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Emma Raducana – a lesson on immigration

2021 September 14
by Paul Vallely

There was much chortling after Nigel Farage sent a message of congratulation to Emma Raducanu, the first British woman to win a Grand Slam final for 44 years. For, though she learned her tennis in England, she was born in Canada and her mother is Chinese and her father Romanian. Among the many virulent anti-immigration messages previously put out by Mr. Farage was one suggesting that most people wouldn’t want a Rumanian living next door to them. It would surely have been more in character for the great Brexit campaigner to have greeted the teenager’s triumph by complaining about foreigners coming over here and taking all our tennis titles.


Sadly Mr Farage was not alone in attracting accusations of hypocrisy. The Prime Minister, who also sent congratulations, in 2013 complained that the chief contribution of Rumanian immigrants to British life was to boost the numbers of people rough sleeping on the streets of London.


There is a serious point here.  Emma Raducanu’s Twitter biography reads: London – Toronto – Shenyang – Bucharest. She has previously spoken proudly about the importance of her mixed heritage and the particular qualities she inherited from Chinese and Romanian culture.  Her success demonstrates how cultural difference can be a strength, rather than a weakness, to any nation.


The importance of immigrants to the British economy has been underscored by the problems which have arisen for many employers since countless foreign workers left Britain after Brexit. It is a particular irony – in a week in which the government is celebrating official figures showing that a post-COVID economic recovery is underway – that Britain’s bosses have been again lamenting the absence of foreign workers.


General unemployment is now below 5 per cent. Yet there is a record number of employment vacancies, particularly in farming and in the leisure sector. These are jobs previously done largely by immigrants. Yet government ministers seem deaf to employers’ calls for immigration to be relaxed to ease the problem. Ministers apparently expect those vacancies to be filled by unemployed Britons.


This is part of the hardline nationalism which inspires policies such as Priti Patel’s plan to turn back small boats carrying migrants in the middle of the open seas – and her draconian policy on migrant detention which the courts found earlier this year, following several deaths in custody, breached human rights rules.


Farmers this year have been so short of labour for fruit-picking that food has gone to waste in the fields. The problem, say leaders in the agricultural and hotel sectors – is that the skills of the unemployed, and their geographical location, do not overlap with labour shortage needs. Very few former steel or chemical workers in Hartlepool are likely to travel to Somerset to pick apples. Some London hotels wages have been almost doubled yet still can’t find employees.


Previously, one leading apple grower, Ali Capper, said it was a win-win situation in which farmers were supplied with seasonal labour and migrants returned home with the money to build a house and educate their children. But now, she observed “we seem to be running our whole immigration policy on an ideological basis”. Emma Raducanu is living proof that there is a better way.



Is it ethical to mass vaccinate 12-year-olds?

2021 September 8
by Paul Vallely

Should young teenagers be given the Covid vaccine? The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised against a mass rollout of the vaccine amongst 12 to 15-year-olds arguing that the benefit to their health is only marginal and the risk of severe Covid illness and death in children is extremely low. There is, however, more to this than science.

The issue is a moral minefield which involves risk-benefit analysis, balancing the benefit to the individual and the community, and negotiating delicate issues of consent.  Should we vaccinate children for the greater good?  If benefit accrues primarily to adults, thanks to improved herd immunity, isn’t there a conflict of interest for parents?

According to John Stuart Mill the sole ground for impinging upon an individual’s rights is when they risk harming others. We make common sense judgments on proportion in such matters. If no one were allowed to drive a car, no one would be killed in road accidents. But banning cars is seen as too extreme on a risk-benefit calculus. What about infecting others with coronavirus?

It has been argued that it is wrong to make public policy on any basis other than what is in the interests of children themselves. But has the JCVI been too scientifically narrow in its definition?  The interests of children are wider than their health – both in terms of the common good and individual good.

The benefits of the vaccine may be marginal, but they outweigh the risks.  Millions of children have been vaccinated in other countries for months without widespread serious side-effects. And teenagers have been shown to be significant vectors of the disease.  A University of Exeter study – admittedly funded by the vaccine manufacturer Moderna – suggests that vaccinating all 12 to 15-year-olds could reduce Covid deaths by 18 per cent by December.

Moreover, vaccinating teenagers this term would reduce the kind of outbreaks in schools which last year saw children sent home on a scale which seriously disrupted their education. Vaccination for the general good would therefore have educational advantages for teenagers as well as being an act of solidarity with their elders.

It is hard to make a scientific estimate of such benefits, though Professor John Edmunds of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has suggested that to date only about half of the child population have been infected. That leaves around six million children.

To allow infection to run through such a large group would risk a lot of disruption to schools in the coming months, especially since social distancing is extremely difficult in the corridor and classroom. With the adult population largely vaccinated, processes of virus mutation operating among such a large pool of children could produce new dangerous variants resistant to current vaccines.

Equally hard to quantify, though no less real, is the impact of Covid on the psychological, social and spiritual well-being of our children. But we certainly know that research emerging from the year of the pandemic suggests that children and adolescents have been at higher risk from anxiety and depression.

All in all,  a holistic evaluation of the good of the child suggests that making the vaccine available to young teenagers may be, on balance, the better option.

Kabul has fallen because of US hubris

2021 August 20
by Paul Vallely

The speed with which the Taliban overran Afghanistan and its capital clearly took president Joe Biden aback.  But he cannot have been surprised at the events themselves for there was a grim inevitability to the way the dominoes fell once the United States announced it was pulling its troops out of the country.

Empathy is one of the political trademarks of the new US president. But if it was on display in his words and actions this week it was distinctly one-sided. “How many more generations of Americans’ daughters and sons would you have me send to fight?” Mr Biden said on US television in his first public comments since the fall of Kabul.  But there was no sympathy for the Afghans who fell to their death while clinging to the outside of departing US aircraft – nor for the countless despairing fellow citizens left behind.

What has been nakedly exposed this week is that the unfolding of events has been more about America than Afghanistan.  The US troop withdrawal was tied to a narrative in domestic politics with a decree that it must be complete by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 rather than being timed to fit with favourable developments on the ground in Afghanistan. When things began to go wrong Mr Biden took to blaming the hapless Afghans.

America first intervened in Afghanistan under George Bush with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing al Qaeda – and its Taliban allies – out of the country. Much the same may be said of Donald Trump who in 2020 signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban in which he committed to a withdrawal date in return for tenuous promises that the Taliban would act responsibly. The fundamentalist insurgents simply bided their time and stubbornly dragged out the peace talks to no fruitful conclusion. Despite that Mr Biden has essentially continued the Trump strategy and then expressed surprise at the outcome.

 Analysis by the Washington Post suggests that the Pentagon fell victim to the conceit that it could build from scratch an enormous Afghan army and police force numbering 350,000 personnel modelled on the centralised command structures and complex bureaucracy of the US army. But there was a cultural incompatibility rooted in a failure to understand Afghan society, the complex nature of its factionalism, the power of its warlords and the structures of corruption associated with the various regional militias.

The generals repeatedly ignored the warnings of the US military trainers that it was impossible to impose American military structures when fewer than 5 per cent of Afghan recruits could read. “Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count,” one despairing military trainer said. A quarter of the army deserted every year.

Small wonder, then, that this army melted away in the face of the pugilistic zeal of the Taliban. Individuals swiftly recalculated where their interests lay and capitulated without violence or switched sides as Taliban leaders used a combination of cash, threats and promises of leniency to speed their progress.

President Biden, in the face of this, tried to sound resolute. But his combination of ignorance, hubris and callous indifference has brought him to the first low point of his presidency.

We must all fly less – the government must stop pandering to the aviation industry

2021 August 6
by Paul Vallely

THERE was a revealing juxtaposition of news on the radio this week. First, the Government announced that it was scrapping the proposal to create an amber watchlist of countries at risk of requiring hotel quarantine — “a victory for common sense”, a spokesman for the air travel industry declared. Next came an admission from the Government, in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference, that the UK must change its carbon-emission output “right now” if the over-heating of the planet was to be curbed. The cognitive dissonance between these two items went unremarked.

Aviation is responsible for more than eight per cent of Britain’s carbon-dioxide emissions. Add in the nitrogen oxides, and other gases produced by aircraft, and their warming effect on the planet is almost double that. A return flight to San Francisco emits twice as much carbon dioxide as a family car does in a whole year. A flight from London to Manchester produces 12 time more greenhouse gases per passenger than a train journey. Aviation represents just one per cent of the global economy, but uses eight times its share of fossil fuel.

Airline companies and their lobbyists have long had strong links to government, which is perhaps why the industry benefits from significant public support. There is no duty on aircraft fuel. There is no VAT on plane tickets. Air travel is, in effect, subsidised. Moreover, aircraft are not constrained by carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. That is perhaps why, pre-Covid, airline flights were predicted to double over the next 20 years. Is this the “normal” to which we want to return?

Lobbyists insist that aircraft are today 85 per cent more fuel-efficient than they were in 1960. But the benefits of more efficient planes are far outweighed by the unconstrained growth in passenger numbers: aircraft emissions increased by a third between 2013 and 2018. Industry cheerleaders talk of plans to use biofuels, synthetic alternatives, and grander plans to develop hydrogen engines. But all this is decades away.

In the interim, they talk of carbon offsetting. But that is not a long-term solution. It is a temporary fix that means that wealthier individuals can keep contributing to climate change without altering their behaviour. It is, as one eco-wag put it, like compensating for your own adultery by paying others to be faithful for you. If all sectors and all countries need to reduce their emissions to net zero by 2050, offsetting now only postpones the necessary action.

What the Government should be doing is insisting that aviation is included in carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. It should add VAT to airline tickets and excise duty to aircraft fuel (which would give the Treasury an extra £8 billion a year to develop new green projects and jobs). It should require businesses to account for their air travel in their annual reports.

It could introduce an Air Miles Levy to ensure that everyone gets one tax-free flight a year, and the 15 per cent of the population who take 70 per cent of all flights pay more, with an added tax on the first- and business-class seats that take up more space and weight on the plane. Most of us should fly a lot less. It is time for aviation to become more civil.

In the name of my father

2021 August 1
by Paul Vallely

A version of this article appeared in The Independent magazine in January 1988

This piece is republished here on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition to mark the 80th birthday of the painter and musician John B Vallely

I was, I suppose, looking for my father. The man sitting across the table might have been him. Not in reality. My father had died at the age of 48, when I was still at school, and this man was merely 10 years older than me. But, with the grace of partiality, he looked as I might have imagined my father to look now, given the arrest of ageing which untimely death allows. And this man’s name was Vallely, too.

All this is not why I am here, I thought. And yet it was. I first came across the name John B Vallely in Northern Ireland a decade ago. I was in the office of Sir John Hermon, then the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the province’s senior policeman had a painting by my namesake on the wall. Today, I cannot remember much about it, only that it was strong and vigorous, and that the canny chief of the constabulary was keen to emphasise that he had paid £2,000 for it.

For 10 years I had meant to seek the artist out, even as I also always intended to track down a man called Brian Vallely who was renowned in Ulster as a player of the traditional Irish uilleann pipes. They were firm purposes which I carried with me, ever unfulfilled, throughout the dozens of visits I subsequently made to Northern Ireland.

Now here I was, sitting in his house in Victoria Street, Armagh City, opposite the man. Or the men. For the John who was the painter was also the Brian who has been at the forefront of the revival of the Irish pipes in recent decades.

He was a sturdy man, a personification it seemed of his paintings – robust and rooted. Seamus Heaney said of John B Vallely’s art that he “liked its forthrightness from the beginning”. The same was true of the man. But there was about him, too, the elusiveness of the ethereal pipe music which he teaches every week at the Armagh Piper’s Club he founded 30 years ago. The two art-forms sometimes interact, as when he recently combined a musical tour of Verona, Bologna and Padua with a series of exhibitions in northern Italy. But there are many colleagues in each discipline who are unaware of his expertise in the other. “Indeed, some people think I am two people. It can be,” he says, with words as economic as his brush-strokes, “a convenient deception.”

He got a bit of gentle ribbing when Sir John Hermon’s autobiography was published and revealed that Vallely had been the proximate cause of the police chief’s second marriage. The chief constable, then a 58-year- old widower, was contacted by a 33-year-old law lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast who rang to upbraid him for some misdemeanour. He agreed to meet her and she went in to tear strips off him, but before she began she noticed the painting. “That’s a Vallely,” she said as she took in its strong composition and heavy impasto. They fell to talking and the painter became a matchmaker.

* * *

Armagh is where Vallelys are from. In idle moments on travels throughout the world, I have opened the phone book in New York, London or even Dublin. Vallelys are everywhere in short supply. But in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of the island, there are dozens. Armagh is the place from which my great-grandfather – another John – emigrated sometime around 1880 and made his way to the North-east of England to a job in the steel works. He was, my grandmother told me, a puddler – a labourer who heated pig iron in a furnace to transmute it into something more refined. Further back than that the family memory does not go.

But nor did John B Vallely’s. Such is the general limit of the oral tradition. His grandfather had lived in the countryside outside the city where he was born in the townland of Drumcairn in 1858. His great grandfather had moved there from Ardress earlier in the 19th century.  Almost certainly we were related, but there was no documentation to guide us beyond the residual family memories.

We took refuge in coincidence. His father had been a schoolmaster; so was mine. His father had founded the city’s Gaelic verse-speaking competition the Feis Mhor Ard Mhacha; mine had also been a lover of poetry. Both were referees; his for Gaelic football, mine for boxing (I can still remember the sour, leathery smell of the heavy brown gloves which hung, for some reason, inside the pantry door and how, in there, I cried silently in muffled fear the first night I put on them on before he took me down to his boxing club).

But where I had remained resolutely resistant to the sport, Brian, it transpired, has embraced not just the boxing but also weightlifting, cycling, fell-running and athletics. His enthusiasm led him to get deeply involved with the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland of which he had been a member since the age of 14 and which his father and uncle had founded in Armagh in 1934. Indeed he became the Armagh delegate to the General Council in the late 1960s and was elected International Secretary in 1973 – in which role he had an uphill battle as the NACAI had been suspended in the 1930s by the International Amateur Athletic Federation when the Association refused to conform to the Political Boundaries Rule implemented in 1934. (When, in 1937 the Amateur Athletic Association of Eire was formed by six breakaway clubs from the NACAI, the IAAF accepted these six clubs as representing the 26 Counties of Ireland for purposes of international competition. And so the NACAI was suspended from all international contact.)  Brian travelled all over Europe establishing sporting links and arranging exchange visits with teams from both Western Europe and from behind the then Iron Curtain – under the umbrella of the International Workers Sports Federation, the CSIT. Brian, it was clear was a socialist rooted in old-style syndicalism. We were back to coincidence; my grandfather had been one of the founders of the penny-a-week trade union health scheme which was, so we were proudly told as children, one of the fore-runners of the NHS. Brian’s activism had been more confrontational. “For his pains,” said the catalogue notes from his mid-term retrospective at Belfast Castle, “he has had the dubious honour of being a guest of Her Majesty, on an issue of workers’ rights.” He was imprisoned on a charge, on which he protests his innocence, of assaulting a police officer on a picket line.

Until 1972, Brian Vallely was a heavily committed civil-rights activist. “It was meetings seven nights a week.” Then on Bloody Sunday, British paratroopers shot dead 13 civil rights marchers. “After that, you realised you could be leading people down the road to be shot. It stopped all our overt activity.” It was at that point, he says, he realised he had to choose between activism and art. “In the end I decided there were plenty of people who could do that, but not so many who could do this,” he said, waving his arm vaguely around the paintings that lined the walls of the spacious terraced home which was built in Victorian times.

* * *

Suddenly, he seemed uncomfortable at the point the conversation had reached. We rose to inspect the paintings, some of them the work of artists he admires, but many of them his own. Several were of traditional Irish musicians playing fiddles, elbow pipes, concertinas and bodhrans. All around the front room with its spare gallery atmosphere lay instruments – a beautiful harp and heavy tin whistles nearly three feet long. In the hall, a dozen or more violins, guitars and uilleann pipes were piled up in their cases. Later in his studio, housed in an industrial estate known as the Armagh Business Centre, a score of canvases, liberally pigmented with heavy oils which exude an abstracted physicality, all had musicians as their subjects. They were variations as obsessive and as haunting as those of the pipe tunes he plays. And they were charged with the intense melancholy, aching lyricism and dark rhythmic power of this mournful nation’s music.

Once, I had thought it my music. I remember the first time I went to Ireland in my twenties and discovered with the sudden force of revelation that the manners and mores of the place of my birth were those of Ireland. Our rhythms and rituals, customs and cadences, tunes and temperaments, weddings and wakes were those of another place, crudely disguised with a Middlesbrough accent.

For a while I wondered about reconnecting. But it was a rhapsody which mistook romance for reality, a bogus MacStiofainism which could not distinguish between Oirishness and the real thing. And my father’s maternal grandparents, I knew, by contrast, were of Yorkshire farming stock. I knew because I had traced their remains to the barely intact letters “Hannah and Ruben Ludley” on a crumbling sandstone tomb in the overgrown old churchyard at Ampleforth in the fold between Yorkshire’s wolds and the moors to the north.

So when Brian Vallely spoke of how he had visited his mother’s family in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo – a family with whom I thought I could have no connection – to hear them play the fiddle and flute in the rough, rhythmic, huff-and-puff traditional style developed for dances in the home, I knew that he told of a world which was not mine. It was perhaps a glimpse into my history, but it was not who I was. Like Brian Vallely, I had made my decisions, though my choices were not between activism and art. The voyage around my father was not yet complete. But in meeting this singular musician and painter I had travelled a little further.

No-one should be excluded by lack of cash from watching the Olympics

2021 July 30
by Paul Vallely

Already the Olympics have produced some golden moments reminding us of so much that is great about the human condition: application, determination, power, resilience, tenacity and, even, for the silver medallist, grace in the face of disappointment. It is a shared experience which brings peoples together. The last Olympics, in Rio in 2016, were watched on television by more than half the world.

It is all the more sad, then, that this time – though we have shared big moments in the big sports – viewers throughout Europe are being denied the opportunity to experience “never miss a moment”, to borrow the BBC’s 2016 slogan when it live-streamed every individual sport.  This time the European rights have been sold exclusively for €1.3bn by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the Discovery Channel which wants to use the Games to win audiences from Disney, Apple, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. British TV is allowed only to cover two live events at any given time.

The official motto of the IOC is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Perhaps they should also add “Dearer”. Today’s Olympics are increasingly all about money.

Host cities almost always lose vast amounts. Every Olympics since 1960 has run over budget. In 2012 the London Games cost three times what was planned. Japan budgeted $7 billion, has spent $28 billion and is predicted to lose at least $35 billion.  This is why five major cities pulled out of the bidding to host next year’s Winter Olympics.

The organisers at the IOC experience no such jeopardy. Over the years they have evolved an elaborate structure of sub-committees and agencies which consume around 15 percent of Olympic revenues. The huge IOC entourage in Tokyo has been estimated to number 10,000 VIPs.

In theory IOC members do not make anything, though the president receives an annual “indemnity” in excess of €200,000 and lives free of charge in a luxury hotel. Ordinary members, who are treated to lavish hospitality by Olympic would-be hosts, have in the past been embroiled in bribery and corruption as well as opaque processes and questionable decisions.

Nowadays 75% of IOC income comes from television rights. That is perhaps why IOC officials were so adamant that the games this year could not be cancelled – despite rising Covid infections in an unvaccinated Japan, opposition from local residents, and medics’ fears the Games could become the world’s largest super-spreader. 

Had the Games not gone ahead the IOC would have had to repay not just the €1.3bn to Discovery but what NBC has paid for the US rights.  Then there is the 18% of their income from sponsors – many of whom have, like Toyota, already pulled their advertising and brought in marketing consultants to minimise the damage the Games may do to their brands. Had the IOC cancelled it would have had to refund between $3 and $4 billion.

It is time for the world’s governments to take a closer look at the International Olympic Committee. Then, at the very least, at the 2024 Games in Paris, television viewers might be able to engage properly with the full range of activities which make up what ought to be the world’s greatest celebration of human sporting achievement .

Trump’s 24 hours in Tulsa

2020 June 23
by Paul Vallely

Occasionally the mask slips on even the greatest showman. Donald Trump, at the rally to launch his re-election campaign this week, spoke to a half empty auditorium. Afterwards, in the dark, the dispirited President of the United States was seen with his red tie undone and his ‘America First’ baseball cap crumpled in his fist as he arrived home alone.

This was not how it was supposed to be. Mr Trump’s 24 hours in Tulsa were intended to set him on the road to re-election, to put behind him his inept handling of the coronavirus crisis and his wayward responses to the Black Lives Matter protests. He had, he boasted, had a million requests for tickets for the 19,000 seater stadium and had had to build an overflow compound to hold the excess crowds.

It was not needed. Perhaps even his devotees decided they did not fancy attending an indoor rally with thousands of people not required to wear face masks or remain socially distanced in an expression of the President’s contempt for COVID-19. Ironically six Trump staffers contracted the virus while preparing the rally.

More likely the President had been out-smarted by thousands of teenagers who had used their K-pop TikTok accounts to encourage one another to apply for tickets and then not attend the rally which was being indelicately, or provocatively, held in the city which was the site of a horrific massacre of Black Americans by a mob of their white neighbours in 1921. The social media post outlining the plan was viewed two million times before the kids swiftly deleted their messages to keep them from spreading to the mainstream internet.

Whatever the cause Trump staffers stood horrified as the start time approached as they gazed at the banks of empty seats.  The local Fire Department estimated only 6,200 people attended. The president, after yelling at aides backstage went out and gave one of his most rabble-rousing speeches ever – decrying the “Chinese virus”, which he dubbed Kung Flu, and spending 15 minutes lambasting the “fake news” mainstream media for broadcasting an unflattering video clip of him gingerly descending a ramp at West Point or using two hands to drink a glass of water.

Critics often suggest President Trump’s hyper-sensitivity is rooted in some kind of personal narcissism. But in a live-streamed lecture last week the Cambridge academic, Sir Richard Evans, posited a more calculated explanation.

The eminent 19th and 20th century historian was discussing populism, a movement which began among Russian radicals and American farmers in the 1890s and continued among Peronists in Argentina and Poujadists in France in the 1950s. It has resurfaced in our own times on the Left – with Chavez in Venezuela, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the global Occupy movement – but mostly on the authoritarian Right, with Erdogan in Turkey, Le Pen in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Brexit party in the UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil.  There are touches of it in Boris Johnson.

What unites all these, and Donald Trump, is a vision of The People versus The Elite, in which the populists present themselves as the purest expression of the silent majority. They attack the Establishment, ‘the system’ or the ‘deep state’ which they perceive in self-perpetuating elites in politics, business, the media, banks, universities and the judiciary. They insist that referendums are more democratic than parliaments which can frustrate their plans. And they use vulgar language to show they do not belong to the polite elite but are men of the people. They offer simple solutions to complex problems.

They generate a constant sense of crisis – to which they claim to embody the answer. They belittle opponents. They peddle conspiracy theories. They even tell bald lies. “I have done a phenomenal job on it,” says Mr Trump of COVID-19 which has now killed 121,000 Americans. Yet their supporters accept personal corruption as the price which must be paid for getting things done.

Populists seek to undermine alternative sources of authority – parliaments, judges, awkward journalists and academics, and neutral civil services. They disregard or dismiss experts, which is why President Trump has already had four national security advisers, four White House chiefs of staff, three heads of the FBI, and four attorney-generals.  

For populists emotion and instincts trump evidence. That’s why they are better in opposition than actually running things – and why populist leaders have the worst record in handling the pandemic. But eventually in government they run out of road.  Donald Trump appears to have just got an inkling of that fact.


This is a longer version of my Church Times column for 26 June 2020

Why we should prefer history to hysteria

2020 June 11
by Paul Vallely

When a Roman patrician donated a new bathhouse, aqueduct or road to the city he would often have a prominent stone inscribed D.S.P.F or de sua pecuna fecit. It meant ‘paid for with his own money’. In return his fellow citizens often put up a statue to him. When the great man fell from public favour the statue was often torn down – a practice, I learned while researching my forthcoming book on philanthropy*, which became a great symbolic gesture in any revolt or sedition.

The lessons of history go far wider than that, as we have seen this week with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, once lauded as the city of Bristol’s greatest philanthropist, but now reviled as a slave trader. The event tells us something about the nature of history, the need to remember, the danger of forgetting and the fact that we do not stand detached from history but are part of it.

The need to remember is perhaps the easiest of these lessons to learn. Colston gave the contemporary equivalent of about £25 million to build schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches, though he excluded as beneficiaries the Catholics, Dissenters and Whigs his politics led him to despise. But his fortune was built upon the sale of 84,000 slaves, of whom 19,300 died in the ships he used to transport human beings from Africa to the Caribbean and then bring tobacco, sugar and rum back to Britain. It is hard to argue that such tainted money can ever be fully redeemed by good works.

The danger of forgetting is clear from those who fail, or refuse, to understand that at the time slavery was generally condoned by the educated church-going classes. John Locke, that most celebrated philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in Colston’s company. The protester who sprayed “Churchill is a racist” on his statue in Parliament Square may remember historians’ revelations that Britain’s wartime leader privately used derogatory anti-black language – but appears to have forgotten that the choice in 1940 was between Churchill’s slang and Hitler’s genocide.

After the fall of the Soviet Union several East European countries took down their statues of infamous Communist dictators but, rather than destroying them, placed them in statue-parks so children could learn something of the context the past gave their present. History is a better option than the hysteria on display in Bristol this week. Liverpool, whose splendid array of Grade 1 listed architecture is a testament to another city whose greatness was built on slavery, has responded to the complexity of its own history with a Slavery Museum in which future generations can learn to comprehend the complexity of their own chequered past.

In such ways do we make our own history in an honest and healthy fashion. Colston died in 1721. The notorious statue was erected only in the era of Victorian imperialism – almost 200 years after his death. Removing the statue to a museum would merely have been another stage in the way city makes its history – and one from which its children could learn far more than this week’s attempts simply to erase the past.

* Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely will be published by Bloomsbury in September

Time for action not more words on Black Lives Matter

2020 June 5
by Paul Vallely

A celebration of the five decades of the music of Ella Fitzgerald was shown on television last weekend. It was a glorious uplifting reminder of the incomparable phrasing of the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. But the shadow of racism fell across the joy.

In one scene, early on, the US police were seen assaulting a group of black people with a powerful water-jet. It was a grim prefiguring of the scenes from the United States today in which heavily-armoured police are brutally dispersing crowds demonstrating at the callous on-camera killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman. Ninety years on, and nothing has changed.

Online, the next day, Pentecost Sunday, our priest gave a sermon which imagined a triptych. In the first panel was the Tower of Babel where language caused confusion and bred suspicion. The second showed how, at Whitsun, language brought unity and insight. The third panel, he suggested, was the one we are painting today of our contemporary world.

The mass was in English but the songs were in Ibo and ki-Swahili. That is one part of our painting. But in another Donald Trump was using tear gas, rubber bullets and baton sticks to clear his path to a church before which he posed holding a Bible as though it were an object to swear on rather than a message to take to heart. It was the kind of scene which made the religious dystopia imagined by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale seem suddenly not so far-fetched.

George Floyd was in Minnesota, where he died, as part of a church work programme in which he hoped to gain a licence to drive a heavy goods vehicle while being, in the American parlance, ‘discipled’. He had been sent there by his pastor at the Resurrection project in Houston where Floyd was “loved, admired, and served as a father figure to guys in this community”.

His death, the Revd Patrick Ngwolo said, was “an inflection point” after which “we either master racism, or allow it to master us”. The blood of an innocent victim cries out for vengeance but also speaks of the possibility of redemption. It is for us to choose which it would be.

An angry protestor on the street echoed that dichotomy more bleakly.  “For half a century we have tried Martin Luther King’s way of peace – and it has not worked,” he raged. “It is time to try the way of Malcolm X”. Violence, as Dr King observed, is the language of the unheard.

We should not make the mistake of reassuring ourselves that the grotesque cartoon politics of the United States do not obtain here. In our own land black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and search than whites. They are three times more likely to be excluded from school. They have the highest unemployment rate of all ethnic groups. They are dying in disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19.

Public Health England this week published a report which confirmed that. Indeed it showed people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had double the risk of dying from the virus, compared to people of white British ethnicity.  The question now is what are the government, and the rest of us, going to do about it?


from the Church Times 5 June 2020

Let’s give the poor world 2% of what we spend saving ourselves from the virus – so that they can fight it too

2020 April 16
by Paul Vallely

It was hardly a surprise to be told that we are in for three more weeks of lockdown. A fortnight ago we were told that the peak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic would occur around the middle of this month. Now the experts are shifting it forward another week or two, with deaths continuing at a high level for some time.

Of course, the lockdown is causing problems – physical, financial and psychological. But it was chastening to read this message from an Indian doctor in the UK: “Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practice it,” he wrote. “Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water… Most of the ways to ward off the corona are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor. All of us who are practising social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are.”

Aeroplanes are not necessary to the transmission of plague. The Black Death in the 1340s showed that as it swept across Europe killing as many as half the entire population. Modern methods of transport have undoubtedly accelerated the speed with which pandemics can proceed. But the responsibility of the rich to assist the poor in combating this disease is not rooted in our culpability for air travel. It is a question of both moral imperative and enlightened self-interest.

Anyone who has travelled through the favelas of South America, the slums of India, or the vast shanty town of Kibera outside Nairobi – where more than a million Kenyans live cheek by jowl in homes which lack clean water and sanitation – will have some understanding of the way that this disease will spread like wildfire once it arrives there.

Tomorrow the finance ministers of the world’s leading nations are gathering, by video, for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. They will discuss a multi-trillion dollar strategy to prevent the imminent global recession from turning into an economic crisis as terrible as the Depression of the 1930s.

It is important that they do not forget the world’s poorest people. African nations were due to make $44 billion debt repayments in 2020. These must be frozen or entirely wiped away. Aid and cheap loans of $100 billion have been promised; that figure needs to be doubled. Poor nations also need new digital data systems to spread accurate health messages to mobile phone users, collect data on symptoms, keep track of outbreaks, target cash to the hardest-hit sectors, and monitor how aid is being spent to prevent corruption.

Can we afford to do that at a time when our own resources are so stretched? All that would cost just 2% of what rich nations have spent on the stimulus packages which have already been put in place worldwide. Without it millions, not just tens of thousands, of deaths could follow, and a movement of refugees could ensue which would dwarf recent migration flows. Can we afford to help? Can we afford not to?

My Church Times column for 17 April 2020

(posted early to lobby the IMF/World Bank meetings on Fri/Sat.)

Creatures of the Black Lagoon

2020 April 3
by Paul Vallely

There are photographs in our local paper of the Blue Lagoon, a beauty spot less than an hour’s drive away, up in the Peak District, where the police have poured black dye into the water to make it less attractive – in order to deter visitors. The black substance, which was poured in by officers wearing hazmat suits to protect themselves, spread out across the turquoise water like great ugly jellyfish.

It’s been portrayed in the popular press as the latest example of ‘coronavirus correctness gone mad’ – along with police use of drones to name-and-shame walkers taking their dogs out on the high moors and council environmental health officers telling corner shops that they could not sell Easter eggs as these are ‘non-essential items’. They widely quoted the former supreme court justice Lord Sumption who proclaimed this week that excess enforcement of the official guidance on self-isolation and social distancing was in danger of turning Britain into a “police state”.

The distinguished judge was undoubtedly correct in pointing out that there is an important difference between behaviour which is, on the one hand, unwise and, on the other, illegal. The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences but only legal regulations. They exceed these when they rule that the law restricts people to exercising outside only once a day or in a certain place.

Good policing depends upon consent and relies upon the common sense of the public. In the main that is in evidence. But, as the scenes of panicking shoppers elbowing aside old people in supermarkets – or stealing from the cage containing other shoppers’ donations for food banks – reminded us there are always a few delinquents.

More commonly there are those who can’t or won’t understand the advice to leave a six-foot gap while queuing in the local mini-market, despite the staff having marked black-and-yellow crosses on the floor.  “No need to get heavy bro,” as one joint-smoking youth riposted to an agitated pensioner. Society needs to find ways to discourage such behaviour – after repeat offences the staff barred the youth – and occasionally the police may have to be involved.

Police chiefs have responded by getting together to agree common guidelines to avoid the inconsistency of Lancashire police having issued 123 enforcement notices in less than a week while Bedfordshire police issued none. They will tell officers that they must enforce the law and not the off-the-cuff pronouncements of individual politicians.

That said, circumstances differ from one place to another. The decision by Derbyshire police to discourage walkers on the high moors came in response to the previous sunny weekend when visitors inundated the Peak District National Park crowding into villages populated mainly by elderly residents – and emptying their local shops.

As for the Blue Lagoon, what most of the press failed to ascertain is that the use of black dye there has been a common tactic by the police over the years to discourage daytrippers from bathing in the alluring waters – whose colour comes from the calcium oxide used in the quarrying process which created the beautiful pool. It has left the lagoon with a pH not far short of ammonia and bleach as the signs around the pool make clear. But common sense is sometimes a singularly uncommon quality.


Looking for my Dad on the D-Day beaches

2019 June 4
by Paul Vallely

Photograph after black-and-white photograph of the D-Day landings have appeared on our television screens, in print and on countless internet sites in recent days. Scanning the faces I realised I was doing more than absorbing the grim reality of the largest seaborne invasion in history and the turning of the tide of the Second World War. I was looking for my father.

He was at Dunkirk, I knew that. He had been with his regiment, the Royal Engineers. But he was later attached to the Commandos and had been involved in actions behind enemy lines about which he remained stonily silent until the day he died. Towards the end of the war he had been posted to Palestine, for we had his olive-wood photo album. But in between, I had long wondered, did he take part in the Normandy landings. I was just 16 when he died, and never found a mood in which he could be enticed to break that silence.

There was a moral ambiguity to killing which my Dad, a good Catholic, was not prepared to cheapen to satisfy the curiosity of a child. But there was nothing ambiguous about the cause for which the men of his generation fought, nor about the courage with which they steeled themselves to the frightening fight.

Last week his comrades-in-arms did speak, and it was with the venerable understatement of a previous age which was all the more moving for its quiet modesty. “There was a job to be done.” But the tears of the old men, the bewildered admiration of the great-grandsons they had brought with them for this last pilgrimage to Normandy, and the heartfelt handshakes of the middle-aged French women who grasped their hands in greeting, all of that spoke with eloquence. These were the men, as one older relative put it to me, who “were all that stood between us and the prospect of a Nazi tide which, if it swept us aside, would go on to conquer the whole world”.

It is hard to imagine what cause might unite the present generation in such an enterprise today. And that is not just because the present is always more muddled than the past. The war against Hitler, his fascist ideology and his genocidal death camps had a great narrative of good versus evil. Its outline had a shocking clarity. In our post-modern epoch, we are constantly told, all narratives have equal validity. The phrases which fell from old men’s lips on Friday – about camaraderie and esprit de corps – sound alien to modern ears.

Nazism was outlived by Communism but, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, American capitalism confidently pronounced The End of History. That reckoned without the tenacity of nationalism – which broke out like a virulent rash all across eastern Europe – and fundamentalist religion which quite shattered the old world order with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

Our wars since then have seemed a good deal more confusing. The self-righteousness of our invasion of Iraq has ended in a murderous sectarian quagmire. In Afghanistan we seemed uncertain of the purpose of our military engagement against the Taliban who had earlier been armed by the Americans in order to drive out the Russians. The war on terror ended up with the insupportable detention without trial of Guantanamo Bay. In Syria we have backed the opposition to Assad only to find that it includes al-Qa’ida affiliates whom many fear as a greater evil.

There is one clear grand narrative. Next year China will overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy. But in most other respects the picture is fractured. The European Union was set up as a “never again” bulwark against a war in Europe but, for some, the grand European project has begun to lose traction, as the rising Ukip tide has shown. In its place the European Right is raising panic against what it calls “the Islamisation of Europe”. France has banned head-scarves in state schools, Belgium the full veil, Switzerland minarets on mosques and there are campaigns in Norway against circumcision and halal food.

In none of this is there the kind of idealistic cause which inspired volunteers such as George Orwell to go off to Spain to join the International Brigade to fight fascist Franco – unless, of course, you count European jihadists going off to Syria, which is not the kind of idealism about which we really want to hear. Ukraine’s fight against the insidious and unpredictable behaviour of its neighbour Russia inspires a vague and general hope for peace. But it inspires no nations, or volunteer individuals, to put their boots on the ground.

A year before the US entered the Second World War President Franklin D Roosevelt set out a vision of Four Freedoms to ensure world peace after the conflict. They included “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point… that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour”.

Barack Obama sounded a good deal less utopian on Friday when he advised our own age “whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men”. Yet only the hard-hearted would not have felt emotion at the rheumy tears of those whose comrades gave their tomorrow for our today. But they were clear about what had to be done when faced with Hitler’s tyranny. They fought for freedom. Today we are a lot less clear about what freedom means. And what we need to do about it.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester

Independent on Sunday, 8 June 2014