Lost amongst the trees

Casting a blanket over the shivering earth, ticking the sky, turning bleak land into a rich, shaded world: the woodland fills with life, and fills us with life.

The forest that once covered Europe is mainly lost, but enough stands to give a glimpse of the old continental blanket. The woodlands of Britain are largely plantations, but on the downs are ancient woodlands, and wherever land has been abandoned the trees come to reclaim their own.

It was written (and I cannot find where) that at a deep, cultural level the Germanic peoples and Mediterranean peoples are divided in their views of the forest – to the Germans it is a place of wonder, of joy and liberation, of regained youth; but for the Mediterranean peoples, descended from the culture of Rome, the forest is a dark, threatening place, the place in which the untamed tribes burst from the trees to slaughter Varrus and his legions. I do not know how true that is, but I do know that for Britons the woods bear a wonder not found in anything else.

Before there were farms and society there were the woods. Hobbes observes of man close to the state of nature:

For as there were Plants of Corn and Wine in small quantity dispersed in the Fields and Woods, before men knew their vertue, or made use of them for their nourishment, or planted them apart in Fields, and Vineyards; in which time they fed on Akorns, and drank Water:

Now all the political parties are talking of planting trees. That spoils it somehow. A million? Four million? Two billion in twenty years (clearly Diane has been at the figures: taking a four-month growing season and an average 8 hours of daylight, working a six-day week, that is 8.5 trees every second without ceasing and a staggering acreage and cost). It also depends on what sort of trees they are: in terms of growth and coverage a birch is worth a fraction of a percentage of an oak, and an oak a small percentage of a redwood.

I cannot tell if planting trees will make even the smallest difference to the changes in the world’s climate, heresy as that must sound to those who prefer soundbite to science, but they are more than drinkers of carbon dioxide, and spillers of it after they fall. They bind the soil, drain the ground and change the local climate, and they make a home for the tiny creatures which serve the rest of the land.

In Bengal, three hundred million people live in floodplains, and since the upstream forests were felled, the land has been drowned too many times to count. It flooded before the forests were felled in Bihar, but the intensity has only worsened. Plant your million trees in Bihar.

I wrote before of how the trees are beginning to heal Ethiopia – when the were lost the land dried and the thin soils blew away, and the people starved. Now small patches of forest are bringing the life back, and the bees to pollinate the plants which will grow again, and the moisture for field and pasture.

Even at home the landscape has been transformed by trees. Samuel Johnson described Scotland as largely treeless, and asked the lairds he visited why they did not create plantations, as their southern neighbours did. Defoe said he barely saw a tree between Berwick and Dunbar. Today Johnson or Defoe would not recognise the Middle Shires, wreathed as their are in woodlands, and the Highlands too. The forestry plantations were a despair to Highland landowners once as they swallowed grazing land, but between the plantations the land is now richer and the flocks are doing very well.

If a tree grows all its natural life, drinking the rich carbon dioxide about it, all that carbon dioxide is released again when it falls and decays – the net gain is nothing. A strong oak though may not fall for a thousand years, and a redwood for three thousand. Active forestry cuts the wood before it decays. Living among trees is a give-and-take and the best course it not always the natural course. We should tread lightly in places, but we should tread.

Maybe plant a tree for Christmas, in Ethiopia or Bihar? Do not do vain virtue-signalling though. Virtue action, by all means.

See also

Books

Bydded i’r Hen Iaith Barhau

Llongyfarchiadau i di, Boris: the Conservative Manifesto repeats and re-enforces the pledge from 2017, and in 2019 we are promised:

We will support Welsh institutions such as S4C, the National Library and Museum, the Urdd and the National Eisteddfod.

This time the pledge is not in the Welsh local manifesto but the national, UK-wide manifesto.

I pause with the thought that yr Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (what happened to ‘Brenhinol‘ in the name?) and yr Urdd, even before we get to y Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru and yr Amgueddfa Cymru are devolved matters on which Westminster has little influence. Sprinkling a little star-dust, or money anyway, goes down well, and the richness found in the Welsh language should not be confined to the narrow bounds of the Principality: let the bards speak over the world.

Welsh, yr Hen Iaith, is the most beautiful tongue in the world and need not stay hidden in the western parts. It is not just a part of British culture and identity, but the oldest, most evocative expression of our nation – it was not always called ‘Welsh’ but used to be called ‘British’, and British it is, found in the place-names of the island far beyond the thirteen counties of Wales: the great cities of London, Winchester, Manchester, Leeds, York, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and others have their names from the old British language, from which Welsh of today has little changed. It suffuses the island and gives it a shape and a name. In the days of Rome, all those native tongues vanished in Italy, Gaul and Hispania, but the Britons did not give up our tongue, and it is spoke still, as Welsh.

It would be worth treasuring for that resilience alone, but there is far more, for it is not for nothing that the song praises Wales as ‘Gwlad beirdd a chantorion‘ (‘Land of poets and singers’): Welsh is peculiarly suited to poetry. You might not see this from the clumpy “Committee Welsh” painted on road-signs, but spoken in the free air it is such that you cannot speak it without singing.

Politics should not interfere, but if it does then at least let it do so with love. Labour’s manifesto says nothing of the Welsh language, nor does the Liberal Democrats’. (Plaid Cymru do, as you would expect, but only in an odd context: they have forgotten that we are out of the EU in weeks.) The Conservative and Unionist Manifesto adds on another project t supporting the institutions: “We will support the ambition for one million people in Wales to be able to speak Welsh by 2050”.

(It’s not like farming and building up a flock, you know – these are people, who can choose what to speak, my wife’s family among them.)

There is a richness to be found from understanding the Welsh language. A million speakers does not mean those who speak it at home, but understanding it is a worth though wearisome endeavour. I can suggest another angle though: do not confine it to Wales. The first Gorsedd and Eisteddfod were held in London, and they have met in Liverpool. Britons outside those western counties might care to recall that once Wales was all Britain, and maybe their ancestors spoke the language, which is therefore a route to our own heritage.

See also

Judicial review: the Manifesto

If the lofty bien-pensants of the legal profession are aghast, it must be a good thing. The Conservative and Unionist Manifesto for 2019 says:

We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

That is exactly what I have been saying for months.

The promised “Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission” could be a Yeatsian monster, but done well and carefully selected (did I leave my card?) it will be valuable. It heralds not a wholesale rewriting of the constitution (Conservatives, after all) but a review of whether it all fits together the way we thought it did. Basically, it is to overturn the Cherry/Miller case – and it needs overturning. I have commented previously on how to do that.

It is interesting too that the same paragraph drops the old commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act (the subject of another article, I feel coming on). Now says “update the Human Rights Act”, and administrative law. The threat of Corbyn and McDonnell looms dark over the nation, and anything which rebukes their desire to seize private funds and property, and to punish where there is no crime, is valuable. The European Convention on Human Rights may be a tottery bulwark against Communism, but it is something.

On judicial review specifically, action taken to reform it should codify the rules so that they are clear. This should strengthen the procedure, and improve public respect for it. Judges are accused of being political when they cass and annul administrative decisions, but if the rules are clear and clearly adhered to, they will have better protection from those accusations.

Look at the Wednesbury rules. These govern the propriety or otherwise of administrative decisions and so these rules are the basis of judicial review, but they are entirely judge-made rules. As they are invented by a judge, another may reinvent them, and as long as the rules are open to flexible interpretation, they empower judges where judges are not meant to be. The rules are well-meant – they are intended to ensure that powers are exercised for the purpose for which they were given and not for a corrupt purpose. They are valuable in that they obviate the need for every Act of Parliament to specify limits and provisos on the powers it grants. It is uncomfortable though that the courts have had to invent these rules, because powers are given by Parliament and in principle no one else should be able to countermand their exercise. Those rules to imply limits on powers granted should have been made by Parliament, and they should be in the forthcoming review.

However, there is another wrinkle. State powers are not the only ones governed by the Wednesbury rules. There are private powers too, like the powers that a trust deed may give to trustees entrusting them with authority to manage or sell the assets entrusted to them, and these private powers also use the language of discretion and decision. Just as property may be entrusted to the care of a trustee, so public powers are entrusted to officials or councils. It is a healthy sign if “trust” is understood as a common concept, howsoever high the trustee may be, or think he is, and governed by the same common rules.

Another court decision has just been published, in which the High Court determined that even in a private contract where it gives one party discretion in his or her actions, that discretion is subject to the Wednesbury rules. This is not quite the first time that a judge has explicitly invoked Wednesbury over private powers; it has appeared hesitantly on occasion since the Socimer case in 2004 but seems to be becoming established, not as a rule to be implied into every contract but as a rule to interpret words such as “reasonably” and “discretion”. That does accord with sense and principle.

In any consolidation, restatement or change to the Wednesbury rules for administrative decisions, Parliament might want to see if they are also inadvertently leaning on private property too. The concept that they all rely on the common concept of entrusted authority is a comforting one.

See also

Books

Boris unleashed

The Conservative Manifesto 2019 sounds daunting at 64 pages long cover to cover, but that is just over half the thickness of Labour’s, and the contrast is massive. Labour give us pages of close text on every subject under the sun that their activists get angry about, but the Conservative and Unionist Manifesto 2019 eschews essays and much of the 64 pages is taken up with feel-good photographs.

The differences make an impact. Labour is anger-blame-command, while the Conservatives have aspiration. The most telling word in the title is not “Brexit” but “unleash”. It is a wonderful word that taps into the British spirit and well chosen. It is also a very Boris word.

In fact Boris suffuses throughout the document, not just because his picture appears at least eight times and his name too, but in the approach and the energy. It must be remembered that the 2017 Manifesto, though reviled now, was praised when it came out as a short, solid, no-frills statement. In fact the short detail it had was enough to give a grip for Labour to leap in with some damning attacks – remember the “dementia tax”? The 2017 Manifesto was a Theresa May document: curt, efficient, workmanlike. This 2019 manifesto is Boris all over.

The content of the manifesto seems less important than its impact. It does, like every other, spend a lot of its time saying how the a Conservative government will spend my hard-earned money on things I will never have use of. (So far so Georgian.) It says income tax will never rise and it hints at eventual reductions in tax, but no more. There is no mention of inheritance tax: the Brexit Party have sworn they would abolish it, so come on Sajid; do the same.

Really it is the aspiration that makes this look a winner. Labour want to clamp down, regulate and seize into government control, while the Conservatives talk of opportunity (the word appearing 14 times). (“Aspiration” appears twice, once in “we understand the concept of aspiration, and enterprise” and once in “John McDonnell’s inexorable
hostility towards aspiration and entrepreneurship”!)

The reception has sounded positive, and nothing has yet caused a killing sound-bite like the “dementia tax” one.

There should be no slackening nor inattention: at the time of the manifesto launches in 2017, polls were showing Theresa May with a higher rating than Boris has now and on course for a higher majority than the polls suggest now, but from that point it all went wrong and the poll ratings plunged. There is still all to play for.

Though all could still go horridly wrong, and the country be facing bankruptcy under Mr McDonnell, but the soundings so far are all positive.

See also

Books

To the Antiquity itself I think nothing due

Last night I was about to post a long quote from Aristotle that I thought relevant to today’s political controversies, but I first found the full context to be in discussion of a Platonic proposition found quite distasteful in our day (though not so far removed from certain ideas promoted on the Left). I was then sharply reminded that Aristotle is not to be approved as a philosopher.

Aristotle was without doubt a wise man in the limitations of his day, but he was a heathen, his philosophy based on false premises. He also came out that Greek tradition of ideas which looked at the actions and characters of men and treated them, in some extreme as Plato did, as being capable of exact classification and of mechanical manipulation – a clockwork orange – (which again is not far from the ideas current on the Left).

Hobbes condemned philosophers and theologians who swallowed the ideas of fallible, heathen Aristotle, ignoring two thousand years of advance. He wrote:

There is nothing I distrust more than my Elocution; which neverthelesse I am confident (excepting the Mischances of the Presse) is not obscure.

That I have neglected the Ornament of quoting ancient Poets, Orators, and Philosophers, contrary to the custome of late time, (whether I have done well or ill in it,) proceedeth from my judgment, grounded on many reasons.

  • For first, all Truth of Doctrine dependeth either upon Reason, or upon Scripture; both which give credit to many, but never receive it from any Writer.
  • Secondly, the matters in question are not of Fact, but of Right, wherein there is no place for Witnesses.
  • There is scarce any of those old Writers, that contradicteth not sometimes both himself, and others; which makes their Testimonies insufficient.
  • Fourthly, such Opinions as are taken onely upon Credit of Antiquity, are not intrinsically the Judgment of those that cite them, but Words that passe (like gaping) from mouth to mouth.
  • Fiftly, it is many times with a fraudulent Designe that men stick their corrupt Doctrine with the Cloves of other mens Wit.
  • Sixtly, I find not that the Ancients they cite, took it for an Ornament, to doe the like with those that wrote before them.
  • Seventhly, it is an argument of Indigestion, when Greek and Latine Sentences unchewed come up again, as they use to doe, unchanged.

Lastly, though I reverence those men of Ancient time, that either have written Truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out our selves; yet to the Antiquity itself I think nothing due: For if we will reverence the Age, the Present is the Oldest. If the Antiquity of the Writer, I am not sure, that generally they to whom such honor is given, were more Ancient when they wrote, than I am that am Writing: But if it bee well considered, the praise of Ancient Authors, proceeds not from the reverence of the Dead, but from the competition, and mutuall envy of the Living.

See also

Books