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
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.