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Scot free

Can’t shed a tear at today’s death in his Vatican City refuge of the former Catholic archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law. The man should have died in jail, paying the fair penalty (perhaps including violent rape at the hands of his fellow prisoners) for his undoubted ‘sins of commission and omission’. Instead, he benefited from the seemingly automatic protection leading clergy are granted by Western societies that still falsely profess to be Christian. So I can only be very sad that this accomplice of orchestrated child abuse got off scot free, and died peacefully in his bed. And here I can’t help naming one of his accomplices – Pope John Paul II, who knowingly presided over Law’s escape from justice and yet is lauded by the ignorant as an icon of democracy and freedom.

It was known for years that the Catholic clergy (who were required to be ‘celibate’ in the hope that they would thus be able to devote all their energies to the worship of God) were no more capable than other humans of suppressing their sexual urges, and simply relieved them on the literally impregnable children (of both sexes) who were supposedly in their spiritual care, and unable to stand up for their rights. One mocking Dutch joke about this undoubtedly widespread practice runs as follows: a newly officiating priest asks his superior, a bishop, what the correct penance is for sexually abusing an altar boy, and is told ‘a Mars bar’.

The horrid underlying point of the joke is that church leaders were not only fully aware of the abuse, but took great care to keep it concealed not only from the police, but also from parents. Time and time again, Catholic priests who were clearly guilty of sexually abusing girls and boys were simply moved to other parishes, where time and time again they pursued their urges with impunity. And one of the main culprits in this deliberate cover-up was Cardinal Bernard Law, who ran the archdiocese of Boston.

Thanks to excellent investigative journalism by the newspaper The Boston Globe, the truth was finally brought to light. At first the Catholic hierarchy did its usual thing of denying everything, but eventually the truth came home to roost. Law submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II; this was accepted, and he was ‘laicised’ (a euphemism for the more offensive term ‘defrocked’). But that was all. Anyone else would have been denounced to the police as an accomplice to child abuse, and sentenced to jail. Instead, Law (of all names) remained in office as a cardinal – a high officer of the Catholic Church – and in 2004 he was appointed to a sinecure in the church hierarchy, from which he retired seven years later. He received no punishment, either secular or ecclesiastical.

Just as he had protected offending priests under his authority from justice, he was protected from justice by Pope John Paul II, who likewise escaped punishment.

I’m glad the bastard’s now dead, and can do no more harm. But I wish he’d suffered as much as his victims – and, as so often, the Catholic church has contrived to spare him that.

Scot free.

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Big deal (2)

Now that Theresa May has signed an agreement with the EU and her Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Philip Hammond has said Britain can’t walk away from it without destroying whatever reputation it has left as a reliable negotiating partner, her populist ‘Brexit minister’ David Davis has had the nerve to dismiss the whole thing as a mere ‘statement of intent’ that can always be amended later (echoing Michael Gove’s earlier comments). Even more outrageously, Davis has threatened that Britain will not pay a penny of the agreed €40-45 million ‘divorce bill’ unless a trade deal is reached with the EU. He doesn’t seem to realise – or perhaps care? – that such threats only serve to confirm Hammond’s warnings about Britain’s long-standing ‘perfidious Albion’ reputation. The Irish government has already responded that it – and the rest of the EU – will hold the UK to its agreement, however much it tries to wriggle out of it.

Since there is clearly a serious split in Conservative government ranks about how to proceed, or even whether or not the country should be seen to keep to its word, May’s chances of surviving as prime minister now look a lot slimmer than they did a few days ago. But who, given all this conflict within the party, would be a credible replacement? Her foreign minister Boris Johnson is a buffoon almost on a par with Donald Trump, and his appointment as party leader and hence prime minister (once again unelected) would surely lead to mass protests – on the morrow of the Brexit vote people gathered outside his home calling ‘traitor’ and ‘shame on you, Boris’. Davis and Gove have already made their unreliability, as well as their crude over-assessment of Britain’s negotiating power, only too clear. As for Hammond, he would run into exactly the same problems as May has done. Meanwhile, there are many Conservatives who object to their party being held to ransom by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and are furious with May for recklessly throwing away the small but solid parliamentary majority their party had inherited from David Cameron.

So is Britain once again heading for new elections? But how would that help? The only conceivable alternative party of government, Labour, has already manoeuvred itself into an impossible position by clinging almost as firmly as its Conservative opponents to the results of the Brexit referendum, despite the large numbers of people in both parties who wanted, and want, the UK to remain in the EU. And its leader Jeremy Corbyn is far from universally popular.

Since the main point at issue is whether Britain should or should not leave the EU, you start to wonder whether the best thing might be for both major parties to split up into their respective pro- and anti-Brexit wings and fight new elections on that basis. The elections would then, in all but name, be a second referendum on Brexit – now that the Brexiteers’ false promises, distortions of fact and lack of clear thinking are increasingly being exposed for what they are. After 18 months of dithering there is every sign that things are going to turn out worse for Britain, rather than better as the Brexiteers had proclaimed. All the extra jobs and ‘money for the National Health Service’ seem unlikely to materialise; and the other 27 EU countries have come out of this more united than ever, and appear to have weathered the populist storm (you now hardly hear a peep out of the likes of Geert Wilders, Marine le Pen and Beppe Grillo, for Brexit has shown just what could happen in practice if their policies were actually implemented; and even in Germany the social-democratic SDP is at last reconsidering a renewed ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU in order to prevent a dangerous fragmentation of national politics that could give more power to inexperienced extremist parties on either side, and so undermine democracy).

Suppose new UK elections with ‘Leave vs. Remain’ as the central theme resulted in a clear majority for ‘Remain’ – and a much clearer one than the thin 52% achieved by the ‘Leave’ camp in June 2016 (for the millions of pro-EU young people who couldn’t be bothered to vote last time would surely do so now). A strong new coalition of pro-Remain Conservative and Labour MPs, with support from the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalist Party, Wales’s Plaid Cymru and all the Northern Irish parties except the DUP (which would then be deprived of its monstrous leverage on London) could tell the EU it was all a big mistake. The three great ‘sticking points’ – the future status of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, the ‘divorce bill’, and the Irish border – would vanish overnight (all very much to the relief of the DUP, whose goals are completely contradictory), as would the problem of Britain’s future trading arrangements with the EU; and, having been through the whole sorry experience of near-Brexit once, Britain would surely think twice about ever trying it again. Only one thing could be worse than being in the EU, namely not being in it.

Trump is making things easier for Europe by showing us why isolationism is in the long run a very bad idea – and a risk the world can no longer afford to take. Walling others out ultimately means walling yourself in, and losing all your friends. Europe doesn’t want to go there; and nor, in the end, does Britain.

Big deal (1)

At the very last minute, the UK and the European Union (EU) have supposedly reached agreement on the three major ‘sticking points’ that the EU has insisted be solved before further talks on the relationship between it and post-Brexit Britain can begin: (1) the status of EU citizens in Britain, and vice versa, (2) the ‘divorce bill’ (what the UK still owes the EU because of existing financial commitments), and (3) the status of Northern Ireland and its borders with the EU and the UK.

Despite the media euphoria, I’ll believe it when I see it. The whole ‘agreement’ is what is commonly known as a ‘fudge’, as becomes apparent if we take the three points one by one:

(1) It is easy to say that EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in EU countries will have precisely the same rights as they have enjoyed since 1992; but, in practice, this is bound to conflict at some point with agreements already reached. If British citizens can continue to enjoy the same rights within the EU, and vice versa, to what extent will Britain have actually left the Union? Like all rights, these ones entail commitments – which can only be enforced under the existing rules. Trying to pretend otherwise is like trying to ‘square the circle’. And, if the rights the various citizens retain prove in practice to be less than they once were – which is what seems more likely to happen – the people involved will be in a more precarious situation than before. You can’t have it both ways.

(2) The proposed ‘divorce bill’ of £35-39 billion (currently equivalent to €40-45 billion) is far more than pro-Brexit politicians – and the people who voted for them in the hope of a brighter economic future for Britain, and above all fewer ‘wogs’ – were ever prepared to countenance, and far closer to what the EU has always insisted is its due. The UK’s loudmouthed, opportunistic foreign minister Boris Johnson is now unconvincingly trying to claim his notorious statement that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for money supposedly owed to it by Britain only referred to much higher sums. He may now affect to believe that, but it was quite clear at the time that he was saying the EU was not owed any money at all – and just as clear that this was populist bluster.

(3) The ‘agreement’ that there will not be a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has simply postponed the problem. As I said in my recent post Foreign body, Northern Ireland is a political entity that should never have been allowed to exist in the first place; and any attempt to maintain open borders on both sides of it after Britain leaves the EU is illusory. If Britain is outside the EU, the Union must protect its external border with Northern Ireland; and if that border is not subject to customs and immigration checks, Britain is effectively still in the EU, with a porous border that ‘illegal’ immigrants can, and surely will, continue to use as a back door. The only solution is then an internal British border ‘in the Irish Sea’, which Britain and above all Northern Ireland are strongly opposed to.

Some of the first reactions to the ‘agreement’ from British politicians have already made clear that the problems are far from being solved. Northern Ireland’s recalcitrant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has reserved the right to vote ‘no’ once the ‘details’ are known; and that would leave Theresa May without a parliamentary majority, and probably lead to new UK elections, in the very midst of further Brexit talks. Meanwhile, one of the most rabid pro-Brexit ministers in May’s government, Michael Gove, has stated that British voters can still torpedo the ‘agreement’ – and that is undoubtedly true. But, in that case, the whole thing is hardly worth the paper it’s written on. Once again, the UK government has refused to commit itself, and the EU’s other 27 governments must continue to wait until it gets its act together – assuming it ever does.

The leading EU negotiator Michel Barnier has already indicated that Britain still needs to make clear just where it stands. Some of the more nationalist UK media have suggested that the EU has ‘blinked’ on these issues, and that the EU has ‘given way’ in order to preserve its supposedly essential commercial ties with Britain – but the truth is the UK has blinked, by accepting a much higher divorce bill than expected (quite apart from the many ‘hidden costs’ of Brexit, which the Brexiteers either failed to calculate or deliberately chose to ignore) and postponing the more complicated questions of citizens’ rights and the Irish border, in order to preserve its quite definitely essential commercial ties with the EU.

Meanwhile, the clock is still ticking, and Britain is due to leave the Union in just over 15 months’ time, having dithered for 18 months ever since the Brexit vote. One of the current mantras is ‘unless everything is agreed, nothing is agreed’; and sometime in 2018 we’re going to find that not everything has been (or can ever be) agreed – at which point the whole thing is bound to break down, and May will finally get her comeuppance, despite yesterday’s supposed triumph.

Deal? Big deal.

Foreign body

A thousand years ago, an aggressive England – which had just been conquered by invaders from Normandy, themselves descended from Viking invaders of northern France – set about invading all its immediate neighbours: Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where different (Celtic) languages were spoken. Wales, the smallest, nearest and most digestible of the three, soon succumbed to the onslaught; from the late 13th century onwards it was effectively part of the English state, and its native language suffered a precipitous decline that has only very recently begun to be reversed.

Scotland remained a separate monarchy for several more centuries, sometimes in alliance with England’s traditional enemy France. Its remoteness made it less of a threat to the English regime; but it remained a magnet for anti-English forces throughout Europe, and from the 16th century onwards, with Tudor and Elizabethan England emerging on the world stage as a new political power and the Protestant religion in the ascendant, still largely Catholic Scotland was increasingly seen as an enemy to be neutralised and assimilated. The English and Scottish monarchies began to intermarry, and at the turn of the 17th century the Scottish king James VI inherited the English throne as James I. A century later the main island of Britain was unified as ‘Great Britain’, with a new and uniquely multi-coloured flag that incorporated the Christian cross emblems of different patron saints: the vertical-and-horizontal red on white of England’s St George, and the diagonal white on dark blue of Scotland’s St Andrew (the vertical-and-horizontal yellow on black of Wales’s St David had long been forgotten).

Around the same time as English forces were making their inroads into Wales and Scotland, they were also crossing the Irish Sea and conquering the nearest parts of the island to the west. Ireland remained resolutely Catholic; but a slowly expanding area round Dublin on the east coast fell under English (later British) and – from the Tudor/Elizabethan period onwards – Protestant influence. And in 1801, a century after Scotland had lost its independence, it was Ireland’s turn to be officially incorporated into the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’, and the diagonal red on white of its patron St Patrick was added to the ‘Union Jack’, where it remains to this day. But by then the recent French Revolution had encouraged the rise of democratic movements throughout Europe; and the Catholic native Irish now increasingly resisted the occupation of their country by a foreign power with a different religion and language. Educated Irish people already spoke and wrote fluent English, and in the urbanised east no longer even had a good command of Irish; but their access to what was now a major world language (the English-speaking USA having declared its independence a quarter of a century earlier) also gave them access to democratic ideas.

From the 17th and 18th century onwards, the British government deliberately embarked on a policy of ‘planting’ large numbers of Protestant Scottish farmers in the north-eastern corner of the island, round the country’s second-largest city Belfast. An ugly regime reminiscent of South Africa’s later apartheid system gradually developed, with Protestants occupying the dominant economic and political positions, and local Catholics relegated to the inferior ones; job advertisements reading ‘no Catholics need apply’ were still common in the early 20th century.

‘Sectarian’ (interreligious) tension increasingly took hold, and by the outbreak of the First World War was coming to a head. At Easter 1916 an armed uprising in Dublin heralded the second attempt by a British colony (after the Dutch-speaking territories in South Africa) to break away and declare independence. The uprising was brutally suppressed, with executions of rebel leaders and atrocities against Irish civilians by riot police (such as the notorious ‘Black-and-Tans’, named for the colours of their uniforms); but in the wake of the world war, with US president Woodrow Wilson appealing for the self-determination of Europe’s oppressed nations, the independence movement swelled, and in 1922 the Irish Free State (in the Irish language, Saorstát Éireann) was proclaimed as the world’s newest nation. At first it remained part of the British empire; but in 1937 Ireland became a fully independent republic with no further allegiance to the British monarchy, and during the Second World War it even denied Britain’s armed forces the use of its ports and airfields (although many Irishmen served in the British armed forces in the fight against fascism).

Yet Ireland had not yet achieved full independence, for the deliberate plantation of Protestant immigrants in the north-eastern corner of the island had created a disgruntled anti-independence minority who were themselves a majority in that part of the country. As the independence movement grew and the British authorities realised it could not be stopped, the idea developed of ‘partitioning’ the island: the six north-eastern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone would remain part of the ‘United Kingdom’ and be renamed ‘Northern Ireland’, while the remaining 26 counties would form the new ‘Irish Free State’ and eventually the ‘Republic of Ireland’. Ireland’s independence in 1922 depended on the Irish negotiators’ acceptance of this partition; and, faced with this dilemma, they accepted it in order to create a new, independent Irish state. Ireland’s two main political parties, with the Irish-language names Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are descended respectively from supporters and opponents of the partition agreement with the British government, although this no longer plays such a key role in their policies as it once did.

But Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland has always remained a foreign body in Irish and British politics. In the late 1960s the oppressed Catholic minority’s patience finally ran out, and ugly violence, stirred up by paramilitary bodies such as the pro-Catholic (‘nationalist’) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the pro-Protestant (‘loyalist’ or ‘unionist’) Ulster Defence Association (UDA), erupted on the streets. Britain’s colonial-style response was to ignore the roots of the problem and simply treat the Catholic protest as subversion, while overlooking the Protestant violence. The British army was sent in to suppress the Catholic ‘rebels’; and its blatant ignorance and lack of neutrality sowed the seeds of even more hatred.

One reason for this one-sided approach was that the Protestants were a numerical majority, and that any attempt to give the Catholics more rights could be – and, in pro-Protestant circles, was – construed as anti-democratic. Another, whenever Britain had a Conservative government, was that Northern Ireland’s pro-Protestant political parties could be relied on to provide extra support for the Conservatives in the London parliament – ominously foreshadowing the intractable situation that has arisen as 2017 draws to a close.

To her credit (for once), it was the arch-conservative British leader Margaret Thatcher that made the first serious moves, in consultation with the Republic of Ireland’s Fine Gael prime minister Garret FitzGerald, towards resolving the crisis after it had dragged on for over 15 years. A series of talks and agreements finally led to the paramilitaries agreeing to lay down their weapons, and to both sides working together. Despite occasional flare-ups, there has not been a return to the urban warfare that bedevilled the province for so long.

Britain and Ireland had both joined the forerunner of the European Union (EU) back in 1973, when the ‘Troubles’ (as the warfare was euphemistically known) were in full swing; and this shared membership within ‘Europe’ undoubtedly helped smooth the way to a more peaceful future. But Ireland was always a far more enthusiastic member of the Union than Britain; and, as time went on, the two countries began to pursue different political and economic goals.

They had effectively had identical currencies ever since the foundation of the Irish Free State, the only difference (from 1928 onwards, when the Free State introduced its own currency) being in the lettering and images that appeared on the banknotes and coins; and when Britain finally decided to decimalise its currency with effect from 1971, Ireland followed suit (though again with different lettering and images). Pre-decimalisation, the currency units were the pound, the shilling and the penny (in the Irish language punt, scilling and pingin); post-decimalisation, the shilling/scilling disappeared. Throughout this period, British currency continued to be accepted throughout Ireland; but Irish currency was never accepted in Britain.

But then came the world currency crisis in the wake of US President Nixon’s abrupt decision to take the dollar off the gold standard in 1971; this ushered in an age of floating exchange rates, which made national currencies objects of speculation that undermined countries’ economic stability. In response to this, the EU’s predecessor eventually decided to create the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), whereby member states agreed to maintain the exchange rates of their currencies within prescribed limits; the idea of a single European currency was already being mooted, and the mechanism was seen as the first step towards it. True to type, Britain (unlike Ireland) refused to join the ERM; and this forced the Irish government to break the long-standing parity between the Irish and the British pound. From now on the Irish currency was often referred to even in English by its Irish name punt; and British visitors to Ireland now had to exchange their money, which could no longer be accepted there as its value in Irish currency was now fluctuating.

When Britain belatedly joined the ERM a decade later, speculation put the pound under such pressure that it crashed back out of the system within two years, never to return. Ireland adopted the euro as soon as it was introduced at the turn of the new millennium, but Britain kept the pound, reciting the unconvincing mantra that it would only join the euro zone ‘when the time was right’. Today, with Brexit looming, that will never happen.

Which brings us back to Northern Ireland, once again a bone of contention – or a fish bone in everyone else’s throat. Consider that Northern Ireland was one of Britain’s few regions that actually voted by a majority (55%) to remain in the EU. Unfortunately, its dominant political party, the pro-Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is pro-Brexit – a stance that does not even reflect the views of all its supporters, but these are above all anti-Catholic and pro-Unionist. And the party wants two incompatible things, both of them ostensibly in the interests of Northern Ireland’s trade and the free movement of its citizens: an open border with the Republic of Ireland, but also an open border with the rest of the UK.

As I indicated in my earlier posts Checks and balances and Trust her? I wouldn’t (3), there is no way both things can happen. If Northern Ireland remains within the EU single market and customs union, and hence effectively part of the EU, the latter’s external border will have to be ‘in the Irish Sea’ – which means customs and immigration checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country it claims to be part of (even though many of its citizens would sooner see Ireland reunified). On the other hand, if Northern Ireland remains outside the single market and customs union, the checks will have to take place on the border with the Republic of Ireland. There’ll have to be a ‘hard border’ somewhere.

This week, under pressure to reach agreement on the Irish border question before talks can move on to the question of how trade between tomorrow’s UK and the EU is to be organised, Britain’s politically inept prime minister Theresa May seemingly came very close to accepting an open border (euphemistically described as ‘regulatory alignment’) between the two parts of Ireland. But, not surprisingly, the DUP said ‘no’, on the grounds that this would mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (even though the party doesn’t want a hard border with the Republic either). Unfortunately, the DUP has leverage quite disproportionate to its numerical strength – for May’s parliamentary majority, substantially reduced by her silly decision this year to call a snap election which destroyed her party’s majority, now depends on its support. We don’t know exactly what DUP leader Arlene Foster said to May during their 20-minute phone call in the midst of the talks in Brussels – but it was enough to make May back off from a decision she was clearly on the verge of making.

The media, as well as anti-Brexit politicians, are now of course saying that the ‘DUP tail’ is wagging the ‘UK dog’, and that May is being held to ransom by an unrepresentative minority – exactly what was predicted when she made her devil’s pact with the Northern Irish party on the morrow of her electoral defeat.

The DUP wants open borders on both sides of Northern Ireland; but that is only possible if both countries are members of the EU, and the Brexit vote has ruled that out. And the last thing those who did vote for Brexit surely want is that Northern Ireland should become a backdoor entrance for immigrants from the EU and other parts of the world if the borders remain open. Once again, there’ll have to be a hard border somewhere – a further hidden cost of Brexit, given the extra customs and immigration infrastructure that this will require (and I can’t imagine the EU would be prepared to pay for it, any more than Mexico would be prepared to pay for Trump’s proposed wall).

In my view, Northern Ireland should never have been created as a political entity in the first place. If the English had not attempted to subjugate Ireland by planting an artificial Protestant majority in the north of the country centuries ago, the whole island would undoubtedly have gained its independence after the First World War, or perhaps even earlier; and there would now be two clearly demarcated countries with a natural sea border between them, instead of the wholly unnatural border south of Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

In short, it is not the border that is the problem, but Northern Ireland itself; and the DUP has no business making things worse by standing in the way of what might have been an agreement, especially as it does not even represent the views of all its own supporters on this issue, let alone the majority of Northern Irish citizens.

The standing agreement on the possible reunification of Ireland is that this can only be considered if a majority of Northern Irish people want it. Until now that was automatically ruled out by the rigidly Protestant majority; but there are signs that younger people’s views may no longer be so strictly dictated by religious affiliation.

In the light of this week’s impasse, I can’t help wondering what would happen if a referendum on Irish reunification were now held in Northern Ireland. A vote in favour would surely come as a relief to one and all, other than people like the intransigent Arlene Foster. The UK would be rid of one of its poorest regions, which has always been a source of strife; Ireland, already casting off the shackles of the Catholic church, could finally present itself as the homeland of Irish people of all persuasions, as reflected in the colours of its flag (white for peace between Catholic green and Protestant orange); and the EU would not have to struggle with yet another seemingly insoluble problem that has been foisted on it by a thin majority of nationalist fanatics in Britain.

Of course, if Northern Ireland were to join the Republic of Ireland, the pressure on Britain’s other non-English regions (Scotland and Wales) to break away too would increase; and so, rather than usher in the breakup of the EU, Brexit could yet lead to the breakup of the UK, leaving England back where it started a thousand years ago.

I’m reminded here of Serbia, which set out two centuries ago to conquer its neighbours and gain access to the sea. Until 1990 it seemed to have succeeded, with Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia all under its control; but in the years of bloody warfare that followed all these territories successively broke away as independent states, leaving Serbia back where it started, as a small and not very important landlocked country.

Antagonising all your neighbours does you no good in the long run – a lesson Russia is also beginning to learn. In Britain the process may take a little longer, but the principle remains the same.

My enemy’s enemy

When I was a boy I sometimes read typical boys’ adventure stories, many of which were designed to reinforce a sense of Britain’s cultural and (above all) military superiority over supposedly inferior races. One such story dealt with Britain’s fight during the Second World War against Japanese forces that had overrun many of its colonial possessions in South-East Asia, including Singapore, Malaya (now Malaysia) and Burma (now Myanmar, and then an integral part of British India, which the Japanese were hoping to conquer the rest of); and one of the ‘baddies’ in the story was an Indian man called Bose, referred to by the Japanese characters in the story as ‘Bose-san’, as if he himself were Japanese.

What made this man a ‘baddie’ was his simplistic portrayal as a Japanese collaborator and a traitor to the British Empire. No mention was made of India’s struggle for independence, or Bose’s part in it.

Not that Japan would have granted India more than nominal independence if its assault on the country had been successful and it had emerged on the winning side of the war; but it attempted, not entirely in vain, to persuade the peoples it conquered in the Philippines, French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the British colonies mentioned earlier that it was in fact ‘liberating’ them from European oppression, on the principle ‘Asia for the Asians’. Within ten years of the war’s end, every one of these countries had attained independence – although not, in most cases, democracy.

One of the people who chose to side with India’s ‘liberators’ rather than its oppressors was a Bengali called Subhas Chandra Bose. As a leader of the pre-war independence movement he had been placed under house arrest by the British rulers in 1940, but managed to escape early the following year. Even though more and more news was emerging about the atrocities committed by Japan and its (ironically) European allies Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the countries they had conquered, Bose fled to Germany and set up an ‘Indian Legion’ of soldiers from his homeland. His escape route led via Afghanistan and the Soviet Union – then still allied with Germany (which did not launch its surprise invasion of its ally until the following summer) – and finally Italy. He had cordial meetings with Mussolini, Himmler and Hitler, and discussed the possibility of a military assault by Axis forces on British India. Hitler, wrongly assuming that his already planned attack on the Soviet Union would bring that country under German control and destroy communism in Europe, envisaged a further invasion of India from the north, with Japanese assistance from the east; and Bose agreed to muster support among the Indian population.

However, eventually realising that Germany’s plans for Asia did not include Indian independence, he decided instead to put his faith in Japan, and travelled there by submarine. After meeting Prime Minister Tojo, he established an Indian National Army (INA) which fought alongside Japanese forces in Burma. Although many Indians shared the self-serving British view that the 45,000 INA soldiers were nothing but traitors, others saw them as heroes; and when, just after the war, the British colonial government (whose days were already numbered) put members of the army on trial for treason and threatened to deport them from their homeland for life, the public outcry in India was so great that the government backed down.

Bose died of severe burns sustained in a plane crash in Japanese-occupied Formosa (now Taiwan) in August 1945, just days after Japan had announced its surrender following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs.

The members of the German-based Indian Legion had referred to him as Netaji, a Hindustani word meaning ‘respected leader’; and the extent of continuing support (especially in his native region Bengal) for him and his contribution to India’s independence struggle and sense of national identity can be seen in the decision in 1995 by the Bengali city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to rename its refurbished airport after him: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport.

Some might see this as a disgraceful mark of honour for a man who openly collaborated with such vicious regimes as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany and longed for their victory; but many Indians would disagree, saying that Britain’s often brutal oppression and exploitation of their country left them with little option but to side with their enemy’s enemies, in the hope – and here Bose was naïve – that they would not simply be exchanging one tyranny for another.

Whatever Bose was, he was almost certainly not a fascist. On hearing of the fatal plane crash, Mohandas Gandhi said he had ‘died well’ and was ‘undoubtedly a patriot, though misguided’. And when the newly independent republic of India issued its first postage stamps in 1947, one of Bose’s favourite slogans appeared on them: जय हिन्द (Jai Hind, sometimes translated as ‘Glory to India’).

But none of this was mentioned in the British boys’ adventure story I read all those years ago – Bose was simply a ‘baddie’ who ‘deserved to die’.

 

German roulette

After two months of talks on a black-yellow-and-green ‘Jamaica’ coalition after the German elections – see my earlier post Another domino stays upright (3) – the Free Democrats (FDP) have backed out. This minority party has a long-established habit of misusing its ‘swing’ power to make or break coalitions, sometimes working with the Social Democrats, but in recent years (since the end of the Cold War) more often with the Christian Democrats; and now its new young leader Christian Lindner has confronted the mainstream parties with the unwelcome prospect of repeat elections, for the second time within a year.

Unfortunately the new Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz, formerly a competent leader of the European Parliament, has continued to rule out any possibility of an extended ‘grand coalition’ with the Christian Democrats. Not that his party has much chance of bettering its shatteringly poor result in September’s election – barely 20% of the vote, the worst since the Federal Republic of Germany was established after the Second World War; but he seems more interested in preserving the SPD’s independence than Germany’s political stability.

The party most likely to benefit from all this is the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which did unexpectedly badly in September but still reached the electoral threshold and is now the third-biggest party in the country, with 12.5% of the vote. The AfD is not only anti-immigration, but above all anti-political; and any evidence that the established parties cannot reach agreement is bound to undermine German voters’ confidence in democracy, and boost support for populism just when it seemed to be waning.

If new elections result in more votes for the AfD, the blame must be laid fairly and squarely at the door of not only the FDP (which never gets more than 10% of the vote, and switches its allegiance as it sees fit), but also – and above all – the SPD and its new leader. By continuing to reject a new grand coalition with the widely respected Angela Merkel even though his own party is unlikely to win more votes, Martin Schulz has made the chaos worse. Thanks for nothing.

Lying for God

In 1912, what appeared to be a fossilised human skull was discovered in gravel beds near the village of Piltdown in the English county of Sussex. Despite some scepticism even at the time about its authenticity, ‘Piltdown Man’ (or Eoanthropus dawsoni, ‘Dawson’s dawn man’ – named after the finder, Charles Dawson) was soon a sensation, and for the next 40 years was widely held to be a crucial link in the evolution of modern humans – the famous and long-sought ‘missing link’ (which, since evolution is a gradual process of minuscule changes in response to changing environments rather than sudden great leaps, can never in fact exist). Many European scientists, eager to find evidence that humans had first started to develop in their own ‘civilised’ continent rather than ‘primitive’ Africa or Asia, rushed to embrace the new fossil; and their eagerness made them overlook clues that the skull was not what it was claimed to be. Some British scientists, and credulously nationalistic media, went so far as to dub Eoanthropus dawsoni ‘the First Englishman’ – a conceit perhaps bolstered by the fact that Piltdown was in the well-to-do ‘Home Counties’ that surround London (note the use of ‘Englishman’ rather than the more inclusive ‘Briton’).

It was a blind alley that was to bedevil science for four decades. But in 1953, thanks to fossil-dating techniques unavailable when the skull was found, better microscopes and a less prejudiced, more scientific approach, ‘Piltdown Man’ was exposed as a crude fake: a modern human skull combined with the jaw of an orangutan (both no more than 500 years old) and chimpanzee teeth filed down to resemble human ones. The whole thing had been stained brown with a chemical solution to make it look much older (some put its age at half a million years).

In retrospect it seems incredible that it took so long to discover the truth, and one British newspaper mocked the scientific establishment with the words ‘a chimpanzee could have done it quicker’. But what is sometimes overlooked is that the fraud was brought to light by scientists themselves. Who the perpetrator was remains unclear, like his reasons for doing it – though it is usually suggested that professional enmity and jealousy played a part, for a number of hitherto renowned scholars were brought into discredit by their failure to recognise the skull for what it was (I say ‘his reasons for doing it’, since at the time there were no women working in the field of paleoanthropology, and even today they are still greatly outnumbered by men – when Louis Leakey’s wife Mary discovered the 2-million-year-old ‘Zinj’ skull in 1959, it was her husband who took all the credit).

However, the main point of this post is not to retell the tale of the Piltdown Man fraud, but to show how it has been misused for other purposes. According to Wikipedia (and who am I to disagree?) some ‘creationists’ – who deny the evidence for evolution and seek to undermine the authority of science wherever it conflicts with their religious beliefs – have attempted to present the hoax as evidence that paleoanthropologists always distort the truth. Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact, mentioned a moment ago, not only that the hoax was exposed by scientists, but also that it is one of only a tiny handful of finds that have since been found to be fraudulent. If anyone is distorting the truth, it is surely creationists, who consistently misrepresent the theories they oppose on purely religious grounds – they often seem not to have read them – and then attack the misrepresented versions. Another of their favourite ploys is to say ‘it’s just a theory’ (as if religious faith is anything more than that), and claim that this is a sufficient reason to dismiss it. Deep thought this is not – but then, the essence of religion is to substitute uncritical belief for thought, to argue that too much knowledge is a bad thing, and to teach impressionable children that this is a legitimate stance.

Distorting the truth is the same thing as lying; and what we have here is a group of people who have no compunction about ‘lying for God’. Since their god is assumed by default to exist, anything and anyone that suggests otherwise must be suppressed.

An even nastier example of this is the attempt by Islamic fundamentalists in such countries as Pakistan to prevent the vaccination of children against deadly, crippling or disfiguring diseases by claiming that the vaccinators have in fact been sent out by non-Islamic Western governments to poison the children – more ‘lying for God’. But, just to make sure (since truth has a nasty habit of leaking out), these people do not shrink from murdering members of the vaccination teams – who of course must not be given any chance to explain what they are really doing, and perhaps shake parents’ faith – or from letting the unfortunate children quite unnecessarily contract such serious infections as diphtheria, polio or measles. This is not just lying for God, but killing and maiming for God; and, since children are involved, it is a form of deliberate child abuse.

Today’s latest example is the Turkish government’s decision to ban all gay-rights events in the capital Ankara (and, one can only assume, eventually the rest of the country). The lie being told in this case is that the decision is meant to protect gay people against aggression and possible ‘terrorism’ (?) – whereas the aggression and terrorism against gay people are only too clearly coming from the government itself, and once again on religious grounds. Since we all know where President Erdoğan and his cronies stand on gay rights, and human rights generally, why can’t they just be honest and admit they hate gays and want to make their lives even more of a misery than they already are in Turkey? Homosexuality is not actually illegal there (at least not yet) – but nor, evidently, are overt acts of homophobia such as today’s decision.

Is any more evidence needed that religion is ultimately a force for evil? The fact that not all religious believers are so fundamentalist does not invalidate this argument – for, to quote the clear-sighted Richard Dawkins, the less extreme ones ‘make the world safe for fundamentalism’, which is generally granted the same undue deference and exemption from criticism as religion generally. Another sign of such undue deference is the increasing use of the hopeful, positive word ‘faith’ as a euphemism for ‘religion’, as in ‘faith-based communities’. Who could possibly be against faith?

One reason why religionists so often accuse us non-believers of being ‘aggressive’ in our arguments is that they have not until recently been used to having their belief systems subjected to the same scrutiny as other societal phenomena; and as they see more and more of the world’s people turning their backs on organised religion, they feel threatened, afraid and angry. I can’t help that – and anyway, where is the solace they always claim their religion provides? Finally, why don’t more of them turn on the fundamentalists who bring their beliefs into such discredit – rather than on those of us who, for perfectly good moral reasons, choose not to share those beliefs?

I’m afraid I can’t help thinking that they’re afraid of incurring the fundamentalists’ wrath, and being accused of backsliding or apostasy – or even that, in their heart of hearts, they agree with them. Sure, that too is ‘only a theory’; but, after looking at the evidence in today’s world, I can see plenty of reasons to believe it, and very few reasons not to.

This week’s violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka don’t exactly help. Years ago it was Buddhists and Hindus. Why is Buddhism so often held up as an example of a particularly ‘peace-loving’ religion? It isn’t, any more than any of the others can be. If they feel so inclined, Buddhists will kill people of other ‘faiths’ just as readily as Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus do.

And that isn’t just a theory.