Slivers of hope

Though not widely covered elsewhere, The Guardian newspaper recently reported the news that George Monbiot, the journalist and commentator – on ecological matters as well as much else – has won this year’s Orwell prize for journalism.

For many years, George Monbiot has been an indefatigable champion of what an increasing number of people across the globe are coming to recognise as “the most important, and most neglected crisis facing humanity.” That is, of course, the issue of global warming and its effects on all forms of life on earth.

The Guardian reports that, in a fitting tribute to Monbiot’s work, one of the judges for the award said, “In the finest traditions of George Orwell’s journalism, George Monbiot draws on a vast reserve of knowledge to write with wit, elegance, forensic insight, and sustained and justified anger on this crisis.”

So, at a time when the UK is experiencing a summer of unprecedented hot weather and high temperatures, due, in the opinion of many, to climate change brought about by the consequences of human activity, huge congratulations to George Monbiot on his Orwell prize for journalism.

Long may his efforts, and those of like-minded commentators and activists, continue. 


This was also the week that saw me reading Richard Flanagan’s book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan is an Australian writer, and his novel won the Man Booker literary prize in 2014. Flanagan is from Sydney and joins a distinguished list of Australian novelists, including Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally, to have won this coveted award.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is broadly based on the experiences of Richard Flanagan’s father as a POW working on the so-called “death railway” – the line that ran from Burma to Thailand – during WW2. The unspeakable horrors of this Japanese construction project are well known to many Australians through experience, literature, and legend.

Reviews of the book suggest that the novel is not simply one of unremitting horror, suffering and inescapable death, for, as one reviewer put it: “Acts of terrifying violence and appalling humiliation are suddenly illumined by slivers of hope – expressed by the naked, skeletal prisoners in acts of unexpected generosity (the sharing of a rice ball or a joke) – and a central love story.”

The story of the novel is not without love and hope. Flanagan says that he had to find “a story from hope, and love is the greatest expression of hope. Love is the discovery of eternity in a moment that dies immediately.” He quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in saying: “Hope is the cruellest of torments because it prolongs human suffering, but it is also the engine of us. Without it we die.”

The love element is provided by a tale that Flanagan heard about a Latvian man who scoured the earth in search of his wife at the end of the war. Moving to Tasmania, Australia’s southern-most state, the Latvian later caught sight of the woman in Sydney, a child holding each of her hands. This was a moment of decision. Gripping stuff!

Richard Flanagan is not, however, without a keen social and political consciousness.  Following some remarks of Tony Abbott, a recent Australian Prime Minister, about coal being “good for humanity”, Flanagan is recorded as saying that he was “ashamed of being Australian”. So too, in one of the BBC’s Newsnight programmes, Flanagan spoke of his dismay at the repeal of the peace deal struck between logging companies and ecological activists in Tasmania. Clearly, Flanagan’s opposition is to policies, not to people.

In the past Flanagan has spoken eloquently about “the bankruptcy of political rhetoric in Australia” – the false myths; the conformity of political culture; the cynicism of political groupthink; and, with echoes of Richard Wagner, the twilight of the political gods. Again, “We are living in a new period where the old forms don’t hold – a new form hasn’t yet been invented.”

A quote from one reviewer of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Charlotte Higgins, seems to encapsulate the ideas behind both the prize-winning book and Richard Flanagan’s philosophy of life: “I get more optimistic as I get older. If you choose to take your compass from power, in the end you find only despair. But if you look around the world you can see and touch – the everyday world that is too easily dismissed as everyday – you see largeness, generosity, hope, change for the better. It’s always small but it’s real.”

And, in an analogy that could only come from a typical, down-to-earth Australian, Flanagan said: “We need politics like we need a good sewerage system – it should be run properly and efficiently. But over the last century we have made a fetish of politics and we believe too much in it; we invest too much of ourselves in it and we don’t recognise the wonder in ourselves.”

Not only is Richard Flanagan a prize-winning novelist; he could be considered a modern philosopher. His novel provides a sliver of hope, as does the work of Orwell prize winning writer, George Monbiot, in a world where new forms of living are urgently required.


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Get Brexit Done

“A comprehensive romp through the dramatic run-up to the 2019 general election, the culmination of several electrifying years which transformed British politics. A must-read for anybody who wants to understand what comes next.”  This was the view of Pippa Crerar, the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper, in reviewing the latest publication of the Nuffield series of publications on British political elections, “Get Brexit Done: The British General Election of 2019”.

The foreword to this book states that it is the 21st. volume in the prestigious Nuffield series of British general election studies that started with the 1945 election. The 2019 election is considered remarkable for being the third general election in four years, a unique event in modern British politics. The book undertakes a massive description and analysis of events over the several years of the study, including changes and continuities in the background of candidates, opinion polling, media coverage, election strategies, instances of party system fragmentation, blanket media coverage, and shifts in the forces shaping voting patterns.

This book manages to balance these factors and changes, along with cogent interviews with those who were responsible for key decision in the political parties, as well as providing detailed and sophisticated analysis of the election results. It is a remarkable example of teamwork, that includes not only the authors of the book, Robert Ford, Tim Bale, Will Jennings, and Paula Surridge, but also its publishers, Palgrave Macmillan. An acknowledgement should also be offered for the contributions of other writers, for example, Ailsa Henderson and John Curtice, in writing various chapters in the book.

The overall purpose of the book is to provide an accurate, and as far as possible, an impartial account and explanation of the 2019 General Election. Sources are not always named, not only because quotes were taken from numerous conversations and interviews that challenge the memory, but also because some sources wished to remain anonymous. The authors admit responsibility for errors that might have occurred.

The major underlying argument integral to the 2019 election was Brexit – the process of removing the UK from membership of the European Union and the EU’s institutions. This was a dominating factor in the parliament leading up to the 2019 election, as well as in the background of several previous elections. It was the primary factor responsible for Boris Johnson becoming the UK Prime Minister. The 2019 General Election was dubbed the “Brexit election”. Johnson campaigned relentlessly on the issue of Brexit and, along with other notable political figures, particularly of the Conservative and UKIP political parties, secured a parliamentary majority which was seen as one that was substantial enough to determine the outcomes of British politics for many years. Therefore, it is understandable that Brexit is given a separate and major chapter in the book.

The events of the time – the unpicking of 40 years of political and economic integration – were too much for the temperament, strength, and skills of Theresa May, the Prime Minister who followed David Cameron and preceded Boris Johnson. May had been elected in June 2017 following the resignation of David Cameron, but the demands and intricacies of the Brexit decisions and processes caused the decline and eventual failure of her premiership in July 2019. This brought Boris Johnson into the leadership of the Conservative Party and the office of PM.

Johnson was one of the prime figures in the moving and shaking activity behind Brexit. With sometimes dramatic and controversial decisions, allied with irrepressible enthusiasm and public appeal, he sealed his control over the affairs of Brexit and the ensuing parliament. Then, with a decisive win over Labour at the 2019 General Election, one that was dubbed the “Brexit election”, he secured for his party, many of whom were firm “Brexiteers”, a parliamentary majority which was seen at the time as being one to determine the outcomes of British politics for many years. These outcomes are only now beginning to manifest themselves.

Along with the general narrative of the 2019 election, there are sections in the book which focus on matters associated with the devolved governments of the UK, notably the issue of a further referendum on independence in Scotland. Hindsight would suggest that more space could have been given to the matter of Northern Ireland, especially the issues of border control and trading between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, along with the possible implications for the Northern Ireland Peace Accord.

Further material explained and evaluated the matter of the role of the media and the blurring together of broadcast and online campaign coverage. There is a chapter analysing the election result at the individual level, as well as geographical patterns of voting. The book contains a retrospective of the election, but little by way of speculation on its aftermath. The latter might well have been most interesting in the light of subsequent events.

Andrew Rawnsley, a highly respected journalist and the Chief Political Commentator of The Observer, gives a rather brief, yet overarching opinion of the book when he states that it is “The authoritative account by an alpha team of political scientist. Lucid explanation of complex events and forces is combined with penetrating analysis of the causes and effects of a highly consequential election.”

The book has an impressive list of figures, tables, and illustrations, with a welcome gallery of pictures placed prior to Chapter 1. The book runs to over 600 pages of political narrative and Appendices, with sufficient statistics interspersed with the storyline to satisfy the most avid aficionado of the same. The present writer was particularly appreciative of “Chapter 4: The Man Who Wasn’t There – Labour Under Corbyn”, and “Chapter 6: Get Brexit Done – The National Campaign”.

This book, “Get Brexit Done: The British General Election of 2019”, is surely the definitive account of one of the most controversial and consequential general elections of recent times, when a man called Boris “gambled everything on calling an early election to ‘Get Brexit Done’; and emerged triumphant.

This was history in the making, and so it has continued – though its ramifications for the British people and their political system, as well as for the nation’s place in the world, have yet to be fully unravelled and understood.


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Time for change

Within the next few days, parents across the country will be waiting for information that tells them which primary school their children will be assigned. The event is usually termed “primary school offer day in England”.

For many parents the news on the offer day will be good. Their children will be successful in getting a place in a school of their priority choice. Other parents will not be so fortunate and may have to settle for a school that is lower down the list of priorities. Unfortunately, every year there are families that are left with no choice but, contrary to their personal faith or no faith at all, to send their child to a faith school. Alternatively, they may be unable to access their local schools because of religious discrimination.

The National Secular (NSS) society works for the separation of religion and state and equal respect for everyone’s human rights so that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs. To this end the NSS is holding a conference on Saturday, 1st May 2022, on the subject “Towards an inclusive education in Northern Ireland”.  It is hoped that 2022 could be a turning point for inclusive education in Northern Ireland.

According to research by the NSS, an average of nine thousand pupils a year are assigned faith primary schools against their families’ preferences, and 30% of families live in areas of high or extreme restrictions on the choice of a non-faith primary school.

Over against such situations are described above, it is welcome news to hear that a former Catholic school in Northern Ireland has reopened as an integrated one, meaning it will educate children from various religious backgrounds together, for the first time in Northern Ireland.

Seaview Primary School, in Glenarm, County Antrim, opened recently as Seaview Integrated Primary School.

Integrated schools aim to enrol similar proportions of pupils from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, along with students from other religious backgrounds. Only around seven per cent of pupils in NI currently attend integrated schools, with more than 90% going to schools which are de facto segregated on religious lines.

Plans to transform Seaview Primary’s status were approved by the Northern Ireland education minister in March of this year. The move, which was supported by the NSS’s No More Faith Schools Campaign, was backed by 95% of eligible parents in a vote in 2019. Efforts to integrate schools in Northern Ireland have been ongoing.  Most state schools in NI are either maintained schools – as Seaview was – or controlled schools. Maintained schools predominantly serve children from Catholic backgrounds, while controlled schools predominantly serve children from Protestant backgrounds. Grammar schools are also generally divided by faith.

In recent years there have been several more proposals to integrate schools. Some of these have failed, with church ownership of maintained schools proving a potential barrier to integration.

A major review of education in Northern Ireland, which is currently getting started, is set to consider issues including the integration of schools. A recent poll found that more than seven in 10 people in Northern Ireland support efforts to make an integrated education the norm, with 73% saying they would support their child’s school or their local school becoming integrated.

The coordinator of the NSS’s No More Faith Schools campaign, Alastair Lichten, welcomed Seaview reopening as an integrated school.

He said, “It’s heartening to see a school open which will teach children from different backgrounds together, and value them equally. Seaview will serve as a reminder that meaningful change is possible, even in a strongly segregated education system where religious interests exercise considerable power.

“There is strong grassroots support for integrated education in Northern Ireland, and strong evidence that segregating schools on religious lines creates unfairness and inefficiency. Politicians in NI should take bold action to tackle these problems, and they should be prepared to confront churches’ entrenched interests where necessary.”

With this example of movements towards integrated education in Northern Ireland, and also being a former teacher in a Northampton state secondary school, I was encouraged to examine the situation in my personal local authority, West Northamptonshire. I discovered the following:

*     25% of families have little choice but a faith-based primary school.

That is below the national average of 30%

*     6% of families have little choice but a faith-based secondary school.

That is significantly below the national average of 10%

*     236 pupils were assigned faith schools against their families’ preferences.

In terms of percentage of applicants, that is significantly above the national average

*     35% of schools are faith based.

That is around the national average 

Therefore, the situation which generally exists in most local authorities across the country, is reflected in my local education authority. However, that represents an overall situation where faith-based schools exert a considerable influence on children’s education in England. It also highlights the role of religion in restricting personal freedom in general.

This influence is further strengthened by the fact that “charitable status” is given to wealthy private schools, many of which are faith-based. So too, the presence and influence of the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords cannot be ignored in seeking to explain the extent and power of faith-based education, as well as the controversial issue of the continuing role of collective worship in state education.

The foregoing may not be in the forefront of parental minds as they await, and then receive, offers for schools to which to send their children. It is an anxious time for many of these parents, and this anxiety is nurtured by the fact of the undesirable place afforded state education by faith-based schools. Surely now is the time, as with the Seaview Primary School in Northern Ireland, for a change in the status of faith-based schools in England. The textbook needs to be re-written.

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Two who made a difference

Two memorial services have been held in the past few days.

The first service took place in London. It was for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. He was the consort of the British monarch from Elizabeth’s accession on 6th February 1952, until his death in April 2021, aged 99, making him the longest serving royal consort in history. The second service was held on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, Australia. It was for the former Australian cricket player, Shane Warne, who died, aged 52, on 2nd March this year.

Shane Warne, known widely as “Warnie”, earned cricketing fame as a right-arm, leg-spin bowler. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest, bowlers in cricket history, with few, if any peers in the art of spin bowling. He is often referred to as the “King of Spin”. In 2000 he was selected by a panel of cricket experts as one of five Wisden Cricketers of the Century. Amongst the five, he was the only specialist bowler, and the only one still playing the game of cricket at the time. So too, of the five cricket players listed, he was the only one not to be knighted. One can only surmise that, had he lived on, he may also have been given this honour.

The Duke of Edinburgh died after a lifetime of what could be described as a prolonged period of “loyal service to the monarch and the British people”. He was someone who could identify with the aspirations of the people whom he served, if not be one of them. Whilst much of his time was spent fulfilling the duties of his station, Philip, the father of a daughter and three sons, engaged in a variety of philanthropic endeavours. He served as the President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) from 1981 to 1996, and his International Award Programme (The Duke of Edinburgh Scheme) enabled more than six million young adults to engage in community service, leadership development, and physical fitness activities. In 2011, to mark his 90th birthday, Queen Elizabeth conferred on him the title and office of Lord High Admiral, titular head of the Royal Navy. His last solo event took place on 2nd August 2017. His death was mourned by many throughout the world.

After retiring from cricket, Warne worked for the Shane Warne Foundation that assisted seriously ill and underprivileged children. He was widely praised for this work, and a known trademark of his character was that “he was a bloke who was always available for people.” The charity was launched in 2004 and distributed many thousands of pounds, with activities that included a charity poker tournament. This was so characteristic of the person that was Shane Warne. Unfortunately, due to financial problems, the charity closed in 2017. Warne had three children with Simone Callahan, to whom he was married from 1995 to 2005.

Outside of cricket, Warne lived what could be described as a very colourful life. He once described himself as a person who “smoked a little, drank a little, and bowled leg spin”. He also did a bit of gambling, as well as seemingly having an inevitable, ongoing, and magnetic attraction to women. His name was linked with a variety of celebrity figures in sport, entertainment, and the movies. He once commented that “My years with Elizabeth (the English actress, Elizabeth Hurley) were the happiest of my life.”

Shane Warne was a man of flaws, but not so flawed that he could not recognise them. In the one of the many clips doing the rounds this week, he said: “We are all human, we all make mistakes. Some of us have made more than others. It doesn’t mean we are bad people. Sure, there are things we would like to change along the way – but we can’t so we have got to learn to live with them and confront them and try to learn from them. Through some poor choices I’ve had some pretty tough times that I will have to live with for the rest of my life.” He was certainly a man of the people.

In August 2021, Warne was placed on a ventilator when he contracted COVID-19, “to make sure there were no longer-lasting effects” from the virus. At the time he was quoted as saying that “Australians will have to learn live with the virus.” Within a year Shane Warne had died from a heart attack while on holiday at a villa on the island of Ko Samui in Thailand. His death was mourned by millions of people throughout the world, within the cricketing community and wider.

The funeral service of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was held at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. The service was conducted by the Dean of Windsor, with the Benediction pronounced by the leading bishop of that church, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The service was attended by royalty, leading figures in politics, the Church, and civil society. It was a religious service, with music appropriate for such a ceremony, most of which was from the sacred and classical traditions. It was entitled “A Ceremonial Royal Funeral”, not a “State Funeral”. Despite the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, state funerals are normally reserved for monarchs.

Warne’s private funeral took place at the St Kilda Football (Australian Rules) Club headquarters in Melbourne on 20th March 2022. The mourners were led by his parents and three adult children, with around 100 persons, including former teammates and sporting figures, in attendance. He was further honoured with a State Memorial event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 30th March. This event attracted around 50,000 people from all walks of life to the MCG, including the ordinary Australians to whom he undoubtedly gave so much sporting and personal pleasure. On this occasion, the music was more reflective of those with whom he had shared many of life’s aspects. Perhaps the one sacred consolation was the final song, Andre Bocelli’s “My Prayer” – sung, with evocative violin accompaniment, to a silent MCG that had once resounded to the cricketing glories of the undisputed “King of Spin”.

Two men from different backgrounds and cultures, each of whom were admired by many, adored by some, who, each in his own peculiar way, lived his life in a way that made a difference to the lives of others. Each with an epitaph worth the value of its words. RIP.

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A relic of the past

Occasionally, an item arrives in the email inbox that enables an individual to do something to correct one of the many of the wrongs, as personally perceived, with the society in which we live. Such was the case recently when I received an email from the National Secular Society (NSS), a movement of which I am a member. The item had to do with a campaign being conducted by the NSS for the Westminster government to abolish the Chancel Repair Liability (CRL), otherwise known as the Chancel Tax.

In what follows I acknowledge the information from the NSS campaign against the CRL as being my main source of information.

The CRL goes back to the time of Henry VIII and ecclesiastical laws that gives some Anglican churches the right to demand local property owners, including domestic landowners, to make financial contributions towards repairs to their church chancels. The ‘Chancel’ is that part of an Anglican church building near the altar. It is an area reserved exclusively for clergy and choir, yet whose repair bills are to be paid from what could be described as ‘public funding’ – from ordinary church adherents who are not so privileged. Further, the chancel liability is due irrespective of the landowners being Anglican, or otherwise, and applies even if they are not (and have never been) Christians!

The situation in respect to the CRL is a long and complex legal process that goes back to the time around 1536 when rectoral land, usurped by Henry VIII from the Roman Catholic Church, was sold off to owners who were normally close to the church. Such owners were designated, without any exclusion clause, as “lay rectors”. It was these owners who were part responsible for the repair of the churches.

The Church of England can demand, in some cases, payment for the full cost of repairs, which can, be, for such ancient church buildings, very substantial, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. A major consequence of this demand by the Church of England is that the presence of the CRL can be harmful, even destructive, for some property owners and require them to take out insurance against the risk of the Church claiming the money for expensive repairs. The liability continues even after the property is sold (the new landowner takes on the responsibility for the liability). Few potential buyers will contemplate taking on the burden of a property with CRL. Consequently, the value of most properties subject to CRL will be blighted and, in some cases, they may even become unsellable. Some homeowners have been understandably traumatised when they discover that their biggest asset had become significantly devalued.

It is instructive to reflect on a case study of when the issue of CRL first hit the headlines in 2003. The story concerned Andrew and Gail Wallbank. The Wallbanks received a demand for almost £100,000 to fund repairs of their local medieval church at Aston Cantlow, a village in Warwickshire. After a protracted legal battle, which was taken right to the House of Lords, the Wallbanks lost their appeal against the demand and faced a £350,000 bill – including legal costs. They were forced to sell their whole farm to pay for it. Talk about adding insult to injury!

Until this case, this legal anachronism had largely been forgotten and had been little exercised for centuries. Many purchasers of land were simply not aware of it. CRL was not generally mentioned in deeds, but despite this anomaly, the original ecclesiastical liability can still be enforced. Following the Wallbanks’ case, the Government introduced a registration procedure enabling CRL to be shown on Land Registry documents. A small advance.

According to the Land Registry, property in around 5,300 parishes in England and Wales is subject to CRL. Not all affected property is close to the church. Notwithstanding, thousands of homeowners around the country have been notified by the Land Registry that they are liable to pay the CRL. Not all of them are aware of how damaging these notices are likely to be to their property… and to their bank accounts!

As long ago as 1985, the Law Commission described the impact of CRL as “wholly capricious” and considered “that this relic of the past is.… no longer acceptable”. Its report concluded: “It is hard today to see any justification for this imposition”. Both the Law Commission and, more recently, the Law Society, have recommended that the only equitable solution is for CRL to be phased out. Even the Church of England’s General Synod overwhelmingly supported the abolition of CRL in 1982. Despite all this, abolition has not taken place. This is primarily because the Church has changed its mind and is not now willing to forgo any revenue to repair its many ancient churches, regardless of the unfairness, hardship and distress caused to many.

The argument generally advanced for the retention of CRL is that it is a civil liability that landowners should have known about, although there are some who obviously who did not. It is possible that the land was purchased at a discount in recognition of the liability, but this will be rare. The Church points out that it is responsible for maintaining 45% of the Grade I Listed Buildings in the country and the majority of all the parish churches are Grade II or higher, that it is unable to maintain these heritage buildings unaided, and so is reluctant to give up any source of income. Surely this is an inordinate concern for money and land. One can only wonder at this continuing attitude of what purports to be the ‘State’ church – the church of the people!

The NSS has highlighted the gross inequality of the CRL to the Government at ministerial level, but it seems clear that the Government is not prepared to initiate any abolition of the CRL, unless requested to do so by the Anglican Church. This seems very much a case of the cart before the horse. Furthermore, whilst the NSS values the great contribution to the English heritage that ancient churches make, it is also of the view that it is completely unfair that money for repairing them can be demanded simply on the grounds of what the Law Commission further describes as “anomalous, uncertain and obscure law.”

The NSS is continuing to campaign energetically for abolition of this deeply unfair and anachronistic liability. Nevertheless, recognising that this may have to be a medium-term goal, it is also seeking to broker solutions which in the meantime mitigate the most inequitable impositions of CRL. This work has been undertaken by conversations, meetings and correspondence with the relevant government Minister and the head of civil law at the Ministry of Justice, as well as with MPs, parliamentarians, specialist lawyers, and other interested parties.

CRL is a gross anachronism and an inequity that has no place in a 21st century democracy. That Church of England parishes alone can impose such an obligation on others, regardless of their religious affiliations, is totally at variance with the modern concept of justice. Despite all this, CRL remains, largely because no government has been prepared either to take over and fund the amounts the Church would levy on landowners for CRL, or to pass legislation to abolish CRL. So, this outmoded system remains a privilege, amongst others, that is afforded an unrepresentative Church of England. It is an ecclesiastical scandal.

For the above reasons, and others, it is surely time that this ancient law is consigned to the annals of history, if not to the Church of England’s rubbish bin, and a fairer way is found to preserve a heritage that is, perhaps, not so common as the Church of England might believe it to be.


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Turning possibility into reality

The Chagos Archipelago, or Chagos Islands (formerly the Bassas de Chagas, and later the Oil Islands), is “a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 islands in the Indian Ocean about 310 miles south of the Maldives archipelago” (Wikipedia). Diego Garcia is currently the only inhabited island in the archipelago, all of which comprise the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). These remote islands in the Indian Ocean have been under British control for over 50 years.

I wrote about the Chagos Islands in this blog as far back as January 2017 (see Article 103: “Heaping insult on injury”), and February 2017 (Article 104: “Playing long and loose with peoples’ lives”). My attention has recently been refocused on these islands, and the lives of their former inhabitants, in consequence of the renewed attempts by Mauritius, which had jurisdiction over the Chagos Islands prior to British control and is now renewing its attempt to reclaim the islands and their banished citizens.

Mauritius is doing so after the United Nations has recently pronounced that the United Kingdom must now hand back the islands and their people to Mauritian jurisdiction. The UK has refused to do so, citing the security concerns surrounding the United States’ military base on the island of Diego Garcia (authorised by the Wilson administration early in the UK’s jurisdiction over the Archipelago in the 1950’s, and considered by some commentators to be the reason for the British interest in these islands in the first place).

A British journalist, Andrew Hardy, reporting for the BBC, has commented that, after decades of exile since the British government expelled the islanders from their homeland, some of the former Chagossian islanders have returned to the archipelago. However, the visiting islanders will not be able to stay. They have been allowed to pay the islands a brief visit, during which time they can attend to tidying up the ruins of their former homes – once prosperous villages now looking like a lost world, overgrown and decrepit. These Chagossians are, naturally, feeling angry at the treatment they have received from the British, whom, in the words of one visitor, “did not respect the fundamental rights of the people”.

The UK still claims sovereignty over all these islands. However, international law states that the UK must allow all Chagossian islanders to return permanently to the archipelago and must not cling-on to a piece of its old empire. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the Chagossians have a right to return to their islands. Failure to continue to prevent them from doing so is, in the words of Philippe Sands, a legal adviser to the Mauritian government, “to be recognised as a crime against humanity”.

Responding to this criticism of the British position, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office in London said: “Successive British governments have expressed sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from BIOT in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we are currently delivering a £40m support package to Chagossians over a 10-year period.”

Against this background, Mauritius is preparing their claim to the Chagos Islands, believing that the British position is untenable, and that the time, during which the islands have been virtually hidden from the international community, should end. In being represented in the group that has recently visited the island, the Mauritian government wishes to challenge and, hopefully, change the existing situation of British hegemony over the islands, so that it does not remain that way for very much longer.

In the meantime, the islanders plan a return visit, and they commit themselves to fervently believing in the possibility that, one day, their return will be permanent.


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The only way

The National Secular Society recently published an article by its Chairman, Stephen Evans, that focused on the plans of the Church of England “to give Anglican church leaders from around the world greater power in choosing future archbishops of Canterbury.” Stephen Evans’ article led with the statement that “the plan by the Church of England serves as a reminder of the need to separate church and state.”

What follows in this article acknowledges the use of information contained in Stephen Evans’ article, but the views expressed are those of this writer.

It seems that a row is brewing in the Church of England (CofE) over a possible change to the process for deciding who becomes the most senior cleric in Anglicanism. The CofE is, of course, the established Church of the UK. As such, the affairs of the CofE are matters of the unwritten constitution of the UK. This has political connotations. Therefore, the current constitutional settlement makes it impossible for the question of who leads the Church of England to be purely an internal matter for the Church – the way it would be for any other religious denomination in the UK.

At present, the decision to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury as the most senior cleric in the CofE, is made by the reigning monarch – the constitutionally appointed Head of the CofE – on the advice of the prime minister. In turn, the Prime Minister has received a shortlist of two names from an ad hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission. These names are usually from the community of practising Anglican bishops in the UK, specifically from a CofE bishopric in England. It could be seen, therefore, that the appointment of the person to provide the leadership for not only the British Anglicans, but for Anglicans worldwide, is as much a matter of British politics as it is of spirituality.

The institution of an Established Church is a relic from an age when church and nation were indistinguishable one from another. Today, on any typical Sunday, fewer than 1% of England’s population attend a service in an Anglican church. Further, younger people are increasingly unlikely to identify with any faith. Moreover, as suggested by occasional national surveys of opinion on the matter, a significant majority of the UK’s population don’t identify with any recognised religion. It would make considerable sense, therefore, that this reality should be reflected in a new, secular, constitutional settlement for the CofE.

Not unrelated to this issue is the fact that, as an adult, and whilst he has been the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson was baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. A Roman Catholic PM having an important role in the process of choosing the leader of the CofE! This is rather ironical, and calls into question, not only the current PM’s role in all of this, but also highlights the absurdity of having an established church in a modern pluralistic, multifaith democracy.

Let me return to the matter with which this article began.

The CofE is currently consulting on plans to allow foreign Anglican leaders from churches around the world to be given much greater power in choosing future archbishops of Canterbury. There are many more times the number of Anglicans in other countries worldwide as there are in England. Not surprisingly, therefore, and according to The Times newspaper, “English priests and worshippers have expressed surprise and anger at proposals for a five-fold increase in the power that Anglican churches overseas will be given in nominating the Church of England’s most senior bishop.”

Their concerns centre around whether the proposals might diminish the prospect of a woman, or a supporter of same-sex marriage, being appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. These specific concerns have no doubt arisen due to the reality that many Anglican churches globally still do not allow women to become bishops, as well as their most steadfast opposition to the idea of conducting gay marriages in church. In general, Anglican churches outside of the UK, and especially in two-thirds world countries, tend to be quite theologically and socially conservative.

But it isn’t only the Anglican faithful who might have cause to be concerned. As previously stated, in consequence of the CofE’s established status, the Archbishop of Canterbury enjoys a significant degree of political power in the UK. This raises important questions about the appropriateness of foreign influence in the British political process.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and his bishops claim 26 seats in the House of Lords of the British Parliament. These seats are predominantly filled by bishops of Anglican dioceses in England – Anglican church bishops from other UK nations have refused to take seats in the House of Lords. This provides the English bishops with unique access to the corridors of political power. The Archbishop of Canterbury is given his own annual debate to lead in parliament, has meetings with the prime minister and government ministers, and enjoys a myriad of other privileged platforms.

These significant privileged platforms extend to state occasions, including royal coronations. This gives the archbishop inappropriate political influence in a country that really should be secular. His position is charged with anointing the British head of state and administering the oath, whereby the monarch vows to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”.

Irrespective of one’s view of royalty, it is both anachronistic and unjust that a country’s (largely unwritten) constitution should institutionalise the role of a monarch as the head of any religion, never-mind the rapidly diminishing CofE denomination of the Christian religion – and that is only what it is – in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society. Further, the reader may also be aware of the influence over public policy gained through the CofE’s role in state education. One quarter of all publicly funded primary schools in England are run by the Anglican Church. This makes the CofE the largest single provider of schools in the country.

Overseas influence in who fills the role of Archbishop of Canterbury role can only widen the democratic deficit of this ludicrous arrangement. Stephen Evans provides a timely reminder that the current bishops’ bench in the House of Lords has already been described by the incumbent archbishop, Justin Welby, as “the most orthodox since WWII. Greater influence from reactionary bishops from around the world can only further intensify the disconnect between the Church and the country’s increasingly secularised population.”

From what has been stated by the National Secular Society, and its reflection on what has been above-mentioned, the matter of who leads the Church of England – and the wider international Anglican Communion – should really be the business of nobody but the Anglican communion, in the UK or wider. Disestablishing the CofE and ending its privileged role in our state institutions will ensure this is the case.

In conclusion, the closing sentence of Stephen Evans’ article in the NSS Bulletin states that, “Questions about who becomes the archbishop of Canterbury can be a matter solely for Anglicans to decide ­- which is the way it should be.” This writer wholly concurs.


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Taking a principled stand

Readers of this blog will know that, occasionally, it will include aspects of mailings that I occasionally send to my MP, a member of the Conservative Party presently governing the UK. With the present state of this government, and especially the position of its leader, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, I decided to, once again, email my MP to make my feelings about the matter known to him. In doing so, I was mindful of the campaign of concern on this issue currently being undertaken by the pressure group, 38 Degrees – a people’s movement I support.

This article contains the basic text of the above-mentioned email, albeit written in essay form.

Those reading this article will probably need no reminding that the Conservative government, under the leadership of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is currently in a state that could well be described as a siege. There are many reasons for this, and these have been dealt with, not always adequately, by the media.

During the early months of the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 virus, the UK also was in a situation that could also be called a “state of siege”. The British government brought in a series of harsh measures to try and cope with the pandemic, not always quickly enough, or successfully. People could only leave home for work, exercise, or obtain necessary supplies; non-essential shops were closed; large gatherings were illegal. One consequence of such measures was that, apart from being in their family groups, individuals could not be with more than one other individual at any one time. Therefore, such things as attendance at religious worship services, pubs, dances, cinemas, weddings, funerals, family occasions, e.g., birthdays, and a host of other activities, were not permitted.

For me personally, and amongst other things, it meant that I could not be present with my daughter and my son-in-law around the time of the birth of my second grandchild. Moreover, I was unable throughout 2020 (when the PM was associated with garden parties) to be with and hold my granddaughter for the first year of her life. Ongoing relations with my wider family, including my young grandson, were also grossly interrupted, or prevented.

Contravention of these measures were subject to lawful punishments, and there were many ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who were severely fined for such contraventions. In the past few weeks, evidence has come to light that the very persons who were responsible for devising the laws of lockdown, and who, daily from lecterns and the pages of the newspapers, were encouraging citizens to observe them, were themselves contravening these laws and recommendations. Amongst such offenders was the UK Prime Minister himself, Boris Johnson.

It is commonly alleged that our Prime Minister has been known to lie about government, state, and personal matters. It seems that he is also guilty of his failure to come clean with his knowledge of, and likely participation in, garden parties at No.10 Downing Street, his residence as PM. He and his governmental ministers instituted the “laws of the lockdowns”, laws to which he and his ministers have subjected the entire country. Yet, in the event, they were laws that they themselves were flouting.

In so doing, the Prime Minister has deceived the country, being short with the truth, and demonstrated that he feels that he is above the very rules that his government makes, as well as the general laws of the country. So too, in the past couple of years there have been revelations of how others in his administration have acted in a similar style to the Prime Minister, and seemingly with his knowledge of their actions – and not only in the case of Dominic Cummings!

As with a rapidly increasing number of others throughout the country, I am becoming somewhat immune to the nature of the repetitious claims of the Conservative government that it is acting in the interests of the entire population of this country, when it is evident that these claims are mere words and lack substance. There is much evidence to suggest that Boris Johnson believes, as do others in his administration, that the law, as it stands and as it is pronounced by the government, contains exceptions and exemptions. The latter concerns Mr Johnson himself, and others who believe that their background and office places them in a special and privileged position. Boris Johnson must be held accountable for his words and actions, including those associated with the garden parties held at No.10 Downing Street during the lockdowns of 2020.

Surely it is now time when Conservative members of Parliament, who have enjoyed many years of government, should truly act in the interests of all and be accountable, not only to the Conservative Party, but also to the citizens of the UK. This means putting a stop to the discriminatory behaviour of the Prime Minister, and others in his government, who say one thing and do another. The laws of the country apply, without discrimination, to all. The latter is not just an issue of efficient and effective national governance, it is also a question of governmental ethics.

The false words, inflammatory actions, and failure to act on the part of some government MPs, are rapidly causing a deterioration not only in the confidence of this country in its government, but also in the reputation that, thus far, the UK has enjoyed in Europe and wider. In the view of a growing number of the UK populace, the government of the UK is becoming a national disgrace, indeed, a laughingstock.

I would hope and trust that, as my representative in Parliament, my MP will not condone the words and actions for which, and especially in recent weeks, this Conservative government has received such sustained and justifiable criticism. Further, I contacted my MP with the expectation that he, along with many of his parliamentary colleagues, will take a principled stand against those matters discussed in the above.


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Falling trees in the forest of Westminster

When teaching philosophy of religion with Sixth Form students at a Northampton secondary school, there was the occasional reference to the following philosophical allegory, “When a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” In shortened form, this is an idiom meaning that opinions, thoughts, actions, etc., are ineffective and inconsequential if no one ever knows or hears about them.

Of course, the answer to the allegory usually depends on who you ask. The students to whom I directed the question gave a variety of answers, most of which had some philosophical or scientific merit.

The more scientifically inclined student would suggest that when a tree falls it causes a disturbance in the air pressure field in the forest, and that pressure field emanates away from the fallen tree, thereby affecting other forest habitats. The action of the falling tree creates a disturbance in the fluidic medium, air. That creates a sound, albeit one that may only be heard within the community of the forest. Such a phenomenon is part of the nature of forest life, even if not personally affecting the lives of those discussing the phenomenon.

The more philosophically inclined student would argue that, even as a tree falling in a distant place may not be heard by us, it still makes a sound and impacts its habitat. Similarly, if something happens in the communities we inhabit, we may not directly know or hear about it, but it may, nevertheless, impinge on our lives – to a greater or lesser degree. Such students would further suggest that there is little in human life that is inconsequential or ineffective. The interactive nature of human life is a given.

My thoughts returned to these classroom discussion as I listened recently to the news and media reports about the sleaze and corruption prevalent in contemporary political circles, especially in the present Conservative government. Reference was made to the similar situation that existed during the 1990’s, again focusing on a Conservative government. One journalist linked the two situations as a “filthy miasma steaming off the Thames at Westminster.”

The immediate cause of the current scandal was the revelation that Tory MP Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister, had lobbied government on behalf of two companies that were paying him tens of thousands of pounds very year. In doing so, and evidenced by written sources, it was found that Paterson was guilty of an “egregious breach of the rules” (the words of the Parliamentary commission for standards). What followed has now become history.

I am not a member of the Labour Party. However, my wife is. In due course, my wife received an email from the Team Labour movement which stated that our local MP, a Conservative, was another “who has taken money from outside interests.” This information came with the comment that Conservative MP’s (who together, it is estimated, have received £1.7 million in consultancy fees this year alone) “…think it’s one rule for them and one rule for everyone else.” This attitude, and the practices that emanate from it, seems to have become more prevalent since the Brexit vote. The Team Labour movement was seeking to organise a campaign aimed at the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to “show some leadership and ban MP’s from having consultancy roles.”

Under the circumstances, it seemed appropriate to email my MP about the matter of MP’s receiving sums of money to lobby parliament on behalf of private companies and individuals, or to accept paid consultancies. I duly did so, but without specific reference to the fact that my MP was actively involved in such transactions. What follows is a direct transcription of that email, with a challenge specifically aimed at my MP:

“I write with the wish that you are well.

“This email concerns a matter that effects every person in this country – the matter of earned income, taxation, ethics, and legalities. You will no doubt be aware of the news surrounding Eric Paterson and Geoffrey Cox, and the accusations that have been levelled at both MPs. There seems to be little doubt that both MPs have contravened parliamentary procedures in the event of receiving, what some would consider to be, extortionate fees, in return for their advice to business and legal organisations.

“They have done so whilst still engaged in, and receiving a most adequate salary for, the task of representing their political constituencies in the UK. Both have defended themselves by resorting to the argument that what they have done is not illegal. Whilst in the light of parliamentary investigations, that is now something to be argued over, there is also the question of the ethics involved in their actions. I am strongly of the view that the work of an MP is very much a full-time occupation, representing so many people in a single UK constituency.

“There is also attendance at and participation in debates in the chamber and the work of parliamentary committees, including the preparation that should be given to these, for example, reading of documents, preparing speeches, working with parliamentary aides, and ensuring that decisions of parliament are carried out. Whilst occasionally watching the events in parliament, I am often bemused to see how bare the benches are – on both sides of the House – a bit like a teacher being absent from the classroom when a lesson is to be delivered.

“You will realise, therefore, that I find it hard to accept that MPs have too much leisure time or time to work at other occupations, especially where substantial sums of remunerations are offered.

Indeed, whilst under certain circumstances (but not all), this may be legal, I would wish to question the ethics of the matter. This is particularly so in the cases the offending MP is residing overseas in an offshore cash/tax haven (with a British name to further shame the situation).

“Before retiring as a teacher in a Northampton secondary school, I found that it was necessary to devote all of my professional life to the job for which I was appointed – teaching a full Forms 1-6 curricula, setting and marking homework, setting and marking tests and examinations, researching classroom materials and equipment, taking part in subject, faculty, and whole school meetings, visitation, parent evenings, engaged in ongoing professional training, interviewing/helping students with school work and, not to be neglected, pastoral care.

“This gave me little time for other forms of employment, moonlighting, etc., even from earning additional money from subject coaching/private lessons. As a teacher (incidentally, with graduate, post-graduate, and professional degrees), I was not in a minority – the job demanded this amount of dedication, skill, and attention to the details of the occupation. Are you going to argue that the work of an MP is any less demanding than that of a teacher? If so, then I would suggest that MPs are paid the salary of a teacher, and a teacher is paid the current equivalent of an MP’s salary – I am under no delusions as to which salary level I would prefer!

“I would add that, if the above is the case, then MPs should cease regarding themselves with the self-importance that is all too currently evident – especially on government benches, not to mention a decision to refuse a salary increase when next it is due. I would imagine that all MPs, in receipt of sums of money from outside their specific work as an MP, would, nevertheless, not refuse a salary increase when one is offered; whilst, at the same time, voting against an increase for public service (e.g., nurses, and social workers on low salaries/wages)!

“I would like to believe that, as my MP, you would agree with most, if not all, of what I have stated in the correspondence. Notwithstanding, I would appreciate your comments on the matters discussed.

Yours Sincerely”

To date, I have not received a reply from my MP. Therefore, I am not at all sure what disturbances of the air will have occurred in my MP’s parliamentary office when he received the above email from me. The only fallen parliamentary figure, the single tree in the forest of Westminster, that I have heard of so far is named Owen Paterson. No doubt, the sight and sound of others will soon be heard. This is not the topic of scientific speculation or philosophical thought, it is a matter of ethical, effective, and purposeful government.

The sounds of silence have been heard. The broken, soiled, decaying parliamentary habitat has been broken into. The stench has been smelled; the destructive action has been seen; the agonising sounds of former silence have been heard.


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A Catalyst for Change

It is a topic that is, once again, beginning to be raised in the news media and discussed across the public sphere. For many, however, it remains a subject that should rear its head only in private conversation. It was, and still is, a phenomenon that had the power to divide the British nation. The division continues; the reference is, of course, to Brexit.

In the years since 2016 and the EU Referendum, there has been the gradual awakening as to the direction and consequences of Brexit. Along with a developing public awareness of the implications of the UK’s secession from the European Community, there has appeared a growing number of books describing, critically analysing, and forming additional conclusions about Brexit. One such conclusion posits the growth and influence of English nationalism as a chief protagonist in the movement towards and the eventual success of a Brexit outcome.  

It is generally agreed that, prior to the Brexit referendum, there was, in the words of one commentator, “a widespread doubt as to whether English nationalism existed at all, at least beyond a small fringe. Since then, it has come to be regarded as an obvious explanation for the vote to leave the European Union.”

Since 2016, when the decision was taken by the British people to leave the EU, successive opinion polls have shown a continuing mixed response to the UK’s decision. So too, these polls have raised doubts about the extent of the continuation of an English commitment to the union of the United Kingdom itself. “Yet…”, in the opinion of Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, the two academics who co-authored the book under review in this article, “…even as Englishness is apparently reshaping Britain’s place in the world and perhaps, ultimately, the state itself, it remains poorly understood.”

The title of this book, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, gives an indication as to what it is about. A major thesis of the book is that “…the rise Englishness, and its impact on British constitutional politics, has for too long been an under-explored, semi-secret, phenomenon.” Writing in The Irish Times, the polemicist, journalist, and drama critic, Fintan O’Toole (himself the author of “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”), expressed the view that “What makes the crisis of British politics so strange is that at its heart is a force that dare not speak its name: Englishness.”

The present book’s purpose may be seen, therefore, to be an exploration of what “Englishness” means, from where and whence has it arisen, what are its manifestations, as well as its past, present, and future consequences – for both England and the wider United Kingdom.

The co-authors of the book are a Scot, Ailsa Henderson, and a Welshman, Richard Wyn Jones. It may be thought by some would readers of this article that, with such authors, it merely presents a Celtic analysis of the phenomenon known as Englishness. However, in mitigation, it needs to be said that the sources used by the writers cross many national boundaries, contain evidence from a variety of disciplines, and has many references that would deflect criticisms suggesting bias, prejudice, and the presence of “fake news”.

Henderson and Wyn Jones are of the view that, despite the central role the phenomenon has played in recent British history, including the possibility that its reality is reshaping the nature of the British state and its place in the world, Englishness remains, as stated above, “poorly understood.” This book is a major contribution to a possible explanation of this understanding.

A major source of data for the book is The Future of England Survey (originally published in 2011 and republished many times since). This is a specially commissioned public attitudes survey programme exploring the political implications of English identity. The use of this data and contributions from many of its writers and commentators, demonstrates that, for Henderson and Wyn Jones, Englishness has its basis in English nationalism.

According to the authors of the book, however, it needs to be understood this is not a nationalism that outrightly rejects Britain and Britishness. It is, rather, “a nationalism that combines a sense of grievance about England’s place in the United Kingdom with a fierce commitment to a particular vision of Britain’s past, present, and future.” Indeed, the juxtaposition between England and Britain in this book – what has been termed its “Janus-faced nature” – is, according to the book’s authors, the “key to understanding not only English nationalism, but also to understanding the ways in which it is transforming British politics.”

This book is, therefore, invaluable in helping the reader to understand why it was that the United Kingdom voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. Indeed, one commentator has said that this book should “be read by anyone – and especially every politician – who wishes to understand the forces driving British politics to its current febrile, fractured, state.” Therefore, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, joins books by Stephen Haseler, Dennis MacShane, David Edgerton, Gavin Exler, and others, who have in recent years written on the nature of the transformation that has occurred in contemporary English and UK politics, as well as the place and role of the UK in modern global affairs.

For those who may not be confident of or bothered about pouring over statistics and evaluating data, this book is highly informative and would provide satisfaction in being read for its important single and multiple statements, summary passages, and conclusions. These are to be found throughout the book, but essentially in the concluding pages.

This reviewer found the closing paragraph of Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain to be most apposite and instructive. Indeed, the paragraph is worthy of being quoted:

Looking to the future raises an uncertain and concerning prospect. For those in England who cleave to the traditional and still-dominant view of their own national identity and national destiny, there is the danger that by their actions they could end up undermining the very basic of their own world view, not only because their efforts to leave the external (European) Union may well result in their cherished view of Britain’s place in the world being exposed as a conceit, but, in the process, because they may also undermine the UK itself. And, whilst it is true that a perhaps surprising number seem not to be overly concerned about the latter, it is hard to imagine that any break-up would not be the source of regret and recrimination.”

The enquirer may start by reading this conclusion, and then reading the book with an appreciation of its aims, purposes, and eventual goal; or begin at page one and read to the conclusion of the book, deepening, and widening an understanding of the overall thesis which determines the conclusion. Whichever method of approach is used, the book will impress with its thesis that Englishness has indeed been a catalyst for change in the life of the people of the British Isles.

The book will repay attentive reading and thoughtful consideration, especially, but not only, for those with an interest in the deliberations, directions, and developments in British political life.


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