A week ago the British Republican Movement held its Annual Convention in Newcastle. The theme of the 2017 Convention was “Taking Back Control – Just how democratic is Britain?”The Annual Republic Convention is a follow-up to the movement’s Members’ Day and Annual General Meeting, which this year was held in London during the month of March.
Republic’s Members’ Day is an opportunity for the movement’s members to discuss the Republic campaign, debate the issues with which it is involved and to hear about the movement’s plans for the year ahead. The Annual Convention provides the opportunity for Republic members to delve more deeply into the issues with which Republic is involved and campaigns for, and to share these issues with like-minded individuals, groups and organizations.
More specifically, the role and function of this year’s Convention was in order to discuss, debate and evaluate such critical questions as, (a) If we really want political control, what reforms do we need in Westminster?, (b) How does the monarchy shape and reflect a centralized and secretive British state?, and (c) Can we learn from our European neighbours?
The 2017 Republic Annual Convention featured a number of prominent political figures addressing important issues, for both the country and Republic Movement.
Two speakers spoke to the first general title of ROYALS AND REFORM.
Natalie Bennett, the former leader of the Green Party, addressed the issue of “Making our government work: the wider democratic reform agenda”. Ms Bennett was of the view that, if we’re going to make government work for the people, then it needs to be democratic. That means wider democratic reform, changing the way that parliament works, devolving power and improving the quality of governance.
In the recent General Election, Emma Dent Coad MP narrowly won the London seat of Kensington and Chelsea for the Labour Party- shortly before the tragedy of the fire in Grenfell Tower (with which she has been heavily involved). No surprise, therefore, that Emma Dent Coad spoke on the matter of “The Royals in the Royal Borough of Kensington – monarchy and equality”. In her address, the MP raised the dual question of what relationship do the royals have with the local community in Kensington and, following, can that relationship show a link between monarchy and equality in Britain?
Two different speakers addressed the second general title of LESSONS FROM ELSEWHERE.
As the Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, Dr Simon Philpott is well versed in matters relating to democracy and republicanism. His address focused on “Republicanism and democratic reform in Britain and abroad”. In particular, he looked at the values and principles that lie behind republicanism, and what lessons we can learn from other countries. Of special interest was whether other heads of state, written constitutions and elected upper houses offer guide to reform in Britain?
The Swedish MP, Christina Örnebjär, sought to bring “Lessons from Sweden: Sweden’s monarchy and the case for abolition”. In doing so, she informed the Convention that Sweden’s constitution is more democratic that Britain’s, but further asked about what that country’s constitution really looks like and why is it still important for Sweden to become a republic?
The third general title of the Convention was TAKING BACK CONTROL, and this topic brought three further speakers to the microphone.
Graham Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of the British Republican Movement. He spoke to the Convention about ”“Taking back control: Parliamentary democracy made democratic. Where does control lie in the Westminster system, and how can we take the parliamentary idea and make it genuinely democratic? What would be the role of an elected, effective head of state?
The same general title was addressed by the Newcastle University historian, Dr Martin Farr. He focused on the matter of a “Modern monarchy: some perspectives on a peculiar phenomenon”. Dr Farr’s reflections centred on the phenomenon of monarchy – something he considers to be a prominent, yet overlooked, subject. His contribution was gleaned from years spent in archives, media and seminar rooms.
This topic’s third contribution came from Chi Onwurah MP. Ms Onwurah is the Labour Party’s MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central. Her primary concern for the Convention was the issue of “Democratic reform in post-Brexit Britain”. In particular, how do we make parliament and politics more democratic, more relevant and better suited to the needs of ordinary people? So too, what are the challenges that face Britain’s democracy in the years ahead?
The Convention programme, as outlined above is certainly contemporary, is seen to be urgent by the Republican movement and is entirely relevant to the British people. The matters focused on at the Convention will have a significant impact on Republic’s campaigning in the future.
In the week prior to the Republic Convention a short article appeared in a tabloid newspaper under the title “Avoid that throne call”. The article said: ‘I’m not sure why Prince Harry got quite such a kicking for saying that “no Royal wants the throne”. Prince Charles has long made it known he doesn’t “hanker” to be king. While the Queen Mother was furious for a lifetime that Edward VIII’s abdication sent her husband to the throne and an early death. And Queen Victoria definitely didn’t want her partying to be interrupted by having to become queen at 18. So nothing has actually changed – other than a bit of (what I’d call rather refreshing) honesty.’ I’m unsure if the author of this bit of news attended the 2017 Republic Convention, but the items commented on are not unrelated to that event.
There are members and supporters of all the major political parties in the overall constituency of Republic. So, as a supporter (but not a member) of the Labour Party, it was no surprise that, prior to the Convention, I received an email from an organizer of the Labour for a Republic movement. The latter is a campaigning group within the Labour Party aimed at promoting the cause of democratic republicanism. As an affiliate of the national Republic campaign, its aim is to engage with Labour members, supporters and elected representatives in pursuit of their republican concerns.
Contacting me was, in part, due to the Labour Party’s participation in this year’s Republic Annual Convention, especially by the Labour duo of Chi Onwurah and Emma Dent Coad. This should not really come as a surprise because the 2017 Republic Convention was, amongst other things, asking how citizens can really take back control from the powerful institutions of Westminster, how ordinary people can take back their rightful powers in a genuine British democracy, rather than be dominated by the British establishment. This is a cause close to the heart-beat of the contemporary British labour movement.
As Ken Ritchie, the Labour for a Republic organizer, pointed out: “Just a couple of weeks ago we saw MPs take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, but some chose to show that their allegiance is to the people – many of them Labour MP’s, so it’s an exciting time to hear other Labour MPs speak at Republic’s biggest event of the year.”
Indeed it was, and it was more than a mere convention!
I squirmed as I listened to the discussion on the BBC’s “Sunday Morning Live” programme. The question under discussion: “Is there an afterlife?” The protagonists said nothing that was particularly original, or newly challenging, or exciting. The antagonists said little that could genuinely enter the discussion at a meaningful level. It has seemed to me that the latter was an aspect of the gap that the Sea of Faith was envisaged, by some at least, to fill.
This gap is not necessarily one of belief, faith, moral and social outlook, but a space in the conversation that offers sensibility, if not intellectual liberation, to 21st century “non-realists” (those who no longer literally believe, or may have never believed, in the literal existence of God).
Further reflection suggests to me that it is becoming commonplace to speak of “spirituality” as a replacement for belief in God. This conversation includes all of the associated rituals, paraphernalia (personal and organisational) and writings that appear to enter easily into the concerns that once seemed to be the very life’s blood of those who saw – may still see – in the Sea of Faith a supportive way forward into a godless future. As well as being commonplace and convenient, this view is now passe.
I am persuaded that that the Sea of Faith movement is presently at a stage in-between “rumouring” and “leaping”. Is the Sea of Faith movement an ending looking for a new beginning – or a new beginning that is unsure where to go? Does the movement possess a melancholy for what is perceived as being left behind – or is it apprehensive about the new wisdom it may discover? Is the Sea of Faith circumscribed by the limits of its present non-realist imagination?
Or, perhaps there is the need to face-up to the challenge presented by Richard Dawkins: “There is deep refreshment to be had from standing up and facing straight into the strong keen wind of understanding”. (The GodDelusion, p.355). Perhaps it is inevitable that those who sail on the sea of faith are susceptible to the winds that blow.
One thing seems incontrovertible, namely, that the history and traditions of the Christian church, no matter what branch, pre-suppose a belief in a God who is regarded by the faithful as real and active in human affairs. The traditional narrative is meant to be understood in a “realist” way. This is axiomatic in each of the great monotheistic world religions and the religious world from which these faith systems derived.
This belief in a supreme divinity has had profound influence on the thinking, development and practices of the Christian Church. It follows, therefore, that to adopt the (still) radical notion that there is no God is to adopt a situation-in-life that will have equally radical consequences for the adoptees. Further, it is a “revisionism in extremis” to suggest, as seems increasingly to be the present-day case, that Jesus was simply an apocalyptic (a word that affords revelatory or prophetic powers to whomever it is applied) preacher/teacher of a humanitarian ethic that required to be practiced in the “new age” that was imminent.
This view requires qualification in terms of the genesis and “humanitarian” nature of these ethics within the life and experience of Jesus, as well as a critical contemporary appraisal of the practicality and consequences of its mass adoption. So too, the humanitarian ethic that is being put forward as the intention of the teaching of Jesus does not appear to have been original.
Apart from the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path, the core ethical teaching of the Buddha (India), other great philosophers/teachers of what has been termed the First Axial Age (800-200 BCE) conveyed similar and complementary ethical ideas. Zoroaster (Persia), being concerned to maintain truth, considered that this was achieved through participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds. Still earlier, the ethical philosophy of Confucius (China) emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity.
Of course, these teachers, including Jesus, were embedded within a particular context. They were not universal figures in possession of a universal message. This fact cannot be conveniently ignored. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, was thoroughly schooled in the Jewish Law and conversant, at least, with the Jewish prophets. The latter were themselves active during the First Axial Age and were very likely the pre-cursors of the apocalyptic events about which Jesus is reported to have preached.
Amongst other responses to his radical message, there was the requirement to practice a new ethical life-style. However, even though he instructed in what we could term a “new age” ethic, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi and carried with him all of the nuances that such an office carried with it. Therefore, this raises the issue as to the sources of religious, and specifically Christian, ethics and the inter-relationship between ethics and beliefs.
Despite, perhaps in spite of, the influential views of some theologians and philosophers of religion, it is axiomatic that both the Jesus movement (the community of the Jewish followers of Jesus), and its parallel formation in the “Paulinist” approach to the Jesus legacy (with its tentacles into Jewish Law and Greek philosophy), possessed beliefs in a personal and institutional God. Each is a major factor in the genesis and growth of the Christian religion.
The Jesus movement had to deal with internal divisions as it sought an identity that was distinctive from its Jewish origins. The theology of the Apostle Paul is riddled with other-worldly, mythical ideas of existence, divine figures and events almost beyond human understanding – what Ronald Dworkin calls “a Sistine God” and “extensions of the human imagination”. From such beginnings came the Christian Church. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the Christian Church’s vast system of sacred law, order and dogma, its realist belief in a divine being and the prescribed institutional and personal ethics that eventuate from such belief, is seriously being called into question. The Sea of Faith movement is one outcome of this critique, even if significant numbers of its membership maintain institutional links with the assemblies of this church.
One strand of this critique is the idea that the Christian Church can be saved from the God-believers and be resurrected into some Christian “other” – something, it is tenuously suggested, more purely representing the historical intention of Jesus. It is further insinuated that, in the process, this “other” would facilitate the overturning of nearly 2000 years of what the New Testament historian Bart D. Erhman has called the victory of “proto-orthodox church history, teaching and tradition”.
The whole enterprise of rescuing the Christian Church from its historical and theistic owners seems to me to be an attempt, in words purportedly spoken by Jesus, to put “new wine into old wineskins”. Why bother!?
(Occasionally I am sent an article from another blogger with an invitation to share the material with as wide a circle of readers as possible. What follows is one such article. For reasons of length it is an edited version of an article from a blogger called “The Colossus”. Looking ahead to the snap election on 10 June, 2017, it was originally posted on 23 April, 2017. Whilst it is the view of one blogger, it is posted on this blog as I am sympathetic to much of its content)
His many missteps notwithstanding (not even the most blithely optimistic of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters can deny that there have been missteps – they have been well-documented in recent months), Jeremy Corbyn is still the most progressive party leader that the political mainstream in this country has ever thrown up.
The Labour Right, full of sound and fury since September 2015, has failed in all that time to articulate even a single substantive critique of Corbyn’s policy proposals, many of which continue to enjoy a large measure of popular support. Instead, his colleagues in the PLP have chosen to busy themselves with snipes about the a priori ‘unelectability’ of their twice-elected leader. As Richard Seymour has written, “statements about someone’s ‘electability’ contain a performative element, in that they are usually trying to help create a consensus that they claim to be describing.”(Jacobin Magazine, April 2017).
In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, such statements must be viewed within the wider context of a well-evidenced campaign of vilification, the viciousness of which makes sense only if you understand, as John McDonnell (the Labour Shadow Treasurer) does, that it is in the interests of private capital, media corporations included, to “destroy a socialist [sic] who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people”
If all of the above is true, then aren’t the fake progressives who wrung their hands about Corbyn instead of rolling up their sleeves little more than the useful idiots of the oligarchic class which McDonnell and others have identified?
A few short months ago, vis-à-vis Donald Trump, the same liberals recognized very well the necessity of lesser-evil voting; now they prepare to abandon that logic in favour of a man who refused, point-blank, to say if he thought being gay was ‘a sin’. At all times these liberals think of themselves as informed electors exercising independent judgement; but never more fixedly than now have they been fastened to the feeding tubes of a ‘profit-orientated propaganda system’ whose every smear they have ingested and internalized. These people ought to be reminded that the sincerity of their own progressivism – of their rage against the Tories – will be gauged by their willingness or otherwise to back Corbyn’s Labour in the coming election.
At any rate, two things must be noted at this juncture in respect of Labour’s plight. Firstly, as far as this snap election is concerned, an eventuality other than bruising defeat is difficult if not impossible to imagine. The aim must be to “defend as many Labour seats as possible, blunt the edge of the [Labour] Right’s sabotage, and thus limit their chance to do further damage after the election.” (Jacobin Magazine, April 2017).
Secondly, it should be just as obvious to us all that Labour’s malaise predates the rise of Corbyn and goes far deeper than his leadership. The glossy neo-Thatcherism of Blair and his entryist cadre Progress cost the party 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010, very many of them in the decrepit red heart of post-industrial England. Its share of the vote seven years ago was its smallest since the calamity of 1983, and party membership fell to its lowest recorded level at about the same time. In 2015, the austerity-lite agenda pushed by Miliband and Balls was a factor in the decimation of Labour in Scotland, with the effect that the party could only scrape together a total of 232 seats, its lowest haul since 1987. And in the leadership contest triggered by Miliband’s resignation, the Blairite Liz Kendall failed to obtain even 5 per cent of the 422,000 votes cast, as Corbyn cantered to a landslide victory which he proceeded, when challenged, to repeat the following summer.
If those on the Labour Right are going ‘to startlecturing people about winning elections or the supremacy of their neoliberal creed’, let them try first to account for each of these facts, which taken together seem to tell a tale of terminal decline.
We should remember that for a party shadowed by the prospect of death by pacification, Corbyn’s clear-cut progressivism offered something of a lifeline. Indeed, membership ballooned to an historic peak of more than half a million last July, making Labour not just the biggest party in Britain but one of the biggest in all Europe. Yet the party establishment, with help from the corporate press, has sought to thwart at every turn this bottom-up re-animation of the party’s spirit.
It has been understood since Victorian times that ‘the principle of Parliament is obedience to leaders’. In his magnum opus The English Constitution, Bagehot wrote that the penalty of non-adherence to this principle is ‘the penalty of impotence’. To violate it – as Corbyn, qua backbencher, often did – is a necessity when your leader’s agenda is murderous, draconian or neo-Thatcherite – as Tony Blair’s often was. But when that agenda questions the wisdom of austerity and war, and promises tax justice and greater protections for workers, and there is in power a Conservative government of almost unexampled callousness, such recalcitrance is unforgivable, and paralysis does indeed ensue.
Since September 2015, Corbyn’s colleagues in the PLP have continuously undermined their leader by means of endless briefings, plots and resignations and a pre-arranged ‘death-wish coup attempt amid the country’s most urgent political moment.” (Jacobin Magazine, April 2017). (Since the snap election was announced) no fewer than a dozen Labour MPs have decided to stand down rather than contest their seats in June, with at least one stating publicly that he ‘cannot countenance’ voting for Corbyn. Behaviour such as this amounts to a sustained and pathologically treacherous campaign of wilful sabotage.
Over the past eighteen months the petulance, cynicism and irresponsibility of Corbyn’s critics within the PLP has served no purpose other than to splinter the party in the face of Tory rule, obstruct the business of opposition and heighten the perception of dysfunctionality that is causing so many voters to turn away from Labour or stay firmly at barge-pole’s length. Still we are asked to believe that the blame for this ‘omnishambles’ is all Corbyn’s!
Meanwhile, the party management, troubled by shifts towards greater democratization, has spent the better part of the past two years waging war on Corbyn-supporting members and prospective members as well as constituency parties, all with the ultimate aim of dislodging a man possessed of the largest personal mandate of any party leader in British political history. It seems self-evidently true that no leader who found themselves hobbled in this way, by their own colleagues and their own party machine, could ever hope to lead effectively from day to day, let alone win a national election.
It doesn’t help that the supposedly liberal wing of the corporate media, whose output is consumed by millions every day, has treated the Labour leader with intense and near-unanimous hostility from the moment he announced his candidacy for the leadership. We were wrong, of course, to have been surprised by the rabidity of such treatment.
In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman explained that “the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state”, and that the techniques it employs to serve this purpose include “selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and… keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.” Corbyn’s social-democratic platform puts him at odds with such an agenda, and so the media corporations responsible for shaping elite opinion have brought all of the foregoing techniques to bear on him.
Hence a study produced jointly by Birkbeck, University of London and the Media Reform Coalition, for which hundreds of news items were analyzed, found “clear and consistent bias in favour of critics of Jeremy Corbyn and against his supporters” – in particular on the BBC – and “a domination of comment and opinion articles opposed to the Labour leadership in all but one” of the news websites under scrutiny (needless to say, the sole exception was not The Guardian).
Research by the London School of Economics concluded that Corbyn had been “delegitimized [by the national press] as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate, and that he had been represented unfairly… through a process of vilification that [goes] well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.” The BBC Trust acknowledged in January that the corporation’s political editor had breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines in misreporting Corbyn’s position on shoot-to-kill policies – delivering some measure of vindication for the 35,000 people who had signed a petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg to be dismissed on account of her persistent anti-Corbyn bias.
TheGuardian‘s Owen Jones, well aware of the role he plays in defining the limits of the Left in public discourse, has by now more or less disavowed the Labour leader, having told the Evening Standard at the start of the year that “I’d find it hard to vote for Corbyn”.
Of all the various smears flung at Corbyn by the press, two stand out above the rest for their malignancy and are therefore worthy of comment. The first is that this lifelong anti-racist foments or tolerates hatred of Jews; the second is that he is responsible for Brexit. Both were exposed as smears before the respective rows around them properly exploded; the weaponization of anti-Semitism by Jamie Stern-Weiner (and later Norman Finkelstein), and Corbyn’s alleged indifference on the question of Brexit by none other than Angela Eagle, who had stated 10 days prior to the referendum that “Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired”.
But of course, repeat a lie often enough in the execution of your ‘system-supportive propaganda function’ and it will quickly reach critical mass, taking root in people’s minds and distorting their judgement.
To focus exclusively on the Labour Right and hostile hacks in any analysis of anti-Corbynism would be to ignore the existence of a third implacable force, namely that reactionary segment of the population for whom Corbyn is, and perhaps will always be, no more than one of the ‘bearded fruit-juice drinkers’ or ‘vegetarians with wilting beards’ skewered by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. Subconsciously, this diffuse mass likes its superiors to conform to a phallic ideal of leadership – to resemble Gerald Crich at the level-crossing in DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. It is as deeply opposed to Corbyn and his mildly left-wing program as it is to the triangulations of Blairite neo-liberalism. It prefers the Queen.
But many of us are appalled and disgusted by the Tories as they continue apace with their ideologically driven evisceration of society. At the same time, we happen to be seized by fear about the viability of the Left in Britain going forward. It seems utterly inarguable that in most constituencies on June 8, such concerns as these will be best addressed by voting for Corbyn’s Labour.
He is the Member of Parliament for Tatton, Cheshire. He was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative government of David Cameron and, as such, was the architect of the debilitating austerity measures imposed on low income British families in an inequitous effort to reduce the national debt. To many he is as arrogant as he was slippery when in charge of the government’s financial planning for the nation.
I speak, of course, of George Osborne, or, as he was named at birth, Gideon Oliver Osborne (he decided at the age of 13 that, with the approval; of his mother, he wished to be known as ‘George’ – he never liked Gideon!).
It was recently announced that, despite disappointments in earlier career aspirations in journalism (turned down for appointments with The Times and The Economist), George Osborne has become the editor of the London Evening Standard, at an estimated annual salary of £250,000.This is on top of the £75,000 he receives as a Westminster MP!
But, hold on, these are only two of the five jobs that Mr Osborne currently holds down. It seems that George Osborne is also a £650,000-a-year advisor to the City firm Blackrock, a £120,000-a-year fellow at a university in the United States of America, and a £230,000-an-hour public speaker. These figures come to a total of £1,095,000 per annum – without including his fees for his public speaking engagement and, with his going rate for such engagements, he would likely accept as many of these as were offered to him! Not bad for someone who once flaunted himself at the House of Commons despatch box.
It will be recognized that much of George Osborne’s income is, therefore, earned at least 200 miles from what should be the centre of his political gravity – Tatton in Cheshire. It would seem however, that financial interests rather than political now form the centre of gravity in Mr Osborne’s universe. This not without precedent for, in 2009 and 2011, Mr Osborne was severely criticized from within the House of Commons for his expenses claims as an MP.
The former Chancellor, as well as a former member of Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club, is not without his critics. Indeed, the wind he has sown with all of these financial dealings now seems to be reaping something of a whirlwind. Similar to the biblical injunction, “Choose this day whom you will serve”, ‘George’ Gideon Oliver Osborne is being asked to make a choice between politics and an alternative career.
A poll taken in Tatton found that 66% of respondents think that George Osborne should choose between editing the London Evening Standard (which is delivered free of charge to the public) or being the MP for the Tatton constituency. Almost as many (63%) said that Mr Osborne was “wrong” to take the newspaper job in London.
A fellow MP (Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North, East London), said: “It’s time George Osborne did the decent thing and resigned as an MP. Pretending he can edit a major newspaper for Londoners while properly representing his Cheshire constituency is an insult to the people he represents, and MPs who take the job seriously.” Seemingly, there are those at Westminster that would prefer to, or already, see Mr Osborne as the erstwhile MP for Tatton.
In a Survation poll of 500 Tatton voters for the pressure group 38 Degrees (a citizen’s network supported by this writer), 59% said that Mr Osborne had a “moral obligation” to them to be just an MP. This petition was started by a Tatton constituent, Diana Simkins, who said: “Who else could take another job, work half the hours and keep their full salary? He needs to pick one job and stick to it.” These, or similar, sentiments have been echoed by numerous Tatton constituents, as well as by Mr Osborne’s aforementioned fellow Westminster MPs.
Despite all of the above, Mr Osborne has insisted that his constituency work would be “unaffected. So too, somewhat surprisingly and disappointingly, it would seem that a third of his constituency don’t seem to care if George “rakes it in” whilst trying to adequately represent them.
It is the view of this writer that being a constituency representative in national politics is a full-time vocation. To represent the political aspirations of a section of the British public should be seen as a vocation in the same way and with the same expectations and accountability as any of the professions. Many of the present MPs at Westminster have put on hold careers as lawyers, medical practitioners, teachers, trades unions leaders, etc., in order to represent a constituency and are satisfied with their remuneration for doing so. For these MPs, financial gain has not been a motivating factor when entering political service.
In relation to this, one national newspaper put the matter succinctly when it stated: “MPs should be banned from selling themselves to the highest bidders.”
The choice is the same for George Osborne as it is for any other MP. Will he serve the people of Tatton in the manner that they deserve from their elected representative, or does he intend to help himself in accepting whatever big-paying posts that take his fancy? He can’t do both.
So too, it would appear that the time has come when there should be a firm understanding, if not the implementation of the appropriate legislation, that prevents MPs from using their public positions, especially when they are front-bench MPs, to advance their private finances. This would not only remove the temptation for personal aggrandisement, it might also result in less corrupt, more efficient and open government.
Bring it on – not only for the citizens of the Tatton electorate, but for us all.
It was the afternoon of Monday, 13th June, 1955. I sat on a suitcase on the quayside at Princes Pier, Port Melbourne, as, with my family and other immigrants from the UK, I waited for a bus to take us to the Exhibition Buildings near the centre of Melbourne, there to be processed before moving on to a migrant hostel.
As I sat at the quayside, I listened-in to a nearby radio broadcast to what I later discovered was the traditional Queen’s Birthday holiday football match between the two dominant teams of that era in the State of Victoria’s Australian Rules football competition – Melbourne and Collingwood.
Melbourne won that game and went on to win the 1955 Premiership Flag.
The fortunes of football teams fluctuate, but Australia, true to its colonial heritage – or its fondness for public holidays, still has a public holiday in June (and a traditional Aussie Rules footy match) to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday. Nonetheless, the memory of the quayside sojourn at Princes Pier in June, 1955, remains etched in my mind.
A month previously, on Friday, 13th May, my family had made an early morning train journey from Cardiff, South Wales, to the port of Liverpool, north-western England. It was from Liverpool that we set sail on the HMV Georgic, a former troop ship during WW2, as immigrants to Australia. They were hectic days.
The day before, on Thursday, 12th May, I had played in a school cricket match in the morning. That afternoon, still dressed for cricket, I attended an interview as part of the 11 Plus Examination process. I was only ten years old at the time. I subsequently learned that I had passed the 11 Plus Examination, and the interview, and now was eligible to attend one of several reputable grammar schools in Cardiff. This was, apparently, quite some achievement for a working-class boy from a housing estate in Cardiff.
In the event, however, the immigration procedure intervened and my academic future in Australia took a direction quite antithetical to that of the status and security of a British grammar school.
It is widely regarded that the heyday of grammar schools in the UK was the period between the mid-1940’s and the late 1960’s. So, it was in the middle of this period that I qualified for grammar school. The period, according to a newspaper editorial comment, ‘represents a period of relative social mobility and income equality in Britain. That reflects the massive levelling function of the Second World War, its austere aftermath and the redistributive policies of post-war governments as much as it validates the era’s education system. That grammar schools thrived in a period of social change does not prove that they were the cause’ (The Guardian, 23.08.16).
It is important to restate this opinion in view of the present-day intention of Theresa May, the current leader of the Conservative Party and the British Prime Minister, to lift the ban on establishing new grammar schools. There are also those who, having themselves seemingly benefitted from the grammar school system, are strongly advocating its return and are seeking to shape the debate.
As I reflect on my personal experience, the experience of a grammar school education may well have been to my benefit, even boosted my social mobility – or, at least, hastened the phenomenon. Grammar schools, however, left many more behind. They did so when I was eligible to attend such a secondary school and they do so now.
There is little evidence that they perform a genuinely valuable function today, or even contribute to the raising of general educational standards. What the evidence does seem to suggest is that grammar schools favour the children of the affluent and obstructs those of the poor. Where the 11 Plus Examination process is still used, it is seemingly more a test of the value of parental ability to pay for academic coaching than it is of a child’s natural academic aptitude and ability.
Grammar schools have been shown to be a factor in social segregation, an expression of income inequality in the UK. Grammar schools tend to be associated not only with the ability to pay for academic coaching but also with housing locations in areas of more expensive real estate and school catchment areas. Wealthy parents will ‘pay for the best in available education, whether in real estate, private school fees or tuition to prepare for an 11 Plus Examination – options that are not available for all’.
Therefore, to again quote from the afore-mentioned newspaper editorial, adding more selective schools, as Mrs May is proposing, ‘…doesn’t increase parental choice for the majority, it simply shifts the focus of payment in a different direction’. Such an action accelerates social segregation. The Prime Minister’s proposal is all the more controversial in that it seems as if the public funding to finance her scheme has motivated the government to quietly withdraw funding promised and ear-marked in 2016 for non-selective schools – a move towards more academies.
This from a Prime Minister who gave such a sanctimonious display when she stated in the first days of her appointment that her administration would be for ‘the ordinary people of the nation’! At the time she looked into that camera in Downing Street, and she said: ‘I know how you’re suffering’. A few weeks later she was proposing the most divisive educational policy possible! Has Mrs May no understanding and appreciation of how educational segregation and suffering are inextricably linked?
An examination of the English schooling system will lead to the conclusion that it has become what has been described as ‘a messy laboratory of competing styles and structures’. What seems blatantly obvious is that the system requires ‘a rigorous evaluation to see what is working in the interests of social mobility and rising standards’. There is little merit in lavishing public funding on a new round of a flawed system of grammar schools for a privileged minority and, by default, second-class schools for the masses
Grammar schools are not the answer to England’s educational crisis, even if there is an eager call for them. Further, this call raises issues of wider import.
With respect to these wider issues, Jim O’Neill, a former Treasury Minister, now a peer, recently stated: ‘The areas of disadvantage and disaffection relate to a lot of young people who are never going to have any chance of getting anywhere near a grammar school. What we need to do is to improve the outcomes of people in those existing schools. Things to do with teaching standards and capabilities are a more worthwhile investment than changing the structure of the school system’.
As one headline put it, ‘Grammar schools are the wrong answer to a valid question’.
On April 2, 1982, Argentine forces launched the invasion of the Falkland Islands, beginning the Falklands War. There was a resounding condemnation of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands by British politicians and press alike. The Falkland Islands was British territory and were inhabited by white-skinned settlers.
The Financial Times of April 5, 1982, called the Falklands invasion an ‘illegal and immoral means to make good territorial claims’, and expressed the view that the British and American governments could not possibly ‘be indifferent to the imposition of foreign rule on people who have no desire for it’. Margaret Thatcher, whose prime ministerial career was shaped by the Falklands War, considered that ‘the wishes of the [Falkland] islanders were paramount’.
No such empathy was forthcoming for the people of Diego Garcia, a British territory located in the Chagos Archipelago of the Indian Ocean, when, in 1965, the government of the United Kingdom leased the island to Washington for a period of fifty years, with an option of a twenty-year extension. There was an almost deafening silence when the British action over Diego Garcia became known (see my previous article, 103: Heaping insult on injury).
What was the difference in the action over these two territories, apart from the fact that Diego Garcia was inhabited by a brown-skinned indigenous nation? The question might well be asked, as, indeed, it might be asked about the entire history of British colonialism!
The poignancy of the silence affecting Diego Garcia was exacerbated when, in 1985, a study by the Minority Rights Group was published. This study concluded that ‘Britain expelled the native population without any workable re-settlement scheme; left them in poverty; gave them a tiny amount of compensation and later offered more on condition that the islanders renounced their rights ever to return home’. Further, the Ilois people of Diego Garcia were allowed to take with them ‘minimum personal possessions, packed into a small crate’. Most of those expelled from their homeland ended up in the slums of the Mauritian capital, ‘leading wretched, disaffected lives; the numbers who have since died from starvation and disease is unknown’ (see Madeley, Diego Garcia, 1985).
(A more complete and detailed account of the atrocious treatment mete out to the Ilois people of Diego Garcia can be found in Section 1: The New Cold War, of the powerful and revelatory book, Hidden Agendas, 1998, by the Australian journalist and film-maker John Pilger. This is one of the very few critical accounts of the Diego Garcia affair that the reader is likely to research)
The initial fifty years period of the lease of Diego Garcia to the United States of America expired at the end of 2016. Hundreds of Chagos islanders living in the UK and Mauritius were eagerly awaiting the announcement that they could begin the return to their homeland. After forty years of campaigning, during which time half of the exiles have died, optimism was high that the wrong committed by a Labour government led by Harold Wilson would be rectified and that the Chagossians would be given the go-ahead to return to settle in Diego Garcia.
In the event, however, great disappointment, allied with accompanying disillusionment; was the outcome as the British government’s Foreign Office announced that, in consequence of a mixture of cost, economic viability and objections from the US military, thousands of Chagos islanders will not be given the right of return to resettle.
Despite the fact that the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been a long-term campaigner for the right of return of the Chagossians, we are expected to believe that government Ministers have agonized over this decision for years. However, the reality is more likely that, despite knowing about the disgraceful treatment of the islanders by the British government, Ministers meekly accept that, given the importance of the military base to the Pentagon, it would not be possible to take the land back from the Americans and return it to its historical owners and inhabitants. The ‘special relationship’ obviously has its limitations!
It would seem that successive British Governments, along with their American counterparts, do not genuinely subscribe to the view that ‘people should have a right to return to the country of their birth’. This is a basic human right recognized by all human rights conventions. Recent events in the USA testify to the realization that this is not, however, a human right universally recognized, even in western countries that claim to be champions of democracy and human rights.
It would seem that, contrary to Thatcher’s false and pious pronouncements, the governments of both the UK and the USA are selectively ‘indifferent to the imposition of foreign rule on people who have no desire for it’, and that, in the case of the Chagos islanders and especially the people of Diego Garcia, the wishes of the islanders are not paramount!
The efforts of politicians continue to fudge the issue of the right to return for Diego Garcians and other Chagos islanders. James Duddridge, a former minister for overseas territories, visited the Chagos Islands in early 2016 and came away convinced that resettlement was not the correct solution. ‘We cannot undo an historic wrong, but we can mitigate it,’ Duddridge told a House of Commons debate in October, 2016, ‘…in all candour I must say that I do not believe it is right to repopulate the islands as part of that mitigation’.
Duddridge further states: ‘I am not saying one could not populate the islands, but the concept that the outer islands are an idyllic possibility is for the birds. They were difficult, overgrown, humid areas that were accessible only where the marines had gone in and chopped down foliage’.
The folly of this view is that it seemingly is unable to recognize that the Chagos islanders had lived in harmony and contentment with this environment for many lifetimes before the fateful coming of the British or the Americans. The islander’s idyll was destroyed by the neo-colonial ambitions of the British and the imperial and military machinations of the USA.
The following statement by John Pilger is surely an appropriate summation: ‘Diego Garcia is a microcosm of empire and of the Cold War, old and new. The unchanging nature of the 500-year Western imperial crusade is exemplified in the suffering of the forgotten Ilois people, whose story has been consigned to oblivion, routinely, by the reporters and historians of power. This is hardly surprising, as much of the mainstream Western scholarship has taken humanity out of the study of nations, congealing it with jargon and reducing it to an esotericism called “international relations”, the chess game of Western power’.
In the Chagos Archipelago, the British and the Americans are playing long and loose with people’s lands and lives.
In this, the first article for the New Year 2017, I wish to return to an issue that first appeared in this blog in the early part of 2015. At that time two articles, (“Caught in a trap”, 03.03.2015, and “Behind closed doors”, 30.03.2015) included information and argument about the UK’s dealings with the Chagossian Islanders. The situation is worth rehearsing.
In 1965, the British excised the Chagos Islands from the self-governing British colony of Mauritius. The latter had exercised oversight of the entire Chagos Archipelago since 1903. The Chagos Islands became a British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Essentially, the Chagos Islands and their peoples, the Chagossians, became a British Protectorate.
Then, in 1966, the British Labour Government of Harold Wilson used governmental Orders in Council – a method in government which by-passes Parliament and is considered by many to be unjust and undemocratic – in order to pass legislation that permitted the forced removal of the Chagossians from their homeland. This process took place between 1967 and 1973.
The whole of the above-mentioned affair was imposed unilaterally and without any referendum or consultation with – and made no provision for any democratic institutions for – the Chagossians. Under threat, around 2,000 Chagossians were removed to Mauritius and forbidden to re-enter their homeland. Mauritius got the people, but not the land!
In due course, the true nature and purpose for the forced expulsion and dispossession of the Chagossians was revealed. Behind closed doors, the Wilson government had agreed with the USA to “establish a United States air and naval base on Diego Garcia” (the main island of the Chagos Archipelago). This occupation by the troops and support staff of the USA began in 1971.
However, the story does not end there.
In a remarkable revelation of secrecy and duplicitous ‘behind closed doors’ deals at the heart of British government, the 2004 documentary film Stealing a Nation by the Australian journalist and film-maker, John Pilger (now readily available on YouTube and DVD), showed how successive Labour and Conservative British Governments had uprooted and disenfranchised the whole population of a British Crown Colony in order to appease and protect the military strategies and practices of the USA.
Today, Diego Garcia is one of the biggest USA military bases in the world. As the Pentagon describes it, the island fortress of Diego Garcia “is an indispensable platform for policing the world.” Furthermore, it was established and developed during the United States’ prosecution of the Vietnam War – a more than adequate cover for a colossal cover-up!
Some forty years after Harold Wilson’s chicanery involving the Chagos Islanders, Orders in Council were again controversially used by another Labour Government, that of Tony Blair in 2004, to overturn a UK court ruling which held that the exile of the Chagossians was unlawful.
By this time the island of Diego Garcia was being used by the USA as its major base for bombing raids on Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as and more sinisterly, for conducting the process and practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ (otherwise referred to as ‘torture flights’) associated with its wars in the Middle East and South East Asia. The British government denied any involvement with this practice.
In view of this denial, the words of Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary in 2005, are most apposite:
“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.”
Ironically, in 2008, another Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was forced to admit that planes carrying ‘rendition’ victims had landed on Diego Garcia. What is it, therefore, that we are left to believe about Mr. Straw’s dishonest and discredited statement?
Perversely, the same New Labour government had, in June, 2006, successfully appealed against the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal’s ruling that the Chagossians were entitled to return to their homeland. To heap insult on injury, the government’s appeal was to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords – an unelected body!
In what could be viewed as an amazing act of collusion, if not an extreme dereliction of duty by this committee of Peers of the Realm, pre-eminence was given to the ‘behind closed doors’ decisions of the government and the view that “it was not for the courts to substitute their judgement for that of the Secretary of State as to what was conducive to the peace, order and good governance of the BIOT.” Are governments free, therefore, to operate outside of the rule of law?
Secrecy, it seems, still reigns supreme when it comes to exercising the privileges of power. This is repugnant in a democracy, whether this modus operandi is carried out by elected politicians or members of any of the institutions of the state. As with so much of the recent history of the Chagos Islands, and particularly Diego Garcia, there is ample evidence of cover-up, conspiracy, hypocrisy and blatant lying from a succession of British governments.
Through secrecy and subterfuge over almost half a century, the British government has stolen the heritage of the Chagossians for a mess of American pottage. The story, however, as with the scandals and disgrace involving British MPs, goes on.
I will return to the contemporary situation of the Chagos Islanders in my next article.