Enigmatic man – revolutionary musician

This article concerns the revolutionary operatic compositions of the enigmatic German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883).

However, it is the view of the Music Historian-in-Residence with the San Francisco Performance, Professor Robert Greenberg, that any review of Wagner the composer must begin with a consideration of a fellow German composer, Carl Maria von Weber. Greenberg believes that Weber’s opera, Der Freischutz, “almost single-handedly spawned a German nationalist opera tradition”. This opera was a major influence on the late romantic operas of Richard Wagner.

Not only considered to be “a superb composer, brilliant pianist, and conductor, as well as a sharp and perceptive music critic”, Weber pre-dated Wagner in his determination to instigate “a desire for nationhood” into the German musical style. The result was Der Freischutz, “a self-sufficient work of art.”  The title of this work is translated into English as “The Magic Bullets”. However, in German, it is more accurately called “The Free Shooter”. As for the opera itself, the reader can agree with Philip Spitta, the German musicologist, when he said that “the German nation had found its musical voice”. This discovery was to have ramifications beyond the realm of music.

Echoes of the style, if not the content, of Der Freischutz can be heard in the early operatic works of Richard Wagner, notably Die Feen (The Fairies). As with the latter, Der Freischutz is about “the collision of the mortal and spirit worlds, an opera in which myth mixes freely with newly invented dramatic situations”. The foregoing elements combine to produce an opera which has an overall theme of “redemption and triumph over evil”. This was to become a major theme in romantic German opera, used firstly in the work of Weber, and then extensively featuring in the operas of Richard Wagner.

It is instructive at this point to mention the place of “Recitative” in the development of the operatic tradition. Recitative is a half-sung, half-spoken, simply accompanied, syllabically set passage in which words and the actions they represent are of primary importance. As such, recitative is an essential part of high romantic opera – as it was in all opera during Weber’s lifetime. These dialogue sections can, however, be somewhat intrusive on the flow of the music in the romantic opera tradition

The non-stop musical accompaniment to operatic drama, without the dialogue, was not to flower until Richard Wagner’s arrival on the European musical scene. Therefore, the recitative sections of Weber’s opera, as well as the early Wagner operas, need to be judged on their own merits. In the case of Der Freischutz, the recitative is easy on the ear, limited in duration, and provides something of a preparation for the ongoing enjoyment of the music, and, peremptorily, for the operas of Wagner.

Richard Wagner brought a revolution into the arena of operatic composition. Music replaces dialogue; drama replaces the spoken voice. Not only a composer of great music. Wagner was also a theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works.

With Wagner, nothing was to be permitted that would impinge upon the dramatic narrative his operas were composed to tell. The “music drama” operatic form was created by Wagner and refers to “a thoroughly composed operatic work that stresses dramatic and psychological content, and in which voices and orchestra are completely intertwined and of equal importance” (Greenberg, The Music of Richard Wagner, 2010). The music served the story being told, and, increasingly, this story focused on the development and importance of the German nation.

In time, this aspect of Wagner’s compositions would assume not only a major importance in music, but also in the shaping of the consciousness of the German people, with major effects on German literature, the psychological and religious attitudes of the German people, Germany’s developing militarism, and, eventually, on the direction of world history.

In the view of Robert Greenberg, Richard Wagner was “a composer of the greatest genius, a poet, a self-styled theorist, and a rabid German nationalist.” He is primarily known for his major operatic output – The Flying Dutchman (1841), Tannhauser (1845), Lohengrin (1848), Tristan and Isolde (1865), The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867), Parsifal (1882), and the four music dramas that constitute the “Ring cycle” (Das Rheingold, 1869; Die Walkure, 1870; Siegfried, 1876; and Gotterdammerung, 1876). Each of these is massive in proportion, detailed in their story-telling, and inspirational in their musical dimensions and emotional depths.

Greenberg is again instructive when he says that “Wagner brought together the diverse strands of his political and philosophical beliefs, musical iconography, and compositional technique, to create an artistic legacy wholly his own. There’s nothing else remotely like it in the history of western music.” (The Music of Richard Wagner, 2010)

It is over two hundred years since Richard Wagner was born. In all that time, his first three completed operas have not found a firm place in the repertoire. This is surprising, as each of these compositions has its appeal, particularly so in the case of Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, 1840). The other two operas are, in order of their date of date of composition, Die Feen (The Fairies, 1834), and Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836).

Die Feen has to do with the interacting world of fairies and mortals, hidden identities, betrayal, underworld punishment, and reconciliation through the power of music. Das Liebesverbot is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It is set in Palermo, Italy, and focuses on the Regent Friedrich who has banned sexual immorality from his kingdom. But he himself is guilty of the same and, when his hypocrisy is revealed, he reverses his decision. Rienzi, the most successful of Wagner’s early operas, is based on the Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes. Set in 4th century Rome, Rienzi, a dedicated republican, refuses to become the king of Rome. He is conspired against by a rival family and is excommunicated from the city, eventually dying with his sister in a fire which destroys the Capitol.

As these early operas show, from the outset Wagner had a “cosmopolitan view of opera and its sources”. Already with The Fairies, Wagner revealed that his operatic material would be drawn from a “strange amalgam of myth, history, and fairy-tale”. His operas increasingly drew on Germanic folklore as, building on a foundation laid by Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz (see above), Wagner constructed a musical edifice to manifest the further development of German nationalism.

Each of the first three operas have their distinctive features. Wagner never saw a performance of the complete Die Feen, and the world premiere of Das Liebesverbot was a not a success. Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, was different, it was one of the most successful of his operas during his lifetime, making it the more surprising that it has not since found favour amongst operagoers. However, the later operas of Wagner contain echoes of these early compositions, for example, in the Overture to Tannhauser we can hear expansive echoes of the Overture to Die Feen.

Notwithstanding, the first three above-named operas never quite reached the heights of popularity obtained by Wagner’s other ten completed opera compositions. Today, this can be seen, not only in the absence from opera house productions of the first three operas, but also in the paucity of available recordings of the same. Nevertheless, in the later operas there can be seen some of the motifs that first appeared in earlier works – a noticeable one being the redemption of a man through the love of a woman, as well as those that prefigured Wagner’s German nationalism.

It is arguable as to whether Wagner’s version of German nationalism was expressed through his music, or whether the music’s characters and background developed his nationalism. It was, nevertheless, in his later operatic compositions that Wagner’s version of German nationalism can be most emphatically seen, starting with The Flying Dutchman (1840-41) and ending with Parsifal (1877-1882). In between there were the music dramas of a visionary genius, albeit emanating from a person who was once described as “perhaps the most unattractive human being in the history of Western music, and many would prefer to ignore his character and instead focus on the music he composed.”

Richard Wagner is often criticised for being a main contributor to the 19th century formation of German anti-Semitism, and this was one factor in Wagner losing the admiration of and friendship with the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. However, to forensically dissect the character of Richard Wagner would seem to be an impossible task, as it was Wagner’s “attitude and beliefs that gave him the strength to survive the [personal] crises of his life and the experiential grist from which he created his theatrical production.” (Greenberg, 2010).

Richard Wagner, the enigmatic man, is certainly not above criticism; Wagner, the revolutionary musician, is another matter!

(For readers who may wish to follow-up the recorded output of the operas of Weber and Wagner, the following recommendations may be of service.

Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischutz: Nicholas Harnoncourt, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Berlin Radio Chorus. This is a digital recording on the Teldec label from 1996, reissued on Warner Classics in 2016.  The recording is as good as they come, with a roll call of well-known Wagnerian singers.

Ricard Wagner: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes: Wolfgang Sawallisch, conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, with the Bavarian State Opera Chorus. This is a 9 CD box set, originally digitally recorded from 1983 live concerts, and now on the ORFEO label from 2013. Again, singers and recordings are from the top drawer of contemporary Wagnerian artists.

The later opera productions of Wagner are all available on CD and DVD, from a large variety of major recording labels, with highly praised singers, conductors, orchestras, and choruses, all of which are ample testimony to the musical genius that was Richard Wagner).


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The passing parade

Earlier this week, I had an email from a UK friend encouraging me to “keep smiling”. The invitation was in relation to the demise of Donald Trump, the former President of the USA. Trump was no longer the President of the USA – that must be a cause for rejoicing. With this I have no disagreement. In my view, Donald Trump had been a disaster for the USA, and it is likely that his influence will be felt for years to come – and not only in the USA.

On a more practical level, it may be considered strange that, on the day of Prince Philip’s funeral, the start times of major football matches are being altered to suit the time of his funeral service. Under present lockdown conditions in England, this decision seems quite unnecessary and over-reactive. The passing of the Duke of Edinburgh was the signal for around the clock extended discussion on the immediate circumstances of his passing, the effect of his death on the major members of the royal family, the future shape of the monarchy, and related subjects – even an elaborate inspection of expensive displays of flowers laid at suitable locations by members of an entranced public. What was not heard was any serious discussion on whether the monarchy had a future!

Coincidentally, around the same time as I received the above-mentioned email, I had another email from an Australian friend. The tone of this email was a little different. The friend was conveying condolences to me on the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Knowing that I was a convinced republican, I can only conclude that my Aussie friend was being just a little facetious.

Whilst the death of the Duke of Edinburgh was nothing to smile about, and duly deserved its moment of pause and recollect, nevertheless, I was amazed at the reaction to this event from the English media. For days on end the tabloid newspapers confronted the public with headlines favourable to both Prince Philip and the royalty he represented. Wall-to-wall television coverage newly informed or reminded the British public of the Prince Philip’s military achievements, esteemed civic service, paternal family relationships, and his personal appeal to the public.

In the event, my response to the correspondence from both friends was similar. I was grateful for the invitation to smile. The removal of Donald Trump from the equation was swift, though his lingering presence on the edge of USA politics is a cause of some concern. However, I gave extended time to thinking around my response at the attempt to join the general consolation over the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.

His military record was over-stated; he was, in fact, in charge of a searchlight on a Royal Navy frigate. Like other members of his family, the medals that glaringly decorated his military uniforms were mainly honorary awards. His discriminatory remarks towards people of colour have been well documented. He was the paternal figure in a seriously dysfunctional family that involved controversy with both his children and grandchildren. He might engender some sympathy for the fact that he spent a substantial proportion of his public life gazing at the back of his wife!

As a republican, I found it to be rather strange that there was little comment about Prince Philip’s death emanating from the office of the British Republican Movement (BRM). In this regard, and in pointing out the fact that the news of Prince Philip’s death has been met with the expected response from the media, there was a strangely muted response from Graham Smith, the CEO of BRM, when he said of Prince Philip that, “His death is a personal and private matter for his family, and we won’t be saying too much about it over the coming weeks.”

However, Graham Smith did wish to point out that BRM, “Had been on the right side of the argument about how the media have responded, with a huge public reaction against the excessive wall-to-wall TV and radio coverage.” This comment was in relation to over 100,000 complaints about the BBC’s coverage of Prince Philip’s death during the past week – one of which was mine!

The nature of my complaint included the fact that the coverage was quite excessive in relation to the place occupied by the Duke of Edinburgh in the national life of the United Kingdom. The programming and its content lacked balance – it tended to be a paeon of praise to Prince Philip, largely ignoring aspects of his character and role that many, including myself, would consider detrimental to the views and practices of British people. At times, the coverage was obsequious, biased, and pandered to a highly favourable view of the monarchy – a view not shared by all British citizens.

In such circumstances as the death of a “royal”, the BBC, unfortunately, reverts to type as the major media outlet for monarchy. This is unacceptable for a public broadcasting network paid for by the taxpayer. Where were the legitimate alternative views in the BBC’s programming – views for which there is legislation in the BBC’s charter?” 

In his letter to members of the BRM, Graham Smith further states that, “The death of a public figure is always something the news media will and should cover. Yet it is hard to imagine a similar response had it been a sitting prime minister or US president dying in office at an old age. This is something broadcasters will need to think very carefully about, as the monarchy is fast heading for a collision with modern British values and democratic instincts.”

Interestingly, no less a journalist than Polly Toynbee picked-up on the rather quiet response from Republic. In an article in The Guardian (15.04.20), she stated that, “No joy even from the anti-monarchy group Republic, which politely sent its condolences.” Toynbee was perhaps nearer the mark when she stated that “The Elizabethan age is slowly drawing to a close. The end of Prince Philip’s long life is a dress rehearsal for its final curtain, when the country will find itself reviewing what it has become, the choices it has made.”

Afua Hirsch is a Norwegian-born British writer, broadcaster, and former barrister, who has worked as a journalist for The Guardian, and was the Social Affairs and Education Editor for Sky News from 2014 until 2017. She is also a woman of colour who, in response to the death of Prince Philip, wrote an article entitled We can mourn Prince Philip, but not the monarchy.

In this article, Afua Hirsch says, “Above all, the unspoken requirement for us to publicly celebrate the monarchy’s gains – or mourn any of its losses – demands that I internalise a history of violence and racism against my own ancestors. The instinct I still feel to apologise for not doing so is evidence of how strongly those forces still exist.”

Hirsch concludes her article with, “So, if there is a fitting tribute to the passing of Prince Philip, I believe it would be to learn – with honesty – the lessons from both his life and the reactions to his death.” The parade is passing, with the hope that it will soon end.


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Shadows on a wall

At a social gathering a few years ago, the topic of conversation turned to matters concerning the British monarchy. In due course the conversation turned towards the existence of the position of a king or queen, not to mention the necessity, or otherwise, of having an extended “royal family” linked to that queen or king.

As part of the general conversation, I expressed an opinion that, as a member of the British Republican Movement, I was opposed to the existence of a monarchy in the UK. Not being a stranger to opposition on this topic, it was no real surprise when one participant in the conversation commented “Leave our Queen alone”. My response to this was to assert that, by family background, birth, residence, marriage, and having been a British taxpayer for a significant proportion of my working life, my “British” credentials were impeccable, and that Queen Elizabeth is as much “my queen” as she is of any other – if I so choose!

A king or queen, as well as members of her or his family, is an aspect of governance in the UK. As numerous investigations have shown, this is an undeniable fact. Therefore, the matter of monarchy is, in many respects, a matter for politics. It is fatuous to deny the undeniable. Furthermore, recent events in the lives of the “royals” have shown that they share the moods and modes, as well as the customs and conventions, of British life, in much the same manner as other citizens of the kingdom – even if they do not, or cannot, recognise the fact, or if they take their Britishness to an unprecedented level. Being a political phenomenon, therefore, permits the monarchy to be a matter for discussion.

This consideration of the monarchy being a matter for discussion, has recently been given a new impetus by the interview that Harry Windsor and Megan Markle, the erstwhile Duke and Duchess of Sussex, gave with the American television presenter Oprah Winfrey. This interview was more devastating than many had expected, as one of the more shocking details outlined in it was the claim that, during Megan Markle’s pregnancy, someone in Buckingham Palace had expressed concern about the skin colour of the Sussex’s baby. This revelation continues to have reverberating effects.

Naturally, the British Republican Movement (BRM) picked-up this news and it has been included in the BRM’s campaign to end the British monarchy. In a press release, Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, said “The interview has shown everyone what we have known for a long time: the monarchy is bad for Britain and bad for the royals. It is time to abolish the monarchy and ensure that the Queen is Britain’s last monarch.”

Republic has launched a new petition, calling for the abolition of the monarchy. The petition is on Republic’s own website (www.republic.org.uk) and, when the time comes, it will be handed to parliament.

As a republican, it is my view that the royals are at the apex of a triangle of privilege within UK society. The institution of monarchy is at the centre of a system of governance, as well as social and economic organisation, that has been dominant in the British Isles for many centuries. The institutions forming this system include military, legal, and religious institutions. Today’s British monarchy may not believe that it possesses the divine right to reign, but its existence contributes to the perpetuation of class and social divisions, of wealth and status inequality, and all, or much of it, is financed by the British taxpayer.

These facts make it more mystifying that, despite major dysfunctions within their family, the huge gap in personal philosophies, living standards and styles between the royals and rest of British citizenry, the nature of the royal family’s inherited existence, and the monarchy’s role in British colonial expansion, there is not a greater antipathy towards monarchy. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the national psychology of the British people. In this respect, the historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga, has said that, “Trapped in a make-believe past, we are unable to recognise how our real history shapes our culture and our attitudes. Fearful of confronting that true past, we struggle to reshape our institutions for the future, even when gifted an extraordinary opportunity for renewal”.

As a former teacher in Secondary School Humanities, it was my privilege and joy to teach “A” Level Philosophy and Ethics. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the course, for students and teacher alike, was teaching and learning about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. This allegory belonged to the great philosopher’s theory of knowledge (epistemology). Interestingly, the allegory appears in Book VII of Plato’s “The Republic” (though, it should be noted, a “republic” in Plato’s days was not what it would signify today).

The “Allegory of the Cave” offers several ways of storytelling and interpreting. Basically, however, the allegory depicts chained people living in a cave. The cave represents the world of sense-experience. In the cave, people see only unreal objects, shadows, or images.  The dark cave symbolically suggests the unenlightened contemporary world, and the chained people those who live in this world. The raised wall of the cave reflects the shadows of the chained people when the muted sunlight from the cave’s entrance falls on them. The wall symbolises the limitation of their thinking, and the shadows symbolically suggest the world of their sensory perception, which Plato considered was an illusion.

The “Allegory of the Cave” is a metaphor designed to illustrate human perception, ideologies, illusions, opinions, and sensory appearances. The cave is a prison for individuals who base their knowledge on such things. Socrates, the famous teacher of Plato, and the one whose ideas and teachings come to us via Plato, explains how the philosopher is like a former prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not represent reality.

As I ruminated on the Sussex’s interview with Winfrey, perused the numerous reviews and articles written about the event, and listened to the interminable discussions on it, my thoughts returned again and again to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”.

For this writer, the allegory can be applied to the British royal family. Their lives are illusions – mere shadowy reflections on the personal and institutional walls of excess, privilege, celebrity, and historical pedigree. Each of the foregoing circumscribe, limit, and ensure their particular and prescribed understanding and appreciation of what it is to be genuinely human. As a family – a cohort – they are chained as slaves to their sense of duty and self-importance, lacking in empathy, and limited in their thinking and appreciation by the institutional bonds that bind them to their mutual ideologies, as well as their self-imputed and self-important activities and tasks.

The monarchy needs to unshackle its chains, tear down its coruscating walls, escape the delusional images of the cave, and come out of the shadows into the full radiance of the light that is the reality of 21st century, democratic Britain. The prisoners need to become more like the philosophers, not mere shadows on a wall.


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Who pulls the strings?

When I was a theological student at Whitley college, University of Melbourne, I acquired the reputation of being “the champion of lost causes”. There was no specific cause of which I was attested as being a champion, it just seemed that I was prepared to argue the case for persons and situations for which few, if any, others would be prepared to make a stand.

I am a member of Republic, a movement in the UK that campaigns for the end of the British monarchy. When I make this known to others, through private conversation or articles such as this blog, I often get the same response to that which I experienced as a student. Surely, such a movement is a lost cause in contemporary Britain? I was recently reminded of this now rather distant, but not completely forgotten, personal reputation when reading an article by Polly Toynbee, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper.

Toynbee had written an article with the heading, “Should Elizabeth II be Elizabeth the Last? At least allow Britain a debate.” The article addressed the issue of the extent to which “The Queen is less of a constitutional monarch then we thought.” Prior to Toynbee’s article, The Guardian had revealed that Elizabeth Windsor had “used her Queen’s consent powers to vet more than 1,000 laws before they reached parliament.”

In explanation, the article stated that, constitutionally, the Queen is supposed to act on the advice of the government. The monarch, it is said, “merely signs the laws that ministers bring to her”. This is a charade, conducted mainly behind closed doors, and which shields the Queen’s actions from the public gaze, so that the citizenry fails to realise what is going on. Indeed, documents in the National Archives reveal that Her majesty has managed, in secret, to get laws changed in favour of her personal interests – before even they were introduced!

Moreover, further memos unearthed from the same National Archives have shown how she applied pressure on the UK government in the 1970’s, especially during the prime ministership of Edward Heath, to ensure that the extent of her private wealth stayed secret. However, it was not just the governments of the 1970’s, successive British governments, before and since, had “bent at the knee”, showing how weekly meetings with the Queen had kept prime ministers in awe and subjection.

The words of the winning British entry in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest, “Puppet on a string”, seem to suggest themselves: “In or out, there is never a doubt; Just who is pulling the strings, I (prime minister) am all tied up to you (the Queen)” (lyrics by Martin and Coulter, sung by Sandie Shaw).

It is an understatement to say that the Queen is a very wealthy woman, with a Sunday Times estimated personal fortune of £350m. The Forbes List puts her down for around £72.5b (much of that, being royalty assets, is, however, not hers to keep). Moreover, the “Paradise Papers leaked to The Guardian showed she personally has millions in the off-shore tax havens of the Bermuda and the Cayman Islands – those shameful last remnants of her lost empire.”

Polly Toynbee’s article goes on to argue that it is not her influence, nor her wealth or secrecy, that is of prime importance. What reflects the real damage to the British people, if not those throughout the Commonwealth, is the fact that the very existence of monarchy “ambushes and infantilises the public imagination, making us their subjects in mind and spirit. The Crown, The Queen and countless lesser dramatisations, remind us how transfixed we are as the soap opera of royal births, weddings, divorces, and deaths marks the timeline of our own lives.”

The roots of such narratives can be found in British history, British exceptionalism, the magic of majesty, the amazement induced by the extent of the British royal fetish, the corruption of an unelected House of Lords (where position can be bought by donation), the institutional links of royalty with the Established State Church of England, and even Shakespeare is partly to blame with his literary focus on the rise and fall of kings. All of this adds up to the absurdity of modern monarchy.

Toynbee draws together the overall argument of her article by stating that the reign of Elizabeth II “is an emblem of Britain’s essential and enduring conservatism.”, and that monarchy “stands as a symbol for our increasingly rigid and immobile society.” This reminded me of some words of the old hymn, “All things bright and beautiful”, I learned as a child in Sunday School: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” Shameful words with an inappropriate title!

Before concluding her article, however, Toynbee makes the statement that “Republicanism feels like a lost cause.” However, is it a “lost cause”? Whilst three times more people back the monarchy than a republic, yet “little by little opinion inches along”. A recent poll by YouGov finds that support for the monarchy is slowly eroding. Young people are much less monarchist than their forebears; parts of the UK, notably in Scotland, are much less monarchist that the south of England; the next in line to be monarch, Charles Windsor, is much less popular than his mother, Elizabeth Windsor.

The Queen has been an immensely popular monarch. Elizabeth II is now, however, a very elderly woman and when she dies, likely within the next decade, surely, says Polly Toynbee, the question should be asked of the British people, “Should she be Elizabeth the Last?”

As a member of the British Republican Movement, I recently received an email from the CEO of Republic concerning Prince Charles and the Duchy of Cornwall. The content of the email focused on Prince Charles’s bid to win exemption from important new home ownership laws. The Duchy of Cornwall, which Prince Charles runs as his own private business, is exempt from lots of different laws. Either a law does not apply to the Duchy of Cornwall or the Duchy will face no consequences if they break the law.

Now the government is planning major reforms of leasehold rights. The reforms will mean people who own their homes, but not the land their homes stand on, will find it easier to buy the land, and will be better protected from unscrupulous land-owners – unless you live on Duchy of Cornwall land owned by Prince Charles! Already, Duchy tenants are excluded from the right to buy the freehold, which would give them ownership of the land under their homes.

We live in a land where the introduction of death duties for the aristocracy has seriously depleted their power and wealth – for all but royalty, who are exempt from such taxes! This situation indicates that, in this country, we are not all equal under the law – particularly if your landlord is Prince Charles or you are a member of the extended royal family.

The reforming new home ownership laws (see above) are an opportunity to put that right, but Charles Windsor is already lobbying to get himself exempted from the new reforms. This reflects the actions of his mother who sought to maintain government secrecy about her wealth and, furthermore, endeavoured to change government laws to favour her personal and family convenience and situation.

In the light of the above, the question, “Is Republicanism a lost cause?”, should be replaced with the alternative question, “Does Monarchy have a future?” The more that becomes known of the machinations and subterfuge of royalty with respect to law and government, the more it asks questions of the relevance, efficacy, and morality of a British monarchy. Surely, in the democracy that purports to be the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, the question of the future of the House of Windsor should be at least put to the British people?


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The getting of wisdom

I recently received an email from a friend in Australia. My friend and I share similar social and political views, cultivated over many years of face-to-face-conversation and email correspondence. His latest email came with an attached video. The video featured George Monbiot, the British author, journalist, and campaigner speaking about contemporary political developments. Monbiot was outlining his belief that there has been a huge reorientation of the shape of global politics.

He is of the view that oligarchs around the world are heavily influencing political developments. They have “discovered the formula for persuading the poor to vote for the interests of those who are very rich”. This formula includes the “massive use of lies, and cheating on an unprecedented scale, misrepresentation, mobilising social media to generate manipulative and mendacious adverts, false news, and conspiracy theories for the purpose of persuading people how to vote, or to not vote at all.”

The oligarchical interests are putting forward persons whom Monbiot refers to as “killer clowns” – seductive and popular political figures like Trump (USA), Johnson (UK), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Modi (India), Morrison (Australia), and similar others in countries such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines. These puppet-like figures encourage the public to laugh along with them, luring the public into a false consciousness, whilst those behind them manipulate what is happening. This is a global phenomenon which suggests that leaders of opposition parties, e.g., Hilary Clinton (USA) and Jeremy Corbyn (UK), and alternative political platforms, are not primarily to blame for the apparent failure to provide successful opposition to governmental systems and prominent leaders.

Unfortunately, due to the very same billionaire press and media ownership and control of which he speaks, George Monbiot – with his timely and important message – does not get the attention that the message, and the presenting person, deserves. The prophet is, indeed, “without honour in his own country”. My corresponding friend concluded his email with the words, “I know that I am preaching to the converted”. My response was that… “even the ‘converted’ need a refresher course now and again.”

In the past I have constantly been puzzled, though perhaps I should not have been, as to why genuinely working-class people (surely the majority in western democracies, though we divide them into other categories), continually vote-in wealthy, right-wing, manipulative, distasteful persons to govern them – putting-up with their lies, amorality, misuse of public funds, misogyny, law-breaking, exceptionalism, etc. Monbiot’s analysis provides many of the missing pieces to the puzzle.

“Where have all the flowers (of politics) gone?” The answer, my friends, may be “blowin’ in the wind”. Yes, “the times they are a’changin”, but have they got any better? Puff the Magic Dragon seems to have permanently and sadly “slipped back into his cave”. Comic characters (Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the rest of the “marvellous” brigade), seem to have replaced the gods as sources of hope for the future, and the overcoming of repression and crime. The modern heroes of the computer-age games are the presiding champions over the insidious persons and situations threatening the minds of contemporary young people. The conflict model highlighted by the modern heroes, their emphasis on combat, rather than prevention, is indicative of the contemporary social and political milieu.

Has there been any genuine change since the days of the rioting on the college campuses in the USA? Was revolution limited only to the librettos of the popular operatic songs that came out of Nashville, Liverpool, and San Francisco in the 1960’s, the anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam conflict, or the anger at political corruption within inept western governments? Where can be heard the echoes of the voices of yesteryear? The emphasis on ecology, planet warming, and the annihilation of animal, insect and plant species may have replaced other international concerns, but the practical solutions to these issues have thrown-up few champions. David Attenborough and George Monbiot are among the few.

As I write, increased numbers of people around the globe are dying in consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The precious personal and material resources of even the most industrially, economically, and medically advanced countries are being stretched to the limits of their endurance. Even in this situation, fortunes are being made, resources are being squandered, corruption is being practiced, ignorance is being rewarded, and the rational bases of most philosophic and religious teachings – freedom, love, compassion – are being practiced in short measure, with their lack amongst national leaders blissfully forgiven by an undemanding public. 

When he was not working as an iron moulder in a foundry, my father was a preacher. As a life-long supporter of the Labour Party and a former shop steward, he was fond of saying that “money is the root of all evil”. Money, and the pursuit of wealth, brings prestige, power and all those things that emanate from being wealthy. Philanthropy generally only occurs amongst those who can afford it. I am of the view, however, that the productive activity that results in the accumulation of wealth is itself the activity of the genuinely philanthropic – those who work to make money for those who own and direct their work.

Basic Marxism? No, basic observation and critique. Reading Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” (1911), has been instructive – the equal of anything of Marx, though I suspect that the latter may have been a source of the former.

I devoted a considerable portion of my working life to an institution that claimed to be able to change the way of human life, but rarely did – at least not on an institutional scale (I can think of individual cases, but numbers of these were, nonetheless, often captured by the institution). Through reading, videos, conversation, writing, music, and self-critique, I am now engaged in further exploration and learning about the extensive scope of the many and varied things that should have involved the deeper and wider participation of, amongst other organisations, the institutional Christian Church.

This further education has become a retirement enquiry into, if not pursuit of, what could (should?) have been. What was intended, or, perhaps, dreamed about in a cave; assumed from “an old-rugged cross”; meditated upon under a Bodhi tree; or the outcome of reflections on the history or wisdom of the ancestors.

Where are the signs of hope? Where are the “green shoots in the concrete, the “buds of May”? What hope is there in Biden’s (American) “one nation”, Johnson’s (British) “taking back control”, or the “Pentecostal prayer for progress and plenitude” that seems to be coming out of  Morrison’s Australia?

What price (universal) democracy – but who are “the people”? Personal and national revolution – with hopes of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”? Worldwide integration, incorporating the “Grey Nation” of black and white together – but what about the Chinese? Genuine and successful socialism – but what price will need to be paid? The hopes and questions could go on, with another lifetime being required to even begin to find some answers. What price resurrection?

The “Getting of Wisdom” (with a nod to Henry Handel Richardson) is more comprehensive than the instruction of the school (even a private school in Melbourne) – which takes me back to where I may have started; with an end point that has no full stop but, nevertheless, deserves the occasional reminder.


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We shall overcome

As we come towards the end of 2020, the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are beset by the twin issues of the spread of the Covid-19 virus, and the present situation with respect to Brexit.

The first issue, the spread of the coronavirus, is assuming a new significance by the existence of a new variant, one that is threatening to get out of control. Various parts of the country have gone into a major lockdown, with the distinct possibility that, before the year ends, this lockdown may be on a national scale.

Over the Christmas period and beyond, the people of the UK face the prospect of there being a limitation on the time in which families can get together – and only in designated places, and with limited numbers of persons. There is the distinct possibility that numbers of elderly persons will face Christmas and New Year festivities in lonely isolation from other members of their families, including grandchildren.

Fortunately, and for many not before time, vaccines to combat the coronavirus are being rolled-out across the country, with present preference for vaccinating those in essential services – notably in hospitals and care homes – as well as the elderly at home. The vaccination programme will gradually work its way through the entire population, from older to younger, but this will take many months. There will be many for whom a badge of courage will be replaced by a band of honour once they have been vaccinated.

Unfortunately, during the period of the pandemic so far, the British people have often been ill-served by its government. Decisions have been delayed, protective equipment has been substandard, contracts for the provision of services have been given to the wrong companies, testing and tracing projects have been near to shambolic. To add to the confusion and agony of planning and programming, the established public sector services in health and welfare are being largely ignored in favour of private companies – too many of whom with links to government personnel.

There has been some sympathy for the government for, having been elected a year ago with an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament, it now finds itself plunged into a fight with a pandemic for which it was ill-prepared and has proved to be ill-suited. So too, the government faces an opposition that is in the process of reorganising itself after years of leadership failures and an inability to accurately define itself.

The second issue is the ongoing situation with respect to the seemingly unending question of Brexit. Numerous deadlines have come and gone and still there is indecision, lack of agreement, and extended discussion on various matters (e.g., UK sovereignty, fishing rights for EU/UK fishermen, and a level playing field for economic exchange) that, for years, have dogged the discussions between the UK and the EU.

As this article is being written, Christmas Eve, 2020, there is no clear understanding as to what will constitute a workable deal between the EU and the UK, with a “no deal” scenario (masqueraded as “the Australian deal”) being a distinct possibility. There exist the twin feelings that either those engaged in the negotiations between the EU and the UK are not up to the job, or else a reasonable and practical agreement between the two bodies seems beyond the realms of possibility.

Of course, the economic damages to the UK of a no deal have been thoroughly explored, though much of this has been ignored. So too, incomplete attention has been given to the effect of a no deal or inadequate deal on the situation in Scotland, as well as the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The prospect of an incoming President of the USA, moreover, one with Irish roots, being favourable towards an “Irish criterion”, will signal gloom for those formerly hopeful of a meaningful trade deal with the USA. There will no longer be an anti-EU Donald Trump in the White House. Gone will be the ego-boosting bonhomie between the leadership of the USA and the UK.

Scotland is to hold its own national election next May. Present indications suggest that the Scottish National Party will again win with a sizeable majority, irrespective of the outcome of dealings between the UK and the EU. Such a result will hasten calls for another referendum on Scottish independence from the UK. Whether a British Parliament can refuse such an action is a matter of conjecture.

The UK faces the distinct prospect of a break-up, with an independent Scotland being in the vanguard of a movement that, for the above reasons and others, could see the Irish being once again united. The Irish question has been given a new edge during the past year in consequence of the British government’ s cavalier treatment of the trade border between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain.

An increasing number of commentators believe that the odds are stacked against the UK holding together. Break-up is more likely. This in turn brings about more general and widespread damages than the economic damage caused by the UK leaving the EU.

When putting together the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic with those of Brexit, it is realised that there is a sequence of “spiralling effects”. These have been variously described as a “knock-on of political consequences”, the fostering of “manic-depressive pessimism”, a “weakening of centrist political moorings”, a rise of “national-utopian fantasies”, and an “increase in extremism and instability” (with thanks to a recent Federal Trust essay for suggesting headings such as these).

As the political sociologist, Ira Straus, has reminded us, “The logic of separates states leads also to gradual reversion towards intra-Isles geopolitical struggles” (No EU Deal, no US Deal: US-EU again aligned, UK out in the cold). It may be that the foregoing could be termed “unpredictable”. This could be a political/diplomatic term that mean that they are in fact “predictably very damaging; with great uncertainty however, over their specifics.”

This writer was born at the end of WWII. Scarcely has there been in his lifetime such personal and international momentous times as now – that would include family emigration from the UK to Australia, the Cuban Crisis, the Vietnam War, personal unemployment, and the worldwide economic recession of 2008. Along with a multitude of others, the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the looming realities of Brexit, are scarcely the kinds of realities for which the experiences of life are adequate preparations.

The year 2021 will be brings its own challenges, some of which will be formidable. However, the coming year may be greeted with a strange excitement at the prospect of overcoming adversity, an indomitable spirit that is convinced that we can rise above even the most intractable of situations, accompanied by an empathy and compassion for others less fortunate than oneself. 2021 may yet turn out to be the most ambitious, the most achieving and fulfilling, the most singularly successful that individually, and as a nation, we have yet experienced.  

One of the most recognisable and memorable songs from the 1960’s – that decade of student protest, the Black Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, the Kennedy assassinations, and, of course, the Vietnam War – was the song “We shall overcome”. The unforgettable words of this song are as relevant for today as when they were first composed and sung.


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All over…,bar the shouting

In Australia, where I grew up, there is a saying: “It’s all over…bar the shouting”. Usually, this is said with reference to sporting events, but it can apply to others, including political happenings. So, with contemporary reference, what is over is the USA Presidential Election. The shouting is coming from the loser in that election, the present American President, Donald J. Trump.

The election process was prolonged – mainly a consequence of the American election system, enhanced, on this occasion, by the increase in postal voting due to the impact of Covid-19 on the USA population. However, as the election outcome was given after the poll result in the State of Pennsylvania, the volume of shouting increased. Donald Trump, in a seemingly vain attempt to reverse the election result, began a process of vain enquiry and litigation to “derail the voting system, accuse several American States of permitting, even colluding with, election fraud, and announcing that the system cheated him from winning the election.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence against him, Trump claims that he is still the legitimate President of the USA – a claim echoed by a multitude of his diehard followers, and not a few reputable Republican politicians.

Notwithstanding Trump’s vain, rear guard and disreputable litigious action, it appears that Trump, and “Trumpism”, is over. If that truly is the case, then it is to be hoped that, as one British journalist stated, “it is the beginning of the end of the type of empty-airhead-fake promises populism that saw Trump come to power, saw Brexit win, and saw the Tories get back in with such a landslide last December.” Notwithstanding, when you look at the American election result, you realise that, despite “the rambling, incoherent, paranoid, dishonest, childish trash that Trump spouted all of the time”, he got close to half the overall total of the American vote. Scary!

Donald Trump received the second highest number of votes in the history of American Presidential elections (on the latest figures, the 2020 winner, Joe Biden, received the highest ever number of votes – over four million more votes than Trump). So, Donald Trump achieved something that no one would have thought was possible. That tells us a lot, not only about the character of USA Presidential candidates, but also about the state of contemporary American society… and its democracy!

Amongst other contemporary events across the pond, the 2020 Presidential Election has shown that the USA is not what it has generally been seen to be – the “great symbol of truth and democracy, the antidote to tyranny and oppression.” On the contrary, the words, antics, and political manoeuvrings of Donald J. Trump has shown us just how thin is the ice on which the USA stands “above the chilling depths of totalitarianism and fascism”.

The American post 2nd WW geo-political scene is littered with examples of the neurotic and megalomaniacal, the grandiose and the empiric – Truman and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Lyndon Johnson and the ruination of the people and the landscape of Vietnam and Cambodia, Richard Nixon and Watergate, Ronald Reagan and the mirage of his “Star Wars ballistic missile defence system”, the Bush ascendancy and the “American Century” and, finally, Donald Trump and “Make America great again”.

There is a cartoon currently doing the rounds, showing a grown-up Donald Trump in a children’s nursery. He is cowering on the floor yelling “I don’t want to go… I don’t want to go.” The absurdity of his infantile, undignified posturing, often brought, and continues to bring, the USA near to being an object of laughter and derision. The election of a mature person of governance, Joe Biden, as the President of the USA, will be, indeed, already is, a cause for rejoicing in most nations of the world – and amongst their leaders (with apologies to Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un).

Judith Butler is a professor of comparative literature and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley (USA). In her book, “The Force of Nonviolence”, Ms Butler, whilst declaiming that Adolph Hitler and  National Socialism is the model by which all other fascist forms of government should be identified and judged, nevertheless identifies “a general logic of destruction that kicks in when the downfall of a tyrant seems nearly certain.” This destructive impulse was evident in Hitler’s actions when it seemed that the Nazi defensive stronghold was vanquished. Hitler “resolved to destroy the nation itself, ordering a destruction of transportation and communications systems, industrial sites and public utilities. If he was going down, so too was the nation.” Hitler’s missive was called “Destructive Measures on Reich Territory”.

Donald Trump is not Hitler, his politics are not military war (though questions and evidence of  civil strife in the USA have latterly arisen), but his actions following the 2020 American Presidential Election would suggest that “Destructive Measures on American Territory” could be ascribed to Donald Trump’s political activities as the 45th President of the USA.

The above-mentioned actions would include: a refusal to accept the result of the Presidential Election; destructive criticism of the American electoral system; false charges of corruption amongst civic leaders and election officials; incitement to violence of followers; attempted character assassination of political opponents; the pardon of convicted American political figures, and more.

Donald Trump, recently referred to as “the man who has haunted the world’s dreams and sparked a thousand nightmares”, has all but lost. He will leave the White House, or be removed if necessary, but not before his leave-taking makes its maximum impact. The Trump presidency, “a shameful chapter in the history of the republic”, will soon be over, but that is not to forget those announcements and acts which, over the past four years, have caused pain and disgust, as Trump sank to ever lower depths. He is widely regarded amongst his opponents, and many neutral observers, as the worst President in American history.

In addition to those words and action mentioned above, one critic counted that, amongst his many misdemeanours, Donald Trump:

  1. Engaged in ripping children from their parents and keeping them in cages.
  2. Wrote what has been described as “blithely exchanged love letters with the murderous thug who rules the slave state of North Korea”.
  3. Coerced the Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, or else “lose the funds that it needed to defend itself against Vladimir Putin” (the high crime for which he was nearly impeached).
  4. Denied the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, insisting that “it would melt away” (with or without the use of domestic detergent), thereby leaving more than 300,000 Americans to their fate and to their deaths.

When the above are added to his misogynistic and racist comments, the interminable lies, and the electoral turmoil Trump is currently causing with his calculated process of litigation following his defeat in the USA Presidential Election, it is not complicated to work out why it is that his opponents, indeed, neutrals everywhere, wanted Trump’s defeat and ejection from power.

For the winner, however, there has been no “swift moment of euphoria and elation, no unambiguous landslide announced on election night with a drumroll and fireworks display”. Instead, there has been a steady and ongoing counting of the votes, “a verdict delivered in slow motion”, and, perhaps what may prove to be more significant than any of the foregoing, the failure of Joe Biden to win a majority of seats in the USA Senate. This will make it more difficult for a Biden administration to tackle those things that urgently need attention – the climate crisis, racial injustice, the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, greater firearms control, economic inequality, and the USA’s dysfunctional electoral system.

In terms of the American Presidential race, it may be, indeed, “all over…bar the shouting”, but the very nature of this shouting shows that, although Donald Trump is banished from the Oval Office and the power it conveys, Trumpism will live on in the USA, with the potential for future damage to the people, political system, international reputation and activities of the United States of America.

For the time being, however, democrats everywhere may enjoy the defeat of a populist demagogue, a narcissistic rogue who will take away his ball if the game is not played according to his rules and in his own ball park.


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Shocking, but true

Every now and again a book comes along that, after reading it, one wants to strongly recommend to the wider reading public. For me, such a book is The Untold History of the United States.
When commenting on this book The Guardian journalist, Ed Vulliamy, said “This is not history for history’s sake…, this is the history of our present and future; long beyond cold war, into war on terror, war on drugs.” When introducing his book, the co-author, Oliver Stone, stated that the contents of the book are what history students in the USA – and, by implication, history students everywhere – should be taught, rather than the re-cycled and homogenised versions for domestic consumption they are currently taught. The contents of the book justify this statement.
The Untold History of the United States is co-authored by the decorated Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone and the distinguished American University Professor of History Peter Kuznick. Both are North Americans writing about their own country. Daniel Ellsberg, the American economist, activist, and former USA military analyst, and author of the Pentagon Papers, says that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considers the book to be “indispensable reading.”
The history with which the book deals is the modern history of the USA. The period before the 20th Century receives no comment as the material commences with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. There is also a brief treatment of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the book’s overall material. The Untold History of the United States is the history of the period that the authors, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, designate as “the rise and decline of the American empire.”
The book chronicles a “riveting landmark account of the rise and decline of this empire – the most powerful and dominant force the world as ever seen.” It is a broad narrative that traverses the landscape of a century that the American magazine magnate Henry Luce declared would be the “American Century”. Throughout the book, the authors parallel this concept with that attributed to President Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace, that the 20th Century should be “the Century of the Common Man.” It is crystal clear that the authors of this important book on the history on the USA favour the view of Wallace over that of Luce.
The book is a lengthy and elaborate, highly detailed and incisive, investigation of USA history. It is impeccably sourced from the latest research and recently classified documents – personal accounts, government records, biographies and autobiographies, a comprehensive variety of historians and history books, with detailed chapter by chapter notes. The book’s pages are filled with pictures, and the occasional cartoon, of historical persons and events, declassified documents and records, and historical datelines.
The erudition of The Untold History of the United States is quite remarkable, as, beginning with the USA’s forays into Central and South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it plots step-by-step the course of a self-destructive latter-day American history. The concluding section of the edition of the book under review, 2019, comments on Donald Trump’s “cavalier and precedent-defying approach” to presidency. It could be called “the truth on Trump”, and the antics and pronouncements, the follies, of this president could be viewed as an inevitable outcome of the preceding American century.
Reading the book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that, seemingly, have never been taught in the classrooms of America – or anywhere else for that matter!
As indicated in the above, there is also a documentary film series of the book. Having seen these documentaries, which originally appeared on the Public Service Broadcasting Channel (PBS) in the USA, and are now on DVD and Blu-ray, this writer, again, strongly recommends their viewing. In addition to the material in the book, the documentaries contain interviews with the authors and other prominent figures in the political world. The DVDs bring the full force of the book to the screen and impacts both the imagination and the conscience with the breadth and depth of its footage. It helps the enquirer to understand why this history has rarely seen the light of day in the educational establishments of the USA.
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with both the written and filmed material: Do Americans really know and understand their shared and complicated history? How do the citizens of the USA recall the small details and forgotten players that influenced some of the biggest events from America’s past? Will American children, present and future, actually “get” the whole story from reading history books? And how will the foregoing (the events presented in the book) affect the future of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone also narrates the filming contained on the DVDs and his voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to summations, insights, and conclusions that are important for the world, as well as the USA. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and junior, Barack Obama and, of course, Donald J. Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history, are also covered, e.g. Woodrow Wilson and Henry Wallace, and many others.
The book builds “a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire.” Further, it is the view of the book’s authors that this empire has “determined the course of world events for the interests of the few across the 20th Century and beyond.” The motivation and emotion behind the book can be seen in the concluding paragraph. “At the start of this journey, when we began the documentary film and book project, we dedicated it to our six children – biological, adopted, and step, of Asian, African, and European ancestry – and ‘the better world that they and all children deserve’. We end on the same note, affirming our faith in our often misguided, sometimes destructive, and occasionally exalted species, to someday achieve that goal.”
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who has formally studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book, published by Penguin at a very competitive price, and the documentary series, to be a most valuable source of information and recollection. I can recommend both the book, The Untold History of the United States, and the DVD series of the same name, without equivocation.
To conclude, Oliver Stone offers his personal testimony: “From the outset I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our (American) history.”
Read, view, and understand.
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Ironies abound

After a Spring and Summer when the British, if not the worldwide, conversation has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of Autumn finds that Brexit is back on the scene. The major topic within the Britain and Brexit conversation is the thorny subject of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Those familiar with this writer will know that I have often argued for the rightful status within the UK of Northern Ireland – otherwise known as Ulster. This argument has included comment on the perplexing nature of Northern Ireland’s British identity. This can be seen in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, where the British government has suggested that there be a UK border with the Irish Republic down the middle of the Irish Sea. Such a suggestion means that there would be no recognisable land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
So too, the occlusion of Northern Ireland from being an intrinsic part of the UK, can be most brazenly seen when, in recent years, British sporting teams have been called “Great Britain”, or “Team GB”!
Realistically, as well as technically, Great Britain is an island containing the UK countries of Wales, Scotland, and England – but not Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland, though not a part of the island of Great Britain, is a constituent country of the United Kingdom. So Northern Ireland must take its rightful place when teams represent the UK. These teams should not be called “Team GB”! What is wrong with “Team UK”?
This matter reintroduced itself to my consciousness recently when I came across an article, written several years ago, that spoke of the reaction within the UK to the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014. Most of the fall-out from this event had focused on the umbrage that England, the largest partner in the union of the British states, had taken with the promise of more devolved powers for the Scottish parliament. As usual, Northern Ireland opinion, as with the Welsh perspective, had tended towards being ignored, or at least, not heard very loudly.
Northern Ireland has always had close links with Scotland. Many immigrants went to Ulster from Scotland. Scottish west coast seaports are a favoured way for Ulster people to enter the Great Britain mainland. My maternal grandparents left Northern Ireland for Glasgow, Scotland, just before my mother was born. Not surprisingly, my late mother considered herself to be Irish. So, a significant part of my ancestry is Irish.
If, in 2014, Scotland had said “Yes” to independence, then Northern Ireland would have been squeezed between an independent Eurozone state to the south, the Irish Republic (Eire), and an independent and likely Eurozone state a few miles across the sea to the east. The British national flags, conspicuously seen around Ulster, would have been drained of some colour, and the Orange Order on both sides of the Irish Sea may have had cause to question some loyalties.
So, as one newspaper put it, “We had people who believe in the political unity of the island of Ireland supporting the political partition of the island of Great Britain; whilst people who supported the continuing partition of Ireland tramped the streets in support of the unity of Britain”.
To put it another way, Northern Ireland wanted Scotland to stay within the UK, but itself wants no part of the Irish Republic. On the other hand, Scotland had a referendum on withdrawing from the UK, yet wished Ulster to remain as part of the UK and not join with the Irish Republic.
Ironies abound!
To emphasise the ironical, it seems that a pub on the (Roman Catholic and pro-Irish union) Falls Road in Belfast, paid for a pro-independence (for Scotland) “Yes” billboard. So too, on the eve of the referendum, poll graffiti artists climbed halfway up Black Mountain – a hill on the outskirts of Belfast and visible from almost everywhere in that city – and painted a “Yes Scotland” message. Meanwhile, in support of the campaign of “No” to independence for Scotland, the pro-UK Union, anti-Irish unification, Loyal Orange Order held street marches in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, during the week before the referendum vote.
The British Isles certainly have their fair share of irony. Ironies do, indeed, abound! Yet, one further irony sits quietly in the background, that is, we were told, even if the people of Scotland had voted in their referendum to leave the UK, Elizabeth Windsor, the Head of the UK State, would have remained, at least for the foreseeable future, as Head of State for Scotland!
In the event of Scotland becoming independent of the UK, the remaining union of British countries might well have complained about such things as the continuing use of sterling in the Scottish banking system, the matter of Scotland retaining Scottish oil, border controls and passport requirements, but it seems that there would have been no argument about a British monarch remaining as the Head of State for the independent nation of Scotland! As a republican, and a Scot by birth, I find that to be the biggest irony of all.
Strange people, us Brits!
When I worked in community organising with World Vision UK (WVUK), my office tried to appropriately respond to the volatile sectarian situation in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, by having two concurrent community organising projects – one in the Roman Catholic Falls Road and another at the top of the Protestant Shankill Road. The arrangement seemed to work satisfactorily.
Notwithstanding, I always sought to go the extra mile. So, when I went to Belfast on WVUK business, I was accommodated in the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The cathedral was located on the Falls Road, Furthermore, I had the privilege of staying in the same apartment as the most senior Roman Catholic in the whole of the Irish island – the All-Ireland Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church – when he visited Belfast.
The situation was that of a Protestant minister of religion (as I was at the time), and a republican (as I still am), having a room, not at a neutral, non-sectarian “inn”, but high up in the tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in a predominantly Protestant and pro-UK union city! Rather ironic really, but it does indicate that you do not have to be a royalist in Northern Ireland, nor a Roman Catholic, to be respected for being a concerned human being!
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Double vision 2

In my previous blog (Article 153), I sought to discuss some of the inter-connections between the British Republican Movement (BRM) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The focus of the discussion was on such matters as the respective attitudes of these two organisations to such areas of British life as democracy and governance, the monarchy, the role of religion in the life of the British State, and the place of the Church of England (CofE) as the established institutional religion of the nation.
The discussion concluded with the realisation that monarchy is at the very centre of the institutional life of the United Kingdom, including aspects of its governance and the operation of the Established Church. Monarchy’s place is epitomised and legitimised through its institutional connection with a minority faith, the Protestant Church of England. This church is privileged in its presence and archaic in its practice and position. This situation is unsustainable; it is both an affront to the freedom of religious faith and to the democratic principles under which the governance of the UK is supposed to function. This is a major point of intersection between the NSS and the BRM.
It might be asked, then, as to why a concerned and widespread critique and action has not, heretofore, been brought to bear on this situation. This may be due to several contributing factors. It will be my purpose to discuss these factors in the following article, part two of this essay, “Double Vision”.
Firstly, it may be said that the situation is brought about by the inertia of the British people and their democratic institutions.
It might be thought, wrongfully in this writer’s opinion, that monarchy impinges little upon the ordinary and everyday life of the people. On the contrary, monarchy is endemic in the perpetuation of memorable days and ceremonies in national life – especially those to do with seasonal religious festivals and militarism.
Secondly, monarchy – its appearance and presentation, palaces and estates, publicity and celebrity, and its manifold trimmings – is assumed to be a tourist attraction and, therefore, a major contributor to the national coffers.
Several investigations by the BRM have shown this to be a false assumption – even without the continuing presence of a “royal family” tourists would still come to this country in their droves, indeed, it is quite fallacious, if not fatuous, to claim otherwise. For the tourist to any country that still harbours monarchy, the latter is wallpaper; the tourist dollar is not spent on wallpaper, no matter what its colour or pattern.
Thirdly, it is repeatedly stated that Elizabeth Windsor has earned the respect of the British people by the manner of her efficient and devoted attention to her monarchical role.
Most public opinion would say that she has done “a blinder of a job” over a long and successful career. It needs to be recognised, however, that much of what she says and does appertains to the conduct of her official role and its necessary functions. It must also be kept in mind that she, and her considerable extended family, are generously remunerated for their functional duties, enjoy numerous inherited privileges, are amply rewarded in kind for gratuitous services, as well as private and institutional protection from many of the dangers and hardships that are faced by the vast majority of British citizens.
In the evolution of each of the above, the CofE has played its part. The role of the CofE would include the presence of regal cathedrals, seasonal and annual ceremonies of both a national and peculiarly religious nature, rituals in the Houses of Parliament, or events to mark the continuity with the religious past of the nation – especially with the English nation. It needs also to be said that secular figures in the past, notably Charles Bradlaugh, the founder of the National Secular Society, have, through oration, law practice or participation in governance, made known their opposition to the constitution of the UK and, by implication and practical application, the place of monarchy and established religion in this constitution.
Despite the protestations of persons such as Charles Bradlaugh in the late 19th century, as well as those more contemporary protesters to be found in the BRM and NSS, and in the wider society of the 21st century, there remains the affront of the twenty-six bishops of the CofE who are afforded the privilege of sitting with the unelected Lords in the Upper House of the British Parliament, the lack of reform within the cloisters of the CofE, the undemocratic basis for and formation of the House of Lords, or the democratically questionable royal prerogatives given to the government of the day through such bodies as the Privy Council.
Each of the foregoing delivers special privileges to their receivers, making it unlikely that change would be welcomed, at least by those in receipt of such special privileges. It could be concluded, therefore, that the latter is a fourth reason for the lack of a concerted critique of the institution of the monarchy and its relationships with other national institutions.
In a meritocratic democracy where equality is, or should be, a working principle, the ideal is that all persons have the right to choose an education, a career, a partner, a religious faith to follow – or none if that is the desire. A member of the royal family who is in the direct line of succession is unable to make these democratic choices. Her or his life is circumscribed by the intentions and objectives of their future role in British society. That role also prescribes a peculiar religious adherence that necessitates a bias in the choice of religious faith.
What further choice, apart from leaving the religious faith of their choice and passion, does a typical member of the CofE have if his or her political principles and beliefs do not agree with the privileged position of their particular religious faith in British society? Is there a contradiction in the theological statements of Christianity including the pronunciation that “Christ is King” and, by implication, the head of the Christian faith and its constituent churches,  when, in fact, a male monarch – a king – being Head of the British State, is also be the Head of the CofE?
Whilst accepting the role of a monarch in the constitution and practical functions of the CofE, what can a practising member of the CofE do when believing that the life of a monarch is inconsistent with the beliefs and proclamations of the church for which they have sworn fealty? What should the person of faith do when that faith is sullied by its links with governments that operate with principles that are clearly devoid of Christian, or any religious, content – or are simply corrupt?
Does the person of faith face the same limitations within the CofE as does the ordinary British citizen face with the government of the day when wishing to protest at the ideas and actions of their respective institutions? Where does genuine democracy reside in both Church and State in British society?
Persons of religious faith can be found in the membership of the British Republican Movement, though they are most unlikely to be members of the National Secular Society. Monarchists can be active supporters of the NSS, although divesting themselves of any support for the notion of “the divine right to rule of kings and queens”. It is salutary to consider that all founders of the NSS were republicans but, whereas the NSS supports the removal of all unelected bishops from the House of Lords, not all NSS supporters consider that the House of Lords should be an elected chamber. Monarchists, however, are most unlikely to be supporters of the BRM.
The authenticity of the above statements can be verified by an examination of each of founding principles and ongoing activities of each of the BRM and NSS organisations. There are strands in each of these movements which intertwine. Each have campaigns that would welcome the support of the other. Each has a vision of British society that encourages democracy, meritocracy, citizen participation, and freedom of conscience and belief – including religious belief.
I am of the twin view that neither a specific religious faith – Christianity or otherwise, nor a monarchy – inherited or otherwise, should have a privileged place in the public life of British, or any other, society. The reasons for this double perspective, this “double vision”, have been outlined in the above and are the bases for my membership and ongoing support of both the National Secular Society and the British Republican Movement. I commend both organisations to the reader.


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