Leaps of Imagination

Image from tupian.sucaitianxia.com

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Richard Dawkins said that reading fairytales to children was “rather pernicious” because it encouraged them to accept the supernatural. He apparently said it was “statistically improbable” that a frog if kissed would turn into a prince.
I think he may rather have shot himself in the foot with this one. He now says he has no more to say on the  subject of fairy tales.
Scientists, in order to make discoveries often need to make leaps of the imagination.

The reason we tell our children tales of princes and princesses, dragons and witches, talking animals, flying carpets and magical objects is not to get the to believe in these things.
It’s part cultural – we have a shared national and international culture of sharing traditional tales. We all come from people who told stories – Terry Pratchett talked about humans as not as homo sapiens but as pans narrativius, the storytelling ape. Our ability to communicate ideas and abstract thought unconnected to our immediate environment is stimulated in children, and adults, through fiction and fantasy.  In the times before mass literacy, oral history was essential to show us where we came from and where we are going. Telling stories is what makes us us.
It’s partly about ethics – telling stories helps us develop empathy – putting ourselves in the place of others. Children love larger than life characters and creatures, knowing whether to help someone even though they are an elf is vital to understanding that even though someone doesn’t look like you, they are still worth your time. Cautionary tales too, and graphically horrible things you would hope never to see – a wolf sliced open and the live grandmother hopping out – are also useful in encouraging thought about the implication of situations without scaring the hell out of the children*.
And it’s partly about building imagination. Scientists need imagination to make breakthroughs, even to start from the simple question “what if…?”

Oh, and on the way to school yesterday, I asked my son if he thought a frog, if kissed, really could turn into a prince.
“No,” he said, “but a caterpillar can turn into a butterfly.”
How long did it take humankind to work out that a caterpillar and a butterfly were two stages of the same creature, transformed in the chrysalis? There were probably many dissected chrysalises along the way. I don’t know, but I bet whoever worked it out grew up listening to fairy tales.

* PS delighted to hear that as someone raising my children with knowledge of the faith that shapes my life, this is not now said to be considered by Dawkins to be tantamount to child abuse. I would also agree that a parent threatening a child with burning in hell for not minding their Ps and Qs is not acceptable, but nor is it what Christians should be doing if following Jesus.

What is it good for?

This is a weird year to think about war, peace and the world we live in.

The first world war broke out 100 years ago – millions died in “the great war”, “the war to end all wars”.
But then 70 years ago today was D-day. 22,000 British flags marked thank you have been placed in Normandy reminding us of the sacrifices made for our freedom, liberty and democracy.

Did these two world wars end all war? No, every year since, there has been a war somewhere in the world. It’s easy to forget this from our lives here in western Europe, peaceful even if in times of austerity.
But we have these lives because people like us, in my grandparents and great grand parents generations were willing to fight, plan, drive ambulances, tend the wounded, see the deal to make peace – to serve.

They did this, sometimes willingly, sometimes through conscription. Why?
In the long term, so that none of us would ever have to again.
In the short term, they fought to stop the spread of a nationalistic, fascist ideology that turned people against their neighbours.  In seeking to find someone to blame for economic and social problems, this ideology scapegoated the “other” whether foreigners, gay people, disabled people, trade unionists, Roma people or Jewish people. Scapegoating turned to persecution, persecution to death on a massive scale.
We can pretend that similar ideologies didn’t have any traction here in the UK. They did – the British Union of Fascists claimed 50,000 members in 1934. But they didn’t win out, partly because the BUF was unable to hold a large scale rally without mass brawling, and partly because of horror at the Night of the Long Knives in Germany which cause a big drop in the BUF’s membership.  Don’t forget that Oswald Mosely wanted negotiated settlement, a publicly popular stance until the invasion of Norway. The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, also favoured appeasement. If it hadn’t been for Wallis Simpson being a divorcee, our history could have been very different.

Some may have fought because they believed in their country right or wrong.  Some may not have given one jot about the things we talk about when describing our country e.g. monarchy, but they fought anyway. Because they thought it was the right thing to do. Becuase they were asked to.  But they came from the whole spectrum of political belief. They fought alongside men from the empire, flew alongside Polish and Czech pilots.
They killed and were killed, with civilians dying as well as the forces in numbers never before seen.
The flag waving crowds after the war certainly seemed to be proud to be British. It’s not a sin to be pleased where the accident of your birth has landed you, and as Cecil Rhodes is supposed to have said “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life” (NB at that time English and British were used as synonyms. Uncomfortable now, but true. Must be, heard it on QI). But I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it takes a big leap from feeling pleased about it to believing you are somehow inherently better than other people because of it.
And it is uncomfortable to realise that in times of economic austerity, we again face choices.

What happened after the wars is really important.
After the first world war, as much pain as possible was inflicted on the losers – starvation, economic disaster and humiliation which as we now know lead to the rise of feelings of unfairness, seeking to blame anyone that is “other” and turning neighbours against each other while looking for someone to stand up for them.
The response to the first world war sowed the seeds of a second.

Thomas Picketty describes the period of the mid to late twentieth century as an aberration, a period in which poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity were addressed in a way that had not been before. Things couldn’t go back to the way they were. In war, traditional social class had been stripped back a bit, and the post-war election resulted in a victory for an ideology promising a fair distribution of resources and the creation of the National Health Service, which even today has resonance as a symbol of this access for all.

So there was more opportunity and equality in the late twentieth century than ever before. Or since.
Today we talk about social inequality, we talk about diversity and inclusion and we try to value difference and use it as an asset to our economy and our society. But we are already in a world of greater inequality with a gulf between the super-rich and the workers which is bigger than at any time since the 1930s, and are apparently on our way to making this irrevocable before 2050. Workers?  Well, unless you are hugely senior in financial services, a pop or film star, a business magnate or inherit a fortune, that means you. The prediction is that we are the last of the middle classes that may actually achieve the dream of a comfortable life.
We need to think about whether this is what we want. We have let the post-war dream of more equality slip from us a bit, and we need to decide if that is what we as voters and workers and a community and as individuals actually want.

Closing ourselves off will not help us.  We may be an island, but we are not a boat. We can’t just up anchor and sail off into the mid-Atlantic. The world carries on around us and we have to engage with it in order to have an economy that allows us to access the way of life we hope to have.
That means we need to talk about the EU.
I would say just for a minute, but I’d be lying. We need to talk about it a lot, because as an issue this one is certainly a bit more complicated.

Belonging to the EU costs us about £1.81 per household per day in the UK (that’s £3 if you insist on the often quoted £55 million a day figure which is gross not net). Not belonging wouldn’t give you all of that £1.81-£3 back in your pocket, by the way. There are costs to handling everything ourselves too, we’re just being told that’s not important right now because the principle of independence is self-evidently more important.

There seems to be a body of people in the UK that think that we are dictated to by a EU superstate and that this is not what all those lives, 100 years ago, 70 years ago, were spent saving us from.
The differences between a brutal, fascist dictatorship and the EU should be obvious.  A few years ago I would have said it was – obviously it still is, but it gets complicated when the EU does things that look dictatorial in the context of the Euro. More of that in a minute.

But for the UK, which is not in the Euro, there is a clear difference. We have a say in EU rules, we have a British Commissioner, British representatives in the European Parliament, British officials in the Commission and other EU bodies, our Ministers are in the Council of Ministers and our Prime Minister in the European Parliament.
As a big member state, we have a big number of votes in the Council. We can “get our way” by working together. We build coalitions. And yet the last four years has shown that we have a long way to go before we are able to discuss the concept of coalitions in political power in any sensible way without screams of selling out.
As a big member state we also have a large number of seats in the Parliament. And yet we say that we are dictated to? We send as our representatives people who say they are not going to represent us in the discussions that take place because they are ideologically opposed to those discussions taking place? We did this to ourselves.
France has done the same, of course, voting Front National. And in so doing, two of the three big member states have weakened their position in the Parliament, and the third member big member state has the most seats in the largest parliamentary group. With supreme irony, give the context, that member state is Germany.
So if you didn’t vote, perhaps inspired by Russell Brand saying not voting is sticking it to the man or just because meh, thank you. Your lack of interest means that those who did turn out have a disproportionate level of political power.
Think about it this way.
We say we want people that will stand up for Britain. We do, at every level of the EU. We’ve even negotiated to ensure Eurozone decisions don’t adversely affect us.
Since when did standing up for Britain have to be No, No, No? Oh that’s right. Handbag time. Right outcome, unfortunate long lasting effect on what “we” expect to see in negotiation.
Why isn’t getting the right deals in negotiations without threatening to walk away also seen as standing up for Britain? Because it is, in a much less polemic way. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it?

We can’t isolate ourselves, because the world will not let us.
It’s actually simple, but it looks complicated when you explain it.
If we are in business and want to trade there are international rules, and there are different standards required of the products we make. We have to meet those standards.
The difference being in the EU makes to us there is that we pool our agreement to a certain set of standards so that our products that we make for our home market are also automatically in line with the massive trading bloc from which we sit 23 miles off the coast of the main landmass (and share a land border in the island on the other side) – a single or common market, if you like.
Then, as a bigger bloc, we have more clout in agreeing standards with other big markets: the USA, China, India, the BRICs.
If we left the EU to set our own standards, we would be unaligned with the bloc next door and would basically be told what the standards would be both by them and by the other big markets. We hear that other, smaller-than-us countries than us have successfully made deals, but for some reason we never look at the quality of those deals. Chile’s deal with the USA was just time to comply with US standards!
So what would we gain? The freedom to be told what to do by other big markets.

We also need to work together to combat bigger challenges: the environment, foreign policy issues that affect us all, crimes where the perpetrator tries to use going abroad to escape arrest and prosecution (the costa del crime?). We can say that there is no man made problem with our environment (despite greater than 95% scientific consensus that there is).  We can say we can handle everything else bilaterally with other countries. But the EU is an existing mechanism for dealing with these things and costs us very little really- if we are worried that everything costs a lot, it seems strange to want to duplicate effort in this way.

One price is seen as unfettered EU immigration. There’s a lot of myths out there about what EU migrants to the UK can “get”, much of it untrue, some true, but the government seems to be acting to close some of the gaps in UK legislation so that we are bolted down to the max. But if EU migrants contribute £1.34 to the economy for every £1 of benefit given out, are more likely to start businesses than indigenous Brits, and are roughly proportionate in number to the Brits living in other EU countries, why is there so much vitriol?  If the problem is we have pressure on our public services, surely we should be asking why we are not spending that 34% economic contribution equivalent on providing more school places, hospital beds and GP appointments? Why are we not pressuring house builders to build more houses? May be it’s not that we are full but that we have stopped building the homes we need (less than 10% of the UK is urban, once you add in gardens, parks etc, you are still at an amazingly small percentage, 13% of land designated greenbelt, that still sounds like a lot of potential brownfield and non-greenbelt potential out there…)! I digress, but when it comes right down to it, we seem to be unable to discuss immigration without one side saying “racist” and the other saying “we’re full and they don’t speak our language”.

I’m not saying that the EU is in any way perfect.

Some of the things that have been done recently are so far from the freedom, liberty and equality that are supposed to be at the core of the EU that I feel queasy. Imposing a government, when economic turmoil in one country could have brought down the economy of 17 others? Ok it was short term, emergency and only in a coupe of countries and saved the day and elected governments are now in place, but this is not the democratic dream, is it? And if your past is full of dictatorship or puppet governments, as is the case for many now-EU members, this is not what you want your membership of the EU to mean.
Nor is the European Parliament’s power grab ideal for selling the idea of the EU as getting more democratic. The spitzencandidate process was an attempt to choose the Commission President by the Parliament choosing in advance individuals that would be backed by the major European Political party groupings.
But this looks like it goes beyond the constitutional rights of the European Parliament, surely? The Treaty says that the outcome of the EP elections should be taken into account by the Council, that is to say the Heads of State and Government, but that is not the same thing as imposition of a specified individual because of their party affiliation regardless of experience. Traditionally, EU leaders have sought a consensus figure. All that is required under the Treaty is for the one they chose to reflect the appropriate political background. And with a lack of decent coverage of this process in the media, not just in the UK, most voters across the EU showed a complete lack of understanding that their vote for a party equalled support for an individual of that party to be the Commission president. I do understand that this was about getting a link to the electorate, but really this seems a very ham-fisted way of attempting to retrofit a democratic element into selection of the Commission President.  As I write, debate on who will take up the role of Commission President is ongoing. It may work, it may be accepted as the way to do things in the future. Or it may not. We’ll have to wait and see.

Then there’s the Common Fisheries Policy (much better now), the Common Agricultural Policy (needs a big shake up still), the waste of money that is the monthly Parliament trip to Strasbourg, the Euro (it didn’t have to be this way but the Euro is to blame for a lot of the undemocratic stuff mentioned above), the embedding of liberal free market principles in binding supranational law… hang on, why are the right wing commentators complaining about that bit? Oh no, that’s left wing commentators.

That’s a lot of downsides, right?  But being in means you can negotiate to make the bits your are less keen on better. As long as you build your alliances.

And there are big benefits well worth £1.81-£3 a day to my household.
Any pro EU list always starts with clean bathing water, no rip-off roaming charges…
I’d also say increased GDP; being a magnet for inward investment from companies from the rest of the world looking to access the EU market brings jobs; a community intellectual property and trademark, competition law, only having to deal with one set of rules rather than 28; better air travel with more routes and rights if your flight gets cancelled; the right to travel, study, work and live anywhere across the Member States, including in retirement; medical treatment on NHS terms anywhere in the EU if you have an EHIC card; guaranteeing social rights including parental leave and equal pay (a big deal for workers – especially women- in employment, but might not mean much to the self-employed I guess); and finally enhancing our chances of prosperity while Germany shows us that membership is not what hampers us from increasing our trade with the rest of the world (they export a higher percentage of their goods outside the EU than we do and don’t even have the headstart that the Commonwealth* could offer).

But there’s a really big benefit that is worth remembering today. The EU is all about making war between us impossible.
After the second world war, there was a push to get European countries to recognise that for peace and prosperity they needed to work together.
There was a requirement to work together to get aid under the Marshall Plan.
And the pooling of resources, starting with coal and steel, meaning that the Member States did not have the capacity to go to war with each other again formed that very first ECSC Treaty. The EEC, the European Economic Community that followed, encouraged working together with common values include liberty, democracy, a respect for human rights and basic civil liberties, and rule by law.
This shows us that the EU is rooted in trying to ensure peace across our continent. Yes, ours. The one we sit just 23 miles off the coast of. The one that was accessible by foot 9000 years ago and is now, if you really had to and could walk through the tunnels without getting flattened by a train. And arrested. I digress again.

Working together with our neighbours in an organisation in which we have a say in the decision-making is not betraying what our forefathers fought and died for. But we need to make sure that organisation cannot become something that does not represent us and our values, those founding values, of liberty, democracy, human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law that came out of those dreadful wars. We can do that from the inside.

We are also free to choose to have none of it – decide that we are too different to our neighbours, we want to pull up the drawbridge, and that when we encounter difficulties those that are “other” are the ones to blame for our economic or social woes… (it’s strange how those words keep coming back).  The reality is that it wouldn’t change the globalised world we live in, nor will it mean others won’t have power over us in terms of trade, finance, what our currency is worth. We’d just be that bit less influential in setting the terms.

I would not dare to presume to know whether those that died on D-day, or in the first world war, would have been in favour of the EU if they had survived to see it.

But thanks to them, we will settle these decisions on who we are and what our role is in the world with pens and paper, not guns and bombs. Words, not violence so everyone can make decisions that affect their lives freely and fairly. That’s what they fought for. Restoring that is all that war can ever be good for.


* Just as an aside, on the Commonwealth, why does it have to be EU or Commonwealth as a focus for trade? Why can’t it be both/ and? And given that Australia – rather than feeling rejected by the UK as one of its ministers said when Britain joined the EEC in 1973- views itself as an Asian economy these days, who says Commonwealth countries are looking to become bigger trading partners with a EU outside the EU?  Churchill may have had a vision of a United States of Europe (with Britain outside heading her empire of course) but the Commonwealth is not the empire and it feels sometimes that the lack of appreciation of the change of the UK’s global status that is what’s stopping us really getting into the EU. We are a significant world economy, a G7 member, but we’re not head of a global empire any more. And it is not unpatriotic to say so.