Observer headline‘Church launches bitter attack on PM's 'incoherent' Middle East policy’, said the Observer on 17th August:

The Church of England has delivered a withering critique of David Cameron's Middle East policy, describing the government's approach as incoherent, ill-thought-out and determined by ‘the loudest media voice at any particular time’.
The criticisms are made in an extraordinary letter to the prime minister signed by the bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines, and written with the support of the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Seen by the Observer, it describes the UK's foreign policy as so muddled and reactive that it is ‘difficult to discern the strategic intentions’ of the Government's approach to the region.

Whether this is over-egging the criticism you can judge for yourself: the letter is here. Baines himself thought so: as he later writes, ‘My letter is neither “bitter” nor an “attack” on the Prime Minister… I wrote reasonably and respectfully.’

Symon Hill disagrees: ‘Nick Baines is mistaken: Cameron’s policy is coherent, but morally foul’. Baines’ ‘polite criticism’ makes no mention ‘of the militarism and commercial exploitation at the heart of UK foreign policy’. While Baines complains that ‘We do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe’, Hill replies that on the contrary,

While ministers’ words are inconsistent, their actions are not. The government’s foreign policy is based on the commercial and strategic interests of those who hold power in the UK and the class that they represent. This is a government thoroughly committed to promoting the concerns of the super-rich… We cannot expect their foreign policy to be any more ethical.

He also criticised the fact that

Baines follows the common practice of using the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ when he really means the UK government and its armed forces. This is unhelpful, as it implies that nationality is the primary aspect of our identity and that we are basically on the same side as those who hold power.

Iraq and Galilee

At the time when this blew up I happened to be reading William Herzog II’s Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God. I could not help noticing the parallels.

Most of the recent progress in understanding the teaching of Jesus is based on better understandings of the social and economic conditions of first century Galilee. Who was Jesus addressing? Whose interests was he defending, against whom?

The overall picture is that Galilee was a rural backwater in the Roman empire with a couple of Roman cities, Sepphoris and Tiberius, symbols of Roman control, recently built in it. The traditional population were peasant farmers increasingly dispossessed by debt and driven to destitution.

The power hierarchy was characteristic of ancient agricultural empires. The population percentages are rough calculations.
  • Ruling class: 1-2%
  • Retainer class: 3-5%
  • Peasant class and artisans: 85%
  • Destitute class: 10%, but possibly as high as 15% in first century Galilee.

The ruling class made the decisions. They employed the retainer class – for example scribes – to do the work, and paid them well enough to give them a vested interest in maintaining the empire. The peasants provided the economic basis and paid the taxes. Artisans, like Jesus’ father, were in peasant families but probably poorer as they had no land. The skills they provided served peasant labour. The destitute had no income. Some of the women could get by with prostitution and some of the men became bandits. Otherwise they sat by the roadside begging until they starved to death.

Social hierarchies then and now

The main difference from our society is that since the development of the Welfare State we have had a more equal distribution of wealth and power, with a large middle class. However, this is breaking down. We are becoming more like that ancient empire. The overwhelming bulk of the wealth and power is accumulating into the hands of a very small minority. They use some of it to employ others to keep the system running, and pay them handsomely enough to give them an incentive. The rest of the people in employment are being pressured by the threat of destitution to accept deteriorating pay and conditions, just as the destitute class is being expanded – as witnessed by the welfare ‘reforms’ and the rise in dependence on food banks.

From this perspective, what does our spat over Iraq reveal?

David Cameron, most obviously, presents as ruling class. Like him I was sent to a public school and I recognise the personality type all too well. He exudes that sense of effortless superiority, learned no doubt from the cradle: he knows instinctively who to cultivate, who matters, who can be ignored, which dinners and parties to attend. People like this expect to make decisions on the hoof, intuitively, without needing to read all the documents and study the statistics. They were born to rule.

Nick Baines, anxious to insist that there was no attack, still less a bitter one, looks very much like retainer class. Despite the letter, he affirms his support for the ruling class. He proposes a modification of its perspective, no more.

Presumably Hill fits as a vocal representative of the oppressed majority. I would expect both Cameron and Baines to think he has totally misinterpreted their positions. He has not. His critiques, savage though they are, reveal the blind spots of both the ruling class and the retainer class.

The trappings of power

I offer one more analogy. Traditional Galilean peasants were Jews. Their traditional allegiance was to the Temple at Jerusalem with its worship of the god who provides sunshine and rain and makes the crops grow. The Temple was run by the priests. The chief of them, the High Priest, should in theory have been a member of a priestly family but in fact was a puppet appointed by the Romans. The priests at Jerusalem still had the trappings of the ruling class, but in fact acted as retainers for the real ruling class, the Romans. The less power they had in reality, the more they needed to appear powerful.

In the same way the UK still retains the trappings of being a free country. The Government’s rhetoric insists on it. In reality it gives away economic power to transnational corporations, and in military matters it does the bidding of the USA. Ultimately Cameron is a retainer, not a ruler. All the more reason why he needs to look like a ruler.