Part II: The Labour Leadership – the apple of discord
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labourimages (1)Picking the right apple from the left branch…..

Apples and humankind have a long association. From Eden to Snow White it seems the apples turns up to make difficulties where there ought to be none. Most famously the golden apple of discord was made by Hephaestus for the goddess Eris. It was inscribed: for the most beautiful. She rolled it into the midst of a party hosted by Zeus to which Eris had not been invited. Eris was the don’t bring Lulu of the eternal Olympians.  Hera, Athena and Aphrodite each insisted the apple was meant for her alone. They asked Zeus to decide and like men are apt to do when asked to make a difficult choice Zeus delegated the task to Paris –  one of the sons of King Priam of Troy renowned for his good judgement.

...the-judgment-of-parisThe story goes the goddesses duly disported themselves naked before the lucky Paris – a scene immortalised again and again in European art –  but – none of them quite playing fair –  each offered the Prince a ‘gift’ if he chose her. Paris fatally chose Aphrodite’s gift: the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. The woman in question was Helen of Sparta who was already married to Menelaus of Greece. Aphrodite got her golden apple; Paris got his Helen; the Greeks got to launch a thousand ships; and Troy got its infamous war. The Judgment of Paris therefore turned out to decide much more than who got to take home the golden apple.

It is my sense of things that this Leadership in the Labour Party is similarly to be a fateful decision.

There are four chasing Labour’s golden apple – Andy Burnham; Yvette Cooper; Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn. Like the goddesses before each feels he or she should win the golden prize. The PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party), having nominated the choice, like Zeus has stepped aside leaving the membership to play the judge. Like in the myth these modern gods of politics disport themselves before the naked eye of the ever watchful Media and like their forbears they also beguile us with flattering promises.

The question for us is whom to choose and why.

The Leadership –  an offer of hard choices and soft options:

..........labour.....images (1)The man who went into this race as favourite is Andy Burnham – former Health Secretary and Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham is a family man; a Catholic; born in Aintree he is a Liverpudlian and importantly he speaks with that accent – which contrasts with the metropolitan tones of all the other candidates. Burnham has gained a lot of credit personally for his support and work for the survivors of Hillsborough disaster. Like Wilson before him he holds out the promise of the authentic Englishness of the north. His most distinctive policy – the creation of an integrated NHS & Social Care Service is bold. It also has strong echoes from the proud past of Attlee. It has twice been aired as a manifesto item and twice – under Brown and then Milliband it has failed to make the final cut into the manifesto.

The other experienced candidate is Yvette Cooper, briefly Shadow Foreign Secretary and then Shadow Home Secretary for most of the last Parliament, Cooper served in the Brown government as Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State for Work  & Pensions. She too is married – to Ed Balls who lost his Leeds seat in the debacle last May.  She and Ed Balls were the first married couple to serve in the same cabinet. Cooper’s campaign pitch has been about equality and she has been scathing about the way both the women candidates in the election have been treated by the Media. She suffers alike Hillary Clinton from the Media preoccupations about her husband.

Both these candidates seemed to have chosen a safety first style of campaign that was both relatively cautious and frankly deliberately dull. This turned out not to be what the party was in the mood for and consequently it has had the effect of pushing the two outsiders into the frame.

From the ‘right’ Liz Kendall has taken up what others have chosen to characterise as the Blairite torch. Kendall is a newish MP – elected in 2010 – and representing Leicester West  – she was born in Hertfordshire where she grew up. In that she aptly personified the problem for Labour since the world she knows best is the one that does not know nor love the Labour Party.  In the current mood for some in the party and some outside the word Blair ignites a visceral response.  Kendall’s challenge to the party is  that it needs to leave its comfort zone.

She suggests the party has been successfully tarred with being only concerned with appealing to a narrow band of public service workers and the working poor and has thereby permitted itself to be portrayed as supportive of a dependency state caricatured as ‘welfarism’. She argues Labour must rather look to the concerns of the middling sort who prosper in places like Herfordshire and the old Home Counties.  Labour needs to win them over in order to win an election. The rhetoric has been bold but Kendall, like Cooper, has lacked a single illustrative policy specific to help her make her case – or perhaps Kendal has such specifics in mind but feels they cannot be aired until after she has the apple of leadership in her hand. Either way it has hampered her campaign and she seems to be the fourth placed at present.

Last night she did win a constituency nomination in Vauxhall. Despite the Media narrative this election may be somewhat more fluid than first impressions give.

By contrast it is the fourth and, at the outset least favoured candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, who has, if the Media are to be believed,  set this election on its head. Corbyn has been MP for Islington since 1983. He entered Parliament in the same year as Tony Blair. He has been there since – a part of the old left that once looked to Tony Benn. He is a socialist is that mould and not a social democrat. He is courteous, persuasive and rather alike some aged sage of King Arthur or Tolkien’s Middle Earth he utters his inscrutable wisdom to star struck applause. Corbyn is only on the ballot by the kindness of strangers in the PLP since he could not muster the necessary 35 votes on his own account. His meetings are now packed with the relatively young and a number of those true believers long lost to Labour. He plays the old revivalist tunes with aplomb. He is rather more ambitious that the polite manner and studied eccentricity of dress and demeanour might first imply.

During one interview on Channel 4 Corbyn quite lost his temper when probed about speaking of Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. In the main he has kept to his script of nationalisation; of attacking poverty by radical redistribution; of investing in public services (code for higher wages in the public sector); abolishing fees in Higher education; a strong line on gender and sexual equality; an equally strong empathy with immigrant community issues; a non-nuclear  defence policy – with at times a slightly pacifist tinge. Though there is little new per se in any or all of these causes, Corbyn’s clarion has turned out to have a wider resonance than many wise saws saw. He has appealed to disillusioned voters who have left Labour ever since the early 1990’s and also to the younger better educated metropolitans who feel Labour has been unambitious in its recent past. The response of these groups has been genuine and genuinely unexpected. In a political world where the diet of soundbites has left voters feeling well and truly stuffed – there is something almost Franciscan in this would-be Savonarola demanding we embrace the poorer in our communities – cast off the gods of mammon and its creed of trickle down economics – and make a bonfire of vanities of consumerism. Tempting as it is to sneer – Corbyn has hit upon something genuine. Only a fool would not reflect upon that and upon what is means.

The problem here is it may mean any number of things – and none of them together may mean there’s enough to win an election on this diet of worms. Equally, it may be the public has a real appetite for something radically different.

Labour in opposition 2010-2015

..................labour millibandimages (1)Though it has hardly been mentioned –  the context for all of this soul searching is the corpse of Ed Miliband’s leadership. Ed’s leadership has not yet received its decent burial and therefore no one feels quite comfortable talking about it whilst its corpse is still in the committee room.

There is a proxy for this discussion in the familiar form of an older, greyer leitmotif: Tony Blair. This leadership election is alive off-stage and on; in front of camera and off-camera; everywhere in Social Media with Tony Blair. There are: Blair haters; Blair baiters; Blair fêteers. Blair – Labour’s most electorally successful leader by some considerable distance – is a divisive figure these days.  He is a cult hate figure for some and an occult charm for election winning for others. His current position in Labour history is the the very same as the one suffered by other successful election winning Labour leaders –  Attlee and Wilson.  Important though New Labour was and important though Blair was neither of them are precisely germane to this election. For the context is only the very recent past. The electoral failure of the Milliband leadership provides both the direct context how it was we have the four candidates we have; and the wider the context about whither the party should go. Had Labour won or come close to winning Ed Milliband would still be in his place.

The cruel fact is that once Labour lost the 2011 Scottish elections by an even greater margin than it had lost them in the pit of unpopularity of 2008, Ed Miliband’s leadership was holed beneath the waterline. The party – PLP and centrally did nothing – the Unions grumbled – everyone hoped for the best – hoped the Scots would not turn to the SNP in the Westminster elections. Wishful reasons were offered time and again to suggest there was a path to victory which frankly did not challenge the party to do more than cut and paste bits and pieces of past policy on to a fresh page. The polls provided Delphic encouragement. The mayoral elections in 2012 were another warning – a London that was voting Labour in ever greater numbers re-elected Conservative Boris Johnson as its mayor. The Labour candidate Ken Livingstone was almost a throw-back to the politics of the 1980’s  – the politics which also brought Jeremy Corbyn to Parliament and which corbyn still articulates. Livingstone was a talented mayor and an original thinker but by 2011 he had no new ideas – they were re-treads of very old tunes. He lost by a whisker but the fact is Labour ought to have won the mayoralty by a mile. It was another warning about the need to have the right candidate at the top if it wanted to win – and not the just the candidate of the right or the left or the centre.

This was all in sharp contrast to what Ed Milliband himself had offered in 2010. Recognising the scale of the 2010 defeat Ed suggested the terms of electoral politics had been decisively altered by the crash in 2008 and the public was ready to try something new and radical. It was time to challenge the orthodoxy of free markets and culture of free lunches for bankers that had held sway since the late 1970’s. It was time to replace Thatcherism – the capitalism of unfettered markets and trickle down economics with a new model. Many thought that this was a compelling analysis – the problem was did Miliband’s leadership ever really test the idea in more than rhetorical allusion? The answer to that question might well determine how to cast a vote – for if it is yes, then Corbyn is surely only a repetition of a failed idea; if it is no, then Corbyn may be the answer for which the party is looking.

There is, however, a further context to all this – young Ed got the top job by a squeak  – his victory in the Trades Union section of the party outweighed by a fraction that of his brother in the PLP and amongst party members. Ed had squeaked out his own brother. As a result Labour lost a man of unquestionable talent and one who had the range to communicate complicated ideas in simple language without simplifying issues themselves. Labour’s losses of communicators over time has been punishing: John Smith; Donald Dewar; Mo Mowlam; and Robin Cook were taken by death but lost to party rivalries were David Miliband; James Purnell; Alasdair Darling; Gordon Brown; Jim Murphy; Douglas Alexander. Ed Balls fell in the election and now Ed Milliband is himself lost to frontline politics. The loss of forty Scottish MP’s has decapitated the Party North of the border. Labour has wasted a generation of talent.

There were plenty of chances for Labour and particularly for the PLP to seize the day and deal with the leadership problem that had existed certainly by 2012. As in the dolour days of PM Brown the PLP and the party chose to stick its collective head in the sand and hope for the best. There was talk by insiders of disaster ahead though possibly the scale of defeat came as a nasty surprise.

Those of us who has sat through the elections of 1987 and 1992 knew all too well what was in store when the LibDem constituencies fell to the Conservatives one by one last May. The scale of what was in the offing probably only really came into clear view during and after the Scots referendum campaign. The Scots referendum exposed soft underbelly of Unionist Labour loyalties in Scotland. Westminster had permitted Gordon Brown and the Scottish Labour Party their last hurrah but before they could savour saving the Union Mr Cameron on the steps of Downing St calmly cut the ground from under Labour both in Scotland and in southern England by declaring there now must be English votes for English Laws.

The Conservative party’s message was not subtle. It was carefully calibrated to be effective in those seats traditionally ‘conservative’ seats in the South and South West of England where the LibDems had been elected and re-elected since 1997. These were the very seats that had provided Thatcher with her majority in the 1979;1983;1987; and even Major in 1992. The Conservatives  successfully concentrated in 2015 on regaining these seats. They were helped by the fact the LibDem brand had been destroyed by the coalition and Labour’s collapse in Scotland to an SNP to its left made an even narrow overall Conservative majority as good as a landslide.

The last Judgment?

Labour-rose-199x2203So by the long circuit I return to my original supposition. This choice is less about me and more about the future I would like for my great nieces and great nephew(s). It is a false choice I pose in these terms since because as a family we have prospered in our lives all of our kin will also be blest with advantages that accrue with education and a financial inheritance that can offer opportunity. I am less clear and more concerned for those born today like me or my sister or brother at somewhat of a disadvantage.

One of the deepest impression of my school days was made on me by Thomas Gray: Elegy written in a country churchyard which mourns the waste of talent lost by accident of birth.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene, the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,  And waste its sweetness on  the desert air.

The churchyard in question was Stoke Poges not far from Wexham Park hospital which in many ways epitomises the good and the troubled bad that is within the NHS. Our Public Services are part of the fabric of our civilisation – they play a part not unlike the monasteries and guilds in the Middle Ages. They stand as an inter-generational guarantee to some sort of coherent opportunity for all. The far right and far left both preach a dissolution of this old order of civic decency and to replace it with something radically different. Neither to be honest can truly describe the consequences of what they suggest. Socialism that actually changes lives accepts as part of its effective creed the inevitability of gradualism. It does so in part because it accepts the costs of revolution are usually too high and too wasteful to those who live in the injustice of the here and now. The creed of Democracy is of continuing reform because the wheel of progress is as yet too much a wheel of fortune. Despite the blandishments offered to me by Jeremy Corbyn of true change – whatever that might amount to in time – I do not think Labour can risk not winning the next election. Equally I do not think the party cannot but sit up and consider the reaction to his candidature.

Unlike Paris in his judgement I get a number of bites at my final Judgement. For the present I am honestly and totally uncertain as what to do for the best. I think we now need to hear the how candidates respond to those whom Jeremy Corbyn has engaged and even enthused. I will honestly say personally I’d like a woman to lead the party. I just think it’s time. But in the end I must try and choose the best candidate I can. I promise to make this public once I have completed my ballot in two weeks from now. It is not for me to tell others how to vote but to rather persuade them what to consider when casting their ballot. Thomas Gray casting his eyes about the graveyard put into words what is a stake in that telling phrase – their lot forbade.  It must be part of our endeavour neither to shut the gates of mercy nor close the doors of opportunity on those not born to opportunity of right. It is our job to give them that chance. That is their golden apple and they deserve to get it as of right.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind.
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Amelia, Abigail & Charlie Thomas & Labour’s Choice
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Why it’s a matter of personal interest

....abigailI have two great nieces – Amelia and Abigail –  and a great nephew, Charlie Thomas. I see less of them than I’d like but like most people these days I see lots of photos on Facebook and short videos of their progress through the early stages of their lives. I’m very aware that inevitably I will play only a small walk-on part in their lives. I’m already in the section of Life’s Warehouse marked old models – or even obsolete. When they are young adults trembling on the edge of adulthood if I’m not already history I will be at the very least a largely decorative part of the family’s constitution – to be given birthday cake, congratulated on reaching such an age and patted on the back of the hand.

What follows is, therefore, is inevitably more for them than for me or indeed for most of you who will read these pieces. Thus, this is not quite the piece I originally conceived of writing. It has arrived in this shape largely because having felt moved by recent developments to react to what is being set forth as the narrative of Labour’s leadership election I have been forced into a period of considered reflection. The political subject may seem an odd address to infants but like it or loath it the choices made in the next weeks will shape their future in a way politics will no longer be able to shape mine.

I also write this knowing it will hardly charm the committed or indeed arouse more than a passing nod from many of those to whom it is addressed. Moreover, those of you who have any interest in this subject will also usually have long ago made-up your minds about politics; parties and politicians.

You will not be easily persuaded by anything I say. Yet I will persuade myself I must still try.

Part I –  Why Politics Matters:

...ameliaPolitics is boring. Politics changes nothing much. Politicians are in it for themselves. Political Parties are all the same. Most ordinary folks thinks politics doesn’t really affect them. Most ordinary folks express a perceived self-interest when they vote. Those with a perceived interest are usually by definition those with some financial stake in society and, therefore, their larger part is predisposed to be ‘conservative’. Voting is regarded largely as an exercise in private interest rather than a participatory act of the collective polity.

All these dull clichés literally govern our lives.

As a society we have a long history of disdaining all politics. It is not a new contempt. It at least as old as the Whigs and Tories. It is not that political causes per se do not matter to us as individuals – they do – LGBT rights was the cause of my lifetime – but perhaps Nuclear Disarmament was the political issue that generated most engagement of my generation  – as it had previously in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s under the banner of CND.

Political subjects that arouse similar individual interest and active commitment today might include – Climate Change – the exploitation of natural resources – genetic crops and industrial agriculture – modern slavery – the use of animals in laboratories –  animal welfare and animal rights, including say Fox hunting –  all of these own a political dimension but generally they are single issues of particular interest to an activist campaigning minority but still with a wider social resonance. They are the subject of general conversation over dinner and amongst friends. These days in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo we might also add in freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression and perhaps the moral issues of euthanasia; capital punishment and abortion. However, politics and party politics in particular are not so highly favoured. They do not fit in to the single issue concerns that generally concern us. Does that matter? It does –  it is just that we do not quite appreciate how very much.

For half a century now fewer and fewer people have joined political parties – let alone been party activists. It is not because joining large organisations is itself unfashionable –  as the burgeoning memberships of the National Trust and English Heritage illustrate. Similarly,  charities and smaller niche interests attract large memberships of so called ‘friends’. These active memberships are hale and hearty. It is true that sometimes these memberships also buy some privilege – like advance ticket purchase in the case of Theatre or Opera or sport –  or invitations to the steward’s enclosure in the case of Ascot; Henley; or Wimbledon. Football patrons are offered a similar hosts of freebies and special offers.  Wine Societies thrived on this same basis in the 1980’s.

Political parties by contrast have not thrived. The public remains politically unengaged –  at best – downright hostile at worst. Politics, if ever it was, is most certainly no longer amongst the polite interests of the aspirant lower middle and middling middle classes. For them it is a non-subject – although perhaps that is more true of Conservative voters who predominate in this group than those who own other political allegiances. And in Scotland in the last ten years – alike Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century – it is positively smart to be seen to be a Nationalist.

...charliethomasPolitics, however, remains the peculiar obsession of the social elites above the middling sort. That is mainly because they perceive it to be their personal business. Thanks to Trades Unions that political elite has expanded to include others drawn from a wider social and economic milieu. The activist working class and even underclass who like those at the very top are often politically engaged because they see the outcomes in terms of their own lives.Though interestingly and as with acting – politics once in a family often then remains an inter-generational family interest. All my family are political and hold strongly progressive values even if Mum and I were the most active politically of our family. We as a family branch were also the outsiders – both Labour supporters – in a largely Conservative world both in Ireland and later in Maidenhead and its conservative social acquaintance. It interests me that some Irish Catholic families from the same social strata of Irish society became strongly Labour in the post war diaspora whilst others were deeply Conservative.

My later status as  an “out gay” man in hostile times of my teens and twenties made a political career difficult and I did not pursue one for that reason. I had as it were chosen my cause  – and with the later advent of AIDS I had another cause to pursue.

It may well be, therefore, that one or other of my great nieces or nephew(s) may take up the cause of party and of politics on one side or another.

Politics is an acquired taste. Like all such tastes once acquired it usually remains a lifelong passion. Politics never makes for polite conversation. It is a minority interest, alike Philosophy and Religion and like both of these uglier of the three sisters, Politics matters very much. It also matters very much in modern democracy that there are viable vehicles for political aspiration and expression.

One of the great falsehoods peddled by received wisdom is that party politics changes nothing very much.

Party politics has changed us time and again in my lifetime – first, in the post war decade of Attlee;  then it refashioned us in the 1960’s of Kennedy and Wilson; it once more altered our world in the 1980’s of Reagan and Thatcher; though largely forgotten Blair and Brown, alike Clinton, also changed the terms of the political trade in the 1990’s; and the current Conservative leadership personified by David Cameron had to reinvent itself largely in terms of the perceived Blair hegemony.

This catalogue reminds us that in politics as in much else in life –  fashions come and go. As with clothes we often change our politics with the times without ever realising we’ve made a conscious choice to alter our views. In politics these fashions and fads successively most favour one party or group of parties over the other. Success breeds success but it also breeds reaction. Attlee was a socialist until we all became socialists; just as FDR’s New Deal was a commie trick until it became the blueprint for the postwar world. Goldwater was the nutter whose time came in Reagan; Powell and Milton Friedman were the gurus of Thatcher. Politics’ job is partly to make unpalatable truths into accepted facts; and to tame the wild ideas of extremes into domestic pets beloved by the ordinary voter.We rarely acknowledge it but party politics shapes the world about us in more ways than we are apt to think  – as absentmindedly we plan our weekends with friends or order takeaways from our mobile apps or check ourselves into airports using our mobile phones.

Were I to posit that the choice of say nursery or school; or whether children had a chance to learn music; or the opportunity go to theatre or opera; or the experience to travel abroad and to learn a foreign language; or the chance to play sport with proper facilities –  were not matters of general concern to the welfare of all of us – most parents would laugh me out of court. Yet the context that will shape the world where these activities takes place and determines who has access to them – party politics – is generally thought to be a matter of no more than of passing interest to those same devoted parents.

Politics will indeed shape our children’s world whether we wish to see it and acknowledge it or not. Moreover, as we can see from the long post war period of progressive hegemony from 1940 to 1970 followed by the equally long period of dominance of Conservative political ideas from the later 1970’s to 2008 – it is unarguable that the world made today will define our children’s tomorrows in ways we can only half-imagine. If party politics matters then the parties are important to us as they are in democracies the vehicles of delivery of political aspirations; so, additionally the ideas that fire the politics matter for they will determine the routes those vehicles can take.

The significance of this Labour leadership election is that it is taking place at a hugely significant time in our political affairs.

We are at one of those inter-generational defining moments – moments when political ideas that will shape the future are being tried and tested by both arms of the body politic. Will Obama be followed by Clinton and thus secure a new progressive dominance in US politics or will the now more ideological right of the Republican Party take full control of the agenda by winning the White House? The election here in May with the relatively familiar style of David Cameron – resting so heavily on its imitation of Tony Blair- has obscured the fact that the future politics of the UK is also at a profound turning point.

Our place in Europe and the survival of the UK as a political union are only the obvious things now at stake – but there is much more as we now face the consequences of globalization of finances, world trade and as national economies respond and nation states struggle to come to terms with this upheaval. The instabilities in the middle East with ISIS and the Caliphate not only drive terrorism they also drive pulses of migration.

Migration and population have long been the most powerful forces in History. They brought down the Roman Empire and made the Middle Ages and unmade them in the Black Death; they colonised North and South America; they help spawn the tumults of World War twice in the last century.

How we will come to face that future will in part be determined by whoever Labour chooses as its leader. For he or she will help determine how the political nation makes that turn it now faces and ultimately shape the direction of that turn itself. Sometimes the parochial is the global as much as the personal is the political.

 

 

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Budget – it’s really Good News for Labour
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Why Labour had good reason to feel cheerful:

Sometimes I fear we are not as surefooted as we should be. The events of the last week should us Labour supporters a bit chipper. It should make us realise that we can put the election defeats of 2010 and 2015 behind us. It should embolden us to reapply out thinking to the structural problems of the UK economy that remain unresolved – particularly social care, housing and the place of our young people in modern British society but also productivity….the bete noir of UK ever since the end of the Second World War.

The good news for Labour is that the government’s adoption of its fiscal and some prominent economic policies if properly talked-up by the party  will finally put to bed the notion that the program it offered last May was in any way undeliverable; irresponsible; or unrealistic. Quite to the contrary – we are all gradualists now and all in favour of businesses not using the Welfare system to maintain low wages – which is of itself one of the major causes of low UK productivity.

Mr Osborne has finally admitted in this first Conservative budget since 1997 that it is prudent and possible to spend £82 billion more over this whole Parliament; that it is possible to raise the minimum wage; that it is possible to increase taxes slightly; that reductions in public spending can be made over a longer timescale. Thus in principle what Labour offered in May was broadly right. Even if the government is now making poor choices it is still using the flexibility we identified. We are on longer therefore a party of economic incompetents and Labours spokesmen should welcome the Conservatives on to their centre ground.

Labour can now concentrate the debate on means and ends as the Conservatives have practically conceded the fiscal realities. How should government use that flexibility correctly identified by Labour in the public finances to the best ends for the good of the whole nation is what we should debate with the government. We, for example should not cut Tax Credits for many on low incomes to cut fund a cut in Inheritance Tax for those with homes worth 1 million pounds. Similarly, the argument Labour made on Energy turns out to be have been correct and the market  not only needs better regulation; the public get back what it is owed them.

Thus, we can finally put behind us the controversies of the past and put the leadership campaign in the focus of the future. We no longer need to feel the political debate  must be all about the closing years of the last Labour government. Instead Labour must concentrate on the problems like housing and engagement of our young adults in the economy and the polity – for they’re our future. We can also give Ed a standing ovation – because it turns out the argument was good even if we lost. Equally, we have to be truthful with ourselves, Ed wasn’t the best persuader we could have chosen to make the case and that the case was never made on the economy and the causes of the financial crash was our fault and not that of the electorate.

We now need a leadership that is fleet of foot and persuasive in debate –  and one that sounds – fresh – we have the issues – fairness – housing – social care and health care – and the reengagement of our future hope – our young people who are now being cut out of the security of the modern state by deliberate act of Conservative government policy.

We can now have a leadership campaign confident of the soundness of our judgements over the past decade.

Thank you Mr Osborne – in your eagerness to get into No 10 – you’ve made our most difficult political argument for us – we do have the resources available to make different choices and to bring about genuine change for the better for the many rather than for the advantage of the few.

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Kiss & Tell…..William Tell at the royal opera house
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William Tell – Royal Opera House​ – 5th July – Kiss & Tell

There is one scene in this production which aptly summarises the gratuitous perversity of its whole. It occurred not long after the now infamous “rape” a la ClockWork Orange perversely acted out over pretty the Rossini dance music for the original ballet.

The scene is for female chorus and two sopranos. In this production the women are accompanied by children – some indeed very small – who, whilst the two principals sing – are undressed to their skimpy underwear and washed on stage. There is no reason for this. The audience was invited to oggle at this side-show rather than concentrate on the singers. At the very least visually the kinder-strip wreaked of prurience and at worse it evoked something much more sinister….

William Tell is a troubled Opera with a patchy performance history. It is self consciously Grand Opera a genre still only in its infancy at the time of composition. At its best the music is mesmerising – rising to vast crescendos of soloists;chorus and orchestra. Like Wagner the characters have leitmotif – Rossini’s invention. Like Meyerbeer it’s a sprawling entertainment made up of many elements. Written for the French Opera that necessarily included dance or ballet music and an incidental music to set scenes – like the fabulous storm music at the end. It has an equally sprawling overture which is twice the length of the famous bit that everyone knows – the music used in TV series of The Lone Ranger – announced by the unmistakable flourish of hunting horns. These operas we meant to be elaborately staged – they were really the Epic Movies of their day.

This is essentially a story of good and evil – the evil represented by Gasler (a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham figure) the good by Tell. Dramatically the libretto is based on a Schiller play and is a complex study of the politics of the state and of the nation – a conflict between personal liberty and feudal duty. This conflict is made flesh as it were in the person of the heroine – the local princess Mathilde. For all its obvious drama the elements of this strange giant of an opera never quite meld into an intoxicating dramatic whole – though in their own right the elements are quite extraordinary. Rossini’s genius has so many original vocal ideas that others like Verdi and Wagner and even Meyerbeer would freely plunder to develop to effect.

In order to convince this opera of all needs a lavish production that fills in the gaps. What we had was one idea – the horrors of war – with which we were beaten over the head for 5 unrelenting hours. Some of it was silly – a ghost carrying a suitcase in front of the great trio of Act II; some of it was insulting; some of it was adolescent – the use of toy soldiers and a comic book; some of it gratuitous; very occasionally some of it resolved into a wonderful still tableau that indeed caught something of the grand in Grand Opera. But the fact is the whole thing was bloody awful rather than bloody and awful. It was an insult to the audience that the production only managed to add injury after injury.

Productions that court controversy deserve all the opprobrium they get. Cutting out the scenes designed to shock – there was not a lot left except a stage covered with compost and a big dead tree. These were the leitmotif for the barrenness of the producer’s imagination. It was telling in its lack of response to the variety of Rossini’s musical inventiveness. It is the vice of our times to believe audiences can only hold one idea in their heads. It is the vanity of producers to think we need continuous visual distractions or we’ll get bored. This William Tell was an exemplar of both these vices and vanities. In the end it was (rightly) buried alive under the weighty grandiosity of its conceptual pomposity.

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Charles Kennedy RIP
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Charles Kennedy RIP:

.000000charleskennedy1983_3326080bI am genuinely sad to learn of the death of Charles Kennedy. He was still a young man although perhaps his greatest days sadly were behind him. Nevertheless, he was one of the very few politicians who in mastering the Media art in the politics of our times never lost his authenticity. Like the late John Smith he is a reminder to us all of the immense richness we gain as a political nation by the Union. He was also that most rare of birds in our political ornithology – a true social democrat. If continuity with its Liberal past makes a comparison true – Kennedy was most successful Liberal leader since Lloyd George both in terms of votes won in 2001 and 2005 and seats won in 2001 and 2005. Charles Kennedy was right about the Iraq War when many, including me, were terribly wrong. Curiously perhaps for a leader of a third force in the UK he was not particularly in favour of PR. His personal demons got the better of his later time as a leading public and political figure but because of his personal authenticity perhaps his fall from grace was consequently graced with humanity rather than hubris. It is not often it can honestly be said but for Charles Kennedy it can be – if there were more of his ilk in public life our politics would be better regarded; our Parliament held in greater esteem and our institutions of government better served.

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Game of thrones III – a rough Guide to the Wars of the roses
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Game of thrones III – Lancaster bombs and York’s son rises:

.000shield henry vSome events no sooner have passed than they are bound with a tissue of myth. It is part of our cultural response to certain events – the assassination of JFK in November 1963 is an obvious example. Henry V was similarly and almost as immediately immortalised after his unexpected and unforeseen death in 1422. He was joined to that Pantheon of heroes  – most often young – snatched tragically too soon  – before their work was yet completed and before their promise was fulfilled – epitomised by Alexander the Great. Unlike us lesser mortals they never taste the soured grapes of failure; they elude the chastening of history’s hard judgement; they escape the forgetful frailties that come with age. Forever young – they live on in myth –  and in the case of Henry V forever wrapped in the splendid cope of Shakespeare’s poetry.

As a king, Henry V quickly came to epitomise an English chivalric ideal. As a monarch he was devout; as any good Christian king, he was religiously observant. As a patron he was a generous benefactor – Henry V founded All Souls College as a memorial to his victory at Agincourt. As its name suggests it was partly endowed as a Chantry College part of whose office was to pray for the souls of  England’s dead heroes rather than teach undergraduates. Henry V was a king who fought battles and won them against the odds. He was the king who made himself heir to the throne of France by force of arms but graciously sealed victory on the field by the peaceful gesture of dynastic marriage. Though young and brave he was wise and restrained. Whether the real Henry V was all or any or none of these things hardly matters for Empire won on the fields of France the conquering hero who was Henry V did not dally long before he in turn was conquered by death.

Henry V’s marriage to Katherine de Valois was a dynastic rather than a love match. Katherine was in fact the second wife King Charles VI had furnished to an English king since her elder sister Isabella had been the child-bride to the doomed Richard II. Katherine de Valois was quickly pregnant. Their first child was a son, born in December 1421, he was christened Henry. The infant boy was heir to both the thrones of England and of France.

The unification of the two warring kingdoms personified by this young prince-ling had required Charles VI to disinherit his youngest son – claiming the dauphin (later Charles VII of France) was illegitimate. His two elder sons, Louis and John had perished at Agincourt in the general slaughter of French nobility. The subsequent Treaty of Troyes (May 1420) bestowed not only the hand of Charles VI’s daughter but also settled the succession to the throne of France on Charles VI’s new son-in-law, Henry V. It may be as a consequence of this French chroniclers nicknamed Charles VI ‘the mad’. Mad or not,  Charles VI certainly suffered from repeated bouts of depressive illness which might have been of no significance were it not to be for the subsequent history of his grandson.

Henry V

Henry V

That was yet to come for in December 1421 the proud father, Henry V, was only thirty three. The House of Lancaster was secure and it appeared the greatest days for dynasty and king were yet to come.  As ever in history appearances can be deceptive.

Charles VI of France died in October 1422 – ten months after his grandson’s birth by which time the infant prince’s young, vigorous father, Henry V,  was also dead.  As accidents of history are most often fatal to a dynasty; so, it is the unforeseen that most often alters history’s course. Such youthful promise lost still in its fullest flower drew easy comparisons and in death Henry V’s renown was readily burnished with the heroic patina of an Alexander. But renown’s paeans die in the eerie still that follows the herald’s final trumpeting. The future now belonged rather to the dead king’s nine month old son, King Henry VI.

Henry VI – Faction & Intrigue

Young Henry VI’s coronation did not follow swiftly on his accession but like most of his life – it had rather to wait upon events. In July 1427 – inspired by Joan of Arc – the ‘bastard’ dauphin – the young son whom Charles VI had disinherited – was crowned Charles VII of France to acclaim in Reims cathedral.  By way of contradiction to the coronation of the dauphin Henry VI was finally crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey in November 1429 and shortly thereafter he was also crowned king of France in Notre Dame de Paris.  Already it was too late as even by 1429 the dazzling possibility of a single English monarch governing the two kingdoms was but a chimera. Its moment had already passed.

The accession of so young a king had also caused other problems. The queen, Katherine de Valois, had hardly the time to established herself in England before her husband was dead. It was therefore inevitable that the chary nobility refused her the natural role of regent or any formal place on the king’s council. Equally, they did not want their queen to return to France. She was rather marooned in England  – and then subsequently she was kept from a marriage to a high ranking Lancastrian noble by the jealous council. The queen was closely confined and kept out of harm’s way in the royal apartments in a suite of rooms on the king’s side. The young dowager queen was only just 20 and as so often with the young – harm has its way of finding them out. She looked elsewhere for comfort, entertainment and love. It came to her in the courtly cape of the keeper of her wardrobe – a Welshman – Owen Tudor. The Tudor family had been stalwarts of Owain Glyndwyr’s rising in 1400 which had been supported by Edmund Mortimer. After their defeat a number of these Welsh ‘gentry’ were brought to Henry IV’s court – rather as hostages – and many made there way from there into royal service of Henry IV and to hold office- in the royal household. The dowager queen was quickly pregnant and their son Edmund was consequently of doubtful legitimacy.When in time Henry VI made their son Edmund,  Earl of Richmond few would have believed he would become a significant player in the battle for the English succession. Legitimised and ennobled, Edmund Tudor in fact married into the legitimised and ennobled Lancastrian Beaufort line – Margaret Beaufort, daughter of the second Duke of Somerset (by second creation) and by 1485 surviving sole heiress of the House of Lancaster. Edmund and Margaret had only one child whom they named Henry Tudor. The rest, as they say is history.

Meanwhile, much as in the reign of the young Richard II,  Henry VI’s government was the business rather of his royal uncles. And as before, they quickly filled the royal breach with their own ambitions. Initially, there were plenty of Lancastrian Uncles left to choose from – of the brothers of Henry V –  the eldest Thomas, Duke of Clarence had died in 1421; the next, named for John of Gaunt, John, Duke of Bedford was appointed regent in France. He faced down Joan of Arc but died without issue in 1435 and was buried in Rouen. The youngest of Henry V’s brothers was by far the most able – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He was Henry VI’s  lord protector but he too was unlucky in love  – his first wife bore him no children and his second wife was accused of sorcery and imprisoned and by the time of his death in 1447 he had no legitimate heirs.

.warsofroseshenryvipayne_rosesHumphrey was also unlucky in politics since his main rivalry was with the cadet Beaufort branch of the House of Lancaster in the person of John of Gaunt’s second son by Katherine Swynford, Cardinal Henry Beaufort Bishop of Winchester. It is the rivalry and intrigue between these two scions of the Gaunt descent that fills Raphael Holinshed’s history of England and shaped much of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I. The cardinal died shortly after Humphrey leaving the young king to rule alone. Henry VI was by then 26. The ‘bastard’ Beaufort line was fecund and in its statutory legitimacy found itself bound into the wider English nobility. And it is with the other Beaufort – the 2nd Duke Duke of Somerset – second creation –  who is is famously depicted in Henry VI Pt II and set in Temple Gardens. The meeting portrayed opposite never took place but it sums up perfectly the elements in the gathering storm that was to completely overwhelm the House of Lancaster and her king, Henry VI in the decade after 1445.

The root of the problem was the king. Henry VI was later memorialised as a saint. In Tudor ceremonials – funeral and marriages – Henry VI’s arms were borne in procession under the designation St. Henry. He certainly was religious but is was his poor mental health that posed the greatest danger to his government. His marriage to Margaret of Anjou was successful enough in its own terms but Henry was slow to fulfill his office of husband. His first serious bout of mental illness therefore left him at the mercy of the ambitions of his Yorkist cousins.

The rise of the sons of York

The House of York had originally somewhat withered on its original branches. Edmund Duke of York, Edward III’s fourth son and his eldest son and heir, Edward were both dead by 1415. The duchy lands –  though not the ducal title – had, therefore, passed sideways to Edmund’s second son, Richard (of Conisburgh) Earl of Cambridge. The York branch was junior to all of Gaunt’s children. The Beaufort – illegitimate children of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford –  were later legitimised when the grand old duke married Mistress Swynford but their legitimisation excluded in any event from the succession. The senior lines to Gaunt via Richard II had failed; and via the second son of Edward III, Lionel Duke of Clarence, it had descended via the female line into the Mortimer. The Mortimer, father and son had been Richard II’s preferred heirs but that came to mean nothing and by the death of Henry V the male Mortimer lines had also failed. However, their deaths left a sister, Anne Mortimer. Her marriage to Richard (of Conisburgh) Earl of Cambridge united the senior Clarence claim to the junior male York descent. Their son, another Richard, was consequently made Duke of York by Henry VI. He is the first Yorkist claimant.

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself...

The family tree that led to a family at war with itself…

 

.0000Edward_IV_PlantagenetRichard, Duke of York was premier peer. He married in his turn Anne Neville sister to the Richard Neville Earl of Warwick (the kingmaker). By her he had four sons – Edward, Earl of March; George; Richard and Edmund. Richard, Duke of York, was as aforementioned the first of the royal house to use Plantagenet as a family name. This Duke of York was as able and ambitious as his royal cousin Henry VI was vacillating and modest. Whilst Henry VI was mentally incapacitated Richard served briefly as Protector of England (1453-4). This promotion only served to feed his appetite for a more permanent royal status. York bullied the then heir-less king, Henry VI, into naming him as his heir.It was a fateful ambition that now stirred.

Henry VI’s recovery from his silent depression was quickly followed by his wife Margaret’s pregnancy. The birth of their son, Edward of Westminster changed everything. Whatever the king had promised York or was prepared to accept Margaret was not minded to have her child lightly set aside. She refused to acknowledge her son was disinherited and despairing of her husband’s spine – Margaret took matters into her own hands. The thwarted Duke of York reacted furiously asserting his right to the crown and claiming legitimacy via Anne Mortimer. Parliament havered – it was nervous about removing an anointed king so instead it settled on Richard Duke of York the titles of Lord Protector; Earl of Chester and Prince of Wales. Richard Duke of York  was therefore legally putative heir to Henry VI. The promotion to Earl of Chester was important since it made the Duke of York a Palatine Prince co-equal to the palatinate status of the duchy of Lancaster. Parliament could not create such a palatine but it could and did award one already existing and already owned by the crown to York. It could hardly have been more explicit.

Queen Margaret fled North looking for allies and found a welcome in Scotland. Together with James III she invaded England at the head of a large army and Richard, Duke of York was unexpectedly defeated by her army at Wakefield. He and his youngest son Edmund were killed.

.00woodvillearticle-1078522-0226D772000005DC-426_306x423His three surviving sons, Edward, now Duke of York; George, (later Duke of Clarence);and Richard (later, Duke of Gloucester) were not minded to take the murder of their father and brother lying down. If his father had ambition; drive and skill on the field; Edward had real military flair verging – alike that of Henry V – on genius. He was also handsome as Hades and a notorious womaniser and looked every inch the king he was about to become. The three brothers together with the Neville defeated Margaret. Edward seized his moment and was quickly crowned Edward IV (1461-1483).

Queen Margaret and their son Edward of Westminster fled to France. Henry VI was placed in the Tower.  In their places they all stayed until Fate tempted them.

Fate came in the cut of the Earl of Warwick – the kingmaker was switching kings. He persuaded Edward IV’s brother George Duke of Clarence to join him. Clarence later double-ratted and the worm of treachery burrowed its way into what until then had been the united House of York.

The House of York

Edward IV once king had surprised everyone by marrying down rather than up. He fell in love with and secretly married Elizabeth Woodville and by her had two sons Edward (proclaimed  Edward V in June 1483) and Richard, Duke of York. These are known to History as the ‘two princes in the Tower’.There were a number of surviving girls – Elizabeth; Mary; Cecily; Anne; and Bridget (who became a nun in Dartford Abbey). If the boys failed to live up to the promise of the three glorious sons of York  – Edward IV’s daughters fared better and went further.

Edward IV’s marriage was not without controversy and not at all what the earl of Warwick had planned for the king. Warwick in negotiation with France had won the hand of a French princess for the new dynasty’s new king. Thwarted Warwick fell from favour and fled England. His travels eventually brought him to the court of Margaret and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales. Their subsequent invasion caught Edward IV off-guard and he in his turn fled London to Burgundy. Henry VI was briefly restored but as ever with Henry’s reign fate rained on his parade. In 1471 at Tewkesbury Edward IV defeated the forces of Margaret and there followed a bloodbath of Lancastrian nobility which included the putative Lancastrian heir, Edward of Westminster.  Edward IV then had Henry VI brusquely murdered in the Tower – leaving no further hostages to fortune – it seems the family war was finally over.

There was one other trailing piece of business – Edward IV no longer trusted his brother George. He duly had the duke was arrested and attainted for treason. Clarence’s children were excluded from the succession and Clarence ended in a butt of Malmsey wine.

But alike Henry V,  Fate now took a hand and her revenge upon the Yorkists in their pride. Edward IV died suddenly. He left two young princes at the tender mercy of the body politic. If minorities were unstable this was to prove the least stable of all of them.

.000edwardiv3809993796_52c5418aa8Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester was briefly Lord Protector to the minor Edward V but the princes were declared bastards and Richard was himself proclaimed King Richard III in July 1483. Richard III was the last Plantagenet king to rule England and the last monarch of the House of York. His death at Bosworth Field in 1485 made way for the Tudors – who had their claim via the Beaufort  cadet branch from John of Gaunt and Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V and later of Owen Tudor.

Elizabeth of York married Henry VII and thus the Tudors united the two roses and she is consequently both mother to the Tudor dynasty and a grandmother to the Stewart.

The other daughters of Edward IV – Cecily married John, Viscount Wells – half-brother to Margaret Beaufort; Catherine married the William Courtenay, created Earl of Devon in 1511 by Henry VIII. Clarence’s surviving heir was restored in blood by Henry VIII. She had by them married a henchman of Henry VII, Sir Richard Pole. Margaret Pole, Clarence’s youngest daughter was made Countess of Salisbury in her own right. But the sun on these last of York burned too bright. Margaret’s son fell out with Henry VIII over the divorce. Reginald Pole fled England in 1533 and only finally returned to England under Mary I to serve briefly as Archbishop of Canterbury.  his mother, Blessed Margaret Pole was by then dead. She had refused the Supremacy and was executed for treason a few days after her eldest son. He grandson died a few years later in mysterious circumstances inside the tower. The lights of the House of York were extinguished.

Ends and what ends mean

However, because the story is complicated it does not mean it cannot be readily understood.That seems to me to show intellectual condescension that is unjustified. If the “average Joe” is quite capable of following a complex web of family intrigue involving power that is the Game of Thrones on TV the Wars of the roses ought to be a piece of cake.

There has been a great deal of twaddle spoken and written about Richard III over recent months. Historians good, bad and indifferent have paraded around Media studios like circus clowns. I saw one historian sitting on a sofa wearing a suit of armor chatting to Jon Snow meaningfully about how it helped him to get inside the tenor of the times of Richard III. Dressing up in costumes and play-acting is fun – it should be encouraged – but it should not be dressed up as history – anymore than microwaving a chilled dinner can masquerade as cooking.

Richard III

Richard III

Channel Four News coverage has gilded practically every lily and white rose it could lay its hand upon. We have been solemnly informed that this was an historic occasion; the Epic journey of the last Medieval Plantagenet king; and at its end Richard III was finally buried with the dignity of kingship.It makes one wonder if any serial killer might deserve to be re-interred with such pomp in the right circumstance.

The event was noteworthy and not historic. As it happens the king had already been buried in Grey Friars and would have received all his spiritual dues, even if his dead body had by then been exposed to indignities. Carting the rediscovered bones of Richard III about Leicester in a new coffin hardly adds up to an Odyssey let alone an Epic event. Finally, King Richard III has been dead some five hundred years and at this stage whatever we know we are unlikely to know very much more – the surviving evidence is not changed a jot by all of this. His bones – with the curvature of the spine –  provide an interesting footnote. His tomb in Leicester Cathedral will provide the city with a tourist attraction – much as the relics of saints did for churches in medieval times. In that there is no harm and perhaps some definite good.

 

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Humble Pie Day
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Humble Pie Day:

One must never be grudging or bittealogosdownload (1)r about being wrong. I have been completely wrong before about election results so being completely wrong again is not a surprise to me. I wrote the paragraph below at 2 am before bed but I did not post it but I think it’s fair enough in the cold light of this coldly disappointing day.

“As ever the important thing to learn from a political defeat is the right lesson. For all this night may now bring in disappointment to political parties and to individuals – it is very much alike the victories bought with Danegeld which bought time and a sort of peace but left entirely unresolved the problem the of the Danes. The Union which makes the United kingdom had been traded by the Conservative Party for the fools gold of a victory that is only English.The LibDems are completely eviscerated as they had were previously been by their fond embrace of the Conservative Party in the 1930’s.

Labour has deluded itself for five years that it could eke out a victory by winning in the marginals without winning the bigger argument. and one of the arguments lost decisively was lost shortly after 2010 when the coalition pinned the responsibility for the financial crash on Labour ably assisted by Liam Byrne’s foolish letter – meant as a joke – which always sounded to the wider electorate as a confession of guilt.

Finally, for those on the progressive and Union side of UK politics this not a time for mutual recriminations. We must start from where we are and learn from what went before.”

I’ve not seen the actual voting % yet as I went to bed around 2 not long after Putney but I will make some observations – first, the LibDem % below 10% would previously have led to to the conclusion that alike UKIP they would end up with only a handful of seats. Secondly, to be fair to the pollsters the Labour vote I’m guessing will be around 30% which would have been at the lower end of their + or – 3% rule. Thirdly, it seems the Murdoch press has what it wanted – the SNP in Scotland and the conservatives in England. Prepare for the Europe referendum and for the SNP demanding another Referendum as part of their Holyrood campaign next year.

But one should not deny the Conservatives their due – once again they played a blinder with the vote SNP get Labour mantra which clearly had traction. This strategy started on the morning of the Referendum result when Cameron cited English votes for English Laws as a consequence of the Scots decision to remain in the Union. As in 2010 the Conservative leadership has played its hand with a ruthless flair and you cannot learn the lessons of a defeat unless you embrace the reality of its cause.

I’m glad to have quoted Teddy Kennedy’s speech previously – it was written by Ted Sorensen who crafted all of JFK’s great speeches and Bobby Kennedy’s too. Great causes need great words but they also need guile of great men or women – we need to find them in the rubble of this defeat….and one of them will not be Mr Balls!

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Made in Chelsea made me think……
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.000homeless329552840_4_homeless-person-beg-signThe poor are always with us….

Last night I caught a few minutes of a TV series dedicated to ‘the haves’ of our nation –  Made in Chelsea. It chronicles the lives and loves of a group of affluent young people in the West London – about and around Belgravia, the King’s Road and Knightsbridge and their adventures in the wider world of city breaks and endless parties, lunches and vacations.

Their preoccupations are singular and self obsessed. It is easy to laugh at them and then do as they habitually do pass on to something more amusing without a further thought. It is easy just to laugh at the show for is it not just a foolish Media foolish confection accurately reflecting nothing more or less than the shallow vacuity of our consumerist society?  Is that the moral response?

Moral – humbug say you – gilded youth is surely often hedonistic and those youths fortunate by birth to have lives gilded with real gold will only tend to be more hedonistic than the rest. They will spend money as freely as they spend time and striking an absolute moral pose about this fact of life only draws attention to one’s own personal foibles and failings – the word hypocrite trips too easily off the tongue. We fear the word moral as we fear being termed hypocrites.

Made in Chelsea is a TV show about London a city where I have lived most of my adult life. In this same city as Alexandra “Binky” Felstead or Mark-Francis Vandelli  there are 2.2 million other Londoners living in relative poverty – that is they live on less than half the average national income. Half national income is roughly £12,000 per annum. That is roughly twice the number as when I first came to live here in 1976.

Nor has relative poverty increased in isolation. For example 39% of those living in the private rented sector in London are categorised as living in relative poverty and that is because more people now live in the rented sector because of the shortage of social or public housing. There are 11 thousand families living in temporary accommodation – many of them outside the boroughs where they registered housing need and where they work. Fourteen million UK citizens live in or around that income level and many are in constant danger of real material deprivation.

One million of our fellow citizens have used a food bank in the last 12 months. Therefore, one million families in the UK have some direct experience of what we term poverty. Government statistics tell us one and five children live in what is termed absolute poverty in the UK.  Absolute poverty is defined as lack of sufficient resources to meet basic needs. There are around 12 thousand homeless in London at any one time and half of these live on the streets.

Those made in Chelsea might say – sad but true – or what has that to do with me?  Or they might excuse themselves by saying God helps those who help themselves – as if the Almighty is just another material acquisition like a pair of Gucci shoes or a Chanel handbag to which those who have are entitled.  These are of the legion of polite fictions we regularly employ to save ourselves from the inconvenience of thinking too hard about the realities of others lives beyond those of our immediate and charmed circle of acquaintance. The poor are with us and we need not trouble ourselves about it much more than giving the occasional nod via an occasional donation to this or that charity.

We claim the unfortunate for ourselves so we can feel we care and then we quietly look the other way. I’m no better than anyone but I am more and more uncomfortable with my pose. In the context of an entry I made on Facebook yesterday about food banks – Made in Chelsea last night made me feel ashamed. I still feel ashamed. We cast the net of blame about us as if we might catch the conscience of a king. Sometimes we do not need to wait upon royal prerogative – we can do something ourselves. The things in question may be small – trivial – hardly noticed – but they will accumulate to make a difference. One of those things is to vote; another is to vote with conscience rather than just as self-interest directs.

We too easily forget in our relative privilege that Poverty is usually blameless and usually the accident of birth or misfortune. Many of those living in poverty have physical or learning disabilities; or low educational attainment; or they suffer from serious recurrent mental health issues. Their poverty is often inter-generational and often leads to social exclusion and as a consequence they suffer discrimination on almost every level – from accessing state benefits or education or housing to basic legal aid. They will often fall further into social exclusion – fall foul of the criminal law – or acquire addictions. They will as often as not present to us as unsympathetic. Poverty is a state into which they are born. There they remain a lifetime – not in the bucolic idyll of obscurity etched out in Grey’s Elegy but in the blind hopelessness that accrues to them because they are poor and because they are disadvantaged. We who are not poor console ourselves with the notion that it is possible for everyone to enjoy our relative success. That is of course untrue – for history may be littered with memorials to the the blessed few that made it through to the top but the other 99% died as they were born – in want.

We are all bi-polar if only in a philosophical sense. We experience life within the narrows of our mind and body but oddly we conceptualise our life principally in the terms of others – or at the very least in terms of things outside our being even if only within our easy grasp. Sometimes as apparently with those starring in Made in Chelsea the acquisition of things in easy grasp becomes a way of life; for others less fortunate things in easy grasp are things to take from those who have. They both share the common delusion that the things – and their possession – will somehow make for happiness and contentment. Most often they only lead to a hunger for more and more and like all human appetites when fed it will need more to satisfy the craving.

.0000homelessimagesAt the best this conceptualised experience of life  can lead us towards each other and to the moments of our greatest fulfillment. For simplicity’s sake we might call this love. Love of our fellow man is part and parcel of how we imagine our own humanity. We garnered this wisdom early on in our short time on this planet. About the same time we were studying the stars at night we were studying each other. From the one we understood something of the motion of planets and the geometry of their movement opened a new world here on earth –  as well as making the heavens somehow predictable. At the time when we were writing these observations down we were also wrting down philosophical ideas often in the form of memorable aphorisms. One of them – love thy neighbour as thyself – aptly summarises the bipolar philosophical condition of our existence. Although often associated as uniquely Christian the injunction first appears in the Bible in Leviticus.  We can therefore be pretty sure its provenance is older.

The idea of loving your neighbour challenges us simply because we only really experience the world directly through and from our own perspective and within the limitations of our bodies and of our minds. Moreover – it has always been the stranger to whom this injunction has been applied – friends and family did not count when this principle was coined – indeed in Leviticus the usage ‘foreigner’  is the one most commonly appearing in translation. It is a call to consciousness of others’ needs that speaks directly to our own experience – for in a strange – perhaps in a counter-intuitive way – ancient mankind had observed the greatest collective security was to gained by considering the needs of others as if they were our own. The idea has constantly recurred in philosophy and in religions everywhere.

I had no notion on going to sleep that Made in Chelsea had made such an impression on me. When I woke this morning at about half four – I felt impelled to write. In so doing I probably have made a fool of myself. I do not do this for myself or because I feel superior or because I judge others and least because I am better than anyone. I write this because I feel it needs to be said. We easily forget the many chances life affords us and i have been afforded for whatever reason more chances than many. I want to give others – most especially those whom I regard as the least deserving – that same chance to look back on their life and feel as I do when I look back on mine.

 

 

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The Last Word….
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alogosdownload (1)I have avoided commenting on the debates in detail mainly because we all reveal our own (party) prejudices inevitably in listening to discussion – even when we agree with a speaker –  and we tend to hear the things that most reflect our own beliefs and reinforce our own position. As my position is widely known I imagine its repetition with neither engage nor intrigue.

I did not like the format. I thought many of the questions were too contrived. Frankly some sounded desperately planted. I also thought as there were two coalition partners defending their record in government with an equal amount of time – it lacked inevitable balance. I also thought – and here so did those watching with me – that the PM was accorded too much latitude from cross questioning from audience members a grace which was not given either to Miliband or to Clegg. I noted particularly David Dimbleby did not permit those asking questions on food banks to challenge the PM but invited them to challenge Deputy PM Clegg.In the narrows of the advantage gained – Mr Clegg may well have done enough to ensure he hangs on in Sheffield Hallam assuming his constituents were watching on TV.

The most interesting comments of the night – scripted or otherwise – came from Mr Cameron with his referendum redline; Clegg with his EU redline equal and opposite and finally a clear indication that if Miliband is asked to form a government we are looking to a minority government – alike Wilson in 1974 – whether Miliband has the sinuous skills this will demand is an interesting question which arises from his decision.

The debate did not illuminate the public discourse and it will neither change minds or inspire fervour.

We are very much where we were when we came in – except made tireder by this extended format now permitted by fixed term parliaments – with the numbing possibility that we will have to face this all again within a year.

In that profound sense my feeling is that once we are dusted and done on 7th May – akin to the Scots referendum – leaving nothing finally settled in any positive way – the momentum will move once more from both the larger parties, especially as any new election is bound to fall into the timetable for the elections to Holyrood.

The UK and potentially its continuance; and its membership of the EU as a single entity or as a series of smaller nation states will all remain in play.

A century ago the entire island of Ireland was as yet still part of the United Kingdom. A century on and it looks as if the dynamic that knit together the islands of the British archipelago into one of the most centrally governed unitary states in history is in reverse. I guess the Roman Empire fell apart as completely over a hundred years as well… History is replete with unresolvable conundrums of this nature.

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United we Stand – divided they rule – the politics of the Union
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alogosdownload (1)United we stand?

Party politicians on all sides should be chary about the tactics they employ in this general election over the political legitimacy of potential coalition partners – for they may have effects which are unexpected and potentially irreversible.

It is becoming less and less clear to me that the Conservatives are any longer minded to continue on with the Union in its traditional terms. The tactics first adopted on the morning of the Referendum result when the PM raised the issue of English votes for English Laws (EVEL) in a manner which only exacerbated a prevailing sense that politics of the UK Union are singularly a matter of party advantage.  These are not new tactics. The main political parties have employed them one way or another ever since Parnell. As tactics today they only make political sense to a political party that has had little or no representation in Scotland for 40 years. The Conservative Party has literally lost touch with an entire nation in the Union.

This tactic has now been continued into the General Election. It may bring some near term party advantage to the Conservatives in terms of seats in England but may also bring about another Independence Referendum in Scotland. The fact they are willing to take that risk  betrays much more than the need to win. to this as a party they have additionally added the potential of the EU referendum. That may also further destabilise Union parties in Scotland. Moreover, the febrile nature of the politics of devolution in NI rests on the UK and Irish governments as two equal parties. Were there to be more parties to that agreement the very rationale that has contained aspirations for a United Ireland may be quickly undermined – particularly if Sinn Fein rises in Ireland North and South much as the SNP has risen in Scotland.

The LibDems have today – or at least Mr Clegg has – set out his terms for a UK government that may exclude the entire party political interest in Scotland from participation in the Union government in Westminster. The Labour Party has not been far behind in rhetoric but somewhat less explicit. Mr  Clegg has additionally offered the constitutional novelty of the notion that a party with most votes or seats  – presuming no matter how small the plurality – in always entitled to be part of the government. The corollary to this is the LibDems must be present in a government to make it legitimate; whereas UKip or DUP would have an equal and opposite effect. In effect a minority Conservative government would be preferable to one composed of any number of other parties.

If as seems likely – there are no Conservative or LibDem MP’s from North of the border and at best a handful of LiS – they are by these actions only making the SNP’s case to pursue independence.

I’m not sure Union parties who can’t get MP’s elected in Scotland should be wagging their fingers at the party chosen by an entire Nation in the Union and saying – we cannot do business with you. I am at a loss how these Nationalists differ in nature to the Irish nationalists or British and Irish unionists with whom we happily did business for a century.

Personally, as an Irishman and historian I am well aware that the politics of the Unions was always about low base calculation rather than high principle. That said – that was then – the history of these Islands since 1921 has demonstrated that small independent nations particularly within the EU can prosper – and that the politics of divide and rule tends over time to make divisions ever more unbridgeable.

The parties of the Union have all failed in Scotland. That is not something for which they’re taking any responsibility but instead they’re demonising their opponent and in doing so making the whole project UK ever more unstable.

Many contemporary politicians have a very poor grasp on History. If they did they’d really not play party politics with the Union – it had never ended well in the past – in Ireland North and South and elsewhere in GB – over disestablishing the Church of wales for example –  and it will end badly this time as well.

It is a cliche of every age to say we get the politicians we deserve – but honestly this time we all deserve better of them because something bigger is at stake. If we all value the UK and the Union we should all tell all our party political leaders to drop this language.

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