Could you forgive Mugabe?

Zimbabwe's president shows no sign of going. How does this "devout Catholic" square his crimes with

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, memorably cut up his clerical collar live on Andrew Marr's Sunday breakfast show in 2007 to demonstrate how Robert Mugabe had destroyed the identity of the people of Zimbabwe. Sentamu believes Mugabe should be tried for crimes against humanity, and pledged not to wear a dog collar again until the president had gone. But nearly two years on there is no sign of the archbishop being able to resume his neckwear.

As Mugabe has been much in the news of late, with a very warm reception at the Southern African Development Community summit and the EU delegation's visit signalling acceptance that he is here to stay, I have written about him in today's Independent, asking this: could we -- should we -- forgive him his crimes?

In the Indy I looked at this from a political perspective, but I would welcome a discussion examining the ethical or religious grounds for forgiving him. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, educated by Jesuits, is of course still supposedly a Catholic, a point Christopher Hitchens raised in typically tart fashion in Slate.

What is it going to take before the Roman Catholic Church has anything to say about the conduct of this member of its flock? Mugabe has been a devout Catholic ever since his days in a mission school in what was then colonial Rhodesia, and one is forced to wonder what he tells his priest when he is asked if he has anything he'd like to confess.

One does indeed. Not least because many would assume that forgiveness should not even begin to be meted out until there has been some repentance on Mugabe's part. He hasn't repented in public. Has he in private? And if so, does he think that's enough? The notion that he could be unburdening himself of his crimes in the confessional, receiving absolution, and then committing fresh atrocities in the knowledge that he has a clean slate because he's said a few rosaries, is too twisted to contemplate.

Surely, one might say, only an unbalanced mind could imagine that was conduct within both the spirit and the rules of the Catholic faith. But if Mugabe does believe that, there are other consequences. If we judge he is not of sound mind, the extent to which he can be held responsible for his crimes diminishes. And then he becomes demonstrably more deserving of pity -- and forgiveness . . .

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.