O come all ye faithful: Pope Francis greets wellwishers outside the Vatican after an audience for health workers, 22 November. Photo: Getty
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Religion vs medicine, trouble at Fifa and Clive James’s final performance

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know . . .

A E Housman, from “Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying”

There is so much to admire about Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who has become a talisman for many on the left. He lives modestly and has great humility. He scourges inequality and global poverty. He has courageously intervened in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which becomes ever more hopeless with each new atrocity committed. Yet his reported remarks condemning in vitro fertilisation – or “the scientific production of a child” – and embryonic stem-cell research were dismaying, if not altogether surprising. He is, after all, the Pope and not some kind of Latin American bandit-revolutionary, as some would have it.

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance. Just as the Catholic Church was humiliated into accepting the Copernican revolution, so in time it will be forced to accommodate further advances in medicine, from gene therapy to embryonic stem-cell research. We live on a hostile planet and the human journey has been about making it incrementally less inhospitable.

Meanwhile, Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and his team are edging closer to finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes after discovering how to produce from embryonic stem cells huge quantities of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells required in transplantation. Professor Melton’s two children were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as infants and it became his life’s mission to find a cure.

My elder sister’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young boy and he has borne his illness with fortitude and grace. No one would wish anyone to suffer as he and others have from such an illness, least of all young children. Christian fundamentalists value above all the sanctity of human life, hence the opposition to contraception, abortion and assisted dying. But life is not an end in itself: how a life is lived is what matters, its quality and dignity. Why be in thrall to what neither knows nor cares?

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David Bernstein, a former chairman of the Football Association, has called on England and other European nations to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia in protest at the machinations of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss megalomaniac who seems, in effect, to run Fifa like a personal fiefdom. Fifa’s report into the World Cup bidding process has hilariously exonerated Russia and Qatar of any duplicity but condemned England for breaking the rules. Fortunately, Michael Garcia, the American lawyer hired by Fifa to investigate corruption, has condemned the way his report has been misrepresented.

Football is a fabulously simple game debased by those who control and seek to profit from it. Blatter, who is 78, is seeking election for yet another term as Fifa president. Does the beautiful game have the leader it deserves?

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To the Cambridge Union Chamber, to see Clive James perform in the winter leg of the literary festival of which the New Statesman is media partner. James was there to talk about his latest book but what we were treated to was a virtuoso one-man show. “Here I am making another final performance!” he joked.

This was a reference to his chronic illnesses. James has emphysema, “reward for a lifetime’s smoking”, and leukaemia, which is in remission. Modern medicine (“the meds”) and the dedication of Addenbrooke’s Hospital have prolonged his life beyond what even he imagined was possible. When you are living under a death sentence, one course of action, he said, was “inaction”. The other was “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”, which is what he says he has been doing. In truth, the poems he has published recently, several of them in the NS, are mostly about the period of his long, drawn-out dying. These late works offer a kind of extended leave-taking. They are about memory and forgetting and about what will soon be lost for ever: yet the tone is resigned, not bitter. And, because this is James, there is sardonic humour.

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Clive James is unusual in having had a dual career as a prime-time TV presenter and as a serious man of letters: poet, novelist, memoirist. “Television looks as if it dissipates energy,” he said, “and it does. It takes five days to get one hour of television. But I enjoyed those days and I won’t knock them.”

Yet his first and greatest love was poetry, as a reader and writer. James is a wonderful raconteur, moving between different registers, high and low – from Philip Larkin to Game of Thrones in one smooth, easy movement. Dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, a beat poet’s black turtleneck sweater and black trousers, he moved at the “pace of a racing snail”, as he put it. He is thin now and very frail and his voice is weak and wheezy but still unmistakable. He recited from memory some of his favourite poems – Auden’s “Lullaby”, Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love”, something by e e cummings (“a rebel poet who had the distinct advantage of having a trust fund; he could afford to be a communist”) – as well as one of his own. He said the art of poetry was “to capture [experiences] with the excitement of things well said”.

Clive James said many things that night and all of them well – and it was exciting for those of us who were there to see him perform one more time, for one last time. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.