Hampshire Chronicle column 25 June 2020

Recent unrest, here and in the US, following the death of George Floyd has shocked two nations already reeling from political turbulence and a pandemic that’s killed tens of thousands.

It is sadly not an overly controversial thesis that we live in world of inequality and extremes and that is every bit as obvious in Winchester as it is in Chicago where I once lived and worked.

We see inequality across class, across age and of course across racial lines. It would be a very odd society that didn’t want to address them all (to level up) and there absolutely is a conversation to be had about policing - particularly in our big cities - as well as the way our curriculum teaches the history of Great Britain.

There are very few nations on earth with a flawless scorecard - and ours is certainly not one of them - but that’s my point.

These are major pieces of work and they won’t be easily completed. They require political will, across both parties, and the consent of us all. Without that society will just continue to disagree badly.

In the same way as the debate veered lazily into which statues and road-names we deem acceptable, we should avoid taking either the easy route or rather pompously settling into absolutism.

Lazy is to avoid the difficult questions by virtue signalling. Taking down a statue in a Bristol, defacing Penny Lane in Liverpool or removing episodes of Fawlty Towers from UKTV seems significant but it’s nothing more than a smokescreen for real change that reaches into hearts and minds. We need to focus on the substance, not the symbols, of racism today.

Absolutism is to take the fatal, and ultimately unchristian, view that we are (individual or country) either all good or all bad. It may be an inconvenient truth for some but the reality is always somewhere in-between.

Germany today is one of the most powerful and efficient economies in the world; its enterprise serves us well. But it’s surely had its moments on the world stage.

The British Empire did some terrible things in the name of colonialism but in the process it spread democracy, the rule of law and methods of agriculture and trade which have lifted millions out of poverty.

Equally, we as individuals are all flawed and we’re all capable of good as well as evil.

Take John Newton, a course, cruel slave trader and captain of several slave ships in the eighteenth century.

He first called out to God in the midst of a wild storm that nearly took his life and only gradually came to the see the error of his ways; continuing to ply his trade even after his conversation to Christianity.

Later he renounced his profession, became a minister and joined William Wilberforce in the fight for abolition. He never forgot the bad things he had done though and of course went onto write one of the best known hymns of all time - sung so memorably in public by President Obama - Amazing Grace.

When he wrote “how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” he meant those words for himself and it is a truly amazing grace.

Should we remove all public utterances of John Newton? He wasn’t all good and he wasn’t all bad. None of us are.

My late father-in-law used to quote ‘if you can be a good lesson, be a horrid warning’ and he was right. Our past is just that; something to be celebrated where appropriate and a lesson from history where needed.