Westminster in the exit endgame

Just over two months before Reformation Day and Brexit, and the councils of Europe are in puzzled disarray.

Back in our Parliament, the beasts are restless.  The hyenas are creeping forward awaiting the end of the recess. Labour and the Liberals see a chance for a vote of no confidence, but the polls suggest that any election following it would bring a thumping Conservative majority, if the Brexit Party keep away and do not split every pro-Brexit vote.

Then there are the unknown loose cannons, of which only a few are needed. Oliver Letwin is as Conservative as can be, but has done his damnedest to damage the Government’s negotiations: he has just announced he will not stand at the next election, but does then then open the way for him to resign the whip and vote against his party? Guto Bebb has also said he will not stand again, though he was on the point of being deselected in any case. Ken Clarke is not standing again, and at one point Dominic Grieve was not standing either; his position is uncertain. These are all men with ‘Tory’ written through them like seaside rock but seized with a destructive singlemindedness on one topic.

The malcontents should stop and think. What do they actually want, and what will their actions actually achieve?

Of the Conservative rebels, some explicitly want to stop Brexit entirely, hidden maybe under declarations about a try-again vote, but to cancel nevertheless (Bebb, Grieve etc). Some are content to carry through but want to ensure there is a Withdrawal Agreement in place beforehand (Hammond etc). Labour just want to humiliate the Conservatives, and there is a handful of Conservatives willing to help them to do so.

Cancelling Brexit is unrealistic, and impossible given the timetable and determination at the top, so those seeking that outcome must seek to minimise the loss of their ideology, which should (if logic were applied, which is far from assured) bring them into the Hammond camp.  However the Hammond idea of leaving only with a deal is sabotaged by the Parliamentary games threatened.

Each plot has simply persuaded Brussels to sit tight and laugh, assuming that Britain will come crawling: this lessens the possibility of reaching a deal, and it hardens the attitude of those Spartans who want a no-deal outcome. This in turn may convince the Hammond wing that this is the desired outcome, against all evidence to the contrary.

The malcontented should consider that we are not where we were two years ago, nor does the ship of state have a timid, pliable hand at the wheel as it did them, nor is Number 10 staffed by those happy to undermine Brexit – and by all accounts the presence of Dominic Cummings has energised a new purpose to the Cabinet office team.

The calendar pages turn and it will soon be October. If there were a vote of no confidence and a new general election, it could only happen after Exit in any case, and so achieve nothing but a no-deal outcome and strengthen Boris’s hand in its result. As to overturning Brexit entirely, even the most dreamy Remainiacs must realise that is not achievable, and the Government will pull every string and more to ensure no further slippage: the best they can hope for is a close continuing relationship with the EU, and games will only endanger that.

Mr Grieve might ponder an irony: the main thing that has stopped a deal being signed and may stop a deal being signed, is Section 13 of the Withdrawal Act which he forced through. If he wishes to avoid the cliff-edge, he should try to repeal that section, if there were time.

What to do with to bring the renegades on board is a matter of delicacy. The idea of frying their brains with electricity as Alan Ashworth suggested yesterday (with tongue in cheek I hope) in Conservative Woman, sounds tempting. but out shall come some carefully orchestrated whipping, threats, promises, discussions in dark corners and frankly banging their heads against the wall until they are convinced that all they are doing is actually bringing about the reverse of what they want.

The sorry fact is that the awkwards and Boris want the same thing, namely a favourable or at least acceptable deal with the European Union, leading to an equal trade deal.

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Securing the exit endgame

There are too many metaphors, which brings endless amusement, but the words of Thomas Hobbes must come to mind at every step:

To these Uses, there are also foure correspondent Abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words; by which they register for their conceptions, that which they never conceived; and so deceive themselves. Secondly, when they use words metaphorically; that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for; and thereby deceive others.

Word-games must stop and straight talk be turned to action.

The time is passing swiftly and two breeds of beast are bellowing in the herd: the hell-bent opponents of Brexit and those who accept it but are most fearful of a no-deal result. Both are panicking, because in just over two months, the clock stops ticking (mixed metaphors, sorry) and Britain is free of Brussels, with or without a transition arrangement and with or without a trade deal.

Exit Day (courtesy of Mrs May’s dithering) is now 31 October; the date Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg and began the Reformation: that date is celebrated across Protestant Europe as Reformation Day, and it should be introduced in the churches of Britain too. This metaphor was the start of an insightful article by ‘His Grace’ on the Cranmer blog this morning.

It should not be hard to fix the Withdrawal Agreement, dead as it may have been declared, but as far as the Eurocrats are concerned it is not dead but resting. The terms of Boris’s ‘Three Theses’ suggest a reformation of Mrs May’s agreement rather than burying it, but it needs fixing. The question then is how to persuade those in Europe to take him seriously.

Firstly, there is no single European mind: “Brussels” is a collection of bureaucrats, politicians out to grass and needy national politicians, each with their own ideas and their own sources of information, or misinformation, each with a greater or lesser understanding of how Britons think and how our political system operates, each with their own personal priorities and each with variant degrees of devotion to or cynicism towards to the Projet européen.

The hope is that the various powers in Brussels will see sense at the last minute, concede enough to allow Boris Johnson to sign something he might get through Parliament, and all breathe a sigh of relief and start taking about the long-term trade agreement presaged in the Political Declaration. If common sense governed, then this would follow easily. Common sense though is a particularly British phenomenon.

Those in their seats in Brussels may be afraid to step out of line publicly and be seen to let the side down. National leaders may be more pliable. Frau Merkel is looking shaky for one, but is unpredictable (not something frequently said about German leaders). The Italian government, to the extent Italy has a government, is an enigma even to itself. When you get to Austria Hungary and thereabouts you realise how diverse the backlot of Europe is, and how easy it is for smaller countries to take their lead from the larger.

One key would be cracking the unconvincing unity of the main parties in Eire. They at least have British common sense, which one would hope will surface when they see they are about to bring about that which they most want to avoid.

Whom they listen to is crucial. If it is the likes of Elmar Brok, spouting on Newsnight last night, the position is hopeless: they do not believe Boris after all he used to write about them in The Telegraph, they think he really wants a no-deal hard Brexit and that he would be overturned by the House of Commons anyway. For giving Brussels that impression so as to shut their ears, Members of the House should be shut in the pillory for months (that need not be a metaphor). Herr Brok sounded honest and plain-speaking: he genuinely believes he position he set out.

Brok also repeated the figures, long since discredited, for the effect of a no-deal Brexit as an argument that Britain must concede. One good point he made though was that the Backstop wording was a British proposal; it is indeed written in Mrs May’s voice. The point though is that it was rejected and its author was rejected, defenestrated as they say in Prague, albeit metaphorically.

That is just one voice though. Others must surely be more worried by the coming European recession. Even a temporary arrangement to carry both sides over will help their economies (which presupposes that they care about their economies).

Westminster is another game.

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Books

Summer of Rockets – a personal review

I finally got round to watching Summer of Rockets, Stephen Poliakoff’s latest BBC serial, and the first since Close to the Enemy in 2016. It is a more intimate piece of work than some: The Lost Prince for example he set in Buckingham Palace to cover the outbreak of the Great War and what followed, which is a grand theme, but in Summer of Rockets Poliakoff confines himself to a season and, while there is a grand theme and threat of war, it is the personal which predominates.

The series is available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer and is worth a look.

Poliakoff is rightly renowned as a playwright, and this is his most personal work to date, to the extent that it has been described as semi-autobiographical, for the central character, Samuel Petrukhin, is based on Polikoff’s father, with the detail an amalgam of his father and his grandfather and in the frightened little boy, Sasha, we see the writer himself. The writer is quite explicit about the origins of the characters in his article on BBC Media Centre.

In Summer of Rockets, grand politics is played out, but through the filter of the personal.  The scene is set in the summer of 1957 (which was the summer following the Suez disaster, and the beginning of the Macmillan ministry, and the summer after Khrushchev crushed the Hungarian Revolution).  It is also the summer after the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana, beginning the dismantling of the Empire. The Cold War was very real and close and the threat of nuclear obliteration hovered in the background even as the summer parties continued.  The fear is an explicit background theme and motivator, but not central, we eventually find.

The characters are set up early: Samuel Petrukhin (played by Toby Stevens): entrepreneur, inventor (with all the detail taken from Poliakoff’s father), and signalled as a good egg from the beginning; Miriam his wife; Hannah his daughter, a reluctant debutante; and his quiet, inquisitive son Sasha.

Petrukhin is an outsider:  a Russian and a Jew, and in trade. He craves high society, but cannot be accepted, except through his accidental friendship with the Shaw family, the ultimate insiders.  This status as an outsider, locked out of the echelons of society he observes, is the major dynamic to the plot.

Richard Shaw (played by Linus Roache) is an MP and well regarded, a war hero, with connections in all the highest places, and his wife Kathleen, playing the perfect hostess, living the summer idyll in a grant country house (where writers like to place secrets in dark corners). Kathleen Shaw is played by Keeley Hawes, who is barely off the screen these days, but the screen does not seem to mind. Here too is the genial Lord Wallington (Timothy Spall, brilliant as ever), the dark genius of we know not what.

The third node is Field of MI5 (Mark Bonnar), who has decided that something is going on at the Shaw household.

Much the plot is in Samuel Petrukhin’s observations – as an eternal outsider ever tapping at the window, he observes from the outside and serves as the voice and ear of the audience.  At the same time his children observe at their own levels and are confided in at points by grown-ups, again serving as proxies for the otherwise puzzled viewer.  This is a technique Poliakoff has used before – The Lost Prince was about the events leading to and through the First World War with the prince of the title as an observer and an innocent confidant.

Interestingly, even with a large cast and some wide settings, Poliakoff manages to keep the feel intimate.

The characters set up, the plot is drip-fed to us, as each side confides in the Outsider. MI5 is full of Soviet agents, according to Lord Wallington, who simply wishes to expose them; and the Shaws are the centre of a plot to launch a coup d’état according to Field. The credibility of each side ebbs and flows as the episodes progress, and Petrukhin is forced one way and the other, by his need to prove his patriotism, his social climbing, his commercial dependence and his friendship with the Shaw family. In this tension flows the plot, as Petrukhin lurches between the two sides, never knowing whom to trust.

We now know, years after the events, that MI5 was indeed stuffed from top to bottom with Soviet agents and useful idiots.  Many off the failures of those years and the loss of national confidence can be put down to the poisonous influence of Communists in the system. That year, 1957, was a turning point in a way – many vocal Communists in literature and academia changed their opinions radically when the Soviets crushed the Hungarians in the winter of 1956 but the true believers stayed even when the nature of Communist brutality was clear, and in the Summer of 1957 they were in place deep within the state.

In reaction, was there a faction ready to overawe the government, stand against dissolution of the Empire and purge socialism from the system?  Quite possibly, though nothing came of it.  This was a tense age in much of Europe and Africa, but surely not in the perfect English countryside?  Maybe not then as portrayed, but in the 1970s there were voices who spoke of creating private armies to keep order as the Wilson government appeared to be sliding towards a mixture of totalitarianism and anarchy.  The horrid images in Anthony Burgess’s 1985 seemed close to a future reality.

In the drama, Petrukhin is dragged back and forth, unable to know whom to believe, little events leading to sudden suspicions and changes in direction – the MI5 dog who understands Russian commands, the General who spits anti-Semitic tropes, the attempted assassination, but of whom and by whom?  The audience is kept in doubt just as much as Petrukhin, its voice.

This being the BBC, you do not expect the Commies to be the baddies in the end (and in any case their influence was too undercover to make for good drama). It is a beautifully constructed piece for all that, helped by the writer’s personal investment in the emotion.

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Puritans and the Pilgrim

The Church Times (which may be some readers’ favourite journal) carried an article recently by Dr Nicholas Fisher, ‘Standing down the Puritan Penumbra’, celebrating the work of Symon Patrick, who played a crucial part in defending the settlement of the Church of England after the Restoration. It is not just a subject of interest to church historians but it contains a strong lesson about the nation’s social and political divisions in our own day.

The history and the conflict

In the 17th century, the Church of England commanded the moral teaching of the nation and potentially its whole social outlook, and so control of it was key to controlling the ideology of England.  The Church’s official doctrines included freedom of conscience in that only the Bible is an absolute standard, but secular authorities would frequently find an excuse for punishing dissentient speech.  (Thomas Hobbes was accused of atheism for some of his ideas even though fully concordant with the Bible.)

Therefore the church in England and in Scotland was a battleground, much as media regulation is becoming a battleground for us today, and dissent from the established church would be punished not for doctrinal reasons, but to control preaching.

Before the Civil War, Parliament’s Puritan faction demanded that the King abolish bishops, to cow them into ceasing their opposition, and when the war was over the victorious Roundheads carried this through; they changed the polity of the Church of England, replacing bishops and dioceses with assemblies and presbyteries. It was a classic political case of the means to an end which became an end in itself, or the fringe demand, put just to be sacrificed in negotiation, which became an unshakable demand.

The old order was restored at the Restoration but it was not a foregone conclusion: Pepys in his diary confides that the King may be forced to concede to a Presbyterian church. In the event, the bishops returned, clergy were required to conform, huge numbers of clergy left to form non-conformist congregations, but it was not over:  strong voices still pressed for the abolish prelacy, to turn the Church of England into a Presbyterian church.

The pressure for Presbytery was strong and growing, and each fault in a bishop, or any slippage towards ceremonialism was held as proof of lapsing towards Roman ways. The move to Presbyterianism was made to feel inevitable.  That is echoed in every age: imperfection is held up as utter corruption and the word ‘inevitable’ breaks resistance. You may think of your own examples.

Into this stepped a clergyman, Symon Patrick. He could see that the Puritans were gaining the upper hand, and so he wrote ‘The Parable of the Pilgrim’, about a pilgrim trying to travel to Jerusalem, and first seeking a reliable guide.

I cannot say the Patrick’s Parable is a gripping read.  It is for from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (written in the same age).  It was popular though, and is credited with convincing the King and the establishment that Presbytery was not inevitable nor was it the will of the people, and that the public mood was for the old ways.

The argument and the outcome

Patrick’s theme in essence was that the Church of England is a reliable guide, and the non-conforming Puritans are a violent, extreme faction who were responsible for the Civil War and would cause another one.

He does not claim that the episcopal version of the Church had the sole claim on truth and does not accuse the non-conformists of false doctrine, except in as far as they claimed to have a monopoly of the way to salvation and of acceptable practice. This then is a key: we are the reasonable men; they are dangerous extremists; remember the horror of the late war, as a revival of it looms in their counsels.

The result was effective: public opinion turned strongly in favour of the bishops, and the Puritans shrank back.  However it also encouraged the secular authorities to impose malicious penalties on non-conformity.  Whether Symon Patrick had that in mind I cannot say, but it makes it uncomfortable to read the triumphalist tone in the Church Times article, perhaps just an echo of the inevitable affection of a biographer for his subject.

Ill-treatment of non-conformists was unprincipled and counter-productive. Since the Restoration, the non-conformist churches and the Church of England have had a mutually supporting role in their mutual antagonism: the non-conformists are often the conscience to admonish the Church of England when it goes wrong, as it frequently does, and they allow preachers to speak out, on matters such as slavery and false doctrines, where the Anglican structure encourages silence and bland following of liturgy. At the same time, the Church of England provides a structure and written standard against which the non-conformist churches may be measured in case they are tempted to stray, as they do without structure: the Quakers have ceased to be Christian in any meaningful sense.

The lessons into modernity

In our own day, the moral teaching of the nation is secularised. Novel, irreligious doctrines coming out of nowhere are established and pressed upon us by secular authorities and those who set themselves up unelected as authorities. Even the clergy of the Church of England are complying.

The argument in Patrick’s Parable holds good today: the Puritans who claim a monopoly of truth are dangerous, and while their positions and arguments may be within the wide cast of honest opinion, they cannot be allowed in charge.

However the position of our own day is reversed from the Restoration period: the establishment has been seized by secular Puritans, little different from those Patrick describes in his Parable of the Pilgrim. They act in the way he warns, and without any apparent sense of irony the New Puritans are ready to accuse dissenting, conservative-minded folk of being dangerous extremists, and spit hatred at them in the name of opposing hate.

The New Puritans are not a myth, as case after case demonstrates: careers ruined, businesses closed and intimidated, others harassed by lawsuits. In this, the radical New Puritan may act as legislator, judge, jury and executioner. After the Long March Through the Institutions, establishment positions are held by left-wingers, so there is little resistance.

Now we need non-conforming commentators. A secular Symon Patrick in our own day would face ostracism, even in the cowed Church, as he would be writing outside the establishment. Maybe it would be coming too late: Patrick wrote to prevent a takeover, but for us, that takeover has happened.

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Sarah Wollaston joins Plaid Cymru

Report by Fay Kinuise:

Of her new perch, Sarah Wollaston said:

“After very careful thought, I have come to the conclusion that by joining Plaid Cymru I can best serve the interests of my constituency, Totnes, or ‘Pen-y-Tot’ as it should be called and I understand that I am the party’s first ever MP in Dyfnaint.

I bring a greet deal of experience, as I have seen many political parties in the last few years: I was on both sides in the referendum campaign, I campaigned for Leave then voted Remain, then voted to Leave in Parliament; I have in the course of a few months been in the Conservative Party, then The Independent Group, then Change UK, campaigning for the status quo. I then sat as an independent, and then joined the Liberal Democrats, until they failed to reselect me for Totnes.

I will now campaign for Welsh medium teaching in all Devonian schools, and to avoid a damaging border with Europe, by building one against England. I can assure my new colleagues in Plaid Cymru that I will be steadfast for the party for the whole of the week, or until a prettier party comes along.

Whatever I have said in the past, I am still the Vicar of Bray, sir the MP for Totnes. Britain deserves better.”