Wednesday, 30 October 2013


"Turnips!" to the whole thing, say I.

Pumpkins? Pumpkins? We'll be keeping Thanksgiving next.

As well we should, to give thanks for the fact that the Puritans left England. Have the kiddies carve little Puritans' head and make little hats for them.

But do not carve those heads out of pumpkins.

Carve them out of turnips.

Peace Pledge

I am not convinced by the white poppy.

The red poppy was initially, and is still properly, anything but a glorification of war. The white poppy message to "remember all victims of war" is already included, and the red poppy no longer features the name of Haig.

White poppy money goes to the Peace Pledge Union, a campaigning organisation for absolute pacifism (a cause to which I do not subscribe), rather than to a welfare charity of any kind.

Wear your red poppy with pride. I am wearing mine as I write. Because of what it really means.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The attempt to transform Plebgate into Plodgate is about softening up the electorate for privatisation, when police powers would be transferred to G4S and Serco.

Don't fall for it.

Remember that the only criminal offence in this whole business was committed when Andrew Mitchell swore at a policeman, for which anyone else would have been arrested, and for which Mitchell might yet be.

Trade union reps doing what trade union reps sometimes have to do in order to protect public services, and in this case in order to prevent the transfer of police powers to G4S and Serco, may not be pretty, and they certainly ought not to allow themselves to be caught doing it.

But it is not against the law.

Whereas swearing at a policeman is.

Mistress Dread

I bring you this correction and clarification from the Metro:

"Yesterday's Lou Reed obituary should have referred to his collaboration with Metallica on the album Lulu, rather than collaborations with Metallica and Lulu."

Tory Britain Turns Left

This article of mine appears in the London Progressive Journal:

Parties to the left of Labour hold seats in Scotland, Wales, the North of England, and the South of England.

In Scotland, the Labour vote is as large as ever, while the SNP has taken over most of what was historically the unassailable Tory majority there, with the SNP heartland exactly where the Unionist, as a party name, heartland used to be; it has never been Labour.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru’s strength is in rural areas that not very long ago were either Labour-Conservative marginals or safely Conservative.

No one could accuse its voters of being immigrants. Speaking the oldest cultural language in Europe also to be in more pedestrian day-to-day use, they are the oldest population group on this Island and its islands. Compared to them, everyone else here is an immigrant; even the speakers of Gaelic are Irish.

Labour is in second place in two of Plaid Cymru’s three seats. It is not the Labour vote that has transferred to Plaid Cymru. That vote has not transferred to anywhere.

Bradford West was a Conservative target seat in 2010, and it is the kind of place without which that party cannot win an overall majority. Nor has it ever done so without Brighton Pavilion, which, say it until it sinks in, is in Sussex.

In both, the Labour votes remain solid enough to provide realistic bases for recapture in 2015. The main party that has lost ground is demonstrably the other one.

The Greens’ target seats in several parts of the South are in a similar position, with neither the aim nor even the aspiration being the replacement of Labour, but rather the uniting of the anti-Labour vote. It is obvious who that means, at least primarily.

How can this possibly be? It ought not to come as any surprise. 70 per cent of people favour the public ownership of the utilities, the railways and the Royal Mail.

The second and third of those were the policy of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. John Major abandoned both in principle, and the railways in practice. He never won another General Election.

Support for a 60 per cent top rate of income tax is support for the policy of Nigel Lawson when he served under Thatcher, and the threshold at which today’s respondents would wish to set it is well above that at which he administered it with her authority.

One could go on.

The Conservative Party has always been economically to the right of the Labour Party at the given time. But the Conservative Party of the 1980s was economically far to the left of the Labour Party of the Blair years.

Enough previous Conservative voters duly leapfrogged Labour to put parties to its left into Parliament from, it is worth repeating, all four of Scotland, Wales, the North of England, and the South of England.

They put those parties into government in Scotland, and periodically in Wales. They also nearly managed to do so in England in 2010.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Hangers On

I pass no comment on ongoing criminal proceedings, nor will I be publishing any.

But Tony Blair was supposed to have had the most undistinguished court of any Prime Minister in history. Yet only up to that point, as matters have turned it.

Compared to the people with whom David Cameron has surrounded himself, Blair's entourage was Plato's Symposium.

Opus Dei and The Left

Having been a little critical of its institutional arrangements yesterday, I am delighted to put on record, not for the first time, that I am a convinced admirer of Opus Dei, both as a practising Catholic and as a man firmly of the Left.

Corporal mortification, to get that out of the way, is an integral part of Catholic spirituality. Catholics need to re-learn moderate self-denial on Fridays, on the Wednesdays in Lent, during Holy Week, on the eves of the Church’s greatest Solemnities, and before receiving Communion, as well as the considerable exigencies on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

These are of a piece with the cilice, which is a spiked chain worn around the upper thigh, and with the discipline, which is a small whip used on the back. Convents manufacturing such items still do a roaring trade, and the rise of Opus Dei is itself a sign that the decadent period of disdain for asceticism even within the Catholic Church is an aberration now mercifully coming to an end.

In any case, people who suggested that Ruth Kelly wore the cilice to work merely demonstrated their own ignorance. Both the cilice and the discipline are used by numeraries, who are celibate, live in Opus Dei centres, and give most of their salaries directly to Opus Dei.

Kelly was and is clearly a supernumerary, as are 70 per cent of Opus Dei members, and so presumably mortifies the flesh in ways more acceptable to clever-clever opinion, though none the worse for that.

Opus Dei believes in the sanctification of the world, thus first anticipating and then implementing the Second Vatican Council. By contrast, its opponents believe in the secularisation of the Church, falsely presenting that as “the Spirit of Vatican II”.

Therefore, they oppose corporal mortification as they oppose other Opus Dei practices: beginning the day by offering it to God, daily Communion, the Rosary, the Angelus, daily examination of conscience, invocation of the Angels and the Saints, ejaculatory prayer, use of holy water, and so forth.

That is because they disagree profoundly with Opus Dei about sanctification of and through ordinary work, not least because they so look down on the people who do a great deal of ordinary work.

They disagree with Opus Dei about living a contemplative life in the middle of the world, taking everything one does with liturgical seriousness, and recognising, as any orthodox Catholic must, that every experience of the true, the good and the beautiful is in fact a religious experience.

Instead, they would rather that even the Liturgy were treated with no more, or even rather less, seriousness than most people attach to a pop concert or a football match, and that even the most obviously ecstatic mystical experiences were somehow explained away by pseudo-scientific, avowedly anti-Christian means.

They disagree with Opus Dei’s, which is the Catholic Church’s, definition of Christian freedom in the Aristotelian yet profoundly Biblical terms given definitive Catholic and commonsensical articulation by Saint Thomas Aquinas, according to which the only true freedom is in accordance with the Will of God.

Instead, they would define it in secular and Modern terms, as the freedom of the individual to do as he will, provided that he agrees with them, and that he do so as the end in itself.

They disagree with Opus Dei’s (again, simply the Church’s) doctrine of divine filiation, of recognising oneself and every other human being as a Child of God. Adopted by God’s grace and thus in some sense ipse Christus, “Christ Himself”, everything we do is therefore in some sense part of the world’s redemption: the mundane is transcendent. Instead, they would rather make the transcendent mundane.

They disagree with divine filiation’s very high understanding of the dignity of each and every human life, and with its strong imperative towards evangelisation. And they disagree with its inherent imperative, both to take up the Cross, and to experience a profound joy quite unlike any momentary chemical or sexual “high” of their own formative years.

Instead, they would rather “modernise” on abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell “research”. They would rather trim Christianity and Catholicism to suit every other system of belief, though even then not with a view to converting anyone. And they would rather have instant gratification, on the cheap in every sense.

Sanctification through work, the living of a contemplative life in the middle of the world, Christian freedom correctly defined, and the recognition of divine filiation: these are the principles calling all Catholics to rediscover and renew, ever-more-deeply, our beginning the day by offering it to God, our frequent Communion, our daily examination of conscience, our ejaculatory prayer, our use of holy water, and our devotion to the Mother of God, to the Angels and to the Saints. And, yes, our practice of corporal mortification.

All of this is whether or not we experience any vocation to join Opus Dei, undoubtedly God’s instrument in renewing the Church in this way, but even more clearly so if this renewal becomes the norm among Catholics generally, including our witness to ecumenical partners.

So much for admiring Opus Dei as a Catholic. But how can a man of the Left possibly do so?

Far from being indifferent or hostile towards the poor, Opus Dei runs ELIS in Rome, the Midtown Center in Chicago, the Moluka medical clinic in Kinshasa, the Los Pinos educational centre in Montevideo, the Braval programme of professional formation for immigrants in Barcelona, the Laguna care centre in Madrid, the Harambee 2002 project, Condoray in Cañete, the Institute for Industrial Technology in Lagos, the Guatanfur agricultural and stock raising school in Temza, the Anauco medical dispensary in Caracas, the Centenario medical clinic in Monterrey, the Informal Sector Business Institute in Nairobi, and many more besides. Google them.

Ruth Kelly was the most prominent Opus Dei politician in the world; I am not sure who now is. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and former President of the Socialist International, António Guterres, has a long history in Opus Dei. Its ranks included the late Squire Lance, Saul Alinsky’s chosen successor in Chicago.
They also included the late Jorge Rossi Chavarría, sometime Vice-President of Costa Rica, and co-founder of that country’s National Liberation Party (PLN), the Costa Rican vehicle for social democracy, affiliated to the Socialist International.

Rossi co-founded the PLN as an outgrowth of his work as legal advisor to the Costa Rican Confederation of Workers of Rerum Novarum, Rerum Novarum being the 1891 founding text of Catholic Social Teaching with its very strong critique of unbridled capitalism, a critique continued and expanded by every Pope since.

Opus Dei still includes, among others, Antonio Fontán, Paola Binetti, Llúis Foix and Mario Maiolo. We may or may not count the Catalan nationalism of Xavi Casajuana as part of the Left, but it is undeniably a very long way from Franco.

Most of the Chilean “Chicago Boys” were not members of Opus Dei. Pinochet himself never had any affiliation with it. Of six right-wing Opus Dei politicians listed on Wikipedia, four are dead, one since 1966. Whereas the three broad left-wingers listed, including two women, are all still alive.

So, insofar as it has a political orientation, Opus Dei’s would seem to be towards the Left, if anything. Much like the Catholic Church Herself, in fact.

That is yet another reason to hope, work and pray for the Catholic Church at large to become much more like Opus Dei.

In Favour of Freedom

Neil Clark writes:

For daring to deviate from the neoliberal script on the subject of energy company profiteering, Labour leader Ed Miliband was portrayed as a sinister hardcore Marxist whose dastardly plan was to fulfil his late father's dream and transform Britain into the old Soviet Union.

According to this dominant narrative, if you want to take any meaningful action against the "big six" energy giants, and interfere with market forces, you must be some kind of unreconstructed Bolshevik – or at the very least a misguided leftie who wants to take the country back to the nightmare 1970s, the decade when the gap between rich and poor in Britain reached its lowest level in history.

However, in another European country, a political leader has been getting far tougher with profiteering energy companies than Miliband has suggested. In this country, the government has imposed a cut of over 20% in energy bills – a 10% reduction came into force in January, a further 11.1% cut will be implemented in November. It is also drafting a bill that would ban utility companies from paying dividends to shareholders. 

The aim of the government is to return natural monopolies to the public sector, to operate on a non-profit basis. "We must once and for all bring an end to the era where energy providers can ride roughshod over people," the country's leader declared.

So where is this bastion of socialism in Europe, and who is the wild-eyed leftist who is leading it? Step forward Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. The man who has declared war on profiteering energy companies is none other than the fiercely anti-communist leader of the centre-right Fidesz party.

In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Orbán talked of his admiration for Margaret Thatcher. "Her role was very important: she was always in favour of freedom, always anti-communist," he declared. Yet ironically, it's this member of the Iron Lady fan club who is carrying out policies in Hungary that would be denounced as "communist" if anyone on the left in Britain was brave enough to suggest them.

With elections due next spring, we can, of course, question Orbán's motives in moving against the energy companies. However, the very fact that his government is prepared to act highlights sharply the contrast with the inertia of the UK's Conservative-led coalition.

Fidesz contends that there were 15 price increases in gas bills during the period 2002-10, when they were in opposition, and that urgent action was essential to ensure cheaper energy bills for households and businesses. Hungarian politicians have sneered at Orbán's populist stance on energy, but the government's policies have brought relief to ordinary people and made everyday life more bearable in a country where around 20% of the household budget was going on gas bills.

It's the government's interventionist approach on energy prices that helps explain its commanding lead in the opinion polls – a recent poll showed that the governing coalition was 15% ahead of its nearest rivals and it's likely that Orbán will be returned to power in next year's general election.

Conservatives in Britain could, if they were smart, learn a lesson from Fidesz's brand of economic Gaullism, yet their commitment to market forces and the financial backing the Conservative party received from the City, means that they're likely to stay wedded to the current unpopular and discredited model. That's even when Thatcherite figures from the 80s and 90s such as Sir John Major and Peter Lilley are calling for changes.

The hysterical reaction to Miliband's extremely modest plans for a price freeze demonstrates just how out on a limb the UK is. In the genuinely democratic postwar era it would have been unthinkable that our utilities would one day be privately owned (and for a large part owned by foreign companies), and would then hit households and businesses with above-inflation rises year after year, and that the UK government would simply sit back and do nothing.

But that's where we've got to.

A Genuinely Mixed Economy

Seumas Milne writes:

Any doubts about who really controls Britain should have now been dispelled. Any thought that the financial crisis might have broken the neoliberal spell, rebalanced the economy or chastened the deregulators and privatisers can be safely dismissed. October has been the month when the monopolies, City hedge funds and foreign-owned cartels put the record straight. It's they who are calling the shots.

In the past week, a Swiss-based tax exile announced the closure of the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant, a crucial slice of industrial Scotland, after provoking a dispute with his workforce. Threatened with the loss of 800 jobs, they signed up for cuts in real pay and pensions.

Naturally, the employer claimed to be losing money (despite having made £1.7bn last year), while the media blamed the union. In fact it was a textbook lockout and display of corporate power by Britain's largest private company – a strategic and once publicly owned complex supplying 85% of Scotland's petrol, left to be run on the whim of a billionaire.

But that is mere bagatelle compared with the defiance of the energy privateers. Ever since Ed Miliband forced electricity and gas profiteering into political focus by pledging a price freeze, the monopolists have outdone themselves. Squealing that such interference threatened power cuts, one after another has taken the opportunity to jack up prices still further.

Four of the "big six" cartel, which controls 98% of electricity supply, have now increased prices by over 9% – blaming green levies and global costs – while wholesale prices have risen 1.7% in the past year and profit per "customer" has doubled.

Thousands of old people will certainly die this winter as a result of the corporate stitch-up that is called a regulated market – designed in large part by the same John Major who last week called for the introduction of a windfall tax on energy profits.

Meanwhile, David Cameron's coalition has signed a private finance initiative-style deal with one of the cartel, EDF, and two Chinese companies – all three state-owned, but by other states – to build a new nuclear reactor which will guarantee electricity prices at almost double their current level for the next 35 years.

As if all that wasn't grotesque enough, most of profitable Royal Mail has now been privatised by the supposedly dissident Vince Cable. The current loss to the "taxpayer" from selling shares below their market value is upwards of £1.3bn – more than the government's entire planned savings from benefit cuts in 2013-14. And its biggest shareholder is now the hedge fund TCI.

Within days, the Co-operative Bank had also fallen prey to US hedge funds, as Conservative ministers put out to tender the country's most successful rail service, the publicly owned east coast mainline. Never mind its reliability, value-for-money, popularity and the £208m dividend payment to the public purse. Privatisation dogma is undisturbed by evidence.

But then privatised water companies are planning to increase prices by 40% by 2020; Simon Stevens, an executive for the US private health firm UnitedHealth, now bidding for NHS contracts, has been put in charge of the NHS in England; and the security firms, G4S and Serco, are allowed to bid for a share of the probation service despite fraud investigations into existing deals.

It should be obvious that powerful interests are driving what is by any objective measure a failed 30-year experiment – but which transfers income and wealth from workforce, public and state to the corporate sector. In the case of privatised utilities, that is the extraction of shareholder value on a vast scale from a captive public.

What's needed from utilities are security of supply, operation in the public interest, long-term planning and cost effectiveness without profiteering. The existing privatised utilities have failed on all counts.

The case for public ownership of basic utilities and services – including electricity, gas, water and communications infrastructure – is overwhelming. It's also supported by a large majority of the country's voters. But it's taboo in the political mainstream.

Given the unhinged media response even to Miliband's call for an energy price freeze, perhaps that's not surprising. His party is arguing for tougher regulation of the energy market. That's welcome, but it's not going to solve the problems created by allowing private companies to profit from natural monopolies.

You can't control what you don't own. Regulators become the prisoners of the regulated. And as the liberal Joseph Chamberlain demonstrated in 19th century Birmingham, publicly owned utilities can be a valuable source of non-tax public income too.

Labour's refusal to commit so far even to bring back rail franchises into public ownership as they come up for renewal – which would cost nothing – shows the problem is political, not practical. Why, you might wonder, is it acceptable to hand basic services to state-owned companies, so long as they're owned by foreign states?

The answer is because it's a commercial relationship, not one of democratic accountability. There are any number of models of social ownership, including local and mutual, that could bring Britain's utilities back into the public realm. In energy, for example, it could start with a single firm or power generation alone.

However, the costs of privatisation have created a powerful counter-momentum in Europe (and even more so in Latin America) to bring services, resources and utilities back into the public sector: water in France, power in Germany, and transport in Britain (Newcastle is currently attempting to take back bus routes). In September, the people of Hamburg voted to bring back the power supply into municipal ownership. Berlin is set to follow suit this coming Sunday.

Privatisation is a failed and corrosive model. In Britain, it has combined with a determination to put up any asset up for sale to hollow out the country's industrial base to disastrous effect. If Britain is to have a sustained recovery, it needs a genuinely mixed economy. The political and corporate elite have run out of excuses.

The Guardian Against Transferred Nationalism

That criticism persists shows that the Guardian’s enemies are suffering from an advanced case of what Orwell called “transferred nationalism”: though nominally British they have transferred their loyalty to the United States, and react to any threat to American interests as if it were a threat their own. 

I have always liked Nick Cohen, really.

We now know that, while the NSA has been listening to 130 million people in France and Spain, it has not been listening to David Cameron. Says it all.

And notice that the strongest opponents of Leveson, for all the difference that it would make, are the strongest supporters of the NSA.

They vilify our sovereign Parliament. They ridicule our "Medieval" Privy Council (which it is not). Their loyalty is elsewhere.

But Cohen is also doing it, with his call for "a British First Amendment". Amendment to what, exactly?

Kickings In The Baltic

Trending Central does not like me. Unlike its archenemy, The Commentator, it has banned me from posting comments. Thereby, it has lined it up with a man who mercilessly ridicules it, from the site edited by whom I am likewise proscribed. I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of that.

Trending Central also displays both its intellectual depth and its advanced social skills by taking with utter seriousness an email which I once sent while that man was having a go at it. That was along the lines of, “You’ll be employing me next, and here's what I could I write about.” This is dredged up, with all the awareness of Dr Sheldon Cooper, whenever I point out things like the recent scoop that a woman who appeared on Channel 4 News wearing a burqa was a Muslim.

Yet even Trending Central has now taken up the cause of the, mostly Russian, ethnic minorities in the Baltic States. Specifically, of Latvia, where one third of the population is stateless due to the staggeringly racist definition of citizenship now being enforced in, with Estonia, at least two of three member-states of NATO and of the EU.

This attention is welcome. But the neoconservatives are far behind the curve on this one. Unburdened by Russophobia, and therefore possessed of solutions to the problem of Russian oligarchical takeover, the alliance between the traditional Right and the traditional Left has been saying all of this for years.

Soviet Republics from 1944 to 1991, the Baltic States became independent a few months before the dissolution of the USSR. Their brief independence between the Wars had been part of the humiliation inflicted by Germany and Austria-Hungary on defeated Russia at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. Latvia and Estonia became dictatorships in 1934, and Lithuania as early as 1926.

Although Lithuania has a different history, Latvia and Estonia had never existed as independent states before 1918. After having been ruled by the Teutonic Knights and then by Sweden, they had become parts of the Russian Empire from the 1720s onwards. In other words, and in order to give some perspective, they had done so only very slightly after the Union between England and Scotland.

Therefore, their incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1944 was nothing more than the restoration of the centuries-old status quo ante. It was warmly welcomed by much of the Baltic political class, which contained many committed Communists. That the Polish city of Wilno, now Vilnius, should have become and remained the capital of Lithuania was and is entirely pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.

It is the case that the large Russian minorities in Lithuania and, especially, in Latvia and in Estonia, increased during the Soviet period, very much at the request of the local Communist Parties, which sought them to fill various positions in the economy. But those minorities had existed, and had been numerically considerable, for centuries.

Upon independence in 1991, the Baltic States adopted the founding constitutional principle that they had been occupied by the USSR rather than incorporated into it, so that they were merely reverting to their interrupted sovereign statehood. In 1993, Latvia even elected a President, Guntis Ulmanis, who was a great-nephew of Kārlis Ulmanis, the Inter-War dictator. He had come up through a rapidly reconstituted party which his great-uncle had banned.

But the laws of occupation are comprehensively set out in the Hague Conventions of 1907. The powerless citizenry of an occupied state remains a separate legal entity from its occupier. Whereas incorporation makes the members of that citizenry into citizens of the incorporating state.

The latter happened in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. From 1944 to 1991, their inhabitants were Soviet citizens, simply as a matter of legal fact. As they had been from 1922 to 1940, and as they had been de facto even if not de jure, along with everyone else in the territory concerned, from 1917 to 1922.

Those states therefore share in the responsibility for the Soviet regime during most of its history. All over the Soviet Union, there were monuments to the Red Latvian Riflemen who had fought in and for the Revolution. Latvians had been one of the largest ethnic groups in the Bolshevik secret police, despite comprising a very small proportion of the population of the new Soviet state.

“Russian” and “Communist” were obviously not  interchangeable terms, while the Russian Empire had always defined all as equal if they served the Tsar, which was how it had managed to incorporate the Balts, among so very many others. They were never victims of imperialism as the term is ordinarily understood.

Yet, like many Austrians in relation to the Third Reich, but without the excuse that most people involved are now dead, they are determined to pretend that they were indeed victims. Citizenship is denied, voting rights are refused, amenities are not extended, schools teaching through the medium of Russian are closed, and so on. Inside NATO. Inside the EU.

These are not even measures against small minorities, or against recent immigrants with their children and grandchildren, for whose rights in these spheres the advocates of Eurofederalism and Atlanticism normally, and in most cases rightly, fight with such vigour. Rather, these are measures against large population groups that are several centuries old.

The defence of Saint Petersburg, and of the highly populous heartland of ethnic Russian culture from that city to Moscow, is impossible without control of the Baltic States. Purging them of their Russian and Soviet pasts, and of their large and longstanding Russian populations, as surely as the clutching of those purged states to the bosoms of NATO and the EU, is part and parcel of driving Russia out of European and Western affairs; of deracinating or “othering” Russia as Eurasian and Asian.

That serves to estrange the civilisation of which Russia seeks, however imperfectly, to be the principal protector: defined by the recapitulation in Jesus Christ and His Church of all three the Old Israel, Hellenism, and the Roman Empire; therefore highly critical of economic neoliberalism, of the social structures associated with it, and of the imposition of that order by force of arms; while also a bulwark both against Islamic expansionism and against East Asian domination.

See the quite un-self-conscious, hugely effective role of Russia in defending the ancient indigenous Christians of Syria against the Islamist terrorists and invaders favoured by the forces of interventionist economic and social liberalism centred on a republic of which those are the defining mythoi, the ones held up as defining Western civilisation, so that those of Russia must be consigned to the faraway Steppes, if not sent all the way to Siberia.

It is no coincidence that the former President Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania, the former President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia, and the incumbent President Toomas Ilves of Estonia, all grew up in North America.

The mercifully departing Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia is also a graduate of Columbia Law School, and committed to NATO and EU membership, flying the EU flag from public buildings and the like even though Georgia is not in the EU and is unlikely ever to be admitted. As for joining NATO, that would have put us at war with Russia in 2008, so forget it.

That war was caused when our beloved Saakashvili invaded a territory which was only legally part of Georgia by fiat of Stalin, which had not been run from Tbilisi since the end of the Soviet Union, and whose Russian-speaking, Russian passport-holding inhabitants Saakashvili wished to cleanse by force.

But they have not only been dancing in the streets at his departure in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. Georgians are delighted to see the back of this Olympically corrupt person with a truly horrific human rights record, whom the West had indulged because he was almost an American and because he was a very violent anti-Russian, opening up his country to predatory global capitalism and however forlornly seeking membership of its political institutions.

The same political institutions that are as willing to sacrifice the long-established and numerous Russians of the Baltic as to sacrifice those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or to sacrifice the ancient indigenous Christians of Syria or of the Holy Land.

By their very existence, those populations embody both historical realities and philosophical propositions on which one must never even permit oneself to think, never mind to speak or to act.

Monday, 28 October 2013

A Strange Bedfellow?

It is worth pondering how some forms of ‘discrimination’ are still  all right, and others not. Killing baby girls because they aren’t boys is one.

Now here’s another. Aric Sigman, a psychologist and biologist, points out that women who raise their own children can be sneered at without fear as ‘self-lobotomised’, servile and sexually unattractive.

Dr Sigman has spotted the modern Stalin-Hitler pact that unites huge, supposedly incompatible forces against this defenceless group.

‘The older feminism, liberal-Left feminism, has ended up a strange bedfellow with Right-wing capitalism.’ Almost there. But why does he think capitalism is ‘Right-wing’?  If Leftism pays, that’s fine.

This shows his increasing tendency to define "the Left" as whatever he himself happens to be against. That kind of thing, on both sides of the divide, occurs a lot below the line. But one expects better of a prominent, paid columnist.

Peter Hitchens it was who used the Question Time panel on Thursday to call for the renationalisation of energy, the reopening of the pits (along with a massive expansion of nuclear power, but not under Chinese suzerainty), and the restoration of the Central Electricity Generating Board. He also supports renationalising the railways and the Royal Mail. He opposes wars of intervention, the erosion of civil liberties, and the "renewal" of Trident.

All of these views are the same as those of his fellow-panellist, Owen Jones. If the allegedly left-wing producers had allowed it to come up, then they would have said exactly the same things about Grangemouth. If anything, Hitchens would have out-Lefted Jones, and sounded like the Old Labourite that he once was, when people like that were just called Labour people. From that point of view, Grangemouth is the story that has it all.

It will not do to reply that "the Left means radical feminism and that kind of thing". If they ally so well with the present capitalist model, and they do, then they are obviously not on the Left at all. No, not even if Peter Hitchens says that they are.

Whereas his views on public ownership, on coal (also expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg and by the Trident-sceptical Sir Nick Harvey on The Westminster Hour), on transport, on electricity generation, on war, on civil liberties and on Trident all either ally him almost entirely with the Left or, especially in the first case, place him objectively on it. His reasons for wanting these things also locate him within the Labour mainstream at any time before 1997 or since 2010.

Only on nuclear power did he differ from the opinions rapturously received by the "Turnip Taliban" of Thetford when Bob Crow expressed them on Any Questions the following evening. But the unions representing that industry's workers, unions that are much larger than the RMT and which unlike it are affiliated to the Labour Party, are among this county's staunchest advocates of nuclear power.

The last Government was passionately committed to it, more so than any other in a generation, so to speak. It was David Cameron who at that time called it "a last resort", before he had realised that the State action that has always been necessary in order to deliver it, and which always will be, might come from the Chinese rather than from the British State.

Hitchens's views on the EU have much deeper Labour than Conservative roots, as is increasingly apparent on parliamentary floors from Westminster to Brussels and Strasbourg. On abortion and on the definition of marriage, Hitchens concurs with several of the most left-wing Labour MPs, including figures who after the recent votes on the latter, and numerous votes on the former over the years, were prominent on the platform of the Durham Miners' Gala this year, as they always are. On Europe, Hitchens concurs with all of the most left-wing Labour MPs.

Seeing Red

Some of us were once told about ladies in red hats. I for one am greatly looking forward to the Holy Father's list of Lady Cardinals. Blessed John Paul II offered it to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, but she declined.

However, we are now in the Pontificate of "the next Pope but one", whose infallibility was proverbial. Yet he will not be appointing Sister Jeannine Cardinal Gramick, Dr Lavinia Cardinal Byrne, Professor Tina Cardinal Beattie or Ms Catherine Cardinal Pepinster.

Rather, every one of those named will know exactly what the first question in every interview was going to be, and she will know exactly what the answer was. She will also know the answers to all subsequent questions. It will be a glorious thing to behold.

Since apparently we must, there is no theological reason why women cannot be Cardinals. The office is purely canonical, not doctrinal.

There have been various ways of producing Popes in the past, while the historical norm for the appointment of bishops is by the local lay ruler. Even the Protestant King of Prussia, with his Lutheran ecclesial, and not only ecclesiastical, role. Even the Tsar of All the Russias, an Orthodox Living Icon. Even the Ottoman Sultan, the Caliph of every Sunni Muslim in the world. And even, inherited from Prussia down to the present day in Alsace-Lorraine, the President sworn to uphold the fiercely secular Constitution of the French Republic.

Since the relatively recent emergence of the present system of Papal elections, the requirement that Cardinals be priests dates only from 1917, while the requirement that they be bishops dates from as recently as 1983.

The latter is dispensed for Jesuits who are not diocesan bishops, and it could be dispensed for anyone. As could the former. The Pope would be free to abolish both requirements altogether, or to establish any exception to them that he happened to see fit. He could abolish Cardinals altogether, come to that.

A Pope who attempted to abolish bishops, priests or deacons would be ipso facto deposed for heresy, as would a Pope who suggested that women might become any of those. But a Pope who abolished Cardinals, or who appointed women to their ranks, would be perfectly within his rights.

There is no argument that Lay Cardinals historically received the Tonsure, since that, too, was purely canonical, conferring the status of a cleric. It was not ordination. That it could be abolished, along with Minor Orders and the Subdiaconate, demonstrated that those things were matters of law rather than of doctrine, as everyone had always known. No one had ever suggested the contrary. Just as everyone has always known that the Episcopate, Presbyterate and Diaconate could not be abolished.

In any case, the requirement that Cardinals receive at least the Tonsure made it quite clear that they had not been doing so hitherto, but with no suggestion that that had invalidated any exercise of their office. Making them all clerics was simply what was felt by the Roman Pontiff to be more expedient at the time. If the Roman Pontiff feels that women as Cardinals would be more expedient at this time, then that is just that.

The genius of this Pope is that, by saying nothing remotely new, he has nevertheless challenged profoundly those who had been given a free pass under his two immediate predecessors, mostly because they were supposed to be working towards the abolition of abortion in the United States.

They have made absolutely no progress whatever towards that end, so they are no longer being indulged in their advocacy of unregulated economic markets, in their warmongering, in their support for capital punishment, and in all their other de facto schismatic tendencies. They might even try and post reams of comments on here, citing the authorities of their own haeresis. For that is what we are dealing with.

Even beyond a direct refusal to submit to Petrine authority, actual doctrinal error is not uncommon among them. For all the greatness of Blessed John Paul II, he did not act with sufficient vigour against the fancies that became current among his allies against the Soviet Bloc and then, at least ostensibly, against secular liberalism.

Theological Commissions, not least under the then Cardinal Ratzinger, were too politely European and academic as they brushed off Marian Co-Redemption (I defy you to find any serious theologian who calls it anything better than "an unfortunate but perhaps necessary title" or what have you, but they are not dealing with people who get that kind of message), or attempts to argue that celibacy was of the esse of the Priesthood, or conspiracy theories about Fatima and all manner of other things, or loud purported canonisations of assorted shibboleths, some of which might even have been true, but none of which had anything to do with the content of the Faith. Under Benedict XVI, this began to reach lunatic levels, with growing attacks on, for example, Natural Family Planning.

Anyone who had bothered to check would have known, and would still know, the Church's position on neoliberal capitalism, on pre-emptive war, on nuclear weapons, on the death penalty, and indeed on Natural Family Planning. They would have know, and would still know, about Fatima. They would have known, and would still know, about clerical celibacy. They would have known, and would still know, about accurate Mariology.

They would have known, and would still know, that the Church was indifferent on the question of the age of the earth, leaving it to specialists, since the fact of God's Creation of the world was unaffected by the answer to that question. They would have known, and would still know, that, while Shakespeare's Catholicism was highly plausible, it was no part of the Faith. And so on. And on. And on. And on. And on.

This Pope has already excommunicated a schismatic liberal Australian priest. If necessary, he will have no compunction about excommunicating schismatic conservatives, too. For they are, as they have always been, exactly as schismatic as each other.

Bringing us to the dear old Society of Saint Pius X. Of course it thinks that this Pope is a Modernist. It has thought the same thing about the last four, the only others under whom it has ever existed. We must be clear exactly what Lefebvrism is, and is not.

It is certainly not "just traditional Catholicism", or even just Catholicism as widely practised during the Pianische Monolothismus. Rather, it makes sense only in certain very specific terms peculiar to France. Terms that, for very French reasons, it assumes to be universal when they are not.

Lefevbrist devotional and disciplinary practice is an obvious expression of, if not direct Jansenist influence, though probably so, then at least the strain in the French character that made it receptive to Jansenism. Likewise, Lefebvrist theory and organisational practice are no less obviously expressions of Gallicanism, and sometimes of very advanced Gallicanism indeed.

For example, rule of the SSPX is by a General Chapter in which not only do bishops and simple presbyters have equal status, but it is considered an aberration that the Superior-General is at present a bishop, rather than being a simple presbyter to whom the Society's bishops would be, and in the past have been, subject. Shades of the extreme Gallican attempts to prove a Dominical institution of the office of parish priest.

And shades of the structural arrangements of Anglo-Catholic traditionalism over the last two decades and before, echoing the extent to which that movement has always tapped into the same English and Welsh organisational traits that made Congregationalism so popular (and many of the same English and Welsh devotional traits that made Methodism so popular) just as Lefebvrism has tapped into the same French traits that had previously manifested themselves as Gallicanism (and Jansenism).

Although I should have to investigate any specifically Spanish reason why this has come to be so, such trends become even more pronounced in the structure of Opus Dei.

Sanctification through work, the living of a contemplative life in the middle of the world, Christian freedom correctly defined, and the recognition of divine filiation: these are the principles calling all Catholics to rediscover and renew, ever-more-deeply, our beginning the day by offering it to God, our frequent Communion, our daily examination of conscience, our Eucharistic Adoration, our ejaculatory prayer, our use of holy water, and our devotion to the Mother of God, to the Angels and to the Saints. And, yes, our practice of corporal mortification.

But Opus Dei's domination by the laity, yet in an organisation of which clergy are members, effectively turning priests into little more than transubstantiation and absolution machines a great deal of the time, seems more appropriate to the more advanced forms of Congregationalism, to the Baptist movement, and to expressions of Methodism such as the Primitive Methodists, the still-existing Independent Methodist Connexion (with its partly Quaker roots) in the North of England, and the Bible Christians of the West Country.

Even those, in fact, were or are not quite like that. There is something positively Quaker, at least historically, about the maintenance of autonomous male and female branches. But most of all, the whole thing looks like lay rule through Royal Gallicanism and its local implications all the way down to parochial level, while also recalling the power wielded in the Jansenist subculture by the Abbesses of Port-Royal and their subjects. Again, there is more than a whiff of Anglo-Catholicism in all of this, or of all of this in Anglo-Catholicism.

Lefebvrism gives perhaps the first ever formal institutional shape to the situation created by the seventeenth century, which began with three competing parties in the French Church, but which ended with two, the Gallicans and the Jansenists having effectively merged against the Ultramontanes due to the deployment of Gallican ecclesiological arguments against the Papal condemnations of Jansenist soteriological ones.

By the wayside had fallen such features as Jansenist belief, with the sole if notable exception of Pascal, in the infallibility of Papal definitions ex cathedra, and Gallican use of belief in Our Lady's Immaculate Conception as a mark of party identity due to its having been defined by the Council of Basel.

The popular attraction of the Lefebvrist clergy in terms of the old Latin Mass and traditional or "traditional" devotions echoes that of the Gallican clergy in terms of the old diocesan Missals and Breviaries and a sympathy for the entrenched local devotional practices reviled, like those entrenched local liturgical forms, by the Ultramontanes.

The French Church, or an idea of the French Church, is assumed to be fundamentally autonomous, so that the incompatibility of Dignitatis Humanae with a very specifically French Counter-Revolutionary theory of the relationship between Church and State means that it is the Conciliar Declaration that must yield. This is simply taken to be self-evident.

In reality, such a position is as schismatic and as heretical as John Courtney Murray's attempt to conform Dignitatis Humanae to the American republican tradition's reading of the First Amendment as taught to high school students, an approach comprehensible only within Manifest Destiny and all that.

That has therefore ended up, for now, in George Weigel's signature to the Project for the New American Century, and in the public support for the Iraq War on the part of the late Richard John Neuhaus, known to George W Bush as "Father Richard".

American "conservative" Catholicism sees the American Church as autonomous as surely as does American "liberal" Catholicism, and freely disregards Catholic Teaching on social justice and on peace as surely as the other side freely disregards Catholic Teaching on bioethical and sexual issues.

As a result, both alike are blind to the Magisterium's brilliant and unique global witness to the inseparability of all of these concerns. In both the French and the American cases, there is a strange inability to recognise that what one was taught at 13 or 14 might not always be the last word on any given subject.

Well, they are dealing with a new, and a very different, Pope now.

Mere Outposts of Other Countries' Empires

John Harris writes:

By the time you read this article, the UK will probably be in the grip of that recurrent national malady known as travel chaos. At the time of writing, in addition to warnings about the perils of driving, trains were being cancelled en masse, while would-be travellers were instructed to follow news from that array of corporate names which still feels like some alien imposition on national life: First TransPennine, CrossCountry, First Capital Connect, c2c. There will, it seems, be leaves on the line, and then some.

Even the most efficient set-up can probably not do much about what one firm was predicting to be "localised flooding, fallen trees and debris on the tracks". But still: as rail travel is disrupted, thousands of people will once again seethe with fury at the operating companies' shortcomings, whether unfairly or not. Public anger, moreover, will also reflect a firmly embedded belief: that the approach of politicians to the railways is lily-livered at best; and at worst, completely barmy.

If you want a good example of the latter, consider the fate of the east coast mainline, which runs between London, the north-east and Scotland. In 2006 GNER lost its contract to run trains along the route when its Bermuda-registered parent company filed for bankruptcy. The franchise then went to National Express, which soon defaulted on its payments. So the then-Labour government created a not-for-profit public operator called Directly Operated Railways, which has run the service for the last four years with much success.

Since 2009, DOR has paid £602m into public funds: over £200m more than National Express did, and £209m more than Virgin Rail – the franchise-holder for the west coast mainline – has managed during the same period. Its public subsidy is comparatively minimal – seven times less than that paid last year to Virgin. Its record on safety improvements is jaw-dropping: "major customer accidents" are down 81% since 2009. And customer satisfaction and punctuality are at unprecedented highs.

Now, of course, the government wants to re-privatise it – which is where things get truly absurd. Among the top bidders for the franchise is a consortium split between Eurostar and Keolis, both majority-owned by the French state firm SNCF. As well as Virgin, another probable contender will be Arriva, the British train company wholly owned by Deutsche Bahn, which is in turn wholly owned by the German government. As is increasingly the case across a whole range of national infrastructure – from power stations to water suppliers, via airports and bus companies – supposed free-marketeers are gleefully happy about state ownership of British assets, as long as it's somebody else's state that's doing it. In the case of the railways, moreover, you end up with the inevitable consequence of profits being skimmed off and invested in trains and tracks overseas.

This is another of the insanities at the core of an economic model that George Osborne in particular wants to develop. Labour argues that the east coast mainline should stay in public hands and that DOR should be allowed to bid for other train franchises, following the same revenue-generating model as publicly owned firms from Germany, France and the Netherlands.

But is that really enough? The Greens' Caroline Lucas, a rare voice of sanity, recently tabled a private member's bill outlining a simple alternative: that over time, as rail franchises expire, they should be restored to public ownership – which would cost peanuts, repatriate a fair bit of money, and commence the abolition of all the complex and costly stupidities that privatisation produced (topical note: before the rehabilitation of John Major goes too far, let's remember that it was his government that did it). This would at least slow those outrageous ticket price rises. And just imagine: we would also get the kind of integrated railway system to which politicians could finally apply some joined-up thinking.

This Thursday, after the publication of a new business case, there will be a Commons vote on the so-called paving bill for HS2, which will enable the government to release funding for the "preparation" of the project before later legislation grants full planning permission. The HS2 project is the grimmest embodiment yet of how awful railways policy has become, whereby tens of billions will be frittered on services for which there is no obvious demand – while existing routes will suffer, links between cities outside London will be as poor as ever, and commuter and branch lines will remain under-resourced and overcrowded.

For the moment, Labour is sticking to a depressingly familiar approach: why have a clear policy when nods, winks and mischievous opacity will suffice? With David Cameron now insisting that HS2 depends on all-party support, shadow ministers still claim to back it, though Labour MPs will be under no obligation to actually turn up and vote, and Ed Balls may yet decide to turn tail and offer to spend the money on other things. There will certainly be Conservative dissent this week, though Tory rebels are likely to come out in their largest numbers a little later. Whatever, support for HS2 is palpably weakening.

Who will eventually supply the trains and actually run HS2 remains unclear. But as well as the prospect of state-owned European firms getting involved, the China Railway Group and China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation – again, government-owned enterprises – have registered an interest in bidding for contracts. So, off we may well go again, handing yet more chunks of infrastructure to interests whose chief responsibilities lie far away from the UK, swaths of whose profits will be invested at home.

Storms permitting, I will be among the stressed-out crowds this morning, trying to get from the West Country to Stockport on a family ticket that – even with a railcard, booked several weeks in advance – cost me a wallet-threatening £125, a good deal of which will be going straight into the coffers of Deutsche Bahn, and will presumably contribute to such projects as the redevelopment of the central station in Stuttgart and the improvement of services from Mainz.

How remarkable that railways which once embodied the British genius should have become not just overpriced and lamentably run, but mere outposts of other countries' economic empires.

A Broad Alliance

It is no wonder that the Twitter Right accuses even Any Questions audiences of being packed with “Lefties” even in such unlikely places as Rothbury and Thetford. How many “Lefties” do they think that there are in such locations? Those audiences are expressing mainstream public opinion among people who have hitherto divided their votes among all three main parties, and others in some areas.

People who do not want the ruinous reduction in provincial disposable incomes by the abolition of National Pay Agreements. The further deregulation of Sunday trading. The replacement of Her Majesty’s Constabulary with the National Crime Agency. The devastation of rural communities by the allowing of foreign companies and even foreign states to buy up our postal service and our roads. Or that devastation by the austerity programme of both Coalition parties.

They are against the privatisation of the Royal Mail. Against the return of the East Coast Main Line, the only publicly owned railway in Great Britain and the one making a profit for the taxpayer, to the private sector from which it has already had to be rescued twice. Against the dismantlement of England’s NHS. Against the discontinuation of the State action necessary in order to maintain the work of charities and of churches. And against the mercifully unrealised disenfranchisement of organic communities by means of parliamentary boundaries agreeable to “sophists, economists and calculators”.

They are opposed to the cruel cuts in our conventional defence, and they are no less opposed to the proposed use of what remains of that military capability in order to remake the world to some fanciful blueprint. They are at best profoundly sceptical of the “renewal” of Trident, with large numbers strongly opposed.

They yearn for a freeze in energy prices. Indeed, all polls show 70 per cent support for the renationalisation of the utilities, show 70 per cent support for the renationalisation of the Royal Mail (the privatisation of which was a manifesto commitment by the Liberal Democrats, perhaps the best of all the reasons to wipe them off the electoral map), and show 70 to a whopping 75 per cent support for the renationalisation of the railways.

Therefore, Labour is going to win in 2015. But Labour must also deserve to win, and Labour must know why it wants to win. Labour must guard against small-mindedness, narrow-mindedness, closed-mindedness, communalism, sectarianism and factionalism. Those are urban, metropolitan, secular, socially liberal, white and upper-middle-class vices no less than they are anyone else’s.

Labour must have no truck with the urban, metropolitan, secular, socially liberal, white and upper-middle-class small-mindedness, narrow-mindedness, closed-mindedness, communalism, sectarianism and factionalism of the ostensibly left-wing opposition to the anti-war and anti-cuts movements, movements that speak for the huge majority of the population when they are permitted to speak at all.

Instead, Labour must be a broad alliance between the confidently urban and the confidently rural, the confidently metropolitan and the confidently provincial, the confidently secular and the confidently religious, those confident in their liberal social values and those confident in their conservative social values, across all ethnic groups, across all social classes, and across all parts of the country: One Nation.

The basis of that alliance includes the contribution-based Welfare State, with contribution defined to include, for example, caring for children and caring for elderly relatives. Workers’ rights, with the trade unionism necessary in order to defend and advance them. Community organising. The co-operative movement and wider mutualism, not least in the provision of financial services, as well as profit-sharing and similar arrangements: not “shares for rights”, but shares and rights.

That basis includes consumer protection. Strong communities. Fair taxation. Full employment, with low inflation. Pragmatic public ownership, including of the utilities, of the postal service and of the railway service, and always with strong parliamentary and municipal accountability. Publicly owned industries and services, national and municipal, setting the vocational training standards for the private sector to match.

That basis includes proper local government, itself including council housing, fiscal autonomy, the provision as well as the commissioning of services, the accountability provided by the historic committee system, and the abolition of delegated planning decisions.

That basis includes the State’s restoration of the economic basis of the civilised and civilising worker-intellectual culture historically exemplified by the pitmen poets and the pitmen painters, by the brass and silver bands, by the Workers’ Educational Association and the Miners’ Lodge Libraries, by the people’s papers rather than the red top rags, and so on. In order to restore a civilisation in continuity with it, that culture must be rescued from “the enormous condescension of posterity”.

That basis includes the Union, the ties that bind these Islands, and the Commonwealth; that last is, and has always been, a social and cultural network, not an economic or military bloc.

That basis includes economic patriotism, itself including both energy independence and balanced migration. The organic Constitution, with the full pageantry and ceremony of the parliamentary and municipal processes. The national and parliamentary sovereignty of the United Kingdom in the face of all challenges: the United States or the European Union, Israel or the Gulf monarchs, China or the Russian oligarchs, money markets or media moguls, separatists or communalists, over-mighty civil servants and diplomats (including in the intelligence services) or over-mighty municipal officers, inappropriately imported features of the economic and political cultures of the Old Dominions.

That basis includes conservation and the countryside, especially the political representation of the rural working class. Superb and inexpensive public transport, with personal freedom, and ultimately free at the point of use. Academic excellence, with technical proficiency, refusing to compromise on either.

That basis includes civil liberties, with law and order, including visible and effective policing, and including an end to light sentences and lax prison discipline through a return to a free country’s minimum requirements for conviction.

That basis includes fiscal responsibility, of which neoliberal capitalism is manifestly and demonstrably the opposite. A strong financial services sector, with a strong food production and manufacturing base, and with the strong democratic accountability of both. A total rejection of the Coalition’s or any other class war, preferring instead “a platform broad enough for all to stand upon”.

That basis includes very high levels of productivity, with the robust protection of workers, consumers, communities and the environment, including powerful workers’ representation at every level of corporate governance. A base of real property for every household, to resist both over-mighty commercial interests and an over-mighty State.

That basis includes a realist foreign policy, itself including strong national defence, and precluding any new Cold War against Russia, China, Iran or anywhere else. British military intervention only ever in order to defend British territory or British interests. A leading role on the world stage, with a vital commitment to peace, and with a complete absence of weapons of mass destruction.

That basis includes a large and thriving private sector, a large and thriving middle class, and a large and thriving working class; all depend on central and local government action, and with public money come public responsibilities.

And that basis includes an approach to Islamism and neoconservatism defined by a history of equal opposition to Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism, Nazism, Fascism, and the Far Right regimes in Southern Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

This is the basis for the deserved election of a Labour Government in 2015, with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Such a deserved victory, under an undeniably deserving victor, can only be brought about by  fighting every seat as if it were a knife-edge marginal. Strong local candidates who subscribed to this basis ought to be selected even if they have not been party members, although they would of course be required to join upon selection. Trade union and other money ought then to be spent to the limit in every constituency.

Shapps Shots

I have a soft spot for Grant Shapps. Although he no longer does so since becoming Party Chairman, he was one of the first people ever to follow me on Twitter. I have no idea how he had ever heard of me in those days. But what are we to make of his remarks about the BBC?

Of course, the suggestion of left-wing bias is laughable when the Corporation is chaired by a former Chairman of the Conservative Party who continues to receive that Whip in the House of Lords, when it blacks out an enormous pro-NHS demonstration because of that Chairman's pecuniary interest in health privatisation, when it always has two Coalition representatives on everything, when it so over-publicises UKIP, when it lavishes attention on every Loony Right think tank boy in London, and so on, and on, and on, and on, and on.

From Rothbury to Thetford, Any Questions audiences cheer calls to renationalise energy, rail and the Royal Mail, including when articulated by Bob Crow to the very constituents whom their MP branded "the Turnip Taliban". There are no "Lefties" in such places, or far too few to "pack" such an audience.

As all polls confirm, public ownership of key assets, among other views supposedly peculiar to "the Left", are mainstream opinion even in the most affluent or the most rural areas, which are by no means the same thing. In fact, such views are mainstream opinion even among the Radio Four listeners in those areas. Manifestly.

But the television license fee ought to be made optional, with as many adults as wished to pay it at any given address free to do so, including those who did not own a television set but who greatly valued, for example, Radio Four.

The Trustees would then be elected by and from among the license-payers. Candidates would have to be sufficiently independent to qualify in principle for the remuneration panels of their local authorities. Each license-payer would vote for one, with the top two elected.

The electoral areas would be Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and each of the nine English regions, although the ITV franchise areas might be better. The Chairman would be appointed by the relevant Secretary of State, with the approval of the relevant Select Committee. And the term of office would be four years.

One would not need to be a member of the Trust (i.e., a license-payer) to listen to or watch the BBC, just as one does not need to be a member of the National Trust to visit its properties, or a member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to be rescued by its boats. 

20 years after John Major's disastrous relaxation of the ownership regulations, the re-regionalisation of ITV is desperately overdue, and it is greatly to the last Labour Government's shame that it never attempted to bring that about.

A central company might usefully hold one third of the shares in each of the franchise-holders, but another third ought to be in mutual ownership, with perhaps half of those reserved for the workers, while the remaining third ought to be held by the local councils.

There would be local programming in designated time slots, but far more than that, there would be national programming made locally. The country would see itself. One Nation, indeed.

Not only soap operas made in Manchester and Leeds while set in Salford and the Yorkshire Dales, but a return to things like game shows live from Norwich, fairly highbrow as that game show was.

A minimum of one drama and one sitcom per week would be both made and set in each of the ITV regions, with at least one from each region broadcast in prime time. As would be at least one light entertainment programme and at least one current affairs programme per week.

Yes, from the Borders. Yes, from the North of Scotland. Yes, from the Deep South West. All on ITV 1. Of course.

Although in general they would be, those current affairs documentaries would not necessarily, in any given week, be about the region that made them. World in Action was a Granada programme. For 35 years, in fact. It ought to be so again.

Each edition of BBC Alba's Eorpa brings one story from the Gaelic-speaking areas and one from elsewhere in Europe; I heartily recommend it when BBC Parliament shows it with subtitles.

That seems like a very good format to adopt, in fact: one story from the region, and one from anywhere else in the world, with a particular mission to cover the parts that have hitherto been ignored by most of the British media.

There would still be complaints about lack of attention to, for example, County Durham. But that would be no small part of what the municipal and mutual ownership structures would be there to address.

The ITV companies have done a huge amount to define the cultures, including the political cultures, of the areas that they covered. Here in the Tyne Tees region, that station's creation pretty much invented from scratch what little commonality is felt, even now, among the disparate communities that it serves.

Another one, though, was the first ever indigenous broadcaster on the island of Ireland.

But enough of structure, of form; what of content, of matter? We all have our ideas. On Thursday, after he had tweeted his anticipation at the appearance of Peter Hitchens and Owen Jones on Question Time, I replied to Mehdi Hasan that the three of them and Peter Oborne ought to have a weekly programme, which might be called Fair and Balanced.

He retweeted it, as did others, if not necessarily in earnest. But over an hour, each of them in turn really could introduce a subject for 15 minutes of live discussion. It would hardly need a presenter, but if someone had to say "Good evening" and "Good night", then they could take that in turns, too.

Peter Hitchens might refuse to do it. But in that case, they could keep it paleocon with, say, Tim Stanley or Andrew Cusack. I should then be older than three out of four, but that kind of thing is happening to me with increasing frequency. I have a feeling that Andrew might be younger even than Owen.

Now that I think about it, and if Owen will forgive me, this might instead be an opportunity to give a higher profile to any of several Blue Labour stalwarts, such as Ed Rennie, Labour Councillor and Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, a valiant battler against economic inequality and cultural pornogrification, and whom I suspect to be very slightly older than I am; or Andy Walton, increasingly of Radio Five Live, and visibly my junior by quite a bit. There are others.

Yes, one of that lot, one of the paleocon boys of the same generation, Mehdi Hasan, Peter Oborne if he were up for it, another of the Young Old Righters if he were not.

Mehdi Hasan would also be ideal to write and present a five-part series on Islam in the BRICS countries. There is not much in Brazil, but there is enough in Latin America as a whole to fill an hour. Russia, India, China and South Africa would each have to be fitted into that time limit, but that could certainly be done by a professional.

In which vein, Ed West tweeted a week ago that, after The Ottomans, there ought to be a series on The Byzantines. I quite agreed, as I told him. If that were to be pitched as a package deal with the BRICS Islam series, then no one could argue that there was a lack of balance. 

I have long had an idea for The Twelve Tribes of Christian Palestine, a landmark series with an accompanying book and with as many tie-in newspaper articles as could be placed, on the Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Syrian Catholic, and Armenian Catholic communities in the Holy Land.

In the event of success, another such project, The Twelve Tribes of Christian Lebanon, would be more than feasible. By no means necessarily starring me in either case, I should add. Nor in 12 parts; three or four, of an hour each, would suffice.

And it recently occurred to me that there might be a series of three one-hour documentaries, one on those who performed non-military service during the First World War, another on the ILP Contingent in Spain, and a third on the fallen of British Palestine.

The ideal year of broadcast might be 2017, during the four-year commemorations of the First World War, 80 years after the ILP Contingent, and 90 years after the Balfour Declaration. That would give the time to do world class research into what, especially in the second and third cases, are shamefully neglected subjects. 

A Question Time-style programme might be broadcast live, with social media interaction, always held in a country town, and with the panellists including the local MP of right, the highest-elected Ward Councillor not of the same party as the MP, and someone from the local paper. Not for this, the parachuting in even of comedians from London in order to tell the rest of us what to think. The ideal place to start would be Chipping Norton.

Over 12-week series, of which there might be two per year with gaps of another three months between them, a programme might visit each of the 12 regions in turn. It would discuss over an hour the two topics most requested in the preceding 24 hours on its Facebook account and via its Twitter handle and hashtag.

While also allowing for continuing interaction through social media during the live broadcast, that would accommodate eight voices on each topic. One figure from within the given region would have been nominated by, though by no mean necessarily on behalf of, each of the eight parties in the House of Commons other than the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

I appreciate that the number of parties in the House of Commons is subject to change. But I submit that it is not realistically likely to change by enough to affect this format significantly, if at all.

The BBC could make all of these. As could ITV or Channel Four. And as could Sky News, RT or Al Jazeera, all of which are on Freeview. But who would ever do so?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

No Blank Cheque

Mary Creagh writes:

David Cameron is apparently confused about what job he’s doing. On Friday he seemed to say it was up to Labour to decide whether the new high speed line, HS2, should go ahead.

As the Shadow Transport Secretary I’m obviously flattered that the Tories want to hand over the keys without even waiting for the election. But as a taxpayer, and a rail user, it’s far from reassuring that David Cameron doesn’t seem to think it’s his job to get a grip of a huge project starting on his watch.

Labour has always supported HS2 and the idea of a new North-South rail link because of capacity constraints on the existing rail network. Last year, over 1.5 billion journeys were made on the rail network, with 4,000 more train services a day than in the mid-1990s.

The increase in rail usage during our time in Government was a record to be proud of. But too many people each day now endure cramped, miserable journeys into cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London.

Our support for a North-South line rests on tackling that capacity problem and supporting a 21st Century transport network.

But our support for it is not at any cost. The Labour Party cannot – and will not – give the Government a blank cheque.

That is what you would expect from any credible official opposition seeing a Government desperately mismanaging a project. And that is what is happening here with the cost having shot up to £50bn.

David Cameron and George Osborne are determined to go full steam ahead with this project, whatever the cost. Labour will not take this irresponsible approach.

We will go ahead with the project if the costs are brought under control and are outweighed by the benefits of doing so. But if those conditions aren’t met we won’t go ahead regardless because we need to ensure that this is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.

That’s why if David Cameron really cares about HS2 the best thing he could do is to get control of the spiralling budget. Rather than abdicating responsibility as he seems to be trying to do he should be getting a grip and bringing down its costs.

On Thursday, Labour will vote in favour of the Paving Bill to allow preparatory expenditure on the scheme while maintaining pressure on the Government to get the costs under control. We will lay amendments to ensure that the Government is delivering value for money and to hold it to account.

We will also maintain pressure on the Government to work closely with the communities affected. As they themselves have made clear, the current public consultation being run across the country by HS2 Ltd is extremely important.

The Government needs to ensure that they respond fully wherever possible to specific local issues and that there is proper compensation to residents who are affected or blighted.

So my message to David Cameron is clear. You do your job and we’ll do ours. Get a grip on this project, get control of the budget and get it back on track.