|The day my country left me
Reflections on Ladbroke, Grenfell, “New Grove” and Brexit
I remember the scene vividly. We were in a supermarket car park, and before us, about 500 yards below a slight incline, lay the mangled wreckage of the trains that had collided at Ladbroke Grove (not far from the Grenfell estate), a few miles outside Paddington Station, on 5 October 1999, leaving 31 dead and 523 injured. When I witnessed this gruesome sight, I had been invited, as a member of the choir of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Kensington, London, to sing in an inter-denominational memorial service near the scene of the crash. Several other choirs took part, and we sang not only for the souls of the dead, but for the injured as well, and for the bereaved, some of whom stood in a row next to us, grieving and sobbing. The mournful chants of the Orthodox memorial rite (known as a Panikhida) were moving enough, but when one of the choirs started singing “Abide with me”, I broke down.
My emotions that day were a complex mix. As an Orthodox Christian I believe praying for the dead is important; it is doubly so if the dead die suddenly, unprepared. Prolonged illness is painful, but it at least has the virtue of preparing the dying and those left behind for what is to come. This pointless, avoidable train crash left its victims with no chance to prepare.
Other, more personal factors, coloured my emotions. Up to November 1998 I had been living in the Netherlands. Following the collapse of the classical music industry I had lost my job with a Dutch recording company and decided to give the UK another chance after being offered temporary work on a musical encyclopedia. I was still traumatized by the events leading up to my dismissal (politics as well as economic necessity had played a role) and unsure about whether I could ever gain a foothold in the UK. (I was born in England but left the UK after the university cuts implemented by Thatcher put paid to my prospects of an academic career there; I subsequently lived in the United States and Canada before settling in the Netherlands.) As I stood staring at the wreckage, I seemed to be contemplating the ruin of my life at that time.
While I stood singing (or attempting to do so) for the dead and bereaved, the utter dismalness of the scene caused something to gave way within me. Before that moment I had had vague hopes for the future, including plans to gain more secure employment and perhaps one day to marry and have a family. I knew I wanted to live in a secure environment, where safety corners were not cut and the government acted for the many, not the few. In short, as I stood before of the train wreck I came to the definitive realization that I had been right to leave the UK all those years ago and that I should leave it again as soon as an opportunity presented itself. This realization was a relief, a sense of liberation that resolved my sense of uncertainty about my relations with my native country and which eventually found expression when I returned to the Netherlands about six months later to take up a new job. Later I visited France, where I met my French wife. Together, we lived the European dream. She came to live with me in the Netherlands, learnt Dutch and took a part-time job; later we moved to France. At no time were we troubled by bureaucracy or any uncertainty as to our status. Not until Brexit came along, that is.
The scene of Ladbroke crash is not far from the recently burnt down Grenfell tower block; the reasons for both disasters are similar. Ladbroke was the second of two accidents on the Great Western Line (the first having occurred at Southall in 1997), both of which could have been prevented by using an automatic train protection (ATP) system, installation of which had been rejected on cost grounds. In the case of Ladbroke, the immediate cause of the accident seems to have been that one of the drivers (who was killed) had passed a red signal. The driver was new on the job and his training had been defective. He had not been warned that the signal was one of several that had been causing problems: there had been several cases of “signals passed at danger” (SPADs) on the lines into Paddington in the preceding years. The signal was poorly sited, and it is thought that low, bright sunlight could have confused the driver’s vision. The important point is that the problems were known about, but management, over a number of years, had failed to act.
Complacency, cost-cutting to achieve false economies for the sake of short-term profit, a defective safety culture, poor communication, warnings ignored – are not all these factors also characteristic of the disastrous fire at the Grenfell estate, as well as numerous other disasters that have befallen the British public? Are they not typical of a mentality that puts at risk the lives or ordinary people just so that landlords, operators and shareholders can make higher profits? Looking back now, I feel fortunate in having lived in European countries where public safety is a higher priority than in the UK.
I conclude my tale with a third instance of cost-cutting trumping safety concerns – though at least in this case human lives were not on the line. The music encyclopedia for which I worked was The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a prestigious, scholarly, multi-volume reference work published by Macmillan in 2001. The Grove music dictionaries, the first of which were published in 1879, are generally acclaimed as among the very best in their class. This latest edition, however, was considered by many to have fallen short of the standards set by previous editions, and not without reason. In December 1999 the editorial stage was in full swing, and it was generally assumed that this would continue for several more months, until about the autumn of 2000, when the final, proofreading phase would kick in. However, Macmillan had just been bought by another company, and the new owners chose to do a Ladbroke/Grenfell: in late 1999 they decided, without warning, to cut short the editorial stage and bring forward the beginning of the proofreading phase by six months. The impact on the quality and scholarly standards of the dictionary was as devastating as one could have predicted – so much so that two of the volumes had to be pulped and reissued after it was discovered that sections of the Stravinsky and the Wagner bibliography had been omitted! The chaos of the proofreading phase was captured in the columns of Private Eye, which criticized the numerous typographical and factual errors.
So here again we have a case of cost cutting in an attempt to increase short-term profits, with disastrous results and “I told you so” all round. But hey, we’ve had enough of “experts”, haven’t we?
As the famous song goes: “When will they ever learn?” I can only concur with a remark attributed to the British investigative journalist Greg Palast: “I don’t have to leave my country. My country left me.” If Brexit goes ahead, I will have been one of the lucky ones; I got out while I could, but millions will be stranded in a country that has left them.
Culture wars and the Orthodox Church
By James Chater
The last two years have been a fractious time, both politically and in the Orthodox Church. Trump, Brexit and the resurgence nationalism and nativism are symptoms of widespread identity confusion and social division. The United States and the UK are especially divided by a culture war, geographically and by educational attainment. A similar culture war is raging in the Orthodox Church. Moreover, the two culture wars are functionally related through the unhealthily close ties between the Russian state and the Moscow Patriarchate, and by the extent of support among Orthodox for UK withdrawal from the EU. The Orthodox Church is threatened by the twin evils of fear and ethnic division.
To read more, visit https://orthodoxyindialogue.com/2018/02/16/culture-wars-and-the-orthodox-church-by-james-chater/
Left, right or centre? Macron’s way forward
Macron has gained the presidency of France, but that is only half the battle. Next, he has to persuade the French to vote for MPs that will support his policies in sufficient numbers. After that, he has to turn France round to an extent sufficient to prevent a Front National victory in 2022.
It is an uphill struggle. Macron wants to change France, but does France want to change? Pessimism and malaise are widespread, especially in the countryside, which – as I can see from firsthand experience – is languishing for lack of investment, after successive generations of politicians have reneged on their promises. There must also be considerable concern as to how Macron is going to find the money to pay for his reforms. Reducing social charges for companies is probably necessary, and setting up funds for investment sounds like a great idea, but with France already in deficit these will be difficult to afford.
Macron faces two major challenges: living down his image as a neo-liberal banker, and finding the money to finance his programme. These tasks can be addressed by two important actions, one local, the international.
On the local level, if I were Macron, I would make my first priority investing in the countryside, with emphasis on upgrading public transport and providing more high-speed internet connections (as promised in his manifesto). This would go some way to heal the divide between town and country and it would make good political sense too, as much of the FN’s support comes from impoverished rural regions. To pay for the programme I would raise tax on high personal incomes. At the same time I would introduce tax incentives to encourage companies to move out of large cities into the “rust belts” of post-industrial areas, especially in the north of France, where support for the FN is also high.
At the global level, I would propose a concerted international effort to go after the wealth, especially the laundered money, stashed in tax havens. Macron’s international outlook, knowledge of the banking system and command of English mean it is likely that such proposals would not fall on deaf ears. I would also make it a priority to fulfil the manifesto promise to ensure that multi-nationals pay their fair share of corporation tax by closing the loopholes they use to reduce their tax liability, and seek to persuade neighbouring countries like the UK that this is the path they need to follow if they are to be considered as reliable trading partners. (Britain’s status as a tax haven is, I suspect, one factor behind the poor relations between the EU and the UK). Not only would this would free up at least some of the money needed to pay for Macron’s reforms, it would take the sting out of those who accuse Macron of being a creature of the investment banking world – “Rothschild’s poodle”.
From there I would look for savings by applying the 20/80 rule to obtain the maximum output for the minimum of input. (It is a well known saying in company administration that often 80% of the profit derives from 20% of the activities.) Tweaking the system so as to avoid the high costs of administration and compliance could help deliver the kind of favourable conditions that could turn the French economy round.
Macron is all for simplification, but does he go far enough? He wants to scrap the RSI, the unpopular agency that administers health insurance for the self-employed, and will presumably merge its functions with the agency that deals with health insurance for employees. He wants to overhaul the pension system so that everyone is receiving the same for the same amount paid in. So far so good, but he could go further. For example, why not roll the various regimes such as URSSAF, Assurance maladie and Impôts into one body; and why continue to assess CSG/CRDS separately from personal tax? And why not reduce the administrative burden of sole traders (freelancers who employ only themselves) by requiring them to file only one tax return, instead of two, as is now the case? I am sure we can all think of other ways bureaucracy can be slashed and the rules made more rational and less confusing, thereby saving everyone’s time and improving their working conditions and quality of life.
Large parts of the French economy are tied up in the efforts required to comply with complicated laws, which may be good for lawyers and accountants but does not increase wealth for the country as a whole. If the time and energy spent on compliance and bureaucracy were released they could be redeployed in actually providing the goods and services that allow France to pay its way in the world.
Macron plans to tinker with the tax rules, particularly with regard to the wealth tax (impot solidaire sur la fortune, currently levied on nest eggs worth over 1.3 million euros). Here is an opportunity for simplification that he should grasp with both hands. Why not take a leaf out of the Netherlands’ book: abolish capital gains tax and extend the ISF down to include all nest eggs worth over 25,000 euros? The Dutch rate is 1.2% per year on total wealth (not, be it noted, income), which is established on the basis of the view that a 30% tax on 4% income is a fair and reasonable rate. (4% of 30 = 1.2; income from shares and bonds is not separately taxed.) The tax on capital gains (and losses) is a nuisance to calculate and its replacement by a simpler system would save time and energy. Moreover, is it not more rational to tax wealth rather than transactions? This tax could replace, either wholly or in part, inheritance tax, which subjects bereaved people to fiscal shock and financial stress just when they need it least.
Pursuing the same logic of taxing wealth rather transactions or transfers would lead to reform of the way housing is taxed. The transaction charges (notary costs) on house purchases are too high. This came about because in the dim and distant past, when house prices were constantly rising, the charges were thought to act as a brake on speculation. But in some regions house prices have been slumping (especially since the 2008 crisis), which makes the charges seem arbitrary and fair. Made up of a 6% transaction tax and notary fees, and normally totalling between 8% and 10% of the price of the house, the charges are essentially a tax on moving, a tax on change. And since France needs to change, it must be asked if this tax sends out the right signal, especially as it tends to discourage people from moving from one region to another to look for work or to take up a new job. A much fairer system would be to tax house ownership rather than house moving. This unfortunately could mean a rise in the taxe foncière, but its effect could be mitigated by reducing it for poorer households, or by a “mansion tax” on large houses owned by rich people with small families.
Efforts must also be made to ease bottlenecks, especially in the judicial system, where legal cases can take years to come to court. Macron wants to improve access to justice, but his manifesto makes no mention of skills shortages, especially the medical “deserts” in regions such as Burgundy, where I live. Greater efforts should be made to anticipate what kinds of vocational training are required to cater for future needs.
Macron starts his presidency with a clear majority, but with a low level of outright support, one of the lowest ever accorded to an incoming president. We must hope that his optimism, confidence and pragmatism, together with the positive attitude that already gave him the advantage over Le Pen in the TV debate, will dispel the malaise and lack of confidence that has been holding France back.
OPEN LETTER TO JEREMY CORBYN
26 January 2017
Dear Mr Corbyn,
The government has just published a bill that, if passed, would trigger Article 50 and initiate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The bill is a mere 137 words long, and it is scheduled to pass the House of Commons in a mere five days. Its brevity and the tightness of the schedule are designed to discourage proper debate and the addition of amendments. It is your duty as Leader of the Opposition to oppose it.
So far, I am deeply disappointed with your handling of the Brexit issue. In saying you will not oppose Brexit you have handed the government a blank cheque, given up without a fight. You say that you are interested in protecting jobs and living standards, but your actions fail to match your words. The only sure way to avoid a hard Brexit is to have no Brexit at all! If you vote for the bill as it stands, it is hard to see what leverage the opposition could bring to bear to steer the government away from the hard Brexit it seeks. Now that the Prime Minister has said she will not seek membership of the European single market, the only choice on offer is between a hard Brexit and no agreement at all. Either alternative is deeply harmful for the country. It will lead to widespread unemployment, increase the UK’s debt, depress the currency and quite possibly lead to societal collapse. After that, a Fascistic government is a real possibility.
Your attempt to appease people who might vote UKip is not only fear-driven, but it will also backfire, because Remainers will quit the Labour party and vote for the LibDems. I find it utterly staggering that so many MPs, from all parties, who voted to remain in the EU during the referendum, have now decided to ignore their consciences and vote for something they know is wrong on the say-so of 51% of the 75% who turned out to vote. What a bunch of sissies! For short-term electoral gain, you have abrogated your responsibility to represent the people, to act in their interests. Not only is this ignoble, it will backfire.
How are the mighty fallen! When you were elected leader of the Labour Party I thought: finally a breath of fresh air, a Labour leader who actually wants to help the poor and vulnerable, after 40 years of stifling Neoliberalism. I was proud when a photo of my nephew and you appeared on Facebook; I was delighted when you made Mrs May squirm at question time; I supported as you spoke up for remaining in the EU; I supported you while Owen Smith tried to oust you. Now I see I was wrong. I was sold a false bill of goods, because, if you were really interested in helping ordinary people who are struggling, you would still be making the case for staying in the EU and opposing any act of Parliament that would lead to the UK’s exit from the European Single market. Instead you are kowtowing to the xenophobes, nationalists and nostalgia merchants who want to bring back a mythical golden age. Instead of pandering to their illusions, you should be doing what leaders are elected to do: lead.
Well, Mr Corbyn, it is not too late. The latest attempt to ram a short bill through in record time provides you with the perfect opportunity to change your mind. Before you could have argued that, yes, perhaps Mrs May would kindly grant the time and opportunity for meaningful debate. Now you can have no such illusions: with parliamentary debate so drastically curtailed, you have the perfect pretext to change tack and oppose the bill on the grounds that it fails to provide any assurances that trade, the environment, jobs or living standards will be protected.
The only good Brexit is a non-Brexit. Mr Corbyn, please put country before party, vote with your conscience and allow Labour MPs a free vote.
We are at a crossroads: seize the opportunity.
That May speech again - what she should have said
On 18 January Theresa May gave a speech outlining her negotiating strategy in the coming article 50 negotiations. But Theresa May is actually two people, and so two speeches were prepared for this occasion. The following is the text of the speech she did not read out.
In June last year some British people, by a small minority, voted in a referendum to leave the EU. However, this vote did not specify what specifics arrangements would be in place after Brexit, or what our relationship with the rest of the world should be. These questions, for right or for wrong, have been left up to us politicians. This process has involved many of us who voted to stay in unspeakable psychological and spiritual contortions. The following is an attempt to reconcile what cannot be reconciled.
The process of formulating our negotiating strategy has been shaped by three main concerns. First, there is widespread anxiety about what would happen if we left the single market, about who are trading partners would be and how soon we could sign treaties. Second, many EU citizens living in the UK and many British living in the EU are worried about their future status, their right to stay in the country where they reside, their mobility in EU countries, their access to health care, their pension, and so on. Third, there are concerns about terrorism and fears that too many EU citizens are entering the country and that the UK has lost control of immigration.
Let me address these concerns one by one and explain how our negotiating strategy will deal with them. First, let me assure you that Britain will seek to remain in the single market, and that we would wish “passporting” of financial services countries to continue, along with all the other commercial and academic exchanges, especially the much loved Erasmus exchanges. The single market, which my predecessor Margaret Thatcher so strongly supported, is essential for our economic wellbeing. To attempt to leave it would be economic suicide. Besides which, the article 50 deadline is simply too tight to attempt to replace it with piecemeal trading agreements by the 2019 deadline. Making adherence to the single market a primary negotiating aim will save everyone a lot of time and make the negotiations following the triggering of art. 50 far less complicated.
It follows on from this that, assuming the success of the negotiations, EU citizens living here and British citizens living in other EU countries need have no fear that their rights will be taken away from them. Moreover, we welcome the contribution immigrants have made, not only to the NHS, but over a broad range of professions, from teaching to the catering industry to the arts and several other professions. And we are proud that British people abroad are lkiwise contributing to the wealth and quality of life of other European countries. These reciprocal arrangements must be allowed to continue.
Third, I would like to address concerns about terrorism and immigration. Several Brexiters have rejected the single market because it would allow unrestricted immigration from EU countries. What they don’t understand is that EU rules already allow for mechanisms for restricting EU migration. Authorities of EU countries have the right to ask non-citizens to leave after a certain time if they cannot prove they can support themselves. We will be enforcing this rule, which I neglected to do as Home Secretary, as I was too busy writing intimidating letters to as many foreigners as I could, and will also be introducing a registration system that requires every adult resident, whether a native or from abroad, to register their address with their local authority, so that all UK residents can be traced should the need arise. We believe that these measures, which I failed to introduce when I was Home Secretary for Machiavellian political reasons, will go a long way to calm fears about uncontrolled immigration and make it easier to track terror suspects.
With regard to terrorism, I believe that by working together with our European allies we can do much more to prevent terror attacks than if we pull up the drawbridge and try to work on our own. It is all very well saying you want to “take back control”, but I believe this can best be done in co-operation with our European allies.
Once the Article 50 talks are concluded, the question arises whether it is worth leaving the EU at all, since our current arrangements will stay the same except that the UK will no longer be part of the decision-making process. For this reason I am prepared to put the proposed agreement to a parliamentary vote followed by a second referendum in the hope that common sense will prevail. If the either the parliamentary vote or the referendum fail to confirm the agreement, the UK will stay in the EU.
Britain is a global trading nation, and it is only right that nothing should be done to threaten its trading relationship with the largest economic bloc in the world, which happens to be on our doorstep. Europe also provides a gateway to trading with other nations throughout the world: we are not obliged to choose between Europe and the rest of the world, as some people claim. It is for this reason that I have decided to give the Brexiters the letter of what they want while emasculating its spirit. I am sure you will applaud me for this sleight of hand, and for standing up to the Little Englanders and imperialist nostalgia merchants who hate Johnny Foreigner and all his works, and are so wrapped up in their Union Jacks that they are choking off the oxygen from their brain, and who generally have their heads up their derrières, if you will pardon my French. But will are all frères et soeurs now, n’est-ce-pas?
Brexit, or The Triumph of Unreason
The British people have spoken. Half were for “in” (roughly speaking), while half were for “out”. Unless one side can win over the other to its way of thinking, the country will remain bitterly divided. Whichever course is finally decided upon, the other half will feel betrayed and aggrieved for a long time. Nothing has been settled, not by a long chalk.
This is the pickle that the disastrous decision to hold a referendum has landed the UK in. The referendum started out as a way of appeasing the parliamentary Conservative Party’s right wing and to win over UKip voters. David Cameron made promises that, in the event of a Brexit win, cannot be kept without plunging the country into chaos and harming its economy. His decision has misfired, causing unrest in the UK and sending the world’s already fragile economy into a tailspin.
Apart from the fact that holding the referendum was a bad decision in the first place, the Remain campaign was badly conducted. The Remain campaign leaders were over-confident. First, the vote should have been more like 60/40, with a minimum participation of say 75%, to make the decision valid. Other mistakes: the Remain campaign got off to a slow start; young people aged 16 to 17 were not allowed a vote, even though it is their future that was being decided; the campaigning was too negative, with too much emphasis on the harm a Brexit would cause and too little on the benefits the EU has brought; expatriates who have lived abroad for more than 15 years were denied the right to vote; even more serious, those expatriates who were entitled to vote could not so because they received their ballot papers too late. This last cock-up in itself surely justifies a legal challenge to the result.
The Brexiteers are telling those of us who supported Remain to grin and bear it. We are made to feel unsporting if we do not accept the result. Well I am sorry: this is not a game of hockey. Millions of us face the prospect of having our right to circulate and work in 27 European countries taken away from us, and some of us were not even allowed to vote.
Where do we go from here? Some are saying that Brexit may not happen, that Parliament may block it, or that there should be a second referendum. Before then, the Tories will get a new leader, who will be prime minister; the Labour Party may decide to ditch the one thing they have got going for them, Corbyn, in favour of a Blairite stooge; there may be a general election.
There are grounds for a second referendum. The result was simply too close to justify a huge upheaval such as leaving the EU. Many who voted Leave now regret their decision and feel, rightly, that they were lied to. And a second referendum would allow an extension of the right to vote to the young and those living abroad.
All this activity will of course prolong the uncertainty that markets and our European partners don’t like. It could trigger more social unrest and violence. The French and the Germans are telling the UK to get on with it. There are indications that France wants to “punish” the UK in order to deter others from leaving. This pettiness is likely to backfire and simply fuel the hostility many in the UK and other EU countries already feel towards Brussels. Rather than blaming Britain, the EU should do some soul-searching and ask itself why it has failed to win the hearts of some many of its citizens. The EU does need to put improve its image. Why don’t MEPs and EU civil servants pay taxes like the rest of us? Why does the European Parliament waste money, time and effort alternating between two meeting places, Brussels and Strasbourg?
The EU also needs to ask some questions about where it goes from here. For right or wrong, many people across Europe oppose more integration. They voted against an EU constitution and don’t want a European super-state. I would be in favour of slowing things up: less emphasis on harmonization of legal systems, for instance, and absolutely no expansion in the euro zone. There ought also to be a freeze on new members, because the organization is rather too cumbersome as it is. The European Parliament should probably be given the right to propose legislation rather than simply approve or reject it.
If the EU needs to do more to win the hearts of its citizens, it is not entirely its fault that so many British voted to leave it. The real villain is neo-Conservatism, the failure of the political class to protect the most vulnerable from the ill effects of globalism: factories closed down, industrial areas laid waste, greater inequality, privatization, cuts, austerity. Many have been duped into thinking that if the establishment that has forsaken them is in favour of the EU, then the EU itself must be a bad thing. But it is not the EU or the immigrants who have failed to build enough affordable housing, it is thirty years of neo-Conservative governments. For decades the EU has protected UK citizens from the failings of its own government. Thanks to EU legislation, UK citizens enjoy cleaner beaches, maternity leave and four weeks’ paid holiday. Although the EU is only partly democratic, the quality of its decision making is vastly superior to that of successive UK governments – though that’s not saying much.
The best that can be hoped for is that some deal can be worked out that will keep the UK in the single market, but this won’t happen unless the UK continues to pay into the EU budget and continues to accept EU immigrants, things many Brexiteers have been deluded into thinking they can wriggle out of. In other words, whether the UK is in or out, things will have to stay roughly the same, the only difference being that if the UK is out, it will not be able to participate in EU decision-making, in making the EU more responsive to its citizens’ needs. The alternative, the UK leaving the single market, is likely to trigger decades of uncertainty, not to say chaos, until or unless it has signed trade treaties with the rest of the world.
Whatever happens, the whole fiasco is an enormous distraction from the UK’s very real problems.
Brexit: the wrong solution to real problems
Many of us who export, are internationally minded or who have lived outside the UK are looking on in horror and incredulity as the UK contemplates leaving the EU. If Brexit wins, the rights of British people to move around and work in several European countries will be adversely effected. And those of us who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years don't have a say. We have been betrayed. But hey, this is "perfidious Albion", right?
One interesting facet of the whole "Brexit" debate is that it is one of very few issues on which the UK establishment is genuinely divided. Big business is on the whole in favour, but all the political parties are split. For once, there is no consensus. For several decades, encompassing the Thatcher, Major and Blair years, and continuing to the present, a stifling neo-con consensus has predominated. The super-rich and their clients in government have been in agreement about a whole range of recent policies, despite the cosmetic differences. For instance, they are all obsessed with the “free” market and want to privatise what is left of the public sector. They want to build as few new houses as they can get away with in order to keep UK property and rents high. They are also in agreement about bombing Islamic countries, maintaining and increasing the security state, furthering a new nuclear arms race by building a new generation of Trident, keeping interest rates low (another effective means of boosting house prices) and making education expensive. Although Corbyn has successfully tapped into popular disgust at these policies, this is still the establishment consensus.
But on the question of the EU, there is no disguising the disagreement. There is genuine division and there has been a genuine debate - at least, until recently. After a period in which Remain seemed to be winning the argument, it is now apparent that, as Pascal wrote, "the heart has its reasons that reason does not know". In other words, a lot of people are going to vote with their heart and are not listening to reasoned arguments. These people feel powerless and insecure, and blame Brussels and immigration. They been deluded into thinking that leaving the EU is a solution to their problems. They will be voting for Leave out of fear, anger and a sense of powerlessness.
It would be wrong, however, judge these Brexit supporters too severely. Thirty or more years of globalisation, job insecurity, privatisation and cuts in public services have made people in several western countries afraid. The Brexiteers have skilfully played on these fears to delude the many into thinking it is all the fault of the Beastly Bureaucrats of Brussels or the immigrants who are stealing “our jobs” or “our housing”. However, the real reason behind the general sense of malaise and insecurity lies in thirty years of neo-conservatism: failing to shield people from the negative effects of globalization, failing to narrow the wealth gap, failing to build enough dwellings to house British people (let alone immigrants!), failing to maintain hospitals and schools, failing to assure access to affordable higher education. The EU’s obsession with regulations and the insecurity created by globalization are enormous problems that need to be addressed. Exiting the EU will only make things worse.
France: the triumph of fear over reason
In France, the land of Descartes and the philosophes, of liberté, fraternité and egalité, reason has ceded to fear. The terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015 dealt a shock to the national psyche similar to that dealt to the United States on 11 September 2001.
And this shock has borne a similar ill fruit. Just as the Americans rushed in the Patriot Act, curbing civil liberties, the French government has introduced a state of emergency, the only time this has been done since the troubles in Algeria.
One of the essential functions of government is to safeguard security. In this sense, introducing a state of emergency for at the very most a few weeks after the attacks seems reasonable. However, three months on, it begins to look as though the French authorities are in a blind funk, lashing out against certain citizens for no better reason than they wear a veil, have an Arab name or have some remote connection with an imam. Whom do they fear the most: Muslims or the Front National?
The French site of Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.fr/etat-urgence) says it all. According to this organization, since the declaration of the state of emergency, 3210 perquisitions (search warrants) have taken place, 400 people restricted to their homes and 12 places of worship closed. On 17 November 2015 police kicked in the door of an inhabitant of the north of France. The inhabitant and his wife, fearing that they were the victims of an Islamophobic attack, took refuge in the bathroom. The police kicked that down too, hit the man in the face and handcuffed him and his wife, who was eight months pregnant. No charges were brought against the man or his family.
Similar perquisitions are happening all over France, and under the state of emergency the actions of the prefectures are subject to no judicial control. In the majority of cases the police can present only the vaguest of grounds for suspicion. In some cases, no real investigation is taking place. One restaurateur who was forced to close his restaurant noticed that the police did not even bother to check the identity of the 60 guests who were in the restaurant at the time of the swoop.
And it is not only “Islamists” who are targeted. Certain militant ecologists have been confined to their residence and been subject to search warrants because of their “ultra-left” leanings. In other words, the emergency is being used to investigate people whose views the government does not like, whether they have anything to do with militant Islamism or not. A similar “mission creep” was observed in the United Kingdom, when one heckler at a Labour Party was banned from the hall under legislation introduced for the alleged reason of curbing terrorism! It is now clear that the opinions you express can result in unaccountable police aggression which has no basis in actual proof of criminal acts.
This collective flight from reason on the part of the state exactly parallels what happened in the United States after the 9/11 attacks and what has happened in the UK, where human rights have been gradually whittled away under the pretexts of the “war on terror”.
I fear and loath militant Islamism, but what I fear most is fear itself. An imminent economic crisis, mass immigration and political unrest in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, all these could lead to the rise of fear-driven, extremist governments in several countries. In France, the November 13 attacks have come at a time when France is drowning in debt and struggling with unemployment; all these factors provide a breeding ground for political extremism. A world where Trump is president in the United States and where France is ruled by the Front National, or by a right-wing government that is down on immigrants and obsessed with “national identity”? Not a pleasing prospect.
The Rue Daru crisis: what lessons can be learnt?
1 December 2015
Following the announcement that Archbishop Job of Telmessos will be relieved of his responsibilities as head of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe, many will be breathing a sigh of relief. We are thankful this has happened, but the dismissal, announced by the Holy Synod on 28 November, is only a beginning of what we hope will be a healing process.
The Archdiocese has huge problems, so was never going to be an easy assignment. The financial situation is complicated, to say the least; the Institute of Saint Sergius, which closed its doors a few months ago, is in urgent need of physical repair, and measures need to be taken to stem the rot of demoralisation. It will be a remarkable person who can reconcile the disparate elements in the Archdiocese: among others, these consist of new Russian immigrants, French people of Russian descent, and converts of Western European origin together with their children.
What should be done to safeguard the Archdiocese and what it stands for? Before discussing this, it is worth mentioning what has been achieved so far. The opposition to the leadership style of Monsignor Job, expressed in attempts at dialogue, in assemblies and in orderly demonstrations, was respectful (for the most part) and peaceful. On many internet forums and websites, people are asking the question: where are we going and what sort of a church do we want? Who are we and what do we stand for? This period of oppression may therefore have paradoxically done some good, awaking in people a sense of fraternity and solidarity which is consistent with the command of Christ to “love one another”. We must pray that this watchfulness will continue.
The internet has changed the way people regard the leadership of the Church. News, not all of it good, gets spread about more quickly. There is great disaffection with the current leadership, expressed in various ways ranging from criticism to diatribes, caricatures, cartoons and songs, and recent events have shown how easily pastoral vocations can be distorted by ambition, lust for power and nationalist/ethnic sentiment. The old deference is on the wane: more and more faithful, especially in Western Europe, expect those charged with their pastoral care to be able to account for their decisions, are less willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
If we can learn to love the sinner while denouncing the sin, all to the good. The danger is that recent events have sown so much distrust among the faithful that they will leave the Church or become cynical. Clearly, the Church has been diminished, and remains so, as a result of certain recent events, including the suspension of priests. In short, several fences must be mended before the Church can even begin to restore its reputation and be a credible witness.
It is generally recognised that Archbishop Job of Telmessos was imposed on an unwilling Archdiocese. The voters were browbeaten into accepting a list of three candidates, Job himself and two unknown candidates who never would have had a chance. There is a now a general feeling of regret that this was allowed to happen, and it is unlikely that such a ploy would ever work again, if attempted.
From this observation flows another: we must be quite clear about what sort of faith, what sort of Orthodoxy we stand for, and we must proclaim it loud and clear. The Archdiocese was home to Orthodox theologians and intellectuals who remained rooted in Holy Tradition while trying to engage with the modern world. This freedom of thought and expression was not to everyone’s liking, as is shown by an auto da fé that took place in Ekaterinburg in 1998, when books by Nikolai Afanasiev, Alexander Men, John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann were burnt publicly. In several places in the world, the Orthodox faith remains bogged down in fundamentalism, the idolization of a (false) Tradition and ethnic/nationalist phyletism. It is the task of Western Orthodox to bear witness to a more supple, more generous Orthodoxy, local but not national or nationalist, at ease with democratic pluralism and human rights, and sceptical of all theocracies, including Christian ones.
In doing so, we will meet powerful opposition. The Archdiocese does not lack for enemies who covet its patrimony, its intellectual heritage, as well as those who denounce its “liberalism” and make out that it is full of heretics and Freemasons. A Church grouping where decisions are taken locally – a limited democracy, if you like – is clearly a reproach to those jurisdictions, including Moscow and Constantinople, which never implemented the Council of Moscow and have no intention of doing so. One suspects that, in preparation for the next Great Council, the Church is being reconfigured in accordance with its most conservative, authoritarian denominators, in order to create a show of unity. We must do all in our power to prevent this from happening.
So what, finally, can we do? We must become ourselves, try not to be angry, but remain firmly committed to denouncing sins committed against our fellow Orthodox. Where the hierarchy fails, we still have each other. Each time the Church relapses into legalism, clericalism and Phariseeism, we can dare to harbour within ourselves, and in our midst, the vision of a new kind of Church, a new way of deciding things together, a new way of wielding power and discharging responsibility, all under the aegis of a commandment that was new when it was uttered and remains so: “Love one another as I have loved you”.
Update, 29 November 2015
Today comes news that Archbishop Job of Telmessos has been released from his position as head of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe. This is good news as far it goes, a good start. The real test will be to see what happens in the following days: will steps be taken to undo the damage done to the archdiocese? Will the suspended priests be reinstated, in particular Fr Christophe d’Aloisio, and those responsible be brought to account?
Update, 20 November 2015
The Ecumenical Patriarch appears to have endorsed Monsignor Job’s hard line in his letter of support for the theme of the pastoral assembly of 11 November (which you can find here). I have no reason to believe there is anything theologically wrong with it, so far as it goes, but, as someone pointed out here: “Words are said in a context. To talk about obedience to people who suffer under a regime of terror has nothing to do with Orthodoxy but rather with a kind of blindness and episcopal corporatism in the best case, and with cynicism in the worst.”
Update, 12 November 2011
After reading the news today, I realise I expressed myself too mildly in my article of 7 November (below). The Orthodox Church is going through one of its periodic bouts of racist intolerance. Witnesses have stated that gatekeepers barred non-Russian speakers from entering the Cathedral for the Liturgy preceding the pastoral assembly of 11 November. Also, the video recording of the meeting with ACER of 11 October clearly shows a woman saying that because we did not speak Russian, they could not do anything for us. This sounds like a replay of what happened in the Russian cathedral in London in the period when Bishop Basil (as he was then called) was in conflict with certain philo-Russian elements and transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Being west European and being Orthodox was always a difficult balancing act. It has just got a lot harder.
Recent events in the Rue Daru archdiocese: what is at stake
7 November 2015
The Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (hereafter referred to as the exarchate), headquartered at the Cathedral of Alexsander Nevsky, Rue Daru, Paris, is facing an unprecedented crisis. And that is saying a lot, given the archdiocese’s turbulent history! Recent actions by Archbishop Job of Telmessos have done nothing to stabilize what was already a precarious situation. Rather, they have brought matters to a head, with implications that run all the way to the throne of the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself. As such, the issues raised deserve the attention of all Orthodox.
First, some background. The exarchate came into being as a result of a split that occurred in the ecclesiastical organization of the Russians who were exiled after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1928 the Russian Patriarchate had demanded declarations of loyalty to the Soviet regime. This demand was at first acceded to but later refuted by Bishop Evlogy, the Russian bishop in Paris, after which he and most of his parishes withdrew from the Moscow Patriarchate and were received into the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1931. The exarchate unites several parishes across a wide range of western European countries. One of its main achievements was the setting up of the Institute of St Sergius in Paris, which gathered together the foremost Orthodox theologians of the time. For a while Paris became a beacon Orthodoxy which shone throughout the world. The archdiocese has as one of its aims the creation of a local church (1), and it has always been keen to encourage the use of local languages in services. It is also one of a very few dioceses to implement the Council of Moscow (1917), granting a degree of lay participation in the running of the diocese, especially as regards the election of archbishops.
Here I must declare a personal interest. Although my present parish is affiliated to the Patriarchate of Moscow, I was for several years a member of a parish in the exarchate. I was also married at the French-speaking “la Crypte” parish under the Cathedral at Rue Daru, where I still have many friends. I have always been impressed by the depth of the prayer there, the lack of legalism, the heartfelt warmth of the welcome I always receive when I go back. And, needless to say, I have never witnessed a Masonic handshake, pace the caricatures and slander directed against this diocese (the “Paris gang”, “Renovationists”, “secularists”, “heretics” etc.).
If the exarchate were to disappear, I would mourn not so much the passing of a particular church grouping, but rather the suppression or dilution of what it stands for. Although it shares the conservatism of most Orthodox groupings, it has always fostered a certain freedom of thought and expression, an independence of spirit which is rare in the Orthodox world. (Yes, being Orthodox doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking!) Rooted in Holy Tradition, it is nonetheless open to ecumenical dialogue, willing to engage with the modern world. It is full of people who, however critical or argumentative, bear the fruits of the Spirit. Should the archdiocese disappear, Orthodoxy will look a great deal more monochrome, cheerless and totalitarian. A light will have gone out, one powered by a sense of freedom and responsibility. The obscurantists, nationalists, clericalists and tyrants within the Orthodox fold will have won a great victory.
In recent years, the archdiocese has been divided on the issue of whether, following the fall of Communism, it should return to the Moscow Patriarchate or not. In 2003, following the death of Archbishop Serge of Evkarpia, the then Patriarch of Moscow invited the exarchate to return, a factor that influenced the election of the new archbishop. The newly elected archbishop, Gabriel of Komana, was opposed, so things remained as before.
On the death of Monsignor Gabriel’s death in 2013, the archdiocese faced a number of difficult issues. It remained divided on the question of jurisdictional status, conflicts had arisen regarding the status of the church in Biarritz and the cathedral in Nice (the latter was removed from the exarchate’s control and restored by a French court to the Russian state), and financial difficulties threatened the future of the Institute of St Sergius. Into this fraught situation stepped Job Getcha, a Canadian monk of Ukrainian extraction. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that he was parachuted into the position of archbishop by the Ecumenical Patriarch after the names of the two other candidates were scrubbed from the ballot at the last moment. One understands that there was a shortage of candidates with all the right qualifications, but one deplores an intervention which appears to subvert the spirit, if not the letter, of the archdiocese’s constitution (2).
Certainly, Archbishop Job of Telmessos has some of the qualities required for this demanding position. He can speak several languages and has the necessary credentials as a theologian. But he has proved unable to win the co-operation of a number of people in his diocese and is at loggerheads with the Institute of Saint Sergius, which has suspended its operations (3). The internet is rife with complaints about his leadership style (4). Some of these come from priests under the cloak of anonymity, but two priests have spoken out openly, refusing to attend the pastoral assembly in Paris to be held on 11 November 2015 (5).
Archbishop Job has complained of “several dysfunctions and problems of an ecclesial, administrative and academic nature” and of low academic standards at Saint Sergius (6). This raises several questions. Since Mons. Job himself received both a Masters and a doctorate from Saint Sergius (in 1998 and 2003 respectively) and later served as Dean of this institute (2005-7), it would be interesting to know exactly when he thinks these undesirable changes occurred. Another question, if indeed there has been a decline, is the extent to which financial difficulties, which have prevented essential repairs to the fabric of the building and (it is rumoured) delayed payment of salaries, have adversely affected morale, and whether (as seems likely) this has distracted the institute from its core activities.
Unfortunately the dispute has now become so polarized that we are unlikely to obtain dispassionate answers to these questions in the foreseeable future. Moreover, there is another issue that is even more disturbing in its implications, namely the events leading up to the suspension of Father Christophe D’Aloisio (7). Fr Christophe, a priest at a parish in Brussels, directed a theological institution tasked with training teachers of religious studies in Belgian schools. In 2011 a conflict arose between Fr Christophe and Metropolitan Athenagoras of Belgium, Exarch of Benelux. Although the reason for the conflict has never officially been made public, it is understood to concern the issuing of teacher certificates to students who Fr Christophe deemed insufficiently qualified (8). The bishop tried to secure Fr Christophe’s dismissal from the institute, but the Belgian Ministry of Education, finding no cause to dismiss him, refused. Moreover, Fr Christophe was assured of the support of Mons. Gabriel. When the latter died and was succeeded by Archbishop Job (2013), things changed. Fr Christophe was accused of insubordination towards his archbishop (on what grounds we do not know). He was ordered to attend a hearing of the ecclesiastical court that supposedly took place on 15 May 2015, but was unable to appear because of illness. Witnesses have declared that neither this hearing, nor a subsequent one said to have been held on 29 May, took place. One of the members of the court resigned and retracted his signature on the court sentence condemning Fr Christophe. Then in July 2015 Monsignor Job issued a decree informing Fr Christophe that he had been suspended a divinis, in other words, forbidden from performing the functions of a priest. The letter arrived while he was exercising his pastoral duties at the ACER summer camp, provoking a furore among the camp volunteers and the parents of the children concerned (among whom is the present writer).
ACER (Christian Association of Russian Students) is a Paris-based lay organization within the Orthodox Church, attached to no particular jurisdiction. It combines charitable work among poverty-stricken children in Russia with catechesis and pastoral work (the annual Orthodox children's camp) and reflexion (conferences, meetings etc.). Following the suspension of Fr Christophe, a letter of protest, signed by the ACER officers, was sent to Archbishop Job. To ensure that the letter received some form of response, it was decided to meet the Archbishop in person after Liturgy at the Cathedral and place the letter directly into his hands (11 October 2015).
The present writer witnessed this event (9). After Liturgy in the Cathedral more than a hundred people placed themselves below the steps leading up to the cathedral. Finally the Archbishop descended the steps, flanked by a procession of about 10 people, mostly men and mostly dressed in black; I presume some of these were deacons. "Incroyable", said someone. Indeed, no one could have made themselves look more inaccessible if they had tried. Can one imagine his predecessor, Monsignor Gabriel, with a bodyguard?
We were expected and invited up for coffee. What followed can best be described as a dialogue of the deaf (but the coffee tasted good). The Archbishop accused ACER of calling him a liar, and that until the "lies" are retracted, no discussion is possible. He castigated the “tone” and “attitude” of the letters of complaint he had received, invoking church order and “canonic order”, a phrase he repeated several times. This “canonic order”, he said, is a hierarchy of obedience with Christ at the top, followed by the Apostles, the bishops and the priests, each in submission to the other. He said "You are all free", several times, meaning that if we did not accept his authority and decisions we could join a protestant church. (He omitted the awkward fact that there are other Orthodox groupings inside France; in fact one parish has already transferred from the Exarchate to the Moscow Patriarchate.) Those present responded that the current situation in the archdiocese is intolerable; many are suffering, there is an atmosphere of fear, especially among the clergy, who are afraid to speak out, the unity of the archdiocese is broken, and things must change quickly.
What are we to make of this sorry saga? It certainly raises plenty of issues about how power is wielded in the Church: what types of obedience are required, from whom and to whom (or Whom), and how ecclesiastical authority should gear with civil authority – how to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”. It also points up the lack of redress available to Orthodox (whether clergy or not) who are subject to abuse or miscarriages of justice. It is especially deplorable that the parish of Fr Christophe should suffer as a result of a conflict between him and his bishop that had nothing to do with the parish. “Collateral damage”, indeed.
Another issue is quality of leadership. When training and electing clergymen to positions of responsibility and pastoral care, it is important to take account not just of technical or intellectual qualifications. Greater weight should be given to human qualities, such as proven pastoral skills, emotional intelligence, psychological finesse, ability to delegate, to broker peace between opposing factions, to communicate clearly and with respect. Like it or not, our bishops, archbishops and priests are leaders (among other things). Preparation for leadership roles should form an integral part of the courses offered in seminaries and theological institutes.
In “real life”, a failing manager will end up either being dismissed by his superior or the board of his company. In the Orthodox Church, failed leaders tend to remain in office for far too long. We lack adequate mechanisms for removing rogue (arch)bishops, let alone rogue patriarchs. This means that when they finally depart, a great deal of damage has already been done. In “real” life, accountability and openness are considered virtues. Why not in the Church?
A related issue of is that of conflict resolution. As Orthodox, we need to cultivate the art of mediation. I would like Orthodox parishes, dioceses and jurisdictions to establish the habit of appointing a mediator to help resolve conflicts arising between a priest and a parishioner, a bishop and his priest, and so on. Such a person should be someone both parties know and trust, who can listen in on conversations and whose presence and words can help pour oil on troubled waters. Such mediation should precede court hearings, hopefully making them unnecessary in some cases, and should aim to reconcile the two parties and where necessary bring them to repentance. Mediation should be taken more seriously as a form of ministry, all the more so as very often it is not differences of opinion in themselves which cause a breakdown in relations, but a clash of personalities. It is encouraging to see that in June 2010 Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America approved the creation of such a ministry (10).
Mediation can work and is certainly worth trying, but – let’s be realistic – how many hierarchs would be willing to go that route? This is why it is all the more important for the laity to speak out. The priests in the archdiocese are understandably too afraid to do so, so it is up to us lay people.
It is fundamentally important to remember that if a hierarch or clergyman “lords it” over those in his pastoral care (Matthew 20:25), he is directly disobeying a command of Christ, one reiterated several times in the Epistles and the sayings of the Early Fathers. The Church proposes various forms of obedience, that of a monk towards his spiritual father, a priest towards his bishop, a lay person towards his priest, and so on. But there is one form of obedience that overrides all these: the obedience all of us must show to the commands and example of Christ. None of us, and that includes priests or monks, should ever be put in the position of having to choose between violating our conscience or disobeying a priest or hierarch. Yet this is precisely the situation in which Fr Christophe was placed. The exercise of one’s conscience as a disciple of Christ, including professional integrity and plain honesty, should remain inviolate, out of bounds to ecclesiastical authority. Instead, the vocation of a bishop and a priest – indeed all of us – is to uphold the Gospel, to point towards and not away from Christ, in much the same way as in some ikons the Mother of God is pointing towards the Saviour. Admittedly, this is not always easy, and often requires great courage: we see how Elijah and St John Chrysostom were persecuted and exiled before being rehabilitated and venerated. And did not Christ himself fall foul of the ecclesiastical authorities of his day?
Archbishop Job appears to expect unconditional obedience from his priests and indeed all in his diocese. He sees no need to explain or justify his actions. So far as I can judge, he expresses his sense of his mission in formal, legalistic terms: as safeguarding “canonic order”. He appears to have forgotten that, although the church in its human aspect is organised as a hierarchy, in fact the essential character of the Church is that it is sobornost, a community, a fellowship united by the Holy Spirit in Christ. Only secondarily is it a hierarchy, and a paradoxical one at that, with Christ at the top, sitting at the right hand of the Father, but also at the bottom, as the servant who emptied Himself. Without love and respect for the dignity of human being, power and obedience are worth nothing.
How ironic that this turn towards clericalism and authoritarianism within the Orthodox Church is occurring at a time when Pope Francis is trying lead the Roman Catholic Church in the opposite direction! (11)
The treatment of Fr Cristophe D’Aloisio requires far more explanation and justification than has been forthcoming so far. During the meeting with ACER Monsignor Job said that "there are causes", implying that other, undivulged, factors are behind the suspension of Fr Christophe. If this is so, why will he not reveal them? And even if he did, what has he to say about the fictitious court hearings? If, as has been claimed, the court hearings that supposedly condemned Fr Christophe never even took place, this shows a contempt for due process unworthy of the Orthodox Church.
Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Job must move quickly to repair the damage done to the archdiocese. In particular, they must make amends for the shameful treatment of Fr Chrsitophe D’Aloysio, his family and his parishioners. This requires nothing less than a full accounting for recent events up to and including Fr Christophe’s suspension, and a declaration that the decree of his suspension is null and void. The very honour of the Orthodox Church is at stake.
(1) See the declaration at: https://www.facebook.com/daru89/posts/1516529588659778
(2) http://situationarcheveche.blogspot.fr/p/compte-rendu-des-seances-dassemblee.html; https://lettreaupatriarcat.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/32/
(4) www.egliserusse.eu/blogdiscussion/Lettre-ouverte-a-l-Archeveque-Job-et-au-Conseil-de-l-Archeveche_a4167.html; http://situationarcheveche.blogspot.fr/p/blog-page_2.html
(7) I rely on the chronological account at http://situationarcheveche.blogspot.fr/p/suspension-du-p-christophe-daloisio.html
(9) Video, with transcription in French at https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=178204975855021&id=100009965584190; see also the compte-rendu at http://www.acer-mjo.org/fr/acer-mjo/actualites/compte-rendu-du-congres-de-l-acer-mjo
(11) http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/06/12/francis-talks-women-clericalism-and-catholic-on-catholic-fights/; http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-francis-prays-for-church-to-be-free-of-clericalism; http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/new-pope-s-real-target-clericalism; and many others.