Suppose you could go back in time to when early humans were emerging from caves. You’re a genetic engineer, and you have the means to switch off a gene that causes us to form religious beliefs. You have the ability to snuff out religion before people become sufficiently organised to practice it. You know that if you do so, you will remove one of the principal causes of war, and thereby allow millions to live full lives that will otherwise end in early death by violence, starvation or disease.
But you also know that some of the most inspiring and beautiful works of art, literature and music will never be. No Iliad, Ramayana or Masnavi of Rumi. No Aya Sofia, Sistine Chapel or Angkor Wat. No Monteverdi’s Vespers, Bach’s Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem. No Leonardo’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David or Rubens’ Descent from the Cross. No Holy Quran, King James Bible or Torah.
Would you switch off the gene?
A crazy thought, and among millions of believers in the divine hand in life, it would probably be seen as an act of blasphemy to suggest that religious faith is a mere genetic predisposition.
Certainly it would be crazy to think of just about any civilisation past or present without the religions that have defined them.
Back in the Sixties and Seventies, when television was coming of age as a medium not just of entertainment but of cultural enrichment, families like mine would be encouraged to sit down together and watch programmes dealing with such weighty matters. These days Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation would be regarded as special interest, screened on satellite TV and punctuated every ten minutes with interminable ads for things we neither want nor need.
Civilisation didn’t have to compete with a thousand digital channels, Netflix and the attention deficit disorders of twitchy teenagers switching between WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. For British TV viewers, it was on when it was on, and if you missed it, you would have to wait for the repeat. If you didn’t want to watch it, you watched BBC1 or ITV, or just switched off the TV. Not much choice, really. And since Civilisation occupied a prime-time slot on BBC2, it got far bigger audiences than it probably would today.
So I was surprised to hear a few months ago that the BBC was planning to produce a new version of the series. As the UK’s Daily Telegraph commented when Britain’s public broadcaster announced the planned remake:
“The original, presented by Kenneth Clark as an emphatically Eurocentric personal view of mankind’s greatest artistic achievement, was unashamedly didactic and would nowadays doubtless be seen as stiff and boring. Invariably wearing a suit and tie, Clark would stand before a painting, building or sculpture and just talk about it. To watch Civilisation was to be enriched, enlightened and educated – and no gimmicky shots were needed of the presenter walking in silhouette across a beach or lying on his back. It is hard to imagine a new version will be done in the same way, and nor should it be. But is it too much to ask that the programme is presented by someone who, like Lord Clark, knows what he or she is talking about and is not fronted by a “celebrity”?”
I got to thinking about the original programme a few nights ago as I was listening to a sublime performance of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem Mass) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Berlioz wrote the work to commemorate the dead of the 1830 revolution in France. A religious commemoration of a secular conflict – a reminder that not all wars are caused by religious divides.
The world in which Civilisation was conceived and produced was dominated by secular concerns. It was first shown in 1969 – the year of the first Moon landing, the year after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In 1969 two secular superpowers – the USA and the USSR – faced off against each other in an endless Mexican stand-off. The Arab-Israeli dispute was between a largely secular Israel and nationalist regimes in Syria and Egypt. Religion had its place, but it was not the cause of conflict and anxiety as it is today. Sectarian tensions – except in Northern Ireland – were underlying, not often overt.
Today, the power of religion is at the forefront of our concerns. We in the west worry about the divisive issue of Islam in our societies and about the Islamic State. In America, the religious right has become ever more strident and assertive. Ultra-Orthodox politicians hold the balance of power in Israel. In India a Hindu nationalist government has taken power. The Middle East is riven by sectarian tension and open conflict. China battles to suppress religious sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang. Russia has seen the return of the Orthodox Church as a major influence in society, and is engaged in a long-term counter-insurgency campaign against Islamist fighters in its southern republics. And few days pass without stories about the activities of various al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Mali, Algeria, Nigeria and Yemen.
It may have been appropriate to explore and celebrate European civilisation in 1969, but today?
If there’s an underlying theme about the world that has evolved since then, it’s the role of faith and religion, and how they intersect with and define politics and society. And if there’s a consistent theme among adherents of faiths, it’s ignorance on the part of the vast majority of the faithful about the origins and essence of the beliefs of others.
So I suggest that instead of devoting vast sums of public money on further perspectives about the origins of what we call western civilisations, the BBC should be focusing on a history of faith. What did the first humans believe in? How did the great world religions evolve? What lay behind the schisms that produced Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Orthodox? What do religions have in common? What of the outliers, the deviations, the beliefs that most of us find inexplicable? How does society shape religious belief? What influence does the physical environment exert? To what extent have religions been fashioned in support of political ends?
Big questions, and there’s probably not a single individual alive who could do justice to all of them. Too big for a Kenneth Clark or an Edward Gibbon. Yet we do have a wealth of thinkers who would be able to contribute to what would be a compelling series. I have my favourites – Mary Beard, Tom Holland, John Julius Norwich, Michael Shea, Karen Armstrong and Simon Schama for example. There are many others to choose from. But to create a truly global perspective there would need to be Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu contributors, as well as archaeologists, anthropologists and even economists.
It’s unlikely that such a series would be required viewing by the occupants of an ISIS dugout. And yes, it sounds like a very liberal middle-class project, as the original Civilisation was. But if it were to cause a few people to stop and think before coming to conclusions about the religions of others, it might do more good than a hundred well-intentioned inter-faith gatherings.
Leopards do change their spots. Think of the Reverend Ian Paisley, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who died earlier this month. Here was a man who spent most of his life denouncing in thunderous language the Catholic Church and all its works, and championing the Unionist cause against the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein and the IRA. And yet in his later years he felt able to work with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief, in a coalition government. He and McGuinness even became friends. In the end common humanity overcame political and religious differences.
If we could at least understand better the legacy of Greco-Roman divinity, the similarities between early Muslim and Christian practice, the origins of the ISIS ideology, the beliefs of the Twelver Shia, Confucian values, Tibetan Buddhism, the history of the Sikhs and the multiplicity of Hindu deities, then surely we might learn to show greater respect to “the other”. We might even learn to fear less, to tolerate more and to disentangle political and social issues from matters of faith.
You might argue that the efforts of a British broadcaster would be dismissed as propaganda in the cause of a country that is firmly aligned with the values of the western civilisation that Kenneth Clark celebrated in his broadcasts. But if any country in the west has a public broadcaster that could undertake such a monumental project it is Britain. After all, we have probably the most culturally diverse, multinational and multi-faith population in the world.
Perhaps the values of the BBC have changed since the days when Sir David Attenborough as controller of BBC2 commissioned Civilisation. The broadcaster is still funded by public money, but perhaps not for much longer. It is as much a commercial concern as it is allowed to be. A quarter of its income comes from sales of its programmes overseas. It long ago embraced the digital future. Its website is among the most popular news sites in the world.
Commissioning decisions are no longer made by visionary broadcasters like Attenborough, but by career bureaucrats anxious to protect their turf and conscious of the need to protect their organisation from the jealousy of commercial broadcasters, accusations of bias by politicians and the consequences of a culture that allowed the likes of “Sir” Jimmy Savile to treat it as a playground for sexual exploitation. Avoidance of risk would seem to be a dominant concern in an organisation under siege.
But maybe the ethos of public broadcasting embodied in its motto – that “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation” – is still to be found in the BBC’s DNA.
If so, what better way of showing it than to bring some of the best minds on the planet together with the object of promoting religious tolerance through understanding?
A History of Faith would be a project for our time.
It’s a scene that anyone who regularly flies short-haul will recognise. A packed aircraft ready to depart. You’re in a cramped seat towards the back in the middle of a row of three. The passenger in the seat next to you is going psychotic because the plane has not taken off on time. She’s muttering to herself and slapping the arm-rest in the kind of repetitive routine beloved of polar bears in zoos.
You’re subjected to surround-sound baby screaming. At least five of them are expressing their frustration at being strapped into place. The mothers are anxiously trying to placate their wriggling offspring. Everyone within earshot is politely frazzled.
The doors are shut. You look around for salvation, and find two rows of empty seats at the back, and a third row with only one person in it. You leave your seat and make a dash for freedom, only to be stopped by a stone-faced stewardess and ordered to return. Why, you ask? Load and weight balance, she replies.
That was a bit of an argument stopper. It would have been churlish to have compounded a stressful day for the stewardess by making a fuss. After all, she was only doing her job.
But if I was a naïve flyer, the implications of what she said might have been mildly alarming. Was she saying that if I sat in one of the vacant back rows I might cause the aircraft to ascend too fast and eventually loop the loop? I actually encountered a safety-related weight distribution problem once. Many years ago the pilot of a twelve-seater in Zimbabwe promoted me to the co-pilot’s seat because there was a large man at the back of the plane and he needed someone similarly corpulent at the front. A memorable if slightly worrying experience.
But this was an Airbus A-320 with over a hundred passengers, for goodness sake. Would relocating little me make so much of a difference?
But then I remembered I was on Ryanair, the airline run by an accountant called Michael O’Leary. So money would have been at the root of matter. If it cost Ryanair half a Euro’s worth of extra fuel to fly me in relative comfort at the back of the plane, that would have been half a Euro too much in O’Leary’s highly profitable ledger.
Why was I surprised? After all, this is the man who, according to a recent article by Alistair Osborne in the London Times, has spent 19 years of his 20 in charge of the airline:
suggesting that those who forget to print their boarding passes “should pay €60 for being so stupid” and handling complaints with his renowned bedside manner: “You’re not getting a refund, so f*** off”.
Apparently O’Leary – whose every outburst is greeted with chortling delight by my wife, who is a compatriot of his and equally renowned for her straight talking – is trying to be nicer to his customers these days. The only evidence of his change of policy on my flight was that he now signs himself Mick at the end of his message in the in-flight magazine.
And it doesn’t appear that his new niceness extends to his staff. According to another piece in the Times:
Ryanair has been warned that it is facing a pilot manning crisis that could be puncturing the airline’s much-vaunted punctuality record.
The Ryanair Pilot Group claims that unprecedented numbers of flight crew are quitting the carrier for pastures new, typically joining better-paying Gulf airlines and the fast-expanding Norwegian aviation group that has become the Continent’s third-largest budget carrier after Ryanair and easyJet.
Ryanair denies its pilot group’s claims, blaming falling punctuality this summer on French and Italian air traffic controller strikes. It also says that its annual turnover of flight crew is less than 10%.
That may well be, but on both legs of my recent flight we were late departing and arriving, with no controller strikes in evidence. And given that “less than 10%” has a good chance of meaning “nearly 10%”, you would appear to have nearly a one in ten chance of being on a flight piloted by someone who has been with the airline for less than a year, or by someone who is sufficiently disgruntled to be planning to leave within a year. Not a particularly comforting thought.
I would certainly not be relaxed with a staff retention figure approaching two digits, if for no other reason than the resulting cost of training and induction of replacements, an issue that would surely be close to O’Leary’s bean-counting heart.
For all that, Ryanair is still a phenomenally successful airline, and Michael O’Leary a charismatic one-man PR machine for his company. He is what journalists of old would describe as “colourful”. When you fly with his airline, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and if you’re prepared to put up with its idiosyncrasies, all well and good.
I for one would be sad if the CEO manages to tame his inner beast for ever, because he would deprive my wife of a seemingly endless source of amusement, and rob me of a favourite subject to write about. So I eagerly await a sign that he’s abandoning his sheep’s clothing and returning to wolf mode.
Perhaps he should reassure us by making a subtle change to the airline’s website. When you book a flight with Ryanair, you’re subjected to an endless catechism of questions about your preferences. Do you want to rent a car? Do you want priority boarding? Do you want put a bag in the hold? And so on ad nauseam. Instead of requiring a yes or no answer, wouldn’t it be nice if the airline allowed us customers to reply with an answer that O’Leary would understand?
So how about replacing the No button with one that says “F*** off”?
Apologies to my international readers for focusing in the last few posts on what must seem a parochial issue compared with what’s going on elsewhere in the world. But we Brits are a bit preoccupied at the moment with the prospect of some major changes in the way our country is run.
So a constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom in the wake of the Scottish Referendum is simply a matter of signing over to Scotland tax-raising powers subject to a levy to pay for defence, intelligence and diplomatic overheads, and then passing a law to that prohibits Scottish members of the Westminster parliament from voting on matters pertaining only to England – right?
As a humble voter unconnected with the corridors of power and aligned with none of the political parties, despite my relative ignorance I can see a number of tricky issues that will need to be negotiated. For instance, I shall watch with interest to see how the panjandrums deal with these little questions:
Funding for Pan-UK Institutions: Will Scotland be required to hand over a fixed percentage of the income tax it raises to pay for spooks, battleships, ambassadors and our beloved Royal family? Or will there be a specific lump-sum levy fixed in the annual Westminster budget? That’s a crucial question. If, say, we need dramatically to increase the numbers of spooks and soldiers to deal with a sudden escalation of internal threats and military commitments – as seems currently likely – will the Scots have to raise taxes or cut public expenditure to pay for the additional spend? That will affect the internal budgeting that will be within their remit, and thereby curtail their financial independence.
The other likely consequence will be some level of the hypothecation – the ring-fencing of individual budgets for specific cost centres, such as military, health and so on – that the UK Treasury has long resisted. It will no longer be so easy for governments to slosh funds about from one department to another without being subject to public scrutiny. There will be a dividing line going right through the heart of government spending, so don’t be surprised if within the two pots – regional and British – we see more lines being drawn. For those who argue that hypothecation will bring greater transparency in spending, that can only be a good thing.
If there is to be a lump sum annual levy, it will also be necessary for Westminster to negotiate an annual settlement with Scotland and, presumably, Wales, in advance of the UK budget. Whether the levy is imposed or negotiated, unless a process of consultation takes place concurrently with development of the UK budget, we will probably see a time lag between the Westminster and regional budgets, which could make the “budget purdah” governments like to impose in order to head off speculation and market anxiety more difficult to manage.
European Law: If, as seems possible, the UK leaves the European Union within the next few years, Scotland will be dragged out with it. Scotland is generally more pro-EU than England, and will be likely to want to retain much of the EU legislation currently in force – the Human Rights Act and the Social Chapter in particular. Should England repeal this legislation to create a social landscape more favourable to business, the changes will most likely result in a lower cost of employment south of the border. This then becomes a competitive issue that might disadvantage Scotland. It could affect Scotland’s chance of winning inward investment, and might even result in British firms moving jobs south. So leaving the EU could be another indirect inhibitor of Scottish autonomy.
Oil and Gas: How will the revenues be divided? Will there be a difference between levies by the Scottish government and Westminster on oil and gas production? If so, that could lead to further competition war, with investors and exploration companies focusing on one area of the United Kingdom over another. If things don’t go Scotland’s way, old resentment over who benefits from the oil revenues will not be alleviated, and instead might intensify.
Definition of “only relevant to England”: As one or two pundits have already pointed out, in this area the devil is in the detail. What are the areas that are exclusively relevant to England? What areas might have a knock-on effect on Scotland? Let’s say that financial regulation of the Scottish financial industry becomes a matter for Scotland to determine. If Westminster decides to change the regulations that apply to firms in the City of London, what will be the effect on Scotland’s counterpart?
Supposing Westminster raises fuel duty for England, and Scotland declines to follow suit. Will we see a new line of business for criminals: smuggling fuel across the border, as happens between the north and south of Ireland? How would that be policed? Who would pay for the additional policing?
There will be a whole host of similar scenarios to be considered and resolved. Clearly there are many areas where the different authorities will need to coordinate and cooperate even if they are under no constitutional obligation to do so. In public health and farming policy, for example, as long as the UK is in the European Union, European law will maintain commonality. But if we secede, it will be down to the constituent parts of the UK to ensure that there is a consistent approach to dealing with foot-and-mouth disease, epidemics and immunisation policies. And what about environmental and air transportation issues?
So here’s the bottom line.
Devo max – the term used by the politicians to describe the stretching of fiscal devolution to the greatest possible extent – will not give the Scots, the Welsh and the English control of their own destinies, or anything like it. The Scots will be able to build a few roads, hospitals and universities if they can afford it. They will be able to vary tax rates – upwards or downwards – and take measures to create jobs and industries.
But just as the earth’s gravity prevents the moon from flying off and becoming a planet in its own right, Scotland’s ability to operate independently will still be circumscribed by the big bad wolf down south. It will remain in England’s orbit, whatever level of independence it achieves. And the same goes for the UK and the EU. So in one sense independence was always an emotional rather than a practical construct.
Enough of the problems. What about the opportunities?
Instead of moaning about being bounced by the Scots into some form of federal constitution that we neither sought nor felt we needed, perhaps we English should start looking on the bright side. If the home of Adam Smith can come up with some imaginative initiatives to improve the lives of the people north of the border, can we not learn from those new ideas? If the best talents in England, Scotland and Wales are motivated to work for the benefit of their national governments, cannot each of the nations in the UK benefit from their efforts? True devolution is surely the devolution of talent, of minds.
Nobody wants to see the central government in Westminster populated with even more functionaries and dead-heads than is already the case. But if bright people can make more of a difference in the regions where they were born and grew up, then surely those regions will be the stronger as the result. And we, in our still-United Kingdom, will all be stronger too.
The tide is flowing fast away from the shores of central government. Let’s ride it and see where it takes us.
8 am Friday 19 September:
So the angry accountants won.
For all the rhetoric swirling around about no return to the status quo, what needs fixing that didn’t need fixing before this whole exercise started? Not much, except a million-or-so broken hearts in the grieving north.
We are no more and no less beset by problems than we were before. In Scotland, the Poles, Latvians and Romanians who cheerfully locked arms with the Bravehearts and voted yes will return to their previous status as the others. The English who voted no will continue be the subject of the low key resentment for their presence – perhaps a little louder for a while. The politicians will return to politicking. Stickleback and Flounder will be mercifully spared the backlash that would surely have come their way when the populace discovered that they are just like any other politicians – over-promising and under-delivering.
All the while, the birds will sing, the fish will swim and the stags will rut, blissfully unaware of the kerfuffle that has so exercised another species over the past few months. Scotland will still be a beautiful country, and its people a mix of passionate, mean, creative, delusional, industrious and self-centred, just like the rest of us in the still-United Kingdom.
Further south, those of us who watched aghast at the possibility that 8% of our population were on the verge of imposing upon the rest of us a profound change in which we had no say will breathe a sigh of relief and return to our everyday worries.
But the referendum has had one significant effect. It has caused the English citizens of the Union to think afresh about a political order that most of us hitherto have considered – if we ever paused to think – to be as permanent as the granite in our hills and the muddy water flowing through our valleys into the sea.
The British stage is now set for bigger questions to be debated. Should we leave the European Union? How do we deal with the upcoming energy crisis? Should we still insist on “punching above our weight” in foreign affairs? How will we deal with the consequences of massive immigration to our shores? How will we cope with the enemy within that some see as the product of our multicultural society? Will we soon be dusting off our nukes and pointing them eastwards again? And will we manage to re-invent ourselves after the decline of our industrial base, whose destruction played so large a part in triggering the nationalist resurgence in Scotland in the first place?
These are the challenges that face us today. In time they will be replaced by new challenges. Life goes on. Meanwhile, the leaves fall from the trees, the sheep graze on the hills, the brown fug rises from our cities, babies are being born, lovers argue over breakfast and politicians polish their words.
Twas ever thus.