Seeking anonymity

In the second of our series on faith in the financial crisis, the Director of the St. Paul's Institu

Each morning at the early service at St Paul’s Cathedral prayers are offered for different groups of City workers in turn. Everyone – office cleaners, financiers, insurance workers, restaurateurs, waiters, street cleaners, builders, and so on – is prayed for. As the credit crunch has bitten harder, so there have been more prayers: those affected are mentioned at the larger services of evensong every night and at the Sunday morning eucharist, attended by hundreds of people. It’s one of the ways the Cathedral can respond to the current situation. Most people don’t know we do it; but we do it, and it’s at the front line of our care.

The atmosphere around the Cathedral in the City, and even more so further east in The Wharf, is strange. There’s a studied air of "business as usual" but the feeling is different. More fear, more uncertainty, less busyness, more reflection. We don’t know who of the many people that come to the Cathedral for quiet prayer are there because of large or small financial worries. We don’t ask people, unless they want to talk, because a Cathedral can offer a great gift to the public: anonymity. It’s a big place and you can mind your own business if you want to. In the mornings, when we open up for Mattins at 7.30, a few people wander in to sit quietly for a moment or two on their way to work. The Cathedral is silent then, and beautiful.

The Cathedral is full of staff, clergy and lay who see themselves as there first and foremost for the people who visit. We are conscious that the City is shaky and that its workers are under horrendous pressure. There is always someone available from our pastoral team to spend time with anyone appearing at our doors in distress. The offices in the vicinity of the Cathedral can ask for passes so that their staff can visit whenever they want to; coming in and out as neighbours, as and when they wish, rather than attend as paying tourists.

The Cathedral is also addressing the broader ethical and social issues arising from the current crisis, seeking to make a serious and challenging contribution to how to emerge from its ravages wiser and better governed. What individual and corporate lessons in business ethics need to be learned? Will financial institutions need to constrain their global ambitions? What should risk strategies look like? What makes for genuine human flourishing? St Paul’s Institute for 21st century ethics is holding a series of debates in October on money: on global institutions and global governance; on the interplay between individual responsibility, rule making and ethics; corporate standard-setting; free markets; and the impact of the credit crunch on the third world. We will bring together practitioners in the financial world, moral philosophers, theologians, social historians and economists, in the Cathedral itself where we can host audiences of up to 2,500 people, for free and un-ticketed events. We can bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise meet - from business, the professions and other walks of life.

We are encouraged by senior figures in the City who advise us that we are playing an important part, as a large religious institution in the heart of the City, in evoking wisdom in the midst of a confusing and frightening time.

Claire Foster is Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London and Director of the St Paul’s Institute

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

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

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear