"Bringing about Political Change" – Liverpool Hope University 21st February – 2012

Feb 21, 2012 | Uncategorized


Mahatma Gandhi - be the change you wish to see

Liverpool Hope University Bringing About Political Change 4 – Powerpoint Presentation
Hope University: Tuesday February 21st 2012.
“Bringing about Political Change”
Arun Gandhi attributed the following remark to his grandfather, Mahatma: “You must be the change you want to see in the world” (quoted by Michael Potts in India-West (San Leandro, California) Vol. XXVII, No. 13 (1 February 2002) p. A34;

What Gandhi was signifying was the centrality of personal transformation.
Without such change, political life can be a game of charades where its participants are seduced by the allure of power; where they trade the principles which they once espoused, and the ideals which they once embraced, in a Faustian Pact of self advancement.   
The sophistry is offered that, if only they can climb a little higher up what Disraeli described as “the greasy pole” of politics (“I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole”), then they will change things.   But, usually, the only thing which has changed is they themselves, and not in the manner which Ghandi had in mind.    
Enoch Powell, with whom I served in the House of Commons, and who died in 1998, remarked in his biography of  Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977, p. 151) that
“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” 
I have a more optimistic view of politics and of human nature than Enoch Powell.  There are many who have entered political life, performed great service, or advanced some great cause, or put right some injustice, and who left the field believing that they had done some good on the way.
In 350 BC the father of modern democracy, Aristotle, in his great work “Politics” saw our participation in “the polis” for the high calling which it is. He said that “we are not solitary pieces in a game of chequers” but all players in a common life. He went further, admonishing those who are contemptuous of the political life of the community and warning that “aidos” – shame – would attach to the person who refuses to play their part. But to be true participants in the common life we need to remember our roots and enter into the world in which the people whom politicians are meant to serve actually live.
 It’s been said that “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves” (Gandhi). It’s certainly true that when politicians forget to walk the streets, to knock on people’s doors, to be available and to live in the communities and regions they represent it compounds alienation and the dislocation of politics and people.     
I was brought up by parents who believed in the importance of both community and duty. My mother was an immigrant whose first language was Irish and who, following the early death of her parents, leaving eight children behind them, came from the grinding poverty of a gaeltacht area of Mayo.  In the East End of London she met my father, a Desert Rat who had just been demobbed.  From the smog of the East End we were rehoused to a Council flat which gave us a bathroom for the first time. My father worked for the Ford motor company all of his life.
A beneficiary of the 1944 education Act – which is why I so strongly oppose and voted against the increase in tuition fees – believing that education is the single most important instrument for bringing transformational change in our world – I became the first from either side of my family to enter higher education.
 I wanted to teach, came here, and studied history and theology (in the aftermath of the publication of Fr.Alexander Jones’ brilliant translation of the Jerusalem Bible) – getting student experience, teaching in Toxteth and, for two summers, working as a volunteer, teaching immigrant children English.
The crucial importance of education in personal and collective development – was brought home to me again last year when I travelled to Turkana and Southern Ethiopia with my second son, Philip. At Omorate I talked to 13-year-old Joseph Amukoo who was shot with an AK47 – Africa’s weapons of mass destruction – while asleep. He was left for dead.
A friend of mine, an African priest, Fr. Stephen Ochieng, saved the boy’s life, ferrying him to a hospital. With the wisdom of a child Joseph told me that the raiders “needed education” if ever they were going to learn to live differently. Joseph’s story also recalls the truth of the rabbi’s observation – important for politicians who too often measure their success in too grand a way – that “the man who saves a single life saves the world.”
During my Sixth Form, at my grammar school, founded by Jesuits, I came to the early realisation that small individual actions matter and that politics shapes priorities – spending on education being one of them. I joined the National League of Young Liberals and would later become its national President.
I joined, not because I wanted a career in politics but because of what was happening in the world around me – in Czechoslovakia, in Vietnam, in Northern Ireland, in South Africa, in Biafra and in the USA – where Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had both been assassinated. And, here at home, I began to follow what I believed to be unjust legislation, ranging from a Bill rushed through all its Parliamentary stages by the Labour Government to take away citizenship from Kenyan Asians, to the 1967 Abortion Act – which would lead to seven million abortions in the UK.
From the beginning I have believed that no life is so futile or worthless that it does not command the right to be defended with determination and vigour.  Regardless of gestational age or political status, colour or creed, orientation or gender, class or origin, all men and women at every stage of their lives deserve the protection of those who hold political office, make laws, and determine events.
As a teenager I felt especially challenged by the killing at Memphis on April 4th 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King, then aged 39, who five years earlier had given his landmark speech – “I Have a Dream” – in which he described the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence as a promissory note:
“A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “inalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.”
Fundamental change in the USA, Europe, and in South Africa’s apartheid regime – how we view colour and race – was ushered in by King’s sacrificial entry into political life. But he understood the price that would be paid to bring change:
“Change,” he said, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Those who believe that politics is about grandstanding, sound-bites, personal aggrandisement, the pursuit of power, or a charmed life will rarely develop King’s bent back but nor will they have the satisfaction of bringing an idea or a great cause to birth.
Two months after Dr.King’s assassination Robert Kennedy also paid the ultimate price in championing civil rights and opposing racial segregation. Kennedy’s Catholic faith led him to a profound belief in the importance of individual actions, that each of us is made in God’s image (Imago Dei), is, therefore, of inestimable worth, and that we should neither be discouraged by seemingly impossible odds or by the intractable nature of the challenges we face:       
“Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” (Robert Kennedy).
Looking at the world today – 800 million people wracked by starvation or despair, living below any definition of human decency; at egregious violations of human rights,  from Iran to North Korea – where I have travelled several times with your Chancellor, Baroness (Caroline) Cox; famine in Somalia and the Sahel; unspeakable violence in Syria and Nigeria, Congo and the Sudan; and at the domestic challenges at home, which I recently outlined in a lecture entitled “The Condition of England Question”, and which have left 1 million young people not in education, employment , or training,  and over 2.6 million without work – a 17 year high in a flat-lining economy;  or the 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK or the 4,000 who call Childline each day; or the 1 million elderly living in toxic loneliness who don’t see a friend or a neighbour during the course of a typical week;  or the devil take the hindmost policies in an increasingly sharp-elbowed Britain and which threaten some of our most vulnerable people – families with disabled children reliant on benefits, others dependent on the National Health Service,  or access to justice through legal aid – we can very easily overawed – like the boy in Louis Stephenson’s rhyme who is dejected by the one-damn-thing-after-anotherness of life and despairs that “the world is so big and I am so small I do not like it at all at all”.   
 It would be easy to echo his desperation and ask the question can I really do anything about it?  Will anything I do make a difference? 
And, when you look at the parlous state of our institutions – from Parliament, to the police, to the media – you either say, change is an impossibility, or you commit yourself to change. It’s as simple as that.  If you don’t like something turn your hand to the wheel and try and change it.
In deciding to get involved in politics it’s as well to recognise your own limitations but not to be incapacitated by them. While I was a student here for two years I lived in Newman Hall – named for Cardinal John Henry Newman – who is now Blessed but whose hall is now demolished.
Encouragingly he reminds us that “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault” and that “We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin”
I often remark that we are not great boulders but small stones – and that it is small stones that must first move for a landslide to happen.  To take up this challenge, as Ghandi had it,  we must become the change that we desire to see; and be encouraged by Winston Churchill’s observation that  “to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
As we approach what the Italians call the “tempi forti”, Lent, one of the “strong seasons” it’s the time when we should go to war with ourselves and to seek to change ourselves. The Leonine Sacramentary, from the seventh century, contains the Ash Wednesday Collect which says “Grant O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting, this campaign of Christian service.”
For Christians – and I would suggest others of different ort no belief – politics should be a campaign of service. Politics should always be about service not self-seeking; virtue not vanity; speaking up for the powerless, not narrow partisanship; respectful of opponents, not the silencing of dissent; tolerant of difference, not the crushing conscience. Politicians should consider the merits of arguments and not blindly accept the dog whistle of party whips – and I say that as a former Chief Whip.
An elected representative is not a swingometer, simply reading the runes of popularity ratings before daring to speak,  feverishly putting his finger into the wind to find which way it is blowing before he dares open his mouth.  A Member of Parliament should put their conscience, their constituents, their country and their principles before party or popularity.    
I have held these views since I left Christ College forty years ago to take up my first teaching post in Kirkby but also having been elected, as a student, to Liverpool City Council.  
My first significant speech was made here to the Student Union, which adopted my Motion opposing apartheid and committing the Union to demonstrate against the 1970 South African rugby tour with its racially selected team.
But it was community politics – and getting close to disadvantaged communities – which was increasingly preoccupying me. What I experienced was challenging and changing me.
I had chosen to stand in the Low Hill Ward of the city – part of the old Exchange Division of Liverpool, once represented by Bessie Braddock MP. Much of Low Hill had been designated a slum clearance area; half the houses had no inside sanitation or running hot water or bathrooms, and there were still streets lit by gas.   
It was a seat which I had been assured that I had no chance of winning – it hadn’t even been contested by a Liberal for 50 years – and remember, I had joined a party of just 12 MPs and 8% of the vote, led by Jo Grimond, – hardly a good move if my aim was a political career.  But I was brought up on the straightforward maxim that “there is no such word as can’t.” I was well aware, however, that the odds were stacked against me.
In Liverpool there had been no Liberal Member of Parliament since 1924 when Hugh Rathbone had represented Wavertree for a year and in the Edge Hill Constituency, in which the Low Hill Ward was incorporated in 1973, there had been never been a Liberal member of Parliament since its creation during the First World War, in 1918; and its sitting Labour MP, Sir Arthur Irvine QC, had held the seat since a by-election in 1947.  
Edge Hill had four Wards and 12 councillors, no Liberal Association and no party members. Within a year of my election as a City Councillor in 1972 we had captured every council seat and took control of the City Council. As the Council’s Housing Chairman and Deputy Leader I was subsequently able to see through the biggest housing renewal programme in the country and end the policy of ripping the heart out of the city.
In 1979, with the party at 7% in the polls, and its former leader, Jeremy Thorpe, on conspiracy to murder charges, a by-election occurred in Edge Hill. I secured a 36% swing and 64% of the vote, becoming the youngest member of the Commons and also its shortest lived. The night before my election the Callaghan Government lost a vote of no confidence and a General Election was called, leading to Margaret Thatcher’s first administration. Happily I was returned at the General Election and subsequently in the new constituency of Mossley Hill for 18 years until I stood down, leaving my party on a matter of conscience.  
Then, like a prisoner caught escaping the penitentiary, I was given a life sentence for bad behaviour and, since 1997, have sat as an independent Crossbench Peer.
Have a care, then, if you are among those who delight in deriding Parliament and parliamentarians, pronouncing that they are “all as bad as one another.” Politics remains a high calling even if some of its players have dragged it down.
Stand for a moment in Westminster Hall where, in 1265, the first meeting of Parliament took place and remember that, four hundred years later, here, too, a king of England was sentenced to death precipitating an eight year bloody civil war.  Before you write off the privilege of living in a free, democratic country recall the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes, and the brave men and women who died fighting Nazism to preserve our hard won freedoms and cherished liberties.
 Invoke here, too, St.Thomas More – Lord Chancellor of England and Speaker of the House of Commons – sentenced to death in these same precincts for refusing to break the unity of religious life or to compromise his conscience. And wonder aloud whether religious freedom and the gains made, in 1829 with the emancipation of Catholics and Jews, remain safe in a country whose courts say that a 400 year-old tradition of saying prayers before a council meeting in the Devon town of Bideford is no longer legal and that a young woman working for British Airways may no longer wear a small cross around her neck lest it causes offence. How right is Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty, who says of Britain: “Here the struggle for religious freedom has been strongly connected with the struggle for democracy itself”(The Times, January 19, 2010).
It would be a great loss to this nation if the foolish notion gained a foothold that faith has no place in the public square. This city made its wealth from the slave trade. According to Ramsay Muir, in his wonderful “History of Liverpool” (1907) in 1807 alone Liverpool’s men of commerce generated more than £17 million from the trade in African men and women.  Those who led the campaign for abolition of the trade were men and women of deep religious conviction, notably the Quakers, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharpe, Olaudah Equiano, Josiah Wedgewood – who created the medallion “Am I Not a Man and Brother”, John Newton, the Liverpool ship’s captain and slave trader who changed his mind and last composed “Amazing Grace” – and the Liverpool MP William Roscoe.
Estimates of the numbers of Africans sold into slavery vary but over nearly four centuries about 12 million people were forcibly transported into bondage.
Between 1701 and 1810 around 5.7 million people were taken into slavery, 2 million coming from the Slave Coast, where Benin is situated.  Around 39% went to the Caribbean, 38% to Brazil, 17% to South America and 6% to North America.
Many of the slaves shipped out of Africa from the Bight of Benin were taken to the port of Ouidah, which is situated near Cotonou, the present capital and which I visited .Not since I visited the holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel had I experienced such harrowing emotions.
In the total Atlantic trade, British ships are estimated to have made 12,000 voyages and to have carried 2.6 million slaves. The trade before 1730 was dominated by London but was overtaken by Bristol in the 1730s, only to be eclipsed by Liverpool in the 1750s. In 1797, 1 in 4 ships leaving Liverpool was a slaver. Liverpool merchants handled five eighths of the English slave trade and three sevenths of the slave trade in Europe.
In his Journal of a Slave-trader, John Newton wrote:  “I have no sufficient data to warrant calculation but I suppose not less than one hundred thousand slaves are exported annually from all parts of Africa, and that more than one half of these are exported in English ships.”
The last letter written by the great John Wesley – whose “heart was strangely warmed” on his conversion on May 24th 1738 was to Wilberforce and asked “what villainy is this?” which allowed the enslavement of Africans. Wesley told Wilberforce to put his trust in God and to work for an end to such evil – “a scandal of England of religion and of human nature.” He told him to be a force for change and an Athanasius contra mundum” – literally to be like the 4th century Christian Bishop, Athanasius, “Athanasius against the world.”
Two hundred years after Wesley, John Paul II put it differently urging young people to become involved in political life, challenging injustice, and to be “signs of contradiction.”   
Among those who have stood against the world, and have been signs of contradiction, are Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Gladstone, Kier Hardy and many other notable figures  –  challenged and changed by their faith. In turn, they have channelled their belief in the sanctity of human life, human dignity, the upholding of the common good and their belief in mercy, justice, love, and compassion into their political lives.
In 1876 Gladstone recalled the proverb “Vox populi, vox Dei” –“The people’s voice, God’s voice”. Religion, for Gladstone, was central to his personal life and to that of the nation: “As to its politics, this country has much less, I think, to fear than to hope; unless through a corruption of its religion – against which, as Conservative or Liberal, I can perhaps say I have striven all my life long.”
These views won him the respect and support of the pioneering Christian leaders of the Labour movement, Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury along with Nonconformists, High Anglicans, and Irish Catholics.
 Today, a bust of Mr.Gladstone dominates my study, along with something which he once said:  “We look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power, and then will our world know the blessings of peace.” Good advice for today’s rising generation of politicians.
 Gadstone’s last great speech – defending the Armenians against the atrocities of the Ottoman Turks – was delivered in Liverpool, in 1896, to 7,000 people at Hengler’s Circus, Low Hill, where, as a student, I would one day become the local councillor and later an MP.
 During my own time in Parliament I have been fortunate to meet some extraordinary people and to see some extraordinary changes in the world.
As a young MP, in 1980 I first travelled to China. Today, I chair the All Party Parliamentary Committee on North Korea.
Forty years ago China was like North Korea – a country where 2 million died in the famine in the 1990s and where, according to the United Nations, 300,000 people are detained in prison camps because of political or religious dissent or social crimes. Next month, Shin Dong Hyok, who has given testimony before my committee was born in one of the camps, will publish his “Escape from Camp 14” (Penguin, 2012).  He and Barbara Demick, in her magnificent book “Nothing to Envy” (Granta Books, 2010); graphically capture the nature of this servile state.
And yet, as I detail on my web site (www.davidalton.net) , the actions of one extraordinary man, Dr. James Kim – who was imprisoned and sentenced to death by the regime – have led to the creation of a university in Pyongyang, of which I am a trustee: public-private and international in a country which hitherto has embraced neither of those things. Like China, North Korea is changing and that change cannot come fast enough for many of its beleaguered people.  
I first encountered totalitarian communism in the 1980s, when I helped Danny Smith establish the Jubilee Campaign, and championed the plight of Christian and Jewish dissidents in the former USSR and the Soviet bloc. In 1989 through the inspiration of John Paul II, the  heroism of Lech Walesa and Solidarity, Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution, men like Ivan Hel in the Ukraine and Lazlo Tokes in Romania, and the movements for change which swept across eastern and central Europe, the  Berlin Wall finally came tumbling down. They each answered the question “if not me who?” and “if not now, when?” with their own courageous and definitive actions  – signs of contradiction, standing against the world.
And other walls have fallen.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, brought down the walls of apartheid, while the troubles in Northern Ireland, which led to 3,000 deaths – were replaced by the Good Friday Agreement, a peace process and political settlement.
 Who in their most wide eyed moment  – and certainly not I as a former Front Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland – would have anticipated what happened last month when the DUP First Minister and the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness,  publically called for prayers for the ailing Unionist leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley.
Change has occurred, too, in Burma, where I have travelled illegally in the Karen State, to see first-hand and report on the atrocities committed by the Burmese military regime. The indomitable presence of the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi – through years of house arrest – has been the inspiration which kept hope alive and has inspired the changes now underway.
So don’t tell me that democratic political change cannot occur. But it usually starts with the transformation of hearts and minds, with men and women learning to be the change which they desire to see.
But let me end by reflecting that elsewhere, change is either far off, or deeply problematic.
Take the Arab Spring, for instance,    
One year after the Arab Spring many people are asking what difference the revolutions have made to the position of the region’s people.
The game of grandmother’s footsteps which has seen the toppling of dictators, and some tentative reform in countries like Morocco, is still being played out in Syria and Yemen and although it’s too soon to say how it will end, so far, the omens are not good.
Look at Egypt. I am President of the British Coptic Association.
One Coptic Orthodox bishop says that although 10-15% of Egyptians are Copts, because of the first past the post system of elections, none were elected to the lower chamber of Parliament
To provide a fig leaf, five Copts were subsequently appointed to the People’s Assembly.
After they swore their oaths, and took their seats, a Coptic woman MP asked to be put on a parliamentary committee.

However, another member stood up and objected that she couldn’t be appointed because firstly, she was a Copt and, secondly, she was a woman. This refutation went unchallenged. Nor did anyone challenge ad hoc oaths which were made on the spot by new MPs swearing to observe the constitution insofar as it is compliant with Sharia Law.

Many see this disturbing trend as an attempt to establish a pan North African Islamic caliphate – with all the consequences which this would involve for minorities such as Christian Copts and secular or non radical Muslims.
Many Christians are not even aware that there is an indigenous Christian community in the Middle East.
Most believe the Arab world is Muslim and that Israel is Jewish – and maybe that there was once a vibrant Christian community in Bethlehem. Depressingly, that’s about it. A Palestinian Christian tells the story of how he was asked when his family had converted and become Christians – “About 2,000 years ago was the reply.”
Although, among Arabs, Sunni Muslims form an overwhelming majority, several of the region’s countries have significant religious minorities. In addition to ancient Christian churches – which, of course, pre date Islam -these include small sects such as Alawi, Druze, and Yazidi. There has been an unbroken Christian presence in Egypt since St. Mark first preached the Gospel there in the first century.
How minorities like the Copts are treated in the Arab world will be the ultimate test of the Arab Spring.
As revolutionary energy and zeal continues to sweep across the region – facilitated by contemporary social networking – the door has been opened to groups who have sectarian agendas which brook no differences and reject toleration. In Sudan these same forces were responsible for two million deaths – situations I saw first hand during the civil war and in Darfur; and today they are attempting to turn Nigeria into a new Sudan.
If these radical forces go unchecked it will  also dramatically affect non-orthodox or secular Muslims, as it has already done with such dire and violent consequences in the Mullah’s fiefdom of Iran and in Pakistan.
Next month it will be the first anniversary of the brutal murder of Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities. His assassination not only robbed Pakistan’s National Assembly of a dedicated, honest, and able politician but his death also threw into sharp relief the plight of Pakistan’s minorities, whose fearless champion he had become
In taking a stand- being an Athanasius contra mundum –  in working for change, he knew that his outspokenness and singularity would make him a primary target for Pakistan’s radical Islamists and he sensed the almost inevitable consequence of his courageous words and actions.
However, he said that his stand would “send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair” adding that his life was dedicated to “the oppressed, the down-trodden and the marginalised” and to “the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom and the empowerment of religious minorities’ communities.”

By definition, a martyr is a witness and an example to the Christian community of how to behave – and Bhatti was certainly a witness for truth and for justice. He stands in a long tradition – from Beckett to More, Kolbe to Romero – of men willing to sacrifice their lives as the price for upholding their beliefs.

As Kolbe expressed it so well: “No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
In Pakistan and throughout the Arab world this is a moment for Christians and Muslims to draw inspiration from Kolbe’s words and from Shabaz Bhatti life:  to reject modern crusaderism as vehemently as they reject the forcible imposition of Sharia Law; and to argue for common civic principles which should form the basis of new constitutions and reform. It is not a western notion or western model to seek government based on honesty; the upholding of law; justice; mercy; and respect.
We must assert these common good principles together.
Failure to do this will consign the hoped for change represented by the Arab Spring to history as a failure. And there will be untold human suffering on the way.

Those who risked so much, and believed so passionately in reform, will be cheated of the fundamental change which they hoped to see. In Pakistan and the Arab world how minorities are treated will remain the greatest test.

 The story of Shabaz Bhatti is a good place to conclude. He was called to a political life and in the end he laid down his life for his friends: standing against a world which he knew to be unjust and which needs to change.
Shabaz Bhatti life and death reminds us that change comes at a price. John Henry Newman captured this though when he reflected that:
 “Good is never accomplished except at the cost of those who do it, truth never breaks through except through the sacrifice of those who spread it.” 
  Like Dr.King and Robert Kennedy Shahbaz Bhatti sacrificed himself for his beliefs and in the service of others.  Like Gandhi, his own life represented the change he wanted to see.  Most of us will never be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice but let us never forget Aristotle’s warning that shame will attach to those who refuse to play their part.  

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