It’s that time of year again, and my thoughts turn to what sort of transport calamity may befall me this instance as I prepare to leave these shores once again. Last year it was an 18-hour sojourn on the M40, followed by a 4-hour wait in the enchanting environs of the Channel Tunnel terminal. This year it seems that low temperatures will not be the most prominent hazard, but presumably floods and gale force winds will put in an appearance instead.
But no matter. I still have a child-like love affair with Christmas, and it takes more than freezing delays or soggy driving to dampen my festive mood. So before I take my leave, and allow the blog to rest neglected whilst its author gets pissed and fat, it behoves me (as a more pompous writer even than me might have said) to wish all my loyal readers a very merry Christmas, a peaceful and prosperous New Year, and I look forward to your company again when I finally resurface some time in early January.
And if you’re not a Christian, or merely a heathen unbeliever in any faith, well, I have it on good authority from the Prime Minister himself that you’ve no damn business being in this country in the first place. Or something like that. But for you, happy winterval, solstice, or whatever, and enjoy the fulminating splutterings of ex-Archbishops and assorted right-wingers telling you that this Christian country has finally gone to the dogs.
By and large, when clerics turn to politics, they sound naive. But when politicians turn to religion, they sound either cynical or dangerous; indeed, usually both. In David Cameron’s case, the dangers he poses have little to do with religion, and everything to do with his political and class philosophy. He merely likes to sprinkle a bit of bible dust around the place to perk it all up a bit, just as a chef might add a touch of chilli powder to an otherwise pedestrian dish.
Thus the Prime Minister’s religious excursion on the back of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible does not make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up in the way that those creepy fundamentalist Republicans do. I don’t worry that we’ll soon be banning evolution from the classroom, nor demonising gay people on the basis of selective quotation and poor biblical exegesis. No-one looking at or listening to Mr Cameron would ever make the mistake of thinking that he actually believed any of that stuff, still less practised it.
Yet in his distinctively British way, he played a more subtle, yet perhaps even more insidious, hand. He weaved a mythology every bit as misleading and corrupting as any fire-brand, mouth-frothing senator from the Southern USA. He located the Bible as a sort of comfortable, and comforting, nostalgic gloss on Britishness. The King James Version emerged as Cameron’s warm beer and village cricket, a mythical England (not even Britain if truth be told) as chocolate box, darling buds of May costume drama.
Those films and television series that Britain is so famous for, and so good at producing, that evoke that kind of idyllic, old-fashioned, nostalgic sense of ourselves are indeed seductive. The only thing wrong with the images they create is that they’re not true now, and they never were. The translation of the Bible into English was not some cosy high water mark of Britishness. It was a bloody and controversial, subversive act that shook the society to its foundations. To present that, of all things, as a symbol of British social harmony is as breathtakingly ahistorical as it is theologically inept.
This Prime Minister presides over the largest net transfer of wealth from the very poorest to the very richest that we’ve seen for generations. There is no interpretation of the Bible, old testament or new, that gives authority to such a process. Rather than using the Bible as a sort of anodyne guarantee of us all being in it together, Mr Cameron should try reading it. He might learn something.
There can be few people who have personified Dylan Thomas’s direction not “to go gentle into that good night” more than Christopher Hitchens. Indeed, that whole poem might have been written for him, since no-one raged, raved and burned more brilliantly or unsettlingly than he did.
My admiration for Hitchens is unstinting, notwithstanding that on so many important matters I disagreed with him with the same burning passion that I agreed with him on others. That, I think, is the mark of the man. There would be few I suspect who, on reading his work, would come away not having a clue whether they agreed with him or not. He had that ability to concentrate the issues into an almost unbearable vice, demanding a response, be it passionate agreement, or ferocious antagonism.
It takes courage to do that. It opens one up to conflict, to ridicule, to the sudden losing of friends, and the gaining of enemies. In my own pathetic and inadequate way, I try in this blog to take on issues that in one way or another I’d rather leave alone, but which I cannot. Whether it’s my faith despite my inherent scepticism; my unswerving belief that racism is at the heart of our civil society now just as much as in the 1960s; my refusal to toe any party line; or my conviction that we are rushing headlong towards environmental catastrophe, fiddling whilst the planet burns – I want to set out the issues, and demand of myself, and of you the reader, that we put up or shut up.
I cannot even get close to Hitchen’s ability, but his inspiration flows through these posts like a hidden river. Thank you, Christopher, for not going gently into that good night.
As is so often the case in any family that has a mentally unstable member, the suffering one’s awkward and difficult behaviour tends to surface most embarrassingly at the most inopportune moment. Aunty Mary chooses her nephew’s wedding as the best time to strip off in front of the vicar, whilst cousin John feels that no funeral is complete unless he tries to masturbate at the graveside.
And thus it was that Britain, delinquent and constantly carping European thorn-in-the-side, and in the person of David Cameron, chose the European Union’s most tricky moment to start protesting that it’s all so unfair. Mummy Angela and Daddy Nicolas have told their wayward teenage angst-ridden moaning Minnie in no uncertain terms to put up or shut up. “But that’s so unfair…”, begins David again, before being unceremoniously thrust onto the naughty step and left to sulk alone.
So why is Britain such a recalcitrant and difficult member of the European family? I think it has less to do with the Euro, or the Eurozone’s crisis, or the right of the City of London to continue to do the very things that got us all in the brown stuff in the first place, and more to do with Britain’s continuing crisis of identity. We still fundamentally resent having to be in the same club, and on equal terms with, erstwhile imperial rivals that we have prided ourselves on having bested. We are still in mourning for our lost empire, our pink-coloured world atlas, our global boss-status. We succeeded in overtaking the German, the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese empires, and we’re damned if we’re going to forget it. Or let them.
So we want to be in Europe, but only if we’re allowed to strut about the place as if it were still 1910. At the same time, we want to curry favour with a different family altogether, the family of those that speak our language, if for no other reason than that we can continue to be able to ignore other, more inconvenient languages, ones that we seem quite incapable of learning. The English language club has another alluring quality, in that it contains some very big bully boys on whose protection we want to rely, and in whose wake we can continue to pretend that we are still an important power. OK, one very big bully boy. Its bullying bragging rights might be a little less universally recognised than they once were, but if we’re good at anything, it’s living in the past, and so we haven’t really taken a lot of notice of the United States’ inexorable and steady decline.
Thus all this adds up to a kind of national personality disorder. We have delusions of grandeur, and we want to regress into a past in which we were top nation. We can’t understand that this both makes us look pretty stupid, and is infinitely irritating to our long-suffering fellow relations. Just as we love Aunty Mary and cousin John, but cringe when they play up at the wrong time, so the European Union loves us in a baffled and slightly pitying way, but is not going to tolerate our wedding-day stripping or our funereal masturbation. If we want to be a proper and valued part of the family, we need to get some therapy, and bloody-well grow up.
The Eurozone crisis limps on, with each new “make or break” point presenting choices between alternatives that were but a few months ago unthinkable. Those who always thought the Euro was a bad idea, economically, politically, or both, are increasingly joined by erstwhile enthusiasts in speculating that the single currency is doomed to collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. But in a way, although the demise of the Euro would be messy to say the least, the crisis in the zone is merely a wrinkle on the surface of a much more fundamental, and global, economic problem. The Eurozone problems are technical, in the sense that the Euro is a half-baked idea. A fully baked Euro would treat the Eurozone economically (and therefore inescapably, politically) as a single nation state, and this is effectively what Merkel and Sarkozy are mapping out in their latest proposals. If that were to happen, then presumably the entire bloc would have its credit rating down-graded a notch or two, but imbalances within the zone would no longer be a cause of concern in themselves. Poorer parts of the zone would be treated just as poorer parts within existing countries are already treated, and any flows from richer to poorer parts would not be an international, but a national issue. Markets would not be free to speculate against the component parts individually, but only against the bloc as a whole, which is business as usual for any nation state with a floating currency. The only problem – and of course it’s a fiendishly complex and fraught one – is getting from here to there.
But even if that could be successfully navigated, it would make no difference to the underlying problem afflicting the global capitalist market. That is the imbalance, not within countries or the Eurozone, but between economies with massive balances and those with massive debts. But that is in itself only a symptom of something, rather than a cause. And it’s a transitional symptom at that. The transition is from countries who have grown rich at others’ expense that are now staring at a future in which those others are getting richer at their expense. The irony is that China et al are dependent on developed markets, rather than domestic markets, for their wealth. So they need the old markets to collapse gracefully, tiding them over whilst they develop domestic consumption. But that is truly a transitional state. Eventually, if the dreams of the architects of globalisation are to be fulfilled, the world will arrive at a steady state of rich nations trading peaceably with one another, in ways that do not depend on one group ripping off another. As dreams go, I suppose it’s not heinous, but it’s also utopian, I suspect.
However the future might unfold (and the key bit that’s missing from the globalisers’ dreaming is their resolute refusal to acknowledge the planetary and biological limits to their utopianism) the fact remains that during the transition from Western economic and political dominance to Eastern, we in the West are going to get poorer. Certainly relatively, and almost certainly absolutely, too.
Our political system cannot deal with this reality. A whole succession of Western generations have been assured that things can only get better, by which we all understand, richer. We believe it is our birthright. Politicians who do not promise steadily rising incomes do not get elected. On the altar of ever greater enrichment we have sacrificed all sense of equity, of justice, of mutual benefit. We tolerate vast riches for a few, because we’ve been led to believe that unless we give the freedom to get rich to some, we’ll all be poorer. We can’t legislate for the curbing of corporate greed because the beneficiaries of that greed will take their bats and balls home, and we’ll all be poorer. We can’t have a “Robin Hood tax” because if we do the City will be deserted and half our country’s wealth will dry up. No-one dares to question this received wisdom.
Why not? For two main sets of reasons, it seems to me, one with genuine legitimacy, and one with none. The legitimate reasons are that politicians know that they have to promise greater wealth indefinitely otherwise we’ll vote for another lot who will promise it. The illegitimate reasons are because the political class are, by and large, the same as the class that is getting richer and richer compared with the rest of us. It’s no coincidence that so many cabinet members are millionaires. It’s no coincidence that New Labour was so famously relaxed about exorbitant wealth. Our politicians are either exorbitantly wealthy themselves, or are friends with those who are. It is a single club, and no-one, once in it, ever wants to leave it.
There is little individuals can do about the second set of reasons, other than deplore it. But we can begin to give the lie to the first. I am a member of the squeezed middle. My pay is frozen, whist inflation roars ahead. My pension is under attack. But (and this is in itself a symptom of just how distorted our relative incomes have become) not only am I a member of the squeezed middle, I’m also in the top 1% of earners. There are very few of us indeed who are neither poor, nor in the squeezed middle.
If we are to do something about the current crisis, it has to include the managed reduction of the West’s average incomes. A Western worker on average earns about 4 to 10 times what a Chinese worker earns for doing the same thing. At root, it is this inequality that is unsustainable. I would resent it very much indeed if my wealth was diminished whilst a tiny minority of my compatriots continued to get richer and richer: but I also know that even if every super-rich person in this country was suddenly reduced to my wealth status and their excess wealth redistributed to the rest of us, it would still be necessary for us all to become poorer. No politician can tell me that my vote makes it impossible for them to do the right thing, to work for true global equity. I know that if I truly want that – and I do – then I cannot remain as rich as I am. I am willing to vote for managed personal impoverishment. I do not believe that I’m alone.
I have specific reasons for my position that have to do with my faith. To me it’s simple. “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” You don’t have to share that faith to acknowledge the logic of my argument, and if you’re an avowed atheist, but still want global justice, it’s not for me to question why. I want to make common cause with you regardless.
Are any of you prepared to vote not in your own private interests, but in the interests of humanity at large? If you are, it’s about time that all of us who are thus willing told our politicians that they can no longer hide behind their assumptions about us. And just for a bit of fun, you can vote here!