Je Suis Catholique

Je Suis Catholique:

What can I say but this? There can hardly be a more appropriate moment for the awful prayers from the Requiem Mass:
Dies irae, dies illa             ( This day of wrath, this day)
Solvet saeclum in favilla,   ( shall consume the world in ashes)
Teste David cum Sibylla.    (as foretold by David and the Sibyl)
Quantus tremor est futurus, (What trembling there will be)
Quando judex est venturus, ( When the judge shall come)
Cuncta stricte discussurus!   (to weigh everything strictly!)

Father Jacques Hamel died saying Mass. In one most profound sense for a Roman Catholic priest there could be no better death but this violence in a Church in these circumstances has potent echoes of the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket.

However, this terrible act reminds us all that ISIS is motivated not merely politics. Their terrorism reserves particular hatred for Christians and Christianity. They have systematically murdered Coptic priests and all manner of other Christians all over Syria and Iraq.

We should pray for Father Jacques Hamel but we may also now ask for his intercession for us.

Most importantly, for his sake we should also pray earnestly for his murderers.

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Beyond Nice: a personal reflection upon these troubled times

Nice & Beyond

Nice was in party mood enjoying the end of Bastille Day in a blaze of fireworks. Like the 4th of July – festivals hardly come in more secular garb than Bastille Day with its echoes of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Before it ended 84 lives were ended.

Not so long ago there was another tranquil beach in Tunisia where death came in waves of gunfire. In an Orlando nightclub a hail of bullets turned dancing the night away into a bloody dance of death. In England an MP was brutally assassinated by a right wing racist. In Dallas and Baton Rouge ex-military black men shot policemen dead for simply being policemen. In Baton Rouge itself and in Michigan and in Los Angeles and in other US cities – black men have been shot by police for no good reason, giving at least the impression that they died just because they were black men.

We blame race; we blame religion; we blame politics; we blame government; we blame refugees; we blame ignorance; we blame poverty; we blame each other. We always fail to blame ourselves because we do not think we act or would ever behave like this but of course in our own small ways we do behave like this and when we excuse our trivial faults we excuse our collective ownership of all this inhumanity.

All the witnesses to all these events will swear it’s their lives that are forever changed. Yet they’re left painfully aware their witness will not even prevent another random act of hate.

It is tempting to despair entirely. What is there to say? What is there to do?

Families are left dispossessed of some son or daughter; some father or mother or brother or sister; some loved friend or beloved spouse or some cherished child. We claim solidarity with the victims yet even when our best eloquence rises to the occasion its words are unmatched by actions.

We choose by inaction to leave the guns in the hands of the misfits; we choose by inaction to let the politics of race go unchallenged; we elect to be blind to inter-generational poverty by electing those to office who refuse to see the ghettos of inequity. Richly endowed with resources we justify our meanness to those made helpless by war. Fearing for our own safety, most often we pass quickly by on the other side rather than being the Good Samaritans we are duty bound to be.

Is it a surprise when we are willing to do so little that we are unable to say anything that brings comfort – unable to hear anything above the din of sirens – unable to feel anything beyond our stomachs clenching – as we wait transfixed before our televisions waiting for another body count?

Body count: the phrase is painfully dehumanising.  More painfully, however, first we must ask ourselves if these deaths were in Africa, or the Philippines or Chile or Istanbul how many more bodies would we need to make them count as much as those lost in Nice or Paris or Madrid; in Orlando or New York or London?

We may not formally own slavery as a culture but through the Media we still license the idea that some lives are indisputably worth more than others. The world is not as our Media seems to see it – since every life is made equally invaluable – but it is certainly how the rest of world perceives our narcissistic preoccupation with our own losses –  measured as they are sometimes in the tens and hundreds and sometimes even in the thousands – whilst theirs have been measured frequently in the hundreds and in the theatres of conflict most often in the thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands.

The value judgement that purports to make our losses more important is hardly worthy of our purported values. This moral devaluation also informs the values and corrupts the judgements of others, including the perpetrators of these murders

Violence begets violence: it is as true of random acts of terror as it is of domestic abuse or any of the other many forms of aggression including war.  This latest evil in Nice has toppled on us as only the last in a series of horrors.  It turns out not even to be the last word as there have been further shootings in Baton Rouge and a random axe attack in Germany.

The century we have lived in, though near in experience is already far from our reality. It was full of war and replete with violent death. It was besmirched with genocides and rank with seething hatreds based on race, religion and political philosophy. In 1945, upon the plain of utter destruction which had blotted out almost entire civilisations in Europe; in Asia; and around the wider world, we solemnly promised ourselves and each other we would do better for the future and that we would not repeat those terrible failures festering of hate and spawned of fear and nourished by indifferent greed. Perhaps in the permafrost of Cold War although fearfully on the edge of extinction we came to think these other ancient hatreds were truly dead.

Since those dark days we have reassured ourselves with memorials. The more indifferent it seems we are to the dangers of our passive indifference the more memorials we commission and the more we observe our solemn services of remembrance.

It is as if we believe they’re talismans to hold at bay an evil we believe to be outside of us…to keep it at some safe distance from our comfortable lives…to keep it in the Middle East; or in the heartlands of distant Africa; or entangled in the dense forests of Cambodia; or trapped it in the hostile mountains passes of what once briefly was Yugoslavia.

We have created institutions to police our fears and to keep us safe. But there’s no one who polices our hearts or guards us from ourselves and our selfish inwardness.

The enemy we must truly fear is not without. He has he not crept un-noted into our careful citadels walled and secure. Within our nations, where the refugee is unwelcome and the immigrant despised; where the poor are invisible and where petty personal hatreds quickly erect cathedrals of hate, here we find the enemy we must fear. It not somewhere else like a jostling plague that has overrun the next town; or a virus spreading next into our neighbourhoods; or, someone who simply lives next door to us with whom we cannot get along. Rather it is come closer than we dare to admit. It is in us; it is us. And to defeat this enemy within the hardest truth is we must first change ourselves.

In a few short weeks my own small world has become to me a smaller, meaner place. The ideals for which I’ve argued for most of my adult life have it seems been set aside, one by one. The ideal of the EU is merely the most recent to fall. Most of the causes I have pursued are lost. And economic statistics now aid this sense that something is fundamentally amiss. Despite never being a wealthier nation for the first time certainly in living memory a generation of young people are poorer than the generation immediately before them.

It is as if the meter of progress has been set back to nought just as my life’s metered time runs down.  I well know I’m now fast approaching the time when I will be called from this field of endeavour: mourned briefly and quickly forgotten.

My life, however, is not a dead struggle though death had mediated its every turn and twist. It is not a fruitless labour though every harvest falls far short of plenty. My part is part of the unending struggle between life and death. It mediates life’s personal battle between good and evil. It is the war to which we are born to serve our time. It is the war we know from our earliest childish imaginings but it is more terrible than anything we ever might have imagined as children.

It is true it is always waged unequally with time and death. It’s also equally repaid to each of us with a portion of sadness and personal desolation. But the rations of grief do not make each life less a banquet of hope. Rather they bestow upon life its festal character. They make the good times precious to us.

The young are full of resilience and zealous for the fight to make change happen; to make of this world of ours a better place. Then defeats seem but setbacks; setbacks but victories postponed.

But time’s cruel march reverses every ordered scale.  In a blink a lifetime is no more than a bridge of sighs from where we watch an adamantine world unchanging and unmoved. From this well-appointed place, a lifetime seems too brief a span to change anything when, once, from youth’s lost promontory, a life’s time seemed a small eternity.

Who cannot but feel there’s no fight left much less a cause worth fighting for – let alone any reasonable hope of seeing the seeming impossible dream of leaving this world a better for our children and for their children’s children. Will it come to pass before I pass away – perhaps not – but the dream will surely survive my life’s disappointments

From this last outpost I watch the processions of the dead burying their lost causes in an oblivion of grief, unable, or perhaps more truthfully, unwilling to change a single thing for the better.  From this cold perch the scale of ignoble loss dwarfs every noble cause.

The losses of life’s many battles piling up one upon the other induce word-weary despair.  But if I’m a supposed wordsmith then from despair’s anvil I must fashion words to serve the cause.

For it is here in this lonely place where we must always endure. It is here we must hold true to all we believe in and to all the intangible ideas that light our imaginations and enliven the better dreams we share with one another: dreams of a better world for all; of better times for all; and dreams of a better end than we alone deserve.

It is when there seems to be no point in fighting-on that we are called to persist with the struggle. It is in the pointless endeavour to keep life’s flickering light alive for just another second that lies the true point towards which we are oriented. When we feel there’s no point any longer then we rediscover we are truly not alone.

There it is we meet the unashamed power of life itself in all its glorious majesty.

I can give a name to that glorious majesty – it is hope. I can give form to that hope – it is called Love. For many those things will suffice of themselves.

I might leave the rest unsaid and let silence speak for all and hope by saying nothing to cause none offence. I cannot be so mean. I must not be so cowardly.

For me, Hope and Love are but the doorkeepers to another reality which urges admittance to this world of ours and whom we are inclined to keep at arms-length because we are so wearied by our own failures; because we so ashamed of aspects of our true selves; but mostly because we fear to let go of our own sense of our self-importance.  If we dare our conscious-self, it may easily pierce the reality behind that glass which clearly separates life from death. Through that glass we may darkly peer and discover for ourselves the shadow of something much greater than ourselves.

Here in this dark place if we but briefly set aside ourselves and let our ego go, here we may meet such enlightenment. Here we may be transformed. Here the better dreams of our imperfect natures can become something greater than ourselves. Here is where we find ourselves in another greater reality.

It is a personal discovery. It is quickly a tangible reality to us. It is truly alive and truly lives inside us. It is immeasurably good. It is companionable, and gentle and full of warmth and alive with laughter. It is loving. It cares. If we let it, it will change us forever. It wants to know us for ourselves.


This is God.






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Last orders in Labour’s Last Chance saloon

Existential crisis…..

It is well to keep calm and carry on if one is HM Queen and has successfully carried on for 90 odd years most of them as the UK’s sovereign. Political Parties do not own the hereditary rights to binding loyalty. Instead they are subject to the vicious realities of politics as played out in a real life Game of Thrones.

The Conservative Party has owned the phoenix-like quality to rise from the ashes of misfortune over its 200 year history – assuming the Party of the Younger Pitt is the direct antecedent of today’s Conservative Party. Treachery is the child of ambition and a party without a formal set of principles beyond the nostrums of Burke and Disraeli and the rhetoric of Thatcher is bound to be a place where the politics of tribe and personality openly thrive. When the dust settles it will be Mrs May in all probability who will be Prime Minister.  Only once she is in place will the party come to terms with the meaning of Brexit and only then will some serious attempt be made to find a proper negotiating position. It is difficult to see a place for George Osborne in this new world but he may be offered that chair at the table the Tory Party reserves for its failed leaders – the Foreign Office. He may however not be acceptable to the anti-EU Tory right who have their tails up.

Cameron’s ruse was meant to shoot both their fox and UKIP’s with a single silver bullet. It turned out he was the leader of the pack who was felled by the clever single shot. Cameron was and is an essentially a Baldwin-esque figure – a sort of grandee with the appearance of the common touch. Like Harold Wilson he was clever; but unlike Wilson, Mr Cameron was not sinuous. Indeed the comparison with the 1975  EU Referendum only goes to show how the confidence trick of a referendum needs a very great magician indeed to pull off the masterful deception. Referenda remain essentially in Attlee’s dictum “a device of dictators and demagogues”. They possess the appearance of democracy but indeed offer only its outward show. Never has this be demonstrated to better effect that in the Brexit vote last week – for the binary choice made the two options seem equal and equally valid but they were not. it was a false choice. The Remain option was a certain known but Leave prospectus was a series of unqualified unknowns. It could be and deliberately was very much all things to all men and women.The apparently decisive result therefore leaves so many questions unanswered it will inevitably mean the Conservative Party’s long and recurring struggle with the EU will continue into yet another premiership as Mrs May once more tries to square the political circle. If she edges the UK into a ‘remain’ the in the ‘single market’ solution it will recreate all the same debate; if she chooses the radical option of completely out she will lose half her parliamentary party. Whether as a means of compromise  the Party will have the stomach for another Referendum to approve the final terms of a negotiation remains to be seen – assuming the EU permits some sort of negotiation to precede the UK formally applying to leave the Union under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Here of course politics of nations other than that of the UK will come into play.

Meanwhile, the UK itself is left with at least three parties committed to renewing the UK membership of the EU – The Scottish Nationalists; Sinn Fein and the Lib Dems.  The Conservative Party feels bound by the Referendum result but will struggle to give policy expression to its very generalised desire. It will also be gradually consumed by the difficulties which are inevitably part and parcel of remaining legally within the EU but not yet formally outside. Most likely the UK’s growth – already ebbing – will ebb further  – and government debt will continue to grow and eventually push will come to shove and Mrs May’s government will find itself hemmed in by the effects of an old fashioned sterling crisis, a government debt problem and a recession.

All this should be music to the ears of the official opposition – but the Labour Party too is lost in a sea of troubles.

What democratic leadership means to the Labour Party

The Labour Leadership election last year took place under a new dispensation. Its rules were formulated under Ed Miliband’s aegis notionally following the reasonable fashion of these times for party members to elect party leaders by ballot. This is how most parties elect their leaders in the UK. The problem for Labour is that it has always been a federal party made up of various elements other than party members –  the largest of which has been the Trades Unions. Ed’s changes were opposed by unions which rightly saw the move as an attempt to further dilute their direct influence whilst still leaving them as the party’s notional paymasters. A compromise solution to this was to permit Registered Labour supporters to have an equal vote with party members. This was supposed to attract the participation of a large swathe of union members who had previously participated in Labour Party elections via the ballot conducted by the Unions’ leaderships. The fee for registration to vote as a supporter was fixed at £3. From any perspective it is a highly unsatisfactory mechanism – as unattractive as say the old 40 shilling franchise that obtained in the days before the Great Reform Act. It also has the ultimate disadvantage as a self-selecting mechanism that’s inevitably most attractive to the most politically engaged and the most philosophically committed whilst endowing this activist participation as being representative of the wider Labour electorate. Many of the previous union voters do not fall into this category of politically actively engaged. They did not vote in 2015. Nevertheless the new mechanism doubled the size of the party electorate in three months. It is said in the last week it has yet added another 60k voters to the roll. The one thing however it has failed to do is to reconnect Union members directly with the Labour Party.

The leadership contest under these new rules propelled an outsider from what might be called the remnant of the unreconstructed Bennite Left – Jeremy Corbyn – into the leadership. Corbyn won 60% of the votes cast – around a quarter of a million of them –  and he had a definite mandate as as consequence  – although it is often overlooked that 40% of the party members did not vote for him.

The Bennite left in the 1980’s had sponsored the particular notion that democratic consent and political legitimacy rested solely on the views of the membership of the party as then expressed in the National Executive Committee which was elected by the entire party and by those who attended monthly meetings of their local party. Benn believed the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) owned no right to determine policy; and no privilege to ignore the policy commitments made by the NEC. In this sense Benn saw MP’s as delegates of the party locally and nationally rather than representatives who collectively owned a share of political sovereignty by virtue of election to Parliament and who between elections might exercise it on behalf of the electorate according to their best judgement.

Historically, Labour Leaders had not always followed the urging of the NEC nor indeed the decision of Conference. In fact in order to mitigate the potential power of Conference the unions who came to the Labour Party Conference with bloc votes in their capacious pockets created the so-called composite motion – a mechanism which deliberately united self-contradictory positions into single policy statements which had the effect of cutting the parliamentary leadership a considerable leeway in making policy, particularly when the party was in government.

Consequently there always had been a tension between the Party and the PLP which was not always creative and which Tony Benn sought to end by making the NEC the party’s only policy-making body. It was a Jacobin solution which inevitably drew in the most active members to play their part in sustaining a truly socialist revolution.  In the 1980’s the Bennite Jacobins were eventually overcome by Kinnock who placed the parliamentary leadership four square at the centre of policy making for the first time in the party’s history. Those reforms opened the way to other radical reformers of whom Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were both the most prominent and most able. Bennism  – sometimes advertently and sometimes inadvertently –  had acted as nursing-mother to the entryist project of the Trotskyist inspired Militant Tendency.

Thus it was the Miliband reforms created the possibility of reopening the old divide between the members (activists) and the PLP which a generation of Labour politicians had spent their careers carefully closing. And once more in a moment of well-meaning inadvertence the PLP permitted a man to be nominated for the leadership when his candidature would never have normally have attracted the requisite number of nominations from MPs for the inclusion of his name on the ballot. Jeremy Corbyn’s election last September was therefore a matter of both accident and substance.

The PLP found itself with a leader in whom it had little confidence for good practical reasons as well as ideological ones. Corbyn has never been a  loyal party man in the PLP – always believing over his many years as an MP that he had the license of a maverick to support causes the party disavowed or to vote as he pleased.  Corbyn of course had long retained his old Bennite views about the PLP and now of course as in the 1980’s there was an activist cadre in the party who now for many differing reasons wholeheartedly embraced one or more of his diffuse policy positions.

Both parties to this uncomfortable marriage tried as best they could to made do and mend.

Meanwhile, the membership – now swollen by the addition of new members  – many of whom also own Bennite views about both policy and the nature of party democracy  – has found itself in conflict with a PLP which was elected only a few months before Corbyn. The refusal of some of Miliband’s old shadow cabinet to serve Corbyn set off a firestorm in Social Media.  Members demonised the refuseniks in the PLP with the label Blairite or traitor or worse, neo-liberal. The formation of the political ginger group called Momentum actively sought to break this opposition by the PLP to Corbyn’s Cultural Revolution with the threat of compulsory reselection of dissident MPs – very much again from the well thumbed pages  of the 1980’s handbook.  Some on the other side – much again as in the 1980’s – have been as bitter and offensive in reply. Accusations abound of treachery and cabals…much finger pointing and in public – shouting and clenched fists. Anger such as this rarely clarifies an issue

Corbyn has responded to his new position with a very confused message –  lurching from compromise to intransigence and back again. He has made changes to defence policy without bothering with the PLP or indeed the sovereign body of Party Conference. He brought in Ken Livingstone as his trouble shooter but Livingstone only managed to shoot himself in the foot with ill-judged comments about the rise of Hitler. Livingstone was duly sacked. Foreign policy is indeed an area where Corbyn’s past has crashed repeatedly and damagingly into his leadership present. It is odd indeed for a Labour leader to find Putin a better ally than Obama. Over Syria he granted his party a free vote on a government motion to limited intervention in the civil war – speaking against the motion himself only to find his own rather rambling oratory completely outclassed by that of Hilary Benn – a man of whom it can be fairly said rhetorical loquacity had never previously been part of his CV. Corbyn then wanted to sack Hilary Benn and then did not sack him. Instead he pushed out Benn’s juniors making them scapegoats for his fury. Much of Corbyn’s 10 months have been characterised by these lurches. It has won him few friends and fewer admirers – outside the very vocal activist cadres for whom he speaks truth to power and from whom he draws both strength but also at times a facile stubbornness.

Political Parties of their nature are moulded more by the desires of their voters than of their members whose views are most often more extreme than that of wider political opinion of voters. This is true of all parties. It is not particularly more or less true of the Labour Party.

Practically, the EU Referendum has intruded itself into this private grief of the Labour Party by heightening the political instability of the party which is still in shock by the scale of its collapse in the last election – particularly in Scotland. Labour officially fought a campaign to Remain. The first problem is both the Leader and Shadow Chancellor came very very late to support a Remain position – they both have a long history of being Euro-sceptics – another policy from the old Bennite bible. Their roles in the campaign were at the very least lacklustre and most particularly lacked conviction. In the noise of the Brexiteers led by Boris, Gove and Farage this mute response just looked inadequate. The PLP not unreasonably was shaken. Hilary Benn offered up his view that Corbyn should take the fall for the failure – Corbyn decided to be bold and do what he lacked the nerve to do earlier in the New Year. He sacked Hilary Benn. The sacking triggered a series of resignations from the Shadow cabinet and front bench. Corbyn’s response was to appoint a sheaf of nobodies – some of whom then promptly resigned when the Leader lost a vote of confidence in the PLP.

Advised by others including John McDonnell and they say Diane Abbott, Corbyn has refused to resign. He dares his opponents to take him into a leadership contest – which he feels – probably rightly – he will win. It has induced a lot of shouting in the Media from all sides.

The problem for the Labour Party is acute. It deserves the term existential for it is now quite clear that – setting the particular personalities of those involved aside – that there is a clear issue of principle drawn from which neither side can resile. The Parliamentary system of government  demands a Prime Minister must command the confidence of his colleagues in Parliament. If he or she cannot not – he or she has to make way for someone who does. Other parties represented in Parliament necessarily operate on the same basis – it is a method that in its time did for Macmillan and Thatcher; and for Charles Kennedy and Jeremy Thorpe. It is a method that similarly kept Wilson (1970) , Callaghan (1979 and Kinnock (1988) in place after losing elections.  Implicit in the process of election is being nominated by the sufficient number of MP’s who make up the PLP. It is this mechanism that ensures any leader has the continuing confidence of his parliamentary colleagues. If any leader loses that confidence then it has long been accepted that he or she is toast  – or at least should be.

Mr Corbyn, his immediate supporters in the PLP and many of those in the membership who support him do not believe in this system. They undoubtedly see it as an elitist notion of political power designed to keep access to power to a select class of the few. That may be true; it may be legitimate; but it inevitably means those holding these beliefs do not believe in Representative Democracy as a binding theory of government. They hold MP’s to be no more the delegates of majority opinion of the party. This does not make them evil; nor make them knaves; but it does mean that whatever system of government they aspire to – it is not the one which currently obtains.

I do not doubt the resort to referendum  – particularly this most recent exercise – has obscured the fact we are a Parliamentary democracy with all that means. In a country where there is no written Constitution this fact acts as a restraint upon the abuse of power. In system where there is no other legal obstacle to what otherwise might be little more than a semi-elective dictatorship of sorts that would be not much different in effect to the legitimacy of such as Mr Putin and his ilk.

Whatever the outcome – Labour has to finally resolve this issue for itself and for the country. Like the EU was a matter of remain or leave – in this debate there is no half-way house. In that sense it is indeed an existential crisis for the party and once which will be now only resolved with the greatest pain….

As ever in life it is easy to see how both sides might have better conducted themselves before this point but now by misstep and mischance it appears they have stumbled upon the issue of principal which has to be met and addressed. It is a sobering thought that last orders are being called before the revolutionary party really got going. Everybody has to take some share of the blame and I’m afraid whether he likes it or not that will include Mr Corbyn.

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Jo Cox RIP – the dream shall never die

Jo Cox’s Politics

I will not be in the country when the Brexit result comes in – I’ve already voted. It is no secret I have voted to remain in the EU.

Leaving aside my personal views I cannot recall a more dispiriting political campaign in my lifetime. Both sides have been economical with the truth and often when challenged have repeated known lies as true facts.

But somehow that has almost come to be no more than we expect.

UKIP’s use a photograph of fleeing Syrian refugees and Mr Farage’s defence of it is something quite different. Those people did not ask to the put on a hoarding to be mocked or to have their human needs inhumanely exploited to make a cheap talking point.

Parliament had been recalled to honour a very different sort of politics and politician.

Jo Cox stood for something so much better. She worked with refugees and fought tirelessly for the dispossessed of whom this world posses far too many. Those were her values; they informed her public life and caused her all too public death.

Jo Cox reminded us all of our duty towards those whom birth’s accident has made poor; whom ignorance has made vulnerable;and whose want is made by war. Every generation in every time meets these people afresh. We can choose to do something; or we can choose to do nothing. The angels of our better natures prompt us to do the right thing by those less fortunate who surround us but we still have to act as our consciences dictate and not listen to the dictates of fear.

Jox Cox was not the victim of idle coincidence. She was not killed because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her assailant sought her out. She was murdered because of those values.

The faces of those anonymous people on that photograph of the Syrian refugees on the UKIP hoarding are people just like us – in different circumstances they might even have been us – just like those faces on the black and white photographs from the concentration camps were people just like us.

 “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Senator Edward kennedy 1980….
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Obama backs Hillary Clinton

Obama enter the Campaign….

Sitting Presidents often struggle with their successors and since Eisenhower few Presidents have played a prominent role in the campaign of their party’s nominee to follow them….

As if there was any doubt it is now official – Obama will campaign vigorously for Hillary Clinton; implicit in all this is that Sanders will gracefully withdraw after the DC Primary next Tuesday…

Here is the video just released by Hillary Clinton’s campaign with President Obama’s ringing endorsement: Video:

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Clinton Super Pac Advert hits Trump where it will hurt

Donald Trump is as yet unable to organise an advertising campaign for the General election in the Fall. The danger of not being prepared is that his opponent knows a thing or two about electioneering. This Ad may help to define things in a way that’s highly destructive alike the famous Daisy Ad of the Lyndon Johnson /Barry Goldwater campaign…

Look and Wonder…..

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Local Variations – Labour & the local elections

“All politics is local…”: attrib. to Speaker Tip O’Neil.

politics-british-political-parties-united-kingdom-main-conservatives-labour-liberal-democrats-ukip-snp-plaid-cymru-53535632Can it only be a year ago Labour lost the  UK general election?

It was a short night for me after a three hour stint at the polling station. I went to the pub and then went home – not quite forlorn since as a lifelong Labour supporter I have sat through many disappointing election nights.

It was nevertheless quite a defeat. In the process of losing the election Labour lost all but one of its 40 odd Scottish constituencies. In Wales Labour also lost seats to the Conservatives and lost votes to UKIP. In England Labour managed to gain a few seats and votes and therefore in terms of total votes cast the total was somewhat better than at the nadir of 2010. In London alone was there was a swing to Labour – one of almost 3%.

The Liberal Democrats who had enjoyed a long period of electoral success from the early 1990’s until the 2010 General Election suffered a humiliating setback as devastating as Labour’s collapse in Scotland. Both their total vote and their seats fell dramatically. They were left with a rump of 8 MPs –  quite eclipsed by the SNP with more than 50 MP’s.

The Conservative Party benefited from the LibDem collapse and from Labour’s collapse in Scotland and its failure to make headway in England. Their national  vote increased by a fraction – and they gained a small overall majority of 12.  Small it maybe but in effect it was a large working majority given that the Official Labour Opposition Lab had 232 seats that was almost almost a hundred seats behind the Conservatives. As Mrs Thatcher found in the mid 1970’s it is very hard for any opposition to cobble together enough votes to bring down a government. It is even harder these days since the constitutional changes wrought by the Coalition after 2010. The first past the post voting system had once more permitted the Conservatives to divide and to rule. Nevertheless, this was only the first Conservative government since John Major’s in 1992.

In 2015 in England the main beneficiary of the election was UKIP. Although they ended up with no more than one MP because their vote was spread evenly over England – and to some extent  in Wales – nevertheless they won over 12% of the total votes cast and in that sense  they were clearly established as the UK’s third party.

The Conservative government immediately set about pursuing its carefully hidden radical agenda of further economic reform  – the planning reforms for example will make it easier for developers to make fast cash – combined with a further fire-sale of public assets and a fresh assault upon organised labour. Its ‘devolution’ revolution epitomised by the “Northern Powerhouse” is in reality a means whereby public expenditure is cut by central government but local government will carry the can….


Leadership Elections

These days party leaders who lose elections do not get a second chance. Since Neil Kinnock resigned the day after losing the 1992 election losing party leaders have followed his example. In 2015 this meant that neither Labour or the Liberal Democrats had a leader after early May 2015 until the autumn. This inevitably meant that  – as after 2010 – Labour (and this time also the Liberal Democrats) were not in a position to offer a coherent political critique of new government’s policy. This has the unfortunate effect of permitting a government to readily establish a narrative for their actions and policies. That can seriously hamper effective opposition later in a Parliament.

There had been a strong case for both losing parties to leave their respective leadership elections until after the EU referendum. However, heedless as headless chickens the two parties pursued their internal leadership elections. This left the door open to the SNP who with their usual elan took the opportunity presented them. It doomed any small chance the Labour Party in Scotland had of taking a long cool look at the causes of its precipitate decline and perhaps being in better position to defend their seats in Holyrood this year. But as hindsight is all knowing calamities create their own political momentum.

In the end the Liberal Democrats chose Tim Farron as their new leader. He has since struggled with his Media profile. He lacks the charisma of say a Paddy Ashdown or even a Nick Clegg.

Labour  – after what was without doubt an ugly divisive campaign – and operating what at its best might be called a flawed electoral system bequeathed to it by Ed Miliband –  elected the left wing and political outsider – Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Corbyn’s election drew in a large new membership to the party in its wake. This Peasant’s Revolt against a well-heeled leadership used to having things mostly its own way since 1994 left the commentariat as bamboozled as the old guard were concussed.

Following from Corbyn’s election there was a counter-revolution in the Parliamentary Labour Party as a number of leading figures refused to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. The PLP is most alarmed at the rapid move to the left and Labour’s abandonment of the politics of the ‘middle ground’.  The tension between the PLP and the Party leadership has since then been acute and at times rancorous.

The vastly enlarged  membership has since moved in the opposite direction. The claim from their side is that the tens of thousands of new members will bring in hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of new Labour voters if only the party holds to corbyn’s vision. There have been cries of “traitor” off stage and the term ‘Blairite’ is hurled with words like scum or Tory to those who disagree.

In this same febrile atmosphere Labour has undertaken a fundamental review of Defence Policy – even reconsidering the UK’s membership of NATO – long a Corbyn bete noir – and restoring old guard left-wingers like Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott to places of influence. At the same time these same left-wingers found themselves skewed in the ‘hostile’ Media for their on-going associations with so-called ‘friends’ in organisations like Hezbollah. Just before voting in these elections this exploded into a toxic row over ‘anti-semitism’  within the party.

The EU referendum:

Whilst the opposition has been consumed by its own fight the government has been desperately trying to get the EU referendum – a sop to its rightwing membership – out of the way.   This has led to a series of quite extraordinary missteps by the Conservative government.  The EU renegotiations – such as they were – and the politics of the referendum have consumed the Conservative Party in its own brawl and perhaps lulled by Labour’s disarray the anti-EU faction have increasingly felt at liberty to stick rhetorical knives into the pro-EU majority in the government. .

None of the main UK opposition parties have been able to take much advantage from this largely Conservative civil war for a variety of reasons: Labour because its own political house is not yet in good order after the devastation of last May; UKIP like the government is consumed with the EU referendum; and the SNP has been similarly preoccupied with the politics of the EU and how it might steal advantage for their primary political cause – Scottish Independence.


The Elections of 2016:

This then provides the context for the recent elections.

Cognoscenti of the political commentariat predicted Labour would receive a drubbing – losing perhaps 200 seats. The polls had said so and so they framed the narrative for election night. The Scottish results were first in and Labour’s further collapse in Scotland to third place – losing yet another swathe of constituency seats – seemed to conform to the story. However,  very soon it was apparent that local results In England saw Labour retaining control of most of its councils; whilst in wales it lost a single seat in the Assembly despite a drop of 7% in its vote..

The mismatch between the voting reality and the doom-laden predictions if anything  have subsequently strengthened Corbyn’s position and the loyalty of his supporters in the party.  Corbynite naysayers see only the light of justification by survival alone; and the Media doomsayers read the runes of political disaster for Labour as set forth in the Scottish play.

Neither side has yet seem the true significance of the results  – partly because the results themselves came in three parts over as many days  – and partly because the disaster for Labour in Scotland – where is became the third party in Holyrood behind the all dominant SNP and a mildly resurgent Conservative Party – set the tone which fitted the doomsayers narrative – and partly because neither side of the argument are much inclined to take into account any facts that do not fit their prejudicial prejudgement.

Therefore it might be helpful to look at the facts and then try to figure out what is going on rather than figuring what you think has gone on and finding the facts to fit the argument.

The last time the elections were run was 2012. Then the turnout was around 35%.  The turnout this time was much higher  – around 45% but in the mid 50’s in some places.

In 2012 this translated into  a PNV ( Percentage of National Vote)

Labour 38%; Cons: 31% LibDem:  16%

2013 in the first election where the PNV calculation inlcuded UKIP

In 2015 the Local election PNV was:

Labour: 29% Cons:  35 % LibDem: 11% UKIP: 13%

This compare with the General election result – votes as it happens cast on the same day:

Labour: 30.5% Cons: 36.8% LibDem: 7.9% UKIP: 12.4 SNP: 4.7% Green 3.6% Plaid 0.6%

In 2016 the PNV ESTIMATES are:

Labour: 31% Cons:  30%  LibDem:  15%   UKIP:  11%

In 1996 – the first year of Blair

Labour: 46% Cons: 25% LibDems 24%

2006 – first year of Cameron

Labour 24% Conservatives 36% LibDems 26%

Source for  PNS

The gain and loss of either seats or of councils are a less helpful guide simply because the Labour vote is well down on 2012 – the last series of elections before the dramatic rise of UKIP – and the Conservative vote this time has dropped since last year’s election.  For the record Labour lost only 18 seats and the Conservatives lost 46. Labour gained Bristol but lost Dudley; the Conservatives gained Peterborough from NOC ( No Overall Control) but lost two other councils and the LIbDems gained Watford from NOC.

In Scotland Labour lost another tranche of seats in its Strathclyde heartland – mainly to the SNP  although it was second in the overall number of constituency votes cast. However, Labour the under-performed in the Party list supplementary vote and this permitted the Conservatives to emerge as the second party in Holyrood and thus as the official opposition.

Wales was a repeat in the minor key of Scotland’s major disaster for Labour. although Labour emerged with 29 seats – largely because its constituency dominance – its total vote fell from just over 40% to just under 35%. Again its performance in the regional list, as in Scotland , was worse than its polling in the constituencies.

By way of contrast both in London and in Bristol Labour made serious progress. It not only gained both mayoralties it also retained  control of the the Assembly in London and gained Bristol from NOC –  indeed in London it fell less than a 2000 votes short of taking 13 seats in the Assembly – a result in the Greater London area akin to the SNP in Scotland. Though there is much talk about London being a ‘Labour city’  – akin to Scotland in the 1980’s –  this is now rather a region that is taking a definite turn away from the Conservatives. This will have long term and important consequences for both Labour and Conservative parties.

The GLC area was first created in the 1960’s to ensure the Conservatives were competitive in controlling the metropolitan area through its dominance in the leafy suburbs –  from places like Croydon and Bexley to Richmond and Bromley – but from election to election the Conservative party is becoming less and less competitive. Merton which changed hands to Labour this time around and Croydon and Havering are  all now very close.  Were Labour to gain one of these it would repeat in London the exact feat the SNP has achieved in Scotland. It must be remembered that again – as in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland – the electoral systems in each of these regions was designed to prevent single party dominance. Devolution was designed to be inclusive and multi-party. Indeed the unspoken ambition was to create a system where Labour and the LibDems might hope to divide the spoils of office on an ongoing basis.


Propaganda Fidei:

Since the local elections a firestorm of comment has spread across the Social Media much of it fuelled – on the many sides of the party debate –  by false statistics and very unrealistic comparisons with the past.

The following conclusions may be considered:

1. UKIP’s explosion into the political scene after 2013 makes proper comparison with earlier local elections almost impossible – but both the rise of UKIP in England and of the SNP in Scotland themselves reflect at least partly a long term failure of Labour – but it equally also reflects upon the failures of the LibDems in more recent times; and upon the continuing decline in the Conservative Party since 1992 in the UK’s largest conurbations.

2. Local elections are not a transferrable indicator of party performance in the a General Election.

3. There is no evidence of a Corbyn bounce for Labour. Beneath any churn in the composition of the Labour vote – the party has been broadly left in % terms where it was at the GE of 2015. The Parliamentary by elections showed no rise in the Labour vote.

4. No opposition party with 32% share of the national vote in local elections has gone on to win a General Election.

5. The situation of Labour in Scotland is worse than in comparable elections in 2012 but it may now have stabilised. However, Labour cannot win a UK election with only 1 Scottish seat – this would require a swing of 13% – that is 3 per cent more than it achieved in 1997 and previously in 1945. Landslides of this scale do not come around that often.

6. The reason Labour held on to so many seats in England was due to the sharp drop in the Conservative vote.

7. The London region – where Labour was also up on its good GE result last year – continues its steady move away from the Conservatives. It might well be that London will do for Labour what Scotland did for it in the long wilderness years of the 1980’s and early 1990’s – provide it with a source of new political talent.

7. UKIP has displaced the Conservatives in much of the Labour heartland in the northern conurbations.

8. There was a mild recovery in LibDem performance in its old heartlands of the South and South West of England; it took control of the three way marginal of Watford; but remains a toxic brand still in Scotland and the cities of the North of England – although there is a single LibDem in Manchester now.

9. There has been no substantial decline in the UKIP vote.

10. Labour’s vote in Wales dropped by around 7%.  It’s dominance in the Assembly was secured because the principal opponents in the constituencies were unable to take electoral advantage of this decline in Labour’s vote.

11. In Scotland, Wales and London Labour does less well in Party List vote shares than than in constituency votes. This is another problem for the party and is the reason the Conservative Party displaced them in Holyrood as the principal opposition.

These safe conclusions leave the Labour Party somewhere around the bottom of the mountain it has to climb. Corbyn has certainly not yet made things worse for Labour in terms of its electoral performance. All the by elections and now this much wider test show the party to be in much the same place as it was in the last 6 months of Ed Miliband’s leadership. whether is is possible to win an election from this position is a matter of conjecture.

If the Conservative Party were to fracture after the EU referendum – and its choice of new leader – were to further divide it – then it is perfectly possible to construct a scenario where a party with 33% of the vote could emerge as the governing party in a subsequent election. How much authority such a government could wield or how radical it could be is entirely another matter. however the problem with this scenario – akin to the LibDem votes coming over to Labour scenario of 2010-2015 Parliament – is it is no more than a scenario. It is perfectly possible for the Conservative Party also to win an election on a similar 33% or less if the Labour vote erodes to UKIP in the North and Midlands.At the end of the day scenarios are a parlour game for election buff and political junkies – strategies are what gives a party direction and persuades voters to elect them.

Here Sadiq Khan’s mayoral election offers a reasonable template for electoral success for Labour. Whether the leadership is minded to use it is entirely another matter. In the short term it seems more likely the template will be set aside and that Labour will pursue the broad aspirational political agenda of the left wing of the1980’s who have come into their own. At what point they decide there are too few votes in that strategy is unknown. It is quite possible that this season of political discontent will lead – as with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the USA – to a populist upheaval over-turning every aspect of the old order.

But revolutions like country busses do not come along that often…


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The US Election: & then there were two…..

Clinton versus Trump:

U.S.A. Flag

Four years ago I wrote a weekly review of the progress of the US election. This year I have hesitated to put pen to paper. Perhaps I’m getting too old for all this – perhaps I’ve nothing to say that has not been said before and probably better said by others.

Still now we have reached this pass it is no longer possible to resist the itch to say something – even if it will not be that original.


U.S.A. FlagLooking back from this vantage point to 2012 it may seem that the re-election of President Obama was inevitable. It was not the case at the time. Although unopposed in his party – Obama was a President with baggage – he disappointed expectations where he once excited them –  and the iffy economy still pulled by the undertow of the great financial Crash of 2008 was not running strongly in his favour. His signature reform to Health Care was not that popular. Whilst he was a shoe-in for his party’s nomination President Obama’s national polling numbers were lukewarm  and therefore, he was not in a strongest position to win re-election. At times the ever articulate Obama struggled succinctly to make his economic case and in many ways it was to be Bill Clinton who made the defining speech of the 2012 election in defence of the President’s economic policy to an electrified Democratic convention.

These were also the days of the Tea Party insurgency which had followed hard upon the first Obama victory in 2008 and which had laid waste the Democrats in the Mid Term elections of 2010.  As much as there was a visceral (irrational) hatred of Obama amongst some of these Tea Partiers (much as the Conservatives had loathed the Clintons before him) there was also an awful lot of hostility towards the grand old guard of the Republican Party. The Tea Partiers disliked establishment Mitt Romney almost as much as they hated the President; the Evangelical wing of the GOP disbelieved a Mormon much as they disbelieved Obama was Christian. Neither of these malcontents believed Obama was really even an American. However, in the end – after a mutinous spasm – the party came to heel – or to it its collective sense – depending upon your viewpoint – and settled on Mitt Romney whom the GOP establishment and commentariat promised was by far the most viable Republican nominee. The first Mormon nominee for the Presidency, Romney promised the GOP and Tea Partiers a famous victory but went on to deliver them an infamous defeat.Unprepared, the GOP party establishment was hugely discredited. The Tea Party insurgents felt betrayed. Caught off-guard, Republican voters also felt genuinely angry – perhaps even betrayed.

The Obama victories have often been described as landslides – and by comparison with the elections after 1992 in some ways they were –  but in historical terms – convincing might be a better term to employ. Winning and losing in US elections is not at all as it used to be. For many years the term ‘landslide’ was used to describe a virtual clean sweep of a vast majority of the the states that compose the USA. In this more divided partisan age a landslide still leaves a lot of Red (or indeed Blue) states standing.

It is the states – in their incarnation as the Electoral College that actually elects the US President. Each state is allocated a tally of electors which equals in total the number of Representatives and Senators the state sends to the federal Congress in Washington DC. This means no state has fewer than 3 electoral votes and for this purpose the District of Columbia also has 3 votes these days.  It also means that smaller states own a greater say in the election than the number of voters in the state would arithmetically suggest. There are 538 Electoral votes in all and 270 are therefore required to elect a president.

The great landslide (and landmark) elections of the modern era remain: FDR in 1932 and 1936; Johnson in 1964; Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984. In all of these elections the winner swept of nearly all the states. It also happened that this sweep was matched by a similar sweep in the popular vote – something in the region of 60% or more to 40% or less. Winning the popular vote however does not necessarily mean winning the presidency. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 election but – after engaging the Supreme Court in its business –  it was G.W. Bush who was elected president having finally secured the electoral votes of Florida – hanging chads and all and a state where his brother Jeb Bush was coincidentally Governor.

U.S.A. FlagIt was Jeb Bush appointee Katherine Harris as Florida’s Secretary of State who ensured the 2000 election in the state would run to the partisan advantage of the Republicans. She had authorised a systematic purge of the electoral register which removed swathes of mainly black (and therefore mainly Democrat) voters. Many did not know they could not vote until election day when they were turned away from the polling booths. In this there was nothing odd or even new – partisanship has been part and parcel of American politics since the election of Thomas Jefferson. It is in the politics of gay friendly Democratic Illinois as much as in homophobic Republican North Carolina or Mississippi.

However, the US presidency is won or lost not in terms of individual votes cast for an individual candidate but in terms of the number of states won by an individual candidate. Therefore, the election this November is best thought of less in terms of a single election but rather in terms of one of fifty odd separate but simultaneous elections in the individual states of the union and the District of Columbia (Washington DC).

635903589860169074-AP-DEM-2016-Debate-Clinton-SandersThe Primary Battle:

This year marks the first open ‘election’ since 2008 – that is to say one where the incumbent President cannot run again for office. Thus, both the Democrat and Republican parties start on a level playing field and historically it is rare for the party of the incumbent Continue reading

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Of monuments and men – or indeed women…

What should become of the statues of Cecil Rhodes?

Since the Greeks at least public statues have been one way in which we recognise greatness. As a corollary their destruction has been an established way in which we have made known our disapproval or  made public our disavowal.

Many Greek and Roman statues fell victim to mob rule. That pattern often repeated itself in later periods of history. The giant statue of Louis XV in what was then the Place de Louis XV but became successively Place de la Revolution before its incarnation as the Place de la Concorde – was pulled down in the early stages of the Revolution and broken up and pieces then thrown into the Seine. The great public space that sits at the east end of the Champs-Élysée then provided a perfect public location for what by accident rather than intention became the most enduing symbol of French Revolution – the guillotine. The killing machine was erected in the place where Louis XV’s statue had lorded it over Paris. Here the Terror played out its public history and it is here therefore both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette met their end. Nothing better illustrates the fickleness of fate when it comes to heroic statuary and like the Colossus of Rhodes the braggadocio of the super-human most often turns out to own feet of clay. Recently in cape town the giant figure of another colossus  – Cecil Rhodes –

A crane prepares to remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the Cape Town University in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, April 9, 2015. The University of Cape Town will today remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes after weeks of protest by South African students, who said the statue had become a symbol of the slow racial transformation on campus. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

A crane prepares to remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the Cape Town University in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, April 9, 2015. The University of Cape Town will today remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes after weeks of protest by South African students, who said the statue had become a symbol of the slow racial transformation on campus. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

was moved-on and moved out of public view.

There was a times when all the soviets of Russia and all the cities of her satellites in the East of Europe owned at least a couple of heroic statues of Lenin – and more than a few Stalin too. They stared into some distant future which seemed to be theirs  but now they’re consigned to empty fields where they stand mute monuments to what is seen to have been a fleeting moment in world history. Still the wheel of fortune forever turns and Stalin is back in favour in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and who knows perhaps one or other of Stalin’s giant bronze incarnations will command Red Square as once he did in another time.

rhodesoriel87a8c768-a9b4-11e5_1033871bThere has been for sometime brouhaha amongst from amongst the students at Oriel College over a statue of Cecil Rhodes. The Oriel Students are following students in South Africa where the Rhodes Must Fall movement wishes to remove the larger than life bronze of Cecil Rhodes seated,  by Marion Walgate,  from its place in front of the University of Cape Town. Given the history of apartheid the sensitivity of the South African students to the presence of this looming figure from the age of Tycoons might be easily understood.

Let it be known I hold no torch for Rhodes – as a political buccaneer or robber industrialist or as maker of Imperial states by Royal Appointment (South Africa, Northern and Southern Rhodesia). I have been to the Rhodes museum near Bishop’s Stortford because Richard’s mum managed it for some years. It was not inspired collection of memorabilia but then I hold no particular torch for the armaments making magnate Alfred Nobel either; nor Vanderbilt ; nor the Rockefeller; nor Carnegie nor Morgan nor Ford despite their vast endowments to the public weal. Rhodes certainly splashed his wealth about and It might be recalled that the Rhodes Scholarships have provided many of the poor a life chance they might not have otherwise obtained.

Quaintly it appears the students at Oriel who are in a froth over a physical representation of Rhodes over a building he endowed have not suggested the University and College ceases to use the endowment Rhodes made to fund the University, the college and student bursaries. In Princeton there is a similar furore over the buildings named for one of the the University’s most famous sons President Woodrow Wilson (of five freedoms fame) who for all he was a progressive in many ways also owned some seriously unsavoury – if then widely shared – ideas about white racial superiority and segregation of the races.

There is a famous nineteenth century statue of Richard I (Lionhearted) outside the Houses of Parliament which was erected in the Victorian Imperial heyday when the Crusades were seen in the West generally in a very different and generally positive light – as many of my generation will know well from the TV series from the early 1960’s with the king played by Dermot Walsh. Not so very far from that statue stands another statue – of Oliver Cromwell – who in addition to cutting off the head of Charles I (the Martyr) and abolishing Christmas, as near as dam it committed what today would be termed acts of genocide in Ireland in the fevered times of the English Civil War – a catastrophic conflict that – rather like the disaster at Verdun and the Somme whose centennial we mark this year – left an indelible scar on England’s political psyche.

Revolutions and Revolutionaries often angrily sweep away the public statuary of their oppression though seldom in human history do such gestures end the oppression of ideas and ideologies; or simply mitigate the oppression of men and women exploiting their fellows which, like larceny, appear in history both on a grand and petty scale though the tyranny for those so oppressed is very much the same.

nelosn569_001Notoriously in the 1960’s the IRA blew up the column & statue to Nelson erected in Dublin. The pillar as it was know was in fact built in 1808 and long before the iconic column that now stands in Trafalgar Square. It was the work of the Irish architect Francis Johnston who was also responsible for the General Post Office. Out of fashion in the Nationalist Revolution post 1916 the work of Irish artists and architects under ‘British rule’ is now regarded as a central part of Irish history – to be treasured; to be conserved and to be admired.

Some years back a controversy broke out over the erection of a statue to Air Marshal Dowding the man who master-minded the bombing campaign that led to the gratuitous burning of Dresden in the last months of World War II. The statue stands in the Aldwych outside the Air Force Church (St Clement Danes). It also stands for all the ambivalence that comes from war – and in my view his statue rather reminds us even a war we can feel comfortable about in principle in practice has its disturbingly dark side.

Our public art is all part of who we are and from whence we came but it is surely false to claim that because something was put in place to glorify the memory of a person or idea of which we no longer approve it should be removed from the public space. Were that to be a worthy intellectual verity then what might stand for very long – let’s pull down Achilles in Hyde Park erected to the glory of Wellington – who owned some awful ideas as well as supporting some terrible things in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre – or perhaps we might as well bulldoze Versailles or the Winter Palace or San Souci or even dare I say St Peter’s in Rome. It is rather by accident James II still rides high in a small way outside the National Gallery – dressed emphatically as a Caesar – and his Stuart and Catholic presence does not seem to evoke any emotional response from passing londoners  – though it might still do so were it to be moved to Belfast or Derry…

Public art certainly commemorates and fixes in bronze and stone ideas we own about our past or at least how we saw that past at a given time. These days none of those anonymous generals who fill the plinths around Whitehall would earn a statue though a David Bowie or a Lennon and McCartney might. Poor Oscar Wilde had to wait for changed times to earn a place in bronze – but nothing is forever and times might again change and in a future Wilde may seem less heroic…who knows?

Our ideas about ourselves and what is praiseworthy or simply artistically worthy changes with time and continues to evolve. It will not remain the same and its evolution does not end until humanity ends. The public art that is left behind is a commentary on changing values and changing ideas about what is valuable. The physical presence of that past is not a threat to our contemporary values rather it is a commentary upon the process of how we reached them. I wonder what those angry students think about the Terracotta Warriors of the murderous Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China; or the surviving statues of some of the bloody men who ruled Pharaonic Egypt or Rome; or the even the remnants of Palmyra recently turned to rubble by ISIS….

Grand gestures most often betoken the human predilection for making public statements which substitute for looking into our hearts and getting the measure of the selfish demons – pride; greed, avarice, anger and covetousness and on – to which we all seem heirs but about which we’d rather not be reminded….

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To be or not to be – in the EU – that is the question

Brexit = Party Interest – National Interest (or brexitEUUN0001the EU and UK Politics)

We have a Referendum on our membership of the European Union (EU) on 23rd June 2016. Solemnly we are told this will be the most important decision of our lifetimes. The Media often colludes with the political establishment to elevate hyperbole to an exaggerated art form.

Mr Cameron announced the referendum yesterday – having first  – with with a magician’s flourish – pulled many marvels from the fantastical hat of his Renegotiation. Oddly having pulled the dazed rabbits and shaken them before our disbelieving eyes he dropped them unceremoniously into thin air where alike the smile of the Cheshire cat they disappeared from view. It was quite a trick. Then, without pause, he started talking about security and terrorism and war and how we’d all be better off staying together in an uncertain world. I was no longer sure whether he was defending the UN, NATO or the EU or everybody in general as they all seemed to merge seamlessly into one Big Society. He then frothed about how the UK was not going to be part of a EU Defence Policy or EU army and foamed about how the UK would never be party to the Schengen Agreement (the open borders arrangement between EU states) and finally stamping his rhetorical foot and saying the UK would never, never, ever join the Euro – as if any or all of these things had been any part of his negotiations with his EU – which of course they hadn’t.

brexitBritish_Prime_Mini_3579133cThen the people’s Dave, with all the chupatza of Hughie Green in is pomp, looked square into the lens of camera and spoke from the heart – most sincerely – straight to the British people –  assuring them – rather like a dotty maiden aunt over the Christmas dinner – that he hates Brussels but loves Britain. Then with a faint tremor for sincerity’s sake he then said though he loved Britain as PM he had a duty to tell us he knew it was in the nation’s interest that we all vote to stay in Europe. Finally, almost choking on the emotion of the moment he said it was up to the British people – they had the final say – they had the vote and no matter how the voted – he would announce the winner and take the prize. With that he turned and strode purposefully back into 10 Downing St.

The only thing that seemed to be missing from this performance were the phone numbers to call for Yes or No – now not even Brucie in his rambling dotage on Strictly would have forgotten them…

I, alas, do not form part of the great audience to whom his comments were addressed – the great British people. Therefore I must admit I paid little heed to much else Mr Cameron said. I am of course a voter and I will cast my ballot in this plebiscite  – but as I am by birth Irish –   and although I have lived here in the UK since 1957 –  as I’m still an Irish citizen I was not part of the body politic to whom Dave was talking. Ergo, as dear Dave was not addressing himself to me  I felt I could safely ignore not only what has been said but also all the rest of what’s to be said – back and forth – over the next gruelling 4 months. By the time we stagger over the line and start to vote the poor British people will have to be assailed from dusk to dawn and back on all sides by some very, very, very boring arguments.

It is in fact the second time in my lifetime that I have had a vote in a referendum on the subject of EU membership. I am of that aged minority who voted in the last referendum in June 1975 – when the then Prime Minister –  (James) Harold Wilson –  after a very similar renegotiation of the terms of our membership – suggested very alike the current PM that all things considered – and with all the safeguards  now safely in place –  that it was on balance in the long term interests of the UK to remain in Europe. The margin of  YES victory was substantial  – 67% to 33%  although the margin in Scotland was  8% narrower and Shetland and the Western Isles actually voted to leave.

1st May 1975:  Three documents, for and against, published for the referendum on the Common Market.  The document 'Britain's New Deal in Europe' (centre) contains a recommendation by the government signed by prime minister Harold Wilson for Britain to stay in the Community.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

1st May 1975: Three documents, for and against, published for the referendum on the Common Market. The document ‘Britain’s New Deal in Europe’ (centre) contains a recommendation by the government signed by prime minister Harold Wilson for Britain to stay in the Community. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Foolishly, a great admirer of the political skills of Harold Wilson, I thought the question was settled then once and for all.  But the European geni has a most destructive way of popping out of the bottle.  Since that referendum of June 1975 one or other of the two main political parties in the UK has at one time or other proposed more or less that the UK leave the EU. In the case of the Labour Party it was during its last dervish dance with “true socialism” when it discovered that the widespread nationalisations and contra-cyclical public spending it proposed to eliminate unemployment would not be possibly in the straightjacket of EEC regulations. It proposed to exit the EEC in its famously losing election manifesto in 1983.

After electoral disaster the party turned to Neil Kinnock – a unilateralist and also a staunch anti-EEC figure who was prominent on what them was called the soft left of the party and Michael Foot’s chosen heir. Kinnock tempered the worst of the ‘socialist’ excesses of the party and hoped for the best but discovered too late that not even the best ‘socialism’ was good enough for voters intoxicated with the magic of markets; the privatisations with their cheap share quick profit bonanzas and the casino capitalism of the banks.

The Labour Party fell in love with the European Union late – towards the end of the 1980’s  – when the EU of Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors had embraced an agenda of employee rights, union rights and worker benefits as part of the ever deepening union and partly as the consequence of the decision to create a single market within the EU – an economic end championed by none other than Mrs Thatcher. The UK unions realised that whilst their political goose was being well and truly basted in the UK, in the EU, unions, instead of getting truly stuffed, were in fact thriving and garnering greater rights

brexit73239237The Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty turned this promise into a governing reality and the Conservative Major government took fright and carefully negotiated a derogation for the UK from the Social Chapter of the treaty which with amongst other things included the infamous Working Time Directive. That derogation was not enough for the right wing of the Conservative Parliamentary Party – who rightly saw that what Major had negotiated did not in any way bind successor governments from embracing the notion of ever closer union which was at the heart of the Maastricht process and which was given fullest expression in the project for the Single Currency. However, whilst the ERM debacle destroyed the political viability of the UK joining the Single Currency it was this ‘social’ Europe and its juridical consequences that became the bete noir of the Conservative mainstream and increasingly of its rather more right wing and elderly grassroot membership.

After its stunning electoral defeat in 1997 the Conservative party aped Labour and went off to play by itself under the fateful leadership of William Hague. It is the nature of the Conservative Party to be pretty closed minded about most things it chooses to think about –  that to some extent is the necessary corollary of being conservative in the first place – but it is also a party created for and wedded to power and all principles are therefore mutable – so as a party it can easily change its mind for reasons of electoral expedience – this is after all the Party which gave us Butskellism in the 1950’s; incomes policies in the 1960’s and early 1970’s; and both Clause 28 and Gay Marriage in the space of twenty years. However, on the subject of Europe in general an the EU in particular – it’s mind had been made-up – closed as a clam – ever since the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory from Downing St in 1990. If anything since then the Tory grassroots has tended to become more hostile to the EU  – although its pragmatic leadership has long sought to temper – by guile or by delay – the worst excesses of the party members.

Enter – stage right – very staged right – the incredible Houdini –  David Cameron. Mr Cameron sought to get his party off the hook of Europe by offering the right an in/out Referendum.  Mr Cameron (and his amanuensis Mr Osborn) were children of Thatcher but were also mesmerised by Tony Blair. For much of his leadership Cameron has made much of taking leaves from the Tony Blair book of politics and government. Blair however, like Thatcher, was a conviction politician and, like her, whilst his convictions held he was pure gold for his party but when their gilt rubbed off – in Thatcher’s case over the Poll Tax and in Blair’s case over Iraq –  their glister was quickly lost.

brexittonyblair_lastpmqs_ovation_27june07twiceDavid Cameron, however, has never really been heir to Blair. His convictions are few and his beliefs correspondingly shallow – he is a marketing genius but without any serious political convictions or true principles. Publically, for example,  he calls himself a believing Anglican Christian –  but airily dispenses with the necessary props of his Christian belief  – Church attendance and prayer. As with his religious affiliations so with his political beliefs. Mr Cameron said all manner of things about how the Big Society would look after the poor – compassionate conservatism – all things he promised would be bright and beautiful – speaking as a decent, caring, family man who could be trusted  – but once he had shaken hands he went off down the drive –  back to the hunt ball – without so much as looking back over his shoulder to the poor man as yet still left at his gate. It is this that provides the true context of the renegotiations that have just taken place.

Since his accession to power in 2010 if anything Mr Cameron has shown himself to be even more calculating as an office holder than ever he first appeared to be as the ever greener than thou bicycling green that was the huskie-hugging, hoodie-loving Leader of the Opposition. His shallow fluency owns the mercurial flash of the very clever very apt first Class PPE student he was at Oxford. Quicksilver theatricality is the oil that runs Mr Cameron’s political machinery. He drives this engine smoothly along tracks of inclusive rhetoric with aplomb and to a general applause that belies the fact that his train is for first class ticket holders only. Schooled in privilege  – he is Walpole rather than a Disraeli – a man for whom party interest is the national interest because he has never seen any practical distinction between them. He combines the vanities of the shallow cynic with the word-weary rhetoric of the thoughtful statesman. He means not one word of what he has to say.

Yesterday, all of these gifts for plausibility were  once more on display in Downing Street. Cameron, however, now has to negotiate the Media wolves he has long fed on juicy half promises. The skills Mr Cameron owns – and they are very considerable – do not make for greatness but they do make for longevity in office. It could be however, no matter what the outcome of this referendum that they have carried him just about as far as he can go. Those in his own party are ceasing to trust him. Interestingly Tim Montgomerie has just resigned from the Conservative Party.  Boris Johnson – that bell-weather of political ambition – has decided to campaign for Brexit. The reason is simple enough –  his competitors for the leadership have lined up behind Mr Cameron but Boris knows the Conservative Parliamentary Party will not decide who the next Conservative Leader will be – it will be the deeply anti European grassroots members – the same lot that elected Ian Duncan Smith in 2001.  Johnson is now perfectly positioned to win – and if there is Brexit Mr Cameron will most likely have to go – and if the answer is Yes – as it was in 1975 – then Dave will probably alike his true political mentor – Harold Wilson – bow out gracefully before he gets chucked out bloodily.

There are many good arguments for staying in the EU. There are other arguments for leaving it.  A balanced analysis of the cons and pros of membership of the EU, however, would only do a disservice to the politics of Europe in the recent history of the UK.  Unlike any other member of the EU by the end of June 2016 we will have had two referenda in 40 years on the principle of membership.On both occasions the plebiscite has been conceded not from lofty constitutional need; nor from the highest political principle; but rather by the dictates lowest party cunning. I say this not to disparage political parties for they have long been the means of making respectable the marriage of the base motives of sectional interest to the governing interests of the state. It is not new. However, since the motives for this Referendum are nakedly political it is a cruel fact that it will not settle the matter once and for all – any more than the referendum of 1975 settled business. Therefore, as before, the political establishment – less the newspaper Media – will bank upon the voters voting yes – not out of conviction but out of fear of making their unsettled and uncertain lives less certain and less settled. Of course they may vote no; but those of you who know anything about the history of the EU – will know that no may in time pupate into yes if only you keep asking cajolingly enough….

brexitEUUN0001I haven’t changed my mind about the EU since I voted Yes in 1975. I can see no sensible argument against pooling sovereignty in order to gain prosperity – it has been the history of the world since the time of the Chin and the Pharaoh. The institutions of the EU will evolve and probably those of the central core of Euro states will piecemeal arrive at more democratic structures over time. The nation states and their political elites will struggle against the inevitable but over another fifty or seventy five years things will have changed out of recognition as they indeed have already changed beyond what was imagined by the original Coal and Steel Union. Gradually as the power of the US wanes the UK will seek out it full political place in this European Union. That will be all to the good but in the interim we will just have to endure the knee-jerk referenda that will come our way from time to time to please one or other of our governing parties.

However, as I am being asked to trot off to the polling station once again to register my opinion on the matter I thought I should be forthright. The truth is no one is really that interested in my opinion – and that is most particularly true of Mr Cameron and the political bark that bears the oleaginous bulk that is the Conservative Party. My vote is however as settled now as it was before. I am not persuadable and do not need to ponder this in my heart over many hours for four months.

It is said we get the governments we deserve – which must imply that we’ve all been very, very, very naughty….




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