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.

 

 

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.

Theresa May’s New Year Message: the Blind Leading the Blind

In these uncertain times, as we move closer to the yawning abyss that is Brexit, one can only wait with bated breath for a good dose of platitudinous bromide from the politicians who are about to push us off it to lift the spirits.   Maybe idiot-at-large Boris Johnson’s Christmas invitation to get behind ‘global Britain’ didn’t do it for you.  Luckily there is Theresa May, her harsh visage only marginally softened by a glittering Christmas tree, had the following reassuring message to our troubled nation:

‘We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today.  We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. These ambitions unite us, so that we are no longer the 52% who voted leave and the 48% who voted remain, but one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind – the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country.’

I feel better already.  Or I would, had these hollow and profoundly vacuous promises not come from a prime minister whose own civil servants have accused her of lacking in the moral courage to admit to the complexity of the task that lies ahead of her.

And Cruella’s cowardice and political dishonesty aren’t the only reasons why this listener does not feel like singing Kumbaya along with her.  There’s also the question of vision.  So far there is no evidence whatsoever that May’s government of the clueless, the shameless, the duplicitous and the useless have any idea how to extract ‘the right deal’ from the horrendous political and logistical spaghetti junction that the nation is now stepping into.

As for the future that she expects us to unite behind, it’s worth comparing it with the Institute for Public Policy Research’s excellent report:  Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s.  

Among other things the report predicts that:

  • Technological, economic and demographic change will supercharge inequalities, with middle and low income households struggling through a low-growth living standards decade, even as the rich pull away
  • A combination of low growth, political choices and demographic change will shrink the state and put the UK on course for a structural deficit by 2030.
  • The 65+ population will surge from 11.6 million today to 15.4 million by 2030. By contrast, the working age population (16-64) will increase by only 3%. There will be a surge in the ‘oldest old’, with the over 85s population nearly doubling by 2030
  • By 2030 the economy is forecast to be up to £55 billion smaller than it would have been without Brexit. In a ‘pessimistic’ scenario, where trade costs increase significantly, households are expected to be £1,700 worse off per year by 2030.
  • Without significant reform, longstanding weaknesses in the UK’s economic model will remain: poor productivity performance, weak real wage growth compounded by surging Brexit-related consumer inflation, sluggish public and private investment rates, yawning trade decits, heavily indebted households, regional disparities, extensive financialisation and rent-seeking. In the process, morbid symptoms will multiply: negative yields, interest rates near the lower bound, underinvestment and stagnant living standards.
  • Government spending as a share of GDP is projected to fall to its lowest postwar level (around 36%) by 2019/20. This trajectory will continue into the first half of the 2020s unless fiscal policy changes significantly post-Brexit. At the same time, spending will be more focused on pensions and health.  Even with lower expenditure, the public finances will be acutely vulnerable to shock. Brexit is expected to significantly worsen the state of the public finances.
  • Demographic change will drive increasing demand at the same time as public expenditure tightens. The NHS and social care will face an acute funding challenge. The education system will grapple with equipping people for the digital age. Childcare is likely to remain patchy and inadequate.
  • The UK economic model is unlikely to deliver broadly shared prosperity. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in western Europe are in the UK, but we also have the richest region.

How will the UK’s aging population fund the NHS or social care, without younger migrant workers coming to the country to pay taxes?   How can May’s government protect the population against the consequences of further shocks in the global economy?  What will it do to prevent or mitigate the ‘morbid symptoms’ identified in the report?  How will it prevent the rich from ‘pulling away’?  What will it do to address the fact that median incomes in the UK have stagnated or declined for more than a decade?  How will  this government and its successors respond to the technological revolution that will result in more and more jobs being done by machines?

There is not the slightest indication that May and her ministers are even asking these questions.  But I urge anyone interested in the future of the country – and the future in general – to read this report and consider them.   As in all futurist documents, the IPPR’s conclusions are only predictions, but the picture they paint is of a backward, reactionary country in dire need of democratic renewal, economic modernisation and social justice to cope with the new challenges posed by technological transformation and ecological crisis.

Nor is it simply a litany of worst possible futures.   The report asks its readers to become ‘architects of the future’ and calls for ‘ a new “common sense” that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few.’

To achieve this, the report argues, ‘ will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.’

Now if Theresa May had delivered a ringing message like that, I might have sat up and taken notice.  Of course she didn’t,  and she never will, because politicians like her can’t even think in these terms.

But we can, and if we are going to avoid some of the worst-case futures outlined in this report and built a better one, we really ought to start looking for politicians who are prepared to consider them.

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

I’ve just returned to Brexitland after a week in the Aragonese Pyrenees with my daughter. During that time we continued to follow the tumultuous events that have convulsed our tormented island: Chilcot; the PLP’s viciously inept coup; the rapid extinction of the wretched Andrea Leadsom and the coronation of Theresa May; the ongoing racism coursing freely through the body politic.

Watching it from a distance there were a few shreds of minor comfort that could be drawn from the UK’s startling transformation into a political motorway pileup: the eclipse of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson; the indictment of Tony Blair by British establishment mandarins; the fact that England were no longer in the European championship.

That was about it really, and it wasn’t much.  Returning to the motherland on Wednesday rapidly dissipated the lingering glow of schadenfreude and the healing properties of sunshine and mountain landscapes, and reminded me that the country I was born in has become a thing to behold with more horror than admiration.  Within minutes of passing through the ridiculous signs aggressively proclaiming UK BORDER to all those foreigners out there stupid enough to mistake passport control for…passport control, I saw my first headline from the Daily Express: ‘Theresa May Will Stop Migrant Crisis.’

No surprises there.  The day the Express  fails to put the word ‘migrant’ on its front page is the day Richard Desmond will probably self-combust along with many of his readers.   Even more ominously a phone call to my mother revealed that Boris Johnson, the Great Liar whose ambitions had supposedly been thwarted by Michael Gove’s treachery, had been called into Downing Street for talks with Theresa May.

By the time we left the airport we found out that Johnson had been made Foreign Secretary.  I felt the beginnings of Brexit fever coming on again – a shaking hand and trembling jaw, eyes staring wildly in search of an escape route – as I tried to absorb the fact that the UK’s new foreign secretary is the same man who once lied again and again about the European Union as a journalist; who has made racist ‘gaffes’, as the media likes to call them, a stock-in-trade of his cheekie chappie persona; who suggested that Obama’s support of the EU was due to his ‘Kenyan ancestry’; a man who doesn’t read briefs; who used to shout ‘yah fishcakes’ when asked questions by the London Assembly; who was instrumental in winning the Brexit vote even though he had no plan what to do next.

I wanted to think it was funny, in a giggly, knockabout farce kind of way, as though I were watching a movie called Carry On Brexit, but I found I wasn’t laughing.  As the train sped across the East Anglian countryside we pored over our phones and read the media praising David Cameron’s ‘dignified’ last PMQs as though they were saying goodbye to a noble and benign statesman, rather than the Flashmanlike bully and glib PR man who gambled his country’s future to win a political argument within the Tory Party, and who still had the unbearable gall to talk of his dedication to the ‘national interest.’

We read aghast that MPs on both sides of the house had applauded a prime minister who will surely go down as one of the greatest political wreckers in his country’s history.  Some of these honorable gentlemen were Labour MPs who had previously shouted, heckled and sniggered at their own leader when he called for unity on the day that Cameron originally announced his resignation and apologized for the Iraq War.   Some of them  had sought to exclude Corbyn from the ballot in the leadership contest because they knew that he would win with an even bigger majority than last time.

These efforts were still going on even as our train continued to run through the stops. By the time we reached our destination we learned that the NEC had allowed Corbyn on the ballot after all – so generous of the NEC to allow a leader who won with more than sixty percent of the vote last year and still has the overwhelming support of his party membership to run.     But shortly afterwards we discovered that this act of largesse had outrageously cancelled out by a new announcement from the NEC that all members who have joined the party since February must pay £25 in order to vote in the leadership contest.

To say that this was dispiriting and unedifying doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It’s simply mindboggling to contemplate the strange combination of Ruritania and Banana Republic that the UK has become as it continues to sink into a swamp of rancorous decadence with a distinctly Weimar flavour as it frantically searches for new ways to exclude foreigners from the country and find itself a new post-imperial role in a world that mostly sees us as a bad joke.

On the surface,  Boris Johnson is the most obvious example of the Banana Republic jokey part.  We know this is a man who likes a laff, and his improbable recovery from the knife that Gove stuck into him is yet more proof, if any were needed, that in today’s Britain intellectual shallowness, narcissism, political dishonesty, racism and incompetence are no obstacles to the progress of elite white politicians, and might actually smooth their progress to high office.

But Johnson’s promotion is also evidence of why the Tory Party has ruled the country for so long.  After a brief period in which political bodies were piling up on stage like the final scene from a Revenger’s tragedy, the party has locked together behind Theresa May and produced a hard-right government that includes representatives of most of the factions that might have destabilised it.

Like Cameron when he first appeared as the Tory antidote to Tony Blair, May’s government has announced itself with lots of emollient ‘healing’ One Nation rhetoric. No one who looks at May or her team can take such claims seriously.    First of all there is May herself, the political equivalent of Cruella de Vil, who presided over a swathe of draconian anti-immigrant laws, deportations and restrictions, including the removal of some 50,000 foreign students falsely accused of faking English language tests,  and supported every bleak miserable decision that the Cameron/Osborne tandem took in the name of austerity.

Then there is Liam Fox, the equally rightwing former defense secretary whose ‘friend’ Adam Werritty accompanied him on official foreign trips and conducted private business that forced Fox to resign, and should have excluded him permanently from political office. And don’t expect much ‘healing’ from new Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is a member of the political council of the Henry Jackson Society.  Or from the new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom – UK Mum of the Year – who knows as much about the environment as I do about astrophysics.

May clearly doesn’t know or care much about it either, and has now abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change in the same week that scientists have warned the government to take urgent action to mitigate the effects of…climate change.  And then there is David Davies, the new ‘Minister for Brexit’ who even when he was campaigning in May didn’t realise that it is not possible to conclude separate trade agreements with EU member states.

For all the talk about May’s ‘safe pair of hands’ this is a hard-right, reactionary government that isn’t really likely to heal the nation even in normal circumstances, let alone when faced with the distinctly abnormal and unpromising circumstances in which we now find ourselves.  Nevertheless it is a government, and the fact that it even exists is a testament to the Tory Party’s ability to hold itself together when it counts, and lock the troops together after completing its ritual political slaughter.

While the new government purrs smoothly away – probably towards disaster but never mind – Labour’s wheels continue to screech frantically round in the mud into which the PLP has dragged the party.   Instead of trying to use the massive increase in membership as a basis for a revitalised social democratic politics, its MPs are actively seeking to neutralize and even expel their own membership, using the kind of gerrymandering practices that one would expect to find in Ulster in the 1960s.

The outcome of this struggle is by no means clear, but the fact that it is even taking place at all is an act of gross irresponsibility which suggests that many MPs have more in common with their counterparts on the other side of the chamber than they do with their own leader or their own members.

It’s also a tragedy, which opens up the chilling but very real scenario that May and her team of reactionaries and buffoons may prove to be far more enduring than they have any right to be.