Thursday 26 December 2013

A tale of two archbishops

George Carey disappoints me. As archbishop he was quite decent. He supported the move to ordain women, and he piloted the church through a  time of global internal division (the incumbent archbishop has had as difficult a job in that respect as the leader of the conservative party in the last twenty years - any attempt to lead in a particular direction would leave half the organisation stubbornly behind). Just recently though, Carey seems to have been pitching for the post of old religious curmudgeon with intemperate outbursts about how put upon Christians in this country are. He was at it again in the Telegraph this week. He may have a point about persecution in other countries (though I would like to see actual figures about numbers of different religions persecuted for their identity), but he spoils it with an overblown reference to Christians in this country feeling the need to keep quiet about their religion. This is a man whose religious identity gives him one of the most privileged positions in the country as a lawmaker for life, on behalf of a religion which sees the country shut down every year for its two major festivals - Easter and Christmas. (The fact that these celebrations have largely been taken over as retail festivals is a separate issue; it does not dilute the privilege that Christianity has in this country compared to all other religions.)

I have said before and I will say again - I do not have the slightest problem about speaking out about or because of my religion when the time is right. The biggest issue I have about being upfront about my religion is other Christians. The obsession with sex, and the concomitant failure to do anything about sex abuse in my church (as well as the Catholics). The constant  attempts by people like Carey to bolster our privilege even further. Having to share my religion with people like Iain Duncan Smith, who makes no secret of his Christianity, but persecutes the poor.

In recent years we have had Anglican archbishops (and now a pope) who are more prepared to speak out about the things Christians should be concerned about rather than bolstering our privilege. Just one incident shows how things are done and should be done. Iain Duncan Smith thinks it is “political” of the Trussell Trust to ask why people are so poor that they have to rely on food banks.  Then he refuses to meet them to discuss their concerns.  Sam Leith, in the Evening Standard nails this one: “It takes a special sort of narcissism, a special sort of persecution complex, to suppose that all this is done for your benefit: that the Trussell Trust’s hundreds of institutions and thousands of volunteers are working flat-out not, as they claim, to feed poor people but to embarrass Iain Duncan Smith.”

Another ex-archbishop, Rowan Williams, has a response to Iain Duncan Smith in the Cambridge Evening News. “Dr Williams, who is the patron of Cambridge City Foodbank, which supported 2,390 people in crisis last year, said the former Conservative leader’s “extraordinary comments” amount to an “attack [on] the motives of hard-pressed volunteers and generous donors”.

“He added the remarks are “disturbing, not least because they poison the wells for those trying to raise and maintain resources”, who are attempting to help people including those “left stranded by the benefit system”.

“He told the News: “It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers - but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.

““The real scaremongering is the attempt to deny the seriousness of the situation by – in effect – accusing those seeking to help of dishonesty as to their motivation.”

So one ex-archbishop speaks in defence of privilege and one in defence of truth.

I'm with Rowan, not with George,

Monday 23 December 2013

Iain Duncan Smith - when politics goes bad

Iain Duncan Smith, a man who I used to believe had a shred of decency somewhere about him, has turned out to be a lethal combination of incompetence and vindictiveness. We only need to concentrate on the latest revelations about the continuous car crash of his career. Like a drunk driver, IDS swerves from lamppost to lamppost, wreaking havoc on other people's lives but never his own.

The latest revelations just add more to what we already know. He piles misery on other people.

He apparently needed an armed bodyguard to get him to the Work and Pensions select committee meeting, and a bodyguard in the room with him - was it to throw himself in front of any question that might force IDS to tell the truth?

He denies that anything is going wrong with Universal Credit despite massive write offs of public money for bungled software implementations and deep slippage of the numbers being processed.

The Work Capability Assessment is still causing deep problems and continuing misery to thousands of ordinary, decent, respectable claimants, and even deeper misery for people with mental illness, who - three years after Professor Harrington started making recommendations for improvement, are still very badly served by the system.  Duncan Smith and then junior minister Chris Grayling have consistently claimed that Harrington supported the principle and the roll out, which Harrington now forcefully denies.

His latest wheeze is to go after part time workers. 1.5 million want to work more but there is no work for them to do. IDS plans to blame them for the lack of work and cut what benefits they are getting if they are not deemed to be looking for more work hard enough.

He already blames the unemployed for their unemployment. They are sent on courses where they have to be enthusiastic, change their mood, make themselves believe that they can be employed. (You don't believe me? Read this - written by proper psychologists without an axe to grind.)

The Work Programme and its offshoots are bad enough, but we also hear about duplicity in its management.

He is quite happy to have an arbitrary and vicious regime of sanctions rendering claimants destitute for the slightest misdemeanour, or even perceived misdemeanour. Or, it appears possibly, carefully engineered misdemeanour.

He laughs through a Commons debate about food banks, and the destitution in people's lives that force them to go there, until he leaves the debate well before its end, then refuses to meet the Trussell Trust, and dismisses their concerns as scaremongering.

Why is somebody so incompetent, but above all so vindictive still in office? This is where politics goes bad, because the answer lies in the workings of the political machine. IDS is not all that unpopular in the country at large, primarily because many, many people have swallowed the rhetoric about benefit scroungers. But he is unpopular enough. He is incompetent enough to spoil the Tory brand of being the competent party, and, although he's not the only one, that should lower his stock. It's not just obvious mistakes, like misusing statistics in such a way that he was bound to get criticised, it's the policy mistakes, like the bedroom tax that is set fair to cost far more than it saves.

But a certain number of Tory MPs agree with him whole heartedly, viz the number jeering and laughing through that debate on food banks. And other Tories cover up for him too.    How long will they continue to do so?

The problem is that, in Tory party terms, he is fireproof. He remains popular among enough MPs to give Cameron a real problem if he were to remove him. He can't shunt him sideways because IDS has apparently made it clear that he would resign rather than do any other job. (He really, really likes bullying people. If only it were just bullying people rather than rendering them homeless, hopeless, or even dead.) Not only that but there is the character and the temper of IDS himself. Cameron would rather keep him in office than have him on the back benches spreading his poison among the Tory right wing, and quite probably plotting to oust Cameron in an attempt to redeem his own failures. For that everybody else pays the price, particularly the millions of benefit claimants who suffer IDS's own personal brand of poison. Cameron obviously thinks that is a price worth paying.

At some point the political calculus may change, and if it does (I pray it does soon) the crash is likely to be hard and loud. But until then we continue to suffer the consequences of politics gone bad. The internal workings of the Tory party continue to foist on the rest of us the most poisonous minister I have ever seen in office (and I'm aware there is much competition for that epithet).

Friday 6 December 2013

RIP Nelson Mandela

He was one of the family.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."


South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons