Nemo expectat Sanctum Officium


As long-time readers will be aware (hello, both of you), I like to try and be charitable towards our spiritual leaders. I mean to say, Rowan Williams comes in for a lot of stick, some of it justified, but it’s impossible not to feel for the guy when you consider the impossible job he has to do, keeping Peter Akinola and Katharine Jefferts Schori at least nominally in the same denomination. Similarly, I’ve been known to wax satirical on occasion about our old friend Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn, but again, when you reflect for a moment on the genuinely appalling state of the Catholic Church in Austria, I think it’s the humane thing to cut the Count a little slack. Not too much though.

So anyway, it’s with something of a heavy heart that I turn to consider Archbishop Vincent Nichols. I say this because I’ve been more than willing to give +Vinnie the benefit of the doubt. I think he’s basically a decent enough chap whose faith is pretty close to that of the Catholics in the pews. More to the point, he comes from outside the Magic Circle and so is in a position to give the Church in England and Wales a sense of direction after a fairly long period of drift. Yet, we haven’t seen much of that. I’ll grant you that he seems to have stamped his authority on the Bishops’ Conference, with one or two exceptions, but having done so, I’m not sure I can see what he wants to do with it.

Perhaps we might say that His Grace’s management style hasn’t necessarily been shown at its best. Nor does it help that his style is very much one of one-man management. Back in Cardinal Cormac’s day, Archbishop’s House used to be a hive of activity. Maybe, given that some of the bright young things around the place didn’t seem to have actual jobs, it would be more accurate to say it seemed like a hive of activity. But some people at least miss the old buzz. Moreover, since Cormac was crafty enough to have other people do the unpopular things, and charming enough to smooth over difficult situations, he didn’t actively create ill will. Vinnie’s tendency to take on everything himself, and the common impression that he doesn’t trust anyone except for Marcus Stock, leaves him dangerously exposed. With the best will in the world, some of his troubles are of his own making.

Let us take, for instance, the long-running saga of Cardinal Vaughan School in west London, the site of a bitter feud between the best Catholic school in England on the one hand, and on the other educational bureaucrats from Westminster diocese who resented it precisely because of its success. Vinnie could quite easily have taken the view that this was a mess he’d inherited from Cormac, and he was going to resolve it to the satisfaction of most people involved. But no, this became a virility test for the diocese. Diocesan manipulation actually became more blatant, putting Vaughan parents’ backs up further. Someone, I know not who, made the inspired decision to send Mgr “Jungle Jim” Curry into a delicate situation, which is a bit like getting a WWE wrestler to negotiate an arms control treaty. In the end, the diocese was put in the mortifying position of having Michael Gove intervene to safeguard the Catholic character of one of its best schools. And even then, we had a stream of claims to the contrary from the diocese, of such an unconvincing character that, my spies tell me, Boris Johnson was expressing concern at fire crews being called out to extinguish conflagrations in the Archbishop’s pants.

But that’s a local matter. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, come to the attention of Rome. And this is sort of the crux of the issue. While the Catholic Church is (at least in theory) very centralised doctrinally, it’s very decentralised structurally, and if you spend more than ten minutes in the Catholic blogosphere you’ll find someone complaining bitterly that her bishop isn’t doing what the Pope wants. Actually, there are only two conditions under which a bishop will do what the Pope wants: a) he agrees with what the Pope wants, or b) he’s ambitious and wants to earn brownie points with Rome. Add to that a culture in England and Wales, much of it going back to the late Cardinal Hume, which is distinctly Gallican, holding that we don’t do it that way over here. Well, that can go on for a long time, even decades, but then you’ll sometimes find the wind changing.

One straw in the wind is the continued failure to implement Summorum Pontificum. This isn’t confined to England of course, and it’s notable that nearly five years after publication of this important document, the Vatican website still only has versions in Latin and Hungarian(!) posted. But no, it’s encountered some resistance in these islands. Briefly, as anyone in the LMS could tell you, the CBCEW doesn’t take the PCED seriously, even though the PCED is part of the CDF, which everyone takes seriously. At this point you will say “WTF?”, and rightly so. It’s worth noting, though, that some bishops have been quite helpful in providing for the usus antiquior – not necessarily the most trad-friendly either, but even if they’re doing it to win brownie points, let us not reject the good fruits.

Summorum Pontificum is something that Rome pays attention to, because it’s an initiative of Rome’s and indeed of B16 personally. Something else Rome pays attention to is the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. We may note, for instance, that the Ordinariate has been up and running for over a year and still doesn’t have a principal church, despite there being any number of underused Catholic churches in London that could have been pressed into service. The American Ordinariate was only set up this January and had a principal church ready at the outset – a very nice church in Texas – not least because the USCCB was determined it should hit the ground running. And though there are some teething problems with the Australian Ordinariate, I assume it will hit the ground running as well once it’s set up.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why the English and Welsh bishops aren’t too keen on the Ordinariate project. One reason you hear about why they’re dragging their feet on the principal church is that they don’t want the Ordinariate to be too distinctive, even though that’s the whole point of the exercise. There’s also the fear that the Ordinariate may upset the decades-long ARCIC process of agreeable ecumenical tea-drinking with the C of E. Above all, I think, it’s Their Lordships’ ingrained fear and suspicion of something that isn’t under their direct control.

This, in brief, is why, as Dr William Oddie points out, the English bishops sabotaged a similar initiative in the early 1990s. Which in turn is why the Ordinariate project is being run by the CDF in Rome, who didn’t even tell the English bishops until late in the game, precisely because the English bishops couldn’t be relied on not to play silly buggers with it.

Now, as you know, nobody tells me anything. So I have no knowledge of whether or not the CDF have been taking a close look at what’s going on in England. I certainly don’t know one way or the other whether Cardinal Levada is taking an austere view of the English bishops’ foot-dragging over one of Pope Benedict’s pet projects. But I’m fairly sure that these are not the sort of things an archbishop who’d dearly love to be a cardinal would want to be happening.

After all, once the good people at the Palazzo Sant’Uffizio start paying attention to something like the Ordinariate and not being amused at the situation, there’s no telling what they might turn their attention to and not be amused by next. To take a hypothetical example, if a bishops’ conference produces statements on important social issues that are such magnificent edifices of opaque guff as to allow some Milo Minderbinder types to run a cottage industry explaining to the media what Their Lordships really mean, that’s something the CDF might not be amused by. If, to take an even more hypothetical example, a bishop were to have unconvential domestics arrangements that were entirely innocent, but sufficiently well known as to be a source of gossip all over his diocese, that hypothetical occurrence is something the CDF might be even less amused by.

That’s the trouble with the Holy Office. Nobody expects it.

Men in hats


Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, I was just reflecting that, in a very real sense, Saturday’s consistory was quite interesting. And not necessarily in the way most people think.

Okay, we know the basics, which is that a consistory marks a gathering of the College of Cardinals, specifically one where new members are appointed. It’s also the case that the College’s main function is to elect the next Pope, although, Deo volente, that’s a function that won’t be required for some time.

Getting beyond that, we usually get a) attempts to second-guess the next conclave, which is not very illuminating and almost invariably wrong; and b) interpretations based on categories of “liberal” and “conservative”, which aren’t very meaningful in the context of Catholic politics, and certainly not at this level.

So, having said all that, what can we make of the 22 new cardinals who were created on Saturday, 18 of whom are under 80 and therefore electors? One striking point is that, unlike JP2, Pope Benedict has been something of a stickler for protocol. He’s kept the number of electors pretty close to the crucial 120 mark, and red hats have gone out to those major archdioceses and Roman curias that traditionally get them, while some rising stars have had to wait their turn. Nor does this fit with the common narrative of a College being stacked with ultra-conservatives in the image of B16 himself (or rather, the cartoon image of him we’re usually retailed). All of the appointees I can see are entirely mainstream figures – I don’t notice any particularly strong traditionalists, nor do I see any Roger Mahony types from the other end of the spectrum.

The nearest we can see to pure pontifical preference is with the cardinals appointed who are over 80 and therefore don’t have a conclave vote, but are being honoured for past service. Two names jump out at me – the German theologian Karl Becker SJ, who’s been a long-time collaborator with the CDF in doctrinal investigations; and the 86-year-old Prof Prosper Grech, who may be one of the smartest men alive, and quite incredibly is only Malta’s second cardinal in its entire history. There’s also 91-year-old Belgian religious historian Julien Ries, who again is well deserving of the honour.

But when you get down to the 18 electors, yes, it’s very much following traditional allocations. We see, for instance, Toronto archbishop Tom Collins, who wasn’t appointed at the 2010 consistory because his predecessor, the late Cardinal Alojzij Ambrožič, was still (just) under 80 at that point. On the other hand, some priorities can be seen. The quick elevation of John Tong Hon of Hong Kong, who’s filling the considerable shoes of Cardinal Zen, reflects the importance the Holy See places on its fraught relationship with China. There’s been a little surprise about a red hat going to Berlin’s Rainer Maria Woelki, who is a mere boy of 55 and has only been an archbishop for seven months, but then he is a protégé of Cologne’s formidable Joachim Meisner and is down with the programme for regenerating the Church in Germany.

There’s also a very minor bending of the rule against having two electors in the one diocese, with the elevation of New York’s Tim Dolan and Václav Havel’s old chum Dominik Duka of Prague, while the sitting cardinals for those cities (Edward Egan and Miloslav Vlk) are still a short way off their eightieth birthday. So the Vatican isn’t entirely unbending when we’re dealing with the popular archbishop of a major city.

I must confess here that I like Dolan a lot. He’s an excellent communicator and unafraid of controversy, at a level of Church politics where waffling bishops are all too common. He took on the thankless task of cleaning up the Milwaukee archdiocese after the debacle that was Rembert Weakland’s long reign. His visitation of Irish seminaries is likely to prove extremely important. His regular-guy persona isn’t a persona at all, but simply how he is – while Cardinal Egan is known as a great connoisseur of Michelin-starred cuisine, Dolan is much more likely to be found watching a baseball game with a beer in one hand and pretzel in the other. And I think it’s immediately refreshing to find a senior churchman who isn’t a dour middle manager promoted beyond his station, but a really joyful and positive character who reminds you that it’s a vocation.

The Americans seem to have a pretty good episcopal crop at the moment. I wish we could import some, or learn what they’re doing right.

Tom Kerry: “If Ever You Surrender Your Right To Criticize, You’re Dead!” (1979)


Comrades, I take the floor despite my vows not to do so. I’ve had it. I’ve had it up to here. The decision I would have to make would be either to stay home, to stay away from the branch meetings, or to begin to speak and express an opinion. I’ve had some experience in the party, for forty-five years. I’ve even been an industrial worker. Would you believe it! And a nonindustrial worker.

Let me divert. I don’t get this about the industrial worker. What is it about being an industrial worker that endows the individual with qualities which require other individuals years of study? I don’t know. You mean you take some zombie off the street and stick him on a machine and he becomes a teacher? I never heard such nonsense in my life, but let that go. I want to speak of more serious things.

The comrade said there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. And I questioned him on it and he reaffirmed his view, there’s a class division in the San Francisco branch. Well, the comrade knows that I’m in opposition. I voted against the political resolution, and I tried to motivate my motion at the time. And I was prepared to let it go at that.

But when you stand up on the floor of this branch and say, well, there are class divisions in this branch, then that’s a declaration of war, whether you know it or not. Because a class division in this branch means that there’s a petty-bourgeois grouping or tendency in this branch and they’ve got to be driven out! You’re not going to drive me out, brother, without a fight! I can tell you I’ve got at least one more good fight in me, I think. I think so.

We had a petty-bourgeois opposition. We had the Shachtmanite petty-bourgeois opposition and we characterized them as such. Because there was a difference on program. A programmatic difference. And we raised the question then: Is it possible that these two tendencies would be compatible, could they coexist in the same party, having such deep-going differences as was present? Answer that question in your mind please.

Is this petty-bourgeois opposition compatible with coexistence in the party with you Marxists? That is the question you’re going to have to answer. I’m going to ask this question of the plenipotentiary from West Street who is here in San Francisco. And I’m going to demand that he answer it before this branch. And if his answer is the same as yours then comrades we’ve got trouble. Oh boy, have we got trouble. Because I for one have had experience enough to know that in a case of this kind you’ve got to begin to organize in order to protect your right to speak! And I’m already beginning to hear objections, objections! to the comrades making criticism. They consider criticism as a sort of personal assault upon the leadership of the party. It’s not so. It’s not a scandal when comrades criticize the executive committee. What they’re saying is we think you’re wrong. What is scandalous about that? Or don’t you think it is possible for them to be wrong? Or is it intended to intimidate the opposition to the leadership? Is that what you intend by your remark about the class division? That anybody who has a difference with the leadership, by virtue of that fact, is in the enemy class. You see, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut.

No! That is not the way we build the party. And you’ll not find that in any of the statutes of the party. You’ll not find that in the organizational principles of the party. You’ll not find it anywhere!

Our party was based upon the Leninist concept that the only possible party that can successfully lead a revolution is a self-thinking, self-acting membership! We don’t have any popes! And the way you talk about Barnes, he is some kind of pope. Every time there is some question he refers to Barnes as though that settles it. Do you even consider that Barnes may be wrong? I mean does it ever cross your mind that Barnes may be wrong? I think so. Oh boy, has he been wrong. But I still think he is a qualified leader of the party, carries out the program of the party, and I support him critically! Critically!

If ever you surrender your right to criticize, you’re dead! This party couldn’t make a revolution on Mission Avenue, let alone in San Francisco, with that kind of a membership. A membership must be self-thinking and self-acting! That means a critical membership. And critical of every official, from Barnes on down, if you please. If you’ve got a criticism of Barnes — voice it! Don’t let anybody stop you! Don’t let anybody intimidate you! I never heard of such a thing. You look back. Look back at our internal bulletins, if you please. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Full of criticism, some of them very violent criticism of the leadership, from Jim Cannon on down. We never attempted to crucify them because they criticized. We said that they were wrong. We argued with them. We discussed with them. We tried to convince them. Some were convinced, some we didn’t succeed in convincing. But I think our method was the best one. Those who were capable of being assimilated were convinced. And we convinced them. Those who weren’t left the party. Some of them went into business for themselves. You see them in front of your forums occasionally here, part of them. OK, but they had their chance to speak. They weren’t suppressed. They weren’t threatened. And they weren’t intimidated. We had free and open discussion.

Let me tell you something. There is a comrade from the Political Committee out here to submit the information that the Political Committee had reversed the decision of the District Committee and of the branch — on what? on two propositions that are appearing on the San Francisco ballot. Big deal. I’m against it. I’m opposed to it. I think it’s wrong. I think it is absolutely wrong. Even if they are right about their criticism. I haven’t even heard their criticism. I don’t give a damn. Even if they are right about their criticism I think it is an incorrect way of developing a leadership in this party! You don’t come down with a goddamn broadaxe on a section of the leadership and the membership of the party when they’ve made some little error or when you think they’ve made some little error. This is an error on, what do you call it, a proposition. The whole goddamn San Francisco electoral machinery is going to be upset if the Socialist Workers Party of San Francisco votes yes or no on proposition Q and Z.

All right. I’ll conclude. I’m against it because it undermines the confidence of the leadership. It destroys their feeling that they are confident of making a little decision like this, you see. It makes them more dependent upon the center. So that after this they won’t make decisions like this, or decisions of any kind, for that matter, without getting on the telephone first and clearing it with Barnes, or whoever happens to be pope at the time.

So it is not the way to build a critical, self-thinking, self-acting membership! It is not the way to build a leadership. Leaders in this party are not selected. They earn their spurs by their activity, by their thinking, by the development of their views and ideas in the course of their activity.

Too much. There’s been too much of this business of sending in organizers from the outside of the branches. In our branches, for example, like the San Francisco branch, we have very qualified people, we have the most qualified people of any organization in this country, in my opinion. And if we can’t select an organizer out of a branch of this size and this character then we’re in a pretty sad state. What is the use? How do you develop leadership? How do you develop leaders? Beginning with taking industrial workers and making teachers out of them. OK, you’ve got one section of the leaders there. Does that exhaust our capacity?

No, comrades, don’t intimidate me. Don’t try to intimidate me and don’t try to hush me up. You’ll be making the worst mistake in your life if you do. I’m going to find out whether there’s a division in this branch, whether there is a class division in this branch, which means a political, programmatic division in this branch, whether there’s a petty-bourgeois tendency in this branch, whether this tendency is compatible with the coexistence in the same party with the “proletarians,” the teachers from the industrial unions.

There’s going to be a fight so you had better gird yourself.

From the archives: The Panel System of Election and Bolshevik Tradition (1945)


Note: The following document was first published the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Internal Bulletin No. 4 (October 1945). It does have some obvious historical interest but also – and we note this document was recently circulated by Alex Callinicos on Facebook – may serve to clarify certain questions of current interest.

At our recent (1945) National Congress the new Central Committee was elected by a method which has apparently puzzled some comrades. After discussions had taken place between the majority of the old CC and delegates to the Congress holding the minority position, an agreed panel was arrived at for the new CC. This panel – consisting of 13 members of the majority and 2 of the minority – was then introduced to the Congress, and after some discussion, accepted by it, with only one vote in opposition.

A similar method of election had been adopted at the 1944 Fusion Congress and was also used, after the 1945 Congress, for the election of the London District Committee.

Since it would appear that this procedure and the reasons for it are not clear, to a number of comrades, the present statement aims at clarifying the position before our membership.

It must first be made plain that there is no fixed method for electing the leadership of a Bolshevik party. The CC must be elected, of course, at a Congress of the Party and by the delegates of that Congress, but the way the election is carried out depends entirely on circumstances. The history of the Bolshevik Party shows that a number of different methods were used, depending upon both the legal position of the Party, and the political situation inside it.

For instance, at the Second (1903) Congress, for reasons of Party security, there were no open nominations and no open elections for the members of the CC, and the name of only one of those elected was announced to the Congress. Actually voting took place on the basis of rival panels which had been discussed during the Congress at meetings of the two fractions (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), the Bolshevik panel being the one elected.

At the Fourth ‘Unifiying’ Congress (1905) there was a sharp political cleavage between the Menshevik majority and the Bolshevik minority. When it came to the election of the Central Committee, “a vote was taken”, (so the minutes state, “as to whether the election should take place upon the basis of individual nominations, or upon that of panels. It was unanimously decided to vote upon the basis of panels”. Someone then raised the question of whether there should be a secret vote and the chairman replied “Secret voting is incorrect when an election is taking place upon the basis of panels and not of individual delegates (Sharov and Voinov) and accepted by the Congress – 60 votes being cast for it, with 10 against and 24 abstentions. Lenin, in his report of the Congress, afterwards explained what had actually taken place. “The elections took place at the Congress in a few minutes. In actual fact everything had been arranged before the session of the Congress. The Mensheviks filled the five seats on the Editorial board of the central organ with Mensheviks alone. We agreed to put three of our people as against seven Mensheviks on to the Central Committee.” At the Ninth Congress (1920) election of the CC took place in the following manner; “ candidatures proposed for membership of the Central Committee were discussed. Panels of candidates were announced and only those candidatures were discussed against which objections were raised; upon the discussion of candidatures being terminated, voting papers were distributed to the delegates. These voting papers, when completed, were handed over to the commission of 15 which had been elected by the Congress to count the votes.” (From the Report of the Ninth Congress.) It will be observed that people were put forward to the delegates though in the actual vote it would appear that those proposed were voted upon as individuals.

At the Tenth Congress (1921), there were differences between Trotsky and the majority of the old Central Committee on the Trade Union question. There were also more serious differences between both Trotsky and the CC majority on the one hand, and the so-called Workers’ Opposition on the other. The CC majority included Lenin and nine other members of the old CC. As a result the Congress had before it “a panel of candidates proposed to the tenth congress of the RCP by those former members of the CC who signed the platform of the ten, Lenin, Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Tomsky, Rudzutak, Kalinin, Artem, Petrovski, and also by the private meeting of those delegates to Congress who support the same platform.” (Congress report).

This panel contained 23 names (including Trotsky’s). Two places were left open (the CC had 25 members) so that the Workers’ Opposition might nominate two of its members. When it came to the vote those nominated were voted on individually, the number of votes different individuals on the panel received, varying considerably.

It will be seen from the above that nomination for the CC by means of panel, was a general practice in the Bolshevik Party, though the way in which the panel (or panels) was voted on, differed on different occasions. There is a general reason for this method of nomination which holds good even in the event of a politically united party without fractions. At the end of its term of office an out-going Central Committee (or at least its majority) knows exactly how its individual members have fulfilled their functions since election. If any CC members have failed to attend CC meetings regularly or have failed to make any significant contributions to the work or discussions of the CC such facts are obviously far better known to the other CC members than to the Party as a whole, or any other section of it. Likewise if any alternate members of the CC have either failed to fulfil their role adequately or else fulfilled it well enough to justify their being made full members of the CC, – this will be better known to the members of the CC than to the rest of the Party. The CC is also in a good position to judge which Party members, not previously members of the CC, now merit inclusion, either as alternates or full members.

It is therefore good Bolshevik practice, and fully in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism, for the out-going CC to present to the national Congress a panel for the new CC. In the absence of sharp fractional divisions within the Party, such a panel would first be generally discussed at the Congress. It would be introduced by a member of the retiring CC who would give grounds for the dropping of former CC members and the inclusion of new ones. Delegates might then query or challenge the presence of certain comrades on the CC panel; suggestions might be made for the inclusion of comrades omitted by the CC. Possibly some delegates, or even the Congress as a whole, might have some basic disagreement with the proposed panel. Another panel, or other panels would then be moved by delegates.

In the event of no basic disagreements being found with the panel proposed by the out-going CC the Congress then proceeds to vote. The CC panel proposed can be voted upon as a panel – any delegate desiring slight changes being of course at liberty to move an amendment, to remove one or more names from the panel and to replace them by others. Voting then takes place openly. On the other hand voting may take place on the basis of every delegate voting for 15 (if the CC is composed of 15 members) comrades for the CC. This is done as a rule by writing down 15 names on a voting form; the voting forms then being collected and the number of votes for each candidate being counted – the 15 receiving the highest votes being of course those elected. In this case the panel proposed by the former CC and any other panels which have been proposed merely serve as a guide to delegates in their voting but are not voted on as such.

The method to be adopted at any given Congress depends upon practical considerations, and should be decided by the Congress itself after discussion of the panel or panels has taken place. In the event of general agreement being reached the first method – that of voting on the panel as a whole is obviously best as saving unnecessary waste of time. But should there exist considerable differences of opinion as to the composition of the CC without clear-cut political differences being present, then the second method might be considered most satisfactory. In either case, the method of nomination by means of a panel or panels has the important advantage  that the Congress is able to before voting, discuss the future CC as a whole, as the future leadership of the Party. Individual nomination, without panels, render this impossible.

One further point here; the inclusion or otherwise of any comrade on a panel obviously depends to a great extent upon the part he or she has played at the Congress itself. It is therefore necessary that panels put forward should be drawn up in their final form at the Congress itself. Unlike the case of resolutions, therefore, it is not possible or desirable to circulate panels for the CC prior to the Congress amongst the membership.

When sharp fractional divisions exist inside the Party, the necessity for the panel voting system of voting becomes still more obvious. The relative strengths of the opposing fractions will have become obvious during the course of the Congress. Fraction meetings will then take place between the Congress sessions (these latter being suspended if necessary for this purpose) and each fraction will then work out its panel for the CC. Discussions inside a fraction on its nominations for the CC will normally take place on the basis of panels proposed by members of the Fraction, in much the same way as such discussions would take place at Congress without fractions.

When the fractions have each worked out their panels for the CC, meetings normally take place between representatives of the different fractions with the purpose of arriving at an agreed panel if this is possible. If such a joint panel is agreed upon, then it will be proposed to the Congress by the representatives of the fractions concerned. The way in which the Congress then votes will of course depend upon the circumstances, but if the fractions which have presented the joint panel have behind them the overwhelming majority of the Congress it will obviously be best for the agreed panel to be voted upon as a whole. This both saves the time of the Congress and provides a guarantee that the agreement regarding the joint panel will be honoured by those who have concluded it. Delegates who belonged to no fraction would of course retain the right to either move another panel or else to move amendments to the panel proposed by the fractions.

In the event of no agreement being reached between the fractions or if no agreement is reached in which one or more fractions do not participate, that is, if there are more than two fractions at the Congress, which will then vote either upon the panels as a whole (with amendments if such are put forward) or may use these as a guide for voting for individuals. Once again the method adopted will depend upon the circumstances.

It would of course be possible for a fraction which had behind it a majority of the delegates to secure that its panel would be accepted by the Congress, even if such a panel included no representatives of the other fractions, such a course of action would in general be an unwise one, since it would mean that only one viewpoint would get representation on the Party leadership. This in its turn would tend to prevent the fractional differences within the Party being eliminated by joint work, and joint experiences on the Party leadership. For this reason it has been the practice in the Bolshevik movement for a majority fraction to give representation on the CC to any minority, (or minorities) having serious political differences with it. Such representation is in no way a proportional one – ie, it need in no way be in exact relation to the relative strengths of the opposing fractions, but it should be aimed at securing the presence on the CC of the best representatives of the minority (or minorities) a certain number of seats on the CC and leaving it to the minority fraction (or fractions) to nominate its representatives for those seats once their number has been agreed upon.

Guest post: On the historical experiences of IS and SWP with factions


Note: The following essay has been submitted by an SWP member who would prefer to remain anonymous, and is intended to shed some historical light on questions of current interest.

In his essay On Party Democracy John Molyneux correctly remarked that the formation of factions in democratic centralist parties and organisations like ours is part and parcel of our tradition. He also made clear that he is uncertain as to whether they are an appropriate part of party democracy today. This essay argues that in most conceivable circumstances they are not only conceivable as an important mechanism by which the party can function democratically but are a necessary part of that democracy. Although it must also be clear that in arguing for the right to form factions we are not arguing that comrades ought to form them as it is also clear from examining the record that they often come with a cost. We need then to examine the record and indicate ways and means by which factions can enhance party democracy and any damage they might cause can be limited. Such an enterprise must also indicate the rights and duties of both the membership and the central leadership of the party with regard to its democratic functioning.

There can be no doubt that we have entered a new period of class struggles that offers our party the chance to build deeper roots within the working classes. That the comrades are determined to make the best of opportunities presented to them cannot be doubted. Similarly there is a renewed determination within our party to develop our understanding of the world, through the deepening of Marxism as a critical theory, and thereby enable our class to exchange capitalist ‘reality’ for communist utopia. But there is considerable questioning within the organisation as to what this means especially in light of what is seen by many comrades as a top down approach on the part of the leadership.

The question then arises as to what party democrats need to do in order to reform the group. This is not an easy question to answer but the preferred option of the leadership to deepen the education of members, while a positive step forward, will not suffice in the least. Certainly it is important for comrades to have an understanding of the history and traditions of our movement. In fact it is vital that such knowledge, at least at a basic level, is in the possession of every comrade but far more important is the ability to think like a Marxist that is to say to think critically. And perhaps it is true that education programmes will help enable comrades to learn to think in this manner especially in conjunction with events like the annual Marxism school. But even if every single comrade in the group becomes an expert in Marxian theory and revolutionary history this will not change anything other than the verbosity of contributions at meetings.

The problem in the SWP is not to be located in specific organisational structures, although these may or may not be appropriate for the period we are passing through, but was correctly identified by Harman as a problem of the party’s culture. The top down approach that characterised the group for many long years, especially during the period when John Rees seemed to be first among equals, is only one aspect of this culture if the most obvious one. More importantly it also coloured and continues to colour the manner by way of which the groups militants relate to allies on the left. If a certain degree of sectism was a product of the Downturn years then such attitudes need to be jettisoned in the changed and far more positive circumstances of today.

It is however all too easy to blame individual leaders for the poor culture long prevalent in the group. Events since the departure of John Rees have however shown that not even he can be held to be the sole cause of the rot which set in long before he was elevated to the CC. Rather than seek to discover which individuals are responsible for the groups damaged culture we need to ask what were the objective factors, far more powerful than the role of individuals after all, which shaped that culture. The answer that it was the Downturn simply will not suffice albeit it is correct in essence. We need to take a short look at the group’s history.

When it was founded in 1950 the then Socialist Review Group was a tiny organisation which worked within the Labour Party, Trades Unions and later through the NCLC. For ten years it experienced very little growth but was able to maintain a public press of a remarkably high standard indicating the high level of Marxist culture within the group. But this high level of Marxist culture also indicates that the group was surrounded by and immersed in the labour movement of the day which was deformed in many ways by Stalinism but was far larger and more active than anything any but the oldest members of the SWP have ever known. Having to defend their oft heretical views against a reformism that still had adherents numbering tens of thousands, a left reformism deformed by Stalinism and last and least against various orthodox (sic) Trotskyist sects meant that members of the SRG simply had to know their stuff.

The slow growth of the group between 1958 and 1968 saw many of the same conditions working on comrades of what was by now IS. Given the internecine conflicts in the Young Socialists the necessity of being able to hold ones own in debate was even more important than previously as things began to heat up slowly in industry. In fact it was the industrial orientation of IS that marked it out as being different from other entrist groups and enabled it to begin to recruit cadre drawn from heavy industry and engineering. As much as for comrades in the YS it was vital that comrades in industry knew their stuff given the importance of the CPGB and the rising, if very sectional, shop stewards movement.

1968 saw IS move to a Democratic Centralist form of organisation and that year saw a multitude of factions appear and, once they were of the opinion that they were no longer beneficial to IS, dissolve. With one exception but I’ll return to that later. It would appear that functioning with a veritable plethora of factions did not inhibit the growth of IS and indeed might possibly have aided that growth. It is certainly the case that they helped to crystallise debate within IS in a fashion that was usually, if not always, positive. IS was to continue with the same liberal regime until December 1971 with no discernable problems arising from the right to form factions. Although as nobody saw fit to form a faction that is hardly surprising.

However there was a ‘faction’ working within IS from 1968 to late 1971 but its character was not that of a faction but rather that of a parasitic sect. This was, as is well known, the Matgamna group which operated under the name of the Trotskyist Tendency (sic) while in IS. Details of its politics and exploits can be found here, here and here as, in the last document linked to, can be found an explanation as to the fundamental character of a faction. Unlike earlier factions the Trotskyist tendency did inhibit the proper functioning of IS at a time of great opportunities. As evidence against the possibility of factions being a positive feature of party life the experience with the Matgamna sect must be heavily discounted.

The leadership of IS appears to have been badly burnt by their experience with Matgamna and from this point on limits were set on the formation of factions. This was contrary to both the previous practice of the revolutionary movement, the practice of IS itself and the declared principles of the leadership. On this see Towards A Revolutionary Party in which Duncan Hallas declared that:

“Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

Sadly these words would be forgotten by all concerned between 1971 and 1975 at which point the leadership itself split into warring tendencies. In the years between the leadership of IS operated a liberal regime but the rule that factions could only function during the pre-Conference period was rigidly enforced as was demonstrated in the case of the Left Faction, forerunners of today’s Workers Power and Permanent Revolution grouplets, which had to dissolve itself after Conference only to reform exactly one year later. One might argue that as the comrades concerned continued to discuss amongst themselves and clearly had a commonality of ideas that their faction never really dissolved. It follows then that the rule forbidding factions outside the pre-Conference period was clearly a dead letter and unenforceable as such. And to be fair to the LF comrades they did obey the rules of IS.

Other factions within IS were not as honest as the LF as can be seen in the example of the Right Opposition (they only described themselves as the Revolutionary Opposition in a document produced after the expulsion of their leaders). Like many others in the IS of the early 1970s this grouping was entranced by the writings of Trotsky, many then appearing in English for the first time, and believed that they were original and fresh thinkers. As such they were happy to set out their wares in long and frequent contributions to the Internal Bulletins then produced on a monthly basis. Obviously operating as a more or less coherent group it was also well known that they met and took political counsel from a non-member of the group – an obvious breach of discipline. Worse, branches containing supporters of the Right Opposition became little more than talking shops and failed to intervene in struggles or recruit. Clearly this was exactly the kind of faction, declared or not being beside the point, that no leadership can tolerate and their leading elements were rightly expelled. As a sequel to this episode the erstwhile Right Opposition immediately disintegrated into three distinct tendencies with almost nothing in common, a tale told by John Sullivan in his essay on The Discussion Group

What needs to be pointed out about both of the tendencies mentioned above is that they were treated with kid gloves by the leadership. In the case of the RO they were granted the right to publish a long series of tedious documents in the internal bulletins and members of the leadership devoted many pages to refuting their crap. If anything the LF were treated even better with their leading spokesmen contributing at least one article to the ISJ. Such leniency was, without any doubt, the correct course to follow given that many of the concerns expressed by the LF and RO were to some degree of concern to wider sections of IS. For example it is clear from reading the IBs of the period and talking with comrades then active that many comrades, otherwise unsympathetic to either the LF or RO, were sympathetic to the idea of IS developing a fully fledged programme based on the idea of transitional demands. Something that IS, as a whole, did commit to but never completed with the result that this is still an open question in the IS Tradition today. See for example Alex Callinicos in his The Politics of Austerity.

Between 1968 and 1975 IS had operated on the basis of a set of perspectives and a primary orientation towards the shop stewards movement that had been developed in the earlier period and was further elaborated as events demanded. The entire organisation was united behind these politics, with the exception of the Matgamna sect and later the RO, which meant that when the established leadership within its own ranks developed serious differences a major crisis erupted. Details of the political nature of that dispute need not concern us here, comrades who wish for more information are urged to read Ian Birchall’s recent biography of Tony Cliff and Jim Higgins’ little book More Years for the Locust, what is of importance is how the dispute was handled within the group.

What is most striking is that the dispute, initially confined to the Executive Committee, found no reflection in the then regular Internal Bulletins and that even active London based comrades often knew nothing of the dispute. When Duncan Hallas saw fit to initiate an opposition to the emerging majority around Tony Cliff it came as a shock to most of the organisation. Or rather it would have done had not Hallas already switched sides in the dispute only to emerge as the major polemicist for the majority against the newly formed IS Opposition. Ordered, as the constitution of the group dictated, to disband after the 1975 IS Conference the ISO refused and found its leading figures expelled in short order. A bitter factional struggle had turned into a lack of tolerance that cost the group a section of its leadership, a number of intellectuals and a layer of established trades unionists. The damage was deep and severe.

The IS Opposition was the last substantial faction within IS, although the following year saw the appearance of Fred, the Faction for Revolutionary Democracy which echoed the views of the ISO,  albeit internal debate remained healthy, through the medium of the Internal Bulletin, for some years. But even this would die down after Steve Jefferys left the party at roughly the same time as various elements nostalgic for a then inappropriate rank and fileism. For those interested in sectarian exotica it was at this time that the Revolutionary Democratic Group appeared, billing itself as an external faction of the SWP despite having next to nothing in common with the IS Tradition. Sad to say though its bulletins were widely distributed at Marxism and other party events they were sometimes the only way, this was before the internet, comrades had of learning of some developments in the organisation.

What can be observed from the above narrative is not the simply linear development of a small Marxist propaganda group and its entry into crisis when its leadership fell out. Rather we need to understand that the development and degeneration of IS involved a shifting series of relationships within the working classes. In the first instance we can observe the development of a body of theory by a small group of revolutionaries who would become the leadership of IS throughout the glory years of 1968-1975. But at all times this developing group was informed by its relationship to the class as a whole as mediated by the growing organisation itself. We can also identify a growing cadre seeking to relate to the most advanced sections of the class and, in a functional sense, to the theory that informed their activity as embodied in the organisations leadership.

The development of factional and tendency strains within a revolutionary organisation cannot but reflect the tensions between various layers within the class and the efforts of revolutionaries to relate to them. This is more easily observable and truer of mass based organisations than it is of small propaganda groups with a limited ability to undertake direct agitational work. For example it is easy to observe the growth of a bureaucratic syndicalist current in the Russian Workers’ State as reflected in the misnamed Workers Opposition of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). And again in the small revolutionary movement in Britain it is clear that the tiny Socialist Labour Party, for which see Ray Challinor’s The Origin of British Bolshevism, reflected the revolutionary syndicalist mood of the shop stewards in Glasgow and Sheffield immediately after the First Imperialist World War.

Similar tensions also had and continue to have an echo in IS and the SWP. It is the task of the leadership to ensure that such tensions do not disrupt the revolutionary organisation enabling positive developments to be generalized while limiting the influence of negative developments. This will normally be done through the process of education and polemic but the apparatus of the group will also be used by any leadership to nurture this development. Or so one might hope, but Marxist wisdom is not and cannot be confined to even the most far-sighted Central Committee and the possibility arises that comrades will have insights and arguments that the CC cannot recognise. Or comrades will simply disagree with the CC position. In such circumstances, reflecting very often the influence of the different experiences of the comrades, the question arises as to how the group as a whole can reach agreement on the course of action to be followed by the entire group.

It is at this point that a healthy party culture and democratic forms become vital for the development of the group. For example if the revolutionary organisation has a number of comrades in senior trades union positions, who seem under pressure from their cohorts to sell a bad deal to the union members, it is vital that these comrades are supervised and disciplined by party fractions in the relevant unions and by their local party branch. In this scenario it is the task of the leading committees of the party, the NC and CC, to ensure that the fraction and branch do in fact carry out their tasks of supervision and discipline. We have seen, within the last few years, to our cost what happens when these duties of supervision and discipline cannot function due to the disbandment of the relevant party organisations. To its credit the current leadership has acted to ensure that such disasters cannot be repeated.

The branches and fractions can however only act to supervise and discipline members who belong to them and are not able to deal with groups or layers of comrades, who being subject to various pressures, seek to express more or less common opinions on various aspects of the group’s activity. In fact should such a tendency develop then the current structures of the party and the comrades holding responsible positions in those structures, (we are thinking here of the branch, district and fraction committees along with the NC and CC) cannot but regard any tendency holding views that differ from theirs as an obstacle to the functioning of the group.

Such an attitude on the part of a leadership is entirely understandable because the law of factions is that they are an obstacle to the carrying through of an agreed upon political line. And yet, from time to time, they are the only way the membership or a part of the leadership has of correcting a political line that is wrong or in part wrong. Or at least is perceived by a section of the party as being wrong. We may take an example from the history of the Bolsheviks to illustrate this. In our first case the Left Communist faction, associated with comrades such as Bukharin, opposed the line put forward by Lenin going to so far as to accuse him of betraying the word revolution (!) operated publicly, they even published a daily paper of their own, and at the same time implemented the line they fought to change. The point here is that both sides in the debate remained loyal to the party programme and their understanding of Democratic Centralism.

The episode related above illustrates that even at the very point of crisis the Bolsheviks were a democratic party willing to make concessions to dissident tendencies within their ranks. There was moreover no question as to the right of such dissidents to organise themselves as a formal faction and fight to change the line of the party as a whole. Even if such an internal party struggle inhibited the functioning of the party in the midst of a crisis situation. Yet the disruption to the party was minimized by the very existence of the Left Communist faction precisely because it enabled the debate in the party’s ranks to be carried out in the appropriate channels and thereby minimized disruption.

In all of the episodes related above, whether they be episodes from the history of IS/SWP or from the history of Bolshevism, it is clear that the various factions, including that of the leadership, have to a greater or lesser degree reflected pressures and influences arising from different sections of the working class or other classes. Politics then must be put in command and the membership of the party must decide the organisation’s political line and have the right to correct it if that becomes necessary. Which has not been the case within the SWP in the years following the transformation of IS into the SWP. What has developed is an organisation that knows one permanent faction and denies the rights of the membership to struggle to change either that leadership or its political line.

The above can be seen all too clearly in the manner by which the organisation was led during the period when John Rees was a leading member. At this point I should note that the personality of Rees is of no importance as the entire leadership followed and argued for a political line which I assume was authored by Rees and his closest allies. What cannot be denied is that at the time of the turn to building Respect, ludicrously described as a United Front sui generis, many comrades had serious doubts which led to them abstaining from joining or building that formation in any way. But the leadership commanded that such was the political line to be followed and not one comrade challenged them publicly although a lot of grumbling took place in pubs the length and breadth of the country. Whether or not the Respect line was wrong was it not a disgrace that not one comrade felt able to challenge the leadership on it?

Was it any surprise then that when the party changed course, due to the entirely predictable betrayal of its erstwhile ally George Galloway, that not only were a small number of comrades lost to the sub-reformism of Respect (Galloway) but a line that had obviously failed was continued in the form of the Left Alternative. And worse, was it a surprise that differences within the leadership remained opaque, concealed from the membership to the point that it took some considerable time before the ranks of the party were aware that the Rees minority had considerable differences with the majority of the CC. Although even when the Rees minority briefly surfaced as a formally constituted faction – there is no question they had functioned as such for much longer – there was little on the face of it to differentiate their politics from that of the CC majority.

Many comrades have argued that Rees stood for Rees and nothing else. This is a nonsense that demonizes the man and prevents a proper discussion of the political issues at stake. And the political issues are not to be confined to the group’s political line but also concern organizational questions too including the question of internal democracy. For revolutionists questions of organisation are of the utmost political importance whether it be when to form workers councils or internal democracy within the revolutionary party. Which is why the Democracy Commission was such a damp squib as it began a discussion and just as swiftly ended it before any answers had been arrived at and separated question of democracy and politics in a typically Zinovievite manner. A manner John Rees might have been proud of in fact.

So inconclusive was the Democracy Commission and so little did it change as to the groups internal functioning that the resignation of a faction around Chris Bambery was a shock only in the sense that it had not already happened. What disappointed many comrades was that he had been allowed to pursue his factional activities under cover of his responsibility as a member of the CC for the party in Scotland. And this despite a leadership that had placed a renewed stress on the need for active functioning branches and was arguing for the need for systematic cadre education in order to raise the cultural level of the party.

But an abstract knowledge of Marxism and labour history will not remedy the problems the party faces. Though it will help equip comrades for the struggle and must be encouraged. It cannot remedy our problems because many of them relate to the decline in class consciousness throughout far wider layers of the working class as a result of the Downturn. In this context we can note that when the SRG was formed in 1950 many workers had illusions that the Labour Party would bring about socialism, the unions had emerged from the war with new millions of members and the Stalinist party too counted its supporters in the tens of thousands. There was then a fierce contest within the working class for the allegiance of both its vanguard and the class as a whole. The result was a class that in its mass had achieved a considerable consciousness of itself as a class even if it lacked the awareness of the measures that needed to be taken to move towards socialism. Similarly during the upturn of the early 1970s our comrades had to compete in a field in which the Labour Left, the declining but still powerful CPGB and vaguer syndicalist ideas were far more influential than the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Class consciousness in the class as a whole and particularly within its advanced sections was in comparison to today at an historical high. All of this had a profound influence on both the theories produced by SRG/IS and on the democratic forms the organisation adopted.

The reverse is also true with regard to the Downturn and its effects on the SWP. Chris Harman initiated a discussion in the ISJ, in his essay Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, as to the crisis of the revolutionary left in Europe. Although he did not suggest the SWP was unaffected he implicitly contrasted the collapse of many groups to the relative success of the SWP in maintaining both its toehold in the working class and its membership base. He was correct and prescient enough to identify a trend nearer its beginning than its end and that crisis was deepened by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, wrongly identified by so many as forms of socialism, and the neo-liberal offensive. What he did not, could not, identify was the effects an enforced isolation from the working class would have on the SWP itself. And indeed had the group been able to maintain to a greater degree its contacts with the class given the low level of struggle it is by no means impossible that it would not have been more susceptible to that crisis that destroyed so many other once promising groups. On the reverse side of the coin I suspect that a healthier party regime would have made it easier to hold the line without relapsing into sectism.

This writer is of the opinion that the party culture and forms of internal democracy within IS from 1971 to 1976 were generally of a positive nature. There were though a number of problems that are relevant to today. There can be no doubt that in general the internal culture of IS was healthy but there was a political distance between the leadership and most of the membership that deepened after 1971. This was expressed in a tendency on the part of the leadership towards impatience with the membership, with the result that rather than argue for a change in tactical orientation by the group, they fell into the trap of instructing the members to make whatever turn it was that was felt to be needed at the time. Comrades, particularly those who formed themselves into factions, who displayed reluctance to make any given turn became barriers to be removed. A feature of party life that many would argue is still firmly in place today.

In part the distance, in terms of decision making, that opened up between the leadership of professional revolutionaries at the centre and the membership spread throughout the country was a result of structures that only inadequately articulated the decision making process within the group. This was often expressed in the failure of the National Committee to be a real decision making body between the conferences of the group. It is striking that even today similar concerns are expressed with regard to the relationship between the NC and the CC. It is my contention that this arises as both are elected directly by the conference but the larger body has no right of supervision over the smaller CC which therefore is able to monopolise political direction of the party.

Another negative feature of party life is the total lack of a space in which criticisms of the political line of the organisation can be raised internally. Rather than being able to articulate their views in a regularly published Internal Bulletin comrades are often reduced to grumbling in corners after branch meetings with the result that they become seen as conservative elements or worse. Indeed the raising of questions at branch meetings is often frowned on by a section of the comrades who would appear to see any kind of questioning as disloyalty to the organisation and its politics. This attitude is as much a result of the training comrades have received and can be painlessly changed for the better.

What then needs to be done to make our party more democratic in order that it can more sensitively respond to an ever changing class struggle and make it more attractive to a rising generation repelled by mainstream politics parties, especially those of the left, which are not democratically controlled by their members? Most importantly we need to discuss the nature of the problems that many comrades are raising and in this way change the internal culture of the party into one that is tolerant and inclusive of those who question. There has never been a better time for such an enterprise given that the spirit of democracy has swept the globe in 2011 and not far beneath the surface has been the spectre of workers democracy waiting only to be made explicit and here in Britain that is exactly the process that N30 began. It is our task to seek to become of the developing forces that seek to progress beyond bourgeois society and we are best able to do so if we too possess an organisation that is democratically centralized and eschews commandism.

Apropos of absolutely nothing at all


Shattered Glass (Dir: Billy Ray, 2003)

“After all, we are in the entertainment business.” Rupert Murdoch, after the exposure of the Hitler Diaries forgery.

I blame Konrad Kujau and Robert Harris. Actually, probably Orson Welles too, having been bowled over by his classic, and criminally overlooked, F For Fake. But anyway, as some of you will remember, Konrad Kujau was the ebullient forger behind the 1983 Hitler Diaries scandal which led to some of the world’s biggest news organisations handing over huge sums of money for sixty-odd volumes of fake Führer diaries. More than that, what Harris did in his book Selling Hitler was something that genuinely impressed me – a work of straight journalism that reads like a roller-coaster thriller, just because the story it’s telling is so bizarre.

This is what’s probably sparked a long-term interest in forgers and con artists. But as it happens, the most interesting thing about the Hitler Diaries scandal is not the personality of Kujau himself – the elusive “Dr Fischer” seems to have been a charming chancer on the make – but the circumstances, the processes, that allowed the scandal to reach the point it did. Firstly, when he started out selling fake Hitler paintings, he was aided by the fact that collecting Nazi memorabilia was (and is) illegal in Germany, leading to a secretive and tightly-knit fraternity of collectors, many of them Nazi veterans, who were unlikely to go to the feds if they suspected a forgery. Gain the trust of this shadowy world, and you had it made.

Kujau should have come a cropper when he moved on to dealing with the press, but didn’t. In the first place, because Gerd Heidemann was a desperate man – a reporter in financial difficulties with his career on the slide, who couldn’t pass up the chance of the scoop of a lifetime. When we come to the news organisations – Stern in the first instance, but also the Sunday Times, Newsweek etc – greed blinded them. The scoop, if true, was incredibly lucrative; the desire to keep a lid on leaks meant there wasn’t proper forensic analysis; above all, these experienced editors and executives allowed themselves to be duped because they wanted to be duped. They so badly wanted the diaries to be real that they didn’t do the necessary checks. It was a pretty unedifying affair all round. Kujau, at least, had the excuse of being a crook.

So, anyway. That wasn’t the first time the esteemed profession of journalism had fallen prey to a clever hoaxer, and it wouldn’t be the last. Which leads me to this film. He isn’t as well known on this side of the pond, but in the list of American journalistic scandals, in between Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair there came Stephen Glass. Who in a way is one of the most fascinating con artists of them all, and this is the story that Billy Ray expertly tells us.

We are introduced to Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a 25-year-old rising star at venerable DC political magazine The New Republic. He seems like a nice chap. He goes around being nice to people in the office, helping out colleagues with their stories, generally being warm, witty and charming. Oh yes, and his pitches in story conferences are wonderfully entertaining. He turns in these brilliant, vivid articles that make other TNR writers feel like dull plodders by comparison. Not only is he a main feature writer on TNR, the precocious Glass is also getting high-profile articles in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, George, and, we are led to believe, is beating off job offers with a stick. He’s the American Dream.

Then, about half an hour into the movie, it all goes to pot.

Where it all goes to pot is when TNR runs a typically vivid Glass piece about computer hackers. Specifically, 15-year-old hacker Ian Restil, who had hacked the website of major California software company Jukt Micronics, only for Jukt to hire him at an extortionate sum to run their security. Great story, right? Yes, until Forbes tech writer Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) gets asked by his editor how he could possibly have missed it. Penenberg tries to follow up Glass’s scoop, and… oh what the hell, I’ll let the real-life Penenberg speak for himself:

Our first step was to plug Jukt Micronics into a bunch of search engines. We found no web site, odd for a “big-time software firm.” Our next step was to contact the Software Publishers Association of America. Nothing. Next on our list was the California Franchise Tax Board. An official from the Tax Board confirmed that Jukt Micronics had never paid any taxes. Further investigations revealed that Jukt Micronics, if it existed at all, was not listed under any of California’s 15 area codes. Sarah Gilmer from the office of the California Secretary of State said there was no record of the company, “as a corporation, a limited liability or limited partnership.” 

A search of Lexis-Nexis’ extensive database turned up only one reference to Jukt Micronics: Glass’s New Republic story…

Next on our checklist was the official-sounding “Center for Interstate Online Investigations,” supposedly a joint police project in 18 states, and the “Computer Security Center,” a supposed advocacy group. Both organizations had inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic names, but officials at the Justice Department, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Department and police departments in California and New Hampshire (both aggressive cybercrime fighters) had never heard of these organizations. 

Wait. There’s more. 

Glass also cited an organization called the “National Assembly of Hackers,” which he claimed had sponsored a recent hacker conference in Bethesda, Md. Surely this was real. But no. Despite our best efforts, we could not unearth a single hacker who had even heard of this outfit, let alone attended the conference. 

Glass reported that 21 states were considering versions of the “Uniform Computer Security Act,” which would “criminalize immunity deals between hackers and companies.” Again, law enforcement officials were unaware of any such law, and the National Conference of Commissions on Uniform State Laws, based in Chicago, reported no knowledge of it. 

In short, nothing in the story could be verified. Even Jukt Micronics’ phone number turned out to be a cell phone.

Ouch! To summarise, Glass’ “Hack Heaven” piece for TNR was a sham from start to finish. Of course, this was just grist to the mill of those low-down online journalists at Forbes, especially given that TNR was just about the snootiest, most highfalutin journalistic outlet in the United States. The British equivalent, I suppose, would be a particularly waggy-fingered columnist on the Independent being caught out making stuff up.

At this point, the Forbes journalists approach Glass’ TNR editor Chuck Lane (master of understated acting Peter Sarsgaard) with their evidence that Glass’ story doesn’t check out. This is where the film does a nice little switch of mood. Up until now, Glass has been a fairly sympathetic protagonist, while Lane seems a little dull by comparison, even a little jealous of Glass’ flair and popularity. However, as we move into Lane investigating Glass, that all gets turned on its head, as we see Lane stepping into the role of an honest editor slowly discovering that his star writer is a pathological liar. There’s also some nice ambiguity here – Billy Ray’s direction gives a slightly brighter, more colourful look to scenes that are taking place entirely in Glass’ imagination, but it’s quite subtle, and often leaves us wondering what’s real and what’s false.

Our view of Glass also changes quite dramatically. When he’s initially found out, he has a window where he could come clean, apologise and salvage a bit of dignity. But he doesn’t. Any admissions have to be wrung out of him like blood from a stone, and even then he’s working on cover-ups. He lies and whines and wheedles and lies again. He lobbies friends and colleagues ferociously. He quite shamelessly plays on office politics, centred around staff resentment at Lane replacing revered former editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria, in a rare straight role). At one point, he even issues a not very thinly veiled suicide threat. Eventually he forfeits whatever sympathy we might have felt for him at the outset.

The reason for this, as becomes clear, is that “Hack Heaven” was the tip of a very large iceberg. When that one piece turns out to be a hoax, Lane goes through the Glass back catalogue and finds a whole raft of stories that, in this new context, suddenly look very dodgy indeed. We also feel Lane’s frustration in having to talk to colleagues who can’t see what Glass has done that’s so wrong, because they don’t know the detail. Not knowing the scale of the deception, they still assume that he’s basically a good kid who messed up once or twice. The way out of this – well, after summarily firing Glass – is to run a fact-checking exercise on all his TNR articles. This is what finally brings the magazine’s staff around to a sense of what exactly has gone wrong, something so seriously wrong that their personal liking for Glass can’t excuse it. As Lane says, “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact… because we found him entertaining.”

That’s the basic drama, and it’s a good one. But it’s also well worth listening to the DVD commentary from writer/director Billy Ray and former TNR editor Charles Lane, who fill in a lot of the background.

So, the TNR investigation determined that, out of 41 Glass articles the magazine had run, 27 were either wholly or partially fabricated. Some interwove fact and fiction, some were made up in their entirety. Which, as Lane reminds us, is not to say that the other 14 can be assumed to be clean – it’s just that TNR couldn’t prove them to be false. Glass himself didn’t come clean about what exactly he had falsified. This is quite a catalogue of misdeeds, and you can get a sense of it here.

There are two interlinked questions arising from this. One is why Glass did what he did, and the other is why it took so long to catch him.

As for motivation, to say Glass was a fantasist is only half the story. If we take his word for it (and there’s no reason we should, but it makes sense) he made things up because real life wasn’t vivid enough for the articles he wanted to write. He wanted every article to be brilliant, and would draft articles that weren’t quite brilliant enough – he was missing a killer quote or a telling bit of colour. So he started “improving” quotes, and before you know it he was inventing stories out of whole cloth.

But there’s certainly more to it than that. Glass was clearly highly intelligent, had risen very quickly in journalism straight out of college, was a talented writer and there is no question that he was capable of doing straight journalism if he wanted to. The sheer amount of industry that went into his fabrications could have been used researching real stories. We can’t just put this down to a young reporter with a punishing workload – it’s a question of character.

The other question is that of TNR’s processes. Michael Kelly had come to TNR from The New Yorker, and had brought with him that magazine’s fearsome tradition of fact-checking. This should have caught out a fabulist at an early stage. But it didn’t. Why?

Partly, I suppose, it was a question of resources. Few publications have the resources of The New Yorker. In the case of TNR, that meant three underpaid and severely overworked young fact-checkers trying to go through the whole magazine’s content on a weekly basis. Moreover, Glass himself had been a fact-checker, and was notoriously pernickety about other people’s articles. He knew exactly how to game the system.

This is the really impressive bit of Glass’ fakery, the lies that stood behind the lies. He had notes to back up everything. He had fake emails, fake faxes, fake voicemails, fake business cards, in the “Hack Heaven” case a fake hackers’ newsletter and fake Jukt Micronics website. He had fake diagrams of the seating arrangements at non-existent meetings between non-existent people. He would even – and this is depicted early on in the film – drop in deliberate mistakes for the fact-checkers to catch, for which he would apologise profusely, knowing that this would cover for much bigger porkies that would then be let through.

He was helped, too, that few people complained about being misrepresented in his articles. To some extent, that’s because many of the people in his articles didn’t exist. Even when they did – see his “Spring Breakdown” piece about young conservatives running amok at a political conference – it was easy to dismiss complaints on the grounds of “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Michael Kelly was a great editor for backing up his hacks, and Glass shamelessly abused that trust.

And, in the end, it did come down to trust. As Lane points out, the fact-checking process is not a fraud-checking process. It does assume that the journalist, however prone to factual errors, is basically honest. It isn’t sufficient by itself to deal with a very clever sociopath who knows exactly how to exploit the weaknesses of both the system and the human beings around him.

All this, of course, is in the wacky world of American journalism. It’s difficult to imagine something similar happening in Britain.

So, what of Stephen Glass? Well, he won’t work in journalism again. Some years ago he published a novel, The Fabulist, about a reporter called “Stephen Glass” with a penchant for making up stories. He’s also qualified as a lawyer, though he’s having trouble being admitted to the bar due to ethics considerations. But while I hope he does find another career, in journalism he’ll long be remembered as a cautionary tale.

Finally, there are a lot of young kids who have a crusading image of journalism based on watching All The President’s Men. That’s a great film to be sure, but as a corrective, any young person entering journalism should also watch Ace In The Hole and Shattered Glass. By way of keeping their feet on the ground.

A paperboy’s tale


Paperboy by Tony Macaulay (Y Books, 2011)

See me? See this book? This book is deadly crack, so it is.

At which point you, the reader, will be asking for why it is deadly crack. The thing is, if you look back at that category of books one could class as “Troubles memoirs”, they do tend to be unremittingly grim. So it’s with immense joy that we come across a memoir of 1970s Belfast that wouldn’t easily fit into WH Smith’s “Tragic Life Stories” section. Indeed, one that’s pure brilliant at bringing out the dark humour of our city.

To do this takes a child’s perspective. And in 1975, Tony Macaulay was not a paramilitary or a cop or a peace activist. He was a 12-year-old boy who had just managed to get his foot on the employment ladder with a paper round in the Upper Shankill. So what we get is the next couple of years from the viewpoint of a very observant paperboy. The worm’s eye view, if you like, and it’s the best one possible for bringing the atmosphere of the place and time to life.

When I say “atmosphere”, though, I mean that quite literally. There are the sights – the massive greyness of Belfast’s old Victorian buildings, the neat working-class estates, the parallel trousers and platform shoes on the city’s youth, Doctor Who and John Craven’s Newsround on the telly. There are the sounds – the blast of a flute, the roar of a helicopter overhead, the muffled thump of a bomb in the distance, the Bay City Rollers, Big T on Downtown Radio. And there are even the smells – of Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps, Brut aftershave, the vinegar from a thousand pastie suppers, the unmistakeable aroma of a burning double-decker bus. All this is here. For Belfast people, it’s a bit like stepping into your own little TARDIS.

The language helps, too. Even if you didn’t know Tony Macaulay from his regular appearances on Radio Ulster/Raidió Uladh, you’d be impressed by his fine command of the vernacular. Paperboy is a book that’s so Belfast, it demands to be read with an accent. I personally can’t resist any memoir that frequently employs the word “boke”, and displays correct usage of the pronoun “yousens”. (Note to linguists: “yousens” means “you and the friends/family belonging to you”. I believe there’s a similar pronominal lexeme in Fijian.)

So anyway, young Tony gets his paper round. Forty-eight Belfast Telegraphs six evenings a week, and sixteen Ulsters on a Saturday. This is what gives him the opportunity to observe all human life as it passes by. Not least, of course, Tony’s family: the father doing endless DIY with stuff he’s borrowed from the foundry, the mother sewing dresses for swanky women up the Malone Road, the older brother who shoots down Tony’s wilder ambitions with the injunction to “wise a bap, wee lad”, and who torments him mercilessly after an unfortunate incident involving Brut aftershave.

Because, no matter about his working-class background, Tony is an ambitious kid. He persists with learning the guitar in spite of all the evidence that he’ll never master it, and learns the violin as well. He is a most conscientious paperboy, getting great satisfaction (as well as tips) from serving his customers well. He wants the kids from the Westy Disco to have the best float in the Lord Mayor’s show. Most of all, he wants to impress Sharon Burgess.

Politics, in the macro sense, doesn’t really impinge. That’s an adult affair, the province of cross baldy men having interminable arguments on Scene Around Six, or the Rev Ian Paisley guldering into a microphone down by City Hall. On a micro level it does, often in the form of sideburned loyalists with a penchant for Elvis records who would shut down the power supply to keep Ulster British. Class is here, especially since Tony is a rare Shankill kid who takes and passes the Eleven Plus, gaining a grammar school place that on the Shankill opens him up to the suspicion of being a big fruit, whilst still having to avoid admitting to his classmates that he actually is from the Shankill. (Yes, and the distinction between the more respectable Upper Shankill and the rowdier Lower Shankill, something that’s missed outside of West Belfast.) Religion, too, is here, with Tony having got saved at the age of eight in a Millisle caravan park (largely, I suspect, because there isn’t much else to do in Millisle but get saved) and thereafter being known as “that wee good livin’ boy”.

And, of course, the Bay City Rollers, a running theme here, climaxing in the Rollers’ infamous Ulster Hall gig, where the balcony nearly collapsed and the boisterous behaviour of the audience led to lots and lots of cross baldy men in the Belfast Telegraph opining about how these cheeky wee hallions were giving our city a bad name.

And with all this, a questioning nature that leads young Tony to wonder what folks are like on the other side of the Peace Wall (remember that while the Berlin Wall would last forever, the Belfast walls were just temporary):

I was curious as to what they were really like over there. I had so many questions. Did they learn at their church too that we were all going to Hell? Did they want to put us all on the Larne-Stranraer ferry back to Scotland? Did they really believe we were all rich? Were their paramilitaries full of wee hard men that liked to boss everyone around, like ours were?

Questioning, as we know, is the beginning of wisdom. There’s a great humanism, in the real sense of the word, running through Paperboy. But I won’t lie. It’s the humour and the observation and the language and the nostalgia that made this irresistible to me. And the recognition, in the sense of “Yes! I remember that exact same thing!” I don’t know how easily Paperboy will travel, but I hope it gets a good audience. I really do.

All your charity are belong to us

It’s rather difficult to write anything coherent about the Big Society, not least because other than Dave (and I’m not even certain about Dave), nobody knows what exactly it’s supposed to be. There is some not unattractive rhetoric about volunteering, which we’d all like to see more of; there’s also more than a sneaking suspicion that Dave is trying to get public services on the cheap by palming them off on the voluntary sector. Anyone looking for philosophical clarity is, one fears, looking in vain.

But murky waters don’t deter us round here, do they? There are still things that can usefully be said, and a good starting point is a recent pair of thought-provoking pieces by Ed West over at the Telegraph. One is on the failure of the coalition government to deliver its promised bonfire of the quangos, and we’ll return to this theme presently. First, however, let us ponder the fate of the YWCA.

Come on, you remember the YWCA. I mean, surely you remember these guys:

The reference is to the Young Men’s Christian Association, proprietor of establishments where a young man down on his luck can stay until he gets his feet back on the ground, as well as getting himself clean, having a good meal etc. The YWCA is the women’s equivalent.

Or it was until recently. You see, the British section of the YWCA (though not the international body) has just rebranded. And here’s the surprise. One may have expected, in this secular age, the “Christian” bit of the name to be ditched in the name of diversity. Less expected would be the YWCA ditching all four words in its name and adopting the cryptic title “Platform 51”. Presumably this is meant to better reflect its focus, although what “Platform 51” actually signifies is a mystery to me. Which may not be coincidental.

Ed explains:

In a sense the name doesn’t matter; what’s significant is how the charity has changed, and what it says about the nature of do-gooding.

The YWCA was founded in 1855 with the aim of providing spiritual and moral support to young women against the physical and moral poverty of the new cities, and it did this, among other things, by running prayer groups. In contrast today’s YWCA now “lobb[ies] for changes in the law and policies to help all women”, and its chairman is a former equality quango manager Helen Wollaston.

Indeed its brochure states: “We campaigned for the Equality Act to protect pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mums from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Young mums told us about their experiences, including being advised to leave school, not having access to a full curriculum and being stopped from sitting exams because they were pregnant. They are now legally entitled to the same education as anyone else.”

Well, quite. This may well be legitimate activity, it’s just a very long way removed from the founding principles of the YWCA, which is perhaps why the name change is fitting.

A remarkably similar story could be told about the National Council for One Parent Families, which these days operates under the auspices of Gingerbread, both charities having merged in 2007.[1] The National Council was originally set up in 1918 as the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, as a response to the rise in illegitimate births during the First World War. Its purpose was to encourage a more humane and tolerant attitude towards young women who, let’s be frank, were treated in a very cruel way by contemporary society. While it too was a rather stern Christian-inspired charity, it did a commendable amount to help unfortunate young women, including encouraging the churches to set up homes for them, and helping to have adoption properly regulated for the first time.

Where this parallels the YWCA is that by 1971, when it changed its name, the National Council would have been virtually unrecognisable to its founders. Its concept of the unmarried mother’s state as an unfortunate one did not survive fashionable 1960s ideas of sexual morality; its charitable functions had been largely taken over by council social services departments; therefore, it reinvented itself as a feminist advocacy group, which concentrated on lobbying the government for very detailed changes to things like tax law and the rate of child benefit.

I pass no comment here on whether the old or the new versions are more legitimate. Both have been reflections of the prevailing culture. The interesting thing is the evolution over time. One side of this, of course, is mission creep, the occupational hazard of the do-gooder. That’s how Amnesty, since it dropped its ban on domestic campaigning, has developed a whole range of policies that have very little to do with Amnesty’s historic remit of supporting prisoners of conscience. But what interests me more is the changing relationship between the voluntary/charitable sector and the state.

This is something we’re familiar with locally in terms of the grantocracy. We can trace much of the phenomenon back to a pacification strategy developed by the Northern Ireland Office under Douglas Hurd and Tom King back in the 1980s. A key aspect of that was to counter Sinn Féin’s popularity in areas like west Belfast by funnelling development funding through agencies run by the Catholic hierarchy – a strategy so blatant that some local priests remonstrated with their bishops about being turned into political pawns.[2] Under the New Dispensation, and with US and EU peace money flowing in, this has reached the point where the peace industry is now the largest employer in the north.

One thing we’ve been able to trace through the peace process is what’s happened to the voluntary sector – or to be more precise, the funded community sector. We’re not simply talking about extravagances like building a huge new theatre in Newtownabbey. (There may of course be a great appetite for Brecht in Rathcoole, but it would surprise me greatly.) We’re talking about a situation where a small charity will get a grant, will then get a suite of city centre offices and some professional staff, and find itself spending much of its time advising the government on its specialist area.

This is where Ed’s lament on the coalition’s failure to significantly reduce the number of quangos is probably a bit forlorn. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the Big Society will mean more, not less, quangos, and here’s why.

It’s not just that the structure of government in Britain probably requires a certain number of quangos (though there are certainly too many). More to the point is how we conceive of a quango. Classically, a quango is a government body hived off and given a semi-autonomous agency status. But what if it works the other way around? If a charity is largely funded by taxpayers’ money and spends most of its time and energy influencing government policy, hasn’t it become a quango in all but name?

It’s as well here to take the long view. The great flowering of charitable activity in the Victorian period took place in a context where the state was failing to provide even a basic level of care to its citizens who had been uprooted in the Industrial Revolution and were crammed into sprawling, poor, insanitary cities. Whatever the dreams of small-state libertarians, or the fears of those at the sharp end of benefit cuts, an out-and-out return to this situation is not likely.

We then see a development where after 1918, and particularly after 1945, Big State comes in to provide a safety net and obviates the need for a lot of the pre-existing charitable sector, which continues to thrive only in certain areas where the state either doesn’t intrude (animal welfare is a good example) or works through voluntary agencies (overseas disaster relief). Although, and this is important, there is no Chinese wall dividing the two.

Let’s bring in the material factor here. Over the past couple of decades, many charities have become increasingly dependent on public money. Lottery money, fair enough, is not strictly taxpayer money, but fulfils many of the same functions. On top of that, factor in direct grants from government departments such as the DCLG and DfID, local councils or, for that matter, quangos. One can’t blame often cash-strapped charities for taking what they can get (though bureaucratic processes favour better-off charities who are better at filling out grant applications), but obviously there are strings attached.

Let’s take another example, that of Stonewall. As you know, Stonewall cut its teeth as a campaigning organisation, though it’s long since won virtually all of its demands. It has also, under New Labour, become increasingly involved in what’s termed “policy development”. I know Stonewall is often criticised by the more agitprop wing of gay activism for becoming the government’s in-house gay lobby (to which one might add pointed questions about exactly how representative it is), but Mr Ben Summerskill and his associates might respond that they’ve exchanged independence for influence – such as having a scrutiny role over just about any government policy that might conceivably affect gay people. Now, Stonewall is not quite a quango yet – it still does independent stuff, and its state funding is outweighed by private and corporate donations – but we might look on it as a transitional form, like Archæopteryx.

So what does this mean for the quango state? I would argue, as a counterpoint to Ed, that the whole Big Society programme is likely to mean an increase, not a decrease, in the size of the quango state. Oh sure, there may be fewer bodies officially styled as quangos. But we’ll see more and more charities and voluntary bodies[3] which are funded to a greater or lesser degree by the state, do work on the state’s behalf, and increasingly come to function as quangos.

In days of yore, Marxist theoreticians used to talk about “state capitalism”, as an organic tendency of the state and capital to fuse. Perhaps, in thinking about how the third sector is going, we might have a category of “state voluntarism”.

[1] On the history of the National Council as a mirror for changing social attitudes, there is exhaustive detail in Peter Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain, Chapter 8.

[2] There’s an obvious parallel with New Labour’s largely unsuccessful attempts to counter Muslim radicalisation by writing cheques to people like Ed Husain.

[3] One bellwether to watch is Citizens UK, the umbrella group of largely faith-based charities that’s been very enthusiastic about the Big Society, notwithstanding its support from the arresting combination of the Catholic hierarchy and the trade unions.

This charming man

Here’s an absolutely lovely quote from Titus Oates of the National ‘Secular’ Society:

For too long the Jewish community behaved like an arrogant, unaccountable arm of the government and of the law aided at every turn by a fifth column of Jews whose primary, indeed seemingly only, loyalty is to their own kind. Having so comprehensively abused their place in the corridors of power, they now need to be banished from them.

Oh, I’m sorry. Mr Oates was in fact talking about Catholics. So that’s all right then.

As Mr Oates is weighing in on the Chesney affair, there are one or two other points in his barking mad editorial that are worth remarking on. Let’s just note in passing that, as far as we can tell from the Hutchinson report, the cover-up was instigated by the government and police, while the Church authorities were brought in to get Chesney out of the way. Mr Oates of course cannot admit this, as in the NSS view of the world the State is a God-term. It’s the same way that, while he references the Ryan Report, one will find no acknowledgement that not a single child would have gone into the industrial schools without the approval of the Department of Education, the Garda Síochána and the courts. Which is not to deny Church responsibility, just to point out that the responsibility wasn’t the Church’s alone.

What’s also remarkable about this is that Mr Oates ventilates rather a lot on the Irish state. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I thought Willie Whitelaw was a minister in the British government. And that the RUC had its headquarters in Belfast, not in Dublin. Of course, this is rather inconvenient for the flow of Mr Oates’ argument, given that his view of the Irish nation is roughly equivalent to that of a nineteenth-century Punch cartoonist. So the Brits get quietly brushed under the carpet.

Finally, note the reference to the government being riddled with fifth columnists who need to be sent packing. Nice to see that our 21st-century rationalists can still channel the spirit of the 1840s when it suits them. Of course, this all very reminiscent of the episode a couple of years back when NSS honorary associate Mary Honeyball MEP called on the Labour Party to keep papists off the front bench, and followed it up with paranoid ravings about the Vatican’s alleged stranglehold on the British parliament and mass media. Or their other honorary associate, the sane and rational Johann Hari, who is living proof that you can take the boy out of Govan but you can’t take the Rangers Supporters Club out of the boy.

Indeed, Mr Oates has quite the track record at this sort of witch-hunting, having argued, for instance, that Mark Thompson is unfit to head the BBC because he’s a Catholic. Not that it’s ever stopped the BBC running fawning interviews with Mr Oates, where he can be confident that his many terminological inexactitudes will never be challenged.

If Mr Oates is really that worried about popish fifth columnists, and fancies campaigning for the reinstatement of the Test Acts, perhaps he could have a word with new equality minister Lynne Featherstone, who is on record as opining that religious believers shouldn’t be employed in the public sector. Ms Featherstone is not yet, I see, one of the NSS’s small army of honorary associates, but I think she’d fit right in.

And since Mr Oates will be on our screens and in our papers a good deal more over the coming weeks in his capacity as co-leader with Peter Tatchell of the No Popery Coalition, it will be worth keeping a close eye on him.

Birmingham Three: the plot continues to thicken

I must apologise for the lack of service here the past while. Evidently, your host is somewhat lacking in the old Protestant work ethic. Moreover, I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that, if you’re feeling out of sorts, the blogosphere is not going to make you feel better. There are certain things that might make you feel better, like a Wodehouse novel, a box set of The Prisoner or a glass of dark liquid, but the blogosphere is not one of them. It tends to have a bad effect on the blood pressure.

Anyway, the Birmingham Three saga is more uncontainable than ever. I gotta give mad props to my main man Will Crawley, who was covering it on this morning’s Sunday Sequence, and big up also to Martin Beckford on the Telegraph. It’s certainly one in the eye for those ecclesiastical bullies who would rather have the whole affair silenced.

James reminds us that the Three have now passed more than a hundred days in exile, and that you have to commit a pretty serious crime for the secular courts to send you down for a hundred days. The draconian punishments meted out to three men who, it is admitted, have not committed any offence, seems more than a bit off. It’s all a bit strange, so let’s do a recap. I should say in advance that, while there are all sorts of interesting sidelines to the affair, not much is known for certain. However, even sticking to what’s known and making a bare minimum of deduction, the timeline prompts a number of questions.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In the autumn of 2007, a 20-year-old man approaches Birmingham Oratory seeking to become a priest. He isn’t accepted, but he does strike up this intense relationship with the Provost of the Oratory, Fr Paul Chavasse. The word is that there was no nookie involved – a “close but chaste” relationship is how it’s being put – and we must take that as read, but it was sufficiently visible a relationship to excite comment, especially as Fr Chavasse is as camp as a row of tents. (And yes, I know that camp and gay aren’t the same thing. But we’re talking here about impressions given.)

At this point we have to do a little deduction, so a health warning applies to this paragraph. We may reasonably assume that words were spoken amongst the Oratorians. One important thing to bear in mind is that even assuming there was no nookie involved – which would be difficult to prove either way – allowing the impression to be given that there might be would fall under the category of giving scandal. It’s also important to remember that the gay aspect, while it may add a bit of piquancy, is not necessary for giving scandal. For what it’s worth, those who know Fr Dermot Fenlon swear he isn’t homophobic and the authorities (in the person of Jack Valero) explicitly say he isn’t being accused of such. The fact is that if a middle-aged priest had formed a visibly intense (if chaste) relationship with a 20-year-old woman, it would still be inappropriate behaviour, or at the very least imprudent.

Now then. We are told there was disharmony in the community resulting from this affair. Not surprising, since it’s a tiny community – there are only ten or twelve priests at the best of times, and currently there are only five – and these small religious communities, very much like families, can harbour seething dissensions for a long time. It is further alleged that reports were made to Rome, which is how Fr Felix Selden came to be at the Oratory as Apostolic Visitor.

Fast forward to last December. Abruptly, Fr Chavasse resigns as both Provost of the Oratory and Actor of the Newman Cause. He vanishes from the Oratory, either having been sent away on a long-term retreat or being sent to a parish in America, depending on who you’re talking to. At any rate, he’s gone, and without explanation. Why so abruptly? Perhaps it had something to do with the upcoming papal visit and Newman beatification, with the prospect of B16 dropping into the Oratory for a meeting with the community. Perhaps it had something to do with that TV documentary crew that was hanging around the Oratory. Not being able to read the minds of Felix Selden and Ignatius Harrison, we don’t know.

This may have been the end of things, with the source of the dissension out of the picture. But no, around April rumours of the Chavasse affair begin leaking out into the press. This seems to have spooked the authorities, because it’s shortly afterwards, in May, that Fr Dermot Fenlon, Fr Philip Cleevely and Br Lewis Berry are sent to the Catholic equivalent of Guantánamo Bay – which is to say, ordered to monasteries some hundreds of miles apart to spend an indefinite period in quiet contemplation. With the stress very much on quiet. As with Fr Chavasse, there was no reason given, and the few statements coming from the Oratory served only to confuse things more.

Ten years ago, this might have just been a passing storm, but as we keep saying here, the blogosphere has changed Catholic affairs and meant that the old Tammany Hall methods – well, maybe they aren’t quite untenable, but they’re less tenable than they used to be. From a few disgruntled parishioners at the Oratory, who had seen four members of the community abruptly removed in a short space of time without explanation, this has gradually snowballed. Not least because the papal visit runs a distinct risk of turning into a fiasco even without trouble at Brum Oratory.

The whys and wherefores are obscure, except that the Chavasse affair was the proximate cause. Were the Three, as speculated, the ones who confronted Fr Chavasse? Did they, alternatively, protest the rather brutal removal and humiliation of the much-loved Chavasse? (The two are of course not contradictory.) Were there, given that all those concerned were heavily involved in the Newman Cause, ideological factors to do with the legacy of Newman? Was it just a matter of Church authorities’ well-established dislike for troublemakers? These are some of the questions that people are asking.

And so we are where we are. Fathers Fenlon and Cleevely are said to be in North America, and we do know that Brother Lewis has been sent off to South Africa for at least a year. Apropos of Brother Lewis, since he’s the youngest of the Three and still on the ordination track (actually, his ordination is taking an extraordinarily long time), away from home and cut off from his friends, he has been in a vulnerable enough position that you couldn’t blame him for taking whatever deal he’s been offered. Not least because these orders can be very persuasive when they put their minds to it. If I were a cynic with some knowledge of how Church affairs work, I would speculate that the next step would be to strong-arm Fr Philip into a deal, so then the blame could be placed on Fr Dermot as the ringleader who led the two young men astray. But we aren’t cynics here, are we?

Adding to the murkiness is the prospect of Fr Chavasse returning home for the papal visit, which does make it look rather as if he was in protective custody while the other three have been in extraordinary rendition. Cue some more scratching of heads.

Finally, although we give Uncle Jack Valero a bit of stick around here, I actually feel a little sorry for him. This sort of crisis management would tax the best of spin doctors. At this point, some transparency is the only rational way forward, but I sense that Selden and Harrison don’t have transparency in their vocabulary. It’s something that, these days, all clerics should know about; a good Latin word and everything.

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