Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What is an apprentice?

My attention has been drawn to a marvellous television programme, which I understand is well-viewed by the public and which seeks to introduce the world of business to the common man.

The notion of an apprentice is of course mediaeval and is strongly linked to the grip of craft guilds on commerce. In an age of mercantilism, an apprentice can spend half a life-time learning a craft whilst in the time of free trade, a worker may need to acquire skills faster.

The purpose of this public venture is a little unclear to me. The contestants appear youthful, as if the recruiter, Sir Alan Sugar, is seeking a substitute son (or daughter) who will, in time, learn the crafts of commerce. Yet the responsibilities placed upon them appear to be onerous, even if the applicants claim to have previous experience of business.

My viewing this evening suggests that these young people do indeed lack experience. A very intelligent and well-educated young man was removed from the contest for making a gross error of mathematics. There was no possibility that this might be attributed to the rashness of youth.

If this was harsh, it would have been harsher still to remove those who "stepped up" as leaders of teams. For the essence of a leader, be it in politics or in business, is that the leader can pick the lieutenants, based upon their experience and ability to contribute to the task in hand. A leader will not select a raw youth for a vital task without placing a check on their performance of the task. If the leader does not have the liberty of making his own appointments, he might at least hope to be assigned people of proven ability to provide his support.

Undoubtedly some are born to leadership and perhaps Sir Alan was one, as were Alexander or Nelson. Others acquire great qualities as did Wellington and, I would dare to hope, it might be stated that I did myself, as at the age of 50 I still held the second office in the land with little thought of acquiring the most eminent ministerial position.

I understand that Sir Alan places his recruits in significant positions of responsibility within his business. That he should seek only to recruit from youth would suggest there is a limit to his own abilities.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Queen's ghillie

A Prime Minister should gain authority from the force of his argument, from ability to dominate the House. He should not have to skulk in corridors, traducing and browbeating his followers into lending support.

The party will gather round the Prime Minister as if attracted by magnet to the deep principles that hold it together. Some may drift away for reasons of personal gain or prejudice but they will be replaced by others, who listen and hear and defy their own denomination in pursuit of the right path.

It is ominous and remarkable therefore to see the Queen's ghillie beset over a period of days by churchmen, by journalists and by his own party in respect of a series of measures which, it seems, he believes with the best of intentions will deliver progress.

Now by no means should the Pope and his Cardinals dictate to Englishmen how they should govern their country. Yet they have chosen their time, their cause well. They have staked their ground on two principles: the first that legislators should vote primarily according to their conscience; the second that scientists should not create half-human beings, that Parliament should not usher in the age of Dr Frankenstein, as envisioned in the popular writings of Mrs Shelley.

On the first principle, the Church of Rome is not best-placed to demand that its adherents vote according to their individual conscience, as in principle and in practice it seeks to dictate what that conscience should be. On the second principle, the concern catches a popular mood, yet it is likely that the basis of the Romish argument is tortuous theology, which, wisely, the Bishops have chosen not to share with the wider public.

One would therefore wish that Cantuar himself, Dr Williams, had made the arguments and that he carried the popular authority to carry the media and a substantial section of MPs with him; for the arguments would be well-made in such hands.

Whatever the source of the moral blast, it remains that the Queen's ghillie has yet again fumbled and dithered, has blustered and delayed as if caught catching the Queen's salmon. His solution is that MPs, who claim an issue of conscience, should vote against the individual clause and then be required to vote for the Bill as a whole. He has sacrificed his remaining shreds of authority for, numerically, it is unlikely he needs these members and, in effect, he continues to demand their reluctant support because he does not have the courage to state his case and explain to the people at large why it is necessary to create half-human beasts; why he wishes the power of the ancient gods to create the Chimaera.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Mr Bagehot

Mr Bagehot's excellent journal has printed a most interesting article this week, reporting how science has taken the work of Mr Darwin and proposes to take it as far as the altar and the ministrations of the priest. It seems that scientists intend to study the workings of the human brain itself with a view to finding the habitation of God.

Now I once had many harsh things to say about the eminent Mr Darwin, although, as is often in the case of religion, it was often his disciples who took his conclusions further than even his science would warrant and created hypotheses on shaky foundations, nay, on shifting sand. Foremost amongst these was the notion of the "ascent of man", that through biology alone man could evolve into perfect creatures. Sadly, it seems, mankind has been disillusioned of such hopes within the last century, even though there may still be those who believe that science can achieve what biology cannot achieve, and reshape mankind in the form of gods.

Indeed, taking the luxury of retrospect, I now see I may have dismissed Mr Darwin in haste for in depicting mankind as no more than an animal, he set out the propositions held by the Christian church for two centuries; that we are bound by flesh and the world in which we live and can only achieve righteousness through the work of the risen Christ, whom we have celebrated on this great day.

This digression leads me to the article in the Economist, which reveals how science plans to find the seat of the Holy Spirit. The early findings however have counfounded the simple theories of the irreligious; for it seems faith is not just seated in the regions of emotion and ecstasy. Indeed when the faithful were asked to recite the 23rd Psalm, regions of rationality and calculation were excited within the brain.

Let me therefore assist the scientists with their work. For we are not gnostics and the Church rejected gnosticism at an early age, stating that the human spirit remains within the body, not apart from it. When we are transformed by the power of Christ, our flesh itself is transformed and therefore our mental processes. There are times when to worship God will indeed excite joy and all our emotions; at other times we hand our minds over to the spirit of Christ. To pray and to meditate on the scriptures is to achieve a calmness, a stillness of mind and spirit; and within those once tempestuous waters, within the place where storms once raged, the spirit of Christ does His work. I may seek wisdom or words to speak; the spirit will deliver them. Others may seek ecstasy. In some sects, other, incomprehensible languages are sought as a means of worship; they are extracted from the brain's fleshly, biological processes.

It therefore seems likely that the scientists will find the spirit of the Christ at work throughout all regions of the brain. I do not say to them do not do your work - I have learnt in the space of two centuries to respect the work of science. I do say to them not to believe they have found more than can be found from any respectful conversation with a diverse group of believers.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

This is a day when we remember an act of supreme righteousness. Christ himself stated "greater love hath no man" than to lay his life down for others. Over the generations there has been a surfeit of kings and generals willing to lay down the lives of others; the King of all laid down His own life.

The ancient heroes foreshadowed such sacrifice. Achilles, Hector, Hercules thought nothing of their own lives; but in laying down his life the hero believed he would be raised to glory. The King of Peace was indeed raised to Glory; but that was not his intention in walking the path to execution as a slave, morphen doulou.

Did He know the extent of His great purpose when He declined to offer a defence to Pontius Pilate, when He allowed Judas to embrace him and betray him? He did not need to know; for execution on the cross was designed to exact the maximum toll of anguish. If, as is said, the sins of the world were laid on Him at that point, He could scarcely have felt more misery than did the thieves pinned to stakes to his right and left. He spoke of being in Paradise but in His last awful cry spoke of being foresaken by his Father, by God; such was the death cry of a righteous man executed as a slave.

This was love incarnate; this was an end to fine phrases, an end to wise exhortations to unselfish actions, leaving the world in no doubt that this man who had been unstinting in life in service to others delivered even greater gifts to mankind in His death. So on this day we celebrate the unusual humanity of Christ while on Sunday we will mark His unexpected divinity.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A problem with Latin

Mr Darling's appropriation of my box seems to have invited a number of flattering comparisons within the popular press; indeed a newspaper called the Independent quoted from my first budget speech, delivered some 155 years ago.

I fear however that standards of popular journalism have not improved. Indeed it seems that even political writers now no longer have even a passing knowledge of Latin and the classics; for the Independent, which I understand imagines itself to appeal to the educated classes, attempts to quote from my peroration, in which I quoted the last two lines of Virgil's second Georgic.

According to the journalist, I used the words: "immensum spatiis confecimus acquor, Et jam tempus equum fumantia solvere colla."

Now I am not afraid of controversy in the field of classical studies; and the text of this passage is certainly open to dispute. For it is possible, according to some manuscripts, that the word fumantia was in fact spumantia. But it is untrue, indeed a calumny, to suggest that during such an important occasion I coined an entirely new Latin word. I refer, gentlemen, to the word "acquor". There was no such word in the Latin vocabulary.

The correct word, as I used it in my speech, was aequor. The poet used the analogy of chariot-racing to conclude his masterpiece, speaking in a self-deprecating fashion; at the time, being a young man of 44 and being uncertain how my first Budget speech might be received, I sought to be equally self-deprecating.

The correct wording was:
Nos immensum spatiis confecimus aequor,

Et jam tempus equum fumantia solvere colla.

The word nos is redundant for meaning and the meaning of the couplet is: During our travels (or rather laps), we have covered an immense plain; and now it is time to release the fuming necks of the horses.

I do not believe The Independent was the source of the error. Indeed the wonders of "Google" have revealed to me that the error was first made by the British Broadcasting Corporation four years ago. It is opportune therefore that I am present in some form or other to counter this calumny!

My box!

It has been brought to my attention that the new Chancellor called my reputation to his aid last week in seeking to enhance the significance of his first Budget.

It is heart-warming to see my old Budget Box restored to public gaze; but I would rather wish that Chancellor's adhered to my budgetary principles than to the symbol of my four periods in this office.

Indeed in the course of those chancellorships I set out clear principles for the management of public finances and, when not in office, sought to hold other chancellors to the same principles. These self-same principles, I fear, have frequently been breached in the decades that followed.

A Chancellor should seek to reduce taxes and should be honest if that is not possible, if the demands of government require more money to be raised. For complex taxes confuse the public and confuse commerce and prevent the worker working to his best ability. Indeed it was always heart-warming to see her gracious majesty assenting to these important principles by a nod of her head during my many private audiences.

Now Mr Darling laid claim to be reducing taxes; but in fact all the reduction was decreed by the Mr Brown, who is now Prime Minister, some 12 months ago. And indeed the reduction of tax was by no means uniform.

For in reducing the "basic" rate of tax from 22 to 20 per cent, both chancellors also removed the protection offered to the lowest wage owners by the existence of a 10 per cent rate for the first £2,000 of income. In effect those on the lowest wages will pay a greater level of tax whilst the most prosperous will benefit from these new arrangements. This is in effect a partial reduction, a sleight of hand and a dishonest trick.

Now in one respect Mr Darling has acted with full honesty in stating that he proposes to increase excise duties on spirits, beer and tobacco. I am sorry to hear this; as these duties were a prime cause of criminality and lawlessness, especially in the wild lands of Cornwall and other coastal regions. Perhaps enforcement is now more effective and perhaps, also, excise duty is the best means of controlling increasing consumption of alcoholic beverages; but nevertheless indirect taxes of this nature distort the economy and fall hardest on the poor and the families of the poor.

I would not be concerned were these not the self-same people, from whom the Chancellor has removed a beneficial and low income tax rate.

I hear the Chancellor proposes to return income to the poor by other means, styled as Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. Yet in studying his budget report I cannot find that large sums are to be disbursed to the poor. Payments for children are not to be increased this year, not until next year. Some small sums are to be paid to harbour-workers - "pilots" - to relieve the poverty of children.

There is much more that could be said with reference to this "budget"; but, by all accounts, Mr Darling spent little time saying it and failed to enthuse many during that little time. He stares economic collapse in the face and whispers the word "boo" whilst twiddling his thumbs.

The small reduction in income tax payments may yet delay the evil hour during this current year; but next year, it seems, Mr Darling plans to extract nearly 700 million pounds in additional revenue from the economy. I may not agree in entirety with some of the economic principles espoused by my successors within liberalism and, indeed, am still struggling to understand the notions put forward by Mr Keynes. But I do believe we would be in agreement that a government should not be extracting money from the economy during times of hardship.

Mr Darling has given himself 12 months grace. His Prime Minister may be less patient; for he has but 24 months during which he must face the electorate. It may be they propose, next year, to sweeten the electorate with gifts, paid by the increased yield from fuel and vehicle duties, announced this year but levied next year. Indeed Mr Clegg and Mr Cable may find it hard to criticise should Mr Brown and Mr Darling promise another reduction in income tax, paid by this means, as I understand these are exactly the policies my own party now espouses.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mr Clegg triumphs

Mr Clegg unveiled his intentions today; indeed he unveiled his ambitions to create a Liberal Party that is again fit to govern this land.

Mr Clegg was splendid on the rebound as he addressed the membership in Liverpool, demonstrating the mettle that all hoped might be shown in one so young for the post of leadership. How fitting it would be if the moment when the party embarked again on the path to government took place in my own home city of Liverpool.

Indeed, floating around the conference gathering places, I noted how much of the city was recognisable; yet also how within the shell of the docks and the great city buildings so much reflects this modern age of prosperity and technological advance.

Mr Clegg set out the dilemma with which I remember struggling so hard during the mid-point of my political career. The world has experienced some 150 years of party politics since then; and Mr Clegg seems able to draw on experience of success and failure in such circumstances. Yet, as he articulated so magnificently, the issue is not one of success but of principle. If it is necessary to treat with one of the other two parties, which will best accede, and indeed, concede on the principles of reform and good government? Mr Clegg therefore states he will not accept the baubles of power from either party if they do not also offer the ballast of principle.

Within the halls of Liverpool, I heard a theme emerging from Mr Clegg's lieutenants, Mr Cable and Mr Huhne. Both are now gentlemen of high esteem and Mr Cable was received with special warmth following his temporary tenure of the leadership. Mr Huhne, far from being estranged from his rival for the leadership, holds the office of shadow Home Secretary and seems intent on propelling the party to great achievements, pointing out that voters will turn to a third party at a time when the two other parties seem bankrup of ideas and bereft of achievement.

Especially heartening to myself is a new tone of fiscal responsibility, set out both by Mr Clegg and Mr Cable. Both are intent of avoiding the socialist error, epitomised in the policies of Mr Brown and Mr Darling. Socialist policy is to take from the poor to give to the poor; for they are too craven in the presence of the rich to demand they pay their just dues. All my life I remained concerned with this problem; taxation may be necessary but it is a dangerous weapon. A tax of one kind may prevent one person from earning to their utmost; a tax of another kind may harm another's livelihood. One hears that in the present age poor families have to divide their households, abandon their partners and place themselves at the mercy of the authorities to sustain their families.

These were hard matters to grasp and even our dear Queen, with her great compassion for the poor, could draw on no practical experience of daily living to aid her comprehension of these concepts. Mr Clegg and Mr Cable are therefore right and I most fervently hope they hold to their intentions.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A double axe swings

It has been my experience in the course of a somewhat extended parliamentary career that it is easy to become attached to a principle that seems significant within the Palace of Westminster but has little resonance to the people beyond. It took me a little time but I learnt in the course of my time that a leader in parliament must always consider the people of the country at large.

Now leadership is a hard thing, as Mr Clegg is discovering; it is concerning if he does not have access to those with experience of leadership from whom to seek counsel. If they are not to be found in Westminster, he might consider those who have led administrations in the Celtic nations or in the municipalities.

I fear he has found himself today stuck in a stick cleft at least three ways. His first principle is that his "shadow" cabinet must speak as one. His second is that Parliament is the supreme expression of the voice of the people; it is not to be traduced or bullied. His third is that Europe must be united and kept at peace.

The axe that has swung appears to be the fate that befalls third parties that are attached to neither major party. It is possible for the large parties to put forward propositions which require the lesser party to choose between one or other of the parties, even though either choice is not that which our party may desire.

In these circumstances Mr Clegg needed very great wisdom, especially as he has neither age nor experience on his side. Indeed he has no God to whom he can pray; although I would advise him that even a godless man might find great wisdom in the writings of King Solomon.

Now his predecessor, Mr Campbell, a man of considerable, if not excessive, wisdom, had anticipated this problem and had installed a policy that the party would support a popular vote on Europe; but not on a treaty. As I have intimated before, I can only agree it would be abhorrent to delay the signing of a treaty for the sake of a popular vote, especially when the treaty may deliver the inestimable benefits of peace, trade and reform. Mr Campbell's proposition was a cunning one but insufficient to sustain the party when its opponents both descended, wielding their wood-cutters' axes.

For being right is not necessarily being wise. The parties had pledged themselves to a popular vote in 2005; if we desire the people to trust us, then we must sometimes trust them, even in the face of constitutional principles.

A wise leader will sometimes bend with the wind and will choose with care the moment when he confronts the dissidents within his ranks. With experience this will come as a matter of instinct; for in the heat of political events it is sometimes hard to pause a second to seek wisdom. I fear this moment has not been chosen well tonight and that our new leader has weakened himself by seeking to appear strong.