A Benson Carol – the story of a Christmas yet to come….


“Charlie, Gracie have you got your coats on?”

Kate could hear her children’s excited stomping – she’d heard them all morning.

It had been Robbie’s idea to take the kids out to do the Bensington Society Christmas Quiz.

Improvisations brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic had become part of village Christmas – the Star atop the tower of the parish church in Advent – the Bensington Society Christmas Quiz in the bulletin – the take-away Christmas lunches from the Crown and Three Horseshoes….

Kate pulled the Quiz from the Benson Bulletin and put it on the gleaming white kitchen worktop. Where were the Heritage Trail leaflets? Her thoughts were matched by her audible muttering


She ungraciously yanked open the bottom drawer of the dresser – a family piece that came from Robbie’s grandmother.

“It’s a family heirloom” – her mother-in-law opined as it was squeezed into Kate’s kitchen – as unwanted as most surprise gifts

“You should have kept it for yourself” Kate had said at the time.

It wouldn’t go in my kitchen.” Robbie’s mum had offered airily. “Robbie loves it.” Kate forever found herself bumping into the bits of the dresser that stuck out…into her kitchen…into her marriage…into her life.  Kate hated it.

She retrieved two more Heritage Trail leaflets and with a heavy sigh put them on the worktop. The quiz would keep them out of her way.

Her plan was to get on with some gift wrapping and make the American frosting for the Christmas cake.

The frosting recipe was something of a survival – on yellowing paper cut carefully a 1950s magazine by her grandmother. It was one of a life’s odd survivals long after the rest is lost in memory’s wintry mists. The recipe came with a few careworn decorations – a snowman; a Santa and a wobbly wren that had lost its leg.

Standing up Kate reached over and picked up a tiny battered box from next to the cake stand. Those precious remnants lived from year to year, from cake to cake in that old box.

She fondly caressed each of them in turn.

Kate loved these gems of Christmas past. There were tears in her eyes and she felt a dry lump in her throat. Battered and broken, in her mind’s eye, they shone like that brilliant star she’d once imagined had really led those three wise men to the stable at Bethlehem.  Christmas had been so special then. What was it now?  

In a firework-flash her precious memory was gone.

Gracie and Charlie ran noisily into the kitchen – wearing their signature duffle coats – Gracie’s deep pink and Charlie’s brilliant green.

Robbie ambled into the kitchen after the children. He always looked unhurried and un-hassled. It annoyed Kate. 

“We’ll be an hour or so.”

“Be as long as you like.” 

Her tone was sword-sharp; her words cut. Shamed and surprised, she pretended not to notice but everyone else had.

They left.  It was then she wished she’d said sorry but now it was too late.

Her Christmas preparations were edged with regret.

Kate longed to recatch that perfect memory from only moments earlier. She closed her eyes and willed it back. It had turned its back on her.  It was gone.

The house was quiet.

Suddenly Kate felt profoundly alone – bereft – it was silly. Silly or not she was in a flood of tears.

It had been one of those days – one of those weeks – one of those years. After the pandemic, work wasn’t straightforward; Robbie’s job had gone; money worries plagued their marriage with reproach; home worries came with Charlie’s bout of bad health; and then Kate’s mum had developed dementia.

Squally outbursts of tears were now a part of life, but Kate didn’t share them – neither with Robbie nor with Charlie and Gracie – instead she battled to protect them from her pain. But somehow the more she tried to manage things the more it all just seemed to drive little wedges of distrust between them.

Now, as Christmas loomed all those little things loomed larger.

She cried for a while before she heard a low meow. “Oh, Wi-li” her tears stopped. Wi-li, a blue point Siamese, had returned from his morning constitutional, which often included a bit of random bird slaying or shrew killing. He was empty mouthed. He talked to her in his feline way. Kate gave him some dried food. He purred. He ate. He wailed. It was his way.

Wi-li knew all her problems. With him she could share her loneliness and her worry and the very irrationality of sharing these secrets with a cat somehow put the irrationality of her feelings into some sort of perspective.

“I’ll make the frosting, Wi-li…”

He studied her with his sapphire blue eyes – sphinx-like – it was his way – somehow wise, somehow silent.


The eggs whites were thickening nicely over a saucepan of warm water when the doorbell rang.

Kate leaned back and strained to see to the glass front door. She could make out the silhouette of a man.

“Just a minute.”

The doorbell rang again.

“Hold-on for heaven’s sake.”

As she walked down the hall a shaft of sunlight pierced the front door’s frosted glass. There were three shadows – not one.

There had been talk of the “Northampton knockers” in the village…. young men apparently selling dishcloths and such but looking for a chance to case a house for valuables.

“I don’t want anything…I don’t buy at the door…I’m busy.”

Having committed herself both to words and action she now found she was, almost ludicrously, stranded sunlit on one side of the front door leaving the three strangers with a clear view.

She wished she’d just stayed mum in the kitchen and then scolded herself for speaking out. Speaking out – it was a family trait – Robbie always said that when they argued.

Recently they’d argued more than ever before.

She opened the door.

They smiled – all three together – synchronised smiles – like Cheshire cats. Kate smiled back.

“Honestly, I really don’t want anything. I’ve enough dish cloths for a year’s washing-up.”

Her last words trailed off because she could see they were not selling anything.

They looked rather – well, rather well dressed…perhaps they were Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses…she could not quite remember which was which any longer. Kate had long left religion behind although she’d been brought up a Catholic…well had gone to a Catholic school in any case.

One of them was very tall and had the most beautiful ebony skin and round brown eyes that almost seemed to sing with joy. The others looked Middle Eastern or maybe Arab – gentle eyes whose soft gaze comprehended more than sight can see – one a little shorter than the other.  Perhaps they were sheiks.

They smiled.

Kate smiled back for what she felt was no good reason.

“We’ve come about the star…”

“The star?”

“Yes, the star”

The black man spoke quietly “Yes, we’ve lost sight of it you see”

The second “and we need your help to find it again.”

“My help?”

The third, “yes, because you caught sight of it a little while ago.”

“Me, I don’t think so.”

“We saw.”

“You saw? How?”

Assuming they meant they saw her in the hall, she added “Oh, I see.”

The first, emphatically “Yes, you saw.”

A silence.

“We are expected you see.”

“I think you’ve the wrong house.”

“Oh no, this is certainly the right house. We knew you’d help. You always help people. We know that too.”

“Who told you?”

Kate was about to close the door and then something came to mind,

“Oh, you must mean the star on the church.”

They didn’t reply.

“You must have come in from Ewelme. Yes, of course.”

She thought to herself they must be coming for the Nativity Play and Carol Concert.

“You just need to carry on straight, down the road…you’ll see the church near the war memorial…”

A crash from the kitchen – a loud meow and cat shriek…


Kate darted quickly back down the hall and into the kitchen and found the floor covered with congealed frosting swimming in a lake of boiling water.


Wily as his name suggested, Wi-li had disappeared.

She began to pick up the pieces when she remembered the three men. Seized by panic…would they be inside her house? She popped her head around the kitchen door and looked back into the hall.

The door was closed.

Cagily, she took a broom – it was the first thing she laid her hand to – and cautiously went through the house – room to room – checking the cupboards – and in the wardrobes – and under the beds – heavens under the beds – had she gone mad? – she thought.

There was no one there. She sat on Charlie’s bed. She’d sat there long lonely nights worrying about her little boy. She closed her eyes embracing both fear and pain.

The doorbell rang.

Kate opened her eyes. The ceiling came into focus.  She was lying on the bed holding a broom in her arms.

The doorbell again.

She got up and then remembered the three strangers. 

She walked back downstairs.

A shadow by the door.

Kate opened it brusquely, armed, and ready to defend her home.


“I forgot my key.”

“Mummy, mummy look what we’ve found…look.”

The children burst into the hall and ran towards the kitchen…

“No!” Kate almost screamed.

She rushed towards them and tried to block their way. Gracie and Charlie were already through the door but silent and awestruck.

Robbie, ‘how beautiful, Kate.”

Wi-li was sitting on the dresser washing himself unperturbed by the fracas.

The most perfectly frosted Christmas cake sat on a cake stand in the middle of the kitchen table. It had three wise men on it….

Robbie clicked.

“I must put this on Instagram”

“Mum it is perfect.”

“It’s just lovely mum.” Charlie pulled close to her.

Kate looked in disbelief.: “where did they come from?”

Charlie, “they come from the Orient.”

“That’s very far away you know, mummy.” Gracie added as a grace note.

The afternoon at the church had been a bit chaotic. Everyone was in a bit of a to-do about the crib. Someone had put the three kings in the manger with shepherds and all.

“Who put those in there. The kings don’t arrive until Twelfth Night.”

The Rector was visibly annoyed. “Well, they’ve arrived early.” He winced.

The other problem was they were not the proper kings. “And They’re not our kings” Mrs Price-Leigh continued.

“I don’t care whose kings they are. They’ve got to go.”

The Rector’s mobile phone chimed in. He waved, “see to it will you?” He left communing with higher things.

Mrs Price-Leigh looked after him and tut-tutted.

Mrs Price-Leigh was not for lifting and carrying. She asked Mr Dodds to move the kings. Mr Dodds had asked Mrs Dodds and Mrs Dodds had asked Jane who was serving the teas before the Nativity play.  Jane was busy and forgot.

The kings stayed put.

It had drizzled miserably for most of the afternoon.

“Will there be stars like for the baby Jesus?’ Gracie had asked Kate.

“Stars – no I don’t think so tonight, Gracie. I think that might need a miracle.”

“Won’t the stars come out for Jesus’s birthday, mummy?”

“Yes, they’ll come out, but we may not see them tonight.”

“Will they still be twinkling if we can’t see them?”

“Yes, but they’ll be hiding behind the clouds so maybe we’ll just have to imagine them twinkling instead. We can imagine them together.”

Gracie began singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”

Looking at her daughter entranced by the prospect of stars and Christmas she could not help but recall her own wonder at the story of the star and the wise men. How long ago and how far away that felt from the chill mizzle of this December day.

Charlie stood, dressed for church, in the doorway of the kitchen. He fidgeted.


Kate looked up

“Mummy…I’ve done something bad.’

“How do you mean bad?”

“Well….” His voice trailed off.


She gradually coaxed the truth from him. He told her how had bumped into three men on the road who said they had something for him to give his mum. Charlie was worried because he’d been told not to take things from strangers. He showed them to Kate. They were three tiny, tiny toys. There was an ingot that looked like gold and two small jars. The jars had a strange but sweet exotic perfume.

He put them into Kate’s hands. She stared at them

“What are they mummy?”

“I don’t really know Charlie.’

“That’s funny.”


“Because the tall man said you’d know what they were for…”

Kate, Robbie, Charlie, and Gracie got to church a little late. Mrs Price-Leigh rushed towards them:

“Is there something wrong, Elizabeth?”

“That man…that man I don’t know who he thinks he is. It’s not my fault. I didn’t put them there.”

“Put what, where?”

“Oh, the kings, dears, someone put a set of kings in the crib. The Rector is hopping mad.”

Kate gave her a strange look.

“I’ve not upset you Kate?”

“No. No, I’m fine…it’s just.”

She opened her purse and took out the three small toys Charlie had been given by the strangers. She told Mrs Price-Leigh the story of the day.

“Well, I never…’

“You don’t think…”

They all went into the church together to see the crib.

The three stranger-kings had stood their ground but were empty-handed. They bore no gifts.  

Kate reached into her purse and the gold ingot fitted exactly into the hands of the black prince and the jars fitted exactly into the hands of the others. It was as if they had been especially made for them.

Ever since the pandemic the Davey Consort had sung at the carol concert. The choir was composed of some of the country’s finest musicians who just happened to live nearby. They sang most Sundays at the local Catholic church in Dorchester-on-Thames.

There was an expectant hush.

A fine unaccompanied rich bass sang:

“Three Kings for Persian lands afar……”

The sweet moment lost, shone more brightly than ever in Kate’s heart.  Then she knew she would have the strength to get through.

As they left church after the carol concert. Kate linked arms with Robbie.

The moon shone bright in the clearest of clear skies bedecked by myriad stars that shone like diamonds. “Oh mummy, look at the stars. They’re so beautiful.”

Gracie looked up at her mother “the stars are out mummy, is that a miracle?”

“Well, yes, Gracie, I suppose it is….”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lent, a personal reflection

Lent , a personal Reflection

Lents like Christmases come ever faster and the fast they impose is ever harder. As I’ve gotten older I find I often eat little and often and eschew the larger meals of my adolescence onwards. My pick -and-graze-lifestyle, is particularly unsuited to the rigours of a fast!

We live in times little disposed to deny ourselves our multiple petty pleasures.  We have become to believe this is good for us but we carry the weight of this philosophy of consumption on our hips no matter how smart our lips make it sound. In the age of Twitter, FB, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram we share by making the record of the trivial of our passing days from meal to meal and purchase to purchase, party to party, into both a form of communication and a form of art. This form of sharing bestows a flattering light on the petty interiority of our small lives.
The Enlightenment philosophers first identified the pursuit of happiness as one of the Rights of Man. We have interpreted their reasoning as a notion that satisfaction of our immediate desires leads to personal fulfilment. Ever inventive, we made this convenient nostrum the subject of scientific consideration: modern economics has been used to ratify these supposed ideals of secular philosophy and technology by systematising the means of production has made possible our most impossible dreams.

The “we“, in this case, are those born into the nations that gained most from the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions.  For much of the last century it was fashionable to argue that nations of Europe who most benefited and enjoyed the greatest freedoms were the “Protestant” nations.  Then it was also the intellectual fashion to see the English Civil War as a product of a bourgeois revolution. However, for whatever speculative cause, it is certainly true that we lucky few born in the right place at the right time have filled every shopping trolley we can with the objects of this singular passion.

Even now when we have so disproportionately much of all there is in the world, our appetite to have and to hold more does not diminish, rather it increases until we are made slaves of its endless chase. We measure ourselves by possessing the objects of our desire and others by their conspicuous consumption and reserve our pity for those who do not share this bounty.

In all of these things I am no better than any one of us. I am a child of my times as heedless of consequences of my actions as any, save when waxing lyrical over a bottle or two of red wine about the ills of society and the dangers of our exploitation of the world and those who populate it.

The only voice we really pay attention to it that small voice that counsels us to do as we please; that consoles us that there will be no possible harm to anyone in us enjoying ourselves – even to excess. The road to the hangover is paved with good intentions that one glass more will be fine. There are even more dangerous roads on which to travel and I have been a journeyman on enough of them to know how easily one gets totally lost.

As with ourselves, so with the world we oversee. Climate change is a product of that reckless side of our natures. The inequity of real opportunity deprives ambitions of the many and stifles aspiration whilst poverty of aspiration crushes every hope and the grinding poverty of the relatively fewer still undermines the value of every individual. From within our affluent bubble the poor become feckless in our eyes and the unfortunate are a burden.

Lent stands each year as a moment to give us pause. It stands for giving up things – fast – for giving things away – alms – and giving ourselves over to reflection – prayer. Of course, for me as a Christian these stand as sentinels of another series of interlocking and defining relationships: that with my body which is too often my master; that with my neighbour whose needs I too readily overlook; and to my God, to whom I pay too little heed.

All my life my heart has ached for another kind of love to that which I’ve enjoyed. My head knows where it lies and understands it will alone bring me the happiness I seek, but I still seek to keep God safely at a distance from my daily life. He is a bit like a slightly embarrassing friend you don’t really want to admit to your other cooler friends you really like, let alone dare to introduce to them. The good opinion of others often keeps us from being true to ourselves. It hardly says very much of me that I act as if I am ashamed of the most important relationship I have.
Yet, until something goes badly wrong that is rather how I treat God and my religious faith. Naturally, once something goes wrong – and how often has that happened in my life – He is the One to whom I then turn to fix things rather as a child turns to an adult with a broken toy. It does not speak well of me that after all these years I still seek to run with the spiritual hare whilst still hunting with the hounds of hell.

So, this Lent offers me another chance to try to get things right.
We fast not to make ourselves appear better to the world but to free us from the tyranny of feeding our destructive appetites. We give alms to remind us that we are not the centre of our own world let alone of the world where our fellows go hungry and sleep out in the streets and where we too readily turn a blind eye. And we pray to be better people because, despite the whirling dervish our of busy days we all know we actually do not own any tomorrow and  that for us the tomorrow on which we count to put right the wrongs of our today,  may never come but may become our day of judgement.
Mainly my best friends are easy with the social gospel of Christianity. They too believe care of our neighbour is at life’s heart. I understand some are distinctly uneasy with what they see as the obligations of  the religious faith which I have embraced.  Some few may even be more hostile than uneasy. I know my religious conversion disturbs and disquiets. Perhaps some feel I have betrayed a nobler cause of political action or I have become a traitor to the causes of LGTBQ peoples by peddling my Catholic beliefs on Social Media. I think human rights and the causes for which I fought in the past were worth the effort. Fighting for equal rights before secular law is an important part of securing the dignity of each of us. The epidemic we call AIDS saw partners deprived of their homes and tokens of a shared live after enduring terrible personal loss and after the trauma of nursing a dying lover to his end. I am glad I fought to change that. I am very glad that has been changed.

That said, whilst the social gospel may look to the better angels of human nature, the human condition is in my view always inadequate of itself truly to transform life for the better. Noble ends forever exchange principles with ignoble means. The best laid plans for supporting our fellow man in his distress either by interventions by the state better to share our wealth and resources or through personal giving or by a combination of the two, are always worthwhile of themselves but are doomed also never to meet the need. Moreover, in endeavouring to meet need simply on these materialistic terms we tend to treat the profoundest need – above all our shared need to be loved for and valued for ourselves – even if others find us unlovable – as simply material transactions. Ultimately that response will always be inadequate to meet the true dignity of every man and woman.  That relative good is a good and worthy of pursuit but before we change the world, we first must change ourselves.

That is why in the end what we believe matters greatly. If it didn’t, would humankind have slaughtered so many of our fellows because of what they believe? By the way, that impulse is not the prerogative of the religious for those with no religion are as tainted by this vice of nihilist absolutism. Our capacity to make bad from good; to hate when we might love; lies at the heart of our personal and collective dilemma.

Lent reminds that it is never too late to start over. If it does no more in doing that is does us a great service, whether or not we share the same religious convictions.

But those who believe the fiats of the state and the executive orders of the mighty or the platitudes of the nice, are all we need to do forever to change the world are terribly mistaken. The world plays by its own rules; it is always willing to pass by on the other side – albeit with a fair bit of rubber-necking and tut-tutting.

However, for each of us there is a personal epiphany that rewards our soul searching and heals our sorrow. I would not impose my epiphany of anyone. Yet, I have travelled too far to say all answers by all of goodwill are equal. They’re not; and pretending they are is another form of intellectual dishonesty. I want to set aside the pretence because time is now so short. If that makes my friends fewer then so be it.  I must learn to live with that because I live with a heart that is full of joy and love from God who as the poet has it is our home.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home….” William Wordsworth Ode on Intimations of Immortality



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Credo of Mary I (Tudor)

The Credo of Mary I (Tudor)

Mary Tudor early in her brief reign 1553-1558 - note the famous pearl.

Mary Tudor early in her brief reign 1553-1558 – note the famous pearl.

History remembers Mary I as “Bloody Mary”; “the Spanish Tudor”; the embodiment of everything extreme. Unlike Elizabeth I whose iconic portraiture presents an elaborately confected enigma the picture history paints of Mary I from her portraits is of a narrow-minded religious bigot. It is all a little cartoonish.

In fact, Mary’s educational and spiritual inheritance – for they were at this time one and the same – was progressive and humanist and imbued with the ideals of the Catholic Reform movement. That movement had found lay patronage from the second half of the fifteenth century principally in the lands of ducal Burgundy – the homeland of Erasmus – in the Castile of Queen Isabella and the Aragon of Ferdinand – the homeland of Juan Boscan and Juan de Valdes – and in the city-states of northern Italy and in Rome dominated by the time of Mary’s birth by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Mary’s parents – Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon- brought together two of these strands of culture and spirituality. In her last years as Queen, Reginald Pole drew the third Italian and Roman strand into her life. However, by then decades of strident debate had unalterably changed some minds whilst leaving the majority unmoved. Yet it is vital not to overlook the fact that the very course of religious debate had modified everyone’s ideas about which aspects of Christian faith truly mattered.

Mary’s grandmother, Elizabeth of York, inherited from her father Edward IV, approbation for all things Burgundian. The manners of the English court borrowed heavily and consciously from the court of Charles the Bold whose only daughter, Mary of Burgundy, later succeeded him and governed the provinces of what then became the Netherlands.  Elizabeth’s second son, the future Henry VIII was much influenced by the courtly culture of his mother’s household. Unlike his elder brother Arthur, young Henry spent much of his early and formative years in the entourage of Elizabeth of York where scholars, poets, musicians and the humanities flourished.

Catherine of Aragon grew up in her mother’s Castilian court where Queen Isabella was a major patron of both the New Learning and the spirituality of the Catholic Reform movement. This was that same movement that was particularly influential in the Reformed Augustinians and therefore also shaped Martin Luther’s spirituality. The Friars Observant and the Reformed Carthusians of whom Isabella had been patron in Spain were both brought to England under Catherine’s patronage.

Mary’s education was informal until the middle 15250’s.  She was precocious particularly in Latin. Much has been made of the influence of Mary Tudor’s principal tutor – the misogynist scholar, Juan Luis Vives.  Born in Valencia in 1493, Vives, like most of the scholars of his time was educated widely in Europe. He attended both the universities of Paris and Padua before settling in Bruges. He was a follower of Erasmus but was regarded in his own right as something of an expert in pedagogy and a champion of the education of aristocratic women and of inductive methods of reasoning based on experiment and exercise rather than metaphysics and intellectual speculation. His choice as Princess Mary’s was significant comment on reforming credentials of both young Mary Tudor’s parents. Her personal spirituality was therefore shaped both by the Humanist educational curriculum and by her parents’ sympathies with Humanism and the Catholic reform movement of which both were patrons.

Mary was much more intellectually apt than is usually credited. She spoke Latin and French with ease and she read and translated Latin with subtle fluency. The extent of her gift can be found in her translation of the Paraphrase of St John’s Gospel by Erasmus which was actually published in 1548 with a note of fulsome praise from Thomas Cranmer amongst others. Mary was modest about her accomplishments, but this was a world where women were expected to be modest particularly about their intellectual abilities. Noblewomen danced and played musical instruments; they acted in masks and recited verse to applause; and they embroidered, but, they did not debate or argue or reason in public.

History has made much of Mary’s mother’s religiosity. Catherine of Aragon was indeed deeply spiritual, and the trauma of the Divorce made her more so. However, public religiosity was also a royal affectation. Like the Henry VIIII, Catherine enjoyed the company of scholars and the culture of the classics.  She gave personal audience to Erasmus too and offered him her patronage. It is true she kept the hours of the Friars Observant when she was in Greenwich rising at the same time as the monks to be at Matins and staying to hear the first Mass of the day. However, Elizabeth of York had kept those same hours in Lent and Advent and Margaret Beaufort’s household was known throughout Europe for its fastidious religious observance. Margaret Beaufort indeed was Bishop John Fisher’s first royal patron.

Like the Cathedrals of Europe, royal courts kept their time by the observance of the hours of religious devotion. All the offices sung in cathedrals were sung in the chapels royal and each day four masses were said in court: the Mass of Apostles after Matins; the Mass of Blessed Virgin after Lauds; the Mass of the Dead after Prime; and the Mass of the day – which was usually attended by both the king and queen when there was full court – after Terce at about nine in the morning.

The universal practice of princely households by the early sixteenth century was for the lesser masses also to be said privately in the oratory situated next to the royal closet which was beside the principal bedroom of the prince. The doors were left ajar, so the prince might “hear Mass” without necessarily coming into the Oratory. As in Cathedrals, when the Sanctus bells were rung everyone knelt until they were rung again after the elevations. Similarly, when the Angelus bell was rung everyone at court observed a brief silence and knelt until the bell was rung again. This was part and parcel of the world in which Mary and the other children of Henry VIII grew up. It was only after 1540 when Henry’s infected ulcerous legs made it impossible for him fully to participate in these ostentations that the English court gradually abandoned their observance.

Despite the trauma of the Divorce and the brief reign of Queen Anne Boleyn, Mary did not show any exceptional spiritual intensity.  Her Privy Purse Expenses show us a young woman unremarkably fond of dancing; performing in masks at court; extremely fond of cards and gambling; and obsessed with clothes and jewellery.   One of her first actions of the death of her father in January 1547 was to obtain access to the Jewel House and to the Wardrobe to fit out her new household.

In those same early months of the reign Mary also cleverly parlayed the pension given her in Henry VIII’s will into land – principally those of the Howard Dukes of Norfolk who had fallen into disgrace in the last weeks of her father’s reign. By the early 1550’s Mary had remade herself into a noble of first rank with an income of £3000 per year and a princely retinue to match and a ready-made affinity from her Howard vassals. She kept her household between the former Howard palace of Kenninghall and her mother’s favourite royal palace of New Hall (Beaulieu).

Edward was barely king four months before Mary was forced to take political sides. Previously she had been of best terms with dowager Queen Katherine Parr, but Mary broke with her over her clandestine marriage to Somerset’s brother, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour. Her first venture into high politics since the fall of Anne Boleyn demonstrated Mary could play for high stakes. From this point Mary stealthily moved herself into position as the head of the conservative and traditionalist groupings who were looking for leadership. By 1549 she was widely talked of as a Regent in succession to the disgraced Duke of Somerset.

It was only at this stage that Mary’s religious sympathies became public. In 1549 she pointedly refused to have the new Common Prayer Book used in her household. However, her refusal was couched on pragmatic political grounds. She maintained that until the king was of age there could be no change in religion.  Her household publicly observed outlawed ceremonies and her officers began to carry rosary beads and missals as part of their livery. Mary began attending Mass four times a day as her mother once had done at Greenwich. These gestures certainly demonstrated her religious affiliation.  Whether they reveal an unusually intense personal spirituality is another matter.

By the late 1540’s what Christians meant by the Real Presence in the sacramental bread and wine had become the burning issue between Protestant and Catholic. Mary’s public conduct confirmed she, like the majority, firmly held to the traditionalist view: at consecration the bread and wine became Christ’s body and blood. This was certainly still the majority view at Mary’s death in 1558 and, beyond, well into the reign of Elizabeth I.

In the summer of 1549 Lord Protector Somerset gave an undertaking to the Emperor Charles V that Mary, the Emperor’s cousin, might continue to have the Mass in her household. In England’s governing class the matter of Mary’s Mass became a cause celebre for the next three years.  However, after the execution of the Duke of Somerset in January 1552 a peace broke out between Mary and Edward and even whilst the young king pressed ahead with ever more radical reformation of the English church the privy council ceased to huff and puff about what was going on in Mary’s household.

In February 1553 Mary came to court for the first time in over two years. She was received with a great ceremony.  After the meeting Edward made a series of land grants which further enhanced Mary’s status. She was recognised as the most powerful woman since the times of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII.  Whatever understanding had been reached between Edward and Mary was overtaken by events. The king’s persistent cold morphed into a tubercular infection. Edward VI  died on 6th July 1553 and nine days later Mary by dint of her own efforts was queen.

With the return of Cardinal Pole to England in 1554 there followed a sustained effort to implement the ideals of the Catholic reformers of the early sixteenth century. These were to include funding diocesan seminaries for the education of priests as well as a renewed episcopate and a simplified Sarum Use to be used throughout England together with a restricted Sanctoral Calendar as championed by Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall in London in the 1520’s.  There was a serious effort to ensure the episcopate became more spiritually active and engaged in these dioceses. Unlikely though it seems Bishop Edmund Bonner’s catechism is a model of this sort of episcopal leadership. Amongst the most notable of the Marian appointees are Bishop John White (Winchester) and Bishop Thomas Goldwell (St Asaph). Goldwell later became head of the English college in Rome and was to be the only English bishop to sit at the final session of the Council of Trent.  The program was barely underway when Mary’s health failed. Her early death in November 1558 immediately followed by that of Pole himself doomed the project.

Finally, there must be mention of the political program of religious enforcement which included burning Protestant martyrs and which through Foxe’s Book of Martyrs has become the defining motif of the reign. It has been used to explain the failure to impose a “Spanish Catholicism” on England and to evidence Mary’s extremism. Foxe told only half the story, never discussing, for example, how actively Parliament and the authorities pursued the policy and how that might be explained. After the failed pregnancy of 1555 the chance of Mary and Philip having an heir was remote and that reality governed all. Pragmatically, the only way to ensure the religious policy was maintained politically was to eradicate the heterodox elements. Again, the intense persecutions were over by early 1558. There was no sign then the queen would be dead before everything was settled. If Mary had lived another three or four years there is no reason to assume that her policy would not have succeeded.  Moreover, the chances were good of Mary ensuring her half sister was safely married to a Hapsburg grandee as part of the Peace that was being inaugurated at the time of her death. Perhaps this skirts too near to speculations of the sort historians are best to avoid but it emphasises the settled nature of the queen’s government in the middle of 1558.

Mary’s husband Philip II for example had no “Spanish” army in England. Nor was this Catholicism “Spanish” but, rather, English in sensibility and reformed in use. Inevitably we find it shocking that these executions were carried out by Englishmen on English men and women much as the martyrdoms of Catholics had been in the reign of Henry VIII and would be again in the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians in the past have therefore been tempted by a numbers game comparing the rates of the Marian executions which those of her predecessors and successors. Statistics cannot support an argument so utterly replete with hindsight. There can be little doubt the queen was at the centre of the political endeavour.  And it is to political rather than religious reasons historians should look for some understanding of both the policy and its execution. Here the politics of succession clearly deserve to be given greater weight. There was a logic to Mary’s policy of enforced religious conformity, albeit a brutal one.

This brief overview of Mary’s religious beliefs leaves many questions unanswered. History may only glimpse personal faith through remnant words that happen survive in manuscript. The architecture of interior beliefs remains a puzzle not only because records are so incomplete but also because the conceptual framework which we own as part and parcel of the everyday of our lives and by which we explain ourselves to others was not part of the self-perception of men and women in Tudor England. Before the Enlightenment changed ideas of self-perception all thoughts about the sentient self were enwrapped in religious faith. That places a vast gulf between us and our experience of self and those who lived in through upheavals of Reformation and Counter Reformation

If Tudor historians are certain about anything you might think that it would be about the religious beliefs of Mary I. However, the evidence we have tends to present England’s first Queen Regnant as a traditionalist in the most pragmatic terms rather than the zealot propaganda has painted. It may be hard for us to think there was pragmatism in a politics which executed men and women for their faith. That was Mary I’s world much as it was the world of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.






Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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….
Posted in Politics and related subjects | Leave a comment

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: http://www.hillaryclinton.com/are-you-in Video:http://www.hillaryclinton.com/are-you-in

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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…..

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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…


Posted in Politics and related subjects | Leave a comment