Tuesday, 22 April 2014

do we do God?

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, had a reception for Christian leaders in the UK just before Easter. His speech there was reported in the Church Times, as you might expect, but quite widely elsewhere too. He said he appreciated Christian values, which he characterised as hard work, humility, giving and social action. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Perhaps slightly more crowd-pleasingly, he said "Jesus invented the Big Society". Alarm bells sound. Jesus did no such thing. The notion of the Big Society (not a new one of course) may to some extent have been informed by what are described as Christian values. I would suggest that subscribing to such notions is in culturally various ways part of all faiths, and that those of no faith also very often live by a similar moral code - which David Cameron did say. He also, and this is a little more worrying politically, described himself as a "member of the Church of England". Well, fine. So am I. Although it's not a body you really "join", other than to be baptised and confirmed. I am never sure how much you are a "member" if you have been baptised and confirmed but never go into a church.

Where I would question Cameron's wisdom in this speech is in his including mention of his own faith. That is a matter between him and God, as it is for us all. It is not, and never should be, part of any political strategy, still less a plank of an election platform. Cameron came dangerously close to making it so in that speech. Alastair Campbell famously said "We don't do God". Tony Blair of course does very much do God, though even he does it quite politically - he waited until he was out of office to go over to Rome. But maybe that is because there is an established church in England, something I personally would like to see abolished - any political leader has to work with that, and so there is an MP who is the member for God in the Commons, and there are bishops in the House of Lords. Anyway, David Cameron talked about Christian values and praised his local vicar, as well as indicating that the Church had helped him when his son died some years ago. Nothing wrong with that. David Cameron has a reception for Eid and for Diwali, and nobody thinks there is anything wrong with his doing so. At those receptions he does not describe the UK as a Muslim country or a Hindu country, even though there are millions of adherents to both those faiths in the UK.

Now a "group of 50" cultural luminaries have written a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which they bemoan, as they put it, Cameron's designation of the UK as a "Christian country", which they call divisive and wrong. They say he should not appropriate Christianity as representative or descriptive of the UK. You may agree with them. (I always wonder how these open letters get produced so quickly. Do the luminaries all text each other and get together in an Islington wine bar the same night to thrash out a text? I fancy not. Perhaps one of them would like to get in touch and tell me how they do it). But David Cameron did not call the UK a Christian country. What he did was allude to the extent to which Christianity has been woven into the fabric of British life, and to refer to the unique liturgy of the Church of England, the beauty of its churches, and so on. So, luminary brothers and sisters, what you did was set up a straw man "We are a Christian country!" and knock it down "Oh no we're not!" A venerable political tactic, but not a very respectable one, and thus not much respected by the voting public.

It has been reported that Cameron's "Christian" focus is intended to win back the mostly older demographic which has moved from the Tories to UKIP. I do not imagine that that demographic is especially devout. Listen to Nigel Farage's utterances,and look at his personal style, and you would take his constituency to be an utterly materialist ("He's after your job!") and a frivolous ("Mine's a pint!") one.

In short, I think all this "controversy" is just rubbish. Manufactured. Dreamed up. And the public Do Not Care. So, "group of 50", you have wasted your time. No one cares what you think about what Cameron thinks about the Church of England.

Oh, by the way. I am an Anglican. I attend the Anglican church in Strasbourg, France. At one time I didn't like some of the things that were being said and done there. This happens in all organisations. Not all members are pleased with everything they do all the time. So I thought, could I go somewhere else. Not being a Roman Catholic, I could have gone to one of the French Protestant churches, which in this part of France are quite numerous. But I am not a Protestant. "The Church of England by law established" is a reformed Catholic church. So there. Not a lot of people know that.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sarah Wollaston, Nigel Evans,and "blog bullies"

Nigel Evans MP was accused of rape and sexual assault. There was a trial, and he was acquitted of all charges. End of story, you'd think? He walks free, with his name cleared? Not so fast.When the allegations first emerged he resigned the Tory whip. At the time of writing it has not been restored to him. Why not?
One of the key witnesses for the prosecution was one Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, a person I do not know, unlike Nigel Evans, whom I count as a friend. Sarah decided not only to support the allegations made against Nigel, without evidence (and yes I know evidence is difficult in cases of rape and sexual assault) but to be a witness for the prosecution and to call him a drunk and a debaucher of young men. I think this is a disgrace, to her personally, to the office of MP, and to the polity of England. Fortunately the judge and jury rejected this poison. Now Sarah has been given a big piece in The Times (£), with a nice blonde smiley photo of her above it, in which she complains about "male blogger bullies" who were HOWWID to her about her hate-filled outpourings. Well, diddums, Sairs. In fact the remarks made were rather mild, though of course "blogger bullies" do exist. I should know. Well, I'm not male, and I used to be an MP, but some years ago when the online climate was rather different from now, and I'm having my say. You want some, Sarah, you can have some. 
A prominent Tory backbencher has hit out at “aggressive male bloggers” who, she claims, target female MPs.
Sarah Wollaston said that certain parts of the political blogosphere were “quite aggressive in their approach towards women”, particularly when discussing sexual violence or gender. “If you stick your head above the parapet you can expect some quarters of the aggressive blogging community to go for you,” she said. Yes, Sarah. It's called having your say, and other people having theirs too. Freedom of speech, dontcha know.
Dr Wollaston, the Totnes MP, faced a barrage of criticism last week after Nigel Evans, the deputy speaker, was cleared of a string of sex charges. One of the alleged victims was in a Westminster bar with the former GP Like a drink do you Sarah? If not, what were you doing in the bar? when an “off-the-cuff” remark about an alleged assault triggered a sequence of events that led to the court case. Dr Wollaston was contacted by a second man — a friend of the first — who alleged that he had been raped. Ah I see, you were drinking with the alleged victims and winding them up to make police complaints.
The MP listened to their complaints and took them to John Bercow, the Speaker, who said that he could not help. She then passed on police contact details to the alleged victims, who contacted the officers, prompting the arrest last year of Mr Evans...
In an interview with The Times, Dr Wollaston was keen to stress that she was in no way challenging the verdict in the case, adding that she empathised with Mr Evans and his ordeal. Oh yeah?
She confessed, however, that the fallout from the case had been “very difficult”, particularly in the online sphere. Did you CWY, Sarah? Did you THCWEAM and THCWEAM till you were THICK? Nigel's life and career have been ruined. Nothing will ever be the same again for him, personally or politically. And he is innocent. How do you sleep, Sarah?
She singled out The Daily Telegraph writer Dan Hodges, the libertarian blog Guido Fawkes, and the Tory publisher and writer Iain Dale, saying that she had been reading their “really quite aggressive attacks” about her handling of the allegations...
Wollaston said that it was striking that much of the criticism of her had come from male bloggers. “I haven’t had any women writing critical articles and I do think that’s very interesting,” she said. You have now, Ms Wollaston. “I think there are some very aggressive male bloggers out there and they target women MPs.”...
Well, I hope you're happy now, Sarah Wollaston. I hope your constituents are happy with your spending your time and your MP's salary trashing a colleague's life and career. Wetting your knickers now because not everyone likes your pretty blonde hair and sweetie campaigns against booze and fags? It could get worse. And if you think that's a threat, it is. Oh, not from me, you understand. From the nasty horrid "male bloggers" who have been so BEASTLY to the lovely Sarah. But still, Ms Wollaston, next time you are in Strasbourg, do come and say hello. Perhaps we can have a refreshing glass of mineral water together.

Sue me.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

John Campbell, 'Roy Jenkins, A Well-Rounded Life'

this has been, kind of, the political biography of the moment. Everyone's attention was drawn to it by the reviews noting that Tony Crosland was a gayer in his young days (maybe people knew that, but it was before my time), and for a while turned Woy that way too. But there's a lot more to the book than that. Campbell sets out his stall at the beginning by saying that he was and remains an admirer of Jenkins. Fair enough. And that he got access to letters and papers and so on, and cooperation from Roy's widow, Dame Jennifer Jenkins. (I like that even after Roy went to the Lords she preferred to use the title she had won in her own right). You therefore get some tired LibDemmery early on, "ill-advised attempts to play the world's policeman" and so on. He never goes as far as Blair-hating, because of Jenkins' documented admiration for Blair and the considerable work they did together, on electoral reform, but also, and perhaps more significantly, the mentoring work Roy did with Tony before 1997.

Denis Healey is quoted, splendidly: "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Liberals, and possibly your Social Democrats!" This was over Finland in World War II. Healey was a communist at the time. Campbell wonders if Healey remembered those words in 1981.

Jenkins did his officer training at Alton Towers! Not then the place it is now, but a genteel establishment of tea rooms and pleasure gardens. There's a lot of good social history nuggets like this.

Campbell is well edited, only a few infelicities spotted, though he does misuse metaphors rather irritatingly: "the socialist millennium ... had run into the sand." Grrr.

Both Roy Jenkins and Harold Wilson were committed to a European single currency, with the UK being part of it, in the 1970s, and had discussions to this effect with their French counterparts once de Gaulle had packed up his veto and taken it back to Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises. Did you know that? I didn't. Pity it didn't come to anything.

By the time Jenkins wrote his memoirs, in 1990-1, he had (rightly) taken the view that political parties "cannot resist returning obsessively to the issues that most divide them". This seems both percipient and prescient.

I did not like Roy Jenkins. He was easy to mock, at least from the late 1970s on, with his drawling artificial accent and his speech impediment and his fondness for claret. I did not like what I saw then, and still do, as the "Gang of Four"'s betrayal of the Labour cause, enabling the Thatcher years and everything that meant. It was not attributable to the Gang of Four that the Labour Party failed to implode, moved towards the centre, and gave us the Blair years. But Roy Jenkins was an interesting politician. Socially liberal, when not all government ministers were, even in the late 1960s - his numerous affairs, tolerated by his wife, were another matter, and perhaps typical of the times - an intellectual who was not as clever as he thought he was, pompous and affected, but he held the great offices of state, and made a difference. He failed to take out Harold Wilson and become Prime Minister, which he thought ever afterwards was the greatest political mistake of his life. I disagree. It does not seem (and Campbell's book is very interesting on this) that it would have been possible for Jenkins to do it. The numbers simply were not there. Well, we'll never know. But I am a Wilson woman, and remain so. If anything, this book reinforced me in that.

The votes on Europe, the "Common Market," as it was known at the time. (I voted yes in the referendum). Jenkins said, "People didn't want to say, when asked in the future, what did you do in one of the great divisions of history, 'I abstained'." No, of course they didn't, and don't. But this is rhetoric. Any MP who has abstained on one of the crucial votes in parliamentary history (Iraq 2003, anyone? So-called rebel Martin Salter, anyone?) is going to want to cover up the fact. And everyone else is going to throw it back at them. It is routine to note that MP X voted against reducing the age of consent, that MP Y was a rebel on Europe, and so on.

Campbell reminds us that when Dick Taverne, a sometime associate of Jenkins', was deselected in Lincoln (for voting against the whip, not with it as it would be today), and stood as an "independent" candidate calling himself "Democratic Labour", he soundly defeated the official Labour candidate, Margaret Jackson, who later became Margaret Beckett. She hasn't reminded the world of that fact in more recent years.

Interesting times. An interesting man and an interesting politician. A miner's son from South Wales who went to Oxford and reinvented himself as a claret-swilling posh bloke. Er, not quite. His father had been a miner, sure, but quite early on became a full-time union official and councillor, and became an MP (Arthur Jenkins) and even a government minister.

This isn't a great book, but it's a fascinating one, and it's one of the best things I have read on the history of the left (well, the mainstream left, anyway) in Britain in the 20th century.

I have decided I would like Roy Jenkins' death. He lived into his eighties, although he had developed health problems linked with fine eating and fine drinking. His wife came into the bedroom one morning and asked what he would like for breakfast. He said he would have two lightly poached eggs. She went away to the cook them, and when she came back with them he was dead.