Protesters at St Paul’s Lacking Perspective?

There’s something different about the protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s not as simple to categorise as one of the usual dualist battles between left and right. This is not just because of the incoherence of the protesters’ case: the protest is complicated by its unintended target of the cathedral precincts.

It was inevitable that settling on ecclesiastical turf would result in grand talk of Jesus turfing out the money changers from the temple and eventually thirty pieces of silver and no doubt numerous other sophistically-applied quotations.

As a hard-headed capitalist it is far too easy instantly to dismiss this sort of talk: clearly I don’t for one minute believe that the stock exchange (the original target of occupation) and the capitalist system are responsible for creating poverty etc. Yet it’s not so easy to dismiss a protest against ‘greed’ because it is moving beyond an economically-ignorant rant to something resembling a prophetic call to repentance.

This situation gets to the heart of the relationship of the political right with the church. I can sometimes be heard lamenting the well-meaning but misguided socialist exhortations of clergymen from the pulpit but I try to refrain from doing so in most cases, not just because that would mean continuously being in a state of ranting but because I believe it serves a valuable purpose. It is not good to surround oneself only with teaching with which one is predisposed to agree but more importantly the gospel does make radical demands.

A danger for us on the right is that having established to our satisfaction that our support of capitalism is not just neutral towards ‘social justice’ but actually essential for it, we can go around with a slightly unattractive smugness, laughing at the lack of insight in our ideological opponents and practically wallowing in the disdain targeted at us by their misguided belief that we are heartlessly antagonistic towards the poor.

It is therefore right for us to be brought down regularly. The church has a role to play in keeping us grounded. As I write this paragraph I am listening to the Magnificat live on Radio 3, part of the office of Evening Prayer. To me the Song of Mary is a welcome, regular, reminder of what exactly is valued in the Kingdom of Heaven. And what isn’t (Luke 1.53-55):

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

There’s no doubt that there’s a place, even a need, for a warning against greed. But is that what the protesters are providing? A little bit, perhaps, but their message is fatally undermined by their (disparate) demands. They are not really calling for people to examine their hearts and change their ways, they are calling for pretty-irrelevant constitutional change (the Corporation of London) and for the state to appropriate more tax. This to me is qualitatively different from the personal god demanding personal conduct, personal responsibility; it is demanding something (rather loosely specified) from the system. I think this is a missed opportunity. Marches and protests about ‘the system’ are ten a penny, and if one doesn’t agree that the socialist solution will work then the protests will fail to attract sympathy across the board.

So to St Paul’s Cathedral. At first the protesters lauded the welcome they received by the socialist Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, perennial BBC and Church Times contributor. The speed with which they turned their praise into bile when the cathedral decided they’d really rather the protesters moved on reflects very badly on the protesters. What I find objectionable is the victim status that the protesters have awarded themselves.

The protesters are making out that the cathedral is denying them sanctuary and denying them a platform. The intimation is that this is somehow un-Christian conduct. This is a scurrilous claim. It is preposterous to talk as if they are destitute and being denied basic rights. They are most certainly not. They have chosen to occupy and make a mess of public space for a prolonged period of time and inconvenience a major national institution which in fact is ideologically sympathetic to the protesters anyway. It is this attitude of the protesters which fundamentally shows they have no perspective. If they wish to appeal to Christianity then their defiance of civil norms manifest by their stubborn refusal to move is equivalent to not rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, something they demand of the “1%”. It is a self-indulgence.

Electing a Chancellor for Cambridge University

Senior members of Cambridge University have the privilege of electing a chancellor in the first poll since 1847 this Friday and Saturday. In this post I examine the candidates and explain my thoughts on my own voting intentions. I would be interested to know what others think in the comments.

Background

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh served as chancellor for 35 years until he resigned this year. Personally I think Prince Philip is the ideal chancellor: he knew what the role was and what it wasn’t; he is dignified; he has stature; it appears that he can command a witty and erudite conversation and he understands quality. He will be a hard act to follow.

Enter the nominations committee. A large number of people, including I and many other alumni, was hugely disappointed that the official nominations committee came up with the name of Lord Sainsbury of Turville. It smelt of a stitch up, not solely because of his generous financial contributions to the university but in combination with the absence of a reputation for the other qualities one might expect in a chancellor. The cry was consternation that the committee was apparently unable to find a really impressive candidate that would be admired by all quarters.

So soon we had three challengers to the official nomination, none of which is a Cantabrigian. I attended all four hustings this week at the Union Society. Despite having held strong views throughout the campaign and indicating likely support for one particular candidate I tried to adopt an open approach to the talks. This is how I found the candidates:

Abdul Arain

It is widely thought that Mr Arain’s candidacy is a self-interested protest at competition for his Mill Road shop from a Sainsbury store. Mr Arain denied that this was a dominant reason for his standing but did spend the vast majority of his speech talking about the balance of independent trading in the City of Cambridge.  He had very little to say about the university and what he did say was really just motherhood and apple pie. He did not offer a convincing answer to some one’s question about his passion for academia.

Mr Arain is quite right to be advocating improved consideration by the university for the city and I found the character on display to be affable, but on any other metric he did not appear to have anything to offer as a potential chancellor.

Brian Blessed

Mr Blessed was the only candidate to attract a large audience, mostly of enthusiastic undergraduates. He put on a passionate defence of aspiration, exploration and learning. The great disappointment for me was that many of the more serious questions about the chancellorship were answered poorly. Mr Blessed was magnanimous towards the other candidates and did have an awareness of what the role was not, which I think is important. I had been advocating Mr Blessed as the “only non-political candidate”.

Michael Mansfield QC

Mr Mansfield is a high calibre candidate who shares with me the concern that universities need to have a broad culture of enquiry. I think he would instinctively understand why a graduand from a science or engineering Tripos subject becomes baccalaureus in artibus. Mr Mansfield is renowned for his extreme (and extremely wrong) political views and my fear was that he would abuse the platform to advance these views; I still believe that this would be the case but he did a good job of attenuating my fears. He professed a willingness to defer to those with responsibility for running the university and to respect tradition.

I think I would regret Mr Mansfield being the chancellor and fear that he would make changes with which I didn’t agree, such as abolishing the MA (which has performed a particular function within the university long before other universities instigated confusion by awarding it for other purposes) but I have to admit I was impressed. I liked his intention to limit his own term to five or six years, although I don’t think it ought to be up to him to do so for his successors.

Baron Sainsbury of Turville

I was quite impressed with Lord Sainsbury for demonstrating hard-headed logic, not moderating his content to curry favour with his audience. Unfortunately this went hand-in-hand with an unattractive, hauty, arrogance typified by his refusal to retract a criticism of his fellow candidates from an interview in the Cambridge News.

I was previously dead against Lord Sainsbury becoming chancellor because I considered that having been a minister in the Labour government he would be considerably partisan. I have to admit that was not the impression I got from his speech or his answers to questions. He recognised failures of the previous government that most other people in the Labour party would refuse to recognise. I do not suppose that I would agree with everything Lord Sainsbury says but he struck me as perfectly qualified for the role.

Scores

Immediately following the final husting I hastily compiled a table of scores for the four candidates based on a number of qualities that may be relevant to the chancellorship. They were not weighted scores and there are changes I would like to make in retrospect, but once I’d summed the columns it would have been difficult to adjust anything without being influenced by knowledge of how it would affect the final score.

Arain Blessed Mansfield Sainsbury
Advancing reputation of university 1 2 3 5
Helping access 3 4 2 1
Understanding limits of the role 2 3 4 5
Not abusing platform for politics 3 5 2 4
Understanding what a university should be 1 5 5 3
Understanding the needs of the university 1 2 3 5
Niceness 5 4 3 1
16 25 22 24

The outcome of this exercise was Blessed and Sainsbury running neck-and-neck with Mr Blessed having the edge.

Conclusion

Deciding how to vote in this election has been extremely difficult for me. For most of the campaign I have been strongly supporting Brian Blessed but the other candidates have eventually shown qualities that I had not initially appreciated.

The bottom line for me is that by far the most important requirements are for the chancellor (1) to convey intellectual rigour; (2) to be capable of bringing in substantial funds and (3) to understand the university’s uniqueness and needs. Lord Sainsbury is the only candidate who fulfills all these, and by some considerable margin. I think this is more important than being likable and a multitude of other desirable qualities, which are in any case highly subjective.

I shall be most likely to vote as follows in the STV ballot:

  1. Lord Sainsbury
  2. Michael Mansfield
  3. Brian Blessed
  4. Abdul Arain

My decision will undoubtedly make me unpopular with friends with whom I was until recently keenly advocating Brian Blessed. However, I look forward to the voting this weekend. MA gowns at the ready!