Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Quote of the day:On Miliband's speech

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John Rentoul in the Independent with the cruelest summation of Ed Miliband's address to the Labour Conference:

...I thought it was lamentable, weak, clich├ęd, embarrassing, uninspiring, stylistically inept, vacuous, unambitious, grandiose, cringeworthy, patronising, foolish, an unappetising blend of impossiblism and incrementalism, and a complete and final disaster for the Labour Party.

Ouch!

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Monday, 22 September 2014

Carefully crafted bigotry - a comment on Hilary Mantel's 'Assassination of Margaret Thatcher'

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Hilary Mantel, I'm told, writes historical fiction. I haven't read anything that she has written before today.I am unlikely to read anything she has written or will write in the future.

However, Ms Mantel has written a little short story about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher and is defending herself from the criticism that her writing inevitably precipitated. Now, I've no real issue with Ms Mantel writing such a story, just so long as she is willing to countenance counterfactual history written from a perspective that challenges her prejudices (which I somehow doubt - imagine a story where the assassination of JFK failed and he led the US into WWIII or one where Nelson Mandela was executed for terrorism).

However, her defence (or at least the part quoted in The Guardian) is something of a confused concoction:

“I think it would be unconscionable to say this is too dark we can’t examine it. We can’t be running away from history. We have to face it head on, because the repercussions of Mrs Thatcher’s reign have fed the nation. It is still resonating."

The first sentence is fine. Of course we can contemplate why someone might want to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, we don't have to go far to understand that mindset because a man who actually did try to assassinate Margaret Thatcher is alive, well and living in freedom (which says a great deal about our society). However, the second sentence - from someone who has made a fortune from exploiting history - displays a profound misunderstanding of even some history within my living memory. It is Ms Mantel who is running away from history, choosing instead a slanted rewrite formed out of prejudice rather than a real analysis.

In the end all this is fine - I've read the story and it's filled with the sort of bien pensant hatred we've come to expect from the UK's literary elite. It gives us a sort of stage Scouse Irishman as a suitable mirror to Mantel's personal hatreds, a kind of justification for her carefully crafted bigotry:

''It's the fake femininity I can't stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It's the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It's her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It's her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can't cry?''

As an analysis of Margaret Thatcher this is useless but as a revealing insight into Hilary Mantel's hateful bigotry it is really valuable. Everything about the paragraph resonates with the dismissal of an inferior (Thatcher) by her superior (Mantel). Just as the working class man in Ms Mantel's little story is shallow, cardboard, a thing to be patronised, Margaret Thatcher is provincial, suburban, a little bit ordinary. In both cases unlike Hilary Mantel. But the working-class terrorist is portrayed as a victim whereas the lower middle-class shopkeeper's daughter who became prime minister is the villain.

Speaking personally, I find it hard to contemplate creating a false history purely from blind - and ignorant - hatred. Not the fictional vehicle of a conversation between a terrorist and a women whose home he'd barged into - that's a fine basis for a short story. The blind and ignorant hatred is the caricature of Margaret Thatcher, the view that this is the sort of women - indeed Ms Mantel can barely call her a women - who is so unlike me as to be a monster. Ms Mantel goes on and on about how Margaret Thatcher wouldn't like her hair, how she doesn't like the way Thatcher walks, her handbag - she casts herself as some sort of Anti-Thatcher, as a thing entirely built from the PM's disapproval.

What we see here from Ms Mantel is something that, in truth, is foreign to those of us who share Margaret Thatcher's lower middle class background. Taking the trouble to construct a fiction based entirely on your hatred of a caricature of a women you have never met is something peculiar to the bien pensant left. What this short story tells us about Hilary Mantel - bitter, bigoted, ignorant - is far more important than any flicker of insight into the motives of the Provisional IRA or the character of Margaret Thatcher.

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Quote of the day: on suburbia

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I'm a child of suburbia - like most of middle-class Britain. But the criticisms of suburbs outweigh the praises that suburbia is due. We never hear how suburban dwellers are more communal, more engaged with their neighbours and more friendly than those crammed into cities or enjoying a more bucolic lifestyle.

And this - albeit about America - is so true:

The abandonment of the suburban ideal represents a lethal affront to the interests and preferences of the majority, as well as their basic aspirations. The forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs not a return to old republican values, as some conservatives hope, but the transformation of America from a broadly based property-owning democracy into something that more clearly resembles feudalism.

We are reminded that 'Generation Rent' isn't caused just by the financial circumstances of the economy but by the deliberate and specific impact of planning regulations. People have to rent because they can't afford to buy, and they can't afford to buy because the planning system has, for four decades, prevented the building of enough new homes to meet demand.

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If you want to control something you need its right name - a problem with poverty and inequality

"Now you know the Rules of Names already, children. There are two, and they're the same on every island in the world. What's one of them?"

So said the teacher in Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Rule of Names" as she explained how knowing something or someone's true name gave power over them. And there is truth in this if we but look - if we describe something other than as its true nature then the resulting policies and strategies will be misplaced and will likely fail.

I've said again and again that we need to talk about poverty. About how, in a land of abundance, there are some who really go go without things we'd all consider essential. If we are to look seriously at our welfare state and ask about its effectiveness then it is this simple fact - people going without - that tells us the system doesn't work. This is not to say that the system is, as too much rhetoric wants to suggest, set so these people go without because it isn't. But it remains a terrible truth that a system designed to deliver care and support fails a lot of people who it was designed to assist.

I watched a presentation from some housing officers about the simple economics of life for these people who stumble through the torn and badly repaired safety net of welfare. Set out in stark numbers was the reality of the trap such people are living in - a spiral of dependence, debt, ill-health and ignorance. A world where getting a job can make matters worse not better, where the short-term loan quickly becomes a loan shark and where a bewildering array of 'agencies' and 'key workers' creates more confusion than they clear and more trouble than they solve.

Now I don't know precisely what should be done for these people - there's a short-term fix involving making sure they get food on the table, medical support and a house they can afford to heat and light. But there's a longer term fix needed which is about employment, education and health. There isn't a magic wand to wave, we've demonstrated that the poor gain little from expensive government programmes and that the welfare system, no matter how we tinker with it, also provides a hit-and-miss kind of respite.

I've said all this - and I mean it too. But none of it is about the headlines, infographics, data-laden tomes and think-tank reports of the 'poverty' industry. Or rather to correctly name that collective of researchers, charities, academics bodies and Labour MPs - the 'inequality industry'. And it is here that the problem is found. We're told repeatedly that the problem is 'inequality' giving us the impression that poverty and inequality are interchangeable terms meaning essentially the same thing.

Throughout my life - or the politically-aware part of it, at least - the left, in its many manifestations, has wrapped itself in the mantle of caring for the poor and that concern has made us all aware of these issues. But today the left has stopped and instead concerns itself with the non-problem of inequality, with the idea that our problems stem from the fact that one man has more stuff or more income than another man. And this obsessing with inequality has meant that the attention has shifted from the question of helping those people going without to the question of how much another group - 'the rich', 'the 1%', 'the elite' - has.

At a Bradford Health and Well-being Board meeting not so long back, I made the observation that many of Bradford's health challenges derive from poverty and their solution lies in reducing that poverty. The Chairman, and Leader of Bradford Council, chose to agree except that his response talked about 'health inequalities' rather than 'ill-health that results from poverty' - these are not the same thing at all yet we are moving inexorably to a strategy based on health inequality, a strategy that simply won't work because it is responding to the wrong thing - to difference rather than lack.

I do not lay claim to a policy or strategy that would eliminate poverty. Indeed, the nature of poverty is that the reasons for it are many and varied, not simply some failure of system but also a consequence of human frailty, inadequacy and foolishness. But I do know that if we continue to call 'poverty' by the name 'inequality' our policies will not have the desired effect. If we want to resolve, reduce or control poverty then we must begin by seeing poverty and not something else as the problem. And this isn't just a question of arcane ideology but a choice that, if we name the problem wrongly, will result in more poverty even while we claim less inequality.

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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Finding a New England




Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

A couple of days ago, I made the case that the only sustainable solution to the 'West Lothian Question' is an English Parliament based in Bradford. However, there are several challenges to this being achieved, not least the Left's continuing fear - even hatred - of the idea of England. It is this that lies underneath Labour's opposition to any resolution of what we should really call the 'English Question' far more than naked political calculation or the national ambitions of Scottish MPs on Labour's front bench.

Don't get me wrong here, all those Labour MPs will cheer on English national sports teams - especially when this is needed for the purposes of getting votes. But those same MPs are from a generation brought up to believe the myth of a white supremacist, flag of St George waving idea of English identity. A myth that was - for all that racists and fascists still try to claim it a truth - blown to smithereens, for me and millions of other Englishmen, by the sight of Ian Wright's celebration of England scoring. We'd been told that the idea of England was racist, something not for black or brown people, and suddenly that wasn't so.

Yet the left still hates England, is still ready to see the red cross on a white background as a symbol of something to be hidden away, something shocking. The left point to the lunatic fringes of the racist right, to the EDL, and say 'that is England'. But it isn't and it never has been, England was never about the hooligan or marches or flags as symbols of race. Indeed the English were never a race - I remember my dad talking about a school friend with a name like Seamus O'Toole who would gleefully thump anyone who tried to tell him he wasn't English.

Today, as the flag and the idea of England is reclaimed by decent folk, the left has discovered a new problem. England is capitalist, we genuinely are that thing Napoleon thought was an insult but isn't - a nation of shopkeepers. More than that, we have taken that idea of self-reliance, independence, trade and the mutual benefit from exchange and made ourselves rich. Indeed the criticism of England is almost a cry of envy - how dare you make yourself rich by providing consumers with the things they want. And I know that we're not the only capitalists - everywhere is in the game of creating wealth, after all - but we are a nation that thinks capitalism is a damn fine idea, something to celebrate.

But to make this work we need a new England. Not a changed England but a rediscovery of some bits of that idea of capitalism we lost sight of along the way. We need reminding that capitalism isn't about the fix, is not a thing of exploitation, isn't some plaything for masters of the universe. We need to realise that capitalism is about trade and exchange, it works because I get more value from that thing you have than you do - and I will pay for that added value. So capitalism isn't about banks, it's not about macroeconomic and it's not about international oil companies. It's about hand carved shepherd's crooks, it's about craft ale, it's about barbers, bookmakers and the boozer. A million and one things that make our lives happier, healthier and more fun.

The left simply doesn't understand this and fears that a new England would reject its controlling, dictatorial and depressing philosophies. So bogeymen are invented to try and destroy English identity - stuff about racism or the rise of UKIP - in the hope that we don't create that new England. This is why rather than an English Parliament, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will try to push for regional government or a confused devolution of some powers to some local councils (but not to all of them).

At the head of this piece is a quotation from Kipling's 'Charm' - reading it brings lump to my throat because it's not about government but about England. Just as all those other things we cherish in England - church bells, the pub, afternoon tea, football on a Saturday afternoon - have little to do with government. Yet all those things are affected - and some are threatened - by government, by the left's petty little programmes of control, by their unchanging belief that they know better than you do.

To win the argument, England needs more than 'fairness', we need to form an ideological basis for home rule just as Scottish Nationalists created the idea of Scotland as a 'progressive' nation, we need to make the case for England as a conservative nation, as a place where those values of community, self-reliance, decency and looking out for the neighbours are held to our hearts. Not as justifications for government but as the values that all of us try to live our lives by. I could sell that in Cullingworth.

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Friday, 19 September 2014

We need an English Parliament (in Bradford)


I remember, prior to the 2010 General Election, speaking with Eric Pickles at Party Conference about the 'West Lothian Question'. Eric's view back then was that the question wasn't really a problem and explained - accurately - that it wasn't exactly a burning issue on the doorsteps. You typical Tory voter wasn't going to add 'English Votes for English Laws' to the things they wanted from a new Tory government - certainly not compared to the urgent job of sorting out the economy and mending the train crash that was Labour's management of government finances.

I think that has changed. Not as much as people think following the sensible decision of Scottish people to reject the blandishments of Alex Salmond's rose-tinted independence. But next election, for the first time in a long while, the asymmetry of the UK's constitutional arrangements will be an issue in England especially if we assume that the process of delivering on the devolution promises to Scotland is under way.

Two questions need to be answered - probably on the same timetable as Scottish 'DevoMax'. Firstly are we content with constitutional asymmetry and secondly, having answered the first question, giving the precise details of any new constitutional settlement for the UK. In both these questions the real issue isn't about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland but is about England. If we reject asymmetry meaning that all the devolved elements of the UK have the same powers and the same relationship with the UK government, then the question for England is whether we have a single English Parliament or a series of regional assemblies.

If we accept asymmetry then the picture for England is more complicated with options ranging from no change at all through solutions founded on English MPs 'double-hatting' to Spanish-style regional mayors or greater devolution to local councils. The problem here is that we retain resentments since one area gets more power or cash, or else we create a series of demarcation disputes between UK and English laws, between differential devolution to regions or sub-regions and between the devolved assemblies and areas without comparable levels of devolution.

Much though there is some appeal in 'home rule' for Yorkshire, I don't see regional assemblies as a solution - firstly because we immediately face boundary issues and secondly because devolution from a UK government to individual regions effectively abolishes England (at least in constitutional terms). If there is to be devolution to regions, sub-regions, cities or shire counties then that should be a decision for an English Parliament.

It seems to me that a 'four nations' solution matches local expectation but also opens up reforms focused on a more federal arrangement for the UK - this might include the numbers of UK MPs, the role (and means of election) for the House of Lords and the promotion of new locally negotiated arrangements for local government. Although giving English members of the UK Parliament a secondary role as an English Parliament provides a quick fix, it also raises some challenges in terms of administration even while it resolves the issue of law-making. Put simply there would be a Scottish government and a Welsh government but no English government - we could find the situation where a Scottish education secretary can't vote on the laws but is in charge of their implementation in England. The 'West Lothian Question' won't have been answered.

It seems that the Conservative Party is committed to seeking a resolution of the question - albeit with a preference for a Westminster solution rather than an English Parliament. However, neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats seem to want this with the former wanting some sort of gathering for the great and good to decide on a new constitution (or not) and the latter wanting to abolish England.

For me, the answer has to be an English Parliament with the same devolved powers as those given to Scotland. And, of course, that Parliament should be in Bradford.

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Thursday, 18 September 2014

A comment about grooming...

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During a long conversation with an educated, intelligent Pakistani man that ranged across many subjects - Gaza, Kashmir, education, anti-semitism to name a few - the matter of grooming arose. And this man made a very interesting point - not an excuse or even an explanation but something worth thinking about as we consider our response.

The man - around my age - observed that Pakistani families and especially Pakistani men have no idea how to discuss matters relating to sex and sexual relationships. There is no concept of the father taking sons aside to talk about sexual behaviour or even about 'the birds and bees' for that matter. Nor, beyond the bare teachings of Islam, is there any discussion about sexual mores in the madrassah or mosque.

This isn't the full answer to what this man called 'a male problem' but it was a perspective on the matter of street grooming that I hadn't considered - we have a load of young men (and not so young men) from right across our communities who are, for the lack of parental attention and education, sexually stunted.

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