My father died 26 years ago and was buried on 17 March which is St Patrick’s Day and was very appropriate, because he was a very serious Irish patriot as well as a great father and teacher. His children and our children get together each year to remember him by going to the grave, singing some Irish songs and eating together. These family rituals are important and help us to treasure the memories. I am increasingly conscious that my understanding and sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people is partly informed by my father’s deep and burning sense of the injustice British colonialism inflicted on Ireland. This consciousness is particularly strong at the moment with over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike and some of them nearing the likelihood of death.
Could the UK play a better role in the world?
On 23rd March I went to Keswick to speak at a meeting of the Fair World Alliance. They wrote me out of the blue, in a way I found persuasive and so I agreed to go. The group was made up of Quakers, people working on fair trade, representatives of other religious groups,and people of general moral conscience. They were a collection of thinking, caring progressive people. The title I chose for the talk was, “Could the UK play a better role in the world?”. I chose the title because I wanted to suggest that all the good people who work on various causes need to set our sights a little higher. I of course congratulated all who don’t give in to the greedy–selfish ethics of the times we’re living in; but it is increasingly clear that there is something systematically wrong with the way our society is structured and our role in the world perceived, and this cannot be corrected by campaigning on individual issues, however worthy. I went on to argue that the UK could not play a progressive, intelligent, ethical and farsighted role in the world unless we apply these values to ourselves. If we are an unjust, divided and troubled place at home, we are unlikely to play a very positive role internationally.
I recommend that everyone should read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It shows that after the US, we are one of the most unequal of the OECD countries and this goes with more crime, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out from school etc. etc.
Suddenly we see governments falling all over Europe, and in the UK, the Government getting a bashing in the local government elections. At last politics is waking up and the people are remembering that they can use their votes to protest at what is happening. As yet there are not many opposition parties advocating a better way forward, but at least the people are starting to demand change. As Martin Wolfe spells out in his FT column on May 9th, Sarkozy is the eighth leader of a eurozone country to have been thrown out from office in a little over a year. He also spells out that the proportion of young people between the ages of 15 and 25 who are without a job is 51% in Greece and Spain, 36% in Portugal and Italy and 30% in Ireland. And it isn’t good in France or the UK. Things will get worse, I fear, and then we might have a fuller debate about what is wrong with this phase of capitalism. I recommend Paul Mason’s book Meltdown – The End of The Age of Greed. A lot of responsibility rests on Francois Holland’s shoulders.
I have been involved in a lot of events on Palestine this month, I hope it is a sign that activism is rising. I have become a Trustee of the Council for European Palestinian Relations and went with them on a delegation to Tunis to meet the new government. The visit was very inspiring. The young who made the revolution were still organising. The politicians who had been elected had mostly been tortured and exiled, but instead of feelings of revenge were full of determination to agree a new constitution that would entrench freedom and human rights.
I went to Copenhagen on 28th April for the tenth Palestinians in Europe Conference. 12,000 Palestinians attended. There were speeches and singing and dancing, food and socialising. As I said in my speech, a people who do not forget their history and still take pride and dignity from their culture, cannot be defeated. I also said that in 30 years of activism I had never known so much support for the Palestinian cause. And that the great compromise the Palestinians made in the Oslo Peace Accords, to accept a state on 22% of historical Palestine, has now become redundant. Israel has made the two-state solution impossible by taking so much land through the illegal development of the settlements and the route of the wall and their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith; and therefore there had to be a worldwide campaign, like that against apartheid South Africa, to have one State in Palestine for all its people. I also spoke at a very well attended conference in Wolverhampton that was focused on getting rid of the Veolia Contract as part of the BDS campaign and a meeting of Friends of Sabeel in Birmingham.
It is the duty of all people of moral conscience to join the campaign for justice and dignity for the Palestinian people. Their exile and suffering is one of the greatest wrongs in the world today.
I also went to the Tricycle Theatre to see the series of mini-plays on the Bomb that the wonderful Nicholas Kent chose as his parting gift to us. It was a reminder of how lucky we were that there wasn’t a nuclear exchange in the Cold War years. More immediately, the answer to fears of Iranian nuclear potential is not a war but an agreement to keep all WMD out of the Middle East, and that must include Israel.
Tax justice and responsible investment
Other interesting events were International Tax Review’s 2012 Conference on Tax and Transparency and tackling avoidance, that brought together tax practitioners, the OECD, the Tax Justice Network and many others. I see clear signs of the Tax Justice Network’s campaigning beginning to bear fruit. This is very important, because one of the alternatives to austerity and unemployment is the proper collection of tax revenues so that decent public services and public investment can be funded. John Christensen estimated that the UK alone loses £70 billion per annum in tax evasion.
Another important event for me was a seminar with F & C Management who manage £100billion worth of assets which will be made up mostly of pension fund and insurance investments on behalf of people who are not wealthy. The discussion was about how such assets could be managed to challenge exorbitant pay deals for Chief Executives and, in my case, how we could ensure that extractive companies behaved decently in developing countries. There is great potential power in us insisting that the money from our savings is responsibly invested.
I wish to apologise here to those I offended by referring to children with Down’s syndrome as mongol children. I was discussing a film on Front Row about Sarah Palin called Game Change, that is well worth watching. I referred to a very moving scene where her talking about her own Down’s baby had given confidence to groups of Down’s young people to come to her meetings. As I started to speak the word Down’s evaded me and I used the word mongol. The presenter immediately corrected me and I said I was sorry. Within minutes nasty emails came into my inbox attacking me and there were hostile comment in the media. The reality is of course that when I was a child that was the name for Down’s. I of course regret that the proper name didn’t come to me but I have two additional comments. One is that I have met many people from Mongolia in recent years and they are perfectly bright and charming people; the other is that public discourse is now so quick to turn nasty and venomous.
Much to my regret I managed to delete my collection of interesting facts from my phone yesterday!