Nick Baines is mistaken: Cameron’s policy is coherent, but morally foul

This morning, I was invited onto BBC Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme to discuss my response as a Christian pacifist to the situation in northern Iraq. Our discussion followed headlines reporting that English church leaders have criticised the UK government’s response to Islamic extremism.

The story appears in more detail on the front page of today’s Observer, which declares that the Church of England has launched a “bitter attack” on the UK government’s Middle East policy. The “attack” consists of a letter to David Cameron from the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

I don’t object to bishops criticising the government; I wish they would do it more often. However, this “attack” – which is really more of a polite criticism – is far too soft on the government, making no mention of the militarism and commercial exploitation at the hear of UK foreign policy.

Baines’ letter suggests that UK foreign policy is not “coherent”. In contrast, I believe it is fairly consistent – and morally wrong.

On one issue, I applaud Nick Baines’ intervention. The letter raises vital questions about asylum, saying:

“As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse.”

The bishop is quite right to push the government on the question of asylum. There are several right-wing columnists who want to bomb Iraq, supposedly out of concern for the plight of Yazidis and Christians. I have no doubt that many of them would show far less concern about these people’s plight if they were to turn up claiming asylum in the UK.

If Baines had confined his letter to the asylum issue, it would be stronger and the press reports would be focusing on it. But his letter includes comments on the Middle East generally, as well as UK government policy on “Islamic extremism”. Predictably, much of the media have picked up on these questions rather than on asylum. Baines’ comments on these issues may well do more harm than good.

Baines writes:

“We do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon.”

In this passage, “we” appears to mean the UK (in effect, the UK government). The examples that Baines gives are both manifestations of Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, talk of this “developing across the globe” plays down the many differences between types of extremism and the variety of contexts that have given rise to them. It also implies that Islamic extremists are somehow more of a problem than other violent and terrorist groups – from the Israeli government carrying out massacres in Gaza to Buddhist extremists burning mosques and churches in Sri Lanka.

The bishop unfortunately writes about Christians in an equally unhelpful way:

“The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others?”

This, frankly, sounds petty. Baines is right to speak up for the plight of persecuted people and we all naturally tend to be more worried about the suffering of people with whom we can identify. But these comments add to the impression that Christians should be more worried about the persecution of other Christians than about the persecution of Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Jews, atheists or anyone else. Let’s challenge persecution because it is wrong and because we are called to love all our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s not sound as if we think the rights of Christians matter more than the rights of others.

Early on in his letter, Baines says that “it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect”.

Again, the use of “our” identifies Baines – and by extension the rest of the Church and the British population – with Cameron’s government. Cameron’s foreign policy is, if not clear, then at least more coherent than the bishop suggests. It may seem inconsistent for politicians to wring their hands about Islamic extremists in Nigeria while preparing to bomb Islamic extremists in Iraq. It may appear absurd for Philip Hammond to condemn Russia for arming separatists in Ukraine while happily selling weapons to Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But while ministers’ words are inconsistent, their actions are not. The government’s foreign policy is based on the commercial and strategic interests of those who hold power in the UK and the class that they represent. This is a government thoroughly committed to promoting the concerns of the super-rich. This has after all the basic purpose of the Tory Party throughout its existence. While I’m sure that some ministers believe that they are acting out of humanitarian concern, their domestic policy has involved rapid redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. We cannot expect their foreign policy to be any more ethical.

The problem is not that UK government policy is incoherent. The problem is that it is wrong. It makes sense within the context of the values by which Cameron and his cronies abide. These are the same repugnant values of militarism and colonialism that led Cameron to back Blair in invading Iraq, triggering a downward spiral to sectarian civil war.

In his letter, Nick Baines follows the common practice of using the words “we” and “our” when he really means the UK government and its armed forces. This is unhelpful, as it implies that nationality is the primary aspect of our identity and that we are basically on the same side as those who hold power.

As Christians, our loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. I owe no more loyalty to David Cameron’s government than I do to ISIS.

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2 responses to “Nick Baines is mistaken: Cameron’s policy is coherent, but morally foul

  1. Symon,

    I think if you and I met in a pub we’d get on great – I agree with a number of your sentiments throughout this post, and I bloody hate the Tories as well! But I disagree with a lot of what else you said.

    You say the letter would have been better had it focussed solely on the issue of asylum, as the media would have ran with it. Firstly, it is a tad unfair to produce a counterfactual that you know will never be given the opportunity to be disproved (personally, I think his argument would have been stronger if he’d also raised the issue of badger culling, but I guess we’ll never know). That aside, I think it would have been quite tough to speak about any of the issues he raised in isolation, and the letter seems to have done a good job of highlighting interconnected points in a succinct fashion.

    Following from this, given that you think the letter should have focussed solely on asylum, why do you complain Baines didn’t criticise the “militarism and commercial exploitation at the hear of UK foreign policy”? Which is it to be?

    And again, following from this: “It also implies that Islamic extremists are somehow more of a problem than other violent and terrorist groups – from the Israeli government carrying out massacres in Gaza to Buddhist extremists burning mosques and churches in Sri Lanka.” He didn’t imply this, you did. And hold on a sec: did you want him to mention these atrocities as well, to ensure parity? What on earth happened to focussing on the asylum needs of Iraqi Christians?

    And then: “Baines’ comments on these issues may well do more harm than good”. Yeah, except they probably won’t. But neither of us will ever know who of us is right. Again, we’ve now both made another statement we can’t be proved wrong about. It feels good, but it’s fairly pointless.

    Next up…

    “Unfortunately, talk of this “developing across the globe” plays down the many differences between types of extremism and the variety of contexts that have given rise to them”. But Baines wrote: “Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon.” Note, “particular manifestations”. He’s accounted for the many differences, but has done so in two words to ensure brevity.

    And then…

    “The bishop unfortunately writes about Christians in an equally unhelpful way… [quote] This, frankly, sounds petty…. these comments add to the impression that Christians should be more worried about the persecution of other Christians than about the persecution of Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Jews, atheists or anyone else… Let’s not sound as if we think the rights of Christians matter more than the rights of others.”

    It’s of course ludicrous to suggest that a hierarchy of persecution is what he was espousing. I’m sure you know as well as I do the efforts Christian leaders, such as Baines, go to to draw attention to injustices suffered by other faiths, such as in Gaza. If a Bishop falls over in a forest whilst protesting the inhumane actions of the IDF on Palestinians, but the media aren’t there to record him, did he still make a sound? Yup.

    But here’s the key question: what else is he, or anyone else, to do? What is the alternative? To not speak up because you fear it’ll “give the impression” of looking after one’s own? Since the threat of persecution faced by Christians across the Mashreq (and Maghreb, to boot), is very real, yet is also underreported by the UK press, it was essential that someone with the ability to make headlines spoke up to highlight this fact. Where the Government, the media and anyone else with the ability to be heard are instead silent, Christian leaders such as Baines therefore have to go it alone and speak up for the plight of a persecuted people whose religion they happen to have in common, knowing full well that such “look-after-your-own” impressions will be given. The resulting false impressions and accusations of pettiness are judged to be necessary collateral, given what is a stake.

    You say the letter is too soft, and that inclusive terms such as “we” and “our” give a false impression of shared national identity, (and, you imply…) – responsibility and culpability. Bear in mind, this soft letter had already been described as a “bitter” and “extraordinary attack”. What would the headlines have been like had Baines added a little more venom? The CofE faces enough challenges as far as media representation is concerned, so it’s a damn good thing he was so polite otherwise it would have detracted from the overall message and made the CofE sound bitter indeed!

    In order for sensible public discourse to happen, it is right that the church use the language of togetherness and unity, rather than separation and discord, in order to promote the idea that all cleavages of society must work together and play their part in facing up to these challenges, since this is indeed the reality. Moreover, it is a more accurate portrayal of Christian teachings. If, in doing so, this requires an implicit, and, to some people, false allegiance to the concept of the nation state, then, frankly, so be it. I’m willing to put aside my anti-establishment opinions aside until a more opportune arises. Doing so in an open letter to the PM would be brave and stupid in equal measure.

    In essence, almost all of your criticisms so far fit into one of two groups: things that you say “give the impression” or are “implied”, or statements that can’t be proven wrong.

    As far as your key argument is concerned – that the consistency of Tory foreign policy lies in the pursuit of wealth for the already-wealthy – can we borrow this line of reasoning as an explanation for Labour’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Francois Hollande and his socialist government’s intervention in Mali, Obama’s Democrats and their policy in Israel (which isn’t exactly lucrative) or elsewhere, or the actions of any other non-neoliberal government of a developed economy since WWII? Can understanding Cameron’s foreign policy be understood to simply be the extension of domestic economic conservativism?

    Or, do you think that maybe the situation in each of the above cases is slightly more nuanced? Indeed, might it be these same complications and idiosyncrasies that lead to foreign policies that are, to my mind at least, demonstrably inconsistent?

    Again, I do actually agree with your underlying sentiments – even the ones you’ve only implied or given the impression of! – but too many of your arguments, to my mind, are ill-considered.

    By the way, sorry for writing a reply that’s probably now longer than your post. If only I had some of Baines’ brevity.

    Peace!

    • Hi Andy,

      Many thanks for your reply and for putting time into going into my blog post in detail. I appreciate it.

      First up, let me say that I think many of your points are valid. I know that some of the arguments I make in this article are stronger than others and that I’ve not been very clear in some places.

      You’re right to say that there appears to be a contradiction between my suggestion that Nick Baines should focus on asylum and my comment that he should have mentioned militarism and so on. I should have been clearer. I meant that a letter solely about asylum would have been strong, but that if he was going to talk about foreign policy, I wish he had identified problems associated with militarism, colonialism and so on.

      You say that Baines is not implying that extremist Islamic violence is worse than other violence. I’m not suggesting that he believes this, but I think that’s how the letter could be read. It at least raises the question of why he’s mentioning it now without reference to other forms of violence.

      I accept that this (like the point about persecuted Christians) is largely a point about media interpretations rather than the bishop’s actual opinions. However, any public figure writing an open letter has to take into account not only the content of the letter but the way it is likely to be perceived. Nick Baines is more media-savvy than most bishops, which is why I’d be surprised if he didn’t think about this.

      I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I have a simplistic view of the UK government’s policies, thinking they’re all about a cynical drive to make money for the super-rich. Of course, they are more nuanced than that. I was talking about the general principles behind them. But I accept that individual policies may deviate to some extent from this. However, decisions to go to war by governments with these values can be motivated by strategic interests as well as directly commercial ones (and the two things are linked). This government’s values are militarist as well as capitalist, and some within it have a knee-jerk response of advocating military “solutions”. Meanwhile, war is always profitable for the arms industry, which has so much influence in the UK.

      Looking back at my blog post now, and recognising the validity of some of your points, I wish I’d written it differently. I should have focused on one point. This is that Cameron’s neoliberalism and militarism are no more ethical than ISIS’ fundamentalism. I don’t want to see churches identifying with either of them.

      I hope these answers make sense, even though you are still likely to disagree with me. Thanks for helping me to think through these issues.

      Shalom,

      Symon

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