Monthly Archives: October 2014

Culture Matters

The late John Mortimer QC was a good lawyer, entertaining writer and renowned social reformer. He was also a fine raconteur, drawing upon a fund of Court stories, to bring colourful authenticity to his stories of his compassionate comic creation, Horace Rumpole.

He once told of an exchange he witnessed in a London Magistrate Court, when a drunk was ” up before the beak” having been arrested for being drunk and disorderly after vomiting into the stairwell of an Underground station on the commenting crowd below. It was a pretty vile occurrence.

After sentence the Magistrate attempted to counsel the drunk.

“You must not drink alcohol” he remonstrated. ” Not a drop, not even the teensy  weeiest sherry before your supper”.

The magistrate plainly had no concept of the life of the malefactor, and the story raises a smile because of it. There was a complete cultural chasm which made such well meaning advice frankly comic. However well meaning, the life experiences between them made easy comparison frankly ludicrous.

Brother Ivo recalled this story to mind when hearing discussions about drugs policy and noting that it is suggested that policies adopted in other countries can be ported across to the UK with similar results. It is especially ironic when proponents describe this as “evidence based”.

The elephant in the room for such advocates is the liberalisation of alcohol sales.

There was a time when selling alcohol was restricted to a relatively small number of outlets, only selling the product within narrow time bands and at risk of having their licence renewal denied if their premises was perceived as a hotbed of disorderly behaviour.

Potential licensees had to appear before Justicice to confirm that they would not sell alcohol to those who “are or appear to be drunk”.

The reformers of alcohol laws held out the promise of liberalisation ushering in an era of Italian style cafe culture, with young people sipping an early evening proseco before walking home to Mum with whom they still lived, and who was waiting there with the rest of the family with the customary hand made spaghetti.

One only has to pay a late night visit a University city centre to note how very different our society and its young people responded to such changes.

A similar striking comparison arose out of the sexual revolution. The Dutch attitude to prostitution and extra marital sex was often called to aid during the sexual revolution in the latter part of the 20th century.

Yet today, whilst the UK now stands as the worst, in terms of teenage pregnancy, in the world the Netherlands has the lowest rate, reflecting perhaps an earlier strict Protestant culture  where a child out of wedlock still carried societal disapproval. Similar laws – but very different outcomes.

In yet another field, the prevalence of gun ownership in the USA is often used to suggest a direct corolation between lawful ownership and unlawful deaths, yet Switzerland has similar widespread gun possession without US levels if murder.

Put simply, culture matters.

How the same policy plays out may vary vastly between different communities.

The issue of how we deal with our serious drugs problem is too complex for the scope if this blog, but anyone who believes that easy comparisons can be made between different cultures is misleading themselves and the debate.

The Anglo-Saxon culture has long had a culture of excess in relation to alcohol as literature testifies; Chaucer Pardoner’s tale centres upon it, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is no moderate imbiber, and Hogarth paints a surprisingly modern picture of this country’s relationship with booze.

Offered the chance to engage with oblivion, this culture appears to be drawn to making that existential choice. Even the eloquently liberal Rumpole was an habitué of El Vino’s demanding a bottle of its finest cooking claret, after his latest thumbing of the nose at the legal establishment.

The social evils associated with drugs are many, complex and serious.

The costs are both direct – in terms of health care and crime, but also indirect, in terms of child abuse, undiagnosed mental health issues, self harm and family breakdown. Those indirect costs are not only financial but emotional.

Family dysfunction is a communicable social disease which grows exponentially. Any modern Rumpole knows from direct experience that drugs run like a musical theme throughout the tragedies of most of the characters who populate the case load of any practitioner of law in the fields of crime, domestic violence, child abuse, housing law, or welfare rights.

Many with close knowledge of the devastation which drugs cause to families and, especially, children will view any proposed change with great care. Improved practice is welcome; informed culturally calibrated policy will assist; facile comparisons with unrelated cultures will not.

Defending Lord Hope -different times, different understandings

Child abuse is back in the public eye.

Archbishop Justin has been reported in the Daily Telegraph as having broken down in tears at the horror of engaging with yet more stories of child abuse, having immersed himself in the detail of many historic cases and then meeting survivors personally. Brother Ivo is not surprised.

It is possible to inure oneself to such material, indeed it is very necessary for professionals in the field to do so, for otherwise the tasks of analysis could simply not be done. Like trauma paramedics and surgeons, the constant exposure to raw pain and tragedy can have searing affects on those not habituated to it, and those who have to consider these  matters on a daily basis have to  harden their emotional carapaces to survive. Beyond the initial investigating officers, Prosecutors are required by “best practice” to view relevant images. Officers and the lawyers testing such allegations have to ask in detail what happened and press victims for verifiable detail.

To appreciate the difficulty involved, it is worth reminding ourselves that the weeping Archbishop is the same Justin Welby who was brave enough to surrender himself to heavily armed Muslim terrorists in order to negotiate the release of hostages. He did this on more than one occasion. This is not a man who lacks courage, strength of character or self control.

That is the measure of what such stories can do to the strongest of characters, and explains his determination to expose the past wrongdoings. It also shows how hard it is to engage with such matters. It was perhaps even harder in the past when society found it hard to credit such allegations.

We also seem to be having further difficulty finding a suitable person to chair the public inquiry into child abuse at the heart of public life. Having jettisoned Lady Butler-Sloss because her brother was Attorney General at the time, we now have the Commons Committee taking a second look at Fiona Woolfe, the former President of the Law Society and Lord Mayor of London.

She was apparently on dinner party terms with Leon Brittan whose handling of child abuse dossiers during his time as Home Secretary may form part of the Inquiry, and so many  say this makes her an unsuitable choice. Brother Ivo is inclined to the view that anyone with Lady Woolfe’s background who considers herself not to be a part of the establishment must have slightly dubious judgement for that alone. Sometimes we can cannot see the blinding obvious because we do not want to. It may make us wrong, it does not make us evil.

Whilst the Inquiry will be assisted by many other persons of varying expertise, one cannot help thinking that the Chair should be a leading Judge with long direct experience of both the nature of the subject and the way in which this field of the Law evolved.

We have a dilemma. If we choose someone who was working in Child Protection at the time, they may have some connection with some of the people whose judgements are under question, if they are of a later generation they are out of touch with those times.

Child abuse, past and present is poisonous.

The Church of England is currently responding with what may be a wholly understandable over reaction, on the “better to be safe than sorry” principle.

For some years we have required strict checking of all volunteers; that said, Brother Ivo is aware that in some Dioceses there is still significant complacency amongst clergy and delay in undertaking awareness training. It is now a disciplinary offence to allow a visiting preacher into the pulpit even on a single ocassionally without checking their Disclosure and Barring Service status. This is to prevent friends of suspended clergy giving opportunity to be once again the public face of the Church.

Similar hard practice applies in the secular world too, not leasting to best selling authors reading to children in bookstores.. Apparently the author Philip Pulman reacted to such requirements in 2009: ” It is insulting and I think unnecessary, and I refuse to be complicit in any scheme that assumes my guilt.”

That such indignation occurs in modern times, may give some slight insight into the problems which confronted many in much more naive times, not least former Archbishop David Hope.

Many years ago judges, policemen, clergy, Headteachers etc had a very imperfect understanding of sexuality in all its sometimes shocking variety. Their understanding of child abuse was even less

Brother a Ivo’s father had never heard of homosexuality until he joined the services in 1942. Queen Victoria famously caused the exclusion of lesbians from the criminalisation of homosexual behaviour because she simply could not believe that such things happened.

Today’s 10 year olds probably have a greater range of sex education than the bishops and judges of yesteryear, and cunning abusers knew how to play the game of outraged innocence in order to discomfort accusers. It was easy then to pull the wool over eyes that were culturally reluctant to see. It also worked on the simply inadequately prepared. We are called to be as wise a serpents and gentle as doves. Sometimes the wolves play on the gentleness of doves.

Even institutions like the National Council for Civil Liberties allowed the Paedophile Information Exchange to hide in plain sight like Jimmy Savile at the BBC. When intelligent women like Harriet Harman and Esther Rantzen were blind-sided by such people, how can we be surprised at the failures of senior clergy of a very different generation? We may judge them as insufficient to the task -which many were with hindsight and would acknowledge- but we should be slow to go further

In the 1950’s there was less public sexuality. Like Queen Victoria, most could never conceive of a child as the object of sexual desire. Even today, Brother Ivo suspects that many would struggle to “see” the inconceivable.

If you have not confronted it, who could imagine a mother choosing to remain in the same room watching television whilst her boyfriend penetrates her two year old on the dining room table? Who could conceive of her remaining on a relationship with such a man? It is natural not to want to believe such things happen, yet this is the measure of depravity that brings one Archbishop under suspicion of neglect and another to tears.

Of course we must condemn and learn, but before ascribing gross neglect, still less complicity, it is important to remind ourselves that we have built our understanding by learning from much past failure of those lower down the learning curve, and the considerable exploitation of naivity. Victims were manipulated by cunning and wicked perpetrators.

So were some who failed to protect.

A Freudian parable

The people cam forward to ask, “How shall we treat our brothers and sisters who, by reason of mental impairment are disproportionately numbered amongst the unemployed?”

After a moments pause, this parable was told.

“There were once two sisters Mary and Martha.

Mary owned a small “Vintage Cafe ” which did not make her much profit but was a great boon to her village. People visited it after Church services, she catered for small parties, for those who could not afford lavish family occasions, and the local book club would sit and discuss matters all afternoon over two pots of tea. She welcomed them.

One day her only assistant decided to leave. She could get three times the money and a pension, working for the BBC in their canteen. Mary was distraught, as it had been hard enough to find and afford help originally and she could not afford to pay much.

Martha had two sons Luke and John.

Martha had not been able to work for years because Luke suffered Down’s syndrome and John suffered from Torrettes syndrome and was prone to rather unsocial language which many who did not know him found alarming. She would have liked to get away from her caring responsibilities from time to time and thought she could manage a bit of flexible working as a cleaner. Her problem was looking after her sons.

One day Mary came up with a solution.

The boys could come and help her in the cafe whilst Martha started her cleaning business. Luke was an amiable fellow who would enjoy waiting and clearing the tables and John could help in the kitchen where his more extravagant language was something his aunt could tolerate.

The only problem was that Mary could not employ both boys, even at the national minimum wage. The cafe was simply not viable with three wages. Martha and her boys were all happy for Luke and John to work for half the previous worker’s wage, it was an affordable form of supervised care and the boys would enjoy the chance to show a little independence.

When Mary and Martha’s jealous brother Owen heard of this he was angry. He had never offered any employment for his sister or his nephews but denounced the proposal calling it ‘ exploitative, nasty, and vile’. His friends agreed and loved to cast the first stone.

Which of the family members fulfilled the law of promoting life in all its fullness?”

The people looked at each other amazed that the question was even put.

“Why, the sister who enriched her nephews lives, gave them purpose, independence, and stimulation” , they relied, “Not to mention the preservation of a community resource, and rendering modestly to Caesar” they replied.

“Go and and do thou likewise” came the reply. “But be prepared for abuse and rejection from those who rejected me before they built their  own morality”.

It is time for Transparency in the Church

There has recently been a by-election in Brother Ivo’s home diocese for a place on the General Synod, and in the course of this we have seen a certain interesting invigoration of the democratic process.

Previously, such elections were undertaken with paper addresses being sent out from the Diocesan Office simultaneously. The Candidates would not know who each other were until that point, and so there was little framing of the debate within the only communication most of the voters received.

Accordingly the election was a rather low key, almost solitary affair. Few electors knew the candidates personally or by reputation, neither did they normally attend the husting, which created a vicious circle. Low turn out discouraged multiple venues and the one or two hustings which occurred rarely brought in voters from the more distant parts of the diocese.

No hustings were arranged for a single seat, despite 14 candidates, so voters were having to choose their priorities based upon what the candidates chose to reveal, some on only one side of A4 paper. Many addresses were bland and anodyne,

It is little surprise that the “turnout” for voting was remarkably small. The voters are the representatives of churches in the Deanery Synods. The bigger churches have more electors and  the bigger Deaneries tended to present more candidates Because they were personally known to more members of the electorate there was an inherent advantage for them, even before one factored in undercurrents of unacknowledged organised lobbying and block voting.

Candidates were given the voting lists so they could canvass. In the previous election,  surprisingly few voters  were on email and those candidates who were pecunious enough, and perhaps were in retirement, had the chance to do some telephone electioneering and personal visiting. Those less pecunous  or time strapped were inevitably disadvantaged.

Nobody knew whether any of this was actually happening, to any great degree but the lack of transparency facilitated suspicion and speculation that such populist dark arts were being practiced by ” the other lot”, a concept that abounded but, being Anglican, we hesitated to acknowledge.

Those elected came from the richest areas in the Deanery. The poorest and  most populous areas had no representative local to them. The Diocese delivered a majority of representatives who opposed women bishops although when the Diocese was actually consulted in the aftermath of the General Synod vote, it found itself substantially in support and very much in the mainstream. Inevitably some asked “How did such mis-reprentation of the Diocese views occur?”

It did not help that some of those elected came from a Church which, though well able to afford its quota contribution to the Diocese finances, chose not to do so in protest at the perceived liberality of other churches. The irony of seeking multiple seats whilst out of fellowship with the diocese did not dissuade some of those who stood. Such ironies were not known to many electors.

Inevitably when the latest by-election arose, there was what Brother Ivo might describe as a “Carswellesque” response, with an initiative emerging for greater transparency this time around.

Of the 14 candidates, five agreed to contribute to a small project to provide a grid of their positions and priorities on major issues which could then be emailed to all electors . All candidates were invited to contribute yet surprisingly most chose not to do so..

If there is an intellectual case for preserving a low information electorate, nobody seems to be willing to put it. One objector to the transparency initiative described it as “undignified”. What adjective one applies to a candidate elected on a sotto voce platform is unclear.

Brother Ivo writes of this not to be parochial (or perhaps diocesan) but rather to flag up what may be a wider democratic deficit in the Church.

The local experienced described is almost certainly not an unrepresentative one, and if this is the case, does not the Church need to improve its democratic procedures and thereby encourage proper debate, engagement and accountability in its future elections?

At present, the consensus locally appears to be to try and encourage the preparation of a series of simplified policy options for candidates to be asked to clarify when they present themselves for election, yet is that not fraught with difficulty?

Who draws the form? Who decides what the voters want to know? On what basis is this to be done? What if one’s position is more nuanced than the grid allows? Most importantly how will the election timetable to adjusted to allow for such a consultative process to occur?

Brother Ivo sees the potential for much “paralysis of analysis” in trying to devise such a bureaucratic system.

Brother Ivo would prefer a system that places the selection and prioritisation of issues in the hands of the electing members, rather than one person or group. An interactive section of the Diocesan website ought surely to be devisable so that anyone, voter or not, is able  to ask those who seek to represent them what they think about any relevant issue.

This ought not to be necessary. If a candidate feels strongly about Male Headship, or is a lifelong supporter of WATCH, Changing Attitudes, Forward in Faith or any other co-ordinated pressure group, one might expect such affiliations and loyalties to be made plain, yet sometimes that does just not happen. “No clarity please -we’re Anglican!”

Yet if the General Synod is to be truly representative of the Church at large, we need to grasp the communication possibilities more easily available at this time than any other. Maybe we ought even to think of enacting recall provisions as the political world seems to be edging towards albeit with hesitation.

This may feel a little like soiling ones hands with politicisation and yet that is probably an unfounded fear.

Transparency is healthy.Sunlight improves the health of most bodies.

Candidates should be plain in their presentation and they should be interacting with their electorate, saying how they voted and why. It has never been easier to be interactive.

Transparency is not the project of any one faction.

Transparency is not a risk free option for anyone. For every voter gained by a stated position, another may be lost.

Yet there is a ray of hope from Brother Ivo’s local experience.

The candidate who won the by election was the one who most trusted the electorate by stating his views plainly. He even publicised twitter email and internet details so that voters could , if they chose enquire directly and even  examine the history of his opinions, as stated over a lengthy period.

It is cheering that such transparency was rewarded, and perhaps that will be the lasting legacy of this small by-election.

It may be no coincidence that it occurred on the same day that Douglas Carswell trusted his electorate and was similarly amply rewarded. Perhaps the time for an electoral transparency agenda for the Church has come.