A personal ideological history

In my perfect world:

  • all London taxis would be black, and not advertising hoardings,
  • all London buses would be red (and hydrogen powered),
  • and we would have a properly-integrated transport system (where Virgin Trains and Arriva were nowhere to be seen).

As a non-optional extra:

  • the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press would be classed as pornography, confined to newsagent’s top shelves (or, better still, under the counter with a perverts’ permit required).

However, to be positive …

I came into politics via the National Progressive Democrats.

Who? I hear you ask. That needs a bit of explanation.

Once upon a time — actually 1946, Seán MacBride (son of Maud Gonne, Yeats’s inanoramata,  and John MacBride, executed 1916) formed Clann na Poblachta, an awkward and disputatious  conflation of old IRA men and urban social democrats, with — this being Ireland — a heavy dusting of catholicism. Even so, it was a popular — not to say populist — mix. For a while it looked as if it could sweep the country, so De Valera beat MacBride & Co. to the punch and called a General Election. The combined opposition parties then found themselves a majority of Dáil Éireann: a mish-mash of no fewer than five “recognised” parties and the usual slew of independents.

MacBride found himself able to nominate two Cabinet posts. He snaffled Foreign Affairs for himself, and appointed 32-year-old new TD Noël Browne as Minister of Health.

Browne set about building on the Fianna Fáil government’s 1947 Health Act. One radical proposal (this, let me remind you, was Ireland) was a scheme to provide free health care for mothers and children up to the age of sixteen.The medics went ape: their guaranteed fees income was threatened. Most hospitals had a religious foundation. Browne was a Catholic who had attended Trinity College. He had attended the funeral of Douglas Hyde, a protestant and first President of Ireland — he was unique among government ministers for infringing the denominational demarkation. He was a marked man.

The Catholic hierarchy, led by that most political of prelates, John Charles McQuaid, took the hump. Looking after the health and welfare of the young and their mothers went against the Church’s teaching on “faith and morals”. Better believe it.

In short order, Browne was out of the cabinet, and MacBride made sure he was out of the Clann. The coalition were out of government. For a while Browne sat as an independent, and (when he was back in the Dáil at the end of the 1950s), he came to a working relationship with another ex-Clann (social conscience wing) T.D., Jack McQuillan, as the “National Progressive Democrats”. In any other country they could have settled for “Social Democrats”. That gave the two of them a dusty committee-room/office in Leinster House, to which — on occasion — I was welcome.

That was “as Left as you could get” in “proper” Irish politicking in the early ’60s. Further into the howling wilderness were what would later be the “stickies” of Sinn Féin, and their “Wolfe Tone Bureau”. They had their offices at the back of Mountjoy Square — a singularly joyless place at the best of times. From the “stickies” (as opposed to the “provos”, now in Kevin Street) would emerge the Workers Party of Ireland, which I reckon were not —are not — entirely a bad thing.

The point of all this (and I suppose there ought to be one) is to highlight my downfall at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn’s groupule in Hornsey Labour Party, 1982.

When I sought re-selection as a councillor I had to “go before the panel”. I knew it was a pretty hopeless business — I had already been told, fist in my face, that “We’ll fucking get you!”, but I felt obliged to go through the ritual of being got.

It’s worth inserting here that we are going into 1982. The IRA hunger-strike campaign had folded late in the previous October. The Kincora enquiry was being subverted by “official” organised neglect. In February, De Lorean folded. Three days later Harland and Woolff was laying off one-in seven of its workforce. All immaterial: ideological purity must be maintained!

Knowing that I arrived in the (British) Labour Party from Páirtí an Lucht Oibre, with Northern Irish connections, the test question, the shibboleth, was: “Which party would you vote for in Northern Ireland?” The proper, decent, mainstream answer, in a proper, decent, mainstream Labour Party context, of course, is the Labour Party’s fellow in the Socialist International — the SDLP.

That — as I knew, in this heavily-entryist gathering — was the wrong’un.

So, afterwards I checked. I cornered the interrogator: “What was the approved answer there?”. Interestingly enough, there was no hesitation. This was the indicator the charade had been fore-planned. “Oh, Sinn Féin—the Workers’ Party”. A few weeks later, the first two words of the appellation there had been conveniently dropped.

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Filed under History, Labour Party, Northern Ireland, Trinity College Dublin

“Bad” King John ?

I feel provoked into this by Martin Rowson:

CMCJAnkWEAAkuYg

51hN3TGP63L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_That is his rendering of King John as an utter prick. And, yes — since you didn’t ask — I have the book on order.

The Ott v. Lydon, c.1962

There was, in my days at TCD, a cleavage of opinion over John. Two of our academics held violently opposing views on him and his reign. Examinees learned to check which one was setting the examination paper, and tailored answers accordingly.

The dispute goes back to Stubbs versus Green. Stubbs in 1873 held:

What marks out John personally from the long list of our sovereigns, good and bad, is this — that there is nothing in him which for a single moment calls out for our better sentiments; in his prosperity there is nothing we can admire, and in his adversity there is nothing we can pity … John has neither grace nor splendour, strength nor patriotism. His history stamps him as a worse man than many who have done much more harm, and that — for his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects — chiefly on account of his own personal share in the producing of his own deep and desperate humiliation.

Phew! But did you notice the small caveat: his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects? It almost makes one muse what, from the view down below, a medieval monarch was useful for.

Almost at the same moment, publishing in 1874, along came J.R.Green:

the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins … In the rapidity and breadth of his political combinations he far surpassed the statesmen of his time.

Green’s was the view that predominated for much of the twentieth century. So we find A.L.Poole, for the fourth (originally third) volume of the Oxford History of England:

He was cruel and ruthless, violent and passionate, greedy and self-indulgent, arbitrary and judicious, clever and capable, original and inquisitive. He was made up of inconsistencies.

We’d also need to remember that almost all the contemporary opinions of John come through churchmen and the chroniclers — if one likes, a synthetic view.  Doris Stenton wrote (page 46) of that:

No chronicler should be believed who is not strictly contemporary, and is not supported by record evidence when he makes extravagant claims about the King’s evil deeds.

And John was no dutiful, obedient follower of the church. The records, though, suggest a different creature — and, should one like to characterise it, an analytic approach. The second shows us a king who knew the law, and applied it (arbitrarily, but that is the mark of the times).

The great script writer

William Goldman did more for my appreciation of “Bad’ King John than all the lectures and books.

This from The Lion in Winter:

Henry II: Power is the only fact. (indicating Richard) How could I keep him from the throne? He’d only take it if I didn’t give it to him.

Richard: No, you’d make me fight for it. I know you. You’d never give me anything

Henry II: True, and I haven’t. You get Alais and the kingdom, but I get the thing I want most. If you’re king, England stays intact. I get that. It’s all yours now… the crown, the girl, the whole black business. Isn’t that enough? (He exits) 

Alais: I don’t know who’s to be congratulated. Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous. (She exits)

Eleanor: Poor child.

John: Poor John. Who says, “poor John”? Don’t everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames, there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out.

Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.

John: You’re everything a little brother dreams of. You know that? I used to dream about you all the time.

Eleanor: Ah, Johnny.

John: I’ll show you, Eleanor. I’ve not lost yet.

Goldman wasn’t finished with John there.

I have here his 1979 novel (now badly decayed), Myself as Witness. It covers the period of 1212 to 1219. The first-person narrator is a version of Giraldus Cambrensis (who, in reality, was already retired to Lincoln). It remains one of my favourite historical confections. Goldman is unashamedly positive about John. Here, from the introductory A Note to the Reader is Goldman’s near-apologia:

I have written about King John before; he makes appearances in both The Lion in Winter and Robin and Marian. Following the mainstream, I conceived him as a violent, unstable person with no principles at all. Not so this time around. Several years ago, this completely villainous King John began to seem increasingly improbable to me. He was too black, too terrible. And so I went back to the history books, and the more I read the more it seemed apparent that tradition had it wrong: a very different John must have existed. What had begun as an emotional conviction gradually seemed to be substantiated by the facts.

What are the facts? Remarkably little survives that was written while John was alive, and the picture of him that emerges from these scattered sources is surprisingly complimentary. The evil monarch we have come to know begins to appear in chronicles written a generation or more after his death. On top of which , the writing of history was a curious procedure in those days, and the chroniclers on whom we have relied give us reports of devils and dragons with the same conviction and seriousness that they accord verifiable political events.

Why these chroniclers made John into a monster is an unanswerable question. Possibly because England had had enough of Henry and his children, possibly because John’s reign saw more defeats than victories, possibly in response to political pressures of the moment.

 I think that’s where I came in here.

Those chronicles on which much history has been based are:

  • Roger of Wendover, about 1225;
  • Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall, who cannot be writing before 1221;
  • the Barnswell chronicler, again writing in the 1220s and adding to the record until 1232 or so;
  • the biography of William Marshal was started in 1221 and not finished until 1225-6;
  • the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie ends in 1220, and was probably written at or after that date;
  • the Margam annals must be even later in the thirteenth century;
  • the annals of Burton are found only in late-thirteenth century copies.

All good sons of Mother Church (which John was not). All good retainers of the baronial class (which John tried to contain). Let us now conceive — for an analogy — that any future account of the Labour government of 1997-2010 will derive from the Murdoch press of and after the second half of the present decade (2015-20+).

I see here [page 290]:

Three aspects of John particularly appeal to a modern sensibility. First, his love of books. He had a small library which he carried round with him on his restless travels and often swapped titles with the abbot of Reading; we hear of John’s interest in Pliny and in the history of England — not something we can ever imagine Richard bothering with. In an age when personal hygiene did not rank as one of the human priorities, John was positively oriental in his liking for baths and cleanliness; the records show that between 29 January and 17 June 1209 he took eight baths at different places on his itinerary and even possessed a dressing gown. Yet what most intrigues the historian of the early twenty-first century is John’s alleged atheism.

What’s not to like?

 

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Filed under Andrew Gimson, History, MArtin Rowson, Trinity College Dublin

Why I’m voting ABC

Anyone but Corbyn.

It’s a grudge from a personal knowledge of the man and his works.

My alter-ego, whose oldest Labour Party card is dated 1962, was a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Haringey, 1978-82.

Corbyn was already ensconced, and had his coterie — nearly half the Labour Group. That meant there was constant tension between the Corbynites and the rest. The Corbynites were often entryists: the IMG and other assorted Trots — nothing wrong in itself, but they had other priorities than the Labour Party.

Corbyn would convene his groupule in the Hornsey Labour Party offices in Middle Lane, on a Sunday before a Labour Group meeting, and lay down the “lines” to follow.

Corbyn was not only Constituency Secretary but a full-time trade union officer. There’s something seriously wrong when an official of the public employees union is also chairman of works committees and reviewing pay levels. That was Corbyn’s double role in 1978-9, and it was costing the Borough, and the rate-payers, a small ransom.

One or two of the Corbynites didn’t bother with dialectics: when you were thrust to the wall of the Council ante-chamber, and told “We’ll fucking get you” (as I was), you know you had offended and they meant it.

Then, of course, you would be liquidated, deselected, refused nominations, your party membership would mysteriously “go missing” from the records. Go on summer vacation, and on your return you would find the local press had reported your “defection” to the SDP (I traced that one back: it seemed to be been sourced via Bernie Grant).

ABC.

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Philosophy with Fee

Fee is eight years old. He is autistic. He has a fascination with numbers, inspecting lamp-posts and lamp-standards to ensure they are kept in proper order. When we replaced our front door, he was distraught until we also replaced the house number.

He is now getting into stories, writing them out repetitively at inordinate length. His mother reckons he simply reproduces them, word-for-word, from school readers, as a result of remarkable memory.

I disagree.

On his latest visit Fee was recreating a tale of a pencil.

Creation

The pencil was “lonley” (an indicator in itself that creativity is at work here).

The pencil is given a name, and then draws a boy, who becomes the antagonist of the story. The boy is named. The pencil creates others. Soon the boy has a house, a friend and other items — all of which have to have personal names.

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul… And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

Genesis, 2. vv4-20

Semiology

Out of nowhere the pencil creates a picnic for the boy and his friend.

The picnic is disturbed by a procession of ants. Each ant has to be individually named: the names are those of the others in Fee’s class.

When the list of names is exhausted, that is the limit of the ant train.

At which point, Fee leaps from his seat, runs the length of the room and back, skips and jumps, chortles, and resumes his story.

Meanwhile, I find myself cleft between Wittgenstein:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

and Derrida:

This limit is surpassed in productive imagination: self-intuition, the immediate relation to oneself such as it was formed in reproductive imagination, then becomes a being; it is exteriorized, produced in the world as a thing. This singular thing is the sign; it is engendered by a fantastic production, by an imagination that shows signs of itself, making the sign (Zeichen machende Phantasie) as always emerge from itself in itself

Linguistics

The pencil has not finished. It draws two “erasers”. Felix has been taught to avoid unfortunate American double-entendres.

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language

Oscar Wilde: The Canterville Ghost [note: the analogue version of this, attributed to G.B.Shaw, may be a concoction of Readers Digest, 1942]

Teleology

I am wondering, “Why two erasers?”

Felix is already ahead of me. One by one, they rub out all of the previous constructs, and then erase each other.

We were just one day past Hiroshima Day. I hear Oppie:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

Robert Oppenheimer, on NBC documentary: The Decision to Drop the Bomb.

Old Possum’s practical chats

Fee is not yet finished. He has to have me read the story back to him. That includes the © reproduced as a header and the arcane numberings (101 to 201, odd numbers only) down the margins of the pages.

Where are we now?

Is it Toilets (anag.) at East Coker? Or is it Marie Stuart, embroidering her enigmatic epitaph, from whom he ripped the idea? — Marie Stuart

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Filed under History, Literature, reading

More than hitting the buffers

If you were expecting the 1895 Gare Montparnasse locomotive-dangling-through-wall image, sorry to disappoint. This is “nearer home”: Hatch Street, Dublin, 1900, round the back of Harcourt Street (into which I commuted for a year or so, while at the High School):

Harcourt St

History does, indeed, repeat itself. Here’s Aliso Street, Los Angeles, 1948:

Aliso St

 

And yesterday the whole of UK charity-welfare came equally-adrift.

The whole thrust of Tory “Big Society” is that the “voluntary” sector and charities can substitute for properly-run “official” services. The total failure of Kids Company proves the fallacy there. Government (national and local) cannot hand over cash and expect do-gooding to make good.

If it is an “essential” welfare service — and anything to do with the health, welfare, protection and development of the nation’s young should be “essential” — then it is too important to be left to colourful self-promoters. Or to the whims of self-preening philanthropists.

Any local authority, attempting to operate on the kind of pattern Ms Batmanghelidjh promoted, would have been exposed and closed down within hours. Which is why Ms Batmanghelidjh’s latest is worth the study:

Kids Company has become “a football for the media and the civil servants”, the charity’s founder has said. [1]

Camila Batmanghelidjh told the BBC the charity had run out of money because the government had not taken responsibility for child protection. [2]

Kids Company closed on Wednesday after ministers said they wanted to recover a £3m grant given to the charity. [3]

The Cabinet Office said it believed conditions attached to the use of the money had not been met. [4]

Ms Batmanghelidjh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Kids Company had been subjected to a “trial by media” based on “rumours and conjectures”. [5]

[1] The football cliché has to be high on @JohnRentoul’s “banned list” (and, before him, George Orwell’s). Pause, though, to muse: the popular media (the market-place where Ms Batmanghelidjh and her like sell themselves) is obsessed with football: therefore, to invoke another dead metaphor it’s heat/kitchen.

We often hear the expression deployed defensively. It is the complaint of the affronted, when a demand comes in for accountability or merely answerability. When public money (and in Kids Company that’s at least £37 million or, in another count, over £40 million) is involved, we need accounts and answers.

[2] Note the logical disconnect. If the government is responsible for “child protection” (and there’s a term needing full definition), why does more government money handed out to the well-meaning assure better “protection”?

What might go some way is ensuring there are enough professionals out there, doing and being answerable for the job. What we find, though, is something different. There’s a small item In the Back of the current issue of Private Eye:

PE

Not just “a challenge too far” but one that is too expensive, but can be plastered over with well-intentioned amateurs (doubtless, on minimum wage, until the “voluntary-sector” provider goes spectacularly bust.

 

[3] Here we hit another buffer. Why should the public purse be paying the wages and on-costs of these “volunteers”? Yes, of course, there has to be a professional in-house staff. Yes, too, they should be paid the rate for the job. No, they shouldn’t be — by extension — civil and public servants, unless they are prepared to accept the scriptures that go with the office.

Billy Kenber and Jill Sherman’s story in today’s The Times has this:

An audit commissioned by the Cabinet Office last year said that cashflow problems were a “key financial risk”. Auditors said this meant that “it is not possible to build reserves and invest in new activities and locations”.

On at least two occasions, the charity has been unable to pay employee tax contributions to HM Revenue & Customs. In 2002 it failed to hand over almost £700,000 in national insurance contributions. In a highly unusual agreement the following year, the taxman agreed to waive the funds in exchange for a £100,000 donation, which was paid by a supporter of the charity.

Senior staff at the charity blamed such problems on the large numbers of vulnerable children who needed its services and said that a shortage of funds did not indicate poor management.

Downing Street support

The tax deal in July 2003 was an example of the political support Kids Company enjoyed. Critics say that it was because of support at the highest level of government that it survived for so long. Gordon Brown was a supporter and David Cameron once invited Ms Batmanghelidjh to attend his cabinet.

Mr Cameron overruled the concerns of Department for Education officials who wanted to end a multimillion pound grant to the charity in 2012 after Ms Batmanghelidjh wrote a personal plea to him, according to sources.

The department secured Mr Cameron’s agreement for a civil servant to be seconded to the charity to report on what was causing the dysfunction.

At several points in that, any “hands-off” approach ceased to work. Kids Company was breaking the law, was effectively — and successfully — blackmailing the Treasury for support, and had at least one civil servant at the heart of the operation. Imagine the parallel: not the British Prime Minister manipulating HMR&C, but an American President forcing the arm of the IRS — a guarantee of impeachment would follow.

[4] See [3] above. But also notice how the civil service behaved ethically, and insisted on a (very rare) political directive. And got it.

Then we start the ministerial blame-game. It looks as if Michael Gove, when he was at Education, covered himself. Currently two ministers —  Matthew Hancock and Oliver Letwin — have their names in the frame. All the “noise”, though, is they were directed to do the deal by “Downing Street”. If “lessons will be learned”, then “heads may roll”.

[5] Ah, yes! Another of those convenient clichés. It usual implies that someone, somewhere with a soapbox has uncovered a festering cell-pit, and is exploiting it in the medis greasy-poll contest.

On the other hand, the bigger the “exposure”, the larger the potential libel damages. Or not, if the ligament recognises the verity of the accusation.

Anyway, the press and other media are fully entitled to enquire how public money, and charitable donations are expended.

What they mayl be slow to question is why we as a society are out-sourcing essential welfare, delegating key services to amateurs.

A foot-note:

Over my years I have observed a whole series of self-promoting exploiters of the British public. I still have my wallet and pensions intact.

The first that I recall was John Bloom, who allegedly got the better of Bernard Levin, and then (1963-4) was done down by the bigger fish in the “white goods” market. Undoubtedly there was a cartel of the manufacturers up against him, but a lot of decent “little people” lost money because he was an exploiter.

Let us quickly pass over the likes of Sir Freddy Laker, intruders like John DeLorean, and (the daddy of them all) Robert Maxwell.

Actually, no: let’s not pass over Maxwell. He is, after all, the ultimate exemplar.  I recall a conversation with a guy who had worked as an agent for Maxwell in his 1964 Buckingham constituency election. The anecdotes and warning were ominous: many others in politics and business knew of Maxwell’s ability to cut corners and exploit. But he got away with it until 1991.

There’s, then, a tradition of colourful characters whose colours mask shady doings.

And we get caught time and again.

The difference, this time, could be:

The buck stops … where?

 

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Filed under Conservative family values, David Cameron, History, sleaze., Tories.

On order

I’ve just divvied up (courtesy of Amazon Prime) for Andrew Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Forty Monarchs since 1066. The selling points here are just two:

  • Gimson is a Tory, but a decent, liberal one (which means he must be severely distrusted by many in that Party). More than that, he is one of the better, human and humane centre-right bloviators who are readable.
  • The illustrations are by the excellent Martin Rowson, who is a long urban mile away from anything right-of-centre.

@MartinRowson (hint! hint!) is generously sharing his illustrations through the social media. Here are the first two: Guillaume Batard Self-evidently Guillaume le Bâtard, the only contemporary image of whom I know is from his seal: 31-William-Conqueror-great-seal-s Then comes the curious Guillaume-le-Ros, a.k.a. William Rufus — apparently the cognomen was from his ruddy face, while William of Malmesbury (writing a score of years after Rufus’s sad end) reckoned he had sandy hair: Billydeux   Rufus seems to have become King of England by a bit of sleight-of-hand. On his death-bed (and it was a long five weeks of dying) Guillaume le Conquérant sent his third (and second surviving) son to Lanfranc, along with the royal baubles and the English hostages. Once in England Rufus seized the treasury at Winchester, and within the fortnight had himself crowned by Lanfranc at Westminster Abbey.

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Filed under History, MArtin Rowson

1974 revisited

In the (it must have been second, October) General Election of 1974, I was a parliamentary candidate. Through the mail came a cascade of material, including Colonel Gaddafi’s Little Green Book. One other item was an A5 pamphlet, printed in and published out of Sweden: Heath cover I would have discarded this as yet more junk mail, had it not been Transport House instantly instructing candidates to destroy the item, and never — on peril of the Smith Square Inquisition — even refer to it. Which, of course, piqued my salacious interest, and is why the thing is still here on my shelf. Suddenly it may have acquired resonance, forty years on.

“Karen Cooper” (born and previously Marie-Luise Kwiatkowski-Brantenberg) was a very strange lady. She had been active in the campaign to prevent Covent Garden being “redeveloped” and had inked Heath at Brussels (that’s the cover image) and been thereafter prevented from re-entering Britain.

And so to the meat. Pages 17 and 18 of the pamphlet: Heath1 and: Heath2 Whoops! Here comes Godwin’s Law.

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Filed under Conservative family values, History, Labour Party, London, politics, Tories.