Sifting through the ashes in search of something, anything

england-eu

Shantih Shantih Shantih, wrote Eliot in the final lines of ‘The Waste Land’, a fragment pillaged from the Hindu Upanishads. It is bewitching, it is intensely mournful, almost inexplicable, and today in particular, it is the most poignant expression of ultimate resignation.

Along with David Dimbleby, JK Rowling and a good chunk of the country’s students, among a vast array of others from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, I stayed up all night to watch the results of the EU referendum come flooding in over the airwaves and through the slippery plumbing of the social media pipework. And, just before 5am, the BBC called game, set, match for the “Leave” campaign.

Newcastle was the signal fire that first spelled doom for those championing solidarity with Europe, bringing in a tiny “Remain” majority despite confident projections that it would be much higher. This was almost identical to the role of the Dundee result in the Scottish referendum, which in the same way brought in a much smaller win for the “Yes” campaign than predicted, crippling them for the rest of the count.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 12.41.19But this was by no means the first speed bump of the night that was last night. Next came Sunderland, then Swansea, the latter with a huge “Leave” majority, a trend that was incidentally set for the rest of rural Wales in stark contrast with cosmopolitan Cardiff. And when Birmingham, with its 700,000 or so votes, came in with a “Leave” win, all hope was lost. Though it was a narrow margin the fact that “Leave” triumphed at all was unprecedented, the great swathe of votes in the region therefore serving to just about cancel each other out. The disappointing Euroscepticism of the outer London boroughs nailed the coffin shut despite soaring “Remain” majorities in the likes of Lambeth, Hackney, Camden, and the rest of the city. Scotland of course voted “Remain” pretty decisively (albeit with a 67% turnout versus the 85% of September 2014 and the 72% of yesterday’s national average), but so did Northern Ireland, prompting calls from Sinn Féin as well as NI’s Deputy First Minister to reignite the debate for a unified Ireland. One can hardly imagine a UK consisting of just England and Wales, the very prospect of which seems simply absurd, outlandish even. And yet here we are.

The steep “Leave” trend, however, in the xenophobic and pensioner-rich middle class enclaves of the North East and Midlands was expected, but the bitter truth is that it was Corbyn’s polarising leadership bid that splintered those red-rose strongholds and so compromised the voice of Labour’s “Remain” proponents. And now on the eve of chaos, he has been served a motion of no confidence.

But as Iain Martin of CapX put it in the wee hours, “Labour: it’s the fault of the Tories. Tories: it’s the fault of Labour”.

Undoubtedly, one of the first seismic political tremors following the result occurred when David Cameron emerged from 10 Downing Street at 08:18 just moments after rumours had swept along the rope line of the press that he would be resigning.

At the podium he began by championing democracy, thanking those who took part on “my side of the argument”, and congratulating the opposition, stating categorically that “the will of the British people is an instruction that must be respected.” He swiftly went on to reassure the markets, the armies of investors, and those Brits living abroad as well as those non-British EU citizens living here that there would be no immediate changes, stressing the need for preparations for negotiations to ensure the interests of “all parts of our United Kingdom” are heard. That rather cemented the trajectory of his speech, and sure enough, he was soon expressing how proud he was to have been Britain’s PM these past six years and listing his government’s achievements, before insisting we must “confront, not duck, big decisions”. This, he said, was that so quintessentially British spirit that saw the first coalition government in seventy years being forged in 2010, a “fair, legal and decisive” referendum in Scotland, and the EU negotiations he carried out with his “head, heart and soul”. That’s when he delivered the words that we were all expecting to hear, that he was not the “captain” to steer the country in this new direction, and while giving no precise timetable, that there must be a new prime minister in time for the Conservative conference in October. “Delivering stability” was the priority he emphasised, with a Cabinet meeting scheduled for Monday and the Bank of England taking steps to ensure this stability. He said he had already spoken to the Queen and will be attending the European Council next week to formally explain Britain’s decision. He finished on a note of solidarity, encouraging “those on the losing side” to help make it work, because ultimately, Britain is a “special” country, driven by its astonishing history of science, arts, engineering, creativity, and though certainly not perfect, it can be and will remain a model of a multi-racial, multi-faithed nation. “I am the first to praise our incredible strengths,” he concluded, voice breaking, “I love this country and I’ve been honoured to serve it.”

MP Anna Soubry hailed the PM moments later on the BBC for his “beautiful composure”, looking rather shell-shocked as she described how he “led from the front” and how sincerely she hopes “this won’t cloud our memory of him”, while across the Channel MEP Philippe Lamberts condemned him as “utterly irresponsible” on the doorstep of the HQ in Brussels.

Of course, Cameron really had no other option than to resign. As Salmond dryly remarked to the BBC earlier this morning, “I have some experience in this field”. And so, the three month leadership battle begins. Johnson, May, Davidson, Crabb… whoever emerges on top, it will be a sensationalist Tory pseudo-drama of Freudian proportions.

But much caution has already been expressed over the rapidity of implementing Article 50, with many prominent “Leave” politicians encouraging cool-headed patience and negotiations. And yet, Corbyn appeared on BBC1 at 07:30 saying it should be invoked “now”, a reminder of his reluctance at backing the EU at all given his long history of resistance against the establishment, the status quo, the bureacracy. He did, after all, express his support for the EU at only “7 and a 1/2”, whatever the hell that means. And now speculation is stirring that Corbyn will be ousted by the end of the week.

Speaking of speculation, Carney emerged after the night’s global turmoil in the wake of Cameron’s resignation to reassure the markets that the banks were fully backed with a £250 billion reserve ready to secure credit for both households and businesses. It was at the sight of the Newcastle signal fire that the pound, which had soared to around $1.50 against the dollar right before the vote, plummeted to its lowest level since 1985. The FTSE was down 500 points at its open, Barclays bank tanked 35%, with RBS and Lloyds quickly following, and shockwaves rippled though the Nikkei. Expressions of Britain’s bad judgement appeared in morning papers across the globe, from the New York Times to El Mundo, with Obama receiving a “briefing” on the result in the White House around 6am. Indeed, some have hailed this disturbing realisation of xenophobia, regression and isolationism as the harbinger of everything from the resurgence of Europe’s far-right groups to the wall-building, Muslim-banning madness that would be a Trump presidency. Sensationalism aside, the EU has been guaranteed at least two years of uncertainty.

As for Scotland, we now know that every council area across the nation voted to stand with the EU, and Nicola Sturgeon just made her assurance from Bute House that preparations for a second referendum will now begin. She was careful not to confirm it, but that is undoubtedly the trajectory we are now on. Indeed, the weight of the Glasgow result at 2am temporarily tipped the total national count into a “Remain” majority. The consensus in Scotland is beyond doubt, but the case for independence of course will now be made even more complex and polarising by the reality of a Britain outside the EU and an EU rocked by the messy exit of its second largest economy. Of course there is the possibility that “Brexit” will now trigger any number of copycat referendums in the most traditionally Eurosceptic countries from Greece and Spain to Latvia and Hungary, not to mention the looming spectre of potential bank runs.

It may just be that the EU was the crucial pressure point on the windowpane of the UK. Now it has been hit with such surgical precision, spidery cracks have bloomed across it, obscuring all beyond. A second independence referendum will be the tap that shatters it forever. But, there will be two Nationalist reactions. Sturgeon has made her position clear, while expressing respect for those No-voters who will want to rationally reevaluate their position. However, many senior figures within the SNP leadership, Humza Yousaf among them, will be reluctant to use Brexit as a vehicle for statehood. For one thing currency is now even more of a roadblock. It will have to be the Euro or a brand new currency, perhaps pegged to the pound. Also, there is the simple reality that Scotland receives £9 billion per year from Westminster while juggling a deficit three times the size of the rest of the UK, particularly problematic given the lack of oil revenue. And we must remember that over a million people voted to leave the EU and the SNP would certainly not want to initiate a referendum that would most likely take place in 2017-18 without being certain of victory. There would also need to be a border, a proper, real-life border between Scotland and England. But there is now a new independence case for previous No-voters to consider. There is not space here to elaborate just quite yet, particularly in the swirling Charybdis that is today, but yes… there is certainly a case.

The fact remains that 17 million is a lot of people, a hell of a lot, and yet it’s not even a third of the UK’s population. Nor is it actually a majority of the electorate, despite the record turnout. The result was so close that a 72% turnout didn’t give “Leave” over 50% of the votes when those other 10 million-ish people who couldn’t or wouldn’t fill out a ballot are taken into account. Just look at the demographics. 64% of 18-24 year olds nationwide voted “Remain”, while 58% of 65+ year olds voted “Leave”. If, as in the Scottish referendum, the 1.5 million 16-17 year olds in the UK had been granted the vote, the nation would have awoken to very different news this morning. Instead, our futures have been decided by the oldest generation to the detriment of all.

Marina Hyde of The Guardian took to Twitter this morning to muse over Farage’s comment that “this is a victory for ordinary people, decent people”, pointing out that all us Remainers are therefore extraordinarily indecent. Indeed, we are the “indecent minority”, as JK Rowling wryly replied.

From the terribly bitter and painful ashes of this referendum, several things will rise. The question and intense likelihood of a second Scottish referendum, the question of a possible Irish referendum, the question of fresh party leaders for both the Tories and Labour, the question of the timing and logistics of Article 50, the question of citizenship for Brits abroad and Europeans here at home, and the question of trade and foreign relations now we have cut ourselves loose from the continent.

Not all of these things will survive the battle to wing their way across the sun-splashed skies, but the ones that do will determine the future of this isle full of noises in every single possible sense of the word.

Shantih Shantih Shantih

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Je Suis Parisienne: Today, we all are, but barring refugees and waging impossible wars is not the answer

Outside the French consulate in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Graham Hughes/AP

Outside the French consulate in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Graham Hughes/AP

“Solidarity is an attitude of resistance, I suppose, or it should be,” Christopher Hitchens once said. Illuminating buildings, posting statements of sympathy and defiance, lighting candles… it can all seem so vastly inadequate in the face of such a brutal massacre that, on a peaceful November Parisian evening, left at least 127 innocent people dead and scores more injured.

But there is perhaps no greater form of resistance than showing friends, family, strangers on the other side of the planet, that we stand with the victims and their loved ones. It is often these understated acts of solidarity and defiance that are the most fiercely powerful in fighting back, not for the sake of vengeance, but for that of resistance.

In a statement earlier today, Angela Merkel told Germany, “those who we mourn were murdered in front of cafes, in restaurants, in a concert hall or on the open street. They wanted to live the life of free people in a city that celebrates life, and they met with murderers who hate this life of freedom… This attack on freedom is not only aimed at Paris. We are all targets, and it affects all of us… We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror. Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.”

But rhetoric like Francois Hollande’s, labelling the attacks as an “act of war“, only adds fuel to a pyre of hatred and intolerance on the brink of raging into a wildfire that will consume the world. Bush’s “War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks saw the panicked launch of an international campaign to destroy al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations that has resulted in no less than catastrophic failure and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, possibly contributing to the rise of ISIL itself. It has lacked a coherent objective from the very beginning and more often than not allowed participating governments to not only repress civil liberties but get away with shocking human rights infringements.

And now we’re back to where we started, with a brutal terrorist attack igniting calls for military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The whole situation could not be more precarious. With Putin pledging support to France in their quest for retribution, while remaining a close ally of Bashar al-Assad, and the US doing the same, while still carrying out deadly drone strikes on Syrian territory, it is quite possible to lose all sense of morality in the alarming propensity to act without thought for the nuances of such a situation, not to mention the long term consequences. Violence is never the answer when diplomacy can do so much more. And how can we possibly justify sending hundreds of troops into a distant country when we so lack an understanding of their cultural and historical contexts? Yes, we can sanctimoniously wave the banner of human rights but when we breach human rights in the attempt to safeguard them, what then?

With ISIL claiming responsibility for yesterday’s attacks in Paris, citing French bombing of Syria as the justification, and the recent reports that one of the Bataclan concert hall attackers was a Frenchman, the reality of the tragedy is irrefutable.

Further military intervention would be catastrophic.

It remains a fundamental fact that a nation or union of nations physically cannot wage war on a terrorist organisation. These extremist groups have no borders, they do not exist on a map. They operate in the shadows, and most terrifyingly of all, in our homes. The vast majority of these attacks are carried out by radicalised citizens of the very country they are attacking.

This makes the calls to ban refugees all the more outrageous. US Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson led the way in this stupidity yesterday evening when he demanded that the US should block all Middle Eastern refugees and asylum seekers, “If we’re going to be bringing 200,000 people over here from that region — if I were one of the leaders of the global jihadist movement and I didn’t infiltrate that group of people with my people, that would be almost malpractice.” Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee have also tweeted their willingness to support France in the “war on terror“.

The hundreds of thousands of young families fleeing the carnage in their homes, risking their lives at the remotest chance of finding a better one, are running from the very same terrorists setting off bombs in Paris and Beirut. The sheer inhumanity of politicians like Carson is disgusting.

In the aftermath of these heinous attacks one can only hope that leaders around the world focus on improving security procedures at home and tackling these online radicalisation programmes, not on waging impossible wars.

Paris 6

The landmark CN Tower is lit blue, white and red in the colors of the French flag following Paris attacks, in Toronto November 13, 2015. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday it was too soon to say whether the deadly attacks in Paris would prompt him to reconsider his pledge to withdraw Canada from airstrikes against Islamic State militants in the Middle East. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Martin Ollman/Getty Images

Martin Ollman/Getty Images

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The Cold War: Was It All About Ideology?

Communism and Capitalism, possibly the two most ferocious and merciless enemies of all time. In 1945, the world was crawling out of a crippling conflict that had decimated millions, but seemingly obliviously fell into an even larger black hole of tension and hatred. And the Cold War was not truly over until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 . . .

But how did it all start? Why did two allies suddenly turn their backs on each other? Well let’s investigate the facts, and suggest yet another answer to the notorious question of what exactly caused the Cold War?

Ideological differences were a key factor in instigating the ‘iron curtain’ in Europe and inducing the Cold War. The entire conflict essentially gravitated around the opposing philosophies of Communism and Capitalism. Problems first became apparent when Japan surrendered to the Allied powers on 15th August 1945, ending the Second World War. The issues that kindled into existence lay with the dispute between the victors over Europe’s future. Germany was subsequently divided into a separate east and west, which quickly became a Communist state versus a Capitalist one, and splitting Europe down the middle. Fundamentally, it was a standoff between the powers of the USSR and the USA. In ‘The Cold War’, John Hughes-Wilson states, ‘the ideological chasm between east and west was gaping wide and was effectively unbridgeable.’ It was becoming increasingly apparent that these two world superpowers could not and would not settle any agreements over Europe’s future. Truman saw Communism as a contagion that could infect much of Europe and Asia, whereas Stalin viewed western interference in the east as direct provocation and as an attempt to taint it with Capitalist beliefs. In this way, the direct catalysts of the Cold War all had foundations entwined in ideological differences. The legacy of the Russian Communist revolution still seared within the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were critical in the development of Stalin’s suspicion and unease and represented the Capitalist west interfering in the east. The Korean War, a conflict of ideologies, led on from these, the first real test of Truman’s policy of ‘containment’. However, Stalin escalated and channelled his goal of Communist domination through the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. Finally, the legacy of the Second World War dragged the animosity between the two states to breaking point. Therefore, the conflicting ideologies of east and west were utterly integral in causing the Cold War.

The afore-mentioned ideological differences were radically opposed to each other on not just political, but economic and social levels. As a pure antithesis of each other, they are fundamentally incompatible. Communism is a socialist movement centred round the beliefs that a country should be classless, with no income or standard of living inequality, where there are no rich and poor. However, Capitalism believes in the existence of competitive markets, wage labour and capital accumulation through the economic driving of wealth. The two philosophies disagree on every issue; tax rates, ownership of the factors of production, investment, resource allocation, government control, democracy. Therefore, the fact that the two biggest world powers at that period in history followed these two vastly different ideologies created an inevitable rivalry and clash of beliefs, resulting in vigorous tensions, and a highly probable chance of conflict. The potent strength of Communism in Russia stretched back through the annals of history to the Russian revolution in 1917. John Hughes-Wilson also wrote, ‘this elemental struggle against the dark forces of imperialism and Capitalism was their very life.’ This tells us that it was a conflict solely against the enemy ideology. He also states, ‘the allied occupation of Russian territory had sowed fatal, and permanent, seeds of distrust between east and west which blossomed into real enmity.’ They had never forgotten the intrusion from the west and hosted huge amounts of suspicion for the Capitalist countries, unable to agree with their policies. The legacy of the revolution was therefore essential in the tensions between east and west in the wake of the Second World War.

Harry S. Truman was inaugurated as the 33rd president of the USA on 12th April 1945 following Roosevelt’s death. He immediately invoked international controversy on his decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, killing over 200,000 civilians. This brought a rapid end to the war and left the Allied powers as victors with decisions to make over Europe’s future, most notably the division of Germany into east and west and eventually into the separate countries of the GDR and FRG. Truman then imposed the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the policy that stated that the US would provide military and economic support to Greece and Turkey to prevent the spread of Communism. This was the beginning of Truman’s containment policy. This Doctrine was pivotal in US-Soviet relations post-WW2, as Stalin perceived the interference as a direct provocation. His suspicions were augmented when America introduced the Marshall Plan. Truman injected $12 billion into the war-torn economies of Europe. In a speech in March 1947, he stated, ‘The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want.’ He believed that without strong economic recovery and development, Germany would be forced to turn to an extremist political party. Truman feared this would be a Communist one. Stalin interpreted this as another attack on Communism, which effectively it was. He watched as US dollars were poured into Western Europe and realised with them, poured Capitalist beliefs. Truman’s Doctrine came into play again when Communist North Korea invaded Capitalist South Korea in June 1950.

The Korean War

The country owed its division to a political decision by the Allied powers proceeding the Second World War. The Soviet Union established a Communist government in the north, while the south became a democracy. America and other UN countries intervened, pushing the Northern forces far into their own territory until the newly Communist China intervened and drove the front line back to the 38th parallel where it would remain. Truman stated in April 1951 that, ‘In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a third world war.’ It was a key event as the first real conflict of the Cold War, and was an unambiguous declaration of the policy of containment. Stalin saw his wariness and distrust justified, as it was inevitable that from his perspective the Korean War appeared to be a Capitalist attack on Communism, and it forever established the ‘ideological chasm’ between east and west.

Stalin went back on the agreements that had been effectuated at the Yalta conference in February 1945 and decided Eastern Europe should fall under Soviet control and adopt Communist governments. He extended his reach over Yugoslavia and Albania, while both Poland and Romania experienced socialist revolutions, becoming Soviet satellites. Elections took place in Poland in 1947, with the Communists claiming 394 seats. However, they manipulated their way into the positions of power by bribery and corruption, still very much under Stalin’s control. Czechoslovakia also underwent a post-war social revolution, carried out by an alliance of Communists and Socialists. They were willing to accept aid from the Marshall Plan but Stalin threatened them and they were forced to refuse. In his book ‘Post War’, Tony Judt wrote, ‘The only acceptable outcome for Stalin was the establishment – in those parts of the region not pre-emptively absorbed into the USSR itself – of governments that could be relied upon never to pose a threat to Soviet security.’ Stalin’s expansionist actions propelled tensions to dangerous levels and induced a considerable cloud of anxiety to shroud the west in a cloying discomfort. China’s Communist revolution in 1949 thickened such anxiety as Russia had gained the most populous country in the world as an ally, adding to this looming threat in the east. Their fears were realised when Stalin implemented a blockade of the access route to West Berlin from the Allied sectors in June 1948 to try to force West Berlin to fall under Soviet control, testing Truman’s resolve. However, this backfired when the RAF and the USAF responded with the Berlin airlift, supplying West Berlin with 4700 tons of fuel and food over the next year. The Mayor of West Berlin at the time, Ernst Reuter, said, ‘People of this world, look upon this city and see that you should not and cannot abandon this city and this people.’ Stalin was forced to end the blockade in May 1949, humiliated and enraged at essentially a Capitalist victory, which only emphasized the stark contrast between the standards of living of East and West Berlin. This incident provoked Truman into organising NATO in 1949. Stalin, however, interpreted this as a vast ‘ganging-up’ of the Capitalist western powers to combat Communism and he responded in May 1955 with the creation of the Warsaw Pact between the Soviet Union and seven other Communist states. This represented the utter abolishment of any hope of reconciliation and forged a clear division between Capitalist West and Communist East.

However, tensions had long been building due to the legacy of the Second World War. Stalin still held a grudge against the Allied powers for not creating a second front in the west earlier in the war and relieving the millions of Russian soldiers dying on the Eastern front to the Nazi forces. This slight betrayal in his eyes only reaffirmed his dormant suspicions that the selfish Capitalist westerners were not to be trusted. Tensions intensified with the dropping of the atomic bombs. Stalin was furious that he had been kept in the dark about this vastly destructive weapon that had the power to end WW2 in a week, to him, yet another betrayal. He felt the Soviet Union should have priority in decision making as they had suffered war casualties more than sixty times that of America, seeing WW2 very much as a Russian victory. Stalin also saw Poland as Soviet territory as it was the country they had entered the war to defend, the country they had lost so many soldiers in, and land that they had conquered from the Nazis. Therefore, when Britain informed him that the Polish government, exiled in London, were ready to reclaim their country, it further intensified the tensions. Stalin’s wish to use Eastern Europe as a ‘buffer zone’ of Soviet satellites to absorb any potential western invasions was a blatant breach of the Yalta agreements and another example of Communist expansion, again inducing considerable anxiety in the west. John Lewis Gaddis states, ‘Stalin’s goal was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate the continent as thoroughly as Hitler had sought to do.’ He had no interest in free, democratic states in Eastern Europe, and potential Capitalist states, he wanted to absorb more countries into the Soviet bloc.

The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961

The rivalry between Communism and Capitalism lay at the heart of the conflict. 1955 finished with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, the final catalyst to kick-start the Cold War that would consume over four decades. The tensions that had been curdling since 1917 were at breaking point post-WW2 and in many ways a conflict was inevitable, the minimal bloodshed owing to the creation of the atomic bombs. Hugh Thomas states, ‘Stalin, and communism, needed an enemy; capitalism had to be ‘menacing’; imperialism had to be ‘on the march’; a Cold war was in short not so much inevitable as essential.’ This gives us the perspective that the great driving force of Communism in the Soviet east fundamentally required opposition to direct their power at, and Capitalism was the hated philosophy far on the right side of the political spectrum, an easy target after so many decades of building pressure. Such vastly different and conflicting ideologies, hosted by the two biggest powers in the world would inevitably come into conflict with each other. Truman’s containment policy catalysed the accumulating tensions that lay entwined in the legacies of the Russian revolution and the Second World War, and which led to the Korean War. Then the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact cut a jagged wound through Europe, officially splitting the east from the west due to their ideological differences and these factors brought into motion what would soon be known as the Cold War . . .

The iron curtain had fallen . . .

Angels And Demons: Keith O’Brien, The Barmy Benedict, A Ghanaian Cardinal, And The Antipope

Edit (09/06/14): I recently read back over this blog post and just wanted to add a few comments. It’s interesting that these were the views towards Catholicism of my 16-year-old self, someone just beginning to explore in more depth areas such as politics, philosophy, theology, and economics. Particularly telling of my naivety at this point was the following phrase: “So will the next man (not woman, *sigh*) in the papal chair be an anti-pope? Some may think so. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.” Because of course, hardly anything can matter more. The Catholic Church has over 1 billion followers. (This figure should be treated with some scepticism as it is calculated using baptism records and of course some people choose to convert to other religions or become atheist/agnostic etc.) That is truly an immense following, greater than any nation on the planet, and for one man to be at the head of such a titanic organisation, well, personally I find that very frightening indeed. This is not because I hold any particular prejudice or hatred towards the Catholic Church, those who wish to engage in a life of faith have every right to do so, but it is because Catholicism still, after two thousand years, preaches such prejudiced and backward doctrines. These dogmas seem to not just encourage but demand oppression and repression, and there are very convincing arguments indeed that the Catholic Church does more harm than good. Catholicism as a force of oppression has been explored throughout literature. I recently read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a book all about self-discovery. I initially interpreted the conversion of the protagonist at the end as him finally finding his purpose and salvation, but on closer analysis, I realised that he was in fact becoming trapped by religion just as those around him had been. For a powerful criticism of the role of religion in general, read God Is Not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens, a book that made me really challenge my preconceptions about faith. And for a brilliant debate by Intelligence Squared of the motion, ‘The Catholic Church is a Force of Good in the World’, see the following video, featuring the former Archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria), Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe, and intellectual greats, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry:

Original blog post:

cardinals

I’m sure the 1.2 billion followers of the Catholic religion were gutted when, on 25th February 2013, it became apparent that a Scotsman would not become the next Pope ruling in the Vatican. The resignation of the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh brought embarrassment cascading on to the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, meaning he will not take part in the papal conclave that is only days away . . . He’s not even Scottish anyway. He was born in Northern Ireland.

So why was he forced to step down in the first place? Basically because he’s just another one of the misguided that are becoming increasingly more prevalent in the Catholic Church as their shady pasts are uncovered.

Keith O’Brien, more fiercely than any other religious leader, attacked gay marriage with unrestrained enthusiasm. He condemned it as a “grotesque subversion” and argued that “same-sex relations are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual well-obrienbeing of those involved.” Not only is that utterly ludicrous and shameful, it ironically makes him a hypocrite. In 2012 he was named “bigot of the year” by gay rights charity Stonewall. And he even compared abortion to “two Dunblane massacres a day”, threatening to deny communion to politicians who accepted the procedure. Moreover, he compared sex education in schools as the “state-sponsored sex abuse” of young children and described a new bill on human embryos as “Frankenstein” experiments . . .

Am I missing something here? Can anyone genuinely provide a comprehensive answer to the following question?

How did such a man get into power?

The catalyst of O’Brien’s resignation, was, as per usual, the dramatic discovery of allegations regarding sexual misconduct, this time to priests across a period of three decades. So folks, no Briton will take part in the conclave of cardinals to elect a successor to the barmy Benedict. Tragic. We should mainly be glad though. At least it’s now ensured that no one associated in any way with our little island will be caught up in the whole pointless charade that will take place in Rome in mid-March (bit controversial, well, more than a bit). Everything to do with the Catholic Church these days seems less and less about fellowship, love, and belief, and more and more about scandals, resignations, and cover-ups.

So who are the other candidates for the 266th pope?

Well, the world’s eyes are on Rome right now as the leaderless Roman Catholic Church begins the 2,000-year-old (thankfully not year-long) process of choosing a new guy to wear the big pointy hat. Sadly, there are no ladies in the line-up yet. Maybe one day. Meanwhile, cardinals from around the world started gathering on Monday in the Vatican. They basically all take part in long boring congregation meetings before the conclave where they stay in a big fancy hotel and go back and forth from the Sistine Chapel for the voting. It’s no longer as dramatic as it once was, they aren’t all locked inside together to fight it out, disappointing I know. That would be interesting wouldn’t it? I suppose the tallest, strongest, youngest cardinal would win. The guy with the biggest biceps and meanest left hook.

la-na-tt-pope-benedicts-departure-20130213-001Anyway, the front runners range from 68-year-old Canadian Marc Ouellet, to 63-year-old Brazilian Odilo Scherer, to 62-year-old American Timothy Dolan, to popular 55-year-old Filipino Luis Tagle, to 64-year-old Ghanaian Peter Turkson.

Turkson would be the first African pope of the modern age. In his career so far he has called for radical economic reforms to deal with the global economic recession, and heavily criticised the IMF. As well as condoning condoms and joining Twitter, with regards to homosexuality, he has stated, “Just as there’s a sense of a call for rights, there’s also a call to respect culture, of all kinds of people”. He seems all right to be honest.

However, there have been fascinating allegations over a “two-pope problem” as many rise up in outrage over Benedict’s resignation. Two distinguished Italian theologians have demanded that he should withdraw his resignation, one arguing he ought not to resign, the other claiming a pope cannot resign. In the latter case, when the cardinals proceed to elect a successor they are, according to Enrico Maria Radaelli, electing an antipope, an impostor on the chair of St Peter. Let’s take a journey back into the past. It’s always fun.

Cartoon-PopeThe last resignation was 600 years ago. In 1294, the hermit, Pietro da Morrone, catupulted to the giddying heights of the papacy as “Celestine V”, mainly because the cardinals couldn’t actually agree on anyone else. Old Celestine then realised he felt the same way six months later, and “gave up”. He walked away. All he wanted was just to return to his hermitage. However, Boniface VIII (yes . . . it is a funny name, and no . . . I didn’t make it up), his successor, thought it much wiser to lock him up in a convenient castle for the rest of his life. This was obviously an effort to eliminate any possibility of a rallying legion of Catholics who would try to reinstate him. But Boniface didn’t get his wish, and there was a large surge of outrage at the pope. One of the arguments marshalled by Boniface’s many enemies was that, because popes could not resign, he wasn’t the legitimate heir to St Peter.

This can evidently be compared to the current situation. And the Vatican has chosen to make the matter hilariously more complicated. Benedict will actually stay on living there, in a quiet life of prayer, and will dress in white, be called the “pope emeritus” and be addressed as “Your Holiness”. Can anyone see the logic in this? The reason you can’t is because there is none.

So how did other leaders around the world view the resignation? Here are a couple of reactions . . .

Mario Monti (Italian PM): “I will treasure the touching memory of the personal and close dialogue with which the Holy Father has consented to accompany my commitment with the government.

Angela Merkel (German Chancellor): “He is and remains one of the most significant religious thinkers of our time.

obama_cartoonBarack Obama (I assume you know who he is): “The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s successor.

David Cameron: “Pope Benedict has worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain’s relations with the Holy See. He will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions.”

Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury): “In his visit to the UK, Pope Benedict showed us all something of what the vocation of the See of Rome can mean in practice – a witness to the universal scope of the gospel and a messenger of hope at a time when Christian faith is being called into question.

Most of this is misguided to be quite frank. See: The Pope, His Sins, And Why We Should Be Happy To See Him Go.

So will the next man (not woman, *sigh*) in the papal chair be an anti-pope? Some may think so. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.

In conclusion, go watch “Angels and Demons”. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff you’ll love it. If you’re very Catholic, you should still love it, or may be mildly offended I suppose. If you have no interest whatsoever in the Catholic Church or the pope, you’ll love it anyway. And if you’ve already seen it, go watch it again. (The book is also brilliant.)

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PETER TURKSON FOR THE WIN!

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana in 2005.

Corruption and Economic Decimation: What’s Really Going On In Spain?

A buffet apparently

A buffet apparently

Mariano Rajoy has undoubtedly been a painful disappointment to the weary people of Spain. He has wasted precious time, lacked ambition, and failed to convince his people that he holds the solutions to their extensive problems. He became Prime Minister in December 2011, Leader of the People’s Party (Conservative). Even with various incidents like the illegal financing scandal in 2009 with off-shore accounts and undercover monthly payments: the Gurtel scandal, the party retained a majority. Their political views are Reformist Centre, apparently encompassing all the ideologies it holds at its heart: conservatism, Christian democracy, and liberalism. The individual is the axis of its political action with social progression as its objective, defending human rights and equality of opportunity. This all sounds very nice but how is Rajoy really doing?

Rajoy looking at the unemployment figures

Rajoy looking at the unemployment figures

Well, since Spanish unemployment has actually reached 26%, it can’t be very good. And recently, evidence of further illegal financing has surfaced as leaked handwritten account-books show the party’s leaders have been receiving payments of €25,000 a year from a slush fund whose donors are construction magnates. This is particularly outrageous because these construction companies are what inflated the housing bubble to bursting point in the first place. These accounts were recorded by the People’s Party’s former treasurer, Luis Barcenas, a man utterly embroiled in such scandals. There have even been protests against him. He had to resign from the Senate in 2010 but has yet to be tried for the Gurtel case. Investigations inflamed once more just last month and it was uncovered that he held a Swiss bank account containing €22 million. In relation to the fraud accounts, the free-flowing slush money was also used by Barcenas. However, like Rajoy, who has brushed off opposition calls to resign over the matter, he denies all involvement.

Though the Prime Minister’s majority was absolute 15 months ago, he has now lost a fifth of his diminishing public support. So what are the alternatives? The Socialists? They are even less popular. Rajoy is now relying on an economic recovery before the next election in 2015. Spanish corruption may not yet be on par with Italian corruption, but his plans for this magical recovery are worthy of a whole lot of scepticism. In the midst of a suffocating recession, crippling housing bust, extensive corruption, and leeching bank bail-outs, the picture is grim indeed. The country’s metamorphosis to one of democracy in the 1970s has ended up giving too much power to the two main parties (which now only have 46% of the vote), and the only people who can possibly clean up this mess are those who created it. Even the King’s son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, is being investigated for corruption as it is revealed that he defied direct orders from King Juan Carlos himself to stop his business dealings. A former Olympic handball medallist, Urdangarin embezzled almost €6 million of public funds through the Noos Institute, merely adding to the long list of Spain’s embarrassments.

Tired?

Tired?

And how is Catalonia doing these days?

Rajoy thinking about Catalonia

Rajoy thinking about Catalonia

Unrest kicked off in this heavily indebted, nearly autonomous region, when Rajoy’s attempt to rein in spending rekindled its dormant nationalism. A shockingly large rally in Barcelona in September saw banners proclaiming Catalonia as the next member of the EU. And last month, its parliament passed a sovereignty declaration, stating its people have a democratic right to decide on their fate within Spain. This growing separatist movement represents a considerable headache for old Rajoy, because if Catalonia holds a referendum, the Basque Country would probably follow, potentially shattering Spain and leading to its swift death. He has stated that he will fight on constitutional grounds any attempt to hold such a referendum on secession from Spain in 2014. This recent declaration, is admittedly, only symbolic. It doesn’t really mean anything to be honest, but it is an exacerbation of the situation and I’m sure Rajoy has shed at least a few tears over it by now.

So is there anything good happening in Spain? Anything?

Perhaps the only thing they have left to be proud of at the moment is their top spot on the FIFA world ranking . . . And that really isn’t saying much at all, is it?

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