Conflicts of interests

The UK is facing a General Election on 12 December. At this election we will choose persons to represent the people as Members of Parliament in the British House of Commons. We choose such persons in the belief that they will devote their time and energies to representing us at Westminster. After all, our system of government in the UK is that of a parliamentary democracy.
Moreover, those elected to this national office will be expected to serve their constituencies in a full-time capacity. To this end their salary (over twice the national average), benefits and pensions are generous. We fondly believe our MPs are dedicated to the interests of their constituents and that these interests, or at least what they think are those of the country, always come first. However, is this really the case? Do tenured members of parliament work exclusively on behalf of their constituents?
We sometimes read stories in our daily newspapers of politicians who abuse their office in order to enhance their financial status, for example, by mis-stating their expenses. So too, during the debates over Brexit we have learned of allegations of politicians being backed by what has been described as ‘dark money’. However, little detail of such machinations has been forthcoming and certainly do not seem to have significantly featured in the debates.
The respected weekend newspaper the Observer recently published an article about a Scottish politician who decided to enlarge her income. The politician was of the view that her job of representing the citizens of her constituency in the east of Scotland would have left her time to also represent a global Public Relations firm. Her income from this latter source would have added substantially to her remuneration as an MP.
The politician in question is regarded as ‘an astute and canny politician’ who, after becoming an MP in 2011, quickly rose to prominence in her party and displayed impressive leadership qualities. Not surprisingly, therefore, this news attracted adverse publicity with the result that the MP subsequently opted to drop the arrangement.
The article did not impute any wrongdoing on the part of the politicians, nor did she try to conceal her consideration of a lucrative second income. The issue raised by the newspaper article isn’t so much that she briefly considered ‘the boost that an additional income would bring to her remuneration as an MP and its effect on her lifestyle, but how this would be understood by voters.’
It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand why it is that private firms are attracted to popular politicians. It is not only their personal characteristics but also the access they provide to corridors of power and decision-making. It would be expected that the politicians would be effective at lobbying for the interests they are paid to represent. Whilst constituents may be able to understand and even appreciate the need for a politician to earn more money, they may also have ‘a problem with the potential for a conflict of interests: theirs and the politician’s new employer’.
There were times in my own professional experience when I undertook two jobs at the same time. The primary reason for this was that no single job specification was sufficiently full to demand a full-time salary. On more than one occasion a primary first job appointment was linked with or dependent upon a second appointment. Sometimes this meant that I took on two appointments which, together, required more time than a single appointment permitted. In this case the job load included weekend work, with only one non-working day per week. In this way I acquired an appropriate single salary.
However, on any occasion when I undertook two appointments, the employers were aware of and in definite agreement with this arrangement. It was a way of serving two conjoint tasks without the need for an employer to provide a single full-time salary for either appointment. The foregoing arrangement generally met with the approval of those who were appointing and those being served by the appointments. Indeed, both parties were approving of opportunities to further the work of either, or both, of these appointments with further academic study and, therefore, the dual appointments could be considered as honest and value for money.
It seems axiomatic, therefore, that most voters would surely consider that all politicians, not only the Scottish MP earlier mentioned, should regard their job as a people’s representative in national government as a sole occupation. They are public servants for the duration of their period of office in parliament and their servanthood should be exclusive.
It is to be acknowledged that ‘the work of an MP can be at the mercy of the public’s capriciousness every few years and that there may be scant long-term security in the job’, but this is offset by an MP’s remuneration package and, as the newspaper article adds, ‘the opportunity to connect with potential future employers.’ An MP’s remuneration should preclude second jobs as, for instance lobbyists for private enterprises, newspaper columnists, professional consultations as medical or law practitioners, or holding official positions in industrial occupations.
The Observer article that carried the story of the Scottish MP seeking employment on top of but outside of her parliamentary duties, concludes by asserting that ‘she is only one of many among our elected representatives across the whole spectrum of party politics who doesn’t seem to have grasped why attempts to maximise their parliamentary experience are regarded dimly by the public’. This is so because the public regards ‘the task of making laws and representing them in the highest chamber in the land as a privilege that requires their exclusive devotion.’
As the 2019 General Election approaches it would do well for politicians who will be elected to the House of Commons, as well as those British citizens who elect them to office, to remembers this. Those elected to Westminster should be happy ‘to forfeit outside financial interests in exchange for an MP’s remuneration package and not expect to be hailed as heroes for their sacrifice.’
With further reference to the Observer newspaper, 38 Degrees, the British not-for-profit political-activism organisation (to which this writer subscribes and has commented on in this blog), has recently informed the movement’s supporters that:
On Friday, we broke the story that the metropolitan police have passed a file of criminal evidence against Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign to the Crown Prosecution Service.
On Sunday, the Observer newspaper reported that Boris Johnson knew about this illegal overspend and failed to tell the authorities. But here’s the thing. Even if Vote Leave is charged and found guilty, that doesn’t mean that the people who ran and fronted the campaign will face any kind of sanction.
More than three years after Vote Leave broke electoral law, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in Downing Street. And Cummings is now in charge of another massive political campaign – this time to get Johnson elected to run our country.
Whichever political party you support, and however you feel about Brexit, it can’t be right that those who break the laws of our democracy are never held accountable. Right now, you can be charged more for touting tickets at a football match that for breaking electoral law.
A conflict of interests is ‘a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, and serving one interest could involve working against another.’ (Wikipedia). In public politics, as well as in private affairs, conflicts of interests have the potential to be divisive, demeaning and destructive. They should be avoided.


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Far from over

We hope to reach again a Europe in which men will be proud to say, ‘I am a European.’ We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land – and that without lessening any of their love and loyalty to their home and birthplace. We hope that wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European continent, they will truly feel – Here I am at home, I am a citizen of this country too.” (Winston Churchill, Amsterdam, 1948)
The words of the above quotation come from Dr Denis MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2017). Sad to say but, presently, the answer to this statement remains in the balance.
I am writing these words on the day the self-styled reincarnation of Winston Churchill, that narcissistic, bombastic, duplicitous and opportunistic Old Etonian and presently the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is attempting to get his withdrawal deal with the European Union through the British House of Commons. If passed, the deal will take the UK out of the European Union. The ramifications of this deal are frightening to contemplate.
Clearly, Boris Johnson does not know his Churchill quite as intimately as he seemingly feels he does.
Dr Denis MacShane was a Labour MP serving in Tony Blair’s government as Minister for Europe. He was first elected as MP for Rotherham in 1994 and served until his resignation in 2012. MacShane studied at Oxford and London Universities. He was and remains a prominent commentator on European issues. He is well qualified for this task having lived and worked in different European countries, speaks a range of European languages, and is reported to have “a contact book of politicians and journalists in most European member states.”
Dr MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (see the above reference), is the second of a trilogy of books on the theme of Brexit. The trilogy began with Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2015) and concluded with the recent publication of Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain (I.B. Taurus, 2019).
In the first book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, Dr MacShane examines the issue of whether Britain will leave the EU. He indicates that the question of Brexit – a British exit from the EU – was high on the political agenda in the UK. This situation followed the Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election and the mounting pressure from within the Conservative Party for the UK to exit the EU. MacShane looks at the history of Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe and shows how “the possibility of Brexit had become increasingly more likely.”
He looks at the “key personalities who had shaped Britain’s European policy – from Churchill to Wilson and Heath to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron” – and “the key issues of immigration and the economy” which had heightened Eurosceptic feeling in the UK. In so doing, MacShane touches on one of the “most divisive political issues of our times” as the nation moved towards a referendum on Europe and considered its future place in the world.
In the second book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe, Dr MacShane discusses the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 and the inconclusive election just twelve months later. He asserts that both events “unleashed a wave of chaos and uncertainty.” He argues that “Brexit will not mean full rupture with Europe and that British business will overcome the right-wing forces of the Conservative back-benches and UKIP.” In consequence, both forces were weakened due to the ill-fated election gamble of June 2017 by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Denis MacShane correctly predicts that British negotiations with the EU in the post-Referendum period “will prove to be excruciating.” He considers that Britain cannot and will not divorce itself from the continent of Europe, “Indeed, the European question will remain the defining political issue of our time.”
He further considers that public and political opinion in both the UK and EU member states has never confronted such an issue before – namely “A decision by one of the world’s largest economies and democracies to withdraw from the world’s biggest open-border trading bloc, which has managed to secure peace and the sharing of laws and democracy between more than 30 nations, …as well as those seeking to join.”
Rather alarmingly, MacShane sees Brexit as just “the first step in a bigger nationalist campaign aimed at destroying the EU and returning to a Europe of rival nation states behind closed borders.” To reach this conclusion Dr MacShane first examines the impact of Brexit – in the UK, the EU, with reference also to Donald Trump and the U.S.A, before dissecting why Brexit happened.
Following this, Dr MacShane provides evidence as to why Brexit disrupts Britain from within and will cut off the UK with respect to its near and far neighbours. Finally, he shows how Brexit will change Europe in terms of the requirement for a new politics. His “Afterword” discusses how the UK stays in Europe.
Brigid Loffan (Director, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies) says that the third book in MacShane’s Brexit trilogy Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain, spells out why “Brexit will morph into a Brexiternity.” Loffan is of the view that Denis MacShane’s book rightly argues that the English politics that gave rise to Brexit will result in “years and years of Brexit issues in Britain but also in Ireland (I might add Scotland) and the rest of Europe as well.”
Indeed, as MacShane explains, “Brexit will affect the lives of future generations, deal or no deal, and even threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.” Even as this article is being written two days after the British government has made a deal with the EU, it is clear, as Denis Macshane outlines, that “No matter what happens, a ‘Brexiternity’ of negotiations and internal political wrangling in Britain lies ahead.”
The Guardian newspaper’s Polly Toynbee has said that, “Brexit is far from over. It is a Gordian knot that requires new and strong political leadership in order to be cut.” Referring to the last book in the Denis MacShane trilogy, Jon Snow, the journalist and presenter of the Channel 4 News, considers that “Leavers and Remainers alike will learn from this book as we face a decade in which Brexit will dominate our national life.”
Toynbee and Snow are among a veritable celebrity line-up of journalists, commentators, writers and politicians, amongst others, who have lauded the above trilogy of books about Brexit by Dr Denis MacShane. This writer is no exception.


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Serving a purpose

“Unless secularism’s role in the development of human rights and freedom is well understood, theocrats will be well placed to erode them”. These are the words of the Chief Executive of the National Secular Society (NSS) in the UK, Stephen Evans. He was writing in an article for the Autumn Bulletin of the NSS. The article was called, “We must teach the young how they benefit from secularism”.
The article was a basic introduction to a new initiative of the NSS – the provision of a range of teaching resources for schools under the banner of “Exploring Secularism”. The rational for this initiative is the NSS’s belief that secularism is worth celebrating. This is so because, “Its principles under-pin liberal societies and the political institutions which have been built to protect individual human rights to freedom of thought, speech and expression”.
The implicit assumption in this view is that religious dogma and authority subjugates human reason. Secularism endeavours to liberate human reason from these shackles and, it is proposed, in the process enables human material and health benefits to flourish. Religion is bondage; secularism is freedom. In the view of Stephen Evans, and with reference to schools in England and Wales, “It is bizarre, therefore, that something so significant rarely features in the school curriculum”.
As I read Stephen Evans’ article, I reflected on the content of the religious studies curriculum that I was involved in teaching when I was the Head of Religious Studies (RS) at a Northampton comprehensive school. The teaching of the RS curriculum was as broad as the system at the time would permit, including a substantial proportion of curriculum content and time being devoted to the teaching of both secular and religious philosophy and ethics. This was particularly the case at senior school level.
However, the syllabi for the RS, Philosophy and Ethics courses at the school never involved a specific course on “Secularism”. With hindsight, this situation was regrettable. The RS department of the school would have been the most appropriate location for space to be made for a genuine approach to the topics that Secularism would introduce to the syllabus – and the staff of that department would have been more than adequate for the task of teaching the subject.
It is the view of many involved with both Religious Education (RE) and Secularism in the UK that the approach to RE is outdated and that a new approach is overdue. The latter would mean that RE is broadened out or make substantial way for what the NSS describes as “A new broader civic education that encompasses citizenship and human rights”.
Such an approach would obviously include the exploration of the diverse range of worldviews, practices and beliefs, that currently are studied in RE (otherwise Religious Studies) courses. However, in addition to the role that religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society, would be added the respective role that secularism should play. Secularism has a specific role to play in that exploration.
The NSS article of Stephen Evans strongly suggests that, as emerging citizens of 21st century societies, “pupils should have an awareness of the importance of secular principles”. Amongst other things, this would include the separation of religion and the state, and the way in which secularist principles impact their lives.
Secularist principles should not be taken for granted and it is necessary that steps are taken to ensure that secularism is not misunderstood or wilfully maligned. Again, Stephen Evans is instructive when he states that, “It is not unknown for those eager to impose their religious faith on others have groundlessly portrayed secularism as a threat to religious freedom, promulgating misconceptions – routinely equating it with state-enforced atheism and even totalitarianism”.
A focused role on the educational curriculum would enable students to better understand and appreciate Secularism, as well as counteract the false views its opponents promote. Though it is a bit late for me to make use of the Exploring Secularism resources, it is obvious to me that the package will serve a valuable purpose as a teaching aid – and it is free!
My wife and me recently spend two enjoyable weeks touring Scotland by car. The focus for this visit was primarily the north-east of the country, using Inverness and Aberdeen as bases. With a current membership of the Scottish Heritage, much of our time was spent visiting the many and varied properties that the trust manages.
A considerable number of these properties were self-entitled as “castles”. Many of them were grand homes that had been extended to become even grander, and safer. We spent many hours listening to guided commentaries on the history of the properties.
Amongst other things, we learned that many of the grand homes and castles, a number of which were located within extensive estates and quite stunning locations, were either built or had been extended by royal personages, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and various other citizens who had accumulated their wealth from successful dealings in war and, more especially and, for me, surprisingly, the slave trade.
Prior to this visit, I was aware that warfare was almost a routine past-time amongst the Scottish clans. However, the association of the country of my birth with the slave trade was something of a shock to my system. This timely visit served its purpose.


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Not what it seems

Tom Mills is a lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. In his short, but most interesting and quite provocative book, “The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service”, Mills relates the story of an incident in the experience of John Reith, the BBC’s founding father.
Mills writes of the day, 12th May, 1926, when, as Reith was reading the news on the BBC’s lunchtime radio news bulletin, he was handed a note telling him that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had called off the UK’s first and only General Strike. The strike was in support of the mine workers and had lasted for nine days.
Reith and the BBC, in supporting the government of the day, were opposed to the strike and, in a later radio announcement, John Reith stated: “Our first feeling on hearing of the termination of the General Strike must be one of profound thankfulness to Almighty God, who has led us through this supreme trial with national health unimpaired.” Clearly, for Reith, God was on the side of the government and the establishment of the day, including the BBC. It was unthinkable that the Almighty could be on the side of the striking workers!
Mills tells us that John Reith, later to become Lord Reith, finished his radio announcement with what he called “his little thing” – a personal contribution to the celebrations. This “little thing” was, in fact, a reading of William Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times”. This poem, in the form of Hubert Parry’s patriotic hymn “Jerusalem”, had become popular during the Great War. As Reith read out the words of this poem, Parry’s hymn played in the background.
When Reith had finished his recital, the BBC choir sung the final verse of Parry’s hymn, “a rousing call to arms for the Christian peoples of England”. One wonders whether they would have been joined in this singing by the “ragged trousered philanthropists”, the poor and downtrodden of Edwardian England,  whose forsaken lives are minutely, intimately and superbly described by Robert Tressell in his book of the same name,
John Reith believed that, during the General Strike, it was the role of the BBC to “announce truth”, to be on the side of law and order, to support the government, therefore, to oppose the mine workers. Blake’s poem and Parry’s Hymn, in the form of the song “Jerusalem”, were subverted and used in order to serve this purpose.
This was not for the first time, as a review by the journalist, Warwick McFadyen, reminds us when he says that “the music, Jerusalem, stands the test of time. It began life in service to its country. It was a soldier for Britain during the First World War…, when the scales of optimism were falling from British eyes to the reality of the horrors, it was felt that the public and the fighting men needed their spirits bolstered.”
It can be argued that, as such, the combination of the poem and the hymn in what is now known as the song, ”Jerusalem”, has been used ever since in the attempt to inspire English, if not British, patriotism, loyalty, service and effort. However, the song is not what it seems.
A glance at the Wikipedia entry for Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” will familiarise the reader with the words of the song. The song-writer Jeff Beck considers that “the song has something for nearly everyone, the patriot, the radical, the loyalist, the rebel, but who all had one defining element: an identity with their country.” But the identity is with England, not the United Kingdom.
Yet, despite its popularity and the lack of protest over its words, the use that has been made of the song – from state funerals to sporting events, even at the London Olympics in 2012 – has never enabled it to become England’s specific national anthem. The English continue to use the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen”, as their anthem.
The words of the song have been described as “pure fantasy”; some might even suggest that they are nonsense. Did Jesus ramble through the green hills of England or be seen on England’s pleasant pastures? Has Christianity ever made any worthwhile or lasting difference to the lives of England’s working classes, during the dark days of the industrial revolution or since? Did John Reith give even minimal thought to the actual words of the song when he thanked the Almighty for the victory of the ruling classes, political and social, over those who worked in the “dark satanic mills” during the early part of the 20th century?
However, attempts at a literal interpretation of Blake’s poem fail to understand its somewhat cryptic nature, its critical comment on the nature and conditions of life in England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. John Reith clearly misunderstood and misapplied Blake’s poem, with or without Parry’s music!
As he recited Blake’s poem against the background of Parry’s hymn, what genuine interest did the future Lord Reith and the BBC have for those who worked in the coal mines of the countryside and the factories of the cities, those who laboured for the wealthy owners of industry and a government which controlled the conditions of that labour?
It is the view of some critics that when he wrote the words of his poem, Blake was “away with the fairies”. Perhaps the same may be said, and more pertinently, of John Reith when he added his “little thing” to his radio broadcast on that fateful day in 1926. It is unequivocal, therefore, that the song, “Jerusalem”, is not what it seems.
It may have varying interpretations and be presented by a variety of artistic talent. In this respect, the words of the electric guitarist Jeff Beck seem apposite, “No doubt this recent resurfacing will fade, the mental fight will ease, the chariot of fire will pass behind the dark satanic mills.” Yet, “like all great works, it stays within one, breathing slowly and quietly in the background. It is part of you” – at least if you are English!


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Bones of contention

This writer is not normally interested in what goes on within the Windsor family. A few days ago, however, my attention was caught by an interview with Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and what he had to say about the current discussion on LGBT concerns.
The Prince was asked how he would react if his children were LGBT. His response was to say that, “I wish we lived in a world where it’s really normal.” He went on to say that, “particularly given their position, his children would face persecution and discrimination.”
It seems that William Windsor’s comments made it big in the social media and were interpreted by some as a major step forward in the cause for LGBT rights. Contrary to the gushing perspective of the BBC (isn’t it always the case with the BBC when reporting the royals), it seems pertinent to ask what decent parent and human being would not support a child who is LGBT?
The media show great interest because William Windsor is the Duke of Cambridge and, under the present constitutional settlement, is second in line to the British throne. Moreover, as the reigning king, William will automatically become the head of the Church of England – the nation’s established church (whose adherents only number around 14% of the British population). The Church of England presently opposes equality for LGBT persons. Such a future position will face William Windsor with a dilemma. Will he respond as a father, or as the Church of England’s CEO?
With thanks to the National Secular Society’s recent Newsline publication (27.06,2019) called “Equality for LGBT people requires a secular head of state” and authored by Chris Sloggett, let me rehearse some of the areas where there is opposition to the Church of England’s influence in British life and how this might influence LGBT matters.
The established church does not allow gay marriage, even though some C of E clergy are in marriage relationships with same-sex spouses. Notwithstanding, when ordained to the priesthood they must pledge not to enter sexually active same-sex relationships.
The C of E bishops have automatic and unearned places in the House of Lords, where their presence is used to oppose bills that would permit greater liberty within the church over sexual matters. Indeed, the presence of elite clergy in the House of Lords is used to try and get Parliament to make decisions for the C of E that the church’s leaders would not risk, or be successful in, making, themselves.
Evidence of the C of E’s homophobia can also be seen in the fact that it does not allow a bishop to bring a same-sex partner to major church conferences.
So, as and when William Windsor ascends the British throne and, thereby, he becomes the “Defender of the Faith”, he will take an oath, as Head of the C of E as well as the Head of the British State, to uphold the privileges of the Church of England in a multi-cultural and multi-faith or no-faith British society. These privileges include, as Chris Sloggett points out, “state patronage, automatic places in the House of Lords, a leading role in our national ceremonies, and control over thousands of state-funded schools.”
It should be added to the previous statement that confessional teaching takes place in these C of E state-funded schools. So too, there is clear evidence that these schools promote anti-gay attitudes and syllabus content that runs counter to the national syllabus specifications related to the teaching of relationships and sex education.
It is relevant to the above to point out that William’s father, Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales, has indicated that he might choose to adopt the title “Defender of Faith” when he becomes, as expected, the next British king. Whilst this might suggest a more overt move towards greater spiritual democracy in the UK and might well be an objective move towards the disestablishment of the C of E, it would no doubt enrage entrenched opinion and privilege within the hierarchy and the pews of the C of E.
In his article Chris Sloggett further states that “All of this means its [the Church of England] anti-gay positions have a significant impact on the wider pursuit of equality for LGBT people.” It is appropriate, therefore, to once again ask the question: At such a time as his responsibilities include being a ruling monarch, will William Windsor’s response to any of his children being LBGT be that of a father, a monarch or the head of an established church? Even now the British public have a right to know more about what this future monarch will do in that role.
His contemporary comments might be good for his family and be regarded as trendy in the present climate of British public opinion. After all, along with his family, he seems to enjoy his apparent celebrity status. Moreover, his comments come across as those expected from any tolerant person in society. How deep, however, do his convictions with respect to LGBT people really go?
In the light of his present convictions would he be prepared to renounce any future leadership claims to become the head of the C of E, the institutionally established church, an institution that undermines and opposes the cause of equality for LGBT people? This situation could become a serious bone of contention, for both himself and the C of E.
Not only does the British public have a right to know about the character of its political leaders; it demands to know the same of its royalty – especially when these royal persons also assume leadership of an established church, a minority institution that has the ongoing audacity to presume such a prominent place in British public life.
Successive reports from the National Secular Society have stated that “arguments for disestablishment are compelling” and that “overt support for establishment remains weak.” The NSS is of the view that “Secularisation, increasing cultural diversity and the divergence between Church leaders’ ethical views and those of wider British society will undermine current justifications for establishment.”
It is pertinent to reflect on the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he says that establishment (of the C of E) “reflects a slightly odd 16th century view of the absolute inseparability of the Church and State, which is realistically not where we are now.”
However, in the UK the voices of religious privilege are loud and their vested interests are strong. Whilst it is hoped that it may be otherwise, in the event of him becoming the head of the British state and the executive leader of the C of E, those same voices and interests may well result in a change of Williams Windsor’s heart and mind on the matter of LGBT rights.
It is incontrovertible that, in the interests of equality, LGBT people require a secular head of state. What is true for LGBT people is true for all persons in the UK. Has there ever been such a just and timely case for the separation of Church and State and the disestablishment of the Church of England as there exists today?


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Ripe for reinvention

“It certainly does need thinking about, but there will be no referendum on the monarchy’s future anytime soon. There was no mention of republicanism in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto and it is hard to envisage the next one being any different. It would be electoral suicide.”
These were the words of Larry Elliott, an English journalist and author who writings focus on economic issues. He is the economics editor at The Guardian newspaper and has published five books on related issues. The above words were written by Elliot on June 13, 2019, in an article in The Guardian called How the British royal family killed off republicanism.
Elliot’s opinion has its narrative basis in the recent state visit of Donald Trump, the current President of the USA, and the way in which the British monarch, Elizabeth Windsor, dealt with the ceremonies associated with this visit. He prefaces his argument by stating that … “since the Queen came to the throne in 1952, she has had plenty of practice in hosting a state visit for the world’s most powerful man.”
State visits aside, Larry Elliot indicates that events have not always been favourable to the fortunes of Elizabeth Windsor. In particular, he highlights the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a Paris car crash in 1997.
He considers that at that time the monarch was most unprepared to deal with the national outpouring of grief (which he calls a ‘national blubathon’) that followed the death of Diana, and her initial response to this event was generally considered to be cold and insensitive. By way of contrast to this royal response was the somewhat opportunistic and emotive response to Diana’s death from the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He referred in laudatory terms to Diana, the Princess of Wales, as the “Peoples’ Princess”. This approach eventually proved positive for the monarch.
Elliot points out that the New Labour government of Tony Blair was committed to a package of constitutional reforms and that this direction in governance provided an opportunity to have a debate about the role of the monarchy in a modernizing UK. This was an opportunity not taken. Tony Blair was a royalist and would not have countenanced the UK becoming a republic. The idea was certainly about and, in fact, The Guardian newspaper called for a referendum on “what sort of state should Britain have after the Queen’s death?”
The Guardian’s position was that “people ought to able to say whether they would prefer to have an elected head of state or to continue with a monarchy.” The underlying question posed by the newspaper, therefore, was “Do they (the British people) want to be citizens or subjects?”
Larry Elliot is of the view that the contemporary arguments “in favour of turning Britain into a republic are no different from what they were 19 years ago. These arguments would involve democracy, power, governance, class and distribution of wealth.” To a republican such as the present writer, it seems outrageous that, in all of the recent discussion about tackling inequality in the UK, not to mention the arguments, notably the one about democracy, involved in the contemporary debate about Brexit, little has been heard about the role, or otherwise, of the monarchy.
At the turn of the century there was a realistic possibility that such a debate could take place. Since then, however, as referenced by Larry Elliot and others, the world-wide economic downturn and crisis, the recession of 2008-09 that was followed in the UK by the austerity policies of successive Coalition and Conservative governments, and the ongoing debate over Brexit, makes the possibility of a realistic discussion on republicanism in the UK seem quite remote.
The above events were outside of the monarchy’s compass. However, during the same period, the royal family has taken the opportunity to reinvent itself. There has always been strong residual support in the UK for the House of Windsor, after all, the British are basically a conservative nation, and certainly this has been the case during the reign of Elizabeth Windsor. But it is the roles that have been assumed by the younger royals that have made a decisive difference in the way that the House of Windsor has managed itself post 2000.
The Queen’s grandchildren, through their marriages, royal babies, the adoption of celebrity public profiles and the embracing of modern social media, not to mention PR and image consultants, have re-packaged, indeed reinvented, royalty for the 21st century.
When, at the turn of the century, Australia went to a referendum to determine the future of its head of state, the fact that the nation could not decide on what kind of replacement was needed or would be appropriate to replace the British monarch, meant that Australia is still governed as a constitutional monarchy, with a governor general representing the British monarch.
A similar question could be asked about the UK. Who would replace a monarch as the head of state? A member of a political class whose reputation is at a near record low level? An over-hyped or over-paid celebrity who is unable to see beyond his or her self-importance? A person from the world of business whose entire focus in a runaway capitalist society has been on profit and loss and wealth preservation?
Larry Elliot informs us that, in one of his diaries, the late Labour stalwart, Tony Benn, describes watching the establishment gather for the service in St Paul’s cathedral to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. “We haven’t removed the grip of this crowd from British society, far from it, but on the other hand the public accept it all and the press plays it up to divert people from unemployment and the cost of living and the EEC and so on. It is a very important ingredient in British life and it has to be thought about.”
It might well be thought about; it might well also be asked, is the situation any different in 2019? If the pomp and circumstance associated with the recent state visit of Donald Trump to the UK is anything to go by, not to mention the central role played by royalty in that visit and the associated D-Day commemorations, then the immediate future of the British monarchy seems assured. Certainly, there will be no referendum on the future of the monarchy any time soon.
It is certainly true that one of the UK’s world-class industries is heritage. Elliot reminds us that “Tourism is money”. Thank you, Larry Elliot, for a most informative and interesting article in your newspaper. However, in stating that “Trump’s appearance highlighted that the monarchy has made itself virtually impregnable and that the republican cause in Britain has rarely been weaker”, you have made this republican reader a little more depressed. As if Brexit wasn’t enough!


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A very british coup

It is probably the most over-used and most misunderstood word, especially in political circles, in the present-day English language of the British people.
It is used as if the meaning of the word was clearly and singularly understood by everyone within hearing distance of its utterance. It is used and defended by persons on all sides of the multi-sided spectrum of British political discourse. It is a word that has been used and abused since the time of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it is a word that is specifically Greek in its composition.
I speak, of course, about the word “democracy” (Gr. “demos” = common people; “kratos” = strength). As generally defined, understood and written about, democracy is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting. It is a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. It is these persons, the elected representatives, who then carry out the duties and functions of government.
However, there is a real need today to point out that there is “direct democracy” and “representative democracy”. When related to matters of governance it is to be understood that, in a direct democracy, the citizens as a whole form a governing body and vote directly on each issue pertinent to the government of their country. In a representative democracy the citizens elect representatives from among themselves. These representatives then form a body to govern the country. It is this latter form of democracy that is practiced in the United Kingdom.
(It is worth pointing out that there are “alternative democracies” as well as “anti-democracies”, but these approaches to democracy, though written about and/or practiced to a greater or lesser extent over historical time, are largely irrelevant to a contemporary discussion on the subject in the UK).
When practiced in the polity and government of a country there is the assumption that, under a representative democracy system of government, the people are part of a classless and tolerant form of society. So too, it is understood that those persons elected to govern do so as “representatives” of the people – they are not the peoples’ “delegates”!
Therefore, to be a “democrat” is to be a person who supports the principles and practices of democracy – in the UK as elsewhere. It is also important to understand that to be a democrat is to have faith in the skills and wisdom of those elected to govern. This means that, when it is necessary or appropriate, the elected representatives will use their political judgement to make decisions that may be counter to what a majority of the people may wish for or expect. They are elected for their competence, not their obedience!
The foregoing, whilst primarily alluding to government at a national level is, nevertheless, relevant and applicable to whatever level of democratic government is being practiced in the UK.
The debate that has been raging in the UK during recent years about Brexit has been the reason why the subject of democracy has been discussed and debated so often and so widely. However, it may be more accurate and precise to state that both the word “democrat” and the supposed understanding of “democracy” have been bandied about by all and sundry without there having been the necessary and substantial discussion and debate as to what the words and concepts mean!
It is argued by some that, following a referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain within the European Union, a referendum that narrowly decided that the UK should leave the EU, the government has failed to carry out the wishes of the people. Such an understanding of the process would suggest the exercise of a “direct” form of democracy, rather than the British constitutional form of “representative” democracy.
Inevitably, however, in not immediately carrying out the direct “will of the people”, accusations have been levelled at the British government and its Parliament and, by implication, those UK citizens who voted to remain in the EU., that the “will of the British people has been betrayed”. Such accusations have been a constant theme of by right-wing newspapers, hard-line Brexiteers, populist demagogues and their acolytes, as well as by those British citizens who have been persuaded by these propagandist sources.
In this context, it is pertinent to point our that only 72% of the British voting public voted in the EU referendum. Of this number, 48.1% voted to remain in the EU, with 51.9% voting to leave the EU. Therefore, the leave voters represented only 37% of the British voting population – hardly constituting “the people” of the UK”, especially when it is considered that 35% of the voters chose to remain in the EU. Indeed, the really worrying thing for British democracy is that 28% of those in the nation who were eligible to vote did not do so!
Over and above the more obvious democratic issues surrounding the Brexit campaign: it is appropriate to mention the following issues: the questions associated with the funding of the Brexit campaign; the misconceptions about the simplicity of the Brexit process; the false advertising and blatant lies told to the public about what political and social problems would be solved by leaving the EU; the mis-appropriation of social media outlets for publicity purposes; the indirect and manipulative targeting of the electorate through covert action; the possible involvement of hostile international political interests.
Further, those who would purport to be the champions of the people’s democracy are rarely to be heard referencing those other, perhaps more blatant, examples of the lack of democracy in the UK, namely:
– the continuation of an unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, in British governance;
– the unrepresentative and outmoded voting system of “first past the post” for the election of governments (local and   national) in the UK;
– the continuing existence of a constitutional system of hereditary monarchy in the UK that has its widespread privileges and powers financed by the British taxpayer;
– an unelected Head of State (whether that person is a member of the monarchy or a private citizen);
– the unacceptable system of private ownership of land in the UK by an extremely small minority of landowners – ownership that has its roots in historical privilege and abuses; *
– the gross inequalities of wealth that exists between the various ranks and classes of people in the UK;
– the continuing existence of an Established Church, the minority Church of England, with a monarch as its head, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith (or no faith) UK.
* In England, half of the land is owned by less than 1% of the population; the aristocracy and gentry still own 30% of the land, and potentially as much as 47% remains in hereditary aristocratic estates (Guy Shrubsole, 2019).
Each of the foregoing is, by itself, a scandal. However, when taken together, they exemplify a nation that ill-deserves the description of being democratic. Nevertheless, the above are only a few examples of those issues that are selectively avoided by those who would see themselves as democrats and “champions of the people’s democracy”.
The foregoing came to mind as I recently read the book “Democracy and Its Crisis”, by the English philosopher and writer, A.C. Grayling. Prompted by the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the USA, Professor Grayling investigates why the institutions of representative democracy seem unable to hold up against forces they were designed to manage, and why, crucially, it matters.
After considering “the moments in history in which the challenges we face today were first encountered and what solutions, however imperfect, were found”, Professor Grayling proceeds to lay bare “the specific problems of democracy in the twenty-first century and maps out a set of urgently needed reforms”.
As he traces the “advent of authoritarian leaders” and the simultaneous “rise of populism”, Professor Grayling considers that representative democracy appears to be “caught between a rock and a hard place”. He concludes that, if a civilized society – one that looks after all its people – is to flourish, then this is the space that representative democracy must occupy.
In devoting an appendix in the book to the subject of Brexit, Professor Grayling considers that the referendum of 23 June 2016 is an example of how “the constitutional and political order of the UK is in a highly questionable state.” The opening paragraph of that appendix is unequivocal in stating that “Without overexaggerating, it is arguable that the EU referendum itself and the government’s subsequent actions resemble something like a coup.”
He goes on to discuss how such matters as the Briefing Paper 07212 published on 3 June 2015 informed all MP’s and members of the House of Lords that the referendum was advisory only, and that it would not be binding on Parliament or government. “This point was iterated viva voce by the Minister for Europe in the debate in the House of Commons later that month.” Further, he points out that there was no threshold designed for the referendum and the franchise was not extended to include sixteen and seventeen year olds, expatriate citizens who had lived abroad for more than a certain number of years, and EU citizens resident in the UK and paying their taxes (whatever happened to the principle of “no taxation without representation”?).
In the event, as mentioned in the above, a small minority of actual votes cast in the referendum (representing only 37% of the total electorate), “was taken by the politicians in favour of Brexit as not merely justifying but mandating the actions they took following the referendum. There is therefore nowhere near enough justification or legitimacy for a Brexit.” That this situation continues to be tolerated by Parliament is mystifying.
With this and much else, notably the Parliamentary White Paper which reasserts the fact that Parliament retains its sovereignty in the governance of the UK (as against the Brexiteer slogan that “we should take back control of our sovereignty”), Professor Grayling provides evidence to justify his view that the EU referendum and its outcomes are illegitimate. In doing so he illustrates how a major political event in the UK “exposes the sham of the constitutional arrangements, so easily and readily manipulable by the executive for highly partisan ends, however damaging by the executive to the polity and populace as a whole.”
It is A.C. Grayling’s viewpoint that “no constitutional system should allow a partisan group to hijack the interests of the whole: this is happening in the UK and the US as these words are being written. This is not what the architects of representative democracy intended, and it is fundamentally against the interests of the people of these countries. It is therefore a matter of urgency to return our advanced polities to their democratic roots.”
At a time in the history of the UK when elections are to take place for our country to be represented in the European Union, when anti-democratic voices are being raised by populist demagogues as the nation is in a state of political and social turmoil, and when the nation’s parliament seems impotent to make democratic decisions, it is essential that those citizens and politicians who genuinely understand and appreciate democracy and what it means to be a democrat have the courage, wisdom and integrity to make their voices loudly heard, their opinions widely known and their common interests utterly exemplified.
A.C. Grayling’s book has identified the crisis in democracy. I commend his book to the reader. It is now time that genuine democrats re-establish not only the intention of representative democracy but also its form as a political order that is the most appropriate “vehicle for carrying democratically expressed preferences into good government for all.” It is time re-assert the strength of the common people of the UK and put an end to a very British coup!


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The authors of our own demise

Readers of this blog will be aware that I have a long-standing and reasonably frequent exchange of communications with my elected Member of Parliament. My most recent letter to my MP concerned the subject of “democracy” and the governance of the UK, as well as the role of the monarchy in all of this.
Much has been made recently by politicians about democracy. From the opinions voiced it is obvious that various ideas about democracy exist in the UK. However, even the politicians themselves show frailty and confusion about the subject.
It is often stated that the UK is a parliamentary democracy. This is, unfortunately, fallacious, as we are not a constitutional parliamentary democracy after all. The system of government in the UK is that of a constitutional monarchy.
There are distinctive and crucial differences between these two forms of governing and these differences are not generally known by the British electorate. However, it is a personal conviction that there are many amongst those who wish to remove the UK from the EU who are aware of these distinctions and who, whilst normally remaining subtly quiet about it, can be identified as those who voice such slogans as “let us take back control”.
Had this distinction between parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy been known at the time of the EU Referendum it may well have resulted in a different referendum outcome and a change in the subsequent shape of the political and constitutional malaise that the result has caused. This could also be said of other “unknowns” at the time of the EU Referendum.
The reaction by the so-called “right wing” element within the Conservative Party to parliament’s recent actions in the House of Commons suggests to this writer that the group strongly favours the institution of the monarchy, as well as a nationalist form of government for England. It further suggests to me that this element has an extremely biased and false view of the nature of democracy.
There are many in the UK, and not only those involved in politics, who are of the view that the UK’s political system is in urgent need of reform. This reform would include setting clear boundaries between the powers of the government, parliament, judiciary and the head of state. So too, there is a substantial body of opinion who are of the view that the British Constitution should now be put into written form, so that it is available to all and not just to the chosen few who wish to “take back control”!
Further, and consistent with what is expressed in the above, the British Head of State should be elected by the people. This is, surely, a fundamental aspect of what democracy should mean in the UK. In a genuine democracy this office should not be the prerogative of an unelected citizen of the UK and, more specifically, should not reside in any member of a hereditary monarchy who might regard the British people as her/his “subjects” rather than “citizens” of the nation.
The above follows recent reports that the present Conservative government could tell the present Head of State, the unelected Elizabeth Windsor, to block the passage of any Brexit bill of which the Prime Minister doesn’t approve. At this point I am mindful of the fact that it was only some fifty years ago that the British monarch’s representative in Australia, an unelected Australian Governor General, forced the removal of a duly elected Federal Labour government.
Another slogan during the debate on the first EU Referendum was that the people of the UK should return “sovereignty” to these isles. What does it mean to be a sovereign power? The Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore is most apposite in stating:
“In our case, it means having a monarch that legitimates hereditary privilege, the Lords and owning half of Scotland. It means that power is an accident of birth, but God help anyone who disses the Queen. We not only enact our serfdom; we embrace it by accepting that the monarchy is above ordinary politics.”
Whatever the processes and outcomes of the Brexit business, resort to an interference in whatever democratic principles and practices are extant in the Brexit process by an unelected Head of State, who is also a hereditary monarch, is a complete insult to any description of democracy that may have been bandied about by any politician. What, then, of being “a vassal state of Europe”?
It seems ludicrous to vote for a representative in the House of Commons only for decisions of that House to be overridden by a constitutional appeal to the reigning monarch to interfere in its judgements and rulings. That is not the same as the Commons exercising parliamentary sovereignty. I would vote for an MP pursuing the latter, but not the former!
Following the above, let me briefly address those MPs who, in the face of a Brexit that is proving altogether more difficult than it was perceived at the time of the EU Referendum, now insist on leaving the EU with or without a suitable deal. Not only this but also the fact they do so in consequence of a single referendum vote that was divisively narrow in its decision to leave the EU.
Despite a lapse of three years, such MPs continue to believe that they “must respect the will of the people” in pursuing a final Brexit outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum.
Was the will of the people respected in 1975 when the decision was taken for the UK to enter the Common European Market? Since 1975, a group of Conservative MPs, who today nestle under the banner of the European Research Group (ERG), have constantly advocated and agitated for the UK to leave the EU.
The British system of government insists that the will of the people is heard in national elections that are held no more than five years from the previous election. This process recognizes that people can, and often do, change their minds – in politics as with other aspects of life. In the situation where the result of a referendum proves difficult, if not impossible, to institute, then surely it is entirely consistent with the principles of democracy that the people should have the opportunity to change their collective mind – confirming or otherwise a suggested outcome?
When elected, do MPs always follow their party’s manifesto – do they always hold to the promises of a manifesto? From one election to another, do they constantly adhere to the will of the people they represent? Why do so many MP’s now insist on respecting the result of the EU Referendum when it is counter to what they campaigned for, a result they obviously regret and one that, it is generally considered, will be damaging to the national well-being?
What place has their obligation, as elected representatives, to represent to their electors what they and their chosen political party stands for – even where this may be unpopular? Are MPs teachers as well as preachers?
What factors cause them to change their minds in the face of opposition from their electorates? To what extent, in the face of challenge and adversity, do they have the integrity to remain true to the cause they originally campaigned and fought for?
The cries of the Brexiteers to “take back control” and “return sovereignty to these isles” would have more substance if they were accompanied by a determination to reform our political and social institutions and refuse to bow to a feudal system. Again, the words of Suzanne Moore are most apposite: “Yet even sensible people fall for the circus of honours, touches of ermine and empire, while young working-class men get their legs blown off to ‘serve Queen and country’”.
Have we in the UK become, or are in the process of becoming, the authors of our own demise?
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The heart of the matter

Someone said of the legendary Italian maritime explorer, Christopher Columbus: “When he started out he did not know where he was going; when he got there he did not know where he was; when he returned he did not know where he had been.” The comment referred to Columbus’ visits to what later became known as the West Indies. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus did not discover the continent we now call North America.
The comment on Christopher Columbus could be aptly applied to the British Government over the past few years. The government’s Brexit voyage is very much like the sea voyage of the Italian explorer.
When the government called for an election on membership of the European Union it had little idea of where it was going with the matter; when the referendum took place the government had little idea of what to do with the result; several years on from that infamous referendum the government seems as confused as ever as to where it has been and to where it is going with Brexit.
Historians have sorted out the matter of “Columbus’ discovery of America”. What future historians will make of the 2016 Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union remains to be seen!
In relation to the present situation of Britain and Brexit, it is appropriate to turn to the German idealist philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who wrote: “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the present.” These words can be applied to the tortured relationship of the UK with the rest of Europe and how quickly and at what cost we can forget the lessons of history.
It is an eloquent testimony to the state of contemporary British politics to reflect on the fact that there is little greatness that can be attached to either present political processes or politicians. As the debate as to whether the UK should remain within the EU nears the climactic moment, it is noticeable that the government has been most susceptible to a variety of influences – including the power of the conservative press, pressure groups within the Conservative Party, sectional public opinion and a variety of individual political persons.
It is to state the obvious when saying that public opinion can be fickle and that the national and regional press is a major shaper of public opinion, with the power to direct public opinion and debate. In the UK the press is predominantly anti-European – though there are some notable exceptions.
The influence of the Fourth Estate should never be under-estimated, however, and the part it has played in the debate over the UK and the EU is significant and continuous. There have been few at Westminster who have been willing to challenge what one politician has labelled “the constant negativity of the press or even to question whether men who pay no taxes in Britain should have the power to dictate public opinion.”
One of the constant cries of the pro-Brexit press has been that a second referendum – a so-called “Peoples’ Vote” on the matter of the UK leaving the EU – would be anti-democratic. The underlying presumption of this position is that, in giving the people of the UK a referendum in the first place, the result of that referendum should then be adhered to. Little consideration is given to the fact that, faced with such seemingly intractable problems over leaving the EU and the additional fact that the politicians themselves seem unable to agree on the deal underlying the UK leaving the EU, the British public might well wish to change their mind.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister and the one primarily responsible for the deal by which the UK would leave the EU, is quite willing to put her idea of a deal before the House of Commons not once, not twice but, possibly, three times in the hope of her deal being accepted by Parliament. When, however, it comes to a “Peoples’ Vote” on the matter of the UK leaving the EU, it is considered an affront to democracy to allow the people a second chance at a decision.
Mrs May’s position is contradictory, one-sided, self-serving and not in the interests either of Parliament or the British public – especially those younger people who will be required to live the fulness of their lives with the ramifications of Brexit. Clearly, Mrs May shows little awareness of Hegel when he says that “Whatever is reasonable is true; whatever is true is reasonable.” To say that a second EU referendum is undemocratic is to misunderstand democracy itself.
Democratic states have only ever existed as an ideal, even in its state of origin – ancient Greece. It has been said that “Democracy is an abstraction more malleable than is often acknowledged”. The situation whereby, in a constitutional parliamentary democracy, it is permissible for a Prime Minister to hold multiple determinative rounds of votes but permit the public only one on a similar constitutional decision, is to echo another of Hegel’s philosophical sayings; “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Before closing the folio on G.W.F. Hegel, it is instructive to learn that “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion”. This is hardly a description for Theresa May’s words and actions with respect to Brexit – words and actions that have been strong on stubbornness, wilfulness, ambiguity and surrender to the powers of money and ideology, but weak on genuine passion.
More than once during the entire debate on Brexit the question has been asked of the UK, “What state are we in?” It has been said that the first condition of democracy is for all citizens to be sceptical about what those in power do. The truth of this has been all too evident in the history of the UK in recent years, and not only with respect to Brexit.
We are living in a world of constant and rapid change – social, economic, political, military and moral. This change does not happen in a vacuum. It is informed, even engineered by specific interests, outlooks and objectives. Behind each of the categories are human beings – politicians, priests, press barons, educators, generals and royals, and more. Not all of these are benign – witness the rise of terrorism (of which the outrage in Christchurch, New Zealand is the latest manifestation) and global conflict, moral absolutism, climate change detractors, social and economic inequality with the concentration of wealth, and the dilution and diminishing of democracy.
To ask the question, “What state are we in?”, and the corollary question “Who benefits from this state?”, is to believe that what has been written about in the above is not always preordained or inevitable, or to be adopted or adapted. To ask these questions is to relentlessly question and hold to account what we are all too often encouraged, even cajoled, into accepting in an uncritical manner. To ask these questions is to unreservedly believe in and act on the realization that circumstances and situations, possibilities and processes, can be changed.
To ask these questions is to favour the greater good and not the narrow interests of the few. They are questions which exist at the very centre of any democracy. As such, they are at the very heart of the matter – the Brexit debate – and the answers are crucial for the outcomes of that debate.


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Danny Boy – a song of lament

Growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, during the 1950-60’s, several of my closest friends were fellow immigrants from the UK – in their case from Northern Ireland, with myself a Scot. My friends were non-denominational Protestants, so naturally, one may assume, they had strong views on the situation that was extant in Northern Ireland – as it was in those pre-Belfast Agreement days.
We would often spend a lazy Sunday afternoon listening to various forms of music – from pop and rock n’ roll, to country and western and popular religious. Being Irish, the friends would occasionally listen to and sing-along with that seemingly evergreen Irish-linked ballad “Danny Boy”. I say “seemingly” because, in my mind, there are now some issues surrounding the origins and development of this ballad.
Further interest in this questionable aspect of the origins of “Danny Boy” was incited by my recent purchase of an album by a long-time favourite singer of mine, the late and lamented American singer Roy Orbison. The album contains many of Orbison’s best known and most played songs. What was different in the presentation of these songs was the fact that they were given the full orchestral backing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
The effects were revelatory and entirely consistent with the album’s title, “Unchained Melodies” (also the title of one of the songs on the album and which, incidentally, came from the 1950’s and was one of the songs that, as rendered by the black American singer Al Hibler, took up the lazy Sunday afternoons enjoyed by my friends and me).
For me, and with the above circumstances in mind, the most important of the songs on this album was “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s arrangement of the song was quite superb, along with the backing of the RPO, and added to the poignancy and beauty of the song’s words and music.
Orbison took the well-known first two verses of the song and made them the central focus of the musical presentation. However, he took the less well known third and fourth verses of “Danny Boy” and used a repetition, reorganization and recapitulation of the words to frame the central section (verses 1 and 2) with two verses each on either side of the central section (the “chorus”. The result was the presentation of a genuine, even classical, ballad. “Danny Boy” has never sounded so good nor spoken so emotionally to the listener. A gem!
With Orbison’s rendition of “Danny Boy” reverberating in my mind and senses, I decided that it was time to do a little research on the song. The results of this research were to prove instructive.
The words of “Danny Boy” were written by the English lawyer and lyricist, Frederic Weatherly in Bath, Somerset (England) in 1910. It is believed that initially the tune with which Weatherly accompanied the words was composed by a Scottish piper. In 1913, Weatherly’s Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret (known as Jess), who was at the time living in the USA, sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” (an alternative version of the story has her singing the air to him in 1912 with different lyrics).
Weatherly is said to have then modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air” (the melody of which was collected by Jane Ross of the Irish town of Limavady in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered). Weatherly then gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin who made it one of the most popular songs in the new 20th century.
In 1915, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s version of the song with the RPO is the latest version of this much-recorded ballad.
Wikipedia informs that “The 1918 version of the sheet music included alternative lyrics (“Eily Dear”), with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes “Eily Dear”, so that “Danny Boy” is only to be sung by a lady”. In spite of this, it is unclear whether this was Weatherly’s intent “. Whatever the intention, and not surprisingly, the song has been covered by a diverse range of male singers – from Mario Lanza to Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley to Harry Belafonte, as well as Tom Jones, and now most recently, Roy Orbison.
It would seem that, prior to Orbison’s rendition, all others used the original lyrics and traditional structure. It could be claimed, therefore, that Roy Orbison’s version of “Danny Boy” is unique.
The actual interpretation of the words of “Danny Boy” are also open to some serious speculation.
Various suggestions exist as to the true meaning of the song’s words. Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising (as suggested by the reference to “pipes calling glen to glen”) or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
From what has been stated in the foregoing, it seems to me to be as likely as anything, that the actual derivation of the song owes not a little to Scottish influences. The words of “Danny Boy” are more illustrative of a Scottish geography and the original tune belonged to a Scottish piper.
The meaning could satisfactorily be associated with a Scottish boy (Danny?) who left Scotland as part of the migration of both lowland and highland Scots, Protestant and Catholic, to the Province of Ulster during the 17th century – only to be lamented by his mother or, more probably, his father, and with the hope that, one day, he might return to the meadows, mountains and glens of his native land. Poignantly, Danny’s father, or mother, do not expect to live to see that day.
It is to the credit of the Irish (to the north and south of the island) that they have made “Danny Boy” the anthem that today it is.
Notwithstanding, as this essay has argued,  I have my doubts as to its suitability to be the national anthem of Northern Ireland (the British Province of Ulster). Nevertheless, listening to the song still elicits, and will in the future, the necessary patriotic evocations – as it did in the lives of several Irish boys on a lazy Sunday afternoon in far-away Melbourne in the middle of the 20th century.
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