Our elected representatives wax eloquent

It’s about time we took a look at what the folks on the hill have been up to lately. Sadly, there’s not been much great controversy up at Stormont this last week, but that’s no reason not to peek in on our leaders. So we did get a debate on the Rates (Regional Rates) Order, which led to some rather ratty exchanges between Stephen Farry (Alliance, North Down) and other members:

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Dr Farry: Go ahead.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way. I assume that he will not accuse me of being an advocate of social justice.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: That is a scandalous suggestion.

Mr Weir: Yes; I know that we are covered by the libel laws in here, but to accuse me of that may be going a little bit far.

And again, the North Down connection creeps in:

Mr Weir: Does the Minister accept that not everyone in North Down is entirely happy to have to pay more money?

Dr Farry: Speak for yourself.

Mr Weir: I am certainly not happy to be paying more. If Mr Farry has a great pool of people who are keen to pay more, maybe he could extract that money from them. I do not know whether he is calling at Alliance doors in North Down, but at the doors that I call at in North Down, I have not been inundated with people wanting to pay higher rates.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: Maybe Alliance Party supporters are so well off that they do not need to worry about local taxation, and that may be reflected in Mr Farry’s position.

My word, you would almost think there was an election coming up. And this debate provided an occasion for that unique Stormont institution, the cross-community vote:

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 69; Noes 6.

AYES

Nationalist:

Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Leonard , Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey.

Unionist:

Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Irwin, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells , Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr Weir.

NOES

Other:

Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson.

Tellers for the Noes: Dr Farry and Mr McCarthy.

Total votes          75   Total Ayes          69   (92%)

Nationalist Votes 32   Nationalist Ayes  32   (100%)

Unionist Votes     37   Unionist Ayes     37   (100%)

Other Votes          6   Other Ayes           0   (0%)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2010 be affirmed.

At least this points up rather starkly who the opposition is at Stormont. Although that may be tougher to sustain if Fordy does get made justice minister.

We then moved to the question of presumption of advancement. Take it away, Sammy:

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr S Wilson): I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Equality Bill dealing with the abolition of the presumption of advancement.

That should clear the Benches fairly quickly.

You said it, Sammy. This is a rather abstruse bit of law that has to do with transfers of money and property between parent and child, which the distinct legal system of Norn Iron has hitherto treated differently according to whether the donor is the father or mother. Therefore this is some legislative tidying up aimed at bringing that loophole into compliance with British equality legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights. If you really want to dig deeper, there’s detail in Sammy’s speech, but as the man himself says

I have kept the explanation of the issue as brief and comprehensible as possible. I turn now to the motion under consideration. The reason why we are here and why some in the Chamber may still be awake — I am amazed that so many people have remained in the Chamber — is that the UK Government wrote to me last November seeking my agreement to the GB Equality Bill’s containing a provision that would abolish the residual elements of the doctrine of presumption of advancement in Northern Ireland. Since trust law and property law are devolved matters, the Westminster Parliament will not usually legislate in the transferred field without the consent of the Assembly.

However, there is one man who loves a bit of abstruse legalism and that’s Peter Weir (DUP, North Down):

Mr Weir: I support the legislative consent motion. On the streets of North Down, which the Minister mentioned earlier, when the conversation moves away from the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2010 and the desire to pay more money, people talk about very little other than the presumption of advancement and this legislative consent motion…

The legislative consent motion concerns trust law. When I was a law student at Queen’s University, there was an old joke — I use that term very loosely — that we would be subjected to a debate on recent developments in trust law. Given the silence around the Chamber, I suspect that that was lost on most Members. Most trust law dates from the nineteenth century, although the joke perhaps indicates the lack of wit in the law faculty 20-odd years ago.

You know, when the Mock The Week team were looking for a replacement for Frankie Boyle, I’m amazed they didn’t shortlist Peter Weir. Few MLAs are as reliably side-splitting.

Mr McNarry: Ulster Unionists believe in equality, because, as a party of civil and religious liberty, we see important protections in it for the citizen. The fact that the gap between rich and poor is at its widest since the Second World War highlights the fact that to tackle inequality we must also tackle its causes.

Eh? Is David McNarry (UCUNF, Strangford) about to launch into a long and rambling discourse on equality? Well, he’ll have a go…

Mr Bell: On a point of order, is the object of the debate not to speak on the subject?

Mr Deputy Speaker: I was going to draw the Member’s attention to returning to the motion.

Mr McNarry: It is a very wide-ranging subject, on which I am sure the Speaker will give a ruling. However, I was getting to that, and I am sorry that I tried the novice’s patience. I just wanted to say —

Mr Bell: You are past your sell-by date.

Mr McNarry: You just be careful, now, my fellow Member from Strangford. When you want to be frivolous and when you do not is a matter for yourself —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to come to the subject of the motion. I also ask for all remarks to be made through the Chair.

Compared to what Belfast Corporation used to be like, we’re practically in Miss Manners territory. This blog hereby repeats its call for Willie O’Dea to be brought north to enliven proceedings.

But at least friend of this blog Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford) was at hand to give members the benefit of his homespun wisdom:

Hooiniver es bes usual prattick, i Norlin Airlan thaire bes an anomaly an’ aa isnae es ye wud alloo hit shud bae. This notion applies adae wi’ transfers fae a faither tae a wean bit hit dusnae apply fer transfers fae a mither tae a wean – I thon case the mither wud bae fit tae claim the intherest o’ ootcum o’ investment.

I don’t think I could have put it better myself, Jim. And indeed, Sammy Wilson was obviously struck by this contribution, and returned to it in his summing up:

I worried about Mr Shannon. It took me long enough to get my head around the presumption of advancement and the presumption of trust, which is what I think he said. Mr Shannon went further; he started to debate the issue in Ulster Scots. I found it difficult enough to understand his contribution in English, let alone having it conveyed to me in Ulster Scots. I will not address his point, other than to note that he welcomed the equal treatment of men and women when it comes to passing assets on to their families.

By the way, did I cast an aspersion on the good manners of MLAs? Some at least retain some old-fashioned courtesy:

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr Bell: I will if I get an extra minute to speak. How could I refuse to give way to you?

And at that, we will draw a discreet veil over proceedings…

News from the struggles in Greece

Here’s two articles on Greek workers getting a bit stroppy over the government’s austerity plan. To which I say, anyone trying to enforce austerity on the Greek working class will have a tough ask ahead of them. Firstly, here’s a report on Wednesday’s mass strike from the Communist Party of Greece:

The new 24-hour strike held on February 24th against the plans of the social-democrat government of PASOK to place the burdens of the capitalist crisis on the shoulders of the workers was a great success.

Millions of workers resisted to the intimidation by the capital’s parties (the social democrat PASOK, the conservative ND, and the extreme-right, racist LAOS) which argue that workers must submit in order to “rescue the country from bankruptcy”. The “patriotism” of these political forces has only one goal: to maintain and expand the profit making of the capital at the expense of the workers’ gains by means of raising the retirement ages, cutting salaries and pensions, further dismantling of the social-security system, deteriorating the working relations and increasing the anti-people taxes.

At the same time the vast majority of the working people were mobilised and participated in the mass rallies organised by PAME, (All Workers’ Militant Front) the alliance of class oriented trade unions in Greece. PAME rallies industrial federations, Labor Centres (regional trade union organisations) as well as hundreds of primary trade unions. Thus, the majority of the workers showed their aversion to the compromised trade union federations in private (GSEE) and public sector (ADEDY) which –just like the government of PASOK does- present “speculative games” against Greece as the main problem in the country. In fact, speculation is merely a result and an aspect of the decay of the capitalist system and the manifestation of the intra-imperialist contradictions between Euro and Dollar. The vast majority of the working people who participated in the demonstrations of PAME in 70 cities showed that they support the line of the overall confrontation with the bourgeoisie, the line which is promoted by PAME, that demands the plutocracy to pay for the crisis and struggles against the EU, the anti-people capitalist union and its anti-labor measures in order to strengthen the struggle for the overthrow of the capital’s power.

Strike preparation – Athens stock exchange blockaded

PAME prepared this strike by visiting hundreds of workplaces, discussing with the workers about the necessity of the struggle and preparing this battle at all levels. At this point, we should mention the meeting organised in Athens by the Immigrants’ Secretariat of PAME. This meeting was attended by immigrants from all over the world who live and work in Greece and join the action of PAME.

Communists played a significant role in the organisation of this strike through the political campaign that KKE unfolds in workplaces, revealing they the real goals of the government and calling on the working people to struggle for the repulse of these measures. On the eve of the strike the Press Bureau of the CC of KKE stressed amongst others: “The government, the EU and the plutocracy have said enough. Whether these barbarous measures pass or not, depends also on the stance and the action of the working people. For that reason KKE calls upon all workers, irrespectively of the party they voted for in the elections, to take a responsible class patriotic stance through their participation in the strike and the mass rallies of PAME. It calls upon the workers to defy the manipulation and the employers’ intimidation. The struggles and the sacrifices of our class, the present and the future of the working class require the working people to stand up and struggle; not to hand over the last popular gains as demanded by the needs of the capitalist profit making and competitiveness”.

Moreover KKE organised a series of placard protests and demonstrations in neighbourhoods in Athens and other cities throughout the country urging the working people to join the struggle.

The blockade of the building of the Athens stock exchange by the forces PAME played a significant role in the propagation and the success of the strike. On February 23rd, at 6:30 in the morning the forces of PAME blocked the three entrances of the building of the Stock exchange, the symbol of the plundering of the working people, their pension funds and their wealth by a handful of capitalists. “Plutocracy must pay for the crisis” was the slogan on PAME banner. At the same time the placards revealed: “Here is the money: the deposits of the enterprises were in 2004: 36 billion Euro, in 2009: 136 billion Euro. 250 thousand workers receive a salary of 740 Euro. At the same time, 700 billion Euro are in the pockets of the big enterprises. PASOK and ND filled the pockets of bankers from 233 billion to 579 billion”.

On the day of the strike thousands of working people and students joined the picket lines of PAME in the gates of the factories and other workplaces.

Strike and mass rally in Athens

Thousands of factories and enterprises, construction sites, schools, ports and airports, the entire production activity froze. The mass participation in the strike and the mass rallies of PAME gave a vigorous response to the government and the EU. It created better conditions for the unfolding of a dynamic workers’ and people’s counterattack that will prevent the barbarous measures and finally overthrow the anti-people policy.

In Athens the mass rally was held at Omonia square, at the city centre. The chairman of the trade union federation of workers’ in printing companies, Yiannis Tolis, delivered a speech in the rally and stressed among others that: “The forces of the capital and their political representatives understand that the more they blackmail and intimidate the workers, the more they try to mislead them and place new burdens upon them, the more anger and indignation they cause. They dread the perspective of the general uprising of the workers and for that reason the government along with the employers, the opposition, the ND and the EU as well as their instruments and the parties of the EU one way road create a joint front. They are mistaken if they believe that they can manipulate peoples’ will, once in the path of the class struggle. History has proved that when the river flows it cannot retrace its path”.

Representatives of immigrants and Students’ Struggle Front (MAS) extended a greeting at the mobilisation.

In the rally also participated a delegation of the CC of KKE headed by the General Secretary of the party, Aleka Papariga, who made the following statement: “Workers should overcome fears and fatalism. They must intimidate their enemy and not fall into the trap of choosing between the EU and the US as the prime minister, Mr. Papandreu intends”.

Thereafter, the protestors held a march to the Greek Parliament.

And here’s an analysis of the situation from the Internationalist Workers Left, via the US Socialist Worker:

THE GREEK economy is the “weak link” in the capitalist chain of the European Union (EU). The term–used by the revolutionary Lenin to describe Russia in 1917–was initially used in Greece by the radical left. But now, it’s in broad use, even by Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou Jr., who, as head of the social democratic party PASOK, took office after the collapse of the right-wing New Democracy party in elections held in October 2009.

Greece isn’t the only weak link, however. Other EU countries are under enormous pressure from the economic crisis. The European press not so affectionately refers to them as the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain).

The crisis is particularly sharp in Greece, which has an annual budget deficit equal to 12.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)–which is four times the 3 percent limit mandated under the EU’s Maastricht Treaty. Greek public debt stands at 130 percent of GDP, which is double the EU limit. Thus, articles in the European press point to the likelihood of national bankruptcy in Greece.

Politicians and the media blame the crisis on the supposedly generous Greek welfare state, which, they claim, must be slashed to bring the budget under control. In fact, the situation is the direct result of the neoliberal policies that were followed by the social democratic governments of the 1990s, and even more so by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, as the leader of the New Democracy (ND) party between 2004 and 2009.

For many years, Greek public finances were based exclusively on the taxation of the wage-earning population and the lower middle class. Greece has one of the lowest corporate taxes among EU countries, but even these low taxes aren’t collected properly–corporate tax evasion is at record highs. Even the sales tax isn’t fully collected by the government, but is left in business hands to further raise their profits.

At the same time, Greece has one of the highest taxes on wages among the EU countries. What’s more, employers and even the state–the biggest employer–have stopped paying their contributions to pension funds, creating a shortfall of more than 10 billion euros annually.

These factors are sufficient to explain the bad situation of public finances up until now. Today, of course, conditions have been made even worse with the outbreak of the economic crisis that hit Greek capitalism in its most crucial sectors. For example, the bursting of the real estate bubble brought construction–a sector considered the locomotive of the economy–to a complete standstill.

The crisis hit particularly hard in the tourism and shipping industries. And the supposedly strong Greek banks–used to acting as the dominant players in the greater Balkans region–were forced to admit not only that there is no more gold in the Balkan “El Dorado,” but that many of their old speculative enterprises have also turned toxic.

The government budget problems were made even worse last year by the decision of the former Greek government to follow its European counterparts in carrying out a colossal bailout for corporations at the onset of the crisis.

To understand why, consider the numbers. The Papandreou government today wants to extract 25 billion euros from the people over the next three years in order to reduce the budget deficit from 12.5 percent of GDP to 3 percent. Yet in one night only last year, former Prime Minister Karamanlis made available for the support of Greek banks a colossal total of 28 billion euros! Similar support programs were speedily put together for the tourist interests and other capitalist groups.

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TO PAY for these bailouts, the Greek government has been forced to turn to massive borrowing. To meet its financing needs for 2010 alone, the government has to sell bonds–that is, borrow–some 55 billion euros.

Investors are skeptical that the government can repay those loans. Thus, at the beginning of January, a report by Germany’s Deutsche Bank on the potential risks of government bonds sent interest rates on loans to the Greek government through the roof. On January 25, with the first issue of Greek bonds for a loan of 5 billion euros, there was surprising interest, with offers for almost five times the asking amount. However, the bonds carry a stiff interest rate of 6.2 percent, which, together with the bankers’ commission, raised the cost of the loan to 8 percent.

The head of the bank consortium that organized this robbery was none other than Deutsche Bank, the same outfit that warned the world about the riskiness of the investment.

All this highlights the fact that “servicing the public debt” in Greece is nothing than a way to rob the people, depriving them of badly needed resources in order to serve the interests of the banks and all the other loan sharks of the ” international market.”

This giveaway to the banks is being organized by the PASOK government that came to power in October 2009. PASOK was elected as a result of a campaign that promised resistance to a wage freeze proposed by then-Prime Minister Karamanlis.

Yet in the few months that PASOK’s Papandreou has been in office, he has made clear that he is committed to pushing through an austerity program even harsher than that of his right-wing predecessor–which means an all-out attack on labor rights and social gains. This government aims not only to freeze wages, but to actually cut pay in the public sector, thereby opening the way for bosses to do the same thing in the private sector.

A key aim of the Papandreou government is to significantly reduce employment in the public sector by laying off big proportions of temporary workers (who are employed in place of badly needed permanent workers) and hiring just one new employee for every five (!) who retire. This program completely ignores the dramatic jump in unemployment, which is already estimated at 16 percent.

Overall, Papandreou is implementing a program of drastic cuts in social spending that threaten an already resource-starved public health care and education system with total collapse. At the same time, the government wants to turn public pensions and the social security system into a private and semi-private system. It also plans a broad program of privatization of parts of the public sector, including ports, energy, water, etc.

That’s not all. Papandreou aims to substantially raise taxes for working people and the lower middle classes, without touching the profits of the rich–especially big businesses and the banks.

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ONCE AGAIN, we have before us a social democratic government with a program of harsh neoliberal policies. Papandreou aims to reduce the deficit over the next three years in order to, he says, “rehabilitate the confidence of the international market in the country.”

The government’s main asset in enforcing these policies is PASOK’s strength in the trade unions. This explains the turn in ruling class political support toward PASOK. The industrialists and the bankers realized that the right had exhausted its credibility with the people. Thus, they looked to social democracy, providing unprecedented support to the PASOK via the corporate mass media.

Another element in PASOK’s favor is the paralysis of the opposition New Democracy party, which has been pressured into providing unconditional support to PASOK’s economic and social economic program. In order to rally any popular support at all, New Democracy has taken racist and nationalist positions to appeal to its hard core–a traditional conservative audience. (It should be added here that the recently elected leader of New Democracy attempted 15 years ago to found an extreme right nationalist party.)

With the right incapable of effective opposition, Papandreou has a free hand to sell his austerity program. In his speeches, he often uses the punch line: “change or sink.” By that, he means that the country must turn in a neoliberal direction–that the balance of forces between capital and labor must be tipped towards the benefit of the rich “so that the country can avoid bankruptcy.”

Under this banner, the PASOK government used its first 100 days in office to reverse Papandreou’s election program. People were stunned–and public discontent is already being expressed in many ways.

As this article is being written, protesting farmers, using tractors and heavy equipment, have set up blockades in 30 different places along the main freeways, demanding fair prices for their products. Public-sector temporary employees, under the imminent threat of losing their jobs, are organizing strikes in many services.

That’s only the beginning. Despite the betrayal by the social democratic leadership of the unions, it’s certain that there will be mass resistance to Papandreou’s program. That’s exactly why “international investors” are expressing strong doubts about the government’s ability to impose its “reforms.” In recalling Greece’s youth uprising of 2008, a major European paper wrote: “In this country, there exists a very low tolerance to modernizing reforms and very high tolerance towards radical protest.”

But the struggle is not going to be easy. This time, the ruling elites know very well that the defeat of their austerity policies will have immense consequences. It’s no accident that there are a growing number of establishment voices demanding a “national salvation” government run by both PASOK and New Democracy.

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TO OVERTURN Papandreou’s program, we will need a serious escalation of these struggles.

The ex-chairman of the parliamentary group of SYRIZA (Coalition of Radical Left), Alekos Alavanos, spoke of the need for a new “worker’s December.” He was referring to a broad uprising like the youth revolt of December 2008–only this time, the struggle must be centered in the labor movement. That could provide the continuity, demands and politics necessary to bring victory for the resistance movement. This slogan–for a “worker’s December”–has become increasingly popular, reaching even the pages of the mainstream press.

The fightback must also have a European dimension. The case of Greece is proof that it is impossible to defend workers’ rights and social gains without confronting the European Union’s policies that prioritize cutting deficits and debts, no matter how severe the impact on the people.

In that sense, Greece could indeed prove to be “the weak link” of European capitalism–not only financially, but also politically. Resistance in Greece could be the signal for a new round of major labor struggles and strikes in Europe.

It should be clear that our goal can’t be achieved by mass social resistance alone. The situation also demands a political struggle, in which the forces of the radical left will have to play a crucial role. An important factor is SYRIZA, a coalition in which our organization DEA (International Workers’ Left) has participated from the beginning.

Currently, SYRIZA has electoral support of about 5 percent of voters. A crucial and rich debate is taking place inside SYRIZA about: (a) for the need of radical left-wing policy to meet the challenges of this critical period, and (b) the need for SYRIZA to become a democratic and fighting organization that’s capable of supporting the coming struggles. DEA, together with other forces of the revolutionary left that participate in SYRIZA, has focused our attention on this debate.

Whether in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or elsewhere, one of these “weak links” has to get broken. The task now is to open the way for mass demands for changes that meet the needs of working people and youth, rather than satisfying the corporate greed of bankers and industrialists.

Area man to apply for job with police

Policing and justice devolution moves one step closer, as the commander of the Northern Alliance sallies forth:

Alliance Party Council last night recommended that Leader David Ford can now nominate a candidate for Justice Minister. Party Council agreed that the two conditions which Alliance raised have now been met. Sinn Fein and the DUP have agreed on the community relations strategy and genuine progress has been made on agreeing a Justice Department policy programme.

Everyone expects that this candidate will be Fordy himself. He’s senior, he’s got a certain amount of gravitas, nobody doubts his ability and, most importantly, he’ll be able to command support in the required cross-community vote in the Assembly. By virtue of being the least offensive possible candidate, there’s no better man for the job.

And yet… Fordy? An Alliance man? A liberal? From listening to the pensioners on the bus, they don’t want a liberal in charge of policing. They want somebody who looks the part, somebody who you really believe is going to beat the crap out of the hoods. They want Dirty Harry. And, while Fordy has the inestimable advantage of not being Monica McWilliams, nobody would ever mistake him for Dirty Harry.

I think Sinn Féin have missed a trick here. It’s true that they forswore the job of justice minister, figuring that the prospect of Alex Maskey or Gerry Kelly in the post would cause unionists to have conniptions. But there’s nothing to stop them nominating someone from outside the party, and if a loophole could be found that would allow a nominee from outside the Assembly, that would provide an opportunity to advance all-Ireland politics. There’s a man in Limerick who’s between jobs right now, and his no-nonsense approach might be right up the DUP’s street…

Rud eile: Hot off the press, Eddie McGrady has finally announced his retirement. God knows, Margaret has been waiting long enough for a run at the South Down seat.

Balls!

For the sake of my blood pressure, I really shouldn’t listen to the Today programme. But more of that presently.

As the left blogosphere’s designated religion correspondent, a role graciously shared by the incomparable Red Maria, it would be remiss of me not to pass any comment on last week’s No Popery demonstration in London. But to tell you the truth, it looked to me like the damp squib of the season. This was, let’s recall, a mobilisation of various anti-religious organisations along with some militant gays, and to be honest, “anti-Catholics don’t like the Pope very much” is about as newsworthy as “Pope may not be secular liberal”.

But that’s not to say that there was nothing remarkable about it. In fact there were several entertaining eccentricities. Firstly, the demonstrators met up at the Natural History Museum to namecheck Darwin and pat themselves on the back about being, like, all scientific and shit. This seems to have been based on the idea that the Catholic Church is opposed to the Darwinian theory of evolution, which would come as a shock to the late Cardinal Newman as well as at least the last half-dozen popes. (Catholicism’s allegorical reading of scripture has never really had a problem with evolution; that’s Protestant biblical literalism you’re thinking of.) From there, they set out to Westminster Cathedral to try and have a row with the congregation, by such means as brandishing placards featuring Pope Benny’s face with a Hitler moustache drawn on it – that must have seemed absolutely hilarious at the OutRage! office, but was perhaps not the best way to win friends and influence people at Westminster Cathedral. And the final lap was a walk to the Italian embassy to proclaim solidarity with some two-men-and-a-dog outfit in Italy that’s been campaigning to get Berlusconi to unilaterally tear up the Lateran Treaty and annex Vatican City. And all I have to say about that is that if you don’t like the Pope that’s fair enough, but if you think Berlusconi would be an improvement then you need your head felt.

Notable too that despite sympathetic media coverage less than 200 people bothered to turn up; and that atheist icon Maryam Namazie was a no-show, although some Iranian bloke did stand in for her. This is ominous for the No Popery Coalition, because militant secularist demos usually rely heavily on the WCPI to make up the numbers, and while the Hekmatists are up for any opportunity to bash Islam, they really don’t care about Catholicism. One tentatively suggests that, if they want to bolster their numbers come September, they’ll have to block with the Democratic Unionist Party and the Orange Order, although that might be a profound culture shock for Terry Sanderson and Peter Tatchell. Incidentally, I do worry that the enormous respect that Peter has rightly accrued down the years is undermined a little by his insistence on hanging out with these strange people.

But no matter, these guys were not to be discouraged. Over the last couple of days they have been in action again over the Children, Schools and Families Bill – yet another rather silly piece of Orwellian legislation from New Labour – and have been boosted by the support of the Liberal Democrats. It appears that Mr Nicholas Clegg and Dr Death Evan Harris are making a pitch for the militant secularist vote, although I’m not certain that a couple of hundred retired Open University lecturers are much of a vote bank. The proximate cause of this is the question of what’s now known as Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and how this is to be carried out in faith schools. But there’s more to this than meets the eye, and there are three aspects I want to explore – the legislative, the political and the educational. There are a few philosophical issues underlying it as well, but I’ll only be able to touch on these in passing – to go into them in depth would take unconscionably long.

Part the first:
New Labour, like most modern governments, produces far too much legislation and certainly far too much bad legislation. I was very taken by Jamie’s reference to the theory of Chinese Legalism, the idea that the government should legislate to improve the moral condition of its citizens. New Labour, combining as it does deracinated liberalism with a belief in the perfectibility of man, is especially addicted to this, and it’s resulted in a whole series of blockbuster laws that seek to get rid of every social ill you can think of. Harriet Harman’s current Equality Bill is a case in point – since the last (itself rather far-reaching) Equality Act came into force as recently as 2006, and was augmented by the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007, it’s not immediately apparent why yet another substantial piece of equality legislation is so urgently required.

Forgive me for going a bit Ron Paul, but the legislative process would be enormously improved by applying the “better fewer but better” approach, passing fewer but shorter laws that are competently drafted and properly scrutinised. Nor would it hurt to realise that some things can’t be easily sorted out by legislative fiat. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, if schools have a problem with homophobic bullying (and we know they do) it would seem sensible to me for the DCSF to issue schools with guidelines setting out best practice, and to get feedback from schools on the extent of the problem. It’s an executive problem, not one that can be solved by legislation. (It’s worth noting that teenagers involved in homophobic assaults will have spent their entire education under New Labour and will have had the whole gamut of diversity and equality drummed into them. This indicates that we’re dealing with a cultural problem that needs a long-term perspective.)

A further issue is that of what may be termed bullshit autonomy. It’s a bit like Francis Canavan’s critique of liberal thinkers like Ronald Dworkin – that they relied on statist solutions to uphold the supreme good of the autonomy of the atomised individual – but, this being practical politics, it’s the Beavis and Butt-head version. I draw your attention to “Dave” Cameron promising more local decision-making in the NHS, even including workers’ co-operatives. But on electoral hot-button issues like cancer care or IVF, “Dave” says he’ll end the postcode lottery. It obviously not having occurred to “Dave” that localism implies a postcode lottery – because local decision-making means differing decisions being made on the allocation of limited resources. So the line is that we’ll get more localism except where it matters, and where it matters there will be increased uniformity.

Education is an especially obvious example. What with LMS, the gutting of local education authorities, parental choice, academies and all the other shiny initiatives of the last three decades, one would imagine that education would be all localism and diversity. And yet, this is one of the areas most notorious for pettifogging micromanagement from Whitehall. And since the far distant days of Ken Baker, the weapon of choice for enforcing bullshit autonomy has been the National Curriculum.

What’s wrong with the National Curriculum could take up an entire book, but in very general terms it’s both too broad and too narrow. What it should be doing is setting a standard for the study of various subjects. It should define what’s necessary as a minimum, and it should also indicate academic range – for instance, the study of history should involve some sort of variety of topics, instead of the scandalous situation where you can get a history qualification after studying nothing but Hitler. That’s the sort of thing it should do. In practice, it’s a dumping ground for every bit of harebrained social engineering a government wants to try its hand at, via citizenship classes and the like. At the same time, the NC is absurdly prescriptive. Take literacy. Any teacher worth her salt knows there are a whole lot of different ways of teaching literacy, appropriate to different kids, of which synthetic phonics is one. But, thanks to New Labour’s kowtowing to the Daily Mail, synthetic phonics is now compulsory. And now, on the grounds that parents are falling down on the job and the NC has to take up the slack, kids who are already suffering the Tony Blair Literacy Hour face being subjected to the Ed Balls Sex Hour.

Finally, however bad New Labour are on this ground, we can confidently expect Cameron and Gove to be ten times worse.

Part the second:
This is where it’s necessary to separate the substance from the spin. At 8.10 on Tuesday morning the Today programme carried a rather weird interview between John Humphrys and Ed Balls, on the subject of an amendment Balls had introduced to his own bill, which is ostensibly about protecting the religious character of faith schools. More on this below.

The interview was rendered even more weird in that it was preceded by an appearance from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who was arguing in favour of one-size-fits-all statism and against any religious dispensation. This seemed an odd position for a rabbi to take, but then Reform Judaism is a strange beast.

There then followed the main event. Although the bill would also affect the more numerous Anglican schools (though many of these are faith schools in name only), not to mention Jewish, Muslim and Hindu schools, the entire conversation was about Catholic schools, and moreover between two men neither of whom had the faintest idea what Catholic doctrine actually was. (Can we please have Ed Stourton back?) Humphrys was hyper-aggressively demanding of Balls that Catholic schools should not be allowed to be influenced by, er, Catholicism; Balls was positively surreal, simultaneously posing as the defender of faith schools while reassuring Humphrys of his fidelity to secularist orthodoxy by affirming that he would be requiring Catholic schools to provide their pupils with information on how to access contraception and abortion.

The spin on this, too, has been wondrous to behold. Secularist groups (among which we can count the Liberal Democrats) have been spinning furiously that this is all about Teh Gays. You can’t blame them for taking this tack – look at the media success they had a few weeks back when the Pope made a speech that didn’t mention homosexuality once, and we ended up in a “hands off our lovely gays” condemnathon. (And, having tapped into primordial English anti-Catholicism, there was little need to bother with details such as what the guy actually said. Better to have well-meaning liberals getting really angry about what they knew he’d said.) Actually, while homosexuality isn’t irrelevant to all of this, discussion in Catholic fora has been much, much more concerned with abortion. As for the government, prior to the amendment it had been spinning that its religious critics were a bunch of lunatics opposed to any and all sex education (Mark Steel, for one, seems to have accepted this); after the amendment, their spin came back to bite them in the bum as BBC newsreaders were berating MPs for allowing the “opt-out”.

What of the Catholic spin? Well, there hasn’t been any. Archbishop Nichols, Bishop McMahon and the blessed Oona have been conspicuous by their vanishingly low profile. There was a very brief and neutrally worded press release from the CES about the amendment, but that was it. If one were to go by the radio silence from +Vinnie and +Malcolm, one might get the impression that the bishops endorsed what New Labour was up to. Not least because Balls is quoting them in support of his position, with nary a word of contradiction.

Let’s backpedal slightly here, because faith schools under New Labour are a classic example of bullshit autonomy. New Labour loves faith schools, because middle-class parents love faith schools. In the absence of a government with the balls to bring back grammars, the middle classes have identified faith schools as ersatz grammar schools and will go to extraordinary lengths of feigning religious belief so as to get the kids in there. (There is an analogue, though an inexact one, in the way south Dublin is full of middle-class atheists who join the Church of Ireland for schools admission purposes.) New Labour loves faith schools so much that a whole slew of government ministers have managed to get their own kids into exclusive faith schools. But New Labour also remains committed to a long menu of liberal policies that sit uneasily to say the least with actually existing religion. Hence Barry Sheerman’s comment that faith schools were fine as long as they didn’t take the faith bit too seriously. Ideally, New Labour would like the “faith” bit of faith schools to be just a bit of branding, a logo on the school gate. You can get away with that to some extent with the C of E, but the likes of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Jews are a tougher proposition.

So to the SRE proposals, and the Bill tightens considerably the leeway that schools had in designing their own SRE curricula. It would become illegal for any school not to offer SRE – even in primary schools, it is envisaged as being compulsory for the 8-11 age group, which is an odd move for a minister who’s said he’s concerned at how society is sexualising young children. From the age of fifteen, it will be illegal for parents to withdraw their children from SRE, no matter what reasonable concerns they may have about the content of what the school is offering. And this DCSF press release gives a flavour of what would specifically be expected from faith schools:

Q How could this work in practice in a faith school?

Let me answer that by way of providing an example. (This is Ed talkin’ here.)

St Thomas More is a mixed secondary school in Bedford. 60% of students are from a Catholic/Christian background with 40% from a range of ethnic minority groups, including Muslim. It has achieved Healthy Schools Status and has an Outstanding Award for cultural diversity.

St Thomas More delivers SRE through the pastoral programme in conjunction with the RE syllabus. It is led by pastoral tutors, all of whom are well prepared and confident to lead discussion with students across a wide range of SRE issues.

The school has developed a very successful balance of providing students with accurate information within the faith ethos of the school. For example, sex within marriage is promoted as the ideal of the Catholic faith, but the school explicitly recognises the reality that some young people may choose to be sexually active and, if that is the case, they need the knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs.

The school nurse provides students with clear accurate information about the full range of contraception and STIs and details of local services. Chlamydia screening is also offered to students in Years 11 to 13. Pregnancy options, including abortion, are also discussed in a non-judgemental way with the RE syllabus requiring students to understand the spectrum of pro- and anti-choice views on abortion. By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the context of relationships and the school’s values.

Terry Sanderson has been banging on about the rights of children to an “objective” sex education, as if you can eliminate values from such a discussion. In the spirit of Dude Hitchens’ proclamation in God Is Not Great that “my belief is not a belief”, Terry is arguing not for a value-free SRE curriculum, which is impossible in any case, but for one that reflects his values – with the rhetorical rider that “my values are not values, they’re objective”. Ed Balls, who’s much more important in this context than the voluble Mr Sanderson, actually comes closer to a value-free approach with his demand that schools be “non-judgemental”, in other words following the timeworn liberal view that radical personal autonomy is the supreme value.

But this is where liberalism’s insistence on the atomistic individual, at least when it devolves into statist solutions to reinforce personal autonomy, becomes deeply anti-pluralist. And this is where Balls and Sanderson are as one, because what they view as “enlightened”, “neutral” or “non-judgemental” is in fact a value statement, and one that many people don’t agree with. The real difference is that Balls thinks the demands of liberal statism and those of faith can be reconciled by the teacher adding the rider “here’s what we believe, but here are some other beliefs of absolutely equal value”, while Sanderson thinks the teacher should be legally prevented from adding the rider.

For example, let’s say your faith holds up lifelong monogamous marriage as an ideal, while recognising (and being sensitive to) the fact that actually existing society is more complex. Ed Balls wants to make it compulsory for you to say that cohabitation and civil partnerships are of equal value with marriage – so how do you express an opinion without being judgemental? The canonical example is abortion, where Mr Balls seems to think Catholic schools can instruct girls in how and where to obtain abortions – and in a “non-judgemental” manner – as long as they say “but we don’t do that”. One would have thought Archbishop Nichols might have explained to him that for Catholic educators to assist a pupil in obtaining an abortion is for them to be complicit in a grave sin, but then that would presume that a government minister would understand the concept of sin.

And what of the ostensible opt-out? Here is the text of the amendment:

Subsections (4) to (7) are not to be read as preventing the governing body or head teacher of a school within subsection (7B) from causing or allowing PSHE to be taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character.

Note that this replaces the provision in the Education Act 1996 that allows schools to opt out of what they consider to be inappropriate material; and that this amendment is in tension with all the other bits of the Bill stipulating that SRE must be carried out according to the (extremely broad-brush) requirements of “equality” and “diversity”, and it really doesn’t add up to much. What it amounts to in practice is that you can rely on the teachings of Jesus Christ as long as they don’t conflict with the teachings of Ed Balls. If they do, so much the worse for Jesus.

Even if you don’t subscribe to Catholic moral teaching – and I’m certainly not advocating that Catholic doctrine become the law of the land – there are good reasons to be alarmed at these occasional outbreaks of authoritarian Jacobinism from New Labour. I was saying a little while ago about the danger of erecting liberal analogues to Section 28, and this is exactly the sort of thing I meant. Genuine pluralist liberals – and a lot of liberals are shockingly illiberal on these issues – should realise that, at least on the Niemöller principle, it’s often necessary to defend the liberties of people you don’t agree with – as Pope Benny says, tolerance is not the same as approval – and that religious liberties are very often the canary in the mine. Apart from the civil libertarian argument, there’s also the prudential argument outlined by +Rowan at General Synod, when he talked about Section 28 and the danger of enshrining legal norms on disputed moral issues. You may not be worried as long as the government is enforcing liberal nostrums on the education system, but once put that sort of system in place, and should a morally conservative government come to power, the liberals would soon know what end was up.

Part the third:
This post has got far too long already, but I’d just like to quite briefly state my scepticism about whether these brave new plans Mr Balls is putting forward will actually do much good. One might profit from asking why there were much lower teen pregnancy and STI rates forty or fifty years ago, when there was almost no sex education in schools. Not, I hasten to add, that I’m calling for a return to those days.

I mention this because the debate on the CSF Bill has coincided with discussion of the government’s Teen Pregnancy Strategy, which will certainly miss by quite some margin its target of halving teen pregnancies in ten years, even with a bit of statistical jiggery-pokery aimed at making the headline figures look better. Sceptics view the TPS as not much more than a teen abortion strategy. (As the latest figures confirm, teenage birthrates have got very low, but that’s largely thanks to a 50% abortion rate rather than a reduction in teenage pregnancy.)

Many of you will have seen Anna Richardson’s Sex Education Show (aka Britain’s Got Herpes) on Channel 4. This was quite interesting in that it was arguing, on the face of it, that the teen pregnancy and STI crises could best be dealt with by more sex education. But, considering that there’s more sex education now than there has ever been, it might be more pertinent to call for better sex education.

There’s also the aspect of societal pressures. There are enormously strong influences on kids from the mass media, the internet, porn and what have you, reinforced by peer pressure. By far the most powerful vehicle for sex education in Britain is Radio 1’s Sunday Surgery, which always does some brief throat-clearing on the age of consent, and occasionally has on Christian girls who wear purity rings as a sort of sideshow attraction, but in general has a relentless message of “if it feels good, there can’t be anything wrong with it”. Set against this, pupils getting an hour a week in school of what Ed Balls considers to be good sex education – regardless of whether it’s any good – is comparable to government advertising campaigns on alcohol abuse when set alongside the mammoth advertising budget of the drinks industry. It’s a drop in the ocean.

Finally (phew!), there’s a general cultural issue. Holland, as is well known, has extremely permissive laws and as much sex in the media as you could possibly want, but a much lower teen pregnancy rate than Britain. But Dutch society, especially outside of the Amsterdam metropolis, is characterised by tight family units and a level of community cohesion that seems very old-fashioned to Brits. I can’t see the problem being sorted this side of a serious change in the culture, something that no act of legislation can decree.

More thoughts on this from Archbishop Cranmer.

Rud eile: I was immensely tickled to see Cardinal O’Brien slapping down the odious Jim Murphy. More on which here; and Ruthie reports that someone is having trouble with his comments box.

Shameful music meme

There’s another music meme up at Alien Versus Predator, and this one is right up my street. You know when a song comes on the wireless that’s vaguely familiar but you just can’t place it, and you think “Hmm, I quite like this one”, and you start tapping your toes and maybe humming along… then you realise it is in fact Sir Cliff’s “Wired For Sound”. What could be more mortifying, if you value your street cred?

The title is a slight misnomer, given that this blog is well known for being completely shameless in such matters. Besides, I long ago forswore the whole concept of the “guilty pleasure”. Who am I supposed to feel guilty to, John Earls? I think not. Either you enjoy it or you don’t.

Going decade by decade, let’s start with the 60s and Mr Spock as you’ve never seen him before:

Now, the 70s. You had forgotten the Runaways, hadn’t you? Or perhaps blocked them from your conscious memory…

Now here’s one for all you Ferris Bueller fans. If you weren’t around in 1985, it’s hard to convey just the impact that Sigue Sigue Sputnik had. For about fifteen minutes. I mean, this is the 21st century already and it doesn’t look anything like a Sputnik video.

This next track is maybe not quite as cheesy, but… Bill Drummond has always been at least twenty years ahead of his time. So by the time he’s contemporary, whatever he’s done that’s contemporary will have aged horribly. If that sounds a bit Doctor Who, that may not be inappropriate.

Finally from the 00s, a bona fide great track, which should by rights have won Russia the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. Of course, the word “Eurovision” instantly invokes cheese, which isn’t always fair. Anyway, here’s Serebro:

And once again, I hope some faces have been buried in hands. We endeavour to give satisfaction.

Meascra na mblaganna

Did we miss out on doing a blog roundup last week? I see we did, so it’s a good time to do one now.

Not from the blogs, but interesting nonetheless: UDA supremo Jackie McDonald says the Orange Order should forget about marching down the Garvaghy Road. Given the *ahem* supportive role that the men in dark glasses have previously played to the men in bowler hats, this has some significance. Unsurprisingly, the Orange think Hard Bap is being unhelpful.

Liam is unimpressed by the Norn Iron health authorities producing glossy leaflets instructing the monoglot Ulster-Scots speaker in how to wash his hands. Bobballs has some thoughts on TV’s Mike Nesbitt going up as the Official Unionist candidate in Strangford – has unionism found its own George Lee? And Jude weighs in on the Willie O’Dea saga.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, there’s been an entertaining barney going on whereby Laurie Penny opinionates on destructive behaviour on the left, while that nice wee man Mr L Tombs responds with a defence of the SWP. Neither piece is unproblematic if you really want to pick at the problem, but if you take it in general terms, I think both of them have a good point.

On the ongoing matter of Amnesty, Moazzam Begg and Gita Sahgal, I have to mention the sterling work being done by Sunny and Harpy, but a special shout out to Flying Rodent, who’s just done a definitive summary. Meanwhile, Jamie has a thought experiment on how a Chinese embassy staffer would view this.

In the world of music, Madam Miaow has been to see Beck and Clapton at the O2, and further laments the pending sale of Abbey Road studios. Liam takes a dusty view of famous human rights campaigner Sting’s trip to Uzbekistan. And the sometimes deeply weird L’Osservatore Romano gives a list of the Vatican’s top 10 albums for a desert island, including Revolver and Thriller (fair enough), but then going straight to the bottom of the barrel with U2 and Oasis. Father Z is not impressed.

On matters of speech and legality, which we have had some reason to think about lately, Third Estate argues against Peter Tatchell’s case for statutory press regulation; Jack of Kent has a preview of Simon Singh’s appearance at the Court of Appeal; and Lucifee concludes her brilliant series on libel law.

Clare is running for election; Unknown Conscience has an impressively chunky reflection on New Labour and education; Salma Yaqoob has an article on British Muslim women; and Stumbling Chris deplores the cult of youth in politics. Update: I’d unaccountably missed this excellent coverage of the Edinburgh SDL march. (Thanks, Dave.)

On boingboing, so you’ve probably already seen it, but this study of the sexual practices of MIT students caught my eye. In particular, the concept of “floorcest”, which seems to be a taboo against getting your leg over with someone on the same floor of your dorm building. That’s one for the anthropologists.

Finally, an appeal. Have you seen this wee man?

Miaow!

Actually, this is even better than Dynasty. Red Maria has struck comedy gold. Facepalms all round, comrades.

Update: This may shed some light on matters. And what would Footie say?

Batasuna maps out political path

The article below is from Neues Deutschland. Clunky translation is my own.

For months the popular base of the Basque party Batasuna, banned by the Spanish state, has been debating a new direction for the Basque left. Following debates in many villages, small towns and urban neighbourhoods, 600 delegate at four regional assemblies approved the document “Zutik Euskal Herria” (Basque Country Stand Up).

Batasuna is mapping out a new path. The conclusion of the party base’s process of self-critical discussion has made that clear. The goal is, “to create a democratic framework in which all political projects, including that of the independence movement, can be realised.” But the pursuit of an independent, unified and socialist Euskadi is to be pursued “exclusively by political and democratic means”.

This is not simply a tactical ceasefire by ETA, but a new strategic turn. The underground organisation’s armed struggle is being rejected by way of a critical analysis of developments in recent years, even if there is no explicit condemnation of ETA. For the majority of the Basque left it is clear that armed actions hinder rather than help their activism.

There is also a recognition of the growing strength of the independence movement in Catalunya, where there is no active armed group. Therefore the strategy of the Basque left will now be based exclusively on “accumulating stronger forces and mobilising the population in order to bring the confrontation onto the political level”. This is where the Spanish and French states are seen to be weak. Therefore civil society is explicitly recognised as the motor of change.

The entire independence movement must create the conditions for these initiatives to develop. There is an appeal to ETA, which supports the process in its fundamentals and has not carried out an attack for months. “Only the struggle of the broad masses, in the institutions and on the ideological level” can “lead to a change in the balance of forces.” It is also the case that the process will need international support. To bring forward work on an institutional level, a legal party is required. This would then take part in all-party talks, in which an agreement would be reach to resolve the conflict. The method being adopted is therefore the same one which underlay the peace process that collapsed in 2007.

There have been a wide variety of responses to this move. The forces that want to work alongside Batasuna in a sovereignty movement have welcomed it. The main Basque trade union ELA has long demanded such a move, so as to build united action with the Batasuna-allied union LAB. “We are happy,” said union leader Txiki Muñoz. It was a “step in the right direction”, said Pello Urizar, leader of the Basque Solidarity (EA) party. Urizar demanded the abolition of the Political Parties Act under which Batasuna was banned. Cautiously positive reactions came from the dominant Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the United Left (IU).

The rightwing People’s Party (PP), which has never distanced itself from the Franco dictatorship, sees this as just a manoeuvre ahead of the 2011 local elections. The PP demanded a tightening of the Political Parties Act so as to further exclude “ETA-Batasuna” from the political institutions. This is also related to the fact that since 2009 the PP has been able to govern the Basque Autonomous Community (CAV) in coalition with the Socialists (PSOE), because the ban meant that many Batasuna supporters’ votes were disallowed.

There has been a similarly negative reaction from the PSOE. But they also claimed in 2003, when Batasuna put forward its last peace plan, that there was nothing new in it and demanded “deeds not words”. But that plan did become the basis for peace negotiations.

My own thoughts: Batasuna and ETA haven’t really known what to do for a long time. But it might have sunk in that the last attempt at a political path led not only to a huge surge in Batasuna’s electoral support, but to increased collaboration between the nationalist parties vis-à-vis the state, as well as raising the possibility of blocking with Catalan and Galician nationalists. This scared the shit out of the Madrid government, which then embarked on a strategy of tension aimed at collapsing the ceasefire, and has since banned a long succession of pro-independence parties. But, while the state can force the independence movement into a dead end, it can’t destroy the movement; hence, we’re back to 2003.

Ashes to ashes

Well, Kay Burley apparently didn’t know what Joe Biden was sporting on his forehead; Jon Snow felt the need to explain the significance of the ashes to C4 News viewers. Sometimes our British chums make me shake my head ruefully. Can the old traditions have disappeared so completely, or is this just a metropolitan thing?

Yesterday in Belfast there was still a big slice of the populace wearing ashes, and at lunchtime the city centre churches were packed to the rafters. Over here, Ash Wednesday is still quite a big deal.

However, there was one rather jarring thing. This last week or so has been half term, and as usual schools in the state and Catholic sectors have been working to slightly different timetables. But it’s odd that the Catholic schools would have been off on Wednesday. What with Ash Wednesday being a holy day of obligation, there used to be a huge rigmarole with the children all being dragooned into Mass to get their ashes. This would have been a serious task for the maintained education sector. Scheduling half term so the kids are spending Ash Wednesday sitting at home playing Grand Theft Auto is a quite shocking lapse in standards. At the very least, it’s one in the eye for Caitríona Ruane – how did the minister let that get by her?

I was disappointed, though, not to hear ace Derry educator Mgr Iggy McQuillan taking to the airwaves – at least I didn’t hear him, he may yet have been on Radio Foyle. When it comes to educational debates, there are few things as enjoyable as one of Iggy’s broadsides against the trendy socialists running CCMS and dominating the Irish Catholic hierarchy, who (according to Iggy) are completely in thrall to the modernist educational theories of Sinn Féin and the teaching unions. If CCMS has been caught napping on the job, it’s doubly disappointing when a good conservative critic fails to turn up and duly castigate them. Still, there’s always next year.

The examination of the conscience (or lack thereof)

Mark Steel has a good story about the Militant tendency. Like many of Mark’s stories, there is probably a little embellishment but there’s little doubt that the core of it is true. It goes like this:

Mark is walking down the street one fine day when he espies a black-and-white poster proclaiming, “The Round London Jobs March Is Coming To Your Area”. Mark thinks this sounds like a good idea, and at the appointed time is waiting for the march along with a couple of mates from the Croydon SWP who he’s press-ganged into this. When the march arrives, Mark walks up to the Militant fulltimer leading it.

Mark: We’d like to join your march.

Militant: Oh yeah?

Mark: Yes, I saw the poster and thought it seemed like a good idea.

Militant (pointing to SWP branch banner): Not with that, you’re not joining this march.

Mark: Why not?

Militant: This march has widespread trade union support, and I’m not going to jeopardise that by having an SWP banner on this march.

Mark: You may have widespread trade union support, but I can’t help noticing there are only four of you.

Eventually some deal was worked out, and Mark and his chums were allowed to join the march. The punchline was that, however bemused the commuters were to see seven people with two banners trudging along the side of the road, they’d have been much more bemused if they’d known four of those people were thinking, “This was a pretty good little march before the other three turned up.”

I cite this because it’s a great double-edged joke. When told to an SWP audience, it would evoke a great roar of laughter from people who would lap up any story of the Militant behaving like dicks. But half of the audience would be uneasily aware that they themselves had behaved just like that before, and doubtless would do again. It’s worth going back to that chapter of Reasons To Be Cheerful where Mark regales us with tales of the lunatic behaviour of left groups – as he says of Militant, either the 5000 rudest people in Britain had all spontaneously decided to join the same far left group, or they trained them to act like that – because it does have this double-edged quality. Mark was a member of the SWP at that time, and his criticisms of the party don’t go beyond talking about Cliff’s endearing eccentricities, but there is a pretty bloody obvious warning there for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Which leads me to something I’ve been pondering in terms of the most recent SWP ruckus. Andy has a good discussion apropos of Lindsey German, of how loyalty to the party can be reconciled with loyalty to whatever broader forum – a union, say, or a single-issue campaign – that the party member is working in. It’s a discussion worth having, but I want to concentrate on something much more basic – why the left, which is supposed to be fighting for a society based on solidarity and comradeship, so often behaves so badly. I’m not just talking here about sheer bloody rudeness on the blogs, but about behaviour in the real world too – the lack of face-to-face interaction in the blogosphere can encourage extra bad behaviour, but that doesn’t explain patterns of bad behaviour in the real world, much of it going back decades.

So, are we just scraping the barrel in terms of human material, or are there explicable reasons? I like to think it’s the latter. It’s not innate but a learned behaviour, traceable back to the left’s social isolation but also ensuring it can’t escape that isolation. There are issues about groups with fantastically grandiose perspectives – small far-left groups most real people have never heard of, but who aspire to overthrow every government in the world – but whose lack of impact in society at large means their posturing carries with it very little in the way of consequences. Allied to that is a cod-Leninism – which is really a cod-Machiavellianism without the merits of either Lenin or Machiavelli – which disdains personal probity as just bourgeois moralism, which preaches that the ends justify any means, and which carries with it a highly elitist view of leadership. There are many worse examples out there than Lindsey German, but when I hear talk about bending the stick, seizing the key link in the chain or the small cog moving the big cog, a shiver runs up my spine and I wonder who’s about to be shafted.

The theoretical justification for this, as far as the SWP goes, is in Cliff’s Lenin: Building The Party, which you will recall paints a portrait of Lenin as someone whose genius resided in his unique ability to see a situation clearly, grasp what action was necessary and single-handedly cajole the party into doing what needed to be done. One particularly remembers that section about the Bolsheviks after 1905, which argues that even though Lenin was completely wrong about the political situation, he was still right, because the course of action he was advocating would have been the right one had his perspective been right. If you think this portrait of Lenin closely resembles Cliff, you have hit the target, rung the bell and may collect a cigar or cocoa-nut according to choice.[1]

So, Andy notes:

Cliff was a wheeler-dealer, utterly charming when you were useful to him, utterly ruthless and impersonal when he saw you as an obstacle; and given the mercurial changes of perspective he was inclined to, then you couldn’t predict your downfall coming! John and Lindsey have the same approach, but neither of them have the genuine charm of Cliff, nor his remarkable ability to maintain people’s personal affection even after he had shafted you.

Which reminds me of what Jim Higgins wrote about Cliff’s MO back in the 1970s:

The most difficult thing, and one in which nobody succeeded, was to convince Cliff that his latest idea was not some kind of revealed truth, in the pursuit of which everything else should be set aside. To get across the simple fact that the workers’ movement has certain norms of conduct and definite procedures that are there precisely because it is a collective movement, at its best involving all members of the collective, proved impossible. For Cliff the “brilliant” insights of an individual (himself) could be submitted to popular approval on two conditions: one; that they agreed with his proposal in double quick time, and two; that if they did not agree he won anyway. This cast of mind is one he shares with some trade union leaders. It drives most militants into paroxysms of rage which is why, whenever the bureaucracy is pulling a fast one, the Conference Arrangements Committee report at trade union conferences, is one of the most passionate debates. The existence of this phenomenon is one of the reasons why a genuine revolutionary party has, by definition, to include many experienced militants in its ranks because, among other things, they are the best guarantee against bureaucratic manipulation and capricious, high-handedness. The failure to grasp this simple fact of working class life is evidence of a fundamental and debilitating ignorance and an absolute bar to revolutionary success.

And here’s Andy again:

But the big issue that is raised here is whether this model of political organisation can ever be effective in advancing radical social change. There is an inherent contradiction between trying to unite in one party the widest number of self-confident and assertive activists and leaders, and at the same time seeking to reduce those self-confident activists into being cannon fodder for a centralised organisation that has its own institutional biases. The result is that the SWP is less than the sum of its parts; as it under-utilises the talents and potential influence of its members; while an internal culture of deference and self-denial, provides a perfect culture for bullying and rudeness to flourish.

Which brings us neatly back to the question of personal behaviour. Because, if the political content is problematic enough, it can be made infinitely more so if the person carrying it out insists on being a cunt about it. Or, more to the point, if there’s a culture encouraging such behaviour.

Allow me to be concrete about this. One thing that was highly controversial on the British left was the move to close down the Socialist Alliance and set up Respect. I freely admit that I was sceptical in the extreme about this. Granted that there were objections to Respect in bad faith, and objections for the wrong reasons – whether this was the Alliance for War and Liberalism on the right, or Students Power on the doctrinaire left – but it was possible to have concerns in good faith without either being crazily sectarian, or thinking that the SA was some unimprovable utopia. I was in favour of a socialist-Muslim alliance against the war, but sceptical that this could be carried through into an actual party. I had my doubts about Galloway, and what political content might have to be thrown overboard to keep him sweet. I would have preferred a more explicitly socialist profile to a populist one. And, while you can’t have an alliance without concessions, I was worried about whether the concessions that were being made were justifiable ones.

In retrospect, this might have been a sectarian position, but I don’t think it was an unreasonable one. The important thing is that while the Respect turn may have been the correct thing to do, even if you absolutely believe it was the correct thing to do there were obviously huge problems with the execution. I’m talking here about the steamrolling of people who did have reasonable concerns, often with some personal nastiness involved. It is simply untrue that those in the SA who didn’t follow through into Respect were all pro-war Islamophobes. With a bit more sensitivity and a bit less bold and decisive leadership, most of the reasonable sceptics could have been won over. Likewise, when Respect split – and this is regardless of whether you think the split was inevitable or who you think was in the right – it was surely the superabundance of bold and decisive leadership that ensured that the SWP lost the entire middle ground.

Moreover, once trust is compromised, it takes an awful long time to win back. I’m going to pre-empt Mark P by making a point about all the horror stories surrounding Militant. Most of these have a foundation in truth even if they’ve grown a little with the telling, but it’s notable that the hairiest stories are all located some considerable time in the past. Partly that’s due to a much smaller SP not being able to operate the way Militant used to, but there’s also a strong element of the SP having calmed down a lot and changed their MO. While it’s very easy to find the SP taking stances you think are wrong, and if you look closely it can’t be that hard to find individual SP members behaving like dicks, it’s been a long time since the SP as a body did something outrageously sectarian in the movements.[2] This means that today the SP has a rather good reputation on the broader left, including among people who strongly disagree with it, for being sensible and constructive. But it took years to get there.

Finally, it’s not just a question of bad behaviour being tactically stupid. There’s also the question of it being morally wrong. Sometimes the means contradict the ends, and further, if we’re committed to the better society then that means trying to set an example, even if we fall short. Socialists should not need to be told that abusing people’s trust, or scapegoating them for other people’s mistakes, or stealing their labour, is flat out wrong. Socialists should not see as normal and unobjectionable an institutional culture of bullying, ostracism and denigration that would land any capitalist employer in front of an employment tribunal. Socialists should not preach about how every comrade is gold dust, then treat the socialist organisation as a personal bailiwick for the aggrandisement of the leader at the expense of the rank and file. Socialists should seek to build relationships on a basis of honesty and comradeship, and using the talents of the membership rather than building up their beer buddies or fuck buddies as the revolutionary general staff. These are things that shouldn’t even need to be said, but as John Rees used to say, sometimes you have to repeat yourself until the penny drops.

We have far too many people who want to be Lenin – or, in the case of the late Paul Foot, who wanted to be Shelley – but whose secular Thomas à Kempis act does not have much substance to fall back on. The lives of the saints are not there for us to re-enact their detailed actions, but to give us exemplars of the good life and to strive to improve ourselves. Perhaps I’m unusual in preferring Ignatius Loyola to Tony Cliff in such matters, but this isn’t the obscurantism it may seem. The Ignatian examen – the examination of the conscience – involves a serious reflection on one’s actions and desires, identifying one’s faults and working on them systematically, with the aim of drawing towards one’s higher self. It’s an approach with a lot to commend it, but unfortunately the left goes in much more for self-justification than self-criticism.

Just as a final point, it never hurts to make a meaningful gesture. There are ruptures – the Respect split was one, this current SWP fight is another – that provide an opening to make those gestures. In these contexts, admitting a mistake – even admitting that, while you still think you were right to do something, you could have handled it better – costs you little and may gain you some good will at least. The SWP say they have changed. That’s all well and good for them, and many members are saying things have improved, but for those of us who are a bit jaundiced, it’s not quite enough to replace the John and Lindsey double act with Martin and Judith and urge us to put our trust in Martin’s good nature. (Since the Jefe Máximo’s personal record is exemplary, and he has charmers like Bradley and Yunus backing him up.) For the other side, one would hope that the experience of being on the sharp end of the regime would lead to some reflection on the regime that was led by those people complaining about sharp practice now. One would hope.

Not wanting to belabour the point, but there is a broader movement containing people who have been left damaged and disillusioned by pocket Lenins playing silly buggers. There are plenty of people who must, on some level, have some conception that their actions have consequences, and who must know that a quiet word in the right ear would go a long way. We’re not talking public flagellation here, just some basic human decency. Go on, you know it makes sense.

[1] Slavoj Žižek’s take on Lenin is remarkably similar, which is why Alexander’s enthusiasm for Žižek worries me slightly.

[2] I know there’s an argument about the Scottish split, but I am absolutely not going to get bogged down in that one right now. Life’s too short.

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