Sunday, May 08, 2022

Address by the President of Ukraine on the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, 8 May 2022

Can spring be black and white? Is there eternal February? Are golden words devalued? Unfortunately, Ukraine knows the answers to all these questions. Unfortunately, the answers are “yes”.

Every year on May 8, together with the entire civilized world, we honor everyone who defended the planet from Nazism during World War II. Millions of lost lives, crippled destinies, tortured souls and millions of reasons to say to evil: never again!

We knew the price our ancestors paid for this wisdom. We knew how important it is to preserve it and pass it on to posterity. But we had no idea that our generation would witness the desecration of the words, which, as it turned out, are not the truth for everyone.

This year we say “Never again” differently. We hear “Never again” differently. It sounds painful, cruel. Without an exclamation, but with a question mark. You say: never again? Tell Ukraine about it.

On February 24, the word “never” was erased. Shot and bombed. By hundreds of missiles at 4am, which woke up the entire Ukraine. We heard terrible explosions. We heard: again!

The city of Borodyanka is one of the many victims of this crime! Behind me is one of many witnesses! Not a military facility, not a secret base, but a simple nine-storey building. Can it pose a security threat to Russia, to 1/8 of the land, the world’s second army, a nuclear state? Can anything be more absurd than this question? It can.

250kg high explosive bombs, with which the superpower shelled this small town. And it went numb. It cannot say today: never again! It cannot say anything today. But here everything is clear without words.

Just look at this house. There used to be walls here. They once had photos on them. And in the photos there were those who once went through the hell of war. Fifty men who were sent to Germany for forced labor. Those who were burned alive when the Nazis burned more than 100 houses here.

250 soldiers who died on the fronts of World War II, and a total of almost 1,000 residents of Borodyanka who fought and defeated Nazism. To ensure: never again. They fought for the future of children, for the life that was here until February 24.

Imagine people going to bed in each of these apartments. They wish good night to each other. Turn off the light. Hug their loved ones. Close their eyes. They dream of something. There is complete silence. They all fall asleep, not knowing that not everyone will wake up. They sleep soundly. They have a dream of something pleasant. But in a few hours they will be awakened by missile explosions. And someone will never wake up again. Never again.

The word “never” was dropped from this slogan. Amputated during the so-called special operation. They stabbed a knife in the heart and, looking into the eyes, said: “It’s not us!” Tortured with the words “not everything is so unambiguous.” Killed “Never again”, saying: “We can repeat.”

And so it happened. And the monsters began to repeat. And our cities, which survived such a heinous occupation that 80 years are not enough to forget about it, saw the occupier again. And got the second date of occupation in their history. And some cities, such as Mariupol, got the third. During the two years of occupation, the Nazis killed 10,000 civilians there. In two months of occupation, Russia killed 20,000.

Decades after World War II, darkness returned to Ukraine. And it became black and white again. Again! Evil has returned. Again! In a different uniform, under different slogans, but for the same purpose. A bloody reconstruction of Nazism was organized in Ukraine. A fanatical repetition of this regime. Its ideas, actions, words and symbols. Maniacal detailed reproduction of its atrocities and “alibi”, which allegedly give an evil sacred purpose. Repetition of its crimes and even attempts to surpass the “teacher” and move him from the pedestal of the greatest evil in human history. Set a new world record for xenophobia, hatred, racism and the number of victims they can cause.

Never again! It was an ode of a wise man! Anthem of the civilized world! But someone sang out of tune. Distorted “Never again” with notes of doubt. Silenced, beginning his deadly aria of evil. And this is clear to all countries that have seen the horrors of Nazism with their own eyes. And today they are experiencing a terrible deja vu. See it again!

All nations who have been branded “third-class”, slaves without the right to their own state or to exist at all hear statements that exalt one nation and erase others with ease. They claim that you don’t really exist, you are artificially created, and therefore you have no rights. Everyone hears the language of evil. Again!

And together they acknowledge the painful truth: we have not withstood even a century. Our Never again was enough for 77 years. We missed the evil. It was reborn. Again and now!

This is understood by all countries and nations who support Ukraine today. And despite the new mask of the beast, they recognized him. Because, unlike some, they remember what our ancestors fought for and against. They did not confuse the first with the second, did not change their places, did not forget.

The Poles didn’t forget, on whose land the Nazis began their march and fired the first shot of World War II. Didn’t forget how evil first accuses you, provokes you, calls you an aggressor, and then attacks at 4.45am saying it’s self-defense. And they saw how it repeated on our land. They remember the Nazi-destroyed Warsaw. And they see what was done to Mariupol.

The British people did not forget how the Nazis wiped out Coventry, which was bombed 41 times. How the “Moonlight Sonata” from the Luftwaffe sounded, when the city was continuously bombed for 11 hours. How its historic center, factories, St. Michael’s Cathedral were destroyed. And they saw missiles hit Kharkiv. How its historic center, factories and the Assumption Cathedral were damaged. They remember London being bombed for 57 nights in a row. Remember how V-2 hit Belfast, Portsmouth, Liverpool. And they see cruise missiles hit Mykolaiv, Kramatorsk, Chernihiv. They remember how Birmingham was bombed. And they see its sister city Zaporizhzhia being damaged.

The Dutch remember this. How Rotterdam became the first city to be completely destroyed when the Nazis dropped 97 tons of bombs on it.

The French remember this. Remember Oradour-sur-Glane, where the SS burned half a thousand women and children alive. Mass hangings in Tulle, the massacre in the village of Ascq. Thousands of people at a resistance rally in occupied Lille. They saw what was done in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka, Volnovakha and Trostyanets. They see the occupation of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk and other cities where people do not give up. And thousands of them go to peaceful rallies, which are beyond the power of the occupiers, and all they can do is shoot at civilians.

The Czechs have not forgotten this. How in less than a day, the Nazis destroyed Lidice, leaving only ashes from the village. They saw Popasna destroyed. There are not even ashes left from it. The Greeks, who survived massacres and executions throughout the territory, the blockade and the Great Famine, have not forgotten.

This is remembered by Americans who fought evil on two fronts. Who passed Pearl Harbor and Dunkirk with the Allies. And together we are going through new, no less difficult battles.

This is remembered by all Holocaust survivors - how one nation can hate another.

Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Danes, Georgians, Armenians, Belgians, Norwegians and many others have not forgotten this - all those who suffered from Nazism on their land and all those who defeated it in the anti-Hitler coalition.

Unfortunately, there are those who, having survived all these crimes, having lost millions of people who fought for victory and gained it, have desecrated the memory of them and their feat today.

The one who allowed the shelling of the cities of Ukraine from his land. The cities that, along with our ancestors, were liberated by his ancestors.

The one who spat in the face of his “Immortal Regiment”, placing torturers from Bucha next to it.

And challenged all mankind. But forgot the main thing: any evil always ends the same – it ends.

Fellow Ukrainians!

Today, on the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, we pay homage to all those who defended their homeland and the world from Nazism. We note the feat of the Ukrainian people and their contribution to the victory of the anti-Hitler coalition.

Explosions, shots, trenches, wounds, famine, bombing, blockades, mass executions, punitive operations, occupation, concentration camps, gas chambers, yellow stars, ghettos, Babyn Yar, Khatyn, captivity, forced labor. They died so that each of us knows what these words mean from books, not from our own experience. But it happened differently. This is unfair to them all. But the truth will win. And we will overcome everything!

And the proof of this is called “Werewolf”. This is Hitler’s former headquarters and bunker near Vinnytsia. And all that is left of it is a few stones. Ruins. The ruins of a person who considered himself great and invincible. This is a guide for all of us and future generations. What our ancestors fought for. And proved that no evil can avoid responsibility. Will not be able to hide in the bunker. There will be no stone left of it. So we will overcome everything. And we know this for sure, because our military and all our people are descendants of those who overcame Nazism. So they will win again.

And there will be peace again. Finally again!

We will overcome the winter, which began on February 24, lasts on May 8, but will definitely end, and the Ukrainian sun will melt it! And we will meet our dawn together with the whole country. And family and loved ones, friends and relatives will be together again! Finally again! And over the temporarily occupied cities and villages our flag will fly again. Finally again! And we will get together. And there will be peace! Finally again! And no more black and white dreams, only a blue and yellow dream. Finally again! Our ancestors fought for this.

Eternal honor to all who fought against Nazism!

Eternal memory to all those killed during World War II!

(Posted by Daniel Boffey in today's online Guardian.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Mourir Pour Kyiv?

It's a grey and sombre Ash Wednesday in Durham.

Two thousand miles to the east the Russian Army is pounding the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, which, eighty years ago, endured the horrors of German occupation. And while Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his people stoically endure everything that Vladimir Putin can throw at them, the West praises their valour and offers arms, but refuses all calls for military intervention.

There are arguments for non-intervention certainly (although Boris Johnson did remark not so long ago that Ukraine was hardly "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing"),  but - as Zelenskyy himself attested in recent days - it would be foolish to imagine that, if Putin ultimately prevails in Ukraine he will not subsequently turn his attention westward. I am reminded of the famous newspaper article by the future French collaborationist Marcel Deat in May 1939 in which he accused Poland of dragging France into an unnecessary war. What history records of the aftermath of the Munich Agreement has not been kind to the West; one wonders what it will say of us in our time.

The resolution of Ukraine has been of the highest order in resisting one of the most powerful militaries in the world. In Russia, Alexei Navalny - another supremely courageous man - has called for daily protests to end the war.  "They say that someone who cannot attend a rally and does not risk being arrested for it cannot call for it," he writes on Twitter. "I'm already in prison, so I think I can." Surely this is also the moment when the Moscow Patriarchate has the opportunity to affirm the common identity of Russian and Ukrainian and oppose this slaughter.

The meaning of Ash Wednesday has never seemed more fitting than on March 2, 2022.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Ephraim Radner and the Frailty of Contemporary Ecclesiology

 As always, this should be read in its entirety.

I was by then disillusioned by the promise of jumping ship, as I am still: was there really a better one, the “true ark,” plying the currents in the night, unmarked by what seemed more and more a drifting fleet of imposters? Burundi, then Rwanda, the urban centers of America, then simply reading and looking about the world and its past and present, made it quite clear to me that Catholics, Anglicans, and all the welter of Protestants busying about had come to the same horrendous moral shipwreck that my own little window onto the Great Lakes Region of Africa had looked upon. It struck me as more likely that all of them were but remnants, the battered timbers and rafts that had been set loose from one once grand vessel, eight souls now holding on to this or that within the tides, often too far from one another even to be apprehended.

“Bring them together again!” I began to yearn, tying myself not so much to a pristine boat, as to the task of repair, calling to this or that passing group — and they to me — so that somehow, before the currents swept us too far away from one another, we should lash our boards together, bit by bit. Ecumenism became the new road for my search. Though it couldn’t quite see the ark itself, the ecumenical venture to which I now gave myself seemed to guess at the blueprint, its earlier towering form; to recognize this or that piece of what was once a lofty ship; to intuit the nails and fittings, like some great marine jigsaw that skill, acuity, and patience might resolve.

That was some years ago. I now think the ecumenical road is a journey of “defaults” — it is whatever it is we simply end up being, as churches come and go, pressed up together, pulled apart, refashioned by the waves. Our skills at putting things back together seem to have withered, if ever we had them, and acuity and patience both are out of fashion in church and civil society. We have been drifting farther from each other, not closer, as the days pass on. Eight souls were saved within the ark, and truly so, I believe. But many souls have been lost within the ark as well. Who is who, and where they are, and how far the distances, no one knows. We are left to trust the tides, the long swirl of the currents, the default of the globe’s encircling streams.

This long circling, I now believe, will wash up the (Roman) Catholic Church that, by default, will gather up, in some fashion, the pieces of everything else, including its own broken witness. Not as a “takeover.” More like someone coming back to their home after a fire has burned it down, and kicking through the embers and piles, the scattered bits of uncharred belongings, and then taking them up and caring for them together in some new setting where new homes are built.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Inevitable Defeat?

I posted this at my LinkedIn account earlier today.

Even as I write the Taliban are entering the outskirts of Kabul, almost twenty years since Ahmad Shah Massoud's assassination in Takhar Province and the assault on the World Trade Center two days later. In the immediate aftermath, certainly in 2001 and even in 2003, I would have counted myself a fellow traveller with those Neoconservatives who pressed for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not least because those who talked most loftily of respecting international law were also those who fell strangely silent when the talk of human rights abuses switched to Cuba or Venezuela and who seemed unfazed by the willingness of the United Nations to include representatives of notoriously brutal regimes on the Human Rights Council. In the case of Afghanistan, the hosting of Al Qaeda and the Taliban's refusal to expel it after 9/11 certainly seemed reasonable grounds for intervention. In the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I could never understand why this was not couched in terms of the simple fact that for over a decade the Iraqi regime remained in breach of many aspects of the UN resolutions to which it had committed itself in the ceasefire agreement in 1990 (the enduring complaints about the cost of maintaining the no-fly zone were a staple of the 1990s). Recalling further the betrayal of the Shia community, who were encouraged to rise against Saddam Hussein only to be then left unprotected by the Coalition (in contrast with the Kurds), there seemed ample justification both for the removal of the regime and the promotion of a multi-ethnic state in the Fertile Crescent.

The devil, of course, is in the detail. The vignette of the forty-third president's victory address on board the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath the banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" in retrospect proved symbolic of the shambles that characterised so much of the peacekeeping and 'nation-building' of the next twenty years. Ironically, for a nation that has long recognized the importance of subsidiarity and federalism, all too many of the 'experts' failed to recognise the enduring importance of the local community (which, after all, helped sustain Kurdish resistance to the Baa'thist regime, Mujahidin opposition to Russian occupation and, indeed, the Taliban themselves). A sustained commitment to a federal model from the outset might have kept in check the Sunni resentment that ultimately gave rise to ISIS and empowered local ethnic communities in Afghanistan to resist the Taliban (of course, it might also have given rise to a resurgence of warlordism, but the evident bankruptcy of the Kabul regime and the Afghan National Army today suggests that this would hardly have been worse than the present situation).

I was only five years old when South Vietnam fell, so for me it has always been a historical debate, rather than a process through which I Iived. There are many issues on which I disagree with the current president, but it seems incredibly hypocritical of some of his political opponents to condemn him for following through on a process that his predecessor set in motion. Bob Dole's acid comment in the 1976 vice-presidential debate about the deaths in "Democrat wars" in the twentieth century hardly holds true for the twenty-first (though the death toll - of Americans at least - is far less). Even if the Republican Party has now repudiated nation-building, it was a Republican president who brought us to this pass. I must confess that I better understand the old midwestern isolationists (many of whose views on economic - though not cultural - issues would suggest them to be men of the Left). They viewed the priorities of the Old World - including colonialism - as incompatible with those of the New World, but they did not offer up the United States as the embodiment of the perfect society but rather as the nation most predisposed to strive for that goal. For them it was a model that could only be adopted, never imposed.

The hubris with which the wars of the early 2000s were launched has brought us to where we are today. The sacrifices of military personnel - American and otherwise - and of those Afghan and Iraqi citizens who struggled to build a civil society would appear to have been thrown away on a cause which few politicians - on the Left or the Right - have shown much interest in promoting. What more can one say?

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

If this is hate speech then what future for pluralism?

In June 2019 the Reverend Dr. Bernard Randall delivered a sermon at Trent College, the private boarding school of which he was then chaplain, in which he sought to voice his concerns regarding the college's plans to develop an "LGBT+ inclusive curriculum". Full details of these events can be found here (and elsewhere), but since the sermon appears to have been the catalyst for, amongst other things, the reporting of Dr. Randall by the school to the anti-terrorism unit of Derbyshire Police it seems as worthy a document as any for judging the state of free speech in general and freedom of religion in particular in British education.

For more than thirty years, Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) has been excoriated for its prohibition of  "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Regardless of one's views as to what constitutes an authentic marriage (and many opposite sex and ostensibly Christian partnerships would fall short of the desired standard), I doubt that Section 28 did little actively to promote family life and I fear it may well have further contributed to the diminution of the human dignity of those whose manner of living it condemned. Sadly, the same mindset that inspired the authors of Section 28 now appears to inform the views of the present generation of LGBT activists who are disinclined to entertain the possibility of constructive dissent

At a time when the language of activists (liberal and conservative alike) is characterised by a 'take no prisoners' mentality, it is telling that the words of Dr. Randall (is it not interesting, in a world that tends to dismiss traditional religious teaching as the preserve of the uneducated, that the individual at the centre of the controversy is the holder of a PhD and the headmaster of Trent College is not) can be deemed "inflammatory, divisive and harmful".   

"We should not descend into abuse," declares Dr. Randall, "we should respect the beliefs of others, even where we disagree. Above all, we need to treat each other with respect, not personal attacks – that’s what loving your neighbour as yourself means." And further, "Whichever side of this conflict of ideas you come down on, or even if you are unsure of some of it, the most important thing is to remember that loving your neighbour as yourself does not mean agreeing with everything he or she says; it means that when we have these discussions there is no excuse for personal attacks or abusive language."

It can be enlightening to reflect, as I sometimes remark to my students, on the evolution of the understanding of the term "toleration," particularly as it applies to religious communities. In the late 17th Century it was acknowledged that the transformation of the religious landscape effected by the Reformation could not be reversed and those states with religious minorities would have to find some means of accommodating them (there were, of course, exceptions to this principle, notably the French Huguenots either expelled or forcibly converted by the terms of the Edict of Fontainebleau of 1685). However, such religious toleration was far removed from the freedoms accorded Christians in North America after the Revolution. Membership of the state church was usually a requirement for active involvement in the life of the community and for holding civic office, with "Dissenters" excluded from the public square. The story of toleration in Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries is one of the devlopment of a much more inclusive approach to religious minorities in which political constraints were lifted and their communities encouraged actively to contribute to the life of the wider society. Such a welcome carried with it a readiness to recognise that those who dissented from the prevailing orthodoxy had a right to do so without fear or favour.

I reproduce the text of Dr. Randall's sermon below. It seems to me to be as reasoned (and reasonable) expression of the 'minority' position as one could hope to find in this polarized age. "It is perfectly legitimate to think that marriage should only properly be understood as being a lifelong exclusive union of a man and a woman;" writes Dr. Randall, "indeed, that definition is written into English law. You may perfectly properly believe that, as an ideal, sexual activity belongs only within such marriage, and that therefore any other kind is morally problematic. That is the position of all the major faith groups – though note that it doesn’t apply only to same-sex couples. And it is a belief based not only on scripture but on a highly positive view of marriage as the building block of a society where people of all kinds flourish, and on recognising that there are many positive things in life more important than sex, if only we’d let them be. This viewpoint is recognised by many people as extremely liberating. And it’s an ethical position which could also be arrived at independently of any religious text, I think". 

Many may disagree with his views, but pupils at Trent College are entitled not only to hold them but to express them without fear of sanction. "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four," insists Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984. "If that is granted, all else follows." I can't help but wonder if that premise is ever more under threat in the increasingly intolerant West.   

Text of Dr. Randall's sermon, June 21, 2019

 I have a theory about Brexit. It seems to me that people who voted to leave the European Union voted for largely political reasons – to do with democratic self-determination; and people who voted to remain did so for largely economic reasons – to do with prosperity and jobs.

Of course I’m simplifying here, and both sides claim to consider both, but it seems to me that which set of ideas, which ideology, takes priority determines which way many people voted.

And while we can easily discuss facts, and try to find the truth behind factual claims, ideals aren’t true or false in the same way.

And so the problem with the often very heated and unpleasant debate ever since the referendum is that people haven’t managed to cope with there being two competing sets of ideals – two ideologies.

Now when ideologies compete, we should not descend into abuse, we should respect the beliefs of others, even where we disagree. Above all, we need to treat each other with respect, not personal attacks – that’s what loving your neighbour as yourself means.

By all means discuss, have a reasoned debate about beliefs, but while it’s OK to try and persuade each other, no one should be told they must accept an ideology. Love the person, even where you profoundly dislike the ideas. Don’t denigrate a person simply for having opinions and beliefs which you don’t share.

There has been another set of competing ideals in the news recently. You may have heard of the protests outside a Birmingham primary school over the teachings of an LGBT-friendly ‘No Outsiders’ programme.

In a mostly Muslim community, this has been sensitive, because many parents feel that their children are being pushed to accept ideas which run counter to Islamic moral values.

And in our own school community, I have been asked about a similar thing – and the question was put to me in a very particular way – ‘How come we are told we have to accept all this LGBT stuff in a Christian school?’ I thought that was a very intelligent and thoughtful way of asking about the conflict of values, rather than asking which is right, and which is wrong.

So my answer is this: There are some aspects of the Educate and Celebrate programme which are simply factual – there are same-sex attracted people in our society, there are people who experience gender dysphoria, and so on.

There are some areas where the two sets of values overlap – no one should be discriminated against simply for who he or she is: That’s a Christian value, based in loving our neighbours as ourselves.

All these things should be accepted straightforwardly by all of us, and it’s right that equalities law reflects that.

But there are areas where the two sets of ideas are in conflict, and in these areas you do not have to accept the ideas and ideologies of LGBT activists. Indeed, since Trent exists ‘to educate boys and girls according to the Protestant and Evangelical principles of the Church of England’, anyone who tells you that you must accept contrary principles is jeopardizing the school’s charitable status, and therefore it’s very existence.

You should no more be told you have to accept LGBT ideology than you should be told you must be in favour of Brexit, or must be Muslim – to both of which I’m sure most of you would quite rightly object.

I am aware that there will be a good few in our community who will have been struggling, if they feel they are being told that they must accept ideas which run counter to their faith – or indeed non-faith – based reasoning about the world.

So I want to say to everyone, but especially to those who have been troubled, that you are not obliged to accept someone else’s ideology. You are perfectly at liberty to hear ideas out, and then think, ‘No, not for me’.

There are several areas where many or most Christians (and, for that matter, people of other faiths, too), will be in disagreement with LGBT activists, and where you must make up your own mind. So it is perfectly legitimate to think that marriage should only properly be understood as being a lifelong exclusive union of a man and a woman; indeed, that definition is written into English law.

You may perfectly properly believe that, as an ideal, sexual activity belongs only within such marriage, and that therefore any other kind is morally problematic. That is the position of all the major faith groups – though note that it doesn’t apply only to same-sex couples.

And it is a belief based not only on scripture but on a highly positive view of marriage as the building block of a society where people of all kinds flourish, and on recognising that there are many positive things in life more important than sex, if only we’d let them be.

This viewpoint is recognised by many people as extremely liberating. And it’s an ethical position which could also be arrived at independently of any religious text, I think.

In other areas you are entitled to think, if it makes more sense to you, that human beings are indeed male and female, that your sex can’t be changed, that although the two sexes have most things in common, there are some real, biologically based differences between them overall. And if you think that, you would be in accord not only with the tradition of most Christians, and other faiths, but much of the biological and psychological sciences too.

You are entitled, if you wish, to look at some of the claims made about gender identity and think that it is incoherent to say that, for example, gender is quite independent of any biological factor, but that a person’s physiology should be changed to match his or her claimed gender; or incoherent to say that gender identity is both a matter of individual determination and social conditioning at the same time, or incoherent to make claims about being non-binary or gender-fluid by both affirming and denying the gender stereotypes which exist in wider society.

And if these claims, which do seem to be made, are incoherent, then they cannot be more than partially true. Yet truth is important as we try to make decisions about the consequences of these ideas.

And you might reasonably notice that some LGBT activists will happily lie about gender identity being a legally protected characteristic (which it isn’t), and from that observation wonder whether there are other areas where their relationship to truth is looser than might be ideal.

But, by way of contrast, no one has the right to tell you that you must lie about these matters, to say things you sincerely believe to be false – that is the tactic of totalitarianism and dictatorship.

On a more positive note, Christians will want to have a discussion about human identity which focuses on the things we all have in common, rather than increasingly long lists of things which might divide.

You might be concerned that if you take the religious view on these matters you will be attacked and accused of homophobia and the like. But remember that religious belief is just as protected in law as sexual orientation, and no one has the right to discriminate against you or be abusive towards you.

Remember too that ‘phobia’ words have a strict sense of extreme or irrational fear or dislike, like arachnophobia, fear of spiders, or triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number thirteen – well, there’s nothing extreme about sharing your view with the Church of England, established by law, and of the majority of the world’s population who belong to these faiths.

Nor is it irrational to hold these views, since they can be based both on secular reasoning and on scriptures – and if, on other grounds, you are sure that the scriptures reflect the mind of God, then they provide the very best reasons possible for anything.

But ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ have come to be used in a looser sense to mean often simply, ‘You disagree with me and I’m going to refuse to listen to you, and shame you to shut you down’. In other words, they have sometimes come to be terms of abuse, used in a dictionary-definition, bigoted and bullying way. You can safely ignore these uses, although that takes real moral courage, I know.

And you may think that LGBT rights are different somehow, because no one chooses to belong to the varied groups represented by these ideas. To which I would remind you that equalities law does not recognise that distinction – all equalities are in fact equal.

So, all in all, if you are at ease with ‘all this LGBT stuff’, you’re entitled to keep to those ideas; if you are not comfortable with it, for the various especially religious reasons, you should not feel required to change.

Whichever side of this conflict of ideas you come down on, or even if you are unsure of some of it, the most important thing is to remember that loving your neighbour as yourself does not mean agreeing with everything he or she says; it means that when we have these discussions there is no excuse for personal attacks or abusive language.

We should all respect that people on each side of the debate have deep and strongly held convictions. And because, unlike Brexit, this is not a debate which is subject to a vote, it is an ongoing process, so there should be a shared effort to find out what real truth looks like, and to respect that that effort is made honestly and sincerely by all people, even if not everybody comes up with the same answers for now.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Red Wall Continues to Crumble?

In 1919 the British Labour Party won control of Durham County Council in the heart of the coal-producing Northeast, the first such victory at that level of local government (directly elected county councils have existed since 1888). Following three years of minority control from 1922 to 1925, Labour recovered full control of the county council, a state of affairs that prevailed until May 6, 2021 when the party lost twenty seats and slumped to 37.7 percent of the popular vote. American readers will doubtless be put in mind of the same West Virginia that backed Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 but gave two-thirds of its votes to Donald Trump in 2020. The fortunes of the white working class and the political parties that once championed their interests seem increasingly to have diverged, economically as well as culturally, even if the political beneficiaries of that shift sometimes seem unlikely inheritors of the populist mantle.



Votes in 2021

Wards contested in 2021

Seats won in 2021

Change in seats 2017-2021


48,146 (37.7%)





34,621 (27.1%)




Liberal Democrat

15,442 (12.1%)





3,418 (2.7%)




Derwent Independent

4,176 (3.3%)




Northeast Party

2,198 (1.7%)





19,692 (15.4%)





As a local resident (born within sound of cathedral bells half a century ago) it has been fascinating to witness the culmination of a process that began with the region’s sweeping endorsement of Brexit in 2016, continued with the loss of three long-time Labour seats in County Durham, including the Sedgefield constituency of former Prime Minister Tony Blair (like me an alumnus of Durham Cathedral’s Chorister School) in 2019, and now has even deprived Labour of power in its ancestral heartland.   

Members of the county council are elected from sixty-three wards, each of which return between one and three councillors. Electors in two-seat and three-seat wards cast as many votes as there are seats allocated, meaning that the party that secures the most votes may not win all the seats. I have attempted to calculate levels of popular support by combining the vote for all candidates from a particular party and dividing this by the number of seats allocated to that ward. Only the Labour Party ran enough candidates to fill every seat on the council, however, and I was obliged to treat “independent” as a generic term, even though the majority of such candidates ran on their individual merits. The vote totals are at best an approximation.

Arguably the most remarkable feature of the local election was the success of the Conservative Party, who secured almost a fifth of the seats and more than a quarter of the popular vote. This is a region in which the decimation of the mining industry in the Thatcherite Eighties has cast a long shadow and Conservatism has struggled to articulate a vision that can appeal to the Geordie heartlands. “Brexit and Boris” seems – thus far – to have altered the rules of the game, though whether the latter will succeed in creating a “Joseph Chamberlain moment” remains to be seen. The local party ran candidates in every ward except Tow Law (where none of the national parties stood) and won pluralities in thirteen wards. Apart from a solitary win in Chester-le-Street, however, all the Conservative councillors were returned for wards in the three parliamentary constituencies in the south and west (Bishop Auckland, Northwest Durham and Sedgefield) that fell to them in 2019. That they took eleven seats directly from Labour is no small achievement, but also reflects the distinctive character of western Weardale, as compared with the eastern ex-colliery communities of Easington and North Durham. Had the party’s share of seats reflected their share of the vote, there would now be thirty-four Conservatives on the county council rather than twenty-four.   

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats adopted a more targeted strategy, contesting only thirty-nine wards. An absence of candidates was particularly noticeable in Easington, where they left nine of the eleven wards uncontested. Their base remains in the City of Durham (home to the university) and the communities around it, where they hold ten seats (over half their caucus). The two seats lost by Labour in the City of Durham constituency in 2021 actually went to an independent candidate and to a Green, who won the most votes in the town of Brandon and is that party’s only representative on the county council. The Liberal Democrats also took two seats from Labour in the town of Aycliffe and one seat in the old steel town of Consett, where they now hold two of Consett’s three seats.

The third component of the anti-Labour bloc is comprised of independents, either affiliated with minor parties or running on their own merits. There were twenty-nine such councillors elected in 2017 and thirty-one in 2021. Independent candidates topped the poll in ten wards in 2021 and won almost a quarter of the seats on the county council, despite winning only a fifth of the popular vote. Nevertheless, the Independents can plausibly argue that they have shown strength across the county, particularly in Easington and North Durham, where neither Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats have much of a foothold.

Finally, of course, there is the Labour Party itself. By no means a spent force, the party continues to dominate in Easington (fifteen of twenty-one seats) and has a narrow majority in North Durham (twelve out of twenty-two seats). The real damage was inflicted in the west of the county where the Conservatives gained ten seats from Labour. That alone would have left Labour with exactly half the seats on the county council, but further losses to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents drove it to its historic defeat. Of course, this is no guarantee that the former opposition can unite behind a common agenda. It will be much easier for Labour to persuade eleven independents to commit to confidence-and-supply than for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats not only to agree upon a common programme, but to persuade three-quarters of the independent councillors to go along with it. It should still make for some interesting council debates.