From Wrongs Abounding, May Good yet More Abound

 
 

Social Conservatives in America would do well to consider recent events in the U.K.

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With U.S. commentators focused almost exclusively on the Presidential and Congressional elections, turning only to other matters as and when they seemed likely to influence the polling, it is unsurprising that recent events here in Britain have gone largely unremarked.

Yet several apparently unconnected developments in the U.K. that occurred last week may contribute to a moment of some significance for social conservatives concerned about contemporary society and the quality of political, cultural, and corporate leadership.

I have in mind three events occurring on consecutive days in the U.K. and involving legislators, broadcasters, and bankers, respectively; more precisely the Westminster Parliament, the BBC, and Barclays Bank.

On October 29th, the House of Lords considered and voted on amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. This marked the last stage of the passage through Parliament of the proposed legislation. Once the formality of Royal Assent is granted, the HFE Act will come into operation bringing with it provisions that only a few years ago would have been judged unthinkable.

Among the worst of these measures are the creation for experimentation of animal-human hybrid embryos, the production of 'savior siblings', babies selected to provide genetic material for seriously ill relatives, and the removal in the provision of publicly funded fertility services of any reference to a child's need for a father - the point of this last being to facilitate IVF treatment for lesbian couples.

Further, the government chose to add a late provision allowing tissue for animal-human hybrids to be garnered from children whose parents give permission, from people who lack the "mental capacity" to give consent, and from anyone who has previously donated samples to hospitals for medical research but can no longer be traced.

Collectively and along with other aspects of the legislation this represents an unparalleled assault on human dignity, on respect for persons as ends, on the principle of consent, and on the integrity of the father-mother-child family relationship. It may seem shocking that a country that led the world in the recognition of civil rights and constitutional law should now turn those instruments against the innocent and in violation of fundamental human goods. However, it may be less surprising if one also remembers that Britain has the highest abortion rate of any Western European country, and almost the highest in the world--higher than the U.S.

The day after the passage of the cloning bill, October 30th, the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, met with members of its governing body in an unscheduled crisis meeting. Britain's national public broadcasting corporation, funded out of a compulsory TV license fee, was forced into confronting the fact that two of its leading presenters, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, had made and broadcast obscene and harassing calls to a 78 year-old. Their victim was Andrew Sachs, well-known and fondly recalled as the actor who played the Spanish waiter ''Manuel'' in Fawlty Towers. In the first of these calls, Ross announces that Brand ''f---ed your granddaughter!'' and in a later call Brand himself sings ''I had sex with your granddaughter. But it was consensual and she wasn't menstrual, it was consensual lovely sex''. In between times they speculated that in reaction to this news Sachs might hang himself.

It is worth adding that Ross is the BBC's highest paid employee, earning 6 million ponds a year, while Brand is the character who in hosting this year's MTV Video Music Awards in Hollywood described President Bush as ''that retard and cowboy fella . . . who in England wouldn't be trusted with a pair of scissors''.

Every day that Ross and Brand have entered and exited BBC Broadcasting House in London they have walked past an inscription on the wall of the foyer. It is in Latin but translates as follows:

To Almighty God: This shrine of the arts, music, and literature is dedicated by the first Governors in the year of our Lord 1931, John Reith being Director General. It is their prayer that good seed sown will produce a good harvest, that everything offensive to decency and hostile to peace will be expelled, and that the nation will incline its ear to those things which are lovely, pure, and of good report and thus pursue the path of wisdom and virtue.

I doubt that Ross and Brand have ever read this, or if it were pointed it might well have been in derision. It is hard to imagine what the current Director General thinks of the values affirmed in this lapidary inscription, though having been educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst he might well recognise the echo of the words of St Paul in Philippians 4:8. How again, and how far, a once noble nation seems to have fallen.

The next day, October 31st, Barclays Bank announced that rather than follow the pattern of other major U.K. banks and avail itself of capitalisation afforded by the Government in response to the credit crisis, it had chosen to secure its balances by raising money from sovereign investment funds and royal families of Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

U.S. readers unfamiliar with Barclays as a banking outlet may yet have heard of the ''Barclays Center'' under construction in Brooklyn. It is planned as a large sports, entertainment, and luxury suites venue which will also serve as home to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. Beyond New York the bank is represented in the U.S. through its Global Investors department headquartered in San Francisco, and by the fact that over 3 million Americans hold credit cards issued by it for a variety of U.S. partners. So the behaviour of Barclays should be of more than simply foreign interest.

While U.K. taxpayers may feel some relief at a reduction in the expected Treasury banking bailout it is worth reflecting on the impact and motives of Barclays' decision. The terms of the Saudi Arabian deal are less generous to Barclays than U.K. Government support, but the latter comes with significant constraints. First, it requires that banks halt cash bonuses for bank board members and restrict shareholder dividends in the current year. Second, it requires that lending be made available in support of small and middle-sized U.K. businesses. Barclays' choice of independence is also made more comfortable by the fact that part of what it will provide to Quatar and Abu Dhabi investors is tax deductible, so U.K. taxpayers will be subsidising the deal and hence supporting the bank in any case.

In the context of domestic recession, with businesses failing, unemployment rising and the main political parties favouring policies of collective national reconstruction, Barclays' decision is in marked contrast to a long-standing British tradition of solidarity and of ''troubles shared.''

Three days, three institutions, three decisions; each is in a different sphere: reproduction and family life, public broadcasting and entertainment, borrowing and lending. While there are no logical connections between these, nevertheless they represent moves away from traditional British values of respect, decency, and social responsibility; and each expresses a condition that has eaten through the fabric of the country, eroding institutions, communities, and families. It has no single name but it combines individualism, materialism, and hedonism in a consequentialist outlook that instrumentalizes relationships and even human lives in pursuit of the gratification of preferences.

In one sense the temporal conjunction of instances is accidental; but the rapidity of their succession and their manifest grossness may be providential in attracting attention to a pervasive malaise. North American readers accustomed to look with regard across the Atlantic Ocean may be moved to pity, but they would do better to consider the extent to which their own societies are moving in the same directions.

More positively, it may be that populaces that have tended to be indifferent to corruption in respect of the treatment of innocent life may now be lifted to greater moral consciousness through their reaction to indecencies of other kinds in other areas. Surprising as it may seem, it may yet prove that the beginnings of a U.K. reversal of the wrongs done in regard to bioethical matters began in the days following the passing of the HFE bill, in reaction to the deeds of broadcasters and bankers.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy in the University of St Andrews, Scotland, Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Virginia, and Vice-President of the Catholic Union of Great Britain. He is a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and sits on the Editorial Board of Public Discourse.

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