Dear Prime Minister
I’m writing to you because according to Mary Beard you don’t respond to tweets. Nor do I for that matter, but then I’m not as important as you, and even if I was, I wouldn’t be bothered with maintaining a “social media centre” to pump out an endless stream of blather that impresses nobody but my own acolytes.
Which is a shame in a way, because what I have to say to you, whether you can be bothered to listen or not, is really quite simple – tweet-length actually. It’s this:
“If you’re really serious about cutting Britain’s deficit, stop legislating.”
I can picture the scene in your Twitter Command Centre if that pithy little message materialised on their IPad screens. “Laugh? We nearly went to the loo in a hurry” to paraphrase Peter Cook in Derek and Clive Live. Much the same reaction as would spontaneously erupt from Ed’s collective, Nick’s rabble and Nigel’s real ale club.
Hardly surprising really. After all, making laws is what politicians are there for isn’t it? Just as lawyers demonstrate their value by writing 500-word paragraphs without punctuation, and charge accordingly, you pols measure your effectiveness by the number of superfluous regulations you churn out during the lifetime of your mandate.
You call them initiatives, don’t you? You tweak, you replace, you modify, you cast your net upon the few remaining areas hitherto unbounded by the letter of the law. No matter that for the past nine hundred years we have laboured (no pun intended) under the weight of thousands of statutes that line the dark oak book cases of all those lawyers.
Is it so outrageous, Prime Minister, to suggest that we have enough laws to be going on with for the time being? Do you really think that the legislators of the past have been so stupid and negligent that they haven’t written laws to cover just about every facet of our lives? How is it that there are laws on the statute book that have survived for hundreds of years? Common law, like habeas corpus, dating from the Middle Ages? Is there so much new under the sun that needs to be revealed and burnished by your pin-striped policy advisers? I was going to say Old Etonian advisers, but that’s a cheap shot, so I won’t.
If I were to corner you with these questions in some Oxfordshire snug or Tuscan trattoria, no doubt you would very politely point out that life moves on. That we need to respond to “fresh challenges”, and that we can’t be hidebound by laws that were created for the reality of the time. To which I would respond that most of the challenges come from your opponents, not from an intrinsic need to change things. That the whole system of law-making has a life of its own devoid of purpose. That it’s there because it’s there. That it’s like a hamster in its wheel. And that it’s time the hamster took a break.
OK, I accept that you do need to pass one or two laws, especially those that sustain the body politic, like budgets. But the rest? Let’s look at the laundry list you gave our long-suffering Queen to parrot in her annual speech at the opening of Parliament. A statuary code for pub tenancies? Turning executive agencies into government-owned companies? Encouraging people to blow their pensions? More anti-slavery legislation? Yet more changes to serious crime laws? Governance of National Parks? Extending the powers of the Charities Commission? Do me a favour! No doubt these are all very worthy changes of the law, but each of them will come at a cost. New bureaucrats, or at least new desks for old ones. Reorganisations all over the place. Demands for more people, public enquiries, law suits, re-branding.
Prime Minister, stop. Think. Will our nation crumble into dust in the next five years for the want of these laws? How many of them are on the table just to keep the wheel turning, to sustain the illusion of progress, to feed the bureaucrats and to make work for the working man to do?
And yes, I know that this is the way that western democracy works. That legislators, executives and civil servants across the world – in the US, the EU, Japan and just about everywhere else the popular vote holds sway – have to prove their worth by endless, dynamic action. Hang on, did I say the EU? An exception perhaps, because the Eurocrats seem to be safely entrenched in a law-makers paradise – little accountability, squabbling members to play off against each other, a factory for concrete life jackets with its own unstoppable momentum.
But come on Prime Minister, do us all a favour. Do something really radical for a change. Freeze all but the most essential legislation. By all means deal with ISIS, and head off any other black swans that come winging towards us. But point out to the electorate that good government isn’t the same as feeding an endless conveyor belt of legislation. That 98% of the legislation any government needs to do a decent job is already in place, and for reasons of economic expediency, the remaining 2% can wait. Replace the Queen’s Speech with the Queen’s Tweet. God knows, these days Her Majesty’s getting a bit ancient for those interminable, mind-numbing declarations from the throne.
Counter-intuitive, I know, but you have a chance to claim the moral high ground from your rivals as they flood the airwaves in the run-up to next year’s election with their usual cornucopias of unachievable promises and appeals to the prejudices of the masses.
I also know it’s the longest of shots to expect you change the habits of a lifetime in politics. But I know that you’re an angry and frustrated man. Upset with the EU’s cash demand, annoyed with those pesky UKIP defectors and their “bastard” fellow travellers in your party, furious with your bodyguards for failing to head off random joggers barging into you. Half the time you look like you’re about to self-combust. It’s time to take a leap into the unknown.
You might lose the argument and be pitched into political oblivion. But that might happen next year anyway. Why not go down in flames by reminding us that despite our rather curious unwritten constitution, there is a difference between governing and legislating, and that you intend to focus on the former without leaning on the latter to convince us of your dynamism?
Who knows, you might strike a chord with all those voters who have grown heartily sick of Westminster and the futile posturing of all those MPs who have never held a “real job” outside politics, and end up winning another term. And you might end up saving us all a lot of money. If you do crash and burn, at least you can enjoy the second half of your life as an elder statesman, flying around the world as you collect fat consulting fees from all corners of the globe.
Go on, Prime Minister. Take a risk. You know you want to.
Yours in sympathy,
The day will come when ISIS has no more hostages like Alan Henning to kill. What then?
One only needs to look at the killing of Lee Rigby and the events in Saudi Arabia in 2004 to realise that there are many options open to people who are prepared to give up their lives for a cause.
Lee Rigby’s public slaughter is relatively fresh in our memories. For those who were in or around Saudi Arabia when al-Qaeda affiliates bombed western compounds, dragged the body of a western worker behind a pickup truck and kept the head of a slaughtered hostage in a fridge, the memory of those events will not easily fade, even though the perpetrators didn’t have the benefit of the social media to advertise their murderous piety. Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who was gunned down in Riyadh, will not forget those times in a hurry.
The fact is that we westerners are wide open to attack, whether we are walking the streets of cities in the Middle East or going about our business in our home countries. A few weeks ago I was one of several hundred people packed into a holding area queuing up to go through security at one of Britain’s main airports. There was no evidence of any measures outside the entrance or in the hall to detect a potential suicide bomber. It occurred to me then that a detonation would cause carnage, just as it did in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport three years ago.
As the military cliché goes, we live in a target-rich environment. Nothing new about that. In Britain there are plenty of people still living who remember the Blitz, and plenty, including me, whose lives were touched by the activities of the IRA. The only difference is that these days an essential element of the terrorist’s tool kit is a mobile phone and a Twitter account. Our wonderful digital age has served to spread the terror way beyond those immediately caught up in it.
But we also have to be aware that each three-minute horror show diminishes the impact of the previous one. Just as when the Apollo space program died through lack of public interest, our sense of reality becomes desensitised to the familiar. Consider Ebola. The world has become used to people dying of the disease in Sierra Leone every five minutes. Only when one of their own falls victim to the virus do the people of Dallas become exercised.
I remember visiting a friend in South Africa a couple of decades ago, a time when apartheid was tottering and the wave of violent crime that is now endemic in the country was getting underway. Our friend lived in a whites-only suburb. She had a panic button that summoned an armed response team. She had one room in the house protected by iron bars where she and her daughter could take refuge. Supposedly one of the gun-toting patrols would come to her aid within three minutes of getting the call. She had a guard dog. She accepted as inevitable that her housemaid might at some stage steal from her. When we were visiting her, she and my wife witnessed a murder in a supermarket. They were three yards away from a man who killed a woman at the checkout.
How can you live like this, we asked her? Well, she replied, it’s not as bad as the foreign media portrays it. And I remembered that back home we had become used to the IRA bombings, and scoffed at depictions of our country as a war zone. Being blown up in the streets of Birmingham, or robbed and raped in Johannesburg had become an accepted hazard of daily life, just as for Londoners in the Second World War death from the sky was an ever-present prospect.
The moral of this gloomy meditation is that normality is an ever-shifting thing. We adapt, our expectations change and we find blessings where we can even in circumstances that would have been unthinkable the day or the week before.
ISIS will be defeated, and we will relax again, maybe for a few years, maybe for a couple of decades. But then some other group will rise up and threaten us, and another generation will become used to looking anxiously across its shoulders while riding the tube or walking the streets. And once again, we will rage about death cults and twisted morality. We will describe the cruelty and the killings as acts of collective insanity.
Every generation discovers first hand a reality about the human condition: groups like ISIS that carry out acts of horrific violence are not collectively insane. They are simply doing what humans do under certain conditions, and have been doing for as long as there have been humans on the planet. Morality has little to do with their behaviour. It’s just that the thin veneer of what the majority considers to be civilised behaviour is easily cracked. All it takes is a convincing ideology, unfulfilled human needs and ruthless, manipulative leaders. Thus has it always been and ever will be.
One only has to think of Josef Stalin and his cabal of drunken, fawning underlings presiding over the starvation of millions of smallholders for the sake of an ideology, the torture and execution of millions of imagined internal enemies and the sacrifice of yet more millions of soldiers and civilians through his blundering tactics in the Second World War to know that ISIS is only the latest, but by no means the most virulent, in a long line of death cults.
While we should never accept the murders of Alan Henning and the other hostages as anything other than disgusting acts, we should not be surprised or shocked. This is the world we live in laid bare by media more pervasive than in any other era. Could we really have expected much different when so much money and artistic creativity is invested in mass-audience movies and TV series that depict levels of pornographic cruelty, malice and destruction far exceeding what we see in those nasty snuff movies churned out by ISIS?
Yet against that dark backdrop, even in Syria, Sierra Leone and other grievously damaged societies, people still find it within themselves to live, love and laugh. Because that’s what humans do. Thus it has always been and ever will be.
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.