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I’m a believer

In our increasingly secular society, many religious people feel their voices are not heard. So here,

After four centuries of breathtaking scientific progress, many wonder why intelligent people would still feel the need to believe in God. Andrew Zak Williams decided to find out. Over the course of several months, he corresponded with dozens of scientists and other public figures, quizzing them on the reasons for their faith. Here is a selection of the responses.

Cherie Blair, barrister
It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.

Jeremy Vine, broadcaster
There is a subjective reason and an objective reason. The subjective reason is that I find consolation in my faith. The objective reason is that the story of the gospels has stood the test of time and Christ comes across as a totally captivating figure.

In moments of weariness or cynicism, I tell myself I only believe because my parents did; and the Christian faith poses more questions than it answers.

But I still return to believing, as if that is more natural than not doing so.

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Oxford
To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ's life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else.
In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.

Peter Hitchens, journalist
I believe in God because I choose to do so. I believe in the Christian faith because I prefer to do so. The existence of God offers an explanation of many of the mysteries of the universe - es­pecially "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and the questions which follow from that. It requires our lives to have a purpose, and our actions to be measurable against a higher standard than their immediate, observable effect. Having chosen belief in a God over unbelief, I find the Christian gospels more per­suasive and the Christian moral system more powerful than any other religious belief.

I was, it is true, brought up as a Christian, but ceased to be one for many years. When I returned to belief I could have chosen any, but did not.

Jonathan Aitken, former politician
I believe in God because I have searched for Him and found Him in the crucible of brokenness. Some years ago I went through an all-too-well-publicised drama of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. In the course of that saga I discovered a loving God who answers prayers, forgives and redeems.

James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
One word: Jesus. All that you imagine God would be, He is. His life and His love are compelling, His wisdom convincing.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
I believe in God because He has both revealed and hidden Himself in so many different ways: in the created world, the Holy Bible, the man Jesus Christ; in the Church and men and women of God through the ages; in human relationships, in culture and beauty, life and death, pain and suffering; in immortal longings, in my faltering prayers and relationship with Him. There is nothing conclusive to force me into believing, but everything sug­gestive, and constantly drawing me on into the love of Christ and to "cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt".

David Alton, Lib Dem peer
The notion that humanity and the cosmos are an accident has always seemed implausible. A world littered with examples of complex genius - from developments in quantum theory to regenerative medicine - points us towards genius more perfect and more unfathomable than ourselves. The powerful combination of faith and reason led me as a child to believe in God.

Unsurprisingly, as I matured into manhood, that belief has not been immune against the usual catalogue of failure, sadness and grief; and belief has certainly not camouflaged the horrors of situations I have seen first hand in places such as Congo and Sudan. Paradoxically, it has been where suffering has been most acute that I have also seen the greatest faith.

By contrast, the more we own or have, the more difficulty we seem to have in seeing and encountering the Divine.

Professor Stephen R L Clark, philosopher
I believe in God because the alternatives are worse. Not believing in God would mean that we have no good reason to think that creatures such as us human beings (accidentally generated in a world without any overall purpose) have any capacity - still less any duty - to discover what the world is like.

Denying that "God exists" while still maintaining a belief in the power of reason is, in my view, ridiculous.My belief is that we need to add both that God is at least possibly incarnate among us, and that the better description of God (with all possible caveats about the difficulty of speaking about the infinite source of all being and value) is as something like a society. In other words, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, and of the trinity, have the philosophical edge. And once those doctrines are included, it is possible to see that other parts of that tradition are important.

Nick Spencer, director of Theos, the public theology think tank
I would say I find Christianity (rather than just belief in God) the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying explanation for being.

Stephen Green, director of the fundamentalist pressure group Christian Voice
I came to faith in God through seeing the ducks on a pond in People's Park, Grimsby. It struck me that they were all doing a similar job, but had different plumage. Why was that? Why did the coot have a white beak and the moorhen a red one? Being a hard-nosed engineer, I needed an explanation that worked and the evolutionary model seemed too far-fetched and needful of too much faith!

I mean, what could possibly be the evolutionary purpose of the bars on the hen mallard's wings, which can only be seen when she flies? Or the tuft on the head of the tufted duck?

So I was drawn logically to see them as designed like that. I suppose I believed in an intelligent designer long before the idea became fashionable. So, that left me as a sort of a deist. But God gradually became more personal to me and I was drawn against all my adolescent atheist beliefs deeper and deeper into faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglas Hedley, reader in metaphysics, Clare College, Cambridge
Do values such as truth, beauty and goodness emerge out of a contingent and meaningless substrate? Or do these values reflect a transcendent domain from which this world has emerged? I incline to the latter, and this is a major reason for my belief in God.

Paul Davies, quantum physicist
I am not comfortable answering the question "Why do you believe in God?" because you haven't defined "God". In any case, as a scientist,
I prefer not to deal in "belief" but rather in the usefulness of concepts. I am sure I don't believe in any sort of god with which most readers of your article would identify.

I do, however, assume (along with all scientists) that there is a rational and intelligible scheme of things that we uncover through scientific investigation. I am uncomfortable even being linked with "a god" because of the vast baggage that this term implies (a being with a mind, able to act on matter within time, making decisions, etc).

Professor Derek Burke, biochemist and former president of Christians in Science
There are several reasons why I believe in God. First of all, as a scientist who has been privileged to live in a time of amazing scientific discoveries (I received my PhD in 1953, the year Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA), I have been overwhelmed by wonder at the order and intricacy of the world around us. It is like peeling skins off an onion: every time you peel off a layer, there is another one underneath, equally marvellously intricate. Surely this could not have arisen by chance? Then my belief is strengthened by reading the New Testament especially, with the accounts of that amazing person, Jesus, His teaching, His compassion, His analysis of the human condition, but above all by His resurrection. Third, I'm deeply impressed by the many Christians whom I have met who have lived often difficult lives with compassion and love. They are an inspiration to me.

Peter J Bussey, particle physicist
God is the ultimate explanation, and this includes the explanation for the existence of physical reality, for laws of nature and everything. Let me at this point deal with a commonly encountered "problem" with the existence of God, one that Richard Dawkins and others have employed.
It goes that if God is the ultimate cause or the ultimate explanation, what then is the cause of God, or the explanation for God? My reply
is that, even in our own world, it is improper to repeat the same investigatory question an indefinite number of times. For example, we ask, "Who designed St Paul's Cathedral?" and receive the reply: "Sir Christopher Wren." But, "No help whatever," objects the sceptic, "because, in that case, who then designed Sir Christopher Wren?" To this, our response will now be that it is an inappropriate question and anyone except a Martian would know that. Different questions will be relevant now.

So, likewise, it is very unlikely that we know the appropriate questions, if any, to ask about God, who is presumably outside time, and is the source of the selfsame rationality that we presume to employ to understand the universe and to frame questions about God.
What should perhaps be underlined is that, in the absence of total proof, belief in God will be to some extent a matter of choice.

Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, bioethicist and Anglican priest
At the age of 18 or 19, a religious way of understanding the world began increasingly to make sense. It did not involve in any way abandoning the scientific way. If you like, it's a larger way of understanding our relationship with the rest of the world, our position in nature and all those standard questions to do with why we are here, if there is life after death, and so on. That was reinforced by good teaching, prayer and regular reading of scripture.

Peter Richmond, theoretical physicist
Today most people reject the supernatural but there can be no doubt that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant. And here I would differentiate these from some of the preaching of authoritarian churches, which has no doubt been the source of much that could be considered to be evil over the years. Even today, we see conflict in places such as Africa or the Middle East - killings made in the name of religion, for example. As Christians, we recognise these for what they are - evil acts perpetrated by the misguided. At a more domestic level, the marginalisation of women in the Church is another example that should be exposed for what it is: sheer prejudice by the present incumbents of the Church hierarchy. But as Christians, we can choose to make our case to change things as we try to follow the social teachings of Jesus. Compared to pagan idols, Jesus offered hope, comfort and inspiration, values that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Michigan
[Our] spirituality, rooted in the developing biblical wisdom and in a faith tradition that crosses the centuries, helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology, Brown University
I regard scientific rationality as the key to understanding the material basis of our existence as well as our history as a species. That's the reason why I have fought so hard against the "creationists" and those who advocate "intelligent design". They deny science and oppose scientific rationality, and I regard their ideas as a threat to a society such as ours that has been so hospitable to the scientific enterprise.

There are, however, certain questions that science cannot answer - not because we haven't figured them out yet (there are lots of those), but because they are not scientific questions at all. As the Greek philosophers used to ask, what is the good life? What is the nature of good and evil? What is the purpose to existence? My friend Richard Dawkins would ask, in response, why we should think that such questions are even important. But to most of us, I would respond, these are the most important questions of all.

What I can tell you is that the world I see, including the world I know about from science, makes more sense to me in the light of a spiritual understanding of existence and the hypo­thesis of God. Specifically, I see a moral polarity to life, a sense that "good" and "evil" are actual qualities, not social constructions, and that choosing the good life (as the Greeks meant it) is the central question of existence. Given that, the hypothesis of God conforms to what I know about the material world from science and gives that world a depth of meaning that I would find impossible without it.

Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science, and even provides a reason why science works and is of such value - because science explores that rationality of existence, a rationality that itself derives from the source of that existence.

In any case, I am happy to confess that I am a believer, and that for me, the Christian faith is the one that resonates. What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.

Nick Brewin, molecular biologist
A crucial component of the question depends on the definition of "God". As a scientist, the "God" that I believe in is not the same God(s) that I used to believe in. It is not the same God that my wife believes in; nor is it the same God that my six-year-old granddaughter believes in; nor is it the God that my brain-damaged and physically disabled brother believes in. Each person has their own concept of what gives value and purpose to their life. This concept of "God" is based on a combination of direct and indirect experience.

Humankind has become Godlike, in the sense that it has acquired the power to store and manipulate information. Language, books, computers and DNA genomics provide just a few illustrations of the amazing range of technologies at our fingertips. Was this all merely chance? Or should we try to make sense of the signs and wonders that are embedded in a "revealed religion"?

Perhaps by returning to the "faith" position of children or disabled adults, scientists can extend their own appreciation of the value and purpose of individual human existence. Science and religion are mutually complementary.

Hugh Ross, astrophysicist and astronomer
Astronomy fascinates me. I started serious study of the universe when I was seven. By the age of 16, I could see that Big Bang cosmology offered the best explanation for the history of the universe, and because the Big Bang implies a cosmic beginning, it would require a cosmic beginner. It seemed reasonable that a creator of such awesome capacities would speak clearly and consistently if He spoke at all. So I spent two years perusing the holy books of the world's religions to test for these characteristics. I found only one such book. The Bible stood apart: not only did it provide hundreds of "fact" statements that could be tested for accuracy, it also anticipated - thousands of years in advance - what scientists would later discover, such as the fundamental features of Big Bang cosmology.

My observation that the Bible's multiple creation narratives accurately describe hundreds of details discovered much later, and that it consistently places them in the scientifically correct sequence, convinced me all the more that the Bible must be the supernaturally inspired word of God. Discoveries in astronomy first alerted me to the existence of God, and to this day the Bible's power to anticipate scientific discoveries and predict sociopolitical events ranks as a major reason for my belief in the God of the Bible. Despite my secular upbringing, I cannot ignore the compelling evidence emerging from research into the origin of the universe, the anthropic principle, the origin of life and the origin of humanity. Theaccumulating evidence continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible.

Steve Fuller, philosopher/professor of sociology, University of Warwick
I am a product of a Jesuit education (before university), and my formal academic training is in history and philosophy of science, which is the field credited with showing the tight links between science and religion. While I have never been an avid churchgoer, I am strongly moved by the liberatory vision of Jesus promoted by left-wing Christians.

I take seriously the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we may come to exercise the sorts of powers that are associated with divinity. In this regard, I am sympathetic to the dissenting, anticlerical schools of Christianity - especially Unitarianism, deism and transcendentalism, idealism and humanism. I believe that it is this general position that has informed the progressive scientific spirit.

People such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens like to think of themselves as promoting a progressive view of humanity, but I really do not see how Darwinism allows that at all, given its species-egalitarian view of nature (that is, humans are just one more species - no more privileged than the rest of them). As I see it, the New Atheists live a schizoid existence, where they clearly want to privilege humanity but have no metaphysical basis for doing so.

Michael J Behe, scientific advocate of intelligent design
Two primary reasons: 1) that anything exists; and 2) that we human beings can comprehend and reason. I think both of those point to God.

Denis Alexander, director, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge
I believe in the existence of a personal God. Viewing the universe as a creation renders it more coherent than viewing its existence as without cause. It is the intelligibility of the world that requires explanation.

Second, I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the
Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God. Third, having been a Christian for more than five decades, I have experienced God through Christ over this period in worship, answered prayer and through His love. These experiences are more coherent based on the assumption that God does exist.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia
There are many reasons - lines of evidence, if you will - all of which weave together to point me in a certain direction (much as a scientist or a jury might do before reaching a considered judgement), which we call a belief.

[I believe] because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and
it just so happens that He predicted that He would . . . I believe because of the testimony of billions of believers, just a few of whom are known to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony).

I believe because of my ineradicable sense that certain things I see and hear about in the world warrant the non-arbitrary categories of "good" or "evil". I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created - willed into being - by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist and Skeptic. His email address is:

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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Cut off: how austerity relates to our mental health

What is the human cost of cutting public spending? We meet those at the sharp end of austerity to find out what it means for their mental health.

When Mark Wood was found dead in his home in August 2013 it could have been just another tragic, but private, event for one family. But it wasn’t. His death came a few months after his disability benefits had been cut because he had been declared “fit for work” by the assessors appointed by the government to implement its “back-to-work” strategy. When his body was discovered he weighed just 5st 8lbs.

His sister Cathie said that 44-year-old Mark had struggled to live on just £40 a week after his disability and housing benefits were cut. She says that his ongoing mental health problems, including anxiety, obsessive traits and an eating disorder, were seriously aggravated by the extra stress. A letter to the Jobcentre written by Mark’s GP at the time his benefits were being cut was presented at the inquest into his death. In it, his doctor cautioned that Mark was “absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever”. At the inquest, the GP told the coroner that, in his view, the loss of benefits was an “accelerating factor” in Mark’s decline and eventual death.

The circumstances surrounding Mark’s death hit the UK headlines after his family launched a campaign calling on the government to rethink its cuts and other austerity-driven policy reforms. Yet his case is far from isolated. People have died from physical illnesses that have got worse after being subject to a Work Capability Assessment or having their benefits cut, and some have even taken their own lives.

In August 2015, after a number of Freedom of Information requests, the government released mortality statistics on people who had died after being declared fit for work. The data did not cover how they died, and the government warned against any causal links being made between the deaths and the assessments, but the episode prompted calls for ministers to commission analysis so that any potential connections could be understood.

In the UK, suicide rates rose in 2011 and 2012 (the most recent data available). Men especially seem to be at risk: the male suicide rate is the highest it’s been since 2001 and, for men between the ages of 45 and 59, the highest since 1981. After five years of austerity in the UK – and with billions of pounds more of budget cuts on the way – families, charities, mental health professionals, campaigners and researchers have been highlighting what they regard as the profound effects of austerity on mental health. In May this year, the chief executive of one of the biggest mental health charities in Britain warned that cuts to service provision along with welfare reforms tied to austerity were “driving people to the edge”.

But what evidence is there for a link between economic difficulties and mental ill health? What is it about UK austerity measures – namely cuts and changes to public services put in place to reduce government borrowing – that is raising so many alarm bells when it comes to mental wellbeing? And what lies in store if the direction of travel stays the same? 

Hitting home

Above a row of shops in a bustling high street in south London are the offices of CoolTan Arts, a grassroots mental health charity. Inside is a small group of men and women, sipping tea and eating biscuits around the kitchen table.

Everyone here has first-hand experience of living with mental health problems and some have multiple disabilities. When we meet, the UK’s general election has just taken place and everyone present is anxious about what will happen. The new Conservative majority government has pledged to shrink social security spending by an additional £12bn – on top of the billions already cut since 2010. In July 2015, the Chancellor’s second Budget in four months outlined plans for a raft of new reforms, including a freeze on working-age benefits for four years and cuts to Employment and Support Allowance for new claimants deemed capable of “work-related activity”.

People living with mental health problems are among the vulnerable groups that have found themselves at the sharp end of austerity measures introduced after the biggest recession and worst recovery in almost a century.

The cuts to mental health budgets and changes to the benefits system, including tough “back-to-work” policies ushered in by the coalition government formed in 2010, are never far from the minds of those at CoolTan. Punitive financial sanctions, where proportions of benefits are withheld (sometimes for years if people can’t comply with strict rules for finding a job), have been adding to ever-greater anxiety.

“My worst enemy is the postman,” Adam* says, describing what it’s like waiting to hear if he has been sanctioned. “When I hear the letterbox go, I tell you it’s just like earthquakes. I can’t bear it.” Often, Adam says, he doesn’t open the envelopes when alone because he is terrified of having a panic attack. “What they don’t realise is they keep putting you through the mill.”

With fewer places to turn for help, George* says he fears for the future. The others around the table nod. They agree that, in a climate of continual cuts and political rhetoric that classifies people who don’t work as outcasts, they would be “lost” without the help of CoolTan, collateral damage in a society that no longer values them.

The experiences of the people at this one small charity are far from an anomaly. Research published in September by Mind, the UK’s largest mental health charity, reported that for people with mental health problems the government’s flagship back-to-work scheme, the Work Programme, made their distress worse in 83 per cent of cases.

My own research interviewing hundreds of people across the UK during the first wave of austerity produced consistently similar insights. I encountered people, usually but not always in more deprived areas, living in daily dread of losing their benefits, homes, livelihoods and, in some cases, their ability to cope as the mental strain overwhelmed them.

Typical comments people made in interviews between 2012 and 2015 include this from Dec*, a single parent in Luton who was struggling to find work. “There’s people who are suicidal,” he told me, holding back tears. “There’s people with mental health problems – and if they didn’t have mental issues before, they have them now because they are being so degraded.”

And this from Maria, a severely disabled young woman from London who required 24-hour support: “There were many occasions when I wanted to stop existing and didn’t know how I would get through the day,” she said, explaining how she felt after being told by her local council that funds were being cut and that she had to be reassessed for care.

Both the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed in 2010 and the Conservative government in power since the 2015 election have defended cuts in a number of areas, including welfare, as being necessary in order to tackle government borrowing.

They have also said that the most vulnerable are offered protection. Responding to concerns raised about the mental stress associated with changes to welfare, a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “It’s important we don’t simply write off people who have a health condition to a life on benefits, which is something that has happened in the past.

“We provide unconditional support to those who can’t work, and jobs support to those who can – for example through the £40m we’re investing in Jobcentres for people with mental health conditions. Our reforms are fixing the welfare system to ensure it promotes work, helps people lift themselves out of poverty and puts public spending on a more sustainable footing.”

The price of austerity

No matter where in the world you are, look at the research and the evidence is clear: economic strain contributes to mental health difficulties – especially during recessions, when unemployment and poverty tend to jump.

What’s more, people already living with mental health difficulties are likely to suffer disproportionately in times of recession – not just because funding for services might be cut, but also because they are at higher risk of losing their jobs.

The so-called Great Recession showed just how serious and widespread the impact of economic turmoil on mental health could be. One US study found a “significant and sustained” increase in major depression among adults between 2005–06 and 2011–12, during which time millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes.

Another study exploring the effects of the 2008 financial crash reached some stark conclusions. Analysing data from 24 EU countries, the USA and Canada, the researchers reported that, by 2011, the economic crisis had already led to over 10,000 more suicides than would have been expected – which they called a “conservative estimate”. The downward trend in suicide rates seen in the EU before 2007 went into reverse when the financial crisis hit, rising 6.5 per cent by 2009. In the US the rate increased by 4.8 per cent over the same period.

Yet the study also showed that the trends were not uniform: many countries did not see any increase in suicide rates. The researchers suggested that a range of interventions – from back-to-work programmes to prescriptions for antidepressants – may reduce the risk of suicide during future economic downtowns.

What of the specific effects of large-scale government cuts? In The Body Economic, Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler examined health and economic data over decades, concluding that austerity was bad for both physical and mental health. “If austerity were tested like a medication in a clinical trial, it would have been stopped long ago, given its deadly side effects… One need not be an economic ideologue – we certainly aren’t – to recognize that the price of austerity can be calculated in human lives,” they wrote in the New York Times.

They went on to argue that countries that have chosen stimulus over austerity, such as Germany, Sweden and Iceland, have had better health outcomes than countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, where austerity measures have been used. “If suicides were an unavoidable consequence of economic downturns this would just be another story about the human toll of the Great Recession,” they concluded. “But it isn’t so.”

Greece – a country with traditionally lower suicide rates than other European nations – has felt the impact of austerity more than most. A landmark study led by Professor Charles Branas of the University of Pennsylvania incorporated a 30-year month-by-month analysis of suicides in Greece, ending in 2012. The researchers looked at possible links between suicide data and particular prosperity- and austerity-related events over the three decades, including the acceptance of Greece into the EU, the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and the passing of austerity measures by the government.

While cautious not to link the cause directly to austerity, the researchers found “a significant, abrupt and sustained increase” in suicides following austerity-related events like announcements of spending cuts and violent protests against them. Across the decades studied, 2012 was the peak year for suicides in Greece.

Warning signs

From as early as 2011, the charities Sane and the Depression Alliance were reporting concerns about links between financial woes, austerity policies and rising stress and depression.

Many organisations, including one run by disability activists, began flagging up how a plethora of local government cuts and welfare reforms such as the Work Capability Assessment were creating unnecessary and sometimes intolerable stress for both physically disabled and mentally ill people.

The Work Capability Assessment in particular was generating widespread tension, according to many frontline welfare workers and campaigners. The reasons were complex and multiple. Among them was, as in the case of Mark Wood, the fact that the assessment did not take into account medical evaluations by GPs before decisions were made about a person’s fitness for work. The assessments often led to a reduction in benefit payments. So many decisions were being overturned on appeal that campaigners called for a complete overhaul of the system.

Nick Dilworth is a frontline welfare advice worker and longstanding critic of the government’s back-to-work strategy who also monitors and analyses welfare statistics. He summed up the reality of dealing with the consequences: “People are coming in with multiple problems. You get grown men crying. What you see are broken lives.”

In addition, sanctions, which were causing significant stress, soared after 2010, while Jobcentre workers began speaking out about what they say was an increasingly punitive regime that was adding to the mental stress of both claimants and workers. As Angela Neville, a Jobcentre worker who went on to write a play about it, explained to me in February 2015: “From my own experience, staff are subjected to constant and aggressive pressure to meet and exceed targets. Colleagues would leave team meetings crying.” On the fallout after sanctions were applied, she said: “It was very distressing to have customers literally without food, without heat, without resources – and these are unwell [and] disabled customers.”

Picking up the pieces

Mental health services in the UK are notoriously underfunded and are often referred to as a “Cinderella service”. According to the Centre for Economic Performance, mental health services receive just 13 per cent of the total NHS budget, while mental illness is responsible for 23 per cent of the loss of years of healthy life caused by all illness nationwide. Under the coalition government of 2010–15 there were numerous moves to place mental health at the top of the wider health agenda. A variety of pledges and initiatives were made, many championed in particular by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Proposals that included, for the first time, specific waiting-time targets for people seeking treatment from mental health services were widely seen as a step forward. So too was a commitment to invest more in young people’s mental health provision.

However, mental health provision was hit hard and early by austerity measures. Despite rising demands for help, including from people in crisis or feeling suicidal who were turning up at A&E departments ill-equipped to deal with them, mental health services and the people relying on them were feeling the impact. Organisations from Oxfam to activist groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and War on Welfare warned of an unprecedented “perfect storm” of falling incomes, rising costs and the removal of vital safety nets, including for mental health and disability, just when the pressure on individuals and families was skyrocketing.

The numbers back this up. In 2011, three years after the financial crisis, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants rose sharply, up 43 per cent on the previous year. One investigation found that more than 2,000 acute mental health beds were lost in England between 2011 and 2013. This meant that many people in crisis who didn’t have a safe place to be had to be transported hundreds of miles to wherever a bed became available. Some patients were even held in police cells.

By 2015, funding for mental health services was estimated to have fallen in real terms by 8.25 per cent over four years. Three-quarters of children and young people with a mental health issue could not access treatment when they needed it. Charities warned that this was also storing up problems for the future because it prevented early intervention, something proven to be crucial for young people’s recovery prospects. In June 2015, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, who as Minister for Health until the election in May was a key proponent of improving investment in mental health, warned that if the new government failed to stick to pledges to increase funding, mental health would remain “the poor relation” in the health system.

Meanwhile it was reported that calls to mental health helplines from people citing financial problems shot up in line with personal indebtedness. Reports, including a number from the Centre for Welfare Reform, catalogued how policies such as the “bedroom tax” (where benefits can be reduced if someone is deemed to have a “spare” bedroom in their council or housing association home) were “savaging” people’s mental health. GPs reported a surge in patients with stress and anxiety due to worsening economic predicaments and joblessness.

On the front line of mental health, the strain of five years of austerity became such that hundreds of health professionals took to writing to newspapers about it. In one highly critical letter to the Guardian on the government’s public health record, senior physicians linked austerity policies to rising suicides, concluding that “over the last five years, there have been avoidable deaths and much unnecessary damage to health”.

In another letter, published just before the 2015 election, 442 professionals ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists wrote: “The past five years have seen a radical shift in the kinds of issues generating distress in our clients: increasing inequality and outright poverty, families forced to move against their wishes, and, perhaps most important, benefits claimants (including disabled and ill people) and those seeking work being subjected to a quite new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime.”

Psychologists Against Austerity, a new alliance of mental health professionals, had formed with the aim of directly challenging the cuts and welfare changes that they said were adding to mental distress. The group produced a briefing paper that includes five “austerity ailments” it believes contribute to worsening mental despair. These are: humiliation and shame, instability and insecurity, isolation and loneliness, being trapped or feeling powerless, and fear and distrust. The authors conclude: “Mental health problems are being created in the present, and further problems are being stored for the future.”

One group of researchers believes that a serious political-cultural shift is taking place within the welfare system, and that it is having serious ramifications for mental health. In a paper published in 2015, Dr Lynne Friedli and colleagues documented their findings on the impact of back-to-work policies, notably psychological assessments of unemployed individuals’ fitness for work.

“Psychological explanations for unemployment… isolate, blame, and stigmatise unemployed people. They reinforce myths about ‘cultures of worklessness’,” Frieldli wrote. “They obscure the realities of the UK labour market and the political choices that underpin it.”

Life and death

When the impacts of austerity are discussed in the UK, deaths feature prominently. Like Mark Wood, some of the people who have died had a history of mental health problems. Others didn’t. And there are many, many stories. In one case, a man doused himself in petrol outside a Jobcentre after being declared fit for work and experiencing benefits delays. Police arrived in time to save him.

A woman died two days after trying to take her own life. Her doctor told the inquest that a letter stating that her incapacity benefits were to be withdrawn had precipitated the suicide attempt.

A pensioner in his 70s was believed to have killed himself due to fears about the “bedroom tax”. Witnesses testified to the inquest that he was frightened by news reports that said people might lose their homes if they couldn’t pay it.

The issue of deaths related to welfare reform and austerity, be they a result of suicide or otherwise, is complex and controversial. There have been escalating calls from families and campaigners for a full public investigation into deaths that followed cuts to benefits or the implementation of sanctions in order to find out what connections there may be. And when, in September this year, a coroner in north London concluded that the suicide in 2013 of 60-year-old disabled man Michael O’Sullivan was a direct result of having been wrongly found fit for work, there were yet more calls for the Department for Work and Pensions to overhaul fitness-for-work assessments. The coroner said: “[His] anxiety and depression were long-term problems but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment… as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that.” 

Journalist John Pring, who lives with a mental illness and runs the website Disability News Service, has been one of those labouring for full disclosure of “internal peer reviews” conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions into deaths (49 cases had been reviewed by June 2015). Some details have been released, he says, but not full reports, which would facilitate a better understanding of the circumstances and, he argues, how to prevent future deaths.

More research and better data are needed to ascertain fully the connections between recessions and austerity and suicide, but mental health strains are clearly exacerbated by economic factors, according to Joe Ferns, Director of Policy and Research at Samaritans.

Part of the problem, he says, is that stresses such as financial pressures or losing a job make people feel “disempowered” and “less able to cope”. But people can be affected by the community around them too. “What the research does show,” says Ferns, “is that people living in deprived areas are about ten times more likely to die by suicide… I think it’s fair to say that an economic recession creates ripples. The social impacts spread far wider and last far longer than the economic ripples.”

However, more research will take time and, as epidemiologist Sanjay Basu has pointed out, there is already considerable evidence of serious and deleterious effects, which, as a matter of urgency, require robust policy responses, not least because people’s lives are on the line. Basu says his work has persuaded him that the stakes of austerity for mental health are very high indeed. “I think the real decision for us is whether we want to pay now or pay later. I think we can either pay now in terms of creating the social safety nets in order to avoid a real dismantling of some of the key parts of our communities or we’ll face the consequence for many years.”

Charities, healthcare professionals, academics and those on the front line agree: act now, or suffer more later. The Department of Health told me that they are tackling “historic underfunding” in mental health, increasing investment in the area by £300 million last year. They mentioned that “more people than ever before” are receiving talking therapies and that the government’s Suicide Prevention Strategy is backed by £1.5m funding for research.

But will this be enough to stop people dying because, at least in part, of the UK’s austerity measures? At CoolTan Arts, one woman makes a point that’s hard to ignore. “I think it’s going to get much worse,” says Jane*. “This government has got another full term and you don’t know what their plans are.”

Back in Oxford, Mark Wood’s sister Cathie says there is only one thing to do: keep fighting. “We are now trying to get answers and just keep the pressure up so people know the human cost of the cuts, and that we are becoming a crueller, more backward society in terms of how we treat our most vulnerable people.”

This article was originally published by Mosaic.

* Some interviewees’ names have been changed.

Author: Mary O’Hara; Editor: Chrissie Giles; Fact checker: Francine Almash; Copyeditor: Tom Freeman; Art director: Peta Bell; Illustrator: Alexander James Wood


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Jeremy Corbyn and the politics of catastrophe

If the Blairites are beached in the past, Jeremy Corbyn addresses a non-existent world.

If there is a common theme in the reaction to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn it is that he is a throwback to the politics of a long-gone age. Twenty-first-century politics – we have been encouraged to believe – isn’t driven by ideological conflict. Mainstream parties are agreed on the para­meters governing how policies are set; a type of democratic capitalism is the framework within which these parties compete to deliver shared social goals. In some countries new forces may have emerged that do not accept this consensus – parties in many ways quite different from one another but loosely described as populist, such as Syriza and Podemos on the left, Golden Dawn on the far right and less easily classifiable forces such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, while in America Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is having an unexpectedly large impact. Yet these developments are ascribed to the particular problems of the eurozone, which are believed to be manageable, and in the case of Trump to the difficulties the Republicans face in coming up with a candidate with broad appeal. According to this conventional wisdom, there is no reason to suppose that any shift in the constellation of political forces is under way in western democracies.

Corbyn’s decisive victory in the election for the Labour leadership plants a question mark over this assumption. The Labour Party has played an important role in British politics since Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government in 1924. The party has undergone periods of upheaval, and for anyone who was around at the time, it is tempting to view Corbyn’s rise as a rerun of events in 1983, when under the leadership of Michael Foot it produced a manifesto, echoed in Corbyn’s policy statements today and advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EU and large-scale nationalisation, which the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history”. In the event, Labour didn’t expire, but it was incapable of mounting any challenge to Margaret Thatcher and remained out of power until Tony Blair formed his first government in 1997 – in all, a period of nearly 20 years. Now that Corbyn has won, it is easy to conclude that the result for Labour will be no different.

In fact, the stakes are higher this time. In 1983 Labour still had its working-class bastions in Scotland and the north, sources of support that have respectively disappeared and are diminishing. Contrary to the Blairite mantra, there is no way forward in trying to reclaim the safety of the centre ground. In Britain as in other countries at the present time, there is no safe centre ground. Labour cannot accommodate post-Thatcherite individualism in the south of England as well as the party’s working-class supporters in the north who are attracted by Ukip, at the same time as it struggles to regain voters in a leftish, nationalist Scotland. The trick of triangulation will no longer work.


Moreover, Labour is no longer the historic party that shaped Britain for generations. It would be foolish to deny any achievements to the governments formed by Blair and Brown; but the effect of New Labour was to hollow out the party, emptying it of its internal culture and making it the instrument of the leader of the day – and Corbyn will be a new type of leader. When Michael Foot became leader he had experience in government and as leader of the House of Commons. Tony Benn, who stood for the position of deputy leader in 1981 and helped produce the split in the party that kept it out of power for so many years, had extensive experience of government. Some are comparing Corbyn with George Lansbury, who led Labour between 1932 and 1935; but Lansbury had served as commissioner of works under MacDonald. Unlike any of these predecessors, Corbyn has no experience of office and his record in parliament is that of permanent opposition. By selecting him the party has taken a leap into the dark.

A heavy responsibility must lie with Ed Miliband and his advisers. Not only did they lead the party to defeat by directing their campaign to a country yearning for an egalitarian type of capitalism – a country that doesn’t exist, as I wrote in the New Statesman in February – but by changing the rules of the leadership election they set in motion a process that has changed the party irrevocably. The Conservatives extended the vote to party members in the leadership contest that produced Iain Duncan Smith; but they left MPs with the prerogative of selecting two candidates from whom members would choose. In contrast, Labour Party members have now imposed a leader on MPs. Miliband and his advisers have created a new party more definitively than did the architects of New Labour. Labour is now more like an extra-parliamentary body, with power in the hands of activists. It is a body that Corbyn – and any subsequent leader – will find difficulty controlling.


Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises. In Britain the effect of Thatcher’s policies was to undermine hierarchies in society and her own party and weaken old patterns of voting, while the attempt to construct a global free market has come unstuck on differences in political systems and disparities in economic development. The architects of the project assumed that, as the world converted to capitalism, it would also embrace liberal democracy. It was an assumption with little basis in history, and the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements.

Corbyn is part of a new politics that is developing alongside the current crises of globalisation. As such, it is a response to real-world problems. The trouble is that Cobynite solutions belong in the realm of fantasy. At the same time, like some manifestations of this new politics in other countries, his rise has given voice to some old and highly toxic attitudes.



The 1990s, when the Blair project took shape, were years of complacency. It was widely believed that with the collapse of the Soviet Union only one system remained in place: the mix of representative democracy and managed capitalism that existed in Europe, the US and other western countries. Post-communist Russia might be experiencing deep depression as it struggled to implement western-led policies of economic shock therapy, while a version of capitalism was booming in China under communist auspices. But the contradictions from which these countries were suffering would be resolved as they were forced to embrace the sole system that combined high levels of productivity with respect for modern aspirations to self-government. A global middle class was emerging, carrying with it aspirations for political freedom and personal autonomy, which would, in time, make the prevailing type of western capitalism universal.

These attitudes had more than a little in common with those Maynard Keynes analysed in 1919 when, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he described how in the age that came to an end in August 1914 an affluent Londoner

. . . could . . . proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference . . . he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.

A similar sense of normalcy existed in the 1990s. There were some clouds on the horizon. More than economic failure, a feature of the Soviet system throughout its existence, it was nationalism and religion – in the form of defeat by western-supported jihadists in Afghanistan and loss of control in Poland and the Baltic states – that supplied the catalyst for its implosion. The wars that raged in the Balkans throughout the 1990s demonstrated that these forces continued to be potent sources of conflict. But they had little place in the western model that was supposed to be spreading globally, so ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia could be written off as a sign of backwardness. The first Gulf war of 1991, a resource war in which western states protected oil supplies without having any larger goals in the region, had on its own terms been successful and could be safely forgotten.

The 9/11 attacks destroyed this sense of safety, but the belief that democratic capitalism was the only system that could in future be legitimate wasn’t abandoned. The global campaign against terrorism which was launched after the attacks was touted as being also a war for freedom and democracy. In practice, it meant backing Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes in the Gulf – from which much of the funding for the fundamentalist ideologies that infuse al-Qaeda and Isis has emanated – and turning a blind eye to the role of rogue elements in the state of Pakistan, another western ally, in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in governmental circles, it is now accepted that this “war on terror” – a term that has been banished from the official lexicon – was a ruinously expensive failure.

The disastrous impact of the Iraq war is still unfolding. Labour’s Blairite wing has tended to pass over the subject as quickly as possible. But the promotion of a western model by military force was an integral part of the project of marketisation, while the failure of regime change was pivotal in Labour’s decline. Not only did the war create a failed state, large parts of which are now controlled by Islamic State forces. Compounded by the situation in Libya, an ungoverned space as a result of Britain and France toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi, and by the ongoing civil war in Syria, regime change in Iraq has magnified the flow of refugees into Europe, flows that can only increase if Bashar al-Assad is finally overthrown and the state of Syria disintegrates completely. Any idea that a western model of democracy can be installed in these conditions is wilful delusion.

Estimated as ranging between $1trn and $3trn, the cost of the Iraq war may well have contributed to the financial crisis that erupted in 2007. But the crash signalled a larger breach in the process of globalisation that has been under way over the past few decades. As globalisation has advanced, middle-class living standards in advanced societies have stagnated and the prospects of young people have contracted; many are mired in debt. Where poverty has been much reduced, as in China, rising incomes have been combined with greater insecurity. The world’s middle classes are turning to extreme political movements, such as the French Front National and America’s Tea Party, while giving their support to authoritarian regimes (like Vladimir Putin’s) that promise them safety. When globalisation is in trouble, floundering middle classes and extremist politics go together.

Here, it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, globalisation as a technological process, in which the world’s economies are becoming increasingly interconnected and which is unstoppable, and, on the other, the global free market promoted by neoliberal ideologues, which – like the internationalised economy that Keynes described, which fell apart in the years following the First World War – could well break down. Nowadays it is not uncommon for neoliberalism to be dismissed as a kind of ideological phantom in its own right. It’s true that the term may be too broadly applied. Hayek and Friedman were neoliberals in that they believed in a free market with minimum government intervention: Blair is a neoconservative who believes in a strong state and does not hesitate to subordinate market imperatives to political ends. But neoliberals and neoconservatives do share one crucial belief. For both, anything that stands in the way of democratic capitalism is “on the wrong side of history”.

This was the mindset that produced the Iraq war. Of course, geopolitical strategies to do with oil played a significant role. But lying behind these stratagems was an ideological faith that if only Saddam Hussein’s despotism was removed, a modern democracy would rise from the rubble. This ruling world-view equates modernity with the rise of the market, and forgets the many other movements – some humane and civilised, others horribly malign – that have developed alongside and against the spread of market society.

The same mindset was on display in Blair’s recent attack on Scottish nationalism as “the politics of the caveman”. Blindness to the growing significance of nationalism is one of the things Blair shares with Ed Miliband. A failure to grasp that Scotland was hiving off to become a separate political culture was a crucial factor in Labour’s defeat in May. If the party is now on a course of ­collapse akin to that of the Liberal Party when it was undone by Irish home rule nearly a century ago, one reason is that ­Labour’s leading lights have clung to a ­progressive narrative in which nationalism is a declining force.


The belief that nationalism is premodern is historically illiterate. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the nation state, was signed in 1648. Later, the nation state would become the principal focus of the demand for popular government, and despite many attempts to overcome that fact, national governments continue to mark the upper limit of democratic accountability. Whether of the civic variety that prevails in Scotland or the ethnic sort that wreaked such havoc in central Europe and the Balkans, nationalism is an expression of enduring human needs for identity and recognition which show no sign of fading away. Nationalism and its pathologies are as much a part of the modern world as the global market, and in many cases the two have been intertwined.

One of the common features of the new political movements commonly described as populist is that they trade on a conflict between a market-driven agenda that requires openness to global flows of capital and people and the workings of democracy, which act to limit these flows. Obeying conflicting imperatives, democracy and global capitalism are not natural allies. The mobility of capital is not matched by that of labour; the European migrant crisis reflects this asymmetry. Aggravated by western policies of regime change that have left zones of war and anarchy in their wake, the struggle of large numbers of people to move from dislocated societies into the relative safety of Europe is not a one-off event, but a feature of globalisation that will continue for generations. The freedom of movement that existed before the First World War was not contested because democracy was limited then and the welfare state almost non-existent. Today, with already large pools of unemployment in a number of countries, the flows of people will contribute to ongoing political radicalisation.

The forms taken by the new politics vary widely. In the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign rehearses some familiar themes of American nativism. Mistrust of China continues a long tradition, as does Trump’s implicit protectionism. What is new is how he has been able to advance by projecting an image of himself as an anti-politician. Helped by his wealth, celebrity and near-universal name recognition, he has also been empowered by a popular American perception that, even more than in the past, government is a game rigged by special interests while the middle classes are ignored.

At the other end of the spectrum, the campaign of Bernie Sanders, a long-serving independent member of Congress who describes himself as a socialist, is also drawing large crowds. Sanders’s platform – which features reducing inequality, fighting climate change and federal measures to promote job creation – could hardly be more different from Trump’s. (Interestingly, both accept that large-scale immigration has ­disturbing implications for American wage levels.) That these two, quite different candidates have evoked such a response suggests widespread disillusion with centrist politics. But disaffection with a dysfunctional system has yet to produce anything like large-scale political revolt.

In parts of the eurozone this point has been reached. The rise of new political forces is a reaction against a regime of austerity in which mainstream parties are seen as complicit. The collapse of the centre has gone hand in hand with a rejection of neoliberalism. It may be too simple to say that the euro has become a neoliberal project, but the cult of austerity has a definite ideological pedigree in Ordoliberalism, an ideology that emphasises the active role of the state in creating conditions that favour market competition, which played a prominent role in the reconstruction of the German economy after the Second World War. Rejecting any programme of minimising government, Ordoliberalism might seem at first sight to be altogether different from neoliberalism. But Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics. In the Ordoliberal view, a regime of strictly observed rules is an indispensable precondition of economic stability. Among these must be stringent rules for balancing budgets and the repayment of debt. Under these rules the regime of austerity can be neither democratically legitimated nor democratically reformed. The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements.

Among the forces that have emerged are some that replay themes resonant of earlier periods in European history. The hateful prejudices expressed by Golden Dawn need no elaboration. But there are noxious strands in other new parties. In Beppe Grillo’s Five Star, an anti-establishment rhetoric of resistance to “the Caste” – the established political class – can, for some of the movement’s members, easily translate into anti-Semitism. Marine Le Pen’s Front National continues to promote a vision of national identity that is framed to exclude sections of the population, including Muslim citizens of France. Outside the eurozone, Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian experiment in what he has described as ­“illiberal democracy” involves mobilising popular sentiment against long-persecuted minorities – Jews, gay people, Roma, Muslims and immigrants. Many on the left have applauded the welcome given to fleeing migrants, particularly by Germany; but the sudden suspension of the Schengen Agreement by the Germans, following the reaction in post-communist Europe, points in a different direction. A process of reversion to the historical mean may be under way, taking Europe back to the politics of the 20th century.



Jeremy Corbyn belongs among the new forces that are emerging in a number of countries at the same time as the break-up of centrist politics. It is the former Blairite ascendancy that is beached in the past. Did anyone really believe that Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership could equip Labour to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives in 2020? Even if one of them had squeaked through to victory, he or she would still have had to come to terms with Corbyn’s mass following in the party. But it is Corbyn that poses the greatest danger to Labour’s future.

If Ed Miliband addressed his campaign to a non-existent country, Corbyn addresses a non-existent world. At the present time, Cuba is opening the door to the US and a capitalist Vietnam has been discussing military co-operation with the US defence secretary; Iran seems to be seeking some kind of rapprochement with the Great Satan; Russia is ruled by a type of authoritarian crony capitalism, propped up by nationalism and the Orthodox Church, which despite sanctions and a weakening economy appears to enjoy wider popular support than the Soviet system did at any point in its peacetime history; China’s rulers are struggling to keep their experiment in capitalism on track, watched uneasily by western governments whose own versions of capitalism depend heavily on China’s success; while Venezuela is sinking into poverty and chaos under the impact of low oil prices and endemic corruption.

In these conditions, the notion that Britain can strike out alone on a path to socialism is a triumph of whimsy. What would socialism mean? Even if the current phase of globalisation goes into reverse, the technological advance that drives economic change will not slow down. How would eBay, Amazon and Airbnb fit into a Corbynist Britain?

It’s not so much that Corbyn’s outlook is backward-looking as that it has always resisted contact with reality. He has not changed his political stance since the 1970s – a fact many regard as a point in his favour. But the view of politics he professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia.

It was this ideology that enabled the Soviet Union to be seen as flawed, mildly repressive and even rather dull, but still essentially benign. Rigorous historical studies that demonstrated the enormous human costs of communism – such as The Great Terror (1968) by the late Robert Conquest – were dismissed as exercises in cold war propaganda. Later, neoconservatives subscribed to a similar view of things with their belief that war may be used to promote grandiose projects of regime change. The principal result in each case has been millions of broken lives. Catastrophic gradualism appeals to a type of mind that prides itself on its tough-mindedness while being invincibly innocent of the forces that drive politics, which include sheer hatred as much as the passion for justice. It may be this mentality that accounts for Corbyn’s links with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Inquiries about these connections have provoked a backlash among his supporters, who regard them as McCar­thyite smears.

But such sympathies are of a piece with the mindset that Orwell diagnosed. There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values.

Some observers – such as the old Tory war horse Kenneth Clarke – have opined that Corbyn’s platform could be more electorally appealing in an economic downturn. This may be so, but the loss of Scotland and the need to garner Tory votes in the south will pose insuperable obstacles to a workable majority, and a minority government in coalition with the SNP will remain unpopular with both English and Scottish voters. Even so, Corbyn’s coronation alters British politics in fundamental ways. One example that has not been much discussed – though its importance has been signalled by Chuka Umunna’s departure from the shadow cabinet – concerns Britain’s relations with the EU.

Brexit is the unavoidable logic of Corbyn’s policy agenda. Whatever may be meant by “people’s quantitative easing” – some more radical version of the unconventional policies of money creation that have been pursued since the financial crisis – it would hardly be compatible with Britain’s continued place in the EU. Austerity has in any case shredded the claim (made in the past on the soft left) that European capitalism is more “social” than the Anglo-Saxon variety. Because of the migrant crisis, the In/Out referendum that must occur before the end of 2017 is already a riskier gambit than it was a few months ago. Corbyn’s opting for Brexit would make the outcome even more uncertain.

Corbyn may last longer as leader than many currently suppose. As resignations from the shadow cabinet immediately after his victory showed, he faces strong hostility from the parliamentary party. But he won the leadership contest by a large margin, and any attempt to dislodge him will provoke intense resistance from the grass roots. His supporters may organise to deselect uncooperative MPs, taking advantage of the fact that upcoming constituency boundary changes will produce fewer Labour seats. As the new deputy leader, Tom Watson will be a formidable figure. He may be able to exercise a restraining influence over some of Corbyn’s more far-fetched policies; but his first priority will be to defeat any threat to Corbyn’s position. Labour may descend into a civil war more protracted and damaging than the debacle of the early 1980s.

Another scenario is realistically possible, however. Blairites and centrists may be a spent force that has been routed. In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War