Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

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Unregulated, Unaccountable Corporate Megacharities Like Oxfam Are Not Fit For Purpose

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The Oxfam sex scandal is just more depressing proof that Britain’s giant, government-funded megacharities are almost completely unregulated and accountable only to trial by media

I have refrained thus far from writing about the Oxfam prostitution/rape scandal as the fallout metastasises throughout the charity sector, but I’m sure that regular readers can already guess exactly what I think about a largely government-funded pseudo-charity staffed by overpaid mediocrities who seem to think that their primary job consists of issuing prissy, sanctimonious reports attacking the one economic system which has lifted more people out of grinding, desperate poverty than all the charities of the world put together.

Much of the counterreaction on the Left has focused on the idea that conservatives want to cynically use this scandal as a reason to discredit and cut international aid – guilty as charged, in many cases. But there is also a creeping awareness on the Left that institutionalised compassion through government-funded charities is both inefficient and politically problematic.

As Ian Dunt wrote over on politics.co.uk today:

You could feel the story bursting at the seams of its Oxfam straightjacket and trying to become one which was sector-wide, a broader indictment of charities having generally lost their way. That’s partly because there is a small army of journalists out there intent on taking on the charity sector. The Express and Mail have been obsessed for years. But that does not make it a right-wing initiative alone. Many others on the progressive left are uncomfortable with the way the sector operates.

And there have been plenty of reasons to do so. Many charitable organisations, like Oxfam, grew so big they essentially became akin to corporate giants. They started obsessing over their reputation, which can be a prologue to hushing up that which might damage it. They began paying out eyebrow-raising sums for chief execs. Mostly they could justify these sums by stressing that they wanted the best people for important missions, but that would have made little sense to many of their donors, on low incomes, who had given some of their hard-earned income on a charitable instinct, only to find that the money was funding a salary they would never come close to achieving themselves.

The government guarantee of 0.7% of GDP on aid spending, which functions as a litmus test of the Conservatives’ moral responsibility in an age of austerity, also creates perverse incentives. It reverses the process by which a government department has to justify its spending on a project. The incentive now is to find things to spend the money on. Once that happens, it won’t be long before some dubious projects get funding.

Dunt goes on to warn that if this scandal is not rapidly contained, it could become the charity sector’s equivalent of the MP’s expenses scandal, where permanent and far-reaching reputational damage is done, leading the general public to forswear making charitable donations to international aid organisations.

Dunt’s concerns – including the perverse incentives created by the pig-headed, fixed 0.7% of GDP target for international aid – are absolutely valid, and his willingness to risk angering his own side by pointing out that megacharities like Oxfam often become extensions of the clubby, incestuous Westminster bubble from where they get their funding is commendable. In fact, one wonders how Dunt can be so perceptive and forthright on this issue while simultaneously being so hysterically blinkered on the subject of Brexit, but that’s another issue for another day.

What the Oxfam scandal and other instances of gross negligence in the charitable sector teach us is that however bad corporate governance may sometimes be in the for-profit sector, it is a strict and rigorous regime compared to the unregulated, unaccountable sphere in which the megacharities and NGOs operate.

When companies like BHS or Carillion go into administration, such is the public and political outrage that people associated with the stricken company are often hauled into court to be held accountable for their failings. But when similar outrages take place in the charity sector, the public outrage may be great but the consequences for those who oversee the failings are negligible. Why? Because they were trying to “do good”, and because they come from the same social bubble occupied by many politicians and members of the judiciary. The system protects its own.

One need only think of the fawning, uncritical praise heaped on celebrity charity CEO Camila Batmanghelidjh by politicians right up until the moment she ran her charity into the ground, leaving its service users high and dry, or by the way that she was allowed to melt back into anonymity rather than face any tangible consequences for her mismanagement.

As I wrote at the time of the collapse of Kids Company:

There is an aura around certain people – and around certain professions and political stances too, one might add – which makes close scrutiny and robust criticism almost impossible. And you can hardly do better escaping scrutiny than if you happen to work for one of those favoured organisations which enjoys the favour and blessing – and ministerial veto – of senior government officials, people who are guided by the opinion polls and an all-consuming obsession with how things look over how things really are – or could be.

But when is a charity not a charity?

Here’s a clue: If your organisation receives millions of pounds from the government, and if the state eclipses private and corporate philanthropy as the main benefactor and source of income, then it is not a charity. It is a QUANGO, a Public Service In All But Name, a de facto arm of the government. It comes with all the cons of financial burden on the taxpayer with none of the transparency or oversight that government spending at least pretends to ensure.

There are hundreds of Kids Companies operating up and down the country, charities in name but in reality monopoly providers of social care and other services under exclusive contract to local councils. This broken, unaccountable model should never have come to represent British philanthropy and charitable giving.

Unfortunately, we have a habit of seeing these scandals in isolation. We rightly get worked up about Kids Company, but then the news cycle moves on and the political class have little incentive to pursue people who so frequently come from the same backgrounds and occupy the same social circles. And bad or nonexistent charitable corporate governance is allowed to continue unchecked until the media discovers the next outrage.

Ian Dunt also makes this point:

The public anger towards the political class is not restricted to MPs. It encompasses a much larger, nebulous group, from think tanks, to journalists, to lobbyists, to bankers. Charities are increasingly seen as part of that, not least because they have often adopted many of the same techniques and mannerisms. They live in the same bubble and use the same language. If it isn’t this scandal that blows apart public trust in the sector, it’ll be the next one.

Yes. Britain’s megacharities are seen as part of that larger, nebulous group because they are very much a part of it. The vast over-reliance on state funding alone means that relationship are more opaque and questionable than should be the case, while the fact that such NGOs seem to recruit heavily from the same cultural pool which fills the ranks of politicians, journalists and think-tankers mean that the public naturally (and in this case correctly) jump to certain conclusions.

How much more generous might total British charitable donations be if they were encouraged through a tax-deduction scheme for taxpayers rather than being laundered through HM Revenue & Customs, adding to our total tax burden? And how much more efficient might out international aid efforts be if a large percentage of donations did not support support huge overheads and remuneration for senior staff?

Sadly, we are unlikely to find out. Unless we demand change or the Conservative Party finally decides to grow a backbone, Oxfam will make its insincere mea culpas, a few unfortunate scapegoats will be publicly shamed and stripped of their jobs, and the whole sleazy bandwagon will go rolling on.

 

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Meet Baroness Henig, Stoking Fear Of Terrorism To Benefit Her Private Security Business

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Baroness Henig’s exploitation of the Paris Attacks anniversary to advocate new laws demanding that concert venues invest more in security – while herself employed as chair of a private security firm which just so happens to provide these services – showcases British politics at its most tawdry and corrupt

There are innumerable reasons why the House of Lords in its current state is an utterly intolerable affront to democracy and ethical decision-making, but an example from today really takes the biscuit.

We are coming up on the one year anniversary of the heinous coordinated terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall and across Paris, and Baroness Ruth Henig – a Labour peer appointed in 2004 – decided that today would be the perfect day to pop up on the BBC News Channel to declare that private concert venues should do more in terms of anti-terrorism security and training, enforced by law through a potential change to the Licencing Act 2003.

From BBC News:

Licensing laws should be changed to force entertainment venues around the UK to undergo counter-terror training, a private security expert has said.

Baroness Ruth Henig told the Victoria Derbyshire programme that some venues did not take such training “seriously”. The former chair of the Security Industry Authority now plans to table an amendment to the 2003 licensing act, to include counter-terror training. Her comments come nearly a year after 130 people died in attacks in Paris.

[..] Baroness Henig said: “There are clearly a number of venues, often the larger venues, I think, but not always, who have airport-style security, who, for example, do have metal detectors, who do have very well-trained security personnel and they top up this training regularly.

“But I think at the other end there is a tail of venues who aren’t taking it seriously, we know this from the police, who don’t co-operate, who don’t take up the offers that are made to them and where I think there are some concerns.

“And the issue is how do you get to that tail of venues who are perhaps not doing as much as they should be about security.”

So far, so noble, you might think. After all, Baroness Henig only recently completed two terms as chair of the Security Industry Authority (SIA), the government regulator for private security firms run under the auspices of the Home Office. Who better to make a reasoned, fact-based case for more necessary security regulation than somebody who was in charge of holding the industry to account?

Only that is no longer Baroness Henig’s role. Rather than regulating the industry and ensuring that professional standards are upheld, Ruth Henig can now be found on the board of SecuriGroup, a private security consultancy and provider itself regulated by the SIA – and not just as any board member, but as the Chair of that organisation.

Here’s her official company bio:

Baroness Henig joined SecuriGroup after completing two successful terms as Chair of the Home Office Regulator, the Security Industry Authority (SIA). Baroness Henig’s commitment to security and policing is well documented having held the post of Chair of Lancashire Police Authority and the Chair of the Association of Police Authorities in England and Wales which led to the award of a CBE in 2000 for services to policing. The Baroness also served on the National Criminal Justice Board and Street Crime Action Group, chaired by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

She was appointed as Deputy Lieutenant for Lancashire in 2002 and made a life peer in 2004 as Baroness Henig of Lancaster. As a Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, Baroness Henig takes her place on the European Security Committee on Foreign Affairs and is a member of the Independent Policing Commission.

And most conveniently, some of the services offered by SecuriGroup include counter-terrorism strategy training, security guarding, door supervision and event security. One might say that SecuriGroup are perfectly poised to provide the very services that their CEO is currently insisting are made mandatory from her unelected seat within the UK Parliament.

To move instantly from a position regulating an industry to the chairmanship of one of those companies being regulated is concerning in and of itself. In fact, the free flow of individuals back and forth between regulator and regulated organisations is one of the primary symptoms of “regulatory capture,” a phenomenon whereby a government body established to regulate an industry “instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating”.

In this context, Ruth Henig’s sudden concern that smaller music venues are not stumping up for expensive anti-terrorism security countermeasures starts to look a lot less like high-minded public interest and a lot more like grubby concern for the bottom line. Is Henig worried about “that tail of venues who are perhaps not doing as much as they should be about security” because the safety of concertgoers has been keeping her up at night, or because a valuable revenue stream for SecuriGroup has been going unexploited? Given that she now derives her pay cheque from a private security firm, one has to assume that it is at least partly the latter.

Henig tries to cast herself in a virtuous light by pointing out the fact that the initial police consultations with event venues offered as part of Project Griffin are free. And so they are. But when the risk-averse police advise small venues operating on shoestring budgets that they need to pay for additional private security (by hiring the services of SecuriGroup or its competitors), that certainly will not be free. The sums of money involved would likely shut down or severely restrict the operations of many of Britain’s smaller music venues.

Of course there is nothing surprising about a Labour politician downplaying the cost of regulatory compliance – this is their bread and butter. But to do so because one has a direct financial interest in more stringent regulation is morally grey at best.

And this is one of the main problems with the House of Lords. Henig’s case is far from unique. It is just particularly disgusting, because it involves taking advantage of the anniversary of the terrorist murder of more than a hundred people to help drum up more business for SecuriGroup. But regulatory capture is an inherent feature of an appointed House of Lords, not an awkward and unintended quirk.

When governments appoint people to the upper legislative chamber based often on their industry experience (and that’s a best case scenario, assuming they aren’t simply cronies being rewarded for political services rendered), those people will naturally retain extensive links to the industries in which they built their careers and reputations. Sometimes this can be a good thing and lead to better, more considered lawmaking. But if the legislator in question is still working (or intends to return to work) in that field, then their judgment is inherently compromised.

Unfortunately, rather than realising the glaring conflict of interest and recusing herself from debate on the subject, Baroness Ruth Henig decided instead to roll up her sleeves and abuse her position as an unelected peer to further the interests of the company she runs – and all in the run-up to the anniversary of a terrorist attack which killed 130 innocent people.

Britain is crying out for proper constitutional reform to build up the public’s diminished faith in our democratic process. Part of that means proper reform of the House of Lords – making it a fully elected chamber (with term limits, length of terms and the candidate pool open for discussion, so long as we produce a more deliberative body), ending the “elected dictatorship” of the primacy of the Commons, kicking out the theocratic Lords Spiritual and drastically shrinking the membership.

But it also means cracking down on the kind of morally dubious behaviour exhibited by people like Baroness Ruth Henig. We must end the revolving doors which currently exist between Parliament and industry, Parliament and lobbying and between regulator and regulatee. Somebody who just completed two terms regulating the private security industry should not then immediately be allowed to go and work in that same sector. Just because it is commonplace and seen by the establishment as a “deserved reward” for having previously slummed it on the public purse does not make it right.

Using the anniversary of the November 2015 Paris Attacks to promote a bill making it mandatory for even the smallest of music venues to invest heavily in additional security is politics at its most cynical – particularly when you consider that heavily armed and well trained gunmen such as those who committed the Paris Attacks (and the previous attack on Charlie Hebdo) would hardly be deterred by the presence of additional unarmed security guards.

But promoting an ineffective course of action which also happens to result in significant monetary gain for one’s outside business interests is about as low as it is possible to get. By all account, Baroness Henig’s career thus far has been distinguished and honourable. She should reverse course and either give up her chairmanship of SecuriGroup or otherwise immediately recuse herself from any further part in legislating security issues – or risk tarnishing that good reputation forever.

 

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Top Image: BBC

Bottom Images: Pixabay, Twitter / SecuriGroup

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The Clinton Foundation – Noble Charity Or Grubby Political Pay-To-Play Scheme?

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Hillary and Bill Clinton continue to insist that there is nothing untoward in the way that their Clinton Foundation sought donations or interacted with the State Department when Hillary was Secretary of State. But how much smoke can there possibly be without fire?

It has been three days now since the Associated Press’s big investigative story detailing potentially concerning links between the charitable Clinton Foundation and individuals who managed to secure private meetings with Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State.

A flavour of the story:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

Donors who were granted time with Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladesh government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran; a Wall Street executive who sought Clinton’s help with a visa problem; and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.

The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton.

Obviously, the Clinton campaign sees it slightly differently.

From the Washington Post:

She dismissed as “ridiculous” Trump’s accusation at a rally in Tampa on Wednesday that Clinton had run the State Department like a “Third World country,” doling out favors and access in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.

“My work as secretary of state was not influenced by any outside forces. I made policy decisions based on what I thought was right,” Clinton said. “I know there’s a lot of smoke and there’s no fire.”

Last week, the Clinton Foundation announced that it would no longer accept foreign donations or donations from corporations if Clinton is elected president in November.

So something which would be unacceptable if Hillary Clinton were president (taking money from foreign donors and entities) was perfectly fine when she was “only” the nation’s top diplomat?

Lots of smoke and yet no fire, the candidate’s own (rather smug) words.

There’s nothing to see here, we are continually told. Move along. Sleep easy in your beds. Everything about the Clinton Foundation is pure, noble and virtuous. There have never been dubious financial dealings, and nothing which might even fall into a morally grey area. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign isn’t resting on top of a powder keg of suspicion and scandal which could see Donald Trump snatch the election, or at least weaken Clinton to the extent that she effectively becomes an instant lame duck. No, nothing like that. Honest.

The American Conservative’s Patrick Buchanan – perhaps unsurprisingly – disagrees:

The stench is familiar, and all too Clintonian in character.

Recall. On his last day in office, January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton issued a presidential pardon to financier-crook and fugitive from justice Marc Rich, whose wife, Denise, had contributed $450,000 to the Clinton Library.

The Clintons appear belatedly to have recognized their political peril.

Bill has promised that, if Hillary is elected, he will end his big-dog days at the foundation and stop taking checks from foreign regimes and entities, and corporate donors. Cash contributions from wealthy Americans will still be gratefully accepted.

One wonders: will Bill be writing thank-you notes for the millions that will roll in to the family foundation—on White House stationery?

By his actions, Bill is all but conceding that there is a serious conflict of interest between his foundation raking in millions that enhance the family’s prestige and sustain its travel and lifestyle, and providing its big donors with privileged access to the secretary of state.

Yet if Hillary Clinton becomes president, the scheme is unsustainable. Even the Obama-Clinton media might not be able to stomach this.

In one sense, Hillary Clinton is right. At present there is lots of smoke – huge, billowing clouds of the stuff – but not one visible lick of flame. It may well remain like that. It may be that the remaining emails still to be released (and think on that: the world’s superpower having its democracy influenced by shadowy outside actors based on the poor decision-making of one of its presidential candidates) point to more potential tawdry sleaze, but with no smoking gun.

And let’s face it: both Hillary Clinton and her husband are highly accomplished lawyers and politicians – if they did engage in corruption, are they really likely to have left a smoking gun or to have dealt with people who could not be trusted to keep silent? Hardly.

So rather than any concrete ethical scandal which may or may not emerge, I think it again comes down to a question about bad decision-making by Hillary Clinton. The decision to go rogue and conduct State Department business from a bootleg private email server was appalling. Even if the State Department did not have clear protocols in place for how departmental emails should be managed, simply going off on one’s own and setting up a home server is an appalling idea. Under the American system of course there was nobody to stand up to Clinton when she made the decision. In countries like Britain, with a permanent civil service running the show in the background, Clinton’s homebrew server plan would have been slapped down within minutes of it being suggested.

And then there’s the Foundation. I get it: it must be difficult transitioning back to normal life after being president of the United States. One can hardly go back into business working at an ambulance-chasing law firm or a lobbying firm or corporate America. Neither is there an established tradition of ex-presidents seeing out their days as a small town mayor or state governor, charming as the thought may be. After the Oval Office, lesser offices of state understandably seem less appealing.

So what is one to do? Well, George W. Bush provides a very helpful template for us, though sadly too late for Bill Clinton to have followed. After George W. Bush left office with an abysmal 22% job approval rating, he retired to Texas and resolved to see out his days painting unconvincing watercolour pictures of dogs (and some of his less fortunate counterparts and colleagues). Sure he’ll pop up to give a speech every once in awhile, but generally George W. Bush has maintained a dignified and most welcome silence.

Or one can go the other way, and do as Jimmy Carter did, enthusiastically throwing himself into real charitable work – not the running of giant foundations with all the perks that doing so entails (first class or private jet air travel, five star hotels, swanky fundraisers with billionaires, nurturing relationships with the politically active and an occasional conscience-easing cash disbursement to a worthy cause) but rather doing God’s honest work for Habitat for Humanity.

Actually physically building homes for disadvantaged or struggling people – that’s real charitable work. The Clinton Foundation in many respects is quite praiseworthy as some 88% of funding goes on charitable mission, but on $2bn revenue up to 2016 that is still $120 million on “overhead”, which in a family foundation has potential to conceal a whole world of ethical grey areas or outright abuses.

The point, I suppose, is that a family charitable foundation is a perfectly legitimate option for an ex-president and his family who intend to quit the political game after leaving office. But when this is not the case – when Hillary was pursuing senatorial ambitions and later becoming Secretary of State – conflicts of interest are inevitably going to occur.

When one is as rich and well-connected as the Clintons, acquiring more money becomes of limited interest. Instead, the reason for getting up in the morning after having left the White House often becomes the building of power, influence and legacy – and, of course, keeping the family in the style of living to which they have become accustomed (i.e. minimal contact with ordinary people). A family foundation accomplishes all of these objectives wonderfully. But when one or more members of the family are still politically active it is highly questionable.

It would have been far better, when there are still active political careers in play, for the Clintons to have put ego aside and thrown their support behind an alternative, existing foundation – much like Warren Buffett is giving away much of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recognising that it makes little sense to build up his own philanthropic expertise from scratch and create all the overheads which come from a second foundation when a perfectly good one already exists.

Why did the Clintons not take the Warren Buffett approach? Three reasons – ego, power and prestige. It is great that the Clintons are philanthropically active. But nearly all of their philanthropic work is done through the Clinton Foundation ($1 million to the foundation in 2015 and just $42,000 to another charity), meaning they want to do charity on their terms. It is a few distinct shades further away from pure altruism, and more to do with continuing to exercise power after the White House.

When Bill Clinton’s presidency ended in 2001, like a shark he had to keep swimming or surely die. Sitting at home in front of the television was never an option. But neither was Bill Clinton about to show up to work for Bill and Melinda Gates, or Habitat for Humanity. He wanted the benefits of his charitable work to accrue to him and his family, not to the Gates family or anyone else. And so the Clinton Foundation was born.

And since the Clintons choose to conduct philanthropic activities on their own terms and through their own foundation, in a way which aggrandises the Clinton family name and brings them power and influence, it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about any other “fringe benefits” which Hillary Clinton pursued while holding the immeasurably valuable bargaining chip of being a senior part of the Obama administration. And when there is smoke, it is not churlish or unreasonable for journalists to have lots of questions about these activities.

And yet…

None of this is yet sufficient grounds to choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Indeed, it is difficult to say just how large an ethical scandal would have to befall Clinton to make her less preferable as president than Donald Trump, a lying, authoritarian would-be strongman who delights in his own ignorance and capitalises on the ignorance of others.

But while the Clinton Foundation smoke machine is no reason to elect Donald Trump, it does paint an even more worrying picture about the quality of decision making and the ethical firewalls which may or may not exist in a second Clinton White House. And it makes one marvel that the Democrats could not follow Barack Obama with a presidential nominee capable of remaining scandal-free at least until Inauguration Day. Nearly every other heavyweight Democrat was intimidated away from the field because 2016 is, we were constantly told, “Her Turn”.

I can’t help but wonder if the Democrats will yet come to regret granting that extraordinary privilege so carelessly and cheaply.

 

Hillary Clinton

Top Image: The Atlantic, Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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On Left And Right, British Politics Is Characterised By Pitifully Small Thinking

Grammar Schools - Conservative Party - Theresa May

Grammar schools and OBEs – anything to distract ourselves from the real, serious political issues facing modern Britain

Of all the issues and circumstances which afflict modern Britain, what policy do you think would make the single most positive difference? Ensuring that Brexit takes place and that we positively reshape our relationship with Europe and the world? Comprehensive healthcare reform? Constitutional reform to reinvigorate our democracy? Freeing higher education from the dead hand of government funding and control? Sweeping simplification and reform of the tax code?

One could debate endlessly (though this blog would prioritise Brexit above all else). But two things almost sure not to make the list would be the two political stories dominating the news this weekend – Labour leadership contender Owen Smith’s ostentatious vow to ban the bestowing of new honours for five years if he becomes leader, and indications that Theresa May’s government is on the verge of overturning New Labour’s spiteful and vindictive ban on the opening of new grammar schools.

From the BBC:

Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith says honours will not be bestowed upon Labour donors, MPs, advisers and staff for five years if he wins the contest.

Mr Smith, who is challenging leader Jeremy Corbyn, said he wants an honours system that rewards “selfless acts, not political and personal patronage”.

Mr Smith, MP for Pontypridd, said Mr Cameron’s list – which included many Downing Street staffers and Conservative donors – was put together with “blatant cronyism”.

“David Cameron’s resignation honours list has brought the system into disrepute and deepened people’s mistrust of politics.

“It’s simply not good enough for [Prime Minister] Theresa May to turn a blind eye to this situation – we need fundamental reform of the honours system so it can reward good deeds and restore people’s trust in politics.”

He also said his proposed five-year honours ban would stay in place until a total overhaul of the system was completed.

This blog does not dispute the fact that the British honours system is hopelessly corrupt and abysmal at recognising exemplary virtue. If Samantha Cameron’s personal stylist is worthy of career-boosting recognition in a gross act of cronyism, what possible grounds are there to deny an honour for every single member of the British armed forces, all of whom risk their lives for very little financial reward compared to that which they could receive in other private sector careers?

While there are many aspects of British imperial tradition which are worth carrying into the present day, the byzantine honours system, with its multiple levels and incomprehensible initials, is not one of them. In fact, it is the ultimate expression of inward-looking elitism, a Country Club tiered membership system which allows its wealthy and well-connected members to compare themselves with one another while excluding thousands of people whose lifetimes of service make them far more deserving of public recognition.

So scrapping the honours system altogether and replacing it a flattened and simplified system – perhaps just one award for civilian life, like a stripped down variant of the Order of Australia – would be a worthy goal, though hardly mission-critical for UK prosperity. Far less impressive, though, is Owen Smith’s dismal suggestion of an arbitrary five-year pause to supposedly review the system.

This is a typically British muddle. When faced with an unacceptable scandal or unethical situation, the establishment’s typical response is to launch a meandering and ultimately fruitless inquiry, kicking the issue into the long grass until public outrage has died down sufficiently that things can go on unchanged. The only way that the rotten system will ever change is either for firm and immediate action to be taken, or for the issue to be folded into a package of further-reaching constitutional reform (by far the better, though less likely option).

Owen Smith, last gasp of the Labour centrists, clearly has no interest in serious reform – of the honours system or anything else. His proposed five-year moratorium is a quintessentially New Labour device, assuaging public anger with a big flashy gesture while doing absolutely nothing to tackle the underlying issue or inequality. This isn’t bold new leadership from somebody worthy of succeeding even Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. And this is the man who believes he is uniquely gifted to carry Labour back into government?

Not that the Conservatives are any better.

The main news emanating from the Conservative Party this weekend has been the leaked suggestion that Theresa May is planning to announce a repeal of New Labour’s ban on the building on new grammar schools – not unpleasing news, certainly, but concerning (and highly vulnerable to political attack) when not placed in the clear context of wider education reform with a laser focus on raising standards and improving social mobility.

The Guardian reports:

Theresa May has been warned she will face stiff opposition to plans for new grammar schools from some senior Tory MPs as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The prime minister was facing a backlash after the Sunday Telegraph reported that she will announce a return to more selective schools in England as early as the Conservatives’ autumn conference.

Downing Street made no attempt to dampen speculation that an extension of selection in schools is on the government’s agenda, releasing a statement on Sunday that said: “The prime minister has been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

“Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier. Policies on education will be set out in due course.”

The suggestion that May, a former grammar school pupil, will opt for new selective schools after an 18-year ban delighted many Conservative backbenchers. More than 100 Tory MPs are said to support a campaign by ConservativeVoice, a group endorsed by senior cabinet ministers Liam Fox and David Davis in 2012.

In many ways, seeking to lift the ban on new grammar schools is commendable – the ban is a grotesque piece of spiteful, anti-aspirational Labour Party downward social engineering, in which “equality” was to be achieved by hacking away at the ladders to success in favour of dull, uniform mediocrity.

But as a first major flagship Conservative policy under Theresa May, it is disappointing. Yes, it shows more grit than was ever displayed by David Cameron, and yes it will keep restive Tory backbenchers happy – essential if May’s government is to survive the next four years with a notional majority of just 8. But in terms of the overall education reform which Britain needs, grammar schools are but a drop in the ocean.

The proportion of pupils in grammar schools has been under 5% since the late 1970s. Even assuming an aggressive policy of encouraging new grammar schools, it is hard to see this figure substantially increasing within, say, the next decade (i.e. in time to make a measurable difference in the productivity and quality of the British workforce).

Academic selection can be beneficial, and we should certainly aim to stretch the most talented pupils and appropriately enrich their education wherever possible. As a former state school pupil, my own education was in no way enhanced by being grouped together with other children of decidedly mixed ability (and this despite streaming). And I strongly doubt that the less able students benefited greatly from my presence either.

But the real issue in British education is the stunted curriculum, unambitious targets and wildly excessive early focus on specialisation. As a state school student, I had no opportunity to learn Latin, or philosophy or the classics. And no matter what steps I have taken in adult life to fill the yawning gaps in my knowledge, nothing can replace exposure to these topics at an early age. Why should these subjects be the preserve of expensive fee-paying private schools, simply because some dull left-wing bureaucrat decided that “ordinary” students do not need exposure to the classics and the Western canon in order to get jobs working in factories which no longer exist?

Why, too, are fourteen-year-olds expected to know what they want to be when they grow up, and begin dropping subjects like hot potatoes as they begin studying for their GCSE examinations? How on earth is a young teenager, who has perhaps only ever had one teacher in history or geography or modern languages, supposed to know for sure that they will never need whole areas of knowledge in their future lives? For this is exactly what we demand of our young people today.

At a tender age (when frankly, issues of popularity or boredom come into play as much as anything else) we expect young people to drop subjects and constrain their life choices first at fourteen, when they start preparing for GCSEs, and again at sixteen (if they haven’t been encouraged to abandon school altogether by pandering government agencies) when they begin preparing for A-levels. This is ludicrous – and the idea of dropping subjects which one finds difficult hardly instils young minds with a positive attitude towards dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.

Rather than continuing to shoot for the middle with our education policy, contenting ourselves when we just about keep pace with other middle-ranked nations, we should set our sights higher as a country. We should be looking to match and outdo countries like Japan, Finland and South Korea from their perch at the top of world tables in educational outcomes, and improving our schools so that it is no longer just our elite private schools and Oxbridge which are the envy of the world.

Would this be easy? Of course not. Many factors are involved, from daycare and early pre-school education, relative poverty and tackling an often lukewarm culture of aspiration. In some of these areas (particularly around the culture of aspiration and delayed gratification) we can clearly do much more. In other areas, there may be difficult questions over infringement on personal choice and the proper role of the state. But we should at least have the debate and talk about how much power we are prepared to concede to different levels of government (or determined to take back from government) in order to drag ourselves up the educational league tables.

But these are all discussions which will never take place if the focus is taken over by a debate about grammar schools, which make up just one weapon in the fight to improve educational outcomes. We will never have the broader discussion and the complete policy review if Theresa May’s government expends a vast amount of political capital fighting furious Labour and LibDem MPs to an impasse and ends up being defeated in the Commons by a jubilant Jeremy Corbyn.

So here we are – well over a month after the EU referendum, and here we are talking about grammar schools and the honours system.

Of course the machinery of government must grind on, Brexit or no Brexit. And of course this is the slow summer season, when MPs and journalists normally take a break, promising each other that nothing momentous will take place while they try to grab some quality beach time. But the fact that the Labour Party is consumed by yet another leadership election with a challenger whose key selling point is promising to spend five years thinking about changing the honours system, while the Tories play to the backbenches by choosing to fight and die on the hill of grammar schools, is not encouraging.

Maybe party conference season and the return of Parliament will provide more context, or some other sign of hope that Theresa May’s government plans to do more for social mobility than re-litigate a battle from the 1970s, or that Labour’s childish centrist MPs will either accept four more years in the wilderness or finally show some courage and strike out on their own.

Because at present, the policies and preoccupations of Britain’s leading politicians do not seem remotely equal to the scale of the challenges at hand.

 

Grammar Schools

Grammar School - Conservative Party

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