The Utter Nonsense of the “Royal Family Nazi Salute” Story

Credit to The Sun for both the photo and the non-story
Credit to The Sun for both the photo and the non-story

It is not uncommon for me to encourage the dismissal of something which The Sun publishes, given my conformity to the mainstream centre-left view of the Murdoch press. More rare is it for me to plea that an article from The Guardian, my newspaper of choice, be ignored. However, in the circumstance of The Sun’s exclusive report on footage from 1933 capturing members of the Royal Family, including our current monarch, giving the Nazi salute, and Peter Preston’s subsequent adulation for the publication in The Guardian, I implore that we ignore the lot. The whole story.

If the press has a questionable record for reporting on the present, then how much dubious is its ability to report on the past. Flashy tabloid headlines, blown-up pictures and responses written in the heat of the moment do not amount to the kind of academic caution with which history, especially history of such consequence as this, must be treated. Therefore, allow me to do what many a journalist and editor appear to have neglected in introducing a little bit of context of which most GCSE history students are probably aware.

Europe in 1933- the year when the footage was shot- was not beholden to the fears that it was less than a decade later on. The greatest threat to the stability of the continent did not come from Germany, which had been beaten in submission by the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, all eyes were on the Soviet Union, the revolution of which had desposed the British Royal Family’s relatives 16 years beforehand. Great Britain had supported the losing royalist “White” faction in the subsequent civil war. Elsewhere in Europe, especially in France and Germany, Communist uprisings had disrupted civil order and threatened to overturn governments. General strikes, backed by Communist parties, broke out in Belgium, Sweden, Germany and, infamously in 1926, Great Britain.

In this climate of fear, it is no surprise that the election in Germany of a staunchly anti-Communist leader, whose Chancellorship was propped up by more mainstream conservatives, was of little concern to many British people, especially those in the establishment. This perhaps goes some way to explain the notoriously close relationship between Edward VIII and the Nazi regime during the first half of the 1930s and beyond. Germany became viewed as the great bulwark that would defend Western Europe and its remaining ancient social hierarchies from Communism in the East.

Assuming that a context must be applied to the actions of the Royal Family, then it is only that of anti-Communist relief. Instead, the press, and its readers, have readily plunged headfirst in the intoxicating waters of prolepsis. People look at the salute and associate it with war-mongering, state terror propped up by racialism, the Blitz and the gas chambers. All of these were at the time unbeknowst the entire world, evils yet to be played out let alone revealed. The entire fuss caused by this footage smacks of bad history and bad journalism that is more intent on creating a story than analysing one and finding out that it has no weight or importance to it.

Say what you like about the Royal Family. But if you are to judge them unfavourably, judge them on their expenses during a time of economic hardship for millions, their undue interference in the affairs of a liberal democratic state or their embodiment of a national Church to which barely any of the population now adheres. Do not be lazy about the matter by, in reality, charging them with feeling relief at a blow against the Communist project and the inability to predict the future.

Quick Note: Remember Conservatives Are Humans Too

It has often occurred to me that the stereotypes broadly applied to either wing of the political spectrum in the UK have always benefited the left: sure, progressives may be seen as wishy-washy, profligate, irresponsible or morally and intellectually self-righteous, but the quality of humanity is often conferred onto them as well. Conservatives are only allowed to be as positively portrayed as far as prudent or hard-headed allow them to be. Indeed, amongst all the deeper cuts to welfare in the budget last week and a close call on a vote to relax the ban on fox hunting, all the notions of evil that are imparted onto Conservatives are at a zenith in the left-wing consciousness.

Which brings me to the story of Andrew Cumpsty, one time Tory leader of Reading council, as reported in last Sunday’s Observer. Whilst on a holiday in The Gambia in 2000, he met Lamin Jatta, a ninth-generation descendant of the slave Kunta Kinteh, made famous in the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. Cumpsty discovered that Jatta was trying to improve medical care in the village where he lived, yet could not afford the school fees which would allow him to pursue the correct course of education. On hearing this, Cumpsty and his travel companion immediately decided to sponsor Jatta and the councillor’s political involvement inspired the young Gambian to enter politics. When Jatta fled the country as the government cracked down on the opposition for which he was standing, Cumpsty managed to persuade MPs to question Gambia’s, a Commonwealth nation, record of freedom of speech in the House of Commons. Jatta now lives in Seattle, ready to play a role in a new television adaptation of Roots.

One could almost see David Cameron in a parallel life, traveling to a far-flung land and engaging in an act consistent with the compassionate Conservatism that either political expediency or the pressures of office have largely extinguished from his public profile. The generosity of Cumpsty, who acted spontaneously and seemingly with only goodwill in mind, is a powerful reminder to all those across the political spectrum that Tories do have the facility to have hearts too.

As Tempting As It May Be, Do Not Take Down the Confederate Flag… Yet

 

Huffington Post
Huffington Post

Terrorism provokes. That is one of its principal objectives. The massacre of innocents for the sake of an ideological programme is always going to elicit instantaneous reactions that seem fair and logical in the moment, but may not always be on closer inspection. The notorious example in the UK presently is David Cameron’s response to the radicalisation of a few British Muslims who then leave to join ISIS, his statement that British society is too passively tolerant, leaving alone people for the sole reason that they obey the law.

In the United States, the most salient example of the moment is the calls to take down the Confederate Flag. This reaction to the massacre in Charleston, SC, on the 17th June has been taken up by innumerable liberals on Facebook, the Washington Post, the Atlantic and even Mitt Romney. It is a course of action- removing the defining icon of a failed nation state that during its short history was propped up economically by slavery and the symbol for a region that up into the 1960s opposed the legal enshrinement of racial equality- that seems straightforward and long overdue.

However, as courses of action go, it is one of the most foolish.

Flags are powerful symbols, presumably why they are used ubiquitously to represent everything from political entities to football clubs to terrorist organisations. They are common reference points for allegiance, but these notions of allegiance and the motives behind it naturally vary. When it comes to the Confederate Flag flying in Charleston, Dylann Storm Roof embodies the most extreme end of the spectrum of allegiance, one which views that particular flag as a totem for a heritage of white supremacy worth killing for. For every person like Roof, there are thousands of others Southerners who could consider the flag to be a emblem of their lifestyle, their own values, their state’s rights and independence from those with whom they disagree on issues with little or nothing to do with race. For every fanatic, there are thousands of moderates.

To remove the flag in response to Roof’s act of terrorism would be to implicitly equate every other interpretation of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and to attack them all. Whereas, to liberal North-easters and West-coasters, it would be tantamount to removing an outdated and unnecessary relic of a less than illustrious past, there is no telling what it may mean to an unquantifiable number of South Carolinans or Southerners in general. People who have created the partially-unreconstructed or defiant context in which an individual like Roof is a feasible yet who are also as far as one can tell as law-abiding and peaceful as anyone else.

One need only look at the trouble caused by tampering with ‘flag policy’ in another region of the Western world where identity politics can be volatile. In December 2012,  Belfast City Council in Northern Ireland voted to restrict the number of days on which the Union Flag would be flown from their City Hall. In response, during the following weeks, Unionist Northern Irishmen and women participated in riots which concluded with 157 police officers injured and 560 criminal charges. Protests ran late into 2013 as many felt betrayed by the British state to which they had pledged their support throughout the 30 years of civil war that ripped through Ulster in the late 20th Century. To this day, there is widespread unease about the restriction of Unionist expression in Northern Ireland. And this was a decision taken by the elected members of a local democratic body after serious and thorough debate. The sudden and forcible removal of the Confederate flag off the back of a vocal liberal campaign centred far from South Carolina could very well elicit a more dramatic response from the local people of Charleston.

Furthermore, Roof’s radicalisation was not just borne of the presence of the Confederate flag in his hometown. His ideological journey took him to the memorials of Confederate generals, slavery museums and former slave plantations. In the South, there is a whole apparatus designed to commemorate one of its most infamous periods in history. What sort of precedent could be set by removing the Confederate flag at a time like this? Would South Carolina and states further South then be required to at least partially dismantle its apparatus of remembrance and heritage? Rename its street signs and close some of its museums? Again, liberals further north and west may applaud such an approach, but to many on the ground this again would represent nothing less than provocative assault on something altogether less harmful and more inextricable than the hangover of racism from the Civil War and Jim Crow. However, this could conceivably be viewed as undermining some of the more acceptable aspects of Southern identity, and as soon as a people feel their identity undermined, they become defensive and potentially sympathetic to even some of the uglier fringes of their heritage.

There are only two realistic approaches to take towards the Confederate flag fluttering over Charleston, although neither will seem appealing to the more hot-headed of liberals in the US and beyond. The first is to wait for it, along with all the other symbols of Southern history and identity to become fully assimilated into a non-racist context, for them to be rehabilitated, to have their meanings alter in a process that symbols often undergo. The second is to wait for the people of South Carolina and the rest of the South to completely outgrow the Confederate flag and some of its current associations (a stage to which they, demonstrably, have no yet reached) and for them to dispose of it themselves, by referendum or by electing politicians who they know have an interest in taking it down. No edict or executive order will suffice in replacing the slow process of societal change and education, and it would be perilous to assume that it could.

The Problem at the Heart of our Democracy: the Voter

“Outside the hall in which the meeting was being held a large crowd of poverty-stricken Liberal working men, many of them wearing broken boots and other men’s cast-off clothing, was waiting to hear the report of the slave-drivers’ deputation, and as soon as Sweater had consented to be nominated, Didlum rushed and opened the window overlooking the street and shouted the good news down to the crowd, which joined in the cheering.”  

– The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell (1914)

Amongst the fallout following the General Election nigh on three weeks ago, one of the loudest calls for those of a reforming mindset has been for electoral reform. This is in light of a Conservative majority secured by only 39.6% of the vote, SNP domination north of the border and UKIP and Green disappointment south of it. The Electoral Reform Society has seen a petition for a change from First Past the Post to a more proportional system (and theirs is only one of many such online campaigns) already accrue nearly 140,000 signatures. Others are already looking ahead to 2020, suggesting that proposed boundary changes is an act of gerrymandering that will hand the Conservatives a significant advantage next election.

However, when it comes to electoral reform, fewer people, especially the average person on the street who may talk about PR or constituency reviews, want to consider reforming the voter. This is curious, as a nation can establish the most perfectly representative electoral system imaginable but if their electorate is as downtrodden, apathetic and under-informed as ours in the UK is, then all that hard work will still produce undesirable results. It is not fashionable, nor politically advisable, to pin any kind of blame or onus for a certain outcome on the voter, but that is the case in Britain in 2015, and anyone who truly believes in democracy should seek to remedy that. We have to ask ourselves if an engaged, informed and socially aware population would have allowed a party that has overseen a huge rise in the reliance on foodbanks, a slump in living standards unseen in decades and fiscal policy of austerity condemned by two thirds of economists to return office undiluted by coalition.

Voter apathy, ensuring that turnout at general elections has not risen above 70% since 1997, is not just dangerous for the overall goal of democracy, but it results in a skewed advantage for parties which favour the wealthier owing to a marked correlation between financial anxiety and voter inactivity. Constituencies up and down the country with high levels of deprivation, especially in the South and Midlands of England, voted in Conservative MPs whose agenda has precious little to benefit the impoverished. Turnout was lowest in the poorest seats, giving the parties elected there less credibility than they could otherwise deserve. Fortunately, the remedy to this issue is straightforward and at least notionally familiar: compulsory voting.

Compulsory voting would reduce voter apathy both in the practical sense of increasing turnout and the psychological sense of preventing eligible voters from shutting out all political discourse from their lives on the grounds that they simply cannot be bothered to vote or because they have decided spontaneously that “all of them are the same” (comparing David Cameron to Alex Salmond or Dennis Skinner is enough to bust that myth). What it does though is throw them into the deep-end of politics and current affairs along with the rest of the electorate. Opponents to compulsory voting protest that it takes away an individual’s right to not vote, although this is clearly nonsense: plenty of ballot papers are spoilt every election, and the inclusion of a “none of the above” option is always possible. Once in a voting booth with the power of a cross at their fingertips, those who hitherto profess apathy would be given the chance to scrutinise their decision and consider whether it is still truly their position on democracy. Online voting would resolve the issue of unforeseen emergency circumstances that remove a voter from their constituency obstructing their new obligation. The penalty of a fine for evading the vote would further discourage those from less fortunate socio-economic brackets from disengaging on election day.

However, 100% (or thereabouts) turnout means nothing if the voter is incapable of making an informed decision. In fact, it would only serve to amplify that incapability further. Herein lies the more deep-seated and more firmly-rooted problem with the electorate in the UK: it is grossly misinformed, underinformed and difficult to re-inform. Work by the Royal Statistical Society in 2013 revealed the alarming degree to which the perceptions of the British population about issues such as immigration, crime and benefit fraud- some of the most emotive policy areas of the last election- are wrong. It is impossible to accept that voters will choose the policies that are the best for their country and for them as employees, parents, business owners, welfare claimants or any combination of such if the facts, or the opinions of the most qualified experts, are not delivered to them.

Nowhere was this more apparent in the last election than in the debate surrounding Labour’s fiscal legacy and the Conservative-led response to it. Time and again, the Conservatives conflated household microeconomics and nation state macroeconomics despite the fact that the two work very differently. Government debt is perfectly normal and manageable, and it is the kind of private debt encouraged by financial deregulation which voters should be wary of. Despite this, the Tory narrative (and their seemingly logical solution of retrenchment) stuck, and Osborne’s promise in 2010 to see that “like every solvent household in the country, that what we buy, we can afford, that the bills we incur we have the income to meet” sounded remarkably similar to the attack from one voter on Ed Miliband as he compared the government running a deficit to being able to buy a pint even without sufficient money at the end of the week. The Conservative Party managed to triumph with a blatant blurring of the boundaries between two separate economic realms because they employed a concept that related to the average voter’s narrower sphere of reference. Even a Nobel Prize-winning economist was not going to change that.

This illustrates the greatest cause and sticking point of voter misinformation: voters are often unable to grasp the ideas that lie at the most abstract or ‘macro’ end of the spectrum, those which often defy what would seem to be ‘common sense’. Immigrants are causing a net economic loss by straining our public services, people on benefits are lazy and scroungers, making those wealthier at the top will see prosperity for all eventually, poverty for one is rightful gain for another, outlawing drugs is the best way to stop them being an issue. All seem like perfect comprehensible, straightforward ideas and processes that voters can easily grasp at, process within the framework of their experiences and then hold onto in the face of more nuanced and ultimately sensible yet intellectually-heavy counterarguments. Consider long working hours that leave little time and energy for thorough self-information and a lot of motivation for selfish introspection, teachers mercilessly harried by the goal of government targets rather than inspired by the goal of creating critical and aware citizens, and a right-wing press that dominates print and online fora (peddling the same ‘common sense’ as the right-wing politicians) and it is utterly unsurprising that we, as an electorate, especially those of us from less affluent backgrounds, are in this position of severe information deprivation. We are like the decorators of Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: time and again cheated by the system of Edwardian free market economics, yet time and again defending that system whilst looking to our obfuscating newspapers and underhand, untruthful ‘betters’ for guidance.

The challenge of resolving voter misinformation, indeed ignorance, is far more difficult, especially when people begin to fall into the trap of equating the equality of each vote to the equality of the opinion of each voter. A politician cannot simply stand up and tell millions of people that they are probably wrong about most things, that they have either been duped or are frankly unable to properly understand the truth. Nor is the quixotic idea of introduce eligibility tests that are grounded in political, social and economic awareness advisable, as the better off who are bound to be- generally- better educated (if not necessarily more socially concerned) would at first dominate the electoral register in a way unseen since 1867. However, fighting for the expansion of the BBC as the only outlet capable to disseminating impartial reporting on a wide-ranging scale and  supporting the break-up of media empires, which are monolithic in their editorial stances and often underpinned by big business, would be a start. It is unsurprising that the current government is against either of those propositions. The inclusion of a proper ‘citizen education’ in  the state school curriculum that goes beyond the effects of smoking and how to write a CV and instead touches upon elections, economics and abstract reasoning would also be welcome. Combine these with a renewed engagement in politics resulting from the establishment of PR and compulsory voting, and maybe this nation will get closer to the goal of a better democracy founded on better voters.

We as a country lay claim to the “Mother of All Parliaments”, yet we as a country have an appalling record of sending those who have our best interests and the best idea of how to benefit the people as a whole to represent us within it. We need to break the myth that the voter is sacred and everything around him or her is broken, and instead recognise that the solution to policies that cheat us and politicians that lie to us does not principally lie anywhere else but within us.

Five Reasons to NOT vote Tory this 7th May

It’s understandable. We’ve probably all been there: sitting at our computers, reading the newspaper, maybe, dangerously, fiddling with the biro in the voting booth and had that nagging thought, “Maybe I should vote Conservative…”. I myself, who was a member of the Conservative Party for around 3 years, campaigned for them in an important marginal in 2010 and voted for them in council elections in 2013, know this curious sensation all too well.

However, this election, there can be no place for slip-ups and follies of this sort. It is too close to call and  every vote counts. So, for all of those who look back on the past 5 years and wonder if Cameron and his team are worth a second chance- an opportunity to “finish the job”- here are 5 reasons not to vote Tory.

1- A programme of austerity was vital in 2010, and has been instrumental in securing the UK’s economic recovery. This is the most dangerous lie that supporters of the Conservative Party deploy when defending the past government’s record. They cry that the kind of mindless, socialist profligacy that invariably taints Labour governments brought UK public finances to the brink of oblivion, and that only a severe cutback of spending had the potential to rectify this egregious situation. Otherwise, who knows, London may have become the next Athens! They praise Osborne’s toughness, his rectitude and wisdom that led him to do what was economically sound, and now we can bask in the glory of 0.3% growth in GDP on the eve of the election. It’s slow progress, but apparently better than what a less firm administration could have delivered. This is all utterly ridiculous. George Osborne may not have been an economist at any point of his life, but Robert Skidelsky and Paul Krugman both are acclaimed in the field, and both have demonstrated convincingly that there was no real macroeconomically sensible case for austerity, and that far from ensuring the recovery, government cuts have retarded it so thoroughly that it may well have cost every UK citizen an unnecessary £1500 as a result. Furthermore, Skidelsky illustrates that the current Labour government was by no means outrageously wasteful, and that the leap in national debt under their watch was as a result of their bailouts for failed banks (the supposed saviours of our economy, if any Tory is to be believed). Conservative-led austerity has been an ideologically-driven experiment that has gravely harmed the country, lacerating it to its breaking point. And yet it is an experiment to which it will continue to subject this nation and its citizens if re-elected into office, mutilating a postwar state that has proudly (and sustainably) maintained the livelihoods of everyone born within it.

2. Conservative-led welfare cuts have justly penalised scroungers and protected those who want to “get on in life”. Using one of the most cringeworthy phrases in the lexis of modern British politics (followed closely by the “global race” paradigm), apologists for the outgoing government have pointed to their record in the DWP to defend the Tory pretence of being committed to working families. Okay, so Universal Credit may be one of the most lamentable failures of this government, but- so the narrative goes- at least it’s making work pay and giving those scroungers what they deserve for parasitically sucking the lifeblood of the state. If, of course, you ignore the fact that a record number hardworking families trapped in low-paid, low-hours contracts have slid into poverty during the past 5 years, suffering more than the intended aim of these welfare cuts as working tax credits are slashed. Analysis of food bank users in the borough of Wandsworth- hardly an atypical corner of Britain- reveals that nearly a quarter of those resorting to philanthropy simply in order to feed themselves and their families do so because of insufficient wages. And who are these scroungers being rightfully punished anyway? The 53-year old mother, whose children had recently moved out of their home, who committed suicide after being threatened with docked benefits because of the bedroom tax? The 54-year-old with a osteoporosis, emphysema, asthma and a digestive condition, resorting to payday loansharks as her disability benefits are hacked away? The jobseekers, who are not loafing around with their blinds drawn as Osborne would have you believe, are in actual fact forced to resort to foodbanks to keep their families fed? The whole narrative of “shirkers v. workers”, those on benefits against those earning an honest day’s pay, is so riddled with falsehood and deceit at every point that it is tantamount to slander against those battling to survive at the bottom of the pile in our society. This Conservative-led government has punctured gaping holes into our much-vaunted safety net, allowing the desperate and disabled to slip through into the abyss of deprivation and destitution. The Conservative Party, gearing themselves up to cut another £12 billion from the welfare budget, without touching the £74 billion spent on the state pension, will tear such holes to new extremes, allowing thousands upon thousands more of our most vulnerable countrymen and women to be unjustly swallowed by poverty.

3. But the outgoing government has secured over a million new jobs? The boast from the Conservative Party that they have helped create 1.9 million private sector jobs is as deceptive as their claims on welfare. The illusion is that these fall under the bracket of sustainable, meaningful employment that can support an individual if not a family. Notwithstanding the fact that at least 196,000 of these jobs were conjured up by a simple trick of reclassification, hundreds of thousands of workers have entered a trap of low-wage, low-hours jobs that are barely something that a party which has placed so much emphasis on their recent unemployment record could be proud about. 60% of those who gained employment in 2014 did so through taking up positions that do not pay the living wage and instead promised a horribly substandard minimum wage that does not guarantee even basic living standards. Hundreds of thousands of other jobs have been ‘created’ through more and more workers, often those laid off through the swinging cuts imposed on our public services owing to the thoughtless and ideological application of austerity, registering as self-employed as opposed to necessarily finding other gainful employment. This constitutes a move which the labour market specialist for the Bank of England himself labelled as “often a last resort of desperation”. It is small wonder than despite this apparent jobs ‘miracle’, in-work poverty is rife and living standards for many hardworking families still showing little indication of recovering. With such poor hours and wages, there is the obvious problem that the same individual could be double or even triple-counted in employment statistics as he or she takes on multiple positions in order to keep financially afloat. The success which people attribute to the outgoing government in the fields of jobs is a façade, and a flimsy, tawdry one at that. And is there any provision within the Tory manifesto for lifting people out of these grossly insufficient posts? Any guarantee of substantially raising the minimum wage to better match a figure that will afford even the poorest worker dignity and security? Of course not. There is but more fanfare about jobs, with little insight into what these jobs might consist of, what they might pay, how secure and dignifying they might be.

4/5. Nonetheless, the Conservative Party enables wealth creation for the richest, which in turn benefits the whole of society. Moving away from this specific government’s record into the realms of more general ideological arguments for supporting the Conservative Party that I have encountered, one of the most prevalent is the notion that in propagating and perpetuating the wealth of the rich the rest eventually profit through living in a more prosperous nation. The affluent spend, which in turn encourages employment and, with more in work, tax receipts rise. So the theory goes. But the reality? After nearly 40 years of the application of this model, the poor are relatively poorer whilst the opulence of the rich has skyrocketed, with wealth inequality in the UK higher than the average for OECD countries and approaching a level commensurate with the United States. Wealth has not ‘trickled down’ in any sense, not least because the most wealthy in the UK seem to be reticent in paying taxes due to the Treasury. It’s not even as if, as some venture, these levels of inequality are profitable for a society, encouraging people to work harder in order to climb the ladder to the top where they may then enjoyed their well-deserved riches. With greater inequality social mobility grinds to a halt as privileges, connections and opportunities are shored up at the top of society, leaving little for the rest to grasp at regardless of how hard they may work. What occurs is a complete inversion, indeed perversion, of the original ideal, as those born into privilege need not work nearly as hard as their compatriots from more modest backgrounds in order to secure the same level of ‘success’. Who knows how many deserving candidates have had their aspirations stifled by this absurd system that can only be justified through noxious and antiquated notions of entitlement? Who can truly quantify the misery and distressed caused as a result of the startling, unforgiving, intransigent levels of inequality in this country? For economies with a vastly disparate spectrum of wealth and incomes perform neither as economically nor as socially well as their more egalitarian counterparts. We all lose out as a result of inequality; not just the poor, but everyone. And who will strive to reverse this pernicious trend that has left a Britain broken? Would it be the Conservative Party, with their proposed income tax cut for the highest earners, increase in the threshold for inheritance tax and retention of the non-domicile status that cheats the Treasury out of billions of pounds every year? There’s a greater chance of Nigel Farage defecting to the Green Party.

The 7th May is likely to produce a confused outcome, with no clear winner and a plethora of potential combinations for coalition or minority governments. But it is with your vote that you can secure one certainty: the cessation of governance by the Conservative Party, the cessation of the misery it has wreaked upon the poor, disabled and vulnerable, the cessation of the lies that it has unashamedly peddled to a population which entrusted them with office, the cessation of the imposition of its philosophy, flawed to the point of rotten, onto national policy. As current polls suggest, it is still a difficult battle to be won, but is one which is vital. Be mindful of these 5 reasons, and there are far more besides, for you have the opportunity to play your role in seeing that a Britain that is teetering on the brink of ruin is recovered, retrieved to pastures safe and bountiful.

Can We All Calm Down About the ‘War on Religion’?

Don't worry: he's not going anywhere soon. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.
Don’t worry: he’s not going anywhere soon. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.

Today, I had the experience of reading a hysterical and hyperbolic article in the right-wing press. It was an experience which I deem unsurprising, but still worthy of exploring, because it highlighted one of the most absurd ideas in circulation amongst the more conservative members of the Western world: the ‘war on religion’.

The article, a piece by Cristina Odone in the Daily Telegraph, chillingly proclaimed that “Europe is becoming a no God zone”, presumably playing on the recent obsession of similarly right-wing pundits with the alleged ‘no-go zones’ of Europe, where Islam has apparently pushed out all forms of liberal civilisation. In the wake of a tragic attack on a Kosher store in Paris, the main argument was that secularist governments would be more at ease with advising the religious to practise in secret, unable to guarantee the safety of adherents of one faith from extremists in another. Then a comment was thrown in about the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last summer at the end, and how that had convinced teachers that it is better to ignore religion as a subject in its entirety than to educate their classes anything about it. The overall sentiment was that religion would soon be swept off the streets of Europe in an attempt to maintain public order.

I wonder if Cristina Odone, for all her journalistic pretensions, has dared switch the news on in the last couple of days, when the Prime Minister of her own country, and leader of the party her newspaper supports, declared himself publicly to be a Christian who is, understandably, unsettled when Christian images are mocked. She laments that Charlie Hebdo refused to approve of the tolling of the bells of Notre Dame de Paris in memory of its murdered satirists, but what would she expect from a radical-left French publication that is daring to defy its religious assailants in the edition it released today? Sudden deference to the Roman Catholic Church?

In reality, barely anyone is suggesting that the answer to the current problems with religious extremism is to push all religions underground or for the faithful to drop their convictions in a flash. Odone my decry Salman Rushdie’s position on the matter, but you can hardly berate a man who has had a fatwa declared against him for his opinion that religion is a “mediaeval form of reason”. If I woke up tomorrow to find that the Archbishop of Canterbury was assembling a crusade to purge the world of Philip Pullman, then I might wish to reconsider my own Anglican sympathies.

And why would governments fear a crisis of public order if differing religious sects were to continue to worship openly? Nearly everyone of a religious disposition in the West, despite their occasional eccentricity and predilection for somewhat archaic values, is law-abiding and ultimately secular in the sense that they peaceably accept that there are people of other beliefs around them. They may think they’re wrong or all going to suffer eternity in the inferno, but that does not provoke them to go on a criminal rampage with a Kalashnikov. In fact, the reason why anyone did that in the first place may not have much to do with religion at all, but instead with frustration with the socio-economic plight of many Muslims as a cultural group in France, a frustration easily hijacked by radicalism.

Of course, Odone, hailing from the right-wing, cannot bear to face the idea that the answer may be state intervention of a fiscal nature. No, instead she wants to see the police and army posted outside Jewish schools to prevent anti-Semitic attacks. Because that will help to prevent Muslims feeling even more victimised and mistrusted by the state. Perhaps we could ask our American cousins how the widespread employment of firearms has helped to solve their problems with criminal violence? The fact that a large proportion of the Jewish peoples of the Western world feel threatened is an obvious concern and one that should be addressed, but not by something so reactionary and inflammatory as offering them militarised protection. In fairness to Odone, she does also fly the flag for religious education in schools in order to fight ignorance. Not that it is a particularly threatened subject in the UK, especially with a government that sent a copy of the King James Bible to every school in 2011, but I’m neither churlish nor ideological enough to deny her credit for that.

There is no war against religion. Most people who personally have no heavenly inclination accept it as something to be tolerated, even supported in the name of freedom of expression. Furthermore, even governments are intelligent (or electorally aware) enough to understand the ramifications of suppressing religious expression or defending the expression of one particular one with state resources. Of course, where Odone may be getting all confused is the difference between governments which are not as explicitly theocratic as they once were (back when blasphemy was a crime and non-Anglicans were barred from Oxbridge) and governments which see religion as politically unimportant. Or maybe she was just trying to find a useful way to plug her ebook on a similar topic, which she mentioned in her article…

The article can be read here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11344228/Europe-is-becoming-a-no-God-zone.html

What Is To Become of the Nation State?

Nation States II

In the forthcoming months, an awful lot of people will be discussing the UK, its parliament and its laws. The tenure of the present administration is coming to an end, and soon enough there will be a new (although not necessarily different) government making legislation on behalf of us, the British people. At this time, when the direction of this country and the policies that will guide it that way becomes the paramount topic, it is interesting to ponder just what the nature of the nation states of the world in the 21st Century is and, therefore, what the object of the government within it and the laws they make should be.

When nation states first came into being, what defined their boundaries and made them functional may have been factors as diverse as economics, logistics, culture, religious beliefs, geography, conquests or language, but what actually legitimised them as ‘states’ was that everyone living within those borders recognised a body of authority and the laws it passed. The degree to which each polity could acknowledge a political ruler who was situated within it and the independence with which that ruler could legislate and mete out justice determined the polity’s ‘statehood’. Hence the tensions across Europe once the Papacy began to acquire temporal power, or the fact that, through the system of vassalage, England could be a nation state but be ruled by an individual who became the notional subordinate of the King of France once he crossed The Channel into a territory like the Duchy of Normandy.

Furthermore, the other, practical building blocks of a nation state- for example, the economy, the judiciary, defence- could all be viably controlled by laws within those nations. Despite the obvious presence of international trade throughout history, economies in history have generally been localised enough to be viable without cross-border cooperation or reliance on the economic condition of other polities. Even with the judicial pretensions of the Papacy during the High Middle Ages and beyond (which generated a messy and confusing struggle between national and super-national governments as opposed to the concession of power from the former to the latter), monarchs were still viewed and viewed themselves as the supreme temporal judge, the highest bench, of their realm. International military alliances were formed between nation states, but these were nearly always predicated on the betterment of the individual powers involved. Furthermore, international armies were an aspiration of some but not a reality: even the Crusades had a deeply nationalistic element. To broadly sum up what has historically made a nation state, it is a polity whose government is the supreme executive, judiciary and legislature, and whose government has the power to- and feels able to- viably legislate on and control all aspects of the state which make it functional.

When we look at our nations today, we realise that this model no longer applies. The UK participates in a trading bloc and trading groups which determine its economic policy, as well as that of the other nation states within it. Governments are reluctant to embark on radical fiscal or monetary policies for fear of ‘upsetting the markets’ or causing ‘wealth flights’ in which the rich look to settle elsewhere where tax rates are more favourable. Whether some on the right-wing fringes fulminate against it, we defer legal decisions to courts which are superior to our own national ones, to the judges who sit in Strasbourg of The Hague, and our leaders acknowledge their judgements as lawful. We subscribe to internationally-recognised rules for war, with accepted sanctions if they are not followed, as well as contribute, along with many other nation states, to global military forces and multilateral permanent alliances that have essentially internationalised elements of the armed forces. Our government heeds the legislation of the European Union when debating our laws in Parliament and, even were a Brexit to occur, I doubt our leaders would pass anything that contravened or contradicted the liberal Western orthodoxies of abstract ideas such as freedom of expression and the right to education lest nations around us then forsook or turned against us. Overall, the building blocks which I mentioned have both outgrown the nation state itself- especially the global economy- and rendered national governments less and less powerful. This is not something to be lamented: it’s the inevitable result of a globalised world with globalised economies and ideas that then break down borders and result in international values reified as international laws. In actual fact, it makes the ultimate sense for legislation on something like the fiscal and monetary policy of the UK, which is a mere part of a structure which intrinsically covers pretty much the entire globe now, to be determined on an appropriately global level by global representatives. Thomas Piketty was proposing something similar with his idea of a global wealth tax. People scoff at it as impractical, but that is only because people still cling onto an antiquated and redundant idea of the power of the nation state residing with in.

So if nation states, individually, are powerless and would be better governed by super-national bodies, what validates them as nation states now? The answer is their individual cultures, idiosyncrasies, customs, rituals, languages and history. The UK is essentially a cultural and historical unit. If someone were to draw up a nation state today on the grounds of economic, judicial, military, legislative, and logistical functionality, they probably would take no notice of a slim strip of sea between a big continental mass and an island, nor would they separate the top of Ireland from the rest of it. Take aspects like culture, language and history into account, and they just might.

So perhaps, with the functional aspect of the nation state eroding (both theoretically and practically) along with any notion of national political and economic sovereignty amongst an increasingly internationally-focused youth, perhaps the national governments of today will be the regional cultural guardians of tomorrow. I will certainly still be voting for a party to legislate for Britain in this upcoming general election, but whether my grandchildren shall be doing the same seems increasingly unlikely.