Sunday 31 March 2013

Christus Surrexit, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Surrexit in vere, alleluia, alleluia!

Three adult (dare I say it, very adult) receptions at the Easter Vigil. Not bad going for little Lanchester. Entirely typical of this parish at Easter, though.

Three quarters of this country's cradle Catholics are lapsed. 80 per cent of the rest are in favour of assisted suicide and of same-sex "marriage". But hope springs eternal.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Speaking To The Motion

We need a statutory requirement of planning permission for change of use if it is proposed to turn a primary dwelling into a secondary dwelling, a working family home into a weekend or holiday home.

And a tax on the productive value of land per acre, other than that occupied by the homes of the less well off, perhaps making possible the abolition of stamp duty, and in any event establishing and enforcing the principle that no one should own land other than in order to make use of it; this was proposed by Andy Burnham when he was a candidate for Leader of the Labour Party.

Sir Andrew, over to you.

This Exchange of Threats

Jason Ditz writes:

With North Korea not having the warheads or missiles to actually launch such an attack, threats to nuke the US mainland have mostly been shrugged off by the Obama Administration, with officials reacting with a hard line against “provocations.”

North Korea’s inability to hit the US directly may be all well and good, but experts are warning that as the rhetoric continues to ratchet up, the US may force North Korea to react by hitting South Korean targets, since they very easily could do that.

South Korean government officials thrive on this exchange of threats, and seem to be egging the US on in this, including getting them to sign a deal obliging the US to start a war over any attacks by North Korea.

The North Korean government’s own position, however, has always relied on making mostly empty threats and occasionally lashing out at South Korea if things get too heated, which inevitably gets other regional powers interested enough to cool things off.

Yet with those threats hitting a new all-time high, and the new pact suggesting things could escalate a lot more, a lot faster, the violent blow-off could also be a lot worse, and the US hard line could cost South Korea dearly.

Here Come The Girls?

No, of course the Holy Father's washing of a few girls' feet does not raise any question about his commitment to the all-male Priesthood! But so what if it did? If he attempted to act on any such change of mind, or on any of the others on the Tablet wish list, then he would be ipso facto deposed for heresy. There would just have to be a new Conclave, the See of Peter having fallen vacant.

Something similar applies to the practice of female altar servers, which the Church has always permitted under certain circumstances. There is an argument that it drives boys away because they no longer have something particular to themselves to do in what is otherwise the very female environment of parochial life. But so what if it puts into some girls' heads the idea of their being ordained? The Church never is going to ordain them. She cannot ordain ever them. That is just that. A few of them can fill their heads with whatever they like. That is never going to change anything. The something in question cannot change.

(On the matter of altar servers, the practice of giving the job to children at all would seem to presuppose relatively little solemnity. If the Sunday Parish Mass were as it has always in principle been supposed to be, as close as possible an approximation to the Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by the Bishop in his Cathedral Church, then few, if any, would be the pre-teenagers capable of serving It in anything more than the most junior of capacities. It would be interesting to trace the antiquity or otherwise of child servers prior to the spread of the Low Mass, a fairly late innovation even in itself and only ever designed so that a priest could say his own Mass on weekdays, as the de facto normative, almost universal pattern of liturgical life in the Latin Church, although it has no parallel in any of the Eastern Rites.)

Honestly, I really could despair, certainly of the shallow knowledge, and quite possibly of the shallow faith, of anyone who ever experiences the slightest cause to worry that Church might "ordain" women, among other things about which they sometimes fret, if this, that or the other were to happen, or because this, that or the other has already happened.

It goes a long way to explaining how the apparently fortress-like Catholic subculture of the 1950s collapsed so quickly and so completely. Or how, within 50 years, the once-mighty American Church has given way to the situation in which one in 10 adults in the United States, and still rising, is a lapsed Catholic; read that over until it sinks in properly. Or how Mary Robinson could have been elected in the first place in 1990, well within 10 years of which the country that many people in the English-speaking world thought was the Jewel in the Papal Crown (although no one else ever did) had become somewhere where it was, as it now remains, almost physically dangerous to profess oneself a Catholic in the course of any sort of public life, with the situation there continuing to worsen.

Shallow roots, I am afraid. Sandy foundations. There is simply no other way of explaining these things. What, exactly, was taught in the schools? RE in Catholic schools is largely rubbish now. But was it ever really any better? There is little sign that it was, based on the results.

Such shallowness and sandiness are just as apparent, both in those who exclaim, "Whoopee, we might get women priests because of altar girls and the Pope washing some girls' feet," and in those who exclaim, "Noooo, we might get women priests because of altar girls and the Pope washing some girls' feet." I should love to hear the latter's explanation as to why they were against the "ordination" of women. I bet that it would not be very good. It cannot possibly be, if they imagine that anything might ever be able to move the Church away from that position. It cannot be any better than the arguments advanced by those who imagine that She might. In point of fact, both views are capable of having exactly the same practical effect, namely none whatever. We may at least be grateful for that.

In the meantime, they could all do with a trip to see my friends at the totally orthodox International Theological Institute in Trumau, just outside Vienna, where the lady who coedited the Catechism lives among priests with wives and seminarians with girlfriends, of whom the former never wear lay clothes and, assisted by the latter, only ever celebrate a Liturgy of the utmost solemnity which has always been in the vernacular. At the Institute, that means English, as it has done in North America for a century or more. But it is never the vernacular of the public house or of the betting shop.

Those priests and seminarians come from the Local Churches that held the line against Lenin when those in the West were not holding it against Lennon, and which are now holding the line against gangster capitalism as those in the West failed to do to very much effect at all in the 1980s. Those are the Local Churches on the front line, both against Zionism and its neoconservative little helpers, and against the political Islam that they have first called into being and then gone to such lengths to sustain and expand, as well as increasingly against Hindutva.

Alas, I shall miss their London reception next month. But mere nostalgists either for the 1970s or for the 1950s really, really, really need to meet them. Pope Francis was their Ordinary in Argentina, where there are quite a lot of them, to the extent that he even has conversational Ukrainian. Watch that space.

Making A Mockery

Of course the media are either mocking or ignoring the People's Assembly Against Austerity. They remain utterly convinced that their equally too-rich-to-care mates from school are the political norm. Even though those mates have not won a General Election since 1992, have not won a comfortable majority since as long ago as 1987, and are now defined by a long list of shibboleths wildly at variance with mainstream public opinion. But anything else is a joke. Or not worth mentioning. Of course.

Truly bizarre Loony Right think tanks and what have you are never off the BBC (whereas, for example, trade union leaders are almost never allowed on it), while the newspapers treat those bodies' employees as persons whose opinions are of the utmost importance. Yet it is a generation since the party to which those of such mind artificially attached themselves in the 1970s has even been able scrape a workable majority under First Past The Post against a divided Opposition. Before many of these ubiquitous Loony Righties were born, in fact.

The alleged left-wing bias of the BBC is the most deeply dangerous and damaging drivel. The BBC is biased, of course. But not like that. The ubiquity of this absolutely ridiculous allegation is one of the most striking examples of the problem. People with views completely outside the mainstream - the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange, the Henry Jackson Society, and so on - are on the airwaves morning, noon and night. Over and above the immemorial and undeviating Two Tories Rule when it comes to the panels on Question Time and Any Questions. Even such Labour politicians as are ever given airtime are always from the dwindling band of Blairite supporters of Hard Right economic and foreign policy.

So much attention is lavished on UKIP, which has never won a Commons seat and which has almost no municipal base, that its candidate was recently a Question Time panellist all of one week after having lost a by-election! Since the last General Election, Nigel Farage has been on it more often than anyone else apart from Vince Cable, who is a Cabinet Minister, and more often than all trade union leaders put together.

This list is very far from exhaustive. But then, the BBC is chaired by a former Chairman of the Conservative Party, who continues to receive that Whip in Parliament. No other party could get away with that. The fantasy that "the Tories are not really in politics at all, whatever they say is just common sense" really is as pernicious as this. Moreover, there is an organised campaign on the Hard Right of screaming "left-wing bias", a very easy thing to do when you have the megaphone a newspaper cartel through which to do it, every time that anyone else at all is allowed so much as the tiniest amount of coverage. As a result, they almost never are.

Friday 29 March 2013

Always Ready

Durham Big Meeting line-up of speakers: Len McCluskey, Bob Crow, Owen Jones and ... Kevin Maguire, of the Daily Mirror and of the New Statesman. A native of South Shields. I think that we can all see where this is heading.

If it is not him, then it will be Iain Malcolm, the Leader of the Council. Scots names are common in South Shields, going back to the Industrial Revolution. The United Reformed Church has a relatively large following of Presbyterian descent, and the Boys' Brigade will parade in some numbers this weekend. First a by-election at Corby, and now one there. Who'd have thought it?

There has not been a local MP there in living memory, and the Constituency Labour Party is determined to have one this time, for the only seat to have existed continuously since 1832 without ever having returned a Tory.

South Shields has not changed party since 1935. Labour would have won any marginal seat that came up in the North this year. And this is not a marginal seat. The Labour candidate just is going to win, and that by an enormous margin. It may as well be someone local for a change.

And it looks as if it will be.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Know The Score

I am available to take over David Miliband's seat on the Board of Sunderland AFC. I know exactly as much about football as he ever did.

And I find this fuss about Norman Bettison's knighthood all very well and good. But he is small fry.

The real cause is that of stripping Thatcher of the Garter and of the Order of Merit before she dies.

Justice for the 96, indeed.

"Muslims Are Right About Britain"

So wrote John Hayes, who has today been made a Cabinet Office Minister and David Cameron's Chief Parliamentary Advisor, in The Spectator on 6th August 2005, one month after the 7/7 bombings:

Many moderate Muslims believe that much of Britain is decadent. They are right. Mr Blair says that the fanatics who want to blow us up despise us, but he won’t admit that their decent co-religionists who are the best hope of undermining the extremists at source — despair of us.

They despair of the moral decline and the ugly brutishness that characterise much of urban Britain. They despair of the metropolitan mix of gay rights and lager louts. And they despair of the liberal establishment’s unwillingness to face the facts and fight the battle for manners and morals.

They are not alone. The Windrush generation of Caribbeans came to Britain with the most traditional of values, proud Christians with dignity and a sense of duty — the kind of people so steeped in our history that they gave their children names like Winston, Milton and Gladstone.

As vice-chairman of the British Caribbean Association, I recently had the chance to ask such people why so many young British blacks had got into trouble with the law. They unequivocally blamed the licence they encountered almost as soon as they arrived here, which made it so hard to inculcate their standards in the next generation.

The alienation felt by young blacks and Asians is not a result of any intolerance shown towards them, but of the endless tolerance of those who would allow everything and stand up for nothing. It is the excesses permitted by a culture spawned by the liberal Left that have produced a generation that feels rootless and hopeless. The young crave noble purposes as children and need discipline; neither gets much of them in modern Britain and the void is filled by disrespect, fecklessness, mindless nihilism or, worse, wicked militancy.

It is unreasonable to expect Muslim leaders to put right what’s wrong in their communities if we are not going to be honest about what’s wrong with ours.

Some of rural Britain (including the area in which I live and represent) still has strong communities. There, many of the old-fashioned values lost elsewhere prevail. Beyond these heartlands, much else is ailing. A sickening decadence has taken hold. People’s sense of identity has been eroded as our traditions and the institutions that safeguard them have been derided for years.

People’s sense of history has been weakened by an education system that too often emphasises the themes in history rather than its chronology, and which indoctrinates a guilt-ridden interpretation of Britain’s contribution to the world. People’s sense of responsibility has been undermined by a commercial and media preoccupation with the immediate gratification of material needs, regardless of consequences — we want everything and we want it now, so we spend and borrow, cheat and hurt.

People’s self-regard has diminished as, robbed of any sense of worth beyond their capacity to consume and fornicate, they feel purposeless. We have forgotten that pleasure is a mere proxy for the true happiness which flows from commitment and the gentle acceptance that it is what we give, not what we take, that really matters.

The vulnerable are the chief victims of decadence. Children suffer when families break down. The old suffer as their needs are seen as inconvenient and their wisdom is no longer valued. For the rich, decadence is either a lifestyle choice or something you can buy your way out of.

But for the less well off — stripped of the dignities which stem from a shared sense of belonging and pride — the horror of a greedy society in which they can’t compete is stark. The civilised urban life that was available to my working-class parents is now the preserve of those whose wealth shields them from lawlessness and frees them from the inadequate public services that their less fortunate contemporaries are forced to endure.

Safely gated, the liberal elite do not merely turn a blind eye — though that would be bad enough. They voyeuristically feed the masses with Big Brother and legislate to allow 24-hour drunkenness. In answer to the desperate call for much needed restraint, we hear from those with power only the shrill cry for ever more unbridled liberty.

Politicians who should know better, fear debates about values, preferring to retreat to morally neutral, utilitarian politics, as uninspiring as it is unimaginative. It is the kind of discourse which leaves those who aspire to govern reduced — in the heat of a general election campaign — to debating how efficiently their respective parties can disinfect hospitals.

Most Church leaders have also given up the fight. Many have convinced themselves that to be fashionable is to be relevant and that being relevant is more important than being right. Is it any wonder that the family minded, morally upright moderate Muslims despair?

So, with little understanding of the past, little thought for the future, little respect for others and virtually no guidance from those appointed or elected to give it, many modern Britons — each with their wonderful, unique God-given potential — are condemned to be selfish, lonely creatures in a soulless society where little is worshipped beyond money and sex.

The roots of this brutal hedonism are in soulless liberalism. Against all the evidence, the liberal elite — who run much of Britain’s politically correct new establishment — continue to preach their creed of freedom without duty, and rights without obligations.

Pope John Paul II — perhaps the greatest figure of our age — said ‘only the freedom which submits to the truth leads the human person to his true good’. Freedom without purpose is the seed corn of social decay. It is through the constraints on self-interest and the restraint that good Muslims revere that we can rebuild civil society.

The most fitting response to the terrorist outrages would be the kind of moral and cultural renaissance that would make Britons of all backgrounds feel more proud of their country.

Don't Break The China

Much is made of the analogy between the relationship of the U.S. to China today and that of Great Britain to Imperial Germany before World War I. Just as Germany had risen quickly to become a world economic power, so has China. Germany, driven by nationalism, sought commensurate military, naval, and diplomatic power, as does China. As young powers, both Germany then and China now were sometimes brash in ways that were not in their own interest. Both challenged the dominant power at sea, though they had no pressing need to do so.

But there is another side to the analogy, one that cautions Washington. Britain handled Germany’s rise poorly. She waged aggressive war on the Boers, a people the Germans regarded as close kin, and alienated German public opinion. The Kaiser was left in the awkward position of being more pro-British than his people. In the Entente Cordiale, Britain entered into an extra-constitutional and strategically unnecessary alliance aimed at containing Germany. In 1914, while Kaiser Wilhelm II did not want war, some important Britons did, including Churchill and, disastrously, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

As Washington “rebalances” its military toward Asia, we too are handling a rising power poorly. The Obama administration’s resolve to build up American air and naval forces in the Pacific can be aimed at only one country, China. Our recent offhand guarantee to Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has a chilling echo of 1914. Like Britain before World War I, we appear unwilling to countenance the natural rise of a new power; we act as if foreign policy were merely a child’s game of king of the hill. Elements in the Pentagon see a sea and air war with China as a way to recoup their failures in recent land wars, as well as justify their budgets.

What would a conservative policy toward China look like, one that proceeded from Russell Kirk’s politics of prudence? It would arise from recognition of a paradigm shift of rare historic dimensions in the grand-strategic environment. The rise of Fourth Generation war—war waged by non-state entities—has made conflict between states obsolete.

As this kind of war spreads across the globe, defeating one national military after another, it puts at risk the state system itself. It also defines the 21st century as one in which the decisive conflict will be between order and disorder. The state represents order, and order is conservatism’s first objective. Conservatives are on the side of the state, and a conservative foreign policy seeks above all maintenance of the state system. That in turn requires an alliance of all states, including China, against non-state forces.

It is difficult to imagine a conflict with greater potential to damage the state system than one between America and China. We are currently witnessing the consequences of the disintegration of one small state, Libya. A defeated China, its central government delegitimized by military failure, could fall into a new period of warring states. What would be the fate of order in a world in which disorder ruled more than a billion Chinese?

Avoiding this nightmare scenario and creating an effective alliance with China requires that America accept, and indeed welcome, China’s rise. A stronger China can and should assume primary responsibility for maintaining order in a growing portion of the world. Such a relief of America’s burden—one increasingly beyond our financial strength to bear—is in our interest. Similarly, the maintenance of order is in China’s interest, as well as congruent with fast-recovering traditional Chinese culture and Confucian values.

Conservatives’ old friend realism offers a device for bringing harmony to Chinese-American relations: spheres of influence. As China’s expands, ours can contract, within the shared framework of upholding order. One Chinese admiral jokingly proposed drawing a north-south line through the Pacific, demarcating our respective spheres of influence. We should take him up on it, and add that as China continues its rise, the line will shift.

If this proposal seems radical, it in fact reflects the way Britain accommodated a rising United States. The possibility of war between America and Britain was taken seriously by both sides well up into the 20th century. But instead of clashing, as British power weakened after World War I and, more dramatically, after World War II, London incrementally passed the task of maintaining order to the United States. Britain eventually did this even in areas she had long regarded as vital to her interests, including the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Just as a return to spheres of influence can replace conflict with alliance between the United States and China, so it can harmonize relations elsewhere, again with the goal of allying all states against the forces of the Fourth Generation. We should recognize Russia’s “near abroad” as her sphere of influence. We should work actively to bring Afghanistan into Pakistan’s sphere of influence. While contested spheres of influence can exacerbate conflicts, agreed spheres reduce them. By acting as an honest broker to facilitate such agreement—including between China and Japan—rather than joining either side, the U.S. can do more for her real interests, including her vital interest in maintaining the state system.

As the abominable snowman of foreign-policy idealism, made up of Wilsonians, globalists, and moon-gazers melts in the sun of serial failure, realism awakens from hibernation. The destruction of states in the name of “democracy” and “human rights” may not be an unmixed blessing. Results matter—not merely intentions.

Results have not been quite this important for a bit over 350 years, since the Peace of Westphalia. The state system established by Westphalia is under assault and may fall to non-state forces, ushering in Old Night around the globe. Realism, spheres of influence, and an alliance of all states against the Fourth Generation comprise the policy prudence recommends.

The Inadequacy of Liberalism

The New Statesman editorialises:

Ever since the Thatcher era, British politics has been defined by forms of economic and social liberalism. The right won the argument for the former and the left the argument for the latter, or so it is said. Yet in the post-crash era, this ideological settlement is beginning to fracture.

The right is re-examining its crude economic liberalism and the left its social liberalism. This shift is characterised neither by a revival of socialist economics, nor by one of reactionary conservatism. Rather, it is defined by a mutual recognition that liberalism, at least in some of its guises, does not provide all the answers to Britain’s most entrenched problems: its imbalanced economy, its atomised society, its lack of common identity.

Two thinkers, Phillip Blond and Maurice Glasman, and their respective factions – the Red Tories and Blue Labour – were quicker to recognise this than most. Mr Blond may no longer have the ear of the Prime Minister, if he ever did, but since the appointment of Jon Cruddas as the head of Labour’s policy review, the Blue Labour faction has emerged as the dominant intellectual influence on the Labour Party.

With his support for a technical baccalaureate, employee representation on remuneration committees and a new network of regional banks, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has embraced elements of the German social-market model long championed by Lord Glasman. At the same time, Blue Labour has encouraged the party to begin to articulate concerns on social issues that have long been neglected by the left and to speak about culture as well as economics.

In a recent speech to the Fabian Women’s Network, Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister and once on the hard left of the party, spoke out against the “sexualisation” of childhood. “For so long,” she said, “it’s been argued that overt, public displays of sexuality are an enlightened liberation. But I believe that for many, the pressure of conforming to hyper-sexualisation and its pitfalls is a prison.” Ms Abbott concluded: “We’ve got to build a society based on open-minded family values and not ‘anything-goes’ market values.”

More contentiously, in the case of immigration, Blue Labour has provided Mr Miliband with a language in which to engage with what went wrong under New Labour. According to Tony Blair’s globalist narrative, an open immigration policy was an unalloyed good. The interests of workers who saw their wages undercut and who felt confused and left behind by the pace of change were subordinate to those of the corporations that benefited from a larger and more flexible labour pool.

Mr Miliband appears to have accepted the argument of Lord Glasman, Mr Cruddas and others that the Labour Party was too slow to respond to such anxieties among its natural supporters in working-class communities. He has argued that Labour was wrong not to impose transitional controls on migration from accession states such as Poland, as other members of the EU had done. He has pledged to ban recruitment agencies that operate exclusively by bringing in foreign workers to Britain without trying to fill vacancies locally. If it is true that immigration has had a generally beneficial effect on aggregate output, it is also true, as Mr Miliband has observed, that: “People don’t live their lives in the aggregate.”

This insight is also shaping the Labour leader’s approach to welfare and his call for a reassertion of the “contributory” principle. By remodelling the benefits system so that there is a clearer link between what people put in and what they receive, Labour seeks to restore public confidence. The view of the welfare state as a pot from which all draw as much as they can is being rejected in favour of one that emphasises reciprocity. This is necessary if the welfare state is to survive and to continue to enjoy majority support.

On the right of British politics, there is a similar willingness to question the free-market dogmas that, as David Selbourne argues in his essay beginning on page 28, the modern Conservative Party under David Cameron has embraced. “The inability of today’s Conservative Party to fashion an identity for itself is a matter for incredulity,” he writes.

“If you think like the classical Conservative used to think, you would be seething at the ‘moral condition’ of the country . . . Old-style Tory utilitarians would have been rolling up their political sleeves to tackle today’s indecent levels of social and economic inequity, housing shortage, declining standards of health provision, rural impoverishment and soaring public transport costs.” Instead, the party is suspended uneasily between tradition and “modernisation”.

Yet there is good thinking occurring on the right. The Tory MP Jesse Norman and the conservative commentator Ferdinand Mount recognise that Britain’s lightly regulated model of financial capitalism has undermined the conservative goal of a stable and orderly society. Mr Norman, who will shortly publish a book about Edmund Burke, has written of how markets should not be idolised, but “treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition”.

Nearly three years after the general election, British politics remains hung. There is increasing disdain for the coalition but as yet little genuine enthusiasm for the Labour alternative. The events in Cyprus remind us that, five years after the greatest financial crash in history, Europe remains in crisis and the banking system is largely unreformed.

In Britain, where the banks were bailed out at a great cost to the nation, wages are flat or falling, unemployment remains very high, and the old welfare model is unravelling. Institutional trust is at an all-time low. So peculiar is our situation that an unelected monarch, the embodiment of the old class-based hierarchical system, is perhaps the nation’s most trusted and respected individual.

With its emphasis on abstract individualism, liberalism, the great driver of social emancipation and economic prosperity, now feels inadequate to this new age of insecurity. In his recent “Earning and Belonging” speech, Mr Cruddas said: “Simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good. It fails to offer reasonable hope. The stakes are high because when hope is not reasonable despair becomes real.” He is right: the stakes could not be higher but who is best positioned to lead Britain out of despair and create a new sense of purpose and belonging?

A Greedy Failure In A Cosmic Sulk

There's only one Peter Oborne:

Convulsions of grief were still being felt across north London last night in the wake of David Miliband’s resignation. The BBC, which has long felt special reverence for the great man, reported the event in hushed tones. The Guardian hosted feverish and wistful discussions about whether Mr Miliband might condescend to return one day to public life.

Tony Blair regretted “a massive loss to UK politics”. A near tearful Tessa Jowell said “it’s very sad”. Lord Adonis mourned an “inspirational leader”. A tremulous Yvette Cooper praised a “powerful speaker” and a “great minister”. Across the Atlantic, former president Bill Clinton called him “one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time”. Lord Mandelson, whose protégé Mr Miliband was, almost begged him to reconsider.

The rest of us, however, can contemplate the situation with equanimity. We are, after all, talking about someone who was at best a minor politician, no towering colossus. Mr Miliband has left only one lasting legacy, and that was destructive. As foreign secretary he closed down the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library. It had been there since before the days of Palmerston, and its absence has done permanent damage to the corporate memory of the FCO – now that its contents have been dispersed, it will never be restored. Apart from this one moment of breathtaking bibliographical barbarism, which only a politician who cared nothing for British tradition and history would have contemplated, Mr Miliband achieved nothing.

However, before he fades into obscurity, it is important to ask what the fuss is all about. Why is the BBC, which would scarcely have noticed if a former Conservative foreign secretary stood down from Parliament, unable to contain itself? Why is the Blairite wing of Labour in such a state of desolation and hysteria? Why the agonised Guardian inquest? Any detached judge has always been able to see that David Miliband was not front-rank. He is a hopeless public speaker (whatever Yvette Cooper’s protestations), and has never once expressed an original thought.

Yet after Labour’s 1997 election victory he was the poster boy of a new ruling elite which seized control of the commanding heights of British politics. Anti-democratic, financially greedy and morally corrupt, this new political class has done the most enormous damage. Since David Miliband was its standard-bearer, his political career explains a great deal about what has gone wrong with British public life, about why politicians are no longer liked or trusted, and about how political parties have come to be viewed with contempt.

Mr Miliband – and this is the essential point – set the pattern that so many others, including his brother Ed, have followed. Obsessed by politics at university (like Ed and David Cameron, he read PPE at Oxford), he has never had even the faintest connection with the real world. From life in think tanks he became a Labour Party researcher and special adviser, before being parachuted into the north-eastern constituency of South Shields as an MP.

He rose up on the inside track, getting in with the right people and making sure he stayed there. This meant not rocking the boat. He wrote Labour’s 1997 and 2001 election manifestos, which even Labour people now admit were content-free. He was at the heart of the Labour machine when it spewed out its now notorious falsehoods over immigration and Iraq (there is a savage irony to the fact that Mr Miliband is going to head a humanitarian organisation when the government of which he was such a loyal member created so many of the world’s disasters). When promoted to education minister, he was personally responsible for issuing false claims that exam marks were getting better because of higher standards rather than (as we now know) grade inflation.

I used to speak to Mr Miliband fairly often during this period, and it is important to make clear that he was personally not an especially bad man. It was simply that he was completely inexperienced and had no idea how the world (which he famously defined as a “scary place” during a Labour conference speech) worked. This meant that he was out of his depth when promoted to the Foreign Office, where he quickly became an apologist for British government involvement with torture. I once counted six lies emerge from his lips on the subject of our complicity over “extraordinary rendition” during the course of a nine-minute interview with Andrew Neil on The Politics Show.

It is a great pity that Mr Miliband, who is only 47, is not entering politics now, after learning the ropes elsewhere. If so, this well-meaning man would surely have a serious contribution to make. As things stand, however, we can learn lessons from his failure, and the most important of these is that MPs need more ballast when they come into Parliament.

There was a time when politicians picked themselves up and got on with it after a setback. When Denis Healey, much the more serious candidate, was defeated by Michael Foot in the 1980 Labour leadership election, he did not go into some cosmic sulk. He dusted himself down, joined the front bench, and served Foot loyally. Willie Whitelaw probably felt hard done by when he lost the Tory leadership to Margaret Thatcher in 1975. But he was her bulwark and support ever after.

But the Whitelaws and Healeys had enjoyed a deep knowledge of the world, which told them that a personal setback such as losing the party leadership was a trivial matter indeed, and other things mattered far more. Nobody expects this kind of wise judgment today. When, yesterday, the BBC sent its political editor, Nick Robinson, into Mr Miliband’s home to ask reverentially about the great decision, he did not ask why Mr Miliband was leaving his South Shields constituents in the lurch. Nor did Mr Robinson ask any questions about Mr Miliband’s finances.

Yet these are extremely pertinent to his decision to resign. The House of Commons register reveals that he has earned an incredible sum – nearly £1 million – from outside interests since losing the party leadership to his brother, including £125,000 for 15 days’ work as a director of Sunderland, a constituency-based football club owned by a super-rich businessman with interests in private equity. Approximately £60,000 has come his way from the UAE, a gulf state with an unappetising human rights record, and another hefty chunk from St James’s Place, a company that advises very rich people how to invest their money.

Like his mentors Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, Mr Miliband is one of that unappetising breed of modern politician that has chosen to profiteer out of public service. It is a pity that the BBC did not ask him whether his sudden decision to abandon his constituents was not informed by a desire to keep his huge earnings out of the public eye.

During his short, undistinguished career, Mr Miliband has done grave damage to British politics. He is part of the new governing elite which is sucking the heart out of our representative democracy while enriching itself in the process. He may be mourned in the BBC and in north London, but the rest of us are entitled to form a more realistic view. David Miliband has belittled our politics and he will not be missed.

That Letter

It is hardly a liberal list of signatories. It has David Alton on it, plus at least two (Labour) figures with Opus Dei connections. That really ought to give  pause for thought to the knee-jerk Pianische Monolothismus nostalgists, although I doubt that it will. The speed with which all of that collapsed indicates how strong it ever really was, or wasn't. Does that never occur to them?

Robert Flello, John Pugh, Stephen Pound, Bill Cash, Jonathan Evans, Ronnie Campbell and Paul Murphy all voted to retain the traditional definition of marriage. Most of the Peers listed will certainly do likewise. Pat Glass and Alasdair McDonnell abstained, but that does not necessarily indicate ambivalence, especially at Second Reading. It is about playing the procedural game. At the start of the process, even voting in favour can be in order to bring future amendments far removed from the intentions of the given Bill's proponents.

The strongly opposed Roger Godsiff, for example, also abstained, as did the staunchly Evangelical Stephen Timms, who had made a speech against, and Gavin Shuker, the only Pentecostal pastor in Parliament. It was very clear from the debate that, especially on the Labour benches, many of those who were voting for Second Reading were doing so in order to have the further debate. They had no intention of voting for Third Reading. If Pat "is in favour really, but she was away on Select Committee business," then she moves in very particular Catholic circles that would seem to give the lie to that: David Alton, Tommy McAvoy, Don Touhig, Robert Flello, John Pugh, Stephen Pound, Bill Cash, Jonathan Evans, Ronnie Campbell, Paul Murphy, Alasdair McDonnell.

On this particular issue, the Holy Father probably agrees with them, anyway. Regulars quite often cannot understand why Seculars are bound by celibacy. After all, they are not and have never been bound by poverty, to which it is most intimately connected. And these or any other laypeople are entirely within their rights on this one, precisely because it is purely disciplinary rather than doctrinal. The most orthodox priests in the Church are in the Eastern Rites and among converts.

Whereas the Latin Rite Priesthood has been normatively homosexual for a thousand years without a break, including in supposed Golden Ages such as the 1950s. In the Traditionalist Societies, it is absolutely endemic, but everyone pretends not to notice, presumably as they did before, and for some time after, Vatican II. Even if they never "did anything", then that would still set a cultural tone which the Church could do very well without, the sort of thing that one also finds among actors, for example. Of course, it does set precisely that tone, and it has been doing so for a thousand years. Breaking point has now been reached.

Meanwhile, in much of Africa, not only are most priests married in all but name, but they are not uncommonly polygamous in places. Again, though, they could not be more robustly orthodox about everything else, with all the fruits of that orthodoxy in the astonishing growth and vitality of the Church. Again, there is nothing purely post-Conciliar about this. Whereas many extreme liberals may not like the celibacy requirement, but they live perfectly within it. Many Jesuits, for example.

Really, and this has absolutely nothing to do with any "priest shortage", if a purely disciplinary measure is and has always been quite as scandalously unsuccessful as this, then it ought to be abandoned. But that is a great deal more easily said than done in this case. Where and on what are these wives and children supposed to live? What about divorce? And so on. As a product of clerical marriage, I am under absolutely no illusion as to what a peculiar and demanding manner of life it can be for all concerned.

Still, I have even heard Lefebvrist priests say that the celibacy rule ought to go; of course, they know that there is nothing doctrinal about it. People who mistake a distinctly rose-tinted nostalgia for Tradition, the kind who think that "the Latin Mass was the same everywhere" as if that would have been a theological argument even if it had been factually correct, need to appreciate, if they can, that they are only making themselves sound silly.

This debate now needs to be had. Urgently.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Trying Taboos

Tedious and tiresome old 1960s types who imagine that they are still enfants terribles (or ever really were), and who bleat that “Communism did not fail, because it has never been tried”, have now been joined by tedious and tiresome old 1980s types who imagine that they are still enfants terribles (or ever really were), and who bleat that “capitalism did not fail, because it has never been tried”. Grow up, the lot of you.

And grow up, both those of you who suggest that there has ever been any sort of taboo against discussing immigration in this country, and those who you who suggest that there has ever been any sort of taboo against criticising the monarchy, the Royal Family, or both.

Articles claiming that each of these taboos existed, and thus entirely falsifying and negating themselves, have been appearing in mainstream publications for as long as I can remember. People have also been saying them on the airwaves, not just including but especially those occupied by the BBC, probably for as long as there have been any airwaves on which to say anything.

A Frosty March, Indeed

A tiny handful of apparent disciples of Fred Phelps outside the United States Supreme Court got coverage in this country. Although of course even they were not actually interviewed, unlike the other side.

But hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated in defence of traditional marriage in a capital city a short train ride from London might as well have been rallying on the dark side of the Moon.


"Brains", indeed! Hardly!

But International Rescue is more than amusing. It is a way into making an important point.

Tony Blair was of the Thunderbirds generation: it was an entirely British project, but the good guys nevertheless had to be given American accents in order to appeal to British children.

Blair was one such child, and that explains a very great deal about both his domestic and his foreign policies.

Whereas Gordon Brown probably did not watch children's television until the birth of his own children, in his fifties. If then. He certainly will not have had his entire view of the world defined by it.

Meanwhile, David Cameron's entire view of the world was apparently defined by watching Grange Hill while at Eton. Again, that explains a very great deal.

Removing Uncertainty

A quick internet search reveals how Julia Gillard has made headlines in recent days. The Australian prime minister survived a leadership challenge; reshuffled her cabinet; and apologised to the victims of her country's policy in the past of forced adoptions. But an answer she gave in parliament doesn't appear to have registered at all.

It was in response to a question about the Commonwealth Charter. The organisation's attempt to set out, for the first time, its core principles is not a topic which obviously excites the minds of headline writers. But what Ms Gillard had to say was significant and potentially historic. The key passage was delivered as the prime minister paid tribute to the "distinguished" service of the Queen as head of the Commonwealth over many decades. She clearly envisages a future where Charles wouldn't be her king but would be head of the Commonwealth.

She went on to say this: "The institution of the head of the Commonwealth, standing as it does above individual governments, has been an asset of the Commonwealth since its foundation, and we need not be reticent about its future. "For Australia's part, I am sure the Queen's successor as monarch will one day serve as head of the Commonwealth with the same distinction as Her Majesty has done."

This straightforward and clear statement that the Prince of Wales will one day follow in his mother's footsteps - as the symbolic head of a body which represents 30% of the world's population - is striking for a number of reasons. Until recently, it had been the accepted view that Charles, unlike Elizabeth, would not automatically take on this role. The heads of government of the 54 countries would have to decide what to do when the prince became king.

But that accepted view has been challenged gently in recent weeks. As I have written before, the Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, has spoken of how Prince Charles' support for the Commonwealth had "deepened" its links to the Crown. And, at the same event, the Queen thanked Mr Sharma for his "thoughtful" words about the "enduring value" of this bond.

Added to these remarks, we now have Ms Gillard's far from opaque or delphic comments. Removing uncertainty? They have added resonance because of her view of the value of maintaining Australia's link with the British crown. She's made it clear she would favour her country becoming a republic once the Queen is no longer on the throne. So, she clearly envisages a future where Charles would not be her king but would be head of the Commonwealth.

Her endorsement of that role is an important one for the heir to the throne. The days and weeks after he fulfils his destiny could be tricky ones. He has his critics, countries other than Australia could seek to remove him as their head of state, and uncertainty over whether or not he would take on the Commonwealth could prove to be destabilising. Julia Gillard has sought to remove that uncertainty.

One has to assume that her public statement followed private soundings. The mood music, for now, is that a body born out of the collapse of the British empire appears content to have an unelected monarch as its next head. This will bolster the reign of Britain's next sovereign. Without fanfare or fuss, a republican named Julia has come to the aid of Charles, a future king. 

It goes beyond that. Like Gillard's marking of the Diamond Jubilee, and like her speech when the Queen was last in Australia, this is not really compatible with any desire to abolish the monarchy there. "When the Queen dies" is not a principled position, anyway.

A Real Social Network

Andrew Martin writes:

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Beeching's report, The Reshaping of British Railways – which meant shrinking them by a third. The report was debated recently in London under the auspices of Campaign for Better Transport, and will be debated again tonight at the National Railway Museum in York. At the London event, Lord Adonis, Labour's last transport secretary, caused a stir by saying that if he'd held the post in 1963, he would have endorsed most of the closures. But an ex-signalman sitting next to me told me Adonis laboured under Tory accusations of being a railway romantic, and was merely trying to appear hard-headed.

I like to think that if I'd been transport secretary, I would have binned Beeching's report, recognising it as a product of that generation of men who'd had their aesthetic sense extracted in some sinister mass experiment. These men would spend their leisure hours purging their homes of such grotesqueries as high ceilings or fireplaces. If they were town planners they instigated "comprehensive redevelopments" (because their ear for language had gone as well) making way for the car, and if they became railwaymen they closed railways, also to make way for cars.

Beeching claimed that "bad traffics", mainly on branch lines, created British Rail's yearly operating loss of £86.9m, which is about £1.3bn today – less than half the current subsidy. The question of whether these lines might carry people towards more profitable ones was not explored; nor was the question of whether they might be more cheaply operated, such was the "declinist" pressure from government, civil service and BR executives. As drolly depicted in a new book, Holding the Line by Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, there was a conspiracy of officials determined – in their collective midlife crisis – to embrace what the road lobby called "the motorway of life".

How much, if any, money was saved by Beeching's cuts was also never explored; but his programme was carried out almost in full, and still more cuts were proposed, in futile pursuit of the "profitable core" of the network. Like most terrible ideas, railway retrenchment originated with the Tories and was somewhat embarrassedly continued by Labour. But the Labour-ist notion of a "social railway", essential to the health of the nation, gradually developed and Beeching's orgy was over by the early 1970s.

Today we have a privatised railway (another Tory brainwave) and a bizarre franchising circus, as we have been reminded with news that the government is to attempt yet again to find a private company capable of operating the East Coast main line. But now, passenger numbers are at their highest peacetime levels; car use has levelled off; and many Beeching closures are being expensively reversed.

His policy was little more than an act of political will, a speculation. And so here are some speculations of my own. If Beeching hadn't closed the Great Central Line (London to Sheffield and Manchester) we probably wouldn't have to spend £35bn on HS2. We wouldn't have one of the highest rates of car use in the world, with all the fatalities, pollution and noise that brings. Our national identity would have been reinforced as the land that invented railways and had the densest network.

Our tourist industry would be far healthier; post-Beeching, none of the main attractions in Somerset – Wells, Glastonbury, Burnham-on-Sea – are on the railway. My favourite seaside resort, Whitby, would have retained a direct connection with my home town of York, and I wouldn't have had to go there in the freezing (and dangerous) sidecar of my friend Mark's motorbike. Padstow, Bude, Mablethorpe, Fleetwood and Aldeburgh would still have had railway connections.

If Beeching's closures caused no serious harm, why has it now become politically impossible to close any railway? Beeching killed communities. Paul Salveson, the prophet of the Community Rail schemes that have breathed new life into many branch lines once thought moribund, says: "The village station was patronised by all classes; and there was the Station Tavern or the Railway Inn next door. It was a focus for the communities, which were linked by the line, like pearls on a string." The local railway: the Big Society on wheels.

Dr Beeching died in 1985, and I do hope there are branch lines rather than motorways where his soul resides.

Destroyed By Political Extremists

Over on Comment is Free, the justly ubiquitous Neil Clark writes:

You really couldn't make it up. As the RAF search and rescue service does heroic work helping people caught out or marooned in heavy snow in north Wales, the government announces that the very same service is to be privatised – with a 10-year contract worth £1.6bn being awarded to an American company whose headquarters are in Texas.

"Our search and rescue helicopter service plays a crucial role, saving lives and providing assistance to people in distress on both land and on sea," said transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin on Tuesday. But why, when the SAR service is so excellent, and does such a fantastic job, is the government handing over all the work to a private company? We're told that the RAF's rescue helicopters are "ageing"; but can we really not afford to buy them 22 new ones?

It's not the only privatisation to be announced this week. The east coast mainline, which has been in public ownership since the previous franchise holder National Express quit in 2009, is to be reprivatised – despite the railway under public ownership being a resounding success.

Also, on 1 April, the Health and Social Care Act comes into force, which, in the words of the National Health Action party, "effectively abolishes the NHS in England after 65 years of existence". "We're not going to have a big bang privatisation for the NHS. We're going to have a very quiet one," says Dr Lucy Reynolds, in a recent interview for the BMJ.

These aren't the only privatisations – loud or quiet – we've got to look forward to in coalition Britain. The Royal Mail, in state hands since its inception in the 16th century, is lined up for sale in 2013-14. The government has also talked of privatising our road network. "Why is it that other infrastructure – for example water – is funded by private sector capital through privately owned, independently regulated utilities, but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?" asked David Cameron last March.

Why is the coalition so obsessed with privatisation? It's not as if the sell-off of our railways, our utilities and our infrastructure has been such a great success. We have by far and away the highest rail fares in Europe and spiralling gas, electricity and water charges. It's not as if privatisation is popular and a vote-winner either. The public, whether Tory, Labour or Lib Dem voters, have had enough of it. Polls show big majorities in favour of renationalisation of water and the railways.

Supporters of privatisation say it's a way of saving taxpayers money – but it is actually a drain on the public purse. Our privatised railways receive substantially more in subsidies than British Rail did. Then there's the massive costs involved in privatising a publicly owned enterprise: one study has calculated the cost of rail privatisation as "at least £5bn", and £39.5m alone was paid out in fees to banks.

The government also likes to claim that privatisation means better service, but again, our experience with privatised utilities and privatised trains shows that it simply isn't true. And are they seriously suggesting that a privately owned US company will provide a better search and rescue service than the one mainly carried out by the RAF and Royal Navy for the past 70 years?

By continuing with privatisation the government is showing us that it's more committed to putting the interests of capital – and its backers in the City of London – before the interests of the majority of the electorate. The sad truth is that in the coalition Britain of 2013, it's capital that calls all the shots – and so we get policies that capital wants, regardless of public opinion. That means a privatised Royal Mail, plans for a privatised road network, an NHS opened up to private companies, and a US company taking over search and rescue.

People who may have supported the privatisation of British Telecom 30-odd years ago, or even the sale of British Steel, would surely not have envisaged that privatisation would one day extend to our probation service, our police, our prisons and vital emergency services. In fact anyone predicting that the programme launched by Mrs Thatcher in 1979 would lead to us having a privately owned American company operating search and rescue would have been denounced as a far-left scaremonger.

The free-market thinktanks that urged the Conservatives to adopt radical privatisation policies in the 1970s will be delighted with the way things have turned out, but the rest of us can only reflect with great sadness on how the humane mixed economy model which worked so well for the vast majority of Britons from 1945 to 1979 has been destroyed by political extremists.

Ten Ways

Catherine Lafferty writes:

What do you call a man who has become the leader of 600 million women?

Pope Francis.

Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergolio, as he was, is an unassuming Argentinian Jesuit. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he acquired a reputation for a concern for social justice and eschewing the Episcopal limousine in favour of travelling by bus.

The vast institution he now leads is the oldest in the western world; its relationship to women characterised by paradox. Its priesthood is all male and apart from Eastern Catholics and Anglican converts, unmarried. Yet the most important saint in its communion, revered as the Theotokos (God-bearer) and Queen of Heaven, is the Blessed Virgin Mary and women, who tend to be more religious than men, form the backbone of its congregations. Despite this modernity poses new challenges for Catholic women particularly in the realm of sex and reproduction. As he gets ready to lead the Church through its great feast of Easter for the first time as supreme pontiff, Pope Francis also faces the task of renewing the Church’s relationship with women. Here are ten ways he could do that.

1. Start in the Vatican itself. There is a broad consensus that the Vatican’s bureaucracy, the curia, is in urgent need of reform. The curia in its current state is also marked by its dearth of women: the highest-ranking woman in the Vatican is a Salesian, Sister Enrica Rosanna who is undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The clamour for curial reform affords Pope Francis a golden opportunity to sweep out the back-scratching, occasionally backstabbing bureaucratic old guard and promote female excellence in the corridors of power.

2. Direct the reforming spirit downwards and outwards. Just as bureaucratic ineptitude isn’t limited to the Vatican; neither should a drive for professional civil servants with representative numbers of female staff end there. Church agencies, Bishops Conferences, diocesan offices should be dragged out of their sleepy complacency and firmly manoeuvred into a new era of industry and competence. As part of that drive female talent should be identified and nurtured.

3. Turn all Catholic workplaces into centres of excellence for family-friendly employment. Catholic social teaching stresses that access to employment and the professions should be open to all without unjust discrimination. The principle is a noble one but it needs to be underpinned by action to remove barriers to employment and the ones which women face are strongly linked to their family roles. Flexi-time, workplace crèches, allowance made for women who have had to take career breaks, all these should be the norm in the 21st Century Catholic Church workplace.

4. Take a lead in providing affordable childcare. The Catholic Church teaches that couples should be open to the gift of life, a principle which is made harder to live up to by women’s economic needs. At the same time research suggests women in the UK are not having as many children as they would want and that one of the obstacles they face in combining their reproductive and economic aspirations is a dearth of inexpensive childcare. We are used to free Catholic schools, why not free or cheap Catholic-run nurseries available to Catholics and people of all faiths and none too?

5. Invest in research into fertility awareness. One of the key areas of contention between Catholicism and feminism is the Church’s rejection of contraception. Yet the Catholic Church also accepts that “responsible parenthood is exercised by... those who for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts decide not to have additional children.” The Catholic Church can plough funding for research into fertility management which complements rather than compromises its core principles.

6. Put women and their needs at the heart of its Pro Life activism. The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion is where its most significant confrontation with feminism occurs. Elective pregnancy termination is also a commonplace in modern industrialised nations. A creaking Pro Life lobby is ill-equipped to consider why women opt to have abortions and what they need to continue their pregnancies willingly. Enlightened leadership by the new Pope would see a rejuvenated Pro Life lobby being as tough on the causes of abortion as abortion itself.

7. Education as a good in itself and a key to women’s liberation. The Catholic Church was a pioneer in educating women and today educates ten of millions of women and girls worldwide. This is good but there’s still for improvement. Education leads to quantifiable improvements in women’s lives yet some 61 million children, an estimated 60 percent of which are girls, are denied access to education. The new Pope comes from an order, the Society of Jesus, which is justly famed for its educational mission; a campaign utilising the Jesuits’ centuries of experience and expertise to provide an education to every child in the world would ensure Francis’ papacy left a lasting legacy of good for women worldwide.

8. Women’s rights are human rights. Vatican documents are studded with references to the dignity of women and decrying their mistreatment. The Holy See also has Permanent Observer status at the UN and diplomatic relations with 176 states. The Catholic Church is thus uniquely placed to advocate for and assess progress on women’s rights at the local and national level. Inspired leadership from Rome could see use made of existing diocesan and parish structures to advance women’s rights, not just in lofty international conferences but on the ground, from the grassroots upwards.

9. Continue to lead opposition to Population Control campaigns; do so intelligently. From Peru to MexicoIndia to China, the crimes which have been and still are being committed against women, especially poor and ethnic minority women in the course of population control campaigns is shocking. The Catholic Church has been the most consistent voice of opposition to these human rights violations yet time and again she has been outmaneuvred at the conference table and her efforts cynically misrepresented to the detriment of countless women living under authoritarian regimes. Effective action against population control must be prioritised by Pope Francis as a matter of urgency.

10. Spread the Word. In a world where crimes against women continue to stun, the Catholic Church’s insistence that women are not to be reduced to mere instruments for the satisfaction of men’s desires is more boldly countercultural than is realised. Under Pope Francis, the Church’s teaching that women have equal dignity to men should be boldly proclaimed. Some 50 years ago the reforming Second Vatican Council was in its first year. In its closing address, the Council declared, “the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.” The vision is a stirring one, time will tell whether it will be any further to being realised under Pope Francis' pontificate.

Fifty Years On

Mick Whelan writes:

Ernest Marples was the Conservative transport minister who commissioned Dr Richard Beeching to write his 1963 report in favour of slashing Britain's railway network. Beeching's brief left little doubt as to what it was to conclude. The railway was to be made into a profitable business and "must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects. In particular, the railway system must be modelled to meet current needs." It was plain from the outset that the notion of rail as a public service was not to be a consideration. Beeching's report was to justify savaging the country's rail network.

Quite apart from instigating this railway vandalism, Marples was an unsavoury character. When Harold Macmillan appointed him minister of transport he owned 80 per cent of Marples Ridgway, a road-building company. Even Tories could see this was a conflict of interests, and he said he'd sell his shares. In fact, he didn't until after his firm was awarded, by his department, the tender to build the Hammersmith flyover - rejecting a lower tender in the process. To be fair, he did later sell his shares in the road building company. He sold them to Ruth Marples, his wife.

When Lord Denning investigated the Profumo affair he told Macmillan that Marples was a regular visitor of prostitutes - and in 1975 he was revealed as a tax-dodger when he scooted off abroad to escape paying his dues, using a company he owned in Liechtenstein. So we're dealing with a pretty unpleasant man.

But even these crimes paled into insignificance when, as the Conservative minister of transport, he appointed Beeching as chairman of British Railways with the mission of destroying Britain's rail network. Beeching, with his business background at ICI and no experience in the rail industry, was observed to have his head very deep in the trough even in his early days as a "public servant." He demanded a salary considerably more than the prime minister, and he got it.

It seemed a large amount of money - but, in their terms, he earned it. He did his master's bidding. The report he wrote led to 4,000 miles of track being torn up almost immediately, and a further 2,000 destroyed by the end of the 1960s. Quite a coup for a transport minister with business interests in constructing roads.

Beeching called the report his master required Reshaping Of British Railways, which is almost as large an affront to the English language as its contents were to the railways. It was a breathtaking distortion. By "reshaping" he actually meant vandalising, destroying and obliterating. It's like saying that the allies "reshaped" Cologne towards the end of the second world war.

The "Beeching axe" is discussed today as if it were an attack on railways. In fact it was more than that. It was an assault on public transport as a whole. It was the victory of the individual in a self-contained tin box over collective travel - it is part of the Tory dream of the end of social society. It is a concrete vision of what Thatcher envisaged when she said: "There is no such thing as society - there are individual men and women, and there are families." 

Individuals sit in cars, remote from their kind. Trains provide travel where people interact, exchange and socialise. Public transport is anathema to the right. So who better placed and motivated to destroy it than a combination of a government minister with a vested interest and an overpaid sycophantic lap dog installed as the head of British Rail? Yet to label Beeching as the single evil character in this mugging of public transport is misleading. He was by no means the "lone gunman." He was a piece in the jigsaw, part of what Richard Faulkner in his recent book Holding The Line defines as a conspiracy.

There were the self-interested grasping managers who crop up everywhere, prepared to toe whatever line their paymasters invent - administrators lacking imagination, loyalty or morality. There were the councils, like Blackpool, that shoved aside the railway on which its prosperity had been based in favour of building a motorway into the town. There are always hands ready to get grubby in exchange for money or position.

Beeching's cuts robbed remote areas of any train service and made them reliant on the car. Then the British car industry disappeared and that reliance was exported. The opportunities for future growth, including the attractiveness of rail as a tourist attraction, were crushed as the rails were hacked up and the locos smashed. Beeching buried his dead lines.

This short-term thinking continues today in franchising. Now 15-year franchises are touted as the solution to providing efficient rail services. It is ludicrous. Railway planning has to be considered for generations ahead. The only thing that can be done in a hurry is destruction - which is so often regretted later. We would be a cleaner, more efficient and socially accessible country if branch lines had not been turned into scrap.

The real tragedy is how slowly we learn from experience. Rail, and that includes rail freight, has a central part to play in any thriving green economy. But instead of planning now to hand on a national integrated rail network to a future generation, the government concentrates on linking a handful of main cities on a north-south axis, while whole regions are ignored.

HS2 should be a start, running the whole length of the country, with building beginning in the north and the south and meeting in the middle, while providing the backbone of a network that reaches out to provide reliable rail to the whole country.

Beeching, Marples and the other vandals made this difficult, but despite them rail doesn't just remain, it grows, to all our benefit - social, environmental and commercial. In the last three months of last year, over 385 million passenger journeys took place on our railways. I see that as 770 million fingers raised in celebration of the fact that ultimately Beeching failed. 

The same newspaper editorialises:

The 50th anniversary of the Beeching report throws up many lessons for the present and future. There can be few people now who do not regard the plan to abolish almost one-third of the rail network, including 6,000 miles of railway line and 2,000 stations, as an utter disaster. Dr Beeching's medicine not only came close to killing the patient, it ripped the heart out of hundreds of local communities, destroyed 100,000 jobs and turned many surviving stations into unsafe spaces.

One purpose, we were told at the time, was to stop wasting so much public money "subsidising" an inefficient and bureaucratic nationalised industry. The reality was that for most of its history under nationalisation, the British Railways Board had been making a gross surplus - but was crippled by the cost of replacing clapped-out infrastructure and rolling stock inherited from the private railway magnates.

While the remaining network benefited from Beeching's modernisation proposals, our society still suffers today from the legacy of his giant act of vandalism. Many rural communities have withered or died, motorways and trunk roads have stamped their giant carbon footprint across the landscape of Britain and the surviving railway network struggles to meet the growing demand for safer, cleaner and quicker travel.

So what are the lessons for today?

First, that when the crumbling industry was taken out of the hands of greedy private monopolies in 1948, it was an act of capitalist nationalisation rather than one of progressive or democratic nationalisation. The railway industry was rescued in order to serve the interests of the capitalist economy as a whole.

Many of those appointed to the new management boards were ex-directors in the rail and other industries. Workers and their trade union representatives were excluded from policy-making bodies altogether. Compensation paid to the old private shareholders continued for up to 40 years after vesting day, a financial millstone around the neck of British Rail. Overcharged passengers and the public purse financed a massive programme of modernisation, ripening the industry for a return to the profiteers in 1993.

Secondly, the Beeching report was largely implemented because strategic planning in the public sector was subordinated to the short-term interests of capitalist profit. The road-building, road haulage and motor vehicle corporations and their suppliers piled up the profits as roads replaced railways. Tory transport minister Ernest Marples controlled motorway builders Marples Ridgway through his wife's shareholding. He had appointed Dr Beeching to chair the British Railways Board and later fled the country to avoid taxes and lawsuits.

Today there is no strategic planning worth the name in any major industry. All are run in the interests of giant shareholders who put profits before any wider economic, social or environmental considerations.

The results are plain to see: underinvestment in key industries such as gas and water; a fragmented railway system in which public money subsidises the profits of most train operating companies and will pay for badly needed infrastructure development; and a dysfunctional banking system rescued by bail-outs of public cash that make the subsidies to the old nationalised industries look like petty cash. 

The failure of the rail unions in 1963 to unite in action against Beeching was an unmitigated disaster. Today we need the unity of those unions and of the wider labour movement to tell the Labour Party leadership: don't just moan about re-privatisation of the East Coast main line and the Air Rescue service - boldly put the case for economic planning based on progressive, democratic public ownership.

Sandancing In The Street Tonight

I am delighted that a torturer is leaving Parliament. Very good riddance indeed.

Merely an incompetent Schools Minister, he was a morally reprehensible Foreign Secretary. Now, he seems to be off to oppose the very policies that he once pursued.

As Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under Tony Blair, David Miliband devised the whole of the Coalition programme and more. But he, Blair and Alastair Campbell could never get a lot of it past Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband.

This is the night when Blairism finally died as a force within the Labour Party. Had it happened before the workfare abstention, then that obscenity might never have been uttered.

Liam Byrne can now be sacked without any fear that he will participate in any kind of pro-cuts, war-with-everywhere insurgency, since such an insurgency is now impossible. Its previously potential participants can and must be deselected forthwith. It is not as if there are very many of them, anyway.

Now, to the business of the South Shields by-election. They'll have someone lined up, of course. Yes, already. But those of you who remain Labour Party members, get your CVs in. Give them a run for their money.

Shrewdness About Shrewsbury

First Hillsborough. Then Orgreave. Now this needs one hundred thousand signatories by 27th June in order to secure a debate in Parliament. But they have mysteriously been going astray:

In 1972, building workers held their first ever national strike for decent pay and health & safety at work. Five months after the strike ended, 24 trade union members were charged with offences allegedly arising from picketing in Shrewsbury in September 1972. They included individuals who were convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to imprisonment. Government files relating to the strike have been withheld from the National Archives even though more than 30 years have passed.

We call upon the Government to release all Cabinet minutes, documents, discussion papers, civil service notes, reports and telephone records produced from 1972 to 1976 by Government departments, agencies and prosecuting authorities relating to the strike, the building workers' unions, the arrested pickets, the prosecutions at Mold and Shrewsbury and the subsequent appeals, as well as any other material pertaining to the case that fall outside the above time period.

Not Getting Any Younger

Young Independence, the youth wing of UKIP, has just held its internal elections.

There were 123 votes in the election for National Chairman, 117 in that for Grassroots Officer, and 115 in that for Universities Officer.

Read those national figures over again.

Building BRICS

We ought to be in this, along with at least two other Commonwealth countries (like Cyprus).

Not necessarily to the exclusion of other things, although this is an emerging institutional organ of the rising rather than the declining world.

Nevertheless, we ought certainly to be in it.

But we won't be.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Search and Rescue, Indeed

I have absolutely no doubt that the Bristow Group is very good indeed at what it does. But there are agenda here. This is a blow to the Royal Navy, and a heavy blow to the Royal Air Force. Why is there no money with which to buy the helicopters for this essential public service?

The Navy may like to consider that it is instead being spent on Trident, along with the money for all manner of other things that have been, are being and will be cut from the naval defence of this island nation. Even all but one of our remaining Overseas Territories are islands or collections of islands, and that other one is surrounded on three sides by the sea. Neither the foreign claim to there, nor the far more active and pressing foreign claim to one of those collections of islands, is remotely deterred by the white elephant that is eating the Royal Navy along with everything else.

But the situation is even more dire for the RAF. The people who now run the Conservative Party, and who are also taking over UKIP if they have not already done so, have long wanted to abolish it altogether. In fact, they are not very pro-military across the board. All for wars. But not for the Armed Forces. Look at this Government's record and plans. The point is made.

They cannot very well bring forward a Bill to abolish the RAF. So they are grinding it down, slowly but surely. As the Westminster Village voice of American neoconservatism, the Henry Jackson Society (which is very close to The Commentator and to the Murdoch papers, themselves at least well on the way to staging a coup within amateurish, easy-prey UKIP) has since its inception openly advocated a single EU defence "capability" under overall American command, but under the day-to-day control either of Germany or of France, depending on which happened to be in favour at the Court of Commentary at the time of writing.

Within that, the United Kingdom would be permitted only a single service broadly on the model of the Israeli Defence Force or of the United States Marine Corps, which latter, of course, is an elite force within a much larger structure and system, unlike this. But, as the above-linked article by a stalwart of the HJS makes clear, no Air Force, a humiliation inflicted by the victors upon the vanquished ever since the Treaty of Versailles.

Would any person serious about a military career join such a thing? One would not have thought so. But with the French Foreign Legion perhaps also gone, although that is extremely improbable since the French are nothing like the soft touches that we are, what would he or she join instead?

Why, the Armed Services of the United States, of course. After all, we are really a single country, aren't we? One of their companies even provides our Search and Rescue these days, doesn't it? And if a private, including a foreign, company can take over one of the functions of our Armed Forces of most regular and immediate benefit to the general public, then why not any and everything else that our Armed Forces might happen to do?

Meanwhile, back in the days when New Labour was led by Tony Blair and the other lot was led by Michael Howard, deeply disillusioned former Cabinet Ministers from both sides implored me not to write, even in jest, that our most unaccomplished 16-year-olds should be conscripted directly into the IDF, on the grounds that, "if the wrong person reads that, then it will happen." They were not joking. (I was later informed that, entirely independently, something very near to that IDF scheme had been seriously considered within the Blair inner circle. That was how far beyond satire things had moved in the last days of Tony Blair.)

Today, we took a significant step in each and all of those directions. Must Jim Murphy go, as urgently as must Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg, following David Miliband into well-deserved oblivion?