Friday, January 02, 1998

A Very British Coup

Hitherto, the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted, and indeed, when we read them--how Plato would have every infant "a bastard nursed in a bureau", and Elyot would have the boy see no man before the age of seven, and after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry--we may well thank the beneficent obstinancy of real mothers, real nurses and above all real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.
C.S Lewis
Mr Tony Blair's latest bright idea is that there should be secular Christenings at registry offices, on the model of civil weddings. Instead of just filling out a birth certificate, the registrar will give you the opportunity to make a series of promises about how you are going to raise your child. You'll even be able to appoint somewhat oxymoronic secular god-parents.
Speaking a fully immersed Baptist, I think that the idea of separating 'baby-naming' from 'Christening' in the mind of Joe Public is a thoroughly good thing. Baptism, whether it involves dunking squalling infants in fonts or throwing fully clothed adults into paddling pools, is a ceremony of initiation into the Christian Church. You get baptised to show that you have become a Christian, or to show that your parents want you to become a Christian, or to actually make you a Christian, depending on your viewpoint. In the Olden Days 'Christendom' meant 'the whole world' or at any rate 'the whole world apart from those nasty Turks', and 'Christian' came to mean 'any civilised human being'. So, naturally, the Christian-making ceremony was done to new-borns, and 'Christening' came to mean 'the act of giving someone a name', as in 'he is known as Bloodaxe Deathbringer, but he was christened Kevin.' Moslems get very annoyed if you ask them what their Christian name is.
The Church has always been stuck with two incompatible roles. Its clergy see themselves as part of the Apostolic Succession, continuing the work begun by Jesus and His disciples, dispensing the Holy Spirit and other technical terms to the Faithful, acting as the interface between the Supernatural world and the here-and-now. But the rest of the world see them as part of the oil which lubricates the cogs of Society; marking and dignifying important events like birth, marriage and death with solemn ceremonies, crowning queens, burying princesses, running midwinter festivals and coffee mornings. We don't care about, or even believe in, Heaven, Hell, the Holy Spirit or being Born Again, but we do think that a Church which does impressive rituals at important times of your life is necessary for providing national identity or social cohesiveness. Or maybe we just sometimes feel like a jolly good ceremony. The Archbishop of Canterbury was barking up completely the wrong tree when he said that the public interest in Princess Di's funeral service showed that they retained some measure of belief in Anglican Christianity. What it showed was a desire to have a serious, solemn, elevated ceremony; the Church just happened to be the group most able to provide it. In the past, people who wanted a serious, solemn, elevated ceremony to mark the birth of their baby often opted for a church Christening. This tended to produce a ceremony hopelessly at crossed purposes with itself; the clergyman talking about dying to sin and being raised to the new life in Christ when all the parents wanted was for him to splash some water over the kid's head to make sure his name stuck properly.
I remember, sometime around the age of eight, being utterly astounded to discover that my two thoroughly modern cousins did not go to church or Sunday school, and had, indeed NEVER been to church or Sunday School. What never? quoth I. No, never, they replied. Not at Christmas? Not at Harvest Festival? They assured me that they had never been inside a church. What about when you were Christened? They paused. All right, they conceded, we must have been to church when we were christened. But not since then.
Increasingly, clergymen have become unwilling to baptise infants of families who are not entering into the service in a sufficiently serious spirit. It is still (I think) technically illegal for a Vicar to refuse to Christen someone who asks for it; but it is not illegal for him to require the parents to come to long boring talks about the true significance of baptism. In any case, fewer and fewer non- or semi-religious families seem to want to put their children through a ceremony which they don't really believe in. While this is a good thing both in terms of the understanding of Christianity and in terms of personal integrity, it means that there is no ritual way of marking your babies coming-into-world.
Now, we may not have the admirable separation of church and state enjoyed by our colonial cousins, but the English have always known where church stops and government begins. A Church wedding has a religious component and a secular component because marriage has a religious and legal aspect to it, but there is a clear demarcation between the two areas. There are the legal vows (marked with stars in the prayer book) that you have to say in order for it to be a legal wedding; there's the signing of the register. Then there are then specifically religious bits about the marriage at Cana and the mystic union 'twixt Christ and His church, which the state has no interest in. From the state's points of view, you can talk any mumbo jumbo you like, and it's still a legal marriage. If you opt for a registry officer ceremony, you get the legal bit without the religious bit. Similarly, when Aunty Hilda kicks the bucket, the state has absolutely no interest in what prayers or rituals you may say over her body. You can read from the prayer book; you can wheel on the duty atheist to read passage from Bertrand Russell; you can play Bohemian Rhapsody or put up a Totem Pole. The state's interest in the matter finishes once you have filled out the paperwork and got permission from the environmental health officer to dispose of the corpse. When people produce an infant, dribbling and mewling at its mother's breast the only legal requirement is that they should register the birth. They can sprinkle it with water, pass it through a Yew Tree or chop parts of its naughty bits off; that is of no interest to the state. Until today.
The state, in the person of Jack Straw, thinks that the Christening ceremony was a good thing irrespective of whether or not you believed in it, and since most people have stopped bothering with it, has decided to set up a secular alternative; a state-sanctioned rite-of-passage. Where once Registrars were interested only in filling out legal paperwork, they will now become minimalist shamans, presiding over rituals with no legal significance. This represents a blurring of the religious and the secular, and re-definition of the relationship between government and citizen with which I am deeply uncomfortable.
Of course, the proposed ceremony is entirely without content--how could a New Labour confection be otherwise:
'We promise to try to be patient with our baby, neither demanding too little nor expecting too much. We will try to offer him unconditional love regardless of his success or failure.'
What does this mean? A promise implies a conscious decision; an act of will. I might have told a lie on my tax form or revealed the secret password of the I-Spy club, but I had promised not to do so, so I didn't. How can you promise to love someone? Have you ever met a parent who says, 'We used to love little Johnny, but then he got his ear pierced, and we decided we wouldn't bother any more'? Is it remotely conceivable that the mother of a serial killer could say 'When I found out that little Johnny had eaten fourteen people, I was going to stop loving him, but then I remembered that I promised Jack Straw that I'd carry on, so I did.' In any case, we aren't promising to love little Johnny unconditionally, only to 'try' to 'offer him' unconditional love--whatever that means. We are also going to 'try' to be patient, as opposed, presumably, to actually being patient. How long must I be patient when Andrew leaves his bedroom in a mess? Unto seven times? One could imagine much more moderate, un-ambitious promises which, entered into sincerely, might actually do some good. Esther Rantzam may at this moment be drafting a pledge which says 'I promise that I will never smack my child, never shout at it, never smoke in front of it and feed it on a low fat diet'; but this would involve making some actual decisions about where you stood. New Labour prefers to endorse greeting-cards bollocks so vague that everyone can sign up to it and everyone can, with perfect sincerity, think they have stuck to it. 'I promise to make a vague commitment to have the same feelings about my children that even the very worst parents do in any case.' That's bound to save the family, Jack.
Vague, content free: but not, unfortunately, entirely meaningless. If you had asked me to write 30 words of high sounding waffle to be used when not-Christening a baby, I might have come up with the following:
'We promise to be kind to our baby; to give him the space to grow into the sort of person he wants to be, and never to put our aspirations before his happiness.'
In terms of knowing whether you have kept the pledge or broken it, my version is as vacuous as that of the Straw Man. But its attitude is very different. Mine is focused on the happiness of the child; on the concept of the child as an independent person. Straw's is focused on concepts of 'success' and 'failure'; a bad parent, note, 'expects too little' of their child; and, without this promise, a bad parent might stop loving his baby if it was not a success. What does 'success' mean? Success at school, success in his career, successfully shading in his Tellytubbies colouring book? I fear that Straw's focus is bringing people up to be good, well-behaved, 'successful' citizens. But then the stated purpose of this enterprise is to stabilise the family for the good of society. Broken homes and a bad parenting is a bad thing, not in itself, but because badly brought up children of broken homes tend to become criminals.
I do not think that making stupid promises in town halls will do the slightest bit of harm; nor, of course, will it do the slightest bit of good. But I think that the whole idea of the Government creating a state-sanctioned rite-of-passage to replace the religious one is rather ridiculous, and slightly sinister. What Blair appears to want to do is to endow a purely civil, legal action (registering a birth) with a quasi-religious significance (making promises about your future moral conduct.) Can we expect to see the state creating an official secular form of words for funerals; say, a registrar listing the things which the deceased has contributed to the Community? Can we expect to see registrars giving moral homilies to the couple at a registry office marriage?
C. S. Lewis said that the essence of religion was 'the finite self's desire for, or acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favour of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it.' If you are going to set up a secular religion you are going to have to define what the 'wholly good thing' is--the Flag, or Communism, or Freedom, or Democracy, or Society, or the Species. If that secular religion is created by the state, then it is very likely that the state is what will be defined as the ultimate good; and what you end up with is fascism. If it is created by particular political party in a democracy, then the ultimate good will be defined as the particular ideological hang-ups of that political party. If Mrs Thatcher had set up secular churches, they would have held up 'Britain' or 'the Monarchy' or 'the markets' or 'prosperity' or 'families' or 'choices' as the Wholly Good. For Blair it will be 'modernity' or 'society' or 'the community' or 'access to information technology' or perhaps New Labour itself.
The government cannot take unto itself the responsibility for telling us what is good; in fact, the whole concept of a democracy implies that we know, and they don't. The collapse of the national church may be a bad thing, but it is no part of the remit of the prime minister to set things right. When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in everything. But perhaps, with a little gentle pushing, they can be induced to start believing in Tony.

Saturday, September 06, 1997

Oh What a Circus

Both nuns and mothers worship images
But those the candle lights are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries
But keep a marble or a bronze repose
And yet they too break hearts....

W.B Yeats


Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This became redundant the moment Elton John got up to sing Goodbye to Norma Jean in Westminster Abbey. In the modern age, it seems that tragedy and farce have become the same thing.

That said, I admit to having had to clear my throat a couple of times during the service. But then I cry at the end of Watership Down, so what do I know? While the rest of Airstrip 1 struggles to come to its collective senses, there are a couple of things which I feel need to be said. Anyone passing this page hoping to hear something funny should come back next week.

1: The Royal Family are, like it or not, powerful symbols.

Symbols are not irrelevant or meaningless, however much we might wish they were. We may disapprove of it; we may deplore it as a focus for neo-Fascism or heritage-nostalgia; we may even want to burn it or stick safety pins through it; but the Union Jack is not simply one more geometrical design. When I look at it, I feel something. When I look at the Stars and Stripes, I feel something different, and less vivid. These feelings have very little to do with my opinions about the Act of Settlement, Scottish devolution, the Fifth Amendment or the electric chair. They have more to do with carrier bags, beefeaters, tourists and ladies knickers -- or, in the case of Old Glory, with Superman, themed pancake restaurants and sit-coms set in high schools. But the fact that some coloured stripes can call up such strong and definite mental pictures proves that they have significance.

The Royal Family are symbolic in very much the same way. Killing one of them therefore has a very powerful emotional and psychological effect on me: just as burning the Union Jack, inverting the Crucifix or tearing down Nelson's Column would do. I can be as liberal and republican and anarchist as I want, but the death of Diana Spencer means something.

One occasionally meets professing atheists--usually, of the communist, rather than the scientific, persuasion--who affect not to understand why the art gallery was so full of images of the Roman death penalty. No-one is very convinced.

2: Constitutional monarchy is quite a good idea.

A presidency (unless it is created in the throes of a blood-soaked revolution) feels bureaucratic, empty, artificial. It has no symbolic, emotional, or psychological resonances: one feels nothing when one looks at it. No one could ever feel any affection towards The European Union (though they may think it is a very good idea) because it would be a nation built on filing cabinets, press releases, and directives on headed note paper. Having a Queen with a real honest-to-goodness palace, golden coach, crown, scepter and ceremonial guards reminds you that your country is a Very Important Thing. It enables you to feel good about it--and indirectly, to feel good about yourself.

The High Church with their incense, silk cassocks, golden chalices, massive cathedrals and awe-inspiring music, have attached a something to their religion which we non-conformists ("turn to page B5 of the yellow service book") have totally chucked out. A good ceremony hits the congregation in the face with the fact that they are in the presence of something unbelievably important. A good state opening of parliament has much the same effect in a secular sphere. 'Look!' it says 'You belong to something very old, and very spectacular, and very special, and very magnificent--and that makes you a very special person, too!' It really is pretty off the point to complain that the Queen is very rich and very expensive. That is the point of her.

I also must admit that I have a grudging affection for all the silly and vulgar traditions which have grown up around the British Royal Family in particular. This has nothing at all to do with the history of the kings of Britain, much less with the Privet Council or the Royal Pejorative. It has more to do with crepe paper and fruit cake on trestle tables; with village fetes; with good natured crowds squeezing into Hyde Park to look at the Royal Wedding fireworks, with slightly tacky souvenirs.

I asked a friend of mine what he remembered of the Silver Jubilee. 'A lot of mugs', he replied.

We have in England an odd, matey affection for our Royals. We call them 'Charles and Di', 'Andy and Fergie', 'The Queen Mum'. If we actually meet them, we call them 'Ma'am' -- what a parlour maid called her employer, or a schoolboy called the headmistress. We knit little booties for their babies, get personal letters on our Golden Wedding Anniversary, and get invited (with thousands of others) to tea and sandwiches in their back garden.

When I look at the Queen's official residence, I think of the Family waving from the balcony on Jubilee day in 1977. I think of a tear-stained Mrs Thatcher being driven through the gates in her limo, to hand in her official resignation. I think of that footage of the Beatles fans climbing over the fence while their idols were getting their MBEs. But mostly, I think that it was the place down to which Cer-ristopher Robin went with Alice. I can't imagine that the White House or the Supreme Court is mixed up with nursery rhymes in the minds of most Americans. Do you think the Queen knows all about me?

3: The Royal Family on the whole perform this ceremonial function very well, but this does not mean that they are remarkable people.

The Divine Right of Kings is a late heresy. When one of our kings started to believe in it, we very properly chopped his head off. I think the King is but a man and what have kings that paupers have not got save ceremony; once more unto the breach et-cetera, et-cetera, et-cetera.

Being Queen of England is significant in precisely the same way that being Queen of the May is significant. You take someone ordinary. You put them in a pretty dress and pour flowers over them. You dance around them, and you sing silly songs. You pretend that the ceremony is just as it's always been, even though it was only invented in your granny's time. It makes you feel good about yourself, your family, and your village, because it symbolizes the continuity of English tradition, or the cuteness and innocence of childhood, or the permanence and rebirth of nature, or some other lie. You hope that the little girl chosen will be well-behaved and not spoil the occasion, but her Queen-of-the-Mayness is not dependent on whether she pinched her baby brother's last jelly baby on Friday night.

I believe Diana Spencer to have been a good person. I had a letter from a reader of my webpage condemning Tony Blair for making such a fuss about someone who was nothing but a 'bed-hopping party girl.' I want to encourage people to condemn Tony Blair as often as possible, but I don't want to associate myself with this sort of speaking ill of the dead. Diana Spencer put in more hours work for charity and more visiting of the sick than her job description required her to. She paid more attention to people--held their hands, smiled at them, remembered their names--than the other stuffy Royals. But this is a sort of goodness which is possessed by tens of thousands of nurses, nuns, vicars, salvation army volunteers, doctors, school teachers, social workers and even the odd human being. It is not grounds for canonization. In normal life, it would not be grounds for an O.B.E.

4: Idolatry is a bad thing

There is no real harm in putting up a statue of Jesus outside your church. There is no harm in getting the best artist in the village to carve it out of the finest materials. There is no harm in using it as a focus for religious devotion: the mental pictures of God which most of us pray to are theologically pretty stupid. (I admit to occasionally falling back on a rotund sepia monarch which lodged itself in my brain in nursery school: fat, jovial, like the man in the moon, and I think--it is hard to bring the image into focus--with an Elizabethan ruff. When I try to do better, I end up worshipping Robert Powell.) And there is probably very little harm in the more naive church goers starting to think that Jesus really does live in the churchyard (just between the porch and Gladys Winterbotham's grave). Maybe it's stupid of them to walk to church every evening to pray to the statue; but if they are really praying, who is going to stop them?

The trouble starts when you start to attribute divine powers to the statue itself. The trouble starts when you think of it, not as an image which helps you point your mind at God, but as a magic statue. Before very long, people think that touching it, or leaving flowers for it makes sure that God will bless you or heal you or make you win the lottery. People queue for hours and hours to touch it. They scream and cry for just one glance. Or else they chip fragments and splinters from it, and put them in magic amulets, and sell them at huge prices and believe that as long as they are wearing them they can eat economy burgers without catching CJD. People who profess atheism--people who have never even heard of Jesus (Sunday school stopped years ago; the teachers are too busy polishing the statue) start doing scientific studies into whether the amulet can heal the sick.

When that happens you can be absolutely sure that the puritans will be arriving on the next train. They will tell you that the statue--not God--is now your object of devotion. They will march into the churchyard and smash it down and use the fragments to pave the road. They will go into the church, and smash up all the other paintings and statues you happen to have there, and then burn the vicar's holiday snaps for good measure. And they will leave you with a reformed, republican, Protestant religion: one free from idol worship, but with no beautiful statues, no focus for the holy--and one where the naive, pious villagers find it very hard to say their prayers, because all their symbols have been taken from them.

5: Our adulation of Diana Spencer has become idolatrous.

For a week, we have been told that Diana Spencer was Special and Unique, not because of her ceremonial and symbolic role, but because she was such a special, unique, saintly person. ('Born a lady, became a princess, died a saint.' If Diana was a saint, what are people going to say about Mother Theresa?) So we have heard about her wonderful charity work, incredible kindness to the poor and disadvantaged, and how she did amazing things like cuddle her children and send them off to expensive boarding schools like everybody else. (Ten years ago, the same papers were praising her for hitting her children, but we'll let that pass.)

The reasoning seems to be that since millions and millions of people treat her as if she was special, she must actually have been very special. Her lack of stuffiness is the best candidate for Specialness which we have been able to find. I call this superstition. When little children believe (as quoted on Tuesday's Channel 4 news) that 'She was special because she cared about sick children' then I'm afraid that I turn puritan.

We must smash these icons; purify the alters; and prohibit people from praying to plaster saints. If you aren't old enough to treat monarchy sensibly, then you shouldn't be allowed to have one. Our lives will be poorer without these grand ceremonies and daft traditions, but the superstitious worship of a perfectly ordinary human being is a much greater evil. The 'fitting tribute' to Diana Spencer that the press are so worried about should be the dissolution of her cult.

William can be president for life, if he wants to be; but please let's not cut the throat of any more may-queens.

Wednesday, January 01, 1997

Budget Defecit

WE'LL MAKE THEM WORK! 
Headline, Daily Mail
I was unemployed, on and off, for ten years; I've been employed for barely a year. It already seems like a different world. When you are on the dole, your whole life slows down. Everything is placed on pause. You find yourself staying in bed for 24 hours at a time. Worse, you start to wander—looking at the toy department of Woolworth's, browsing books in the library, but somehow lacking the motivation to actually read anything. Why start a book today, when you can start it just as well tomorrow, or the next day? You start to think that you have really achieved something if you get out of bed and buy a pint of milk. Oprah Winfrey and The Archers become punctuation marks. And the cards in the dole officer say 'must have own transport' and the adverts in the papers are for jobs with titles you don't even know the meaning of, and the only reason you can find for sending off application is to get a rejection letter to use to fend off the ill-mannered clerk when you sign on and claim dole for another fortnight. You want a job, desperately, but after a few weeks of it, you can't see any way out of it.
With stick and carrot, Brown goes to war on the young jobless!
Headline, Daily Mail
Unemployment benefit is £39 a week. In my new job, after tax, rent, poll tax, two lots of water rates (one for drinking and one for shitting); telephone bill; electricity bill; television licence and Internet subscription; I am left with £100 a week in my pocket. It is often hard to manage. I rarely have much left at the end of the month. A pair of trousers in Marks and Spencers costs £35. I am a bachelor.
'With the first Labour Budget in 18 years, Gordon Brown yesterday launched the party's crusade to put an army of youngsters to work.'
Front page, Daily Mail
At the top of the Christmas Steps in Bristol there was a skinhead with a begging bowl and a hand-written sign saying 'poems for sale'. I didn't go and talk to him, perhaps I should have. The recent changes in the rules mean that it is increasingly hard for single people to claim Housing Benefit. When I was on the dole, there were rumours that a Workfare (work for dole) scheme was going to be introduced. I became half afraid that it would be a choice between a government make-work scheme and losing my benefit. I pictured myself blowing my last weeks dole on a second hand lap top, and camping outside the job centre until I was evicted, writing articles and poetry and selling them to people, getting my name in the paper and getting evicted and sent to prison. Had it come to it, I think I might even have had the courage of my convictions. I'd dislike prison less than working outdoors, anyway.
'What is reassuring is that, if they spurn this heavily subsidised bureaucratically clumsy chance to acquire the work habit, it seems that they will lose 60% of their benefits. Who knows? Maybe only a New Labour Government can get that tough with youngsters who are work shy.'
Editorial Daily Mail
We in the dole queue (I had not thought debt had undone so many) did not want 'work'. We wanted 'a job.' 'Work' is an odious necessity, the curse of Adam and the drinking classes. 'A Job' is a place to go in the daytime, a place to interact with a circle of acquaintances while doing something which you are fairly good at. 'A lawyer' they say on the American cop shows 'Isn't what I do; it's who I am'. The unemployed don't know who they are. I once worked in a brewery, pilling cans of Castlemain XXXX on a conveyer belt in steel toe capped boots which didn't quite fit. The other employees talked about niggers and totty. I was the only person there who had never been in gaol. One shut one's eyes, counted a hundred cans, and looked at the clock to see how many minutes had passed. The money was good. It may have been work, but it was the antithesis of a job.
'The carrots being phoney, then, everything will depend on the ferocity with which the stick is applied and the accuracy with which it falls on the welfare donkey's expensive rump. Will the nerve of Gordon Brown and of the Government as a whole, hold steady when the unemployed and the single mothers begin to squeal at their reduced benefits? We will see'
Paul Johnson, Daily Mail.
As a nation we suffer from Post Puritan Work Ethic Disorder. Smoothed clothes look nicer than wrinkled ones. Arithmetic is easier if you can do single figured sums in your head. So you have to resign yourself to hateful tasks like ironing and learning your tables. But there are crazy, dangerous, evil people who think that its the ironing and the learning which are the point. We wear suits and do maths because ironing and rote-learning are character building. Work, particularly when boring and done by poor people, is a good thing. Smartness and correct sums show that you are the sort of person who puts in the hours learning and ironing. They show that you are Elect. Drip dry trousers and adding machines are bad things, wicked things. While Tony Blair is giving laptop computers to every school child in the country, David Blunket is taking away their pocket calculators. The unemployed are the most wicked of all; and paying them money compounds the wickedness. The welfare state says you can have food and clothes and medicine and somewhere to live irrespective of whether you work. It contradicts the puritan work ethic. It flies in the face of the will of Calvin's God. It must be abolished at all costs.
'In Britain today, one in five of working age households has no-one earning a wage. In place of welfare, there should be work.'
Gordon Brown's Budget speech
In place of welfare, there should be work. And in place of doctors, there should be well people; in place of a defence policy, there should be love and kindness, in place of poverty, there should be champagne and caviar. Welfare means 'pay when you are out of work.' If you work to earn it, it is not welfare, but 'wages'.
'It is time for welfare state to put opportunity again in people's hands. So we will create a new ladder of opportunity.'
Opportunity for what? To have a job, an identity? To do the thing that you always wanted to do, to find out who you are? To do mindless, soulless, gut-eating work at John Smiths brewery? To leave your children with a child minder while you go to a factory and spend all day making useless plastic goods which no-one needs, and to think that you are a good parent because you can use the wage-packet to buy your children useless plastic goods which no-one needs?
'Starting from next year, every young person age 18-25 who is unemployed for more than six months will be offered the first step on the employment ladder.'
If I offer you my last Rolo, I am implying that I have a Rolo to give you. You have a perfect right to say 'no thank you'. If I am holding you down and forcing it down your throat through a funnel and tube; or if I live in a society which gives me the right to apply a stick to your expensive rump if you do not eat it; or if all non-Rolo eaters are to be thrown out of their homes, then we do not call it 'offering' any more.
'Tomorrow the Secretary for Education and Employment will detail the four options. All involved training leading to qualification: a job with an employer...'
Is Mr. Brown going to offer the young unemployed jobs? Is that his pledge? A job for every one of the 250,000 young people who do not have one? A real job with a real wages packet? If that is his pledge, then my quarrel with him ends here.
Yet nowhere in his budget is there one word about where he is going to magic these 250,000 jobs from. It could be that the Daily Mail is right, and that these 250,000 vacancies already exist. The 250,000 young unemployed are simply work shy. They need only be persuaded, motivated, encouraged, forced (or, as we say in New English 'offered') to take them, and the unemployment problem goes away. If this is not the case—if the 250,000 vacancies do not exist, then Mr Brown has made a null statment. The 250,000 have the 'opportunity' to get a job, if they can find one, at this moment. They have also the 'opportunity' to take tea at the Ritz, granted that they are prepared to blow their cheque in one go and own the appropriate suit and shoes.
'...work with a voluntary organisation...'
This option also exists already. Any unemployed person may (subject to filling in a lot of tedious forms) do voluntary work while he is unemployed.
'...work with the environmental task force...'
The Environmental Task Force translates as 'doing manual labour for no pay.' Young people are sent to do useful work like 'park clearing or home insulation' and are paid wages equivilent to benefit £39 a week
'for those without basic qualifications, full-time education....'
If there are people of 18-25 without 'basic qualifications' (whatever that may turn out to mean) the option of full time education seems like a good idea. But again, this situation exists at present: if you've got no qualifications, there are all sorts of full and part time courses that you can go on.
'There will be no fifth option—to stay at home on full benefit. So when they sign on to benefit, they will be signing up for work. Benefits will be cut if young people refuse to take up these opportunities.'
Benefit will be cut.
At this moment, if you are unemployed the state will pay you benefit, which, according to my UB40 was 'the amount of money the government says you need to live on.' You are expected to look for a job, and you may take on voluntary work or go a course.
Brown's 'New Deal' amounts to nothing more than turning these two 'mays' into 'musts', and adding an additional 'must', that of manual labour.
'If you do not get a job, and if you already have basic skills (e.g, if you are an unemployed graduate) then you must go and do voluntary work. If you do not, then we will send you to do manual labour. Coercion, punishment, force, Paul Johnson's stick, will be used to force you to do this: your benefit will be cut by 60%—to £15.40 a week.'
It may be—I am not going to argue the case—that the puritan ethic is right and that work (cleaning parks and insulating lofts) is Good and unemployment (the unemployed) are Wicked. It may be that idle hands get up to mischief; that much 20th century crime and depression is the result of people being under-occupied; or even that hard work is God's way of showing that you are pre-destined for salvation. I do not wish for the moment to argue whether this, the traditional Conservative outlook is right or wrong. The point is that it is what lies behind the first Labour budget in 18 years. At any rate, the Dailies Mail and Telegraph think so, and praise Labour for being, in this respect, more right wing than the Conservatives.
When a wicked king imposes a rule, he tells you that he is granting you a new right; when he prohibits something, he tells you that you are gaining a new freedom.
The Daily Mail make no secret of their enthusiasm for coercion. They talk of 'putting the young unemployed back to work' of what the unemployed will 'have to' do, and of carrots and sticks and being thrashed by Paul Johnson. They are quite clear that the unemployed themselves are the problem, and that Workfare is something which is going to be done to them and serve them jolly well right.
Gordon Brown talks about options and choices and ladders and welfare. He talks about the right to work, says that unemployment is a social problem and implies that Workfare is something that he is going to do for the unemployed. Yet at bottom, he is saying precisely the same thing as the Daily Mail, and knows that he is.
The Daily Mail is honest, brutal, straightforward, cruel, fascistic. Reading it makes me want to go and punch them in the face. Gordon Brown is mealy mouthed, hypocritical, honey tongued. Listening to him makes me want to run to the bathroom and vomit.
And there are in this country people who think that we elected a Labour government.

Saturday, January 01, 1994

Being an Attempt to Work Out My Pathological Dislike of the Leader of the Opposition

I am, I confess, prejudiced against the President in Waiting. He has been something of a personal bogeyman ever since that month of national derangement which followed the conviction of two school-boys for the murder of little (as journalists are legally required to say) James Bulger. It will be remembered that the judge, without apparent evidence, decided that two entirely innocent boys and been turned into 'freaks of nature' (Daily Mail) and 'evil, pure evil' (Daily Mirror) as a result of watching a horror movie. According to Peter Mandleson and Roger Liddle's comic masterpiece The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?, (which I use throughout as my only available source of information about Tony Blair's beliefs) (1) he thought that this murder was 'the ugly manifestation of a society that is becoming unworthy of the name', as opposed to, for example, an exceptionally unpleasant murder by two clearly disturbed children. The Conservative Home secretary felt that society could be saved, and moral chaos presumably averted by fining video shop owners who supplied 15 and 18 certificate movies to children below the ages of 15 and 18. This seemed a not unsilly approach. But the blessed and holy Mr Blair ('Christianity is not enough by itself' ibid p 33.) felt the supply of such videos to anybody at all needed to be prohibited. How such legislation would have worked was not made clear: I do not know whether Wandsworth Library would be subject to a fine or imprisonment for having supplied me last week with a copy of Terence Davies' sublime movie The Neon Bible (cert 15) or whether I myself could have been fined or sent to jail for possessing it. (2) I find it hard to support a politician who seeks to criminalize me; let alone one who is willing to advocate the curtailment of free speech. On the afternoon that John Smith died, I remarked 'Not Tony Blair, please God, not Tony Blair' thinking that I was making a great joke.
Politicians, by definition, make laws, and laws, by definition, curtail freedoms. The law which says that we drive on the left hand side of the road curtails my freedom to drive on the centre-right. But since it is obviously sensible that we should all drive in the same direction, we have no problem with empowering a police officer to pull-over and arrest a maniac driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Similarly, since we all want schools, public toilets and atomic weapons, and since it would be very difficult for a private individual to purchase a Trident submarine for his personal protection, it seems sensible to empower leaders to raise and spend taxes on our behalf.
Again, governments must be allowed to do things which citizens are not allowed to do; or, put another way, it is morally right for us to do collectively what it would be morally wrong for us to do individually. Pacifists and opponents of capital punishment will often argue that Alfred Pierrpont was the moral equivalent of a serial killer, and that we should arrest the entire RAF for murder. This is absurd: one might as well say that a prison officer is a kidnapper, or an employee of the Inland Revenue is running a protection racket.
In principle, therefore, it is hard to deny that Tony Blair, in government, has a perfect right to punish me for watching videos which he disapproves of. However, many of us believe that rights of this sort ought only very rarely to be exercised. Government in a free country should only curtail its subjects freedoms under the most exceptional circumstances. I would call this 'liberalism', and it is about as close as I come to a political ideology.
Of course, these two types of powers—the power to raise money and the power to punish—are not unrelated (3) One of the reasons I pay my taxes is that I know that if I do not, I could be sent to prison. Prisons are one of the things that my taxes pay for.
Blair intends to make much use of his power to coerce: his political sin is not that he has moved his party away from economic socialism; his sin is that he has embraced state-authoritarianism. I do not know whether this authoritarianism could be justly described as 'fascist': certainly Blair seems to value something called 'the community', defined as 'ordinary hardworking families who play by the rules' (i.e the middle classes) over and above the individual. Certainly, there is nothing in the book that could be construed as racist or militaristic, although I do wonder how homosexuals will fair under a government that defines community in terms of families.
New Labour is very concerned about improving something called 'standards' in 'our' schools. Given that it is state schools that we are talking about, and given that state schools are funded by government, we would expect that this improvement of 'standards' to be brought about by the raising and distribution of money. If children are fat and lazy, then money will be earmarked for sports fields and gym teachers; if they can't spell, than more books will be provided and better English teachers will be hired. Indeed, unless Tony Blair is going to personally go into classrooms and start teaching facts about English (e.g. that Mandelson is wrong to use 'enormity' as a synonym for 'huge size') then one would have thought that this was pretty much all a government could do. New Labour sees things differently.
'Each child should have his or he own individual learning plan devise by the teacher and reviewed with a parent at regular six-monthly meeting attendance at which would be a new legal requirement.'
(p93, emphasis added)
It is New Labour's contention that parents who do not turn up to parent-teacher consultation evenings should be prosecuted. Presumably the offending parent is to be cautioned, then fined, and, if the fine was not paid, sent to prison. Or perhaps she would be sent on community service, given probation, or electronically tagged. Or does the President have something even more sinister in mind?
'Where a parent failed to meet this obligation, this would be prima-facie evidence of a child at risk of educational failure.'
How this 'evidence' would be acted on, we are not told. Would the parent be forced to attend Parenting Classes— enforced with the threat of fines and imprisonment? Or would the 'at risk' child be taken into care—for his own good, of course?
Getting parents to attend parents evenings is as nothing compared with problem of getting children to attend schools in the first place. 'School attendance is to be made the legal requirement that it formally is', opines Mr Mandelson. 'Where truancy persists, prompt legal action should be taken against parents.' (p135) As I understand it, at this moment, a parent who keeps his child away from school can be prosecuted, but this must be a fairly rare problem. 'Truancy' according to Mandelson, is not uncommon, and part of the problem of collapse...social break- up...moral vacuum...etc. It follows therefore that, under this new system, relatively large numbers of parents will be fined or imprisoned because their children keep bunking off school. If asked to justify this, New Labour would presumably say that the average poorly educated underpaid estate dweller could very easily force his sixteen year old son to attend school, but chooses not to: the threat of a fine would eradicate the problem overnight. Does anybody believe this?
Of course, once the problem of truanting is solved and you have a school full of teenagers who do not want to be there, then the teachers are going to have even more problems maintaining discipline than they do at present. But New Labour have a solution to this, as well:
'Schools require a new, much tougher set of disciplinary sanction to deal with unruly and uncooperative pupils, such as compulsory homework on school premises, weekend and Saturday night detentions, and the banning of favourite leisure pursuits such as attendance at football matches.'
How, we ask ourselves, is attendance at these detentions to be enforced? Presumably by threatening to fine or imprison parents whose children do not show up. What the hell does an individual schools disciplinary regime have to do with government in the first place? There is, at this moment, nothing stopping any individual headmaster from keeping a child in after school to do his homework. Is Blair proposing that legislation be put in place to force headmaster to impose whatever rules and punishments this ex-public schoolboy thinks are a good idea? (And if so, what coercive measures will back this legislation up? Ah— but he tells us the answer to this one: he will sack the offending teachers or close the offending school? (p92)) It might also be worth spending a few minutes considering the use of the word 'new' to describe the idea of Saturday Morning Detentions.
One could continue to multiply examples. Crime will be reduced if policies are put in place which will 'increase the likelihood of conviction in the courts'. Mandleson doesn't say 'the likelihood of the guilty being convicted' but this is, perhaps, a slip. Teenagers who break their probation orders will be obliged to work at weekends. Or what? Or be sent to prison, presumably. It is striking that leisure only comes into New Labour's view of the universe in so far as it is something to be taken away from naughty people.
Training schemes are to be provided for the unemployed, but these are to be backed up by coercive measures to force people to go on them:
'Clearly, society has a responsibly to ensure that children in all circumstances are cared for, and there is no sense in applying rules to able bodied males which force families apart, but childless young people who are of sound body and mind cannot expect to continue to receive full benefit if they decide not to take up these new opportunities.' (p102)
Note that full benefit (at present, £49 per week plus rent) means 'the absolute minimum that you need to live on'. Hence 'not receiving full benefit' means 'receiving less than you need to need to live on', or, plainly 'not being able to afford to buy enough food'. This is explicitly referred to as a 'carrot and stick' approach. The unemployed, or some of them, are lazy: for some of them, only the threat of starvation will force them to work.
Last week, that strange intellectual void of the Ceefax straw-poll and the PM Letterline was awash with the terribly important news that Tony Blair believed in beating his children. He felt bad about, had only done it when they were very bad, and, doubtless, he had offered them a carrot beforehand. But he had done it.
May I suggest that the Labour party should adopt 'This will hurt me far more than it will you' as its campaigning slogan?
FOOTNOTES
NOTE 1: I wrote this article before the publication of 'Road to the Manifesto', and on the evening of the phone in
party political broardcast, the miserable so-and-so refused to talk to me. However, if a book which began every third sentence with 'New Labour would...' and 'New Labour will...' was not a pretty good picture of Blair's beliefs, then he would surely have denounced it very loudly.
NOTE 2: A friend of mine who works for the Civil Service has pointed out that legislation is not a form of vodoo. To prohibit something by law means 'to make it possible for the courts to punish those who do the contrary. At present, there are only two types of punishment available, loss of liberty (prison, community service, probation) and loss of
earnings. To his credit, Tony Blair has not suggested the re-introduction of hanging, flogging or crucificixion.
NOTE 3: The double negative is an important part of New Labour's outlook. 'Phil's experience is by no means untypical' (p 68) 'Tracey's experience is not uncommon' (p111).)

Sunday, July 04, 1976


"It kicks arse."
Nicholas James Mazonowicz

"Possibly his most Rilstonian book. I know many people who like Rilstone’s writing — they should buy it immediately. But I also know a few people who get angered by Rilstone’s writing, and they would probably find this *far* more angering than, say, his book on Doctor Who."

"Boring."
Andrew's Mum.



one hundred and forty characters in search of an argument


£5 ebook version

FORMAT
 



Signed and numbered edition -- £10



Signed and numbered edition, with custom photographic bookplate insulting the deity of your choice -- £20


Andrew's first new book for over a year. Planned since 2014, recent events have given these essays an unlooked for topicality.

The Physical Impossibility of Debate in the Mind of Someone On Twitter

privilege, segregation, Russell Crowe

text previously published on this blog
commentary, deleted scenes, and soundbyte summary previously available as a subscriber-only PDF, now available only in this format.


Keep Calm and Talk Bollocks 

language, t-shirts, rape, the N-word

previously available as a subscriber-only PDF, now only available in this format


"Yo"

The madness of Tony Blair

previously published on this blog


Cross Purposes

secularism, race, Pickles

previously published on this blog


Hobbits and Daleks

Dawkins, language, God, logic, rape, pedophilia

now only available in this format


All-Licensed Fools

Carr, Boyle, Marx, jokes, rape, Israel 

new essay published here for the first time 


Why Wasn't C.S Lewis a Pacifist

war. peace, logic, morality, argument, God

new essay published here for the first time








Thursday, January 01, 1970

Buy My Books

The Viewer's Complete Tale
Doctor Who 2005 - 2013


£20 from Lulu.com or Amazon.co.uk

Also available in hardback (£30)

Also available as an EBook


Format





The Complete Viewer's Tale comprises every word that Andrew Rilstone has written about his favorite TV show since 2005 and thousands of words of new and uncollected material.

A highly subjective history of Doctor Who covering the Eccleston, Tennant and Smith eras.

He reviews each episode, but finds himself troubled by bigger questions: how does the new version of the show relate to the venerable original; who does the Doctor belong to; what is it about this one television programme that makes it so important to so many people?

PLUS: New Essays on William Hartnell and Tom Baker; uncollected DVD reviews; and rare Rilstone junvenilia.




BUY MY BOOK

"It kicks arse."
Nicholas James Mazonowicz

"Possibly his most Rilstonian book. I know many people who like Rilstone’s writing — they should buy it immediately. But I also know a few people who get angered by Rilstone’s writing, and they would probably find this *far* more angering than, say, his book on Doctor Who."

"Boring."
Andrew's Mum.



one hundred and forty characters in search of an argument



E-BOok Version £5


FORMAT



Signed and Numbered






Signed and Numbered, With Unique Custom Book Plate Insulting the Deity of Your Choice



Deity or Sacred Cow:













Andrew's first new book for over a year. Planned since 2014, recent events have given these essays an unlooked for topicality.

The Physical Impossibility of Debate in the Mind of Someone On Twitter

privilege, segregation, Russell Crowe

text previously published on this blog
commentary, deleted scenes, and soundbyte summary previously available as a subscriber-only PDF, now available only in this format.


Keep Calm and Talk Bollocks 

language, t-shirts, rape, the N-word

previously available as a subscriber-only PDF, now only available in this format


"Yo"

The madness of Tony Blair

previously published on this blog


Cross Purposes

secularism, race, Pickles

previously published on this blog


Hobbits and Daleks

Dawkins, language, God, logic, rape, pedophilia

now only available in this format


All-Licensed Fools

Carr, Boyle, Marx, jokes, rape, Israel 

new essay published here for the first time 


Why Wasn't C.S Lewis a Pacifist

war. peace, logic, morality, argument, God

new essay published here for the first time