Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Conservative Cavalcade - 2

When it became inevitable that Eden had to go, his successor emerged via the arcane ‘magic circle’ consultation processes of the Conservative party which were glaringly undemocratic. The story goes that Lord Salisbury – one of the party’s most senior [and hereditary] grandees - interviewed his cabinet colleagues and other party dignitaries, simply asking the cryptic question: “Well, is it Wab or Hawold?” [His lordship had a pronounced lisp.] “Wab” was R.A. Butler, one of the party’s more subtle-minded politicians with a reputation for equivocation, and perhaps for that reason never destined to get the top prize. “Hawold” was Harold Macmillan, another of Churchill’s senior lieutenants, who proved to be the successful contender. As he had been a ‘hawk’ during the early stages of the Suez crisis, but switched sides as soon as it became obvious that the adventure was turning into a catastrophe, his triumph struck some observers as none too well deserved. There had always been rivalry between the two. There is a nice story – probably apocryphal - that after one of his cabinet reshuffles, Macmillan glanced around the table and said “Well, there are some new faces in the cabinet, and several old ones - including both of Mr Butler’s!”

This archaic method of choosing a leader was acknowledged, even by traditionalists, to be unsatisfactory, so after the ‘emergence’ of Macmillan’s successor, the Earl of Home [later Sir Alec Douglas-Home], a method of election was devised, chiefly by my Cambridge contemporary and friend Humphry Berkeley, then a Conservative MP but destined soon to join the Labour Party. This, in modified form, has been used ever since.

Harold Macmillan gave a [not entirely accurate] impression of being unflappable, and his steadying hand on the tiller served the country pretty well for some years, earning him the soubriquet of ‘Supermac’. Like Churchill, he had a taste for flamboyant gestures and fancy hats, one of which startled even the buttoned-up Russians when he visited Moscow. Under Macmillan the economy prospered for some years, enabling him to inform the nation that “most of our people have never had it so good”. He repaired the Anglo-American relationship which had been ruptured by Suez, forming a friendly relationship with President John F. Kennedy. He comfortably won a general election in 1959, but his second term proved less happy.

In 1960 he famously told the South African parliament that a wind of change was blowing through the African continent and, whether we liked it or not, this growth of national consciousness had to be accepted as a political fact - an audacious statement which went down like a lead balloon with the South African apartheid government! At home, his government became less popular, and in 1962 he impetuously sacked six cabinet ministers in the ‘night of the long knives’ . This was widely interpreted as signalling loss of nerve, and his hitherto serene command of events slipped from his grasp. A year later he resigned in the wake of the sordid ‘Profumo affair’, whose titillating revelations of widespread [mostly mythical] sexual orgies in high places, involving senior politicians and even [so it was said] judges, appeared to bemuse him as he remarked plaintively that he had no knowledge of such things and ‘did not move among young people’.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who renounced his peerage to sit in the Commons as prime minister. had been a capable foreign secretary, but proved a lacklustre premier and only survived in office for just under a year. He should not, however, be under-rated and had a nice line in self-deprecatory humour. He once said "There are two problems in my life. The political ones are insoluble and the economic ones are incomprehensible" [he confessed to using matchsticks when contemplating the latter]. His party’s narrow defeat in the 1964 general election ushered in the shallow modernity of Harold Wilson, who promised a revolutionary ‘white heat’ [which never materialised] to sweep away restrictive practices and outdated methods on both sides of industry. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ which – against his own personal preferences – enlivened Wilson’s premiership also featured the Beatles, Carnaby Street, and the mis-named ‘permissive society’.

Edward Heath, who succeeded Douglas-Home as the first elected Conservative party leader in 1965 and was prime minister from 1970 to 1974 was, unlike the bulk of his party, a convinced enthusiast for the European Union, and successfully negotiated Britain’s membership in 1973 – a high point of his premiership. In Opposition he proposed an agenda of trade union reform, tax cuts and spending restraints; but adverse economic circumstances forced him as prime minister to adopt price and incomes policies to combat inflation. His government also had to deploy troops in Northern Ireland to combat the IRA’s military campaign, and widespread industrial unrest in the face of pay restraint policies led for a time to power cuts and the imposition of a three-day working week. Nevertheless, the Conservatives gained more votes nationally than Labour in the 1974 general election, though they retained fewer parliamentary seats.

In 1975 Heath was defeated in a leadership election by Margaret Thatcher – an event which he took as a personal snub, and thereafter poured scorn upon “that bloody woman”. This sullenness did his party little good in the eyes of the public, as in similar fashion Gordon Brown’s prolonged sulk at his predecessor’s over-long tenure of No. 10 Downing Street did New Labour no favours.

Mrs Thatcher triumphantly won the 1979 general election, becoming the United Kingdom’s first woman prime minister and eventually, after winning two further terms, the longest serving one for 150 years. Although when entering No. 10 for the first time as prime minster she invoked St. Francis’s plea for peace in place of strife, and pledged to bring hope in place of despair, she quickly morphed into the most controversial and, for some, the most hated premier of the 20th century. This was because she rightly perceived that the country could not continue to drift as it had been doing and required shaking up, which she proceeded to do with characteristic determination – or, as some preferred to put it, sheer pig-headed obstinacy. It was unfortunate both for her and for the country that some of her preferred nostrums proved mistaken and engendered much unnecessary hostility – especially the briefly imposed poll tax, which led to mass riots and police violence in Trafalgar Square.

In her first two years of office unemployment fell and the prime minister gained great popularity by her determined and victorious response to Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. As a result, her party was re-elected by a landslide in 1983. Her second government followed a radical programme of privatisation and deregulation, reform of the Trade Unions, tax cuts, and the introduction of market mechanisms into health and education. Her quite worthy aim was to reduce the role of government and to increase individual self-reliance, but this was only partly achieved and with damaging social cost including a bitter and at times violent miners’ strike.

Mrs Thatcher also became a leading player on the international stage, being on cronyish terms with US President Ronald Reagan and gaining the approbation of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev whose countrymen admiringly dubbed her the ‘Iron Lady’. Unlike her predecessor Heath, however, she was not favourably inclined towards the European Union, and engaged in hard bargaining for what she saw as threatened British interests. The Conservative party as a whole remained split over Europe, the majority only reluctantly supporting UK membership of the EU and a vociferous minority clamouring for withdrawal. It was Europe, in the end, which caused the Iron Lady’s downfall after a witheringly critical speech in the Commons by her former foreign secretary and chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe. She called a leadership election, but although she won the first ballot it became clear that there was not enough support from her cabinet colleagues for her to continue and she resigned in uncharacteristically tearful mood.

Her successor, John Major, was prime minister from 1990 until 1997 - a difficult few years for both himself and his party. The internal revolt of the anti-European group whom Major in an unguarded moment called ‘the bastards’ rumbled on until the whip was withdrawn from several of them. The prime minister’s efforts to give the impression that he was firmly in charge were sabotaged when his ‘back to basics’ slogan – lip-read as code for a stricter morality in politics – was undermined when several Conservative MPs’ involvements in sexual scandals and, more seriously, in financial corruption charges [‘cash for questions’] mired the Major government in an atmosphere of sleaze. The government was obviously exhausted, and when the Conservatives lost the 1997 general election, the ex-prime minister made no bones about his relief at being free to slip thankfully away to watch cricket at Lords.

Since 1997 the Conservatives have tried out almost as many new leaders as a fussy woman buying hats. After a so-far-so-good start, the latest one, David Cameron, is not yet home and dry. Although a better debater than the increasingly unpopular New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, he has a formidable task ahead of him if he is to establish an enduring lead in public opinion and consolidate in his party’s favour the growing feeling that after eleven years of Blair-Brownism it’s time for a sea-change in the country’s political direction.

A large lady - a huge heart

Anna Harper arrived in my office breathless, having climbed three flights of stairs [the lift, as usual, being out of order]. Her condition was not surprising, as she weighed all of 18 stone: she was never less while I knew her, and told me that she had been up to as much as 22 stone. Her obesity arose, she said, from scoffing copious quantities of cream buns and other junk food to assuage unhappiness during a stressful period of her life. Today’s New Labour universal nannies would have strongly disapproved of her for that. And for many other reasons as well.

Anna, who lived in Brighton, was in London for a meeting of a drugs prevention agency on whose committee she sat, and had come, “guided by the Lord”, to find out what the Albany Trust was up to. I was not immediately enthused, as other members of that committee included a notoriously puritanical – indeed, pharisaical - member of parliament and others who would almost certainly have strongly disapproved of our work. However, Anna’s visit proved to be the prelude to a warm and loving friendship that we both came to value immensely.

Anna, who was a few years older than me, had an innate sympathy with the young, and especially with the young in trouble. She owned a grand Regency house in one of Brighton’s posher squares [on the cliffs above where the Marina is now]. She let out part of the house, and one of the flats was empty so she used it to house young dropouts and drug addicts who had originally been found camping out on the beach by her step-daughter. Anna was a natural listener, and spent hours with her young guests learning about their lives and problems. She was guided in all things by her strong Christian faith, which was of the unorthodox ‘new testament’ variety: she was never afraid to wade into situations where she believed Jesus would have involved himself. She was a practical Samaritan.

Through this initial contact with the world of illegal drug users, Anna became a dedicated campaigner for the humane understanding and treatment of drug abuse. Now and then, almost inevitably, she was conned as a ‘soft touch’ but this did not deter her and she was gleefully proud of the fact that a Brighton magistrate in whose court she had appeared as a witness for one of her ‘tenants’ had described her as “the most dangerous woman in Brighton”!

Anna’s family were – like my own great-grandfather – upmarket hardware merchants and ironmongers, in Baker Street I believe, and she claimed they had originated the concept of garden centres. Her husband, Hughie, was delightful but extremely forgetful because of alcoholism. He was always cheerful, and used to appear every now and then and command everyone to “BE HAPPY!” Anna once telephoned me and wailed that she had just been weeping with her head on the mantelpiece because Hughie had forgotten that they were temporarily staying in London, and after having a drink or three too many with some former business friends had hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him “home”. When the driver enquired where home was, Hughie gave him their Brighton address, so the taxi careered down to the coast and Anna – who had very little money at that time – was called by a frantic Hughie who said he owed a £50 taxi fare and what should he do?

I often used to visit Anna in her lovely house, and these occasions were always interesting and usually involved some unexpected happenings. I once spent a holiday with Anna and Hughie in a Cornish cottage, where she involved herself in a séance with some local mystics [which I didn’t join]. She had a large motor caravan, and from time to time used to tour the country with Hughie, going wherever the Lord led them.

After Hughie’s death, Anna sold the Brighton house and took a post as warden of a Christian retreat centre in Hampshire. I stayed there with her several times, and on one occasion my mother accompanied me. She and Anna got on famously. Although not the most organised of people, Anna was ideal as a wise and comforting ‘listening post’ for distressed and lonely people.

But alas! her physical problems of chronic overweight and diabetes took their toll, and she died suddenly in September 1983 aged only 63. The owner of the retreat house wrote to tell me, saying she was sure that the celestial trumpets were blowing for Anna, who would be receiving a great welcome in Paradise. However that may be, I only know that I still miss her irreplaceable friendship, and in my mind’s ear I can after quarter of a century hear her voice saying, as she answers the telephone, “Oh, how nice to hear you!”

Dear Anna, rest in peace.

Conservative Cavalcade - 1

The Conservative party has played such a major part in public affairs during my lifetime that I need more than one post to have my say about them.

When I was little, there was a National Government, and its prime minister was Ramsay MacDonald. I didn’t understand, then, that this ‘national’ government was really an overwhelmingly Conservative one – or, indeed, that there was such a thing as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Insofar as I became aware of political things, I just took ‘the government’ for granted.

I suppose the first incident that aroused my still childish interest was the abdication of King Edward VIII which, indeed, riveted the entire country. Royalty was still widely revered in those days, and the notion that our King should want to marry a common American woman, and a divorced one at that, shocked Britain to the core. By then, Stanley Baldwin was prime minister, widely regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’, and temperamentally a social healer who was sometimes over-complacent. His skilful navigation of the switchover from the erring Edward to the model family monarch George VI won the plaudits of almost everyone except Winston Churchill and a handful of romantic ‘King’s men’.

The next big political event to invade my budding consciousness of the wider world beyond our family life was the Munich crisis. Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, a prim, narrow-minded but basically decent man, dramatically flew for the first time in his life, not once but twice, to Germany in the space of a few days plead with Hitler to avert a European war. The dictator didn’t think much of this Victorian throwback, and is supposed to have said "If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I'll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers". Nonetheless, Chamberlain emerged from the lion’s den with what he optimistically announced was Hitler’s pledge of “peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time." But he must surely have known, as well as nearly everyone else did, that this was a hollow hope.

Nowadays, ‘appeasement’ has a bad name and Baldwin and Chamberlain are both execrated for their foolish complacency. But there was much support for their policies at the time; the senseless bloodbath of the 1914-18 trench warfare was only a few years behind, with its tragic loss of almost a whole generation of youth, and most British people were appalled at the thought of another war. Fortunately, though, Winston Churchill was sounding the alarm throughout the 1930s. But he and his small band of supporters were in a minority although I am glad to say my family believed - however reluctantly - that he was right.

Apart from renegade kings and upstart dictators, the National Government of the pre-war decade was a far better one in many respects than it has since been given credit for. When it came into office, the country was almost bankrupt and in the grip of a severe economic depression. This was partly the result of post-war exhaustion, and more immediately a consequence of the great 1929 Wall street crash which resulted from reckless speculation on the American stock market. While accelerating, though still inadequate, rearmament in the last years of peace helped, the National government had been laying the groundwork for economic recovery even earlier, with the abandonment of free trade and the introduction of tariff protection for Britain’s basic industries which, without this, would have been even worse equipped to fight the 1939-45 war. Unemployment was also a nagging problem about which more should and could have been done. But in retrospect, and for all their sins of omission, the ‘men of Munich’ have had an excessive amount of blame heaped upon them by political opponents and historians. Popularity plummets all too swiftly, and Baldwin – who had been hailed as a national saviour after the abdication – became even more unpopular than Chamberlain when the war erupted in earnest in the summer of 1940. He was reviled for not having warned the nation of its peril, and many rejoiced in mean fashion when his beautiful wrought iron ornamental gates at Bewdley [he was an ironmaster] were seized for scrap. His old age was lonely, and I felt pity for him when, as an undergraduate, I saw him glumly hobbling around the Senate House courtyard in procession as Chancellor of Cambridge University.

My own political consciousness only blossomed [if that is the right word!] during the war, when I was a schoolboy with a fascination for history and a keen awareness of the increasingly bitter global struggle. Winston Churchill’s government was a coalition of the three main political parties, and more genuinely ‘national’ than its predecessor had been, though the majority of MPs were still Conservative. During his long political career Churchill himself had been by turns a Conservative, a Liberal, and then a Conservative again. Because of his presumed ‘disloyalty’ during the 1930s, he was disliked and mistrusted by many Conservatives, both in and outside parliament, and only became prime minister on the insistence of the Labour Party, who refused to serve under his rival Lord Halifax.

Churchill’s heroic stance as the implacable British bulldog snarling at the Nazi foe and as the prime architect of Allied victory won the bulk of his party over so that many regarded him as their main asset. When he was unexpectedly defeated in the 1945 landslide general election which swept Labour not only into office but, for the first time, into power he was solidly supported by most Conservatives in his new and unfamiliar role as leader of the opposition. [Indeed, the stalwartly Tory mother of a college friend of mine refused to recognise this unpalatable turn of affairs, and made a point of always referring to Mr Churchill as “the prime minister” throughout the six years that he wasn’t!] During my university days and for some time afterwards I was a pretty strong Churchillian Conservative, because I believed that the Tories, more than Labour, stood for the freedom of the individual to live their personal lives as they chose – something I was perhaps wrong about.

I remained a Conservative until the Suez crisis of 1956, when it became painfully apparent that Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden, had not only secretly colluded with France and Israel in attacking Egypt and attempting to seize the Suez Canal, but also had told a whole pack of lies to parliament and the country about the fiasco. At which point I ceased to be a Conservative [writing a pompous letter of resignation to my local MP], and have ever since had no particularly strong party allegiance, though inclining towards the Liberals [now LibDems] primarily because of their stance on civil liberty issues and voting reform.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Does it take one to catch one?

The Sunday Times reports that the British tax authorities have paid a ‘whistleblower’ for the stolen bank details of wealthy Britons with deposits in Liechtenstein, “one of the world’s most secretive tax havens”. HM Revenue & Customs have apparently paid around £100,000 for information which will enable them to launch around 100 investigations, and regard this as a ‘coup’.

The same ex-bank employee [who was sacked and convicted of fraud] has ‘provoked a storm’ in Germany by selling data on 750 wealthy Germans to the country’s intelligence service for around £3.2 million, and has also offered information to tax authorities in America, Canada, Australia and France.

One wonders where he or she stashes their loot? But not much prospect, alas, of any illuminating details about Saudi princes!

This story prompted the following comment, which I reproduce by permission of the author:

“This is quite astounding. The British government has intentionally paid a known criminal (who has been convicted of his crimes) for stolen goods. Surely this means that the British government has itself committed a crime? Isn't the Blair/Brown/NuLabour government now a genuinely criminal regime?

And just look at the ramifications of this:

(1) This information is stolen goods supplied by a dishonest and convicted criminal. How can it be relied upon? It could perfectly well be made up or exaggerated for effect (i.e. in order to gain greater remuneration). The British government (as well as the German, US, and perhaps other governments) could well have been ripped off.

(2) It shows that crime pays. Why is it ok for the informant to do what he/she did, to steal private data and hand it over for money, whilst it's apparently not ok for people to do what they want with their own money? The government is attempting to operate on a particularly hypocritical moral basis here.

(3) It encourages crime on a major scale: It declares an open day for corrupt employees in government departments worldwide. The British government must be aware that this will include employees of British government departments.

(4) It puts the government's many data security breaches into context. How are we to trust that the government with our data if they so willingly buy (thus encouraging further such thefts) data and thus cause the very data security breach that they claim they are attempting to prevent. This is apparently not an honest or trustworthy government.

Some people will claim that all this is magically ok because it's 'only' the very rich who are being affected by this, but this is a false argument. It doesn't matter how rich or poor the victim of such a crime is - this is a crime, the information provided is inherently unreliable since it came from a convicted criminal and, because it is the British government who are party to this crime, it affects every British citizen, rich or poor.

Furthermore it seems to me that it is no moral crime to want to control your own money and to keep it away from the ever-more-rapacious (and now seemingly criminal) tax authorities whilst it most certainly is a crime, morally and perhaps legally, to do what the British government has done.”

Harking back to his previous post on ‘Integrity’, Anticant says “hear, hear”.

Crossing the Rubicon

Do read this! A great deal of sense, mixed with a pinch or two of nonsense.

Thanks to Emmett [Bodwyn Wook] for the link.

Sunday, 24 February 2008


I had thought of calling this post “Does honesty matter?” and then realised that what it is about is integrity - defined in the ‘Oxford Concise’ as ‘wholeness; soundness; uprightness, honesty’.

Thankfully for me, and to my great benefit, integrity was the hallmark of my family. My grandfather and father were both Fellows of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and when I was little I gathered that accountants, and Chartered Accountants in particular, were among the most honest of people, and the guarantors of sound business practice. I wish I could still think so today!

My grandfather used to say that “A good name was rather to be had than great riches”. My father once offered his resignation to his colleagues on the board of the major industrial company of which he was Financial Director because he had inadvertently said something to my godfather – his closest school friend – which might have enabled the latter to make a profitable share transaction [even though he didn’t]. Such a high standard of business ethic seems quaintly old-fashioned in the 21st century, more’s the pity.

Of course, no-one is one hundred per cent. truthful and honest every moment of their lives. The ‘George Washington who never told a lie’ is an American folk myth [and he would have been a lousy general if it were true]. But deliberate and habitual lying on the assumption that anything is OK if you can get away with it is destructive of the social fabric, and even ‘white lies’ told with the best of intentions can be damaging to trust if discovered, as Sissela Bok points out in her book Lying: moral choice in public and private life [1978]

Mutual trust between individuals, groups, organisations, and nations is the glue which holds society together. We erode it at our peril, as has become only too clear in this sombre first decade of the 21st century. Francis Fukuyama – he who famously proclaimed The End of History [1992] and forecast that henceforth the only global problems worthy of attention would be economic ones – some soothsayer! – wrote another book entitled Trust [1995], in which he defines that commodity as “the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and co-operative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community”. Our problem today is that the norms are no longer as widely shared as they used to be, and are certainly no longer universal. The most common operating principle – if one can call it that – of many people seems to be “whatever one can get away with is OK”.

In this climate of mendacity, it is prudent to pay far less attention to what people say than to observe closely what they do. I no longer set much store by the glib promises of service providers whose only concern is to tell you what they think you would like to hear, regardless of whether it is the truth or not. All too dependant as I am upon such people, I have lost count of the empty promises made to me about promptness of delivery, taxi arrival times, etc. And when I hear the dread words “No problem!” I know that I am most likely entering upon a quagmire.

This frequent, almost unconscious, lying is nowadays commonplace not only in the political and business worlds but also in the media, whom we used to rely on to keep us on the whole accurately informed about what goes on in the world. But this is no longer the case, and the rigorous checking of facts which was drummed into me as a junior sub-editor on a respected provincial daily newspaper has long been thrown overboard in pursuit of higher profits.

As for politics, a decade of Blairite New Labour spinning like a demented top has left us with a government whose rubric seems to be “never explain, never apologise, and above all never resign.” When they get unavoidably caught out, and have to make excuses it is done in a grudgingly dismissive way. Last week’s pathetic parliamentary performance by foreign secretary Miliband over the use of British territory for the refuelling of American ‘rendition’ planes [“Surprise, surprise! We had no idea…”] resembled the Victorian servant girl’s classic explanation of her illegitimate baby: ”Well, you see, Mum, it was only a very little one”.

All this is in painful contrast to the remote days when ministers took responsibility for their departmental failings, and occasionally even resigned, as Sir Thomas Dugdale did over the [in fact, trumped up] Crichel Down scandal in the early 1950s, John Profumo over the Christine Keeler affair, and Lord Carrington over Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.

As long as people believe that ‘the truth’ is anything they wish it to be, I cannot see how we are going to recover from this moral landslide. In my recent Open Letter to Ibrahim Lawson, I said that my own working definition of ‘truth’ is that it is related to actual states of affairs which can be verified by relevant evidence and that it is also inextricably related to the honesty of the person speaking. That is to say, unless I genuinely believe, rightly or wrongly, that I am telling ‘the truth’, my words are insincere and I am being a humbug. I may be completely mistaken in believing that what I say is true, and my sincerity does not make it true if it is not. But an honest intention to be truthful is essential.

Until integrity is restored to its primary place in personal, social, political, economic, national, and international life our world and all our self-satisfied competitive civilisations will shrivel in mortal sickness and continue to slide into a chaotic abyss.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Conspiracy? Whose conspiracy?

Anticant is an instinctive sceptic, and a reluctant conspiracy theorist. But for the past six-plus years, ever since the 9/11 Twin Towers business, he has felt growingly uneasy and unconvinced by the official US and UK government explanations of what is happening and why.

When I first came across the notion that 9/11 could have been an 'inside job', it seemed too incredible to deserve a moment's consideration. But the more I read about the construction of the Twin Towers, the undoubted fact that they imploded almost instantaneously when they had been built to withstand stresses far greater than that caused by crashing aircraft, and - even more inexplicably - that a third tower which was not directly hit had also collapsed, the more I wondered.

Then I discovered Yankee Doodle's blog. At first I wrote him off as a one-sided extremist. But the more I read his obviously deeply researched and minutely detailed posts, the greater became my conviction that this guy is on to something big.

What he is on to is the almost total collapse of the moral compass of the West, as well as the near-universal venality and sporadic religious fanaticism of the East.

Have a look at his latest post, and judge for yourselves.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

A message from God

The spate of recent earthquakes in Israel is all the fault of homosexuals, according to an ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset [Israeli parliament], Shlomo Benizri.

"God says you shake your genitals where you are not supposed to and I will shake my world in order to wake you up", Benizri declared during a parliamentary debate on earthquake preparedness. The full report is here.

As the late Tommy Handley of ITMA fame used to say, "I don't wish to know that!"

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Party pooper

Anticant has always been a political animal, ever since he grew up during World War Two and, as a student, witnessed the bitter clashes between the post-war Labour government and it’s dispossessed, disgruntled Conservative predecessors. A political animal, but never a strongly partisan one. He adheres to the old-fashioned view that politics exists to serve the people, and not the other way round. So he has only belonged to any political party for one or two brief periods – the Conservatives in the immediate post-war years, and the Liberals [now LibDems] after the 1956 Suez Crisis. In retrospect, he has never felt really enthusiastic about any of the parties, and these days even questions their value and relevance as they are at present organised and funded.

With a general election looming within the next couple of years, it seems timely to reflect upon political parties as Anticant has experienced them during his lifetime. I start with the Labour Party [this is a revised version of a post first published about a year ago]:


In my experience the Labour party has always been the Bermuda Triangle of progressive politics in Britain – the casualty area where good libertarian and social reforming intentions in opposition transmute into U-turns, bossiness and Nannyish heavy-handedness in government.

In the 1930s the party was in the doldrums after two short, unsatisfactory spells in office in the 1920s and the shattering experience of the 1931 general election when its former leader, Ramsay MacDonald, reneged to become the figurehead prime minister of a ‘national’ [in effect, Conservative] government with an overwhelming majority. The rump of the parliamentary Labour party under the leadership of first George Lansbury, an idealistic ineffective pacifist, and then the dour, colourless Major Attlee, was ineffective and irrelevant, especially as it continued to oppose rearmament until after Munich, while simultaneously and inconsistently calling for greater resistance to Hitler.

Attlee became deputy prime minister in Churchill’s wartime coalition, and prime minister when Labour swept into office in the 1945 general election. Deceptively self-effacing, he was in fact far and away the best leader Labour ever had in my lifetime. The cruel jokes – about him alighting from an empty taxi, and “being so flat that he was almost concave” – belied a firm hand on the tiller in a cabinet composed of much bigger fish than any of Tony Blair’s or Gordon Brown’s cabinet colleagues. His rebuke to an over-noisy party chairman – “a period of silence from you would be welcome” – was a classic. But he passed his prime, the initial driving energy behind his government waned, as it always does, and in 1950/51 Labour paid the price for mismanaging the economy – especially by the psychological mistake of prolonging rationing and ‘austerity’ too far into the post-war years.

Labour’s next great missed opportunity came with the Suez crisis of 1956. The country was split down the middle over the morality and strategic good sense of Anthony Eden’s ill-fated collusive invasion of Egypt with the French and Israelis, and the then Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, argued articulately and passionately against it. But the party was – as all parties are – a coalition with some strong personal antipathies, riven by feuds between Gaitskell’s supporters and those of Aneurin Bevan, and it failed to topple Eden’s government. The party did not regain office until 1964, when Harold Wilson became prime minister after a narrowly won election.

Wilson is still a controversial figure, admired by many and loathed by others who saw him as betraying the party’s traditional values and chasing opportunism. As his Guardian obituarist, Geoffrey Goodman, put it “he lacked the deep conviction of Thatcher or De Gaulle and never possessed the philosophical and inspirational qualities of Aneurin Bevan” [Labour’s Hamlet]. His lengthy premierships saw a generational and social transformation in Britain with much of which Wilson himself was not in personal sympathy – it was his liberal-minded Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, who masterminded much of the modernising legal reform that reached the Statute Book, most of it ostensibly as private members’ measures. Jenkins merits the chief blame – or praise, according to how you look at it – for the mis-named ‘permissive society’.

James Callaghan, Wilson’s successor, presided for a few more years over what came to be felt as the ‘stagnant society’. An old-fashioned trades union man to the core, Callaghan failed to recognise the damage done by increasingly unpopular and outmoded industrial restrictive practices, and his return from a winter Caribbean holiday to a damp and gloomy Britain whose streets were strewn with uncollected garbage because of union strikes only elicited from him – according to the Tory tabloids - the query “Crisis? What crisis?” That, if he did actually say it, was an egregious blunder. The outcome was a lost vote of confidence, a lost general election, and another 18 years of Tory government under a prime minister – Margaret Thatcher – who was much more of a radical in her own way than Callaghan or Wilson had ever been.

All governments, whether long-lasting or not, go through a life-cycle from vigorous youth, through experienced maturity, and ultimately lose their slipping, increasingly senile, grasp. A decade is a long time in the life of an individual, let alone a government. Material for personal comparisons and evaluations dwindles when, as is the case with younger voters, one has known nothing else than the current regime. For a while, Harold Macmillan’s administration which took over from the enfeebled Eden appeared to be self-confidently in command of the national agenda. But appearances can be deceptive, and when the slide comes it can be rapid. In a few hectic weeks of ministerial scandals and adverse media publicity, ‘Supermac’ was swept away muttering “Events, dear boy. Events.” Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics.

The puzzle about the Blair [now Brown] government, which catapulted into power amidst such national euphoria at the demise of the unloved Tories, is why it has sustained its grip on power for so long after implementing a string of policies which have alienated not only Labour’s traditional bedrock supporters, but also a great many of those who leaned towards the fresh-looking Blair in 1997. While he was prime minister, his self-professed “New” Labour government was – if we are to believe the media Whitehall corridor prowlers – as racked by internal feuds as any of its predecessors, the only difference being the lengths to which all concerned went to conceal and deny this. Now, under Gordon Brown, the internal rifts may be less, but the government is rapidly losing any popularity the new premier briefly enjoyed.

The Blair-Brown parliamentary Labour party is much more subservient to the Whips than was the case under Wilson, or even Attlee. The few threats of major ‘rebellions’ during the government’s decade of tenure have mostly been ‘fixed’ behind the scenes without any dramas on the floor of the House, and this makes day-to-day politics boring, even for the politically curious [which most people aren’t]. The ‘New Labour’ project resembles a giant pumpkin from which all the flesh has been scooped out, leaving only an empty hallowe’en mask, with the result that an increasing number of people feel that despite the overweening interference of government in their lives political activity or protest is irrelevant because it won’t influence policy.

Not only party politics, but populist politics, failed to dent Blair’s unshakeable belief in his own rectitude. His airy dismissal of two million protesters marching against the Iraq war speaks volumes for the decay of our representative system. Under any other administration I can think of, such a mass demonstration of public disapproval would have led to a vote of confidence in the Commons. But no-one, even in the opposition parties, has mounted such a challenge during the past decade. The malaise of political parties of all stripes, and their lessening appeal to the public, is a wider theme for further discussion.

Down the years I have had excellent personal relations, and some close friendships, with many members of the Labour party in both Houses, some of whom I have greatly admired and respected. But I have never felt in the least inclined, or been asked, to consider joining the party. Probably because they knew I was not a tribalist, as they were. The distinguishing feature of the Labour party throughout its existence has been its fervent tribalism and inward-looking loyalty, which explains the intensity of its internal feuds. Labour people are bound together by a sense of virtuous superiority to those who have the short-sightedness, or the bad taste, to remain outside “this great party of ours”. Nye Bevan’s infamous and ill-judged jibe that Tories were “lower than vermin” spoke volumes about the Labour cast of mind. As is now only too apparent, the Labour front bench are, in their own estimation, the know-all Nannies of the Nation, and I am one of the growing number who can’t wait to get them off our backs.

One of the myths of British history is that there is a deep and vibrant seam of popular devotion to free speech and civil liberties ingrained in the population at large. Despite the 19th and 20th century advances gained by some strenuous campaigning over these issues, they have always been the concern of only a minority, as is evident from the widespread indifference to the current governmental assault since September 2001 on some of our traditional freedoms in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’. Wherever a resurgence of national concern about freedom is to come from, it is unlikely to be the ranks of ‘New Labour’.

To sum up, my take on the Labour Party is that, without overlooking the 17th century Cavaliers and the 18th century Jacobites, it is the cause in British politics which has attracted more misguided devotion, and betrayed more fond hopes, than any other.

Monday, 18 February 2008

False dawns

Moments of political euphoria occur once or twice in each generation, sweeping whole populations into a collective orgasm of relieved jubilation. However, all those which have occurred in my lifetime have been more or less rapidly followed by relapse into ‘business as usual’ or something even worse.

The earliest such spasm I can remember was ‘Munich’ in 1938, when prim Mr Chamberlain in his wing collar returned from his confabulations with Hitler bearing not only his customary rolled umbrella, but also a piece of paper which he waved triumphantly saying that it heralded “Peace in our time”. Few believed him, but nonetheless the sense of reprieve which swept the nation momentarily obscured the dark clouds looming ahead.

At the finish of the Second World War, the capitulation of Japan brought an end to almost six years of global conflict, and for a brief while the world breathed more freely. The sombre fact that this victory had ushered in the brooding menace of nuclear war, which was to overhang the international landscape for most of the next half-century, escaped most of us at the time.

In the 1960s, the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and the excitements of student activism in Europe, which almost succeeded in toppling the wearisome authoritarianism of General de Gaulle, enthused many who looked forward to a younger generation at the helm and a more open society. But the mood of optimism didn’t last long.

A European euphoric moment in the mid-1970s was the death of General Franco, which was rightly seen as heralding the return of Spain to democracy. This has been one of the few more lasting success stories of 20th century politics.

For some, though not all, the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 brought a sense of liberation from stale old Labour trade union-dominated politics. But the not-yet-Iron Lady’s pledge on the steps of No. 10 that she would end strife and heal wounds soon proved to be hollow, and she morphed into the most controversial and, by some, bitterly hated, figure in recent British politics.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was jubilantly hailed as a seminal moment throughout the world, and rightly seen as a harbinger of the end of the arthritic post-Stalinist Soviet Union. This, however, was not followed by a smooth transition to democracy, either in Russia itself or in its associated republics and former satellites. Despite the perhaps too-eager embrace of the European Union, Eastern Europe remains an uneasy bedfellow of the West.

The election in 1989 of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government sparked off what was probably the hollowest, because the most groundlessly optimistic, of political euphorias. The nation was ripe for change and the prospect of a new, more open and honest style of politics was welcomed, even by many who were not habitual Labour supporters. In the event, what we got was an even more manipulative, spin-ridden form of government from a ‘God-guided’ control freak who dragged a largely reluctant country into the Iraq war in the wake of a much-disliked US Administration like a tin can tied to a poodle’s tail.

Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 sparked off global shockwaves of rejoicing, and his subsequent election as President of South Africa justified the hopes of all those who had toiled selflessly over many years to end the iniquitous system of apartheid. The new South Africa, however, cannot yet be said to have fulfilled its inhabitants’ aspirations for a prosperous modern society.

In the 21st century so far, there has been little to be euphoric about. The World scene has been persistently gloomy and menacing, and threatens to become even more so. Almost the only euphoric moment was a phoney one: the spectacle of a posturing George W. Bush on the deck of an American aircraft carrier proclaiming ‘victory’ in an Iraq war which has become steadily more bloody and seemingly unwinnable ever since.

With rare exceptions, political euphorias seem to be a dubious blessing and, like magic mushrooms, best avoided.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Islam in the West

For a couple of months now over on Stephen Law’s Philosophy Blog, we’ve been having an extended debate with Ibrahim Lawson, the headmaster of an Islamic school. The whole thing began because Ibrahim had said, on Radio Four:

IL: The essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.

INTERVIEWER: You use the word "inculcate": does that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?

IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really…

INTERVIEWER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?

IL: That’s right…

Not surprisingly, Stephen commented that this was a dangerous theory of ‘education’. Ibrahim replied, defending his position on the ground of his absolute certainty of the ‘truth’ of his own faith, and the discussion has rumbled merrily on all around the houses ever since. Ibrahim is a former Anglican convert to Islam and, like many converts, ‘more Catholic than the Pope’. He sees Islam through a rose-coloured lens of personal mysticism as a pathway to union with Allah, and appears unconcerned about the collective social, cultural, political, and legal aspects of Islam which worry non-Muslims far more than its devotional attraction for individuals like himself. Indeed, he determinedly ignores repeated requests to confront these issues – which are surely relevant to what he teaches his pupils – and on the rare occasions when he deigns to address them, brushes them aside as trivialities, pooh-poohing the notion that to teach his religion is ’unquestionable’ might be in any way socially divisive.

If Islam were indeed no more than a mystic ‘inner path’ for the Faithful, there would be no cause for alarm. But of course, Islam is far more than that. It is a fiercely self-justifying and aggressively proselytizing faith which comes with an inextricable array of theocratic baggage aspiring to control all aspects of individual and social life and, most menacingly, replete with numerous injunctions to the Faithful to dominate the ‘infidels’ and subjugate them to the world ummah [community of believers]. Ibrahim himself has said that he would welcome the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate [political rule] in Britain. When challenged about this, he replies consolingly that from his perspective, Islam is compatible with our democratic society “given the circumstances” [that Muslims are currently in a minority in British society] - although he doesn’t think the latter is the best option, because “Islam is actually a far better, more humane, just and civilised system of governance than secular pluralism”! He also sees little if any prospect of sharia law and other Islamic practices being imposed as legal jurisdiction in Britain “at the moment”. [This was before the Archbishop of Canterbury kindly informed us the other day that he views it as “unavoidable”.]

I find little comfort in such hollow, because meaningless, assurances. It is becoming glaringly obvious that devout Muslims are incapable of renouncing – even if they wished to - the Koranic injunctions to establish an Islamic society wherever they happen to be, because if they did they would be apostates and liable to the death penalty in the eyes of their fellow–Muslims.

If I am wrong about this, theologically or practically, no doubt Ibrahim or some other authoritative Muslim voice will correct me. If I am not wrong, the question is, as Lenin said, ‘What is to be done?’

Furthermore, the nub of the problem posed by Islam in the West is that its strident claims are always presented with a subtext of implicit and, on an increasing number of occasions, actual violence. Consequently, it is next to impossible to discuss the merits of Islam as a faith, or the social aspirations of Muslims in Europe, in a calm, detached manner. As I said to Ibrahim in one of my responses to his posts, “you cannot convincingly claim that Islam is not responsible for the evil done in its name, but should be credited with the virtuous things Muslims do. Religious belief is either a genuine motivation or an excuse: it cannot be both.”

“I am not [Ibrahim countered] prepared to be drawn on the kind of contentious issues which might force me to be more explicit than is advisable in a world where many people look at each other with daggers in their eyes.”

To which I responded: “Well! You have indeed let a very large cat out of the bag [or described the proverbial elephant in the room]. The reason why candid discussion of religious and many other issues is increasingly inhibited in contemporary Britain is, quite simply, FEAR of the consequences of saying what one really thinks – especially as the daggers don’t remain in peoples’ eyes but increasingly take the form of violent aggressive action by bigots against those who dare to differ from them. I trust you will agree that such unbridled visceral hatred and intolerance, whether religious or secular in origin, is the root cause of many current social ills.”

The above was written before we read this week of angry Muslims rioting in the streets of Copenhagen shouting “Freedom of speech is like a plague!” [What does Ibrahim teach his pupils about freedom of speech, I wonder?]

In an interesting recent post on his blog 'Political, Human, Environmental Respect', Jose asks whether Western hostility to Muslims is prompted by racism, bigotry, or a sense of self-defence? He concludes that it is primarily the last, because of increasingly vociferous demands from immigrants - mostly Muslims - for special treatment. "In my opinion [Jose says] the main cause of the resentment of our populations regarding aliens is not something that can be called racism or bigotry. It is a feeling of self-defence which our authorities have not been brave enough to ease up by applying the Law with all its consequences. Those of any religion or race who live in our countries must respect the Law as we do and must get the punishment the Law metes out in all cases it contemplates."

I agree with Jose, and commented: "I think one of the main reasons why many 'post-Christian' Europeans find Muslims indigestible as immigrants is that Islam is 700 years younger than Christianity, and most Europeans are ignorant of their own religious history. Six or seven hundred years ago, most Christians believed fervently, and often literally, in their version of faith, just as Muslims do today. There were bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, and persecutions of heretics which we now consider to have been barbaric.

"To do Muslims justice, they are - whether ‘extremists’ or ‘moderates’ - much more serious about their faith than most Christians are today. In an interesting article about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent speech on sharia law, the sociologist Frank Furedi says, quite rightly, that 'Islam appears to motivate and inspire people in ways that most ordinary Anglicans find difficult to comprehend.'

"The problem is literalism, and until Islam evolves to the point where its doctrines are viewed by its adherents in a more metaphorical light, there is bound to be friction between opposing concepts of life which are obviously incompatible.

"So I agree with Jose that the nub of the hostility towards Muslim immigrants is more one of self-defence against an ideology that challenges our more evolved European way of life than of racism or bigotry. The peaceful resolution of these frictions is one of the most urgent tasks of the 21st century."

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Human Rights under threat

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 marked the high watermark of post-war idealistic aspirations. It is indeed a nobly phrased document, ringing with lofty ambition.

The most important provisions of the Declaration are:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

* * *

“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations…..

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

* * *

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

* * *

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

It is obvious from a cursory glance that in this first decade of the 21st century, most of the above provisions are being scornfully trampled over by governments and powerful groups all over the world, including those of the USA and UK who should, one would have hoped, be keen to occupy the moral high ground to which they still pay occasional lip-service. But there is little solid support for fundamental human rights, even in the UN Human Rights Council, and even more disturbingly, as a recent report from the delegate of the International Humanist and Ethical Union to the latest UN discussion of these issues at Geneva makes clear, there is a concerted and increasingly successful drive by Islamic states to undermine the whole concept. Keith Porteous Wood says:

The body overseeing Universal Human Rights is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Taking part in their meetings is a sobering experience. While there are countries, groups and individuals who make wonderful contributions, Human Rights are undoubtedly becoming less universal and inalienable. The individual’s rights are in great danger of becoming alienated in favour of group rights – often for religions.

The proceedings of the UNHRC have become a constant battle between Western nations, on the one hand, and the numerous members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), aided by a few countries who always support them and in turn receive support from them. These include China, Cuba and even India.

So, the 56 OIC countries are also making considerable progress on an international declaration on defamation of religion – a kind of all-religions blasphemy super law. Anyone seeking to draw attention to the capital offence of apostasy will be lucky even to be heard, and there is no chance of any action. Anything deemed the slightest bit critical of Islam is immediately jumped upon, and possibly even excised from the official record.

But the problem is much more serious even than apostasy laws or threats to freedom of expression. The whole edifice of Universal Human Rights is crumbling before our very eyes, and the “West” is letting it happen. With all the support the OIC can muster, and with painfully little active opposition from the “West”, those supporting the Universal declaration no longer have the upper hand. There are some honourable exceptions such as Canada and Belgium and the EU is a positive influence, but most Western countries are doing little better than wringing their hands, while others do not even do that. The United States is less than helpful, yet with its support and leadership this depressing picture could be so very different.

And the Secretariat are coming under increasing pressure to give the OIC an unobstructed run. The opportunities for non-Governmental organisations that are prepared to speak out — such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union — are being drastically diminished, if not eroded altogether.

The OIC Secretary-General, Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu issued a statement to mark Human Rights Day 2007. It reads, in part: “Respect of Human Rights through effective protection and promotion of equality, civil liberties and social justice is a milestone in the OIC Ten Year Plan of Action. In this regard the OIC General Secretariat is considering the establishment of [an] independent permanent body to promote Human Rights in the Member States in accordance with the provisions of the OIC Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and to elaborate an OIC Charter on Human Rights. The OIC is also committed to encourage its member States to reinforce their national laws and regulations in order to guaranty strict respect for Human Right[s].”

The OIC Cairo Declaration is explicitly based on Shariah law.

According to Wikipedia “The CDHRI concludes that all rights and freedoms mentioned are subject to the Islamic Shariah, which is the declaration's sole source. The CDHRI declares ‘true religion’ to be the ‘guarantee for enhancing such dignity along the path to human integrity’. It also places the responsibility for defending those rights upon the entire Ummah.” This is paving the way for second-class, religious-based group “rights”, rather than individual Universal Human Rights. And unless we are careful, many of the countries with the greatest need of Universal Human Rights support (and a high proportion of them are in OIC countries) will come under a shariah system....The whole Universal Human Rights machinery is unravelling for the second, and perhaps final, time while Western states stand by, drumming their fingers in resigned acceptance.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable in the world are being betrayed.

We must all try very much harder to support Human Rights from attack, whether that is from religious or cultural forces. Please do anything you can to raise consciousness of this impending crisis for humanity and to put politicians and diplomats everywhere under pressure to take responsibility for protecting Universal Human Rights.

Clearly, it is the inhabitants of theocratic countries who most need the protection of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – yet the supposedly ‘democratic’ Western countries are doing little if anything to ensure its survival, let alone its global enforcement. This issue needs to be seriously addressed at the forthcoming meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in South Africa in April.