A very political monk

Why do we think the Dalai Lama is a living saint?

This Sunday, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu will be awarded the Fetzer Prize for Love and Forgiveness at the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. I have to admit that I'd never heard of this prize until today, but I can tell you that it's worth $100,000 (£63,000) and that the Fetzer Institute is based in the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, previously best known as the place where, according to the 1942 hit record, the Glenn Miller band's singer had a girl (or rather, a gal).

I am delighted for Archbishop Tutu, who has always seemed to combine astounding cheerfulness and compassion with a highly accurate moral barometer, calling it right, for instance, on Robert Mugabe -- he described him as "a caricature of an African dictator" -- when too many of his fellow countrymen chose to keep silent about "Comrade Bob's" destructive behaviour.

The Dalai Lama, though, I'm not so sure about. It's not just that I'm suspicious of the amount of time he appears to spend hanging around with Hollywood stars struck dumb by being in the presence of a "God-King", and a "Boodist" one to boot. Nor is it just that I've not been totally convinced of his great holiness since my old colleague at the Independent Johann Hari came back from interviewing him and declared to the startled office: "I've just been called 'fat' by the Dalai Lama." The exchange appeared in the paper as follows:

"Why do the rich need so much? We each only have one stomach. Well, not you," he says, looking at my belly. "You appear to have two."

Every action he takes carries the possibility of political repercussions, and it is misleading simply to see him as a religious leader. He and Tibet have become pet causes in the west, while the Dalai Lama is now such an icon that nobody ever questions the wisdom of what he does any more. Now, I'm not saying that Tibetans may not have very good cause to feel that they have been conquered and oppressed by the Chinese. But so do the Uighurs of Xinjiang, of whom the world became briefly aware in July when 200 died in riots in the province. They, however, have since been completely forgotten again. If only they had a great spiritual leader to capture our attention . . .

This August "His Holiness" visited Taiwan after the island had been hit by a typhoon, and in November he is due to visit the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh -- a region China calls Southern Tibet. The Chinese claim both areas as theirs, and just as his trip to Taiwan infuriated Beijing, so will his forthcoming jaunt. "The visit further reveals the Dalai clique's anti-China and separatist essence," a spokesman from the Chinese foreign ministry told a reporter from Asia Sentinel. "China's stance on the so-called Arunachal Pradesh is consistent. We firmly oppose Dalai visiting the so-called Arunachal Pradesh."

He can claim that his activities are spiritual, but the Dalai Lama's appeal to the west has political ends, and as a result of that he deserves a little more scrutiny. Rarely aired, for instance, are the views of some who think he has actually set back the cause of Tibetan independence, or those who argue that China's invasion released Tibet's population from feudal serfdom, in which the peasants were slaves of the lamas.

So three cheers for "Arch" Tutu in being awarded this prize. But I think I'll hold off the ovation for the very political monk whom we've elevated into a living saint.

 

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496