Compassion during the crisis

Compassion for all - including bankers and politicians - will help society weather the economic cris

The Buddha was an ordinary human being who lived a remarkable life. An Indian prince, he gave up everything in search of the truth. The truths he discovered speak to us across all cultures and ages. He discovered and taught that human dissatisfaction is caused by three “root poisons” of the mind: greed, ignorance and anger. The Buddha also taught that we can move beyond these poisons and wake up to reality. In fact the word Buddha means “one who is awake”.

We can see how greed and ignorance have contributed to current economic conditions. Recent events in the financial markets and economy have undoubtedly been a “wake up call”. People are suffering from financial losses and from uncertainty and fear. A new reality is dawning and it has been a shock. The Regan-Thatcher years are dead due to the widespread acceptance that unchecked markets do not best serve us.

During those years people were encouraged towards selfish greed. Bankers became greedy for profits and became more creative about making money from nothing - inventing new financial schemes, mortgage products and ways of “offsetting” risk. The result of these developments? A full blown asset price bubble followed by the inevitable bust: collapsing asset prices, mortgage foreclosure, unemployment and business bankruptcy. It is clear no risks were offset, merely swept under the carpet until the world economy tripped over it.

Wisdom cuts through ignorance. The last three hundred years or so has seen mankind develop a wealth of knowledge and skills to manipulate our environment. Knowledge and skills are not wisdom though - indeed they can be applied in unwise ways. From today's economic situation it is clear that financial skills and knowledge have been applied in unwise ways.

It is not only a short term lack of wisdom that troubles us. This world has finite resources and for a long time lone voices have been pointing out the impossibility of permanent compound economic growth. The ecology movement has grown up during the last forty five years or so and has cohered to become politically influential. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of international institutions, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer - and the environment continues to degrade.

These issues need to be addressed and slowly the economic paradigm is shifting. We need now to develop the wisdom to use our knowledge and skills properly. We must learn to live in a peaceful and sustainable way. This will demand the development of a new economics based on “simplicity, need and sufficiency” and not on “complexity, greed and power”. It will involve massive social, economic and financial change. It will take time.

For these reasons we need to develop compassion not just for the starving, but for the super-rich, bankers and politicians too, because if we are to solve the underlying ecological and economic issues – which can not be separated - these people will be experiencing more change than any of us.

Matthew Jee is a former stockbroker, merchant banker and financial publisher. In 1997 he left the world of finance and worked on a Kibbutz in Israel. Two years later he became a Buddhist under his Tibetan Master, The Venerable Khandro Rinpoche. Matthew now writes under the pseudonym “The Irreverent Buddhist” and is the owner of a non-sectarian internet discussion forum for meditators.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.