empty motorways and well-paid jobs for all. And above all, controlled borders and no foreigners, even though the government is now saying that immigration won’t go down after all.

The Sun, passed out like Father Jack in a corner of the nation’s living room, lifted its unshaven head and belched as it warned the Eurocratic scum that if they failed to reach a trade agreement the UK would stop sharing our ‘world-leading counter-terror and crime-fighting abilities’ with the EU.  ‘Your money or your lives!’ the Sun croaked drunkenly, because we really are that great.  And because in any trade negotiations, as the Sun reminded us before passing out again ‘ our crack team of politicians and civil servants’ will always vanquish the ‘Brussels no-hopers.’

Truly the white man had got his country back,  and could look forward once again to taking the underground and not hearing Polish in a journey that would hopefully end up somewhere in the early 1950s.   And the white woman  could also rejoice, like the woman in Hastings who found historical parallels between our current slavery and the Norman Conquest, and concluded that ‘The concept of being governed by an unelected body would have been absolutely abhorrent to anyone in those days. It’s almost like the state has been lost. It was like another takeover, we relinquished our law and power to an unelected body.’

As any student of history knows, those Normans would never have allowed England to be taken over by an unelected body, so we could only put out the flags and cheer even louder that such great and noble thoughts had brought us to this pass.   And the left could celebrate too, because as John McDonnell reminded us not long ago,  ‘Brexit is an opportunity.’   Now the working class had spoken and delivered a fatal blow to ‘the elite’ and the neoliberal order and the British had the chance to get the socialism they had always secretly wanted – even if it was only socialism in one country.

Bliss was it to be alive, as Wordsworth once said about an equally historic moment, and it needed a poet to capture the beauty and the history of our own Liberation Day. Fortunately we had Theresa May, one of those rare politicians with a poetic license to make the impossible sound plausible and articulate the opposite of what is actually happening with absolute and total conviction.

Yesterday the vicar’s daughter reached new rhetorical heights as she reminded the nation that we are now going to ‘going to make our own decisions and our own laws’, regardless of the fact that we already do.   She told us that the government that brought us foodbanks, fitness to work tests and the bedroom tax would ‘build a stronger, fairer Britain.’   Like so many others, she urged us to ‘ look forward with optimism and hope – and to believe in the enduring power of the British spirit.’

She told us ‘I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead ‘ and we ‘chose’ to believe it too, even though there was absolutely nothing to suggest that any such future lay ahead.   We did so because we had learned that fairies were real and because Brexiters warned us that they were tired of negativity, pessimism, and doubt, and some of them were even suggesting that those of us who harboured such thoughts might be traitors or criminals or collaborators with the EU death machine.

Our Great Leader also ‘chose’ to believe in ‘the British spirit’ and we did too, because the spirit can reach places where material processes fail, and she was ‘confident that we have the vision and the plan’ even though nothing that has happened since last June suggests that she has either.  She promised us that we would become ‘a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead’ –  even though we already are exactly that.

Typically British in her magnanimity, she offered the olive branch to the European despots, and told them that she wanted to have ‘a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union’ – as opposed to the old one which we already have.

She also promised ‘ a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union that allows for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states; that gives British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets; and that lets European businesses do the same in Britain’ – precisely the agreement that we already have.

She pledged to ‘ strengthen the Union of the four nations that comprise our United Kingdom’ even though Scotland and Ireland are already pulling away and Wales is unlikely to be far behind.  She assured the workers amongst us that ‘workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained’ even though the British standard of living ranks at number ten out of 18 European countries and the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that most British workers will be earning no more in 2021 than they were in 2008.

Last but not least, she reminded parliament ‘ at moments like these – great turning points in our national story – the choices we make define the character of our nation.’

She was right about that too.