I was over in Flanders just a couple of weeks back and visited the Irish memorial peace park there, outside Messines. Its full name, regrettably, is the Island of Ireland Peace Park, a touchingly clumsy effort to convey unity where until only relatively recently the predecessors of politicians who now preach it were exploiting separation and disharmony.
I dutifully read the plaque near the entrance, a “Peace Pledge” by those politicians. The park, it said, commemorated -
the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations…
I had to stop myself from turning away at that point. That wasn’t what they died in their thousands for between 1914 and 1918. If only it had been, then we could find some measure of excuse for the awful carnage.
The pledge redeems itself somewhat a little further on, proclaiming -
We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour
A nice thought, one that reminded me of a reworking of Henry V’s great speech in a radio show from the 60s -
Once more unto the beach, dear friends, once more and who’s got the cucumber sandwiches
Well, the person delivering the line said, it sounds so much more friendly.
Elsewhere in the park, a line of stones bore inscriptions taken from some of the fallen and some who survived. One especially caught my attention. It said with unrestrained anger -
So the curtain fell
over that tortured
country of unmarked graves
and unburied fragments of men
murder and massacre
the innocent slaughtered
for the guilty
the poor man
for the sake of the greed
of the already rich
the man of no authority
made the victim of the man
who had gathered importance
and wished to keep it
[David Starret, 9th Royal Irish Rifles]
"Lest we forget" is maybe now a forlorn hope of a message for the poppy to convey. I think it is time for a change to "That we may remember".
Last Sunday, in the Observer, David Mitchell wrote an article in which he urged us not to allow the cavalier behaviour of the likes of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch and their respective (if not respected) newspapers push us into legislating to curb press freedom. I was more baffled than disappointed as, to my knowledge, no-one with the power to do so was proposing to do anything of the kind. I said as much in a comment below the line.
This Sunday, Steve Coogan responded to David’s article. It was clearly a charged response, but not unreasonable and clothed in all the courtesy that befits arguments based in mutual respect. Steve clearly couldn’t understand David’s position anymore than I could. No-one was suggesting that there should be regulation of the press, indeed, everyone of significance was keen to avoid it, from Lord Leveson even down as far as David Cameron.
David Mitchell, given right of reply, was equally courteous but said he simply did not agree. With which parts, I wondered. I wanted to respond myself and waited for the Comments to be switched on. Then came the news that for “legal reasons” they would not be.
So here is my response to David. I don’t suppose he will get to read it. If he does, I would not hold it against him if he had better things to do that to reply to it. But at least my freedom of expression has been exercised.
Essentially, if I understand you, David, you are saying please do not do this little thing because though it may be justified in its own terms who knows where it may one day lead?
I wonder, when the first caveman tossed the flesh of a recently despatched antelope into the fire then pulled it out, tasted it and pronounced it good, how many of his companions shook their heads despairingly and tried to warn him of the dangers he was unleashing on a world of raw innocence: obesity, cancer of the bowel, factory farming, McDonalds.
I wonder if, when the first pilgrims were about to set sail for America, anyone tried to stop them because it might one day lead to creation of the Tea Party.
My point, in case those two thoughts are a tad too obscure, is that if we pull back from taking any step that seems a good idea at the time because of what might happen further down the line, we will never progress. We may in fact defeat ourselves. The preservation of freedom requires continual vigilance, not a retreat into the locked down bunker of total inaction leaving the enemy to walk freely over our birthright.
I assume you know that nothing can actually prevent Parliament from enacting more stringent controls on the press. No-one can fetter Parliament, not even from one day to the next. They will only need a pretext (and the courage to break away from the mafia-like protection the press barons give them as long as they play ball). They won’t say they are doing it because they dislike the investigative journalism and the constant holding of them to account, of course. Their claimed justification will be the press’s reckless and cynical disregard for decency, its constant trampling over the rights and sensibilities of ordinary citizens.
That, to me, is the strongest reason why the press needs urgently to restore itself to responsibility and accept accountability for its misdeeds. A free press in the important sense, the sense that fuelled the insistence on press freedom that the Founding Fathers wrote into the US Constitution – a press that is free – and trusted by the people - to report on abuse and shine a light on misfeasance and injustice – must be prepared to eschew mere scandalmongering, lying and manipulation (of fact and of people’s minds) and be prepared to offer appropriate redress where its standards falter and harm to an individual is the result. And it needs to do so in a way that shows a sensible degree of humility and respect for the democratic process. Accepting a Royal Charter, especially this meagre little Royal Charter, would be a small, and harmless, nod in that direction.
And, if I am right, it would remove a pretext for stronger political action to control the press.
This Royal Charter doesn’t even change the law. Royal Charters can’t do that. It just creates a mechanism for monitoring what will to all intents and purposes be self-regulation. It is only arrogance preying on ignorance that is trying to whip up a storm against such a small and unobjectionable device. The arrogance of those who will accept no limit on their self-declared divine right, even a nugatory one. The arrogance of those who have set themselves up above the rest of us and expect us to support them there regardless.
I said to you last week in a comment on your article
“think about what you are suggesting: that while we, the people, only have the right to freedom of expression, hedged about by the law, anyone who pulls out a card saying “owner of a device for printing stuff” is magically transformed into someone cloaked in something higher than diplomatic immunity.”
Because I have so much respect for you, I am trying to work out why you have joined the tyrants’ choir. I cannot fathom it and I wish I could, even if it meant my having to accept that I have got it wrong. But I don’t think I have. The issue of the Royal Charter is not whether there should be freedom of the press, nor even whether anyone in this country should be above the law or judge in his own cause, which is what the press owners want us to sign up to, but simply whether a body that is as independent as it is possible to be in a democratic society while continuing to have any public credibility should be set up to assess the adequacy of a mechanism put forward by the press for considering complaints about press behaviour.
That is all.
With kind regards,
Iain M Spardagus
You have gone to Heathrow to pick up your daughter’s pen pal… Okay I’ve lost you already, make that her Peruvian Facebook friend. Miranda. You have it written out in big felt tip pen on a bit of card that had been stiffening that new shirt.
You are waiting at the arrivals gate when you feel a hand gently gripping your elbow. A voice whispers with soft authority in your ear,
"Just come this way, Sir. No fuss, eh?"
You turn slightly and see with a flash of relief that the voice belongs to a uniformed officer of the law and not a mugger. Or so it appears. And so, as a decent, law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide, you comply.
He takes you to a room where a number of other men, uniformed and not, are standing around. The atmosphere is tense and not at all friendly.
"Sit. I said SIT."
You are tempted to look around for the disobedient dog to whom the command was issued but the only dog in view is a sad looking Alsatian lying with its head in its paws and eying you miserably. “You,” he seems to be saying, “They’re talking to you.” and at that moment you are pushed roughly behind a grey utilitarian table and into a grey plastic stacker chair that sways slightly under your weight.
"Waiting for Miranda, were we?" sneers a putty-faced shaven-headed uniform.
"Well I was,” you try, in an effort to lighten the mood.
"Funny guy," Putty Face sneers to his colleagues, "Wouldn’t you know it?"
"Right," he snarls, turning back to you, "Laptop, I-pad. On the table. Now."
"I don’t have them with me. They’re at home."
"Now, why would you leave them at home?"
"Because I didn’t expect to need them? Because this life, not an airport-based video game? I don’t know. Search me…”
"Thank you for your co-operation, we will. What’s this then?"
"That’ll do." Putty Face’s stubby fingers poke angrily at the tiny screen, like a drunk’s in a bar room debate. "What’s this?"
"My on-line banking app."
"I said password. Come on."
"I must warn you that under paragraph 18(1)(c) of Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offence not to provide information when requested by an examining officer or wilfully to obstruct or seek to frustrate a search or examination under the aforementioned Schedule."
It sounds all a bit far-fetched doesn’t it? It couldn’t happen here, in 2013. But what worries me is that, in terms of legality, I am not sure that fabricated attempt to extract the on-line banking password is any more far-fetched than when David Miranda was required to handover his Facebook password. And yet the authorities and the Government are adamant what was done to him, in the name of the same Schedule was all perfectly lawful.
Really? Let’s work our way through it. See what you think.
1. We are told that David Miranda was questioned, and his property detained, under Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000. That assertion is more than just an attempt to make us feel it was all in the best possible taste. It is vital to the legitimacy of what was done. It is fundamental to upholding the rule of law that every executive act that bears upon the constitutional freedom of the citizen to go about his lawful business unhindered is not only supported by law but also constrained by it. You have the powers Parliament gave you, no less, no more. Act outside them and it is you who must answer for it.
Governments don’t like this idea, of course. Like greedy children, they are always trying to step over the boundaries of their powers. Not so long ago, however, they recognised, and submitted to, the requirement to act lawfully. Now, when their actions bring them into conflict with the courts, they blame the judges and seek ways to bar further challenges. Such is progress. But I digress.
2. Schedules, such as Schedule 7, don’t exist in isolation. They are always the extrapolation of substantive parts of an Act. Okay, that is difficult. Put it this way: they are the small print. But their legal power and purpose comes from a section or a part of an Act of Parliament. And therefore their meaning comes from that section or part too.
Schedule 7 is the small print of Part V of the Terrorism Act 2000. Part V is specifically about counter-terrorism. It is not about not offending the government, or getting up the nose of presidents and prime ministers. Counter-terrorism.
3. Schedule 7 sets out the powers of certain people – called examining officers - to stop, search and detain other people and their property. Because those powers involve an interference with certain fundamental freedoms, liberties guaranteed by the State, the law says that they have to be construed strictly, and in favour of the people against whom they are used. In other words: people detained, questioned or searched under this Act have the right to rely on the best - most favourable - interpretation of what it says. These Schedule 7 powers are not a general permission to oppress. Only tyrannies have those.
4. To understand what Schedule 7 does permit, a good point to start is its paragraph 2. Let’s see what it says:
“An examining officer may question a person to whom this paragraph applies for the purpose of determining whether he appears to be a person falling within section 40(1)(b).”
So the next question, obviously, is who is this person who might fall within section 40(1)(b)? Well, according to section 40(1)(b), he is
“a person who …is, or has been, concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
(Note in passing that section 40(1)(a) does not come into this. That provision says that you are a terrorist if you have committed certain offences under the Act. But, to be clear, even if you have, what paragraph 2 is saying that an examining officer does not have powers to question you for the purpose of determining whether you have.)
Paragraph 2 has therefore made the purpose of the examining officer’s questioning very clearly and precisely limited.
We need to find out what “terrorism” means in this context. To do that, we don’t turn to the tabloid newspapers, to braying politicians or to self-regarding polemicists. We turn instead to section 1 of the Terrorism Act. It’s a lengthy definition but it is worth getting to grips with. It begins –
“In this Act, “terrorism” means...”
- and with these words we know that this is the meaning, and the only meaning, that is relevant.
It continues –
"…the use or threat of use of action … designed to influence the government or an international government organisation or to intimidate the public … For the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.”
This “action” is also defined: serious violence, serious damage to property, endangering people’s lives, serious risk to health and safety, serious interference with or disruption of electronic systems.
Now we have identified another limit. Yes, of course, an examining officer can, as one citizen to another, ask any of us the time of day, and as a matter of courtesy we may choose to reply. But the only valid purpose that he has for questioning you under Schedule 7 is to determine whether you – you personally - are “concerned with the commission, preparation or instigation” of defined acts of terrorism.
Let’s just underline that for any high-ranking Parliamentarians who may need it spelled out. Not doing, or possessing, something that “might be useful to terrorists”. Not even taking tea with terrorists. Actually concerned with the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terror.
5. From just what we have seen so far, if you were just a Dad picking up his daughter’s friend or, say, a journalist’s assistant with no connection with terrorists or terrorism, passing through Heathrow in the course of returning home after lawfully meeting a law-abiding citizen in another country, you could be forgiven for assuming that no examining officer was going to think he had the right to stop and question you under Schedule 7. But it is not quite that simple. Because paragraph 2(4) says:
“An examining officer may exercise his powers under this paragraph whether or not he has grounds for suspecting that a person falls within section 40(1)(b).”
So, in fact an examining officer can question anyone then? Well yes, that is what it says. But if the only legitimate purpose of his questioning is to determine whether they are a person concerned with terrorism, after a few exchanges, most conversations with an examining officer should stop. They should stop as soon as the examining officer has, or reasonably should have, satisfied himself that you are not concerned with the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism. And, paradoxically, they should stop sooner for the journalist’s assistant than for the Dad because, of course, he will have been under surveillance anyway, so the determination will be easier to reach. End of conversation.
6. One more limitation: can the examining officer question just anyone? No, according to Schedule 7, he can only question people who are in certain locations for certain purposes. The person to be questioned has to be at a port or in a “border area” and the examining officer has to “believe that the person’s presence is …connected with his entering or leaving Great Britain.”
So not transit passengers then? Well he can also question –
“a person on a ship or aircraft”
But not transit passengers who have disembarked, apparently.
7. Far from the blinkered certainty ejaculated by Ministers, then it would see there is some scope for argument as to the legitimacy of what happened to Mr Miranda even before the questioning even began. But, you might think, what’s all the fuss anyway? Being allowed to question people is not such a great power. Not like being Superman or the Incredible Hulk. There has to be more that this. There is. Paragraph 5.
“A person who is questioned … must—
(a) give the examining officer any information in his possession which the officer requests;”
That seems like the killer punch. “Any information”? So much for the human right to privacy.
Except no. Again we must read that “which the officer requests” in the light of the limits of the examining officer’s powers. Remember point 5, above? An examining officer’s powers to request are limited to the purpose of determining whether a person is concerned with terrorism”. So no need to feel threatened by questions like “who’s your favourite boy band”. Unless it’s the Moslem Brotherhood.
But where does that leave the question of your password? Well now, it could be relevant. It can’t just be ruled out as obviously never going to be relevant. You could be concealing instructions for a bombing campaign. But again, it is not a simple matter. Let’s make the next stage of our journey.
8. What is the purpose of a password. It has no intrinsic value. As a word, if such it is, in the right context it may add meaning to a sentence, but out of that context and standing alone it is a mere collection of symbols. It gains purpose because of what it may enable: access. It is a key.
So when someone asks you for your password they are asking you not just for the word - the set of symbols. They are asking you for access to something else.
That is why a request for your password is a request for information. And therefore, it has to be assumed that if an examining officer, with a legitimate purpose in mind, asks a person whom he is entitled to ask for his password, that person, if he has it in his possession, is duty bound to provide it. Paragraph 5(a) says so. And paragraph 18(1)(a) says it is an offence not to comply.
It has to be doubtful however whether the man jabbing at your smart phone and demanding the password to your on-line bank account has passed these tests. How would accessing your on-line bank account help to determine whether you are or have been concerned with terrorism? And if he hasn’t got an answer to that, it seems to me that you shouldn’t have to either.
But I suggested at the beginning of this analysis that the request for a Facebook password was tainted with the same stain of dubious legality. Can I make good on that claim? Walk with me a little further.
9. We now need to look more closely at the examining officer’s purpose in requesting the password. We have already discovered that idle curiosity is not enough. Let’s say it again, the only legitimate purpose of his questioning is to determine whether you are actively concerned in terrorism. How can asking for your password contribute to that determination? Suppose your password was “OsamabinLaden”? It may allow me to gather that you are a strange person but it tells me nothing useful about your terror proclivities. However, knowing your password may be the key to finding out other things. Things your password protects. Things that may assist in determining if you are a terrorist.
But this line of thought necessarily takes us beyond paragraph 2 questioning and into your property: the property that the password operates on. So for the next part of our journey we must acquaint ourselves with what Schedule 7 has to say about an examining officer’s rights over your property.
Schedule 7 addresses property in three ways. It provides a power to search, a power to examine and a power to detain. We will begin with search.
Paragraph 8(1) says -
“An examining officer who questions a person under paragraph 2 may for the purposes of determining whether he falls within section 40(1)(b), … search the person"
and - take careful note of these words -
“search anything which he has with him, or which belongs to him, and which the examining officer reasonably believes has been or is about to be, on a ship or aircraft.”
Clearly, this power allows for a physical search: of you, your pockets, your wallet or purse, your luggage. But does it extend to another kind of search altogether: the search of what is stored on your laptop, your phone, your tablet, your memory stick? Again it is not obvious, to say the least. We can easily carry an image in our heads that data are stored on our devices the way books are stored in a library but this is a bogus image. All that are stored a strings and strings of values. Some values act as instructions to the device as to how it will run. Some values act as instructions to the device as to how to treat other values. And some values are, by that means, convertible into data. Data which may be numbers, symbols, words, shapes or images
A physical search of a laptop will reveal only the hardware and probably an accumulation of dust, dead skin cells and biscuit crumbs. It will not reveal the data on the machine. A search of data requires that you boot up the laptop, load up a program and run it. It is a different concept. Can we be sure that this second kind of search is within the contemplation of a provision that is in every other respect clearly and manifestly referring to a search of the first kind?
But this is not the only question of legitimacy facing the examining officer. Look again. “search anything which he has with him”.
Again it is an almost charming mistake that we make when we try to treat “documents” and “images” as “on” a computer. It is common currency these days for the news to report that “police have seized 1000 indecent images”. No, they have taken possession of a device which contains strings of values that, if ordered by the right software will produce those images.
And this is my point: increasingly those values are not even stored in our own devices. They may be located on a hard drive or a memory card or stick. But they may at the same time be located elsewhere. And in the case of your on-line banking details, your Facebook information - all those drunken, gurning photos and fatuous messages - and even your emails and documents, they may ONLY be stored elsewhere. In servers and clouds and webs that belong to others and are not with you at all.
All you do, in these cases, is to access a temporary basis a copy of your information and when you are done it is repatriated to its remote location.
Ah, you say, but I have skipped over “or belongs to him”. No, it is just the next point. We may have rights of subject access over our details, stored remotely but they do not “belong to us” in any property sense. We may own intellectual property rights on the digital copies of documents and photos we have entrusted to the Cloud. But there is no photo or document sitting up there that belongs to us: just a stream of values waiting to be assembled.
And no evidence that they have ever been on a plane or a boat.
Remember when I said, a while back, that powers that interfere with freedoms have to be construed strictly? How benign an interpretation does it take of the words “search anything he has with him or which belongs to him which has been on a ship or airplane” to get to the right to access data which you do not have with you and which does not belong to you in any tangible sense and which, in any event, has been nowhere near a ship or aircraft?
And if the examining officer cannot maintain a right to search this remotely held information what purpose is served by knowing the password that will serve only to give him access to it?
And so if knowing the password has no legitimate purpose, he has no business requesting it and you have no duty to comply.
Nearly there now.
10. Examination. Paragraph 9 of Schedule 7 allows an examining officer to examine goods
“for the purpose of determining whether they have been used in the commission preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
Goods, it says, includes “property of any description”.
And once again we are in the territory of construction. How does one examine a laptop to discover if it has be “used in the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism”? You have to look at what is stored on it. But does that entitle you to examine things that are not? Paragraph 9 does not say so.
Nor does paragraph 9 require the owner of the laptop to divulge his passwords to allow you to.
11. Finally, then, we get to detention. Paragraph 11 of Schedule 7 deals with this. There are three specific justifications for an examining officer to detain property: for the purpose of examination; because he believes that it may be needed as evidence in criminal proceedings; and in connection with deportation proceedings. If there is no question of deportation and none of criminal proceedings at the point of detention, and there is nothing lawfully to examine, there can be no right to detain.
12. All of which tends to suggest that demanding a password so as to enable you to access an on-line bank account OR a Facebook account, or any other account or remote storage facility is not sanctioned by Schedule 7 and any threats made to elicit such a password, including the threat of prosecution and possible imprisonment would be unlawful.
Do you see how hard to grasp how any properly advised examining officer, or for that matter, Minister of the Crown, could think otherwise, let alone assure him- or herself that the law was solidly on his or her side.
Time to sum up. First a caveat, nothing here is intended to, or indeed could, sway the judgment of the courts on this issue - for now at least, they remain the arbiters of Government’s exercise of its powers, not its partners in crime.
It seems to me, however, dubious at the very least that any examining officer duly exercising his powers under Schedule 7 could, if properly advised, have comfortably concluded that he had the powers or indeed any reasonable cause to detain a citizen of a sovereign state in transit for any purposes that did not honestly embrace the possibility - not necessarily “grounds to suspect” - that the citizen was himself actively concerned in terrorism. If he couldn’t get through that legislative gate he had no business with the citizen. But until he had got there any attempt to search or retain the citizen’s property ad no legitimacy under Schedule 7. To take away and retain property that the citizen carried which did not, on visual inspection, itself appear to have any link to possible terrorist activities connected to the person detained would be improper. And to demand passwords accessing that citizen’s personal information stored remotely seems unsupportable under the Schedule even if he had achieved the level of compliance with the Schedule that allowed search and detention.
To threaten the same citizen of another country who has not set foot on British soil with prosecution if he fails to comply with an knowingly unlawful demand the would itself be unlawful, as I understand it. It would appear to involve an unwarranted threat. The law of this country, which applies to all of us equally, is available to punish such behaviour. To incite such conduct would also be unlawful.
This is not a debate about letting terrorists run free or tying our hands with the cords of our self-regarding libertarianism. Parliament made the Terrorism Act 2000 and it saw fit to build in safeguards because it understood that in the fight for freedom if we are not to lose the very freedoms that make our life tolerable we must target our weapons with care and not turn them on ourselves. If we need better laws for our protection let us make them, knowingly and deliberately. Until then, let us remember that the mark of a liberal democracy is that it always respects the letter and the spirit of legitimacy.
In due course, the courts will rule upon it all and we will have our answers.
Forgive me meanwhile if I find this business of the detention of David Miranda to have “a very ancient and fish-like smell”.
There is a delicious irony in the moderation of the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” site. Something one suspects Kafka would appreciate.
I recently commented on a piece by Suzanne Moore. The comment was allowed and attracted 91 recommendations. You can still find it there as of now.
When Ally Fogg wrote a riposte to Suzanne’s article, a poster referred to my comment with a link.
But when today the Guardian’s Readers’ Editor published a piece about the outrage her article had inspired and I responded to correct an error in one post providing the link, the comment was removed. When I re-posted my comment without the link, that too was removed.
And when I wrote again, simply commenting on the over-zealous deletion and referring those who wished to see for themselves here, that too was deleted.
As you can see here, there was nothing in my comment to offend. It was mild compared with what was being posted elsewhere. But apparently it could not be allowed to stand and any reference to it had to be airbrushed out of history, in the best traditions of Stalinism.
Because the Guardian moderators are a silent clique and a law unto themselves (which in any other context the Guardian would decry as an offence against freedom of speech) we can only speculate on the moderators’ motives. Or we can just think “silly sods”. Here it is, in full.
"In point of fact, I did respond to Suzanne Moore’s piece with a little parody of my own, “10 rules for managing your vagina (and other bits)”. I did so partly to see how the Mods would react. To my surprise and, I suppose, to their credit, they did not remove it.
I have to say the levels of fierce indignation the article provoked astonished me. Shades of a Bateman cartoon, I thought. To me, it wasn’t so much shocking as piss poor, a badly cobbled together set of sexist insults that surely only someone who had reached the dregs of her second bottle of Pinot Grigio could think amusing, (I’m not proud of my effort either but mine was, in its own defence, the product of just 20 minutes, tapping into an online box). And then the sheer incongruity of that Rule 7. It is small wonder that this caused offence, not, I believe, because Suzanne intended any but because read in the context of the rest of the leaden man-bashing, it could only be misinterpreted as anti-gay. I had to read it in isolation before I could be sure that the intention behind its incoherence was to criticise homophobia.
Suzanne can write well, I know this, but it seems a while since she did. She desperately needs the firm guidance of a good editor and that, I suppose, is the problem. The Guardian today seems to see editorial control in much the same way that 1970s comprehensives saw correction of their pupils’ work.
And in the end it is the editors that must take the blame for the piece being published: not for any offence but for the lamentable disregard of standards. But of course they won’t. For minimal effort, it proved a nice little earner, as they knew it would.
Ally Fogg’s gentle riposte was a treat. As I said at the time, I wished I had written something like it.”
Wicked stuff, eh?
Yesterday the media were full of sound and fury over what appeared to be a sneaky piece of embezzlement by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It concerned a substantial sum of money left to “the political party in goverment” with instructions that the party “use it as they see fit. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Tories and the Lib Dems saw fit to pocket the money. Others, led by the ever judgmental Daily Mail, for whom the political commentator Polly Toynbee came out in vigorous support, saw this as iniquitous and still others blamed the executors of the will for handing over the money.
What I think we have here, however, is something far more significant than “The nasty boys stole my lunch” or “The dumb lawyers cocked it up”, which seem to be the two prevailing approaches other than the joyous sarcasm of “Read all about it: Toynbee praises Mail. Hell reported to have frozen over.”
If I am right this little episode represents nothing less than the state of total confusion that lies at the heart of our constitution. Nothing wicked, as such, just expedience of thought bequeathed a brief and informative substance.
The essence is this. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Once upon a time, there was an Executive (the Crown) whose function it was to administer the State - to govern. Then there was a Legislature (the Parliament) that was supposed to watch over the Executive on behalf of the people. But the Parliament was made up of ambitious men (yes, dear, men - wouldn’t you know it?) who weren’t satisfied with just representing anyone. They wanted POWER. So they started to form themselves into cliques (they called them “parties”, but I prefer “cliques”) and use their combined voting strength to tip the balance the way they wanted things to go.
The Executive was finding it harder and harder to get authorisation for what it wanted to do because it had submitted some time before to the idea that it would only pass laws with the Legislature’s approval. So it hit upon a plan. It would invite the leader of the biggest clique in Parliament to run the Government. That way it would not have to worry about getting its way.
A big tactical mistake. Because it didn’t take long before the cliques started to think they owned Government. They stopped seeing it as a privilege or duty and started seeing it as a right (just as they had stopped seeing representing the people as a privilege and turned that into a right).
The cliques did not agree on much but they did agree on the language to support all this. Conveniently forgetting that the public voted for individuals to represent them, they starting asserting that the public voted for them, the cliques (or parties). This had a degree of self-reinforcing truth because it wasn’t long before the public could not choose a representative but could only vote for a candidate put up by one of the cliques. And soon, whichever clique got more of its placemen into Parliament could be heard proclaiming that it had a “mandate to govern”.
And it wasn’t much longer before the media, who were as ever chronically lazy as well as poorly schooled in all the fundamentals like truth, honesty and legality, got into the habit of referring to “the Government” when they should have been referring to which ever parcel of rogues made up the clique which happened to be providing the Crown with people to serve as Ministers, and “the Prime Minister” even when the person in question was making a purely party political point. And soon nobody batted an eyelid.
Until, that is, the day when some well-intentioned old lady decided to leave her money to “whichever political party is in government” to use “as they see fit”.
Now the Executors, reasonably, basing themselves on the language of the day and the prevailing situation, correctly identified the clique calling itself the Coalition as providing the Government of the day and handed over the money.
And the clique calling itself the Coalition thought “We own the rights to the Government. She must have meant it for us.” Because that’s just the way everyone had come to think things worked.
But the people were furious because they thought the kindly old lady meant them to have the money, which she probably did, and so they called the clique all sorts of nasty names, helped out by the media, who were very good at name-calling.
When in fact it was all just a big mistake. One that anyone who had been party to the corruption of the constitution for three hundred years could have made. And did.
Now, time to close your eyes, children, and go to sleep. And don’t worry about the Bogeymen. They are all on their holidays. Parliament is in recess.
On Wednesday, 7 August Suzanne Moore, the self-styled feminist, finally took pity on us males. In an article thrown up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free internet site, she condescended to hand down to us “10 Rules for Managing Your Penis”, a subject on which we must simply recognise Ms Moore’s claim to be an expert.
Wonderful, Suzanne. I really feel that with this article you have shown us the zenith of your writing talent, not to mention the depth of your commitment to mature dialogue between the sexes. May I, in the spirit of that dialogue, reflect your article back to you?
10 Rules for managing your vagina (and other bits)
1) Do not involve your vagina in skyping
In particular, do not take the opportunity afforded by web cams to show the world how much you can cram into it. Try to remember that you are not selling the family car, and its ability to carry suitcases is not in issue.
2) Do not neglect the packaging
Talking of men, Ms Moore wisely advises:
“And if they must encase themselves so prominently in Lycra and skinny jeans in this weather … something has to be done. Urgently.”
By the same token …
If you must teeter about in skin tight leggings and scoop-necked t-shirts that make you resemble a pair of sad orange blancmanges bursting out of a Tesco carrier bag, precariously balanced on top of a stack of saturated sandbags, do it in the privacy of your own home. With the curtains drawn. And the webcam off.
3) Do not clamp your vagina around household objects.
See 1, above.
4) Do not use your vagina, butt or mouth to decorate the High Street
When you are about to leave the bar with your friends, after you have worked out how to stand up and before you crash through the bouncers at the door, try to find the ladies’ toilet. You can piss, defecate and vomit to your heart’s content there. It is connected to the sewer. Doing it in the road or the cab is not okay.
5) Do not ever offer your vagina to someone if you don’t mean it
… even if, indeed especially if, you are drunk. It’s not just you who pays the price for this wayward generosity but all the decent women who have to live with the assumptions you are confirming in the primitive minds of frustrated men. And believe me, there are only frustrated men and they all have primitive minds.
6) Do not pretend you like your man’s penis
Look, it’s a bit of plumbing. It has its uses but it’s not pretty and deep down he knows it. Don’t give him false hopes. And while we are about it, don’t go around drooling that some fatuous boy band singer clone, or Brad Pitt or that shaven-headed, sadly under-dressed, tattooed and pierced moron who is having difficulty drinking his pint of lager because his pecs keep getting in the way “is sooo HOT and I want his babies”. It’s called objectification and I gather it is frowned on in other circumstances. Besides, you know what pathetically insecure copycats men are. We don’t want the place filling up with pot-bellied wannabe Biebers. Look at what East Enders has brought about if you need help seeing the danger.
7) Do not openly derive pleasure from your vagina with other women
Men get off on that kind of thing. It’s another false hopes thing. But it also shows them how close they are to being redundant. So, be kind to small animals. They have sharp little teeth and nasty little minds.
8) Do not try to pierce your nipples or clitoris.
It will only snag on the baby. Look, it is all going to drift south eventually without hanging lumps of metal on them. Why do you want to look like the curtain ring display in some ancient ironmonger’s anyway? If you are a woman into masochism, buy the boxed set of Top of the Pops 40th Anniversary instead. You’ll never need another fix.
9) Do no try to make your breasts bigger
The only men who like big breasts are the ones with deep psychological problems related to their mums that you are going to come to resent, about the same time that your implants become toxic and he starts looking at teenagers again. It’s a no-win no-brainer. Talking of which…
10) Do not exploit your breasts or your butt over your brain
There are no stupid women, only women behaving stupidly, discuss. You were born cognitively superior to most of the men around you. You know that men and sex are like kittens and laser pens, it’s just too easy to go that way. But if you can’t be arsed with your own self-respect, try to show some solidarity with all the women out there striving to use their abilities to forge a better world. Don’t make it harder for them. Don’t make it easier for them to be undervalued, stereotyped, sidelined and ignored.
Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, whose is the fairest…
Deborah Orr is a very fine writer. She speaks her truth quietly and she speaks to you. When someone can do this, and you can hear them, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with what they say. It is a conversation in which your humanity is reaffirmed.
I look out for Ms Orr’s articles for this reason. My own humanity requires a lot of reassurance. And on Saturday, 15th June, when I sat down at the garden table with my first cup of the day and my laptop and saw that she had published something, I reached for it hungrily. Had I been less eager and paused over the title, I might have pulled back but I didn’t and was thus unprepared for the shock as the page opened.
The title of the piece, you see, was “A week ago, my mother died. The feeling of loss is unbearably intense”. A bit of a giveaway, that. If you are going through a spot of grief yourself: here be monsters. But there was more. Before I could even address the text, I had to pass my eyes over a photograph. It was a photo of Ms Orr’s mother.
It was a photo that spoke of its era as volubly as all these snapchats of tongue-poking teenagers will do in forty years time. It was a classic. A pretty young woman in a summer dress and sensible coat smiles self-consciously at the camera. The shades of grey convey a light that is northern European. The background is sparse, accidental. This little snap was, however, unless I miss my guess, nothing less than a suburban love poem by the person holding the camera, a black and white sonnet to tell posterity – us – how much in love he was.
When I went through the suitcase of old photographs that my parents left behind I found one remarkably like it, posted here. It was of my own mother, and taken by my father. It must have been shortly after the War, when they had only recently fallen in love. She looks happy and untroubled. It would not be long before, pregnant, she would leave her career behind her and move south to Essex, entering the household of my father’s embittered widowed mother to take up a life of dutiful drudgery, only to lose the child to cot death within 6 weeks of her birth. And then she would begin the emotional retreat behind a mask of middle-class respectability and stoicism that would eventually contribute not so much to her death as to the manner of her dying.
Like Ms Orr’s mother, mine died of cancer. It took a long time and it hurt a lot. Her death was twenty years ago and sometimes, when I hear news of progress in beating the curse, I think that now she wouldn’t have needed to die. But it’s a false thought and I know it. My mother died because she could not bear to have that small lump she discovered in her breast looked at. She had developed an obsessive sense of privacy, a fear, as she put it, of “being mucked about with”. So, she told no-one for a year. When eventually, she had to share her awful knowledge, she swore my father to secrecy and he, in an act of love or weakness or both that I was stupidly never able to forgive while he remained alive or talk to him about, kept his silence until the growth was inoperable.
And so, with a cruel irony, that fear of invasion led to her spending two years being examined and irradiated and the last year of her life bed-ridden and helpless, totally dependent on doctors, nurses and care workers. The powerful will she had built up to sustain her through the life of drudgery she had never wanted to lead, that same will that had told her to subordinate her love of music and theatre and conversation to the service of an ageing harridan and the children she did not really want but still devoted herself to, rendered her incapable of surrendering as the cancer ate through her organs. Death would have been a victory of sorts but she could not claim it. Her fate was to live through it. In the end, she was a living husk.
And that vision of her ousted all other images of her in my head for years after her death.
Even as a toddler, I knew she was lovely. She had this wonderful lemon coloured duster coat and, despite smoking 20 a day and living in a house in which two others did the same, she smelled always of Imperial Leather soap and Mintoes and I loved to be near her. Her smile was a blessing and her piercing blue eyes would twinkle when something amused or pleased her. I knew this as a fact but after she died I could no longer make it visual; all I could see, even as I wanted so much not to see it, was the tiny, shrivelled near bald thing huddled in the middle of a cold bed. It came to me in dreams. It came to me when I closed my eyes. It came to me when something reminded me of her. Death had deprived me of her presence but it had also repossessed her memory.
I was not equipped for this. Who is? All I had were my mother’s schooling and my mother’s example. It was not until I was in my mid-thirties that I realised that the darkness in my mind had a name in the world I had so much difficulty being a part of: depression. It was not until I read the letters that passed between my mother and my father when she had been up-rooted from her outgoing life as a single emancipated woman and removed to married servitude and he had been required by his job to remain at the other end of the country, allowed only infrequent visits home, that I realised that my depression was at least environmentally underpinned if not second generation. Still later I came to understand that both my parents were affected. But for them, depression was not simply without a name; it was inadmissible. As my mother tried to instill in me, “Nobody wants to know”.
What, in any event, could have prepared me for the loss of someone so present in all of my life up to the moment when she was brutally no longer there?
At first I became numb, able to function mechanically unable to reach my feelings. I felt remote from myself. My sister says that people were worried about how clinical I seemed. That had its practical advantages. I was able to make all the arrangements for my mother’s funeral and the gathering of friends that would go with it. But it seems the mind did indeed have a programme for it. It was shortly after the gathering that the waves of grief started to hit me, over and over.
My world went from the reassuring semblance of solid ground to fractured ice sheet in the single moment of my allowing myself to acknowledge my mother’s death and, with it, the role of functioning professional breadwinner became occupied by a frightened child. I wanted to feel sad, to feel loss, to feel human. And I did. But I also felt - could not stop myself feeling - anger and resentment and these I was much less comfortable with. And I felt relief which I tried to tell myself was relief for her and the end of her suffering but knew was relief that my ordeal of watching her die was over and it came laden with guilt.
Musical interlude. Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto, second movement (I recommend the Clifford Curzon performance with the LSO under George Szell). Schumann had taken the young and gifted Brahms under his wing and Brahms was devoted to him. It was while Brahms, encouraged by Schumann, was writing his first piano concerto, that Schumann took his own life. The second movement of that concerto is an almost perfect musical evocation of the passage of human grief. An opening theme that is listless, uncertain, drained of energy lifts as if stirred by memory but cannot sustain itself, then the tears start to fall. These are the tears of what has been lost and they carry the edge of resentment and the first wave of anger wells up through them. It fades and a purer sadness takes over. Some strength is recovered then again the memory of the lost one come to mind. But the memory provokes more sadness with the recognition that he or she is lost and you clutch at it, trying to will it to become substantial enough to survive. It can’t. Memory melts into regret which gives way to rage. It is brief and yearning overtakes you underplayed by heavy, dragging despair, then almost out of nowhere you are tossing in a heaving ocean of unyielding pain. Only eventual exhaustion allows the return of stillness then once again the quiet tears start to fall. But this time they seem no longer tears of loss, more a gentle, cleansing, life-affirming shower of spring rain. In a moment you find at last a positive recollection of your friend and it lifts you and this time when the theme returns it no longer speaks of listlessness and loss but of calm and presence and reconciliation.
I am still working on the reconciliation.
People were kind initially. But when it went on, and on, I could sense their impatience. I felt it myself. How long? We had not understood, or had forgotten, the purpose of grief.
I get into trouble when I make this analogy. People don’t like to be reminded of how rational their brains are unless they are trying to justify perversely self-serving decisions. But when, later, I was able to analyse my responses, it seemed as if my own brain had been trying to reconfigure itself to accommodate the fact that there had been a catastrophic server failure, a massive loss of essential data. As it re-booted, I ran the gamut of every emotion and almost any situation could trigger not so much a memory as a question: how do I deal with this now she’s gone? And so the constant reminder in everything she had touched with her presence that she was gone and the feeling that you were teetering over the edge of another chasm where a bridge had always been, trying to figure out what went there.
The death of someone who has been important to you leaves not just one hole but thousands of holes in the fabric of your life and the process of grieving is supposed to be the process by which you fix the holes. But that is not how we treat it. We see it as an affliction that must be got over. And that makes it harder and more painful. It took the death of my father, a few years later, to teach me how to fix the holes.
People had said to me, oh the death of the first parent is bad but it is the death of the second that really knocks you out. After the experience of my response to my mother’s death, I thought how bad can it be? But they were right.
I think my father started dying the day my mother died. It may be that he started the day he realised that she was going to. One way or another, after she was gone he was a stranger to himself and to those who knew him. It is not surprising. Between my mother and his mother, they had had the running of his life since he was born. He was like a recidivist: a prisoner released into an indifferent world after 60 years’ incarceration, free but ill-equipped to survive and fearful. His freedom was the freedom of an abandoned child. He made a remarkably good fist of surviving but if he had ever had the instinct to make a life for himself he had suppressed it so far that it was beyond him now to access it. He carried on, trying to live according to the ways they had taught him, with occasional rather sad little forays into independence of spirit, such as nude sunbathing and recording the raunchier output from Channel 4.
We had not been good at communication. Now, he would phone me. Monday evenings, after the Dance Band Days was over. He’d be well into the potent mix of half pint glasses of gin and home-made vermouth. They would be dutiful conversations on my part, coming at the end of a long working day when I wanted to sit and read to my young son or watch something effortless and numbing.
He had emphysema and a weak heart and a lot of symptoms that I chose to regard as the product of having too much time on his hands and not enough to worry about. I allowed myself to judge him for disabling himself and not fighting. And then he went into hospital for a check up and they kept him in and I visited him, left and got as far as the car park and he was gone.
And all the love I had had for him and carelessly – wilfully – sidelined came beating at the door; at just the moment the messenger arrived to tell me that the two most significant people in my life so far had ceased to exist.
I remember again a period of cold mechanical functionality. After that, I was living in a world in which an important quality of sense was absent, like watching a home movie with the sound turned down.
It took a long time. I am not sure it is over. For a while, every time the phone rang in the evening, my heart would sink and I would think “damn, it’s Dad” before realising that it wasn’t and never would be again.
But gradually, and oddly through his music, something dawned. Hearing Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw stopped being a painful thing and became a link. I moved from “this hurts without Dad (or Mum)?” to “Dad (or Mum) would appreciate (or, sometimes, hate or despise) this?” I allowed them back into my life.
I’m fixing the holes.
I was sitting in a café in Victoria with a dear friend when I saw it.
We were snatching a hurried lunch, not because I was pressed but because she was. She – I shall call her Jane (and I suppose that will provoke some people who like to look for these things to make subtextual associations with Tarzan and his companion) - had torn herself away from her high-pressure job for long enough to honour our friendship but would soon have to make her excuses and leave.
Jane is extraordinary, though saying that rather undermines my thesis. She is mother to 5 children, one of whom was born profoundly deaf, and a brilliant mother who cuts no corners in her affection or care. They are wonderfully normal children. Jane was also without doubt the most able of all the hundreds of colleagues I had over my working life. Her powers of analysis are supported by clarity of expression and complemented by a natural ability to understand and get the best out of people. She leads by example and the example is one of commitment to excellence tempered by humanity and principle, all grounded in a sense of proportion.
Jane worked under me some years back and then rose inexorably because sometimes, even in conservative, self-affirming bureaucracies, talent just cannot be denied. By the time I retired, she outranked me by several levels, and rightly so. But she has never compromised her values or sense of duty in order to get on. And now she was asking me whether I would provide a reference for her so that she could take on voluntary work for a charity associated with her child’s disability. Which, of course, I would, and did, because I could think of no-one finer whom they could have on their side.
If you imagine that Jane would be somehow remote and unknowable, like most paragons, you’d be wrong. She is warm and witty and wise and always, always, there for her friends. If you imagine that all this being there for everyone has made her a dried up husk of selfless, dutiful servitude, wrong again. It was she who taught me, in a simple response to something painfully self-pitying that I had said, that if you love your children and want them to grow up strong and well-balanced you must retain, and let them see, your respect for yourself. So she carves out time – from where I do not know – to remind herself that she too has a life, independent of those who rely on her and no less valuable.
Jane may be less fixated with cosmetic appearance than many of us but she always looks damned fine to me and her smile, confirmed in her eyes, could warm a dying galaxy.
No, she is not my wife. I wish. But anyway, in my mind, I could never be good enough to be her partner in life. I am most definitely a Betaman.
Yes, I was saying it was then that the realisation came.
People were passing the window of the café. Office workers, mostly; public servants, I guess, from the many government departments scattered around the area. If there was an alpha male among them it wasn’t obvious. Some of them, men and women, appeared confident and in control. Some looked happy to be out in the sunshine or with their friends. Most of them, the men in particular, just looked beaten. Beaten men. Betamen.
The proposition that this is a “man’s world” is so widely accepted that even to attempt to suggest otherwise is bound to attract outrage and accusations of madness but I am afraid I am just going to have to be that little boy who enquires why the King appears under-dressed for the occasion.
I’m talking about our world here in the UK (and Western Europe). I know it is different in countries where frightened men cling onto medieval belief systems rather than grow up and bravely ask permission to join the women as equals.
Even here, I don’t dispute for one moment – it would be pointless to do so – that men hold most of the top positions in our society and have done for what seems to us, with our 70-year lifespans, a long time. I don’t dispute – how could I? – that for centuries most men - and women - harboured strong prejudices about what women could do and that we built the operating systems of our society on those assumptions. I don’t dispute the statistics that appear to show that men on average earn more than women or that men as a sex (not “gender”, please. Let’s have some respect for English) hold the title deeds to more of the wealth than women. I don’t even dispute the disparity between the sexes over the number of available public toilets. I am just not convinced that these facts are sufficient in themselves to make more than an inferential case that what we have here and now is a “man’s world”.
I take a “man’s world” to be a world built by men and run by men in the interests of men; a world that wilfully denies, disregards or subordinates the value, needs and aspirations of women (and children). And on that basis, sorry, but this society, and Western societies as a whole, and for that matter, so far as I can see, a fair amount of the rest, crappily imperfect though they are, just don’t pass muster.
It seems to me to be entirely likely that, with men doing most of the planning and the building, the law-making, the negotiating and so on for countless centuries, the development of society will have been the product of a rather male viewpoint and that in some respects, by failing to take account of the constraints that women alone face, it will have put them at a disadvantage in terms of fulfilling their true potential and that we need to correct this but again forgive me (or not) if I don’t see that, either, as being the clinching argument in favour of it being a man’s world.
I’ll go further. I may as well. I am already dead meat for this affront to victimhood. I think that where we are is just an accidental product of history, rather than malice. And that it serves, and has served, most men just about as badly as it serves, and has served, most women. But now I need to explain.
In our house, I am the only adult, and therefore have some ostensible claim to being the head. I am, according to my birth certificate and passport, a male. Is our house a “man’s world”, then? I make the meals 99% of the time. It is either that or we starve, or subsist on a diet of Cocopops and Pringles, or so it seems. Does it mean, for example, that our meals are prepared to suit me? No, every day my children are burdened with questions as to what they would like to eat and even when. Do I bring to the table some stereotypically male perception of menu? Steak with steak on the side, perhaps? No, I do not. I aim to bring interest, nutritional balance and pleasure to our meals as often as I can. I learned that from my mother. I also try to prepare food that each of my children will like, and try to take on board their shifting tastes and appetites. When my daughter went vegetarian for two years, I did not confront her with plates of meat. I stocked up with recipes and ingredients for interesting and nutritious cuisine and bought a new set of utensils marked with her initial, issuing an edict that they were on no account to be used for meat or fish based food preparation. Paragon? No, just trying to serve to the best of my ability the society I belonged to.
My frustration is that my children would rather have a MacDonalds or Dominos’ Pizza. And love them as I do (my children, that is), I can’t let that be the way of things. I am, or so it says on my armband, the responsible adult. But that’s what I am: a man thrust into the role of responsible adult; a man shouldering the burden of being the responsible adult.
Open it up a little wider. Do I run a “male” household? I am sure that some gimlet-eyed assessor could find traces of my male brain in it: the way, for example, that I try to avoid calling in other men to fix things that I feel I ought to be able to fix myself, or the way my bookshelves are organised. But look in the bathroom and the toilet seat is down (and the toilet bowl is clean and I have cleaned it); the washing gets separated into darks and whites and delicates – by me – and done and ironed every weekend so that my daughter can go to school well turned out. When it comes to the TV, do I enforce an endless diet of inane games based around a ball? No, the remote is generally in the hands of my 15 year old daughter and therefore we exist, at present, on a programme of horror movies, the Simpsons, South Park and Man v Food and I thank the gods that she does not share her friends’ passion for the Disney Channels or those most royal of chavs, the Kardashians. If Top Gear goes on it is because she has chosen it. For me, trying to keep up the belief that it is self-mocking, the only way I could stomach the little boy antics of its presenters, is just a tad too much effort.
I have a son and a daughter. Has my maleness led me to relegate my daughter to third class? No, in fact just now she is almost the entire focus of my care and concern. She is 15 years old and though very bright and full of potential she has recently allowed her mind to be distracted by the cosmetic culture, and systematically dumped a set of good and challenging friends to form alliances with a group of lost boys and girls who will support her in failure. I spend my days desperately trying to keep her on the rails, keeping the school from giving up on her and worrying that she will not come through this without doing herself some lasting harm. It requires the most delicate of handling because railing and commanding don’t work and locking up you daughter is rightly frowned upon, however tempting. But she means so much to me that everyday I wake up and set myself to the task again. I will not let her down any more than I can help. I want her to be happy and fulfilled. It is the same wish that I have for her brother.
What “happy and fulfilled” looks like is likely to be different for my son and my daughter. Why not? They are different people. But it is not the difference of sex and I must not see it as such. It comes from the individual. But it also requires me to look beyond where he or she has his or her eyes set now. I have to deploy my own experience and temper it with my understanding of history’s flaws and failures.
There are two sides to this coin. On the one, I am running a household for benefit of all those who are in it. On the other, most of our wants and needs do not split along the faultline of sex. We are human before we are male and female.
Now, depending on which side of the fence you want to come down, what I have just written either demonstrates that I am appalling arrogant in assuming that my behaviour is representative of the whole of society or, which I prefer, I am humble enough to prefer to think that I am neither original nor special. I didn’t sit down and plan this. Come on, I didn’t even anticipate that in my late fifties I would assume sole responsibility for the upbringing of two teenage children. It is just the way things have gone; not a “natural order of things” so much as a settled expedient.
Do my attitudes betray me as some kind of a failure as a man? Possibly, but I don’t think I am. And I seem to know quite a few more men who are dedicated to the service of their families. They may do it in a more traditionally manly way, seeing themselves as, or being cast in the role of, “breadwinner” or “the one who fixes things” but that does not make their family a “man’s world”. And for most it is not a matter of choice but expectation plus drift.
When I was growing up, in the fifties, the assumptions about the division between men’s work and women’s work were much more entrenched than they are now. The First and Second World Wars had, in the spirit of ill winds that did some good, begun the process of breaking down the prejudices but in a short time the perceived need to get the men returning from the fighting back to work meant the expulsion of the women from their jobs. I recall from my childhood how much resentment that caused among working women, including my own mother.
Throughout the fifties and well into the sixties it remained standard practice that the man worked hard for his wages while the woman worked hard in the home. Did this mean it was more of a man’s world? Only if you fed in the assumption that the world of work was intrinsically more important, and more satisfying, than the domestic one. For some men, the movers and shakers, the bosses, the developers and the entrepreneurs, it surely was. They could easily come to believe that this was their world. But they were a tiny percentage of working males, the tip of an iceberg the bulk of which was consigned to a lifetime of wallowing in conditions cold enough to freeze the heart out of you. Even those who made it to management positions or the professions were only really acknowledged as significant in that context.
In my own childhood home, my dear old Dad had been pushed out to work at the age of 15 by his mum when his own dad had died of TB. He worked as a clerk then met my Mum and between her and his mum, they pushed him up the bureaucratic ladder until he retired a senior civil servant after 43 years of solid work. There were, to be sure, elements of satisfaction in his work, particularly in the early fifties when they were building the Welfare State and the NHS, but mostly it was slog, day after day catching the same train, dressed in the same suit to arrive at the office at the same time and sit at the same desk shuffling the same papers until it was time to catch the same train home. The job carried status and that was important to my Mum, but to him it was duty. The duty was to provide for us and that he did relentlessly and mostly without complaint, because that was his job, his role.
In the years that followed retirement, he was mostly at a loss because the structures that had shaped his days and relieved him of the need to beat out a path through life had been removed.
At work, he might be able to boss a hundred other men around but the ordinary working man brought his pay packet home and handed it to his wife. She ran the household and the household was the foundation of society, not the temporary shelter and convenience it has since become. In front of the children, the edifice would be constructed and maintained that the man was head of the household, rather as, in politics, the fiction is maintained that Ministers are in charge of their departments. Mostly, the woman, the wife, set the domestic agenda, managed the budget, organised. His place was to bring in the money and to front the operation. There was one family that I knew where the boys hated their Dad. Why? Because he was in the Navy and away on duty a lot of the time, his wife would save up all the boys’ misdemeanours in his absence and his first task on returning home to his family was to take them to his study for a restorative thrashing. Little surprise then that both they and he dreaded shore leave. Why didn’t he refuse? In practice, in my experience, within the home, the man usually deferred to the woman. In their home, this was his task.
Was all this right? Was this the order of a Golden Age when men and women knew their place and lived in harmony? Of course, not. It was just how things had come to be. It was where the dynamic had reached. But it was no apotheosis; not even a point of settlement.
Before the war, my Mum had been going to be a teacher. She was a part of the first generations of women who had been educated as a matter of course alongside the boys and harboured ambitions outside of making a good marriage and following the domestic path. She gave up the pursuit of teaching to serve the war effort. Immediately after the war she and my Dad met and they decided to marry. And in the late forties, that meant “Congratulations. Thanks for all your work, Miss So-and-so – or should I say Missus? – here’s your marriage gratuity and here’s the door.” Married women could not have paid jobs. They would be taken up a place needed by a breadwinner.
I saw in my Mum the damage that came with giving up the career that her education had prepared her for in order to run a household as her mother had done before her. And as time went by, I saw lots of other mums too from her generation who betrayed the same symptoms: frustration, obsession, depression.
And it was not much better for those women who were in work. In the civil service well into the 60s, a woman would be paid on a scale equivalent to the grade below her. Again, it was the “pin-money” excuse. A man would have a family to maintain. A woman would be working for pin money. My Dad, a strong union man, thought it was deplorable and was proud when equal pay was established. Just as he had no hesitation in telling my sister and me that his boss, the first woman deputy secretary, was the finest person he had ever worked for: her powers of analysis, her quickness, her ability to cut through to the heart of issues. And he idolised Barbara Castle and Dr Summerskill in much the same way. He was not alone and by the efforts of people like him, things were starting to shift.
Some men, of course, still liked to talk of women as “the weaker sex”, whose “pretty little heads” should not be troubled with “men’s business”. God, there are enough of these sad sods around even now and they make me cringe. But I think it is either foolish or, worse, disingenuously self-serving to take them at their own valuation or to assume that they represent a deep truth about our society and its valuing of women. In my experience, the ones who spoke in that way were weak little posers trying to make bolster themselves and drown out the fear that their small claim to a role in the world could be snatched away. It was fear not strength that drove them. Their fear of having to compete with women took the same form as their fear of immigrants and so far from being dominant, they were the kind of men that sheds were made for. A place to hide out in. Most of us knew that and that theirs was a doomed and mistaken rearguard action.
But when the family went back to my mum’s home in Sheffield, back in the sixties it wasn’t the men who were enforcing the assumptions. Mum’s four brothers were too busy growling authoritatively among themselves about football (which they, none of them, played, just watched critically) and the quickest route from Rotherham to Macclesfield, avoiding the road works. It was the aunts who, having cooed over my law studies, would interrogate my sister (whose mind and educational achievements had always outstripped mine) with the killer question,
"Are yer courtin’ luv? Don’t want to leave it too late."
My Dad hated those trips. He knew that to Mum’s lorry-driving, steel working, coal hauling brothers he was a soft southerner and a pen pusher only tolerated because he was bringing in a decent wage to their sister’s family. They would not have understood the term, but he was a betaman. But then, so were they.
Primo Levi asked us “If this is a man?” With absolute deference to that amazing human being, I find myself looking at my Dad’s experience and asking “If this was a man’s life?” Or a man’s world.
But that wasn’t really what I wanted to say.
To be continued
I used to think the Tories were wicked people but then I had an epiphany.
I was out in the garden, trying to type, but I was shivering so much that even autocorrect had given up trying to make sense of my tapping. So I turned my attention to my cat. My cat’s name is Dave. Dave was very busy. He was trying to rescue another bumblebee from the air. He’s like that, you see; concerned for all living creatures but particularly for the smaller, humbler creatures that can’t, as he sees it, hold onto the ground as he can: flies, wasps, bees, butterflies, birds. He wants to bring them safely back to earth where they will be secure like him. He will spend hours pinning them down with his paws, hoping they will learn to cling on to the soil and even put them in his mouth so that the air cannot claim them.
My point is that some people will look at Dave and think “vicious, killer cat, destroyer of lives”; but from Dave’s point of view, he’s a saviour. He’s just a bit simple-minded. And that’s when I had my epiphany about Tories.
Take the economy, for example. They know it is stuffed and a lot of small people have lost a lot and are having a really hard time. Now some folks are saying that it is because of the greed and rapaciousness of some very rich people and we need to get them to take less and give back more. But the Tories know that can’t be right. After all, they are very rich and all their friends are very rich and life is very good for them. So, in their simple, Dave-like, vision, the problem must be with all those poor people who don’t have enough; who have left the solid ground of wealth and been seized by the bullying, buffetting air of poverty. If only, they think, we could find a way of making everyone rich like us. And then it occurs to them. “How did we become rich? Ah yes, by being utterly selfish and screwing everyone around us.” And so, to help all the poor people to become rich and happy, like them, they determine to make it easier for everyone to be utterly selfish and screw everyone else. To them it’s just obvious.
Dave the cat has realised that it’s often these wing things that are putting his little friends at risk. They give the air something to catch hold of and next thing you know the poor wee creatures are pulled into its maw. So when he has saved one of them he makes sure that he removes the wings as carefully as he can (which, to be fair, is not very careful. There’s only so much subtlety you can achieve with a fist full of razor-sharp claws and no opposible thumb and a mouthful of needle-pointed teeth). The Tories have had a similar revelation. It must be all those public services that are keeping people poor. All those state schools and free hospitals. And benefits. Like wings, all those benefits keep snatching poor people from self-sufficiency.
And then there are the immigrants. It’s just too obvious once you see it. Immigrants come to this country and next thing you know they are poor. Except the really rich ones. There’s nothing else for it, in the Tory mind. We cannot stand by and let this happen. We have to stop them coming here, for their own good. Except the really rich ones.
Other folk, naysayers, insist that the only people who will benefit from this are the rich and powerful who are the only ones in a position to exploit the relaxation of regulations and the need for services that the state used to provide. But the Tories are like Dave. Dedicated optimists. They know that if they do their job well no little creature will have to face the tyranny of poverty ever again and the country will be secure between the benign paws of the cats. The contented fat cats.
This posting first appeared as a comment in the Guardian’s CiF pages.
The first time I heard Margaret Thatcher’s name was half way down York Road, Waterloo, in 1973. I can be this precise because at that moment I was part of a one hundred thousand strong student protest approaching the headquarters of the Department of Education (they weren’t for education then. It was only in the 80s that spending-conscious Tory Ministers started rebranding their departments “for” this and the other - and worth every penny, too, in my humble opinion).
There were three chants, as I recall: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - out, out, out”, “Maggie Thatcher, grant snatcher” and “Maggie, we want you - dead”.
With hindsight, I suppose we could all agree that the first and second are an example of “better the devil you know…”. The old Tories weren’t yet into their monetarist stride at this point and there were things they hadn’t the guts to do. In fact it wasn’t until Blair took over the Thatcherite chainsaw that the Tories woke up to just how little there was to stop a party in power doing what the hell it liked. Compared with what has happened more recently, Thatcher’s performance while at the DES looks positively benign.
It was the third of the chants that made me feel uneasy, however. It wasn’t that I believed she would actually return from the grave to exact revenge. More that I had been brought up to believe that however much one disliked someone, it should stop a way short of encompassing their death. I wrote to that effect in the student magazine and was, naturally, howled down as a Tory fellow traveller for my pains.
Now, ironically, Thatcher has proved me wrong in the first respect by coming back to haunt us within hours of being declared dead. And in keeping with modern trends in film-making, zombie vampire Maggie is being written as the good guy and we, who only want social cohesion and compassion to be the watchwords, are cast as the vicious, vindictive villains. Be careful what you wish for. It may take 40 years to come back and bite you but it surely will.
This first appeared as a comment in the Guardian Newspaper’s CiF pages
I’ll start with an admission: in another existence, I was a civil servant. I put in a lot of years before my sanity, emulating that famous Irish pig, “got up and walked away”. I was there at the tail end of the last Labour administration, there through the Thatcher and Major years, there when what we thought to be a new dawn broke in 1997 (it turned out, of course, to be just the light bouncing off Pinocchio’s nose as he assured us he was a real socialist). Now here I am watching from the shadows, as it were, as the latest round of empty promises, dodgy statistics and claims to exclusive access to the answers, all wrapped up in the flimsy paper of blame, are laid out on the flagstones of our political flea market before an effectively disenfranchised and ever more disillusioned public.
I joined in the late Seventies, in the quickening death throes of a Labour government floundering in the aftermath of its abject capitulation to the worst elements of the Trade Union movement, the ditching of the ground-breaking and wise Industrial Relations Bill, a bad decision following in the wake of a set of dire attempts at misplaced protectionism for old working practices, which had included Selective Employment Tax and Selective Employment Payments.
It is said that the European Court of Justice was built back to front because the contractors misunderstood the architect’s plans and that is why you have to enter via the car park. In much the same way, SEP and SET seemed to have been implemented upside down, with a tax on the newly developing service industries in order to subsidise continued use of high levels of manpower in an unreformed manufacturing industry. Sadly, it was no accident, just a blinkered adherence to dogma.
The effect was to shut, bolt and padlock the door on what should have been a safe and successful transition from the old world of sweat and strain into a modern economy. The UK’s newborn electronics industry (we were right up there in the vanguard in the 1960s), on advice from its accountants, made its excuses and left for sunnier climes while we continued to produce steel the hard way at prices no-one could afford and cars so poorly designed and built that no-one in their right mind would want to buy them. And because the door, once barred, would have to be broken down by brute force, this chain of events was the poor unfortunate mother of that most foul polarising progeny, Thatcherism, from the divisive afterbirth of which this country has suffered now for over 30 years.
Though many a pundit tried to increase his income on the back of finding philosophy in it, Thatcherism was, of course, never in truth a philosophy. It was just a near perfect distillation of the adolescent blinkered selfishness, greed and petty vindictveness that the freedom rebellion of the sixties had released into our society.
It is like peering darkly into another world, thinking back to those evenings in the 80s at Methuselahs Wine Bar, when Margaret was at the height of her little shopkeeper powers and the Adam Smith Institute, a right-wing “think tank” named in dishonour of the great 18th Century economist and social commentator, was enjoying unprecedented levels of rapt, if dangerously unwarranted, attention. I used to go there after work (I lived then in Pimlico, in a tiny basement flat I could not contemplate buying now), to enjoy a glass of wine and observe. I saw the ghastly arms dealers buying and swilling the most expensive wines on the list because they could afford to. It was a great demonstration of the conspicuous consumption of the undeserving rich. They came to Methuselahs, of course, because it was just around the corner from their benefactor and protector, the Department of Trade and Industry. I caught snatches of conversations between Metropolitan police officers drunkenly trying to live down to the Sweeney image TV had fashioned for them. And I saw the head of the Adam Smith Institute, radiating his new influence and basking in the adoration of his disciples. I recall their eager faces as they sat, metaphorically at least, at his feet (it was a small but disciplined bar and sitting in seats was almost mandatory), hungry for his every word, eager to go forth and spread it, but in the meantime revelling in the subversive libertarianism dripping from his lips as he sipped on port as sweet as hemlock is bitter.
One evening, I found myself sitting at the bar next to one of the Institute acolytes. I am pleased to say that if I ever knew his name I have long since forgotten it. He was smug, self-regarding, braying received wisdom with a full voice, the very embodiment of what John Peel once described (in a musical context) as “the dangers of partial education”. I guess if he hasn’t by now eaten himself for dinner he may well be a Tory backbencher. He knew me from the fact that his Master acknowledged me (usually with some taunt, turned so as to reflect the influence he had over my Ministers) and he knew that I was a member of that dark force of wicked bureaucratic Luddites, the Civil Service. And so he was pleased to lecture me on the manifest absurdity of permitting us to exist. “There are only two departments I would permit to remain,” he announced, “The Treasury and the Ministry of Defence.”
Things get hazy after that. It may be that I only dream that I told him that he had, remarkably, picked upon the two best examples of systemic maladministration and abuse of public trust in the entire panoply of central government. Could I have proposed that the Treasury’s devastating combination of short-termism and micro-management, preventing coherent investment and insisting as an article of dogmatic faith (a faith whose false god was the avoidance of tax rises made necessary by poor leadership and administration) on the undervalue sell-off of assets the public had paid dearly for and the mortgaging of our future, was compounded by a policy of setting departments at each other’s throats to maximise its own power and influence with the result that fiscal and governmental efficiency was out of the question? Or that the MoD, with its policy of having three civil servants – one for each arm of the military - for every policy issue that could possibly arise, and always in hock to the arms manufacturers, didn’t even need the Treasury’s influence to be incompetent? I am sure that these were not views he would have wanted to hear but as a seasoned civil servant they were not views I ought to have been expressing in public, so I must just hope that it is all false memory.
Much sewage has flowed under (and at times over) the bridge since then. The New Thatcherism of Blair has shown the danger when unchecked power falls into the hands of the morally self-righteous (one of the blessings of the Old Tories was that they could frighten themselves with their own iniquity. The ultimate horror is someone who says “because I am right, everything I do is right”). Now, the adoption by the other side (if such it is) of New Labour’s shiny admass veneer of caring concern (“the NHS is safe in our hands”, “making it pay to work”) simply confirms that politicians cannot be trusted with principles, any more than a drunk can be trusted with the keys to the bar.
Perhaps things have changed for the better in Whitehall. I could not possibly comment. But I have an unrelenting memory of what happened when Thatcher took over.
Back in 1979, the senior civil service knew that “things” were going seriously wrong in our nation. We were, as I have already suggested, failing to adapt and modernise, failing to capitalise on the new technologies that we had been in the forefront of developing. Failing in enterprise. The thing is that senior civil servants felt responsible for it. They felt responsible even though it was their Ministers’ well-intentioned but inept and myopic leadership that was at the heart of the failure to grasp the issues.
Then along came Thatcher. She hated the civil service passionately and she would be appalled to think that she offered them the route to salvation but her true legacy is just that. In a new twist on Stalinism, she taught us: accumulate power, devolve blame; claim success, redistribute failure.
It used to be that Ministers accepted that they must take responsibility for what happened in their ministries. Now, within a few months of taking office they would begin a process of blame shifting. Their civil servants were, they announced, insubordinate, intent on frustrating the will of the people, of biting their thumbs in the face of the democratic mandate. But the real trouble was that those in the public sector quickly became used to the new culture of uncritically attending to the presentation of their political masters’ half-baked and prejudiced schemes for self advancement. They took to heart the weasel words of their most senior colleagues that “service of the State is to all intents service of the Government of the day”. They, as much as anyone, were caught up in the narrative trap that governments are elected (actually, Parliaments are elected) and that to challenge the wishes of a Minister is to challenge democracy.
In a relatively short time, inside the Norman keep of government, a self-confirming circus came into existence. “Oh, Minister, that’s a wonderful idea. As soon as we’ve worked out the acronym, logo and mission statement we’ll get some minions lined up to take the blame for it. (Hello? Is that Human Resources? How soon can you find me a career move out of here?)”.
It was a new conjugation: I make policy, you fail to implement, we… oh, there is no we.
And that is how it went. Policy was systematically distanced from execution. Not just among the politicians but, like a creeping fungus, eventually right down, layer by layer, through the public sector. Many in the Executive who, years before, would have been Implementers and proud of it, climbed on the backs and faces of their colleagues to raise themselves out of implementation and up onto the parasitic walls of “policy development”.
When once you separate power (policy) from responsibility for the outcome of implementing that policy you lose your imperative for getting it right. All that matters is that you sell the policy and, with it, sell yourself. You have to have your blame allocation securely in place. But once you have the pale between you and blame staked out you are free to concentrate on the marketing. And that’s what Thatcher’s close advisers, and any of the new breed of barrow-boy civil servants she brought in, who wanted only to get on, set themselves down to do. Do you recall Thatcher’s famous purr “Other people bring me problems. David brings me solutions” (the David in question being Lord Young). Did he? Or did he just bring her the means to present problems as solved: or only failing because of the lack of commitment or competence of others.
It seemed if you wanted to succeed in the public sector now the trick was that it must always be “someone else’s fault”. “Executive Agencies” were the most obvious manifestation of the trend: all smoke and mirrors – “I may be the Minister in charge. Who wants to know?” Agencies, the “brainchild” of one of Thatcher’s business buddies, don’t actually have any claim to existence. They are simply a re-branded part of their department. There is a lot of public money wasted on maintaining the trompe l’oeil of an arm’s length relationship. But they have been talked up until people too lazy to insist on the truth have come to believe in their autonomy. And that makes them the perfect carriers of blame that would otherwise fall on ambitious Ministers.
“On the right hon. Gentleman’s third point, it is true that I am responsible for all the Home Office’s activities and for the Prison Service. I am accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service. The director general is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Prison Service.”
Michael Howard, Hansard 19 December 1994 vol 251 cc1397-412
(If you think that’s all too far in the past, think Border Agency.)
Another possible means of passing off blame, of course, is contracting out. Here we find the unholy alliance of two streams of Executive thought: among the policy development team, blame avoidance, as discussed, (they can claim that the reason for eventual failure is that the contractor is not performing – or at least they think they can) and the dogmatic belief of our political masters (and their masters) that “private is best”. It is a doomed alliance as far as the public servants are concerned because, if they haven’t twigged it yet, as between themselves and any private contractor, however corrupt and incompetent, they are always going to be the ones who get shafted. It is, as far as the press are concerned, their only valid purpose.
Separating power from responsibility was a really bad idea and it has cost this country a lot. But worse, far worse, was the belief that nothing could be done without bringing into the civil service all the assumptions of the private sector. There is a mistaken belief that free markets breed competitiveness and competition breeds quality and efficiency. In reality, what they breed is waste and instability. In Adam Smith’s day, waste was not an issue. Resources appeared limitless. Half the world was as yet unexploited as a source of raw material and as a market to expand into. Unchecked growth seemed like a genie or a god.
The commercial world can, in its own mind, afford to be wasteful because it is a self-serving environment (in the single minded-pursuit of profit, it does what it wants to, how it wants to and pulls out if there isn’t enough return for its liking) and at the end of the day someone else will always pick up the tab (when all else fails, go into receivership and leave your creditors and employees high and dry). In the meantime, quality, far from being guaranteed by commerce, is constantly at risk. As Mr Cameron knows only too well, the purpose of marketing is to sell the image of value and quality so that the producer does not have to actually provide it.
The only justification for the public sector, in contrast, is that what needs to be done gets done, at the level of quality needed to serve the purpose. Paradoxically, perhaps, the private sector never has to prove its efficiency in the way the public sector has to. It only has to demonstrate sufficient profitability and maintain the confidence-building trappings of success until it collapses into the vacuum of its marketing hype. Thus it is that, while public servants get pushed into workspaces that battery hens would be rescued from, corporations opt for vast empty atriums that could house the population of a small country and fleets of limousines that could move it around; while the public sector has to make do with insufficient and badly chosen machinery and IT so that there is enough money to pay for the expensively bought-in consultants and special advisers, the private sector buys plasma screens the size of cliff faces to display its self-flattering but utterly vacuous mission statements.
Our businesses still largely adhere to the old ways (not, of course, the really old ways, the kind Adam Smith was familiar with, where you were, and were only, as good as what you made, but the 60s version of it: the right to make a profit over all else, the belief that next year’s profit must at all costs be bigger than last year’s and the right not to be interfered with as you pursue self-interest) and expect, nay demand, to be allowed to carry on doing so, expect to walk away scot free from their messes as soon as the figures don’t add up to vast profit, expect to be carried and coddled like Indian princes, expect to be able to punish as dissent and envy anyone else’s querulous claim to be considered . They will have no other god but themselves. We let them persist in this at our children’s peril but all politicians regularly and deliberately pander to them, take them at their own evaluation, put them ahead of the electorate they are morally and legally bound to serve. Business must not be interfered with. Business must be nurtured. Business must be allowed to bum your son and impregnate your daughter (or the other way round). Business is our true friend, our only hope, our benefactor. To constrain business is to deny God. But even Adam Smith saw the dangers of a value-free market-based society.
Bringing competition and the market into the public sector has created huge waste which actually does have to be paid for. By us. And, perhaps worse, it has removed the assurance of sustained service that is the foundation of a thriving society. It is unconscionable, a dereliction of duty. We should, if we really want efficiency, be determining precisely what we need by way of administration, and standards of service we need, and then ensuring that precisely that is delivered, by the right number and quality of people and machines; not arranging tournaments in which people and products are squandered to see who are fittest to survive. We cannot afford the luxury of letting the market decide whether a given school succeeds or fails. A school is an expensive investment. A “failed” school is a waste of that investment, the people’s money squandered, the people’s trust betrayed. It is the job of the Executive to make the right investment, to deliver the right outcome, not to sit in high judgment over the efforts of others, efforts which will now inevitably be aimed less at being excellent at what they do and making a valuable contribution to the whole than at persuading it that it should favour them over their “rivals” with the cash. Supplying the right amount and quality of public service is the business of the public sector. Something we seem to have all but forgotten. Imposing penalties for failure is not a substitute for achieving success.
Civil servants made in the Thatcher mould haven’t done nearly enough to support genuine enterprise either. They are immured in a process of supporting unquestioningly the self-serving, greedy exploitation of public services by favoured businesses; a long running picking of the public purse; that and clearing up the messes left behind when contractors, poorly managed because those who should be watching them lack the confidence and skills to demand of them - and will have been warned off demanding of them - the standards and commitment they would expect of themselves, have finished their troughing.
In the light of all this, you might see it as surprising, contradictory even, when I suggest that what we need most urgently is to break with the faux-dichotomy between public and private enterprise, stop seeing them as opposing forces locked in mortal combat, either/or adversaries, right or wrong according to some religious belief. It’s not a contradiction, I just think that it is long overdue, vital indeed for the future, that we bring down these particular totems, strive to see things straight and purposively, use both approaches wisely, make both serve the greater good. Business is not a god. It is simply what people do. And the question for public services, THE question, is not who does it but who best can do it, whether they can be relied on to do the right thing at the right cost and do it well. That is what the people have a right to. It’s what public service is there for. And I think that is what old Adam Smith was telling us. If, that is, you get beyond Book I.
The Thatcher I knew would not have agreed but an effective and well-resourced public service is the foundation of a sustainable modern social economy, ensuring that what needs to be done is done effectively so that people can get on with the business of making a successful economy and a vibrant and healthy society while the next generation is prepared to take up the running and those who need support are treated fairly and inclusively, with the compassion and dignity that graces a civilised society. Thatcher, in thrall to those self-regarding dogmatists and spivs who subverted her grocer’s girl sound common sense when, afraid of where her ambition had landed her and of the complexity of the questions asked of her, she turned to them for solutions, receiving instead the Aladdin’s lamp of spin, began the retreat from dutiful public service and into a harsh and unforgiving wilderness of ideology, idolatry and blame allocation with only the promise, for the chosen few, of a land flowing with milk and honey to come. After 30 years of wandering, our culturally and morally starved and divided people led by bickering self-proclaiming shamans, the people’s wealth melted down and turned into useless temples to the god of greed, it seems almost impossible to believe that anything worthwhile can ever be achieved again. That, for me, will always be her real legacy, now passed in the hands of her profligate and worthless political offspring.
And I suppose what I am asking myself about now is whether those who set themselves up to govern us will ever again have the competence, the courage and the humility to make the return and re-forge the links between power and responsibility, policy, execution and accountability. Will we get on home one of these days? I fear the answer.
I overheard a conversation last night and it disturbed me.
The conversation was between my 15 year old daughter and one of her friends. It concerned a boy in her class. I had heard about this boy before. He has come out as gay. That is a pretty brave thing to do at the age of 15, even now.
The boy - let’s call him Adam - finds the company of girls easier than that of boys, in just the way, and for precisely the same reasons, that his peers don’t. Yesterday, in school, while waiting outside the girls’ toilets for his companions who were inside, he was dragged and pushed to the floor and later pushed into the toilet. His attackers, boys, told him “If you like hanging out with girls so much why don’t you go and be with them?”
The previous week, my daughter had told me that Adam was due to go on the Geography field trip but that none of the boys was prepared to have him in their dormitory because he was gay.
Having lived for over 60 years, during the first nearly 20 of which homosexuality was a criminal offence, and having been brought up in East London, I have observed plenty of homophobia. I had hoped that for the younger generations, taught not just tolerance but also, possibly for the first time in our history, the truths about sexuality, homophobia would have ceased to be a factor. Regrettably, it seems it is making a comeback. The word “gay” is once again being thrown around as a pejorative and a taunt. Other words with homosexual connotations are bandied about as insults. And here we have a young man being ostracised and subjected to homophobic bullying for daring to be a different kind of normal.
Boys will be boys, oh yes. And never more so than when they are confused about their own sexual identity. But the worry is, as I tried to explain to my daughter, that it may start as a bit of banter or “just the behaviour of a few dickheads” as she put it to me, but in my experience it does not stop there. If it is not confronted, it becomes accepted. Once it becomes accepted it becomes entrenched. Once it becomes entrenched it develops power. And what started as banter ends up as victimisation and violence.
Back in Ilford in 1969, a friend of mine was chased and stripped and had a carrot rammed so hard into his anus that it split by a gang of drunk youths who thought they should teach the homo a lesson. I have never forgotten that. Never been able to. Perversely, perhaps, its impact was so powerful that it moved me from being apathetic to being a supporter of gay rights. In the lifetime that has followed I have had as many gay friends as non-gay and have known more kindness and compassion from that quarter than from what I must take, if only for the purposes of comparison, to be “my own kind”.
Actually, I find that kind of statement very uncomfortable. I feel as if it is forced on me like when someone says “you have to admit, blacks can run faster than whites.” Statistically yes, but so what? What good has ever come from these false dichotomies?
There has been quite a bit of this kind of thing in the media today, however, as a new Archbishop is installed at Canterbury. In an interview he chose to expound upon the problem his church has with homosexuality. Some of his remarks showed an encouraging amount of progress, even if, in keeping, I suppose, with his belief that his organisation holds the moral high ground, there was more than a whiff of the patronising about them:
"You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship."
Don’t you, though!
At … the heart of our understanding of what it is to be human, is the essential dignity of the human being. And so we have to be very clear about homophobia. … It’s not a blind eye - it’s about loving people as they are and where they are.
Oh bless! But still, he found it necessary to add that he still supported the Church of England’s formal opposition to “active homosexuality”. He found it very challenging. I wondered what “it” was..
I assume that by “active homosexuality”, he means sexually active. What other point of reference can there be? When Ratty and Mole sit by the fireside is it active homosexuality, distinguishable in some way from when Mr and Mrs Beckham do it (I make the assumption that occasionally they do)? But then, if it is only in the sexual area that we will discover “active homosexuality”, what is it about a blow job that changes its nature if a man rather than a woman does it to a man; what changes if the tongue probing the vagina belongs to a woman rather than a man. What is the difference between a man using his penis to enter a male anus as opposed to a female one? It is all a bit confusing. Indeed, it is beginning to seem to me that “active homosexuality” is a misnomer and what the poor old Archbishop may actually mean is that because a gay man has no vagina and a gay women no penis a homosexual couple are in fact deficient in being unable to carry out that one defining heterosexual act of vaginal intercourse. So inactive homosexuality might be the better description of the problem. And yes, that may be a challenge for them but I cannot quite see why it is anybody else’s business.
But I digress. I asked my daughter whether anyone saw the incident with Adam. My daughter said some teachers passed by. I asked why they didn’t intervene. She said that because Adam was giggling, she assumed they thought it was “just a bit of fun”. I asked whether it had been reported. She said Adam couldn’t report it because that would make him “a snitch”. Sometimes I think we have hardly moved on at all from my own schooldays. I said I thought the girls should get together to report it as then Adam would not be to blame. My daughter just looked at me as if to say, “Dad, you just don’t understand.” Which is true.
Despairingly, I quoted to my daughter the words of Edmund Burke:
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
but I fear it may be lost on her. For the Archbishop, however, faced with the “challenge” of active homosexuality, clearly, it is a matter of profound hope that good men, and good women, do indeed do nothing.
I had an aunt, a sweet, fey creature, now long gone to play with the fairies. She believed that you had to keep plugs in power sockets to stop electricity leaking into the room. She believed that at a pedestrian crossing you had to wait until a car approached and stopped for you before you could cross the road.
Called for jury service, she was thrilled. She told me later, “There was one man, he was put up into the dock. And I looked at him and I thought, “Hm, bet you’re guilty”. And do you know, he wasn’t!”
I have never worked out to my own satisfaction whether this was a mark of the danger of juries or a sign that they work really well.
A lot of ridicule has been heaped on the jury in what is now the first trial of Vicky Pryce (possibly the second, if you count being married to Chris Huhne as a trial - a forgiveable conclusion perhaps in relation to a man so full of himself that despite being a mere politician, a servant of the people, he drove a conspicuously bling motor car with the number plate HIIHNE) and this has been extended by desperate news programmes and under-worked pundits to a generally vacuous debate about the value of juries at large. And then we are constantly being shouted at by people who include juries among the conspirators who ensure that 90% of “rapes” go unpunished or being treated to harrowing footage of tearstained families insisting in broken voices that, because of this or that acquittal, they have been denied “justice”.
It is an odd irony because the idea behind the jury is that it delivers a judgment of one’s peers. In other words, these 12 individuals are supposed to be the mirror of us. So if a jury fails to pay attention, asks stupid questions, cannot keep a grip on what is being presented or work out what is relevant, insists on giving weight to its own irrational beliefs, or otherwise comes to the “wrong” conclusion is it them to blame or us?
Large swathes of us still put superstition and prejudice ahead of reason and evidence in our daily lives: think horoscopes, homeopathy, homophobia, to name but a few Hs. If we are to take quiz shows as a test, most of us appear to believe that a state of ignorance is a human right. In a recent edition of “Pointless”, only 87 out of 100 people shown a photograph recognised our own Queen. The standard response of contestants asked how they feel about the question they are required to answer say without any apparent shame that books/geography/music/cinema/famous people/food/… is “not a good subject for me”. You have to wonder why they thought appearing on a quiz show designed to test their knowledge was a good idea. As to the exercise of judgment, given a free choice, we accord glossy but intellectually and morally under-endowed celebrity ahead of learning and humanitarian usefulness (such as saving the sight of the world’s poorest or looking after bed-ridden seniors or teaching our children) the highest respect and attention by a mile and we will spend thousands on acrylic nail extenders, hair dyes and gels, improbable shoes and impossible clothes and silicon implants, preferring a cosmetic falsehood to a well-grounded truth. We decline to pick up a book unless it promises heaps of badly written sado-masochistic sex or a newspaper unless it contains voyeuristic snaps of pregnant princesses or to watch TV unless it presents us with a parody of our worst capacities and tendencies.
And who among us has not sat in the company of one of those people who feel compelled to ask questions throughout dramatic performances? “Is he going to die?” “Does she turn out to be a werewolf?” No, dear, Mary Poppins is not a werewolf, and though Bert deserves to die on a bed of mangled vowels, and doubtless would have died aged 20 of respiratory failure in real life, regrettably he survives. But why not just be patient, pay attention and let the film weave its magic?
So why do we expect a jury of any 12 of us to do better? And does it really matter if they don’t? In much the same way as it ain’t over til the fat lady sings, we as a society long ago decided to measure the legal guilt or innocence of people by what a jury decides. That choice may, however unsatisfying - regrettable, in fact - its consequences in many cases, be the whole of the answer to those who are unhappy with the rape conviction rates. Rape is a statutory criminal offence triable by jury. As a matter of definition, it has only happened when a jury of 12 decides that the components of an act of rape laid down in law have all been found present to a level of proof that is almost certainty. If they decide they haven’t, or any one of them hasn’t then whatever took place was, by definition, not rape. This is not a commentary on the plight or honesty of the victim of the conduct or on the iniquity or inhumanity of the perpetrator. It is simply a narrow conclusion reached by the only people empowered to reach that conclusion.
We call it justice but actually it is the opposite of justice, or at least our common conception of justice, which is a mix of intuited fairness and desire for retribution. It is just an expedient way of reaching a decision; an attempt to reach an acceptable level of objectivity by aggregating subjectivities. And once we see this, it opens up the possibility at least of avoiding the accretion of additional layers of pain and frustration atop the hurt of the original offence. Why waste your anger on a mere process? But sadly too often, and mostly because we expect more of it than it can reasonably deliver, it still leaves the hunger for “justice” unquenched.
With the levels of technology now available to us, we could probably generate programmes and algorithms and machines that could do a more rigorous and consistent job of getting close to the truth in any legal battle, just as Hawkeye and its brothers and sisters have done in fields of sport. The harnessing of powers of analysis and supersensitive recording apparatus would take out a lot of the subjectivity and fallibility out of determinations, but is this what we want? Would we be even more outraged if a machine reached a conclusion we found unacceptable and therefore persuaded ourselves was “unjust”? I think we would. Not so very deep down, we have a fear of perfection and alongside it a love of self-serving rationalising over unforgiving logic. It could be said that our love of ourselves requires it. We are, and always will be, imperfect and our ability to rationalise, at least as much as our ability to reason, has supported our survival. And for all the times when a jury shocks us with a decision that we, who have not been faced with the making of it, consider an affront to reason, there are also times when we like to applaud another jury’s rejection of the judge’s direction and the weight of evidence and finds in a way we prefer.
But if so, we need to come to terms with the inevitability that juries will continue to faze us with their foibles and foolishness and their fallibility. And if we want to improve the quality of their deliberations and decisions we need first to heal ourselves, to treat the development and exercise of our minds at least as seriously as we now treat the pampering and primping of our faces and bodies.
Except that we won’t of course. That would be the rational thing to do.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “We are outraged and shocked at these offensive comments about Jewish victims of the Holocaust”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said she was “deeply saddened” that the MP had “deliberately abused the memory of the Holocaust”.
She added: “These comments are sickening and unacceptable and have no place in British politics.”
A Lib Dem spokesman said: “This is a matter we take extremely seriously. The Liberal Democrats deeply regret and condemn the statement issued by David Ward and his use of language which is unacceptable.”
What can Mr Ward, Liberal Democrat and MP for Bradford East, have said that was so heinous as to justify this concert of condemnation. It must be pretty awful, mustn’t it? Something like “the Jews had to coming to them” or “Hitler was right” or “The Holocaust never happened” or “The Jews were complicit in their own fate.”
No. What he actually said was:
”Having visited Auschwitz twice - once with my family and once with local schools - I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”
What I think most of us would agree on is that the timing of this statement was sensitive, coinciding with Holocaust Day, a surprisingly relatively new (2001) commemoration of the foulest depths to which the human ability to rationalise can sink (surprising perhaps that we need to single out a day for this, when it should be in our, and more particularly our politicians’ and aspiring politicians’, minds on a daily, if not hourly, basis). That, presumably, is why he chose it. But where in the statement are these “offensive comments about victims of the Holocaust”; where is the “abuse of the memory of the Holocaust; where is the unacceptable language about the Holocaust?
It is a political statement, undoubtedly, and one that was likely to provoke controversy. It dares to suggest that the Jews, of all people, having suffered such extreme victimisation and oppression should know not to victimise and oppress others. And there is a charge that the Jews are doing so. It is a charge that is hotly disputed and it is one that vast numbers of Jews worldwide who are manifestly doing no such thing may well regard as offensive when laid at their door. That use of the definite article “the Jews” lumps all living Jews together in one undifferentiated mass. It is, can only be, ill-judged and unfair, like blaming all Moslems for 9/11 or all Germans for the holocaust.But does that justify using the victims of the Holocaust as the rod with which to beat Mr Ward? What is concerning, to me at least, is first this seemingly cynical manipulation of the argument to fuel outrage, and secondly the way in which Mr Ward’s party has reacted.
Let’s take the big one first. By praying in aid the memory of the Holocaust and trying to lay Mr Ward’s offence there, the statements at the head of this article are in effect saying: Hey, we are Jews and our behaviour is off-limits to the rest of you because of the way the Nazis treated our grandparents.
No. No. No. Six million Jews died as a result of Nazi ideology. So did Communists, Gypsies, disabled people. However many died in total, the central fact is that these were people who were abused, tortured and killed. Those who were Jews were killed because they were Jews. But it was as people that they were deprived of life and dignity and not a single Jewish death, nor even six million Jewish deaths, provides the right and authority for those who are now alive to treat the human life or human rights of others as less precious.
Look again at that quote from Jon Benjamin, this time in full:
"We are outraged and shocked at these offensive comments about Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the suggestion that Jews should have learned a lesson from the experience.
What is he trying to say with those italicised words? That Jews are somehow uniquely, among all the human races, incapable of behaving oppressively? That sin is beneath and beyond their capacity? That would be a hard claim to make stick. Or is he suggesting that the Jews should not be subject to the requirements of decency that the rest of the world is trying to impose on itself? I do hope not because if so we would be being treated to the special pleading of those who did not suffer but wanted to ride on the back of that suffering. And that is really offensive. It is the argument of the bully in the playground that you mustn’t punish him because his grandad died. All those Jews who were rounded up, dispossessed, humiliated, killed, did not die so that someone coming after them living in the comfort of a shocked and shamed world could capitalise on their fate. They died horribly and while they owe us nothing the whole world owes them the learning of a lesson from the circumstances of their death. The lesson that no ideology and no religion, and certainly nothing less than these, supervenes over the right to human life and dignity.
We must believe that human rights apply to the human world without differentiation. That is the legacy we owe to those who died at Auschwitz or Belsen or Dachau or in the Soviet Union or on the Killing Fields of Cambodia or in Pakistan or Iraq or Rwanda or Somalia. Nobody is exempt. It is a lesson for all humanity. And therefore it is a lesson for Jews as much as it is is for non-Jews.
And so to the second question.
The Liberal Democrats, under Nick Clegg, have shown that there is almost no issue of principle that they are not prepared to discard in the pursuit of a little temporary power. They are revealed as only expediently moral (and sadly thus eminently fitted to govern in a corrupt little pretend democracy). But they used to believe in higher ideals: in decency and fairness and human rights. One of those human rights is the right to freedom of expression. So on what basis do they now seek to climb upon the tall pedestal of moral outrage to distance themselves from one of their kin against whom the only charge is that he has expressed, perhaps carelessly, the view that after all the Jews have suffered he would have hoped they could treat their neighbours, the Palestinians better? Whether he is right or wrong, how much real world offence is there in that. They could have said they disagreed. They could have criticised the way he put it. Their swiftness to close ranks and condemn is their shame.
I arrived at the station at 8.50, slightly ahead of my usual time. The next train to London was due at 09.17. There were a number of people standing in the small ticket hall. They all seemed a little confused. I looked over to the ticket window. It was empty. So I decided to approach one of the three ticket machines ranged across one side. I had used them before. What could go wrong?
I touched the screen confidently and, reassuringly, a menu came up, headed by “Anytime Travelcard Zones 1-6 £22.50. I looked down the list expecting to find the usual off-peak version of the ticket, a bargain at only £17. Not there. Odd.
Down at the bottom of the screen was a link to Travelcards so I went for that. Up came a new list, headed once more by the Anytime ticket. But no off-peak option.
It was then that I noticed the ticket clerk standing at the machine next to mine, engaged in some arcane transaction with it while the number of would be passengers (sorry, customers) grew larger in his absence. So I asked him.
"Excuse me, why can’t I find the off-peak travelcard?"
He stopped and looked at me, then at the station clock.
"It’s too early. The first train you can travel on is the 09.17."
"I know. It’s the next train. Why can’t I buy the ticket?"
"The machine won’t sell you one. If you come over to my window, I’ll sell you one."
"But if you can sell me one, why can’t the machine?"
His look and tone betrayed a tetchiness that I suspect had been hard-earned in the service of his Kafka-esque masters.
"The machine won’t want to sell you a ticket if it’s too early,” he explained.
"But, but it’s just a machine…" I spluttered, hearing echoes of Arthur Dent as I did so.
There was a moment when the enormity of my offence to the artificial being beside me washed around the three of us in what seemed utter silence. The ticket clerk then gave me a withering look, turned on his heel and marched off to his station behind the window to start serving a now considerable queue. I was about to swallow my pride and join it when the clock ticked over to 0900 and with a click and flash, the screen on my traduced machine rewrote itself and there was my off-peak ticket of choice.
Trying to carry out my transaction with as much humility as I could muster, I made my selection and paid.
The ticket machine, I have to say, was magnanimous throughout.