Nouri al-Maliki’s return would damage Iraq

Published by the Guardian.

A coalition government dominated by Nouri al-Maliki and the Iranian-backed Sadrists would do little to solve Iraq’s problems.

Coverage of the Iranian-brokered deal between Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr has focused on fears that Iranian influence is eclipsing US power in Iraq. But the threat to the US is exaggerated. Being forced to turn to Iran for help has been embarrassing for Maliki, who ran an Iraqi nationalist election campaign that distanced itself from Iran and emphasised Iraq’s sovereignty.

Rabid anti-Iranian sentiment among both Shia and Sunni Iraqis, including many of Sadr’s supporters, mean that Iran’s grip over Iraq is largely limited to times of political desperation. Among ordinary Iraqis, Iran is almost as unpopular as the US. Thus, with some political will, the US can claw back the narrow strategic advantage that the Iranians may win through a Shia coalition deal.

A far more worrying prospect is the irreparable damage that a Maliki-Sadrist government could inflict on Iraq. Maliki’s power and intransigence have been a major cause of delay in the formation of a new Iraqi government. Early in the post-election period both the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) offered to negotiate a coalition with Maliki’s al-Da’wah party on the condition that Maliki would not be prime minister. Maliki refused.

Negotiations with Iyad Allawi, leader of the secular-Sunni Iraqiya list, broke down over the same issue, namely Maliki’s insistence on remaining top dog. And Maliki is not a force to be ignored. As he used his first term in office to build a formidable power base among supporters and in the military and intelligence establishments, many fear the level of power that Maliki may be able to accrue with another four years in office. Some Iraqis are even asking: is Maliki destined to be another Saddam?

Perhaps most seriously, Maliki presided over a collapse of faith in Iraq’s political system. The 2010 parliamentary elections were shambolic and the continued failure to form a government has undermined any remaining credibility. On the eve of the election, the Justice and Accountability Commission (JAC) – headed by a Shia politician who was himself an electoral candidate – disqualified 458 mostly Sunni and secular candidates from participation in the election. The JAC claimed that the candidates were Ba’athists, but failed to release the evidence on which these claims were based – preventing those affected from mounting effective appeals. The debacle threatened to derail the entire election.

Even after the election the JAC attempted to retrospectively ban candidates accused of having links to Ba’athism without even awarding the lost seats to the political party that they had represented – thereby changing the results of an extremely close election after the event. External pressure forced the JAC to drop their case, but faith in the political process had been well and truly shaken.

The most urgent task of the next Iraqi government should be constitutional and electoral reform that reassures voters flagrant manipulations of the political process will not be tolerated. A government dominated by Maliki and Sadr will not make these crucial changes – it is their opponents who stand to lose the most from the status quo.

As for the Sadrists, they are dangerous partners in government. Sadr refused to countenance the idea of renewing Maliki’s term as prime minister in the early post-election period, protesting against Maliki’s 2008 attempt to crush Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi army. We can only speculate what Sadr’s conditions were for making his recent U-turn to support Maliki. The release of men convicted of sectarian killings? A relaxation of controls over the Mahdi army? There are even reports inside Iraq that a slow trickle of Mahdi army leaders are already being released from prison. The possible implications for the revival of civil war in Iraq make for queasy thinking.

In what now feels like the distant past, the results of the March 2010 elections were hailed a great success for Iraq. Voters had thrown out the most sectarian parties in favour of al-Da’wah and Iraqiya, who had both campaigned on anti-sectarian, Iraqi nationalist platforms. But seven months on, Maliki’s proposed coalition with the Sadrists sounds the death knell for Iraqi cross-communalism and the future of Iraq looks bleak.

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Ahmadinejad bores Lebanon

Published by the Guardian.

Just over the partition separating hundreds of female Hezbollah supporters from their male counterparts, a heated discussion is being held. A teenage security guard, identified as Hezbollah-approved by a green card badge safety-pinned to his T-shirt, wants to pray without leaving the large square in south Beirut where the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to speak.

The only thing he can find to pray on, however, is one of the A4 posters of Ahmadinejad that had been laid out on endless seats to be raised in adulation at the appropriate time. A discussion ensues between the teenager and a couple of security guards. He can’t place the poster on the floor with Ahmadinejad facing upwards, because it would be considered idolatry if he kneels over the image of a man. Would it send the wrong message to pray on the back of the poster, leaving Ahmadinejad nose down on the rubble floor?

Another teenager excitedly brings an A2 version of the same poster into the discussion: if you are going to do it – he offers – you might as well use the bigger version and not get yourself dusty. A compromise is reached, the boys agree that they will rub Ahmadinejad’s face into the dirt but that they would use the smaller poster to minimise the insult.

Media reports covering the hero’s welcome offered to Ahmadinejad in Lebanon on Wednesday assumed that flag-waving and cheering crowds suggested profound support for the Iranian president. But in Dahiyeh last night at a rally organised in honour of Ahmadinejad, thousands of bored Hezbollah supporters sat around on brown plastic chairs as the Iranian president addressed them in person.

Several women behind me tittered at Ahmadinejad’s soft Iranian accent when he began to speak. Others started to look over the partition to check out Hezbollah’s male talent. The girl in front of me, who had been excitedly waving her Lebanese flag when Ahmadinejad made his grand entrance, now yawned and picked the thread out of her flag instead of bothering to listen to his speech.

The support that Ahmadinejad enjoys in Lebanon’s Shia heartlands can be compared to the support that a corporate sponsor might expect from Manchester United fans: bored gratitude. The biggest cheer that Ahmadinejad’s speech managed to raise out of the crowd came when he thanked Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as a “dear warrior and scholar”.

Nasrallah was the real star of the show. Rumours that he might appear in person at the rally drew large expectant crowds. Though there was a sigh of disappointment when Nasrallah only appeared via video link, the forceful and impassioned clarity with which he spoke whipped the crowd into a flag-waving and slogan-chanting frenzy. Nasrallah spoke mindfully of his larger audience in Lebanon, and tried the novel approach of presenting Iran’s foreign policy as “unifying”. He praised Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for issuing a fatwa forbidding Muslims to react to the Qur’an burning-fiasco in the US with “similar acts”, claiming that Iran was acting in the best interests of Christian-Muslim unity.

He also congratulated the Iranian cleric for his handling of a highly controversial London conference in which a little-known Shia activist disparaged Aisha, the wife of the prophet Muhammad, who is highly revered by Sunnis but considered a traitor by many Shias. Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei had responded with a statement forbidding insulting talk about the wives of the prophet, thereby – according to Nasrallah – acting as a force for unity between Sunnis and Shias.

Many Lebanese would have a lot to say about claims that Iran is a “unifying force in the region”, but the speech did make clear that Nasrallah’s crowd appeal is unmatched and that his power among many Shias does not need to be enforced by Iran. If anything, Hezbollah deftly staged a welcome for Ahmadinejad designed to encourage the Iranians to dig deeper and give more generously to Hezbollah’s cause.

While Ahmadinejad was still speaking, I whispered to the teenage girl sitting in front of me: “Who do you prefer; Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah?” “Nasrallah!” she replied rolling her eyes. “Nasrallah is one of us. And anyway, Ahmadinejad is boring.”

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A Date With Pierce Brosnan

First published by the Cherwell.

“I’ll have a whisky on the rocks,” drawls Brosnan in the most bizarre accent I have ever heard. The voice weaves together his Irish childhood, his current American life, and the dozens of characters he has given life to on stage and on screen. His speech is soft but authoritative, fully awaPhotograph by Eddie Gallacherre of its right to almost anything the world has to offer, while never quite demanding it. Brosnan is sitting beside me; the whisky is on its way. He leans forward and loosely folds his hands together. Everything he is wearing, from his grey silk tie down to his improbably polished shoes, exudes money. He does not look showy or extravagant, just quietly and confidently expensive.

Even his face seems expensively crafted, the wrinkles are sharply defined, each one seems deliberate. His skin is lightly freckled and glows with a respectable tan, the product of an enviable life in California and Hawaii. The voluminous brown hair is swept back over his head, adorned with a few brushes of white silver. His flawless presentation, combined with the slightly disturbing familiarity of his figure, produces a man who is known by all and yet who you never really expected to exist.

Despite his fearsomely elegant veneer, Brosnan has been in ‘the industry’ 23 years too long to maintain illusions about the nature of celebrity. He recognises that the status of celebrity is consciously cultivated, built up, hyped up and then sold in magazines, adverts and films. The modern celebrity was created as fodder for the multi-billion dollar advertising and entertainment industry and Brosnan is fully aware of it. He refers to his first encounter with “the sheer volume of advertising” that went into the Bond films, admitting that he was “somewhat blind-sighted” by it all. Along with his first big role came the watches and the suits and the floods of contracts, all asking for the rights to Brosnan’s image. He describes with humour seeing his face suddenly appear across billboards the world over next to some item or another. “It’s not something you’re taught about at drama school,” he wryly comments. But Brosnan is not out to challenge it: “Unfortunately that’s the state of the business…in James Bond it was wall to wall advertising!” Brosnan continues, “I tried to sidestep some of this, but in the end I succumbed to being a part of it.” He sees the inevitability of advertising in show business, and instead of bemoaning it he makes sure it benefits him: “You try to take it with a sense of humour and a healthy outlook, and make sure that you get the best possible contract and get some financial reward from it.”

The global predominance of the American film industry means that celebrities of Brosnan’s level have access to international press coverage. And this is a position – if the celebrity is able to have any control over it – of some power. Although some celebrities are criticised for not using this power to promote good causes, many who do are dismissed as opportunistic. For Brosnan the matter is much more personal. His first wife Cassandra Harris died in 1991 after four years of Ovarian cancer. During the illness the couple realised that deforestation was limiting their chances of finding potential medicines. After Cassandra’s death, Brosnan became an active environmentalist. “The tragedy of losing a wife,” he reflects, “spurred me on to being more active for the environment.” He describes environmentalism as his “first and foremost” campaign issue. Brosnan is currently Campaign Chairman for the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which distributed $15 million last year alone. With access both to the media and to extraordinary amounts of money, Brosnan has the luxury of being able to transform personal tragedy into substantial action. “It’s an extremely powerful position to be in as a celebrity,” he notes, “It comes with as huge weight of responsibility.”

And Brosnan has taken his ‘responsibility’ as a world famous actor beyond the environment, and into politics. An active supporter of John Kerry in the 2004 American presidential elections, Brosnan is severely critical of Bush and of the war in Iraq. “I think Bush has a lot to answer for,” he bluntly states. “This man is a very hard man to tolerate or to have any faith in.” He insinuates that Bush’s administration is acting on the basis of extreme religious grounds and “seems to be determined to cleave away the world and cause a great deal of consternation to other world leaders and other religions.” Brosnan’s voice is now more fervent: “They have created a great sadness in the world… I think the war in Iraq has been a fiasco.” He quickly adds, “I certainly support the troops and the young men who have lost lives and their families,” but remains adamant about the disgraceful human cost of this escapade. “I think we were very foolish in making the move to invade Iraq and to start this war…It is a stab to my heart that this great country America could be so blind. I will be voting Democrat in the next election.”

Brosnan feels so strongly about the war that he became an American citizen in order to vote in the 2004 election. But he has been a man of America for far longer than he has had formal citizenship. Growing up in Ireland in the late 50s, Brosnan was not the first Irish boy to fall in aspirational love with the ‘land of opportunity’. “My greatest achievement,” Brosnan muses, “was having the courage to go to America. My life has been Americanised: I wished it, I dreamed it, I wanted it and I found it.” But now he has found commercial success worldwide, what keeps his home in the States? “I have embraced America and America has been extremely embracing of me,” Brosnan enthuses. “I love the country, I love the people, I love the enthusiasm of the nation.” This is why he find the current state of American politics so painful, and puts time into Democrat support.

But he admits that his “blood and bones are Irish” which is why his new production company is called Irish Dream Time, with a view to going back to Ireland and making films and supporting the industry there.

The ‘American Dream’ was and continues to be embodied in film, and becoming an American film star was Brosnan’s greatest fantasy: “For me as a young actor it was all about the movies. Movies for me had the greatest magic and had the greatest mystery and the greatest character.” He describes how Goldfinger was the first film he saw when he arrived in America, and says it “had an indelible impact; the whole fantasy world of film captivated me.” James Bond in particular got Brosnan running after the role of what he assumes to be “the greatest male iconic fantasy in cinema.” And it is in the context of James Bond that Brosnan first mentions another actor as having a great influence over his life. “I hoped and wished to be as good as [Sean] Connery. He was, and is, a huge touchstone in my life as an actor.” When I ask him, however, whether he dreamed of a James Bond lifestyle in addition to movie part he laughs: “Life is far more interesting and far more exhilarating and tangible than a James Bond film.”

Well maybe his life is. But the adventures of real life are waning even for Brosnan and he is trying to expand his repertoire, and move into other parts of the industry. He is adamant that he wants to play more humorous roles, and he has already moved into the production side. “I’d like to try my hand at writing,” Brosnan adds. “I do write…I’ve written poetry, I’ve attempted to write a novel, I’ve attempted to write a screen play, but my attention is very short lived. I suffer from ADD and I suffer from crises of confidence.” Brosnan is even thinking of going back to study: “I thought of going back and studying at UCLA. My education was really short changed by a life in Ireland.” He attended a “school system which was overcrowded and left one with no room for knowledge or learning,” and laments that the rest of his life has been “a constant catch up.” “I left school at 15, I’m still to this day amazed that I’ve come so far in this profession.”

Even though he was deprived of a thorough high school education, Brosnan has reached the highest echelons of success in his profession, and luckily for him it is a profession which happened to be one of the most over-valued in the world. “What can I say?” grins Brosnan. “I’m just a working actor and I’ve been fortunate to have employment for many, many years.”

Even as he sits close to the very top of the global celebrity hierarchy, Brosnan maintains no illusions over what his life is about. He constantly reiterates that the most important thing is keeping together his family and providing for them, while also growing and facing new challenges as an actor. Brosnan is a decent family man with convictions and a voice, and an unusually impressive, influential platform from which to speak.

Images by Eddie Gallacher

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Tony Benn: Classroom Assistant to the Nation

First published by the Cherwell.

The neat parting of Tony Benn’s baby soft white hair, as he bends over to stuff tobacco into his pipe, is clearly visible and I can’t help but notice its careful construction. His well worn hands trembling slightly, he tries to light the pipe in between every question I ask him – but the moment he opens his mouth to speak the flame promptly dies out. The thickly brown wooden pipe lays between us, a symbol of an entirely different experience of the 20th century. It harks back to an era in British politics when trade unionism and compassionate socialism defined the rhetoric of the Labour Party, and when Benn enjoyed the support of thousands of leftist party members. Always more popular with the members than with the MPs, Benn made came fourth in the first round of the party leadership contest in 1976, and is fondly known as the Prime Minister that never was. Many households still hold a special place for Benn in their political memories.

Benn was admired outside Westminster and admonished within for his famously unrestrained tongue. Renouncing his peerage, lashing out against Labour’s betrayal of the trade unions and demanding an end to the monarchy, he rarely let a year of his 48 year long career as an MP pass without incident. Benn laughingly dismisses the compliment the moment I put it to him, “Well you see…” he drawls in a comfortable BBC accent, “it’s much easier to say what you think, than to wait for the spin doctors to come and tell you what to say!” But it is decidedly not comfort that led Benn down the tortured political route he chose to traverse.

Most politicians would accept that advancing in politics inevitably comes at a cost to one’s principles. Tony Benn’s son Hilary, now Secretary of State for International Development, told Cherwell in an interview last year that compromising your ideology to accommodate the electorate is in fact the democratic thing to do. Benn makes it clear, however, that politics for him was always a means and never an end – which is possibly why he spent so many years in the house and ‘never made it’. “See I really would be ashamed,” Benn muses, “if I’d ever said anything I didn’t believe in to get on.” I pause for a moment wistfully looking at the carefully wrinkled face and the grey-blue eyes, wishing that today’s politicians would even pretend to have enduring principles. But it’s not without reason that politicians ordinarily tread the paths of least resistance. “Well you get a lot of flack, but I can’t complain – it’s a free country. If people want to say I’m a pig, it’s up to them.”

Sitting healthily before me aged eighty-one, Benn has a unique perspective over the upheavals of the twentieth century. He name-drops like an encyclopedia of twentieth century history, sending flutters down my history-student spine. Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, Malcolm X, Saddam Hussein… he met them, questioned them, saw them in action. Benn’s own outlook on life was shaped by his participation in the defining event of 20th century Europe; World War Two. He cites “fascism, the war, the agony and the cost of war, the consequences of war, the waste of war” as the most formative experiences of his life.

He even remembers as an Oxford undergraduate being woken up for war exercises. “The tutor came in,” Benn recalls, “and he took some paper and put it in the wastepaper basket and set fire to it. He said ‘This is a war exercise – you have severe burns’ and he put labels on me saying severe burns. I said ‘I’m terribly sorry but I’ve got an exam tomorrow morning!’” I laugh at the incongruity of this tale with my own Oxford experience, beginning with the improbability of having a tutor enter my room… Nevertheless, Benn’s own undergraduate years were torn apart by the war in which he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. But the century Benn lived through was not all negative: “I think the aspirations of the world at the end of the war, the UN charter – that’s a sign of hope.” He points to the establishment of DIFID, and the end of colonialism. “And above all I look at things like the women’s movement, the Chartists, the trade union movement as an achievement.”

Despite being unrelentingly critical of the Blairite government, Benn remains optimistic – partly because he thinks its his duty. He thinks that the most powerful thing that Thatcher did was to crush hope in the trade unions. “What she said was, ‘Whatever you think, whatever you say, whatever you do, whatever you organise it won’t work so don’t even try.’” And after her, New Labour made trade unions “virtually illegal.” But steering away from the struggles of the eighties in which Benn was so deeply involved, he reverts to his more aloof position in the world of politics today.

“I think I’ve become by default in age a sort of Buddhist. Because Buddhists believe that happiness comes from ridding yourself of desire, I don’t want anything.” Benn is now more impressed with teachers than with political leaders, because he sees their enduring influence in contrast with the transience of political power. Shaping people’s understandings of the world is what matters, and Benn has taken it upon himself in this last phase of his life to become a “sort of untrained classroom assistant to the nation.” “It’s a unique position” he adds, “experience and no ambition.”

And looking to the future Benn comments on the current generation, “You’ve got this huge choice to make between destroying the world and rebuilding it. It’s such a brilliant generation.” Benn confers enormous weight on the next batch of world leaders, predicting rather dramatically that the choice they will have to make will be one of annihilation or salvation. But, coming back down to earth, Benn refers to his unshakable, even outdated, faith in democracy.

Of the UN he says, “I’d like to elect the members of the general assembly, and for the general assembly to control the secretary general and the security council.” And of Europe that he doesn’t want to be “governed by people I didn’t elect and can’t remove.” More radically Benn suggests a little bit of ‘internal democracy.’ “Why shouldn’t the editor of the Times by elected by the people who work for the Times? I mean it would transform the role of the media.” It would also transform the nature of modern society, but when I suggest to Benn that its unfeasible, he recognises that “it will be as bitter a battle as it was to get democracy in Britain” but indicates that any battle can be won.

As for the means, Benn remains an advocate of rebellion. He states, “I think NO is the most powerful word in the political vocabulary. If a lot of people say NO I will not accept it, I will not accept student fees, I will not accept the means test, I will not accept the war, the guys at the top have to think again.”

Refuting my assertion that individualism has undercut the basis of mass collective politics, Benn dismisses it as a capitalist attempt to “turn us all from humans into consumers.” But human nature he believes will win through, and with that Benn finally lights his pipe and pops it snugly into his mouth. “I’d better go off to find the Oxford Tube, I’ve got to be up at 6 in the morning.” As he sturdily begins to walk down the streets of Oxford, I sit gathering my notes, unusually star-struck. Nothing he talks about in his life strikes me as a waste, and he seems so utterly contented about the choices he has made. It’s very difficult not to end by saying: ‘Tony Benn, when I’m eighty-one, I want to be just like you.’

Image by Eddie Gallacher

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Lime Tea with Madeleine Bunting

First published in Emel Magazine.

Madeleine is sitting back in a comfortable polka-dotted armchair that matches nothing but compliments everything in her high ceilinged living room in Hackney, London. A seasoned reporter and commentator on religion and social affairs for the Guardian, Madeleine has momentarily forgotten that I have arrived to interview her. She fires a series of questions at me. Who am I? Where am I from? How did I end up here? I feel like it’s a test, and I am in no fit state to answer. I’m still trying to recover from having the front door opened for me by Madeleine’s handsomely tanned, topless husband. It requires all of my concentration to construct answers that won’t fall flat on their face against Madeleine’s effortless eloquence.

When she has satiated her curiosity, Madeleine reaches out, reclaims her cup of lime tea, and begins to tell me an extraordinary childhood story. ‘I’ve not dared tell anyone this before – outside immediate friends,’ she confides, ‘but at the age of about 11 I was sitting in a pub and I turned to my mother and I remember vividly holding this glass of orange juice up to the light and I said: “Mum. I think I’m going to become a Muslim.”’ Madeleine bursts out laughing at the absurdity of the anecdote. ‘To her great credit my mother just said “really?”’ ‘But for a child in North Yorkshire to say that – I can’t describe how weird that was. I swear I’d met no Muslims by that point in my life, none! In rural North Yorkshire it was the most outlandish idea.’ Madeleine confesses to being apprehensive about sharing this story with people, ‘I’ve always been a little bit nervous about repeating that anecdote though because lots of Muslims would be like ‘great! She’s gonna convert!’ and of course there’d be loads of critics of mine who’d say ‘Oh! She’s an apologist!’

Madeleine’s relationship with religion has been long and intense, and when I ask her about it, for the first time since I’ve met her, she hesitates. ‘That’s a huge question’ she retorts, ‘I’m sure you’d find it difficult to answer that yourself.’ She sits up in her armchair and takes up an expression that says ‘Ruminating. Please wait.’ Words form at her mouth, but fall away before any sounds come out. ‘It’s such a huge framing of my life,’ Madeleine finally answers. ‘A lot of the injunctions of Christianity are written into my DNA now.’ She goes on to discuss her admirable set of principles, which she feels incorporate Catholicism within a framework of her own personal ethics. Citing the general values of loving and caring for people does not satisfy Madeleine, they don’t pin down the spirit of her belief. ‘It’s about that, but it’s also about more than that.’ ‘There is a hymn that says ‘whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that is what you do unto me.’

Madeleine is confident about combining pragmatism with traditional religious teaching, and is effortlessly able to combine the secular and the Catholic in both her personal and professional life. Becoming the lead religion writer for the Guardian was a breakthrough for Madeleine, because it allowed her to combine two of her great passions; religion and writing. Madeleine speaks of writing with a great deal of intensity, ‘writing is like breathing’ she states emphatically. ‘If I don’t do it on a fairly continuous basis then there is some kind of processing of the world, of my own take of the world, that is just not happening. There is nothing more satisfying than feeling that you can manage to identify what was troubling you or concerning you or interesting you and really managing to express that to perfection.’

In one of the highlights of her time as a religion reporter Madeleine met the Dalai Lama. Talking excitedly now Madeleine describes how she was both bemused and astounded by this great spiritual figurehead. ‘I had long conversations with the Dalai Lama in which he described his dreams and his various divination rituals, and by the end my jaw was dropping with amazement and confusion. But it was a fascinating story and the Dalai Lama was a terrific man.’ Madeline admits that she ‘honestly, hand on heart, hadn’t a clue what he was talking about,’ but insists that he is ‘one of the world’s great human beings.’ She tries to elucidate this comment for me, saying that although the Buddhist tradition was densely symbolic, the fruits of its spirituality were apparent in its devotees. ‘You know precisely when its working. When somebody is compassionate, loving, generous, humorous, carries the world lightly on their shoulders while at the same time being utterly present with suffering.’

Madeleine has come to find the world of journalism a little frustrating, and this summer she has decided to leave the Guardian to become director of public policy think tank Demos. In what she describes as a ‘gamble’ Madeleine decided to take the chance to express her ideas in a new way. ‘The way I see it, is that I’ve moved around the dinner table. I’m still sitting at the same table with the same menu, but it’s a different perspective.’ In this new position at the metaphorical table Madeleine hopes to supply some of the answers to problems she has hitherto challenged other people to address. ‘There is a tremendous luxury in journalism, which I think many journalists don’t acknowledge, which is that they can say “oh I don’t like this! Oh I don’t like that!’ but they never actually have to get into the hard hard work of trying to put things a little bit right.’ Madeleine warns me, almost wistfully, that ‘the great occupational hazard of journalism is that it breeds cynicism and arrogance.’

Madeleine wants to develop the identity strand of Demos’ work, specifically in relation to the concept of ‘cultural capital.’ Proceeding slowly so as not to confuse me, Madeleine explains that ‘cultural capital’ is ‘the network of meaning and symbol that we all need to make our lives purposeful and meaningful.’ There is a new strand of thinking that emphasises the need for a culture of self worth, which can only exist if people rally around causes, beliefs, institutions, a sense of history or shared passions.

Madeleine believes that culture is about much more than a recreation. ‘How you understand the value of the good life, and what is a good life. These are all issues of cultural capital.’ The decline of the church, and of community organisations and trade unions have diminished the structural basis of a healthy cultural capital, but religious and ethnic minorities have managed to hold on to some kind of collective identity.

Madeleine believes that ‘many Muslims that I meet have bags of cultural capital.’ ‘You can see it,’ she continues, ‘in the way that they carry themselves and the way that they relate to people.’ To address the cultural dispossession of the British working class – Madeleine believes – is the next big challenge for policy makers. Madeleine identifies the problem as being partly with the economic elite, who are so steeped in their own cultural capital that they are unable to grasp the lack of it in other parts of society.

Ultimately, Madeleine postulates, it is about just getting beyond your own experience of life and truly engaging with what it’s like for other people. ‘And that is at the heart of every ethical, religious position; transcendence over the self in order to reach out and connect to other people.’

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