Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: September, 2013

All power to those who take on the challenge of discipleship today

I do not buy lottery tickets. The chance of winning the jackpot is about one in 14 million so I only have a marginally less chance of winning without a ticket.

I am also reasonably happy with my lot in life. I am not sure that a £10m windfall  would make me that much happier. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that sudden wealth has ruined the lives of the supposed lucky winners.

Nevertheless,  I still play the parlour game of what I would you do with the money if I  won the lottery. I hope I would give the money away. As Jesus said to the rich young man, not only should you obey the commandments, you should give away your possessions before you can be a disciple – by which I think he meant that money should not rule your life.

Did something along these lines go through the  mind  of the investment fund manager, Jonathan Ruffer, when he decided to donate £15million to save the set of paintings by the 17th Spanish master Francisco Zurbaran that hang in Auckland Castle?

In  a recent interview,  Mr Ruffer said that during an Ignatian retreat he decided to devote a considerable part of his income  and working life, to help those worse off.   I know only too well that time spent in retreat can lead to life changing decisions but am sorry to say that Mr Ruffer was not in residence at Shepherds Dene at the time.

The paintings are magisterial, larger than life portraits of Jacob and his twelve  sons that  hang in a room specially built for them in Auckland Castle. In the end, Mr Ruffer had to buy the castle as well but that is another story. The ambition of the newly formed Auckland Castle Trust set up by Jonathan  Ruffer, which now owns the paintings, castle and park, lock, stock and  barrel,  is to develop a first class visitor attraction and revive the fortunes of Bishop Auckland – a tall order!

 I hope Mr Ruffer is satisfied by his bold decision and wish him well with his future ambitions. It may be a more straightforward  done deal to make a large philanthropic donation to buy something, build something or save something.

The nineteenth century Scottish philanthropist   Andrew Carnegie built a library in every town that requested one and Keith Owen, a  Canadian banker, has just left a £2m endowment to plant a million flowers in Sidmouth, Devon where he spent his holidays. Philanthropy can cater for every taste and does not judge the worthiness of the cause.

These donations invariably attract tax relief and, by denying the public purse, it could be said that you and I are contributing to building libraries, planting flowers and supporting the whims of others.

It is more difficult to change the world through philanthropic giving. When the McClelland family sold their family business, Laws Stores, in 1985,  they  decided, in the course of a family weekend. to set up a charitable  trust with a good part of the proceeds. Since 1996, Millfield House Foundation ( the fateful weekend took place at Millfield House, their then home in Whickham)  has pursued the aim of influencing public policy in ways that would tackle the causes of poverty and empower the disadvantaged in the North East.

Despite their best efforts and some notable achievements, and with my own help as a trustee for 10 years, poverty is still with us and indeed growing under the present government. But that is even more reason to support  campaigns for a more equal society.

In an outspoken attack on the whole philanthropy business in the New York Times, Peter Buffett criticises philanthropists, including his own father, the most successful investor of the 20 th century and the worlds fourth richest man, for using their money to ‘save the day’ but in ways which ultimately ‘feeds the beast’ of wealth creation.

Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the mind set that created it. Peter Buffett proposes that  we need a whole new operating system that will bring about systemic change in our economic affairs. Fine words if he can fulfil them.

Even on second order issues, though these include major problems like AIDS, philanthropists can convince themselves that  they  know best how to solve the worlds problems  and do not always defer to the expert view.

It is still the case that wealthy people give a smaller proportion of their money away than the rest of us and in this respect Joan Edwards is an unsung hero. The reclusive retired nurse from Bristol  left over half a million pounds to the government of the day “to use as they think fit.”

The Daily Mail has done us all a favour by exposing the way that the Conservative and Liberal parties tried to subvert this bequest into their own party funds. It is surprising their actions have not been more loudly condemned.

The donation is a case study in charitable giving. Miss Edwards  did  not seek any recognition. She left the decision about who should benefit to those arguably in the best position and with the greatest legitimacy to decide.

Personally, I hope the money is not just lost in the Treasury vaults and but that it is used for some specific purpose in her memory. It might encourage others to do the same.

Of course, not everyone would trust the government with their money. Another alternative is  leave money to one of the excellent community foundations in the region and let them decide how best to spend it.

 Jonathan Ruffer has also given £1 million to County Durham Community Foundation to help people back into employment. He see them “ as the local experts – to reach the parts that need help most, “ whilst he concentrates his efforts on Auckland Castle.

All power to him, the McClelland family, Andrew Owen  and Joan Edwards who have in their different ways taken up the challenge of discipleship.  

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene








Mr Obama, are you the great statesman that we hoped you would be?

Dear President Obama,

I am one of your greatest fans. I still the remember the day of your first inauguration. Everyone stayed behind in the office to watch your speech on the television, even though it was time to go home for the weekend. We had high hopes of you.

You strode on to  the world stage with great confidence. There have inevitably been disappointments and Guantanamo Bay continues to outrage us but  we have continued to root for you.

But how did you come to assume the mantle of the defender of the free world. Does it just go with job? How did you come to declare that the use of chemical weapons in Syria crossed a red line that would lead to retaliation? I wonder if you have come to regret those words as you fight to persuade Congress of the need for air strikes? I would have hoped for better of you.

I know that chemical warfare is a violation of human rights and a dastardly and indiscriminate way of winning a war. But by how many degrees is it worse that bombing, torturing, and droning that it part and parcel of any modern campaign. War is a terrible business as video footage of a Free Syrian army eating the flesh of his enemy reminds us. Why has the use of chemical weapons become the chill wind that rouses the giant from its sleep?

What is the point of retaliation? Was your original threat to bomb the Assad regime meant to deter them from using chemical weapons? It was never likely to succeed. Will retaliation stop them from using these weapons again? It seems unlikely.

The chances are that an air strike on Syria will kill more innocent people and increase the flow of refugees out of the country. The number of Syrian refugees reached 2 million  this week with a further 5000 fleeing each day. Retaliation leads to further retaliation and put your embassies around at risk. It does not get you any nearer to a  resolution of the Syrian civil war.

Pardon the thought, but I wonder if the use of chemical weapons, banned in international law, gives you the excuse the United States has been looking to  intervene in another Middle East country? After Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt  and Libya, have you not learned the folly of trying to stabilize a country with a government of your choosing?

I hold what you may regard as an extreme and idealistic view: I do not believe that foreign powers should intervene in the affairs of another country. It may be tempting to do so for political and economic reasons and it may seem merciful to do for humanitarian reasons but it is wrong.

There are some unpalatable implications of this point of view. Civil wars may continue until the combatants have ground each other into dust. More civilians may be killed and uprooted in the process but it is not for us to intervene with armed force.

This is not, as our own Conservative politicians have  portrayed it, “contracting out” ( Cameron) our morality to the United Nations or “retreating into isolation” ( Hague)  but a recognition that we have no right to get involved in this fight and that  guns boats no longer have a role in international relations.

There are alternatives. You are no longer dealing with an extremist government in Iran. President Ahmadinejad spent billions supplying cash and weapons to the Assad regime but has been replaced, to most peoples surprise, with the moderate  President Rouhani who favours a political settlement with the Syrian opposition. He has also made it plain that he detests chemical weapons. Negotiating with Iran would involve you in eating humble pie, but that is what statesmen are made of.

For all I know such talks may be going on behind the scenes but it was difficult to see any signs of them from the stern faced photos of you and your world leaders posturing in St Petersburg this weekend. It is time to put your efforts into convening the long delayed conference in Geneva to solve the Syrian problem.

All the news reports in this country are full of you and John Kerry drumming up political support for retaliatory air strikes. On the BBC at least, the contrary view is sadly absent.  I haven’t heard much of the rights and wrongs of your proposed air strikes or the alternatives you might consider.

What made you consult the congress?  We all expected you to launch your missiles last weekend. Admittedly,  acting in the heat of the moment is never a good idea. The delay has  bought you time and given  an opportunity for wiser counsels to prevail.

Whilst some may say that the vote in our House of Commons and the forthcoming show of hands in Washington is a victory for democracy, I am not so sure. There is widespread public opposition to warfare which you should listen to.  But  you cannot reduce this kind of decision to a popular vote. You are elected to make the decision.

So what is my advice Mr President? Retaliation is unworthy of you and will only make matters worse. Intervention in another middle or far east country will not bring about the stable western leaning regime that you dream for. You would be better advised to increase your diplomatic efforts with President Rouhani  and, dare I say it, with President Putin too. Just because you disagree, you should not stop talking.

Did I mention dreaming? That’s the problem. The American dream of winning the world round to its way of thinking with armed might as the last resort has failed over the last fifty years.

A great statesman can lead his people into a new view of  their place in the world. That must be difficult when you are  surrounded by politicians, generals and armament manufacturers who are invested in the current paradigm. But you can be different. Losing the vote this week could be the best thing that happens in your second term and just perhaps you have known that all along?

Good luck and God bless you, Mr President.

 George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene