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 17th 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.
Those who need to develop the craft of political spin were given something of a masterclass last week, with the publication of the Leveson Report.
The report itself was a worthy document, more readable than Fifty Shades of Grey and hardly less sexy. But it was when the Prime Minister stood up in Parliament that the lessons started. In the presentation that followed we saw why he must be so sorely missed by the trade he left behind.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony famously declares “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”. It is a rhetorical ploy, of course. But not in Dave’s version. The reading here was “I come to bury Caesar in praise”. If there was an award for the longest hanging “but” (and I am not referring here to the kind of games that are played in the dorms of Eton) this speech must be a contender. From the moment Dave got up to drape himself over the despatch box, it was clear that his tool of the day was, for once, not one of his Cabinet colleagues but a spade and a flaming torch.
Since then the media have been littered with commentators wishing to tell us how Dave is wrong or right to reject the central recommendation of the Leveson Report: that the supervising body must have the backing of law for its activities. Mostly, the arguments have been lofted into the shimmering high peaks that are reserved as a battleground over human rights and so-called inalienable freedoms. Dave himself must take much of the credit for this and indeed be very pleased with himself. It is precisely where he needed to take the argument in order to disguise the cynical expediency of his true purpose.
Legislating to regulate the press, Dave said, wearing the furrowed brow that his brother Tony had left behind at No 10, would be a crossing of the Rubicon.
The Rubicon, should we need reminding, was a small river that separated Rome from the neighbouring province. If a Roman general crossed it, he committed an act of invasion and thus made a declaration of war. Crossing the Rubicon has thus come down to us as the description for any step that, once taken, carries consequences that cannot be undone.
This is not quite what Dave wanted us to draw from the phrase. In fact, he would have been better off choosing that other political cliché “opening Pandora’s box”, though with the Savile affair still in full swing, his reluctance to use the expression may be understandable. Or he could have gone with the “banks of the Tiber” allusion but, again, perhaps that one is still too hot to handle. What he wanted us to imagine, and shrink from, was the vision of a legislature let loose and ungovernable, trampling, like hooligans returning from a football match, all over those tender flowers that make up the gardens of freedom of speech, the press. Thank goodness then that we have not all had a classical education.
The sub-text is fascinating, and clever. “You know we can’t be trusted. If you let us make a law about this, we’ll not just screw up. We won’t be able to resist behaving like pigs and bullies. And if we don’t, those who come after us will. The next thing you know, editors will be hanging from gibbets at the junctions of motorways.”
As I say, fascinating and clever. Who else but Dave, the Marketing Man, would have cottoned on to the fact that the only group we detest and distrust more than the press is the politicians and that they make us feel disempowered and threatened. And who else would have had the nerve, the chutzpah, to use that as a ploy to move the sheepdogs away from protecting the sheep and safely into the kennel of futility so that the wolves can continue to hunt freely.
It is a very odd state of affairs though. It wasn’t as if Leveson had actually called for the direct regulation of the press by a politically controlled policing body. He had just made the suggestion, sensible, indeed uncontrovertible, in any democratic state, that authority has to have legitimacy. And that good behaviour cannot be optional. If agreeing to that was crossing any kind of Rubicon, then we might as well unmake all the laws we have and go with anarchy.
It is odd in other ways too, because there are laws on the statute book, and draft laws before Parliament at present, that have left the Rubicon of freedom of expression – the only freedom that really matters in this context, freedom of the press being something closer to a myth than a genuine right – so far behind that you would die of thirst going back to fill your water bottle. Some of that legislative interference has been necessary - to protect other fundamental rights such as the right to privacy and the right to family life. Rights cannot be absolute. They cannot be looked at in isolation from one another because they need to be balanced against each other. And where those rights have been established in law, law has to provide the conditions and the means for the balance to be struck. The point here, however, and the one Dave (and his friends in the press) seems to want to distract us from, is that the Leveson proposal doesn’t attempt to interfere with freedom of expression. The only freedom for which he proposes regulation is the assumed freedom of a small coterie of businessmen from being held effectively to account for abusing these rights in their quest to exert undue and undemocratic influence in pursuit of profit.
And then there is this strange assertion that because the membership of the body would have to be appointed by Secretaries of State it could not be regarded as independent. If this is a valid charge then the whole city of arm’s length bodies which have been created and fostered precisely as a means of removing political influence from areas of state business crumbles to rubble.
It is true that there have been some bizarre abuses of this process of statutorily delegating areas of state business. The Millennium Commission, established as a non-departmental public body to oversee the distribution of Lottery Funds in a way that could not be politically manipulated was, for almost all its existence, chaired by the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, a cabinet minister with direct political involvement in the field, who appointed herself to the position. But that really was an anomaly. For the most part, the power of appointment and strategic direction is about all the power any minister has over a quango, as many a minister has found to his or her chagrin. These bodies have legally enforceable duties to conduct themselves in accordance with their statutorily imposed functions. Unlike Ministers, they are not free to bend this way and that to please their friends.
It would of course be reprehensible at this point to repeat that the only freedom for which Leveson proposes regulation is the assumed freedom of a small coterie of businessmen from being held effectively to account for abusing fundamental human rights in their quest to exert undue and undemocratic influence in pursuit of profit.
But step back from there and you see the next enormity in what Dave was suggesting. In theory, Ministers are accountable to Parliament and Parliament is accountable to us. We put them there to run the country for us. And yet, implies Dave, we really shouldn’t be leaving anything delicate in their hands.
“Things can get broken, General”.
If he is right about this, then perhaps we should be asking Leveson to tell us what we can do about mending a busted democracy, as a precursor to fixing a delinquent press.
Clever Dave has created a bogeyman out of his own kind and like all bogeymen its effectiveness lies with its ability to touch the raw edges of our fears. But if we are to be in control of our own destiny we have to see the bogeyman for what it is and dismiss it. We have real problems to attend to. We need our wits about us and our sense of smell if we are to navigate through to an outcome that rebalances the rights of a civilised nation. Public interest is that balance: between freedom of speech and the right to privacy, between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to protect his or her family. Public interest does not belong to a handful of press barons. It belongs to all of the people. And so the authority to secure it must come from the people too. That is what the law is for in a democratic country.
On Tuesday, 20 November, on TV and radio, people - Christians, allegedly - were queuing up to confirm that they had been carrying out God’s will. Which was odd because some of them were citing the fact that they had voted for the appointment of women bishops and some of them were citing the fact that they had voted against the appointment of women bishops. God’s will had, as a consequence, been discernible either in the sizeable majority in favour of women bishops or in the significant minority that successfully defeated the motion.
Now, it is easy to mock, but just pause before you throw the first brickbat. In the world of human politics, there is nothing inconsistent in the proposition that, despite a significant majority having voted in favour of something, the level of support has not reached the level required to adopt it. Constitutional changes are often subject to these constraints and for a very good reason: that constitutions normally enshrine fundamental protections for citizens and they should not be tampered with lightly. It is, for those of us who, like Winston Churchill, harbour reservations about the fitness of simple democratic process to order every aspect of our lives (at least as long as newspapers like the Sun are being published), a very sensible precaution. There is no plausible distinction to be found between a whipped-up, uninformed democracy and mob rule.
Let us generously assume that it is this concern alone that leads the political parties, here and in other “representative” democracies, to ensure that the people we have elected to act in our name do what they tell them once they are in the Chamber rather than listening to us.
But here’s the point. And to make it, because my own atheism makes it hard for me to argue a case based on God’s existence, and because being a member of a religion, particularly one with such a fine pedigree as the Church of England, gives one a moral edge over ordinary humanity, I’m going to assume that when the people who cast their votes said they were doing God’s will they actually were.
I rationalise it this way. They believe they were doing God’s will. Belief is stronger than evidence (you can test this for yourself on a mundane level: even though the evidence confirms that neither the Conservatives nor the LibDems won the last election they believe that they have the right to be the government and, lo, they are. On a higher plane, if you can imagine one, believers already know how the Universe came about whereas scientists are still trying to figure it out. So much for evidence, eh?). So even if there were only some evidence that they were doing God’s will and a lot of evidence that they were not, belief that they were would trump the lot. Now, it is indisputable that some is bigger than none, so some evidence would be stronger than no evidence. So if there is no evidence that they were doing God’s will and they believe they were, then they must have been, QED.
Which leaves me more than a little concerned about God’s mental well-being. It is one thing for you or me to be in two minds about difficult questions: for example, what to eat this evening, living as we do in the so-called “privileged” quarter of the world where, instead of the reassuring certainty of gruel and fly spit or good old reliable starvation, every day is a stress-filled choice-laden nightmare. “Should I have the pan-fried chicken with pancetta, or the cajun chicken or maybe the chicken korma? Oh, hell, Big Mac(tm) and fries, it is.” It is, again, one thing, for two members of the family who want to watch an attention grabbing MP eat ostrich anus to be in hot dispute with the other two who want to watch a drama in which in the course of an hour, more people will die violently than are murdered in the UK in the course of a year.
But this is God, The One, literally the Great I Am. This is the omnipotent being who created the whole Universe out of nothing (beat that, Blue Peter). Genesis says that on the second day He created the seas. There is no suggestion that having done so, he had second thoughts about the shade and went back to B&Q with his receipt in his hand. No, sea was going to look like this, and no arguments. And despite all the muck we have poured into it since, it still looks as fresh as the day He made it. Well almost.
When Moses asked God for some easy to follow instructions for his people, did God come up with a load of hedges and provisos? No. “Thou shalt not kill,” he boomed. Simple, direct. And with that the Children of Israel knew once and for all time exactly how they should behave towards their neighbours.
So what is it with women bishops? What is God’s problem? Apparently, two thirds of his will wants women bishops. One third doesn’t. Why all of a sudden is He unable to make up his mind. “Well, I, like, really, really want to hang out with them, but, you know, like, I felt the same way about the Sodomites and look what a disaster they turned out to be. It took like ages to get the stains out.”
Maybe it is just that He doesn’t want to offend anybody. You know how it can be: two best mates, as long as they don’t meet it’s all fine. You can sit in the pub with one and nod along comfortably while he goes on about how women’s insistence on leaving the seat down is proof that they are incapable of rational behaviour. And share a bottle of Pinot Grigio with the other while she tells you that men leaving the seat up is a vicious act of male domination. But then it’s New Year’s Eve and suddenly you are at a party with both of them and they are each looking to you to support their view. Nightmare. (If God’s listening, by the way, and has hit this problem, my solution is to say that ever since watching Flushed Away I always close the lid.)
I knew a pub landlord once. A couple came in with their dog, asked him if he minded dogs. “Bless you, no,” he cried, “I loves dogs, man’s natural companion, loyal and true. It’s cats I can’t stands. Nasty, haughty creatures. Never trust a cat. It’s dogs for me every time. Bring him on in and welcome. ” The couple stayed for a while and then left with thanks. No sooner was the door shut behind them than the landlord went to the entrance to the living quarters and called out, “It’s okay, Tiddles, you can come out now, puss. That nasty smelly old dog has gone. Lord, I hates dogs.”
But he wasn’t in two minds, just two-faced. Not since Janus has any god been called two-faced. Well not to his face, that is. Faces.
But if He isn’t just being indecisive or caught on the horns of a dilemma or dissembling, what other explanation can there be?
Here’s a thought. Maybe He was chugged. You are on your way home after a hard day. All you want is to fall through the door and reach for the gin. And suddenly, stepping out into your path, clipboard in hand, smiling the smile of the happily oblivious to others’ consummate hatred, is a market researcher. “Excuse me, madam, can you spare a moment?”. You try not to catch their eye and mumble feeble excuses about being late but they are already preparing to unleash the harpoon of guilt. “Just a moment for the starving rainforests of the Antarctic?” In a split second you are taken, your defensive resources drained down to nothing. And the next five minutes of eternity are taken up with answering loaded questions in a way that won’t have them looking at you piteously as if you could only write for the Daily Mail.
Perhaps God fell into this trap. Asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, whether He thought there should be women bishops, with no number representing neutrality, He opted for a slightly positive 6 in the hope that by avoiding the appearance of strong commitment He would have some wriggle-room left to avoid getting talked into making another monthly contribution He could ill-afford. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
But that would still have left the outcome of the survey “A representative sample of monotheistical beings agreed that there should be women bishops”. It doesn’t explain why God appeared to have doubts about this.
The answer perhaps lies in the question posed. For many years, on an annual basis, public sector organisations have been asking their staff to tick boxes as to whether they “strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree” that they have read the body’s business strategy (how you can have a strong conviction on this issue either way is a moot point. The idea that you can “neither agree nor disagree” that you have read it may however possibly be a nod in the direction of the Fifth Amendment). More dubiously, the follow-on question tends to be something like “I understand” the organisation’s aims/objectives/policies: “strongly agree, agree … strongly disagree”. Now, you may of course think you understand. You may even strongly think you understand. But whether you do understand depends on how well what you think you understand correlates with what the organisation intends you to understand. With me so far? If not you are probably in the business of producing staff questionnaires.
Now, two things. Firstly, on any logical analysis, of course, God is the biggest public authority of all. He is the fons et origo of the public sector. He may make prophets but He is not in it for profit and He shows no great enthusiasm for either competition or contracting out. So it stands to reason that He would have been asking Himself whether He understood His policies on such matters as the creation of women bishops. And, secondly, because He is pre-eminently well-placed to know what they are, being omniscient as well as omnipotent, when He asked himself whether He understood His policy on women bishops He would have been able, with complete assurance, to tick the box “strongly agree”. The problem would of course have lain elsewhere, when those in, shall we say, the HR and PR departments, or as they would call them, the Synod, came to try to interpret the results of the survey into God’s attitudes. Not being God, they would have had no way of understanding if their understanding of God’s understanding was the same understanding as God himself had of His understanding. They would, of course, have had the revised mission statement, drawn up when God had the management consultants in nearly two millennia ago, and the staff handbook which had been cobbled together about the same time and last up-dated about five hundred years ago, to refer to. But as to what God’s policies were now, within an organisation having to provide effective services to a more sophisticated customer base, they would only have known for sure that that He understood those policies and strongly agreed with them.
Their first mistake, if so, and if I may presume to suggest it, a very human mistake, because it is not nature that abhors a vacuum but the human mind, would have been, almost without thinking about it, to assume that their understanding of what would be God’s understanding was God’s understanding.
Do you see now how easily it might be for two factions to say with complete honest belief that they knew God’s will on the issue and yet to have a diametrically opposing take on what it was?
But did they make a more fundamental mistake? I am thinking of their seeing their purpose as to carry out God’s will? I realise, even as as I put this forward, that I am up against a deeply embedded human trait: upward delegation.
It is what we do. We all have doubts and we all take comfort from hiding behind what we are pleased to set up as higher authority. It is not exclusive to religion. My daughter has recently been making the wearisome trek of the 15 year old through the nine levels of teenage hell with the Disney Channel and Geordie Shore as her satnav guides. After another attempt to mend her ways crumbled, in a state close to despair she cried, “I’m trying to be good. Just tell me what I need to do.” And there I was, faced with God’s own problem. “Thy will be done”.
I suppose I could have drawn up a list: Thou shalt not smoke neither shall thou get wasted on industrial cider. Honour thy teachers and mother. Five days shalt thou attend school but keep the Sabbath for catching up on thy sleep… But what I truly wanted was for her to recognise and prefer decent behaviour, to learn to protect herself from harm and to make good choices based on what she sees in the world around her. She, naturally, with a shed load of tweets, texts and status changes to attend to, just wanted a quick fix to get the world off her back and securely lodged on the other side of the pale.
Like a number of human behaviours, replacing uncomfortable doubt with false certainty is a flaw that almost always ends up hurting us or those around us. If we eschew this habit, we have to live with the burden of conscientious decision-making but at least we leave ourselves open to being persuaded that there is a better way. A door is a door even if it is closed. A wall is a wall until it is demolished.
I didn’t give her the list. I tried to explain to her that just doing what I told her to do wasn’t the answer; she had to work it out for herself.
It is the same with any moral question. Who am I, as an atheist, to say whether God wants or does not want women to be bishops? But then who else has that right? We just have to do what we hope and feel is the right thing, bringing to the question all that we know and think we understand about ourselves and, if we happen to believe in a god who is reasonable and compassionate (just the same as if we don’t believe in any god at all), all the reason and compassion we can muster. Whether we will have reached the same conclusion as God, well, God alone knows.
By Pat Riorchy
[Editor’s Note: This is the first time that I have invited a guest writer into my blog. Having become an avid reader of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, I have come to see that I am not equipped to write about the most pressing issue of our time. I cannot afford to commission one of the Guardian’s powerfully eloquent moral crusaders (and in any event, they seem already fully occupied with exploring its every nuance in those columns), but my dear friend Pat Riorchy, for two years a lifelong footsoldier of radical feminism, has generously stepped up to the plate.]
A recent study of over 100 adults in Sweden has shown that when it comes to switching off lights, men admit to doing it nearly 10% more often than women. In the matrimonial home, that figure goes up to a staggering 17%. When it comes to equality in the home, women may have seen the light but men it seems still prefer to be in the dark. Are we surprised, girls?
Before the invention of electric light, women were allowed candlelight only for sewing, straining their eyes and suffering nightly pricks in the service of their self-appointed masters. Not content with imposing this demeaning servitude, men used the same light to monopolise learning, flaunting their ownership of the printed word and the lamp in a cruel gesture of oppression, the cynically mis-named Age of Enlightenment.
But this light-switch domination is far more than just a relic from the dark ages. It is revealing of just how threatened men are by women’s emancipation. All over England, come midnight or one-o’clock, women are having to leave the safe haven of their sisterhood awareness groups and venture out into streets now made dark across the nation by a cynical patriarchy of male-dominated local councils on the pretext of cost cutting.
The reasons given by men for darkness despotism are themselves illuminating. 53% said they were concerned about money, the same excuse that gets trotted out at birthdays and anniversaries. Show some imagination, guys! Only 10% claimed ecological reasons. Saving a world in which one half of the population are women would not strike them as good odds. Besides the average male sees a world on its knees as having only one possible purpose: to service his cock.
Light is a feminist issue, let there be no mistake about this. Since God took it into her head to call it into existence, women have been finding creative ways to use it: to enhance bone structure, shade and tones. What is man’s contribution? The light sabre, another stupid phallus to swing around his head.
A whole chauvinist culture has evolved around reinforcing the idea that woman may not take control of the light, even when her life is threatened. In how many horror movies do we see the endangered heroine enter a pitch black cellar and recoil from using the switch by her hand? To some, misguidedly, this has been seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment, an acknowledgement of the inner vision that requires no sensory confirmation. They are deluded by the snake-like misdirections of a male marketing mafia. This whole sickening charade is no less and no more than the replaying of neolithic phallocentric rituals in which young virgins were forced into the caves of wild animals to appease the sadistic god-fantasies of men’s banal sexuality. How many more women have to die at the hand of the killer in the dark before we open our eyes to this coal hole conspiracy?
The Swedish research should be a wake-up call to women. We already knew men were a turn-off. Time to pull the plug on their twilight tyranny. As Florence (& the Machine) profoundly expresses it, “No light, no light.”
I have been sitting at my laptop, by the window, looking out at a, for once, beautiful November day. But now my vision is marred.
Across the road a large shiny 4-wheel drive has arrived. The driver has bumped up the kerb, positioned his metal monster so as to take up half the footpath, reversed back so as to cover the dropped kerb put there to facilitate the disabled when they cross, got out, satisfied himself as to his parking and walked off.
He shouldn’t be parking on this strip of road at all, by rights. There is a double yellow line all along where he has chosen to park, but that, of course, is a concern for losers. The only thing that matters to him is that he wants to park here. Sod the law, sod everyone else. And anyway, doesn’t a double yellow mean get as much of your vehicle off the road and onto the footpath as possible? Pedestrians don’t have rights. Their job is just to get out of the motorist’s way, as I was nearly fatally reminded by a woman upset by my being on the footpath when she wanted to drive across it the other day. “Next time you get in my way, I’ll run you over.” she warned me, reasonably.
Thanks Eastenders. You’ve done such a lot for us.
The thing is – the thing I can’t get out of my mind – is that it is against the law – quite seriously so. It is not just a Road Traffic offence. It is also a criminal offence carrying a significant penalty. The Highway Act 1835 (yes, that’s right 1835) makes it an offence to
“wilfully drive any … carriage of any description or truck” upon any footpath … by the side of any road made or set apart for the use of footpassengers.” (Section 72)
And the penalty for doing so is a fine at level 2 on the standard scale: currently £500. Okay, it’s not as much as you can get for burning your own paper poppy, but it is still a significant fine and it comes with a criminal record.
I know some people will say it is just an old law that shouldn’t be on the books but actually it is more relevant than ever. It isn’t just the danger to the walking public, nor the inconvenience. It is the damage that ensues. Footpaths are not designed to take the weight of modern vehicles. Under the surface of every footpath is sand. Under the sand is soil. Within the soil there are pipes and cables containing within them a potentially lethal mix of water, gas and electricity. If the pipes and the cable sheaths crack, as they often do, because of the compression force coming down from above them, there can be, at the least, gas leaks, water main bursts and power cuts. At the worst, explosions.
Then there is the cost: cost in repairing footpaths damaged by being driven over and cost in compensating people for trip injuries because of misaligned kerbs and flagstones. That cost is borne by every council tax payer. On top of this there is the cost to those injured people in dealing with their injuries.
But Johnny across the road doesn’t care about any of this. It’s a company car and he probably doesn’t pay tax anyway. And he’s not about to have anyone tell him that he should not do what suits him. If it doesn’t suit them that’s their problem isn’t it. Just square up and hurl abuse ‘til they piss off. The right of every Englishman.
And he is in no danger from Old Bill. They are far too busy “watching the internet for malicious communications” to be out nicking him and his kind just for being a law-breaking arsehole.
Pity though – rich pickings to be had if they did. Easy money.
But for now, all I hear are the words of Paul Simon
“Now I sit by my window
and I watch the cars.
I swear I’ll do some damage
One fine day.”
I won’t, of course, because, sadly I was brought up to be law-abiding and besides in this misled and confused country I surely would “be convicted by a jury of my peers”. Only those with all four wheels on the highway to decency and justice have anything to fear around here.