EU referendum: it’s not just about us

NeighboursThe referendum debate is liable to be dominated by speculation about what might be best for Britain, but I’m hoping that voters will also think about what might be best for Europe and the rest of humanity. My judgment has been swayed by two considerations.

First, the EU stands midway between the failed model of centralised economic planning and what may be the unsustainable operation of untrammelled free markets. Through negotiation, the EU has created a single market in which producers of goods and services compete to achieve optimal efficiency, within a framework which protects our environment as well as the health, safety and employment rights of workers.

Secondly, the EU is the most important experiment ever attempted in international relations, a group of sovereign states learning to find compromises that resolve conflicts of interest between them. Yes, this can be a tiresome business, but how much better than the way in which European conflicts have been resolved previously. If Europeans can succeed in putting wider concerns ahead of narrow national interests they will provide a valuable example in a troubled and dangerous world.

I’m hoping that Britain’s voters will choose to stand firm with our neighbours and partners, rather than undermine them by thinking only of ourselves.

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Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse

PREPARATIONJulius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse 

I enjoyed reading this play in the No Fear edition: although the translation was invaluable, as usual, long passages were easy to understand in the original text.  From Suetonius I’d already learnt something of Julius Caesar’s backstory: his rise to prominence through military exploits, and his controversial terms as consul in Rome and governor in Gaul.  His skills as an orator, advocate and  writer clearly made him a formidable political operator and explained why other leading Romans feared his ambition.  In the Civil War he’d defeated Pompey and others who favoured collective senatorial rule. 

My interest in the play was enhanced by knowing that I’d be seeing it performed by an all female cast, because the major theme does seem especially ‘male’.  This concerns how far men playing their roles in the public sphere trust others to exercise authority over them , and how they maintain their self-respect when someone has the power to command them.  And how friendship and personal loyalty are affected by the social roles men are required to hold.  There are the questions too about how one person comes to exercise authority: is this the result of merit and destiny, or desire to be top dog ?

Among the conspirators Cassius has observed Caesar’s human frailty. Brutus has a sense of noblesse oblige due to his lineage: others tend to defer to his judgment, for example in allowing Anthony and Cicero to survive Caesar.  Although Anthony suggests that all the conspirators  apart from Brutus are motivated by envy, they were all entitled to take the view that Rome was better governed by collective leadership.  Anthony, by contrast has decided to ride on Caesar’s coat-tails, as evidenced by the charade of offering him a crown before an audience of Plebeians.

Caesar’s attitude to all this is ambiguous or ambivalent: having decided to stay away from the senate house at Calpurnia’s request he’s easily persuaded by Decius Brutus’ lie that the senate has decided to crown him.  Once there he takes the first opportunity to impose his will by insisting on the continuing exile of Publius Cimber, a crucial moment which might have hardened the determination of the conspirators, although the assassination was planned anyway.  Even when his ‘peers’ humiliate themselves by pleading Caesar won’t be swayed in his judgement.

I was deeply impressed by Shakespeare’s understanding of these subtleties in relationships between men: he goes to the heart of anxieties about people having authority / power over us.  What experiences taught him about these thought processes ?  Or has he deduced them ?   He maintains a careful neutrality on the rights and wrongs of the assassination, showing ‘moral weakness’ and errors of judgement in all the main characters.  Anthony’s transparent manipulation of the Plebeians is followed by hypocrisy in minimising Caesar’s legacy to them.  Brutus is critical of Cassius for ‘selling honours’ but would have accepted some of the ill-gotten gold in order to pay his soldiers.

I sensed the ground being prepared for Anthony and Cleopatra which Shakespeare was perhaps writing about the same time.  Cassius dismisses Anthony as ‘a masker and a reveller’ while Anthony is contemptuous of Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirate.  Octavius asserts himself over the older Anthony and they both benefit from Brutus’ misjudgements, first in going to meet them at Philippi then in launching a premature attack which leads to disaster. 

There were moments when I worried that the play might suffer something of the ‘Macbeth problem’, with supernatural events confusing human motivation.  Much is made of omens, especially by Calpurnia but these spectacular events seem to have been reported to rather than seen by the characters.  Perhaps Shakespeare was wanting to add authenticity to his portrayal of Rome, where such things had, apparently been taken seriously, without interfering with ‘modern rationality’ ?  The undelivered letter from Artemidorus is a mystery: how would he have known the names of the conspirators ?

In Julius Caesar the women are ‘only’ wives and supplicants, Portia wanting to be privy to Brutus’ thoughts and Calpurnia failing to influence Caesar.  But there’s no reason to believe they don’t exercise power in the domestic sphere, while their men compete in the social world.  I’m looking forward to seeing how an all female cast will portray these male themes of authority and relationships, and how far my suspension of disbelief will be affected by their sex.  If we allow ourselves to believe in scenes of battle on stage, and Elizabethans could cope with men playing  women, the challenge shouldn’t be insuperable.

I glanced at some negative reviews in The Telegraph and read an interview with director Phyllida Lloyd (Telegraph, 6.12.12) where she argues that the Royal Shakespeare Company should employ equal numbers of male and female actors, even if it means more women playing men.  While I’m not naturally sympathetic to this sort of special pleading I’m prepared to see if this production of Julius Caesar can make the case for such innovation.  After all, we seem to be coming to terms with colour-blind casting, so why not gender-blind too ?

PERFORMANCE (14th January 2013)

Arriving for my first experience of the Donmar Warehouse I was taken aback on two counts.  First it seemed an exceptionally Spartan venue, with only plastic chairs for seating but I guessed, correctly, that this was in keeping with the idea that this performance of Julius Caesar was taking place in a women’s prison.  My initial concern about having a restricted view from the side proved unjustified, although I’d aim to be central on another visit. 

Secondly, the programme note (by Robert Harris) gave a much more negative view of Caesar as a tyrant than seemed justified by the evidence of Suetonius, with parallels drawn with Hitler and the Stauffenburg bomb plot.  However, while Shakespeare’s text is more moderate, Frances Barber as Caesar used his aside to Antony about Cassius as a direct and brutal confrontation with the ‘lean and hungry’ man he fears (I:2:200 on).  Was this alteration of Shakespeare’s intention justified ?  Certainly the hard edge to Caesar’s character is made explicit in relation to Publius Cimber’s exile.

Whether justified by the text, the device worked well, giving credibility to Barber’s other role as the prison’s ‘hard woman’.  Equally effective was the use of loud rock music to suggest battle scenes and the marching in and out of prisoners by warders.  Indeed, I was fully absorbed from the outset and quickly abandoned any concern that these were women playing roles normally taken by men.  Harriet Walter was totally convincing as Brutus and the only note that jarred was the young woman playing the soothsayer and Artemidorus.  I didn’t understand why she carried a doll and appeared naked towards the end of the play.

Good use was made of Portia’s plea that her husband should share with her his thoughts about the public life in which he was involved.  This could be taken as highlighting women’s exclusion from that sphere and the lack of partnership in some marriages.  On the other hand the text justifies the possibility that Brutus was trying to protect his wife from being implicated in the conspiracy.

I’ve no doubt that Phyllida Lloyd and the cast have proved the case that women should have the opportunity, through imaginative productions like this, to speak lines of Shakespeare which are normally denied  them.  There must be many more opportunities for gender blind casting.  Although I’m  inclined to draw the line at, say, a swap between Macbeth and his wife, I would certainly go to see an attempt at that.  What I learnt from this experience is that what matters are Shakespeare’s insights into our thoughts and interactions: if the actors speak their lines well, our imaginations can do the rest.

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Time to negotiate over the Malvinas

If you relied on our mass media for information you might imagine that Britain’s position on the Falkland Islands is an open and shut case, and that only some sort of rogue state could take a contrary view. So, I admire the Daily Telegraph for giving space to Argentina’s London ambassador. On 20th April Alicia Castro wrote under the headline ‘Warmongering won’t settle this old dispute’ that the sovereignty issue over the Malvinas is 179 years old.

In 1833, apparently, Britain invaded the islands which, until then, ‘had been ruled by 32 Spanish governors’ and then by Argentina, after that nation gained independence. On taking the Malvinas by force we expelled the Argentine authorities and population, implanted our own people, then strictly controlled immigration. Between 1965 and 1982 we discussed several options regarding sovereignty and agreed significant measures which improved the islanders’ lives. Subsequently the UN and other international organisations have urged both sides to continue the search for a negotiated solution.

Now, I can’t judge the accuracy of the Ambassador’s account, and I don’t know what answers Britain’s representatives give to those points, but I do know that I’d like to have heard both sides of the argument before our young men were sent to kill and be killed in the South Atlantic. And I clearly recall our government declaring that the possibility of oil exploration in that area had nothing to do with our determination to hold on to the Malvinas – a claim which sounds ever more dubious.

Yes, I do know that the invasion by Argentine forces in 1982 was unpardonable. The Ambassador recognises it as a military junta’s attempt to improve its domestic image and remain in power – she describes the subsequent war as ‘stupid and cruel’.  However, there is an argument that when negotiations break down due to the intransigence of one party, military action may be justified. I didn’t support that argument when Argentina invaded the Malvinas any more than when the USA and Britain invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

 It will be difficult to re-open negotiations with Argentina, given the sacrifices made by our armed forces, but it seems shameful that Britain is wasting an opportunity to give the world a lead by showing that disputes can be resolved by peaceful means. I suspect that Falkland Islanders will find that they can reach a beneficial accommodation with their neighbours, once it becomes clear that they can’t have an indefinite veto over British government policy. Sadly, it seems likely that our intransigence will be bolstered in the short-term, as a result of Argentina’s disputed takeover of a Spanish oil company. How ironic that we might be standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Spain, notwithstanding the small matter of Gibraltar.

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The Problem with Easter

GAUGUIN - The Yellow Christ (1889) - A389655MOver the Easter weekend, persecuted Christians have been emerging from their hiding places. Some have been staging gruesome re-enactments of events on which their faith is based, reminding the world how cruel people who aren’t Christians can be. Our present Archbishop of Canterbury has recently expressed his willingness to die for his beliefs, like Beckett, while hoping he won’t have to. A former archbishop has been urging Christians to proclaim themselves by wearing a symbolic crucifix, in defiance of repressive dress codes.

Does any of this matter ? Christians are good people who love their neighbours, do good works and create a sense of community aren’t they? Shouldn’t we value their visible presence in public life and recognise the contribution that Christian values have made to our society ? Well yes, but there are less benign aspects to those claims to be acting on a higher authority which can be found in both the past and present: crusades, inquisitions, sectarian conflicts, and discrimination against minorities all come to mind. And there’s something chillingly familiar about sacrificing one’s life in order to enjoy a heavenly reward, isn’t there ?

As an agnostic I give to charity and do ‘good works’ without expectation of heaven. I do them because it makes me feel good, and in the hope that by contributing to a pool of goodwill in the world I may someday benefit in return. As for people wearing badges of faith I’d prefer they didn’t when providing professional services. I don’t know if my doctor’s a Christian, but my confidence in her judgement would be undermined if she were displaying a crucifix. As for nurses and others offering to pray for me, I’d like to be spared the discomfort of deciding how to respond. Let’s have less conspicuous holiness – I recommend a policy of ‘doing good by stealth and being found out by accident’ !

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Spare us this reorganisation Mr Lansley

One sign of our poor grasp of mathematics in Britain is the common belief that no performance in the public sector should be below average.  Who, after all, would want a school for their children which was less than excellent or choose a hospital with less than four stars. Our politicians have been persuaded that the way to ‘drive up’ standards is to measure and publicise, or name and shame, while ideologues speak in terms of markets, consumer choice and competition. Among the unintended consequences are large numbers of consumers inevitably disappointed at having to settle for less than the best and a significant minority of service providers labelled as failures. Even those that might be considered good enough may be condemned as ‘bog standard’.

None of this is of recent origin, for public services have long had to meet the high expectations set by politicians with inadequate resources, because Britain has aspired to have Scandinavian provision funded by American levels of taxation. Whenever the gap between rhetoric and reality becomes too obvious (ie there’s sustained media criticism) politicians are readily convinced that reorganisation is the answer. This has the great merit of apparently using the same resources more effectively, or even getting better value for money. Among the benefits commonly predicted are ‘providing seamless services’, ‘reducing bureaucracy’ and ‘devolving decision-making’. Unfortunately these benefits are rarely achieved in practice.

In reality, there’s no ideal way to organise public services: they are bound to be divided into departments or sections, each with specialist functions, separate budgets and competing priorities. However, despite the constraints on resources, staff will find ways to co-operate across whatever organisational boundaries have been laid down. Over time they agree protocols for working together and, more importantly, develop trusting relationships in which give and take can be relied on. That is until the next media storm or financial crisis, and the next reorganisation looms.

The first effect is that staff become pre-occupied with their personal futures, faced with the prospect of competing for their own or some other job. Planning becomes pointless while structures and personnel are in flux. Meanwhile, the process of change consumes enormous amounts of time and energy, wasting any new resources which might have been available. Eventually, the dust settles: staff find their feet in the new environment and begin building the relationships and understandings essential to make an inevitably imperfect organisation work as well as possible.

Given the predictability of this ‘silly cycle’, driven by top down reorganisations, it’s no surprise that so many NHS staff have come out against the upheaval currently proposed by Andrew Lansley and David Cameron. Especially since it’s even less clear what government is hoping to achieve this time. Perhaps they hope that making GPs responsible for budgets will moderate their aspirations on behalf of patients, or perhaps they really do believe that competition, with all its associated costs, will produce more, better and cheaper services ? Sadly, it seems that they’ve invested too much personal credibility in another reorganisation and are now determined to press on regardless.

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Syria’s tragedy, our responsibility

It must have been deeply frustrating for the United States and its allies when malleable governments in Tunisia and Egypt were swept away by the ‘Arab Spring’, while unfriendly regimes in Libya and Syria seemed immune to popular disapproval. These were governments which did have the merit of being secular in the face of regional pressures from Islamists, but they were marred by Socialist tendencies and a reluctance to embrace the principles of free market Capitalism. So, I’ve no doubt that Western agencies have been active in promoting and facilitating dissent there, using methods tried and tested in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In Libya there was the added incentive of controlling the flow of aspiring immigrants from Africa, hence the French enthusiasm for that intervention, and it proved possible to get United Nations’ approval to ‘protect civilians’, as a prelude to attacking Libyan government forces from the air. Thus, regime change was achieved with no Western personnel coming home in body bags, and another ‘brutal dictator’ was humiliated for the TV cameras. A similar strategy won’t work in Syria however, partly because Russia and China have learnt the price of lending their support at the UN, and partly because of the greater complexity of the competing interests which President Assad has been containing until now.

It’s difficult to believe that George Bush was told nothing of religious and ethnic divisions in the Muslim world before he blundered into Iraq, but its clear that public opinion, then and now, is woefully ill-informed. No one who relied on our mass media would know how Shia or Sunni minorities came to hold power in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere – the legacy of the collapsed Ottoman Empire and manipulations of French and British administrators have been consigned to history. Yet the boundaries they drew and the rulers they imported are crucial to understanding subsequent events up to the present, and the source of tensions which every leader in the modern Middle East has to manage. Most notably the indigenous Arabs were denied the nation they thought they’d been promised while the Jews of Europe got theirs, eventually.

So there’s something deeply cynical about preaching ‘democracy’ to these fragile states, where winner takes all elections are bound to reinforce divisions, and trust in the electoral process is inevitably low. In contrast, the West has celebrated South Africa’s one-party state as a rainbow coalition and belatedly recognised that power sharing was the only practical solution to Northern Ireland’s troubles. Yet dissidents in Syria are encouraged to seek revolution rather than gradual change and to transform protest into violent resistance, in the hope that Western governments will once again provide the means for military victory. Meanwhile, the media maintain the tempo, with reports of brutal repression and demands that ‘something must be done’.

Syria’s tragedy is one more example of interference in the internal affairs of states whose sovereignty ought to be respected, despite Western disapproval of their current government. The democratic institutions we value were not achieved overnight, not just the voting but equally the separation of powers and protection of free expression – it was one hundred and thirty-seven years after the American Revolution that Americans adopted universal suffrage. If we genuinely wanted to assist the peoples of the Middle East towards new forms of government we would be working with the leaders they have, rather than demonising and undermining them. Instead, I fear that the priority is the pursuit of short-term Western interests, whatever the cost to the people of the region.

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Not so dangerous secularism

According to government  minister Baroness Warsi, Britain is threatened by a tide of militant secularism, though I’ve yet to hear anyone singing ‘onward atheist soldiers, marching as to war’.  The latest evidence for this ‘threat’ is a court ruling that those who don’t believe in god Jehovah shouldn’t feel obliged to be present while those who do are communicating with him.  Not a huge advance in military terms, you might think, in a nation whose head of state is also head of a Christian church, and where Church officials have a guaranteed role in the legislature.

For myself, I’ve never minded people around me saying prayers, having been accustomed to attending religious ceremonies at school and singing  hymns which have some excellent tunes.  Indeed, I can see that religion has often been a force for good, setting standards as to how we should treat each other, and requiring secular leaders to acknowledge some authority higher than their own.  It’s not difficult to find modern examples of religion bringing both comfort and practical help to people in need, while creating a sense of belonging in communities.  Look beneath the surface rhetoric of some Muslim organisations, branded as terrorist by the West, and you find them winning popular support by providing better social services than secular governments.

But that sense of belonging and community can prompt discrimination against the outsider, a fear of those with different beliefs because of the challenge they present.  We’re currently seeing turmoil in the Muslim world because an ancient dispute leads one branch of Islam to resent another more than external powers who are manipulating them both.  At worst, the most fervent adherents of all religions sometimes feel impelled to impose their beliefs on others through violence, destroying whatever seems to deny the truth they’ve  found in their god.  So, while moderate believers may condemn extremism, they ought to recognise that every assertion of a god’s existence also validates the faith of those less tolerant than themselves.  And that a secular society is our best hope of peaceful co-existence between competing religions.

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