The politics of Christmas

It's the season to be jolly, but let's not forget the reality of injustice.

People do not instinctively associate Christmas with politics or economics. Indeed, if there is any association it is an inverse one: Christmas is the one time of the year when we can legitimately close our door to these grim, worldly pursuits.

According to a recent poll from Theos/ ComRes, five in six people (83 per cent) agreed that "Christmas is about spending time with family and friends," and three in five felt that it was "a time when we should be generous to people less fortunate than ourselves." Over two in five thought "Christmas is about celebrating that God loves humanity," and about the same number said they thought that it was "a good excuse for taking time off but doesn't really have any meaning today."

By contrast, only a third thought "Christmas is a time when we should challenge poverty and economic injustice," and less than one in five agreed that "Christmas is a time when we should challenge political oppression around the world." The message was clear: domesticity and charity yes, religion and leisure maybe, politics and economics no.

This is perfectly understandable and, in some ways, admirable. Generosity is better than parsimony, and many families are in desperate need of the time and space that Christmas (sometimes) affords. But it is also somewhat ironic, given that the narratives on which the Christmas story is based comprise some of the most pushily political passages in the New Testament.

Matthew's retelling is the subtler of the two. His opening genealogy emphasises Jesus's political descent, but also mentions four foreign women, with vaguely scandalous histories - a triply unusual feature for genealogies of the time. His story of the Magi and the escape to Egypt, taking place around the murderous paranoia of Herod, the supposed king of the Jews, continues the theme. God is not on the side of the powerful in palaces, Matthew is saying, but rather to be found among foreigners and refugees.

Luke's gospel is more direct, repeatedly juxtaposing the might of the powerful empire and plight of its powerless subjects. The holy family is pushed around so that the Roman Empire can put its taxation records into order. (The fact that Luke appears to have confused Quirinius's local census of Syria and Judea in 6AD with Augustus' general censuses, held in 8BC and 14AD, doesn't change his point: taxation and debt were bitterly controversial subjects at the time).

Caesar Augustus's decree immediately gives way to story in which shepherds, the lowest of the social low, are the first to hear about the birth of a "Saviour" who will bring "peace". The fact that Caesar was widely known the "Saviour" who brought peace through his brutally efficient armies is instructive.

Luke makes a similar point a little later when he scrolls forward to the start of John the Baptist's ministry. Luke carefully - and unnecessarily - dates this from reign of Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Philip the tetrarch, Lysanias the tetrarch, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, before going on to say "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness". God moves not among the rulers, Luke implies, but out there in the wasteland.

Mary's famous song, the Magnificat is, of course, the most visibly political moment of the story. "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty": a message that even the beauty of evensong has not been able to dull.

Christmas is, and will remain, a time when most of us down tools and try to close the door upon the world. The decision to move it into midwinter makes that more or less inevitable, particularly in northern climes. But that does not change the fact that the story, which still provides the contours of the season, challenges us to take questions of social alienation, political oppression and economic injustice very seriously indeed.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. "The Politics of Christmas" can be downloaded here.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com