Thursday, January 31, 2008

An African

I hear that an African may take the White House and can only applaud the vigour and dynamism of our cousins that they should contemplate the unthinkable. Observing the glitter, razmatazz and jousting of the US election trail, I can only marvel how my own humble campaign at MidLothian pales in comparison, albeit it may have a place in British political history.

So in respect of Mr Obama, I note that he was born on a Pacific island; that his father came from that unhappy country of Kenya and was born a Muslim; that part of his childhood was spent in the far east on the archipelago of Indonesia; and that Mr Obama voluntarily adopted the Christian faith about 20 years ago.

Not since the Emperor Severus has an African led any of the world's most powerful and prosperous nations, even though that continent is the cradle of mankind and the home of the ancient world's most stubborn and mysterious nations. Now after nearly two millennia, its sufferings appall the civilised world and it is surely time its people are offered hope, a beacon of liberty by which they can navigate to a future that is brighter and calmer than their recent past.

Indeed as I observe the fate of Mr Obama's ancestral home of Kenya, I can only wish I could have clung to life for a few more decades and steered our Empire towards its unavoidable dissolution. For Empire was unsustainable and the seeds of democracy needed to planted, tended and nurtured. In the first Dominions this strategy was successful, even among the descendants of convicts, but the destruction of my party early last century left a nation devoid of vision, paralysed by powerlessness in the face of a changing world.

So it falls to America to elect an African. I am indeed impressed by Mr Obama, who seems to have the power to win hearts as well as minds and has the capacity for greatness, even if he needs a little time to demonstrate it.

He is but 47 and may need to surround himself with wise heads if he is to rule. It may be that the American people will settle for the moment for Mrs Clinton; it is to be hoped, if this should occur, that Mrs Clinton should demonstrate her own liberalism of spirit by offering her deputy's post to Mr Obama and that he, setting aside the ill-advised jibes levied by Mrs Clinton's husband, will accept such an honour.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Mr Purnell

My first, somewhat erroneous, impression of the new cabinet member responsible for pensions was to note how youthful he appears. Upon further inquiry I discover he is a little older than I was when I first secured a cabinet post. There is, I note, a phrase in common currency in relation to the police, that great force devised by Sir Robert Peel, which refers to the observation that when one reaches a great age, one notes how youthful these gentlemen become. Clearly it also applies to cabinet members.

I gather I am not alone in wondering how a personage of no apparent distinction can be elevated to such great office. Indeed I hear he was elevated first approximately six months ago, holding the post of culture secretary and successfully in this role making minimal impact on public consciousness. It may, I fear, be a consequence of a single government being in power, without effective challenge, for too long a period. It seems that Mr Purnell is a creation of Mr Blair, an assistant to Mr Blair in his youth and then somehow elevated to a senior position in the British Broadcasting Corporation in the years prior to Mr Blair's elevation to Downing Street. He then returned to Mr Blair's side before seeking democratic legitimacy in an election in 2001, at a time when the socialist party became safely and securely entrenched in government, to an extent it was able to defy the will of the people with impunity.

I fear a government of grey men is under creation, individuals who exercise duty as public officials, sometimes with brilliance, but who are untested in democratic arenas. There are no gladiators, there is no Achilles, no Hector now, merely an Agamemnon without an Odysseus, gazing mournfully, after a decade of unresolved conflict, at weary, plague-driven troops, beset by acolytes but bereft of equals, the purpose of the expedition long forgotten while the distant walls of Troy remain standing, impregnable, but equally empty of inspiration, overseen by an ageing defensive Paris and a Helen, fading in beauty, no longer able to launch one vessel, let alone a thousand. Such an Agamemnon might ponder his purpose, and, if he lifted his eyes, would note he was surrounded by young men who had no memory of the first great landing of the shores of Ilium, no scars from the great battles beneath the walls of that great city, no tales of the great adventures of the Myrmidons and the Telamonians.

And as he pondered his circumstances, this ailing Agamemnon might ask himself if the young men served him, not in order to topple the walls of Troy, but to secure his kingship for themselves at the most opportune time.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The state in its relations with the church

In my youth I wrote a book entitled The State in its Relations with the Church. It was in general well received although sometimes, I feared, with rather more politeness than enthusiasm.

I do not dissent from the arguments I made in the book although within a little time, having gained some more experience of the world, I came to repent of the conclusions I drew. At the time I believed, with the fervency of youth, that the church could provide the State with firm moral guidance and that as a consequence it was necessary for the national church to be provided with support by the state to ensure its health and strength. This indeed led me to take some political stances which would now cause me considerable embarrassment but which at the time seemed perfectly logical to my youthful self.

Following the defection of my friends Newman, Manning and Hope to the cause of Rome, I came to see that the church, whilst a provider of profound spiritual guidance, was an imperfect institution, not to be trusted with questions of power and this came to inform my later willingness to side with my party in seeking to place limits on the intermingling of church and state.

I am reminded of this discussion by the debate now in session at Theos where Mr Tomkins has, in a short article, delivered a broad outline of the history of Christianity. Mr Tomkins seeks, in a spirit of frankness and fairness, to list some of the benefits and disbenefits associated with this religion, mentioning the tortures inflicted by the inquisitors and centuries of malign treatment of the Jewish race.

It was my good friend John Acton who summed up the problem of the Church, far better than I ever could, in stating that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although his words have been quoted repeatedly and rightly ever since, John referred in particular to the history of the Roman church. The conclusion to which we were both drawn, even though coming from different traditions, is that the Church should stay away from power and, indeed, that power is best vested in the people at large. Mr Tomkins cites considerable evidence demonstrating the power of Christianity to effect beneficial change when it has changed the lives of the people at large and, indeed, it is difficult to imagine those cruelties in which the Roman Empire indulged and which were cancelled by the rise of the Christian church. In our own time the English revolution and the end of despotism in this nation was driven by men of religion and it was only when those same virtuous individuals sought to govern the nation without recourse to Parliament that they proved deficient in policy.

For indeed the gospel of Christ was the gospel of powerlessness; and if the Lord of All could choose not to summon an army of angels to his rescue it is hard to see why those who have claimed to be his servants through the millennia should have been so greedy to assume not just the trappings of power but the instruments of power. Indeed it always warmed my heart when our dear Christian Queen professed with such frequency that it was her task to serve her people, not just to rule them.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Education to the fore

Mr Forster's Education Act was one of the finest achievements of my administrations and, within a decade, let to the nationwide adoption of compulsory school attendance for all children, a measure that would have cheered the spirit of those such as Mr Dickens and my good friend Mr Kingsley, who for so long condemned the abhorrent treatment of our generation's littlest people. All this passed into law in spite of the regrettable perplexity of Her Majesty, who seemed at a loss as to why it should be necessary for all children to attend school and remarked that schools would not teach a gamekeeper to care for a pheasant but they might teach the children of gamekeepers to abandon the estates.

Our act created local school boards, some 2,500 of them, and introduced the possibility of compulsory attendance, which I was delighted to note, soon became the case across the nation.

So I can only welcome with great joy a circumstance in which a Liberal leader pays attention to education; even if I am somewhat puzzled as to what Mr Clegg perceives the problem to be after the achievement of so much progress in the last century. I suppose it must be the case that if the nation demands improvements to the schools, then good government will deliver those improvements, in preference, without adding to the sum of the taxation burden.

Indeed Mr Clegg echoes the themes of our own Liberal governments in developing a national education system. He talks of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation. Our local boards, elected by the populations of their districts, both men and women, were indeed dynamic, in setting up schools, in raising finance and in requiring the attendance of all children and they were successful to an extent that a few years after my "death" the Conservatives had to bring the Church schools into local board system, although in doing so they enlarged the scope of the boards.

If it is indeed true that Whitehall now seeks to run schools, Mr Clegg is right to condemn this. I am perplexed therefore that as his proposals unfold in his speech, delivered yesterday, he seems to assume more power for Whitehall; for in his plans Whitehall will determine how money is allocated between schools and Whitehall will determine how schools can choose their pupils: rather, Whitehall will determine that schools cannot select their pupils because government would rather have parents select schools. There is a logic to this because such a plan might make parents to be customers, who can choose the best for their children but I would remind Mr Clegg of the purpose of examination. It is indeed to create selection and children must inevitably face a situation in their lives when their examination results will lead to their selection, be it for work or for university study. It would be inconceivable for a modern university to allow a person to take an undergraduate degree in a subject for which they have shown no ability or talent. It may therefore be that some schools offer facilities for which only some pupils have the necessary talent.

In developing his theme, Mr Clegg suggests that schools could be created by bodies other than local education boards. Indeed I understand that municipalities have been so throttled by successive governments that they might struggle to raise finance to create their own new schools. I can only wonder what the nation has come to when the situation that pertained in the late 19th century has been reversed. For, in the wake of Mr Forster's Act, it was the local boards who proved more than competitors for church schools and indeed for the traditional public schools and grammar schools. If it is true that now, the only role of local education authorities is to exercise political and bureaucratic interference, as Mr Clegg intimates, then municipal and district government has come to a sorry pass indeed. Now Mr Clegg promises a "revitalisation" of local government. That is a wonderful thing to hear and he should set out how he plans to achieve it; for the tone of his speech is such that one might believe he does not think it is possible. Let me express a hope from the depths of my heart that this is a theme to which we may return.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Blasphemy and Dr Harris

I am concerned, if not alarmed, to hear that Dr Evan Harris has tabled an amendment to repeal the laws on blasphemy. The arguments for repeal are indeed strong but I would rather it were not Dr Harris making them; for this MP has shown with consistency that he believes that liberalism and a religious conscience are in opposition to each other. Even so, there appears to be a formidable coalition in support of this measure, including a former Archbishop and a former Bishop of Oxford and indeed Mr Gummer MP, well-known as a Christian MP, but one must still suspect that the prime movers are those who wish to exercise a right to blaspheme, such as Mr Dawkins and Mr Pullman.

The question then is whether this law serves any purpose. For certain it serves no purpose as a defence for the Church of England. If I, or perhaps rather Dr Harris, were to choose to defame the Archbishop of Canterbury, then the Archbishop has recourse to the general laws of libel. Indeed there are new laws of religious hatred, which, I hear, were opposed by a similar coalition embracing Dr Harris, other secularists and unlikely partners in the evangelical community. No doubt in some situations the Church could summon the protection of this new legislation.

The Lord God, although a living personage, does not have similar recourse to the courts unless a prosecution of blasphemy is brought on His behalf. The Lord God, however, has no need to resort to such measures as He can in due course deal with blasphemers when they face Him in judgement.

Indeed were the law of blasphemy to be enforced rigorously it seems that at least half this present generation would be locked up; for taking the Lord's name in vain appears to have become a national sport. The law may possibly place some check on misrepresentation of Jesus Christ and attempts have been made recently to use it to bring artists and performers to account - but without success.

Were I still a member of the House I would almost persuade myself into supporting repeal and I'm sure my good friend Mr JS Mill would also have urged repeal.

Yet I cannot countenance such a step for it seems to me that the very action of repeal will send a message that this nation no longer gives respect to the name of Jesus and will tolerate every blasphemy, however outrageous. At a time when millions appear ignorant of the gospel truths, this measure will only compound the ignorance and indeed aggravate public mockery. Indeed there will be those who wonder how it is that Muslims are so zealous in defence of their prophet and yet a nation of Christians exposes their Lord to public ridicule. It is as if the entire nation is gathered in front of Pontius Pilate to demand crucifixion and place a crown of thorns on the humiliated Christ.

Nor can I see in what way repeal will extend free speech. The law has not prevented Mr Dawkins from airing his views nor has it deterred Mr Pullman from writing his books nor has it dissuaded bookshops from giving their writings prominence of display. Indeed I understand that it is public opinion in America that has enforced censorship of Mr Pullman's new series of films rather than any legal threat in Britain.

Our dear Queen would have been shocked to the very marrow that MPs should consider taking this step and I can only wonder why the present Queen is not equally appalled. For myself I would find repeal regrettable and ill-motivated, even if it be the case that retention of the law is not logically sustainable.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A modest proposal

I have been considering the condition and nature of government as it has evolved in the last hundred years or so and wish to put forward a modest proposal. Some unwitting responsibility for the extension of government into so many aspects of life must be accepted by myself and those who shared government with me . There was much reform to be achieved to create a state that was democratic and just and, as a consequence, much work to be undertaken by Parliament.

But my mind tumbles over in turmoil when I consider that Parliament has continued this work, with scarce interruption, for a period of well over a century. It seems that of laws and of the making of laws there is no end. The state has many servants, offices and supervisors of public conduct and indeed continues to consume a large portion of the national income.

Now I must fully accept that there are laws yet to be made that may be fully justified in the making. Indeed when Mr Clegg assumes the mantle of government, I would anticipate a plethora, a blizzard of laws; for this party is committed to reform and there is much reform to be done.

However I find it hard to conceive how a party of government could be in power for ten years and still have passed insufficient laws to serve its purpose. I am informed that the government believes in extending its powers by stealth rather as we extended liberty by progression rather than in a single extension. So Habeas Corpus is first extended for 28 days and when this is considered tolerable it is extended further. Or the hospital services are reorganised and then the following year they are reorganised again; for the minister in charge of this department has to show they have work to do. Or the schools are judged still to be inadequate and the state must therefore assume additional powers over local education boards and the practice of teaching - as if no powers have been taken at any point in the last ten years.

In the same way the members of parliament must be given work to do; for the socialist MPs award themselves in pay several times the average salary of the ordinary working man and therefore must pose as rulers rather than symbols of enfranchisement. Indeed, whereas once parliament met in periodic session to bring together the people's representatives it is now criticised if it presumes to take a "holiday".

My modest proposal is therefore this: that Mr Brown, the Prime Minister, declare a holiday from the making of laws for a period of one year. He will be required to bring forward and debate an annual budget and there may conceivably be other matters that require legislation. But I would speculate that Great Britain will continue to function as normal, and may even function rather better than usual, if there is some respite from the making of laws. What then shall be done with the MPs, the ministers and their civil servants during this time? The ministers and servants may be tempted to make regulations during this period and should be restrained from doing so. Indeed they can all be kept gainfully employed during this period - as it seems they must be employed by the state - in deliberating all the laws that have been passed during the last decade, what has been their effect and how they might be improved to enable the better working of commerce, the extension of liberty and the common weal.

Furthermore I would urge Mr Clegg to make this a part of his programme, declaring in what year there will be a respite from law-making and by what point the programme of Liberal reform will be near to completion. I would advise the sixth, the second year of the second term.