Who is England?

Who is England?

I’m sitting in Bracknell’s Caffe Nero, overlooking a small courtyard that spans the space between the town’s department store and the ring road. Across the square is an old tudor house, not long ago a pub; now boarded up – another casualty of England’s communal drinking crisis. The crisis is we don’t drink together any more – at least not casually in pubs. On the streets and in city nightclubs young and old can be found blathered and blottoed. But the day of the quiet ale by a country fire is dying. Too many of us drink wine at home instead.

Outside, a bunch of teenagers splash each other with water from a feature, a huge stone sphere that appears to float on the dais that supports it. Just the slightest touch sends it spinning, a metaphor perhaps for this town: a great concrete weight with no sense of itself. Bracknell like England is a truly postmodern phenomenon, rootless, individualised and drowning.

But also fighting for new life. Behind the ex-pub lies a staggering mound of bricks, the remnants of the town’s North-side, now rubble contained by a high blue fence. This is regeneration at work; an entire high street in ruins waiting for the phoenix of impressive high glass storefronts to emerge. Like suburban centres up and down England, economic troubles have slowed the pace of change. But change is coming, sparkling new shopping meccas to fuel the recovery. As the strapline from BBC comedy The Wrong Mans proclaimed: “Bracknell is dead. Long live Bracknell!”

This little town square, like many places from Bournemouth to Berwick, contains an awkward question about who is England. Except for boutique urban ‘lanes’, the sort you find in Brighton or Bristol, the day of the independent shop is done. Most of the foot traffic passing through this square heads to McDonalds, just as in the rest of the town it heads to the other brand-name chain stores that have McDonaldised England. Behind the golden arches rises an imposing office block, once home to tech-giants like Hewlett Packard, before they joined their peers on out-of-town business parks. The economic revolution of the Thames Valley corridor is almost entirely American, as are the consumer-led new town centres.

The irony is not lost, of course; the colonisation of England by a former colony. With every disillusioned trudge underneath my window-seat – and there are many of those – ordinary folk tread out the implicit knowledge that we had it coming. And that there’s not much to be done but trudge on.

This is part of the deep psyche of England: a has-been that once catalysed the world, now left-behind and rudderless. In a globalised world, where the future lies in the Global South and East, even America is on the way out. In a world where the average age is just 23, we are a society of the old; decaying, dying and, most importantly, past-it.

Yet just as the old refuse to gracefully accept obsolescence, so we English have other ideas. Reactions in recent years have taken an interesting range of forms. In one marginal but vocal corner, ugly ‘white’ nationalism has reasserted a ethnic view of Englishness – the English Defence League and British National Party catching the headlines. Recently a more respectably racist phenomenon has emerged in the form of UKIP, a new political party challenging Britain to non-participation in Europe (and by extension closed borders to all the nasty foreigners). The fact there is no such thing as ethnic Englishness has not proved too much of a problem to these myth-makers; according to this crowd, if the something essential in white working-class culture is hard to define, we at least know for sure that it is not black or brown – and is definitely not Muslim.

At the coming European elections an alarming chunk of non-racist English people will also vote UKIP, because the party – and especially its leader, Nigel Farage – have successfully tapped into that squirmish question, who is England. A simple – though deeply flawed – argument posits that the majority of British laws are now made in Brussels. To vote UKIP, they claim, is to take back Britain. But what they mean is England. UKIP has no support in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Under the guise of law-making is a battle for England’s soul.

This question of English independence increasingly exorcises the English Right, and deeper, more conservative roots run far under the surface. In order to woo back Tory deserters from UKIP, Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, has declared several times over the last few weeks that Britain is a Christian country. The predictable media battle ensued with the Left citing recent research that demonstrates the percentage of the population identifying as Christian has fallen below 50%. What everyone seems to have missed is that the main driver of English church growth over the last decade has been immigration, from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

On the Left of English politics the Green Party – a self-confessed ‘internationalist’ movement – represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Fighting for strong European participation, commitment to foreign aid and reconciliation, the party attracts those whose sense of Englishness is tied up with a sense of obligation, who believe there was a time in which we took from the world; now it is time to pay our debts. This has increasing traction within the Left-leaning intelligentsia, but not much beyond that. For most people the question of who is England is itself outmoded and irrelevant. As a well-educated, middle-class, Left-wing friend of mine recently said over the question of Englishness, “Meh”.

So does it in fact matter? In a globalised world, with ever-increasing flows of people, finance and ideas between countries and cultures, does national identity even makes sense? Does England need to mean anything more than a set of administrative borders?

I think it does. If for no other reason that the administrative choices we make within those borders inevitably reflects the story of who we are. Over the last four years the Coalition government has pursued a relentless agenda of administrative deconstruction, fuelled by the story of the ‘Big Society’ (a story, incidentally, that David Cameron claimed the other day started with Jesus). It is a story in which people look out for each other so effectively that the State doesn’t need to provide many services – and of course doesn’t need to tax people much either.

It’s a nice story – or at least the bit about people looking out for each other. Our garden fences are higher, our children less safe for all the same reasons that pubs are closing; we prefer to drink alone, and eat alone and die alone. The Big Society is a story that resists our atomisation and loneliness. It’s an important challenge to our story of who is England.

But the bit about tax cuts and austerity spending translates into a story that we can’t afford the poor or vulnerable. Around a million people now have to make some use of foodbanks, child malnutrition cases have doubled in the last four years, and there are countless cases of people with disabilities having their vital benefit payments cut because they have been wrongly assessed as ‘fit to work’. At the last count, the richest 10% of Londoners had 273 times more wealth than the poorest 10%, a situation that can only be achieved by a national story that tolerates – even welcomes – gross inequality.

The question who is England asks us to tell our story. Yet we are not a single-story nation; if we were this identity crisis would not exist. It is the fact we contain so many different cultures – some old, some new, some mutually beneficial, some antagonistic – that makes England so interesting. The future of England is not in the power of the past, those days are long over. But there is perhaps a future in providing a place – a rooted place with soil and hills and trees and towns – in which people of radical difference can encounter one another, and without any supremacist story to unite them, simply listen to each other and learn, however painfully, to live together.

Back down in the courtyard below a group of tiny children stare awestruck at the giant stone sphere. That they have the power to move such a massive object is a source of wonder. And as the falling stream of water offers to cleanse the town so there is a future beyond the past that is yet unknown. What the children know, we have yet to realise: the power is in our hands. 

We badly need austerity… but not like this


There’s not enough money in the bank. That’s the problem facing almost every Western government at present. And the austerity consensus – cutting public spending – is the de facto route to avoid ‘doing a Greece’.

The debt problem is real, as the Greek tragedy proves. If you spend more than you have then, at some point, you’ll be caught short and the bailiffs will be at your door. Living within our means is vital. We badly need austerity… but not like this.

Because the problem with the current consensus is that it only looks at some of the costs. Right under the spotlight is public spending, which is basically the economics of government. We take a certain amount through tax and we spend a certain amount on services. With a low-growth future ahead of us, those two figures need to be much closer than they are.

But there are many other costs which have escaped the austerity gaze. And they are not just the responsibility of government; they are driven by you and me.

Counting the cost (all of it)

I’m writing this on an iPad, manufactured by Apple. It was probably made at a Foxconn factory in China, now notorious for its mistreatment of workers. It contains a concoction of various minerals, mined from around the world. One of these, called Coltan, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where it is estimated that one third of boys leave their education in order to work in the pits for next-to-no pay.

Mining minerals also destroys unimaginably vast swathes of forest and their processing pumps megatonnes of harmful gasses into the atmosphere. As most of this mining and processing is now done in the poorer (and therefore cheaper) places of the world, it is those local communities who most suffer the consequences.

These costs have completely escaped the gaze of government austerity. Because for tax income to grow without raising the tax rate, the economy needs to grow. And in a consumer economy, growth depends on people consuming even more. But all of this points to the real cost we need to get under control: our spending spree of natural resources. Because we can carry on consuming, but the simple fact is this: there is not enough natural resource to go around.

Depending on which estimate you read, we need between 2 and 6 planets to sustain our current rate of consumption. But even the conservative end of that estimate is twice as many planets as we actually have! Now this is not just a left-wing argument. You could be a climate change sceptic, you could ignore the harmful effects of consumerism on people’s identity. You could ignore the human cost of production and keep the environmental cost out of view. But even if we narrow our vision right down to the success of our own economy and squeeze out every other factor, then we still face a monumental problem. The resources are running out, and so at some point the system will break. We’ll be caught short, and the bailiffs will be at our door.

And by then it will be much, much worse.

This is why we need a much bigger idea about austerity. Balancing the books of government is important. But balancing the books of our global society should be our priority. And that requires a fundamentally different vision for our future.

The future’s green

This is where Green economics comes in to play. People hear ‘green’ and automatically dismiss it as an environmental lobby. But Green movements across the world are at the forefront of providing viable alternatives to the current system.

The basis of Green economics is that we should properly count costs. Which is actually a very right-of-centre priority, despite Greens generally being seen as left-wing. We should count the cost to our planet and to the people living in it. In a global economy it’s no longer enough to only count costs at a national state-purse level. The true cost of our lives is absorbed by communities in other countries and by local environments in other places.

This iPad is an example. It cost around £450. That’s enough for Apple to manufacture, ship and sell the product and take some profit for themselves. But it doesn’t cover the cost of a living wage for workers, either in the factory where it was assembled or in the mines where the raw materials were first extracted. It doesn’t cover the cost of toxic emissions to local environments, as they are neither properly regulated, nor properly taxed. And because those costs are under-estimated, the raw materials themselves do not follow the proper economic rules of supply and demand. Not only should supply be more costly (and therefore lower), meaning that demand pushes up the price, the unsustainable nature of the system should be putting a monumental brake on demand. But the false economy of low-cost production – in other words, the fact that we’re not counting all the costs – means that the system can’t regulate itself. And so prices stay far too low.

Which is why we need a whole new kind of austerity.

No more something-for-nothing

To quote the current UK coalition government: ‘We need to end our something-for-nothing culture.’ Every day, consumers all across the Western world take something for nothing as the human and environmental cost of the goods and services we buy are waived. And there’s no doubt it’s a really difficult problem to fix; often these consumers are third or fourth generation whose families have never known anything different.

We expect costs to be low – and we’ll put up a big fight if they rise. But unless they do, our global economy is not sustainable.

So we need a new vision, where we value our stuff much more highly. Where we are less quick to throw away and we make fewer, better purchases. And we need a better, bigger vision for our economy and our government. We need investment in new, sustainable forms of manufacturing, in green transport, and in local environments. And we need governments that can hold businesses to account over how they treat the people and environments they require in order to succeed. Not in a spirit of antagonism. But from a belief that business, like government – like all society – can only thrive if costs are fully accounted for and core resources properly protected.

This is the kind of austerity that is good for everyone, not just a few. The sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can begin to build the kind of world that we hope for.

Facing our demons

It’s Halloween, the scariest night of the year.  All across the Western world children will dress up as garish ghosts and ghouls for the love of sweets and fear and all things tricksy (and treaty!).

But beneath the tacky plastic surface evil lurks.

When I was a child Halloween was off-limits for precisely this reason. My mother would hand out pamphlets to trick-or-treaters warning them of the perils of celebrating a festival of darkness. I’m not really the tract-pushing kind of guy but I never rebelled against her veto. There is real darkness in the world and to make light of it trivialises it.

But making light of it is precisely what hundreds of churches will do tonight as they seek to lure children away from the ghosts of Halloween with their ‘Light Parties’. I appreciate the sentiment, but I wonder if it is missing the point.

Twitter (in its wonderfully disorganised, self-organising way) held an hour’s silence today in memory of James and Lily Potter who, according to J.K. Rowling’s best-selling Harry Potter novels, were murdered by Lord Voldemort 30 years ago today, on Halloween 1981. As one for whom, quite shamelessly,  fiction is sometimes more real than fact, I shut down my computer and stood, alone in my kitchen, gazing at photos of my children. In the silence I breathed words to myself: ‘there is no cost too high.’

The legend of the Potters is one in which the brave must face their demons. Harry survives only because his mother could face down hers, and later only because he can face down his own. The legend of the Potters is that those who would truly live must count the cost. I’m reminded of what is arguably Jesus’ most extreme saying. ‘Anyone who seeks to save his life will lose it. But anyone who loses their life for me will find it.’ (Matt 16:25) Halloween is the festival of death. And to seek life without embracing death is to cushion and cocoon and ultimately suffocate. Our death is the truest certainty we have. And the truth will set us free.

As on this dark day I stand to remember those who did not falter in the face of evil but embraced death for love I recall one of Jesus’ followers who said ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear’ (1 John 4:18).

If we make light of the darkness, if we cover up our fears, if we pretend we are in control and impervious to evil… then we quietly become its slave. The brave among us face our demons – our debt, our addictions, our chronic fears, our loneliness, our regret, our failure, our secret loves – and do not flinch. We do not walk away from the dark reality of who we have become. We live in the night, walk in the shadows and play the quiet lament of our painful truths. For this night each year we are exposed.

At the same moment as the Twitter silence today, ordinary people met with MPs in Westminster to ask for transparency on UK loans made to poor-country dictatorships. What skeletons are in our closet, they asked? What unjust debts are we silently pressing on people who cannot afford them? This is the life that the death-obsession brings. Halloween is not just a moment for personal reflection, but for corporate, societal honesty as well.

Halloween is the darkness before the dawn; the spectre of the worst of us before the new day brings All Hallows and a celebration of the best of us.

The Light Parties should be scheduled for tomorrow. Tonight we bravely face the darkness.

Sacred Tax

Tax has got a really bad name. We work hard to earn our wage and along comes the taxman and steals away his greedy share. And what does he spend it on? On inefficiency and bureaucracy; on bloated quangos, unnecessary managers and waste.

This emissary of the State is nothing more than a feted criminal, a faceless peddler of profanity!

I’m endlessly intrigued by the Bible, and I’ve been fascinated by its ancient Law. You see, back in the day while local kings exacted taxes from their citizens, a radical religious community invented a radical social idea. The Tithe.

The Tithe was part of the social structure of the ancient people of Israel. They had eschewed a king – or so the story goes – and organised themselves by tribes around a religious hub. This hub was called the Tabernacle and was run by one of the tribes, who were the priests. When the other tribes had harvested their crops, they would bring the Tithe – a full ten per cent of their bounty, along with some livestock – to the Tabernacle.

They’d sacrifice the animals and then cook and eat them together with the priests, giving the priests an additional contribution from their harvest. It was a symbol of community solidarity. By bringing some of what they had to distribute to people who wouldn’t otherwise have, they pooled their resources so they could share a profound community experience together.

I want to live in a society that pools its resources. That shares its meal together in divine company, not gripped by greed but liberated by generosity. That even throws money at inefficient collaborations with no discernable financial return simply because it brings us together. I want to tithe.

There are religious people who still think the Tithing law applies to them, so they give ten per cent of their income to their church or synagogue, or to a worthy NGO or some other personal project. That’s all well and good – better than that, in fact: some profoundly life-giving work is done off the back of these charitable donations. But the Old Testament Tithe is not a voluntary contribution; it is part of the national constitution of ancient Israel. It’s a tax.

Our State needs reforming. But what if we saw reform of the State not just as the improvement of our civic structures, but as the reimagining of our social religion? Reform of the rituals that bind us as a community and the stories that we share?

What if we could talk about fiscal policy with sacred words? Not invoking divine mandate for our political colour, but expressing the divine character of social experience. Our tax and spend could be sacred, if we let it.

Should tax be set at ten per cent, or sixty? Should it be spent on war planes or schools? These are spiritual questions, because they give body to the values and stories we share.

For me paying tax is a sacred act and the taxman no less than a priest.

David Cameron should turn to Jesus’ teaching on divorce

The riots that torched England’s cities last week came just over a month before the US remembers the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And I fear they will become for David Cameron what that fateful date became for George W. Bush: a defining moment with terrible consequences.

Bush began his presidential career as a genial centre-right Texan able to hold the reactionary racketeers of his party at bay. But after 9/11 he became a war-monger; the attack on the twin towers awakened something terrible and unleashed the full force of American military hell.

Cameron’s response to the riots looks to be subtler. But no less toxic. And no less extreme.

It’s subtler because there won’t be any bombs dropped or armies deployed. But where Islamic extremism gave Bush an enemy, so the ‘scum’ of our cities’ underclass have given Cameron his. Already the normal systems of criminal justice have been bypassed as suspect’s families face eviction and further cuts to their state benefits. Now Cameron’s promise to ‘fight back’ has been followed by a commission to ‘fix Britain’. Expect nothing less than the condemnation of single-parent families, absent fathers, moral decline, and – following David Starkey’s poisonous Powell-esque performance on Newsnight last week – immigration.

Make no mistake: Britain is about to lurch Right.

All this talk of family breakdown has led me to reflect on Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew’s gospel. Moses permitted divorce, said Jesus, because people’s hearts were hard. I’m telling you, he continued, that it’s not on! (Matt 19:1-12)

Sounds like Cameron’s Conservatives have a bosom buddy here, right?

But divorce was about power, that elusive unholy grail that blinded Bush and risks captivating Cameron. Power could solve our problems, we say – a tendency both for Left and Right. But just as giving men the power to divorce their wives – like tycoons trading in cars for newer models – is to place power in the wrong hands, so curtailing their power, as Jesus teaching did, is to place power in the hands of the powerless, by protecting their rights.

Jesus’ ethic is tougher than Moses’ because Moses gave power to the powerful. Jesus gave power to the weak.

The divorce question occurs in a section of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem for the last time and is taking on those who placed their faith in the Law of Moses. The next question comes from a young, rich man who wants to know how to inherit the life of the age to come. He’s very chuffed to report that he’s kept Moses’ Law. So Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. A response about which the young guy is not so chuffed. Keeping the Law is one thing; giving up his wealth, the source of his power is quite another.

The champions of Moses’ Law were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, of whom Jesus had earlier warned his disciples, saying ‘Beware their yeast!’ He’d been challenging the deep divisions in Jewish society – of a culture in which some were ‘in’ and some were ‘out’, a few were okay, but most were not – and this was his summary. The poison of the Pharisees and Sadducees is subtly working its way through society; beware their yeast!

The Pharisees and the Sadducees believed they could ‘fix’ their society through imposing Moses’ Law, the Sadducees from their imposing Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees from their moralising tours of the regions. But both groups were blinded by power and privilege. So in Matt 23:13-26 Jesus erupts into his most virulent tirade against their religious oppression. Woe to you, he repeatedly calls, you whitewashed tombs, you hypocrites! You make yourselves look good on the outside but inside you are full of decay. Woe to you who can tick yes to all social and religious niceties but neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You have strained out the gnats but have swallowed a camel!

This idiosyncratic straining is happening right now here in Britain. In the words of Umair Haque, writing in the Harvard Business Review, ‘Some kinds of violence are more punishable than others. Blow up the financial system? Here’s a state-subsidized bonus. Steal a video game? You’re toast.’

I have no intention of making light of these riots, and they definitely reveal some deep-seated problems with our society. But they are not the only act of extreme social vandalism we have suffered in recent years. Just as Bush’s narrative of the War on Terror masked the camel of his country’s military oppression so Big Dave’s Big Society is being used to mask the camel of our country’s gross inequality. In London right now the richest 10% are 273 times better off than the poorest 10%. And though some of those rich have smashed up way more than a few shops, they have got away with little more than a slapped wrist.

But it’s the not just the shocking injustice of that inequality that we must challenge. It’s the narrative that sustains it. It’s a narrative that targets the poorest and the most vulnerable and says ‘you’re the real problem here; if it wasn’t for you we’d be ok.’ And that narrative finds its footing as a moral attack. It’s generally not very acceptable to bash people for being poor. But if being poor leads you to a different lifestyle, perhaps even to make some very poor choices, well then you’re in for it! The morality police will be out in their well-dressed force to ensure you know just how wrong you are. And if they can pull it off, to use all their considerable power to compel you to change.

When the powerful start finding ‘sinners’ to blame, you know it’s gonna get ugly. Cos when society is broken, the Sadducees and Pharisees are always a comin’.

Beware their yeast!