Corbyn’s failure

Corbyn’s failure

I’m going to stick my neck out here and I’m very sorry to say this, but Jeremy Corbyn has lost my support. He did so with this statement responding to the vote of no confidence from MPs in his leadership.

“Labour has the responsibility to give a lead where the Government will not. We need to bring people together, hold the Government to account, oppose austerity and set out a path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes.”

With this statement he has betrayed the hopes and interests of the young people who formed the core of his support, and who have been so badly let down by Cameron’s referendum. It’s an abysmal failure of leadership.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Corbyn. I supported him because unlike the other candidates for the Labour leadership he was the authentic voice of opposition, the necessary antidote to the hopeless platitudes of the Blairites, though for pragmatic reasons I always wished that voice could have come from the mouth of someone younger, someone without his baggage, someone who would be a harder target for our rabid right wing media.

When Labour MPs responded to the Brexit debacle by turning on Corbyn I wanted to put my head in my hands. But now I fear they have little choice. (Labour might well be finished anyway – this really is the Last Chance Saloon.)

Owen Jones, as committed a Corbyn supporter as any, has put his finger on the immediate problem. He’s admitted frankly that for him there was a plan, that Corbyn would continue to articulate and influence the necessary opposition to the Tory government, but as we came closer to the election set for 2020, he would step down in favour of a younger more compelling candidate, also from the left of the party.

But now, with the distinct possibility of a snap election, it seems unlikely that there will be time for all this.

It’s not that I think Corbyn would be an electoral disaster in these circumstances. The media is very sure he’d be a disaster, while for the rest of us the truth might be a little less cut and dried. But if in that defiant statement he’s setting out his stall for such a campaign then I couldn’t support him anyway.

The only person to blame for the Brexit debacle is David Cameron, not Corbyn. Nor do I blame Corbyn for refusing to share a platform with Cameron. I’m glad he refused. It’s more what Corbyn didn’t do.

He didn’t set out a clear alternative, progressive and positive case for the UK’s continuing membership of the EU. He unequivocally urged supporters to vote Remain, but that’s not the same thing. It was left to the likes of the Green’s Caroline Lucas, who for my money remains the most cogent and impressive voice on the left.

Now it sounds as though Corbyn has no intention of pushing that progressive vision, that he has indeed fallen back on the old hard left antagonism to the EU, suggesting we might still create a workers’ paradise right here on our own.

It’s crap. There is no path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes. If we leave the EU and the single European market there will be considerable, unavoidable short and medium term pain. It’s a version of the same bollocks peddled by the Leave campaign.

I suppose too you could argue that Corbyn was being no more than a proper democrat, acknowledging that “the people have spoken”. But there’s far too much wrong with what’s happened for the referendum verdict to be taken at face value, and no political leader who thinks it’s ok if we’re all screwed by Cameron’s biggest screw up is going to get my respect, let alone my vote.

Because it is a matter of leadership. Good leaders seek to change and lead opinion, not follow it, and then be ready to be held to account for their decisions at the end of their term. That simple idea seems to have been largely lost in a political culture driven into the ground by the fake wisdom of focus groups and Clinton’s “triangulation” of left and right. Labour is where it is now substantially because of its failure in the wake of Gordon Brown’s notorious “bigot” gaffe to address the growing resentment of immigration among many of its traditional supporters. It was never going to be an easy task, but then nor was saying “we hear your pain” ever going to cut it. Corbyn has said a little more than that, but he’s done nothing to confront or counter the Conservative suggestion that there was nothing to be done, that this was all the EU’s fault.

(The Tory remainers would no doubt say that it was the EU’s fault but was a price worth paying for the prosperity brought by the EU, a prosperity not felt by many in the traditional Labour fold. The Tory leavers would just say it was the EU’s fault, end of story.)

The political world is in a state of unprecedented turmoil. It’s not clear what incoherent stance the Conservatives are going to take next, but it is pretty clear that this is no time for the same old shit from everyone else. In a week or so’s time the Chilcot report is expected to destroy the last shreds of any credibility Tony Blair might once have had. At least this should at a stroke rule out the tainted likes of Hilary Benn or David Milliband (god help us). There is a glimmer of opportunity for the UK’s progressive parties if they can put their heads together, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

In the meantime Corbyn should already be yesterday’s news, because he’s never shown any interest in such a project, and in these last ten months failed to build the bridges even within the Parliamentary Labour Party that could have taken him through this crisis. I’ve loved his integrity, his refusal to play the PR games, but he’s never framed a bigger vision, a vision that could give people hope of something different from the past, and more than the failed neoliberalism of the Blairites and the Tories alike (not to mention the Orange Book LibDems).

I see little hope of that from the likes of Angela Eagle either, and maybe that’s why Labour really could be finished, its vote likely to continue to bleed out to UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and perhaps even Tim Farron’s newly leftish LibDems. I hope not, but while the Tories currently present an open goal, Labour has only a few weeks to sort itself out. It’s not a cheering thought.


Almost immediately after I’d posted this Caroline Lucas published her open letter to Corbyn, inviting him to join her in a progressive coalition. To me such a coalition offers a potentially mould-breaking way forward, a chance to break through the stagnation of party politics that in part has brought us to this miserable place, where for all the terrible things they have done, and their current complete disarray, the Conservatives are still showing at level pegging with Labour.

This dismal prospect rather than any Blairite coup is why Labour is turning on itself, and it’s why figures of the left such as Lisa Nandy have resigned from Corbyn’s cabinet. People talking about Blairite conspiracy need to address this.

As far as I know Corbyn has yet to respond, maybe because he has other things on his mind which would be fair enough, but it has to be said that such pluralism goes against everything his strand of Labour has ever done, and I’d be happily surprised if he showed any enthusiasm for it now.

But we are in a changed reality. Labour has for the foreseeable future lost Scotland, which stacks the odds against it ever commanding a majority on its own. It’s hard to know whether in its current form the SNP is a progressive party or not, but I’d have thought it was worth having the conversation. The timing of all this is hardly desirable, but then as Macmillan remarked, politics has always been about events.

Dinosaurs and dimwits

Dinosaurs and dimwits

In last Sunday’s Observer David Mitchell lambasted the looming referendum on EU membership as a failure of political leadership. He says (more or less) that issues like this are not a matter of personal preference, but demand technical knowledge and expertise. If we’re honest, while everyone might have an opinion, it’s not just a matter of opinion, and Mitchell argues that we appoint political leaders to inform themselves properly and make these decisions on our behalf.

Underpinning this argument is the point that our democracy is not designed to ensure our politicians reflect our views (which may or may not be worth reflecting); it’s to ensure that politicians remain answerable for their decisions to the electorate, and so will continue to govern in the interests of the electorate, rather than (say) their immediate friends. I imagine this is what Churchill meant when he described democracy as the least bad of the available options.

We all know that we’re not having this referendum because it’s important to where we find ourselves at this moment in the world, but because David Cameron hoped (and even this was a stupid hope) to silence the anti-EU majority in his own party. As Martin Wolf suggested recently in the FT, this is possibly the most irresponsible decision by a UK prime minister in living memory.

It strikes me that this kind of abdication of responsibility (as if the problem were too difficult to be addressed through parliament’s normal channels) reflects a much deeper and potentially more serious failure of government. The gravest issue of our time is not whether the British are European (we have been for at least 1000 years), nor whether free markets are the answer to everything (they are not), nor even the problems posed by the rise of religious fundamentalism, but whether we have been inducing a fundamental change in the Earth’s climate, and whether we can still do anything about it.

This matters because we really are facing a global catastrophe, not in my shrinking lifetime perhaps, but probably, devastatingly, within 100 years. My children’s lives are likely to be hit, and if I ever have any grandchildren they will face a very different world, a world where rising sea levels have removed substantial areas of land, where established water and food sources have been devastated and other resources, including energy, are subject to increasing constraints. It’s probably true that these effects will be felt most acutely in the developing world (which would be cause enough for action), but no one can seriously imagine Europe and the Americas will be untouched.

There are still people who want to deny the overwhelming science in play here. It would be a better world if we could simply ignore them, though tragically they have held positions of substantial influence, particularly in the US. The worst of it is that they have helped the world’s governments sit on their hands for the last 20 years, when there might still have been time to set us on a different course.

Our governments continue to pat themselves on the back over “progress”, for instance at the recent Paris summit, but they are still playing to their imaginary galleries, while the hard truth is that it’s probably too late already. Click here for some tough data. As the blog’s author David Roberts puts it “The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles humanity is in for some awful shit.”

It’s probably true that global realities have changed faster than our inter-governmental institutions, and those changing realities have highlighted increasingly pressing questions about what governments might be for. Historically that question might not have seemed so problematic. I’d argue that elites have always deliberately confused “rule” and “government” to legitimise the exercise of their power in their own interests, but as societies have grown more complex the argument has usually invoked some notion of a contract between governors and governed, so that we the people would accept the imposition of laws (and tithes) in exchange for peace, stability (and binding arbitration).

With the rise of nations, standing armies and empires through the 18th and 19th centuries, the dynastic squabbles of royal families and other leaders morphed into warfare as an extension of trade, and governments appointed themselves the guardians of a much broader concept of national interest, while the “people” dutifully lined up behind them. This murderous willy-waving reached its nadir in the 20th century and its global wars. For a while it seemed the horrors unleashed might bring “leaders” to their senses, and in this crucible both the UN and the EU were born, but in one form or another the willy waving continues to define the conduct of foreign affairs, while globalising business interests (empowered by technology) have been rewriting the rules to suit themselves (with suitable proxies in place in government to align those rules with selective national interests*).

If ever there was an issue demanding collective government action and leadership, that issue must be climate change. They’ve talked, and some have set targets, and some countries have tried to set examples, but it’s beginning to look like it’s all been too little, too late. I doubt future generations, dealing with the consequences, will judge this prevarication kindly, though ironically what’s been exposed is a fault line in the notion of popular government, democratic or not. Real leadership would have meant agreeing and imposing measures that made our lives a bit harder, for the sake of a greater good. But our leaders don’t trouble themselves with that kind of difficulty.

In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the thought that as and when the consequences begin to make themselves felt, they will force a shift in outlook and conduct, towards the kind of large scale co-operation and co-ordination which is the best excuse for the continuing existence of such government. In these optimistic moments too I can take comfort from the emergence at grassroots of a new communitarianism, which itself reflects a perception of the increasing failures of national governments to address what actually matters. This all looks pretty Utopian at the moment, as relatively small groups of people seek to take back some control over their lives, growing their own food, developing community energy projects and so on. Then again it hardly seems Utopian to want to step out of the fairyland in which many in our society and its politicians seem to live.

In Germany recently there were successive days when the nation’s electricity needs were supplied (and even oversupplied) entirely by renewable resources, many of them based in local communities. What may be emerging is a new relationship between large scale and local infrastructure, with consequences for political organisation too.

A commercial housing development in the Netherlands suggests how this might develop. Concepts like the ReGen village, which are moving quickly from the drawing board to practical reality, promise to redefine the relationship between local self-organised communities and larger infrastructures. It’s unlikely they could be an entirely “closed loop”; health, education, wider transport and telecommunication systems, not to mention justice, are still going to need to work on some kind of larger scale. But where government will fit in this redefined relationship is as yet an open question, particularly if coming generations are asking that question in the light of the failure of our government structures to address the most urgent issues of the day.

Then again this is me thinking in optimistic mode. If I look to present realities and the preoccupations of our politicians, it’s like watching a herd of brontosaurus turning away from that big rock falling from the sky to argue about the threat of velociraptors.

We tend to imagine the future a 100 years from now as a bit like now, but with better phones and spaceships. I doubt it’s going to be like that. I doubt our work, our leisure, or even our basic ways of eating and buying things will be the same. I doubt the way we regard or handle government will be anything like it is now. I certainly hope not.

*I don’t particularly want to blame business here. Setting aside the disastrous notions of “shareholder-led capitalism”, business people are in my experience pragmatic. You can’t expect much in the way of social vision from them, but on the whole they’d rather be part of the solution than the problem and still look to governments to provide the context in which they can be. The trouble is that governments in the last 30 years have given up on that role, because it was getting harder and harder, and short term commercial interest has filled the vacuum (inadequately of course).

The long con

The long con

The success of the Conservatives in the UK’s general election could be seen as a triumph of spin, or its last dying thrash. The future will depend on how well the progressive parties understand their failure, and how a more compelling and realistic narrative of the last forty years could better serve them.

The UK media will be awash for the next few days with political post-mortems, following the surprise election of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Not least because these blogs have a substantial US readership I don’t want to go too far along the same road, but I do want to reflect on some of the implications for political conduct generally in a representative democracy, and specifically what all this might mean for spin culture and its relation to political narratives.

Ignorance as virtue

The English are not a particularly well-educated nation. We’re no worse than the Americans perhaps, but we have to live here with a cultural suspicion of knowledge and learning, as well as a mainstream belief that politics is really for nerds and wonks, and that decent ordinary people for the most part keep away from it. I’m not suggesting that other countries are somehow more intelligent than the English, just that there’s a strong strain in English culture that sees political ignorance as a virtue rather than a problem.

The stereotype is benignly embodied in Clive Candy, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: decent, honourable, likeable and dim, he would have seen voting Tory not so much as a political act as simply what you do. This as I say is the benign view, though Powell and Pressburger’s immediate point was to suggest that such amiable buffoonery was not up to the horror of the Nazi threat.

It’s not like this in most other European countries: politicians might be seen as easily corrupt and venal everywhere, but most Europeans are not so detached from or ignorant about political issues as the English (I’m carefully not writing “British” because it’s become all too clear that the Scots are in a different position).

Our political system both reflects and reinforces this culture. “First past the post” developed in quite different conditions from where we find ourselves now and has proved itself repeatedly dysfunctional (if you believe that the purpose of democracy is to make governments accountable to public opinion). Both Labour and Tory governments have enjoyed large majorities on the back of minority shares of the vote. Minority views are routinely under-represented or excluded completely. Apologists for FPP argue strangely that it produces strong government, as if strong government could only occur by marginalising all but an unrepresentative single party’s voice, as if there would always be a problem if you demanded that politicians sought areas of agreement in the national interest.

It’s a reflection of Britain’s anti-political culture that a referendum four years ago on whether we should move to a fairer electoral system was met with substantial voter indifference. The British it seemed didn’t care to think too much about such technicalities: that’s one for the political wonks. Labour’s self-interested ambivalence about reform didn’t help.

The Scottish independence referendum marked a sea change in political activism, a change that has spilt out into this election. But the change is a Scottish rather than English phenomenon (the rise and falter of UKIP’s regressive nationalism is not comparable) and in any case beyond my scope here.

Tribalism and soundbites

For most of the last century Britain operated a two party system governed largely by tribal allegiances, again reflecting a political culture where people didn’t want to think too hard about the choices in front of them. This has proved a fertile breeding ground for spin, for the reduction of serious questions to trivial soundbites and slogans, fed by a populist (if patronising) media heavily entrenched on the Right. There are parallels with the US in all this, though I’ll leave it to others with more specific knowledge to explore them.

This was the political culture that the Blair project, drawing inspiration from Bill Clinton, sought to exploit by outplaying the hostile media at their own game. It was a project that sought to grab the parts of a right wing agenda that might be confusingly reassuring to its media, while sneaking social democratic reform beneath the radar. In electoral terms it was clearly successful, but it had two dire consequences. The first was that it drew those Labour administrations into such close continuity with their Conservative predecessors that they hardly scratched the surface of the structural reform we really needed (the upshot was Britain’s exposure to the fallout from the catastrophic failure of neoliberal market policies in the crash of 2008, an abject failure still barely acknowledged in British political narratives). The second was that winning elections became a game of spin, soundbites and story manipulation, lessons quickly understood by that ex-PR man and Blair admirer David Cameron.

Truth be told

It’s axiomatic both in political life, and in wider professional communication circles, that every political party needs to find its narrative. It’s a lesson that to some extent politicians have learned from businesses, even if businesses themselves don’t face the same pressure to simplify that has fallen on politicians. Also in the commercial world the growth of the internet, of uncontrollable scrutiny in social media and alternative commentary has created a real pressure on business narratives to ground themselves in truth rather than wishful thinking and the platitudes of spin. It’s an idea businesses are still exploring, however hard it is for them to let go of old habits.

This change is overdue in politics. The English are not just often ignorant about politics. They are also generally cynical, with some justice feeling that life in the Westminster village is completely detached from their own. That cynicism is fuelled by politicians’ own apparent readiness to treat the idea of truth as a matter of interpretation.

Politicians have long been blamed for making promises they don’t keep, and then being evasive when challenged. But this election campaign hit new lows in the way the Tories peddled downright lies about Labour, and Labour’s failure to counter the biggest lie of all is almost certainly the reason why they failed to regain the support of middle England.

Tony Blair and his supporters are already saying that Labour’s failure lay in their abandonment of the centre ground, and their lurch to the left. This is dangerous claptrap, partly because their centrist position clearly didn’t help the Liberal Democrats at all, partly because Miliband’s flagship populist policies (raising the minimum wage, clamping down on energy prices, ending the non-dom tax anomaly) were only “red” in the hysterical doublespeak of right wing media.

For their part it has to be said that the Tory campaign was a shambles, pitching around for any idea that might lift their apparently frozen approval rating, even throwing in an unfunded pledge to protect NHS spending which undermined whatever claims they were making for fiscal rectitude (and with it what little they have in the way of a positive narrative for their programme).

But none of this mattered because they were able to draw on a single, overarching idea, historically and apparently still currently fatal to Labour.

It’s the economy, stupid.

And it’s also the biggest lie in post war British politics, but there you go. It’s quite true that Labour is always likely to favour more state involvement in national life than the Tories, and so are ideologically inclined to favour higher public spending than any party on the Right, but the consequent and pervasive notion that every time Labour takes power the Tories have to clean up their mess is the mirror opposite of the truth. In the 1960s Roy Jenkins and in the 1970s Denis Healey were far more competent chancellors than their Tory predecessors, though both took the rap for the hard decisions they had to make to rectify the mistakes of those predecessors. To be fair in the 90s it was the Tory Kenneth Clarke who began to pick up the pieces from the failures of his party colleagues Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont, a job continued by Gordon Brown.

The return to form

The critical change for Labour in the Blair years was that they seemed to upend this core (and false) narrative about economic competence. In this they were probably lucky: Britain’s exit from the EU exchange rate mechanism under Norman Lamont in 1992 had taken on a totemic importance. I doubt many people understood its real causes or what it meant, but it offered a ready peg on which to hang an accusation of Tory economic incompetence, and until the crash of 2008 that accusation stuck.

Until the crash the Tories’ ideas about the economy had barely deviated from Gordon Brown’s. It’s hard for politicians to argue with what looked like a successful formula. If pushed (though no one has even tried to do that) I don’t suppose David Cameron or George Osborne would really argue that Brown’s government had caused the banking crisis. What they would say is that his policies had weakened the UK’s ability to withstand such a shock. Never mind that before the crash the Tories themselves had put forward no ideas or policies that would have made any difference, or the inconvenient truth that between the crash and the 2010 election Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling had already achieved the first movement towards a recovery, a movement quickly squashed by the Coalition’s own incompetent economic management.

We were back with the familiar story. In fact, the Coalition leaders were quite happy to imply that the crash had been caused by Labour incompetence, by Gordon Brown’s reckless spending, and the public seemed to revert to the default view of Labour as wreckers of the British economy, even if (as usual) the policies then being pursued by the Tory led coalition have demonstrably hampered recovery.

Astonishingly the Labour front bench seemed unwilling to counter. Perhaps they lacked faith in themselves. Perhaps they believed the standard PR idea that to engage with such a false argument would only give it credence. It was a catastrophic misjudgement, giving the Coalition ample opportunity to turn a lie into received wisdom. It seems then with hindsight, that Labour lost the 2015 election somewhere around 2011.

Simple, clear, and wrong

There’s a miserable paradox at work here. Electoral appeal really is about the economy (stupid), but the English don’t have a political culture in which economic issues can be intelligently or adequately discussed. By swinging to the Tories last week did the English prove that on the whole they are as selfish and vicious as the ideology of the party they have just elected? I doubt they thought about it that deeply, being led (and inevitably misled) by an instinctive reaching for managerial reassurance.

Changing that core narrative once more is going to be tough. Blair and Brown were able to capitalise on the memory of Black Wednesday and the ERM exit. Such a totemic failure may well crop up again in the next five years, or it may not, and in its absence progressive parties are going need to find a better and more enduring way than in the past of showing that their ideas offer a more reliable route to sustainable prosperity.

Doing this probably means moving beyond distinctive party political narratives. Arguably it’s about putting over and embedding a more truthful narrative about what’s happened in the UK and beyond in the last forty years. It’s a narrative in which inequality is not seen as an inevitable and necessary by-product of sensible political behaviour, but as an economic problem in itself, a problem that threatens both social cohesion and commercial productivity, a sign that capital itself is no longer supporting productivity and competitiveness.

Does it matter that this narrative is strictly truthful? After all, respect for veracity has hardly held the Tories back. Having truth on your side is clearly not enough, but then it seems that putting a progressive case against the grain of England’s embedded political culture is going to need all the help it can get.

Ironically I think Miliband’s camp was well aware of the need to push this different narrative, but never found the means or created the space to articulate it in terms that the politically indifferent English would understand and accept. It’s apparent too that a leader needs more than decency and integrity (qualities Miliband had in spades) to put such a narrative across. It needs charisma too. Such charisma was Bill Clinton’s special gift. Obama is probably the better orator, but he’s never been as liked, and therefore trusted. Blair too had some of the same gift, though his political vision was so narrow that it never served anything but his desire to win.

Old ideas die slowly. The fact that the English have clambered onto what they mistakenly see as safe ground doesn’t mean they will be able to stay there. An old lie has served David Cameron well, but the next five years are going to be turbulent to say the least. The big electoral issue in five years’ time will still be the economy, but at this stage it’s impossible to say how much that issue will have been reshaped or indeed further distorted by the resurgent nationalist forces witlessly unleashed by the Tories in their campaign. But just as businesses are having to learn to deal with reality in how they see and speak of themselves, so too will the pressure of political reality (and a more grounded narrative about the state we’re in) assert itself. The question for progressive parties is whether they want to sit around waiting for that to happen, in the meantime indulging themselves with old and irrelevant factional battles, or whether they work to take hold of that real narrative, make it their own, and somehow lead the English to understand it’s their story too.

Easter on-message

Easter on-message

It says something about our times that just about the most plangent critiques of the state we’re in are coming not from political leaders but from Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile we’re told our prime minister, who has kicked off his election campaign with an unprecedented series of unabashed lies, took his place on Easter morning in church near his home in Oxfordshire.

Perhaps he believes sincerely that he’s building a society in which people take better responsibility for their lives, and that this is somehow in keeping with the Christian message. I know conservatives with an upper and lower case “c” do believe this sort of thing, though it’s a position that can only be sustained by ignoring quite a lot that Christ is reported to have said. But the lies are inexcusable by any Christian standard. An “h” word comes to mind for Mr Cameron, and it’s not humility.

I wouldn’t call myself a Christian these days, though was I brought up as a Catholic and indeed until about ten years ago was a practising member of the Church. Even when I was practising I thought Catholic ideas about life after death were at best ridiculous, and I wanted no truck with their bigoted ideas about women or homosexuality, or indeed sexuality generally. After many years these contradictions became too difficult to bear and I went my own way.

I’m still on that way, even if I can broadly welcome signs that the Pope wants to set the church on a different course from his predecessors.

But the contrast between our political and religious leaders also bears thinking about.

It’s worth thinking about in the light of the good things that most religions have in common. I’m well aware in saying this that historically and still in many ways today religion can foster crude judgementalism and some crazy ideas about how things are, that it can be divisive and full of hate (even while preaching love). I don’t want to excuse any of this. What’s more, because we can say nothing sensible about life after death, and because the eschatological ideas religions have put forward are apparently driven by a mixture of self-interest and wishful thinking the only sensible thing we can do is say nothing at all about heaven, hell, reincarnation or whatever other stories we’ve made up to comfort ourselves or give us power over others.

The “good thing” I want to focus on is a kind of disposition towards experience, common to all major faiths from Buddhism to Islam. It could be summed up by the notion of “love” though I think that notion needs some unpacking. It’s an openness to the needs and diverse nature of others, an acceptance of our responsibilities towards others; it’s a joyful sense of wonder at the world, a wonder rooted in an awareness of that world’s indifference to us.

There’s a paradox here. We need to embrace our own irrelevance in a bigger scheme of things while seeing the being of others as insistently important. This contradiction is more apparent than real though it’s difficulty has some bearing on the frequently twisted knickers of religious thought.

It feels very like a sense of gratitude, though gratitude requires an object, a being we can be grateful to, and perhaps this is part of the reason why we have had to construct a notion of a creator in our own image (because we need a human-like object to carry this kind of emotion, an entity which at least in our imaginations could offer the reciprocity on which our moral feelings generally depend). But then we can understand this emotion as being like gratitude, without it needing to be gratitude; it could be better understood as a kind of gladness.

Clearly you don’t have to be religious to feel these things, and some religious people don’t seem to feel even this much. There are other good aspects to religious feeling which go beyond or deeper than this generalised disposition to love, and specifically to love the fact that the world is bigger and more enriching than the small circles of our own lives. But it is one of the defining characteristics of good people, including religiously good people, and it carries obligations to other people which our neo-liberal political orthodoxies have tried to sideline.

It stands too in opposition to crude materialist or mechanistic views of how we see ourselves: this is not to usher in any kind of mysticism, but to note that a crude materialism certainly under-describes common human experience. We need a better answer to that crudity than fantasies of universal connections; we need to be careful to describe our experience fully while being mindful of the limits of what can be sensibly said.

This disposition underpins the way Pope Francis and Justin Welby see the world, and it’s taken them to a place of opposition to the political mainstream.

You might say that politicians need to concern themselves with more practical things. I’d argue that their approach to practical things (at least in the West) in the last thirty years has been dogmatically detached from reality. Moreover, the separation of personal ethics from political decisions has very clearly not improved those decisions. I don’t suppose the Catholic Tony Blair would ever pick up a gun and start shooting strangers, and yet he was prepared to support a chain of events where this slaughter was always going to be part of the outcome.

As for Cameron and his lies, no doubt he’d see them as part of a game that must be played for what he believes is a greater good. But in this he is as deluded as he is deluding. We need our politicians to throw off their blinkers. Perhaps then they might start offering us an authentic vision of how even the political world could be inspiring.

This is a big (and important) subject. Your ideas and comments would be very welcome.

The image, by the way, is a painting by my brother Mark, which he presented as an Easter greeting to his many loved ones. If you like it you can find more of his work at