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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS
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The Ten Commandments for the modern age

Six of our writers share a commandment for modern times. With Jan Morris, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Hoare, Julian Baggini, Mona Siddiqui and Laurie Penny.

Take care of the rest of creation

Philip Hoare

Among all the proscriptions in Moses’s mountainous memoranda, the most glaring omission must be any acknowledgement of humanity’s responsibility for the planet. Not least considering that it was hardly an environmentally sensitive act in the first place, hewing chunks out of the rock; a nice bit of papyrus might have been more eco-friendly. So, perhaps it is time to make amends. Pope Francis seems to think so. His recent encyclical, Laudato si’, could be taken as a tardy eleventh commandment to redress this imbalance – for all that it has come a little late, by an aeon or two. Indeed, the Old Testament kick-started the Anthropocene by firmly determining our dominion over the natural world, “over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing”. One might argue it was this biblical entitlement that set in train a disastrous, exploitative relationship, one in which Christianity has been complicit, if not explicitly culpable.

But you have only to glance at hagiography to see a different story. Take the Desert Fathers, for instance – eremites who would give Thoreau a run for his money in their back-to-nature lifestyles and relationships with animals. Helen Waddell’s wonderful Beasts and Saints, published in 1934, wittily retells these tales: from St Pachome, who would call crocodiles to take him across a river “with the utmost subservience, and set him down at whatever spot he indicated”, much as one might hail a cab, to St Jerome, menaced by a limping lion with a thorn in its paw which the saint extracted and who was rewarded with leonine loyalty – surely a parable for Walter Palmer, the demonised dentist-killer of Cecil the lion.

Nor is it a coincidence that the Pope’s own namesake is Francis of Assisi, the tonsured summoner of birds and beasts who created his own eco-garden, much as modern gardeners sow decorative meadows of their own. The saint was evoked in the 1960s and 1970s as a Christian response to the burgeoning movements of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace – not least through the lush lens of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 biopic, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which presented the dewy-eyed Francis getting his kit off in ultimate communion with nature. Here in the UK, we had our more modest Cuthbert, the best beloved of British saints, possibly because he introduced the first ever piece of environmentally aware legislation when he placed the eider ducks of the Farne Islands under legal protection. But even he got naked for the Lord, skinny-dipping in the North Sea all night to pray, emerging at dawn to find a pair of otters at hand to dry him with their fur (I’ve often longed for the same on my own dawn dips).

I know many readers of this publication will set little store by such mythology. But in the absence of any high-minded political leadership on the subject, I think we need to take what we can get. The Pope’s encyclical, which takes its title from St Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun”, also known as the “Canticle of the Creatures”, has encouraged some environmentalists. “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not found in us,” it avers. The depredation of the world’s flora and fauna is no part of God’s plan, and should not be part of ours: “We have no such right.” Last year it appeared that Francis even suggested that animals have souls – although it soon transpired the quote came from an earlier pope, Paul VI, who’d told a boy grieving over his dead dog: “One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.” This misattribution even made it on to the front page of the New York Times, an indication of the eagerness to acclaim the Pope as a radical force.

In a recent interview for the Tablet, the animal ethicist Andrew Linzey – an Anglican priest who teaches theology at the University of Oxford and who runs the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics – made the moral and religious argument against animal experiments. These continue apace at the expense of 115 million animal lives worldwide each year, according to Cruelty Free International (as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection is now known). Linzey notes that the 19th-century cardinals Henry Edward Manning and John Henry Newman were both opposed to vivisection. Manning was a founder in the 1870s of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the precursor of the BUAV, and he was a leading supporter of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876; Newman preached a sermon that saw vivisection in terms of Christ’s Passion: “What is this but the very cruelty inflicted on Our Lord?” “And why?” Linzey asks. “Because there’s innocence, do you see?”

Innocence. There’s a loaded word. ­Taking Francis’s encyclical to heart, Linzey declares: “What’s implicit is . . . we have obligations to other than the human species and that those obligations might have to come first if only for the sake of preserving the very Creation that God has made. So this constant jarring of human rights and animal rights really won’t do it. As Noah would say, ‘We are all in one boat together.’” Hmm. Tell that to St Brendan, who on his Atlantic voyage landed on a small island and gave thanks for his salvation, only to discover, as his fellow monks lit a fire, that the island turned into a whale and sank beneath them.

The Bible is full of symbolic leviathans: whales surf through the Old Testament, swallowing up prophets, evoking havoc and wonder by turns. The irony is that the whale has become a true icon for our own, secular age. If any animal symbolises our disconnection with nature, it is the whale, shape-shifting from fearful monster of creation myth to industrial resource, and now to an emblem of future threat.

Given their demonstrable sentience, social structures and cultures, cetaceans set new challenges for anyone keen to write an eleventh commandment. The respected US professor of ethics Thomas White has written of our moral responsibility towards “non-human persons” such as dolphins, primates and elephants, and a group of ethicists, scientists and environmentalists in 2010 issued a “declaration of rights for cetaceans”, its own alternative ten commandments, stating that “No cetacean is the property of any state, corporation, human group or individual” – a direct refutation of that biblically endorsed dominion. As the boundaries between species continue to blur, religion may find new issues for its certainties, much as it might on the discovery of alien life. It is a dilemma that echoes the cataclysmic undermining of creationism by Darwin in the mid-19th century, Arnold’s withdrawing sea of faith, and Tennyson’s nature, red in tooth and claw.

Our new commandments are emboldened by an environmentalism that demands its own absolute leaps of faith. But as someone who has spent more than an ordinate amount of time with cetaceans, I regard as my own great hero the whale scientist Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, a remarkably rational man who has suggested that sperm whales – possessed of the biggest brains on the planet – might have become so existentially aware of their own selves that they’ve evolved their own sense of religion. I had lunch with Richard Dawkins once. I didn’t tell him that.

Philip Hoare’s “Leviathan, or the Whale” won the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize

Do as you would be done to

Mona Siddiqui

Shortly before last year’s general election, the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was widely mocked for his decision to commission an eight-foot slab of limestone on which he laid out his party’s manifesto pledges. He was accused of likening himself to Moses, to whom, the Hebrew Bible says, God gave the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. Miliband had only six promises, rather than Ten Commandments, but the biblical comparison was used to maximum derisory effect.

Despite falling religious literacy, there are some stories and images that we can tap in to immediately even when we don’t quite know the history. While most of us are aware of the Ten Commandments as a foundational biblical story, the primary text of God’s covenant with the Jews, it is less known that there are variations of these commandments or, more literally, “ten words”. They are found in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 and a fairly different version in Exodus 34. Despite the differences in these texts, by late biblical times the Decalogue had achieved the status of epitomising a guidance for right belief and practice. The prescriptions and the prohibitions seemed to assume a code-like status; but, stone or no stone, the values enshrined have always been and continue to be open to interpretation, observance and rejection.

No one really talks about the Ten Commandments any more, so I decided to conduct my own research and asked a few friends if they knew any of the Commandments. Some tried to remember by recalling the glorious 1956 Cecil B DeMille epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses. The top reply was “You shall not murder”, followed closely by “You shall not commit adultery” and “Honour your father and mother”. A few mused over the prohibition on “coveting” what belonged to a neighbour, including his wife. Yet most forgot to mention that worshipping God as the one true God was the central commandment and that the first few commandments are really about how to understand God’s desired relationship with his people. I suppose those who believe in God don’t really focus their worship on discussing his nature, and those who do not believe in God can’t understand his jealous nature: that is, why does he keep insisting he is the one true God, let alone necessary for human morality? Indeed, if we measure human morality by our relationship with one another, it could be argued that the commandments not to worship other gods, create idols or utter profanities are not intrinsically moral in themselves.

I detected an air of amusement, especially around the word “covet”. It is slightly archaic now but relevant in both its meanings – desiring what you can have and desiring what you can’t have. After all, isn’t capitalism, isn’t our whole society built on coveting? Rest has given way to restlessness and wanting and spending is a way of keeping busy. We know we should limit our desires, but it has become harder than ever to be content just with what we have. To be human is to desire and how we place moral limits on this reality has always been a difficult issue. Commerce often wins against its rivals. And this tension is again being played out over the government’s proposals to extend Sunday shop opening times, with the concept of the Sabbath as rest or holy becoming increasingly irrelevant to many.

It is questionable whether most people consider these commandments as the most important moral rules for society, especially at a time when war, hunger and oppression of all kinds dominate our world. Some of them, such as the prohibitions on murder, theft and kidnap, are clearly principles for an ordered society, but they are secular as well as religious principles to live by. With an increased awareness of all kinds of injustices, our moral consciousness continues to shift and so is often determined by the zeitgeist. Furthermore, the obvious patriarchal tone of some of these commandments reflects their context and time, but in an age of increased inclusiveness and gender equality, how do these commandments speak to the moral responsibilities of women? Women also covet, murder and desire the illicit.

As a society we usually do not frame our lives with moral absolutes; our thinking has become far more fluid on ethical matters. We could imagine the state coming up with its own commandments, such as “You shall pay your taxes” or “You shall not commit an act of terrorism”, far more important for political regimes than whether its citizens commit adultery. But maybe, despite changing realities, we like to hold on to ideals that fix certain things such as marriage and property as inviolable. They are sacred to us precisely because they can’t be couched in legal language.

The Ten Commandments don’t form part of daily conversation for most of us, but I grew up well aware of the implications of one particular commandment: that of honouring my father and mother. It was culture, religion and my parents’ discipline all rolled into one. It wasn’t always easy but it remained an unspoken truth.

For me, however, I think there is only one rule to live by, the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated yourself. A bit ordinary – even a cliché, maybe – but it still stands as culturally the most widely shared ethical tenet in history. This is the ultimate religious, secular and moral commandment, applicable to all and deserved by all. It has the power to lift people out of all kinds of subjugation but it’s not always about doing anything or acting in any way. Rather, it is more an orientation towards others, a state of mind in which we are aware that we are essentially relational beings, without drawing on too many emotional or psychological excesses. If we turn it into a philosophical abstraction, it becomes meaningless; if we think of it in terms of our everyday encounters with one another, it speaks to human aspiration in us all.

Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh

 

Thou shalt tolerate other gods

Julian Baggini

Morality is one of humanity’s most important innovations. Although it is often thought of as belonging to an eternal metaphysical reality, handed down to human beings on tablets of stone, it is first and foremost simply a powerful tool for managing the social world. At the very least it keeps us from each other’s throats and at its best it promotes actively pro-social behaviour. Laws enforce a
certain degree of order but it is morality that oils the wheels of daily interactions and gives the law its legitimacy. Different cultures have found different ways to implement such a system of benign control, and the Ten Commandments provide the template for how it has been made to work in the West.

The first component is that the core moral principles tell us what we must avoid if we are to live together peacefully. The five final instructions of the Decalogue – the “Thou shalt nots” – state these in the broadest terms possible. Three still form the basis of our most serious criminal laws: killing, cheating, stealing. The other two are examples of the kinds of sins – adultery and covetousness – we generally oppose but which it would be foolish to use the weight of the law to enforce. All five still resonate today. The prohibition against adultery might seem outdated but it is remarkable how our theoretical tolerance usually goes out of the window if we are the ones cheated on.

The first five, however, deal with a very different aspect of morality: the authority on which the rules stand. They are prefaced by a simple message: “I am the Lord thy God.” The message is clear: if anyone should ask why these commandments should be followed, the answer is simply because your God says you should, and gods are not to be disobeyed. God is a strangely elusive being, however; and consequently, a society obedient to him must remind itself frequently that he exists. This demands forsaking all other gods, setting aside a day a week to worship him and creating taboos against uttering his name in vain or trying to create images of him.

Then there is the rule that links divine with secular authority: “Honour thy father and thy mother.” Here is the acknowledgement that morality requires a commitment to the social order, not just the heavenly one. To keep the old rules, people must learn to respect the old ways and that starts by revering the generation above you, with the reward that you, too, will one day be respected by the generation that follows.

So here you have a kind of recipe for a moral system that can survive millennia: rules that govern social interactions, underpinned by an obedience to those who gave you the rules. These law-givers are both the ultimate source – remote and divine – but also the actual people who pass these laws on – proximate and human.

No wonder that the very word “morality” seems to be increasingly out of place in the modern world. Even though almost no one would want to be killed or slandered, or see their partner or belongings stolen, very few of us recognise anything as providing sufficient authority to underwrite these rules. We want the protections of morality without having to defer to it, the fruits without the roots.

The problem is not that morality requires divine assent. Plato showed long ago why God’s say-so doesn’t answer the question of why some things are right and others wrong. If things were good only because God commanded them, then morality would be hollow and God could as easily demand murder as prohibit it. So God only gave us his commandments because they were the right ones to follow in the first place. That means they are right whether God tells us about them or not.

The problem we have now is social, not philosophical. We have as much reason to be moral today as when Moses descended from Mount Sinai. The trouble is that, in practice, reason has little to do with it. Ask most people why they hold the values they do and they won’t give you a philosophical argument: they’ll simply say “That was how I was brought up” or “It’s just right”. Deference to a moral authority saves us the trouble of having to think more deeply about why we ought to do anything at all.

I don’t think there can or should be a going back to the days when spiritual shepherds spoke and human flocks followed. But something needs to do the work today that those five commandments did for centuries. That something needs to transcend our own narrow self-interests and those of our kith and kin. The only credible candidate for that is our common humanity. To cynics this sounds like wet, naive, kumbaya-singing optimism. Ideals of a shared human nature evaporated pretty quickly in the ­Balkans, Rwanda and Congo. When even Muslims slaughter Muslims for being the wrong kind, it would seem that when push comes to shove, what divides us is always much stronger than what unites us.

Yet these things horrify us precisely ­because they are exceptions to the rule. On the whole we do treat each other well, for no other reason than we recognise that if you prick any of us, we bleed. Every major moral advance – the emancipations of slaves, women, ethnic minorities and gay and transgender people – has followed from a growing recognition that those previously seen as second-class citizens are in all vital respects the same as anyone else. Add to that a strong dose of enlightened self-interest,
a recognition that the smitten have a tendency to smite back with even more righteous violence, and there is no mystery as to why we still largely adhere to the social teachings of the Decalogue long after their author has exited stage left.

But the genocides and sectarian struggles of our age remind us that this sense of shared humanity is extremely fragile and we need to work constantly to maintain and strengthen it. In a globalised world, that requires us to resist any kind of “us and them” thinking, particularity the kind that denigrates outsiders.

This is the heart of the moral revolution that has been quietly rumbling on over the past few hundred years. Morality used to be rooted in a sense of attachment and loyalty to the group, with its requirements to honour its God alone and to forsake all others. Now it has to be about weakening those partisan links and connecting with a wider humanity. This requires a complete reversal of the first three commandments. Thou shalt allow other gods or none, tolerate graven images or likenesses, and let your Lord’s name be taken in vain. For whoever the Lord thy God is, your first and highest duty is to your fellow human beings.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher. His books include “Freedom Regained: the Possibility of Free Will” (Granta)

 

Follow the mantra of online gamers

Laurie Penny

The sun is blazing over the smoky mountains as I sit down to eat my lunch on the “thou” of “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. The words are hammered into the North Carolina hillside above a natural amphitheatre a hundred feet high. I have come to the World’s Largest Ten Commandments, a roadside attraction and religious theme park, to make some healthy British fun of bonkers American Christianity and to amuse myself by walking all over the word of God. Quite literally, in fact – the barrier is broken, and there is no sign saying, “Thou shalt not wander on to the Ten Commandments and eat a peanut butter sandwich.” Which is what I do.

Making fun of Bible-bashing Yanks is a standard tourist activity for British expats. This is a country marinated in Christianity, a country where some believers open fire in women’s health clinics and others dedicate their lives to social justice in the name of a dead Palestinian. Americans are not perturbed by the violent absurdity of Christianity, whereas the British have had too many centuries of mad aristocrats roasting each other alive for reciting the wrong catechism to be anything else. It is no accident that most of the high priests of world atheism are British – not when our major exports are intellectual snobbery, religious discomfort and passive aggression.

The Ten Commandments theme park is relentlessly mockable. The gift shop features so many weak attempts at wacky religious wordplay that it should be called a punnery. You can buy a ten-inch plastic ruler that says “He is the Ruler” and a T-shirt with an owl on it that says “God is Good Owl the Time”. There are books of prayer specifically for the followers of various sports teams. There’s a plaque acknowledging the sponsorship of the Church of God of Florida, a mysterious cult that surely involves the worship of a giant alligator. I could go on.

There are countries and communities in the world where being an atheist takes true courage – but I did not grow up in one, and neither did most of us in the West. There are situations where it’s fine to laugh at religion, where religion is used as an excuse to terrorise the vulnerable and oppress minorities. But religion does not have a monopoly on those excuses. To my surprise, browsing in the awful gift shop, I find myself thinking of the “ultimate commandment” of Jesus. The one he is supposed to have invented for a follower who found ten too many to handle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

****

People are often surprised by how well I know the Bible. As a child, I briefly attended an evangelical boarding school – an unusual phenomenon in godless Britain, especially for the atheist child of a lapsed Jew and a lapsed Catholic.

There were daily Bible lessons, and I was a swot. It was a point of pride to me to get the top marks in every scripture class, despite thinking the whole thing was silly and not being afraid to say so.

I had about as much fun at that school as you might expect. Once, after midnight, I was shaken awake and led into a bathroom where eight other 11-year-old girls were clutching Bibles and praying for my soul. There followed a long session of prepubes­cent proselytising about how terrible it was that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. My overwhelming memory of that night is of shame, not about my sinfulness, but about how badly I needed to wee. The toilets were right there and the girls wouldn’t let me go because they were too concerned about my eternal soul, whereas I was worried about the immediate possibility of wetting my pyjamas.

Kids are mean, especially when someone gives them a book of rules telling them that they’re allowed to be mean for somebody else’s own good. So are adults. I got into trouble with the kids for being a weirdo, and I got into trouble with the teachers for arguing about evolution. I got into trouble for questioning the school uniform and asking why there were different rules for boys and girls.

Getting into trouble for those things didn’t make me feel good – it made me feel righteous. I knew I had the right answers, unlike my poor, deluded, hymn-singing and hand-waving classmates. Having the right answers meant that I was smarter than they were, and that meant that I was better than they were, and that was a small comfort while they were pouring orange juice in my schoolbag.

I did have one friend, a girl who was sometimes kind to me and invited me to her house to listen to Sugar Ray while her brother shot crows in the back garden. We didn’t have much in common, but if it hadn’t been for her, my lonely childhood would have been far lonelier, though I never found the courage to say so at the time. When we had rows, like little girls do, it was always about Jesus.

We were both convinced that we were right and the other was dangerously stupid, but somehow we stayed friends. She got sick, and I visited her in hospital and made her mix tapes until she got better. When she was well, she gave me a copy of Left Behind, the evangelical novel about the Rapture. I interpreted this as a catty comment about my sinfulness and never opened it.

In senior school, my friend began to make new friends, girls with shiny hair and social skills. Instead of telling her how hurt I was, I picked fights about God to push her further away. Once I made her cry in the middle of double English by calling her a religious hysteric. I was right and she was wrong, so of course I didn’t think of myself as a bully. I was only telling her those things for her own good.

We grew up, like little girls do, and lost what touch we still had. Years later, packing my books to move house, I opened that copy of Left Behind – and found a note in curly, childish handwriting, thanking me for being a good friend.

 

****

Goodness is not about what a person believes, but how a person behaves.

I no longer think it’s a good use of my time to mock other people simply because they believe silly things. I believe a lot of silly things, myself. I believe that human beings are basically decent, and that if we learn to take better care of one another there’s a good chance the species will survive the century. I believe that scientific progress can solve structural problems. I believe that one day Doctor Who will be good again. I believe in such things as justice and mercy, which are impossible to see or touch or quantify, and if I didn’t, I don’t know quite how I’d carry on.

I don’t like rules. I prefer guidelines. But if I had to come up with a commandment, it would be: “Don’t be a dick.” This mantra of the online gaming world actually works rather better than “Do unto others”, which relies on people thinking that they deserve to be treated with kindness, when even the most devout people can find it hard to believe in their own worth.

I learned, as I’ve grown and travelled, that people often see God not as he is, but as they are. I’ve learned that being right and being good aren’t always the same, although I’d rather be both. I still think that the Bible is a patriarchal fairy tale that can be poison in the hands of bigots. I’m not sorry about that. I am sorry for being a dick to my friend when I was 13. I was right, but I was also wrong.

“Don’t be a dick” covers the important bases. It probably includes not making public fun of people’s profound beliefs simply because that makes you feel superior. I am an atheist. I believe that all we’ve got is this world, and each other. All the more reason, then, to be kind.

Laurie Penny is an NS contributing editor

Keep it simple: just be kind

Jan Morris

I am an agnostic edging towards theism, by which I mean that on balance, on the whole, it seems to me there probably exists some unimaginable agency, somewhere or other, which has, since the beginning of all things, governed everything, past, present and in the future. That being so, during my nearly nine decades of existence and experience, I have reached the conclusion that one’s own life can best be governed by a single rule of moral conduct. God knows (if I may be forgiven the phrase), I don’t always obey the rule, but here it is for what it’s worth; my One Commandment, as it were: Be Kind!

This strikes me as simple, straight, easy to understand and all-embracing. I was brought up, though, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition that honours the more complex injunctions brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses – the Ten Commandments, known to scholars as the Decalogue. They appear in several, slightly different versions in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch and traditionally believed to have been written by Moses himself, and as I am a child of Anglican discipline they lie always dormant in my subconscious.

It is curious to consider how relevant they are to today’s concerns and how my own elementary rule conforms to the instructions of my distant childhood; so here they are, the Decalogue, from the Book of Exodus in the good old King James version of 1611, shortened and provided with my own agnostic responses. They are prologued by a simple declaration – “I am the Lord Thy God,” which is agnostically debatable, for a start – and they continue thus:

1 The Decalogue: Thou shalt have no other gods.

Me: Well, so you say.

2 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Me: It depends entirely upon the image.

3 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Me: If you mean using religious conviction to evil ends, I agree.

4 The Decalogue: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

Me: Oh dear, I wish I could, but it’s too late even for Wales.

5 The Decalogue: Honour thy father and thy mother.

Me: Quite right, too.

6 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not kill.

Me: Spot on.

7 The Decalogue: Thou shall not commit adultery.

Dear me, no.

8 The Decalogue: Thou shall not steal.

Me: Certainly not.

9 The Decalogue: Thou shall not bear false witness.

Me: Agreed, of course.

10 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.

Me: Semantically acceptable, as there’s a difference between coveting and envying.

(11 The Decalogue: Thou shalt not lie.

Me: This is not one of the commandments but I think it should be.)

I agree with most of the Ten, you see, as most of us presumably would. Allowing for changing circumstances, in the many centuries since Moses first carved them in his Sinai rock, most of his commands seem to me to make moral sense still. But naturally, down the generations Christians of diverse persuasions, followers of the New Testament, have questioned aspects of the code, and many converts to the faith have doubtless been puzzled by it.

Indeed, in the 1860s the first Anglican bishop of Natal, an ardent Christian missionary, publicly doubted the historical validity of the entire Mosaic law, resulting in a celebrated imperialist limerick:

A bishop there was of Natal
Who took a Zulu for a pal.
Said the Kaffir, “Look ’ere,
“Ain’t the Pentateuch queer?”
And converted My Lord of Natal.

I agree with that Zulu. I reject the Decalogue as a behavioural guide for Christians, let alone agnostics, not merely because some of it is outdated and ignorable, but because of its utter lack of compassion. There is no hint of forgiveness in the Ten Commandments, an absence which might well have seemed queer to converts to the faith of the New Testament. For it was, of course, Jesus, long after Moses, who taught us the fundamental Christian virtue of universal affection: and it was St Paul, a convert in his own right, who told the Celtic Christians of Galatia that all the laws of conduct could be summed up in this single one of Christ’s sayings: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”

In other words, BE KIND! 

Jan Morris is a historian and the author of more than 30 books

Thou shalt not destroy

Jeanette Winterson

I love the story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to visit G-d, who is variously a thick cloud and a burning bush and who eventually writes in stone with his finger. G-d likes writing with his finger, especially on solid surfaces – later he will terrify Bel­shazzar by graffiti-ing his wall while he is having people over to dinner.

Aramaic was written with consonants alone, no vowels, so knowing what vowels to add is supplied by the context. In G-d’s case, that usually means trouble, and in Bel­shazzar’s case it certainly did: he had been weighed and found wanting – Mene mene tekel upharsin. When I was growing up Mrs Winterson had a tray for her bills labelled “Mene Tekel”: she could never pay them.

Our turns of phrase are here – the writing is on the wall. Written in stone. The Ten Commandments had to be written out twice by G-d because Moses broke the first set in a fit of rage when he got back down the mountain and found the Israelites dancing round a golden calf they had made by melting their jewels. They didn’t know that G-d had just written that they weren’t to make any graven images or go chasing after other gods. It was an awkward moment.

Unusually, because G-d loses his temper easily in the Old Testament (see Get Out of Eden wearing just the fig leaves on your back, well not on your back, elsewhere, and The Flood – I made them, I can break them), G-d agrees to write another set of commandments, provided Moses brings him the stone.

The big deals of the Ten Commandments are no murdering, no adultery and no gods other than G-d. This move to monotheism was radical, and signalled YHWH’s corporate takeover of tinpot deities like blingy calves. It was a political decision on the part of G-d and a smart move to rebrand Israel as different. If you are wandering around in the desert wishing you were back in Egypt with better food and toilet facilities (if you don’t believe me, read it for yourself), then some new ideas might distract you from the fact that 40 years in the wilderness is a long time for what started out as a camping trip to the Promised Land.

The adultery clause, like No Other Gods, is a way of keeping things focused and in the family. It addresses the worry that we always know who is the mother of the child but in a patriarchal system it’s paternity that counts. Such a system is plainly bonkers, but we’re pretty much still in it, and women, then as now, are expected to be the gatekeepers of morality.

At the time, an even bigger worry than whom your wife might be sleeping with was the Great Whore of Babylon: in other words, any of the goddess-worshipping, ­female-first religions that Judaism had to get rid of. The Goddess Has To Go preoccupies priests and prophets alike, and cripples the role of women in Orthodox Judaism – in spite of the strange and magnificent presence of the Shekinah, always feminine in the Kabbalah.

Fear of female sexuality is the negative of the Sex Commandment. The positive side of this Thou Shalt Not must be that if you are not sleeping with someone else, your erotic and emotional attention is available to your partner. We all know that gets harder as a marriage gets older. But the best part of commitment is the challenge. Finding new ways to love is more difficult than finding a new person to love.

When Jesus was presented with the woman taken in adultery, and the religious types ready to stone her, he did some of that finger-writing favoured by G-d – this time in the dust – and challenged anyone who was without sin to cast the first stone. When her accusers slunk off, Jesus forgave her. That the woman couldn’t be stoned or strangled was a step forward in consciousness. The commandment Thou Shalt Not Murder was not understood as Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Murder is the wrongful taking of a life. Killing can be legal, as all our wars make miserably clear. People of all faiths kill each other for just cause. I wish we could revise that commandment. As long as people of faith – any faith – can justify killing, we will go on killing, and the outlook in 2016 for world peace is bleak.

My favourite commandment is the honouring of the Sabbath. The six days of labour and the seventh day of rest. The rest day isn’t about slumping in front of the TV with a tube of Pringles; it’s a day shaped differently from a week of getting and spending. I am not religious any more, but I like the spiritual observances that religion is mindful of. If you believe that life has an inside as well as an outside, then how shall we honour that truth? How shall we find time for contemplation, imagination, turning the mind away from daily worries towards that word, “soul”? You don’t have to believe in God or an afterlife to believe that human beings are more than their material purpose.

It is against the materiality of life that the Graven Images Commandment has most to say. How do we imagine what is transcendent? Music can do it. Poetry can do it. Abstract art can do it. Representation cannot – what are we representing? Not an apple, not a dog, not a thing, not a noun. The Puritan zeal against Roman Catholic adornment was the usual wish of reformers to return to a simpler basic – wherein, supposedly, truth lies waiting.

Isis has been doing the same. When you watch the hateful men in black laying waste to ancient monuments, remember Cromwell on his spree across England, finally halting at Stonyhurst, leaving behind an orgy of smashed altars, stained-glass windows and the dust of desecrated Virgins. Mary, of course, had to endure a double destruction, as icon and as woman.

Thou Shalt Not Destroy would be a good commandment for the modern world. It might even save the planet. Along the way, it might save the destruction in the name of profit of much that is beautiful. That commandment about covetousness is never observed. We want everything our neighbour has, and newer and bigger. But there is no commandment that says “Buy Now, Pay Later”. l

Jeanette Winterson is a novelist and professor of creative writing

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue