Thursday, August 01, 2002

Masters of War


Tis' said that countless thousands should die through cruel war
But let us hope most fervently that soon it will be o're
Let them be warned old England, Is brave old England still
We've proved our might, we've claimed our right, and ever ever will
Should we have to draw the sword our way to victory we'll forge
With the battle cry of Britons, Old England and St George.

Mr. Blair wants there to be a war against Nasser Hussein.
I know that Mr. Blair is a truly great and good man, for he told me so himself. So I am sure that there must be some very good reason why he wants to have a war.
I'm just not quite sure what it is.
Mr. Blair has a special relationship with Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush agrees with Mr. Blair that we should have a War on Nasser Hussein.
Last year, on September the Eleventh, the Eleventh of September happened. This was a terrible tragedy, almost as bad as Holly and Jessica. So obviously, it would be bad manners to disagree with Mr. Bush about anything, at least for a while, in the same way you have to be extra-nice to Granny after Granpa's funeral. Anyone rude enough to not agree with Mr. Bush about Nasser Hussein must be anti-American, in the same way that anyone who doesn't think that Jewish people are always right about everything must be anti-Semitic against the Jews because Hitler was so horrid to them.
I'm not anti-American. I've found out that if you ask for "Americano", Starbucks will give you something very much like a cup of coffee. I even had a poster of Captain America on my wall when I was a kid.
There are three reasons why Mr. Blair wants us to have a war against Nasser Hussein.
1: Because he is a baddy (Mr. Hussein, I mean)
2: Because he might have an atom bomb.
3: Because he probably supports some of the people who almost certain support the people who probably bombed the Eleventh of September.
I think he is telling a big fat whopper. I don't think that these are the real reasons at all.
I understand that nowadays you don't have to say why you are having a war before you have it. You are allowed to have the war first, and decide what it was about afterwards. So when we went to war against Afghanistan, everyone thought that it was because the Bert from Sesame Street (the bad man who very nearly definitely bombed September the Eleventh) was probably hiding there and the Afghanistanis wouldn't give him to us so we had to go in and capture him. But after the war was all over, we decided that the real reason for having the war was because the people running Afghanistan were baddies. They were such baddies that when we liberated them all the Afghanistanis stopped being Muslims and shaved in the street, which proved that we were right to have the war. So I suppose we shall have to wait until after we have had the war against Nasser Hussein to find out what it's about.
I don't think that it will turn out that the real reason for having the war was that Nasser Hussein is a baddy. He's been a baddy for a long time, and we haven't had a war against him before, except once. In fact, he was a baddy even in the very olden days when the Ayatollah was the baddy and Nasser Hussein was the goody. And anyway there are lots and lots of baddies in the world, and we aren't having wars against all of them.
I don't think that it will turn out that the reason for having the war is that Nasser Hussein has an atom bomb, either. In the olden days, Russia were the baddies, and they had lots and lots of atom bombs; but they never used them, because the Americans, who were the goodies, also had lots and lots of atom bombs. So Russia was too scared to use them. It was like "there's no point in you killing lots of us, because we can kill just as many as you, so its better to play nicely," which in the end they did. But Nasser Hussein doesn't have nearly as many atom bombs as the Russians, and hardly any aeroplanes and missiles. So there isn't much chance of him bombing New York or London or even Slough. I reckon that if an aeroplane with a bomb on it flew out of Iraq, then Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair would shoot it down before it got to us.
Everyone agrees that Bert from Sesame Street, who very nearly definitely bombed September the Eleventh, is the biggest baddy in the world, as bad as Myra Hindley and Hitler and Jeffrey Archer put together. But I don't think it will turn out that we had the war just because Nasser Hussein probably supports Bert from Sesame Street. There are people in Pakistan and Bradford who think that bombing September the Eleventh was quite a good idea (though not most of them, because not all people with corner shops are Muslims, and not all Muslims support bombing people, anymore than just because you drink Guinness on St Patrick's day you agree with blowing up policemen with car bombs, and most Muslims are nice friendly people who run the good curry houses in Tooting Bec.) But even if there were lots of people who supported him, that wouldn't be a reason for going to war against Bradford. And anyway, I don't think Mr. Blair has any evidence that Nasser Hussein supports Bert from Sesame Street because if he did have he would have shown it to us by now.
So I don't think that any of the reasons that Mr. Blair has told us are the real reasons for the war. I think that he has a secret reason, which he keeps in secret room in 10 Downing Street in a file marked Secret.
I think that if we read the secret file, we would find out that Mr. Blair has picked up some crazy idea that his job as Prime Minister of England is to do things in the world which will be good for England, and America, and also Scotland. I think that he is silly enough to think that as Prime Minister, he ought to be looking out for our interests. I think that he has picked up some wild notion that we use quite a lot of petrol in this country, and that if we couldn't get any, or it was too expensive, everything would grind to a halt, and we would all be very poor and very miserable. I think that Mr. Blair is such a cynic that he wants to stop us all from being very poor and very miserable.
Most people, apart from hippies, think it is all right to have a war against someone who is hurting you. But wars in the old days were easier. When Hitler landed at Hastings, to invade England in 1966, we all got together in lots of little ships and sent him homeward to think again. When the Argies invaded the Falklands, we killed all the Argies and freed the Falkland Islanders, which was a good thing, apart from encouraging Jim Davidson.
It's like this. If in the old days, Mr. Hitler had put lots of U Boats in the English channel and blew up all the oil tankers bringing oil to England (and also Scotland), it would have been all right for us to send out Spitfires to blow up the U Boats and let the oil tankers through. Of course, some of the evil jerry scum who we drowned would probably have been nice Germans who liked Beethoven and sausages and didn't deserve to be killed. But everyone agrees that it was still all right for us to kill them (except hippies).
But nowadays, because of the Internet and Starbucks coffee, the world is more complicated and wars can happen by remote control. Nasser Hussein doesn't need to send out boats to stop us getting any oil. He can lob a Weapons Of Massive Destruction at Kuwait, or Israel; or even do something awful (I'm not sure what) to Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabians chop peoples heads off and don't allow beer or vicars or homosexuals, but that doesn't make them baddies it just means that we tell their ambassador that we have very real concerns about their record on human rights from time to time.) And this would still mean that we wouldn't get any oil, and that other bad things (I'm not sure what) would happen. So having a war against Nasser Hussein is really just like bombing Hitler's U-Boats, and if some people get killed as well, then that's just the same as killing German sailors. We're still making sure the oil gets through. Okay, Nasser Hussein hasn't actually done anything yet, we just think that he probably will. But that makes sense too. It's like as if you bombed the U-Boats before they got to the channel; or even better, bombed the dockyards before they built the U-Boats, or even better, bombed Berlin before Hitler even gets into power so the situation doesn't arise. We are sort of saying "We think that if he makes an Atom Bomb, which he hasn't, Nasser Hussein might do something horrid in Israel, or Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, or Slough in which case we'd have to have a war against him, so it makes sense to have a war against him now, before he even gets to do the things that would have forced us to have a war."
Which makes sense to me.
So, when the war is over, it will turn out that it was really about petrol. But if you say that to nice Mr. Blair and clever Mr. Bush, they say: "Oh no. It's not about oil. It's about an important moral principle. Nasser Hussein is a very bad man, and Mr. Blair thinks we should smack his bottom, and Mr. Bush thinks we should kick his ass, which I think means more or less the same."
But I think wars about moral principles are much worse and more scary than wars about your country's good. If we had to go to war every time Mr. Blair had a moral principle then we would never get a moment's peace. Bert from Sesame Street bombed The Eleventh of September because he had moral principle, because he thought that America is bad and decadent and that Moslemism is the best religion in the world. Lots of people think that, but that doesn't mean they can kill people over it. So Mr. Blair shouldn't kill people because Nasser Hussein is bad and decadent and New Labour is the best religion in the world.
Maybe, just maybe, it would be all right to kill Nasser Hussein and Bert from Sesame Street if we could catch them. In America you are allowed to kill very bad people, provided you give them lots of ice cream to eat first. In England, we stopped hanging people just before the first ever episode of Doctor Who went out. But in both England and America we all agree that they should have fair trials first (apart from the person who almost definitely didn't tell the police about the man who probably had something to do with killing Holly and Jessica, who should be lynched on her way to court, obviously.)
In conclusion: I think that the safeguarding of British strategic and economic interests in the Middle East is legitimate grounds for military intervention in Iraq. I think that it is incumbent on Mr. Blair to explain to Parliament what those strategic and economic interests are; and that if he did so honestly, the campaign would meet with widespread political and public support. But I think that he should immediately abandon the mendacious, sanctimonious propaganda about there being a moral imperative to secure a regime change because of some nebulous quality called "evil" supposedly attributable to the Iraqi leadership. 
Our leaders should trust us with the real reasons for the forthcoming war. Saying over and over again that we have to have a war against Hussein because he is such a naughty, bad, wicked man make us feel that we are being treated like children.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

What Happened During My Summer Holiday



Arthur:  And what happened to the earth?
Ford:  It’s been disintegrated
Arthur:  Has it?
Ford:  Yes. It just boiled away into space.
Arthur: Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Ford:  Yes, I can understand.
So; Flash and me and Darren and Keith hired a little pleasure boat at Inverness, and spent a week tootling down the Great Glenn, across Loch Ness, Lock Oich and the imaginatively named Loch Lochy.
Flash and I flew from London to Scotland. That meant on one day I traveled on a train, a car, a bus, a plane and a boat.
Scotland is very pretty. There are hills and lakes.
One night, we tied up at mooring point a mile or so from the nearest village. There was no artificial light. We couldn’t take our eyes of the stars (until it got too cold and we went into the boat and drank whiskey and read poems out loud out of a book).  It surprises townies that the night sky has stars in it.
According to the guidebook, you could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Never mind the scenery, the whiskey, or the stars. It’s the Loch Ness Monster that keeps the tourist business going. Souvenir shops offer you soft-toy Nessies (usually sea-serpents) or china ornament Nessies (usually plesiosaurs). Dumnadrochit has got a large fiberglass plesiosaur in front of a mocked up boat, so you can show your friends a photograph of you with the Monster. As you sail through the lock system into Fort Augustus, there’s a topiary of the monster and a little baby monster.
Flash explained that in Scots, you can’t mistake the word “Lock” for the word “Loch” because “Lock” is pronounced “lok” whereas “Loch” is pronounced, er, “clorrk”.
It only takes two people to pull a little boat through a lock, so while Darren and Keith held onto the ropes, me and Flash jumped off, walked into the canal-side pub (the Lock Inn, ho-ho) downed a quick pint, and rejoined them on the other side.
It was September, so the weather wasn’t perfect but we didn’t have any thoroughly washed out days. There’s a snapshot of the three of us looking very drenched by a very disappointing historical monument.  (An ancient well where the dismembered heads of seven people who had been executed in some blood-curdling highland feud were washed before being presented to the clan chief, apparently.)
The worst disaster occurred when we thought it would be a Good Idea to take the boat out into the middle of the lake while Keith was preparing a good healthy English cooked breakfast. The first time a teensy tiny little wave struck us, he poured a – fortunately not very hot pan -- of cooking oil over himself.
The charter company set Fort William as the limit of how far we could take the boat. It was Tuesday. A nice enough medium size town, containing the one good pub we found, name-check the Goose and Gruel. It’s the place you go if you want to climb Ben Nevis. We didn’t. We did visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery, however. Not a whisky drinker myself, but I forced myself to try the free samples.
We took a taxi back to the marina where we’d left the boat.
“Och, have ye heard the news?” said the driver “Apparently, an aeroplane has crashed into a big hotel in America.”

We only had a radio to communicate with the outside world. But then one would automatically turn to  Radio 4 in a crisis in any case. When we turned on, there were car bombs going off all over America and tens of thousands were dead. Canary Wharf had been evacuated. Things only gradually got back to normal. I am happy to say that I still haven’t seen the footage of the tower collapsing.
I was going to use the word “stunned” to describe our reaction. Perhaps “embarrassedly not sure how to react” would be more honest. Since none of us on had friends or relatives in New York we turned off the radio and carried on with our holiday. There didn’t seem a great deal else to do.
There was an American family we’d passed in a couple of locks, with a star and stripes tied to the back of their boat. We noticed they’d lowered it to half-mast.
Last February, I lost a very close friend in a pointless futile stupid railway accident. That’s left me a bit mixed up over how to mentally process big disasters. I’d been through the experience of seeing a news report of a major accident, saying “tut tut, how terrible” and finding out twelve hours later that there was a real person involved. It would be nice to say “and that made me feel much more Christian sympathy for the horror stories coming out of New York”, but it actually just made me want to switch off. Must then a Christ perish in torment in each age for the sake of those with no imagination?
I think the media actually does very well at bringing minute-by-minute reporting of major events. In the old days, the morning papers were history’s second or third draft: by the time you heard the news, it had been tidied up. Journalists knew the facts before they reported them. Live news creates a weird immediacy, despite its inaccuracy. Fog of war – conflicting reports – “something terrible has happened, we don’t know what the details are yet”—too early to speculate. Real life must be very much like that. 
But after a few hours, it very rapidly reverts to normal; human-interest items about children who have lost parents and arty photos of the fire brigade raising the Stars and Stripes. Would the girl who lost her fiancĂ© be any more traumatized if he’d slipped on the steps outside his house and broken his neck? But because he perished publicly, her grief is News.
I know what they were doing and I don’t blame them for it. 6,000 dead is just a number, they want to put a human face on it. But it has the effect of assimilating the shock into an easily digestible narrative:  tragedy as soap opera. At some level, those of us who weren’t directly involved were enjoying it. God help us, we were.
“We are all Americans now,” said one commentator. I was at college in Brighton when the IRA came within a hairsbreadth of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher; one of those rare moments when strangers are allowed to talk to each other, even if it’s only to look down at the paper and say “Tut tut, nasty business.” People stood on the beach and gaped at the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. A man with one of those RAF moustache accents said “You a Tory supporter, then?” and I said “No, but that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?” -- as if my opinion of the Falklands War or the Miners Strike might have any effect on my opinions of the moral wisdom of putting explosive devices in hotel bedrooms.
My opinions on the U.S foreign policy, the middle-east situation, George Bush’s brain-power, globalization and the fact that Starbucks make crap coffee remain precisely where they were on September 10. But that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?

The most moving sound image which Radio 4 piped at us was the Queen’s guards playing the Star Spangled Banner outside Buck House as part of the changing of the guard; and the mainly but not entirely American voices singing the words. The cynic in me knows that “the Queen’s” decision to change the ceremony was really the result of a press adviser who wanted to make sure that she didn’t fumble the ball like she did when Di died. But it was very moving, nonetheless.
We can’t do patriotism; we aren’t allowed. At about this time of year, there is a minor classical music concert in the Albert Hall. Tradition dictates that the second half includes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and a silly medley of English Sea Songs, culminating in Rule Britannia. And every year, I mean, every year, without fail, there is a minor controversy about whether these songs are a bit bellicose and jingoistic and it wouldn’t be better to sing “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony” instead. This year there was even more mumbling. As it happened, the little American conductor with the line in weak jokes replaced Land of Hope and Glory with Ode to Joy but still let the multitudes belt out Jerusalem and everyone went home relatively happy. But one couldn’t help comparing our embarrassed confusion about patriotic traditions with the purity and wholeheartedness of that of the Americans.

The Vicar preached an entirely adequate sermon about Recent Events in the World. He said that it reminded us of the frailty and contingency of human existence; he said it reminded us of the weakness of human endeavor compared to the will of God; he said that if we put our trust in God rather than towers made by men, that, in the long run, even in the face of terrible events, we would be OK: that death needn’t be the final and total evil. He pointed out that in the Psalm, where it says “God is our refuge” the word “refuge” means literally “unassailably strong tower.”
All doubtless very true.
But it struck me that all he had really done was use an “item in the news” as a sermon illustration: rather as if he had drawn an moral point out of England losing the football (don’t set your hearts on human heroes, they may let you down) or, less likely, England winning the football (press on towards the goal however hard it seems.)
And that, one feels, is what a lot of people have been doing: like any big event, it can’t just be a Terrible Thing which happened: it has to be a metaphor of Titanic proportions; onto which we gradually project meanings. Sensible meanings, if we are C of E vicars; mad ones if we are Richard Dawkins or Pat Robertson. There are crazed fundamentalists on all sides. (Tony’s “reorder the world” speech reminded us that it was possible to be a well meaning liberal and a crazed fundamentalist at the same time.)
It’s unlikely that “Why does God allow bad things to happen” was at the forefront of the congregations mind. If we regarded “the problem of evil” as an impediment to Christian belief, it’s unlikely we would have been in church in the first place. The issue that we could have done with guidance on was, I thought, more practical. “What’s the Christian response to evil? Should we try to forgive the people who did this terrible thing, and encourage our leaders to turn the other cheek? Or should we rather take up arms against Evil, and prepare for a Holy War?  Great Christians have  taken both positions. And if a Just War it is to be should we regard it as a Crusade against Islam, or merely a crusade against a minority of bad people? Or perhaps a police action against one Evil person? But if it is a war against bad people, why these bad people in particular; why not a never-ending theocratic war until a holy world government ushers in the Millennium?”
Answer came there none.

Someone said that reacting to a terrorist is rather like smacking a naughty child. You know that he’s trying deliberately to provoke you, and in reacting, you are in one sense, giving him precisely what he wants. But if you don’t, then he smashes up your house. There’s no doubt that the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a retaliation, to make the target behave like the wicked oppressor that the terrorist believes him to be. (Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Look at me I’m being oppressed!)  But in one sense, what else do you do?
As a dyed in the wool liberal with dangerously pacifist tendencies; I would like to hear a good deal less about good wars, about how we are going to defeat the forces of evil and make the world a good and happy place and a great deal more about straightforward retaliation. Swift retaliatory justice, annihilating the perpetrator of the atrocity, in so far as we know who he is, and indeed where, taking out as many civilians and tacit supporters as happen to be in the way – nuke the whole country if you like, I don’t mind. It may not be an ideal solution, but it seems to be morally straightforward, in a brutal, Old Testament way. I can understand the morality of “If you kill our citizens, we will kill you”. It has limits. A blood-letting , some mourning, and we get back to normal. But a general war against terrorism – or, in some views, against evil in general – seems too open ended. It could go on forever. Millions could die. And it’s a blank check to give power to our rulers. Of course we aren’t going to be too critical of them during a crisis; but don’t let it go to their heads, otherwise the crisis could mysteriously drag on for ever and ever, with more and more of our liberties being eroded along the way.

And so everything gets back to normal; my holiday is over; there are reports of bombings on the news and some vague mutterings about anthrax in the stock exchange. It’s not even very interesting any more. Just some dead people in a foreign country; a subject to write about; slag off the clergy, maybe a parenthesis or two about Tony.
It’s been a standing joke in this column for years that half the readers are a mysterious alien race called “Americans”. I drop in friendly little asides about how “my readers” won’t pick up on the irony or understand my references to English literature. Assuming that they exist it would have been nice if I’d been able to think of something better to say to my Americans readers beyond “sorry”. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

You could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.

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).)